J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, Another GKIDS Contender

Everything is cuter with talking animals, right? This film will test that theory with drug addiction, schizophrenia, police brutality, and industrial disasters. It is no wonder three alienated animal youths are determined to escape their dysfunctional and dystopian island home, but leaving is not such a simple proposition for the late Birdman’s son. He is seemingly tied to the island by bonds of psychological and emotional pain in Pedro Rivero & Alberto Vázquez’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (trailer here), an officially qualified Oscar contender, which opens this Friday in New York.

Not so long ago, a nuclear meltdown wiped out the island’s industrial sector, leaving a vast dumping ground in its wake. Residents of the island’s supposedly civilized quarter avoid it as best they can, but a tribe of scavengers known as “the Forgotten Children” constantly picks over the trash heaps in search of salvageable copper. Dinky, a recently orphaned mouse, pines for Birdboy, her sort of boyfriend, but it is unclear whether he can commit to her on any level. Tragically, he is still tormented by the death of his father, Birdman, who was murdered by the island’s shoot-first police dog, on the suspicion he was dealing drugs.

Dinky and her friends, Sandra the schizophrenic rabbit and Little Fox the little fox, plan to purchase a light boat in the [post-]industrial zone, so they can make a Cuban-style getaway, but the sensitive mouse hopes she can convince Birdboy to leave with them. However, he has his own ghosts and mental demons to exercise. Plus, the police dogs are hot on his trail.

GKIDS deserves all kinds of credit for giving ambitious animated films like this a chance. Make no mistake, Birdboy is absolutely not for kids—not one little bit, even though the characters look deceptively youngster-friendly. Based on Vázquez’s graphic novel, it is a dark and sophisticated film that is almost relentlessly pessimistic about human nature, or rather anthropomorphic animal nature. Yet, it is singularly macabre and richly inventive accomplishment in world-building. There is just so much that is bizarre and frightening about their island environment, it would be a shame to miss out on it.

Vázquez’s characters are also unusually complex and deeply damaged. This is one neurotic animated feature, but we really feel compassion for Dinky, Sandra, Little Fox, and Birdboy. They are way more human than anything you will see in The Boss Baby or the latest Despicable movie. (However, parents should again be cautioned, our cuddly cast of characters is headed for a bittersweet conclusion that is more bitter than sweet.)

As if Birdboy were not sufficiently challenging on its own, it will be paired with Vázquez’s Goya Award-winning short film Decorado during its New York engagement. Featuring dreams-within-dreams and worlds-within-proscenium stage sets, Decorado will confuse most Millennials. It also features sexual references and a vicious parody of Donald Duck. It is trippy and unsettling, but it is also dazzling, in a postmodern kind of way. It certainly is not out of place proceeding Birdboy, but it does not have anything like its emotional payoff.

Alas, Birdboy has no chance for best animated feature, because there is no way the Academy can handle it, but if you want to see what animation can be, it will duly impress (along with Decorado). These are haunting visions, whose very existence makes our world a stranger and more mysterious place. Highly recommended for animation connoisseurs, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown: The Sidekick Rides for Vengeance

Old Lefty Brown’s riding mates have gone on to great things. One is now the governor of Montana and another is a U.S. Marshall. Perhaps most impressively, his partner Edward Johnson is the great state’s senator-elect. Brown ought to sign up with a lobbying firm and peddle access, but that is a city-slicker thing to do. He’s an open range cowboy all the way. It becomes a moot point anyway when Johnson is murdered by outlaws. Brown was always the comic relief, but like Sam Spade, he understands a man has to do something when their partner gets killed. Not a lot of people ever took the sixty-five-year-old bunkhouse cowpoke seriously, but he rides for vengeance anyway in Jared Moshe’s The Ballad of Lefty Brown (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Johnson was a respected rancher, lawman, an opponent of railroad interests. As we see in the opening scenes, he still dispensed justice frontier-style, with Brown right beside him. His wife Laura hoped their upcoming move to Washington would finally shake loose old Lefty, but Johnson was dead set on leaving him in charge of the ranch. Regrettably, that all changes when the two crusty partners walk into an ambush.

Poor, misunderestimated Brown is left alive to face the contempt of Johnson’s widow and ranch hands. Determined to settle the score, Brown sets off alone. Of course, nobody thinks he can do much of anything, so Gov. Jimmy Bierce dispatches Marshall Tom Harrah to retrieve him when they arrive for the funeral. However, Harrah finds his old riding mate is hot on the trail, so he temporarily joins the pursuit instead. Unfortunately, Brown will eventually find he has been denounced as an accomplice back at the ranch, just when he is most in need of help.

It is so refreshing to see a new western that respects the genre and what it represents, as is the case here. Ballad is definitely darker than your singing cowboy movies of yesteryear, but it is not exactly revisionist either. Moshe has obviously processed a whole lot of western cinema, but the films of Anthony Mann really jump out as a likely influence (which is a recommendation in itself).

He also gets an award caliber performance out of the always reliable Bill Pullman, possibly doing his best work since he was on Broadway in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? It is a tricky role playing the goofy sidekick forced to become deadly serious. In past eras, maybe a Walter Huston could have handled it, but he nails it cleanly. It is not just his partner who died, it is his way of life that is also slowly expiring, which viewers can just see in his sad, but still hawk-like eyes.

Jim Caviezel is entertainingly slimy as the governor, while Peter Fonda clearly enjoys his brief time riding tall in the saddle as the hard-nosed Johnson. However, Tommy Flanagan nearly steals the picture from Pullman, as the morally conflicted and profoundly haunted Marshall Harrah. It is a rich supporting turn, with range worthy of the frontier (but seriously, he ought to consider changing his name to Thomas or Tom, because there was only one Tommy Flanagan and he could play like this).

Clearly, just about everyone involved made the most of their opportunity to work a genuine western with an A-list cast, because Ballad looks just about perfect. Cinematographer David McFarland captures the sweep of the Montana plains and badlands and the design team gets all the period details right, in a Spartan kind of way, that never overshadows the grungy, archetypal drama. This is a film that people will definitely see over time, because there is a hunger out there for good westerns, like In a Valley of Violence and Slow West, but the target demo is naturally skeptical. Moshe’s film can hang with both those recent westerns, which is also saying something. Enthusiastically recommended, The Ballad of Lefty Brown opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the Village East.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

If You Can Screen It There: Plants

Graphic novels and manga can be helpful. During trying times, they can be a source of distraction, or perhaps even a forewarning of danger. A series about body-snatching sentient flora will at least provide the former to a moody fan girl in Roberto Doveris’s Plants (trailer here), which screens this Thursday as part of Anthology Film Archive’s ongoing series, If You Can Screen It There: Premiering Contemporary Latin American Cinema.

Florencia (Flor) is clearly going through a rough patch. Her brother Sebastián (Seba) rests at home, but persists in a vegetative state, while her mother is hospitalized with a potentially life-threatening illness. Her father lives abroad and remains intentionally out of touch, so the once-privileged family now faces desperate financial circumstances. Forced to let go their live-in nurse, Flor must care for her brother herself. On the positive side, this gives her carte blanche to cut class whenever she feels like it.

It is too bad Doveris is not really telling the story of the Las Plantas comic book-within-the-film, because it sounds like it would be a really cool riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He could also probably draw a fair degree of suspense out of the genre elements, judging from his simple but evocative handling of Flor’s dream sequences. Instead, he is more interested in teen angst—and boy is there plenty of that.

Before we go any further, it should be established Flor is seventeen-years-old, just like the kid in Call Me by Your Name and still a year shy of the Chilean age of consent. There is no question she is sexualized in Plants, but it is deliberately disturbing (rather than romanticized, as in Guadagnino’s film).

For the record, Argentine pop star Violeta Castillo is twenty-two years-old and truly remarkable as Flor. It is a bold performance, calibrated to discomfit viewers by punctuating her coy faux innocence with flashes of fierceness. Ironically, she receives the most effective support from Mauricio Vaca, who subtly suggests moments of pointed lucidity as the uncommunicative Seba. They both project hints of something dark and incestuous shared between the siblings.

Plants will leave viewers hungry for a sci-fi/horror film about parasitic vegetation. The audience should also be duly impressed by Castillo’s raw and gutsy screen debut. It probably has enough fandom references to have earned it considerable play at genre film festivals during past years, but not in the current, post-Kevin Spacey-Woody Allen climate. Recommended for edgy hipsters and Castillo’s fans, Plants screens this Thursday (12/14) at Anthology Film Archives, as part of If You Can Screen It There (but a lot of us might prefer to re-watch Little Shop of Horrors and Day of the Triffids instead).

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Saturday, December 09, 2017

AFI EU Showcase ’17: Pin Cushion

Aren’t you glad smart phones and social media weren’t around when you were in high school? Unfortunately, cyber-bullying isn’t even the worst of what the physically and emotionally awkward Iona endures from her false frienemies. She and her meek, hunchbacked mother Lyn were hoping for a new start in a new town, but the hostile welcome they receive will strain their formerly close relationship in Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion, which screens during the AFI’s 2017 European Union Film Showcase.

Iona and Lyn love birds and cats and stuff with lace and little cake things. Dad is out of the picture and never remarked on, so it is just them. Iona is eager to make friends, but through her imagination, she has visualized fast friendships that maybe aren’t so realistic. In fact, they leave her vulnerable to the predatory manipulations of Keeley, the queen bee of her class. Just for kicks, Keeley sets her up for a fall, leaving her a disgraced social pariah. Sadly, Lyn fares little better with her efforts to make friends among the snotty, rough-hewn neighbors.

Ugh, this is often a hard film to watch, especially in light of the horrific story of cyber-harassment that culminated in the suicide of adult actress August Ames, who committed the sin of opting out of a gig with an actor who also performs in gay videos (apparently, that side of the business has a reputation for less frequent testing, which her tormentors vehemently denied). It is a story that is crossing over into the mainstream, because it illustrates the soulless vindictiveness and supreme self-righteousness of the cyber-lynchers.

Now some of her trolls are trying to backpedal and claim they simply wanted to offer information to counter her misconceptions, but they were still piling on—and they had to know it. Their tone may have varied, but they wanted to make her feel shamed and alone. They succeeded. Human beings can only take so much. We can see both mother and daughter reaching that point in Pin Cushion, which is a harrowing spectacle to witness.

Joanna Scanlon is a well established British screen thesp (she was one of the best things about Ralph Fiennes’ just sort of okay The Invisible Woman), but her performance as Lyn is definitely something of a higher order. She is heartbreaking and exasperating, but ultimately quite unsettling. Likewise, Lily Newmark’s portrayal of Iona definitely tips her as an emerging talent to be reckoned with (like a young Saoirse Ronan). Frankly, Sacha Cordy-Nice also shows future potential star power, as her tormentor Keeley.

Haywood intriguingly uses fairy tale motifs throughout the film, but she takes it in a dark, Brothers Grimm direction. Yet, the human emotions and human cruelties are always very real. There are very light fantastical elements, mostly rooted in dreams, but this film definitely holds a mirror up to modern social norms and pathologies. That is why it stings. This is the kind of film that is riveting to watch once, but nobody will ever want to re-visit. Highly recommended for patrons of social issue films, Pin Cushion screens tomorrow (12/10) and Thursday (12/14), as part of the AFI’s annual EU Film Showcase.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

November Criminals: Lost in Translation from Page to Screen

When a film is produced based a novel, but instead of official key art, there’s just a forlorn looking “soon to be a major motion picture” burst on the cover, you know the poor marketing department had some awkward meetings with sales. That’s the case with Sam Munson’s teen novel, but his publisher probably isn’t missing out on much. Fans of the book are likely to be vocally disappointed in Sacha Gervasi’s adaptation of November Criminals (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In the book, Addison Schacht is a small-time pot dealer, who enjoys collecting Holocaust jokes, even though he is Jewish. In the film, he is a mopey sad sack, who is still grieving the sudden death of his mother. For kids who hadn’t read Catcher in the Rye, Schacht’s snarky, drug-addled voice really resonated, but it is entirely lost here. At least he still proceeds to investigate the murder of Kevin Broadus, a straight-laced African American classmate, whose death the lazy DC cops just write-off as a gang-related incident. However, as Schacht starts to snoop around, he realizes he maybe didn’t know Broadus as well as he thought he did. Of course, in the book, he would be the first to admit he hardly knew Broadus at all.

If you are going to remove everything edgy and distinctive about a book than why bother? You’re just setting everyone up for fan blowback. Instead, why not write a completely original, bland-as-cardboard screenplay about as shaggy dog high school student solving a friend’s murder? It is particularly disappointing that such an unremarkable time-waster was co-written by Steven Knight, the screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, as well as Locke and Redemption, which he also helmed. Surely, there must be a much more interesting draft sitting neglected on his hard-drive.

Ansel Elgort has been cast in some high-profile YA properties, so the media acts like he is a star, but he can’t prove it in November. Frankly, he seems to have the antidote for charisma. Spending extended time with whiny, grandstanding Schacht just becomes excruciatingly painful. Chloë Grace Moretz shows more signs of life as Phoebe, the platonic pal turned potential romantic interest, but there is not much she can do with the thinly sketched character. She too has been watered down from the source novel, in which she appears as “Digger,” Schacht’s friend-with-benefits. Ironically, the most fully developed performances come from David Strathairn as Schacht’s widowed father and Catherine Keener as Phoebe’s single mom Fiona.

The book uses Schacht’s college admittance essay as the narrative device framing the story, but in the film, he mails off his application in the first scene. Instead, the movie Schacht uses a video diary to express his feelings and establish the exposition, which is a nauseatingly tired cliché, post-Sex, Lies and Videotape. Still, you could argue it perfectly suits such a dull work of mediocrity. Not recommended, November Criminals opens today (12/8) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Other Worlds Austin ’17: Paleonaut (short)

Nicholas Sparks can’t top this message in a bottle. Scientists have developed a method of H.G. Wells-style time travel, so the first human test subject will travel back to the pre-historic era, hopefully to leave a message for the research team in the fossil records. Essentially, the time traveler will become the fossil. It was a mission Dr. Maria Lin volunteered for, but she might possibly start to develop feelings for the man chosen instead in Eric McEver’s short film Paleonaut (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival.

There might be a future in our past. If the so-called “Paleonaut” can successfully adapt to pre-human living conditions, it could open the door to colonization of the past, from the environmentally doomed near-future. Apparently, they are not worried about Butterfly Effects or Prime Directives, because desperate times call for desperate measures.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lin is too valuable as a team member to send her back in time, but Kai is pretty disposable. Indeed, he seems to have nothing tying him down to the present day. Yet, as the shy Dr. Lin trains the socially awkward Kai, they come to like and respect each other—and maybe even something more.

Any jerk who says science fiction cannot be emotionally engaging should watch Paleonaut and then grovel for forgiveness. It is a beautiful but finely nuanced film that suggests so much through hints and implications, yet it is epochal in its sweep. McEver takes a mammoth-sized big-picture-idea and examines it from a distinctly individual and intimate perspective.

Of course, he has a huge advantage in his remarkable lead, the uncannily expressive Tomoko Hayakawa, who can truly break your heart while lucidly explaining the principles of paleontology. Plus, she forges some acutely potent chemistry with Yasushi Takada’s Kai. He is also terrific and terrifically subtle portraying the standoffish Kai as he slowly comes out of his shell around her.

Paleonaut was shot on location at various Chinese research institutions and science museums, so it has a totally legit science fiction look. Genre fans will definitely respect its intelligence, but the central relationship makes Paleonaut accessible to anyone who enjoys a good tale of star-crossed romance. Very highly recommended, Paleonaut screens this Sunday (12/10) as part of the Scifi Shorts: Paradox of Choice programming block, at this year’s Other Worlds Austin. 

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Goth(ic): Vampire Hunter D

He stalks his prey in a post-apocalyptic landscape and his wardrobe is very High Plains Drifter, but you cannot get much more gothic than the protagonist of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s franchise of horror novels, manga, and anime. From the standpoint of the ancient vampire “Nobility,” he is a particularly dangerous hunter, because as a half-human, half-vampire dhampir, he is practically one of them. In fact, he has quite an illustrious lineage, but that will only be hinted at in Toyoo Ashida’s anime feature Vampire Hunter D (trailer here), which screens as part of the ongoing Goth(ic) film series at the Metrograph.

It is the year 12,090 AD and humanity is not doing great. The spawn of the few humans who survived the nuclear Armageddon live under the heel of the undead Nobility, who trace their blood line back to Dracula himself. Ten thousand-year-old Count Magnus Lee is especially powerful, but he is prone to boredom, so he decides to take pretty young orphan Doris Lang as his bride. Having marked her with his fangs, he leaves her to twist in the wind for a while, but she manages to recruit “D” to hunt the Count and hopefully free her of his influence.

Naturally, the town shuns Lang and her young brother when they learn she is marked, except for Greco Roman, the lecherous son of the sheriff, who hopes to exploit her condition. (The jerky Roman is suspiciously like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, but he predates the Disney character by six years.) D is a tough customer, but he rather rashly lets the Count’s various mutants and familiars get the drop on him. Fortunately, he is supernaturally difficult to kill.

Hunter D was one of the first successful crossover anime films and it still holds up quite well, even though subsequent mature anime releases dramatically upped the ante in terms of violence and supernatural horror. Watching it thirty-some years later is like going back to basics. Anti-heroic good dukes it out with arrogant evil in a savage wasteland that really feels very 1980s, in a good way. Plus, longtime illustrator Yoshitaka Amano’s design work is truly archetypally iconic. Frankly, you will recognize D, even if you are completely unfamiliar with the franchise.

Ashida maintains a brisk pace, showcasing a number of pleasantly gory fight scenes. Screenwriter Yasushi Hirano’s adaptation of Kikuchi’s first novel hits enough traditional vampire bases to satisfy western audiences, while introducing a good deal of the distinctive series mythology. Yes, there is even some brief fan service for horny teens.

There are western and science fiction elements in Hunter D, but it is still a natural fit for a gothic film series. Those blood moons and creepy castles still set quite the macabre mood. Nostalgically recommended for anime, horror, and spaghetti western fans, Vampire Hunter D screens twice tomorrow (12/8) as part of Goth(ic) at the Metrograph.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Other Worlds Austin ’17: Three Skeleton Key (short)

It was one of Vincent Price’s most popular roles in the early 1950s, but he only performed it on radio. At the height of its fame, French author George G. Toudouze’s Esquire-published short story failed to make the transition to film or television, probably because the hordes of killer rats were too difficult to render properly on screen. However, Andrew Hamer proves it can be done in 2017. There will be rats in his short film, Three Skeleton Key (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival.

The remote lighthouse is literally welded to a narrow key that becomes entirely submerged in water during high tide. The surrounding waters are shark infested and the supply boat only comes once every three weeks. Its sole purpose is to keep boats off the rocks, but most vessels have the good sense to avoid the rugged stretch of coastline. However, nobody is navigating the derelict craft about to founder on the reef—for good reason. It has been commandeered by throngs of flesh-eating rats.

These are ships rats, the kind that do not drown. Having reached the rocky outcroppings, they will swarm onto the key and over the sealed lighthouse. With no relief scheduled to arrive for weeks, the weary light-keepers must hope and pray the door and windows will hold up against the scurrying masses.

Hamer’s film basically teases what presumably could become a full feature film treatment. Logically, he does not give away the store when it comes to swarming rats, but he still shows how realistic and scary they can look. He also makes a few changes from the original story and radio plays. Instead of the French Guyana coast, it is now set along a desolate stretch of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, which probably gives it more commercial appeal, but it makes it harder to accept the lighthouse’s extreme isolation.

What does work is complicated friendship between the white Terry Driscoll and the much-abused African American Andre Rolle, the two laborers on the lighthouse crew (memorably played by Robert Fleet and Dan White, respectively). It is definitely not a simplistic buddy relationship, but they are the kind of salt of the earth who will presumably rise to the occasion when the tower is overrun with vermin.

Hamer’s Key is loaded with atmosphere and first-rate period details. In a mere ten minutes, he rather impressively establishes a claustrophobic vibe and an ominous sense of foreboding. It is definitely Poe-like in that respect, but fans of the Vincent Price productions will miss the taciturn Basque boss Louis, and the high-strung Auguste, whose self-destruction was predetermined by their respective character flaws.

Although Toudouze’s 1937 story is still used as an example of a suspenseful tale in primary English classes here and there, it has largely receded from the popular consciousness, which is why it is so cool to see Hamer revive it. It would be great if the short led to a full feature adaptation. Regardless, the short film version we have now gives viewers a good taste of mid-Twentieth Century macabre. Recommended for horror fans, Three Skeleton Key screens this Saturday (12/9) as part of the Under World Shorts—Evil This Side of the Door programming block at this year’s Other Worlds Austin.

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Bullet Head: Dogs and Robbers

This dog definitely has a purpose—to bite your face off. He was trained to be a killer, but he exceeded his handler’s expectations. Now he is roaming the decrepit warehouse where a trio of hard luck thieves hope to regroup and lay low after pulling their latest job. Good luck with that. The killer dog movie gets a gangster twist in Paul Solet’s Bullet Head (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

We can have confidence in a jaded old crook played by John Malkovich. That is less true for his younger but nearly as jaded associate portrayed by Adrien Brody, but we can give him the benefit of the doubt. However, we assume the worst about their junky accomplice, with good reason—he is played by Rory Culkin. They have holed up in a squalid former warehouse, waiting for their getaway ride, but they are not alone. Cujo is also roaming the halls, but he was known as DeNiro during his dog-fighting days. His trained assumed those days were over after a particularly nasty battle royale, but he assumed wrong—fatally wrong.

The larcenous trio mostly concentrate on eluding the homicidal pooch, which does indeed require their full efforts. However, they eventually come to realize he is part of a particularly evil criminal enterprise, whose mastermind will most likely be returning sometime soon, to look for his now dead accomplice and the bag full of money from the last fight.

Solet’s feature debut Grace was weirdly over-hyped, but his follow-up release Dark Summer and his contribution to the anthology film Tales of Halloween were quite sly and pleasingly sinister. He shows even greater range this time around, mashing up horror and Elmore Leonard-esque crime elements into a hybrid that defies all expectations.

Of course, Solet has Malkovich doing Malkovich, which is a rock-solid foundation to build on. This is a weirdly discursive film, featuring several stories within the main narrative, but that definitely plays to Malkovich’s let-me-tell-you-a-thing-or-two strengths. Brody’s hound dog face also works well in the context of the film. In contrast, we just want to give Culkin a good slapping, but that is how we are supposed to feel about him. Plus, Antonio Banderas is absolutely not fooling around as the all-business, seriously malevolent dog-fighting gangster. He is hardcore, for real.

At this point, the combination of Banderas and Brody might suggest straight-to-DVD retro cash-ins, but Bullet Head is a straight-up good movie. It also suggests Banderas is a dog who can learn new tricks, while Malkovich’s old tricks are still just as entertaining as they have always been. Highly recommended for fans of heart-warming dog movies, like The Pack and White Dog, Bullet Head opens this Friday (12/8) in New York, at the Village East.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Fast Convoy: They Get Pretty Furious

The cars are sleek and the scenery is picturesque, but this job still isn’t worth it. The four-car convoy is ferrying a load of marijuana from Spain into France, but the whole operation goes down twisted right from the very start. Imad insists they left together, so they will arrive together too, but none of the other smugglers really believe him in Frédéric Schoendoerffer’s super-slick Fast Convoy (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

The convoy is not on the road long before Majid looks in the backseat and sees the drug kingpin included a bonus duffle bag fill of cocaine. If caught, they would potentially face ten times more prison time, spurring the family man to have a conniption fit. Ironically, his freak out contributes to the initial mishap that leads to far worse trouble. Soon bullets fly and an innocent motorist is taken hostage. Yet, it is not the cops the drug-runners are really worried about. It is the mystery driver the admittedly paranoid Yacine is convinced is following them.

Obviously, Convoy has plenty of car chase action, but what really makes it work is the complicated dynamics between the well-differentiated crew-members. If the gang has organizational charts, the manipulative Imad would certainly be at the top, but strong, silent Alex, their Winston Wolf figure, clearly has operational control when the smack hits the fan. You can tell he’s bad, because he gets the Porsche. Even their hostage Nadia starts to dig him, which is admittedly problematic, but this is a French film, so what can we expect?

Regardless, Schoendoerffer’s high-performance execution powers through any politically correct objections, building to a crescendo of violence worthy of vintage 1980s Hong Kong action spectacles. This is a lethally effective auto smash-up that calls shenanigans on the Fast and Furious franchise’s bogus “family” talk.

Benoît Magimel is ultra-cool and uber-hardnosed as Alex. He just has instant cred as the fixer, which continuously deepens and compounds. Tewfik Jallab and Amir El Kacem are all kinds of intense and jittery as Imad and Yacine, while Léon Garel doubles down on the edgy, Tarantino-esque humor as Rémi, the prospective Muslim convert.

This is the sort of film that just flies by. Schoendoerffer definitely knows how to stage a car crash and a shoot-out. Yet, Convoy is quite well crafted beyond the stunt work and pyrotechnics, particularly Vincent Gallot’s stylish cinematography, which evokes the look and vibe of Michael Mann and Luc Besson fan favorites. Very highly recommended for action connoisseurs, Fast Convoy is now available on VOD platforms, from Under the Milky Way.

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The Gatehouse: The Perils of Ghostwriting

Where’s David Ritz when you need him? Jack Winter had a bad feeling about the ghostwriting gig his agent offered him, but he took it anyway, because he is short on money and responsibility. As he digs deeper into the occult legends of the English countryside, he will endanger his bratty daughter Eternity. Instead of a Green Man, it is a Horned Man who haunts the woods and the Winter family in Martin Gooch’s The Gatehouse (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Ever since the accidental drowning death of his wife Eloise, Jack Winter has been struggling with depression. He also has a hard time paying the bills and getting Eternity to school on time. In a misguided effort to help, Eternity has become obsessed with digging for buried treasure. It sounds harmless enough, until Winter starts researching the so-called “black flowers,” for the book he agrees to finish. Evelyn Eldritch (a Lovecraftian name if ever there was one) was obsessed with the mythical hidden talismans that supposedly protect the forest from human interlopers and went mad as a hatter before he could finish the third book in his trilogy.

It seems the Horned Man, the forest’s sinister guardian, is out to recover the missing black flowers and he will suck the life out of any mere mortal that gets in his way. Unfortunately, good old Jack is a bit slow on the up-take, even with the spirit of his late wife working overtime sending him and Eternity warnings in their dreams.

Gatehouse is not exactly perfect, but it is still rather refreshing to watch a creaky throwback British supernatural yarn. Frankly, the film does not have a lot of effects beyond the hazy, out-of-focus shots of the Horned Man, but that combined with its literate, archetypal paranormal details evoke fond memories of vintage 1970s and 1980s BBC productions.

Simeon Willis is suitably rumpled as poor Jack Winter, but a little of Scarlett Rayner’s obnoxious Eternity goes a long way. Fortunately, as the mysterious neighbor Algernon Sykes, Linal Haft chews the scenery like an old school Hammer Horror pro. Game of Thrones alumnus Hannah Waddington also an espresso shot of attitude as Winter’s caustic literary agent.

If you only watch one or two horror films a year, Gatehouse probably should not be one of them, but for genre fans it offers plenty of nostalgic enjoyment. Recommended for those appreciate its gothic influences, The Gatehouse is now available on VOD platforms, from Uncork’d Entertainment.

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Singularity: John Cusack Hates People

It represents the maybe not so theoretical point at which artificial intelligence surpasses the old fashioned human variety. The implications for humanity are pretty scary, but at least the exponentially upgrading AI would not make a moronic movie like this. Mankind is done for, but we only have ourselves and John Cusack to blame in Robert Kouba’s Singularity (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Robotics industrialist Elias Van Dorne is about to solve the world’s problems by switching on Kronos, a supposedly utopian AI program. Unfortunately, Kronos immediately decides the only thing wrong with the world is all the people, so it naturally begins exterminating all us pesky buggers. You would think a genius like Van Dorne would have seen that one coming. Actually, he sort of did. That is why he took the precaution of uploading his consciousness and that of his craggy associate Damien Walsh into the Matrix, or whatever.

Ninety-seven years later, the Van Dorne and Walsh analogs oversee the hunt for the remaining human remnants. When we last saw Andrew Davis, he was returning from a visit to his mother on Armageddon day, wondering why he didn’t have more chances to direct films after he was nominated for The Fugitive. Consequently, he is quite confused to wake up in the post-apocalyptic Czech countryside.

Thanks to the hybrid AI programs’ exposition heavy chit chat, we quickly realize he is a trojan horse they have developed. The idea is he will hook up with the Hunger Games wannabe Calia, who will lead them all to the fabled human refuge, Aurora. For some reason, she thinks a crossbow is the best weapon to use against hunter-robots (maybe she found it in the crossbow range on the grounds of Prague Castle). She is not inclined to trust, but Van Dorne 2.0 was fiendishly clever, endowing Davis with a moral compass and free will, making it a lead pipe cinch he will win Calia over.

Kouba tries to dress the film up with some big concepts in Singularity, but it is still dumber than a bag full of hammers. No wonder mankind is so perilously close to extinction—intuition has completely disappeared. It also represents a new nadir in John Cusack’s current string of straight-to-DVD or “excuse-me” stealth theatrical releases. Reportedly, he shot his evil digital overlord scenes years after the rest of the film was in the can.

Cusack’s screen time might be brief, but he is still awful as Van Dorne, not that he has much to work with. The character might have been somewhat provocative is he were some kind of over-population worrywart, like Warren Buffet, but there is no real reason provided for his apocalyptic betrayal of humanity. As Davis, Julian Schaffner looks like he could fly off with a strong gust of wind. Veteran character actor Carmen Argenziano looks visibly bored as the Walsh digital-construct, but can you blame him? Only Jeannine Wacker’s Calia/Katniss shows any signs of life, but it definitely comes in a losing effort.

The maddening lack of resolution is obviously designed to spur enthusiasm for the intended epic space opera follow-ups, but it is hard to imagine anyone who watches Singularity will be eager to come back for more. That’s what happens when you do not concentrate on the task at hand. Not recommended, Singularity releases today on DVD.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

I, Tonya: We Remember Like it was Just Yesterday

Is it even possible that the major networks and newspapers reporting on a national news story could be considered superficial, and Heavens forbid, perhaps a tad bit biased? Take for instance the case of the world’s most notorious figure skater. Tonya Harding had the misfortune of living through a scandal that broke just as the TV media converted to a 24-hour news cycle, but before the rise of alternate internet outlet gave controversial figures a means of by-passing the media gatekeepers. They decided we were going to hate her, so we did. At least, that is how Harding sees it and it is hard to argue with her after watching Craig Gillespie’s gutsy mock-doc-bio-pic, I, Tonya (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Nancy Kerrigan got whacked on the knee. That much is definitely true. She was the victim and she deserved the outpouring of sympathy she received, but Gillespie does not have much time for her. Harding is the one who interests him. We should probably still hold off on the canonization, but it is impossible not to sympathize with her after listening to her mean-as-a-snake mother LaVona Golden spout bile for five seconds.

Structured as a documentary, Gillespie has his cast recreate actual interviews he conducted with the living principle characters, while dramatizing her Harding’s rags-to-prison jumpsuit story. Her talent on the ice was immediate right from an early age, but she came from mean circumstances, so her clothes were always a little tacky and her manners were coarse. She was “white trash,” so the sports media and figure skating establishment stacked the deck against her, but she had a trump card: the triple axel, which Harding could land on a good day, but almost no other skater had the fortitude to even attempt.

So, if she had all that talent, why the attack on Kerrigan? It’s complicated, especially when it comes to assigning culpability. Gillespie does not let Harding off the hook, but it is safe to say her biggest mistake was surrounding herself with idiots, like her ex-husband and his bumbling best friend, Shawn Eckhardt. She helped plan something, but it seems she thought it would be more akin to the kind of psychological warfare she herself had faced. Or so we conclude from what Gillespie presents.

Harding may have been guilty of something, but we see her pay for it one hundred times over. It is clear nobody wanted to listen to her side of the story, especially not the media. In fact, they are the real villains, as a Mephistophelean Hard Copy producer played by Bobby Cannavale gleefully admits. In what might be the movie line of the year, he chortles: “the rest of the media used to look down on us—and then they became us.”

It just becomes blindingly obvious Harding could never catch a break. Yet, she could also be her own worst enemy. Indeed, I, Tonya is so wryly funny, because observations of incisive clarity alternate fast-and-furious with dumbfounding moments of un-self-aware denial. Human nature is a messy phenomenon, to which Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers hold up a withering mirror.

Still, it is impossible to overstate the credit due to Margot Robbie and Allison Janney for doing the seemingly impossible: making us feel for Harding. This is a Robbie her fans have never seen before. Somehow, she manages to “overcome” her supermodel bone structure and ground herself in Harding’s hardscrabble, resentment-fueling reality. However, even she pales next to Janney’s harrowing portrayal of Mother LaVona. Imagine Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, but with restraint and an acid-tipped tongue that would make Ambrose Bierce wince and you start to get the idea. Ordinarily, she would be a sure-fire can’t-miss Oscar lock, but this year all bets are off.

Frankly, I, Tonya inspires a singularly unique emotional response. Viewers will laugh heartily at the decidedly dark humor, but they will also experience pangs of guilt for uncritically accepting the media’s demonization of Harding. She is a sinner, not a saint, but she has more in common with average, hard-working Americans than the self-appointed media paragons of virtue, such as Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, David Corn, and Matt Lauer.

If you remember when the scandal broke, the film takes you right back there, but it lifts the curtain to reveal the untidy pre-determined-narrative-challenging details we missed at the time. Very highly recommended, I, Tonya opens this Friday (12/8) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown.

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Hollow in the Land: Working Class Canadian Noir

There are two kinds of thrillers, the tony kind that pit rivals against each other for inheritances and swiss bank accounts, and the grungy sort, whose characters kill one another for spite and pocket change. This is the latter kind. In Castlegar, BC, everyone knows who Allison Miller is—and boy is it ever a drag. However, she will fight like a wolverine to protect her punky brother in Scooter Corkle’s Hollow in the Land (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Miller’s father Keith was notorious even before he drunkenly plowed down the teen son of the wealthiest family in town. Rather awkwardly, she still works at the mill they own. With their mother long gone, Allison must assume head-of-household responsibilities, but her delinquent younger brother Brandon does not make it easier. As a kicker, she also faces provincial prejudices for her lesbian relationship with the divorced and often harassed mother of Brandon’s girlfriend, Sophie Hinters.

Evidently, the thuggish Earl Hinters violently interrupted Brandon and Sophie in a moment of intimacy, so Miller’s brother inevitably becomes the prime suspect in old man Hinters’ subsequent murder. Knowing his family history is stacked against him, Brandon takes to the wind, leaving Allison to try to make sense of the case. Despite the sheriff’s attempts to intimidate her, she quickly discovers another mystery person was present that fateful night—most likely the same person who phoned the tip to Hinters, bringing him out there to his death.

Hollow is solidly effective small-town thriller that also incorporates quite a bit of social realism. Castlegar looks wonderfully picturesque if you run an internet image search, but Corkle paints a decidedly grimmer picture. Regardless, he makes us feel how completely alone Miller is, on a direct and personal level.

Dianna Agron is hardly an unknown quantity due her television credits, but her work in Hollow will earn her some second looks and second thoughts. She is terrific as the weary, somewhat self-destructive blue-collar protagonist. She carries the picture and stands her ground, despite fearlessly depicting Miller’s myriad faults and weaknesses. In contrast, most viewers would be unable to pick out the actor who plays Brother Brandon (or most of the other unsavory dudes) out of line-up, half an hour after watching Hollow. Oddly enough, one of the supporting players who really registers is Jessica McLeod, who plays Freya, a reluctant witness to related shenanigans—a significant role, but one with relatively limited screen time.

Hollow does not exactly break new ground, but its grit and guts are compelling. Norm Li’s coldly severe cinematography dramatically accentuates Miller’s social alienation and the physical isolation of the surrounding landscape. It is not quite on a level with Wind River, but it is still a good film. Recommended for fans of naturalistic thrillers, Hollow in the Land opens this Friday (12/8) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


GPIFF ’17: The Story of 90 Coins (short)

According to the Beatles, money can’t buy love, but one lovelorn man nearly pulls it off with a mere nine dollars. Oh, but in love, coming close can hurt like heck. Malaysian-born, Beijing-based filmmaker Michael Wong chronicles the bittersweet romance of an obscenely attractive couple in the short film, The Story of 90 Coins, which screens during the 2017 Golden Panda International Film Festival in Vancouver.

After Wang Yuyang confesses his love to Chen Wen, she basically replies she just isn’t feeling it for him. However, the intrepid Wang will not be deterred. He makes her a deal. They will continue to see each other for the next ninety days. At the end of each night, he will give her a coin, which will amount to nine dollars at the end of their allotted time. On that night, they will take the pot and either purchase a marriage license or buy goodbye drinks at food cart where they first met.

Lo and behold, Wang’s plan actually works—at least to an extent. Chen Wen duly falls for the romantic nature of his scheme, yet something probably goes wrong along or the way, or we wouldn’t be using terms like “bittersweet” to describe 90 Coins.

90 Coins is a heck of an impressive debut. Throughout the film, Wong displays a sensitive touch on the helm and a genuine knack for compressed story-telling. Both Han Dongjun and Zhuang Zhiqi give achingly romantic, messily human performances, while looking totally real together. Somewhat ironically, we sort of assume this is Wang’s story, since he is doing the proactive wooing, but the final dramatic dismount is left to Zhuang, who totally nails it.

This is the kind of film that will massively resonate with everyone who has loved and lost, which has to be just about everybody, right? Frankly, the music is a bit treacly (something more Bill Evans-ish really would have been a master-touch), but it will probably still work for most viewers who don’t obsess over soundtrack choices. Regardless, The Story of 90 Coins is a truly lovely short film that eloquently expresses some universal feelings. Highly recommended, it screens this Wednesday (12/6), as part of Shorts Programme 4 at Golden Panda International Film Festival in Vancouver.

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

Alien Invasion: S.U.M.1

If you want to maintain military discipline during a near future dystopian alien invasion, maybe you shouldn’t name the dreaded buggers after a respected world music label. Frankly, calling them “The Nonesuch” is just an open invitation to disbelief. Stress and isolation will drive one sentry to do exactly that in Christian Pasquariello’s English language, Christian Alvart-produced Alien Invasion: S.U.M.1 (trailer here), which is now playing in Los Angeles.

S.U.M.1 never left the underground warrens where humanity has been forced to retreat, until he accepts a 100-day posting to the Cerberus watchtower along the defensive perimeter. Obviously, there are not a lot of proper names in this film, but the ones it has are loaded with symbolism. So far Summy knows the Maginot Line is holding, because his wrist sensor tells him so, but he doesn’t find that any more credible than we do.

Boredom quickly sets in when you’re only company is a white mouse S.U.M.1 names “Doc.” In addition to craziness, paranoia also sets in when the base commander dismisses his reports of a strange something hiding in the forest. A freak power outage really sets him on edge. HQ promises to dispatch a Mac to investigate, but you know how these IT guys act. They always show up late and then condescendingly assume you are just a moron with a loose cable connection.

S.U.M.1 is often visually striking, but Pasquariello the screenwriter does not do many favors for Pasquariello the director by making monotony and isolation so integral to his screenplay. He uses the passage of S.U.M.1’s hundred days as a narrative device, but viewers start to feel like they are living through each blessed day. However, he deftly uses the power of mystery and suggestion to keep the audience off-balance. Perhaps there really is a “wolf” in the woods or is he just plain nuts, or maybe both?

The Welsh Iwan Rheon looks sufficiently twitchy and Teutonic as S.U.M.1. We can definitely believe he is going crazy, or not. André Hennicke (who was so chilling in The Peculiar Abilities of Mr. Mahler, which is probably the best short film of the year) is spectacularly sleazy and utterly destabilizing as the Mac. Yet, you could argue production designer Thomas Stammer, art director Lasse Babilas, and their respective artisans are the real stars.

The Tower of Cerberus could very well evoke bad memories for many Germans, but it would be a mistake to force allegorical readings unto this film. It is really just a science fiction one-and-a-half-hander (because two-hander would overstate Hennicke’s screen time). Technically accomplished, but by no means shocking or essential, Alien Invasion: S.U.M.1 is now playing in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinelounge.

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Saturday, December 02, 2017

24 Hours to Live: Ethan Hawke Gets an Extension

Travis Conrad is a bit like Edmond O’Brien in D.O.A., except he knows exactly who killed him and why. Frankly, he would be the first to admit he had it coming, so when his shadowy employers give him a brief extension, he will ironically spend it protecting the Interpol agent who shot him dead. Redemption better not dally in Brian Smrz’s 24 Hours to Live (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Even though he still grieves for his wife and little boy, Conrad agrees to come back and do one last assignment for the Red Mountain merc agency. They are offering two million very good reasons. The job is to rub out a former operative turning state’s evidence in South Africa, but Lin Bisset, his Hong Kong-based Interpol handler has proved unusually resourceful thus far. Conrad tries to get to the target through Bisset, but he just cannot stomach killing the single mother, so she does him instead.

However, mean old Wetzler at Red Mountain secretly funded a project to bring back the recently deceased for twenty-four hours. The plan was to revive Conrad, extract the safe house location, and then put him down again, but the groggy assassin goes rogue before they can get to the third step. Rather disappointed in his colleagues, Conrad decides to protect the understandably distrustful Bisset and her witness, as a means of getting a little payback for the crummy things Red Mountain did to him.

So yes, Ethan Hawke sort of plays a zombie as Conrad, the dead man walking. Be that as it may, Smrz downplays any possible science fiction or horror angles, doubling down on action instead. Indeed, this definitely looks like a film helmed by a longtime stunt-performer, which it is. There is no nauseating shaky-cam to endure. His fight scenes and shoot-outs are crisply and clearly executed.

Hawke is decently hardboiled, but Xu Qing (a.k.a. Summer Qing) really emerges as the action star. As Bisset, she demonstrates impressive dramatic and action chops. We really pull for her rather than Conrad. Usually Liam Cunningham makes a reliably flamboyantly villain, but he sacks off a bit as Wetzler. On the other hand, Paul Anderson really makes things interesting playing the morally conflicted Jim Morrow, Conrad’s supposed friend and former supervisor. Rutger Hauer is mostly misused and under-employed as Conrad’s genial father-in-law, but at least he has a nice Hobo-with-a-shotgun moment.

Believe it or not, 24HTL is way better than you think it is. Granted, this is probably much more of a VOD release than a theatrical happening, but as a working-class action film, it has its merits. Smrz definitely knows what he is doing, while Xu and Anderson elevate the whole show. Recommended for action fans, 24 Hours to Live is now playing in New York, at the Village East.

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ADIFF ’17: Paris Noir

James Reese Europe and Eugene Bullard fought hard and they swung hard. The early jazz musicians’ service during WWI earned them medals for bravery, but they were bestowed by the French military, because the American forces would not allow African Americans in combat divisions. Understandably, Bullard decided to stay longer in the comparatively more tolerant France, becoming a leader of the expatriate community in Montmartre. Director-editor-co-producer Joanne Burke and screenwriter-co-producer-companion-book-author David Burke survey that still influential artistic and musical expat scene in Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Fittingly, the Burkes’ doc starts with Europe, whose Harlem Hellfighters were quickly celebrated by the French citizenry for their syncopated marching music and their ferocious courage on the battlefield. Such a warm welcome was duly remarked upon in letters home and subsequently reported in the African American press. Not so surprisingly, many African American servicemen opted to stay in France, and many more joined them later as expatriates.

The Burkes earn a great deal of credit for devoting a fair amount of time to the criminally under-heralded Bullard, one of our true national heroes. On the other hand, they also fully address the great Sidney Bechet’s notoriously rowdy stay in-country (as in bullets flying—into bystanders), which presents a somewhat different side to the story. They also give Ada “Bricktop” Smith and a certain dancer by the name of Josephine Baker the attention they deserve, which definitely tilts the focus of the film towards music, but who would have it any other way? (It also makes you wonder why nobody has thought to produce a narrative film dramatizing Baker’s WWII years as a spy for the Free French.)

Still, there is some interesting discussion of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay, who was one of the few expatriates willing to criticize his French hosts for their imperialism and nativist trade unions in the novel Banjo. We also see some striking art produced by African American artists, many of whom were exploring their African heritage for the first time.

The one-hour Paris Noir feels a bit like a PBS special, but it is stuffed with informative culturally history and moves along at a brisk clip. Frankly, any film that features Bechet, Bullard, and Europe deserves to be seen by the masses. Highly recommended, especially for students, Paris Noir screens tomorrow afternoon (12/3) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

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Friday, December 01, 2017

Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao: Women Are Born Twice

There were no pension plans or 401Ks for geishas and teahouse prostitutes in post-war Japan. Fortunately, Koen has one loyal patrons and plenty of other regular customers. It’s a living. In fact, she lives relatively free of regret and self-pity in Yuzo Kawashima’s Women Are Born Twice (a.k.a. A Geisha’s Diary), which screens as part of Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao, the Japan Society’s series of newly 4K-restored Kawashima films, starring the great Wakao.

Koen presents herself as a geisha, but there is little doubt how each night will end. It really is just a job to her, but Kiyomasa Tsutsui is special. The older gentleman is somewhat jealous of her legit lovers, but she always grants him top priority. Frankly, she is probably the top-earner in her house, but she still flirts with other men.

In one scene heavy with irony, Koen visits the controversial Yasukuni shrine with earnest young fellow from the neighborhood, feeling at peace there, even though it is not open to civilian bombing victims like her parents, just military personnel killed in action (including alleged war criminals). Indeed, Koen has a lot of reasons to be bitter, but she is practically Holly Golightly (who also hit movie screens in the same year, 1961).

Born Twice is extremely episodic. Men enter and exit Koen’s life without establishing themselves or getting a call-back, but that is how life is. It is really more about how she starts to assert greater control over her life, but it is a slow and subtle development. Yet, it doesn’t really matter, because Koen is such an irrepressibly resilient character to spend time with.

Wakao’s Koen is a complex, multidimensional, acutely human figure. She is also deeply vulnerable and stunningly luminous. Somehow, she develops a unique rapport with her dozen or so male co-stars, even the ones whose characters quickly washout. In many ways, her performance ranks up there with the incomparable Hideko Takamine in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (in which Takamine’s bar-owning Keiko Mama-san is marginally more respectable, but is forced to assume exponentially more debt).

Kawashima & co-screenwriter Toshiro Ide’s adaptation of Tsuneo Tomita’s novel does not follow along an orderly straight line, but viewers will certainly feel like they have lived a lot of life with Koen by the time it reaches its conclusion. Any film that makes that kind of emotional connection should be savored. Very highly recommended, Women Are Born Twice screens this Saturday (12/2) and Sunday (12/3) at the Japan Society, as part of the Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao mini-retrospective.

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