J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MWFF ’14: Scars of Cambodia (short)

For a fifty-some year old fisherman who survived the Maoist Khmer Rouge reign of terror, words cannot adequately describe the tortures he endured. Yet, he is compelled to silently testify, nonetheless. Despite the language barrier, Tut conveys the horrors of his ordeal to filmmaker Alexandre Liebert in the short documentary Scars of Cambodia (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Tut is a fisherman in the coastal village of Kampot. He is a rugged man of dignity, who was swept up in the genocidal Khmer Rouge machine that killed an estimated twenty-one percent of the nation’s population. The titular “scars” are metaphorical, but Tut also bears plenty of physical kind, still visible decades later.

Arguably, Scars represents a somewhat experimental approach to documentary filmmaking, but it succeeds on its own terms. Tut rarely speaks and Liebert never subtitles him, yet his body language is beyond eloquent. It becomes crystal clear Tut endured beatings, stabbings, electrocution, and that favorite of torturers down through the ages—the old pliers to the finger nails.

Without question, it is an act of courage on Tut’s part just to revisit these ghastly memories. As some consolation for viewers, he now seems to be a respected member of his community. Yet, the audience will be left with numerous unanswered questions, especially considering Tut and his wife are probably old enough to have a large extended family, yet it seems to be just the two of them from what we can glean.

Although conceived as part of a larger prospective web-documentary series and photo exhibit project, Scars ably stands on its own. It probably should not be the first or last film anyone sees on the Khmer Rouge’s socialist madness. Everyone really should initially have it initially spelled out for them. Still, Scars of Cambodia is an unusually powerful manifestation of non-verbal oral history. Highly recommended, it screens Monday (8/25), Tuesday (8/26), and Wednesday (8/27) during this year’s MWFF.

Labels: , , ,

Strange Lands: In the Dust of the Stars

Would you travel halfway across the galaxy to check out a prank call? Supposedly, that is exactly what this star-faring crew has done. However, once they arrive on TEM 4, they are assured there is nothing to see here, so please move along. Thanks to the brainwashing, most of them are inclined to agree. Of course, there is a sinister scheme afoot in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

Say what you will about the locals, but they throw a smashing party. The entire crew is quite taken with their psychedelic hospitality, except Suko the navigator, who stayed behind to nurse his suspicions about the “accidental” distress call that brought them to this swinging planet. As a result, he is the only one not to get dosed by their sonic mind-blocking device. Rather put out by his fellow crewmembers’ giddy compliance, Suko will single-handed uncover the truth on TEM 4. However, it is not like his comrades would be much help, even under the best of circumstances.

Frankly, the Cynro crew inspires even less confidence than Peter Davison’s Doctor Who—and it starts right at the top. In 1978, a woman space captain might have been considered a progressive symbol, but Akala is no Janeway, not by a long shot. She is indecisive, gullible, and conspicuously frustrated by her unconsummated longing for Suko. Clearly, he shares her lust, but he makes do with a willing subordinate instead, presumably out of respect for the chain of command.

The entire Cynro crew looks like a wish fulfillment fantasy, consisting of a couple middle aged dudes and half a dozen hotties in mod jumpsuits. Indeed, Dust features some of the most flamboyant costumes this side of The Fifth Element. In terms of narrative, it is sort of like a middling Star Trek episode in which Yeoman Rand performs a naked interpretive dance, but Dust is really about its candy-colored sets and costumes, as wells as its free-loving melodrama.

It is hard to believe this was a co-production of the GDR and Romania. One can only imagine the expressions of bewilderment on the scoldy state censors’ faces as they watched the Temer dancers Vogueing through the “Boss’s” Henry Moore sculpture garden, but since the oppressed eventually rise up against their oppressors, Dust was apparently safe as houses.

The general hamminess of the ensemble hardly matters either. Arguably, Alfred Stuwe fares the best as Suko and Jana Brejchová (the one-time Mrs. Miloš Forman) gets by okay as Akala. On the other hand, Ekkehard Schall and Milan Beli bring extra cheese as the boss and his chief enforcer, Ronk.

Dust is a ton of fun in a trippy retro kind of way. Karl-Ernst Sasse’s groovy soundtrack is a classic of its kind and production designer Christa Helwig truly crafted a strange land. Recommended as a lava lamp curio from the DEFA filmography, In the Dust of the Stars screens this Saturday (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the Strange Lands film series.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

MWFF ’14: New Territories

Even in death, Chinese citizens remain victims of the Cultural Revolution. Since those dark days, burial has been illegal in the PRC, banned due to its religious connotations. As a result, entire generations have been consigned to an eternal fate as disquiet ghosts, at least according to traditional beliefs. The tragic connection between intrusive government funerary policy and a young migrant worker will be revealed in Fabianny Deschamps experimental hybrid New Territories (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Hong Kong’s New Territories represent the Promised Land for Li Yu. It is there she is to meet her fiancée, after the human traffickers smuggle them across the border. However, her fate will somehow become entangled with Eve, a French sales executive pitching alkaline hydrolysis to the Chinese authorities as a carbon neutral alternative to cremation. She had traveled to Li’s home province, because of its high rate of compliance with the government’s cremation mandate. Understandably, she chose to seal the deal in Hong Kong, where she can celebrate in style once the business is done.

The audience does not see much of Li, for reasons that will eventually be revealed. However, she is omnipresent as the film’s narrator. Eschewing conventional dialogue and narrative forms, Territories is somewhat akin to João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, except the execution is far superior. In all honesty, this might be the most emotionally resonant pseudo-experimental film you will see in a month of non-narrative Sundays.

Of course, there is very definitely a story underpinning Territories, which even takes on genre dimensions. Though rarely seen, Yilin Yang’s voiceovers as Li are absolutely devastating. Eve Bitoun deliberately portrays her namesake as something of a cipher, but her descent into spiritual oblivion is quite compelling (while her Fifty Shades scene is unnecessarily off-putting). Deschamps also gives viewers a unique perspective on time-honored practices, such as the burning of spirit money.

It is difficult to identify the right audience for New Territories, because it demands receptiveness to avant-garde forms, yet is still deeply rooted in the social and historical iniquities of Communist China. Although it is largely set in HK’s financial district and takes its name from the peninsular region, the guts of the film concern realties on the Mainland. Cinematographer Tomasso Fiorilli perfectly lenses HK, in all its alluring menace. It is a very thoughtful, artful film, highly recommended for the adventurous (and sufficiently prepared), when it screens this Friday (8/22), Saturday (8/23), and Sunday (8/24) as part of this year’s MWFF.

Labels: , ,

Strange Lands: Eolomea

Eolomea is sort of like utopia or Erehwon, except it really might exist—maybe. It is one of the great debates of Prof. Maria Scholl’s age, but she is more concerned with the recent rash of vanished cargo ships. As she pursues her investigation, she will need the help of her summer fling in Hermann Zschoche’s Eolomea, which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

In a case of rotten timing, yet another space freighter loses contact with space station Margot just as Scholl is giving her report to the UN-like council of interplanetary busybodies. Strangely, her toughest critic, Prof. Oli Tal, seems to know all the details already, including the presence of his daughter on the latest missing vessel.

Tal was not always such a bureaucratic boor. He was once a hotshot flight officer, who was keen to initiate an expedition to Eolomea. Unfortunately, he could never entirely prove its existence, so no mission was ever authorized. Ironically, Tal becomes one of Scholl’s friendlier associates, as she diplomatically probes him for the truth. At least, he will meet her for lovely picnics and a spot of witty repartee. Still, he is no substitute for Dan Lagny, the disgruntled moonbase crewmember, whom she met during a recent seaside holiday. Although Lagny wanted to resign (and perhaps pursue a serious relationship with Scholl), he is too talented for Scholl to approve his release. Indeed, she will be quite glad to rendezvous with him when she lights off to Margot herself.

Of the major science fiction films produced by the East German studio DEFA, Eolomea is the critical redheaded stepchild, but it is really the best of the lot. Frankly, its withering depiction of a risk-averse bureaucracy stifling space exploration feels more John Galt than Erich Honecker (but perhaps the space station was a hat tip to his wife Margot). It also presents a rather crummy, dysfunctional vision of the future, not so very different from the GDR’s crummy, dysfunctional socialist present.

Yet, in subtle ways, it portrays how mankind has yet to emotionally acclimate to the interstellar age. This is particularly acute in the case of Pilot Kun, Lagny’s grizzled old comrade. Surprisingly, Eolomea is quite touching, serving as an elegy to the relationships and connections that were ultimately not meant to be.

As Scholl, Dutch actress Cox Habbema carries the film with grace, smartly playing off Rolf Hoppe’s Tal and Ivan Andonov’s Lagny. Hoppe (seen in Volker Schlöndorff’s English language Palmetto and a raft of German television productions) is a standout as the exasperating but charming Tal, while Vsevolod Sanayev nicely embodies the film’s increasingly confused human element as old Kun.

Arguably, Eolomea is a deceptively simple story, but it captures the romantic spirit of space exploration. Fans will also appreciate Günther Fischer’s groovy soundtrack, which sounds more in keeping with some of its trippier DEFA counterparts. Granted, the over abundance of temporal shifts is counterproductive, but it still has a unique vibe that sticks with you weeks after watching it. Recommended as the class of DEFA science fiction, Eolomea screens this Saturday night (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

Labels: , , ,

14 Blades, Wielded by Donnie Yen

The Jinyiwei were one of the earliest forerunners of the Secret Service, but they soon became one of the first secret police organizations. Their original mandate was to protect the Ming Emperor, but they quickly became a law unto themselves. Feared and despised, Jinyiwei agents lived short and lonely lives. Nobody understands this better than Qinglong, who persists at any cost to complete what he assumes will be his final assignment in Daniel Lee’s 14 Blades (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a Jinyiwei, Qinglong carries the service’s notorious 14 blades: eight are devised for torture, five for fighting (so to speak), and one is designed for a Jinyiwei’s final exit. Like many of his brothers, Qinglong survived a brutal recruitment process when he was only just a child. He still carries the emotional scars from his baptism of fire, so the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when he discovers the Jinyiwei leadership has been corrupted by their eunuch commander, Jia Jingzhong.

Realizing his was set-up during his latest mission, Qinglong goes rogue, seeking the missing imperial seal Jia and his ally, the treasonous Prince Qing, intend to use to legitimize their power grab. Although outnumbered, Qinglong will recruit key allies, retaining the services of the nearly bankrupt Justice Escort Agency (and developing a doomed attraction to proprietor Qiao Yong’s rebellious daughter, Qiao Hua in the process). He will also forge an alliance with a notorious highwayman known as “The Judge” and his Heaven Eagles Gang, who will get to keep all the gold the conspirators are transporting with the Macguffin seal.

14 Blades does not exactly break a lot of new wuxia ground, but the striking Yinchuan desert locations distinguishes it from the field. Kate Tsui (2004 Miss Hong Kong) also makes a memorable nemesis as Tuo Tuo, Prince Qing’s adopted daughter. She her serpentine lash is a fearsome weapon, but the way she sheds her apparently animated robes to disorient her opponents does not make much sense (nor is it done for purposes of titillation). She has the fight chops though, which is the important. When she and Qinglong finally go at it in earnest, their showdown does not disappoint.

In the Ip Man franchise and Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia), Donnie Yen proved he can be enormously charismatic and engaging on-screen, but he can also be a tad distant and aloof in lesser films. Frankly, it takes a while to warm to his icy Qinglong, but eventually he forges some nicely tragic romantic chemistry with (Vicki) Zhao Wei’s pure-hearted Qiao Hua. However, Wu Chun nearly upstages Yen as the bold and impulsive Judge. When Qinglong faces him and Tsui’s Tuo Tuo, the film really takes flight. However, it is also pleasing to see crafty veterans, like the late Wu Ma and the great Sammo Hung appearing as Qiao Yong and Prince Qing, respectively.

14 Blades boasts some spectacular action, exotic scenery, and a cautionary message about absolute power and its inevitable abuses. It might not be Yen’s best work, but he responds to the first class ensemble surrounding him. A quality wuxia production, 14 Blades is recommended for serious fans and casual viewers alike when it opens this Friday (8/22) in select theaters and also launches on TWC-Radius’s VOD platforms.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 18, 2014

The One I Love: In the Guest House

Many in the entertainment industry can relate to the frustration of undergoing therapy, only to find the underlying issue getting steadily worse—and therefore perhaps identify with Charlie McDowell’s feature directorial debut (a hit at Sundance, Tribeca, and Fantasia). In this case, his protagonist’s marriage continues to disintegrate, despite their couples counseling. As a last resort, they will spend a romantic weekend in a specially recommended resort home, but their getaway takes a strange turn in McDowell’s The One I Love (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ethan was already losing Sophie before his unspecified infidelity, but it has become a handy cudgel for her to wield. Nonetheless, she agreed to the counseling sessions that have thus far proved fruitless. Taking a different tack, their therapist refers them to an idyllic hideaway, where they can hopefully rekindle and reconnect. However, there is a genre film surprise in store for them there.

Although it comes relatively early, there is a general understanding the nature of TOIL’s big twist should not be spoiled. It is safe to say that guest house will rock their world. In terms of tone, McDowell’s film is sort of like to the more comedic installments of The Twilight Zone—think of Keenan Wynn in “A World of His Own,” except darker.

By accepting the unofficial ground rules, reviews of TOIL must be torturously vague at times. Frankly, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss give remarkably good performances, but it would be spoilery to explain why. Still, it is safe to say we can easily buy into them as a couple with some problematic history. Ted Danson (McDowell’s stepfather) also makes the most of his brief appearance as their mysterious therapist. In fact, TOIL was a real family affair, with McDowell’s mother, Mary Steenburgen contributing her voice as Ethan’s mother (heard via cell phone) and his famous significant other pseudonymously doing the costuming.

Thanks to the way the leads sell its double-secret premise, TOIL works quite well as fantastical dramedy. The jokes (improvised and scripted) are quite clever and editor Jennifer Lilly cuts it all together impressively seamlessly (again, you have to see it, to understand what a feat this is).

You know when bacon plays a pivotal role in a movie there must be something good on tap. TOIL is indeed that film. Nicely executed by cast and crew, The One I Love is recommended for those looking for an anti-rom-com when it opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Labels: ,

K2 Siren of the Himalayas: 100 Years After Abruzzi

K2 is a challenge to summit, but as recent films have documented, getting back down is even more treacherous. However, merely reaching the mountain’s base requires a determined effort from climbers, before they ever set their first piton. Viewers will get a full perspective on the 8,000 meter mountaineering experience in Dave Ohlson’s K2: Siren of the Himalayas (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1909, the Duke of Abruzzi led an expedition to K2. Although they did not ultimately summit the second highest peak on Earth, their experiences were invaluable for future attempts, much as the Italian nobleman hoped. One hundred years later, alpinist Fabrizio Zangrilli (of Boulder, Colorado) led his intrepid party to K2. Of course, they were fully aware of the Duke’s historic campaign, but the tragic events of the previous year preoccupied their thoughts considerably more.

In a sense, K2 is an independent sequel to Nick Ryan’s The Summit, which reconstructed the murky events that led to the deaths of eleven climbers in August, 2008. Zangrilli knew some of them. It is a small world in his line of work. Yet, he attacked K2 just the same, along with Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the future National Geographic Explorer of the Year, who was then still working on her goal to become the first woman to scale all fourteen 8,000 meters without artificial oxygen.

Ohlson captured some dramatic visuals, but arguably the most mind-blowing shots in the film are not of K2, but the ridiculously unsafe mountain highways Zangrilli’s group had to traverse just to reach Concordia, the gateway to K2 and three other 8,000 meters. Getting there is a trek in itself, with Pakistan’s regional instabilities adding additional danger.

Periodically, Ohlson intersperses footage of Zangrilli, Kaltenbrunner, and company with Vittorio Sella’s incredible photographs of the Abruzzi expedition. It gives viewers a good sense of the mountaineering tradition. More importantly, Ohlson uses Zangrilli’s example to redefine a successful 8,000 meter attempt. Clearly, Zangrilli is a great sportsman, but he had yet to summit K2. However, he had foregone perfect opportunities to carry down an ailing colleague. Instead, a successful K2 team leader brings his entire party safely off the mountain. After all, several climbers summitted during the fateful 2008 incident.

Evidently, we are witnessing a golden age of mountaineering documentaries. K2 follows hard on the heels of The Summit and Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge, all of which are quite good, but in different ways. K2’s strengths are the wider contexts it provides, as well as some insight into the bonding that happens between fellow alpinists. Mountain climbing does not look like much fun in The Summit, but we come to understand why Zangrilli and his colleagues do it after watching Ohlson’s footage and interview segments. Recommended with equal enthusiasm for sporting audiences, K2 Siren of the Himalayas opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Labels: ,

That Man from Rio: Belmondo Globe-Trots

Rio gets top billing, but it will be Brasília most viewers will remember from this classic Jean-Paul Belmondo escapade. One has to wonder what unreconstructed Marxist architect Oscar Niemeyer thought of his utopian capitol city being portrayed as the stomping ground of a wealthy oligarch, but it sure looks great on-screen. Viewers’ will get a North by Northwest perspective on his monumental buildings in Philippe de Broca’s freshly restored, Oscar-nominated That Man from Rio (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum, in honor of its fiftieth anniversary.

Adrien Dufourquet is not really from Rio. He hails from a French working class province. Dufourquet planned to spend his week’s leave from the army with his high maintenance kind of-sort of fiancée, Agnès Villermosa, but as soon as he arrives in Paris, she is abducted. Clearly, this is the work of the same gang that heisted a rare Amazonian statuette from the Musée de L’Homme and also kidnapped the curator, Professor Norbert Catalan, an old friend of Villermosa’s late father.

Of course, the Parisian cops are worse than useless, but Dufourquet is a tougher cat to shake. In the more innocent early 1960s (before the proliferation of PLO hijackings and September 11th), Dufourquet is able to bluff his way onboard the transatlantic flight taking Villermosa and her abductors to Rio, but nobody will listen to him once they arrive. Even though he is essentially a fugitive himself, Dufourquet continues to pursue his fiancée, with the help of several lucky turns and Sir Winston, a shoeshine boy from the favela.

It turns out there are three “Maltec” statues that might hold the key to an even greater treasure. Catalan acquired the Musée’s on a trip with Villermosa’s father and their backer, De Castro, a Bond villain-looking financier (played by Thunderball’s Adolfo Celi), who seems to own the entire city of Brasília. (Frankly, he turns out to be a more interesting character than Niemeyer might have preferred.)

One can maybe see seeds of the future French spy spoof franchise OSS 117 in Rio, but Dufourquet is far more resourceful and resilient than Jean Dujardin’s broadly comedic alter ego. His sequences shimmying around the ledges of the Brasília construction sites also bring to mind the Hitchcock classic, whereas the peaceful scenes of respite with the poor but hospitable favela residents suggest the inspiration of Marcel Camus’ international smash hit Black Orpheus. As possible influences go, those two 1959 films are pretty good ones.

With Rio, Belmondo was well into the process of transitioning from nouvelle vague icon to true superstar. To that end, he does not simply rely on his on-screen charm, giving a surprisingly physical performance as Dufourquet, both in terms of the action and slapsticky comedy. He is not afraid to look slightly ridiculous or get a little muddy for the sake of our entertainment. He also has okay chemistry with the somewhat icy Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve’s sister, who would tragically die in a car accident a little more than three years after the release of Rio.

De Broca keeps the energy level cranked up and capitalizes on the incredible Brazilian locations. There is quite a bit to see in the film, beyond the Dufourquet’s madcap romp. Good, breezy fun, That Man from Rio is recommended for fans of Belmondo and modernist architecture when Cohen Media Group’s 2K restoration opens this Friday (8/22) at New York’s Film Forum.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Expedition to the End of the World: Greenland Beckons

Thanks to climate change, the spirit of adventure is alive and well. More mild summer temperatures have made some of Greenland’s most remote northern fjords briefly navigable. It is an invitation from nature a ragtag party of scientists and artists could not refuse. Daniel Dencik documents their journey in Expedition to the End of the World (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

The Activ is a three-mast schooner, but it cuts through the ice quite efficiently. It might be an old school means of travel, but at least one crewmember brought along his personal ultralight aircraft. They are a somewhat eccentric bunch, who periodically blast Metallica and engage in DIY skeet shooting. There is the geologist, the geochemist, the geographer, the zoologist, the archaeologist, the painter, and the theologist. There might even be a cobbler and a candlestick maker onboard somewhere.

Without question, the natural beauty of the surrounding vistas is strikingly cinematic. Dencik also has the integrity to include some exchanges that do not exactly match up with viewer expectations, as when several scientists tell us just because they study climate change does not necessarily mean they have an opinion on the subject. He also captures a good deal of ruckus (bordering on meathead) behavior—some of it involving firearms.

However, nearly everyone seems to be trying out lines to use on the lecture circuit later. Frankly, at times the interview segments sound like a collection of fortune cookies written by Stephen Jay Gould. There is also a rather conspicuous question hanging over the film. We are told climate change has only now made this picturesque stretch of land accessible to mankind, but since there seem to be traces of ancient humanity there, does that not suggest temperatures were once roughly commensurate to what they are now?

The scenery is spectacular and the drive to explore is always appealing. Nonetheless, the audience will be more than ready to leave the far reaches of Greenland well before the Activ sets sail for home port. It is a worthy subject, but Expedition could have easily been a fifty-some minute PBS special instead of a feature length theatrical doc. Recommended for fans of nature films who can tune out pretentious pontificating, Expedition to the End of the World opens this Wednesday (8/20) at New York’s Film Forum.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Martin Scorsese Presents: Innocent Sorcerers

There was a brief and shiny moment during Poland’s tragic years of Communism when disillusioned youth could pursue Bohemianism. It did not last. Of course, many of those early 1960s musicians, artists, and would be drop-outs joined the Solidarity movement as fed-up adults. However, life still seems to have a lot of possibilities outside of politics for Bayzli and his associates in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, which screens as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema film series that has made its way from the Film Society of Lincoln Center to the Denver’s SIE FilmCenter.

Bayzli (a.k.a. “Medicine Man”) is a sports doctor who moonlights as a jazz drummer, or vice versa. He takes nothing seriously, even including music, but least of all women. While doggedly avoiding his ostensive girlfriend Mirka, Bayzli reluctantly agrees to help his hipster buddy Edmund separate the Holly Golightly-esque Pelagia from her square boyfriend.

However, instead of steering her back into the club to wait for the exceedingly interested Edmund, the two somehow wind up back at the doctor’s flat. For the rest of the night, they engage in verbal parrying worthy of Eric Rohmer. Maybe it is significant, but perhaps it is all meaningless. Nonetheless, neither of them is ready to let go of the evening, despite their determined efforts to play it cool.

Although Sorcerers was Wajda’s immediate follow-up to his WWII trilogy, it is something of an anomaly in the director’s filmography. Unlike Man of Iron and Katyn, it almost never addresses political or historical controversies. However, there is a deep-seated skepticism informing the characters’ world views. They spend their nights partying and their days sleeping, because they clearly do not believe their contemporary society is offering anything worth sacrificing for.

Yet, the film is distinguished by a lightness of mood. On paper, this one-crazy-night story sounds largely interchangeable with any number of modern day indies, but Wajda, the young master, never lets the proceedings get too cynical, sentimental, or quirky. Rather, it all unfolds rather effortlessly and matter-of-factly.

One thing is certain, nobody could ever assemble a cast like this again, including co-screenwriter and future auteur Jerzy Skolimowski appearing as a punch drunk boxer. It would also be difficult to corral international fugitive Roman Polanski, who plays the bass-player leader of Bayzli’s band. Sadly, Zbigniew Cybulski (sometimes called “the Polish James Dean”) is no longer with us, but he brings plenty of manic method as Edmund. Likewise, the late and very great Krzysztof Komeda and the not quite as well known but still late and pretty great Andrzej Trzaskowski added some real deal jazz cred, essentially playing themselves.

In fact, Komeda’s score sounds fantastic. It swings hard, but still has a pensive character. You can real hear how he links early 1960s hardbop to the more open but emotional resonant music of his protégé, Tomasz Stanko. Indeed, it is a major reason why Innocent Sorcerers is such an enduring masterwork. You know it must be good, because it still managed to generate official flak for Wajda, even though he thought it was completely apolitical. Highly recommended, it screens this Monday (8/18) at the SIE FilmCenter, during the Denver run of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema touring film series.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ragnarok: Summer Vacation in Finnmark

The Oseberg Viking ship was an extraordinary archaeological find. It remains one of the best preserved vessels, but it has not exactly boosted the reputation of Viking nautical engineering, considering two modern facsimiles have proved unseaworthy. Nevertheless, an absent-minded archaeologist is convinced the Oseberg ship ventured all the way up to Norway’s Finnmark region. He also believes they witnessed something that inspired the apocalyptic Norse myths, so naturally he drags his bratty kids along to investigate. They will definitely find something in Mikkel Brænne Sandemose’s Ragnarok (trailer here), which launches on VOD today.

The Viking Ship Museum display of the Oseberg craft is quite dramatic. Unfortunately, the widower-father Sigurd Svendsen has essentially talked himself out of a job there with all his crazy theories. However, when his reckless co-worker Allan discovers a corroborating artifact, Svendsen packs up his petulant daughter Ragnhild and devoted son Brage to spend their summer vacation scouring for more runes in exciting Finnmark.

Naturally, Ragnhild is not too thrilled about these plans, but the spectacular scenery briefly shuts her up. They quickly meet up with Elizabeth, Allan’s “cool chick” colleague, and their hard drinking guide Leif, who is clearly just itching to yell “throw me the idol and I’ll throw you the whip.” There are headed towards Odin’s Eye, an island in the middle of former Soviet border outpost, where viewers know Queen Åsa’s father met with a painful death centuries ago in the prologue. Could there be some truth to the legend of the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr? That might explain why there’s a snake on the poster.

Frankly, one of the best things about Ragnarok is the setting. The suspiciously deserted Soviet military base is pretty creepy and the Odin’s Eye isle is worthy of a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie. Unfortunately, the creature effects are completely lacking the awe factor. Worse still is all the Svendsen family drama we have to sit through.

Apparently, Pål Sverre Hagen is Norway’s go-to actor for adventurous academics, following-up his portrayal of Thor Heyerdahl in the Oscar nominated Kon-Tiki with his turn as Svendsen. He is appealing earnest as the naïve archaeologist and he develops some pleasantly flirtatious chemistry with Sofia Helin’s hip and sporty Elizabeth. However, the kids are like fingernails on a blackboard.

Given the success of Marvel’s Thor franchise and History Channel’s Vikings, it is not surprising Norse mythology is getting a look-see from more filmmakers. Sandemose certainly proves fjords are strikingly cinematic, but he never fully capitalizes on the Ragnarok mythos or the Oseberg backstory. Instead, he concentrates on emulating the most annoying parts of Jurassic Park. There are moments of promise in Ragnarok, but it never comes together, at least not for reasonably adult audiences. Nevertheless, it is now available for Norse mythology fans to try on VOD from Magnolia/Magnet. It also opens theatrically next Friday (8/22) in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Word: Cults in Connecticut

There is a cult operating in the shadows of Connecticut’s well heeled neighborhoods. This is no mere meatheaded Ivy League secret society. They practice human sacrifice. Sadly, Tom Hawkins’ son was their latest victim. Understandably, the grieving father is not ready to forgive and forget in Gregory W. Friedle’s The Word (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Hawkins regularly brokers multi-million dollar deals for his firm, yet somehow his son Kevin was snatched right out from under his nose at the mall. Not surprisingly, the single father is suffering from crushing guilt, as well as rage and bereavement. He is a complete wreck, but he still agrees to take a meeting with the FBI, who inform him his son’s murder fits a pattern of ritualistic homicides throughout New England. There is most definitely a cult behind the killings, but they are organized in a highly regimented cell structure. However, they have successfully placed undercover agent David Richardson in a cell overseen by a mid-level cultist.

Bafflingly, that deep cover agent regularly attends meetings with Hawkins, the local detective on the case, and his no-nonsense handler, special agent Mike Sheehy. You might think that would be some sort of breach of protocol or security, but apparently not. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the plot, allowing Hawkins to stumble across Richardson acting far too familiar with his ostensive target.

As a thriller, The Word is kind of a train wreck, but it is not even clear it wants to be one. Essentially, the first half hour is dedicated to exploring the depths of Hawkins’ pain and grief. Arguably, this is what works best in the film, before it eventually shifts gears into a murky revenge-conspiracy melodrama, riddled with plot holes. Frankly, it is embarrassingly easy to tell who the secret cultist is, due to the limited cast of characters. Still, Friedle finds some compelling Nutmeg State locations, including Castle Craig near Meriden.

To be fair, Kevin O’Donnell is not bad as Hawkins and the commanding Broadway vet James Naughton (Michael Frayn’s Democracy) truly looks and sounds like a Fed. Bernie McInerney also has a nice moment as Hawkins’ priest, but the rest of the ensemble comes across a bit awkwardly, to put it in diplomatic terms.

Since there is no ominous text or tract driving the evil doers, even The Word’s title is rather off. It is an earnest film that all parties involved fully committed to, but the inconsistent script doomed their efforts from the start. It feels mean to say it, because it is such a scrappy indie production, wearing its CT pride on its sleeve, but The Word just cannot be recommended. For indomitable Connecticut cinema boosters, it opens tomorrow (8/15) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Admiral: Roaring Currents

During the late 1500s, naval warfare was a tough business, almost entirely powered by galley oars. Like most forms of warfighting at the time, it usually boiled down to a numbers game. Yet, Admiral Yi Sun-shin will try to hold off 330 invading Japanese vessels with a mere twelve ships (if that), largely through his force of will. Of course, he also has home field advantage, including the treacherous strait the Japanese will try to navigate in Kim Han-min’s smash Korean box office hit The Admiral: Roaring Currents (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Admiral Yi has often defeated the noble-born Japanese General Wakizaka, but he was lucky to escape their last confrontation with his life. Still ailing from his torture and imprisonment, the freshly released and pardoned Admiral Yi assumes command of the Joseon fleet, all twelve ships. Frankly, none of the king’s generals believe he can do anything with his ragtag remnant except let the army absorb them. In contrast, Admiral Yi understands they must slow the Japanese advance or his unappreciative king will surely be lost.

Needless to say, not everyone sees things his way, forcing the Admiral to deal with insurrection at the senior officer level. However, the Japanese leadership is even more deeply divided. While Wakizaka is still nominally in charge, de facto command has been assumed by Kurushima, the ruthless former brigand. He has no interest in winning hearts and minds, but his contempt and overconfidence might be his undoing.

Yes, Roaring is a Joseon St. Crispin’s day on the Myeong-Nyang Sea. Evidently, director Han is waging one man war against Shogunate Japan, following up his action driven War of the Arrows with Yi’s heroic story. While Roaring is not as breakneck and adrenaline charged as Arrows, it features some massive cannonball-and-grappling hook spectacle, churned to butter on the Myeong-Nyang’s roiling waves. Seriously, this probably not the film for viewers prone to sea-sickness.

It is also jolly good fun to hear the Japanese generals cursing Yi, like Seinfeld hissing “Newman.” Appropriately, the legendary Admiral is played with haggard gravitas by Choi Min-sik, currently one of the world’s biggest movie stars, given his turns in Oldboy, Nameless Gangster, New World, and Luc Besson’s Lucy. Although his Yi is considerably more reserved than his celebrated gangster performances, he fully brings out the Admiral’s tragically heroic dimensions.

Arguably, Choi’s most important co-stars are the warships and the angry sea, much as it was in The Perfect Storm. However, Ryu Seong-ryong’s Kurushima still makes a highly hissable villain, even if he does not quite generate the same malevolent charisma he brought to bear as Qing the Japanese man-hunter in Arrows. Although her screen time is brief, Juvenile Offender’s Lee Jung-hyun also adds a memorable note of pathos as the traumatized Lady Jung.


There is no question Han puts a lot of movie up on the screen with The Admiral. It is the sort of military epic Mel Gibson used to make before his implosion, which is meant as a compliment. Recommended for fans of patriotic Korean cinema and big picture historicals, The Admiral: Roaring Currents opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the AMC Empire and the AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing.

Labels: , ,

Marker at BAM: Level Five

The notion people on the internet are not necessarily whom they purport to be might have been an unsettling new notion in 1997. At that time, documentarian-essayist Chris Marker used the language of cyberpunk to inform his then latest cinematic hybrid. Technologically, its fits squarely between WarGames and The Matrix, but the aesthetic is all Marker. The ghosts of history and the digital future warily circle each other when Marker’s freshly restored Level Five (trailer here) finally has its premiere North American Theatrical release this Friday, as part of BAM’s Marker retrospective.

Laura is a novelist, who inherited the task of completing her late lover’s computer strategy game. Submerging herself in his work, she tries to work her way through his simulation of the Battle of Okinawa, the final Pacific Theater conflict before Hiroshima. Yet, the program refuses to recognize any of her attempts to avoid Imperial Japan’s tactical mistakes. Instead, it forces history to tragically repeat itself, chapter and verse.

Frankly, the game itself is not much of a Macguffin and it offers very little in the way of sporting engagement. It is really just a collection of talking heads to click on. Still, the commentary Marker collects is undeniably the film’s strongest material. Through interviews with filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and martial artist and Bushido authority Kenji Tokitsu, as well as the recorded testimony of Reverend Shigeaki Kinjo, Marker thoroughly critiques Imperial militarism, while still putting their kamikaze tactics in a wider historical context.

Frankly, the film makes a strong case that some of the worst Japanese war crimes were committed against their own people. Provocatively, Marker’s experts suggest (but never really prove) the military’s ferocity at Okinawa and the subsequent mass suicides and supposed mercy killings of the civilian population were intended to intimidate the Americans, but inadvertently hastened the decision to drop the atomic bomb.

There could be a good forty-five minutes of insightful analysis of the Japanese war experience in Level Five, which is not nothing. However, Laura’s long dark nights of recorded video diaries and trolling internet chatrooms are rather awkward, to put the matter diplomatically. Ordinarily, it is not fair to hold the technical shortcomings against such a fiercely idiosyncratic, anti-commercial production, but in this case the medium is at least a small part of the message. Unfortunately, Level Five’s visuals look on par with MST3K favorite Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.

Marker still had a keen eye for a disconcerting image or a revealing truth, but the attempt to capture an of-the-moment zeitgeist does not serve the film well, in retrospect. One wishes he had simply made documentary about Kinjo and the Battle of Okinawa, but he made Level Five instead. Nevertheless, his leftist admirers have waited years to see it, so they might as well satisfy their curiosity when Level Five opens this Friday (8/15) at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Frank: How to Get a Head in the Music Business

He is sort of the Glenn Gould of indie rock. He is determined not to let superficialities, like his face, distract from the music. Nonetheless, the uni-named Frank’s gigs are uniformly disastrous. He might very well be a musical genius, but it will be overshadowed by the chaos that follows him in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Jon is sure there is a tortured songwriter somewhere within him, but he is really just a decent middleclass suburban chap (something the film considers rather tragic in its own right). He can at least pound out the chords on his keyboard, which is more than enough for him to “luck” into a temp replacement gig with the Soronprfbs. Yes, that is unpronounceable, that is part of the joke.

It turns out the Soronprfbs are fronted by Frank, just Frank, a real deal tortured singer-songwriter who never removes his large papier-mâché head. Although most of the band immediately dislikes Jon, dismissing him as a poser, Frank takes a shine to the eager outsider. Even though the gig predictably descends into bedlam, Frank offers him a permanent position in the band.

Before he realizes it, Jon is holed up with Soronprfbs in their rustic Irish cabin, working (supposedly) on their new album. Despite the efforts of Clara, Frank’s gatekeeper, to send him packing, Jon is soon underwriting the band’s madness with his inheritance. He is also documenting it all via tweets and youtube.

To be fair, Michael Fassbender gives an extraordinary performance as Frank. Obviously, he is laboring under unusual conditions for an actor, since he is unable to use facial expressions throughout most of the film. Largely relying on body language, he still eloquently expresses Frank’s tickiness and volatility.

However, something about the film just does not sit right. It is not just Jon’s compulsive tweeting and hash-tagging constantly flashing across the screen, making Frank feel so two years ago. Anyone who knows working musicians will be turned off by the spectacle of such self-defeating behavior. No professional musician would act like this, because they are professionals.

Granted, Frank and the Soronprfbs are profoundly undone by their excesses. Indeed, Frank the film depicts the dark side of quirkiness, clearly suggesting right from the start Frank the character is not merely eccentric, he is genuinely sick. Yet, that close association of talent and madness is a pernicious cliché that poorly serves promising musician struggling to make it on the scene.

While British audiences might recognize Frank as a fictionalized cousin of musician-comedian Chris Sievey’s stage persona Frank Sidebottom, he is largely his own bobble-headed man for American viewers. However, the film’s frequent tonal shifts will makes it difficult to come to terms with him. The rather bland stock figures augmenting the rest of the Soronprfbs (including the tiresomely shrewish Maggie Gyllenhaal as Clara) provide little help.

On paper, Frank has the makings of a cult classic (“Fassbender Sings! In a Big Fiberglass Head!”), but the concept just doesn’t click. Maybe it is too indie and not enough rock. Fassbender puts on a clinic with his famous features tied behind his back, but Frank still rings hollow when it opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Labels: ,

Carax at Film Forum: Mr. X

Can a director with only five full features sustain a documentary and a retrospective? In this case, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors alone should provide ample fodder for weeks of analysis. Yet, Carax himself remains a cipher, despite the efforts of Tessa Louise-Salomé to illuminate the mystery man and his films in Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum as part of their Carax series now underway.

What sort of name is Leos Carax? “A real assumed” one he responds, when asked. Perhaps that is somewhat clarifying (it also happens to be an anagram of “Oscar” and “Alex”). The rest of his biography remains quite murky and that is not due to any clerical oversight on his part. Clearly, Louise- Salomé tries to capitalize on the intrigue of Carax’s mystique, but she never scores a meaningful peak behind the mask. Instead, Mr. X steadily morphs into a critical appreciation of the filmmaker’s small but rich body of work, led by his longtime champion, Richard Brody of The New Yorker.

At least, Louise-Salomé maintains a Caraxian vibe, filming her talking heads amid evocative shadows and the flickering images of Carax’s films. Even Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa and actor Denis Lavant (widely considered Carax’s on-screen alter-ego) submit to her human movie screen treatment, but not the man himself, who is present solely via prior canned voiceovers.

Those looking for tangible dish will be disappointed, but the initiated should enjoy seeing the cult auteur’s cult auteur get his cinematic laurels. Arguably, the most intriguing sequences involve his near Waterloo, the dramatically over-budget Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but all his features are revisited at length, along with Merde, Carax’s contribution to the anthology film Tokyo!, whose title character he would memorably revisit in Holy Motors (or Holy Moly Motors as some call it).


The gee-whiz enthusiasm for Carax shared by Louise- Salomé and her interview subjects (including Harmony Korine, Kylie Minogue, and Cannes Festival president Gilles Jacob) is appealing and Kaname Onoyama’s stylish cinematographer rather befits the subject. However, Mr. X never transcends its fannish devotion. Recommended mostly for the faithful binging on Carax, Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax opens this Friday (8/15), in conjunction with the Film Forum’s Carax retrospective.

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Garrels’ Jealousy

We expect the French to be very insouciant about trifles like infidelity and divorce, but the Garrels know better. The reigning first family of French cinema has long plumbed their very personal history for artistic inspiration. After thoroughly examining his tempestuous relationship with 1960s icon Nico, Philippe Garrel puts his late actor father Maurice Garrel on the cinematic pop-psychology couch, casting his son Louis as his grandfather. It is definitely a family affair. In fact, some of the father-and-son’s best work together coalesced in the senior Garrel’s Jealousy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Known simply as “Louis,” Louis Garrel’s protagonist is leaving his wife and daughter for his sultry lover Claudia, much as his real life grandfather did. The former cad will try to turn over a new leaf, striving to be a faithful lover and attentive father to his young daughter, Charlotte. Indeed, one should not impose slavish one-for-one symbolism on Jealousy, lest Charlotte be taken for an analog of the filmmaker himself.

In terms of narrative, Jealousy is a simple story of a relationship that starts out full of passion and hope, but eventually turns sour. The differences between Louis and Claudia are not immediately apparent, but they prove too profound to withstand the test of time. Although they are both stage actors, she has not worked in years, whereas he constantly takes low-to-no paying gigs. Despite the occasional flirtation, he takes his commitment to Claudia seriously, whereas she adopts an attitude of what-he-doesn’t-know-can’t-hurt-him.

Jealousy is an intimate film, in the Cassavetes sense, but it is stylish and accessible. It might also represent Louis Garrel’s finest screen turn to date. Frankly, in past outings, he has perhaps tried too hard, projecting a cloyingly boyish persona (as in Love Songs and Making Plans for Lena). However, there is nothing twee or affected about his work in Jealousy—no sheepish invitation to ruffle his locks. It is a more mature, Zen-like performance that pulls us into the character’s life, engendering understanding and even sympathy. Although he did not try to play his grandfather outright, he presumably had more to draw upon from personal experience than had he portrayed some distant literary or historical figure.

Anna Mouglalis (the better of the competing Chanels in Coco Channel & Igor Stravinsky) also fleshes out some surprisingly deep dimensions in the impulsive Claudia. It is a bold, earthy turn that impresses. Yet nobody can match young Olga Milshtein as the precociously wise and winning Charlotte. Completing the Garrel family quota, Louis’s sister Esther Garrel brings some verve and energy as his on-screen namesake sibling.

Willy Kurant’s black-and-white cinematography arrestingly heightens the on-screen emotional conflict. It is a lovely picture that evokes the filmmaker’s earlier pictures, like Emergency Kisses, but it feels considerably less self-conscious. Philippe Garrel’s films may still be an acquired taste, but Jealousy is the right thin edge of the wedge to start with. Recommended for those who appreciate French post-Wave auteurs and chamber drama in general, Jealousy opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Labels: , ,

The Trip to Italy: Pasta on the Menu

D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster found inspiration in Italy. So did Byron and Shelley—a fact Rob Brydon will hardly let Steve Coogan forget. He will quote both poets at length when the celebrity impersonating duo embark on another road-trip in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Italy might just be the only Winterbottom film that resembles any of his previous work. Clearly sticking with the game plan that proved so winning in The Trip, he turns Coogan and Brydon loose to eat and riff with abandon. Playing somewhat fictionalized and exaggerated versions of themselves (or so we can only hope), the comedians obsess over their careers and complicated personal lives, while touring through Italy for a series of magazine articles.

Just about everyone who saw the original Trip know it as the Michael Caine impression movie (or television show, as it was presented in the UK). There is not the same pitched impersonation battle this time around, but Brydon gives his Al Pacino and Tom Hardy good workouts. Arguably, the Italian Trip is not quite as funny as their tour through the north of England, but the food is considerably more tempting. The second time around will also resonate more with cineastes, who should enjoy their visits to the famous locations seen in John Huston’s Beat the Devil, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, and William Wyler’s Roman Holiday.

Admittedly, both Trips are rather light when it comes to narrative, but it is rather fascinating to watch Coogan and Brydon portray their own somewhat unsympathetic meta-analogs. While Coogan played a rather soulsick Coogan the last go round, he makes a good faith attempt to redeem himself and reconnect with his fictional son in the new outing. In contrast, Brydon goes from being the more likable one to a bit of a cad this time.

If you do not feel like visiting Italy after watching the latest Trip, you were not watching with your eyes open. Winterbottom and cinematographer James Clarke make it look spectacularly beautiful. Brydon and Coogan also land an impressive number of laughs, which Winterbottom wraps up in a surprisingly effective bittersweet bow. Recommended for fans of British comedies and foodie films, The Trip to Italy opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the IFC Center.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, August 10, 2014

SF Global Movie Fest ’14: Jazz in Turkey

Arguably, Dave Brubeck’s second greatest hit is “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” It therefore ranks rather highly on the all time jazz hit parade, considering he also recorded the definitive version of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” Brubeck was serious about the “Turk” reference, crediting its genesis to his experience visiting Turkey and exploring the local rhythms. Inspiration would also flow back to Turkish jazz musicians from the American jazz masters. Batu Akyol surveys the history and music of the scene that developed in Jazz in Turkey (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 San Francisco Global Movie Fest (in San Jose).

Viewers might expect it to be treated like a dirty secret, but pretty much everyone admits the pioneers of Turkish jazz were largely Armenians and Jewish Turks. After all, they were more receptive to western music and culture in general—and could maybe better identify with its blues roots. Of course, they were aware of the music’s African American heritage. In fact, one of the early popularizers of jazz in Turkey was an expatriate African American ensemble called Seven Palm Beach.

There will be more familiar names in Akyol’s documentary than casual viewers will expect, like Ahmet and Nesuhi Artegun, who discovered jazz when in America as the children of the Turkish Ambassador and would later become the leading independent producers in America through their label, Atlantic Records. Super-producer Arif Mardin also grew up as a jazz-loving teen in Turkey, before studying at Berklee (which proved to be the start of the school’s long association with Turkish students and faculty).

Essentially, Akyol identifies two primary approaches taken by Turkish jazz artists. Many follow western swing models, utilizing classical jazz instrumentations and arrangements. Erol Pekcan, whom Akyol identifies as the great statesman of Turkish jazz (he even worked as a translator for the U.S. embassy) largely fits in this camp—and man, that cat could play. On the other hand, fusions of jazz and traditional Turkish music also found an audience (particularly amongst tourists, not so ironically). Özdemir Erdoğan emerges as one of the early leaders of this movement—and man, could that cat play.

It hardly seems possible, but perhaps the history of Turkish jazz will not immediately intrigue broad-based mainstream audiences. However, the musical clips Akyol selects should seal the deal. They swing hard and are played with evident passion, yet many are still madly catchy. It would be cool to have a companion CD for this film, because nearly everything sounds great.


Indeed, that is the most important thing for any music doc. Akyol will definitely leave the audience wanting more Turkish jazz. Fans will also appreciate the occasional commentary from musicians like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard. Those who enjoy hearing something new will find it very entertaining. Highly recommended, Jazz in Turkey screens this Friday (8/15) at the Towne3 Cinemas in San Jose, as part of the SF Global Movie Fest.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Rural Route ’14: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

One might say the women of the Mari El autonomous republic are in touch with their inner Earth Mothers. They are comfortable with nature and their sexuality, but the local men folk can be vexing. A parade of Mari women will experience the rituals of life in their village on the Volga in Alexsei Fedorchenko’s Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Rural Route Film Festival in New York.

Screenwriter Denis Osokin clearly has an affinity for “O” names, since every name of the women featured in Celestial start with that letter. It turns out there are a lot of Mari names like that. In fact, there are more names than stories. Not just episodic, many of the women’s collected stories are mere fragments or jotted sketches, with little development of any kind.

Nor is there any sort of through-line, Our Town style narrator, or callbacks to previous incidents to provide connective tissue. Instead, Fedorchenko and Osokin are purely concerned with ambiance and local color. Inconsistent by its nature, the better arcs (that could credibly stand alone as short films) are those that carry a pronounced folkloric air, such as the standout tale of Onalcha, a purported sorceress and “Daughter of the Wind.” Twelve year old Ormarche’s encounter with three werewolves is also quite memorable, but the sexualized imagery imposed the older women in her party might be problematic for some viewers.

Cinematographer Shandor Berkeshi nicely captures the verdant ruggedness of the Uralic region and composer Andrei Karasyov’s traditionally-inspired music is surprisingly catchy. Fedorchenko and Osokin really do give the audience a vivid sense of Mari life (even though they reportedly take considerable liberties with the details). However, it is nearly impossible to form an attachment to any of the assorted characters or to get caught up in the plethora of narrative fragments.

Fedorchenko has already made something of a festival name for himself with the powerfully meditative Silent Souls and his nicely turned contribution to the anthology film The Fourth Dimension. He certainly has a strong affinity for the pagan legends and hardscrabble living conditions of Russia’s far flung ethnic conclaves, but Celestial’s ADD-like lack of focus undermine attempts to submerge viewers in the Mari milieu.

He is still a filmmaker to watch, but Celestial will probably be remembered as a minor oddball entry in his filmography. More interesting on paper, Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari screens tomorrow (8/10) at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of this year’s Slavic-focused Rural Route Film Festival in New York.

Labels: , ,