J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Two Horses of Genghis Khan: Urna’s Odyssey of Song

Under Communism, the jealous Communist regimes (Soviet and Chinese) vilified Mongolia’s national hero, Genghis Khan (who was in fact quite progressive, even by contemporary standards). During the Cultural Revolution, all traditional music was banned, so a tune extolling the virtues of the great Khan’s steeds would be doubly anathema. However, the song held tremendous meaning for Mongolian vocalist Urna Chachar Tugchi’s family, so she set out to reclaim their cultural heritage, verse by verse. Byambasuren Davaa chronicled her song-hunting odyssey in The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Corinth Films.

Urna (as she is often simply billed, like Adele) grew up in a musical family, haunted by the Cultural Revolution. At the height of the horrors, her grandmother’s prized horse-head violin was destroyed. Only the carved neck remained, on which some of the lyrics to the song “The Two Horses of Genghis Khan” were still legible. The symbolic significance for the divided Mongolian homeland is hard to miss.

Having gained international prominence in what might be termed “world music” circles, the Inner Mongolian Urna arranges a concert with an Outer Mongolian classical ensemble to premiere the rediscovered song. At that point, she sets off into grasslands in search of elderly Mongolians who might still remember the lyrics.

Unfortunately, during the early stages of her journey, she only finds the lingering effects of deliberate cultural and environmental devastation. As in Tibet, the old regime was not a wise steward of Mongolia ecology and the current government had other fish to fry, such as the 2008 riots, which broke out just after filming wrapped. Frankly, viewers will suspect some of the old timers Urna meets might remember the song better than they let on, but simply do not feel comfortable admitting otherwise, given the past efforts devoted to suppressing traditional culture.

Fortunately, Urna has a stirring voice and a warm, engaging presence, which give her immediate credibility with the Outer Mongolians she encounters and the viewers watching from the comfort of home. The wide open vistas are also quite a sight to take in, making THoGK an unusually visual documentary. Indeed, cinematographer Martijn van Broekhuizen (currently shooting the reboot of The Crow) frames some pretty incredible images.

The climatic performance would seem to end the journey on a satisfyingly uplifting note, but the final post-credits captions offer a chilling parting dose of reality. They also underscore why Urna’s mission of cultural restoration is so important and necessary in a world of ideological strife. Highly recommended, especially for fans of Urna, Shen Yun, and similar efforts to reclaim the cultural diversity lost under the successive mass movements of the Chinese Communist regime, Two Horses of Genghis Khan releases today (9/27) on DVD, from Corinth Films.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

The Last Film Festival: Dennis Hopper’s Final Bow

It is hard to root against roguish independent producers like Roger Corman, William Castle, and Robert Evans. Nick Twain is definitely cut from similar cloth, but he has fallen on hard times late in his career. Nevertheless, he carries on. In his case, that means flogging a dog’s turkey titled Barium Enigma. Only one film festival has standards low enough to accept it, but a pro like Twain can still spin it into PR gold, if the so-bad-its-baffling film sweeps the awards. Twain intends to make sure of that in Linda Yellen’s The Last Film Festival (trailer here), the late, great Dennis Hopper’s final film, which opens this Friday in LA.

It should be busy festival for Twain. He thinks he has cut a deal with the politically ambitious mayor of O’hi, Ohio to deliver a clean sweep of the O’hi Film Festival’s Golden Spindles (yarn is a big deal in this burg). However, since his ex, the gracefully aging Italian sex symbol Claudia Benvenuti, who largely financed the picture is up for best actress against her co-star, Twain’s current unfaithful starlet lover, somebody is bound to be disappointed.

Further complicating matters, Twain’s Tom Cruise-ish star is missing and a trench coat wearing woman keeps stalking him, claiming she is his love child. That last part is a little embarrassing for Twain, but it will not prevent him from receiving the festival’s humanitarian of the year award—and justly so.

Sadly, Dennis Hopper passed away seven years ago while still filming LFF, unintentionally leaving Yellen in a bit of a bind. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the final cut. Hopper (who reportedly thought he was in remission until he suddenly and precipitously fell ill), looks reasonably hale and hearty and just oozes devilish charm. He seems to understand all of Twain’s lines are funnier because he is Dennis Hopper (director and star of The Last Movie)—and he’s okay with that. It is just jolly good fun to watch him chuckle his through the film.

Hopper also forges some deliciously arch chemistry with Jacqueline Bisset, a good sport perfectly cast as Benvenuti. In a way, LFF would make a weirdly appropriate double feature with Truffaut’s Day for Night, in which she played the scandalous British starlet. On the other hand, the charismatic Leelee Sobieski is woefully under-utilized as Twain’s possible illegitimate daughter, but it is entirely possible she had more involving scenes with Hopper that were sadly not to be. Unfortunately, Chris Kattan is as annoying as ever as Harvey Weinstein, O’hi’s namesake undertaker and camera-phone snooping film festival president.

The humor of Yellen & Michael Leeds’ screenplay is definitely hit or miss, but again, it is possible many of Kattan’s gags had to stay, due to Hopper’s untimely demise. Frankly, it is rather remarkable how Yellen and the editors, Bib Jorissen and Steve Kraftsow cobbled together such a smooth narrative flow. Ironically but perhaps fittingly, Hopper’s Twain explains to his youthful agent how King Vidor solved a similar problem when Tyrone Power died midway through Solomon and Sheba.

It is nice to finally have LFF gracing screens. It is not perfect, but the overly broad comedic excesses never stick to Hopper (or Bisset). Frankly, it further burnishes his reputation, allowing us to see a sly, slightly screwball side of Hopper we rarely saw in his largely dark filmography. Recommended for Hopper fans and those of us who have been around a few oddball fests, The Last Film Festival opens this Friday (9/30) in Southern California, at the Laemmle’s Royal and Playhouse 7 theaters.

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Scare-a-Con ’16: The Dark Tapes

The original Blair Witch ushered in the found footage phenomenon in 1999 and just when it looked like the sequel-reboot would finally kill off the sub-genre in 2016, an inventive anthology comes along to give it a new lease on life. Of course, the unspoken question surrounding found footage is how it was found. That will definitely be a cause for concern in the wrap-around segments of Michael McQuown’s The Dark Tapes (trailer here)—note the “To Catch a Demon” segment is directed by SFX artist Vincent J. Guastini, to make billing more complicated—which screens this Friday during the Scare-a-Con Film Festival.

In fact, Guastini’s “Demon” and McQuown’s framing sequences are actually part of the same overall narrative. As the film opens, some hipsters find some pretty darned dark tapes, or rather a video camera, outside a theater of some kind. It seems a physicist, his graduate advisee, and a camera guy were conducting sleep experiments hoping to document the existence of the demonic figures seen by those who experience so-called sleep paralysis. Needless to say, they are too successful. However, before their study collapses into bedlam, McQuown and Guastini give viewers some eerily convincing pseudo-science to explain the horrors we are about to see.

Despite its connection to the connective sequences, “Demon” is the second full segment that unspools in DT. The first is arguably the creepiest. In “The Hunters & the Hunted” an attractive young couple finds their new luxurious house in the Hollywood Hills is haunted by a malevolent entity. The distressed Karen and David duly enlist the help of a gung-ho ghost hunting team, but McQuown has a sinister surprise in store for them that will catch all but the most suspicious viewers completely flat-footed. As the new tenants, Shawn Lockie and Stephen Zimpel really make it work.

The third discrete narrative, “Cam Girls” is by far the weakest. Recorded entirely as skype and webcam sessions, much like the Swanberg installment of the original V/H/S, it shows us what a new web chat recruit and her lesbian lover do with and to their customers during her blackouts.

Happily, DT rebounds in a big way with the closer, “Amanda’s Revenge.” Much to her platonic best friend’s distress, the titular Amanda is rufied at their graduation party, but for her, it is not so unlike her regular experiences as an alien abductee. For some reason, she has taken her mother’s place a victim of choice. However, she intends to fight back in ways that circumvent their control over electronic devices. There have been too many poor to middling alien abduction films (looking at you Ejecta and Hanger 10), but Amanda’s cleverness and resiliency are enormously refreshing. Arguably, that makes two sub-genres redeemed by DT.

As a screenwriter, McQuown throws some wicked twists at viewers, while Guastini’s practical effects give them the old school, tactile feeling fans will appreciate. Evidently, there was some gold left to be mined from the found footage vein after all. Highly recommended for horror fans, The Dark Tapes screens this Friday (9/30), during Scare-a-Con at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York.

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Passage to Mars: It Starts in the Arctic

It is reassuring to know the spirit of exploration is still alive and well at NASA, but it is frustrating to see the agency’s procurement problems also continue unabated. A gutsy expedition will attempt to make a punishing 2,000-mile journey across Arctic ice that simulates conditions on Mars, but their vehicle does not inspire confidence in Jean-Christophe Jeauffre’s documentary Passage to Mars (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For the HMP Okarian Martian Rover Humvee, the trek over frozen and thawing ice to the NASA station on Devon Island is the closest thing to a dress rehearsal for a manned mission to Mars. For the crew led by NASA scientist Pascal Lee, this might be the closest they get to Mars. Unfortunately, malfunctions will repeatedly jeopardize their terrestrial journey.

By combining his fly-on-the-wall footage with extracts from Lee’s journals narrated by rebooted Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto, Jeauffre vividly conveys the desolation and extreme climate of the Arctic Journey. The film also clearly establishes its applicability to the wider Mars project. However, it does not explain why the project is so wedded to the Okarian Rover, especially considering the frequency with which crew members have to set off for civilization in search of spare parts. Presumably, that would not be an option on Mars. It makes you wonder in whose congressional district was it built?

It is not an idle question. Aside from our interest as taxpayers, the Okarian’s performance also raises safety issues for a prospective crew. Yet, rather bizarrely, Passage does not even acknowledge this as an issue. Perhaps Jeauffre and his subjects were understandably more preoccupied with matters of survival, which were very real concerns.

Indeed, Jeauffre captures some amazing images and compellingly documents the courage and commitment of the Okarian crew. Frankly, the real stuff is more impressive than the planetarium show-style Mars recreations (but don’t worry, it is not in exploitative 3D). For extra added authenticity, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin also lends his voice to the proceedings.

Arguably, Passage is a needed corrective to the tiresome conspiracy theories recycled yet again in Operation Avalanche. Like the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury astronauts before them, the Okarian crew are both idealists and adventurers who inspire by example. Recommended for those who will appreciate its science and optimism, Passage to Mars opens this Friday (9/30) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Denial: The Lipstadt-Irving Libel Trial

Thanks to New York State’s wise libel tourism laws, reviewers of this film can refer to “historian” David Irving as a holocaust denier secure in the knowledge New York courts will not honor any foreign libel judgments against them deemed inconsistent with our own First Amendment rights. One would think the ugly spectacle of Irving suing American historian Deborah Lipstadt, forcing her to prove the Holocaust happened would have created a groundswell for libel law reform, but alas, it did not. The high stakes court case gets the big screen treatment in Mick Jackson’s Denial (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Irving was once a semi-credible historian, who garnered some favorable blurbs before crossing over to the dark side. By the time Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust was published, he was a fringe figure, but he still had a knack for garnering media attention. In a potentially devastating act of libel tourism, Irving sued Lipstadt’s British publisher, Penguin UK, in British courts.

In an American court, Irving would have to prove Lipstadt’s words were both defamatory and the product of demonstrable malice, but in Britain Lipstadt would have to prove they were justifiable. As a result, Penguin’s legal team, notably including barrister Richard Rampton QC and solicitor Anthony Julius (in/famous for representing Princess Diana), had the responsibility of proving the Holocaust really happened and Irving knowingly and deliberately twisted the historical evidence to the contrary.

Mindful of the David-and-Goliath symbolism, Irving opted to represent himself in court. Again, due to the perversities of the British system, this also gave him some advantages over as Lipstadt as one of the opposing counsel. Still, the old “fool for a client” adage hasn’t remained in this long circulation for no reason.

Denial is at its best when it really digs into the blow-by-blow details of the trial. Rather logically, all of the litigious Irving’s dialogue in these scenes is adapted verbatim from the transcript. Watching the crafty Rampton lure the over-confident Irving into various logical-historical traps is gripping stuff. Unfortunately, Lipstadt’s overwrought outrage almost becomes insufferable. She is an accomplished academic, but Rachel Weiss plays her like a shticky Queens caricature incapable of controlling her emotions or her mouth.

When Weiss shuts up, Tom Wilkinson carries the day, portraying Rampton with all his customary panache and gravitas—and then some. He exudes the intelligence and charisma of a barrister you would want to be represented by. Similarly, as the Holocaust denier, Timothy Spall is aptly wily and sinister, in a tweedy British sort of way. Frustratingly, the terrific Irish character actor Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty in the Cumberbatch Sherlock) does not have much to do as Julius except trying to rein in Lipstadt.

When it is smart, Denial is an intense and insightful film. When it is emotional, it gets a bit dumb, which goes to show the principles for success are not that much different on film than they are in the courtroom. Fortunately, old pros like Wilkinson and Spall keep things crackling. Recommended overall, Denial opens this Friday (9/30) at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the AMC Lincoln Square uptown.

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pema Tseden’s Tharlo

For centuries, the sight of a shepherd with a pony tail has been common place in Tibet. However, things have changed in the nation, just as the occupying power intended. Filmmaker Pema Tseden often pointed out such truths—getting arrested and badly battered for his efforts—or so international observers suspect. Again, details are sketchy, just as the Communist authorities want them. The circumstances surrounding Tseden’s incarceration and hospitalization makes the piteous fate of his latest cinematic protagonist all the more poignant. In addition to the cultural oppression, the CP occupation also has a corrosive moral influence in Tseden’s Tharlo (trailer here), which opens a week-long run this Wednesday at MoMA.

Tharlo has come to the nearest provincial administrative center to receive his I.D. card, but has no context for the errand. Frankly, he is not even used to being addressed by name. Never before has he had to prove his identity. Of course, the local police chief finds Tharlo’s bemusement amusing. He is also condescendingly impressed by the Tibetan shepherd’s ability to recite a long Chairman Mao speech, even though mostly of the ideological meaning is lost on him.

Of course, an I.D. card needs a photo, so Tharlo will have to visit the local photographer catering to such business. She in turn sends him across the street to get his hair washed by the hairdresser, Yangtso. She makes quite an impression on the traditional herder with her short hair and modern attitudes. She also happens to be young and attractive. The flirtatious time they share together leads Tharlo to question his pastoral life, but his growing doubts will distract him at inopportune times.

Adapting his own novella, Tseden creates a parable of modernist temptation and subsequent downfall that eclipses Dreiser in its tragic significance. Although the local authorities are not Tharlo’s direct antagonists, Tseden makes it clear they created the climate that made his victimization possible.  The film is also visually stunning thanks to the vastly cinematic vistas of Tharlo’s Tibetan plains and Lu Songye’s stark black-and-white photography.

Despite the rugged locales, Tharlo is a relentlessly intimate film filled with uncomfortable silences and telling moments. As the title character, Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima looks like his picture should be in the dictionary next to the term “world-weary.” His haggardness is plain to see, but his innocence is just as palpable. He and Tibetan actress-vocalist Yangshik Tso develop some highly ambiguous but undeniably potent romantic chemistry together. Rather than just playing the femme fatale, she gives the worldly Yangtso subtle flesh and blood dimension.

Initially, Tharlo’s ability to rattle off Mao’s secular sermon seems rather surreal, but the third act reprise is so bitterly ironic it might leave an aftertaste of bile behind. Yet, Tseden is primarily a stroryteller, who only lets political implications seep in through osmosis. Nevertheless, there is clearly more truth in his films (such as Old Dog) than the Party is comfortable with. Highly recommended for viewers with adult attention spans, Tharlo opens this Wednesday (9/28) at MoMA.

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

AFI Latin American ’16: Clever

If Clever lived in the American Southeast rather than South America, he would probably be called white trash. The socially awkward martial arts instructor has a fondness for Bruce Lee, video games, booze, drugs, and custom flaming paint jobs on muscle cars. His 1976 Chevette Shark doesn’t really qualify, but he still intends to get it pimped out accordingly in co-director-screenwriters Federico Borgia & Guillermo Madeiro’s Clever (trailer here), which screens during this year’s AFI Latin American Film Festival.

Clever does not have much going on. His ex-wife Jacqueline has moved onto to a more responsible Fiat driver after divorcing him, but he still wallows in denial. His husky son Bruce (named after you know who) has not taken after the old man, despite all the time he has spent in his father’s dojo. Hoping to bond with his son and maybe finally taste a bit of glory, Clever intends to get his Chevy decked out for the upcoming car show. However, the mysterious artist whose work he covets has relocated to a provincial burg.

After chasing down several false leads, Clever finally tracks down Sebastian, a Momma’s Boy bodybuilder who might just be the Rembrandt of muscle cars. He has an artistic temperament but his ambiguous sexuality makes Clever uneasy, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as the manipulative mother’s come-ons.

With its garish title design, Clever tips its hat towards exploitation films, but then delivers a critical meditation on masculinity that is clearly skeptical regarding its merits. It is a quiet film, but it still metes out quite a bit of humiliation. Tonally, Borgia & Guillermo try to be half-pregnant, splitting the difference between quirky and contemptuous. It is a fraught line they walk.

Still, they could hardly ask any more of their lead, Hugo Piccinini, who has the perfect muscular nebbishness for the alienated martial arts sensei. Frankly, it is compelling to watch him try a navigate his way through a world too complex for his fists, but in a decidedly sad sort of way.

Despite the strange sensitivity of Piccinini’s performance, Clever is a rather unsatisfying meal. Borgia & Guillermo are too content to coast on their presumed eccentricity, leaving the film mired in its wet noodle pacing. It is hardly an affront to anyone or anything, but there are better films to invest your time in. Just a mediocrity, Clever screens tomorrow (9/25) and next Thursday (9/29) as part of AFI’s annual Latin American Film Festival, just off the Beltway in Montgomery County.

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Friday, September 23, 2016

HK Cinema at SFFS ‘16: Murmur of the Hearts

If Stephen Chow made you want to stop believing in mermaids, Sylvia Chang might give you reason to reconsider. A mermaid always figured prominently in the bedtime stories Yu-mei and Yu-nan’s mother told them. Actually, it was the same ever-evolving story. Divided by circumstances, the grown siblings will struggle with their difficult legacy in Chang’s Murmur of the Hearts (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society.

Note the plural of the hearts to distinguish Chang’s latest directorial effort from Louis Malle’s 1971 film. The settings in Taipei and Taiwan’s Green Island (Lyudao) are also quite distinctive. It was once primarily known as a penal colony, but the latter has starting doing a brisk tourist business in recent years. Yu-nan currently works there as a tour guide, because he stayed with their stern father, while Yu-mei is now a promising artist in the capitol, because she left with their more supportive mother. Inevitably, their separation led to resentments against the parent and sibling each felt rejected by.

Arguably, Yu-mei’s boyfriend Hsiang fits right in. He is a terrible boxer, but he keeps plugging away, driven by his own parental issues. However, a series of crises—Yu-mei’s pregnancy, the loss of Hsiang’s license, the declining health of the father Yu-nan still cares for, and a massive monsoon might provide a catalyst for healing.

Disappointingly, the eternally amazing Chang always stays behind the camera, but that largely leaves the spotlight to Macanese superstar Isabella Leong (last seen with Jet Li in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), who clearly hasn’t lost a step in seven years. She is just quietly and profoundly devastating as Yu-mei. Lawrence Ko is also rigorously understated as Yu-nan, managing to hold his own quite well. He also forges some exquisitely delicate chemistry with Angelica Lee Sin-je, playing their mother in the film’s several fantastical reveries.

At times, Chang pushes the dreamy New Age vibe a bit too far, but she distills so much raw emotion and truth into key sequences they will really knock viewers for a loop. She is clearly a thesp’s director, coaxing the charismatic but sometimes not so expressive Joseph Chang to one of his best performances as Hsiang. She and co-screenwriter Yukihiko Kageyama give him his moment, which he delivers on.

Keep in mind, Murmur starts slow, but it pays off massively, so it is well worth sticking with it. The three stars really disappear into the characters, all of whom the audience will come to care about, as if they were long lost family. Very highly recommended, Murmur of the Hearts screens this Sunday (9/25) as part of the SFFS’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

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The Dressmaker: Kate Winslet Sews

Never before has a stone-cold vengeance-taker been so passive and mild mannered. We really ought to fix up this supposedly scandalous seamstress with Adam Sandler’s Cobbler, so they could go be cloying together. However, the well of quirkiness will eventually run dry in the tonal train wreck that is Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

To paraphrase the tag-line of The Hateful Eight, nobody leaves Paris for the outback backwater of Dungatar without a damn good reason. Of course, that reason would be revenge. The town done Tilly “Don’t Call Me Myrtle” Dunnage wrong when they wrongfully blamed her for the death of entitled bully Stewart Pettyman and sent her away to boarding schools (looks to us like they did her a favor, but whatever). Dunnage still holds a grudge for the physical and emotional abuse she and her vinegary-tongued old mum Molly endured, but she gets sidetracked from her pay-back mission when her original couture designs prove popular with the women in town.

In between fittings and measurements, Dunnage will try to uncover the truth of what happened to Pettyman (surnames are truly destiny in The Dressmaker) that fateful day. Of course, it is blindingly obvious to viewers what went down, but I can’t blame Dunnage for suppressing her memories. I had to go to hypnosis therapy to recover my repressed memory of this film.

Lest you think Dressmaker is all about empowerment through frocks and sashes, be warned. The film takes a ridiculously dark turn down the stretch. Frankly, it is almost worth recommending Dressmaker just to watch it go perversely out of its way to alienate its core audience. However, you still have to sit through the nauseatingly saccharine first two acts to get there.

Honest to Betsy, Moorhouse and co-screenwriter P.J. Hogan throw in just about every awkwardly dated cliché you could think of adapting Rosalie Ham’s novel. There is the senile-like-a-fox mother, the cross-dressing town constable oohing and awing over Dunnage’s latest fabric swatches, and the hunky shirtless neighbor looking out for his developmentally disabled brother (and maybe Dunnage too, if she will let him). Dressmaker would have been derivative in the early 1990s. In 2016, it is such an off-key spectacle of shtick, Meryl Streep will probably get nominated for it, even though she isn’t even in the picture.

Kate Winslet’s judgment is usually rather sound, so it is surprising to find her in this chick flick from Hell. It is even more disappointing to see Hugo Weaving recycling such dated stereotypes as the fashion-conscious Sergeant Farrat. You were Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy, try to show some dignity, for crying out loud.

It is downright painful watching The Dressmaker, but at least the movie will wreak vengeance upon itself, on viewers’ behalf. It is hard to imagine this is really what Moorhouse, Hogan, and company had in mind originally, but the film was a decent hit in Australia, so presumably six or eight Foster’s helps the audience swallow it down. Not recommended, The Dressmaker opens today (9/23) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fantastic Fest ’16: Original Copy

The Alfred Talkies in Mumbai might just be the closest thing left to the old school grindhouse experience left in the world. However, the genteel owner Najma Loynmoon would not want to hear that. She insists on running a clean and orderly establishment, for the sake of the friendly spirits haunting the building. Under her protective stewardship, the Alfred operates much the same as it did when her stern grandfather was in charge. Most notably, that means they still employ Sheikh Rehman to hand paint banners for each week’s feature. Frankly, his grandly lurid murals are much more visibly pleasing than the scratchy prints the theater screens. Rehman reflects on his supposedly obsolete profession in Florian Heinzen-Ziob & Georg Heinzen’s Original Copy (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Fantastic Fest.

Ironically, Mumbai’s construction boom has altered traffic patterns in ways that are not beneficial to the Alfred Talkies. Their dwindling clientele now comes more for the air-conditioning than a second run Salman Khan film (or more likely an explosion-heavy chestnut from the 1970s or 1980s). Yet, Rehman still hand crafts his poster art, just like his father did before him. He carefully signs each weekly masterpiece of sneering, gun-toting Bollywood idols, even though he knows he will paint over it in seven days’ time.

Although Bollywood fans might expect something flashier than the Heinzens’ meditative approach, there is something about the Alfred Talkies that old fashioned cineastes will find seductively compelling. It is a real deal movie palace, with a large balcony in everyday use (not that they need the extra seating). Any Fantastic Fest patron who happens to be in Mumbai will want to take in a screening there, just the faded glory experience. In a world of cookie-cutter multiplexes, you just don’t see theaters like that anymore.

Of course, Rehman is crusty in a manner befitting an underappreciated master. You could say he can be a little curt with his apprentices, but at least he livens up the studio scenes. His paintings are also works of exquisitely sensationalistic beauty. Arguably, he is the world’s greatest oil painter of hand guns and crashing helicopters.

You might have to be in the right mood to appreciate Copy, but its vivid sense of place makes it far more compelling than the average observational documentary, largely because the Alfred Talkies is just the sort of place most cineastes would love to wander around. Recommended for Bollywood fans with grown-up attention spans, Original Copy screens tomorrow morning (9/23) and Tuesday afternoon (9/27), as part of this year’s Fantastic Fest.

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HK Cinema at SFFS ‘16: Rouge

Evidently, in 1987 you could call everyone in Hong Kong with a pager account in a single evening. You probably still do that today. Life moves quickly in Hong Kong, especially for a lovelorn ghost. After fifty years, the spectral courtesan-prostitute finally hopes to reunite with her long lost love in Stanley Kwan’s absolutely classic Rouge (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society.

Refined prostitutes like Fleur could mix with high society in 1930s Hong Kong, but they couldn’t marry into their ranks. However, Chan Chen-pang (a.k.a. “12th Young Master”) the wastrel heir to a dry goods store fortune has different ideas. He is not content to be Fleur’s paramour. He also wants to marry her. That would be alarming enough for his staid family, but his plan to forgo the dry goods business to pursue a career in opera is just too much for them.

Rather than endure life separated from each other, the lovers resolved to commit suicide together so they could start their next lives as a couple. At least that was the plan. When Fleur woke up wherever it is that one does, she was by herself. Having martialed her strength, she has re-entered the human world to find him. Somewhat logically, she thinks to place a classified ad in a long-running tabloid. There she has the good fortune of encountering Yuen, a schlubby ad/sales rep ambiguously dating ambitious reporter Chu. After coming to terms with the ghost business, they both agree to help her find her beloved (including calling all those pager customers at one point).

Rouge is a sentimental favorite of many HK movie fans, for reasons that are immediately apparent. It is lushly romantic and touchingly bittersweet in all the right ways. The scenes set during the 1930s have the elegance of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (which it predates by eleven years), while the contemporary narrative thread treats its supernatural themes with down-to-earth understatement. In both time frames, Anita Mui is arrestingly luminous as Fleur. Sadly, knowing she would succumb to cancer at the terribly premature age of forty adds further poignancy to her performance in retrospect.

Yet, despite its lyric romanticism, Tai An-ping Chiu & Lillian Lee’s adaptation of Lee’s novel acts as a corrective and rebuke to the unrestrained ardor that drove Fleur and Chan to seal their suicide pact. In a significant moment, the 12th Young Master gives Fleur a rouge box pendant. In contrast, Yuen gives Chu the gift of a sensible pair of shoes when the audience first meets them. Its not such a blingy gift, but they are what she really needs. Even though the modern couple admits they would never commit suicide for each other, that also means they will always be there for their partner. In fact, as great as Mui is, Alex Man and Emily Chu arguably forge the more potent and endearing chemistry. Even though he also met with a tragically early demise, Leslie Cheung is a bit of a cold fish as Chan, but it would be hard for anyone to outshine Mui.

In addition to all the aching romance and gently eerie supernatural goings on, Rouge also has the distinction of being produced by Jackie Chan. It is a remarkably assured and accomplished work from Kwan that captured Mui in peak form. It is just a hard film not to love. Very highly recommended, Rouge screens this Saturday (9/24) as part of the SFFS’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Town Called Panic: Double Fun

Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar’s molded plastic toy characters are the natural heirs to Mr. Bill, but unlike SNL’s vintage put-upon victim, they give lip right back. If social justice warriors think Cowboy and Indian sound offensive, just wait until they hear them start to squawk and complain. Of course, their relentless immaturity makes them quite a positive influence on youngsters. Therefore, as a special Art House Theater Day gift to the future leaders of America, GKIDS is releasing the short film collection A Town Called Panic: Double Fun for one day only this Saturday, in participating cinemas.

In Christmas Panic (a.k.a. The Christmas Log), the ever bickering Cowboy and Indian have not matured one whit since the Panic feature film.  They still live with the infinitely more responsible Horse, trying his patience daily. When their fooling around accidentally ruins the Christmas log for Horse’s dinner party, they finally push him too far. Exasperated, Horse calls up Santa and cancels their gift delivery. Naturally, Cowboy and Indian try to fix the situation, but only make matters worse.

Right, so Merry Christmas one and all. Do not look for any cheap sentiment here. Linus will not explain the true meaning of Christmas, nor will the Grinch be joining the citizenry of Whoville for a Christmas roast. Instead, Town Called Panic delivers a feast of increasingly reckless lunacy that only small hardened plastic toys could survive.

If Christmas was chaotic, the first day of class in Back to School Panic will be utterly nutty. Naturally, Cowboy and Indian are not down with it, but Horse lays down the law. As we would expect, they are the bad kids who sit in the back and never study, but they suddenly get interested when Yuri the Cosmonaut promises a trip to the moon to whichever student can calculate its distance from the earth. Knowing they are idiots, Cowboy and Indian resolve to cheat, but their scheme takes on trippily surreal dimensions. Arguably, Back to School is the weirdest Panic ever, but that is a good thing.

As a bonus, two fan favorite short Panic shorts will play in the “intermission” between Christmas and School. For a change, Cowboy and Indian are not the ones acting badly in Lisa & Jan Instead, it is the titular hipster hikers causing all the ill will. Cowboy returns to being the culprit in Cow-Hulk, but really the alien shape-shifting virus is to blame for all the damage.

All the Panic shorts are rollicking good fun, but Back to School Panic is probably their best misadventure since the laugh-out-loud, loose-control-of-your-functions feature film. Charmingly subversive, the A Town Called Panic: Double Fun shorts package is highly recommended for animation fans of all ages when it screens this Saturday (9/24) at select theaters, including the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.

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Generation Startup: Too Little, Too Late?

Currently, entrepreneurship is at all time low for the 18-30 age bracket, which makes sense considering they were the demographic that so ardently embraced Commissar Bernie Sanders. In the past, the ambition to earn financial independence and be one’s own boss motivated entrepreneurs, but today’s millennials need mentors to hold their hands and the structure of fellowships. To that end, Andrew Yang created Venture for America (VFA) to place college graduates in startup ventures for boots on the ground capitalism experience, but the documented results vary drastically in Cynthia Wade & Cheryl Miller Houser’s Generation Startup (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ostensibly about VFA startup apprenticeships, Generation is just as much a promotional film for the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. All of the featured startups are located in the former Motor City, where they are helping to power its comeback, at least according to Wade & Houser’s narrative. Of course, the volume of abandoned houses bought sight unseen through repossession auctions helps drive the initial business of Castle, a remote property management startup co-founded by Max Nussenbaum. Castle shares office space with Brian Rudolph’s Banza, a gluten-free chickpea pasta company, but the actual manufacturing happens in a small plant north of the city. Details, details.

To give credit where credit is due, Nussenbaum and Rudolph have legitimately inspiring success stories to tell. However, Generation’s most compelling POV figure is unquestionably Labib Rahman, the VFA fellow placed at tech startup Mason. Expecting his Muslim parents will disown him when they learn he is no longer religious, Rahman feels intense pressure to succeed while they are still on speaking terms, but his experiences at Mason are decidedly mixed.

Occasionally, Wade & Houser also check in with Kate Catlin at tech startup Detroit Labs, but apparently what they do is so boring she mostly spends her time organizing Women Rising, an organization to promote woman-to-woman mentoring in the technology sector, which seems to practice empowerment through cocktail parties. The filmmakers spend more time with Dextina Booker, an associate with a private grant development agency, but she can never discuss any of her work due to confidentiality agreements, so mainly she just bikes around taking stock of the new and improved Detroit.

Frankly, Generation Startup will make you pine for the glory days of the Silicon Cowboys who founded Compaq computers. They revolutionized the personal computer industry without the aid of mentors or fellows. As well-intentioned as VFA is, the very need for it suggests we have lost our way as a country. Despite the interesting case studies of Castle and Banza, Generation fails dreadfully in its attempts to reassure viewers regarding Millennial entrepreneurship and Detroit’s vaunted rebound. Tellingly, it never broaches subjects like the impact of taxation and closed union shops on embryonic startups. The promotional tone of the film does not do it any favors either.

Viewers looking to learn more about the transformative power of startup capital will be far better served by James & Maureen Castle Tusty’s internationally focused Economic Freedom in Action. Mostly disappointing and largely un-self-aware, Generation Startup opens this Friday (9/23) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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I.T.: Pierce Brosnan’s Life Gets Hacked

Someone should warn Mike Regan the women you meet through online chats sometimes turn out to be men. The corporate jet magnate just isn’t very computer savvy. He is about to reveal his smart home passwords to his company’s new systems temp. In doing so, he will learn a perennial management lesson. Good help is definitely hard to find in John Moore’s I.T. (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Regan is about to take his firm public to raise capital for his uber-for-private-jets app. Rather embarrassingly his launch event is nearly sabotaged by technical glitches, but Ed Porter, the new socially awkward temp saves the day. Impressed by his resourcefulness and full of his own fake egalitarianism, Regan invites him over to the house to speed up the wifi and do other computer stuff. At this point, he should be writing his own ticket to full time employment and quick promotion, but his horrendous misunderstanding of boundaries ruins all his good credit. Since he continues to do creepy stuff, like showing up to cheer on the Regan’s prep school daughter in her field hockey game, his almost-mentor cans him. Feeling betrayed, Porter uses all his backdoors and Trojans to makes the Regans’ lives absolutely miserable.

For about ten minutes, I.T. gets smart when Michael Nyqvist blows into town as Henrik, the mysterious “cleaner,” who specializes in shutting down cyber menaces like Porter. Unfortunately, it soon reverts back to its previous dumb self. When it comes to stupidity in Don Kay & William Wisher’s screenplay, nobody can touch the moronic cops, who bizarrely identify immediately with the twitchy computer nerd rather than the wealthy airplane dude. At one point, Regan’s real I.T. department suggests Porter might be able to crash their planes out of the sky, but they never follow up on this potentially catastrophic plot point.

As Regan, Pierce Brosnan sort of plays his age without giving up on playing good guy-leading mean. Nyqvist is slyly droll as the Cleaner, while James Frecheville does some of his best work yet (certainly compared to Adore and Animal Kingdom, in which everyone else just overwhelmed him) as the staggeringly inappropriate Porter. However, they are just working with a screenplay that is dumber than a bag full of hammers.

Seriously, the logic of I.T.’s narrative collapses faster than Hillary Clinton on a day in the mid-eighties. In feels like a throwback to mid-1990s films like The Net that were just discovering the shenanigans that sometimes happen online. It might have gotten more benefit of the doubt then, but it just feels shopworn now. Therefore, I.T. just isn’t recommendable when it opens this Friday (9/23) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

At All Costs: The Business of the AAU

NBA bench-warmers making the league minimum are an exclusive club. Plays earning anything above that are even more elite. That means there just are not very many of them. It is not a practical life plan, yet tens of thousands high school and junior high kids pursue their elusive hoop dreams through the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Eclipsing prep rankings in importance, the AAU has become a recruitment machine, but it does not necessarily serve the best interests of the kids or the game. Mike Nicoll takes viewers inside the AAU system in At All Costs (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

During the summer, Parker Jackson-Cartwright is on the road non-stop playing in AAU tournaments. College coaches rarely bother scouting high school games anymore, so if he wants to get noticed, the AAU is his only option. Critics argue it turns players into hotdogs, showing off their skills at the expense of the team. Defenders basically say that’s life.

Etop Udo-Ema is the founder and CEO of the Compton Magic, which sounds like a bizarrely lofty title for an amateur kids team. Yet, Udo-Ema has indeed built an empire, including four distinct squads that are always on the road. He can offer his players something that they can’t get with every AAU team: corporate sponsorship courtesy of Adidas. In this business, the power of shoe company clout cannot be overstated. Udo-Ema talks a good game and he seems to follow through with his players and alumni more than many AAU coaches, but he always sounds like he is selling the Compton Magic brand, because he is.

Watching Jackson-Cartwright and his future agent father play the AAU game will send many viewers into culture shock. It is literally a full time pursuit for them. Yet, it remains highly speculative. If someone suggested to AAU parents their time, effort, and expenses would be better invested in tutoring that would prepare their kids for an advanced STEM degree at a leading university, they might be scoffed at for being square, but the payoff would be far more certain, without any risk of injury. Unfortunately, that latter point will indeed become an issue for the Jackson-Cartwrights.

For those uninitiated in the AAU system, All Costs is truly eye-opening stuff. Nicoll never takes sides nor does he shield the league from unflattering moments. As a result, it is hard to argue with Kobi Bryant’s shoot-from-the-hip criticisms. From what we see, the AAU is grossly misnamed. These kids function as professionals, not amateurs. Strictly speaking, they do participate in athletics, but the league appears more concerned with PR and sponsorship. Unions used to imply solidarity, but since they are now more about featherbedding, we can give them the “U.” Recommended for fans of the sort of in-depth reporting Bernard Goldberg does on HBO’s Real Sports, At Any Cost is now available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Ottawa International Animation ’16: Three Little Ninjas Delivery Service (short)

Back when Saturday Night Live was funny they had a gag commercial for Einstein Express: “when it absolutely, positively has to be there the day before yesterday.” The Three Little Ninjas can top that. They pledge to deliver “whatever, whenever, wherever” and they have the packing tape and time travel capabilities to back it up in Karim Rhellam & Kim Claeys’ short film Three Little Ninjas Delivery Service (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Their storefront looks unassuming, but the flyers the Three Little Ninjas distribute through space-time wormholes do not lie. You might think they have their work cut out for them when an entitled princess in a fantasy realm who does not want to be rescued orders a replacement dragon, but the trio merely jaunt back in time to pick up a dinosaur. Okay, so they are not paleontologists, but they are definitely close enough for government work.

The Three Little Ninjas are just good, clean, slightly un-PC madcap fun. Delivery Service is clearly intended as a proof-of-concept pseudo-pilot, which is fine, since animation fans would definitely welcome regularly deliveries in the future. If it becomes some kind of franchise, Rhellam & Claeys will eventually have to do more to differentiate the Ninjas’ personalities, but as a one-off, the ruckus energy of it all is thoroughly entertaining.

Seriously, ninjas, time travel, dinosaurs, and obnoxious royals—what more can you ask from an eleven-minute short film? Highly recommended for animation fans of all ages, Three Little Ninjas Delivery Service screens this Saturday (9/24) and Sunday (9/25) as part of the Short Films for Young Audiences programming block at this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival.

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Meat: The Dutch Cinematic Provocation Resurfaces

It is time to play “know your cuts of meat” or maybe rather “know your antisocial fetishes.” Either way, it will take place in a butcher’s shop. That usually means trouble in the movies and it is especially so in this Dutch establishment. Sex and death are both going on in the backroom during Victor Niuwenhuijs & Maaartje Seyferth’s Meat (not safe for anywhere trailer here), which releases today on VOD from Artsploitation.

Way back in 2010, Meat opened in Holland and scandalized the genre festival circuit. Then it effectively disappeared for North American audiences, because it really required an aesthetically fearless distributor like Artsploitation to get behind—so here it is now. We do not believe in trigger warnings, but pretty much all of them apply to Meat.

Roxy has a delightful part-time job in the boucherie getting sexually harassed by the unnamed butcher (at least he doesn’t look so bad compared to her abusive Turkish boyfriend, who has been stringing her along). The shop is relatively peaceful when the Butcher is making love to his prostitute wife in the meat locker, but the mood turns sour when she opens cavorts with her pimp. Despite his appalling behavior, Roxy is still down with Team Butcher, so she is quite distressed when the old man is apparently murdered.

To make matters even more surreal, the case is assigned to the soon to retire Inspector Mann, who might be the worst cop in Holland and also happens to be the spitting image of the Butcher. Naturally Roxie becomes the prime suspect, but Mann, Niuwenhuijs, and Seyferth are about as forthcoming on details of the crime as an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel.

By mixing the sordid exploitation of the most shocking grindhouse movies with the postmodern intellectualism of art house cinema at its most severe, Meat has something to alienate just about everyone. Yet, it has to be respected as a fearless work of auteurist cinema. Deliberately setting out to unnerve and discomfort viewers, Niuwenhuijs & Seyferth succeed smashingly. While The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover obviously provided inspiration, Meat’s excesses are all its own.

Regardless, Titus Muizelaar gives a remarkable dual performance as the Inspector and the Butcher, until they eventually blend back together—or whatever. Nellie Benner’s portrayal of Roxy is also jaw-droppingly fearless. We are talking about some truly raw and exposed work here from all parties.

Clearly, Niuwenhuijs & Seyferth are engaging with all connotations of the word meat, especially the carnal and carnivorous. It is does not always work. Frankly, Roxie’s compulsion to film all the outrages with her hand held camera was already a shopworn indie convention in the 1990s. Ultimately it just becomes too obscure for its own good down the stretch, but for the most part, there is merit and method to its madness. Recommended for the hardiest of cineastes who just want to see it for themselves, Meat is now available on VOD platforms, including Vimeo, from Artsploitation.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

SoulMates: A Tale of Friendship and Internet Publishing

Web novels never really caught on here, but they are a big deal in China and Japan. There was a brief vogue for serialized e-books, but generally American readers want to hold the entire book in their hands (you take my word for it when it comes to e-book marketing). In contrast, readers in other markets seem to appreciate way web novels unfold without any guarantees—sort of like life. That is especially true of the hot new web-novel written by Li Ansheng (Anson)’s former BFF Lin Qiyue (July), transparently based on their lives. Li could really do without the resulting attention in Derek Tsang’s SoulMates (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Li was always the wild one and Lin was the responsible one, but somewhere along the way to their late twenties, they apparently switched. Now Li has a responsible office job and Lin is presumably in the wind, living the bohemian life she used to read about in Li’s postcards. They were inseparable through middle school or whatever it is called in China (it came with uniforms and military drills that neither were into). They were still closer than sisters in high school, but that is when the first fissure in their relationship occurred. His name is Su Jia-ming and he becomes a greater issue over time. Lin is crazy about him and it is mostly mutual, but he cannot help feeling attractive to her rebellious yet protective pal Li.

For a while they have sort of the reciprocal of Jules and Jim going on, but misunderstandings and distance will strain their friendships. Sadly, the few times the two women come together, it seems to drive them further apart. Of course, viewers will expect some dramatic revelations in the third act—and Li and Lin do not disappoint.

This could be derisively called a “chick flick” but the missing web novelist and her anticipated final chapter give it an intriguing air of mystery. As Macguffins go, it isn’t “Rosebud,” but it isn’t bad. In fact, SoulMate has a meta dimension that elevates the film well beyond standard tearjerkers.

Fortunately, Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun both bring their A games, convincingly suggesting the depth and tension of their relationship. There is a lot of integrity to their performances. These characters know exactly what to say to hurt each other and it makes us wince in sympathetic pain when they inevitably do. Of course, the camera absolutely loves them, which does not hurt either.

Somewhat surprisingly for such a contemporary urban drama set in the world’s most populous country, hardly any other supporting player gets any appreciable screen business aside from blandly handsome Toby Lee as the largely clueless Su. He is serviceable enough, but as the song says, you don’t want to be the mister who gets between these mega-watt movie star sisters.

There is no question Tsang (son of HK show biz institution Eric Tsang) is going for the heartstrings, but, believe it or not, he manages to surprise us at several junctures, with the assistance of a platoon of screenwriters (Lam Wing Sum, Li Yuan, Xu Yi-meng, and Wu Nan adapting Qing Shan’s novel). If Beaches wasn’t weepy enough for you than SoulMate is in your power zone. Recommended for fans of Chinese melodrama, SoulMate opens this Friday (9/23) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Gans’ Beauty and the Beast

Disney dearly hopes you will not see this French adaptation of the fairy definitively penned by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, because just about any competitive live action film will suffer in comparison. Of course, there is already the Jean Cocteau masterpiece and Disney’s own exceptional animated feature. However, for pure visual spectacle, it will be hard to equal Christophe Gans’ Beauty and the Beast (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

The story is still a fairy tale, suitable for a mother to tell as a bedtime story for her two rapt children in the film’s framing device. Belle is also still the beauty and consequently the apple of her merchant father’s eye. Sadly, all of the old man’s ships are lost at sea, forcing his family into provincial poverty. Yet, clean country living agrees with Belle (but not so much with her five entitled siblings).

Returning home from an ill-fated attempt to recoup his fortune, the merchant takes shelter in an ominous castle. He eats well before helping himself to some luxurious gifts for his shallow older daughters and finally a rose for Belle—the only gift she requested. His unseen host takes exception to this. That would be the Beast. As punishment for his desecration, the beast sentences the merchant to death, giving him one final day to make his farewells. However, the noble Belle returns in his place before the distraught father can stop her.

Of course, the Beast is not about to kill such a fair maiden. Instead, he provides some lovely gowns for her to wear at their awkward formal dinners. Viewers basically know where things go from here, but instead of the arrogant Gaston, it will be Perducas, her wastrel brother’s cutthroat underworld creditor, who will come barging in uninvited.

This time around, we also get more of the Beast’s backstory, which surprisingly pay-offs with third act call-backs. It is a richly archetypal narrative, but Belle’s love for the Beast blossoms way faster than Gans and co-screenwriter Sandra Vo-Anh duly establish. Of course, we know it will happen, so apparently they decided to let us fill in the blanks.

Regardless, this Beauty and the Beast is a majestic triumph of vision and art direction. The sets, trappings, and costumes are wonderfully lush and detailed. Although the vibe is suitably gothic, there is a touch of Dali in production designer Thierry Flamand’s work, especially when it comes to the giant statues. The visual effects are also first rate, as when those giant statues attack.

Vincent Cassel is appropriately fierce and feral as the beast, while Léa Seydoux scratches out some direct and engaging emotional moments, which is a challenge for a little miss perfect like Belle. The venerable André Dussollier does his thing once again, further classing up the joint as the merchant. However, Eduardo Noriega nearly steals the show masticating the scenery with villainous glee as Perducas. He also nicely plays with and off Myriam Charleins as Perducas’ mysterious tarot-reading lover and co-conspirator.

Some of Belle’s siblings are a bit shticky, but in general the ensemble acquits itself quite well. Nevertheless, the real star of this B&B is the arresting fantasy world Gans creates. He even gives us a passel of animation-augmented Beagles, so good luck topping that Bill Condon and the rest of the Disney team. Highly recommended for all fans of fairy tale and fantasy cinema, Gans’ Beauty and the Beast opens this Friday (9/23) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.

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