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Reviews: ‘If the Dancer Dances,’ Bardo Blues’ and ‘Tesla Nation’

(L-R)- Nicholas Sciscione and Davalois Fearon in “IF THE DANCER DANCES.” Credit: Monument Releasing
Nicholas Sciscione and Davalois Fearon in the documentary “If the Dancer Dances.”
(Monument Releasing)

‘If the Dancer Dances’

Modern dance devotees and fans of legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham will find much to appreciate in the lovingly crafted documentary “If the Dancer Dances.” For others, the film may prove too repetitive and narrowly focused.

Director Maia Wechsler, who produced with Lise Friedman, tracks the 2015 re-staging of Cunningham’s 1968 masterwork “RainForest” by members of dancer-choreographer and artistic director Stephen Petronio’s New York-based company. (The movie is timed to coincide with the late Cunningham’s centennial.)

The various phases of the rehearsal process unfold under the watchful eyes of Petronio and three veterans of Cunningham’s former dance troupe. It’s a study in rigor, devotion and passion that’s significantly tinged by the performers’ fears that they won’t live up to Cunningham’s towering legacy.

This latter element provides what little real conflict exists here: For a movie that climaxes in “the big show” (the premiere of the “RainForest” revival at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater), there’s a surprising lack of tension or propulsion to Wechsler’s largely even-keeled, observational approach.

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In addition, though many bits of the enigmatic “RainForest” are seen throughout, we never get a proper sense of the piece as a whole. The clips from the Joyce opening are compelling, but still feel a bit random.

Archival footage of Cunningham, chats with dancers past and present, and token home-life glimpses of several “RainForest” performers fill in this specialized portrait.

— Gary Goldstein

‘If the Dancer Dances’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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‘Bardo Blues’

Stephen McClintic in a scene from “Bardo Blues.” Credit: Freestyle Digital Media
Stephen McClintic in the movie "Bardo Blues."
(Freestyle Digital Media)

Spirituality reigns supreme in “Bardo Blues,” a drama from first-time feature director Marcia Kimpton. From its setting in Thailand to its protagonist’s battles with himself, this independent film has its gaze turned inward, for both better and worse.

Jack (Stephen McClintic) arrives in Thailand, seeking both his estranged mother and a way to escape the tragedies in his past. Kindhearted American hotel manager Gabriella (director Kimpton) wants to help him in his search, while a cruel brothel owner Clare (Gina Haining) pulls him back to his bad habits and self-destructive behavior.

As revealed in a post-credits epilogue, “Bardo Blues” is a highly personal film, inspired by Kimpton and her brother’s experiences with being artists and struggling with mental illness. Her script with co-writer Anthony Taylor is ambitious and heartfelt in how it deals with grief, substance abuse and mental illness, but it ultimately overreaches.

Though well shot by Justin and Ian McAleece, the narrative is a disjointed mess that ends in an eye-rolling conclusion. Its spiritual insights feel like a mishmash of appropriated sentiments from a variety of philosophies. For a film set in Thailand, the characters given the bulk of the development and screen time are all white and English-speaking, making “Bardo Blues” feel like a tourist who didn’t bother learning even a few phrases of the local language.

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— Kimber Myers

‘Bardo Blues’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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‘Tesla Nation’

Peter Bogdanovich in a scene from “Tesla Nation.” Credit: Optimistic Film
Peter Bogdanovich in the documentary "Tesla Nation."
(Optimistic Film)

This documentary from director Zeljko Mirkovic celebrates the contributions of Serbians and Serbian Americans in the United States. “Tesla Nation” takes audiences from the East Coast to the West Coast, sharing their work in science, business, entertainment and sports.

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With its haphazard structure and abrupt transitions, “Tesla Nation” does a disservice to its subject. As Nikola Tesla, actor Jack Dimich recites the famed scientist’s writing in different locations, while famous Serbian Americans, including Peter Bogdanovich, offer their experiences in interviews.

As much time is seemingly spent on establishing shots in New York, Chicago and San Francisco as actually documenting the impact of Serbian immigrants in those cities, padding the run time to a still scant 83 minutes. Less would have been more here; a less scattershot approach would have yielded a more resonant film.

— Kimber Myers

‘Tesla Nation’

In English and Serbian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: Starts May 3, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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