J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Little Bedroom: Nurse-Patient Commiseration

Crusty old Edmond Berthoud is reaching the point when his natural cantankerousness can no longer compensate for his failing body. Nevertheless, he wages a cold war against his grown son and the Swiss visiting nurse service, but reaches an unexpected détente with his newest care-giver. Perhaps because she has plenty of her own issues, the nurse and her charge develop genuine empathy for each other in Stéphanie Chuat & Véronique Reymond’s The Little Bedroom (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Berthoud hardly knows his grown son Jacques’ American fiancée and likes her even less. He is not exactly devastated by Jacques’ impending move to Chicago, but all the resulting fussing about becomes a considerable annoyance. As usual, he tries to take it out on his new nurse, Rose, but she has more gumption than her predecessors.

On paper, Berthoud would appear to be a terrible assignment for Rose’s return to work, following the still birth of her baby. She is still not over it, as her husband Marc can tell only too plainly. Eventually, the frustrated Marc will temporarily move out and the recently hospitalized Berthoud will move in, in defiance of patient protocol and without the knowledge or consent of his son. However, his decision to sleep in the eerily preserved children’s room rather throws the still grieving healthcare professional for a loop.

Bedroom is a very nice little movie that never gets excessively saccharine or simplistically pat. Chuat & Reymond’s screenplay shows a sensitive understanding of life’s messiness, but it can be a bit pedestrian at times.

Regardless, veteran French screen actor Michel Bouquet puts on a clinic as Berthoud. Flinty yet vulnerable beneath all the gruffness, he subverts all expectations of cutesy senior citizens borne out of films like Marigold Hotel. He doesn’t do quirky, but he develops some realistic chemistry with Florence Loiret Caille’s Rose. Their relationship might be short-lived, but it feels lived-in. Loiret Caille also goes all in as the faithful nurse, looking like the personification of a migraine.

Bedroom is a small film that treads down a rather well worn path, but (metaphor alert) it does so quite sure-footedly. It is not essential, but fans of French language cinema will appreciate the finely wrought work of Bouquet (Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Bourdos’s Renoir and Scrooge in a mid 1980s French television Christmas Carol, among scores of other screen credits). Respectfully recommended, The Little Bedroom opens this Friday (9/26) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Boxtrolls: Laika Gets Square

They are total squares, but good guys usually are. The question is whether these subterranean tinkerers can change their nature. They will have to if they hope to survive a rogue exterminator in Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi’s The Boxtrolls (trailer here), the latest stop-motion feature from the Laika animation studio, which opens this Friday in New York.

The humans live above, in vaguely Victorian Chessebridge, while the Boxtrolls live in the tunnels below, demonized by the ignorant people above. Only venturing up at nights, the preternaturally handy Boxtrolls survive fixing up cast-off items and scavenging from the garbage. Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling ever since the Dickensian Archibald Snatcher declared war on the Boxtrolls in hopes of joining the White Hats, Cheesebridge’s ruling elite.

When confronted by humans, the Boxtrolls instinctively play possum, retracting their heads and limbs into their boxes, turtle-like. Eggs is the exception. His body does not work the same way, because he is actually a human boy adopted as an infant by the gentle Boxtrolls. Despite their nurturing, he is still hardwired slightly differently. To avoid extinction, the other Boxtrolls will have to become more like Eggs, before Snatcher finishes his grim business.

Yes, there is a genocide theme running through Boxtrolls, which is always fun stuff in children’s film. Frankly, the treatment is probably too heavy-handed for parents who try to shelter their children and presented too glibly and off-handedly for those who like to challenge their kids. Tonally, the Boxtrolls is just bizarrely half-pregnant.

Nevertheless, the artistry of the Laika animators is undeniably. The expressiveness of the figures and the richly realized details of their world are quite impressive. It is a shame a little bit more effort was not dedicated to the story, loosely adapted from Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters! Just once it would be nice to see the adults recognize the glaringly obvious merit of their young ones’ warnings, especially for a total creep like Snatcher, but that will not be happening this time around.

Ironically, some of the cleverest bits in Boxtrolls come towards the end, so if you go, stick with it. As is often the case, the 3D has its moments, but probably is not worth the surcharge. If you appreciate the art of animation than it is quite a feast, but as a discrete film, it is not the most well balanced meal. If animation is bacon, consider it Adkins-friendly. Possibly too intense for small tykes, The Boxtrolls is recommended for stop-motion fans when it opens this Friday (9/26) in a variety of New York theaters, including the AMC Empire.

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Plastic: I’m Sorry Sir, Your Film Has Been Declined

Most of us are willing to risk facing death and dismemberment, but the prospect having our identity and credit cards stolen scares the willies out of us. Yet, that is exactly what this motley band of protagonists does. To be fair, some members of the crew are better than others in Julian Gilbey’s Plastic (trailer here), which opens this Friday.

Sam and his circle are some of the sort of disgustingly fortunate college students who always seem to have nice clothes and the latest tech toys. Somebody else always pays for them. How they stay in school is a bit of a mystery, but the source of their funds is not. He runs a small gang of credit card thieves. They are not run of the mill pickpockets. They understand how to steal passwords and build up customer profiles so their spending will not raise red flags. It was all working rather smoothly until Yatesy, the prettyboy jerkweed, and his sidekick Rafa rolled the wrong mark. In this case, wrong means the money man for a ruthless Euro gangster.

Before they know it, all four lads are face to face with the unamused Marcel, who offers them an ultimatum. They can pay him 50,000 pounds restitution every week, or a lump sum of two million. Sam opts for the one-shot deal. Initially, they plan to raise the funds doing what they do best, with the help of Sam’s class crush, Frankie. In addition to her supermodel looks, she also happens to work for a credit card company that done her wrong.

The idea of the fab five scrambling to drain the credit cards of three high rollers in Miami is rather subversively appealing, like a thriller version of Brewster’s Millions. Unfortunately, Yatesy the idiot blows the caper before it properly starts. Instead, the lads fall back on a half-baked jewel heist scheme that should be entirely outside their skill set. Pretending to be employees of an obscenely rich sultan, largely through the help spray-on tanners, Sam and company intend to steal a fabulous collection of colored diamonds from Steve Dawson, a Miami jeweler’s over-ambitious international sales manager.

Frankly, the second half stretches credibility to the breaking point, but at least Gilbey has the good sense to step on the gas and never look back. Pacing is not a problem here, but if you need vaguely likable characters in your thrillers, Plastic comes up empty. Arguably, Frankie is a reasonably decent person and at least Dawson’s hot assistant Beth has the good sense to question his sloppy security practices.

As Marcel and his creepy henchman Tariq, Thomas Krestchmann and Mem Ferda chew all the scenery that is not nailed down, which helps quite a bit. Graham McTavish and Malese Jow also bring some attitude and energy as the marks. For her part, Emma Rigby’s Frankie looks good in a swimsuit. However, all the lads are deadly dull, including Downton Abbey’s Ed Speleers (Jimmy Kent in seasons three through five) straining to be the roguish leading man.


Plastic has its guilty pleasures, but instead of embracing its grubby comparative advantages, it tries to become Raffles or Remington Steele midway through. It is all rather frustrating, because there are definitely B-movie elements that could have worked. Maybe worth a look later down the road, British thriller fans can safely wait for cable or Netflix. For diehard fans of the hip Brit TV cast, it launches on iTunes and opens in select markets this Friday (9/26).

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Two Faces of January: The Somewhat Talented Mr. MacFarland

He is an American veteran with a considerably younger wife and a flexible conscience. He cuts a Don Draper-like figure, but Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero was created during the Mad Men era. The Greek coppers are no match for Chester MacFarland, but an under-achieving Ivy Leaguer will be a more formidable rival in Hossein Amini’s adaptation of The Two Faces of January (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Although he shares a clear kinship with the talented Tom Ripley, MacFarland lacks his literary cousin’s long-term strategic thinking. After bilking his investors, including some rather “connected” gentlemen, with a Ponzi scheme, MacFarland has blithely embarked on a European tour with his young wife, Collette. He seems to embody all the financial security and mature masculinity she always needed, yet something about their scruffy American tour guide Rydal Keener catches her eye. There is no question about Keener’s attraction to the trophy wife, but he is also struck by MacFarland’s eerie resemblance to his recently deceased father.

After a fateful night of sightseeing and boozing, MacFarland is confronted by a private detective representing his dodgy former clients. As the discussion gets heated, a struggle ensues, during which MacFarland accidentally kills the flatfoot. In full panic mood, the swindler flees the hotel with Collette, leaving their passports behind. As international fugitives, they now engage Keener as their guide through the Southern European underworld. The circumstances have changed, but three is still an awkward crowd.

January is truly a lushly crafted film, luxuriating in its exotic locales and natty costumes. Veteran Dogme cinematographer Marcel Zyskind proves to be surprisingly adept at the sun-bathed noir look, capitalizing on all the striking Mediterranean backdrops. Production designer Michael Carlin and costumer Steven Noble also recreate the look and feel of 1962 in rich detail. In fact, it is a technically accomplished film in every respect.

Nonetheless, Highsmith’s slim novel still feels rather undernourished on-screen. Frankly, some of Hossein’s deviations from the source material undermine the film’s dramatic credibility. Killing a police officer is serious business in any country, but it is hard to believe a Yankee with a suitcase full of cash couldn’t bribe his way out of trouble with a dead American P.I. in early 1960’s Greece.

Regardless, Viggo Mortensen might have been born to play MacFarland, subtly hinting at all the neuroses the strong, silent anti-hero is bluffing over. Frankly, Mortensen’s powerfully understated performance and the tilt of Hossein’s screenplay complete stack the deck against poor Keener and Collette, no matter who was filling their shoes. Indeed, it would be hard to understand why the younger man is so bewitched by the pale, dull Kirsten Dunst, but Oscar Isaac’s Keener is equally empty.

Fortunately, villains (and anti-heroes) are always more important than their dullard antagonists in any film noir. Between the lovely sights and Mortensen’s smart, sophisticated work, January manages to offer enough to fans of literary thrillers looking for a fix. Recommended on balance, The Two Faces of January opens this Friday (9/26) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and the AMC Empire.

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Lilting: Cheng Pei-pei in the Dramatic Spotlight

Accurate translations are important in summit conferences and business meetings, but the ethics are a bit trickier on the personal level. A first time translator interpreting for an elderly nursing home couple will grapple with questions of how much and faithfully she should relay their words to each other. However, there are even greater unresolved personal issues lingering between the man who hired her and the Cambodian-Chinese woman utilizing her services in Cambodian-born British filmmaker Hong Khaou’s Lilting (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Junn’s time in the nursing home was supposed to be temporary, but her son Kai was tragically killed in a traffic accident before he could arrange a new living situation for her. Unfortunately, she could not have moved in with him, because she never would have accepted his relationship with Richard. After Kai’s death, Richard tries to look after Junn out of a sense of loyalty, but she begrudges his presence, mistakenly blaming him for her current circumstances.

At least the home brought her together with Alan, a British pensioner who cannot speak any Chinese or Cambodian dialects. Nonetheless, they seem to enjoy each others’ company. Wanting to help facilitate their romance, Richard recruits Vann to translate. It works well for a while, perhaps even softening Junn’s attitude towards her late son’s “roommate,” but the mourning mother might be too set in her ways to allow any of her inter-personal relationships to deepen or evolve.

Cheng Pei-pei never flashes her kung-fu moves in Lilting, which is somewhat disappointing, but the Come Drink with Me star’s straight-forward acting chops are impressive enough. It is a restrained but devastating portrayal of grief and resentment. Never sugarcoated, Cheng’s performance shuns sentimentality and theatrics, quietly going to some very deep and dark places.

While many will also focus on James Bond franchise alumnus Ben Whishaw’s co-starring turn, the film’s real discovery is Naomie Christie. Her acutely perceptive work as Vann in many ways functions as the viewer’s entry point. She is even more of an outsider to the proceedings than Richard, yet she too finds herself forming judgments and allowing herself to become emotionally involved.

Lilting represents quite an accomplished feature directorial debut from Hong, who masterfully maintains a mood of exquisite sorrow, nicely abetted by the sensitive, Sundance award-winning cinematography of Ula Pontikos. It is a graceful film with understanding for all and malice towards none. Recommended for Cheng’s fans who wish to see the icon in a whole new light, Lilting opens this Friday (9/26) in New York at the Village East.

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Discovering Georgian Cinema: Blue Mountains, or an Unbelievable Story

Georgian book publishers were probably not amused by this portrayal suggesting they were mostly a bunch of self-absorbed loons, who lolly-gagged around the office, pretending they had read manuscripts they never touched. As a publishing professional myself, I can safely say: “no comment.” Initially, the Soviet authorities were what you might call “circumspect,” prohibiting director-co-writer Eldar Shengelaia from attending the international film festivals that had happily accepted it (despite his Party membership). Roughly thirty years later, with a freer, more enlightened government now elected in Georgia, Shengelaia will be in New York to present Blue Mountains, or an Unbelievable Story when it screens as part of MoMA’s latest film series, Discovering Georgian Cinema, Part 1: A Family Affair.

Soso has just finished his next novel, Blue Mountains or Tian Shan. Yes, it has two titles, like Melville’s Pierre: or the Ambiguities—a fact that constantly vexes the Director of Soso’s publishing house, when he remembers it. Soso will make the rounds, duly dropping off copies of the manuscript to staff throughout the office, all of whom are delighted to have it and pledge to read it immediately, including the Director.  Yet, each time Soso returns, he makes the same circuit through the house, getting largely the same empty promises. Meanwhile, only the mining engineer eternally waiting to pitch his collection of folk stories notices the cracks in the ceiling growing at an alarming rate.

Thirty years have passed, but Blue Mountains is as razor sharp as ever. It is a masterfully constructed satire, that repeats large tracts of dialogue, but the implications become ever more absurd as the seasons and circumstances change. Poor Soso does everything by the book (if you will), yet he can never jump through enough bureaucratic hoops.

Although Blue Mountains does not address politics per se, it is easy to see how an apparatchik could decide Shengelaia’s ruthless send-up of bureaucracy, paperwork, and meetings was just bad for Party business. Nevertheless, it eventually won several Soviet film awards (presumably because they had to give them to something credible). Evidently, even if you were a cultural commissar, the humor of Shengelaia and Rezo Cheishvili’s screenplay was still quite potent stuff.

As Soso, Ramaz Giorgobiani might be the greatest cinematic straight-man ever, perfectly facilitating the comedic chaos, while serving as a sympathetic audience surrogate. Gosh darn it, we would really like to see Blue Mountains or Tian Shan get published in the end, but don’t get your hopes up. Likewise, Teimuraz Chirgadze deftly modulates the Director’s madness, at times almost coming across reasonably, given the bedlam erupting around him.

The subtitles are absolutely no hindrance to a wickedly droll skewering of paper-pushery. In all truth, Blue Mountains is a masterwork of international cinema, bordering on outright masterpiece status. Shengelaia is also a fascinating figure in his own right, who had a long and tumultuous political career, leading up to his support for the Rose Revolution. It is an altogether fitting selection for MoMA’s Georgian retrospective and his presence at its initial screening there should be considered a real event. Very highly recommended, Blue Mountains, or an Unbelievable Story screens this Wednesday (9/24) and next Monday (9/29) at MoMA.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Discovering Georgian Cinema: Will There Be a Theatre Up There

When celebrated actor Kakhi Kavsadze states he came of age in a country that no longer exists, he perhaps should not speak so soon. Putin clearly has designs to reassert the USSR’s old spheres of domination and Kavsadze’s native Georgia was one of the first nations he trained his military crosshairs on. Yet, current events make Kavsadze’s reminiscences of the Stalin era even more poignant in Nana Janelidze’s documentary, Will There Be a Theatre Up There?! (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s new film series, Discovering Georgian Cinema, Part 1: A Family Affair.

Kavsadze came from a long line of well respected traditional Georgian singers, as Stalin himself would attest. A letter from the dictator to his revered grandfather has a special place of irony in his family’s history. Kavsadze’s father was also an accomplished vocalist and choir-master, but WWII was not kind to him, or Kavsadze’s family by extension. The senior Kavsadze managed to save scores of Georgians POWs by organizing a camp choir, but such benign survival strategies would earn him the label: “enemy of the people.”

Through his words and occasional songs, Kavsadze revisits his early childhood years, paying tribute to his parents for enduring their endless tribulations. Technically, it all takes place in one location, but the hanger-like industrial building re-purposed as a film studio is remarkably versatile. Janelidze will often stage dramatic tableaux to illustrate Kavsadze’s recollections, which frequently seem to stir legitimate emotions deep within the grand thespian.

Kavsadze’s stories are about as personal as they get, yet they offer tremendous insight into the nature of the Communist system. Perhaps most telling is the episode in which a pair of KGB agents came to the Kavsadze home looking for an incriminating document, but tried to carry off their dinner table instead (fun fact: Putin was a veteran KGB agent).

Kavsadze is a forceful presence who truly commands the viewer’s attention. Likewise, Janelidze’s sparse but elegant approach gives rise to some striking images that often bring to mind Eastern European cinematic classics, like Wajda’s Everything for Sale. Despite its relatively short running time (fifty-five minutes), Theatre offers viewers quite a bit to take in. It is especially fitting that it had a special screening during this summer’s Odessa International Film Festival, since Georgia has been informally advising Ukraine how to respond when Russia invades their sovereign territory. Very highly recommended, Will There Be a Theatre Up There?! screens this Thursday (9/25) and Sunday (10/5) as part of MoMA’s upcoming Georgian film series.

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fantastic Fest ’14: Jacky in the Kingdom of Women

Islamist apologists always assure us that Muslim women feel more comfortable and empowered in restrictive clothes. Here’s their chance to try the burqa on for size. It the backward fictional nation of Bubunne, women have all legal authority and subjugate their uneducated men like chattel. One sad sack man-victim harbors a deep crush on the supreme leader’s heir apparent-daughter, but he has lost his ticket to the grand ball in Riad Sattouf’s satirical Cinderella-riff, Jacky in the Kingdom of Women (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Fantastic Fest.

As a male “pleb,” Jacky is about as low as it gets in Bubunne, but women find him attractive (there’s no accounting for taste in this militarist theocracy), so he has always hoped General Bubunne XVI’s daughter, logically known as The Colonel, would choose him to be her “Big Dummy.” Unfortunately, when Jacky’s mother dies, his mean aunt and uncle give his ticket to the cattle-call ball to his ugly cousin. Yet, through a series of misadventures, Jacky will somehow gatecrash the soiree, disguised as a woman, Twelfth Night style.

Although the official religion of Bubunne venerates horses instead of a prophet, it is not hard to see what it is based on. Given the chadors worn by men, the frequent denunciations of blasphemy, public executions, and rampant sexism and homophobia, if you cannot recognize Bubunne as an analog for the Islamist regimes, you are willfully blind enough to work children’s protective services in Rotherham.

It is therefore little exaggeration to describe Sattouf’s screenplay as extraordinarily bold, but Twenty-First Century viewers might wish his satire came with more jokes. However, the audience that could probably stand to gain the most from seeing the gender tables turned is not exactly known for its collective funny bone. Subtlety can also be an iffy proposition, but Kingdom’s depiction of religiously justified oppression should be in-your-face enough to register some kind of response (like a fatwa).

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as the Colonel is also rather brave, for a host of reasons that would be spoilery to explain. It is safe to say she is a good sport, whose mysterious screen presence perfectly suits the film. However, Vincent Lacoste’s Jacky is so passive and pathetic, viewers will want to bully him along with the rest of the film’s villains. At least Michel Hazanavicius brings some redemptive verve as Julin, an underground propagandist who was close friends with Jacky’s late father. Anémone (co-star of the beloved holiday classic, Santa Stinks) also shows a flair for physical humor as the miserable old General.

Kingdom earns considerable points for satirizing subjects that consider themselves off limits to such treatment, but the characters and narrative never really engage on an emotional level. Still, when it is funny, the jokes also land with a sting. Recommended on balance for free-thinkers, Jacky in the Kingdom of Women screens again this coming Monday (9/22) as part of this year’s Fantastic Fest. 

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Fantastic Fest ’14: Norway

Zano is the worst sort of over the hill hipster. He is a vampire. Technically, he is not getting any older, but he is still not maturing much either. Yet, he somehow comes across rather world weary and sad. Much to his own surprise, Zano will learn even he has an ethical line he will not cross in Yannis Veslemes’ feverishly odd Norway (trailer here), which screens sometime during the 2014 Fantastic Festival.

It is 1984 and disco still rules Athens’ nightclubs. Zano has come for some hedonism, but he cannot connect with the mortician friend who is supposed to be his host. Making his way to a low-rent discotheque, Zano drinks, dances, and strikes out with live-bodied women he puts the moves on. In the process, he crosses paths with a former actor-turned gangster and a fellow vampire who looks even sicklier than he does. However, things really get complicated when he meets Alice, an earthly party girl, who is also a bit of a predator herself.

Frankly, they have a rather awkward introduction, considering the way Zano chomps down on the neck of her Norwegian drug dealer, Peter. Yet, somehow they both go off into the night together, pulling along the zombie-like Peter as he undergoes the undead transformation. It seems Zano will eventually get what he wants from Alice, but he suspects she might be have a secret agenda, which of course she does.

It is hard to believe Norway and popular franchises like Twilight, True Blood, and Vampire Diaries share any sort of kinship, despite their common ostensible subject of vampires. From the trance-inducing music to the hazy ultra-1980s cinematography, Norway is more of a contact-buzz than a proper horror film. There is no denying the stylishness of Veslemes’ approach, particularly his undisguised use of model trains during Zano’s travel sequences. Cinematography Christos Karamanis gives it all an unusually striking look that evokes classic film noir and vintage comic art.

Yet, probably Veslemes’ most bizarre ingredient is the scruffy hound dog Vangelis Mourikis, head-bobbing his way through the film as Zano. Somehow Mourikis and Veslemes successfully walk a fine line, making their protagonist vampire a total loon, but not so far out there we can’t relate to him on some hard to define level.

This is the sort of film that will have you thinking to yourself “this is so weird” from start to finish. Arguably, the plot is not so over-the-top when compared to other genre films (although it takes a seriously outrageous turn), but it is just executed in such a distinctively whacked-out (but mostly accessible) manner. In fact, the vibe is so overpowering, viewers might not fully realize how strangely good Mourikis is. Highly recommended for adventurous genre fans, Norway will screen sometime during this year’s Fantastic Fest, running through this coming Thursday (9/25) in Austin, Texas.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Fantastic Fest ’14: Tombville

If John-Paul Sartre rewrote Hostel, you sure wouldn’t want to be a character in it. Poor hapless David pretty much finds himself in that position. The horror is menacing and downright existential in Nikolas List’s Tombville (trailer here), which screens sometime during the 2014 Fantastic Fest (where they don’t trouble themselves over bourgeoisie things like schedules).

Waking up barefoot with no memory, David is essentially trapped in a strange town, where the sun never shines. After a few vaguely hostile encounters, a cryptic figure reveals to the twentysomething he will only be allowed to leave when he figures out why he is there in the first place. In between harrowing encounters, including one rather uncomfortable interrogation session, David starts searching his reawakened childhood memories for clues. Needless to say, there are usually very good reasons why the mind represses some incidents, but he seems to be on the right track when he discovers artifacts from his past in this eerie town.

Working with the barest of sets, List creates the most sinister mood and environment you will see on film in a month of Black Sabbaths. It is not a gore-fest or torture porn, but Tombville is still decidedly not for the fate of heart. We are talking dark here, in every sense.

Frankly, this is more of a sizzle-reel for what List and cinematographer Camille Langlois can do with a camera and a flashlight than an actor’s showcase. Still, Pierre Lognay certainly looks convincingly terrified and much abused as David. Frequent French screen heavy Eric Godon also makes a chilling villain, but it would be spoilery to explain how so.

Even though List has a somewhat experimental aesthetic and incorporates elements borrowed from westerns and psychological thrillers like Spellbound, Tombville is absolutely, positively horror. It runs less than seventy minutes, but it would be difficult to maintain such a malevolent vibe much longer. It is impressive work, recommended for hearty genre fans (instead of casual midnight movie dilettantes). It screens sometime over the coming week (9/18-9/25), when this year’s Fantastic Fest commences in Austin, Texas.

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Iceman: He Cometh Anew

He Ying is sort of a Ming era Austin Powers. The disgraced Imperial Guard certainly kicks things off in a similar fashion when he is re-animated amidst modern day Hong Kong. Just why a cabal of shady characters was ferrying about his incubator in the first place is a question that may or may not be answered in Law Wing-cheong’s Iceman (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1621, He Ying was set up by his comrade Cheung and their sworn brothers Sao and Niehu dutifully believed it. Flashforward to modern Hong Kong, where the truck carrying He Ying, Sao, and Niehu’s cryo-pods meets with a freak accident. He is the first to awaken, but Sao and Niehu soon start tracking him. Initially just as confused by the plot as the audience, He falls in with May, a Mainland immigrant supporting her institutionalized mother as a club hostess. It turns out he happens to have some very valuable knick-knacks on his person that will help pay her overdue bills. He also has some highly motivated enemies on his tail. Further complicating matters, his old nemesis Cheung is apparently serving as the deputy police commissioner.

Loosely based on Clarence Fok’s The Iceman Cometh, Law’s Iceman features a couple of awesome action scenes, but they come amid an awful lot of fish-out-of-water dilly-dallying. One thing you won’t find in there is a sense of resolution. Instead, it ends with a tease for the forthcoming part two. Wisely, it promises more action, because the characters and humor of part one may not have a lot of fans clamoring for more.

Of course, Donnie Yen is awesome getting down to business, but he looks about as stiff as four hundred year old warrior-cycle in his comedic scenes. Fortunately, the always reliable Simon Yam does his villainous thing as Cheung. Since Law is a Johnnie To protégé, you know it is only a matter of time before Lam Suet shows up. In this case, he largely steals the show as Tang, an outrageously crooked politician. Eva Huang Shengyi gives May a bit of an edge, which is nice, but Wang Baoqiang and Yu Kang are largely non-factors as the other icemen.


The big action set pieces will temporarily please genre diehards, but the humor just does not travel well. Still, hope springs eternal for part two. For part one, Yen and Lam fans can safely wait to rent, stream, or demand. Regardless, Iceman opens theatrically tomorrow (9/19) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Brush with Danger: Art and Action in Seattle

These undocumented siblings do the sort of jobs native-born Americans just won’t do, like forging a Van Gogh and boxing in unregulated after hours bouts. To be fair, she is highly conflicted about the former, whereas he faces plenty of home grown talent in the latter. Their legal status is precarious, but their spirit is indomitable in Livi Zheng’s Brush with Danger (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Alice and Ken Qiang were two of the lucky ones, who survived their cargo container transit to America. They came in search of a better life, but they also had to get out of Dodge fast. They have practically nothing to their names, except for some of her paintings that they will try to sell on the streets. They also have skills, which is part of the reason why they had to leave in a hurry. Yet, despite Alice’s reluctance, the Qiangs discover they can quickly fill a hat with their street displays of martial arts and acrobatics. Gallerist Justus Sullivan also notices them doing their act, but it is Alice’s work that really catches his eye.

Playing the role of patron, Sullivan moves the Qiangs into his McMansion, so Alice can finally live up to her potential. To keep Ken busy, Sullivan introduces the impetuous kid to his associate running Seattle’s underground fight circuit. Soon Ken is earning his own illegal spending money, fair and square. However, just when Sullivan asks if maybe Alice wouldn’t mind doing an extremely high quality reproduction—for a terminally ill friend, mind you—Det. Nick Thompson starts snooping around.

Brush is the directorial debut Livi Zheng, an Indonesian-born former stuntwoman and NCAA Karate competitor. It does indeed have some of the roughness you might associate with first features, but she and her real life kick-boxer brother Ken are totally convincing in the action scenes. In spite of some narrative slack, Zheng keeps it well paced and Norman Newkirk adds some memorable villainous charm as Sullivan.

Frankly, the problem is it is all too nice. The Zhengs are hugely likeably rooting interests and former cop-turned-wrestler Nikita Breznikov is rather likable as Det. Thompson, in a doofus kind of way. Even Sullivan is kind of nice (although some of his angry associates are definitely not). Still, if you had to choose a movie bad guy to have lunch with, he should be at the top of the list.

So if everyone is nice, does that mean the movie is nice too? Unfortunately, that probably constitutes a fallacy of composition. Regardless, it is impossible to root against the Qiangs and the Zhengs, who are already at work on their next action picture. If they maintain their earnestness and add some narrative edge, they could really get somewhere. For now, Brush with Danger opens this Friday (9/19) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam Goes Back to the Dystopian Well

Evidently, there is good money to be made from metaphysical nihilism. How so, you might ask? Well, obviously you are not an evil businessman or you would see it plain as day. For the rest of us mere mortals, it remains a gaping narrative hole in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Qohen Leth is a programming drone who is slaving away, crunching the Zero Theorem, the grand unified theory of life’s meaninglessness, at the behest of his boss, “Management,” the charismatic chairman of Mancom. Evidently, the corporate predator stands to make a lot of money if he can prove the primacy of nothingness. However, Leth lives in the hope that he will soon receive a phone call that will finally give him the inner peace he yearns. (Careful of your shoes, because the irony is laid so thick here, even other characters pick up on it.)

Although practically a shut-in, Leth manages to befriend Bainsley, a professional party-girl and web-stripper and Management’s troubled cyber-repairman son Bob, (most likely through some calculating outside intervention). Nevertheless, Bob’s rebellious streak is genuine, but tragically so are his congenital health issues.

The good thing about Zero T is it looks like a Terry Gilliam film. Leth’s lair is a masterwork of cyber doodads, human detritus, and near future urban decay. Likewise, the Mancom set pieces are suitably large and eccentric. Unfortunately, Pat Rushin’s screenplay was apparently a belated afterthought, recycling wholesale tropes from Gilliam’s vastly superior Brazil. In fact, Zero T even lifts the ending (or rather one of the endings), minimally adapting it the fit the modestly altered circumstances.

Granted, Christoph Waltz truly goes for broke as Leth, over and beyond shaving his eyebrows. He also develops some intriguingly ambiguous chemistry with Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley. Yet all his heavy-lifting is undermined by an over-abundance of clichés and cringingly broad characters, while internal logic remains dashed scarce.

By far, the greatest embarrassment is the ridiculously looking Matt Damon, trying to come across like a scary adult. He might be going for a J.R. “Bob” Dodds from the Church of the SubGenius kind of thing, but he just cannot carry himself convincingly. Still, in all fairness, it must be admitted Tilda Swinton gives a considerably subtler performance as Dr. Shrink-Rom the corporate psycho-babbler than her mean-spirited Thatcher caricature in Snowpiercer.

This is one of those films you want to be so much better than it really is, especially considering Gilliam doesn’t exactly churn films out like Woody Allen. Frankly, the far less heralded The Scribbler is a much better mind-trip. A real disappointment, The Zero Theorem opens this Friday (9/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Scribbler: Do-It-Yourself Shock Treatment

Known as “Jumper’s Tower” to residents, Juniper Tower is the Arkham of mental health halfway houses. If you move in, you are unlikely to get much better or live much longer. However, Suki has an advantage over her new neighbors. One of her multiple personalities happens to be uncannily resourceful in John Suits’ The Scribbler (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select markets.

Considering Suki is undergoing radical therapy to “burn off” her excess personalities, she would presumably be an unlikely candidate for out-patient treatment. Nevertheless, she has been issued a portable burn unit and a room in the friendly tower. Upon arrival, she is met by the grisly spectacle of jumper. It will not be the last one.

Juniper is entirely populated by female patients, except for Hogan, who takes pride and pleasure in being “the rooster in the hen house.” One of Suki’s multiples had a thing for him when they were formally institutionalized together, so they naturally pick up where they left off. Frankly, he is somewhat saddened by her burn-off regimen, lamenting some of her multiples were his friends. Nevertheless, the treatment seems to work, even though it causes temporary blackouts and states of altered perception. Whenever Suki comes to, it seems like another resident has committed suicide and the so-called Scribbler persona has been busy modifying her décor and the burn unit.

Adapted by Dan Schaffer from his graphic novel, The Scribbler incorporates elements from several genres (science fiction, horror, dark fantasy) and generates some clever disbelief-suspending psychological double-talk. Until the third act collapses into a maelstrom of mumbo jumbo, it is a surprisingly effective noir psycho-thriller.

Arguably, the best thing Suits has going for him is the massively creepy Juniper Tower. Production designer Kathrin Eder and art director Melisa Jusufi truly make this film come together, while cinematography Mark Putnam makes it all look suitably ominous, in the tradition of its source material and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel.

The cast is generally pretty good as well, particularly Katie Cassidy and Garret Dillahunt as Suki and Hogan, respectively. Their screen chemistry is appropriately weird, but undeniably charged-up. Gina Gershon, Ashlynn Yennie, and Michelle Trachtenberg all chew the scenery with glee as various eccentrically macabre residents of the Tower, but Eliza Dushku and Michael Imperioli seem visibly confused to be playing their scenes as the cops interrogating Suki within the film’s framing device. Fans of Sasha Grey should also take note, her character quickly disappears after her entrance (its almost as much of a tease as her prominently-billed cameo in The Girl from the Naked Eye).

Granted, the ending makes little sense, but that is almost always the case in genre cinema. What is more important is how smart and stylishly sinister the film is as it works its way there. Recommended with surprising enthusiasm, The Scribbler opens this Friday (9/19) in limited release.

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Space Station 76: When the Future was Groovy

In the 1970s, Skylab represented the future. Today, the International Space Station is an anachronism of the New World Order. Yet, even in the analog future as envisioned in the “Me Decade,” Omega 76 was a sleepy backwater assignment. They still ought to take asteroids more seriously in Jack Plotnick’s nostalgic Space Station 76 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Omega 76 is a deep space refueling station, where the crew marks time until they are promoted to more prestigious postings. However, the previous first mate (if you will) was promoted suspiciously quickly. Whenever the obviously closeted Captain Glenn is asked about it, he always gives a slightly different answer. Not surprisingly, he is less than gracious welcoming his new first officer, Jessica Marlowe, who also happens to be a woman.

There is not much to do on Omega 76, so Marlowe is happy to spend time with Sunshine, the brainy young daughter of Misty, the pill-popping peak of the station’s social pyramid. Marlowe also ambiguously befriends Misty’s cuckolded technician husband, but both are too honorable to act on their mutual attraction. When not angsting over the state of her life, Marlowe tries to get Capt. Glenn to pay attention to the asteroid projections generated by her predecessor, but he wants nothing to do with anything associated with his former whatever.

There is no question SS76 was handcrafted by true fans of vintage seventies-era science fiction. Seth Reed’s design team and costumers Sandra Burns and Sarah Brown have created some pitch perfect frocks, sets, and models. The vibe is spot-on, but somehow Plotnick and his quartet of co-writers forgot to include most of the jokes. Essentially, the film’s sequences are like most SNL skits from the last fifteen years. It is all set-up that just peters out without a punchline. At times, SS76 seems fatally determined to channel the spirit of 1970s relationship movies, like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but they have already been better satirized by the criminally under-appreciated Serial.

Weirdly, SS76 represents the reunion of The Ledge co-stars Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson nobody ever asked for. Needless to say, this is a vastly superior film than that misogynistic polemic disguised as an unthrilling thriller. Tyler is still rather stiff and distant as Marlowe (to put it generously), but Wilson’s Glenn is strangely compelling and ultimately sympathetic, if we adjust for 1970s cultural inflation. Marisa Coughlan and Kali Rocha also seem to enjoy vamping it up as Misty and her self-absorbed best friend Donna, which helps. Also look for none other than Keir Dullea, giving the film extra genre cred in a video-phone cameo.

SS76 is such a great concept, so aptly rendered by Plotnick’s technical collaborators, it is a shame there isn’t more humor or narrative muscle to go with it. Instead, he is content to stage one awkward conversation after another amid the terrific station backdrops. There are chuckles here and there (and the Todd Rundgren soundtrack is a blast), but viewers are really left to wonder what might have been. For diehard fans of Space: 1999 and the like, Space Station 76 opens this Friday (9/19) in New York at the Quad Cinema, with digital and DVD releases scheduled to follow shortly after.

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20,000 Days on Earth: Nick Cave Pushing 55

As the reigning Poet Lauriat of hard rock, Nick Cave was the perfect voice to narrate Eddie White & Ari Gibson’s animated noir fable, The Cat Piano. He is also a screenwriter of some note, whose credits include John Hillcoat’s Lawless. The standard talking head and archival footage approach simply would not suffice for Cave, given his cinematic presence and relentlessly idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibilities. However, Ian Forsyth & Jane Pollard (with the knowing collusion of their subject) took an entirely different tact in 20,000 Days on Earth (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Ostensibly, the filmmakers will follow Cave throughout what will be his 20,000 day of terrestrial life, but they are not slavishly attached to the conceit. Instead, they are content to follow Cave as he develops the next Bad Seeds album and confronts some of the ghosts from his past in eccentrically stylized dramatic interludes. Former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld will reveal why he really left the band, which would be a bit of a dramatic letdown, if it did not segue into Cave’s somewhat neurotic theory of songwriting.

In these sequences, 20K is more like performance art than a documentary, providing a platform for Cave’s acting chops when he essentially plays himself. Kylie Minogue also gets into the spirit of things when her reminisces of their unlikely collaboration segue into a meditation on mortality (from the back-seat of Cave’s car, bringing to mind her strange appearance in Holy Motors). It is also appealing to watch the musical camaraderie shared by Cave and Warren Ellis, who clearly emerges as first among Bad Seeds not named Nick Cave.

It is hard to say whether 20K is better appreciated by Cave fanatics or newcomers arriving with a blank slate. This is absolutely not a greatest hits package, somewhat focusing on the creation of the Push the Sky Away album, but mainly just giving Cave a venue for his insights into the music-making process. Those who are interested in questions of method will find many of the sequences fascinating. It should also bolster the reputation of strict Freudian Damian Leader, who is not really Cave’s analyst, but elicits some vivid memories of the singer’s late father.

20K is about as multi-hyphenated as a hybrid documentary can get, but it keeps the stream of interesting stories flowing unabated. Ironically, Ellis probably has the most telling anecdote, suggesting the often violent spectacles that used to accompany Bad Seeds gigs were nothing compared to the force that was Nina Simone (just try to top her).

Yet, it must be granted Cave is enormously compelling appearing as himself, playing himself, or something like that. Fittingly, he now lives in Brighton, where he could pass for a gangster from Brighton Rock with dark suits and menacing swagger. It still seems to kill on stage and it works on camera surprisingly well. Highly recommended for those who appreciate meta-documentaries, 20,000 Days on Earth opens this Wednesday (9/17) at New York’s Film Forum.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Guest: Unpacking a Little Death and Destruction

The Petersons should have remembered what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests. Initially, the mysterious “David” is so handy to have around the house, he earns more than three days. Unfortunately, the suspicions of their twenty year old daughter will be fully justified in Adam Wingard’s The Guest (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

When Caleb Peterson was killed in Iraq, it devastated his family, particularly his mother Laura. However, meeting “David,” Caleb’s freshly discharged friend and fellow squad member, offers her some consolation. Despite his humble origins, David is so faultlessly polite and gracious, she immediately invites the former soldier to be their guest, for as long as takes to back on his feet. Her husband Spencer is rather put out by her impulsiveness, until he spends some quality drinking time with David. Soon only their daughter Anna remains uncomfortable with the arrangement.

Within the context of the film, it is easy to understand why the Petersons so readily embrace their guest, at the expense of common sense. After all, he seems to bring good luck. In reality, David starts clandestinely “lending a hand” to the Peterson family, doing the sort of things they always secretly wished would happen, but would never admit. Sometimes Wingard and his screen-writer collaborator Simon Barrett maintain some ambiguity, as to just what David did or did not do, but there is no question about his proactive approach to the high school bullies tormenting the youngest Peterson sibling. Even Anna warms to David, but plot contrivances will interrupt their mounting sexual tension.

The first half of The Guest is absolutely terrific, inviting viewers to vicariously enjoy David’s freelance friend-of-the-family activism. Let’s face it, there are times everyone wished they had a secret benefactor who could make troublesome people disappear, but without any knowledge or culpability troubling our consciences.

Frustratingly, much of what works in the first half is largely lost in the second. Instead of a Nietzschean super-man, we learn David is a veritable super-soldier, thanks to a clichéd top secret government program, following in the tradition of the Universal Soldier franchise and scores of similar b-movies. What was once a very sly thriller becomes a formulaic exercise in comeuppance for a Blackwater-like military contractor in a tiresome by-the-numbers endgame.

That is a real shame, because it squanders the intriguing performances and cleverly executed action scenes from the early acts. Formerly of Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens could not get any further from Cousin Matthew than the mysterious David, but he pulls it off (clearly after putting in his time at the gym). He commands the screen with his sociopathic charm. Frankly, his supposedly Kentucky accent often sounds weird, like he is speaking through a Vocoder, but it kind of works nonetheless. As Anna, Maika Monroe generates plenty of heat with Stevens, while maintaining a sense of propriety and intelligence.

The Guest has the right look and soundtrack to appeal to nostalgia for the 1980s action movies that inspired it. It is considerably more entertaining when it allows its title character to be a wildcard instead of a Terminator surrogate. Ultimately, it is a potentially great cult film that is undermined by a screenplay too intent on making statements. The first fifty or sixty percent will be recommended for genre fans when it eventually hits Netflix, but they should probably hold off when the whole uneven thing opens this Wednesday (9/17) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

TIFF ’14: Still the Water

There is nothing like discovering a body to hasten the coming of age process. Frankly, sixteen year-old Kaito could maybe use the kick-start. His prospective girlfriend Kyoko has also offered encouragement, but he has been slow to fully respond in Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

On an island like Aami Oshima, typhoons are a fact of life. As a result, residents necessarily have a heightened awareness of the natural and spiritual worlds. This is particularly true of Kyoko’s mother Isa. As a shaman, she has always navigated between the divine and terrestrial planes. Unfortunately, she will soon crossover for good, as she slowly succumbs to a terminal illness.

Unlike, Kyoko, Kaito is not a native islander and he definitely does not share her affinity for the ocean. Having recently moved from Tokyo with his mother Misaki, following her divorce from his tattoo artist father, Kaito carried quite a bit of baggage with him. Yet, he slowly starts to form a connection with Kyoko, even though she is preparing herself for her mother’s imminent death.

Kawase is sort of a lover-her-or-hate-her filmmaker. If you require plotty narrative and zippy dialogue, than keep looking. However, if you are enraptured by grand natural vistas invested with sense of deeper mystical portent, this is the film for you. Like Kawase’s Mourning Forest (ironically a more demanding, yet more emotionally resonant work), Still looks lovely (although not quite as arresting as Forest). Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki gives it a shimmering, slightly nostalgic vibe not unlike the Kore-eda films he previously lensed, particularly Still Walking. Hashiken’s score also serves as an effective mood-setter, evoking western string ensemble chamber music, with a hint of traditional Japanese forms.

Despite Kawase’s loose approach to narrative, there is considerable inequity between the film’s two main forks, represented by Kyoko and Kaito. It is impossible not to be moved by Kyoko’s parents, savoring the family’s simple pleasures together while they can. As Kyoko, Jun Yoshinaga’s eyes seem to leap out of the screen and peer into your soul. Likewise, the rugged Tetta Sugimoto and ethereal Miyuki Matsuda are genuinely touching, conveying years of shared history in a word or a gesture.

In contrast, Kaito is supposed to be a bit of a pill—and Nijiro Murakami plays him accordingly. Considering the quiet and meditative tone of much of the film, his scenes of awkward melodrama stick out rather conspicuously.

At two hours almost on the dot, Still could have stood a bit of pruning, especially the inconsistent third act. Editor Tina Baz must have lost a lot of arguments to Kawase. It is an undisciplined film, but it is often beautiful. Those who appreciate “slow cinema” will find much to see and hear. Recommended circumspectly for Kawase’s admirers and filmgoers who prioritize atmosphere above all else, Still the Water screens again tomorrow (9/14) at this year’s TIFF.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

At the Devil’s Door: Foreclosing on Souls

Kids today are dangerously ignorant of the blues. Nobody worth their Robert Johnson box-set would play along if a creepy Aryan cultist told them to walk down to the crossroads and say your name so the boss can find you later. She will do it for five bills, but she will not live to regret it in Nicholas McCarthy’s At the Devil’s Door (trailer here), which opens late-night tonight in New York at the IFC Center.

A few years and a deep recession later, people would stand in line to sell their souls for pocket change. Nevertheless, Leigh, a go-getting real estate agent, is convinced she can sell her motivated clients’ house quickly, despite the state of the market. Teetering on the brink of foreclosure, they have also been dealing with their daughter Charlene’s behavioral issues. As Leigh pokes around the nearly empty domicile, she finds evidence of a fire, a twitchy young teen answering Charlene’s description, and wickedly bad vibes in every cupboard and closet, but she remains undeterred.

Frankly, Leigh’s hard-charging Tony Robbins self-help trips are a major reason why her depressive hipster artist sister artist Vera keeps her at arm’s length. However, when Leigh misses the opening of her latest show, she cannot help worrying. Inevitably, she will be drawn into the supernatural business as well.

There are individual sequences in Door that are chillingly effective, but you have to suspect McCarthy’s screenplay was substantially rewritten at several junctures. There are several thirty degree course corrections that are dramatic enough to interrupt the smooth narrative flow, but not wild enough to be jaw-dropping game-changers. At times, it feels like a horror movie built around alternating elements of haunted house and demonic possession films, drawn randomly out of a hat.

Still, McCarthy demonstrates a thorough command of mood and atmosphere, just as he did in The Pact. When the film stays in that house, it works just fine, but whenever it steps outside, it has a lot of explaining to do.

The sisters’ baton hand-off also looks like a mistake in retrospect. Catalina Sandino Moreno has had an interesting career after her Oscar nomination for Maria Full of Grace, appearing in Soderbergh’s Che on the left and then For Greater Glory on the right, followed by a dubious action turn in A Stranger in Paradise. Regardless, by genre standards, she is quite compelling as Leigh, the responsible sister, always trying please everyone else. Unfortunately, Naya Rivera (who was once on a short-lived show called something like Merriment or maybe Glee) lacks her energy and presence as the dull and dour Vera.

If you want to see horror movie, Door has enough elements, sufficiently executed, to satisfy a fan’s craving. McCarthy again puts some nice twists on familiar genre conventions, but he sort of loses the handle on his narrative. Maybe the next one will be his breakout. Recommended for fans of The Pact and those who want a demonic fix, At the Devil’s Door opens late tonight (9/12) at the IFC Center and is also available via IFC Midnight’s VOD platforms.

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TIFF ’14: Le beau danger

Like most writers, Romanian novelist Norman Manea’s fiction is often highly autobiographical. Considering he survived both the Holocaust and the Ceauşescu regime’s persecution, how could it not be? Since 1986, Manea has lived in a state of sort of, but not really, self-imposed exile, teaching at Bard College, but still writing in his native Romanian. René Frölke employs Manea’s own words to tell his life story, in a distinctively elliptical and suggestive fashion, throughout Le beau danger (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

It might seem strange that a film about Manea takes its title from a brief essay by Michel Foucault, but it is worth remembering in the 1980s the French post-structuralist theorist became a fairly consistent critic of Soviet Communism and a supporter of Solidarity. Regardless, his argument language serves as a movable refuge is certainly apt in Manea’s case. Rather than a traditional parade of dates and archival photos, viewers will read significant extracts of his work (in English translation) that give a vivid feeling for his early years. The selections from his story “We Might Have Been Four” are particularly evocative—pastoral in tone and setting, but marked by an ominous atmosphere and mounting sense of alienation.

In many ways, LBD is a study in contrasts, starting with Manea himself. Unlike Kosinski and Nabokov, Manea never ceased writing in Romanian, despite his residency in the bucolic Hudson River region. Given his age and accomplishments, he could easily get away with playing the curmudgeon card, yet Manea appears to be quite a gracious good sport when Frölke follows him at European book festivals and at various media appearances and master classes.

Frölke has a keen eye for intriguing visuals, often using grainy 16mm for eerie effect. The use of simple ambient sound is also quite canny. At times, he might linger on some pedestrian imagery a bit too long, but many scenes are tightly packed with power and meaning—especially a sequence in a Romanian Jewish cemetery. Although no words are spoken, the significance of the 1942 and 1943 dates of death are inescapable.

LBD is an elegantly crafted film, but there is a reason why TIFF programmed it as a Wavelength selection. Essentially, that is the track for films that might confuse people. However, those who have sufficient patience will take a great deal from Manea’s words and his pessimistically humanistic outlook. It would be nice to see this film get a theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives and aesthetically similar theaters. It will only appeal to select audience, but they ought to have a chance to see it. Recommended for highly literate viewers, Le beau danger screens again on Sunday (9/14) as part of this year’s TIFF.

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