J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Houses October Built 2: Blue Skeleton Strikes Back

This is one area where it is definitely more socially favorable to receive rather than give. Most folks can accept the healthy catharsis of enjoying a good scare, but if you dig scaring people, you are probably some kind of mean bastard. It makes you wonder about the people who work at “extreme haunts.” Most of them probably just want to entertain their patrons, but the shadowy group known as Blue Skeleton is something else entirely. At the end of the first film, Blue Skeleton had entombed Brandy in a coffin and were just about to cover it with dirt when the cops arrived. Now known on the internet as “Coffin Girl,” she will reluctantly join her cash-poor friends and fellow Blue Skeleton survivors on another tour of the heartland’s most distinctive haunted houses in Bobby Roe’s The Houses October Built 2 (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The October franchise is an interesting attempt to combine the found footage horror movie with reality travel programming. As in the first installment, Brandy and her jerky pals will tour some real-life haunts and in some cases, talk to the actual proprietors. Not surprisingly, it is hard to get the mix right, but some of the attractions, like the zombie run and a cerebral zombie apocalypse role playing scenario look like a great deal of fun.

Unfortunately, it is never all that scary to watch them tour the real world, fake haunts. However, we periodically see ominous signs Blue Skeleton is out there, watching them. It should therefore surprise nobody when it turns out they are the people behind “Hellbent,” the extreme haunt all the professionals are talking about in hushed tones.

For the most part, Roe and co-writer-co-star Zack Andrews follow the same playbook they used for the first film, but that option will not be available to them if they come back for another sequel, because of a game-changing climax. It is also striking how little actual on-screen gore can be seen in these films. Yet, the sequel has some admittedly creepy moments.

To increase the meta-ness, all five Scooby Mystery team members play their namesakes. They deserve credit, because they really nail that bickering, bantering camaraderie, which is so tough to fake. We definitely believe they have been through a lot together. Brandy Schaefer is particularly compelling as “Coffin Girl.” She is absolutely not a victim, but she also has an understandably limited tolerance for extreme shenanigans.

October 2 isn’t the scariest film you will ever see, but it might give viewers some ideas for road trips. As an added bonus, we also get to watch champion competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi scarfing zombie brains. It is hard to formulaic a precise reaction to the sequel, but we are definitely curious to see where it might go from here. Recommended as an eventual stream on Netflix or Shudder, The Houses October Built 2 opens today (9/22) in New York, at the Village East.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Woodshock: Kirsten Dunst Smokes Up

You basically have two legitimate employment options in Humboldt County: logging and marijuana dispensaries. The former is highly discouraged by the state and local governments, whereas the latter has a regulatory green light, but they certainly to ought to check out the pot shop where Theresa works. In addition to Maui Wowie, they sell a special hemlock blend. Get ready to spend a lot of time with trees and grass in fashion maven sisters Kate & Laura Mulleavy’s Woodshock (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

One day, Theresa brings home some of her special blend for her terminally ill mother, but the resulting guilt crushes her psyche. She spends whole days moping around her mother’s house or wandering the forest outside in a t-shirt and panties. Her logger husband Nick isn’t around much, because his company finally received clearance to clear a patch of old growth trees. Occasionally, she shows up to work at Keith’s Dr. Feelgood dispensary, but she is so out of it, she “mishandles” the “special blend.” She is either going crazy or perhaps the spirit of the clear-cut forest is calling out to her—most likely, it is the first option.

You have to wonder what was described on the pages of the Mulleavys’ script that convinced Kirsten Dunst this could be her next-level-up film. Did they actually write out: “Theresa walks around the forest in her underwear hugging trees, then we cut to an owl, and then back to Theresa, super-imposing a double image on top of her, to suggest her soul might be leaving her body, at which point she suddenly awakes in her bed?”

That is what the whole, maddening film is like. It is sort of a Twin Peaks without the characters, dialogue, plot, and mythology. Basically, all that leaves are some strobe lights in the woods. To be fair, Dunst has enough presence to withstand the constant, withering close-ups, but to no real end. Pilou Asbæk, drastically slimmed down from his memorable turn as the loutish Didrich in 1864, makes a convincing drunk, but he doesn’t get much else to do as Keith. At least he gets more screen time than poor Joe Cole’s Nick, who disappears for inexplicably long stretches even though they are married and live together in the house they used to share with her late mum.

When our screening ended, there were audible groans among my colleagues. Believe me, they were not chanting “Woooodshock.” We are talking about a tough slog here and there is nothing at the end of the tunnel to justify the effort. The film desperately wants to be Lynchian and Polanski-esque, but its just not happening. Not recommended, Woodshock opens tomorrow (9/22) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the new Landmark 57 in Midtown.


Welcome to Willits: Fighting Aliens in the Emerald Triangle

Tin foil hats—they’re not just for conspiracy nutters anymore. An alien abduction survivor will deck out his terrified niece Courtney in an aluminum foil skull cap as a defense against extraterrestrial mind control. Clearly, Courtney is one of the few sane ones her family, just as Jeremiah is really the only decent dude in the group of college friends camping not far from Uncle Brock’s cabin. These two kids really ought to get together in Trevor Ryan’s Welcome to Willets (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Old Brock has lost it. Who knows, maybe he really was abducted, but the subsequent post-traumatic stress and paranoia have completely unhinged his psyche. Aunt Peggy either humors him or has come to share his delusions. They hope the “aliens” will not bother them while Courtney is staying with them, but when the obnoxious Zack starts prowling around their Emerald Triangle pot grove, it triggers all the wrong responses in Uncle Brock’s head. Soon he starts to suspect the understandably freaked out Courtney is acting under alien influence, so they tie her up and chuck her into the closet.

Surprisingly, the Ryans, director Trevor and screenwriter Tim, do not play a lot of is-he-or-isn’t-he, are-they-or-aren’t-they games. Notwithstanding his flashbacks, it is pretty clear from early on Uncle Brock is just completely off his rocker. Bill Sage, who is no stranger to horror movies, is perfectly cast as the crazy uncle. You could almost call it a throwback performance that is more sadly tragic (and acutely human) than scary.

However, the real highlight of the film is a series of cameo appearances from Dolph Lundgren as a fictional shoot-first-and-then-shoot-again-later TV cop (on the show Fists of Justice), whom the aliens periodically use to issue threats to Brock, at least in his head. As you would expect, whenever Lundgren is on-screen to lunacy cranks up to eleven. In all seriousness, it is time for the Academy to recognize Lundgren’s contributions with an honorary Oscar. He is a survivor, who has made key contributions to the Rocky, Expendables, and Universal Soldier franchises. He fought commies in Red Scorpion and sharks in Shark Lake. He is also a prominent activist in the real-life fight against human trafficking, which makes him more of a humanitarian and a better actor than that screeching, over-acting Meryl Streep, so there is really no excuse to deny him the recognition he is due.

So, anyway, Willets is basically a crazy-hicks-in-the-woods movie, but it has a great cast. In addition to Lundgren and Sage, Rory Culkin probably takes on the role he was born to play as Possum, the drug-addled, conspiracy theory-spouting drifter, who awkwardly tags along with Jeremiah’s shallow pals. Garrett Clayton is spectacularly obnoxious as the entitled Zack, while Anastasia Baranova and Chris Zylka are appealingly earnest and grounded as Courtney and Jeremiah.

The key art for Willets makes it look larky, but it is very much a human-scale genre examination of human foibles—until Lundgren struts on-screen. It is a relatively simple narrative, but it is distinguished by several memorably colorful performances. Recommended for horror fans and Academy members (who should also check out Lundgren in the sensitive demon-hunting drama, Don’t Kill It), Welcome to Willets opens tomorrow (9/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Last Rampage: Robert Patrick as Gary Tison

Gary Tison secured a place in history for his family. Unfortunately, it was with the landmark death penalty case, Tison vs. Arizona. He exerted a dysfunctional Svengali-like control over his sons that made everyone suffer, particularly their victims. With their assistance, Tison escaped from prison, igniting a spectacularly ill-fated flight from justice. If ever there was a compelling argument for the death penalty, it would be Tison, who chillingly comes to life in Dwight Little’s true crime drama, Last Rampage (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

While doing well-deserved time, Tison was a model prisoner, so he was duly moved to a lower security annex. In retrospect, that was a huge mistake. His three sons just sauntered in on visiting day, just like they always did, except this time they had a picnic basket full of guns. At least Tison was a loving father, albeit in a seriously warped way. His cellmate and fellow escapee Randy Greenwalt was a stone-cold sociopath. Donnie Tison, the only Tison brother exhibiting any capacity to think for himself clashes early and often with Greenwalt. Their father will also try to shift the blame for the worst of the post-escape crimes on his former cellmate, but it is hard for the Tison boys to ignore what they see with their own eyes, especially for Donnie.

Of course, it is not just their father who poisoned his sons’ heads. Their mother Dorothy is sort of like a Lady Macbeth-instigator, who keeps herself in a willful state of denial regarding her husband’s dangerously erratic nature. Sheriff Cooper already lost friends and colleagues to Tison, so he will have Tison’s wife and semi-estranged brother closely watched.

Rampage is a somewhat frustrating film, because it assembles some truly terrific performances in a cookie-cutter TV-movie-of-the-week package. Frankly, Robert Patrick’s charismatic ferocity as Pops Tison will be an out-and-out revelation for those who only know him as the T-1000 in Terminator 2 and subsequent self-parodying appearances. In a more distinctive film, his performance could have been a dark horse awards contender.

Likewise, Heather Graham is unusually intense playing against type as Ma Tison. It is a neatly calibrated performance that leaves viewers unsure to what extent she has been deluding herself about her beloved husband. As always, Bruce Davison is rock-solid as Sheriff Cooper, providing a grounded, moral center to the film. John Heard only appears briefly, but he makes the most of it as the “colorful,” ethically questionable Warden Blackwell. Chris Browning is also all kinds of creepy as Greenwalt, but in a quieter, clammier, low-key kind of way, which nicely compliments Patrick’s flamboyant bluster. Sadly, the Tison brothers are rather dull compared to everyone else.

You have probably seen some of Little’s earlier films, like Halloween 4 or Marked for Death, back when going to the latest Steven Seagal film in theaters was a serious option instead of a depressing joke. Most of his recent work has been in episodic television (Bones, Prison Break, Nikita), so maybe it was inevitable Rampage would have a TV vibe. Nevertheless, Little brings out the best in his cast and the film’s late 1970s period details are spot-on. It is certainly far more polished and professional looking than Do It or Die, another recent true crime indie film helmed by a TV veteran (a comparison only a handful of us truly intrepid film dissectors would ever think to make).

Patrick and Graham really do some first-rate work in Rampage, so it is a shame it will probably not be screened and covered more widely. As big-screen storytelling, it is serviceable at best, but the turns from the two well-known co-leads could change viewer and industry preconceptions of them. Recommended as a future Netflix or Shudder stream, Last Rampage opens this Friday (9/22) at the Laemmle Music Hall.

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Fantastic Fest ’17: Darkland

Ziad is a doctor, so he has prestige within the Danish establishment. He can also patch up wounds, which will be helpful for his second career as a street vigilante. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take street-sweeping seriously enough until it is almost too late in Fenar Ahmad’s Darkland (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantastic Fest.

As the first-generation son of Iraqi immigrants, Zaid has triumphantly integrated into Danish society. His thuggish younger brother Yasin, not so much. After a heist goes down badly, Yasin comes looking for help from his long-suffering brother, but Yasin turns him away. The next time Zaid sees him, the comatose Yasin is in need of a plug-pulling. His pregnant pasty white girl friend Stine tries to comfort him, but he is determined to flagellate himself with guilt. He is also increasingly frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of urgency on the part of the police to find his brother’s killer. Of course, he attributes this to anti-immigrant xenophobia rather than the fact Yasin was a bottom-feeding recidivist street criminal.

Eventually, Zaid will become so consumed with rage, he looks up a few old friends who will help outfit him as a body-armored vigilante. It is never exactly spelled out, but we eventually deduce Zaid’s past is more checkered than the image he presents. Soon he starts attacking the criminal network of Semion, the local kingpin obviously responsible for Yasin’s death. Unfortunately, Zaid is too dilettantish about his payback, giving Semion ample time and space to strike back. All you kids at home need to remember your revenge isn’t finished until there’s nobody left to kill—and also, you should stay in school and study hard.

Darkland is indeed stylishly noir, thanks to the vision of Ahmad and the cinematography of Kasper Tuxen. However, it is the sort of revenge movie that is too embarrassed by its genre to let us experience the vicarious payback in peace. Instead, it keeps shoving messages down our throat about how violence never solved anything, even though the whole of recorded human history suggests otherwise.

Still, Borgen and Game of Thrones alumnus Dar Salim is searingly intense and darkly brooding as Zaid. It is a quiet but muscularly physical performance. We never accidentally overlook him as he blends into the walls, that’s for sure. Ali Sivandi also makes a worthy nemesis for him as the flamboyantly sinister Semion.

Darkland offers up a zeitgeisty guilt trip, but it still has the elements of a gritty genre picture, so it is hard to guess whether Denmark will select it as their foreign language Oscar submission. Currently, it is one the three-film shortlist, with the final decision due today. It has considerable merit, but it could have been even more compelling if it were not so misguidedly determined to be politically relevant. Recommended for fans of violent street crime dramas, who don’t mind the periodic swing into social criticism, Darkland screens this Friday (9/22) and next Wednesday (9/27), as part of this year’s Fantastic Fest, assuming they still have enough people on staff to show the films.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

One Mind: Life in Harmony at Zenru Chan Monastery

The isolation of Zenru Chan Monastery on Yunju Mountain in Jiangsi province is good for the soul. It looks like the monk’s quiet way of life has been untouched for centuries, even though the building was indeed damaged by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. They outlasted the madness, just as they will outlast the current regime, not through active defiance, but by seeking enlightenment from within and through nature. Viewers will quietly observe the Zen Buddhist monks and experience the rhythms of their monastic life in Edward A. Burger’s observational documentary One Mind (trailer here), which has three special public screenings at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

If you really want to appreciate the monastery’s Zen tea, you don’t just sip it. You also help harvest the harvest the leaves. This is one of many ways the Zenru Chan monks stay connected with the earth. The monastery appears self-sufficient to a large extent, which means there are no idle hands. Of course, the whole point of living there is to lose oneself in work and meditation.

Mostly, the monks go about their business without offering any commentary, but one recent arrival having the stumble shorn from his head, explains the practice of head-shaving as a means for monks to renounce and deny their individuality. While we understand the principle, fortunately for us, many of the monks display plenty of personality, often in a cherubically enlightened kind of way, which makes them quite pleasant cinematic company.

One Mind is likely to be compared to In Great Silence and Gurukulam, the documentary following life in a Vedanta Hindu ashram (that also had an early screening at the Rubin). In each film, slow cinema and vérité filmmaking become forms of spiritual pilgrimage. One Mind is also billed as a “Buddhist documentary” rather than a “documentary about Buddhism.” There is definitely something to that, but it applies even more forcefully to the ecstatic ending of Seoungho Cho’s short documentary, Scrumped.

Viewers have reason to assume there is a large transient population at Zenru Chan, who just stay for a short time to restore their connection to nature and temporarily shut out the extraneous distractions of hyper-modernity. Yet, there seems to be a good feeling of fellowship shared by them all. That is part of what makes One Mind an aesthetically rewarding, immersive sensory experience. It is a film to take in with the eyes and ears, thanks to Burger’s own striking cinematography and the evocative natural and ambient noises modulated by sound editor Douglas Quin. Highly recommended for viewers interested in mindfulness and faith-in-practice, One Mind screens this Friday (9/22), the next Friday (9/29), and the following Wednesday (10/4), at the Rubin Museum of Art.

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Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars

Separatist sentiment runs high among those space colonists. This time it is the Martians agitating for a Marexit from the Federation. Unlike the hardy libertarians in Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress, these colonists are more like agrarian pacifists, who really don’t see what humanity’s war for survival against the bugs has to do with them. However, they will learn the hard way when a suspiciously sudden bug infestation overwhelms the planet in Shinji Aramaki and Masaru Matsumoto’s animated Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Did you know there were four sequels to Starship Troopers, two of them animated? Among B-movie connoisseurs, they are considered the gold standard of direct-to-DVD sequels. However, you can’t technically call Traitor of Mars direct-to-DVD, because it had a special Fathom Events theatrical screening. It is also something of a reunion for fans, because it was written and executive produced by Ed Neumeier, who wrote the screenplay for the first Verhoeven movie and features the voices of original cast-members Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer (yes, her character has been dead since the first film, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still play a role). Seriously, you have to wonder how Denise Richards managed to be too busy to phone in a few lines for Fleet Captain Carmen Ibanez, but whatever.

As usual, “Mobilized Infantry does the dying, Fleet just does the flying.” Col. Johnny Rico is an officer now, but he is still all infantry grunt. Evidently, he had to make a hard choice in the previous film that saved humanity, but didn’t do his career any favors. As a result, he has been posted to the sleepy backwater of Mars to try to whip a misfit platoon of recruits into fighting shape. Of course, he is the last person Sky Marshal Amy Snapp would want on Mars, if she had foreknowledge of an alien attack, but let it proceed unimpeded to punish the Martians for their uppity behavior, which is about the size of things.

Of course, she will need a scape goat—a traitor of mars (or should that be “to mars?”). Carl Jenkins, her rival and Rico’s former high school classmate would foot the bill nicely, but he manages to get warnings to Rico and Ibanez before Snapp’s storm troopers grab him.

When it comes to military science fiction and mecha, Aramaki is the go-to animator. He has been entrusted with the Appleseed, Halo, and Harlock franchises, as well as the previous Starship Troopers animated sequel. He does spaceships and battle armor really well. It is also kind of neat to see the main characters noticeably age, albeit mostly rather gracefully. Basically, Rico now looks like Nick Fury on steroids and an all protein diet.

There is plenty of action and a number of call-backs and shout-outs to the original film. Yet, even though Neumeier doesn’t leave anyone in the lurch, his narrative ends somewhat ambiguously, without the kind of red meat payoff fans will want. It kind of feels like Phantom Menace, in that a lot happens, but our characters mostly end up back where they started, except for the Martians, who basically get done dirty.

Still, Rico and Jenkins continue to hold up as compelling characters, while Aramaki, Matsumoto, and their team create some cool science fiction visuals. Needless to say, it never remotely approaches the artistry of Loving Vincent, but it’s fun. Recommended for fans of Aramaki and the franchise, Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars is now available on DVD.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Loving Vincent: Van Gogh’s World, Exquisitely Animated

Forget Van Gogh’s ear. The real question is what happened to his heart. Reportedly, six weeks before his presumptive suicide, Vincent Van Gogh was calm, stable, and poised to finally glean some recognition for his work. Soon after his death, his devoted brother Theo also passed away. Sadly, Van Gogh’s great friend Joseph Roulin, the postmaster of Arles, did not know that. He tasks his somewhat dissolute son Armand with the task of forwarding Van Gogh’s final letter to his brother. As Roulin reluctantly pursues his grim duty, he finally starts to appreciate the artist he had always dismissed as a mad tramp. He will also start to ask questions about Van Gogh’s death in Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman’s absolutely stunning animated feature Loving Vincent (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A lot of attention will justly focus on what a technical and artistic feat Loving Vincent represents. It does hand-drawn animation one better as the first film consisting entirely of hand-painted cells, employing oil based paints, in a style directly based on that of Van Gogh. Yet, there is also real acting to be seen throughout the film, thanks to a sort of inverse rotoscoping process, in which stills of the cast were painted over and enriched by the team of animating painters.

Frankly, seeing the iconic faces of the Roulins, Dr. Gachet, Pere Tanguy, and the Zoave will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Each time Kobiela and Welchman cleverly integrate one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces into the film, we feel an urge to applaud. Yet, Loving Vincent is more than a visual spectacle. The narrative, co-written by Jacek Dehnel, and the co-directors, is deeply resonant. Essentially, Loving Vincent becomes an Impressionist Citizen Kane, with the letter (signed “your loving Vincent”) replacing Rosebud as the Macguffin driving the investigation into the misunderstood title character.

Even though he never exactly appears on-screen, Douglas Booth gives a terrific performance as the increasingly guilt-ridden and morally outraged Armand Roulin, always seen wearing that impossibly yellow blazer. His relationship with his postmaster father (nicely brought to life by Chris O’Dowd) is surprisingly poignant and ultimately redemptive. The film even supplies some closure thanks to Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh’s jealous patron, layered over a haunting performance from Ripper Street’s Jerome Flynn.

Everything about Loving Vincent is exceptional, including the soundtrack, which might very well be Clint Mansell’s finest film work ever. To some extent, it adopts the conventions of a murder mystery, but it is a profoundly humanistic examination of art and mortality. If Loving Vincent does not at least win the Oscar for best animated feature, it may be time to seriously consider disbanding the Academy. The animation is breathtaking and the story is completely engaging on an emotional level. Kobiela and Welchman certainly did right by their subject, creating a legit work of art, with the help of their incredible team of painters. Very highly recommended, Loving Vincent opens this Friday (9/22) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.

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Hispanic Heritage Month: Beyond La Bamba

Ritchie Valens is reasonably credited with introducing American popular culture to son jarocho music, but there were plenty of recordings of the traditional Veracruz standard before (Xavier Cugat) and after (Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria) he cracked the top 40 charts with “La Bamba.” It is a tune José Luis Utrera surely knows as a scion of a celebrated family of son jarocho musicians. However, the young Utrera opts to chart his own course north of the border. Marco Villalobos & Daffodil Altan document his musical undocumented life in Beyond La Bamba (trailer here), which premieres on World Channel this Wednesday, as part of its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“La Bamba” is indeed quite representative of son jarocho. It is a traditional form of music that is infectiously rhythmic and wildly improvisational. If you are not invigorated by a son jarocho “fandango” than you are just tragically lame. How and why Utrera settled in Milwaukee of all places is never explained, but it turns out you can even find a fandango that far north.

In fact, Utrera is quickly adopted as the local son jarocho prodigy/celebrity/guru, almost like a son jarocho Wynton Marsalis, but one that holds workshops in a community center rather than the Lincoln Center. The music remains true to Utrera, even introducing him to his future fiancée. However, the conscientious Utrera misses his family and worries his aged grandfather will slip away before he is able to return.

Utrera is a nice kid, but his unassuming demeanor does not translate well on-screen. Fortunately, that doesn’t really matter, because the music is the reason to watch the half-hour Beyond. Utrera and his family, friends, and students can truly play up a storm. As a film, it is pleasant, but mostly rather serviceable, whereas as a PSA for son jarocho music, it should definitely inspire some CD sales.

Wisely, Villalobos (talk about a musical name) and Altan clearly try to minimize the issue of Utrera’s immigration status. Look, he is a wildly talented musician, so it is nice to have him here, but we can’t help think of all the even more gifted Japanese jazz musicians we know, who maintain their legal residency status, often through great hassle. Regardless, Beyond La Bamba sounds great, so give it a listen when it airs this Wednesday (9/20) on World Channel.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hispanic Heritage Month: The Head of Joaquin Murrieta

Joaquin Murrieta had to be a significant Mexican folk hero, because Ricardo Montalbán played him twice, once on Death Valley Days and later in the TV movie Desperate Mission. Murrieta was the inspiration for Zorro, but he came to a bad end. Over one hundred fifty years after his death, filmmaker John J. Valadez wrestles with the Robin Hood-figure’s life, times, and legacy in The Head of Joaquin Murrieta (trailer here), which premieres on World Channel this Wednesday, as part of its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

In 1853, the highwayman and/or Mexican nationalist was gunned down by a band of state-chartered vigilantes, who decapitated his head as proof. For years, they used the head as a grotesque sideshow attraction, until it was allegedly lost during the San Francisco earthquake. It was not the finest moment for California’s justice system, or Murrieta.

Although the head (preserved in a bell jar full of alcohol) was out of circulation, reports of sightings still persisted into the current century. Obviously, it is prime documentary fodder, but Valadez’s first attempt at a Murrieta doc fell through when his attempts to find the head did not pan out. Then one day, a mysterious package arrived at his home.

Valadez is maddeningly vague about a lot of details. Yes, we understand he wants to make a serious, socially conscious documentary, but when your film is constructed around a head in a jar, you have to indulge viewers’ morbid curiosity. There is no speculation as to where it came from, nor is there any attempt to authenticate it. Call us square, but shouldn’t you tell the police if you receive a severed head in the mail, even if it is from the 1850s?

In fact, Valadez readily admits he has no way of knowing if this is the real Murrieta or not, but he is content to accept it as a symbolic relic. Out of respect for the historical figure and the dispossessed people he championed, Valadez sets off on a trek to bury the head in his old stomping grounds, but he will have to drive, because obviously. Along the way, we get plenty of less than edifying American history. However, Valadez will also get an awkward reminder from his own family history that many of the Mexicans who were forced off their property by western expansionism had done the very same thing to the indigenous populations a generation earlier.

You have to give Valadez credit for keeping that part in the film, even though it is clearly embarrassing to him. Although, we would like more hard information about the head itself, the way he treats it on camera is quite tasteful and shrewd. Usually, he just shows it concealed by the box it was shipped in, which quickly takes on a sinister aura, sort of like the briefcase holding Marsellus Wallace’s soul in Pulp Fiction.

While clocking in just under half an hour, The Head of still manages to be persistently lectury. Nevertheless, it is an interesting story and it is fair to say Valadez is uniquely positioned to tell it. The adage “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” rooted in ancient Roman jurisprudence, certainly seems aptly to suited to this short doc, whether it be applied to misappropriated heads or twice-appropriated lands. It is provocative, but not knee-jerk. Recommended for those fascinated by folk legends, The Head of Joaquin Murrieta airs this Wednesday (9/20) on World Channel.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

TIFF ’17: Simulation

They are like characters in a Persian Pirandello play, but at least they are well accessorized. Existence is absurd and tragic, yet everyone sports ultra-sparkly blue boots. It is not realistic, but it is not meant to be. Probably the only thing true to life is the gut-punching conclusion, but that comes relatively early in Abed Abest’s experimental, reverse-sequence Simulation (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Abest starts with the third act and then rewinds to the second and first. Yes, it ends badly, but that is what you should expect if you’ve been dragged down to an Iranian police station. Living in Abadan near the Iraqi border means the Iran-Iraq War remains high in people’s consciousness, even for Abed and his two delinquent friends, Aris and Vahim, who are all far too young to have served. They have been arrested for causing disturbance of the home of Esi, a well-to-do merchant who is plenty old enough to remember the war.

The exact nature of their relationship is sketchy, but you probably would not call them friends. For obvious reasons, the tell-tale signs are double or triple coded, but we start to suspect Esi is somewhat openly closeted and the three young punks are pretending to be on the down-low to get close to him for nefarious, non-sexual purposes.

The action takes place on a stripped-down stage that is Spartan to the point of being surreal. Despite the deliberately “staged” presentation, Abest’s restless camera and distorted sound effects constantly bust us out of the proscenium arch. He does everything humanly possible to undermine the on-screen drama, yet somehow we get pulled in anyway.

Simulation partly derives its potency from the hot-button issues that divide contemporary Iranian society. Regardless of his sexuality, we can infer Esi is relatively wealthy and more secularly inclined in his values. On the other hand, Abed and company have little prospects, but even though they hypocritically indulge in alcohol and drugs, they most likely voted for Ahmadinejad, if they were old enough.

Despite playing a character at least twenty years older than himself, without the benefit of special make-up or costuming, Daniyal Khojasteh is terrific as old Esi. It is a portrayal of rage and dignity that leaves a deep impression. As Abed, Aris, and Vahin, Abest, Majid Yousefi, and Vahid Rad personify alienated malevolence, but Abest somewhat humanizes his namesake through Abed’s relationship with his adoring niece.

Frankly, Simulation is considerably more accessible than it sounds. There really isn’t that much not to get. However, Abest’s bold aesthetics will inevitably put off many viewers. Nonetheless, it is rather invigorating to watch him go for broke and mostly pull it off. Highly recommended for adventurous viewers, Simulation screens again tomorrow (9/17) as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Barenholtz’s Alina

He played a zombie in Night of the Living Dead and is widely recognized as the man who discovered David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. Producer-distributor Ben Barenholtz’s place in film history was already secure before he directed his first narrative feature at the youthful age of eighty. Manoel de Oliveira was still regularly cranking out films when he passed away at an untimely 106, so who’s to say how many more films Barenholtz might have in him? In any event, his directorial debut is rather notable. The title character will sip tea at the Russian Samovar and learn something about herself and her dear mother in Barenholtz’s Alina (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Her mother never speaks of her father or their time together in New York, so Alina sneaks off to find out for herself, under the pretense of visiting Cuba on a rumba pilgrimage. It turns out her childhood friend degenerated into a gold digger with loose morals. However, Maria, a bartender at the Samovar proves to be a fast but true friend. She will help Alina follow her father’s trail, but in doing so, she inadvertently introduces the naïve Russian woman to some really smarmy cads, with money and bad intentions.

On the plus side, she also introduces herself to a big, boisterous Italian family, whose paths tangentially crossed those her father. The brooding grandson David rather turns her head and vice versa. There might be something brewing there, assuming history does not repeat itself.

As one would expect from the Ukraine-born Barenholtz, his film has a good feel for the Russian diaspora community, as well as the streets of New York City. Unlike terminally cute indies, the tone is darker and grittier than viewers might expect, but very true to the immigrant/migrant worker experience.

Darya Ekamasova (probably best known in America for The Americans) is quite remarkable as Alina. It is a forceful yet very vulnerable performance, which certainly sounds very Russian, doesn’t it? She shares a pleasant rapport with David Atrakchi’s David—and the rest of his big fat Italian family. On the other side of the spectrum, Grisha Reydler is charismatically sinister as her exploitative boss.

Alina is a nice film, distinguished by its assured ensemble and Barenhotz’s low key, but distinctive style. The soundtrack’s blend mix of classical, jazz, and Latin tracks well suits its seasoned sophistication and sounds terrific. Modest in scope but packing a potent after-kick, Alina is recommended for mature indie audiences when it opens today (9/15) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Infinity Chamber: Dystopian Prison Break

Frank Lerner is in prison, but perhaps his mind can set him free. In this case, that is not a New Age platitude. His fully automated, near future dystopian prison is forcing him to relive his final day of relative freedom within his own subconscious. However, he is also looking for clues that would explain his increasingly desperate situation in Travis Milloy’s Infinity Chamber (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

After a long day of drudgery, Lerner was blasted by secret intelligence agents just as he was ordering java in Gabby’s inviting coffee shop. He next wakes up in a granite and steel prison cell, with only Howard, his AI minder, for company. Howard’s primary responsibility is to keep Lerner alive, but he is also programmed to defend himself if the prisoner gets destructive. Aside from maintenance requests, he is firewalled from the outside network, but Howard can still tell there was something dodgy about Lerner’s processing.

After breakfast, Lerner is zapped back into his head, but he has a reasonable degree of autonomy to change his actions and investigate his environment. It doesn’t always make sense that all this information would be imprinted on his subconscious, but it is such a heady head-trip, we just go with it anyway. There are elements of the coffee shop Lerner obsesses over, including Gabby, with whom he starts to carry on an unlikely romantic relationship. With her help, he will develop an escape plan, which will take on urgency when Lerner starts to suspect he has been abandoned to die in his cell.

Chamber is a really nifty science fiction chess game that dexterously exploits the claustrophobic nature of its limited sets and locations. As one of the smarter dystopian films in recent years, it is largely character driven, even though two of its three characters are not, in the strictest sense, human. In terms of motifs, it even bears some comparison to Nozim Tolahojayev’s animated short film adaptation of Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains.

As Lerner, Christopher Soren Kelly makes a refreshingly smart and humanistic everyman. He also forges some really terrific chemistry with Cassandra Clark, who is surprisingly poignant as Gabby. The circumstances are almost incredible, but their relationship feels real.

Milloy addresses some deep, sophisticated themes, but he always keeps viewers keenly aware of the ticking clock. Arguably, it represents the best sort of speculative fiction that does not require extravagant special effects to realize its vision. Very highly recommended, Infinity Chamber opens today (9/15) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.

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Wetlands: Getting Noirish on the Jersey Shore

Let’s take an outing to Atlantic City, where the surfing is mediocre and Trump lost dumpster trucks full of money in the casino business. Signing on with the police force wouldn’t be much of a career move for a former hotshot Philadelphia cop, but Babel “Babs” Johnson was lucky to get the gig. He wants to rebuild his life, but rampant corruption and a brewing storm do not cooperate in Emanuele Della Valle’s Wetlands (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

We never learn what precisely went down in Philly, but it obviously involved drugs. Johnson is now clean-ish and used the last of his connections to join the AC force, in order to be near Amy, the daughter he lost all visitation rights for. His ex-wife Savanah will not cut him any slack, even though she is still a hot mess party girl herself. Frankly, her lesbian lover, “Surfer Girl,” represents the only stability in Amy’s life, even though she also happens to be pushing drugs on the beach for the local syndicate.

Johnson wants to shut their operation down, but his mobbed-up chief won’t have any of that. He sort of has an ally in his new partner, compulsive gambler Paddy Sheehan, but it is Sheehan’s wife, news anchor Kate, who is really in Johnson’s corner (and in his bed). Naturally, everything comes to a head as the storm of the century of the year bears down on the Jersey shore.

Wetlands is part noir and part character study, but all kinds of moody. Frankly, the Johnson family soap opera gets a little tiresome after the fiftieth awkward encounter between the cop, his ex-wife, and her girlfriend. However, Della Valla earns credit for drawing some vivid characters. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is always tightly restrained and inner-focused as Johnson, but his angst-ridden performance is often downright harrowing to behold. Heather Graham de-glams more than she ever has prior as the earthy ex-wife. As always, it is great fun to watch Christopher MacDonald do his roguish thing—and a cat like Det. Sheehan is dead-smack in the center of his power zone. Yet, it is Jennifer Ehle who is a revelatory scene-stealer as the disillusioned but still seductive Kate Sheehan.

There are plot holes bigger than the former Trump Taj Mahal in Wetlands, but we can overlook them for the sake of watching Akinnouye-Agbaje play off MacDonald and Ehle. Della Valle also captures the eerie calm feeling as a major storm approaches. This film will definitely bring back memories of the lead up to Sandy and the weirdly uncertain aftermath, at least amongst those who fortunately were not seriously impacted. It is definitely ragged around the edges, but Wetlands is still worth checking out eventually, but feel safe in waiting for less expensive VOD options. Recommended down the road for Jersey Noir fans, Wetlands opens today (9/15) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine downtown and the AMC Empire in Midtown.

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Against the Night: What Happens in Holmesburg Prison

You’d think a perfectly good prison would be the last thing the city of Philadelphia would leave sitting around unused. It is not like they don’t have a need for it, but Holmesburg Prison’s checkered past (riots, biological testing) just made its continued operation problematically controversial. It is still there. Given what went down, it sounds like the perfect place for an aspiring reality TV creep to film a spec ghost-hunting encounter, but it is the absolutely last place drunk college students should be horsing around. Strange, unexplained things will go on behind Holmesburg’s bars in Brian Cavallaro’s Against the Night (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Obviously, the night turned out badly, because the movie starts with the sole survivor telling her story to Philly’s least intuitive flatfoot. (I don’t remember which one she was, but does it really matter?) In any event, the gratingly obnoxious Sean convinces his pals to let him film them stumbling around Holmesburg looking for ghosts. Of course, the jerkweed pre-planned a lot of mean tricks to play with their heads. It also leaves them in a heightened disadvantage when whatever haunts those halls starts picking them off one by one.

At first, the unknown agency is supernatural. Than its human, but Cavallaro inevitably starts dropping hints it is uncanny after all. This time around, the is-it-or-isn’t-it tango just tries our patience. However, what Against has going for it, it has in spades: a massively sinister real-life location and some hugely creepy set dressing. Holmesburg might just be the creepiest movie setting ever, perhaps even more than Grave Encounters’ Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital (a.k.a. Riverview Hospital in BC). However, the Vicious Brothers displayed a far greater command of horror movie mechanics and a masterful control of the eerie vibe. Instead of being scared by Against, we just scope out spooky trappings while we wait for it to catch up with the wrap-around segments.

Tim Torre’s Sean is hugely annoying, but at least we can remember him. Everybody else blurs together, except for Frank Whaley playing the interviewing cop in a cameo he probably already forgot. Holmesburg is such a cool spot for a horror movie freak-out, it is a shame the execution of Against is so workaday and ho-hum. Genre diehards will appreciate the guided tour, but there are plenty of superior haunted/infested asylum movies out there. For Holmesburg “fans,” Against the Night opens today (9/15) in LA, at the Arena Cinema.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ten: Murder Island, or Ten Little Teens

By some measures, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the seventh best-selling novel of all time. Therefore, you can’t blame filmmakers for coming back to it, even though René Clair’s 1945 film is pretty definitive. Both Mario Bava and the Detective Conan anime franchise memorably riffed on it. In the latter case, the basic structure was adapted to a high school setting well before Gretchen McNeil’s teen novel. There are infinitely superior And Then There Were Nones, but it is strangely satisfying to watch the obnoxious teens get slaughtered in Chris Robert’s Ten: Murder Island (trailer here), based on McNeil's novel (and Christie's, by extension), which premieres on Lifetime this Saturday.

How many guests do you suppose were lured to a party on a remote island? In this case, they are students from three rival high schools, all of which Claire briefly attended before her untimely suicide. Instead of U.N. Owen, they thought they were invited by one of the most popular girls in their overlapping social circles, but it is quickly apparent they have been had.

Since there is no direct accusation, the shallow, entitled kids will have to figure out their situation on their own. Naturally, suspicion quickly falls on earnest Meg, because she is probably the slightest of stature of the whole bunch. She also happens to have the highest capacity for empathy and deductive reasoning. As a result, the killer leaves her illuminating pages ripped from poor Claire’s diary after each murder. The unknown subject also keeps a more conspicuous tally in red paint for the other idiots on the island.

As you would expect from millennials, all ten guests are dumber than a bag of hammers and none of them has read And Then There Were None. At least China Anne McClain is generally likable and sympathetic as Meg. Within the ensemble, Annie Q (who was terrific in Cardinal X) is the most likely to break out big. This won’t be the film to do it, but the catty edge she brings as rebound girlfriend Kumiko helps make the film watchable. Katya Martin is also quite effective as the bullied Claire in flashback scenes. Alas, the rest of the ensemble is either blandly forgettable or prone to excessive overacting or just plain dead before we can make a fair evaluation.

Christie’s basic premise is so insidiously compelling, it takes perverse effort to screw it up. Clair’s version is a classic and 1965’s Ten Little Indians with Shirley Eaton and the voice of Christopher Lee on the gramophone is nearly as good. The 1974 desert-bound incarnation with Oliver Reed and Charles Aznavour also holds up nicely. Even a 1959 TV production with Nina Foch has some merit. They are all better than Ten: Murder Island.

These kids’ lack of intuition and survival skills is just too problematic. However, Robert doesn’t go down without a fight, offering up some nifty aerial shots to distract us. What it really needs is more caustic attitude and ironic humor in the Scream tradition. Disappointing, yet weirdly difficult to turn away from, Ten: Murder Island airs this Saturday (9/16) on Lifetime.

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Rat Film: Baltimore, Rat City

Here in New York, we have a special relationship with rats. They are our neighbors and our co-workers. We have elected rats to represent us in the City Council and up in Albany. We even have a rat for a mayor. Yet, Baltimore seems to think they invented vermin infestation. We will concede they have exponentially more urban blight and social pathologies, but we take a backseat to nobody when it comes to our rat population. Nevertheless, Baltimore takes center stage as the rat capitol of the world in Theo Anthony’s docu-essay Rat Film (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Everybody acknowledges monkey-fishing was a hoax, but in Baltimore, rat-fishing is a real thing. We will watch one intrepid rat-fisher and his bat-man as they try to reel in a nice long Norwegian. You have to give them credit for taking their sport where they can find it. Other sequences lack their focus. Anthony hopscotches around, trying to use rats as a metaphor the rise of the urban underclass. Essentially, it takes him nearly the entire eighty-two minutes to build to the revelation that rat populations tend to be highest in neighborhoods where the majority of residents live below the poverty line.

Rat Film is a classic example of a doc that thinks it is way smarter than it really is. It wants to blame rats on white one-percent privilege, but if you nose around the trash cans of the Upper Eastside, it won’t take you long to find something with a tail. Frankly, Anthony has already been scooped and trumped by Morgan Spurlock of all people, whose entertaining and ultimately terrifying Discovery Channel doc Rats also consisted of a string of loosely connected, observational sequences, but it argues rats are mutating at such an alarming rate, they just might take over the world if we’re not careful.

It is pleasant to spend some time with one of Baltimore’s more philosophical city rat control specialists, but the film’s hodge-podge construction never really adds up the way Anthony believes it does. Instead, it just dissuades viewers from ever visiting Baltimore. Come to New York instead. Surely, there are spots that can accommodate an interest in rat-fishing. Not recommended, Rat Film opens tomorrow (9/15) in New York, at the Lincoln Center.

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TIFF ’17: Mrs. Fang

Fang Xiuying is sort of like a Chinese Mr. Lazarescu, but her passing is much less drawn out. She was also a real person. After years of faithfully documenting life in China as it really happens, Wang Bing finally captures some death in the brief (by his standards) but discomfiting Mrs. Fang (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Mrs. Fang has suffered from Alzheimer’s for years, so when death finally comes, it will probably be a relief for her. Certainly, most of her family will feel that way too. They have all duly assembled for her final moments, but they are starting to get restless. Most of them are obviously annoyed by this ritual, but a handful look genuinely distraught. However, the former take great delight in criticizing one of her grandsons, who will no doubt take flak for his absence at every family gathering going forward.

At a mere eighty-six minutes, Mrs. Fang practically qualifies as a short subject compared to Wang’s previous films, like the nearly four-hour ‘Til Madness Do Us Part and the nine-hour Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks. However, it displays the same uncomfortably intimate aesthetics. Frankly, it is hard to look at Mrs. Fang’s face, because she has essentially wasted away, leaving her desiccated features tightly drawn-looking. Yet, Wang forces us to look, with long, extended close-ups.

It is almost impossible to not feel intrusive while watching these final personal moments. Yet, it is important to take into account Wang was filming with the full cooperation of her adult children and he had met his silent subject well before her health declined so sharply (however, she had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by the time of their first encounter).

Like many of Wang’s documentaries, Mrs. Fang is not expressly political, but it is hard to imagine it getting any noticeable theatrical release in Mainland China, since any censor worth their salt would recognize it is just bad for Party business. As a resident of Maihui Village Zhejiang Province from 1948 to 2016, Mrs. Fang lived under mean circumstances and she died under mean circumstances. That is an incontestable truth that comes through loud and clear in Wang’s film.

In fact, Wang’s films are always about getting at truths, through patient observation. Mrs. Fang is not as emotionally engaging as Ta’ang, Fengmeng: A Chinese Memoir, or Three Sisters, but it is more substantial and compelling than his previous shorty, Father and Sons, which was cut short by outside interference. Recommended for admirers of boundary-pushing documentaries, Mrs. Fang screens again tomorrow (9/15), as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CIFF ’17: Maineland

There are many reasons why Chinese parents are sending their teenage children to study in America. A degree from an American university still carries great prestige in China and study abroad also offers a way to avoid the hyper-competitive Chinese entrance exams. As an added bonus, the Chinese students attending Fryeburg Academy in bucolic Maine might just receive an excellent education. For three years, Miao Wang followed a group of Chinese students as they learned, grew, and matriculated in Maineland (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Camden International Film Festival.

With domestic enrollment down, Chinese recruitment has become critically important to traditional day-and-boarding prep schools like Fryeburg, the eighth oldest private academy in America. The outgoing Stella charms her way in on the first interview, whereas the shy Harry makes it in on the strength of his academic record. Both believe it is their familial duty to study business in college, even though she would prefer to take a degree in education and he would rather pursue music.

Not surprisingly, she will be more socially active than he, but both will take advantage of the opportunities that would be unavailable at Chinese schools. In Harry’s case, this means studying the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, which clearly leaves him deeply confused. Stella joins the cheer squad and other Chinese students make their own documentary about their experiences and the perceptions of their American classmates for their film studies class. There will indeed be plenty of culture clash to navigate and it is unclear how wide their circle of friends extends beyond fellow international students. However, from what we see, the teachers really have a knack for reaching them.

Frankly, Fryeburg looks like a truly superior school that really does foster critical thinking. If every Chinese pupil studying in America receives a roughly comparable education, China could be a vastly different country in twenty years—unequivocally for the better. Much like Neasa Ní Chianáin & David Rane’s School Life, Maineland also gives us a chance to track their development over time, with the general trend definitely looking positive overall. The Chinese students clearly have just as strong an emotional attachment to Fryeburg, which says a lot.

Despite their entrepreneurial-class parents’ privileged positions, the Fryeburg Chinese boarding students all come across like good kids who will be decent adults with a wider perspective on life. That is sufficient cause for a little optimism. Any film that gives us a little hope for the future of China is quite welcome, especially considering how vividly Wang’s previous feature-length doc Beijing Taxi portrayed the class-stratifications of contemporary Chinese society. Highly recommended for China watchers and anyone nostalgic for boarding school life, Maineland screens Sunday afternoon (9/17) during this year’s CIFF. In addition, South Jersey residents should also consider Lana Wilson’s The Departure and Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, two terrific documentaries that have already screened in New York and are continuing their festival runs in Camden.

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