J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 24, 2017

ADIFF ’17: The Chemo Club

For two aging former models living in South Africa on their pensions, inflation is way more depressing than liver spots. That assumes they can still access their pension, but a sleazy fund manager has secretly raided small accounts like theirs, to cover-up his other financial shenanigans (by the way, pensioners suffers the exact same consequences when central banks engage in loose money inflation, but you won’t find a lot of screenwriters out there who really understand monetary policy). Regardless, Lulu Fredericks and Faith Moloi want their money back, so they will steal it themselves in Thandi Brewer’s The Chemo Club (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

In the swinging sixties, Fredericks portrayed Tessa, the action sex-goddess in a series of photo-designed comics books and Moloi was the model for the Pam Grier-esque “Her.” Those were the days. Currently, Moloi works part-time sweeping floors at the hospital where Fredericks just received her fatal cancer diagnosis. Fredericks wants to live out her remaining six months in style, but her pension has mysteriously vanished. Same for Moloi, who is the sole support of her unemployed daughter and entitled grandchildren.

Obviously, Grant Roberts, the odious public face of Trusted Corp is up to no good, but nobody seems to care. Therefore, the only logical course of action is to knock over the joint. Somehow, the brassy Fredericks convinces the more passive Moloi to go along with her scheme. Fanboy Sivu will go along with the caper for the sake of his pop culture thesis. They will also recruit their former photographer and lover, Gerhard, because they obviously need an eighty-year-old with a monocle. Periodically, we watch their comic book alter ego battling villainy, in ways that parallel their ebbing fortunes.

Clearly, Chemo Club is heavily derived from Going in Style and the pre-Kate & Allie Jane Curtain-Susan Saint James vehicle How to Beat the High Cost of Living, which is still the much funnier film, even though it has at least one joke that would cause apoplexy in the current climate. In contrast, Chemo Club is a tame comedy about oldsters doing it for themselves, which barely registers more edge than the embarrassingly slapsticky Love Punch.

Still, Brümilda van Rensburg, the Grand Dame of South African television, has plenty of regal presence as Fredericks. However, she does not develop much chemistry with either Lilian Dube’s Moloi or Tobie Cronje’s Gerhard. At times, Cronje is almost criminally shticky, but Rea Rangaka is probably an even worse offender as Sivu. Yet, somehow Shoki Mokgapa maintains her dignity as Roberts’ innocent assistant, whom Sivu crushes on hard.

It is interesting to see unpretentious popular cinema from other countries, but Chemo Club just doesn’t travel that well (unlike energetically likable South African exports, like Hear Me Move and White Wedding). The comedy is about as broad as it gets and caper fans will feel short-changed by the lack of tick-tock caper details. Best saved for unfussy fans of Marigold Hotels, The Chemo Club screens this Sunday (11/26) and Monday (11/27) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Lost and Found: Rediscovering the All-Time Worst Exploitation Studio

The schlock Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International (SSCPI) churned out must have been unwatchable since not even grindhouse documentary mainstay John Waters is willing wax nostalgic over the oeuvre of Morris “Stogie” Carlisle. Of course, mighty SSCPI never actually existed, but a small platoon of genre film bloggers and critics will pretend otherwise. Rather impressively, they mostly manage to keep a straight face in Jason Bailey & Mike Hull’s mockumentary Lost & Found: The True Hollywood Story of Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International (trailer here), which is now available on Vimeo VOD.

Carlisle’s grade-Z exploitation movies were reportedly unwatchable, but we will have to take critic Glenn Kenny’s word for it, because we can no longer judge for ourselves. “Tragically,” the entire SSCPI film library went up in flames just prior to their VHS transfer, thanks to Stogie’s cigar. That was it, they were all gone. All that was left of SSCP was a hefty insurance settlement. However, a cache of trailers was discovered three years ago, giving us a maybe not-so tantalizing glimpse at what we have lost.

The vintage grindhouse details are so spot-on and the talking head commentary is so persuasive, viewers will start to wonder if SSCPI maybe really did exist, but the cast listing in the end credits is a dead giveaway. In fact, Dave Bailey and Mac Welch are wonderfully sly as the supposedly late Carlisle and his semi-estranged frequent cast-member, Dick Haze. However, Clint Howard totally takes the cake appearing as Howard Clinton, a formerly famous star, who only shot a day’s worth of film with Carlisle, but footage of his portrayal of an angry cop barking order into a phone would be spliced into dozens of subsequent SSCPI films.

You have to give our colleagues credit for mining SSCPI for laughs. As usual, Grady Hendrix’s enthusiasm is contagious, while Kenny plays his bad cop, SSCPI-demystifying role to the hilt. Frankly, very few of the trailers within the film look tempting in any way, shape, or form, except perhaps Black Thunder, a.k.a. Grandmaster Brown (or should that be vice versa?). Nevertheless, anyone who has enjoyed nostalgic documentaries like American Grindhouse and Rewind This, spoofs like Turbo Kid, or neo-grindhouse films, such as Ladies of the House should appreciate the charms of Lost & Found. Highly entertaining, it is now available via Vimeo.

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ADIFF ’17: Kafou

The boss has three rules for the luckless losers he has hired to make a delivery. Never stop the car, never roll down the windows, and never, ever look in the trunk. However, this will not be a Haitian homage to Speed. The two knuckleheads barely travel ten blocks before they break all three rules. Of course, that leads to some huge problems, especially that last point, in Bruno Mourral’s Kafou (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Doc needs money for his sick mother, so he quickly agreed when Zoe promised him work with the local kingpin, Captain Fritz Bama. Unfortunately, Doc did not realize how difficult the jerky Zoe would be to work with. At least Bama placed him nominally in charge, causing considerable resentment in Zoe. The night was already off to a bad start (don’t worry, surely no dogs were actually harmed in the making of Kafou, right?), before Zoe peeked in the trunk and recognized the kidnapping victim trussed up inside.

Kafou (a voodoo reference) is exactly the sort of darkly comical gangster-caper drama that always plays well at festivals. There is indeed all kinds of cynical laughs and one-blasted-thing-after-another suspense, but its betwixt-and-between running time makes it a tricky film to program. The fifty-minute mark basically represents a state of half-pregnancy, but it certainly never drags, so give ADIFF credit for taking the plunge.

Jasmuel Andri and Rolapthon Mercure are terrific as Doc and Zoe. They are totally convincing getting on each other’s nerves and worse, while still being quite amusing in a meathead kind of way. However, Manfred Marcelin still regularly upstages them as the flamboyantly villainous Bama.

Mourral in collaboration with cinematographers Lucas Gath and Clément Maillet definitely give the film an evocative noir-city-at-night vibe. In some ways, it harkens back to vintage Tarantino, but it also has an absurdist edge to it. Genre fans and Haitian expats should find it well-satisfying but length could be an issue for some patrons, since it plays as a discrete program on its own, so take that into consideration. Highly recommended, Kafou screens Saturday night (11/25) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

ADIFF ’17: Woven

About fifty people die every year from jumping or getting pushed onto New York subway tracks.  It represents an extremely low level of danger, but it is far more real than the lingering bogus Aspartame cancer scare. Eleni Tariku would know. Her brother met his death on the subway tracks, but how he got there is a mystery in Nagwa Ibrahim & Salome Mulugeta’s family drama Woven (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Dr. Abell Tariku (“A.T.”) is called away from his mother’s birthday party, but he will never make it to the hospital. Of course, this would happen in the only five square foot area of New York not covered by security cameras. His death absolutely devastates his mother Smra, but in some ways, it falls even harder on Eleni. Nevertheless, she will try to get on with her life. That means returning to work as a school councilor and evading her mother’s efforts to fix her up.

Charley Thompson is her latest hard-case client. His unemployed father Logan and alcoholic nurse mother Mila fight like cats and dogs juiced up on steroids. Logan is the one Tariku knows, because he is the one who has time to attend school meetings. Charley’s frequent acting-out necessitates several such conferences, allowing an opportunity for a mutual attraction to grow between councilor and parent.

Of course, everything is connected in Woven, as the title and Gary Sinise in CSI NY would suggest. In fact, it is almost too neat and tidy, especially considering how many millions of people live and act suspiciously in de Blasio’s New York, especially in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, it is rather refreshing to see a healthy, loving sibling story on-screen, even if it is cut short during the first act. It is also quite novel to see the Ethiopian Orthodox Church portrayed in a favorable light, but it is certainly a welcome development.

Co-director Mulugeta is an absolutely radiant presence as Eleni Tariku. She also develops some potent chemistry with Ryan O’Nan’s scruffy but fiercely protective Logan Thompson. Frankly, he covers an impressive emotional range during the course of the film. Tibebe Solomon Borga also makes an impression in limited screen time as the ill-fated A.T.

Woven is a mature film about family and forgiveness, but it sometimes overindulges in melodramatic flourishes and coincidental contrivances. Still, it is set in Brooklyn, where contrived melodrama is hardly unusual. Recommended for inclusive, faith-and-family oriented viewers, Woven screens this Saturday (11/25) and Sunday the 5th, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

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EUFF-Vancouver ’17: The Dissidents

It is easy to understand 1980s nostalgia. That was probably the last time we all had general confidence that the world was getting better, not worse. It was because of Reagan and Thatcher and Mulroney and Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa, but also because of Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cannon Films, and Miami Vice. The latter show has largely shaped three knuckleheaded Estonian defectors impressions of the West, so when unromantic Calvinist Sweden falls short of expectations, they will start to create some vice of their own in Jaak Kilmi’s The Dissidents (trailer here), which screens as part this year’s European Union Film Festival in Vancouver.

Ralf Tamm and his knockaround buddies have done pretty well purchasing black market consumer goods from tourists in the state hotel, but they will soon lose their network when Mario Viik and his older brother’s gang defect to Sweden via Finland. However, when the gang is busted, Viik offers to let Tamm and meatheaded Einar Kotkin take their prepaid spots. They had not really considering defecting, but it appears to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, requiring an immediate snap decision.

When Tamm’s trio finally stumbles through Finland into the land of Saab and Volvo, the local Estonian society hails them as heroes. Unfortunately, after they abuse the organization’s hospitality, the lads are forced to crash in a Swedish refugee center. (Of course, the Eighties-era institutional housing for asylum-seekers looks much nicer than what we see on the news today.) The more level-headed Tamm is inclined to get a job and start putting down roots, in hopes that his pregnant girlfriend will be able to join him. In contrast, the erratic Viik convinces the impressionable Kotkin to start pulling armed robberies in Finland, which will logically cause trouble for Tamm as well.

Somewhat counterintuitively, Dissidents is a narrative comedy that largely lacks the idiosyncratic charm of Disco and Atomic Warfare, the documentary Kilmi co-directed with Kiur Aarma, which also addresses the seductive lure of western pop culture during the final years of the Cold War. Fundamentally, Tamm and company are just not very appealing characters to begin with—and Kilmi continues to further stack the deck against them. Frankly, if they had acted in a less obnoxious, less entitled manner, they would have had a much easier time of things, so it is hard to take the film as any sort of coherent critique of Western Cold War values (plus, this is Sweden we are talking about, which barely qualified as the West in the 1980s—and nowadays, who knows?).

As Märt Pius looks distressingly like Matt “what did he know about Weinstein and when did he know it” Damon. Only Veiko Porkanen seems to relax and grow in on-screen charm as the dumb but well-meaning Kotkin. Still, there is clearly a lot of nostalgic fondness for 1980s music, fashion, and mass media, which is contagious.

There are some appealingly wistful moments in Dissidents, but Kilmi’s attempts to straddle heist movies, farce, and tragedy are often awkward. Still, the film has a very distinctive sense time and place. Three or four re-writes really could have sharpened Martin Algus’s script, but 80s nostalgia can never be all bad. A decidedly mixed bag, The Dissidents screens this Friday (11/24) as part of the EU Film Festival at the Cinematheque in Vancouver.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Evil in the Time of Heroes: Billy Zane in Greece

Evidently, Herodotus and Thucydides lied to us, or at least they did not tell us the full truth. Maybe they assumed nobody would have believed them if they chronicled the zombie outbreak that terrorized ancient Athens, but that means the Greek capital will be completely unprepared when thee next zombie apocalypse strikes again two thousand years later. Fortunately, a mysterious immortal has also returned to offer some sage advice in Yorgos Noussias’s Evil in the Time of Heroes (trailer here), which is now available on DVD from Doppelganger Releasing.

Noussias does not waste a lot of time on exposition, but this is a zombie movie, how much backstory do you really need? We might as well just jump right in with Lt. Kleanth Vakirtzis, one of Greece’s last surviving military officers and his rag-tag band of survivors as they run like all get-out from the rampaging zombie hordes. They have just seen poor Argyris die from impalement, but when they take refuge in a flat, they find his doppelganger alive and well. Frankly they find the two Argyrises utterly baffling, but they really do not have time to worry about it.

Major characters die at a faster clip in Heroes than in The Walking Dead. Plus, the clock is ticking on even greater destruction. NATO has set an evacuation deadline, after which they will commence carpet bombing, because so far, the zombie outbreak remains contained within Greece, their most expendable member state. However, the mysterious Prophitis (Billy Zane in a Jedi hoodie-cape) remembers what happened during the first zombie apocalypse and offers up cryptic clues for their ultimate deliverance.

Apparently, Heroes is a prequel to Nousias’s prior zombie outbreak thriller, but it seems so self-contained, it is hard to see where it would link up to the earlier, later film. At times it is also almost feverishly surreal, with scenes resembling Bergman’s Seventh Seal, but with marauding zombies in the background, and the foreground. Noussias probably did not even care that his narrative does not make a heck of a lot of sense. Instead, he allows energy, attitude, and gore to trump logic at every turn.

Even though they are dying like flies, the cast deserves credit for their gameness. Andreas Kontopoulos and Eftyhia Yakoumi forge some appealing romantic chemistry as Lt. Vakirtzis and Maj. Olga, whom he meets in the flat owned by the second Argyris’s father. Meletis Georgiadis and Pepi Moschovakou are also unusually affecting (by zombie flick standards) as the grieving Meletis and his lover Marina.

When Heroes first hit the festival circuit in 2009, it probably gave zombie fans new hope the genre could reinvigorate itself. However, mostly through no fault of its own, it suffers in light of subsequent zombie breakout films and reinventions, particularly Train to Busan and I am a Hero. What was once utter bedlam, now appears a tad restrained, in comparison. Still, when judged on its own bloody insane merits, Heroes is jolly eager to please and raring to make a gory mess. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of zombies and Billy Zane, Evil in the Time of Heroes is now available from Doppelganger Releasing.

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The Man from Earth, Back on DVD

The protagonist of sf writer Jerome Bixby’s final screenplay is a lot like Donnie Darko. They both inspired relatively well-reviewed stage adaptations and they can arguably be considered you-know-who figures. In fact, Bixby’s John Oldman might just be you-know-who himself. If you don’t know who we mean, you can find out for yourself when the Bixby-scripted, Richard Schenkman directed The Man from Earth (trailer here) returns to home video in a special DVD/BluRay edition from MVD.

John Oldman is packing up and about to move out of town, when his friends and former fellow faculty members at a small California liberal arts college suddenly show up for an impromptu going away party. (He snuck out of the formal one). They are concerned by his hasty departure—and somewhat hurt. After a little Johnny Walker special reserve, Oldman decides to tell him his incredible story. He starts out speaking somewhat hypothetically, but quickly switches to the first person. He is in fact a late Cro-Magnon man, whose body’s regenerative capabilities have never slowed down, leaving him an immortal thirty-five-year-old (he looks forty-ish, but still pretty darn good 14,000-years-old).

Oldman has the right audience for his story, including a biologist, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, an Evangelical art history scholar, another historian, and eventually a psychologist. Most of those fields Oldman took advanced degrees in, but his biologist doctorate from the Victorian era is somewhat out of date. As a teacher, Oldman was known for making the past come alive, but Oldman insists it is mainly from scholarship. He has limited dealings with great historical figures, because he always lived as an average citizen. There were some notable exceptions. That Van Gogh looking painting is of course a Van Gogh. He also studied under the Buddha and tried to spread his teaching throughout the Levant region. Right, Oldman did not want to go there, but once its out there, you can’t get that kind of toothpaste back into the tube.

Man from Earth sounds nauseatingly New Agey, but it is surprisingly compelling. Bixby literally finished the screenplay on his death bed, so it understandably has an elegiac, end-of-an-era vibe to it (and yet, a really good sequel hit the festival circuit this year). Bixby more fully explores the themes of immortality and its psychological implications that he first addressed in the Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuselah.” Thanks to his smart writing and Schenkman’s assured hand on the helm, we never doubt Oldman’s wild yarn. The question for viewers is whether or not he can be convinced to break his pattern of hitting the reset button every ten years.

Frankly, after watching Man from Earth and the sequel, Man from Earth: Holocene within six months of each other, it leaves one rather baffled as to why David Lee Smith hasn’t become a household name. He is terrific as Oldman in both films, conveying all the nuances of a man with 14,000 years of learning, who has convinced himself to stay emotionally aloof, for the sake of anyone who might get close to him.

For genre fans, the biggest (pleasant) surprise might be how good Tony Todd is in a non-horror role: Dan, the iconoclastic anthropologist. Immediately recognizable character actor Richard Riehle also provides an indispensable assist as the head-shrinking Dr. Will Gruber. Annika Peterson develops some believable confused but still potent chemistry with Smith, as Oldman’s history department love interest. The first time around, William Katt sounds a bit strident (in the wrong way) as archaeologist Art Perkins, but Alexis Thorpe exceeds expectations as Perkins’ student hook-up along for the ride, who has a convenient habit of asking on-point questions at precisely the right time.

Granted, Man from Earth might annoy some Evangelical Christians, but for what its worth, Buddhists should be able to accept it in its entirety without troubling their faith. Ultimately, the film does not feel like it is trying to be offensive, thanks in large measure to Smith’s forgiving and philosophical tone. It is one of the rarest science fiction films that have zero special effects and are driven entirely by dialogue, which is a cool thing. It sill holds up, if you take into account the rise of the internet will eventually catch up with Oldman in the sequel. Very highly recommended, The Man from Earth is now available in a DVD/BluRay package, from MVD.

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Turn It On: Prisoners in Freedom City (short)

Did you have a bad commute today? Maybe you woke up late, traffic was bad, or your train was stuck in a tunnel. Zeng Jinyan’s morning was worse. Every day since her husband, Sakharov Freedom of Thought Prize-winner Hu Jia was placed under house arrest, she has had to run a gauntlet of hostile State Security Police just to go to work. Sometimes they block her from leaving, while others days they just cruelly mock her, but Hu captured it all from his flat window and together they assembled the damning footage into the short documentary Prisoners in Freedom City, which screens during the Ai Weiwei-curated Turn It On: China on Film series now underway at the Guggenheim.

Arguably, house-arrest represented a slight improvement for Hu, after he was held incommunicado for forty-one days, much like Teacher Ai. Technically, Zeng was free to come and go, but she was not free of harassment. The veritable siege was not particularly fun for Hu’s neighbors in the “BOBO Freedom City” complex either, because the SSP officers left their take-out and rubbish strewn throughout the grounds. Yet, they could hardly blame Hu for that, because he would have been happy to go elsewhere.

Prisoners is not just a film—it is evidence. While filming Beijing’s tax dollars at work, Hu regularly identifies officers by name who were previously present during his illegal incarceration and records all the license plate numbers of SSP vehicles. Yet, it is also an inspiring example of film as genuine “resistance.”

Technically, the thirty-six-minute Prisoners predates Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film by roughly four years, but the Iranian auteur’s document of his house-arrest is more of a personal statement and feature length. Of course, it is not like either filmmaker set out to claim the house-arrest documentary as their signature concept. They just responded to the condition imposed on them by unjust regimes.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the aggressive pettiness of the thuggish SSP intimidation squad than the theft of the “free Chen Guangcheng” magnets from their front door. Chen, often dubbed the “blind, barefoot lawyer” is a friend of the couple, who was then serving a prison term for specious charges.

Given the hand-held, guerrilla nature of its production, Prisoners is often a shaky, no-frills viewing experience, but it is over-flowing with hard truths. Watching the defiant dignity of Zeng and Hu is truly humbling and infuriating (especially considering their situation has gotten worse, not better, since they captured his house-arrest experiences on film). Very highly recommended, Prisoners in Freedom City screens again this Saturday (11/25), as part of Turn It On, at the Guggenheim.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc

It seems hugely ironic that arguably the greatest Joan of Arc film ever was twice thought lost to fires (just like its subject). After the first disaster, Carl Theodor Dreyer managed to reconstruct a second print from outtakes, but it too would meet a similar fate. However, an intact print of Dreyer’s original cut was discovered in the service closet of a Norwegian mental hospital. It is true, as Joan herself says: “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” The restoration of Dreyer’s uncensored original vision is indeed a blessing. Accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s eerily tragic-sounding Voices of Light score, Dreyer’s freshly restored silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Joan is a simple peasant girl, but she was visited by the Archangel Michael, who commanded her to take up arms against the English to preserve French sovereignty during the Hundred Years’ War. At least, that is what Joan believes with all her heart. However, the clergy of Rouen who remained loyal to the British are determined to force Joan to recant.

As the title suggests, Dreyer’s film dramatizes the trial and execution of Joan, drawing extensively (sometimes verbatim) from the surviving transcripts. Right from the start, it is clear Joan is ignorant of doctrinal controversies, but the innocent simplicity of her answers often exposes the cynical nature of the questions posed of her. As a result, several members of the tribunal will become disillusioned by the inquest’s Machiavellian motives. Unfortunately, Joan is already well past saving, especially when she naively trusts Bishop Pierre Cauchon when he pretends to be a protector dispatched by her revered King Charles VII.

Passion is one of those films whose illustrious reputation is probably far greater than its actual viewership, but for decades it was only circulated in inferior prints. In this case, all the hype is true, starting with Rudolph Maté’s dramatic cinematography, featuring low-angle shots filmed in trenches that predates Gregg Toland’s similar, supposedly revolutionary techniques employed on Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Yet, what really defines the film are the withering close-ups of its star, Maria Falconetti, born Renée Jeanne Falconetti and often billed simply as “Falconetti,” who is undeniably the source of the film’s mystique. It is a nakedly haunting, achingly vulnerable portrayal, captured in unforgiving tight-shots. Reportedly, it was also a physically painful performance, involving long stretches of time kneeling on stone floors. Preferring the stage over the screen, Falconetti only appeared in one prior feature and a short (both from 1917), which further heightens her aura of mystery.

Falconetti defines and personifies the film, but key supporting players hold up their end as well, which helps elevate Passion from a masterwork to a masterpiece. In fact, Eugène Silvain is nearly as remarkable as Falconetti playing the duplicitous Cauchon. We can see he is partially aware of his own damnation, but persists anyway out of misplaced fervor.

Over six-hundred years after her death, Joan remains one of France’s greatest military heroes, even though she was only a nineteen-year-old girl at the time of her execution. Likewise, Passion is still one of the greatest French films ever, even though it was directed by a Dane. Rather amazingly, Dreyer would helm what could be the first “post-horror” film four years later with Vampyr. Anyone who takes film seriously should witness the unadorned, makeup-free beauty of Passion—and Einhorn’s score deserves to be heard loud. Very highly recommended for all self-describing movie buffs, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc opens this Friday (11/24) in New York, at Film Forum.

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Lost Years of German Cinema: The Lost One

Frankly, it is absolutely baffling how all those smart film programmers out there somehow almost never think to pair up the only film Peter Lorre directed with Fritz’s Lang’s classic M, featuring Lorre’s career-defining performance. They both dramatize the violent, corrupting influence of National Socialist ideology on German society, but Lang’s film was produced during Hitler’s rise to power, while Lorre’s film was made and set during the early post-war years. In any event, it is impossible to fully understand Peter Lorre until you see The Lost One, which fortunately screens in New York as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current series, The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949-1963.

Seriously, why is this film not revived every other month. Peter Lorre plays a murderer. Why is that so hard to market? Of course, there is rather more to it than that. Based on a historical incident, Lorre’s character is masquerading as Dr. Karl Neumeister, the kindly doctor caring for new arrivals at a displaced persons’ camp. However, a few years prior, he was Dr. Karl Rothe, a leading scientific researcher for the German war machine. His previous life comes rushing back to him when comes face-to-face with his former Gestapo minder, Hösch, who has assumed the identity of Nowak, a medical technician.

At the time of Rothe’s fateful meeting with one Col. Winkler, observant Germans could tell the war had turned against the Reich, but hardliners still controlled say-to-day life with an iron hand. Much to the doctor’s disappointment, Winkler informs him his fiancée Inge Hermann is suspected of smuggling his classified research documents to the Allies through her father in Sweden. Consumed by a feeling of betrayal, Rothe murders Fraulein Hermann that very night, but Hösch and Winkler very conveniently arrive to cover it up. In the process, we start to question how complicit Hermann really was or whether it was all part of Hösch’s plan to control Rothe. Regardless, when Rothe suffers no consequences for his action, the compulsion to kill, particularly women, will return to him on several subsequent occasions.

This really is a lot like the inverse-opposite of M. The two films would also make an intriguing triptych with von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment, starring Lorre as Raskolnikov. It was a bit of a disappointment to Lorre at the time, but it looks pretty good with the passage of eighty-some years. Arguably, it is the sort of film that suffers from speculation of what it could have been and therefore does not get credit for what it is. Taken together as a trio, they make quite a statement on guilt, compulsion, and otherness,

Regardless, Lost One is an excellent film in its own right. It was probably the first and maybe last time Lorre played a psycho-killer with the sort of subtlety a role like Rothe deserves. As a director (and co-screenwriter), he also clearly picked up plenty from Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and all the other journeymen film noir and horror directors he worked with. It is all kinds of dark and moody, but it puts us squarely Rothe’s disturbed headspace.

Lorre is terrific in the lead, but he gives his supporting cast plenty of time and space to shine. Karl John’s villainous portrayal of Hösch ought to be remembered as iconic—and maybe it will be in a few years. Renate Mannhardt’s Inge Hermann could be considered many things, but a stereotypical victim is definitely not one of them. Eva Ingeborg Scholz and Lotte Rausch also make quite an impression and forge vastly different chemistry with Lorre, as a fellow boarder and a victim he meets during an air raid.

Lost One must have great significance in Lorre’s life and career, since Stephen D. Youngkin used it as the title of his Lorre biography. It is not exactly a lost film, but it has been unfairly scarce. In fact, some cineastes might just get angry at their local repertory film programs when they finally see how compelling it truly is. Very highly recommended, The Lost One screens this Wednesday (11/22) and Thursday (11/23) in New York, at the Walter Reade.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

RFW-London ’17: The Guardians

In Red Prometheus, Dolores L. Augustine’s invaluable history of East German engineering, many retired researchers complained the DDR constantly demanded they reverse-engineer the latest breakthroughs imported from the West. However, by doing so, they guaranteed East German technology would never leap-frog the West. Apparently, the practice still goes on, because this Russian superhero movie is transparently reverse-engineered from The Avengers and The X-Men. It is the same general formula, but the execution is much cheesier throughout Sarik Andreasyan’s The Guardians (trailer here), which screens as part this year’s Russian Film Week in London.

During the Cold War, the super-secret SHIELD-like organization Patriot, commenced a Super-soldier project of its own. The results were initially promising, but squabbling between the project director and his Magneto-like rival August Kuratov led to the project’s closure. Forty or fifty years later, the revived Patriot agency must track-down and re-recruit their ageless test subjects to foil Kuratov’s mad scheme for world domination.

Ler is now living as a modern day Stylite in an abandoned Armenian monastery, but his powers of telekinesis remain undiminished. Khan the Kazakh has Flash-like speed, but the blades he wields make him far deadlier. The Russian Kseniya works in some kind of Cirque de Soleil show, because she has the power to turn invisible in water and to regulate her body temperature (except when she can’t), which makes her a cross between Sue Richards, the Invisible Girl and Ethel Merman. Arsus turns into a bear (sort of like Marvel’s Ursa Major).

Eventually, Major Elena Larina, the hot Nick Fury, assembles the Guardians to take on Kuratov, now decked out looking like Bane, but unfortunately, three of them are captured shortly thereafter, while poor battered Ler is left for dead. Don’t worry true believers, they still have some fight left in them, but they were never much for brains.

Andreasyan has some American credits to his name, so he has presumably seen a Marvel film or ten. Sometimes the crude Russofication is almost comical, but there is no denying the best thing about Guardians is the badass bear. Frankly, the special effects are way better than you would expect, but the script is even worse the you can imagine—except in one respect. Andreasyan and screenwriter Andrey Gavrilov wrap it up in just under ninety minutes, so spasibo for that.

This film is almost always laughable, but at least it keeps moving along. Sebastien Sisak is probably the best at doing actual acting stuff as Ler, while Sanjar Madi shows off some nice moves as Khan and Alina Lanina’s Kseniya looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson. Fortunately, Anton Pamposhnyy is often in bear-form, at least from the neck up. Frankly, The Guardians is a perfect example of why reverse-engineering guarantees you will always fall short of the targeted original. Recommended only as a cornball lark, The Guardians screens this Tuesday (11/21) during this year’s Russian Film Week in London.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

RFW-London ’17: Attraction

This could be a case of karma coming back around on a galactic scale. After invading Ukraine, Russia just might find itself on the receiving end of a UFO invasion. However, the rebellious daughter of the Colonel in charge of Moscow’s defenses becomes convinced it is all a misunderstanding. In any event, Poland hopes they enjoy the resulting martial law in Fedor Bondarchuk’s Attraction (trailer here), which kicks off this year’s Russian Film Week in London.

So much for all the assurances Yulia Lebedeva’s science teacher made about the safety of meteor storms. Something else invaded Russian airspace—something big. Naturally, the Russian Air Force opens fire, sending it hurtling into Moscow’s heavily populated Chertanovo district. Frankly, there is more self-inflicted home turf destruction in Attraction than even the lame Roland Emmerich Godzilla, but of course Lebedeva’s delinquent boyfriend Artyom and his punky pals still blame the aliens.

Initially, Lebedeva blames them too, but she changes her mind when one saves her life. Instead, it will be the gawky Hekon who is badly wounded and thrown clear of his bionic bio-ware mecha suit (they sort of look like Man-Thing covered in spandex). Lebedeva will hide him from both the military and the low-life vigilantes flocking around Artyom, but he will need to retrieve a glowy thingy called “Shilk” (no articles), before he can safely leave the planet.

According to Bondarchuk, Attraction was inspired by the 2013 anti-immigrant Biryulyovo riots, which is rather surprising, considering Bondarchuk obediently signed a statement endorsing Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine. There is no question Attraction makes the Russian military look reckless and irresponsible, whereas Artyom’s “Earth Power” mob certainly suggests parallels the Pan-Slavic Russian nationalism used to justify invasions of Ukraine and Georgia.

Regardless, Oleg Menshikov is terrific as steely old Col. Lebedev. As Artyom, Alexander Petrov certainly captures the chilling self-righteousness of the hardcore activist class. Unfortunately, Irina Starshenbaum and Rinal Mukhametov have little chemistry or charisma in general as Lebedeva and Hekon. The great Sergei Garmash is also grossly under-employed as the Deputy PM, who seems to be calling all the shots in the government.

There is no question Attraction was greatly “inspired” by The Day the Earth Stood Still. Yet, on a very immediate level, it is rather encouraging to see a Russian event-movie of this scale advocating tolerance and asking questions first before shooting. The spacecraft special effects are also exponentially better than what you might expect. Unfortunately, the uneven cast gives us too many embarrassing moments worthy of the 1998 Godzilla. Still, they cannot complain, because cinematographer Mikhail Khasaya gives it a sense of scope and grandeur, while also keeping it relatively “real” looking.

Apparently, if there was a Russian Film Week this year in New York, it was drastically scaled back. Perhaps this is another way Putin’s lackeys hope to punish us for the Magnitsky Act, but it is really emerging Russian filmmakers who will suffer, without a sympathetic showcase in the media capital of the world. Interestingly, London, the home of the “Steele Dossier” was deemed A-Okay. Regardless, Attraction is a fascinating example of how genre films reflect the prevailing social neuroses, but as a viewing experience in its own right, it is a rather messy and often klutzy affair. Recommended solely as a curiosity piece, Attraction screens tomorrow (11/19), launching this year’s Russian Film Week in London.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Destined: Blind Chance, Detroit-Style

Rasheed Smith lives in Detroit, so his destiny is pretty set. However, there could be slight variations, depending on whether he becomes an architect or a drug lord. Either way, Detroit is still Detroit. Qasim Basir follows both parallel lives in the Blind Chance-like (in terms of narrative) Destined (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

In one strand of fate, Rasheed the aspiring drug dealer is busted and goes straight. In the other, the more fleet of foot Sheed escapes to master his trade and work his way up the ladder. In both versions, he is good to his mother, but she is more crack-prostitute-ish in the drug kingpin storyline, even though Sheed is the one who could afford to move her out of the projects.

In both narratives, Ra/Sheed is poised to reach the big time in their respective careers, by making Faustian bargains. Sheed the dealer is about to strike a deal with a dodgy South American cartel to supply an expected influx of new gentrification residents, whereas Rasheed has been tapped to serve as the figurehead on a redevelopment project that would turn his old housing project into luxury condos. In each storyline, characters seem bizarrely confident swarms of yuppies are eager to colonize the most blighted block of inner city Detroit.

Naturally, certain characters reappear in each respective branch of fate, including the extraordinary underwhelming Mayor Jones, played with slimy obsequiousness by CSI New York’s Hill Harper. However, there are times when the duality does not make sense, such as Jesse Metcalfe’s Dylan Holder, who is the narc dogging Sheed in one possible destiny and the entitled son of Rasheed’s real estate developer boss in the other.

Frankly, Destined is more like Star Trekian alternate universes than Blind Chance-istic diverging tributaries of fate. In any event, the fatalism of Kieswloski’s film perfectly suited Martial Law-era Poland. Indeed, there are obvious reasons why the Polish masterpiece was withheld from public release since its completion in 1981 until early 1987. In the case of Destined, Basir’s determination to bring the two strands together feels like hollow pretentiousness. As a further frustration, the two alternate timelines are not clearly stylistically delineated, which frequently causes confusion.

Still, Cory Hardrict is appropriately moody as Ra/Sheed and Paula Devicq has some nice moments as his mom. That’s right, the nanny on Party of Five plays the mother of a grown son. Admittedly, this is an ambitious format to tackle, but Kieslowski managed to do it perfectly the first time. Ultimately just sort of okay, but nothing special, Destined opens today (11/17) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.

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Angelica: Tragically, Supernaturally Victorian

Constance Barton might just be the world’s first germaphobe. It was her husband who introduced her to germ theory and also to sex, both of which she will feel compelled to avoid. That naturally strains the Bartons’ marital union, as does her hyper-over-protectiveness of their daughter. Perhaps she is also haunted, but it might just be Dr. Barton’s sexual id lashing out for vengeance (no joke) in Mitchell Lictenstein’s hothouse gothic yarn, Angelica (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Constance Barton has summoned her daughter to make a deathbed confession while he still has the time. It involves the disappearance of her father, who maybe did not up and abscond, as she had been led to believe. Why, Barton can remember it all, like it was just yesterday—cue the dissolve.

Young Constance, who looks exactly like her grown daughter, is a shopgirl and Dr. Joseph Barton (formerly Bartoli) is a well-heeled naturalized Italian immigrant, but neither of them can ever be fully accepted in Victorian society. At least, they have each other—initially. It is a passionate nine-month honeymoon, but a touch-and-go delivery leads to a bizarre doctor’s prescription: no more marital relations.

Obviously, that makes things awkward. Being a lusty Italian, Dr. Barton is always trying to cheat with his own wife (he is not the unfaithful type, but ironically, that might have avoided some problems), whereas Ms. Barton funnels all her energy into protecting/smothering the daughter who almost did not make it. She is already somewhat paranoid and overwrought, even before the so-called “Flying Man” starts stalking Angelica. Essentially, he is a hive-creature made up of thousands of giant-sized bacteria creepy-crawlies. His ill sexual intentions are clear from his enlarged appendage. He doesn’t have a face per se, but he still seems hazily reminiscent of the good doctor.

Lictenstein, son of the famous pop artist, is a one-man justification for Freudian analysis. His first film Teeth told the tale of an Evangelical teen with teeth in her very private parts, whereas his straight drama, Happy Tears, features the resentful son of a famous painter, whose daddy issues result in a nervous breakdown. Here, blue balls lead to a giant, predatory germ monster. Your patient, Dr. Freud.

Obviously, this is all rather silly, to put it mildly, but you to give Jena Malone and Ed Stoppard credit for constantly doubling and tripling down as the Bartons. By the time they reach the third act, they look like they haven’t had a good night’s sleep or released their pent-up nervous tensions in years. They both play it scrupulously straight, never remotely winking at the audience or smirking at the irony. The late Charles Keating also adds some terrific Peter Cushing-esque genre presence as old Dr. Miles, dispatched from the looney bin to diagnose Madame Barton in her home environment.

Angelica is a weird film, because it takes itself strictly and completely seriously, but the stuff it shows viewers is just totally off-the-rails nuts. There is a wide and profound disconnect between the tony tone and the looney narrative. The classy period production values just make it all the more conspicuous. A great deal of craftsmanship went into Angelica, but the end-product is the goofiest Hammer Horror film ever. Admittedly, that is sort of a recommendation. Indeed, Lictenstein’s film will probably have a long life with camp connoisseurs, so trust your instincts when Angelica opens today (11/17) in New York, at the Village East.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Abertoir ’17: Top Knot Detective

Sheimasu Tentai was no Zenigata Heiji, that’s for sure. Supposedly, the ronin detective was a champion of deductive reasoning, but it is hard to prove it from the cheesy clips drawn from his short-lived early 1990s Japanese TV Show. Apparently, it was subsequently suppressed, for murky, conspiratorial reasons, but enough bootleg VHS tapes were circulated in Australia to earn it a small but loyal cosplaying following. The short rise and long fall of Ronin Suirei Tentai is chronicled in Aaron McCann & Dominic Pearce’s mockumentary, Top Knot Detective (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales.

When the powerful Sutaffu Corporation decided to get into the television production business, they were unable to sign their first choice of talent, so they settled for Takashi Takamoto. His primary merit was the Ronin Suirei Tentai treatment he already had ready to go. It was clumsy and campy, but it still became a minor hit anyway, because the early nineties were apparently not a golden age of Japanese television.

Ronin Suirei really started to comparatively take off when former j-pop idol Mia Matsumoto joined the show as Tentai’s rival and love interest, Saku. Inevitably, Takamoto’s arrogance and hedonism started to sabotage the show. Yet, it was his scandalous relationship with Matsumoto that really hastened its demise. However, Takamoto and Tentai would mount at least one highly unlikely comeback bid.

Although Takamoto was the showrunner, producer, and star of RST, his absence from Top Knot, aside from some faux archival interviews, is suspiciously conspicuous. Indeed, McCann and Pearce slyly and subtly reveal his post-show fate, implying some pretty sinister machinations went on behind the scenes. In many ways, Top Knot directly compares with the sardonic Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein, but it is not as shy when it comes to revealing its scandalous secrets.

Too many cult cinema spoofs think they can get away with building some cheap retro-looking sequences around a goofy premise and call it a day (looking at you, VelociPastor). However, McCann and Pearce create a richly detailed backstory for both the fictional show and its ill-fated cast-members. As Takamoto/Tentai, Toshi Okuzaki truly thrives on ridiculous situations and humiliating circumstances. Believe it or not, Mayu Iwasaki is weirdly poignant as Matsumoto/Saku, the sensitive starlet done wrong by the media and Sutaffu. However, Masa Yamaguchi ultimately steals the picture with his droll attitude and finely turned pivots as Haruto Kioke and Kurosaki Itto, Takamoto’s nemesis in real life and on the RST show.

You can’t fillet low-budget jidaigeki TV shows with such razor-sharp precision if you don’t love the genre to begin with. McCann & Pearce earn a lot of laughs because they really understand what they are spoofing. Yet, they constantly unwrap more surprises throughout the course of the film. Highly recommended for cult cinema fans, Top Knot Detective closes the 2017 Abertoir this Sunday night (11/19), in Wales.

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Stuff MX ’17: Samurai Rauni

Rauni Reposaarelainen is sort of like Popeye, if Popeye were a mean Finnish drunk. The hard-drinking head of a provincial Finnish samurai clan bullies just about anyone who crosses his path. He has more enemies than teeth, yet he is still surprised when someone hires a band of ninjas to assassinate him. The Bushido way sort of gets a Scandinavian send-up in Mika Rättö’s Samurai Rauni (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Stuff MX Film Festival.

Reposaarelainen is caught flat-footed by the ninjas’ attack, but he is still too strong and ill-tempered for them to handle. Learning the hit was contracted by the mysterious “Shame Tear,” Reposaarelainen starts visiting all his old enemies, which consist of pretty much everyone he ever knew, who he hasn’t killed yet. However, his investigation will ultimately hit distressingly close to home.

There are several samurai spoofs currently making the festival rounds, but the one really worth waiting for is the mockumentary Top Knot Detective (review coming in two hours). In contrast, Rauni is more about skewering the small town Finnish booboisie, with little apparent affection. Frankly, there is not a lot of hack-and-slash action in Rauni, either played straight or for slapstick laughs. Instead, lead actor-director Rättö revels in Reposaarelainen’s dissolute behavior.

Still, you have to give Rättö credit for looking the part. He is a fierce, wild-eyed, knuckle-dragging presence as Reposaarelainen. Yet, we definitely start to root for the outclassed ninjas rather than cheering for his anti-social antics.

Rauni was adapted from a hipster theater group’s stage production—and its avant-garde roots often show. Despite some stylishly rendered scenes in the third act, it just doesn’t connect emotionally. Nor will it hit international viewers on a mirthful gut-level. Not recommended, Samurai Rauni screens this Saturday (11/18) during Stuff MX, but patrons should check out the inventive Laplace’s Demon instead.

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Revolt: Aliens Invade Kenya

Many terrorism and infrastructure experts worry about the potential damage an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack could wreak on our power grid. However, an EMP could be the best hope for humanity in the dark days following the alien invasion. Despite his scrambled brains, a U.S. Special Forces amnesiac intends to be part of the last stand in Joe Miale’s Revolt (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The last thing he remembers was fighting the metallic spider-like aliens—poorly. Coming to in a provincial jail cell, the mystery soldier is now a sitting duck for unsavory local and galactic elements alike. However, the French NGO doctor in the cell next to his is probably in an even worse position. Nadia is pretty cynical for an aide worker, but she is somewhat impressed when he escapes from a smalltime warlord’s gang and returns to rescue her. Henceforth, Nadia will call him “Bo,” based on the two remaining letters stitched on his uniform.

Bo and Nadia decide to team up and head towards a series of radio telescopes a hundred miles or so from the current battle zone. They seem to be the only man-made structures in Kenya that have not been damaged by the aliens, so Bo hopes they can rendezvous with the American military there. It is not a great plan, but it is better than standing around waiting to be killed or abducted.

Revolt is not exactly the most original or spectacular science fiction film to land in theaters, but it is sturdily effective. There is no question the key to the film’s success is the chemistry and charisma of the co-leads, Lee Pace and Bérénice Marlohe. Pace, the Halt and Catch Fire actor (who was excellent in City Center’s production of Terrence McNally’s The Golden Age) makes a credible and compelling action figure, while Marlohe has successfully transitioned from Bond Girl-victim (in Skyfall) to a take-no-prisoners sf butt-kicker, here in Revolt and Kill Switch before it. Frankly, they are only cast-members who get character development arcs to speak of, but they handle them rather dexterously, between all the running and shooting and crashing.

Revolt is definitely red meat science fiction for meatheads, but the plain truth is we would like to see a sequel with both these principle characters. Nobody will confuse it for Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but it works on its own terms—quite nicely. Recommended for fans of action-driven alien invasion movies, Revolt opens this Friday (11/17) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Breadwinner, Another GKIDS Masterwork

Girls passing for boys was a staple of Shakespeare’s comedies, but the stakes were never so precariously high as they are for young Parvana. In Taliban-dominated Kabul, the arrest of her father, the male head of household, effectively imposes house-arrest on his wife and daughters. For their continued subsistence survival, Parvana must pass herself off as a boy, but the consequences will be unspeakably brutal if she is discovered. Islamist misogyny and intolerance have dire consequences in Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner (trailer here), an animated GKIDS release, which opens this Friday in New York.

Parvana’s father Nurullah is a former schoolteacher, but the former Soviet occupiers cost him a leg and the current Taliban oppressors left him unemployed. Books and photos are now forbidden and women can only leave their homes accompanied by a senior family member. When a former pupil has Nurullah arrested out of spite and fundamentalist fervor, there is no one left at home to shop for food or earn money. As their supplies dwindle, Parvana tries to make purchases at the market, but no vendor will risk incurring the Taliban’s wrath by selling to her.

Out of desperation, Parvana disguises herself as a boy, donning the clothes of a brother killed by a Soviet booby-trap. In the short term, Parvana develops the survival skills necessary for day-to-day survival. She also rekindles a friendship with Shauzia, a former classmate in very much the same situation. However, her long-term goal of securing her father’s freedom remains elusive. Thus far, she only has a beating to show for her efforts.

Frankly, the punch to the solar plexus she takes from a prison guard is far from the most brutal attack on women viewers witness in Breadwinner. GKIDS has often pushed the envelope of animation sophistication, perhaps mostly notably with the urbane and elegiac Chico & Rita, but Breadwinner is easily their toughest film yet. Its PG-13 rating is debatable, but there is no question Twomey shows the violent, intolerant realities of life under the Taliban, in uncompromisingly vivid terms. There is also a messiness to the conclusion that will frustrate naïve viewers, but it stays admirably true to reality.

Twomey co-directed The Secret of the Kells and served as “voice director” of Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea, which are certainly credits that inspire confidence, but Breadwinner is still a shockingly powerful cinematic statement. Arguably, Deborah Ellis’s YA novel could only be adapted as an animated film, because a live-action feature would place its primary lead in grave danger, much like the young actor in The Kite Runner, except it would be even worse for a girl. Regardless, Twomey and screenwriter Anita Doron do right by Ellis’s characters and the real-life girls and women they represent.

Despite the desperate circumstances Parvana faces, Twomey’s animated is often quite lovely. Yet, there is more truth in Breadwinner than most “adult” films released this year. Thanks to this film and Loving Vincent, 2017 has already proved itself as an exceptional year for animation. If one of them does not win an Oscar, it will be time to seriously consider abolishing the Academy. Very highly recommended, The Breadwinner opens this Friday (11/17) in New York, at the IFC Center downtown and the Landmark 57 in Midtown way west.

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