J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: The Ningyo (pilot)

According to legend, the ningyo is sort of like a Japanese mermaid, but if true, the lore surrounding the mythical beast holds much more dramatic implications. Supposedly, those who eat ningyo flesh will extend their longevity by centuries. However, the death of a ningyo will raise great storms and natural disasters to plague the nation of Japan. Therefore, it logically follows some people will be desperately looking for the ningyo, while others are determined to keep them undiscovered. A crypto-zoologist finds himself caught between two such factions in Miguel Ortega & Tran Ma’s independent pilot, The Ningyo (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

In this steampunky alternate 1911, Prof. C. Marlowe discovered the okapi in Africa, but his obsessive quest for the ningyo does not sit well with his museum or their donors. Even though the ancient map he recovered could be considered evidence, they just want Marlowe to shut up and go away. Yet, that map must be legit, because both the Bikuni clan and the shadowy H. Prestor Sealous want it, for very different reasons. Spurned by his colleagues, Marlowe agrees to a face-to-face with the latter, but there is no guarantee he will survive the trek to the creature-collector’s subterranean lair.

It is really amazing how fully Ortega and Ma realize the feeling and texture of a steampunk world, relying more on inspiration and creativity than things like cash. In contrast, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on films like The Wild, Wild West and The Golden Compass that look flat and pale in comparison.

Ortega and Ma also clearly know their ningyo lore, as well as their late Nineteenth Century/early Twentieth Century science fiction and adventure literature, visual allusions to which are sprinkled throughout the pilot/proof-of-concept short. Yet, we feel safe in assuming their first love is creating creatures, because there are a bunch of them in The Ningyo. Arguably, Sealous’s secret showroom ranks up there with Mos Eisley in the original Star Wars for the high number of invented species per capita.

As if that were not enough, cult film and television fans will definitely dig the cast, which includes Tamlyn Tomita (from The Karate Kid II and Awesome Asian Bad Guys) lending her elegant gravitas to the project as mysterious matriarch Kiyohime Bikuni, Louis Ozawa Changchien (recurring on The Man in the High Castle) personifying steeliness as the enforcer, Hatori Bikuni, and Jerry Lacy (from the original Dark Shadows) reveling in villainy as the evil Sealous. As Marlowe, Rodrigo Lopresti (a.k.a. The Hermit) also has a firm handle on brooding and scientific mumbo jumbo.

The Ningyo looks amazing and it is wildly fun to watch. However, since Marlowe is essentially a Gilded Age Indiana Jones, it should come as no surprise the pilot ends with a cliffhanger. Presumably, that will be true for all subsequent episodes, which just feels right for this kind of steampunk adventure genre. Anyone who sees the Ningyo pilot will hope to see the full series get produced soon. (Is anyone from Netflix or Amazon Studios free Sunday morning?) Regardless, it is just invigorating for genre fans to dive into such a richly crafted world. Very highly recommended, The Ningyo screens this Sunday (5/28) at the Soho Playhouse, as part of the Philip K. Dick Film Festival’s Fantasy and the Fantastic shorts block.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Aden (short)

It is unclear whether the Aden Corporation’s motives are altruistic or maybe slightly more sinister, but in the short run, they are the only force preventing full-scale chaos from erupting on the streets. More precisely, it is their beleaguered bounty-hunter who does all the hard work in Gary H. Lee’s short film Aden, which screens during the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

Cyrus will be doing a lot of running tonight. His mission is to secure a gifted child from the giant killer robot on his tail. The beastly machine is invisible to most of the people on the street, but he can see it just fine—sort of like Roddy Piper in They Live. All those hipster bystanders assume Cyrus is crazy, until they feel the shock waves from its giant metal feet.

You can tell Aden is a proof-of-concept short, because it raises many questions about the nature of its world, but supplies absolutely no answers. Instead, it delivers a mega-concentrated dose of science fiction action. It is pretty amazing what kind of movie magic can be realized in short films these days, but Lee happens to be a special effects and animation specialist, whose credits include the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Kung Fu Panda franchises.

As Cyrus, Kevin Alejandro never gets a second of peace in Aden, but he is still the sort of hard-nosed, rumpled screen presence fans will appreciate. Charles Rahi Chun, Caroline Macey, and Logan Kishi are also completely convincing as the terrified family caught up in the strange phenomenon afoot.

This is definitely a cool looking film that evokes the cityscape of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as well as the Los Angeles of classic Hollywood film noir, making it a perfect selection for the Philip K. Dick Film Festival. It is also a compelling calling card for the planned feature film. (Note to studio talent scouts, there are a number of promising independent pilots and proof-of-concept shorts at this year’s festival.) Highly recommended for cyberpunk and noir fans, Aden screens this Saturday (5/27) as part of the Philip K. Dick fest’s Block 5: PKD Shorts—Inspiration or Adaptation at the Soho Playhouse.

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SIFF ’17: Without Name

We’re not psychiatrists mind you, but we still caution against combining a mid-life crisis with an isolated locale and a satchel full of psychedelic drugs. Eric the independent land surveyor is a good case study. His latest job will take him deep into the eco-heart of darkness in Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Eric’s marriage is on the rocks, partly because his wife more or less knows he is having an affair with his grad student-intern, Olivia. Their relationship has also been strained lately, but he still needs her assistance on his latest gig. His practice would ordinarily be too small for a job of this size, but his corporate client appreciates his reputation for “discretion.”

Fortunately, the company found him digs in an ominous looking cottage, left vacant since the previous tenant went insane and disappeared into the woods. He left behind a hand-written volume on the power of trees that looks like it holds plenty of relevant warnings, but Eric is not paying attention. He is too preoccupied with his suspicions regarding Gus, the mushroom-tripping camper-dwelling drifter, whom Olivia is so obviously attracted to. Both the surveyor and his assistant have some strange “lost time” incidents in the woods, but nothing they can’t shake off, until Eric overindulges in the ‘shrooms, throwing open his doors of perception (and letting in evil Mother Nature).

If the return of Twin Peaks is not enough to scare you out of the woods, Without Name ought to finish the job. It is smarter and more disciplined than The Hallow, the last previous uncanny forestry horror film to hail from Ireland, but you could say it is moody to a fault. Generally, it is always a better genre strategy to suggest than to explicitly show, but Finnegan maybe pushes the point too far. Still, he masterfully sets the scene and stokes the foreboding vibe. Cinematographer Piers McGrail and the sound effects team also contribute distinctively creepy work that really helps establish and maintain the film’s disturbingly surreal tone.

It is indeed frightfully convincing to watch Alan McKenna’s Eric slowly descend into paranoia and madness. Even in the early scenes, he is so tightly wound, you could get a migraine just from looking at him. On the other hand, Niamh Algar plays Olivia with such shallow petulance, it is hard to buy into their relationship, especially considering Eric’s wife is played by the striking looking Olga Wehrly (granted, she is frosty with him, but she has good reason).

Regardless, Finnegan and company display a real mastery of mood and horror mise en scene. Arguably, the old nutter’s treatise on trees is one of the best books-within-a-horror-movie since the nefarious kiddie picture-book in The Babadook. If Without Name ever becomes a sleeper hit, an Irish specialty publisher should release a facsimile edition. Regardless, it boasts some truly impressive visuals and sound design, but a little bit more narrative focus wouldn’t have killed anyone. Recommended for patient fans of eco-pagan horror, Without Name screens this Sunday (5/28) and the following Friday (6/2) and Sunday (6/4), as part of the 2017 SIFF.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Sociopaths (short)

Polyglots who learn a second language often have better grammar than native speakers. Perhaps that logic explains why an android treats people better than their fellow human beings. Watching his interactions will lead to a hard revelation for a little girl in Sociopaths, a short film with bite, directed by A.T. (a.k.a. Takeshi Asai), which screens during the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

A little girl drops her keys and nearly trips and falls, but a kindly android scoops them both up. Having never seen an android before, she starts following him in fascination. Time and again, she sees him to good deeds, but getting no thanks or acknowledgement in return.

For a while, Sociopaths seems like a lesson in proper manners and citizenship that would be instructive for younger viewers, but it takes a rather serious turn. Nevertheless, it certainly reminds us adults how we are supposed to act. It is a brief film, but young Miyu Ando is terrific as the little girl. She has to cover a wider emotional gamut than viewers will initially expect, but she does it like a champ. The craftsmanship of the android costuming and effects are also worthy of a big-budget studio tent-pole.

You could debate whether Sociopaths is really a work of science fiction, but it certainly uses the trappings of the genre to critique contemporary society, which is what the best speculative fiction has always done. It is indeed short (six minutes including end credits), but powerful. Very highly recommended, Sociopaths screens this Friday (5/26) at MoMI, as part of the International Sci Fi Shorts block of this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Everyone readily concedes the game of lacrosse was invented by the Haudenosaunee, also referred to as the Iroquois and Six Nations. However, it seems like Canadians will go out of their way to take credit for indoor “box lacrosse.” It’s the same basic rules and equipment, but with a roof. Wow, how did they ever come up with that? Not surprisingly, the Iroquois (as their jerseys self-identify) and Canadian national teams are natural rivals in World Indoor Lacrosse Championship (WLIC) competitions. Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter chronicle the development of the Iroquois national team and their bid for glory at the 2015 WLIC tournament in Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Iroquois homes throughout Upstate New York and Ontario are just like their neighbors, except there very well might be a lacrosse goal in the backyard. The game has always been a source of national pride, so it is not surprising the Iroquois are disproportionately represented among professional lacrosse players. Still, when WLIC decided to recognize the Iroquois national team, it was obviously a hugely significant decision.

It was also a big deal when the Haudenosaunee hosted the 2015 tourney (at the Syracuse stadium). Unfortunately, the Iroquois missed the previous championship, because the UK refused to recognize their tribal passports and the Iroquois refused to travel under official U.S. documents. When acting as hosts, they made it clear they hoped each team would go through the ceremony of having their passports stamped at the tribal offices. We’re pleased to report the American and Israeli teams were happy to oblige, with the proper spirit. In fact, the only team to snub the passport ritual was Team Canada.

Lacrosse is a fast-paced, action-packed game, but it does not get a heck of a lot of sports media attention, so it is fascinating to watch a behind-the-scenes peak into tournament play, especially from the underdog perspective of the Iroquois. Although scrupulously multicultural in their approach, Spirer and Baxter mostly take a straight-forward reportorial approach, with one notable exception. They really, really seem to dislike Dean French, the arrogant chairman of the Canadian national team, because they do their best to make him look like a fool and a blowhard. Towards that end, they get no shortage of assistance from Dean French, the tone-deaf chairman of the Canadian national team.

Arguably, the film veers a little too far out of bounds when it focused on attempts of Haudenosaunee leaders to start a dialogue with Pope Francis of the “Doctrine of Discovery” during his visit to America. Not surprisingly, Spirit Game is much more effective as a sports doc than as another piece of advocacy journalism. Recommended for sports fans of all WLIC member nations, except Canada, Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation opens this Friday (5/26) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset (with its iTunes release set for 6/20).

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tav Falco’s Urania Descending

There is a heck of a lot of National Socialist gold still out there. Some is safely tucked away in Swiss vaults, but there is one wayward shipment rather tantalizingly lying at the bottom of Lake Atter (a.k.a. the Attersee). An American fleeing boobsie Arkansas will be recruited into a scheme to salvage that gold in Tav Falco’s first feature-length film, Urania Descending (trailer here), which screens this Thursday as part of a night of the Panther Burns front man’s film at the Anthology Film Archives.

Title cards warn us not to expect perfectly synchronized audio, but frankly there will not be a lot of dialogue to worry about. Not exactly found footage, Descending claims to be the mysterious 16mm reels of an unknown outsider-artist filmmaker, cobbled together as well as possible. Although there is a bit of talking here and there, Falco is clearly engaging with the conventions and motifs of silent cinema—much more so than the caper movie.

Fed up with leering lowlifes, Gina Lee just up and bought a one-way ticket to Vienna. How long can she afford to idle away her days in merry old Vienna? Maybe for quite a while, if she can complete the job offered to her by tango-dancing playboy Diego Moritz. Her job will be to romance Karl-Heinz Von Riegl, the son of the German officer in charge of the gold shipment that crashed in Lake Atter. It will not be difficult to get him talking about it, but snapping a picture of the pertinent map will be a trickier task.

That probably makes it sound like intrigue abounds in Descending, but frankly there are almost no twists or turns to this sixty-nine minute tale. Instead, Falco is much more interested in realizing the film’s neo-retro look. Think of it as a more animated cousin of Sally Potter’s Thriller, or a less grungy, modern day Alphaville. Indeed, Descending could pass for Godard’s remake of a John Huston caper film, produced by the Warhol factory.

Descending is probably most successful evoking the spirit of Vienna through its soundtrack of accordion music, tangos, waltzes, and hints of the Third Man theme. Nevertheless, its deliberately self-conscious gamesmanship ultimately wears thin. This is definitely a case where it would be much more nourishing to watch the films that inspired Falco. More intriguing as a concept than as a finished film, Falco’s Urania Descending screens this Thursday night (5/25) at the Anthology Film Archives.

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Last Man Club: Their Final Flight

The B-17 “Flying Fortress” is the iconic plane of WWII. The Memphis Belle was one. It is also what Pete Williams and his comrades flew. They survived the war, but not unscathed. With time running short for Williams, his old captain John “Eagle” Pennell will try to assemble what is left of the crew for a final hurrah in Bo Brinkman’s Last Man Club (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Williams suffered from long bouts of depression after the war (he had good reason), but Pennel lived a relatively happy and productive life. Yet, despite his close relationship with his grandson Taylor, he has yet to bounce back from his beloved wife’s death. However, when he gets a letter from Williams putting the onus on him to reassemble the crew, it might be exactly what Pennel needs. Of course, he will have to sneak off without his family’s approval, but he will quickly team up with Romy, a woman on the run from her abusive gangster ex-boyfriend. Soon the Feds and the mob are tailing them, as they make pit-stops to pick-up additional crew members sharing Williams’ disappointment in their golden years.

Expanded from Brinkman’s 2002 short film of the same name (starring the late Charles Durning), Club is achingly well-intentioned and faultlessly respectful of the Army Air Corp veterans. However, the narrative essentially recycles elements of films like Tough Guys and the original Going in Style. Frankly, the subplot involving Romy’s criminal past is half-baked at best, but Kate French develops some nice friendly-flirtatious chemistry with all the flight crew veterans, especially James MacKrell as Pennel. However, among the crusty old salts, it is probably Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure, WarGames) who fares best as Williams.

It is too bad there are not more flying scenes in Club, but it is all too clear Brinkman was working under some pretty severe budget constraints. It is also hard to believe these old Army buddies use such bland language when they finally reconnect, but so be it. The Greatest Generation deserves a better film, but for those in the mood for a sentimental journey (two Glenn Miller references in one review), Last Man Club releases today on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Long Strange Trip: The Grateful Dead in Four Hours

The Grateful Dead were an anomaly. They were hippies with work ethics. While the band was intact, they played an estimated 2,350 live gigs—an officially recognized Guinness World’s Record. Of course, that life on the road took a toll. The surviving band members look back on the music and the entire madcap phenomenon in Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour documentary-palooza Long Strange Trip (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Grateful Dead was one of the few bands whose members even casual listeners could name—at least as far as lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and maybe percussionist Mickey Hart. The true blues could also easily rattle off the names of bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutmann, and the late keyboarder player, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. The Dead were unusual in many ways, one being they considered their regular lyricists John Perry Barlow and Robert Hunter to be members of the band. They processed a rich gumbo of styles, including bluegrass from Garcia, jazz and avant-garde music from Lesh, and the blues from McKernan, synthesizing it into the original rock & roll jam band.

As Joe Smith, the former president of Warner Bros. Records readily attests, marketing the undisciplined Dead was a challenge in the early days. They racked up an enormous debt to the label by using their initial recording sessions as tutorials in studio production techniques. Of course, it is easy for him to look back and laugh, given the money the label made on the more stripped-down, Americana-influenced Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums. In fact, it is rather interesting to watch Long Strange and PBS’s American Epic in short succession.

Inevitably, The Dead decided they were much more of a live band than a recording act. Essentially, they subscribed to a jazz-like ethos that every set should be different, with no predetermined set lists. Yet, the very unpredictability and in-the-moment nature of Dead shows gave rise to a culture of bootleg “Tapers,” who religiously documented every set, eventually with the band’s officially blessing.

Initially, Long Strange is a bit unfocused, but the film locks in when the band really starts to establish its identity. Frankly, the participating band alumni (including Barlow and back-up singer Donna Jane Godchaux) are all quite forthcoming about the band’s excesses and tragedies. Weir and his co-founding members admit they let McKernan feel too isolated within the band. They tried not to make the same mistake with Garcia in the mid-1990s, but it seems the iconic musician just didn’t want to be helped. However, when it comes to from-the-hip reminiscing, nobody can top the Dead’s former road manager, Sam Cutler. He was only with the band during the years of 1970-1974, but what long, strange years they were.

In fact, Bar-Lev consistently exposes the darkness lurking just below the hippy-dippy Deadhead experience. Frankly, much of the film serves as a cautionary warning against drug abuse and the increasingly intrusive idolatry of fans. He also gets a rare glimpse of the notoriously interview-averse Hunter, but no sound-bites.

At four hours and two minutes, Long Strange runs about half an hour longer than executive producer Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Yet, jazz fans will be frustrated Bar-Lev never found time for Ornette Coleman, Merl Saunders, and Bruce Hornsby, all of whom notably collaborated with the band. It also seems strange he left out the Dead’s involvement with The New Twilight Zone, because it would have fit nicely with Garcia’s fascination with the Universal Frankenstein movies, which Bar-Lev uses as a recurring motif.

Still, the film has a good handle on what made the Dead and their music so successful. It vividly evokes the tenor of their successive eras, without idealizing any of them. Bar-Lev really makes the case they were the quintessential American rock band of the Twentieth Century. Recommended for serious Deadheads and causal listeners curious enough to invest four hours, Long Strange Trip opens this Friday (5/26) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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HIFF ’17: Yellow Fever

If MTV’s Daria Morgendorffer had been adopted in Korea, she would probably express many of the attitudes held by Asia Bradford. Yes, her parents named her Asia—clearly without consulting her first. She is so tired of the whole model minority, find a rich older white boyfriend thing. Nor has she any use for ethnic identity or the Ktown scene. However, an unlikely friend of the family might help her reconnect with her roots, or possibly poison her forever on all things Korean in Kat Moon’s Yellow Fever (clip here), which screens as part of the 2017 Hoboken International Film Festival (in New York).

Bradford lives with her Asian-obsessed, compulsively inclusive white-bread parents Michael and Li, along with her manga-addicted younger brother Taro in a tony Upper Eastside townhouse. Believe me, they are doing well if they have the room to put up her father’s prodigal best pal John Smart while he sells late mother’s suburban Jersey house. For years, Smart lived in Korea, trying to recover from a broken heart. It was Li Bradford who broke it.

Somehow, Smart and Asia Bradford recognize each other as kindred brooding souls. When he drags her to a real Korean restaurant she is stunned to discover she kind of likes it. He even manages to interest her in the language too. However, various jealousies and misunderstandings within the Bradford family will force Smart to move out before his closing.

Strangely, Moon shows a better handle on her WASPy characters than the abrasive Asia Bradford. Being sardonic is all well and good, but Bradford can really be a pill. On the other hand, Li and Michael are silly Upper Eastsiders, but in acutely human ways. Frankly, the film picks up in the second half, as their subplots expand.

In fact, Nahanni Johnstone and Michael Lowry are so good as the Bradfords, we care more about whether they will save their marriage than if Asia finally starts to find herself. Still, nobody can deny Jenna Ushkowitz has a facility with snark. As Asia, she also develops some effective chemistry with Scott Patterson’s deadpan world-weary Smart.

Despite some creepy awkward bits, Fever is a genuinely likable film that ties up all its loose ends in an entirely satisfying manner. In some ways, it is like an updated John Hughes movie for our times. It is worth noting Moon set the film in 2000, to take into account Korea’s late 1980s restrictions on international adoptions. It is not nearly as fun and nostalgic as Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching, but it is pleasant enough. Recommended for fans of hip UES coming of age dramedies, Yellow Fever screens this Wednesday (5/24) as part of the Hoboken International Film Festival, logically in Greenwood Lake, NY.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

SIFF ’17: Becoming Who I Was

It is bad enough that the Chinese Communist Party interferes with the free practice of religion in Tibet. Maddingly, they are also complicating the reincarnation of a revered Rinpoche. The nine-year-old boy born Padma Angdu was determined to be the reincarnation of a revered teacher. The problem is, he lives in the northern Indian city of Ladakh, but his previous monastery was in Kham, Tibet. Of course, China tightly controls access to the occupied nation. The young Rinpoche would live a freer life in India, but he has karmic business in Tibet. That dilemma will preoccupy the boy and his godfather in Moon Chang-yong & Jeon Jin’s documentary, Becoming Who I Was (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

In many ways, Angdu (as he was once known and sort of still is to some) is a normal boy, who would like to be bigger and better at sports than he is. However, he understands he has a special place in the universe. In fact, Angdu claims he still has memories of his life in Kham. Unfortunately, when his former monastery fails to collect their venerated abbot (whether they even know of his existence remains unclear), the Ladakh monastery expels Angdu into the care of his new religious guardian, the devout Urgyan Rickzan, who also happens to be the only trained doctor in the region. (That seems highly unfair, considering they were the ones who proclaimed him a Rinpoche in the first place.)

Ultimately, Rickzan will take Angdu on a physical and spiritual pilgrimage, hoping to cross the border into Kham. However, weather and geopolitics are stacked against him. Frankly, even though Angdu will surely have greater educational opportunities than his peers, it is highly debatable whether his Rinpoche status will make him happier in the long-run.

Regardless, the relationship between Angdu and Rickzan is deeply moving. Even when circumstances are at their worst, they can still make each other laugh, which is indeed the Tibetan Buddhist way. The terrain might also be treacherous to trudge through, but is it ever cinematic. Moon and Jeon, acting as their own cinematographers and cameramen, frame some stunning visuals. Yet, the screen loves Angdu and Rickzan even more. They are both enormously charismatic and deeply sympathetic figures.

In many ways, Becoming provides a counterpoint to Nati Baratz’s widely screened documentary, Unmistaken Child. However, it is absolutely certain Angdu’s life would be immeasurably better if the PRC were not still holding Tibet as a captive nation (as would be true for nearly everyone in the sovereign country). Recommended as vivid portrait of the grueling demands of faith for contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, Becoming Who I Was screens this Wednesday (5/24), Thursday (5/25) and the following Thursday (6/1), during this year’s SIFF.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem

An army sweeps through the Old City of Jerusalem. Thousands of residents were displaced even though their ancestors had lived in the Quarter for generations. Places of worship were destroyed and graves were desecrated. The year is 1948. The Army is the Jordanian Arab Legion and the neighborhood is the Old Jewish Quarter. Perhaps you were expecting different players? Regardless, the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem certainly provides helpful context for understanding the early history of the State of Israel. Fittingly, that is where Erin Zimmerman starts her deeply insightful hybrid documentary, before chronicling the David-and-Goliath-like Six-Day War in In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem (trailer here), which screens nationwide this Tuesday, via Fathom Events.

The Six-Day War was orchestrated by Nasser to literally wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. The tiny democracy was vastly outnumbered. Not only had the Egyptian demagogue convinced a willing Iraq and a reluctant Jordan to combine forces, just before the launch of hostilities, Israel would be abandoned by its greatest ally at the time: France. Yet, the resulting war did not go exactly as planned.

Zimmerman tells the story through the oral histories of the surviving veterans of the 55th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade, while also using actors to dramatize the historic events they participated in. The focal point of the film is Major Arik Achmon, who served as the intelligence officer under the brigade’s legendary commander, Mordechai “Motta” Gur. Achmon painstakingly planned a desperately dangerous mission in the Sinai, but when the war dramatically turned in Israel’s favor, he had to change gears at a moment’s notice and devise a strategy for taking the Old City.

You might think you were sufficiently familiar with the battles of the Six-Day War, but Zimmerman and her interview subjects provide fascinating details and absolutely riveting personal accounts. As Achmon and his comrades fully explain the conditions and circumstances they were dealing with, the magnitude of their victory seems genuinely miraculous.

Context is indeed the key to In Our Hands. Zimmerman and company really give viewers a full historical, social, and psychological perspective on the War and the events leading up to and following after it. Tiresome partisans will want to dismiss the film outright, because it was produced by CBN films, but it is a really fine work of historical documentary filmmaking. There is no religious proselytizing whatsoever. In fact, the film takes pains to point out a great many secular Israeli soldiers died alongside their religious Jewish counterparts, sacrificing their lives for the dream of a free and secure democratic State of Israel.

Given the nature of the re-enactment sequences, it is hard for the various cast-members to stand out for their work playing historical figures. Still, it must be readily admitted Sharon Friedman and Rami Baruch swagger quite effectively as Gur and legendary Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Historian and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael B. Oren also lends the film a real voice of authority as one of the leading talking head experts.

Whether you are a faithful supporter of Israel, or a kneejerk critic, there is much to learn from In Our Hands. It also does justice to the human interest of one of the greatest underdog triumphs in military history. Very highly recommended, In Our Hands screens this coming Tuesday (5/23) at participating theaters throughout the country, including the AMC Empire and the Regal Union Square in New York.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Suite Française: American Viewers Finally Get to See the Irene Nemorivsky Film

Irène Némirovsky was an international bestseller in her own lifetime, but today she is best known for an unfinished posthumous publication. Of Russian-Jewish heritage, Némirovsky was denied citizenship by France and ultimately deported to Auschwitz, despite her fame and status as a Catholic convert and political conservative. Her tragic fate echoes throughout the pages of the incomplete novella sequence belatedly published in 2004. Ironically, the film adaptation has had a circuitous fate as well. Two years after Saul Dibb’s Suite Française (trailer here) opened throughout most of Europe, the Weinstein production finally bows this Monday on Lifetime.

Dibb and co-screenwriter solely adapted Dolce, the second novella set in the provincial village of Bussy, but if viewers want to get a sense of the “French Exodus” depicted in Tempête en Juin, they can check out Christian Carion’s admirable Come What May. Lucille Angellier and her stern mother-in-law Madame Angellier are surprised by the sudden arrival of domestic war migrants from the cities, but the property-holding Madame quickly moves to exploit it. The next wave of visitors are even more disruptive. Those would be the occupying National Socialist military forces.

Like every large household, the Angelliers are forced to quarter a German officer. In their case, they are relatively fortunate to host Commander Bruno van Falk, a music composer somewhat suspect among his comrades for his perceived lack of enthusiasm for their Nazi business. However, as the heretofore loyal wife develops an ambiguous friendship with her boarder, it leads to friction with her suspicious mother-in-law and their resentful neighbors. Yet, their sort of affair will give the younger Madame Angellier cover for sheltering a rebellious fugitive.

Frankly, it is utterly baffling how an adaptation of a legit bestseller related to the Holocaust starring Michelle Williams, Kirstin Scott Thomas, and a pre-Wolf of Wall Street Margot Robbie in a small supporting role could be shelved for so long. If the Weinstein Company were publicly traded, we’d say dump your stock now, because if they can’t market a film like this, they are in serious trouble.

Granted, Dibb’s Suite is not a likely Oscar contender, but it is solidly presentable. As a point of comparison, Carion’s film is probably half a star better, but solely due to Matthew Rhys’s standout supporting turn, for which there is no equivalent in Suite. Still, Scott Thomas is absolutely pitch-perfect as Madame Angellier, for reasons that ought to be intuitively obvious. Nobody does upper-crust snobbery better than her, but she also makes her redemptive moments exquisitely poignant.

As her daughter-in-law, Michelle Williams is not exactly dazzling in any respect, but she develops some effective chemistry with Matthias Schoenaerts. Robbie actually makes a bit of an impression as Celine, the village trollop, but it is Sam Riley who really lost out from the film’s dithering non-release. He does some of his best, most intense work as Benoit, the resentful tenant farmer itching to join the resistance. On the other hand, it is frustrating to see Claire Holman (the under-recognized X-factor, who made Inspector Lewis such a reliable viewing pleasure) woefully under-utilized as Marthe, the loyal servant.

During a slow week, Suite would have been a valid option in theaters, so it is well worth watching on basic cable. It has high production values and big name cast-members (also including Lambert Wilson, switching from French to English at a moment’s notice and Luther’s Ruth Wilson). Most importantly, it has Scott Thomas, who is just about enough to recommend any film on her own. There is intrigue and romance, but Dibb always treats the macro historical tragedies in a respectful manner. Easily recommended for mainstream audiences, Suite Française premieres (finally) this Monday night (5/22) on Lifetime.

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SIFF ’17: Lake Bodom

This picturesque locale is sort of like a Finnish Wolf Creek. In 1960, three teenagers were brutally murdered on the shores of the idyllic looking camping spot. Several people have been suspected of the murder, including the sole survivor and a possible KGB agent, but nobody has been convicted of the crimes. That means the killer is still out there. In light of that fact, perhaps it is slightly unwise for four teens to sneak out there as part of an ill-conceived plan to recreate the murders in Taneli Mustonen’s Lake Bodom (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

Atte is exactly the sort of serial killer obsessive teen weirdo Jamie Kennedy satirized in the Scream franchise. In contrast, his sort of pal Elias just likes girls. Of course, that is reason enough for them to convince Nora and Ida to come with them on a camping trip to Lake Bodom. Frankly, Ida could use a break from her parents and the other kids at school. Recently she fell victim to a roofie that led to naked pictures posted on the internet. This will be her first time out of her ultra-fundie house since the incident. Could be the last time too.

Naturally, just as the irresponsible teens turn in for the night, they start hearing suspicious noises outside the tent. Obviously, the best course of action is for one or two of them to walk off on their own to investigate. As it happens, there is a decidedly devious twist midway through the film. That also means it is pretty easy to guess what will be the next shoe to drop after that, but Mustonen clearly understands viewers are primed for it.

All things considered, Lake Bodom is quite a lethally effective slasher film. Mustonen is not slavishly obsessed with the 1960 case, but he and co-screenwriter Aleksi Hyvärien incorporate clever parallels. Also, Mimosa Willamo and Mikael Gabriel are both far better than your average slasher fodder as Nora and Elias, respectively.

So, judging from their recent national horror movie export product, Finnish teens as represented by Lake Bodom are just as messed up as Swedish teens represented by Alena and American teens represented by Devil’s Domain. In each film, the internet is not doing them any favors. Undeniably brutal at times, but considerably smarter than the industry standard, Lake Bodom is recommended for serial killer horror movie fans when it screens tonight (5/19) and Sunday (5/21) as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Dark Angel: Mary Ann Cotton’s Teapot of Death

They say poison is a woman’s choice of murder weapon. Mary Ann Cotton is a major reason why. She perfected the practice more than just about anyone who wasn’t Lucrezia Borgia. Criminologists and historians estimate she killed thirteen to twenty-one people with her little tea pot. Maybe one or two died from accidents or natural causes, but either way, death follows closely on Cotton’s heels in Dark Angel (promo here), which airs this Sunday on PBS as part of the current season of Masterpiece.

Frankly, Cotton found herself in the perfect time and place to get away with murder. Common laborers died all the time during the Victorian era from Typhoid, Cholera, or just plain misery and nobody much troubled themselves over it. Yet, Cotton had ambitions to rise above her station. Thanks to her first husband, who genuinely died to ill health (at least according to Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay), she discovered the wonders of life insurance. After his death, she collects thirty-five pounds. She’ll get used to that sort of transaction.

Generally, the oft-married murderess is referred to as Cotton, but she is first a Mowbray, and then a Ward. She believes she has finally arrived when she marries Robinson, a middle-class widower, but his children rather complicate matters. Then there is Cotton, plus several lovers. Not all of them die, but there is a very low survivor’s rate for those who get close to her. That also includes friends and family.

Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates in Downton Abbey) is quietly ferocious playing against type as the sociopathic Cotton. She is totally sinister, yet she also projects the fear and vulnerability of a (periodically) single woman in a highly class-conscious society. It is her show, but Alun Armstrong helps humanize it with his turn as her decent publican step-father. As for the rest of the ensemble—don’t get too attached.

Director Brian Percival lets the pace flag in the mid-section, but for the most part it is rather fascinating to watch the dramatic-forensic reconstruction of her life and crimes. There is plenty of death and a good bit of sex (she didn’t get all those husbands by accident), but it still represents true crime at its classiest. Recommended for fans of British costume dramas and crime shows, Dark Angel premieres this Sunday (5/21) on PBS.

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Devil’s Domain: Going Offline with Satan

Apparently, even Satan thinks social media is evil, so take that Mark Zuckerberg. It turns out he is also a really hot she—or at least that is the form the Evil One will assume while tempting a bullied lesbian teen in Jared Cohn’s Devil’s Domain (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Ever since she misinterpreted the feelings of her former BFF, Lisa Pomson has been relentlessly bullied by the popular 90210 kids at school. Even her childhood sweetheart gets in on the attack capturing her binge-and-purge moments and autoerotic interludes on spy-cams. When the video goes viral, the only people who will still talk to her are Bill, her likable step-dad and the smoking hot Destiny, whom she meets online.

Of course, Destiny is really the Devil, who has already been stalking her tormentors, 1980s slasher movie style. You’d think when members of your social circle started dying grisly deaths that subsequently get posted to the internet, you would try to start leveling your karma, but not these kids. Regardless, Destiny easily exploits Pomson’s desire for revenge and her sexual attraction to lure the teen into a classic Faustian bargain.

So, Domain basically serves up some demonic horror mixed with teen melodrama and lesbian sex, all brought to you by the same distributor that released The Black Room. If that doesn’t inspire confidence, consider the fact it was helmed by Cohn, who previously directed the hugely satisfying The Horde (albeit in a meathead kind of way). Frankly, Domain is not nearly as sex-obsessed as Room (how could it be?), but Cohn still exploits Linda Bella’s pin-up model looks to the fullest. Not much chance of Hell freezing over with her steaming up the joint.

As Pomson, Madi Vodane is convincingly angsty and horny, which basically means she is a believable teenager. The rest of her fellow teens are sufficiently obnoxious, but that is about the only variety they come in. Michael Madsen basically just talks in a husky voice and looks concerned as Bill. Cohn never has him cut off an ear or anything like that. Without question, Dave Huber is the most interesting mortal adult, providing a thin tether to reality as the tough but fair teacher, Mr. Gretten.

Whatever you say about Domain, nobody can deny Bella makes an impression. It should definitely lead to more femme fatale temptress work for her. Cohn’s screenplay also genuinely taps into very legitimate fears about cyber-bullying and the erosion of privacy. Still, its nearly as fun as watching a former Navy SEAL chop through a clan of inbred hillbilly freaks. Fans of dark and heavy alternative rock will also appreciate the soundtrack, which includes Iggy and the Stooges. This film certainly delivers what it promises and it is never dull, so if you are in the mood for a midnight movie you could do far worse than Devil’s Domain when it opens tomorrow (5/19) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

RIFF ’17: Wolves (short)

An RAF pilot loses his sidearm after his plane is shot down behind enemy lines. That sounds bad, but it gets worse when we realize this might not be a war movie. It might fall into the horror genre instead. Or maybe not. Call it whatever you like, but Álvaro Rodriguez Areny’s Wolves (trailer here) is a heck of an intense short film that screens during the 2017 Ridgefield Independent Film Festival.

The dogfight ends badly for Arthur, but the bailing out and crashing-and-burning effects are pretty impressive for a short film. Injured and unarmed, he makes his way to an apparently abandoned country estate. Unfortunately, the National Socialists are following close on his heels—and they might be even more sinister than we thought.

Very subtly, Areny drops hints that there might be something supernaturally evil afoot here. He gives flashes that are almost subliminal, but undeniably creepy. Regardless, he clearly uses a visual vocabulary much more in keeping with the horror genre than an Alastair MacLean-style manhunt thriller. Yet, it still has more action packed into it than many feature-length war movies. It might be a tease for a prospective feature, but it is certainly effective.

Andorran TV star Isak Férriz goes all in with an impressively physical performance. He genuinely looks like the fear of death is in him. Areny and cinematographer Marc Gallifa give it all a darkly stylish look that keeps us off balance and in some instances uncertain whether we just saw what we thought we saw. It is quite an accomplished twelve-minute film. Very highly recommended, it screens this Friday (5/19) during the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival, in Connecticut.

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Merchant Ivory’s Maurice

Even though E.M. Forster’s twice-revised posthumous novel of the love that dare not speak its name was not published until after his death, a non-canonical ending still circulates in some editions. On the advice of a few trusted friends, Forster discarded a years-after-the-fact postscript—and so did the characteristically classy Merchant Ivory adaptation. In honor of its thirtieth anniversary, a pristine 4K restoration of James Ivory’s Maurice (trailer here) returns to theaters in New York this Friday.

Maurice (pronounced “Morris”) Hall is a middle-class striver, whereas Clive Durham is to the manor born, but when they meet at Cambridge, their mutual attraction is undeniable. Unfortunately, in early 1910s England, it is also illegal. Ironically, it is Durham who makes the first move. Although initially shocked, Hall quickly becomes much more accepting of their orientation and maybe a bit more reckless than Durham would prefer.

Soon after leaving Cambridge, Durham breaks off their romantic relationship, spooked by the public disgrace of a former classmate. The two men maintain an ostensibly platonic friendship, but their secret past is always hovering over their heads. Yet, it is during Hall’s awkward visits to Durham’s estate that he meets a certain under-gamekeeper by the name of Scudder. (Gamekeepers just seem to get a lot of action in English literature, don’t they?)

Frankly, A Room with a View is probably the best Marchant-Ivory Forster adaptation, but Maurice is still a finely crafted period production. Unlike agonizingly reserved M-I films such as the masterful Remains of the Day (the full greatness of which is still not sufficiently recognized, despite its eight Oscar nominations), Maurice has a slight tendency towards the melodramatic. However, it is at its best when depicting the complicated way Hall’s strained relationship with Durham continues to evolve.

In all fairness, Hugh Grant is excellent in the role of Durham, but it is uncomfortably meta watching him fret over a possible scandal in light of the actor’s own well publicized vice bust. In contrast, James Wilby’s Hall is a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, whipsawing back and forth between painful sincerity and brusque aloofness (A Handful of Dust from the following year probably still represents his best work). Rupert Graves is almost unrecognizable, but impressively intense as the rough, passionate Scudder. Yet, it is the crafty veterans Simon Callow, Barry Foster, Denholm Elliott, and Sir Ben Kingsley who consistently steal the show with small but colorful (and critically important) supporting turns.

Partly shot on location at King’s College, Maurice is a handsome film that captures the stateliness and stifling conformity of the characters’ privileged milieu. It certainly looks like a Merchant Ivory film, which is always a good thing. Respectfully recommended for fans of the sort of literate British historical dramas James Ivory perfected with his longtime producing partner Ismail Merchant, Maurice opens this Friday (5/19) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Legion of Brothers: The Story of the Green Berets in Afghanistan

In the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom, Special Forces Team 595 became the first military unit to engage the enemy on horseback. Their heroic efforts have been immortalized with the America’s Response Monument in front of World Trade Center One. Fifteen years later, the Green Beret veterans reflect on their fateful service in Greg Barker’s Legion of Brothers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The 595 and the 574 were some of the first American boots on the ground. The 595 embedded with the North Alliance outside of Mazar-e-Sharif, while the 574 largely operated on their own in the south, before eventually coordinating with Hamid Karzai and his forces. Most Americans have forgotten—if they ever really knew—just how quickly and successfully this Special Forces vanguard completed their mission. Frankly, they had all but toppled the Taliban before any proper military chain of command arrived in-country. Then things started to get complicated.

Obviously, you cannot get bogged down in a country if you only have a few dozen military personnel deployed there. It is a different matter when you get up to the tens of thousands. The Green Berets were also effective diplomats who won the trust of their Afghan allies. They also had hard won local knowledge they could immediately apply to any tactical situation. Unfortunately, when the higher-ranking officers arrived, they started issuing dubious orders to justify their presence, which led to the horrific tragedy that dominates Legion’s third act. At least that is how Barker and the Special Forces veterans see it—and the deeply remorseful officer in question never really contradicts them. It is just painful to watch the haunted officer’s interview segments.

In many ways, Legion is an eye-opening documentary. Yet, should we really be surprised that decentralized decision-making yields better results than a rigid top-down command-and-control model? Now if Barker and CNN Films will apply these lessons to the economy, we might really start to get somewhere.

It is absolutely maddening to compare Afghanistan as the 595 and 574 left it, with the state of the country today. However, Barker and his subjects focus more on their own grief for fallen comrades. Throughout the film, Barker’s sympathies fall squarely behind the Green Berets, but he is not quite as scrupulously nonpartisan and agenda-less as Christian Tureaud, David Salzberg, and Alex Quade, whose films represent the gold standard of embedded documentaries. It seems safe to say Barker has issues with the way Afghanistan operations have been conducted during the subsequent fifteen years, which is fair enough.

Barker captures moments of soul-rending pain and healing catharsis, but the film never feels exploitative. Many of the Green Berets are quite brave in what they are willing to share, but courage is what they do. Recommended for its empathy and a trenchant analysis of what went right in Afghanistan and how it started to go wrong, Legion of Brothers opens this Friday (5/19) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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New Adventures of Aladdin (its French)

Considering it was Antoine Galland who first added the story of Aladdin to the Arabian Nights, the French have as much right as anyone to give him the mash-up treatment. In this case, it probably helps to get the jokes if you understand the anachronistic French idioms. Too bad its dubbed. Be that as it may, Arthur Benzaqueen’s The New Adventures of Aladdin (trailer here) releases today on VOD.

Sam told his out-of-his-league girlfriend Sofia he works in finance, but he is really a homeless bum doing temp work as a department store Santa. He can’t come to Christmas dinner with Sofia’s disapproving family, because he stuck telling stories to the urchins. For some reason, he decides to go with Aladdin, who looks very much like Sam, albeit with radically different wardrobe.

Through various misadventures, Aladdin will acquire a certain lamp housing a less than gracious genie. Wishes will be granted to help the thief win over the beautiful Princess Shallia, but the evil Vizier manipulating her easily distracted father behind the throne will not give up power without a fight.

Benzaqueen and screenwriter Daive Cohen go for humor based on the ironic juxtaposition of modern attitudes with storybook tropes—sort of like Shrek and Shelley Duval’s Fairy Tale Theater, but with somewhat more ribald and scatological seasoning. It is hard not to get the broad comedy, but the obvious dubbing job makes it all sound unfortunately cheesy. Frankly, anime is probably the only genre who can get away with dubbing, because there is a large pool of specialists who really understand the franchises and conventions.

As Aladdin and Sam, Kev Adams can clearly take a pratfall, but that doesn’t mean he always should. Similarly, Jean-Paul Rouve seems to be playing to the back row of a Nineteenth Century vaudeville hall as the Vizier. Vanessa Guide certainly looks the part of the princess and more less manages to carry herself with dignity. Of course, Eric Judor is almost required by law to get shticky as the genie, but at least he makes the case for democracy and low taxation. Too bad the citizens of Baghdad are not listening.

On the plus side, the special effects are considerable better than necessary for a film like this. The flying carpets look surprisingly credible and the tomb-raiding sequences are kind of cool. Basically, this is dumb but harmless film. You might consider it if you are looking for a spoof film with an intelligence level somewhere in between the happily tasteless Zucker, Abrams, and Zucker originals and the utterly moronic Friedberg-Seltzer “Blank Movie” braincell-killers, now that The New Adventures of Aladdin is available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Wajda’s Afterimage

Few film directors were as well qualified to address the intersection of art and politics as Andrzej Wajda. For decades, he was bedeviled by Communist censorship, but in 1989 he was elected to the Polish Senate as a member of Solidarity. Wajda would later help found the Polish Museum of Communism to document and preserve the truth about the Communist era. It was a mission that also motivated many of Wajda’s late career masterworks. Unlike Wajda, Constructivist painter and modern art theoretician Władysław Strzemiński unfortunately did not survive the state’s campaign against him and the insufficiently ideological style of art he represented. Fittingly, Strzemiński is the subject of Wajda’s final, masterful film Afterimage (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Strzemiński was a double-amputee war veteran, but he lost his arm and leg during the First World War, which did not quite have the political cachet granted to the Great Patriotic War under the new Socialist regime. Nevertheless, he still painted prolifically and became a force within the Polish art world. He was a leading faculty member in the Łodz art academy later renamed in his honor and designed the Neoplastic Room, a gallery within the Museum Sztuki showcasing modernist art of the 1920s and 1930s, including the sculpture of his ex-wife Katarzyna Kobro. Even though Strzemiński had once been a revolutionary firebrand, he took a dim view of any attempt to impose ideology on art, most definitely including Socialist Realism.

Consequently, the State deliberately set out to crush Strzemiński, despite his popularity with his students and his international prominence. Initially, the artist assumes the authorities’ belligerence will quickly blow over, but his situation grows dire when he is dismissed from the Lodz academy and blackballed from other means of employment. He is not even allowed to purchase art supplies after the artists’ union expels him. To further compound the tragedy, Strzemiński finds himself the sole support of his pre-teen daughter after her mother Kobro succumbs to a long illness.

It is easy to see how Wajda would identify with Strzemiński. Although he is closely associated with the so-called “Cinema of Moral Concern,” Wajda predated the movement by decades. He produced his first documentary shorts during the early 1950s, the final years of Strzemiński’s life. He was witness to those times and films like Afterimage are his testimony.

Indeed, Wajda and screenwriter Andrzej Mularczyk do not sugar-coat any aspect of his life-story, least of all the ruthlessness of the Party apparatus brought to bear against him. Nor do they try to install Strzemiński as a Constructivist saint. The lead performance of Bogusław Linda (the dollmaker in Dekalog: Seven) is acutely human and deeply nuanced. Strzemiński very definitely has an “artistic temperament.” He can be brusque and self-centered, but he also has a high capacity for empathy and a genuine passion for art. In no possible way can Linda’s Strzemiński be reduced to a catch-all cliché, but that is exactly what the Party set out to do.

Young Bronisława Zamachowska is also quite remarkable as Strzemiński’s not quite estranged daughter Nika, displaying maturity beyond her years in her scenes with Linda. She projects real grit and sensitivity, so it is a heavy moment when Strzemiński remarks to a student she will have a hard life because of him.

Rather appropriately, Afterimage is also a film of powerful visuals, from the huge banner of Stalin blocking the light into Strzemiński’s flat to the skewed perspective on his ironic death scene. This is Wajda’s final film, but it is not an awkward swan song. Throughout every frame, his skill and artistry are just as sharp as ever and his passion for truth and freedom remain undiminished. It is another major film from arguably the single most important filmmaker of our lifetimes. Very highly recommended, Afterimage opens this Friday (5/19) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.

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