J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Gemma Bovery: What’s in a Name?

Gustave Flaubert was an exacting writer who often spent days perfecting a handful of lines, making him a fitting literary idol for a fussbudget like Martin Joubert. As a result, when an English woman named Gemma Bovery (mind the “g” and the “e”) moves to his Rouen village, he quickly fixates on her similarity with Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Her curviness does not exactly dampen his interest either. Literary obsession will have comedic and tragic implications in Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Joubert was once a miserable editor for a Parisian publishing house, but he has been much happier since he returned to Normandy to take over the family bakery—up until now. It was Charlie Bovery’s idea to move to France. Even though his somewhat younger wife Gemma does not speak French, the antiques restorer thought the charms of provincial life would be a healthier environment for them. However, as Joubert immediately suspects, small town life is rather stifling for the passionate namesake.

As part narrator and part Iago, we watch the story unfold through Joubert’s jealous eyes. He is perfectly positioned for spying, since the Boverys moved in right across the street from the Jouberts. Despite his obvious infatuation, the curt Valérie Joubert is not particularly concerned about anything happening between them, for obvious reasons. However, when Bovery commences an illicit affair with the shiftless son of the wealthy Madame de Bressigny, Joubert’s rash petulance will set in motion an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable series of events.

With her adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel (with co-screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer), Fontaine completely redeems herself for the cringing smarminess of Adore. This is a wickedly droll film that saunters towards its sad end with a strangely carefree but knowing vibe. Frankly, the final ten or fifteen minutes are just about brilliant.

Of course, Fabrice Luchini is perfectly at home with Martin Joubert’s literate humor and angst-ridden yearning. He plays a darkly comic figure, but one that is dashed easy to relate to. Frankly, someone like Film Forum or MoMA ought to program an overdue retrospective of his films. Gemma Arterton alos brings an earthy sensuality to the film as Bovery and earns credit for her diligence learning French. Yet, one of the film’s most notable surprises is Jason Flemyng’s dignified, humanistic portrayal of Charlie Bovery, who is quite the far cry from the put-upon cartographer of the recent chaotic Russian maelstrom that is Forbidden Empire.

Although Fontaine’s film certainly has a smart sensibility, it is never too clever for its own good. Its sly literary parallels, allusions, and foreshadowing emerge organically from a wholly satisfying narrative. There is not one scene that feels forced (but there are plenty of times Joubert will have viewers wincing at his recklessness). Very highly recommended for fans of French cinema and French literature, Gemma Bovery opens this Friday (5/29) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine theaters.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Fandor Celebrates Welles: Around the World

Only Orson Welles cold win a Peabody for a television pilot that never went to series. That would be The Fountain of Youth, produced by Desi Arnaz. As he did in film, Welles burned TV bridges on both sides of the Atlantic. At least six episodes of his British travel series were produced and eventually aired on the fledgling ITV. Twenty-six had been commissioned, but they were probably lucky to get what they got, for reasons Welles fans know only too well. Little seen at the time of their original broadcast, all six episodes are now available for streaming as part of Fandor’s Orson Welles collection, assembled in celebration of the filmmaker’s centennial.

Orson Welles will be our host, as well as the director and primary cameraman and editor. You might pick up a little something about each port of call, but the series will never replace your Fodor’s or Let’s Go. It’s all about Welles, but isn’t it always?

The first episode assembled into the Around the World super-cut is probably the most Wellesian. It is here in Basque Country that we most often see his dynamic sense of composition. Of course, it is hardly surprising Welles was inspired by the locals’ defiant refusal to quietly conform to either France or Spain. He also clearly had a great deal of affection for his appointed translator, Chris Wertenbaker, the young son of his recently deceased friend, Time foreign correspondent Charles Wertenbaker.

If you were charmed the first “Pays Basques I” than hopefully you will also will also enjoy the network-edited “Pays Basques II,” which includes the same intro and conclusion, but comes with a lot more Pelote (the Basque game related to Jai alai) in between. Still, Welles’ easy rapport with Wertenbaker and all the little moppet Pelote prodigies is quite engaging.

Probably the one episode most likely to disappoint is “Return to Vienna.” By its very title, it promises to revisit the memorable backdrops of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, but Welles spends most of his time in the city’s elite pastry shop. Evidently that was what he most remembered from his time in Vienna. Still, it is nice to be able to finally see it for ourselves. Like many works of Welles marginalia, “Return” was presumed lost for years.

Continuing on to Paris, Around gets a bit impressionistic with “St.-Germain-des-Prés.” Welles spends a lot of time wordlessly panning the streets of the Left Bank hipster enclave. A lot of famous French intellectuals, including Jean Cocteau and Juliette Gréco make cameo appearances, but Welles only talks at length with Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s sandal making, Greek tunic-wearing brother. He and Welles get on pretty well too.

In one sense, Welles was really phoning in the London episode, since he spends half the episode talking to the widows living in the Anglican charity houses next door to theater where he was mounting his ill-fated production of Moby Dick—Rehearsed. On the other hand, that old Welles charm really comes through as he flirts with his eighty and ninety year old neighbors, all whom declared themselves to be “true blue” Tories, who must be besides themselves with glee up in Heaven watching the pasting David Cameron just laid on Ed Millibrand. For the second half of the show, Welles knocks back a few pints with a few of retired soldiers living in the Royal Hospital Chelsea (hospital in this case meaning a place of hospitality). Again, the old salty dogs appreciate Welles’ good fellowship (and his hollow leg).

For the bullfight report in Madrid, Welles enlists Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy as surrogate hosts. She is relatively relaxed, but he had no business being on camera at this point in his career. As was always the case, Welles’ commentary was recorded after the fact. In some cases, it certainly looks like he took advantage of the opportunity make contentions his guests never had a chance to refute (but he always seems to faithfully represent his conversations with the pensioners). With only one camera, this was sort of a necessity. Still, what could be considered highly problematic liberty-taking for anyone else, comes across as Welles’ likable roguishness here.

Frankly, there is always room for more Orson Welles projects in the world, especially those that are more or less finished. With Around we can see Welles start to understand being Orson Welles was a form of performance art in itself. There are more than enough fascinating moments at each stop (particularly Basque Country and London) to make Around the World a rewarding way to spend nearly three hours. Recommended for Welles fans looking for more, Around the World is now available for Fandor subscribers as part of its Welles collection (along with his intriguing but fragmentary Too Much Johnson).

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

BHFFNYC ’15: Dear Lastan

He looked like Archie and gave advice like Dr. Drew. For decades, the children of the former Yugoslavia and independent Croatia looked to the fictional advice columnist to guide them through the grossness of puberty and the challenges of growing up. Irena Škorić documents the lasting influence of the iconic teenage counselor in Dear Lastan (trailer here), an opening night selection of the 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Modra Lasta (“Blue Swallow” in English) was like Yugoslavia’s version of The Weekly Reader, but somehow it was hipper, despite being part of the state media apparatus. In 1969, they created “Lastan,” hoping kids would open up to a cooler older brother figure. It worked, as mailbag after mailbag quickly proved. Several writers assumed the Lastan persona, but only a few of their identities have been recently revealed. Many of Škorić’s interview subjects argue Lastan was the best kept secret in publishing history—and they are probably right. After all, Lastan predated Woodward & Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” and remained shrouded in mystery well after Mark Felt outed himself. Yet, that is really the least of the Lastan story.

Even if you are a Yankee who never read Modra Lasta, listening former readers’ affectionate reminiscences will bring on waves of nostalgia. Some of the letters are a quite funny, reflecting teenagers’ peculiar predilection for melodramatic self-importance, while Lastan’s often curt responses are wickedly droll. However, readers also wrote in with real problems that received thoughtful answers.

It is fascinating to see how the Lastan column evolved to reflect the tenor of the times. Although it never rocked the boat politically during the Communist era, it was one of the few outlets that provided teens frank sexual advice. As one would subsequently expect, there was often tragic subtext to the early 1990s wartime-era correspondence. In fact, many soldiers and homefront survivors kept reading and writing Lastan well into their twenties to maintain a sense of stability.

Škorić interviews dozens of grown Lastan fans, whose stories range from the eccentrically goofy to the surprisingly profound. She immediately taps into the universal essence of the Lastan phenomenon, so non-Balkan viewers will quickly feel like they too are well acquainted with his columns.

This is one of the biggest sleepers you could ever hope to find on the festival circuit. The story of a children’s cartoon advice columnist in the former Yugoslavia might sound narrowly specialized to potential viewers and programmers alike, but it is actually a film just about everyone can relate to. Consistently entertaining and often quite moving Dear Lastan was a real discovery at this year’s Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York. Don’t pass up a screening, should the opportunity arise. Those who missed it can still catch intriguing films like The Sarajevo Assassination, A Quintet, and Racket when the BHFFNYC ’15 concludes today (5/23), at the Tribeca Cinemas.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Grace of Monaco: From Cannes to Lifetime

Alfred Hitchcock very nearly lured Princess Grace out of retirement to star in Marnie. He wasn’t known as “the master of suspense” for nothing. Unfortunately, her return to the silver screen was scuttled by the French campaign to dominate the tiny principality of Monaco. Once again, French saber-rattling ruined things for the rest of us. Fortunately, the former Grace Kelly will stand tall in her Cartier diamonds, facing down threats to her adopted home’s sovereignty, both foreign and domestic, in Olivier Dahan’s now notorious Grace of Monaco (trailer here), which premieres on Lifetime this Memorial Day, after getting booed off the Croisette at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Rumor has it, Princess Grace’s marriage to Prince Rainier is on the rocks. Of course, tensions with France have not helped much. With the Algerian War hemorrhaging cash, De Gaulle issues the House of Grimaldi an ultimatum: start taxing all the French business re-incorporating in Monaco and turn the proceeds over to France or face a blockade and possibly even an invasion. Unfortunately, Princess Grace’s American habits of speaking her mind and having her own career rock the boat at an inopportune time.

Despite the fissures in her marriage, Her Serene Highness is determined to serve the interests of Monaco. With the help of Rainier’s American Chaplain, Father Francis Tucker, Princess Grace will undergo a crash course in courtly etiquette and assemble her own kitchen cabinet. Frankly, they can hardly do worse than Rainier’s advisors, including the sleazy big-talker, Aristotle Onassis.

It is easy to see why Grace of Monaco crashed and burned at Cannes. In all fairness, the first two thirds play out like a relatively competent TV movie, but the puffed-up self-importance of the third act is almost offensive. This is the sort of film that acts like all the world’s problems can be solved with a heartfelt, ramblingly incoherent speech. Honestly, the supposedly Oscar-baiting climatic address basically boils down to: “Oh Monaco, you’re just so swellaco.” Is that enough to shame De Gaulle into behaving? Did Hitch like blondes?

Of course, gingerish Nicole Kidman is not exactly a classic Hitchcock type, but she is about the only name actress in Hollywood who can play classy convincingly. She is not bad as the reserved but vulnerable Princess. Even though he apparently put on some poundage for the role, Tim Roth is relatively restrained as Rainier. Unfortunately, Roger Ashton-Griffiths and Sir Derek Jacobi go all in for shtick as Hitchcock and decorum guru Count Fernando D’Aillieres. For the first time probably ever, Parker Posey is also boring (or maybe she was just bored) as the Princess’s officious staffer, Madge.

It is sort of entertaining to watch Kidman and Roth glide through the opulent world of 1960s Monaco. Unfortunately, any good will they manage to accrue is undermined by the third act cheesiness. Frankly, Dahan and screenwriter Arash Amel completely miss the film’s most relevant takeaway: high taxation inevitably leads to capital flight. Cinematographer Eric Gautier makes it all look glitzy enough, but there is just no way to recut the laughable climatic speech into a presentable cut with any sort of dramatic credibility. Yet, given all the off-screen notoriety and behind-the-scenes recriminations, it is impossible to avoid a certain morbid curiosity. Those so intrigued should watch Grace of Monaco in all its awkward clunkiness when it airs on Lifetime this Monday (5/25), before Harvey Weinstein locks it away in the old vault for good.

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BHFFNYC ’15: A Quintet

There is a reason some people stay in hostels even when they can afford nicer digs. They crave those brief but memorable incidental encounters. Travel is broadening, especially for those coming from or going to Berlin in the five-part multinational anthology film A Quintet (trailer here), which screens during the resiliently scrappy 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Of the five constituent short films, one of the best is the late night tale set in Sarajevo—a fact that should hardly surprise anyone. In Kosovar filmmaker Ariel Shaban’s “The Tourist,” a disgusted Sarajevan reluctantly protects a German visitor from the consequences of his hedonism. Slowly, a connection is forged, but the fatalistic Bosnian understands better than the naïve German their friendship mostly likely expires when the sun rises. Bosnian actor Armin Omerovic is terrific as the Samaritan, but what really distinguishes “The Tourist” is the way Shaban captures the strangely calm feeling one gets when completely lost in an Eastern European city late at night, when you do not speak the language. If you have ever been there, you will recognize it immediately.

Lebanese filmmaker Elie Lamah’s “Friend Request” is the other head-and-shoulders high point and it also happens to be the boldest. Rami, who coincidentally happens to be a Lebanese filmmaker, has been enjoying the German festival that programmed his film, until a colleague invites a group of Israelis to join them for drinks. While the Israelis are more than happy to overlook past tensions between their countries, Rami is not so gracious. However, he has some reason to be cautious, since, as he pointedly reminds everyone, he could be tried for treason by his government merely for associated with citizens of Israel. Nevertheless, he might just start to loosen up a little when he walks back to the festival hotel with Ayala, the Israeli director.

“Friend Request” packs a real punch precisely because Lamah never resorts to facile sentimentality or Pollyannaish takeaways. Instead, he suggests in no uncertain terms, hatred and misunderstanding are allowed to persist when average people like Rami are afraid to take the tiniest of stands.

There are also some lovely performances in Sanela Salketić’s opener, “The House in the Envelope.” It is a small story about a Turkish woman briefly returning home from German and the cabbie she keeps hailing, but it is a crowd-pleaser. Screenwriter Demet Gül brings a wonderfully subtle and refined presence to the film as the expat Leyla, while Salketić fully capitalizes on the Istanbul backdrops.

Despite its brevity, the narrative of Roberto Cuzzillo’s “Polaroid” is oddly (but not intentionally) disjointed. However, the work of cinematographer Roberto Montero and segment composer Enrica Sciandrone is quite striking. Unfortunately, Mauro Mueller’s New York-set closer, “The Cuddle Workshop” is about as cloying as it sounds.

A Quintet is all about fleeting moments and there are enough good ones in the film to make it worth your time. Recommended for fans of Bosnian-Kosavar-Turkish-Lebanese-German-Italian cinema, it screens tomorrow (5/23) at the Tribeca Cinemas, as part of this year’s BHFFNYC.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

BHFFNYC ’15: Bridges of Sarajevo

The image in your mind’s eye a bridge in Bosnia-Herzegovina is probably the destroyed and subsequently rebuilt Stari Most in Mostar. Nevertheless, there are plenty of bridges in the capital city of Sarajevo, architecturally and metaphorically. Indeed, they serve as both backdrops and symbols in Bridges of Sarajevo (trailer here), an anthology film conceived by French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon, which screens during the 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York, kicking off tonight at the Tribeca Cinemas.

Yes, anthology films are usually uneven and Bridges is especially so, with the highs being particularly high and the lows being Jean-Luc Godard. Happily it starts off with a strong entry, Kamen Kalev’s “My Dear Night,” depicting the final hours of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, much like a moody, almost Shakespearean tragedy. True, we know how it must end, but Samuel Finzi is quietly riveting as the doomed aristocrat. It is probably the one segment that has both the merit and the elastic capacity to be expanded into a feature.

WWI is a major focus in Bridges, continuing with Vladimir Perišić’s somewhat experimental “Our Shadows Will,” which overlays audio excerpts from Gavrilo Princip’s pan-Slavic, crypto-socialist confession with contemporary scenes of disaffected nationalist and leftist youth. It is a bold juxtaposition, but Perišić simply does not have the time to fully develop the idea.

Leonardo di Costanzo’s “The Outpost” is a technically polished segment portraying the exploited enlisted Italian peasantry struggling with the horrors and absurdities of WWI. The tactile feeling of the constituent film is impressive, but it is more of a sketch than a full dramatic arc. Likewise, Angela Schanelec’s “Princip, Text” takes much the same approach as Perišić’s contribution, but it is less provocative. Cristi Puiu also shows a preoccupation with text, much in the spirit of Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective. As satire, “Das Spektrum Europas” seems to cut both ways, eavesdropping on a tired married couple as they dissect Keyserling’s early Twentieth Century analysis of the Balkans from an anti-American and borderline anti-Semitic perspective.

Godard’s “The Bridge of Sighs” is an eight minute mashed together collage that is more watchable than his last two features, for what that’s worth. Regardless, if you seriously follow or cover world cinema, you really need to see it, just to be able to render a fuller judgement on his late career years. Sergei Loznitsa’s “Reflections” is also collage-like in form, but visually it is exceptionally arresting. Essentially, Loznitsa overlays Milomir Kovacevic’s war photographs with present day Sarajevo street scenes, achieving a truly ghostly effect.

Marc Recha’s “Zan’s Journey is more or less an exercise in oral history, but his subject’s memories are truly moving. Aida Begić (whose feature Children of Sarajevo played the 2013 BHFF) incorporates many such voices into “Album,” selecting several brief but unusually telling recollections of the workaday trials of life during the war.

Then Isild Le Besco adds a graceful humanist touch to Bridges with “Little Boy,” the story of a plucky five year old survivor, now living with his grandmother. Themes of youth and the loss of innocence also factor prominently in Ursula Meier’s concluding “Quiet Mujo,” featuring an extraordinary lead performance from Vladan Kovacevic, as a young orphan who encounters a grieving professional woman at a cemetery’s boundary between Muslim and Christian sections.

Frankly, the contributions of Meier, Loznitsa, and Kalev easily justify a ticket to Bridges. Recha, Le Besco, Begić, and Perišić also have some real substance to offer. For film snobs, it even represents an opportunity to catch up on recent work from major auteurs like Meier, Puiu, and (Heaven help us) Godard. While viewers need to go in understanding some pieces work better than others, the entire package is highly recommended because the good parts are so good. It screens Friday night (5/22) as part of this year’s Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

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Forbidden Empire: Fighting Evil, One Map at a Time

The 1967 Mofilm adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” is considered the first Soviet horror movie, aside from whatever real life torture porn might be hidden away in the KGB archives. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Stepchenko originally set out to remake Gogol’s tale, but the scope of their long stop-and-start production expanded over the years. The guts of the macabre story are still there, but there is also plenty of witch-hunting and map-making in Stepchenko’s Forbidden Empire (as it was bafflingly retitled for the international market), which launches tomorrow on VOD (trailer here).

British cartographer Jonathan Green hopes to make his fame and fortune mapping the sleepy hamlets of southern Europe and Ukraine, so he can return home to claim his loyal fiancée from her judgmental father. However, he will reluctantly find himself swept up in the dirty dealings of a small village. As will soon be explained to Green, when a wealthy Cossack’s daughter died under suspiciously supernatural circumstances, a baffled divinity student was brought in to prey over her body for three bump-filled nights, per her last request. The precise blow-by-blow of that third night will be revealed over time. Regardless, the aftermath was disturbing enough for the sheepish villagers to seal off the church and shun it thereafter.

Distressed his daughter never had a proper funeral, the Cossack hires Green to map the area surrounding the church. You might well ask why, but it certainly shakes things up. Before long, Green and a mute servant girl are accused of witchcraft, while the malevolent spirit known as Viy continues to terrorize the village with impunity.

Empire is a weird viewing experience, due to a number of factors, including the feverish religious imagery, the fairy tale-like stylization of the sets and backdrops, and the disembodied dubbing voices. Frankly, this film would probably be a good deal better with subtitles. Czech Airlines used to show a garish looking 1960s fairy tale film, sans subtitles, during the breakfast service of its New York bound flights. Watching Empire produces a similarly disorienting effect.

Ironically, the best sequences by far are those that harken back to the original Viy source material. It is impossible to not appreciate the scene in which the coffin animated by foul spirits chases the divinity student throughout the church, trying to ram him like a sinister bumper car. That is the kind of stuff movie magic is all about.

On the other hand, when the narrative focuses on Green, it wildly veers from broad shticky comedy to demonic horror, throwing-in didactic jabs at religion’s supposed hostility towards science and reason for good measure. Reportedly, without the story’s rustic, folkloric elements, the materialistic Soviet authorities never would have greenlighted the 1967 Viy. However, they would have loved Stepchenko and co-screenwriter Aleksandr Karpov’s depiction of the venal, power-hungry priest.

There are a lot of bald dudes with Fu Manchu mustaches in Empire, so it is often devilishly difficult to differentiate the various cast-members. However, Jason Flemyng (probably just famous enough to justify some British co-production investments) is a good sport, pivoting at a moment’s notice to be goofy one moment and resolute the next. This is a loud, dark, defiantly illogical film, but at least the resulting spectacle is a strange sight to behold. In short, it is a mess, but in bizarrely compelling, can’t-stop-watching kind of way. Recommended accordingly (I guess), Forbidden Empire hits VOD platforms tomorrow (5/22) and has a special screening at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles on Saturday (5/23).

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

BHFFNYC ’15: Racket

You can tell what preoccupies a nation’s subconscious from the villains and nightmares that appear in its films. As one would expect, the Balkan War, the Siege of Sarajevo, and the frustrated attempts to prosecute war criminals have loomed large in many, many previous Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival selections. However, this year’s slate suggests something of a turning of the corner, including several films addressing concerns New Yorkers understand only too well. That would be gangland shakedowns and public corruption in the case of Admir Buljugić’s crime drama—two New York traditions if ever there were any. Representing an intriguing change of pace in several respects, Buljugić’s Racket (trailer here) screens during the fondly anticipated 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Amil Pašić is a globe-trotting nature photographer, who does not come home to Sarajevo very often. His latest stop-over will be a mere seven days, to be divided amongst his father, his neglected best friend, and his even more neglected on-again-off-again girlfriend. However, his plans go out the window when his father has a heart attack induced by the stress of defying a protection racket.

Of course, Pašić is even more obstinate than his father. When he seeks out Bakir, the extorting gangster, he is not about to come to terms. Instead, he will be serving notice. However, that will not entail unleashing his inner Van Damme. Pašić is hardnosed, but not superhuman.

In fact, the just-rightness of the Pašić character and Adnan Hasković’s lead performance are what really distinguish Racket. He can easily beat up one gangster, but he is probably in serious trouble facing two or three. Striking an intense but not psychotic vibe, Hasković (he killed Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer) makes a compelling everyman action hero.

While admirably scrappy and impressively moody, Buljugić’s screenplay is still undeniably uneven. Frankly, it heads in a legitimately interesting direction, but his third act is rather perfunctory. Given his budget constraints, he might have been under-pressure to wrap things up quickly. Look, this is a rare case where we would argue thriller fans really need to relax and grade on a curve.

The truth is spending time with Pašić and his circle is rather enjoyable. In fact, it would be rather nice to see subsequent Pašić films come to BHFF, but with a few more zigs and zags coming down the stretch. Recommended as a rare Bosnian gangster film and for Hasković’s winning star turn, Racket screens this Saturday (5/23) as part of this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival, a New York tradition for twelve years and counting.

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BHFFNYC ’15: The Sarajevo Assassination

Many historians believe Archduke Franz Ferdinand was far more progressive than your typical early Twentieth Century aristocrat. He generally advocated for greater decentralization of power and provisionally lent his support to the unlikely concept of a “United States of Austria.” Unfortunately, he was the perfect crowned head to kill if you wanted to ignite a war. Eastern European history professor Paul Grandvohl will re-open the Archduke’s cold case in Nedim Lončarević’s The Sarajevo Assassination (clip here), which screens during the 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York, proudly celebrating its twelfth anniversary as one of the most welcoming fests in the City.

The way textbooks typically dismiss the Archduke as a historical footnote is problematic in its own right. Even more dubious are the frequent descriptions of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip and his accomplices as Dostoyevskian pan-Slavic revolutionaries. While Grandvohl probably does not collect enough evidence for a court indictment (nearly 101 years after the fact), he makes a strong circumstantial case, suggesting a certain government played an instrumental role planning and financing the attack. Needless to say, it was not Bosnia (where the Archduke was particularly popular).

As a sidebar to the historical inquiry, Lončarević also follows Grandvohl as he researches his own family history in Sarajevo’s traditional Jewish quarter. What he discovers is much more satisfying than the roots of Ben Affleck’s family tree. Through the process, viewers also get a sense Sarajevo was an unusually tolerant and cosmopolitan city, especially by the standards of pre-WWI Europe.

Although Assassination clocks in with a TV-friendly running time just under an hour, it is chocked full of interesting historical background and context. It is particularly eye-opening to see how Princip was venerated as a revolutionary hero under the Communist regime and remains a celebrated figure in Serbia today.

PBS really ought to pick-up Assassination for broadcast in America. Frankly, the murder of the Archduke and his morganatic wife, the much-maligned Sophie, Duchess of Bavaria is something everyone has heard of, but very few really understand to any significant extent. While the film never feels drily academic, Lončarević and Grandvohl shoehorn in a good deal of informative and telling history. Highly recommended for those fascinated by WWI (and the ultimate origins of WWII), The Sarajevo Assassination screens this Saturday (5/23) as part of this year’s Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival, which has become an annual tradition both for the expat community and a growing number of cineaste supporters.

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Human Centipede 3: Only the Victims are in Stitches

So much for truth in advertising. Tom Six’s third go-round stitching together poor hapless victims, throat-to-butt, claims to be “100% politically incorrect,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. Take for instance the setting: “George W. Bush Prison” in East Jesus, Texas. Unfortunately for viewers, Six desperately wants to be considered “relevant” as a satirist, but he just isn’t funny. However, what is really unforgivable is the baffling lack of scatological grotesqueness in Six’s Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The narrative, such as it is, follows screechy prison warden Bill Boss as he sexually harasses his secretary Daisy, bullies his bean-counter Dwight Butler, and wages open warfare against his heavily tattooed gang-member inmates. Boss has embarrassed the politically ambitious Governor Hughes once too often. If he cannot restore order to the prison in one week, Hughes will give him the axe. Fear not, Butler has a perfectly logical solution. Form the inmates into a Human Centipede, just like in Six’s movies. In fact, Six will pop in meta-style, to offer his advice.

Frankly, ‘pede-3 really should have been grosser and gorier, because at least that way it would have been something. Instead, Six tries to make a comedy, but it is deafeningly unfunny. Absolutely nothing lands here. You really have to wonder what was going through Dieter Laser’s head as he raged and mugged as the horrendously loud and annoying Boss. Did he ever ask Six: “Is this funny? Is this really working?” Whatever the director might have said, the answer is a resounding “no.”  As a result, it is truly embarrassing to watch Laser face-plant time after time. Seriously, his bulging eyes and schticky twitching are so over-the-top, it is like he is trying to be Meryl Streep on a bad day.

Honest to goodness, there is only one solitary dry chuckle in the whole film, earned by Clinton Rohner’s understated delivery as the unlicensed prison physician. However, it is still deeply depressing to see the G vs. E star mired in this muck. Sadder still, HC3 probably represents the dumbest, most underwritten film of pornstar Bree Olson’s career. Yet somehow Eric Roberts manages to skate through relatively cleanly as the governor. Say what you will, that man works a lot. If you don’t like him here, wait a few weeks and watch him play the mayor in LA Slasher.

While it was certainly not a masterpiece, the first Human Centipede was an effective mad scientist film in its own defiant way. This film is simply not funny—period, end of story. Nor does it try to fulfill any traditional horror movie functions. There is just a lot of Laser yelling at the camera. It is sort of like watching Gilbert Gottfried playing Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, without any sense of irony. Not recommended for genre fans or even viewers who enjoyed the previous two films, Human Centipede 3 opens this Friday (5/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Love at First Fight: Young French Preppers in Love

Arnaud Labrède would prefer to be a lover rather than a fighter. Madeleine Beaulieu will opt for the fighting every day. That is the only way she believes she will be prepared for the coming doomsday. Clearly, it will be an awkward courtship for Labrède, but that is always the case when you are young and stupid. However, if Armageddon holds off long enough, they might just mature a little (or perhaps not) in Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Times are tough in the wooded Landes region of France. The Army seems to be the only employer recruiting in town. Labrède has gone to a few information sessions to pick-up the free swag, somewhat befriending the recruiters in the process. However, he assumes he will stay at home and help his older brother Manu rebuild the family carpentry business. Like their recently deceased father, both brothers are handy with tools. Yet, it is still hard for Labrède to get Beaulieu to acknowledge him.

Granted, their first meeting is hardly ideal. She will put the big hurt on him during an Army-sponsored self-defense exhibition, until Labrède pulls a Tyson and bites her. Labrède finds she is still rather sore over the whole thing when her parent hire him and his brother to build a shed in their backyard. Little by little, Beaulieu slowly thaws, until Labrède feels sufficiently encouraged to sign up for her special summer training camp for prospective commando enlistees.

To his credit, it is hard to get a blanket sense of how Cailley views the military, preppers, and End Times anticipators. It is safe to say Beaulieu is . . . intense. Nevertheless, there is no denying the credible fashion in which their relationship develops or the electric chemistry shared by co-leads Adèle Haenel and Kévin Azaïs. At times, their verbal sparring is rather sly and quite revealing. Unfortunately, the third act reversal, in which Labrède’s easy going nature turns out to be better suited for team-building and unit cohesion, becomes predictably formulaic. Even the mildly apocalyptic climax feels like a pre-programmed inevitability (nonetheless, it is executed surprisingly evocatively).

Haenel (recently seen in In the Name of My Daughter) is convincingly surly, but it is hard to understand the initial attraction. Maybe you just have to be French, since she seems to be the latest minor “It” sensation. On the other hand, Azaïs pulls off something trickier and more interesting, showing how his character quietly changes in response to the people and environments he is exposed to. Antoine Laurent also has some nice moments as the big brother out to prove his worth.

First Fight is a small film that does not amount to much, despite a few sharply written scenes and some deftly turned performances. It has probably received disproportionate critical and festival attention, just because smart setters are so amazed by the notion of French survival preppers, as if that would be a phenomenon confined to the mountainous regions of southern Border States. Many of the cast and crew should have very bright careers ahead of them, but this will probably be remembered as a promising early minor work. Mildly recommended for Francophiles and Francophones, Love at First Fight opens this Friday (5/22) in New York, at the Village East.


The Pirate: Caviar and Crossbones

For centuries, Greeks have maintained a commanding share of the global shipping business. Arguably, Ioannis Varvakis was part of that tradition. He specialized in re-routing Ottoman shipments. He was a proud pirate, but he became a Russian officer and nobleman, while never relinquishing his Greek identity. Yannis Smaragdis, Greek cinema’s prestigious bio-pic specialist turns his attention to the swashbuckler in his English language production, The Pirate (a.k.a. God Loves Caviar), which releases today on DVD and is available on multiple VOD platforms from Vision Films (trailer here).

The dreaded pirate Varvakis will end up old and infirm, living as a secret captive in a remote British “clinic” for infectious diseases. We know this because the film starts at this cheery point, telling his story in competing flashbacks. Lefentarios a dodgy veteran of the Greek resistance will explain to the British superintendent how he goaded the buccaneer into more direct action, while Varvakis’s former servant will explain to a group of street urchin’s how great his former master truly was.

Varvakis had always fought the Turks ship to ship, claiming the spoils for his efforts. However, at Lefentarios’s urging, Varvakis hatches an unlikely plan to wipe out the entire Ottoman fleet (apparently by setting his ship on fire and pointing towards several hundred Ottoman vessels). Needing safe haven, Varvakis offers his services to Catherine the Great, who appoints Varvakis her personal agent for the Caspian.

The mostly reformed rogue makes decent coin tending to her interests, but he becomes vastly wealthy when he develops methods to ship caviar without spoilage. Russians love caviar. So do the Persians, which lends his operations additional strategic significance. Catherine is well satisfied with Varvakis, bestowing rank and title upon him. Unfortunately, his personal life is a mess.

Frankly, the Greek resistance to the Ottoman occupation is not exactly over exposed in Western media. The Pirate’s home viewing release comes at an opportune time, countering Russell Crowe’s ripping well-made Water Diviner, which views Greco-Turkish conflicts through the lens of Smyrna. However, Smaragdis devotes an awful lot of time to Varvakis’s loveless marriage to the unfaithful Helena, his strained relationship with a grown daughter from a previous union, and the whiny son who can never live up to his father’s expectations.

Even though it is a minor role, John Cleese not surprisingly delivers all the best lines as McCormick, the British administrator. Sebastian Koch (still best known in America for The Lives of Others) has the appropriate presence for a figure of Varvakis’s stature, but despite no shortage of makeup, he never looks like he is the right age for the character’s successive stations in life. In contrast, Evgeniy Stychkin never ages a day as Ivan, the loyal servant who manages to make his way to Varvakis’s double-secret island prison without arousing any suspicion. Of course, Catherine Deneuve does her stateliest as Catherine II, but her screen time is limited.

The Pirate was a big hit domestically, arriving to bolster national spirits in a time of austerity. Tellingly, the Greeks would look to a pirate, who lives off contraband appropriated from others, as a source of inspiration. Still, there is something appealingly old school about its earnest approach to historical drama. You can practically hear the voiceovers announcing “special guest stars” Cleese and Deneuve. Recommended for those looking for some unselfconscious, slightly creaky, throwback entertainment, The Pirate (a.k.a. God Loves Caviar) is now available on DVD, as well as on VOD services like iTunes, DirecTV, and Vudu.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

The Fighting Season: Boots on the Ground during the 2014 Election

The 2014 Presidential election represented a major security challenge for the Coalition forces and the Kabul City Police Center (KCPC). A successful election would be an important step in the nation’s healing process, embarrassing the Taliban determined to undermine it. Top brass and the White House also would also be happy facilitate Karzai’s exit from public life. Viewers will watch U.S. Army units across the war-torn country risk their lives to protect Afghanistan’s fragile democratic institutions in The Fighting Season (promo here), which premieres tomorrow night on DirecTV’s Audience network.

Inconveniently, the election largely coincides with the so-called “Fighting Season,” a rather unfortunate tradition wherein Taliban terrorists take advantage of the spring thaw to come down from the mountains to cause death and destruction. The men of Bravo Company stationed near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank will try to stop such Jihadis before they reach Kabul. For those that slip thorough, special teams working for Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson will try to coach and reinforce the KCPC officers maintaining the three concentric rings of check-points known as Kabul’s “Ring of Steel.”

Based on the initial installment, the six part Fighting Season might be one of the best embedded, boots-on-the-ground documents of the Afghanistan Theater that has yet been produced for television. There will be real firefights, but the most compelling part of episode one is the messy uncertainty of intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance. A considerable difference in perspective emerges between Col. John Graham, who believes in face-to-face contact for winning over the Kabul citizenry, and his more battle-hardened task force colleagues, who are concerned about the security risks involved in his spontaneous approach. The problem is, viewers watching Season will be quickly convinced they are both right.

There is some amazing camera work in Season, including some night vision sequences that are so clear and easy to follow, one might think they were lifted from an action film. Executive producer Ricky Schroder’s voice-overs also perfectly suit the program. Instead of a silky smooth narrator, he sounds like enlisted man. It is also clear Schroder and the rest of the Season team respect the troops and believe in the War on Terror considerably more than Jeb Bush.

There is plenty of uncensored warfighting in Season, as well as the sort of salty language military personnel will use from time to time. It is real in a way that is really real, but it also gives a detailed look at the infrastructure and levels of command involved in each mission. Based on the first compelling episode, The Fighting Season is very highly recommended when it debuts tomorrow (5/19) on DirecTV’s Audience Network.

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The Chronicles of Evil: You Could Say This Case is Personal

Chief Detective Choi’s latest investigation represents something of a conflict of interest. He is under considerable professional and political pressure to close the case quickly, regardless of the truth. Technically, he also happens to be the killer, but you would hardly call him the mastermind of screenwriter-director Baek Woon-hak’s dark thriller The Chronicles of Evil (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Queens.

After years of plugging, Det. Choi is on the verge of a national appointment. He has just received the presidential service medal, so if he can avoid entanglements for the next few months, his career should be made. Unfortunately, after a night celebrating with the Detective Squad, Choi’s cabbie waylays him, taking him to a remote park, where he tries to kill the baffled flatfoot. Leathery old Choi turns out to be more than his assailant can handle. However, after killing the man in self-defense, Choi covers up the incident rather than risk the inevitable controversy. This will be a mistake in retrospect.

The next morning, the top brass is outraged when a corpse is found very publically dangling from a crane at a construction site. Of course, Choi recognizes him. To satisfy his superiors, he will have to clear the case quickly, but he knows the DNA under the vic’s fingernails and the blurry CTV images of a passenger in backseat will inevitably lead back to him. Therefore Choi must try to ferret out his mystery antagonist, while struggling to cover his own tracks.

In a way, Chronicles somewhat parallels Kevin Costner’s breakout hit No Way Out, but Baek gives the story some grittily distinctive cops-and-stalkers twists. He shrewdly positions Choi as a figure compromised enough to deserve his predicament, but decent enough to root for. Baek nicely keeps one darned thing coming after another, getting flat-out Biblical down the stretch.

Recognizable to genre fans from Huh Jung’s Hide and Seek, Son Hyun-joo is perfectly cast as Det. Choi. He looks like a migraine personified and has vinegary world weariness sweating out of every pore. Ma Dong-seok (a.k.a. Don Lee) is also reliably charismatic and hardnosed as Choi’s chief deputy, Det. Oh. This is a manly ensemble that has little time for romantic subplots or comic relief. They are all about covering-up and settling scores. When you spy a somewhat metrosexual character, be suspicious—very suspicious.

Baek is a wickedly smooth director, who pulls the audience through this murky morality tale at warp speed. Even though it is a supporting role, Chronicles (along with The Fives, Kundo, and Nameless Gangster) suggests Ma/Lee has enough cult/genre credibility for Hollywood to start calling. They could use someone with his action cred and screen presence. Highly recommended for fans of anti-heroic cop thrillers, The Chronicles of Evil opens this Friday (5/22) at the AMC Bay Terrace, in Flushing, Queens.

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Winning: the Racing Life of Paul Newman

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were way too classy to ever appear in a reality TV show. However, for decades racing fans were able to get a good close look at Newman that was entirely different from what the one could glean from the glossy entertainment magazines. He was a competitor through and through, who is fondly remembered by his colleagues and teammates in Adam Carolla’s Winning: the Racing Life of Paul Newman (trailer here), co-directed by Nate Adams, which releases on VOD this Friday.

Winning was a 1969 Newman-Woodward vehicle that was reasonably successful at the box office, but it had special significance in Newman’s life. In preparation to play Frank Capua, Newman was sent to racing school, where he quickly discovered a real aptitude for driving. It quickly became a passion. As a successful movie star, Newman could indulge an eccentric hobby, but it eventually became a bona fide second career.

Throughout Winning the documentary, Newman’s former rivals give him credit for putting in the time and effort to develop his skills. He was willing to lose a lot of races before he started winning. He was legit, coming in first in his class and second overall at the 1979 Le Mans (the subject of the 1971 Steve McQueen movie). Frankly, it is really cool how to hear how Newman became an accepted and respected part of the racing world.

Believe or not, Carolla is building an impressive portfolio as a filmmaker. Following up the solidly entertaining Road Hard, the comedian (who collects and restores Newman’s former vehicles) has assembled a first-rate sports doc. Fans should understand, there is not much material concerning his film career here, besides Winning and the Pixar animated film Cars, for which Newman voiced the character of the Hudson Hornet. However, Carolla did score a sit-down with an old Newman friend and co-star by the name of Robert Redford.

Winning (2015) also features interviews with Winning (1969) co-star Robert Wagner, Cars director John Lasseter, both Mario and Michael Andretti, and trailblazing African American driver Willy T. Ribbs, who credits Newman’s support for his big break in motorsports. Sometimes amusing and other times revealing, their anecdotes paint a compelling portrait of Newman the sportsman.

It is just great to have a new Paul Newman film nearly seven years after his death. However, Carolla’s interview subjects make it pretty clear Newman’s zeal for racing necessarily resulted in fewer films for posterity. On the other hand, he therefore chose projects with a discernment that well served his cinematic legacy. Wholly entertaining and surprisingly insightful, Winning: the Racing Life of Paul Newman is highly recommended for fans of the man and the sport when it launches on VOD this Friday (5/22). Fittingly, it will also have a special screening at the Indiana State Museum IMAX Theater in Indianapolis on the same night.

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The Farewell Party: Israel Tackles Euthanasia

Frankly, euthanasia is a pretty new problem for Israel. In the past, if you wanted to go, you could just sit in an outdoor café and wait for a hateful, anti-Semitic Hamas terrorist to do the job for you. It is a tribute to the country’s security services that elderly Israelis now have to take a more proactive (but illegal) role in their final exits. Fortunately, an inventor and his assisted living cronies have the resources to help in Sharon Maymon & Tal Granit’s The Farewell Party (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Yehezkel is a big-hearted guy, who still enjoys tinkering in his workshop and babysitting his granddaughter with his beloved wife, Levana. Sadly, her memory issues will eventually get progressively worse, but Yehezkel’s immediate concern is his old friend Max. He is a terminal case, who is only receiving palliative treatment that is not working to any appreciable extent. When Max and his distraught wife appeal to Yehezkel for help, he develops a Kevorkian-like contraption in consultation with Dr. Daniel, a pro-euthanasia veterinarian who recently moved into the complex. The inventor and the vet will do the set-up, and Daniel’s secret lover, the married ex-cop Raffi Segal will scrub the evidence, but Max will push the button himself.

Much to their initial alarm, rumors start to spread about Max’s assisted suicide, leading to awkward requests from strangers. Despite Levana’s principled objections, Yehezkel is inclined to oblige. However, their positions reverse as her condition progressively deteriorates.

Clearly, the aging of the Israeli population is a zeitgeisty topic, with Farewell releasing around the same time as Reshef Levi’s grumpy old men caper Hunting Elephants. Since Israel was not driven into the sea, it will have to struggle with the same demographic challenges of most other western democracies. Maymon & Granit’s film is the classier package, but Levi’s movie is way more fun.

Arguably, there is nothing approaching the twinkle in Sasson Gabai’s eye throughout Elephants in Farewell. Aside from an admittedly funny closet gag involving Segal, it is really a dramedy in name only. Evidently, Granit and Maymon had a hard time finding humor in fatal illness, dementia, and assisted suicide. However, it is rather touching when it addresses themes relating to love and friendship.

As Yehezkel and Levana, Ze’ev Revah and Levana Finkelshtein truly lower the emotional boom, while Ilan Dar adds a needed dash of vigor as the impish Dr. Daniel. The entire cast is adept at balancing the film’s weightier moments with its comparatively lighter interludes. However, Maymon & Granit really get heavy-handed when directly tackling the issue of euthanasia. In truth, there is a reason Israeli law rightly or wrongly privileges life over death—it is all the terror and killing they have endured from forces that embrace death over life. Recommended on its dramatic merits for patrons of Israeli cinema, The Farewell Party opens this Friday (5/22) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center and the Cinema 1,2,3.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

SIFF ’15: Paradise in Service

Unit 831 was sort of like the USO, except they managed a brothel to keep the early 1960s Nationalist Chinese Military’s morale high. There were not comfort women. It was more complicated than that. A young enlisted man will learn just how complicated in Doze Niu Chen-zer’s Paradise in Service (trailer here), co-produced by none other than Hou Hsiao-hsien, which screens during the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.

Lo Pao-tai has the physique to be a frogman, but he literally cannot swim to save his life. Washing out of the Sea Dragons training program, he is transferred to serve out his remaining mandatory term of enlistment at a local Unit 831 brothel. His first day will be quite an eye-opening experience for the naïve young man. However, in his new assignment, he will periodically meet and greet some of his former comrades, including the grizzled Sergeant-Major Chang Yung-shen. In fact, he will see quite a bit of the veteran sergeant, since he has fallen for Chiao, a.k.a. Number 8, the top girl at Lo’s “teahouse.”

Unfortunately, Chiao is a bit of a game-player, whereas Ni-ni is the exact opposite. She came to work at the teahouse under rather tragic circumstances. She and Lo soon become friends, but not yet with benefits. Their courtship will be a slow business that often must be deferred by more pressing Unit 831 business.

Yes, there is probably no better place to come of age in a hurry than a military cat house. While Niu makes it plenty clear just what goes on there, the vibe of the film is strangely innocent. In a way, its concerns are not so very different than Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, but can you imagine how delighted his sex-obsessed Eugene Jerome analog would have been with this sort of service detail?

The time capsule-like period details of Paradise are often quite eye-opening. The idea of armed conflict with the Communists was hardly idle speculation for the military stationed on Quemoy, where each side constantly blasted propaganda through loud speakers at each other. There is definitely a sense that both sides are in a not so “Cold” War staring contest.

While the setting of a military brothel could easily lend itself to comedy (“no time for procurers”), Niu plays it achingly straight, often diving into pure melodrama. However, the cast sells it like an ensemble of champions. Ethan Ruan has never been better as the innocent Lo, developing some deeply felt chemistry with Regina Wan Qian’s Ni-ni. She is also terrifically sensitive yet restrained as the inherently respectable prostitute. Like a Taiwanese Tommy Lee Jones, Chen Jianbin rock solidly anchors the film as the gruff but vulnerable sergeant, while Miao Ke-li steals scene after scene as Cher, the older, brassier working woman.

Although the Taiwanese military is not exactly eager to talk about the now defunct Unit 831, Paradise never feels like an expose. In fact, there is a strange feeling of camaraderie that develops between the women and the staff. Whether you find it credible or not, that vibe really distinguishes the picture. When it finishes, you feel like you were briefly stationed at Quemoy, which is something. Recommended for fans of the big name Taiwanese and Mainland cast (who do not disappoint), Paradise in Service screens Monday (5/18), and Tuesday (5/26), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

SOHO ’15: Leaves of the Tree

An ailing patent attorney is about to take the Mediterranean Diet one step further. He might have heard about the benefits of olive oil, but it is the leaves that can really work miracles. Of course, they are not just from any olive tree. They are from the olive tree. Even lawyers and pharmaceutical executives will start to have faith in Ante Novakovic’s Leaves of the Tree (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 SOHO International Film Festival.

Retirement seems inevitable for Patrick Messina, since his ticker is even less reliable than Fred Sanford’s. He has already turned over most of his cases to his partner, Joe Buffa (great name), but he is keeping one. His Big Pharma client has been approached by the mysterious Sicilian, Dr. Ferramonti, who can document the healing powers of an ancient olive tree on his estate. If Messina’s client can isolate the miraculous active ingredient, they can save vast numbers of life and make a good chunk of change. Once they do that, Messina can start drafting up papers or something, but until then, he and his wife Sweetness will enjoy living the good life in Ferramonti’s villa.

Ironically, only Messina’s daughter Danielle seems to be doing any work on this trip. She is just a research intern at the company, but she is the one putting in all the lab time. The company president also made the trip, but she will get distracted by Hank, Ferramonti’s houseguest and self-appointed guardian of the tree. He’s sort of a cross-between Kato Kaelin and a Templar Knight. However, he will have to get serious when a hardline faction within the Vatican makes a play to control access to the tree.

What this film needs is more Joe Buffa, because he is played by Armand Assante, who always commands the screen. Assante also appeared in Novakovic’s short film, The Fix, which played at the 2013 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York. The charming festival organizers were quite taken with Assante when he attended the screening, so that’s good enough for us.

Assante is dependable as ever and so is Eric Roberts, playing against type as Messina. He seems to enjoy being the decent and loving family man for a change, but nobody makes a better drug-addled psychopath, so he should not make a habit of more wholesome roles. Regardless, he and Sean Young develop some quite agreeable chemistry together, genuinely feeling like a comfortably married couple. Federico Castelluccio also brings some real gravitas to the film as Dr. Ferramonti, but most of the rest of the cast is mostly just serviceable.

Someone must have had an amazing time scouting locations for Leaves, because it amply capitalizes on the Sicilian backdrops. At times, it is like scenery porn. Novakovic and cinematographer John Schmidt clearly have great eyes for visuals. While the narrative is a bit clunky at times, the way it echoes elements of the Fisher King legend is surprisingly compelling. It is also refreshing to see a film that casts the pharmaceutical company executives as the good guys.

Leaves is pleasant enough if not exactly exceptional, but its upcoming screening at the Temple of Segesta (which appears in the film) sounds like an amazing event. If you can attend, by all means do so. Its upcoming domestic festival screenings will seem conventionally pale in comparison. Still, it is nice to see a film that takes faith seriously, but also has considerably more polish and verve than the sort of fare typically released for the Christian market. Worth a look for those interested in Sicily and Christian Mystery, Leaves of the Tree screens tomorrow (5/17) and Wednesday (5/20) during this year’s SOHO International Film Festival.

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