J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Cinepocalypse ’18: Satan’s Slaves

It could be the Indonesian Hereditary—and it’s a remake, so there really isn’t much new under the sun. That doesn’t mean it isn’t scary as Hell though. After three years of bedridden decline, Rini Suwono’s mother is finally gone. Or is she? She was always difficult, but she takes it to all new heights (or lows) when she starts haunting her family. It seems to be all part of her satanic death cult’s plan in Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Cinepocalypse in Chicago.

Mawarni Suwono was once a popular local folk singer, whose eerie ballads had a vibe not unlike the string-heavy Judy Collins’ rendition of “Both Sides Now” that happens to play over Hereditary’s closing credits. Of course, her old records label just throws crumbs to her family, so they are in rather desperate financial straits. In fact, the nameless father will leave looking for work shortly after the funeral.

As a result, Rini will have to face the initial rounds of terror and tragedy on her own, including the death of her paternal grandmother. That just leaves her and her younger brothers: the surprisingly helpful sixteen-year-old Tony, the bratty ten-year-old Bondi, and the mute nearly seven-year-old Ian, who will become the primary focus of most of the supernatural and sinister attention. Rather tellingly, none of the siblings look alike, presumably because they were each the product of unions with different cult members.

So yes, things are bad, but they will get steadily worse. Hereditary really is a fitting comparison film for Satan’s Slaves, which incorporates elements of James Wan haunted house movies, demonic horror, and killer cults. The milieu of isolated rural poverty and Islamic traditionalism heightens the atmosphere of hopeless dread (it might be politically incorrect to say it, but the truth is Catholics and Buddhists have the best exorcists). The early 1980s period details are all spot-on and the music, most particularly Suwono’s old records, burrows under your skin like a tick.

Tara Basro solidly anchors the film as Rini, but some of the best work comes from her younger co-stars, especially Nasar Annuz and M. Adhiyat, who are completely believable as Bondi and Ian, even when placed in some wildly freaky circumstances. As a bonus, Egy Fedly cranks up the attitude and eccentricity as Budiman, who was once a close friend of Rini’s grandmother, before becoming a paranoid Fortean researcher.

Frankly, Anwar is probably the most under-appreciated genre master working in cinema today. He has a masterful command of mood, pacing, and fear that builds over time. Despite, or maybe because of its thematic similarities with Hereditary, Satan’s Slaves could very well be the film that will take him to higher levels of international awareness and distribution. Very highly recommended, Satan’s Slaves screens again this Monday night (6/25) at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as part of Cinepocalypse 2018.

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Pascal Laugier’s Incident in a Ghostland

H.P. Lovecraft was probably the most influential horror writer since Poe, but the Social Justice Warriors are determined to bully and ban his books out of the canon. Alas, Lovecraft lived a bitter life, plagued by ill health and poverty, so he had the chance to assemble a large cast of multi-ethnic friends reflective of your average Williamsburg coffeehouse. Off to the memory-hole with him. That is why Lovecraft is such a strange choice to be the literary hero of young Elizabeth Keller, especially since her movie isn’t very Lovecraftian. However, there is plenty of other content to distract the professionally offended throughout Pascal Laugier’s Incident in a Ghostland (trailer here), which releases today on VOD and in limited theatrical release.

Beth and Vera Keller’s mom Pauline has just inherited a creepy farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere from their late aunt. Best of all, it is packed to the rafters with spooky vintage dolls. In addition to the house’s bad vibes, we know from the newspaper Beth was skimming, a couple of maniacs have been butchering families in their homes. Vera the drama queen could at least take the minimal effort to close the front door, but she is too busy being put out by the move.

Of course, the “Fat Man” and the “Candy Truck Woman” will take advantage of the open invitation. They don’t just kill, they torture their victims to death. However, the three women manage to survive. The adult Keller will become the celebrated horror novelist she always wanted to be. Unfortunately, Vera never recovered from the emotional shock. She lives a state of permanent PTSD, constantly reliving the experience, as if it never stopped. That is why it is so baffling her mother never moved them out of the house. However, when Elizabeth is lured into making an emergency visit, we start to suspect there is something more ominous to Vera’s condition than her sister previously realized.

Ghostland has a twist at the midway point that is a serious game-changer, but it is also a major downer. The violence, while not as intense as that seen in Laugier’s notorious Martyrs, will also put off many viewers, which is fair enough. However, many of our more kneejerk colleagues feel duty-bound to castigate the film for its alleged “transphobia.” You see, Candy Truck Woman is actually a dude, but that is hardly intended as any kind of social commentary. It is just part of the horror movie tradition of taking a perceived threat and revealing it to be even more dangerous than viewers had assumed.

Frankly, the only thing about Ghostland worth objecting to is its dubious commitment to on-set safety. According to news reports, Taylor Hickson was badly cut up in a scene involving real glass, which is unforgivable in any post-Midnight Rider production. It is a shame, because the two sets of actresses playing teen and adult Beth and Vera—Emilia Jones and Crystal Reed as Beth and Hickson and Anastasia Phillips as Vera—are remarkably compatible and ferociously committed.

Regardless, there is no denying this is one creepy unsafe space. All the sinister dolls and eerie bric-a-brac represents a triumph of production and set design. In fact, this film would actually be scarier if Laugier reined in the violence a bit and cranked up the anticipation instead. There are moments in Ghostland that really get under your skin, but the film’s on-screen violence and real-life misfortune are real buzz-kills. Only recommended for aspiring set decorators and prop designers, Incident in a Ghostland hits VOD platforms and select theaters today (6/22).

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Beach House: Hipster Artists Make Bad House Guests

She is an entitled brat who is not nearly as worldly as she thinks she is. He is an over-sexed, violence-obsessed man-child with a history of exploitative relationships. By all means, lets get these two together, because what could possibly go wrong? As we would expect, the outré art photographer will have a disruptive effect on the household when he crashes for a few days in Jason Saltiel’s Beach House (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Emma wants to take yet another semester off to find her creative writing voice in Berlin. Her long-time stepfather Henry takes her side against her mother Catherine, because his strategy has always been to placate her. He has the money to do it. After years of scuffling, Paul, her mother’s surprise houseguest is also in the money. For some reason, the art world suddenly decided his sexually provocative photo shoots are a good buy. His latest published series is inspired by The Death of Marat, but his most recent work are about two dozen Polaroids supposedly riffing on Giallo horror movies—as in a pretty girl getting strangled by a sinister pair of patent leather gloves.

Emma is fascinated and perhaps excited by the suspiciously realistic-looking photos, but she starts to become rather alarmed when she is unable to reach the model getting throttled (to confirm she is indeed still alive). Yet, she is increasingly perversely attracted to Paul, probably because it would really tick off her mother.

Beach House is a weirdly listless thriller, but that almost works because of it—almost. Emma and Paul are like the Gate-Keeper and the Key-Master. No sane person would ever put them together. However, we can nearly buy into the notion Catherine and Henry are too groggy from sunstroke to think clearly. Still, at some point, they have to snap out of it.

Willa Fitzgerald is effectively Lolita-esque as Emma, while Murray Bartlett conveys a dark, edgy magnetism as Paul. Orlagh Cassidy is also quite appealingly forceful and comparatively down-to-earth as Catherine. Thomas M. Hammond always seems to apologize for his very presence as Henry. (As an aside, the heavy beard he and Paul both sport are weird distractions. Surely, they could find a few razors in this tony beach front burg.)

Frankly, the basic premise is a little iffy and the energy level is what you might call “subdued,” but the beach house itself is a lovely piece of real estate. It has all the trappings for a Death Trap-style thriller, but the execution is far too slack. Not recommended, despite our respect for producer Ben Barenholtz (who just directed his first narrative feature, Alina, last year), Beach House opens this Friday (6/22) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


Ulugh Beg: The Man Who Unlocked the Universe

He created one of the greatest observatories in history, over a century before Galileo crafted his telescope. Unfortunately, both the observatory and the Timurid ruler who built it were destroyed by Islamist fundamentalists. Toppled by his son and killed by the rabble, Ulugh Beg’s story is the stuff of Sophocles, but his writings and scholarship would inspire astronauts in both the Soviet and American space programs. Tribute is paid to the towering scholar and short-lived ruler in Bakhodir Yuldashev’s Ulugh Beg: The Man Who Unlocked the Universe (trailer here), which starts streaming tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

Ulugh Beg is a major reason why the Samarkand old town center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. He built the imposing Registan Madrassa as well as the Observatory. Under his influence (during his father’s rule), Samarkand became the center of Islamic scholarship, particularly with respects to astronomy and mathematics. Alas, Ulugh Beg’s ascendency only lasted two years, and the son who usurped him had an even shorter tenure.

While it is debatable whether Ulugh Beg contributed any truly original theories to the astronomical field, his star charts, as well as his sin-and-co-sin tables remain voluminously extensive and incredibly accurate. He clearly had a genius-level intellect and was passionately committed to supporting the sciences, but the times he lived in were not as enlightened as he was.

Unlocked is a weird hybrid documentary that incorporates dramatic vignettes, as well as traditional talking head commentary. It is hosted by French actor Vincent Cassel, who looks like he is auditioning for a reboot of In Search of. The mature Sultan Ulugh Beg is played by Armand Assante, who has a big presence that suits his mostly dialogue-free scenes. Frankly, it is highly unlikely anyone else will amass a list of credits that includes Mike Hammer, John Gotti, Friedrich Nietzsche, Odysseus, and Ulugh Beg, so give the man all his due credit.

Granted, Yuldashev is more than a little bit inclined towards hagiography, but Ulugh Beg is a truly fascinating figure. There is also plenty of striking footage of Samarkand’s grand architecture and monuments. Most viewers will learn a good deal from the short doc, but it is also a rather notably odd curiosity piece. Worth thirty-eight minutes of your time, is available on Vimeo VOD and releases tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Accidental Detective 2: In Action/Inaction

As of a few years ago, it was technically illegal to work as a private detective, tattoo artist, or chiropractor in South Korea, but people did so anyway, because where would film noir be without those three professions? A cop and a civilian who recently helped him solve a case are convinced the law will soon change, so they have started their own agency to get in on the ground floor. That first case will take its sweet time walking in their door, but when it does, it also brings some serious danger with it in Lee Eon-hee’s Accidental Detective 2: In Action (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Jersey.

Kang Dae-man has gone from one Peter Pan career to another, selling his comic book store to open the detective agency with No Tae-soo, but he hasn’t told his wife yet. Similarly, No has not told his partner he is hedging his bets, taking a leave of absence from the force, rather than fully resigning. It will all come out during the stress of their first case: the murder of Kim Jae-min, not that the cops believe it was anything but an accident.

Coincidentally, Kim is one of several orphans who has recently died under mysterious circumstances, but there is one thing that sets him apart. He has a pregnant wife, who very definitely misses him. It is also weird how the well-heeled orphanage continues to take an active interest in their former charges well into proper adulthood. It will take real evidence to convince the new captain at No’s old precinct, so they recruit quirky Grasshopper to Piers Morgan a suspect’s phone. Henceforth, he will become their goofball mascot.

There is no question Grasshopper’s shtick can be painful to watch, but by and large, AD2 is a genial action-mystery-comedy. Frankly, the stakes are unusually high for the genre, but Lee still maintains a mostly lighthearted vibe. She and co-screenwriter Jung Han-jin even poke good-natured fun at crime movie conventions, as when our intrepid detectives first meet the head bad guy. Kang tellingly notes, if this were a movie, he would be the villain, which he is, because it is a movie.

Sung Dong-il is a good sport, looking all craggy and sour, even while he gets sucked into the chaos around him. Kwon Sang-woo is loud and clumsy playing Kang, but he still manages to be all business in a few key moments. Lee Kwang-soo’s Grasshopper just doesn’t translate well, but Kim Dong-wook steals several scenes as the maybe-not-quite-so-by-the-book Captain Kwon Chul-in.

AD2 has one very good chase sequence and a decent action climax, which is definitely not nothing. It is not even a pale shadow of The Villainess, but many non-Koreans would probably enjoy its breeziness if they had an opportunity to see it. Think of it as a pleasant-tasting light beer, but not an Amstel, when Accidental Detective 2: In Action opens this Friday (6/22), at the Edgewater Multiplex in New Jersey.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Next of Kin: Dr. Harcourt Treats Terrorism and Family Dysfunction

Family paranoia. It’s not just for horror movies anymore. Dr. Mona Harcourt always assumed her family were moderate progressive Muslims. After all, she married an Anglo Brit who looks a little like Steve Coogan (he’s actually Jack Davenport). Her brother Dr. Kareem Shirani even volunteers his time at a free clinic outside of Lahore. He is like a young and dashing version of the philanthropist in These Birds Walk, except he is about to be murdered by Islamists. The question will be to what extent was his possibly radicalized son involved? Dr. Harcourt will do her best to protect her family and other potential innocent victims in the six-episode Next of Kin (trailer here), which premieres bingeing-style this Thursday on Sundance Now.

Thanks to Guy Davenport’s new lobbying contract, his career is poised for the next level. Dr. Harcourt’s practice remains steady-as-it-goes and their son Sammi seems to be thriving at school. All appears to be well as they prepare her brother’s welcome home party, but the guest of honor never arrives.

Horrifyingly, their worst fears are confirmed by an internet video. The family is distraught, but the cops are only interested in his son Danish, who apparently dropped out of university without telling anyone. In fact, he is not on holiday in Spain. He is back in Lahore, held as a de facto prisoner by the Jihadist terror group that recruited him in London. As part of a counter-terror power play, Dr. Harcourt is forced to return to Lahore to claim her brother’s body, but that will also give her an opportunity to make contact with her nephew.

Kin is bulging at the seams with unlikely plot twists and uncomfortable family recriminations, but that is what makes it so voyeuristically entertaining. Just about everything under the sun is thrown at Mona and Guy Harcourt, but despite some bitter rows, they stay strong. Indeed, their core relationship is something we do not often see in film or TV, but it keeps us deeply invested.

On the macro side, creator-screenwriters Natasha Naryan & Paul Rutman consistently portray Islamist jihad as a cancerous threat and Western law enforcement as too bureaucratic and petty to provide an effective counter-force, which certainly reflects the state of the world. Over and over, viewers will find themselves face-palming due to the blundering of DCI Vivien Barnes’ special task force. Alas, it is all just too easy to believe.

Regardless, Archie Panjabi is absolutely terrific as Dr. Harcourt. In some ways, she is like a classic Hitchcock protag caught up in grand events beyond her control, but she has the added protective sensibilities of a mother, aunt, and medical doctor. Panjabi develops some unusually warm but deeply complex chemistry with Davenport (who was absolutely smashing as the Machiavellian Earl of Warwick in the recently closed Broadway production of Saint Joan). Viewers will really believe them together as a couple—and root for them.

Navin Chowdry is also quite good as Kareem. Even though his character is killed off early, he continues to be a potent present throughout the limited series. Viveik Kaira is an undeniably intense livewire of barely contained energy as Danish, but the real X-factor is Claire Skinner as the commanding DCI Barnes. Sometimes she has viewers booing in contempt and sometimes cheering at her grit, even within the same scene, but she is never boring.

You need to watch Kin through to the very end, because the closing montage ignited a mini-controversy after airing in the UK. ITV actually issued a statement asserting a certain character’s sudden chumminess with the terrorists didn’t really happen, even though we can see it with our own eyes. That’s right, this series is so paranoid, it doesn’t even believe itself. Yet, it is such a fitting way for it to end. Highly recommended for the skullduggery and if-I-had-but-known melodrama, Next of Kin starts streaming this Thursday (6/21) on Sundance Now.

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Monday, June 18, 2018

ICFF ’18: The Girl in the Fog

Det. Vogel’s weapon of choice is particularly dangerous. He wields the media. A well-timed feeding frenzy will cause many hardened serial killers to reveal themselves. However, there is always the risk they will turn on him. That happened during his last investigation, the co-called “Mutilator Case.” He has come to Avechot in the Italian Alps in search of the missing Anna Lou Kastner, but the restoration of his reputation is his real goal in Donato Carrisi’s The Girl in the Fog (trailer here), adapted from his own novel, which screens up north, as part of the Italian Contemporary Film Festival.

Two months after Kastner’s presumed abduction, Vogel is admitted to the hospital in a near catatonic state. He had a nasty auto accident, but the blood covering his clothes is not his own. Staff head-shrinker Dr. Augusto Flores is roused to interrogate the interrogator, whose investigation unfolds in media res.

Vogel is relatively sensitive while dealing with the Kastner family, but when they are not around, he is openly contemptuous of their Evangelical faith. He also clashes with the provincial police. However, it turns out Anna Lou really is the pious small-town girl she presented herself to be. She is no Laura Palmer, which is good for his media campaign. About halfway through, circumstances will cast suspicion on Prof. Loris Martini, who teaches English at Anna Lou’s high school. It is all highly circumstantial, but that does not trouble Vogel or his media hounds. At this point, whatever you’re assuming—don’t.

Fog is a little slow going at first, but once it has all its pieces in place, it down shifts into an especially dark and cynical psycho thriller. Compared to this film, Gone Girl is practically a love letter to Nancy Grace and the tabloid cable news media. Even though Carrisi’s novel has been translated into English, it is hard to see any mid-sized distributors taking this one on. Think of it as the absolute polar opposite of Spotlight.

Toni Servillo was born to play brainy incisive characters like Vogel. Of course, it is great fun to watch him cutting off fools at the knees. He is rock-solid as Vogel, but the detective is still rather a cold fish.  Hopefully, we can eventually see him play a really flamboyant smarty-pants sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Plus, the Italian-fluent Jean Reno is no mere walk-on as Dr. Flores. Their periodic framing banter holds a good deal of significance. As Martini, Alessio Boni will have viewings pulling their hair out in frustration, but that is certainly a sign of effectiveness. Lorenzo Richelmy also makes the most his key third act moments as Det. Borghi, the junior copper assigned to Vogel.

Much like Hereditary, Fog also uses scale models to help set the scene and establish geographical proximities in the small hamlet of Avechot. In this case, it is not quite as creepy (how could it be?), but still definitely heightens the sinister vibe. Cinematographer Federico Masiero does his part to dial up the moodiness too. Basically, this is a quality Euro thriller, much like what mystery fans have come to expect from Scandinavian imports. Highly recommended, The Girl in the Fog screens this Wednesday (6/20) in Toronto and Tuesday (6/19) and Thursday (6/21) in Vancouver, as part of ICFF 2018.

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

HRW ’18: The Distant Barking of Dogs

During our Civil War, spectators would pack a lunch to watch the battles. These days, war is a far riskier viewing experience. Oleg Afanasyev should know. He lives in the small village of Hnutove, which is so close to front line errant shells seem just as likely to overshoot it as well. Daily life is a challenge there, but it is the only home he and his guardian grandmother have ever known. Afanasyev must deal with the common byproducts of war, including fear and boredom, in Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary The Distant Barking of Dogs (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.

Neither Afanasyev or his grandmother has much to say about politics, but from what we gather, they are Russian-speakers, who identify as Ukrainian. His mother died during his infancy and his father is never mentioned. However, he has a single aunt and a cousin, with whom he is close, in a mischievous boy kind of way, but her lover will take them deeper into Ukraine once he is discharged from the army.

Distant Barking is an immersive, observational film. It never really says anything about Russian military adventurism in Ukraine, because it doesn’t need to. The audience can see the resulting wreckage in nearly every frame. Hnutove, pop. 700 and dropping, is fast-becoming a ghost-town, but Afanasyev and his grandmother are not going anywhere. Partly, it is because they have no place else to go. Language is also an issue, as his cousin learns. Yet, they also feel tied to the land.

This is a film of somber beauty that gives the audience a direct, experiential sense of what it is like to live a literal stone’s throw from a war zone. The word that best describes the scarred environment is probably “ghostly.” Serving as his own director of photography, Wilmont vividly captures the surreal nature of the locale, but his lens also seems to pick up every troubled thought that travels through the open-faced Afanasyev’s mind. Nobody physically dies on-screen, but we can see the protracted death of his innocence happening over the course of two years’ time.

Clearly, Wilmont is well-intentioned, but sometimes he feels too much like a bystander. He seems to accept the cover story that Ukrainian separatists are the ones doing the fighting in the Donetsk region, whereas the truth is they are mostly ununiformed Russian military and mercenaries from Serbia and other nations within the Russian sphere of influence. However, we can certainly see what they have wrought. Recommended for those who appreciate extremely personal documentary portraits, The Distant Barking of Dogs screens tomorrow night (6/18) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Tuesday night (6/19) at the IFC Center, as part of the 2018 HRW Film Festival in New York.

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

ICFF ’18: Compulsion

Forget the lurid sex. Clearly, the most fun anyone had on this film was during the location scouting. Somehow, they were able to shoot exteriors at Sacra di San Michele and interiors at what looks like the Palace of Venaria and the Villa della Regina. One would think such places would have some pretty rigorous permit processes, but somehow an S&M horror movie gained entrée. The sex and violence are the same old same old, but the locations are pretty awesome in Craig Goodwill’s English-language, Italian-produced Compulsion (trailer here), which screens today at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, as part of the Italian Contemporary Film Festival.

This is Sadie Glass. You will be seeing a lot of her naked. She barely survived the weird games her former lover Alex liked to play, but she used the experience to pen her thinly veiled autobiographical first novel. True blue Thierry is the right man for her, but he doesn’t always come through at crunch time, so when Alex crashes her book party (a bizarrely dressy event for a Fifty Shades potboiler, at what looks like the Palazzo Madama), she lights off with him, back into the seamy underside of Turin nightlife.

It turns out Alex is staying at his business partner’s boffo villa, where he will be hosting one of his notorious parties over the weekend. Naturally, he wants Glass to attend, but he gets a bonus when she invites erotic dancer Francesca along on a whim. Everything is cool when they are just doing their Skinimax thing, but as soon as the party starts, the vibe turns creepy. Glass gets woozy, starts losing time, and has visions of ritualistic killings. Everything is a game Alex tells her, but the blood stains she finds the next morning suggest otherwise.

It still just boggles the mind that a bodice-ripper-and-slasher like this could shoot in such grand venues. Essentially, the tone is a lot like Eyes Wide Shut, but with the liberal addition of overt horror elements and far less symbolically charged subtext. Jakob Cedergren is a classy actor in respectable, crossover Scandinavian films like Across the Water, Guilty, and Terribly Happy, so it is quite surprising to see him playing (credibly enough) the smarmy Alex. We feel bad for Analeigh Tipton, because the film often leaves her hanging out there, naked and haggard-looking, in a really ugly and exploitative way. It is somewhat kinder to Marta Gastini, who plays Francesca as a Holly Golightly from Hell. However, Jan Bijvoet does right by the horror tradition with his scenery-chewing turn as Minos, the cadaverous butler.

This is a complete change of pace from Goodwill first film, the hit-or-miss dystopian allegory Patch Town, but it is far more derivative of prior works. Brian Clark’s screenplay is a rat’s nest of weirdness and howlers, such as Glass’s practice of reading her final chapter at all her publicity events, which any experienced author will tell you is the best way to maximize sales. The film is a mess but the stunning backdrops often serve as a welcome distraction. If you watch Compulsion, you will have a strong desire to visit the Piedmont region, but you will probably never want to see it again. Not recommended, Compulsion screens tonight (6/16), as part of ICFF in Toronto.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

DWF ’18: Brother Pao Going into Town

Wu Dayou is sort of like a Chinese Tora-san, but he doesn’t realize a country rube like him is not supposed to win the girl. In fact, his guileless is his secret weapon. He has come to Beijing in search of the hometown sweetheart who went M.I.A., but he might just find love with someone else in Yang Yinan’s Brother Pao Going into Town (trailer here), which screens today as part of the Spotlight: China! sidebar at this year’s Dances With Films.

Wu kept up a steady correspondence with Dadan for months until she suddenly went quiet. We can all guess she found herself a sugar daddy (euphemistically called a “god-father” in the subtitles), but that thought never crosses his naïve mind. He will be staying with his brother Wu Qiantu, who is trying to make it as a scrappy art dealer, but he has just been taken by a scummy competitor.

About the same time, Wu Dayou loses his phone to Liya, a struggling art student desperate enough to pull such a petty scam. However, Dayou will soon get his phone back. In fact, he will cross paths with Liya repeatedly over the next few days. The same will be true for all the other characters who play a role in this story, because for a lug like Wu, Beijing is just one big small town.

Brother Pao is not high art, but it is the sort of mass market fare that is not often programmed at film festivals. There is a lot of shticky, slapsticky humor, but it is likably modest and genial. Eventually, Wu and his brother will forge a new family with the colorful characters who get pulled into his orbit. Frankly, it would be rather clever of the Hallmark Channel to acquire this film, because it could expand their audience without alienating their current viewers (notwithstanding a handful of sex jokes).

Guo Jinjie is earnest as the day is long as Wu Dayou. It is a rubber-faced performance to be sure, but you can see a bit of sad-clown in there too. Wen Qi serves nicely as a foil to him as the tough-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside Liya. Ironically, Liu Lijun delivers the film’s real moment of bittersweet poignancy as Dadan, while Zhang Qian is generally amusing as tart and grizzled Old Xu.

Brother Pao might be unrealistically upbeat—its like a Chinese Rent, but with a middle-aged square and an all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion—but its depiction of the Chinese art market is what really feels off. Some of the world’s most successful avant-garde artists hail from China, but the market leaders in this film all seem to be practicing the tradition of handscroll painting that dates back millennia. Still, the sixty-nine-minute Brother Pao Going into Town is a weirdly reassuring viewing experience. For those who want to check it out, it has its North American premiere this afternoon (6/15), during the 2018 Dances With Films.

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DWF ’18: Gatha (short)

The despoilment of the nation of Tibet is not merely an environmental tragedy. It also holds religious implications, due to the sacred status of the nation’s many natural wonders. Mount Kangrinboqê is a perfect example. The Himalayan peak is a frequent pilgrimage destination for believers of the Buddhist, Bon, Hindu, and Jain faiths. Two brothers will embark on the arduous trek in director-choreographer-screenwriter Tang Chenglong’s visually arresting and symbolically resonant short film, Gatha (trailer here), which screens today as part of the Spotlight: China! sidebar at this year’s Dances With Films.

As the two brothers slowly prostrate themselves towards Kangrinboqê, we can see the grubby modern world started to intrude on Tibet’s pristine mountains and valleys. However, from a pilgrim’s perspective, the landscape is still wild and unforgiving. They will traverse deserts, forests, and mountain ranges on their pilgrimage. Along the way, they also express the ecstatic joy of their faith through dance. Yet, there will also be sorrow, because that is very much a part of the cycle of life.

Geng Zibo and Chen Shifei dance with the striking strength and physicality, but their grace is just as evident. They are well-served by Tang’s dynamic choreography, which incorporates elements of martial arts and hip hop, but also expresses delight and wonder. Somehow, it evokes ancient mysticism, while still looking really cool and sleekly modern. Geng and Chen perform in natural settings that would dwarf most performers, but they still command the stage. Nevertheless, the staggering power of the Tibetan locales cannot and will not be denied.

Gatha is essentially an allegory, but it is deeply moving. It is also a sensory feast and a superb technical package, with special credit clearly due to “executive director” A Luo, who is also credited with the aerial photography and some of the camera work. This is one of the most ambitious and rewarding dance films in years, but it also serves as a timely reminder of what is at risk in occupied Tibet. Very highly recommended, Gatha screens this afternoon, as part of the Spotlight: Kids from China short film program, during the 2018 Dances With Films.

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DWF ’18: Hometown on the Cloud

It is time for Meet the Parents, Naxi style. Luo Li is finally going home to meet her fiancé Mu Shu’s parents in Lijang, deep within Yunnan province. Unfortunately, they are still rather attached to his ex, A Mei, who also happens to be his betrothed, according to Naxi custom. It is awkward for her, but Mu Shu’s sister Mu Yu helps take some of the heat off her when she brings home a foreigner fiancée. Cultures and family members clash in Zhang Chunhe & Wang Lei’s Hometown on the Cloud (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of the Spotlight: China! sidebar at this year’s Dances With Films.

Luo Li is a student of Naxi culture. That is how she met Mu Shu. In recent years, he has made his fame and fortune in Beijing as a modern sculptor, incorporating traditional Naxi elements into his work. His parents really ought to be more open to her, but they are emotionally attached to A Mei. Working as the village school teacher, she has coached the village children to several victories in traditional folk singing tournaments. Basically, she is Heidi, without the goat.

Alas, Mu Shu’s parents and just about everyone else in the village bitterly resents Mu Shu for breaking off with A Mei. To make amends, he agrees to go through the ancient decoupling ritual, even though that would seem to make her embarrassment even more public. Not that Mu Yu’s fiancé would know. As a foreigner, he will have to make himself scarce, to prevent tainting the ceremony.

Zhang & Wang capture the staggering beauty of Lijang as well as the distinctive colors and rhythms of Naxi culture, but there narrative hits some weird notes (starting with the implied notion the best way to honor Naxi culture is by commoditizing it). Nevertheless, it offers an intriguing window into an under-represented ethnic minority.

Our resilient Luo Li has real star potential and veteran character actor Zhao Xiaoming is suitably craggy and crabby as Mu’s father. Frankly, the cast is quite professional and polished despite the film’s obvious independent status—even produced outside the [embattled but experienced] Beijing indie network.

Hometown looks terrific and it is generally well-meaning. It has been a struggle for many minority cultures to survive in China, especially during the Cultural Revolutionary, so it is nice to see Zhang & Wang helping to preserve it on film. At times, Zhang’s screenplay drifts into melodramatic terrain, but he and his co-helmer maintain a brisk pace. Recommended as cinematic tourism (with an attractive cast), Hometown on the Cloud screens today (6/15), as part of the 2018 Dances With Films.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Yellow Birds

In recent years, the military has sanitized their marching cadences. Now the “yellow bird” gets his “little head” smashed, rather than his “f’ing head.” Surely, this has caused great relief among ornithologists everywhere. Unfortunately, they have not been able to prettify the nature of warfare itself. Incidents from the Iraq War will haunt survivors in Alexandre Moors’ Yellow Birds (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Brandon Bartle is twenty-one, making him a veritable gray beard compared to eighteen-year-old Daniel Murphy, but they are both from rural Virginia, so they bond during basic training. Sergeant Sterling also recognizes their reliability, so he takes them under his wing, at least to an extent. This is mostly a good thing, especially when they first arrive in-country.

We can tell from the flashback structure something profoundly unfortunate happened during their deployment, but Bartle clearly survived, since we watch the film through his remorseful POV. It is not long before we realize Murph’s fate remains unresolved, because a good deal of the third act involves his mother Maureen Murphy’s crusade for the truth. She is the one played by executive producer Jennifer Aniston (that’s right, Rachel from Friends is playing the mother of an eighteen-year-old).

Reportedly, Yellow Birds was recut after its Sundance premiere, which makes sense considering there are cast-members listed on its imdb page we’re at a loss to remember. The current cut is pretty tight and the temporal shifts mostly work, which is saying something. However, the current cut is probably not sufficiently scathing to satisfy to the anti-war left (which includes our current president), nor is it sympathetic enough to appeal to military families and supporters. Instead, it feels like it walks a carefully calibrated line down the middle, like one would more expect from a TV movie.

Alden Ehrenreich (who has had a tough summer with Solo) is very good as Bartle. He does his share of brooding, but it is a more complex performance than just that. Toni Collette also elevates the largely stereotypical role of his mother Amy (between this and Hereditary, she gives quite a composite portrait of motherhood). Aniston is fine as Mother Murphy, but it is a very safe role. However, Jack Huston is terrific as the increasingly unstable, but still formidable Sgt. Sterling. Most disappointingly, Jason Patric is largely squandered as CID Captain Anderson.

David Lowery’s screenplay, subsequently worked over by R.F.I. Porto, represents a good faith effort to adapt Kevin Powers’ novel. The film exhibits genuine empathy for Bartle and Murphy, which is to its credit. There are also some relatively convincing scenes of warfighting, but it never reaches the level of classical tragedy that it clearly aspires to. Indeed, it feels rather narrow in scope, especially compared to Patric’s classic war movie, The Beast. Yellow Birds is not a scandal, but it still doesn’t justify Manhattan ticket prices when it opens tomorrow (6/15), at the Village East.

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DWF ’18: Murder Made Easy

There is no better training for murder than the traditional one-set, five-character stage thriller. Just ask Sidney Bruhl in Death Trap. Maybe he isn’t such a good example, but Michael learned from the best: Dame Agatha. Years ago, his late friend Neil directed a hit summerstock production of The Mousetrap, featuring several of his selfish so-called friends. To settle scores, Michael will move the homicidal shenanigans from the stage to real life in David Palamaro’s Murder Made Easy (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Dances with Films, in Hollywood, CA.

It is the one-year anniversary of Neil’s death, but Michael and his widow Joan have clearly not moved on, despite the obvious sexual tension percolating between them. They both bitterly resent the betrayals of his friends, such as the hammy Marcus, whom is expected for dinner shortly. When he arrives, it is game on. Henceforth, there will be twists and turns, shifting loyalties, and a mounting body count.

MME is clearly a fond homage to old school stage and film thrillers, such as Death Trap, Sleuth, and Wait Until Dark. It directly refers to The Mousetrap, but Michael’s Nietzschean pretensions also clearly echo Rope. In any event, it is a great deal of fun watching Palamaro and his on-the-money cast drop one shoe after another.

Co-leads Christopher Soren Kelly and Jessica Graham nicely carry the picture, appearing on-screen together nearly the entire way through. Yet, they still manage to surprise us. Kelly (who was also terrific in the criminally under-heralded Infinity Chamber) is all kinds of sinister, but he also makes the most of some wickedly droll dialogue (especially when skewering the hippy dippy Cricket). As Joan, Graham is a femme fatale to die for.

You expect to have reversals and revelations in a film like this, but Palamaro and screenwriter Tim Davis still manage to fool us through some clever magician-style misdirection. It is a neat single-location thriller that will be especially entertaining for viewers that appreciate the tradition. Highly recommended, Murder Made Easy screens tonight (6/14), as part of the 2018 Dances With Films.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

China Salesman: Chinese Telecom Will Crush You

Supposedly, it is based on a “true story,” but even “inspired by” would be overstating matters. Chinese telecom giant Huawei has been accused of secretly installing backdoors in their products at the behest of the Mainland intelligence services. They have been accused of using bribery and strong-arm tactics to win contracts in the developing world, as well as doing end-runs around China’s labor laws. Obviously, they are the good guys. That is probably why even local audiences took a pass on Tan Bing’s China Salesman (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Peace has been declared in this unnamed African country and the former combatants are determined to beat their swords into a nation-wide 3G network. The scrappy Chinese company DH wants that contract, but all the opportunistic western firms sneer at them like Snidely Whiplash, because nobody believes the Chinese telecom sector can be competitive in this bizarre alternate universe. Susanna, the French NGO bureaucrat implementing the government’s bidding process even derisively refers to our hero Yan Jian as “China Salesman.”

He has been dispatched to assist stalwart division head Ruan Ling during the bidding process. Yan will be handy to have around, because he apparently serves R&D, sales, marketing, and IT functions at DH. Of course, the evil westerners want to stop them, so they contract a crusty old merc named Lauder and Kabbah, the heir to an ancient tribal kingdom to do their dirty work. Yet, even though they are initially on the same side, Lauder and Kabbah still have an inexplicable knock-down drag-out fight in the first act, because they are played by Steven Seagal and Mike Tyson. At least the film gets that right.

And that’s about it. China Salesman is naked propaganda of the most ludicrous variety. Nothing here rings true here or will shift hearts and minds in the slightest. Perhaps most amusing is Mexican-born Marc Philip Goodman shamelessly hamming it up as the dastardly American, albeit one that speaks with an impenetrable accent that sounds like a Flemish waiter working at a Tapas restaurant in Cypress.

Norwegian-born Parisian model Janicke Askevold also looks super-uncomfortable as Susanna, especially when she and Yan are supposed to be developing a romance. Frankly, their chemistry is so iffy, the film is constantly shutting them down and rebooting them. Likewise, Lauder and Kabbah change sides so frequently, we’re guessing Seagal and Tyson kept losing their scripts.

This isn’t just schlock, its badly intentioned schlock. However, it can serve a constructive purpose by reminding us of Huawei’s sharp practices and China’s unchecked adventurism in Africa. Not recommended (check out Iron Mike in Ip Man 3 and Kickboxer: Retaliation instead), China Salesman opens this Friday (6/15) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Frameline 42: The Silk and the Flame

The homecoming exodus across Mainland China leading up to New Year is considered the largest regular mass migration in the world. Unfortunately for Yao Shou, things get even more uncomfortable for him when he arrives at his parents’ house. Nobody would describe the climate for LGBT Chinese citizens as hospitable, especially not in their home. For various social reasons, such as the lack of welfare programs and the slightly loosened One Child policy, gays and lesbians are under enormous pressure to marry. Yao is a case in point. He thoughtfully explains the corrosive effect it has on his relationship with his family in Mandarin-fluent expat Jordan Schiele’s documentary, The Silk and the Flame (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Frameline in San Francisco.

It is easy to understand why the closeted Yao feels so guilty. His mother is deaf and essentially mute, due to a case of childhood medical malpractice. His stroke-impaired father has given up on life, sinking into a state of existential near-catatonia. Since he was a teenager, Yao was his family’s primary source of financial support—and he provided well. Yet, he is constantly miserable because he lacks a wife of convenience to placate them, as well as a lover for his own personal fulfillment.

Yao never particularly embraced life in Beijing, but he looks increasingly out of place in Jiwa, a provincial village in Henan. In large part, it is because of the unceasing questions he fields from family and neighbors regarding his matrimonial prospects, but we soon get a sense of even deeper tensions dividing Yao and his father.

Shot by Schiele in an ultra-stylish, Bruce Weber-ish black-and-white, Silk is easily one of the most visually striking docs in quite a while. It also gives viewers a vivid, home-and-hearth-level perspective on modern life in rural Henan. (It is almost like an anti-Ozu movie, except Yao still clearly enjoys the company of his nieces and nephews.) The trust that exists between the two friends, subject and documentarian, is also unmistakable. All things considered, the extent to which Yao opens himself up for his Schiele’s camera is quite remarkable.

Indeed, it makes you wonder what will happen when the film inevitably makes its way back to Jiwa village. An armchair psychologist might suggest that was secretly Yao’s intention all along, but he has certainly expended great time and effort thus far to maintain his double life. (As an aside, Yao’s teacher goes out of his way to rip Trump, but Chinese flag-wavers probably love him today.) Recommended for those interested in unvarnished everyday life in China, The Silk and the Flame screens this Saturday (6/16), as part of Frameline 42.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

HRW ’18: Angkar

Khonsaly Hay does not like to use the term “Khmer Rouge,” because it implies the entire Khmer people are guilty of genocide. He simply calls those who murdered his first family “Communists” or Angkar, meaning “The Organization.”  He has a good point and more than sufficient standing to make it. After forty years living quietly in France, he has finally returned to his homeland. His filmmaker-daughter Neary Adeline Hay will document his homecoming and the living ghosts he confronts in Hay’s Angkar (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.

Hay never thought he would return to Cambodia. In fact, he only recently started telling his daughter about his experiences during the genocide. He has a few teary reunions, but most of his original family was massacred by the Communists. Yet, in a colossally weird irony, his daughter owes her existence to the chaos of the late 70’s, because it was the Communists who forced her father to marry her mother (then a complete stranger) in bizarre mass-shotgun wedding.

The Cambodian landscape brings back a cascade of memories for Khonsaly Hay. Frankly, the past is very much present in the rural villages they visit, especially because the men most responsible for the execution of his family are still living there, in prominent positions of community leadership. He will face them all, but it is hard to tell if he gets what he wants from the experience. They all blame Angkar for excessive zeal but do their best to avoid personal responsibility.

Rather counter-intuitively, the Communist genocide has inspired a number of stylistically adventurous, or even downright experimental documentaries, such as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, Davy Chou’s exceptional Golden Slumbers, and Alexandre Liebert’s short doc, Scars of Cambodia (all of them are excellent). Angkar follows in this tradition with its meditative passages and immersive tracking shots. At times, you can feel the humidity and smell the musky air.

Even though it runs just over an hour, Hay’s film is quite effective as an expose, memory play, and family history. One point comes through crystal clear—without some semblance of justice, there will never be any healing. That is not likely to happen when perpetrators continue to live openly in the communities they terrorized and the political system continues to be monopolized by one party. It is a sensitive, evocative film that personalizes Cambodia’s tragic history. Highly recommended, Angkar screens this Saturday (6/16) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Sunday (6/17) at the IFC Center, as part of the 2018 HRW Film Festival in New York.

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Vidar the Vampire: Undead in Norway

Usually, vampires are seductive, as in Anne Rice novels, or sophisticated, like vintage Bela Lugosi. Sadly, Vidar Hårr is just plain awkward, but its not his fault. He’s Norwegian. Alas, the nocturnal existence of the undead just isn’t what he was hoping for in Thomas Aske Berg & Frederik Waldeland’s Vidar the Vampire (trailer here), which releases today on VOD, under the Dread Central Presents imprimatur.

Poor Hårr still lives with his mother, so it is no surprise he never had any luck with the ladies. He works like a dog on the farm and his only outside life comes on Sundays at their speaking-in-tongues church. Hårr desperately prays for a little action—and lo and behold, his wish is granted. Suddenly, he is a blood-dependent, light-sensitive vampire. He will learn the ropes of the hedonistic undead lifestyle from none other than the thoroughly debauched Jesus himself.

That water into wine gimmick always impresses women. Unfortunately, Hårr just can’t get with the program, even after a few resurrections. Frankly, he cramps his style so badly, Jesus starts to leave Hårr leashed up outside nightclubs, like a dog. At least Hårr has sought help from a shrink, to whom he tells his unlikely tale of woe, but he obviously needs years of therapy.

So yes, the land of fjords has brought us a depiction of Jesus Christ as a sociopathic playboy. The good news is whatever bad things you did during the making Vidar probably went unnoticed upstairs. His grace is infinite, but Brigt Skrettingland should still cut down on the cholesterol. In any event, it turns out Night of the Virgin isn’t the most offensive film we’re reviewing here today, which is saying something.

The thing is, unless you are completely besotted with the film’s transgressive, borderline blasphemous premise, it really isn’t that funny. V the V hits roughly the same notes over and over. Honestly, it is downright mean-spirited in its treatment of Hårr, not that he is an especially likable character anyway. Yet, they periodically harken back to his former innocence by having the actor who played young Hårr reprise the role in select present-day scenes, for dramatic effect. It is a striking technique, but it undercuts the pervasive nihilism required for most of the film’s humor (including a rather misogynistic sequence—seriously, Samantha Bee’s favorite word is used twice in the imdb credits to describe characters involved—and we’re not talking about “ineffectual”).

Berg is certainly gawky as Hårr, but it is debatable whether he really expresses any deeper human feelings. For better or worse, Skrettingland goes all in as the maniacal Jesus, so maybe we should all pray for his soul (or be grateful Buddha has a sense of humor about these things). Henrik Rafaelson also deserves credit for tapping into his inner Elmer Gantry as the faith-healing Pastor Tor Magne Abrahamsen.

If you want to see a film that pushes the envelope of good tastes (or rather vomits all over the envelope) than Night of the Virgin is the VOD film to dial up this week. Vidar has plenty of shock value, but it lacks a similar one-damn-thing-after-another cumulative impact. Only for those interested in extreme novelty, Vidar the Vampire releases today on VOD.

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Night of the Virgin: Ringing in the Occult New Year

In the American slasher movies of the 1980s, virginity was considered a key to survival. Unfortunately for Nico, this is a Spanish film. He is totally screwed and not in the way he had in mind throughout Roberto San Sebastián’s Night of the Virgin (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

It is New Year’s Eve, but Nico can’t get the time of day from any of the women in the bar where his friends are partying. Suddenly, he locks eyes with a cougar and they are off like a prom dress. When he gets to her apartment, he realizes Medea isn’t exactly what he thought, but desperate times, etc., etc. However, her apartment is just kind of gross. There are cockroaches scurrying everywhere and for some reason she keeps a jar of her menstrual blood in the bathroom. She also has a thing for Nepalese artifacts. That might sound classy, but we immediately suspect they are part of something more nefarious.

There is probably something off about Medea, but there is no question her ex-boyfriend violently pounding on the front door is a jealous nutcase. Nico would prefer to slip out quietly, but neither will let him get away so easily. Then things get bloody.

Even though there are only three noteworthy characters, Virgin is spectacularly gory, with all kinds of bodily fluids getting splattered about. They haven’t invented enough trigger warnings for this film, so hyper-sensitive viewers should just stay the Hell away. Even experienced cult movie fans should gird themselves before walking into this lunacy. Yet, you have to respect San Sebastián for having the guts and mischievous defiance to let loose this much chaos. To quote Cannonball Adderley: “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

Javier Bódalo also deserves credit for being rubber-faced, rubber-boned, and having a superhuman tolerance for humiliation as poor Nico. Likewise, Miriam Martín chews all kinds of scenery as the increasingly deranged Medea. Just like Bódalo, she does all of her work in the third act buried under layers of gunky makeup and practical effects.

Damn dudes, for real. If Night of the Virgin is not a notorious cult movie by tomorrow than we just don’t know what else San Sebastián and his crack makeup and effects team could have done. There is no holding back here, so when its over, you know you saw something. If this sounds like something you’re still interested in than you’d better watch Night of the Virgin when it releases today (6/12) on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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