J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fantasia ’15: Boy 7

Sure, the idea of delinquent youths becoming guinea pigs in mind control experiments is hardly unprecedented, but there is something decidedly unsettling about it when done with a German accent—if you know what I mean. Instead of juvenile hall, Sam is sentenced a well-funded private school and research facility. He probably had a hard time fitting in, considering he groggily awakens in a subway tunnel with a nasty case of amnesia during the opening moments of Özgür Yildirim’s Boy 7 (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

His name is Sam, not that he knows that. However, he quickly figures out the cops want him for murder. Retracing his step from the clues in his pocket, Sam discovers a notebook stashed in a diner men’s room. It seems to be a journal he kept in the apparently likely event of his complete memory loss.

For some unfortunate bit of hacking, Sam was to serve a term at the institute, where the gray military uniforms really give off bad vibes. He will be the new Number 7, because the old Number 7 died from a stroke. It was unfortunate, but these sorts of things seem to happen there. His hard-partying roommate Louis (#6) knows something is wrong about the place, but he tries to live in denial. Lara (#8) is more openly rebellious, but the punky girl initially has no interest in Sam’s attempts to form an alliance, or anything else for that matter. Nevertheless, they grow closer as things get weirder around them. In fact, it is Lara that comes to the clean-slated Sam’s rescue.

Yildirim’s Boy 7 was adapted from the Dutch YA novel by Marco van Geffen and Philip Delmaar, as was the Dutch film version that released a mere six months earlier. German efficiency is certainly impressive, but in this case Yildirim marries it up with an ultra-slick Twyker-esque style. Although it is doomed to be compared to the Divergent and Maze Runner franchises, Boy 7 is much more closely akin Baran bo Odar’s Who Am I—No System is Safe, for reasons beyond language.

Lead actor David Kross is best known for his work in The Reader, but in this case, try not to hold it against him. He has clearly grown in his craft. While he is still a convincing nebbish outsider, he also conveys some grit and a bit of a dark side as Sam. As Lara, Emilia Schüle has a weird, hard to define screen presence, but it sort of works in context. Unfortunately, the villains are not nearly as distinctive as they ought to be.

Nevertheless, Yildirim keeps it all hurtling along at full throttle, while cinematographer Matthias Bolliger gives it an eerie nocturnal noir glow. It is a quality production that far surpasses the low expectations its young adult credentials would suggest. Recommended for paranoid youths, the German Boy 7 screens today (7/29), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’15: Big Match

Looking for a film that will give you sympathetic bruises and body aches? Sure, we all are, so here it is. Poor Choi Iko will go from one massive beatdown to another. Technically, that is his job as the top MMA contender, but he never signed up for this so-called “game.” Gameplay definitely leaves a mark in Choi Ho’s Big Match (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Choi was briefly a promising soccer prospect, but after one notorious game and a pile of red cards, he found his true calling in the MMA ring. His older brother Young-ho is his coach, manager, and the closest thing to a voice of reason in his life. Therefore, when the shadowy Ace kidnaps Young-ho and frames the brothers for murder, Choi will reluctantly play his game.

For the wagering amusement of Ace’s select clientele, Choi will have to navigate the successive levels of the very real life game, starting with his escape from police custody. Things quickly escalate when he is forced to attack an underground mob casino single-handedly. Choi is undeniably a cement-head, but he is determined to take the fight to Ace, as soon as he saves his brother. He might also find an unlikely ally in Soo-kyung, his reluctant in-game minder.

If you thought the day would never come when K-pop superstar BoA would go to work on a pack of gangsters with a set of brass knuckles, then brace yourself for some good news. Granted, she never really taps into the inner recesses of her soul as Soo-kyung, “the woman of mystery,” but she is kind of awesome in her action scenes. Likewise, Lee Jung-jae plays Choi with all kinds of fierce guts. He almost looks to lean to be a top-ranked MMA fighter, but he turns out to be pretty credible dishing it out and taking it.

The pedestrianly titled Big Match might sound like a workaday recycling of elements from films like 13 Sins and Man of Tai Chi, but the sheer spectacle and intensity of the fight sequences are something else entirely. There are a few stunts that just border on the ludicrous, but they always result in conspicuous scarring, which sort of keeps it real. To put things in perspective, Choi is tased on multiple occasions, but each time he just takes a beat to center his chi and then gets back at ‘em.

This is the sort of film that converts the stiff and staid into fanboys. Usually, kidnapping plots are not a lot of fun, but in this case, all the mayhem and promised payback more than compensate. For action fans, Big Match is the real deal, raw egg-swilling goods. Highly recommended, it screens tonight (7/29), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

6 Ways to Die: Vinnie Jones Explains Them All

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder knew there were eight million ways to die, but Vinnie Jones only gets six. At least he will make full use of each of them. He will not merely kill his nemesis, Sonny “Sundown” Garcia, he will target the drug lord’s reputation, money, loved ones, sentimental attachments, and his very liberty. However, narrative logic will be the first casualty of Nadeem Soumah’s 6 Ways to Die (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

“John Doe” has it in for Garcia. He has his reasons, but he is very Picard about it all, never setting foot from his old school Oldsmobuick. Somehow, he gets some of the Los Angeles underworld’s most talented to come to him. He needs their skills to torment Garcia and his valuable inside knowledge will make it worth their while. It would seem that they will succeed spectacularly, since it is all told in a bizarre flashback structure. Oh sure, there is a big reveal that changes everything, but it makes absolutely no sense.

Still, 6 Ways offers an opportunity to watch a veritable B–movie all-star team at work. For the starting line-up we have Jones, Bai Ling, Dominique Swain, Vivica A. Fox, and Tom Sizemore. Most of them have real roles to play, but Sizemore appears in a completely tangential prologue. It looks like Soumah had only one day of shooting with him, so he just improvised something on the fly. In reserve, 6 Ways also features Chris Jai Alex and Kinga Philipps, who maybe aren’t so familiar, but have volumes of imdb credits already.

There are times you have to ask just what does this movie think its doing, but not in a resentful way. You sort of have to give it credit for being a grubby striver. It is determined to impress us by riding its bike with no hands, no matter how many times it wipes out on the pavement.

With no action scenes whatsoever, Jones is completely wasted as the mystery man and his role in the big twist defies the evidence of our senses. However, Alex shows real B-movie star power as Frank Casper, the hitman. Bai Ling also adds some serious cool as high class con artist June Lee. Unfortunately, Michael Rene Walton is way too reserved and colorless for a ruthless heavy like Garcia. Fortunately, chewing the scenery is not a problem for Fox, who vamps it up something fierce as the corrupt cop, Veronica Smith.

Soumah has seen way too much Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez for his own good. The resulting product is overly clever and then some. That said, if you enjoy watching B-movie veterans doing B-movie things, 6 Ways will be a satisfying guilty pleasure when it streams on Netflix (which should be imminently). In the short term, it opens this Friday (7/31) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal

Ostensibly, they both came to debate, but they had very different agendas. William F. Buckley, Jr. was there to present a cogent world view, while Gore Vidal came to engage in character assassination. Nearly as many sparks flew on the makeshift ABC News set as on the streets of Chicago when the conservative and leftist commentators occasionally discussed the 1968 party conventions. Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon chronicle the blow-by-blow in Best of Enemies (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The media loves to remind us Buckley lost his cool with Vidal, calling him a “queer” and offering him a punch in the face. They usually neglect to mention Vidal was goading him, calling him a “crypto-nazi,” as if Buckley would have anything to do with National Socialism. To their credit, Neville & Gordon give viewers the full context, including the fact that Vidal agreed to his ten debates with Buckley with the explicit intention of getting personal, in the nastiest, most destructive way possible. It is also rather eye-opening to hear how Vidal pre-tested his “ad libs” with a sympathetic press corps.

Logically, a good deal of Enemies is devoted to the verbal blood sport of their convention debates. However, there is a fair degree of media analysis, arguing Buckley v. Vidal was the watershed moment that unleashed a tidal wave of full throated punditry. Perhaps, but what is most striking is how cut-rate the ABC News operation was in 1968, a time when the networks did not have a heck of a lot of competition. The ABC convention operation was so cheap, their prefab convention soundstage literally collapsed, forcing them to use a makeshift replacement many considered an improvement.

In addition to generous archival clips of the combatants, Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow also read from the assorted writings of Buckley and Vidal, respectively, with all the appropriate feeling and attitude they demand. Neville, Gordon, and their editor Aaron Wickenden keep it snappy and never get bogged down with talking head analysis. Most importantly, they do not play favorites in the way they present the controversies.

Sadly, Buckley passed away in 2008, but it is nice to hear him again, even under what were frustrating circumstances for him. Evidently, the filmmakers were able to interview Vidal before his death, but according to the directors’ notes in the media kit, he was so bitter and off-putting they declined to use the footage. That says plenty. Recommended as a time capsule of late 1960s politics loaded with sarcasm, Best of Enemies opens this Friday (7/31) in New York, at the IFC Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.

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AAIFF ’15: La Salada

For a Peronista, Carlos Menem’s economic policies were far better than anyone expected. Thanks to his reasonably free market reform program, the La Salada free-for-all shopping district became quite a dynamo of industriousness. Decried by the U.S.T.R. for its plentiful and inexpensive knock-off’s, the expansive market is still a recently arrived migrant worker’s best bet for employment. It is there that immigrants from Korea, Taiwan, and Bolivia cross paths as they go about their business in Juán Martín Hsu’s La Salada (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

La Salada works just fine for old Kim and his daughter Yun-jin. After ten years in Argentina, he leases one stall in the marketplace and will soon buy a second outright. Her arranged marriage to the son of his business associate is fast-approaching, but she is ambivalent enough to half-entertain the flirtations of Luciano, an Argentinean La Salada manager-in-training.

In contrast, La Salada is not such a good time for Huang, a painfully shy Taiwanese man selling DVDs that look suspiciously boot-ish. He does decent business, but despite his best efforts, he cannot make a simple human connection. He carries a torch for Angeles, the single mother police officer who collects the monthly pay-offs (welcome to the Kirchners’ Argentina), but it is not reciprocal.

Bruno and his uncle face a highly uncertain future in La Salada when they first arrive. They left the stagnation of the Morales regime, only to find their contact has disappeared. Nonetheless, they both find work in a Korean restaurant. Bruno is not much of a waiter, but he eventually finds more suitable employment with Kim.

To his credit, Hsu really cuts to the heart of the immigrant experience in La Salada. We get a sense Kim would be successful almost anywhere and Huang would adequately scrape by under nearly any conditions. Family is important for all three, but in some cases, it is rather messy and debilitating. However, the film has precious little arc. It just sort of ends at a convenient point.

Chang Sun Kim’s performance as Kim is remarkable nuanced and completely grounded. He makes it clear Kim has more going on inside than he cares to acknowledge. Although she does not have history’s most empowering role, Yunseon Kim exhibits a strong screen presence that well serves Yun-jin’s issues of generational disconnect. Ignacio Huang revels in pathos as his namesake, but Limbert Ticona’s Sean Astin thing is hit-or-miss for Bruno.


Although we intellectually understand there has been considerable Asian immigration to Latin America—that’s what made Fujimori possible—it often seems strange to see it in films like Vincete Amorim’s Dirty Hearts. Hsu drains away any remaining exoticism and casts the immigrant experience in terms that most Americans can easily understand. It is all quite earnest and well-intentioned, but it would be nice if the cast had more to sink their teeth into. As films go, La Salada is very slice-of-lifey. Modest but hard-working (just like its characters), La Salada screens this Thursday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Chicago French Film Festival ’15: SK1

In two recent film versions of high profile French criminal investigations, justice is eventually served, but at a terrible cost of human life. In both cases, the guilty parties were apprehended, but the French police and legal system still take an embarrassing PR hit. Political correctness and anti-Jewish biases caused the police to tragically misjudge the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi dramatized in 24 Days, whereas turf consciousness and bureaucracy needlessly slowed down the hunt “Serial Killer 1 (SK1),” France’s first serial killer of the DNA era. Catching him is the hardest part, but trying him also presents challenges in Frédéric Tellier’s SK1 (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Chicago French Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre.

Charlie Magne thinks he has made it when he is transferred to the anti-crime task force at the storied 36 Quai des Orfèvres, but he immediately inherits a brutal rape-and-murder case that has haunted his teammates. He immediately proves his mettle by discovering a possible link to a similar cold case in Lyon, but all the subsequent lines of inquiry fizzle out. Frustratingly, a sex murderer with a not dissimilar M.O. starts stalking Paris a few years later, but they happened during the watch of the glory-hungry, turf-conscious rival team leader, who effectively freezes Magne’s squad out of the picture.

Much to Magne’s frustration, the parallels continue to mount, until the sheer volume of murders forces the commissioner to mobilize the entire 36th Precinct. In between the killings and bureaucratic skirmishes, SK1 flashes forward from the early 1990s to 2001, when Guy Georges, the alleged “Beast of the Bastille” faces numerous murder charges. Ordinarily, the split narrative would rather kill the suspense, but Tellier and editor Mickael Dumontier cut to and fro at places that strategically raise doubts and suspicions.

The result is a pretty tight and realistic procedural that will have you pulling your hair out in frustration over the kind of intelligence firewalls and rigid day-to-day regulations that hampered the capture of their suspect. This is particularly true with regards to DNA sample testing, because there were nearly no laws telling the CYA-ers how to handle it before the SK1 Affair.

Sort of like an epic Parisian Law & Order episode, SK1 gives scant attention to the private lives of its characters, aside from a bit of fretting from Magne’s wife. It is just as well. Tellier and screenwriter David Oelhoffen (director of the loose Camus adaptation, Far from Men) recreate the decade spanning investigation with tick-tock precision. It is the sort of film that resists showcasing anyone, but the often underwhelming Raphaël Personnaz does career-best work as Magne. Oliver Gourmet also adds some rumpled world-weary flavor as his early mentor, Bougon, while Adama Niane is suitably fierce as the sociopathic Georges.


The sort of legalistic roadblocks that hindered Magne’s efforts may be peculiarly French, but they are not exclusively so. Regardless, they give the film a distinctive edge. Tense and gritty, SK1 is recommended for fans of true crime and policers, when it screens Friday (7/31) and Saturday (8/1), as part of this year’s Chicago French Film Festival.

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I Am Chris Farley: Everyone’s Favorite Motivational Speaker

For reasons of girth, Chris Farley was often compared to his hero John Belushi when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. Perhaps for the same reason, we too readily accepted his tragic early demise. As iconic as Belushi might be, Farley had a good-hearted Chaplinesque appeal that none of his contemporaries can match. Viewers get a sense of how genuine his aw-shucks persona really was in Brent Hodge & Derik Murray’s documentary, I Am Chris Farley (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Farley grew up in a loud, loving family in Wisconsin, with a garrulous father much like Brian Dennehy’s character in Tommy Boy (a much more autobiographical film than causal fans may have realized). For a while, Farley was a reasonably successful salesman for his dad’s company, but a chance encounter with semi-professional theater changed the trajectory of his life. His stints in regional theater led to a residency with Chicago’s famous Second City Theatre improvisational comedy troupe, which at the time was practically the farm team for Saturday Night Live (a sketch comedy show that once aired on NBC after the Saturday night local news—and who knows, maybe it still does, but nobody has seen it since 2004).

Logically, Hodge, Murray, and screenwriter Steve Burgess devote the lion’s share of the film to his SNL period (1990-1995). That is what people will be most interested in—and sadly, Farley would tragically die soon after in late 1997. Arguably, Matt Foley, the motivational speaker with unfortunate living arrangements, represents the last truly classic SNL skit. As written, the humor of the situation is quite funny, but Farley’s efforts to break-up his buddy David Spade and guest host Christina Applegate made it legendary. Yet, the best part of the story comes when IACF identifies who the real Matt Foley is, because it reveals so much about Farley.

Indeed, Hodge & Murray paint a comprehensive portrait of Farley as a devout Catholic and a devoted friend and brother. Fortunately, they secured the Farley family’s participation, because his brothers’ reminiscences really help fill out the picture of someone so easy to caricature. They also scored sit-down on-cameras with many of Farley’s famous friends and colleagues, including Spade, Adam Sandler, Jon Lovitz, Jay Mohr, Bo Derek (who still looks fantastic), and Dan Aykroyd.

IACF hits theaters shortly after the release of Bao Nguyen’s SNL doc Saturday Night, but it is by far the superior film. One could say the Farley profile is one hundred times better than the shallow, smugly self-congratulatory, slavishly PC bore that quickly exited theaters, but that would still unfairly imply it is a bad film. In fact, IACF is quite a good film, because it is so surprisingly endearing. Basically, it gets right everything that Saturday Night gets wrong. Ultimately, IACF will increase viewers’ appreciation for Farley as an individual and the value of his work. Recommended for fans of Farley and Second City, I Am Chris Farley opens this Friday (7/31) in New York at the AMC Empire, in advance of its August 10th premiere on Spike TV.

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AAIFF ’15: Jasmine

You have never seen the streets and business plazas of Hong Kong so empty. Fortunately, thanks to cell phones, loitering does not look nearly as suspicious as it used to. Despite his awkwardness, Leonard To will indeed be able to closely shadow the man he believes might be responsible for his wife’s murder in Dax Phelan’s English language HK production, Jasmine (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

To is very definitely not over his wife’s death yet, but the Hong Kong police have apparently moved on. As a result of his debilitating grief, he lost his job and his waterfront apartment. However, just when he starts looking to restart his career, he observes a mysterious figure placing flowers on his wife’s grave. When he subsequently follows the strange man to the site of his wife’s murder, he assumes this must be the guilt-ridden killer.

Having plenty of time on his hands, To manages to find a way to snoop through his suspect’s luxury flat. He also starts tailing the unnamed man’s girlfriend, Anna, a model struggling to jumpstart her acting career. Only Grace, an understanding family friend, still finds time to see him, but even she is alarmed by his increasingly erratic behavior.

Jasmine is definitely what you would call a slow-burner. It is also a “big twist” kind of film, springing a third act revelation that will radically alter the audience’s perception of everything that preceded it. You can never re-watch Jasmine with the same mindset, but it would be interesting to revisit each scene in a different light.

Jason Tobin is pretty darned extraordinary as To, personifying twitchy, clammy pathos. He keeps us deeply unsettled, while closely guarding the film’s secrets. It is almost a one-man show, but Sarah Lian and Eugenia Yuan (daughter of the great Cheng Pei-pei and former U.S. Olympian) add considerable human depth and emotional heft to the film as Anna and Grace, respectively. Byron Mann has little to do except obliviously lead To through Hong Kong, but he has the perfect presence for the role, honed by a number prior villainous big screen turns. Grace Huang (star of producer Jennifer Thym’s dynamite short film Bloodtraffick) also briefly appears as Jasmine To, but you might miss it if you blink at an inopportune moment.

Jasmine is a dark, tightly disciplined thriller, occupying the space where film noir and existential angst overlap. Phelan pulls off some impressive misdirection, while cinematographer Guy Livneh gives the proceedings an eerily cool sheen. Recommended for fans of psychological suspense, Jasmine screens this Thursday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Fantasia ’15: Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen

It its prime, the yakuza life may have had its benefits, but they did not include a pension, 401K, or long-term disability. As a result, those who manage to live into their golden years become an embarrassing burden to their families. Out of boredom and contempt for the new brand of organized crime, a notorious retired yakuza decides to get the old gang back together in Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Ryuzo still has his massive yakuza tattoos and he is not shy about showing them off, much to his salaryman son’s chagrin. One day, Ryuzo nearly falls for a confidence scam, but the arrival of his old crony Masa limits the damage. Evidently, this is one of the many predatory operations run by Keihin Industries, the ostensibly legit financial outfit that took over territory once run by Ryuzo’s now defunct clan.

Assembling his surviving associates (in some cases just barely), Ryuzo forms a new inter-clan “league” to teach the Keihin creeps how crime should be done. They even have the wink-and-a-nod blessing of crusty Det. Murakami, who was just a kid in their day, but is one of the few remaining coppers who still remember the old yakuza. Of course, Ryuzo and his gang (including Mokichi the dreaded “Toilet Assassin”) are over-matched and out of shape, but they do not have much to lose.

Henchmen is about as cute as Kitano gets. There is usually a pronounced element of black humor in his gangster films, particularly the Outrage duology, but now he brings the comedy front-and-center. Of course, when the gags involve finger chopping and commode killings, it helps to have an appreciation for the yakuza tradition.

As Ryuchi, the quietly simmering Tatsuya Fuji looks like he could explode at any time. The former Stray Cat Rock star still has plenty of fierce in him, making him a perfectly suited to anchor the film. However, it is amazing how much pop the film gets from Kitano’s brief appearances as Murakami. Happily, the power of his deceptively placid presence remains undiminished. It just would be nicer to have more of it in Henchmen.

There is a tendency in the film towards goofiness, but the game supporting cast (starting with Masaomi Kondo as the loyal but slightly psychotic Masa) strives more for a nostalgic Tough Guys tone than a shticky Grumpy Old Men kind of thing. It mostly works. Overall, Henchmen is an enjoyable exercise in senior empowerment and old school payback, while also suggesting it is high time someone mounted a comprehensive Kitano career retrospective. It is a lot of fun, but not as much fun as another resurrection of Kitano’s Otomo for an Outrage 3 would be. Recommended for yakuza fans, Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen screens tonight (7/27), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

AAIFF ’15: A Young Patriot

Zhao Changtong can relate the events of student protests in 1919, blow for blow, but he has no idea what happened during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. He is the perfect product of China’s educational system. The teenager is so wound up with nationalist fervor, he frequently parades through the streets of Pingyao chanting Maoist anthems, but his indoctrination will be profoundly tested by life after graduation. Du Haibin follows Zhao for five eventful years, charting his painful maturation in A Young Patriot (trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Hailing from a working class urban family, Zhao is the sort of student who is a prime target for the state’s unceasing propaganda campaign. When we first meet him through Du’s lens, he gives the Communist government credit for so conscientiously providing for him and his classmates. However, Du and editor Mary Stephens quickly cut to his parents, who explain all the economic sacrifices they made to pay for his school fees over the years. Reality is not what he thinks it is, as he learns when he is finally admitted to university and forced to take out considerable student loans in his own name.

While Zhao tries to maintain his patriotic zeal by volunteering for the campus propaganda association (they really do use the term “propaganda”), he cannot help noticing how greater opportunities are afforded to his better connected classmates. However, nothing will bring home the realities of China’s extreme social stratification like service as a volunteer teacher in the grindingly poor Sichuan mountainside. For a mere fifteen days, Zhao and his colleagues will provide Dialiangshan’s children the only education they will get until another such fifteen day excursion can be mounted.

Clearly, the Sichuan trip essentially completes Zhao’s intellectual and emotional divorce from the Communist worldview. To his credit, he also develops heretofore unseen empathy, maintaining a connection to the village after their brief term of service. Alas, contemporary China has one more curve ball to throw him, when the corrupt local authorities nationalize both the new house his parents are constructing and the longtime home of his grandparents for their latest dodgy development scheme.

In its way, Patriot is an epic film, but Du and Stephens (who deserves major award consideration) pare it down to a tightly compelling, keenly telling narrative. Clocking in under two hours, it is far more manageable than Hoop Dreams—and its stakes are far greater. Frankly, few documentaries force the audience to so fundamental revise their attitudes towards it subject. When we first meet the rather obnoxious young man, we instinctively tip him for someone due for a rude awakening, but we eventually feel for him quite deeply as he and his family face Job-like misfortunes.

Du has an extraordinarily shrewd eye for relevant little details, such as damning snippets of the historically inaccurate indoctrination that passes for instruction at Zhao’s university. Yet, that carefully constructed misinformation campaign turns to dust when Zhao and his fellow students looking into the neglected eyes of their Sichuan students. Shrewdly, Du also uses the concurrent rise and fall of “Red Revival” Party leader Bo Xilai to echo and punctuate Zhao’s bitter loss of faith.

This is a hugely important film on a macro level, but it is completely gripping on a micro level. Without question, it is Du’s best work to date, eclipsing the admirably brave and immersive 1428. Very highly recommended for anyone seeking an intimate understanding of China’s “Post-1990’s Generation,” A Young Patriot screens this afternoon (7/26) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

AAIFF ’15: A Girl at My Door

Lee Young-nam is a high functioning alcoholic. That alone would not derail her police career. After all, most big city forces have plenty of the low functioning variety. However, a scandal in her personal life had to be swept under the rug. As part of her rehabilitation, she must serve as a coastal fishing village’s station chief for one year. The last thing she needs is trouble, but when she gets personally involved with an abused school girl, conflict becomes inevitable in July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Lee is painfully reserved and socially awkward. The way she secretly stashes gin or vodka in water bottles does not look particularly healthy either. As soon as she sees the scrawny, conspicuously bruised Do-hee, she recognizes a fellow underdog. Lee proactively intervenes when Do-hee is bullied by classmates, but it is harder to protect her from her “guardians,” her resentful stepfather Park Yong-ha and his cruel, half-senile mother.

Park the wheeler-dealer is considered one of the few viable employers in the economically depressed township, so moving against him would be a tricky proposition, even for a copper with a spotless record. Nevertheless, after interrupting an especially vioent beating and seeing the marks left by subsequent assaults, Lee reluctantly shelters the emotionally broken girl in her own home. Obviously, this will be a problematic arrangement.

Even though Do-Hee quickly bonds with Lee, both carry extensive baggage that will complicate and hinder their relationship. The loathsome Park is also constantly turning up the pressure on Lee. Many times, she decides to wash her hands of Do-hee and Park, until a fresh outrage revives her indignation. Unfortunately, when a face from her scandalous past briefly visits, it gives him plenty of ammunition.

Door is light-years removed from a simplistic celebrations of innocent victims triumphing over adversity. In this story, there is darkness in everyone’s heart. It is also unusually nerve-wracking for a message-driven family abuse drama. Frankly, it is the sort of film that would make Oprah what’s-her-name’s head explode, which is a perfectly good reason to support its screenings.

It is also an enormously compelling film. Produced by art-house stalwart Lee Chang-dong, Door is just as much a gritty thriller as it is a work of social criticism. It is quite notable how many hot button issues Jung addresses, including child abuse, alcoholism, homosexuality, crony corruption, the exploitation of illegal migrant workers, and the shortcomings of the Korean justice system. Yet, each potentially controversial plot point flows seamlessly from the central narrative, rather than feeling tacked on for the sake of statement-making.

Wachowski regular Bae Doo-na takes her craft to a whole new level, basically ripping our souls out in the process with her quietly harrowing depiction of Lee. Watching her face, you can plainly see how much it hurts to be that repressed and alienated. Likewise, young Kim Sae-ron (who is amassing quite a resume, including the Lee Chang-dong produced A Brand New Life and the breakout action hit, The Man from Nowhere) viscerally conveys the physical and psychological trauma of abuse.

In an impressive debut, Jung takes the audience on a dark, twisty ride, while never watering down the narrative’s implications or taking any easy outs. It is tough stuff, but it latches onto viewers like a vice. Very highly recommended, A Girl at My Door screens tomorrow (7/26) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Fantasia ’15: The Ninja War of Torakage

Ever found yourself wondering if you might enjoy a film more if a Portuguese ninja scholar was available to explain the cultural significance of the action on-screen? Well, a kitchen sink filmmaker like Yoshihiro Nishimura understands exactly where you’re coming from. By his lunatic standards, this foray into ninja skullduggery is pretty grounded, whereas for the rest of us mere mortals, it is total madness. Ninja clans will clash while Francisco the talking head elucidates the finer points in Nishimura’s The Ninja War of Torakage (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Torakage and his wife Tsukikage were ninjas serving their ruthless mistress, Gensai, but they fell in love and quit to raise a family. Of course, you do not resign from Gensai’s service so easily—not that they considered the torture they endured so very easy. She had temporarily allowed them a false sense of security, but that is over now that she needs them again. Kidnapping their young son Kogetsu, she demands they steal a certain Silver Scroll from the despised Rikuri clan. Once they deliver it to her, she will marry it up with the Golden Scroll that just came into her possession, to determine the location of an ancient treasure.

Inconveniently, Torakage and Tsukikage find themselves out of the frying pan and into the fire when they are captured by the human-sacrificing Rikuri clan. Somehow, the competing clan fell under the sway of a charismatic cult leader, who offers Torakage a similar deal. If he steals the Golden Scroll from Gensai, he can exchange it for Tsukikage.

That all might not sound so far removed from the Jidaigeki mainstream, but Nishimura tosses in a bamboo Iron Man-like battle suit, dizzying “human shuriken” action, drug addiction, a mercenary angel with a death’s head, Francisco’s color commentary, a bunch of conversations about going poo, and Eihi Shiina from Takashi Miike’s Audition doing her thing. However, even amid all the lunacy, Torakage’s chief rival still scrupulously observes his code of honor.

Together with Tokyo Tribe and Nowhere Girl, Nana Seino scores a heck of a one-two-three punch in a trio of films beyond category. Each one is an overpowering ecosystem unto itself, but she never wilts in any of the three. Once again, she also shows some convincing action chops. As Torakage and his nemesis, Takumi Saitô and Kanji Tsuda also flash plenty of moves and manage to maintain a stiff-as-a-board sense of dignity while navigating the all-encompassing bedlam. Of course, Eihi Shiina is creepy well past the point of comfort as the sadistic Gensai.

Overly sensitive viewers should be warned—Ninja War is a fantastically bloody, unabashedly subversive, and mildly scatological film. In short, it has everything growing kids need for their healthy development. Recommended for those who enjoy boldly over-the-top cult cinema, The Ninja War of Torakage screens tonight (7/24), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Big Significant Things: Road Angst

Craig Harrison is looking for enlightenment on the Stuckey’s circuit, hoping to hash out his man-child hang-ups one pecan roll at a time. No, it is not likely to work. His retreat from reality might even make matters worse. Harrison finds himself a long way down Holiday Road in Bryan Reisberg’s Big Significant Things (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In about a week, give or take, Harrison will marry his longstanding girlfriend. She is currently house-hunting on their behalf in San Francisco, whereas he is taking a driving tour of the eccentric roadside attractions of the Gulf Coast, taking in wonders like the world’s biggest cedar bucket. What does she think of this division of labor? Actually, she believes Harrison is still on a fact-finding trip with his business colleagues, but she is still not thrilled with the arrangement.

So what’s wrong with Craig Harrison (not the British sniper or the New Zealander speculative novelist)? Aside from his galloping immaturity, it is hard to say. It is probably safe to assume he is feeling pressure from all the wedding business and the cold hard financial realities of house hunting, but the film never really gets at what his deal is.

Frankly, a little bit of him moping in motel rooms goes a long way. However, BST gets a much needed energy boost from Finnish actress Krista Kosonen, playing Ella, an unlikely Finnish expat. She exudes an unconventional sultriness and sings a distinctive, haltingly hushed singer-songwriter tune at an open mic night. The way she captures Ella’s insecurities in this scene is quite sensitively rendered and surprisingly compelling.

Indeed, there are several exquisitely crafted moments, but most of the film feels like slow, dry connective tissue. As Harrison, Harry Lloyd does his best to charm his way past the character’s inherent self-indulgent jerkiness, but it is a laborious task. However, Kosonen exhibits tons of breakout potential with her quiet but intense work as Ella. Sylvia Grace Crim also helps liven up the overly dour proceedings as Ella’s hard-partying crony.

No matter how you parse it, spending a lot of time with Craig Harrison in a car is not a joyous proposition. Still, the Route 66-ish nostalgia of his road trip is sort of appealing. It is neither big nor significant, but at least BST is a thing. It features some promising performances, but the film itself is hardly essential. It opens today (7/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Fantasia ’15: On the White Planet

Welcome to racial allegory world. It is a tough place to live in, if you happen to be the only kid with any color or pigment. However, it is no picnic dealing with his murderous rage either. Homogeneity predictably breeds xenophobia and cruelty in Hur Bum-wook’s animated feature, On the White Planet, which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Maybe it was a perversely rare recessive gene or perhaps a form of mutation, but somehow the outcast orphan developed skin color. This was not well received by the wider, colorless world. It destroyed his parents and reduced him to a state of feral rage. Living off garbage, the pre-teen preys on the colorless adults who refused to accept him. Having neither personal ties nor any great moral compunctions, the outcast is a perfect candidate to become a ruthless gang leader’s latest patsy. Like a dystopian Fagin, the malevolent mastermind entices street urchins with dreams of empowerment, only to exploit them for his own benefit.

There are all kinds of tell-tale signs the shunned protagonist is getting involved with a crew far worse than the cops he despises. Nevertheless, the promise of organized support and structure for his killing spree is too tempting to pass up. Unfortunately, his supposed protectors soon show their contemptible true colors, so to speak. Even his young fellow ragamuffin-ruffians are only stringing him along, hoping to score the bounty on his head.

If any of this sounds subtle, than you are profoundly misunderstanding what White Planet is all about. Yet, the black-and-white dichotomy is somewhat misleading in a film produced on the Korean Peninsula, home of two of the most racially and ethnically homogeneous nations on earth (according to Prof. Wiki).

Life on the White Planet is nasty, brutish, and downright predatory. Frankly, the only character who is not constantly looking to sell-out everyone else is the young kid, but he is generating a massive body count. Let’s be honest. Hur simply hits the audience over the head with ideological point-scoring. Nevertheless, he has crafted quite an unsettling fable. His animation is deceptively simple, finding stark power in the scarred white-and-gray wasteland of the near future (or the alternate now). He also renders some unconventional but effective action sequences.

Not surprisingly, White Planet is a little thin when it comes to characterization. Such is usually the case with both allegory and propaganda. Hur’s film could be described as either, but its distinctive look still merits attention from animation connoisseurs. Recommended for style rather than substance, On the White Planet screens this afternoon (7/24) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

AAIFF ’15: Heneral Luna

It ought to set off plenty of alarms bells when a film feels the need to preemptively declare “while historical accuracy is important there are bigger truths about the Filipino nation that can only be reached by combining the real and the imaginary.” Historical pedants, consider yourself warned. On the plus side, this big screen bio-treatment of Philippine-American War General Antonio Luna manages to be less anti-American than John Sayles’ Amigo. Frankly, America is the least of the general’s concerns, compared to the more pressing dangers of the duplicitous rival officers and politicians who scheme against him in Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

There is no getting around the caricatured portrayal of the American military in Tarog’s film, but that is a mere sideshow to its main attraction. As most of the target audience will know, rumors of high level conspiracy and cover-ups have swirled around Luna’s assassination for decades. Essentially, Tarog’s film is intended as a muckraking passion play, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the various military and government officials threatened by Luna’s popularity, competency, and principles.

Initially, we see Luna score some morale boosting half-victories against the Americans, who bought out Spain’s colonial interest just when the Filipinos were poised to drive them out. However, Luna’s drive is undermined by a fractured command structure that allowed most of his generals to report directly to the problematic President Aguinaldo. To assert his authority granted under military protocols, Luna wages secondary wars against his rogue subordinates, at rather inopportune times.

Clearly, this kind of confusion is no way to win a war, which of course they didn’t. Even though Tarog is hardly shy when it comes to waving the bloody shirt, it is the betrayals that most concern the film. Frankly, if Tarog’s version of history is even remotely accurate, it is a minor miracle the Filipino Revolutionary government did not completely implode from within. Some of the backbiting depicted will give even ardent Imperialist-apologists face-palm moments. Yet, probably nobody fares worse in Heneral than Aguinaldo himself, but that should not be so surprising, given his eventual collaboration with the occupying Japanese military in the 1930s.

In addition to its fascinating political score-settling, there is also plenty of old fashioned historical melodrama in Heneral, which is hit or miss. It is hard to see Luna and Isabel, his high society mistress played by Mylene Dizon as a couple. On the other hand, John Arcilla’s Luna is compulsively watchable when spitting nails at unsuspecting slackers. For the most part, it is an appealingly larger than life portrayal.

There are a couple of nicely staged warfighting sequences in Heneral, but most of the carnage comes from the assorted back-stabbings and dressings-down. It is a big, angry bull-in-a-china-shop kind of film, but at least it is more entertaining than a typical Oliver Stone re-write of history. Recommended for those with a taste for messy, chaotic, and opinionated historicals, Heneral Luna screens this Saturday (7/25) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Dark was the Night, Evil was the Creature

Cloven hoof tracks are traditionally a bad sign, at least when they were made by a two-legged creature. That was no deer striding through Sheriff Paul Shields’ logging hamlet. Something sinister is definitely lurking in those woods and it is getting increasingly aggressive in Jack Heller’s Dark was the Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lately, horses and dogs have mysteriously disappeared, but Shields really doesn’t care. He is too busy blaming himself for the death of his youngest son. Although he has separated from his wife Susan, he still tries to be a proactive father to their remaining son Adam. However, he has to start sheriffing in earnest when the town wakes up to find unusually large and apparently upright cloven hoof prints snaking their way from one end of town to the other. Having absorbed scores of Native American legends about vengeful natural spirits, everyone basically freaks—and they’re not wrong.

Unfortunately, the awkward and pretentious syntax of Dark’s title evokes the cheesy, overwrought horror novels of the early 1980s. However, for a film about a big evil thing making dodo in the woods, it is remarkably restrained. Probably more time is allotted to seriously addressing Shields’ grief and guilt than monster attacks. While that might not sit well with genre fans, it is actually not a bad thing, thanks largely due to the strength of Kevin Durand’s performance. He is a big guy, but as Sheriff Shields, he looks drawn and haggard, like he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since Johnny Carson retired. Even in a non-genre film, the honesty and commitment of his work would be impressive.

Dark is indeed an unusually character-driven horror film, offering up a tortured sidekick to its angst ridden protagonist. Lukas Haas (yes, that Witness Haas) is also quite down-to-earth and flinty as Donny Saunders, a former NYPD officer wounded in the line of duty, now serving as Shields’ deputy. They play off each other nicely, navigating the territory just in-between friends and colleagues. Budding cult superstar Nick Damici also gets to chew some scenery as the spooky trash-talking saloon-keeper.

Frankly, Dark is one of the few films that is better at interpersonal relationships than at going about its horror business. Still, Heller and screenwriter Tyler Hisel give the standard “gotcha” monster movie ending a bit of a half twist. Far better than you would expect, especially given the eye-rolling title, Dark was the Night (it sounds like something Yoda might say) is recommended for fans of small town supernatural fare when it opens tomorrow (7/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

AAIFF ’15: The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor

Dr. Haing S. Ngor had a reasonable productive film career, but he never landed a role that equaled his Oscar winning debut in Roland Jaffe’s The Killing Fields (although Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth will have its champions). Yet, the platform it provided Ngor to keep the memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide alive and to criticize the current undemocratic regime was far more important. It might have even been the reason why the actor and activist was murdered in 1996. The late Ngor will offer his survivor’s testimony once again in The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (trailer here), which screens as part of a sidebar tribute to documentarian Arthur Dong at the 2015 AsianAmerican International Film Festival in New York.

Rarely is an actor so closely identified with a film as Dr. Ngor and The Killing Fields. He was not a professional actor when he was cast to play Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, but he could identify with the role only too well. Ngor barely survived the Communist re-education camps, but his pregnant common law (formal marriage having been abolished) wife did not. In an environment of horrific deaths, hers was particularly haunting.

You might think you understand the Communist massacre, chapter and verse, but the experiences Ngor describes in his autobiography (extracts of which are read by his nephew, Wayne Ngor) will shock you nonetheless. For instance, even table utensils were banned (on pain of death) as the decadent tools of western capitalism. To illustrate his experiences during the genocide, Dong often relies on Wilson Wu’s dramatic black-and-white animation that starkly reflects the tenor of the times. These are not things we want to see, but they are necessary to understand Ngor’s life and the utopian ideology he fled.

Dong is an experienced filmmaker, who crafts Ngor’s story with great sensitivity, but also with an eye towards the needs of history. Fortunately, Ngor’s life in America was quite well documented. He assembles quite a bit of primary footage of Ngor, including some unusually heavy commencement speeches. The close participation of Ngor’s surrogate daughter-niece Sophia Ngor and his friend, Iron Triangle co-star, and non-profit foundation executive director Jack Ong also inspire confidence. Of course, high level Khmer Rouge officials were not available for comment, but the allegations of Kaing Guek Eav (a.k.a. “Comrade Duch”) that Ngor was assassinated by the Khmer Rouge are given due consideration.

Dong’s film is both inspiring and horrifying, showing both sides of an incredible life cut short under mysterious circumstances. It never peddles in conspiracy theories, but it makes one wonder nonetheless. It is also something of a wake-up call, especially when it addresses Ngor’s opinions on the not-so untainted regime of today. Timely, moving, and even infuriating, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor is a truly important film, highly recommended for the socially and historically conscious when it screens this Saturday (7/25) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Only You: Remaking Norman Jewison in China

Whether you live in Pittsburgh or Shanghai, Italy still represents the land of romance. Evidently, in 1994, Venice was the place to be, but now Milan is the in romantic getaway. There are other differences, but this Chinese remake of the Norman Jewison romantic comedy is pretty faithful to its inspiration. Once again, a smitten man will fight against fate and his own name to win the woman he falls for in Zhang Hao’s Only You (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

On two separate occasions, fortune tellers predicted Fang Yuan would marry a man named Song Kunming. Such a specific prophecy would be great if she knew anyone named Song Kunming, but she doesn’t. After years of waiting for him to show up, she finally decides to settle for Xie  Wei, a boring dentist. However, tens days before their wedding, she happens to take a phone message from Xei Wei’s old school chum, Song Kunming, who is en route to Milan.

With her BFF in tow, Fang Yuan impulsively rushes off to Italy (conveniently having a couple soon-to-expire visas burning a hole in her pocket), to track down her man of destiny. On their first night, they follow the trail from their hotel to a man claiming to be Song Kunming. He is perfect her in every way, except he eventually admits he is not really Song Kunming. Attempting a Hail Mary, he offers to help her find the real Song, in hopes of besting him for her affections.

You hardly need to have seen the original Marisa Tomei-Robert Downey, Jr. vehicle to know how it will all end. Admittedly, Only You seems like a rather odd remake candidate, but it is apparently the sort of film that has grown in popular affection during its video and DVD life, following its ho-hum initial box-office. Of course, there are also probably a lot of us out there who can come to China Lion’s Only You unburdened with indelible images of Downey, Jr. in a gondola.

There is no question the scenery is just as lovely this time around and the cast is even more attractive. There is a little bit of shtick, but it is decidedly mild compared to rom-com norms. Granted, nobody does a lot of heavy lifting here, but Tang Wei pouts quite effectively as Fang Yuan (if you want to see her in a deeper, darker romantic drama, check out the elegant Late Autumn). Liao Fan tries to keep his cool as best he can as someone not named Song Kunming, but Su Yan kind of steals the show as the tough but sensitive (and sultry) best friend.

Fully capitalizing on Milan’s picturesque public squares and the verdant surrounding countryside, the new Only You definitely makes you want to visit Italy—with Tang Wei—or Su Yan—or if you prefer, Liao Fan. Obviously the end is predetermined (unless you think both Liao and Downey, Jr. might come up empty romantically), but it is a pleasant, low stress trip. Recommended as a date movie, Only You opens this Friday (7/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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The Outrageous Sophie Tucker—You’re Gonna Miss Her, Honey

Sophie Tucker once called up JFK in the Oval Office, was immediately connected, and successful convinced him to veto pending stock dividend taxation legislation. If that does not duly impress you, keep in mind she also sang—for decades, as one of the top speakeasy and night club attractions in the country. Filmmaker William Gazecki and producer-Tucker biographers Susan & Lloyd Ecker chronicle her bawdy, trailblazing career in The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Tucker’s career spanned six decades and just about every Twentieth Century form of media. She was tough and shrewd, but also loyal and generous. She made her debut in the Ziegfeld Follies at twenty-two, but she was too much of a smashing success, at least from the star diva’s vantage point. Before Mae West, she became a sensation suggestively interpreting double entendre-laden lyrics. She was still a household name well into the 1960s, thanks in part to her old crony, Ed Sullivan, but she has largely slipped into the memory hole of a collective cultural memory that barely reaches back to Madonna.

Fortunately, this is where the Eckers come in, burnishing her legacy and promoting awareness. For their books, website, and work on this film, the Eckers were invaluably assisted by the exhaustive multi-volume scrapbooks Tucker maintaining, recording her career almost day-for-day. They also serve as time-capsules, capturing the state of show business from 1907 to 1964.

Tucker had such a strong sense of syncopation and a flair for giving lyrics her own unique twist, she could have easily billed herself as a jazz artist, if she had wanted to be paid less. Yet, what is most striking is how far ahead of the curve she was when it came fan outreach. She probably had a myspace page ready to go, just waiting for the internet to me created.

Tucker’s music and her tart-tongued Horatio Alger story are wildly entertaining. However, despite some creative use of graphics, Outrageous does not look very cinematic. In fact, many of the talking head segments (featuring 1st class artists like Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, and Michael Feinstein) feel very TV-ish. The Eckers (especially Lloyd) are clearly determined to explain just how much Tucker means to them, whether we are interested or not. Nevertheless, it must be granted, they have become the definitive authorities on all things Tucker.

Even if it is not as aesthetically polished as top-notch music docs, like This is Gary McFarland and Searching for Sugar Man, Outrageous does right by its subject and star. Gazecki and company maintain a high energy level and display a deep understanding of Tucker’s many complicated relationships. Recommended for fans of Tucker and the Great American Songbook, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker opens this Friday (7/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

AAIFF ’15: Forbidden City, USA

San Francisco sure was fun in the 1940s. There was a thriving jazz scene in the Fillmore District, but for an elegant night out on the town, it was hard to beat the nightclubs of Chinatown. However, the iconic trail-blazing Asian American establishment was not in Chinatown proper. Nevertheless, it created a template for cross-over Asian-flavored supper club entertainment. Patrons and performers pay their respects to the nocturnal institution in Forbidden City, USA (trailer here), which screens as part of a sidebar tribute to documentarian Arthur Dong at the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Frankly, it is rather baffling that there is not more of a memorabilia market fascination for all things connected to Charlie Low’s Forbidden City and its competitors. Founded by Low in 1938, the club struggled to find its footing until Noel Toy’s “bubble dance” became a sensation. Many of Low’s early (less risqué) dancers started with more enthusiasm than experience, but several honed their art to a remarkably accomplished level. Of course, they were all incredibly photogenic, which harkens back to question regarding collector interest.

Dong secured on-camera interviews with a number of veteran performers, including the aforementioned Toy (“the Chinese Sally Rand”), Paul Wing (“the Chinese Astaire”), Toy Yat Mar (“the Chinese Sophie Tucker”), and Larry Ching (“the Chinese Sinatra”). The “Chinese X” handle was something many were uncomfortable with, but as a marketing hook, it seemed to work, so they lived with it.

Indeed, Dong keeps viewers keenly aware of the tenor of the era by duly addressing topics such as the Japanese internment and racial segregation in the South (which was profoundly confusing for the Asian American artists when they were able to secure touring gigs). Yet, the film clips, audio selections, and glamourous still photos are so infectiously entertaining, the overall vibe of the film is nostalgic, but upbeat.

Although Forbidden City, USA was broadcast on PBS in 1989, Dong subsequently returned to the San Francisco nightclub milieu with a book and curated exhibition. It is easy to see why. The music swings, the performers are charismatic, and the vibe is welcoming. It all looks and sounds sharp thanks to the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s recent digital restoration. Highly recommended, the fifty-six minute Forbidden City, USA screens this Saturday (7/25, to be followed by a book signing with Dong) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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