J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Faults: a Bargain Basement Deprogrammer in Over his Head

They do not use an initial article. Claire’s cult merely refers to itself as “Faults.” “From a fault comes a change” they like to say—and they seem to think a big apocalyptic one is coming. That is why they do not have time for children, or “parasites” as they call them. Okay, that sounds a little creepy, but it still isn’t as nuts as Xenu and the thetan madness. Her parents will hire a disgraced cult expert to deprogram her, but nothing will go according to his plan in Riley Stearns’ Faults (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ansel Roth was once a bestselling cult investigator with his own television show, but a case that went sour cost him just about everything. He now lives a hand-to-mouth existence giving seminars in third-rate hotels, where he transparently hawks his self-published follow-up book, to pay back Terry, his loan shark-ish manager, who fronted the printing costs. Who would attend his speaking engagements? The truly desperate, like Claire’s parents, Paul and Evelyn.

Although Roth had essentially quit the de-programming business, he agrees to help the couple, largely due to the motivation supplied by his manager’s enforcer. Yet, as soon as he abducts the young woman and commences the process, strange complications start to arise. Claire is unusually calm and pre-possessed, answering his questions without a lot of rhetorical contortions. On the other hand, her parents start to acting in suspicious ways that might suggest a history of emotional and perhaps even sexual abuse. Nevertheless, Roth is under pressure to get this deal done, so he can pay off his overdue debt.

Given the potentially lurid nature of its subject matter, it is rather impressive how low-key and subtle Stearns’ treatment is. He takes his time establishing Roth’s bitter and nebbish character through some wickedly droll black comedy. The stakes are considerable throughout the chess game he plays with Claire (played by Stearns’ real life wife, Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but when things take a macabre turn, it is more amusing than alarming. Granted, we have seen many variations on the film’s big twist before, but the smaller helper-twists are quite clever.

It is shame award season never seriously considers genre films, because Leland Orser’s lead performance merits that sort of attention, just like the dynamite Nick Damici in Late Phases. He masterfully alternates between comedy and tragedy, without breaking stride. He and Winstead crackle together in their sparring sessions. Lance Reddick (the hotel manager in John Wick) is also all kinds of hardnosed as Terry’s muscle, Mick, while John Gries chews plenty of scenery as his weird boss.

There are several spots in the third act Stearns could have played up much bigger, but that matter-of-factness makes the film quickly appreciate in viewers’ consciousness, in retrospect. Look, sometimes less really is more. In fact, Faults is a cool example of how a highly effective genre hybrid can be whipped up on a limited budget. Aside from maybe one sequence, the whole thing could have been shot in a low-rent motor lodge. The finished product is a great showcase for Stearns and his consistently strong ensemble of character actors. Highly recommended, Faults opens this Friday (3/6) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Grey Gardens: With the Beales and the Maysles Brothers

In 1978, the now defunct downtown cabaret booked probably the strangest act to grace its stage. “Little” Edie Beale was not very well reviewed, but she had a loyal following that delighted to be personally welcomed back into to her idiosyncratic life. You could argue she and her mother “Big” Edie Beale were the original “reality” stars, but instead of television, it was David & Albert Maysles’ documentary that introduced them into American pop culture. Nearly forty years after its initial release, a new 2K restoration of the Maysles’ groundbreaking Grey Gardens (trailer hereopens this Friday at Film Forum.

Grey Gardens (edited by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, with whom the Maysles shared directorial credits, along with producer Susan Froemke) holds the distinction of being the first documentary adapted as a Broadway musical (but not the last, thanks to Hands on a Hardbody). Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie Beale often had songs in their hearts, but there was little money in their bank accounts, which is why their titular Hamptons estate was in such a state of disrepair when the documentarian brothers started filming them. Frankly, it was shocking to people that residents of tony Georgica Pond could live like that, especially considering they were Bouviers—the aunt and cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

What happens in Grey Gardens is not so very different from what happens in reality TV today. Big and Little Edie basically do their thing, which involves a good deal of bickering and the occasional song. Eventually, they host a rather awkward dinner party, despite the ever expanding holes in the walls, resulting from the constant gnawing of rats and raccoons.

When watching Grey Gardens for the first time, viewers should try to see it through 1975 eyes, as best they can. At the time, it was almost unbelievable how natural and unaffected the Beales are by the Maysles’ cameras. It is not that they are oblivious, because they openly address the filmmakers from time to time. They just seem to have a no inherent reservations with sharing the intimate episodes of their lives. Arguably, they were decades ahead of the wider culture in this respect.

For contemporary audiences, Grey Gardens still holds up, largely due to the singularly irrepressible personalities of its subjects. Intellectually, we might also well understand how influential Grey Gardens has been in shaping popular conceptions of the documentary. Yet on a baser level, four decades later, we still get that voyeuristic sense of peeking in on the dirty linen of the Kennedy-Bouvier family, with whom our collective fascination will probably never fully subside.

As cineastes will expect, the Criterion restoration looks terrific. In truth, the colors have probably never popped as much as they do now. Oddly, but appropriately, some of deep saturated hues (mostly supplied by Little Edie’s fashion creations) evoke sense memories of Bert Stern’s concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which in its very different way also offered an ironic perspective on a privileged, old moneyed community—in that case: Newport, RI.

It is hard to imagine the contemporary documentary as we now know it without Grey Gardens. However, its considerable influence makes it easy to overhype in an era when online over-sharing is the norm and MTV’s The Real World is old hat. Still, those intrigued by the extreme mother-daughter relationship and the Beales’ high profile family connections will find Grey Garden remains a strange and beguiling place to visit. Recommended for anyone interested in the history and tradition of documentary filmmaking, the restored Grey Gardens opens this Friday (3/6) in New York at Film Forum.

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Deli Man: Get a Load of that Pastrami

By now, many people do not realize at the time of the Civil War, Jews were largely more accepted by the South than the North. However, there was one Unionist who stood tall against anti-Semitism (Lincoln, of course). Maybe it should therefore not be so surprising one of the one hundred fifty-some surviving real deal kosher delis happens to be in Houston, Texas. Proprietor Ziggy Gruber (formerly of New York) will be our primary guide through the savory traditions of delicatessen cuisine in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s Deli Man (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gruber was born into the delicatessen establishment, as the grandson of the owner of Broadway’s famed Rialto deli. He started working part-time for his beloved grandfather at an early age and absorbed all his traditional recipes and practices like a sponge. He now co-owns and operates Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, one of an estimated 150 legit kosher delis in America. To put things in perspective, there were over 1,500 certified kosher delis in New York City during the 1930s.

Anjou supplies some historical context (pastrami originally came from Romania) and offers some analysis of deli fare as a poignant cultural remnant of a shtetl world that no longer exists, but when you really get down to it, Deli Man is all about the food. The mountainous pastrami sandwiches are as mouth-watering as you would expect, but everything coming out of Gruber’s kitchen looks appetizing. In fact, he whips up some sort of roast shank that could probably justify a trip to Houston by itself.

Anjou could not have cast a more fitting central figure than the effusive Gruber. The man knows deli traditions through and through, yet he treats his staff and customers like family, regardless of their backgrounds. We also meet a representative sampling of other deli men and women, including Jay Parker of Ben’s Best in Rego Park, Queens, which is about as authentic as it gets. However, Anjou only peaks into the personal life of Gruber, who may have finally found someone willing share so much of his time with the corned beef. It is nice to see things working out for him, considering what he has done to keep his family and culinary traditions alive.

Anjou duly observe the irony that it was Jewish Americans’ successful acceptance and assimilation into suburbia that largely drove scores of neighborhood kosher delis like Ben’s Best out of business, without belaboring the point. Indeed, there is some serious substance to the film, but there is no getting around its food porn indulgence—and who would want to? Recommended for those who appreciate culinary cultural history on rye, Deli Man opens this Friday (3/6) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Landmark Sunshine, not so far from Katz’s on Houston Street.


Sunday, March 01, 2015

FCS ’15: The World of Kanako

Showa Fujishima has made just about every parenting mistake a father can make and invented some that are uniquely his own. Not surprisingly, he really hasn’t been around much to see the results. At least that allows him to cling to a few willful misconceptions regarding Kanako. However, when his estranged ex-wife begrudgingly requests the ex-cop’s help finding their missing daughter, he learns far more than he bargained for in Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of Film Comment Selects.

Prepare to have your head messed with. Nakashima will fracture his timeline nearly beyond recognition and do his best to represent Fujishima’s warped perspective. The former copper now working as a rent-a-cop always had anger management issues, which directly led to his personal and professional disgrace. He is supposed to take drugs for his temper and mood swings, but they do not seem to be working, even though they might somewhat skew his perception of reality.

Kanako has already been missing for five days before Fujishima’s ex finally asks for his help. Intuitively, he assumes her disappearance is linked to the punky gang kids she has been hanging with, which is largely correct, but his presupposition that Kanako is an innocent victim will be rudely disabused. He soon learns she is up to her neck in drugs and pimping out classmates to well-heeled pedophiles. She was also apparently somehow mixed up in the suicide of her classmate Ogata. We will learn just exactly how so in flashbacks seen through the eyes of Boku, a secondary POV character, whose experiences with Kanako will parallel those of poor Ogata.

Meanwhile, Fujishima’s hostile former colleagues are more than happy to treat him as a suspect in a gangland-style killing perpetrated at the minimart he was ostensibly guarding. It turns out Kanako’s world is a small world when links turn up suggesting a connection between the convenience store massacre and her disappearance. Fujishima is in for a lot of pain and humiliation, but he will deal out plenty more to anyone he considers a potential suspect or accomplice.

Man, Kanako is dark, even by the standard Nakashima set in his previous films, Confessions and Memories of Matsuko. However, unlike the seamlessly constructed escalation of Confessions, WoK is a bit of a rat’s nest, compulsively flashing forward and backwards and liberally tossing unreliable perceptions or downright hallucinations to the point where many viewers will just drop the narrative thread and stop caring altogether, despite the occasional tongue-in-cheek hat-tips to 1970s exploitation cinema. The form of the film is enough to give you a headache, separate and apart from the rampant cruelty it depicts. Based on Akio Fukamachi’s novel, WoK is a nihilistic indictment of just about everything—that’s nihilism spelled with a capital “F” and a capital “U.”

To his credit, Kôji Yakusho doubles down over and over again as the violently erratic Fujishima. It is a messy, let-it-all-hang-out performance, but Yakusho takes it to such dark places, it is ultimately rather soul-scarring. Nana Komatsu is ethereally evil as the deceptively innocent looking Kanako, while Satoshi Tsumabuki chews the scenery with swaggering glee as Det. Asai, the sucker-sucking cop who apparently thinks he’s Kojack. Ai Hashimoto manages to add a thimble full of humanity to the film as Kanako’s estranged and disgusted middle school friend Morishita, but such figures of decency are few and far between in Kanako’s world. Frankly, it is hard to fully judge Kanako’s former homeroom teacher, Rie Higashi, but (Matsuko star) Miki Nakatani’s performance is truly riveting and maybe even redemptive.

If this is what life is really like for Japanese middle and high school students, I would immigrate if I were a parent. It is hard to imagine a more exhausting film than WoK, for reasons of both style and content. It is clearly the work of a genuine auteur, who does not get his just international due, but Nakashima really demands a great deal of indulgence this time around. Lacking the tightness of Confessions and the pure gut-wrenching emotional payoff of Matsuko, it just starts to feel like it is piling it on after a while. For those who enjoyed cult hits like Confessions, Lady Snowblood, Audition, and the real Oldboy, but found them too artificially optimistic, WoK will give you the straight shot of bile you crave. Recommended accordingly for ardent Nakashima admirers, The World of Kanako screens this Thursday (3/5), at the Walter Reade Theater, concluding this year’s Film Comment Selects.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

NYICFF ’15: When Marnie Was There

For young Anna Sasaki, coming of age is a particularly dramatic process, in a dark psychological kind of way. She is like a character out of Daphne du Maurier or Mary Roberts Rinehart novels, who has been sent to spend the summer in a bucolic marshland that could have been painted by the Impressionists. Nobody would be better suited to realize her new environment than the Studio Ghibli team, but alas, this will be their final release for the foreseeable future. While it lacks the tragic sweep of its immediate predecessors (Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises), Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There (trailer here) is an appropriately intimate goodbye that packed the house for the opening night of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Sasaki is far too sensitive to make friends easily with her classmates. Her stress-aggravated asthma does not help either. After a particularly severe attack, Sasaki’s mother Yoriko sends her to stay with her extended relatives, kindly old Kiyomasa and Setsu Oiwa. However, as a foster child, Sasaki has difficulty accepting any of them as family, including Yoriko, despite their genuine concern.

To humor Setsu, she makes a few half-hearted to befriend with some of the village girls her age, but Sasaki prefers to make sketches on her own. One of her favorite subjects, is Marsh House, an abandoned mansion, only intermittently accessible during low tides. Strangely though, a young girl named Marnie seems to live there with her ominously gothic servants. Sasaki and Marnie are drawn to each other like lonely kindred spirits. At last, each feels they have finally found a true friend. Yet, Marnie’s penchant for vanishing without a trace confuses and sometimes hurts Sasaki.

It does not take much deduction or intuition to figure WMWT is some sort of supernatural story, but it still holds some profoundly resonant secrets. It certainly looks like a Studio Ghibli film, which means it is lushly gorgeous. As with The Secret World of Arrietty, his previous film as a director (also based on a British YA novel), Yonebayashi fully captures the beauty and malevolent power of the natural world. Frankly, it is rather impressive how quickly and yet how smoothly he can change the vibe from sunny pastoral to psychological suspense. There is even a scene in a supposedly haunted grain silo that evokes the mission tower staircase in Vertigo, fittingly enough in a film featuring a titular character named Marnie.

WMWT is a deeply humanist film, brimming with forgiveness and empathy. Through her POV, we will acutely understand how coming to terms with the past will allow Sasaki to carry on and embrace life. As a potential sign-off from Studio Ghibli, that’s not bad. Amongst their storied output, it probably ranks somewhere in the middle, but had it come from just about any other animation house, it would represent their crowning achievement. Granted, the opening act is a little slow getting it in gear, but overall, it is remarkably astute emotionally and refreshingly life-affirming. Highly recommended, When Marnie Was There screens again next Saturday (3/7) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYICFF.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

Big News from Grand Rock: Journalism Up North

Leonard Crane is like the Jayson Blair of provincial Canada, except he meant well. Desperate to keep his small town newspaper in business, Crane starts cribbing human interest stories from the movies. Unfortunately, things get a little out of hand when he raises the stakes with an expose. There might just be a big story out there in Daniel Perlmutter’s Big News from Grand Rock (trailer here), which opens today in Canada.

You can pretty much tell from the staff meeting why readership is woefully down at the Weekly Ledger when the deep voiced Ted Baxter-ish Bill pitches a story about a local woman who bought a lottery ticket. No, it hasn’t won—yet. It is a pretty sleepy hamlet, so it might be a pleasant place to live (aside from the potholes), but it sure is hard to drum up news copy. When the longtime owner announces his intention to sell, Crane does his best to woo back advertisers. Out of desperation, he rewrites the Bill Murray elephant movie Larger than Life as local interest story. It is a safe film to start with, because who would admit to watching it?

The keep the flow of reader-friendly stories coming, Crane seeks out recommendations from a willingly complicit video store clerk. However, when he pushes Barbet Schroeder’s medical thriller Desperate Measures on Crane, the resulting expose proves too sensational, attracting a reporter from a relatively big city to confirm his allegations of secret cloning experiments conducted by a shadowy cult. Yet, just when he faces exposure and ostracism as a fraud, mysterious events start to suggest he might have accidentally stumbled onto something after all.

Big News is a low key comedy, but the humor is considerable and admirably consistent. There are a lot of very clever lines, but the way Perlmutter and his leads master the rhythm of their dialogue for laughs is particularly effective. For some of their exchanges, you can almost imagine Perlmutter was drilling them with a stopwatch, Howard Hawks-style.

As Crane, Ennis Esmer deftly walks a comedic tightrope, often serving as a straight man during most of his scenes, but then perfectly delivering the understated kicker that pays off all the set-up. Aaron Ashmore and Peter Keleghan are terrific wild cards playing off Esmer as his video co-conspirator and the clueless reporter (to use the job title generously). The awkward chemistry between him and Meredith MacNeill as out of town journalist also works quite effectively in the context of the film.

Granted, Perlmutter started with a promising premise, but the intangibles of the well-turned phrases and the natural, unforced feel of the riffing really distinguishes it from the field. Frankly, Big News from Grand Rock is too good not to find some sort of distribution here in America, but if you happen to be in Toronto, by all means, drop by the Carlton Cinema, where it opens today (2/27).

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Ejecta: Assume the Probing Position

If aliens ever arrive on earth, all those broadcasts we have been beaming into space could be a problem for us. They will either expect we will jump to all sorts of awkward assumptions about probing or will worry we might start vivisecting them in an underground bunker. This film certainly will not help. William Cassidy has lived with a painful implant for years. It has turned him into a half-mad shell of a man, but that will not stop the military from torturing him anyway in Chad Archibald & Matt Wiele’s Ejecta (trailer here), which opens late night tonight in New York at the IFC Center.

Among UFO geeks, Cassidy is a near legendary figure. He is not exactly a reliable witness, but he creeps out everyone who meets him. The long term pain and side effects from his prolonged alien contact, dating back forty years, has completely chopped and diced his psyche. Although he no longer remembers doing so, he granted UFO-chasing filmmaker Joe Sullivan (sadly not the Chicago piano player who gigged with Eddie Condon) access to his spectacularly miserable life.

Sullivan picked a fine time to start documenting Cassidy. In addition to the aliens, Dr. Tobin, a civilian scientist working with the military also wants a piece of him. She thinks he can tell her when the invasion or whatever will start. For some strange reason, Cassidy is not inclined to be helpful, so she goes medieval on him, using some special confiscated alien technology. Yet, that implant might help keep his brain from totally liquefying.

Julian Richlings racked up the awards on the genre festival circuit for playing the tortured (literally and figuratively) Cassidy—and not without reason. He goes all in, freaking out one minute, gaunt and withdrawn the next, without lurching ridiculously over the top, like an alien-abducted Meryl Streep. However, he is about the only thing going for this film.

Frankly, Ejecta is littered with plot holes that are only made more conspicuous by the film’s fractured chronology. There is really no logic to the confrontations between Cassidy and Tobin, beyond a desire to make heavy-handed commentaries about “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Lisa House’s Tobin is a ridiculous caricature of sadist villainy, who just becomes embarrassing as the film wears on. It is even difficult to follow the on-screen action when the film combines the worst of shaky campaign and 1980s-style gauzy, neon cinematography, in the dubious tradition of Alien from L.A.

Throughout Ejecta, Richlings truly looks like his head might explode, which is not nothing. Nevertheless, the alien invasion-conspiracy business is nothing you haven’t seen done better any number of times. Not recommended, Ejecta screens just before midnights tonight and tomorrow (2/27 & 2/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Out of the Dark: a Colombian Grudge

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, so who’s to say there really was a spill at the “old paper mill?” Or maybe those grudge-holding supernatural hellions are actually the restless spirits of children killed by conquistadors instead of mercury-riddled kids. Either way, they want some payback against exploitative westerners in Lluís Quílez’s Out of the Dark (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Sarah Harriman has come to Colombia from the UK to take over the old man’s paper mill. Not the “old mill,” mind you. Nobody goes there anymore. She will be managing the shiny new mercury-free mill. Her husband Paul is able to stay at home with their daughter Hannah, because he is a children’s book illustrator. Is that job really cool enough though? Maybe he should have been a rock & roll children’s book illustrator.

As we know from the prologue, there are some very hacked off whatevers haunting the Harrimans’ palatial new digs. Poor Dr. Contreras Sr. will sacrifice his life for the sake of our exposition. Before long, they start tormenting young Hannah, who subsequently starts exhibiting signs of a bizarre malady. Of course, the Harrimans are concerned, but they keep shutting her door tight and nipping off to the opposite side of the oligarchical estate. Hey guys, maybe keep the door open a crack or buy a baby monitor or just quietly check on her every so often? Before long, the malevolent beings make off with Hannah, driving each Harriman out looking for a trail to follow.

It seems like an awful lot of Out consists of the Harrimans standing around, saying things like “oh, don’t disturb her, I’m sure she’s fine.” Still, the house is terrifically creepy. Also, Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman come across like a believable couple (but not too bright). As Grandpa Jordan, Stephen Rea is a dependably intriguing screen presence, especially when he skulking around, greasing the palms of corrupt Colombian politicians. However, young Pixie Davis is the only member of the family who sounds legitimately British (somehow she has an Irish grandfather, a Canadian father, and an American mother).

Frankly, Stiles has been criminally under-rated. She was terrific in Twelfth Night at the Delacorte (Shakespeare in the Park), but this is probably not the film that will win over hearts and minds. While Out looks suitably atmospheric, it is simply too slow and clunky. Colombia should have gotten more for their new tax incentives. Beyond the impressive real estate, it is just another tepid, logic-challenged genre outing. Not recommended, Out of the Dark opens tomorrow (2/27) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ana Maria in Novela Land: A Telenovela Pulls a Body Switch

The only thing Ana Maria Soto is industrious about is tweeting telenovelas. She has a fair number of followers, but none them are her quickly exasperated work colleagues. Those gigs never last long anyway. Frankly, even her long suffering family hardly notices the difference when she pulls a 1980s style body-switcheroo with the heroine of the telenovela she currently tweets. Fish will be out of water and lessons will be learned in Georgina Garcia Riedel’s Ana Maria in Novela Land (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Soto just got pink-slipped from another job and flaked out on her older sister’s bridal dress fitting. Her family is pretty bummed out with her, but everything seems to make sense when tonight’s episode of Passion Without Limits starts. However, a freak electricity surge exchanges her consciousness with the lead character, Ariana Tomosa, who is engaged to a wealthy older man, while carrying on an affair with his brooding son.

Of course, Soto knows all this, so she adapts to life in the telenovela relatively easily. On the other hand, Tomosa is out to sea in the real world, but Tony, the young neighborhood internist who always carried a torch for Soto, will help the presumed amnesiac start to act like a real person. In fact, she soon becomes easier to live with than the real Ana Maria, despite her dramatic nature. Meanwhile, Soto enjoys vamping it up in the telenovela, but she knows full well its limited run will soon conclude—and then what?

Initially, Novela Land is kind of amusing and it features fan favorite Luis Guzmán playing Schmidt, Tomosa’s scheming attorney nemesis. Sadly, it is also the final film of Elizabeth Peña (Lone Star, La Bamba, Down and Out in Beverly Hills), who has some nice moments giving uncooperative bridal staff what-for. Still, there is not much heft to the film, even before starts recycling its body switch jokes.

Everyone hams it up, because obviously. Still, Edy Ganem effectively differentiates Soto from Tomosa. There are a few inventive gags, such as when Soto happens to wander into a Korean soap opera. Pepe Serna deadpans nicely as Father Miguel, but the forthcoming Man from Reno is a much more compelling (and infinitely darker) showcase for his under-appreciated chops.

Unfortunately, Soto’s K-drama interlude is as surreal as the film gets. Given the premise (essentially an updated riff on the John Candy movie Delirious), Riedel and co-screen-writer Jose Nestor Marquez could have played more mischievous games with on-screen reality, but they mostly just keep it safe and sentimental. Too sitcom-my and not nearly out there enough for mainstream genre audiences, Ana Maria in Novela Land is mostly just for fans like Soto when it opens this Friday (2/27) at the Burbank and Orange AMC theaters in California.

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Triumph in the Skies: Hong Kong’s Favorite Way to Fly

Where American networks failed with shows like Pan Am and LAX, Hong Kong found tremendous success with a prime time airliner drama. While it had the benefit of some star power from Francis Ng and Michelle Ye, it was really the multi-character romances that were powering the show. How big was it? Big enough to snag a New Year’s theatrical release for the big screen edition. Hearts will be broken on multiple continents in Wilson Yip & Matt Chow’s Triumph in the Skies (trailer here), which is now playing in New York and select markets.

By-the-book Captain “Sam” Tong and his not-so-by-the-book co-pilot Jayden Koo used to be a regular flight crew, but they have split up. Tong is still the senior officer with Skylette, but the new boss’s son and heir apparent, Branson Cheung, has assigned him to serve as the technical advisor for their new commercial starring rock-star diva TM Tam. Nobody on-set wants to hear his quibbles, except maybe Tam. There are such polar opposites, they naturally start to attract.

Cheung, who also serves as a Skylette flight captain, is rather surprised to find his old flame Cassie Poon Ka-sze is part of the crew on his newly assigned plane. She is still disappointed he put their relationship on hold to please his father, but the sparks are still there. Meanwhile, Koo or “Captain Cool,” has landed a cushy job as the private pilot of a party plane, where he meets the seemingly ambitionless Kika Sit. However, he realizes almost too late there is far more to her story.

If you have seen a few Chinese romantic comedies you will basically know what to expect here, but Yip & Chow’s execution is wildly slick and lethally effective. You are not likely to see a sparklier movie anytime soon. Triumph has so much jet-setting, it makes Sex in the City look like EastEnders.

Sure, it is tons of manipulative, yet each of the three primary story arcs works surprising well, with the best being Tong’s halting flirtation with Tam. It is also the best written braided-storyline, featuring some wry, understated dialogue and terrific chemistry between series veteran Francis Ng and Sammi Cheng. You can almost think of it as an HK version of a James L. Brooks late middle-age relationship film. She also performs a catchy punk version of “Over the Rainbow” that will make you think that was what Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg really had in mind the whole time.

In contrast, Triumph totally goes for the tears with Captain Cool’s possibly tragic romance, but Amber Kuo just lights up the screen as Kika Sit. Of course, Julian Cheung is not exactly is not exactly a jowly sourpuss either—and they both know how to crank up the cute in their big feature spots.

The third romance starring Louis Koo is a lot like an HK rom-com starring Louis Koo, but it is still one of the better ones. Again, he and Charmaine Sheh have surprisingly strong chemistry. However, the notion of an attractive working woman sitting around waiting for the man who walked out of her life to saunter back might not sit too well with American audiences.

Despite the vaguely Leni Riefenstahl-ish title, Triumph in the Skies is a pleasingly upbeat and colorful film. These days, it is just no fun whatsoever to fly on a commercial airliner or schlep through an airport, but it would be worth taking off your belt and shoes to fly with the ridiculously good looking crews of Skylette. Maybe it is a guilty pleasure, but it is fun. Recommended for those looking for an entertaining movie romance that pretty much covers all the bases, Triumph is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Everly: Salma Hayek vs. the Yakuza

Even if you believe “violence is never the answer and what the world really needs is more love and understanding,” just keep it to yourself. Everly does not have time for warm and fuzzy liberal new age platitudes and we do not want to hear them. She is simply too busy worrying about escape and payback. For several years, she was enslaved as a prostitute by the Yakuza, but now she will try to shoot her way out of their fortified brothel. It is not a well thought out  plan, but at least she will be able to take a lot of bad guys with her in Joe Lynch’s Everly (trailer here), which opens this Friday in targeted markets.

Everly used to be the favorite of the kingpin, Taiko, but not anymore. An honest cop also lost his head over her. Taiko had it boxed up and presented to her. She had agreed to testify for the late detective, but obviously that will not be happening. Taiko’s men were supposed to do their worst to her, but she was able to stash a gun in the toilet bowl. Bullets will fly—and they will keep flying, but Everly is not immune to them. In fact, she starts the film pretty dinged up, but she is able to patch herself up and keep going.

Unfortunately for him, one of Taiko’s bean-counters gets gut-shot in the first volley. There is clearly no way he will make it. Much to her surprise, the dying paper-pushing gangster offers her some helpful strategic consultation as he slowly expires. Acting on his advice, she makes a risky play, arranging a pretext for her mother and the daughter she never knew to pick up a bag of traveling money from Taiko’s high-rise of hedonism-turned war zone.

To their credit, Lynch and screenwriter Yale Hannon understand the point of a film like this and therefore never cheapen it with a disingenuous take-away about the supposed dangers of firearm possession or the folly of vengeance taking. Taiko and his associates need to die—period. Frankly, some bits are rather disturbingly explicit, particularly those involving the “Sadist” played by the classy Togo Igawa (the first Japanese member of the Royal Shakespeare Company), but that makes it extra satisfying when they get theirs.

It should also be noted the forty-eight year old Salma Hayek looks all kinds of dangerous as Everly. She is in tremendous shape and shows real action chops, but in a grittier, less cartoony way. She conveys the well-armed rage of a desperate mother, which makes each showdown deeply primal. There are real stakes in Everly—and plenty of blood, but her relatively quiet scenes with Akie Kotabe as the dying suit are some of the film’s best.

We have often lamented the dearth of legitimate female action stars in Hollywood and mainstream indie movies. It is so bad, Meryl Streep has laughably been suggested for the female Expendables film in development. With Everly, Hayek blasts herself into contention to lead the whole darned shooting match. Despite its obvious debt of inspiration to Gareth Huw Evans’ The Raid, it is an old school, deliciously sleazy revenge thriller that always delivers the goods right to your doorstep and never expects a tip. Highly recommended for fans of exploitation action, Everly is now available on VOD via iTunes and opens this Friday (2/27) in selected cities.

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Serangoon Road: Singaporean Intrigue with Joan Chen

If the boy from Empire of the Sun, grew up to be a hardboiled private detective, he would be a lot like Sam Callaghan. The Aussie expat is still haunted by his childhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp, but he toughened up considerably through his Malaya military service. He used to lend a hand to the late Winston Cheng on a freelance basis, but he reluctantly agrees to a more regular arrangement when his widow Patricia decides to keep the agency open. Thanks to the Secret Societies, terrorist bombings, and all sorts of garden variety smuggling, they will find no shortage of business in Serangoon Road (promo here), HBO Asia’s first original series production, which releases today on DVD from Acorn.

Callaghan sort of blames himself for Cheng’s death, but the elegant Mrs. Cheng plays the guilt card with restraint. Although she is from a “mainline” establishment Peranakan Chinese family, the childless widow still needs the agency as a means of support. With the help of Sam and her progressive niece Su Ling, she also hopes to catch her husband’s murderer.

Their first case seems to be a one-off with little long term implications, but it will introduce the large cast of characters. Fresh-faced CIA recruit Conrad Harrison and his shadowy boss “Wild Bill” need the Cheng Agency to track down an African American sailor accused of murdering his best mate. It is probably the series’ least flattering depiction of American spooks and servicemen, but at least Harrison, one of those “best and brightest,” seems to care about right and wrong. He is also very interested in Su Ling, but she initially wants nothing to do with a Yankee government employee.

The past will directly haunt the present in subsequent episodes, as when the Cheng Agency takes on an illegal refugee’s case in the second episode. Forced to take flight during the Japanese invasion, Ms. Feng has returned (undocumented) in search of the husband she left behind. The case looks pretty cold until Ms. Feng is mysteriously poisoned. As she clings to life, Callaghan scrambles to trace her beloved husband, empathizing with her deep sense of loss. He will become even more personally involved with a case later in the season, when the Aboriginal soldier who watched over him during the darkest hour of the war is accused of murdering an aspiring journalist.

Many of the Cheng Agency cases lead back to Kay Song, the heir apparent of Singapore’s most feared secret society (a gang primarily involved in crimes of sin). For some reason, the sinister gangster has it in for Kang, Callaghan’s compulsive gambling partner in a barely legal shipping operation. It is hard to see why he bothers, given Kang’s multitude of self-destructive flaws. Frankly, Kang subplots will become a tiresome distraction as the series progresses.

As befits a good period noir, everyone in Serangoon is compromised to some extent, particularly Callaghan, who is rather openly carrying on an affair with Claire Simpson, the wife of a junior executive assigned to a powerful western trading company’s Singapore office. Conveniently, Frank Simpson is often required to travel throughout Southeast Asia. Rather awkwardly, Callaghan is even hired to investigate his rival when Simpson is anonymously sullied with rumors of corruption.

During the course of the first season, the Cheng Agency will also deal with a mysterious foundling, a suspicious business leader with political aspirations, his nearly as suspicious trade unionist brother, two kidnapped Australian tourists, and a massive race riot that the bad guys will opportunistically exploit to the fullest. Structurally, each episode is reasonably self-contained, but they fit together to form a wider overall narrative arc.

Although many of the mid-sixties Singaporean details are quite intriguing, it is the strong ensemble cast that really distinguishes Serangoon. Even though he sometimes overdoes the heartsick brooding, Don Hany’s Callaghan still has an appropriately manly yet world weary screen presence. Of course Joan Chen adds plenty of class and sophistication as Patricia Cheng. It is easy to see why western bureaucrats would have confidence hiring her.

Frankly, the real discovery is Pamelyn Chee (who maybe a handful of people saw in Wayne Wang’s Princess of Nebraska), stealing scene after scene with Su Ling’s wry sarcasm and slightly deceptive elegance. Chin Han chews the scenery like he enjoys the taste as the villainous Kay Song (just as he did in Marco Polo). Somewhat frustratingly, Indonesian superstar Ario Bayu does not get a lot of fun things to do this time around, but there is room for his character, Inspector Amran, to grow. However, Maeve Dermody’s hopelessly vanilla Simpson falls somewhat short in the scandalous femme fatale department. It is hard to get why Callaghan is so hung up on her. Maybe you just have to be there—in Singapore—circa 1964.

Regardless, there is more than enough mystery, betrayal, and colorful supporting characters to keep viewers engaged and increasingly invested. Frankly, it seems strange the American HBO did not pick it up to fill a slow spot in their calendar. In terms of production quality, it holds its own with most limited-event cable series and should equally satisfy Joan Chen fans who know her either from Twin Peaks or Xiao Hua (The Little Flower). Recommended for anyone who enjoys humid noir in serial form, Serangoon Road is now available on DVD from Acorn.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Anita Ho: Meeting the Parents

What kid wouldn’t want to date a Power Ranger? What guy wouldn’t be interested in a woman like Anita Lee? Maybe one who has met her parents. Harry Ho is about to have the dubious pleasure, but since he is Korean rather than Chinese, it will be a difficult getting-to-know-you process in Steve Myung’s Anita Ho (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Harry is really a Korean Oh, but when his family came through immigration, it was changed to a Chinese-sounding (and more easily mocked) Ho. After a while, they got tired of fighting it. Unfortunately, this leads to some initial awkwardness when he first meets his girlfriend Anita’s parents, the Lees—and it only goes downhill from there. Needless to say, they want their daughter to marry a good Chinese boy. That means a doctor or a lawyer. An employed writer just does not cut it.

Technically, Ho is a freelancer, who quit his gig on Lee’s “Power Raiders” kiddie action show to write his screenplay. That has not been working out so well. At least, his relationship with Lee has been fulfilling. In fact, he intends to pop the question while they are visiting for her special thirtieth birthday banquet, but her parents will do everything they can to belittle and undermine him.

Just about anyone who was ever raked over the coals by their date’s dad on prom night should be able to relate to Anita Ho on some level. Of course, they never had to face George Cheung (the notorious Lt. Tay in Rambo: First Blood II and senior member of the Awesome Asian Bad Guys). Unimpressed with the mild-mannered Ho, Mr. Lee will actually try to fix his daughter up with a former classmate. Yes, he happens to be a doctor.

So maybe we have all been there, but director-co-writer Myung just cranks up the cringe factor when appearing as Ho. By the time the film is over that poor cat’s back is covered in “kick me” signs. He has some pleasant romantic chemistry with co-writer Lina So Myung, but it eventually becomes difficult to buy into them as a couple, while he wallows in humiliation and she essentially lets it happen. The Myungs also apparently dig romantic montages, because they are not stingy with them (though they really probably should have been).

Lina So Myung truly lights up the screen as Lee, while Cheung and Elizabeth Sung have their moments as the demanding parents. However, it is Kenny Waymack, Jr. who gives us something to latch onto as Lee’s Filipino brother-in-law and tough talking audience surrogate, Tyson Bautista. It is nice to see a film advocate inclusiveness, but some of the broad humor falls a bit flat. Frankly, the film would have been better served by a little more romantic courtship and a little less shtick. It is also cool to see the telegenic Myungs making their own opportunities. Nevertheless, Anita Ho is strictly a date-night kind of movie when it opens this Friday (2/27) at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

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My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn: When the Behind-the-Scenes are Better than the Movie

It was not a total lost when Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s much anticipated follow-up to Drive, bombed with the Cannes press corps. At least it should have shown Ryan Gosling how to deal with the Lido drubbing dealt to his directorial debut, Lost River. Maybe Winding Refn’s film is not looking as bad to them, by comparison. Maybe. Nevertheless, his family did not return from six months in Thailand without bringing home one highly watchable film. Alas for Winding Refn, that would be his wife Liv Corfixen’s up-close-and-personal behind-the-scenes documentary, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When watching Corfixen’s film, you immediately realize there was no way OGF was going to work. Winding Refn essentially admits his script makes no sense, which is never a good sign. Yet, his own contradictory impulses imply an even deeper identity crisis for the film. On one hand, he is clearly preoccupied with the pressure to repeat the success of Drive, yet he is perversely determined to produce a something utterly dissimilar. Mission accomplished on that score.

Much to her frustration, Winding Refn strictly limited Corfixen’s access to the set. It is evident from their often testy exchanges that she missed a lot of “making of” drama as a result. Still, it is blindingly obvious from the get-go this is a “troubled” production. In some shockingly revealing scenes, she captures all of her husband’s unvarnished self-doubt and self-pity, as OGF irreparably runs off the rails. Winding Refn’s references to compatriot Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier sounds especially telling. They seem like they should be two neurotic peas in a pod, but Winding Refn clearly nurses an inferiority complex.

Life should really not be dismissed as a DVD-extra, because it is hard to see anyone packaging it with OGF. After all, the shorter film basically explains why the longer feature attraction is such a chaotic mess. Short is also the right term. The actual movie substance of Life clocks in just under sixty minutes. However, Life has one thing few films can boast: their legendary family friend, director Alejandro Jodorowsky reading tarot and providing marriage counseling.

In all honesty, OGF has its moments, but they all come courtesy of the wonderfully fierce Kristin Scott Thomas and stone cold Thai movie star Vithaya Pansringarm, both of whom are seen in Life, planning their climatic scene together. In contrast, Gosling is utterly underwhelming, but to be fair, he comes across like a good sport in Corfixen’s doc, often seen playing with the couple’s young daughters. Perhaps he and Winding Refn should just leave the making of David Lynchian films to David Lynch.

Regardless, Life is a brutally honest look at the personal and emotional repercussions of a film that never worked, in any step of its production. It is also frequently very funny, in decidedly uncomfortable ways. Frankly, it is a shame we do not have similarly intimate records of the notorious production processes for films like Heaven’s Gate, but Life will be there as a cautionary example for all future filmmakers battling their expectations and egos. Highly recommended for fans of cult cinema, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn opens this Friday (2/27) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Also Like Life: The Sandwich Man

Look in your pocket and you might find a smart phone made in Taiwan. They were the only one of the four Asian Tiger economies that largely dodged the regional financial crisis of the late 1990s. However, the Republic of China remains very aware of the extreme poverty it rose out of. The memories of its hardscrabble past were even fresher in the early 1980s, when Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien introduced the world to Taiwanese auteurist cinema. One of those watershed films was an anthology production Hou contributed to. Fittingly, Hou, Zeng Zhuangxiang, and Wan Jen’s The Sandwich Man screens this week as part of the traveling Hou retrospective Also Like Life, now playing in Vancouver.

Jin Shu is definitely a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown, but he doesn’t look very cheerful on the outside either. He tramps through his provincial small town wearing his shabby home-made clown costume and sandwich boards advertising the local theater. He has not even been paid yet for his humiliations. This gig was his idea and he is still working on-spec during the trial period. He badly needs work to support his infant son and increasingly impatient wife, but he does not have the right sort of personality for anything involving promotions to the public. Adding further anxiety to his wounded ego, Jin Shu’s little boy no longer recognizes him when he is out of make-up.

In some ways, His Son’s Big Doll (as the story’s title directly translates) also critiqued restrictive Taiwanese laws against contraception that were abolished a few years after the film’s release. It is a relentlessly naturalistic tale about economic desperation, but the surprisingly upbeat conclusion makes it feel like a sort of before-the-fact allegory of Taiwan’s rapid development—just hang on and everything will get better.

Since it is Hou Hisao-hsien and the titular story, The Sandwich Man would seem to be the main event, but the subsequent constituent films are just as good or better. In Zeng’s Vicky’s Hat, two new recruits try to sell Japanese pressure cookers throughout their provincial territory, but they soon start to suspect their product is categorically unsafe. It is a story that has a bit of Glengarry Glen Ross to it, but it is even more concerned with the younger salesman’s halting friendship with Vicky, a mysterious school girl in their neighborhood. There are some fine lines Zeng and his cast must walk—such as establishing his willingness to chastely wait for her to grow old enough for a relationship, but they turn the multiple tragic twists to devastating effect.

Wan’s concluding Taste of Apples is a bit O. Henry-ish—in fact, its irony now seems ironic. A migrant worker is hit by the American military attaché’s car, but this might not be the worst thing that could happen to his struggling family. He will have the best of medical care at the American military hospital, his wife and family will be financially taken care of, and his children will have educational opportunities that never would have otherwise been available to them. Plus, the American Colonel seems genuinely sorry about it all.

Reportedly, the Taiwanese government sought to suppress Sandwich Man because of its portrayal of American government personnel, but considering the anti-American propaganda out there, we should settle for Sandwich Man every chance we get. Sure, we try to fix problems by throwing a bunch of cash around, but that just might work for the family of Apples.

It is also rather fascinating to see how each narrative arc (all adapted from short stories by Huang Chunming, by screenwriter Wu Nien-jen, and shot by cinematographer Chen Kun-hou) speak in dialogue with each other. Those who survived the painful past and make it through the difficult present just might see a better tomorrow, but it will not be easy. A modern classic of Taiwanese cinema, The Sandwich Man could be even more significant when seen in the light of the subsequent thirty-some years of growth and liberalization. Highly recommended, it screens this Thursday (2/26) at The Cinematheque in Vancouver, as part of Also Like Life.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

American Songbook at NJ PAC: Shaiman & Wittman

If you want to transfer a hit movie to Broadway, they’re your songwriting team. Hairspray was a huge hit for them. Catch Me If You Can maybe not so much, but it wasn’t a total Lestat level disaster—and now they have Willy Wonka chugging right along in London. Years from now, they could very well be considered part of the Songbook canon, so NJPAC brought them in when they happened to have a free evening. Marc Shaiman sings and accompanies guest performers, while Scott Wittman provides the reminiscences in this season’s final installment of American Songbook at NJPAC, which premieres this Wednesday on NJTV.

Knowing how to construct a show, they kick off their set with “Good Morning Baltimore,” the rousing opener to Hairspray, featuring vocalist Annie Golden, who recorded their original demos for the musical stage transfer. Appropriately enough, Shaiman then performs two of his Oscar nominated songs (penned without Wittman). Frankly, both “A Wink and a Smile” from Sleepless in Seattle and “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie are considerable superior to all of this year’s nominated songs, except the poignantly on-the-nose “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me. For reasons that hardly need belaboring, Shaiman had to abridge his South Park anthem for PBS, updating the lyrics with Justin Bieber and Rob Ford references in the process.

To their credit, Shaiman & Wittman do a good deal of master-classing and mentoring, which is how they found the young but poised Alex Stone and Micailah Lockhart, who both show remarkable range on their selections from the aforementioned Catch Me if You Can and the Broadway themed television show Smash, which apparently started out all well and good, but got progressively less fun and rewarding as it went along. “Goodbye,” from their Tony nominated but underperforming Broadway show particularly lends itself to dramatic interpretations, suggesting it deserves a songbook life outside the book musical.

Frankly, the same is true of the Marilyn Monroe-inspired “Second Hand White Baby Grand,” also written for Smash, featuring Golden again. However, the highlight of the set has to be Marilyn Maye’s old school cabaret rendition of “Butter Outta Cream,” a quirky novelty-esque number from Catch Me. She totally takes charge of the songwriting partners, but they love it, even though she is obviously winging it.

There is more talking during Wittman & Shaiman’s set than in prior NJPAC Songbook concerts, but their anecdotes and needling are all part of the act. It is also a timely reminder: sometimes the best nominated song wins the Oscar (“The Theme from Shaft” in 1971), but more often than not, it doesn’t (like “Blame Canada” losing to Phil Collins’ Tarzan tune). Some of Wittman & Shaiman’s selected songs are far more likely to become time-tested standards than others, but they fit together into a rather entertaining program, nicely varying the tone and tempo. Recommended for Broadway and movie music fans, the Wittman and Shaiman concerts concludes the current season of American Songbook at NJPAC this Wednesday (2/25) on NJTV, with a later broadcast scheduled for April 18th on WNET Thirteen.

(Photo: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)

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Friday, February 20, 2015

FCS ’15: Fires on the Plain

Joseph Heller’s Yossarian has nothing on Private Tamura. He is caught in miserable catch-22 and the only thing that will dislodge him from his vicious cycle will be a further downturn in Japan’s fortunes of war. There is absolutely nothing heroic about combat throughout intense auteur Shinya Tsukamoto’s faithful but bloody remake of Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (clip here), which screens during Film Comment Selects 2015.

Tamura is suffering from a nasty case of tuberculosis and maybe some mild shell shock. Deemed too sick to serve effectively by his arrogant commanding officer, Tamura is ordered to check into the nearest field hospital on Leyte. However, the medical staff refuses to admit him, considering him too healthy to merit a spot on their diseased floor.

Back and forth he trudges between the camp and the hospital, repeatedly turning away by each, until Allied attacks essentially eliminate either option. Receiving word the Imperial forces have been belatedly ordered them all to regroup at Palompon, Tamura falls in and out of small ragtag bands of retreating Imperial soldiers, but his increasingly desperate countrymen might represent a more immediate danger than the Yanks he is supposedly fighting.

The 1959 Plain has to be Ichikawa’s darkest, bleakest film. Tsukamoto does not exactly match its dour existentialism, but he certainly never whitewashes its atmosphere or implications. In terms of tone, the recent Plain could be described as one part Samuel Beckett and two parts Apocalypse Now, but with liberal helpings of severed body parts. Tsukamoto’s Plain is definitely not for the faint of heart, but it is considerably more accessible than the full-on assault to the senses delivered by his Tetsuo series.

It is safe to say vanity had nothing to do with Tsukamoto’s decision to direct himself as Tamura. He is never flashy, but it is grimly compelling to watch the soul steadily seep out of him. You absolutely believe his is just a shell of a person, which is certainly some kind of performance.

Plain is truly serious stuff, intended for discerning audiences, but there might be enough gore to placate his loyal cult-following. It covers all the bases Ichikawa did, nearly beat for beat, yet it is unquestionably and readily identifiably a Tsukamoto film. Together with his co-cinematographer Satoshi Hayashi, Tsukamoto gives his slow descent into tropical madness a distinctively sweaty, feverish, and slightly surreal look that is equally transfixing and disconcerting. One of the better remakes of a genuine classic you will see in sometime, Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain is recommended for those who appreciate uncompromising anti-war cinematic statements when it screens tomorrow (2/21) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

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Legend of Lead Belly: It’s All True

Eventually, Alan Lomax’s defenders and detractors have to deal with Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Yes, it was Lomax who plucked Ledbetter from the harsh obscurity of the Angola Prison Farm’s chain gang, but Ledbetter ultimately made his name and his career on his own. Ledbetter’s almost mythical life and continuing influence are chronicled in Legend of Lead Belly (promo here), which premieres this Monday on the Smithsonian Channel.

He was the son of a share-cropper, who picked his share of cotton in his early years. Preferring the more independent but uncertain life of a roving musician, he became a protégé of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Unfortunately, their work took Ledbetter into places where booze and trouble mixed freely, with the latter frequently ensnaring him. Angola was not his first prison stint. Famously, Ledbetter had earlier convinced lame duck Texas governor Pat Neff to pardon him with a song written in his honor.

As the expert commentators make clear, Lead Belly was just as much of a song-hunter as Lomax, but he did not merely collect and record them. He always gave them a twist to make them his own. Thanks to his influential recordings and documented performances, tunes like “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” and “House of the Rising Sun” entered into our collective songbook and would become huge hits for various artists in the 1960s.

Although just an hour in length, Legend covers the cream of his greatest hits and the major milestones of his iconic life (but sadly they leave out the campaign song he wrote for liberal Republican Wendell Wilkie). We also get a sense of his dedication to his second wife and his graciousness towards the up-and-coming folkies. Perhaps what is most striking are the scenes of his justly proud family today, who have clearly come a long way from his hardscrabble roots. While Ledbetter enjoyed a taste of success, he served as the catalyst for his family’s eventual upward mobility. In gratitude, they keep his name and music alive through the educational Lead Belly Foundation.

Written, directed, and produced by Alan Ravenscroft, Legend moves along at a good pace and features some big name talking heads, including Van Morrison, the not-as-out-of-place-as-you-might-think Judy Collins, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, and The Doors’ Robby Krieger, as well as several descendants. It is a tasteful sampling of a towering figure of Americana that ought to help sell a few copies of the Smithsonian Folkways’ upcoming five-CD career-surveying box set. There is always a need for more programming about blues artists (or blues, etc. in Lead Belly’s case), so Legend of Lead Belly is quite welcome indeed when it airs this coming Monday (2/23) on Smithsonian Channel.

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