J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley: the Darcys, the Wickhams, and a Corpse

Just loosening up a little represented quite a character development arc for Mr. Darcy, whereas Wickham remained just a cad. Still, he would not seem to be the sort of chap to commit murder, but the circumstantial evidence says otherwise. Ironically, Wickham’s only hope to avoid the gallows lies with the Darcys who loathe him so well in Death Comes to Pemberley (promo here), P.D. James’ whodunit sequel to Pride and Prejudice, which airs the next two Sundays as part of the current season of PBS’s Masterpiece.

After six years, the Darcys are still reasonably happily married. Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett) is a kind and understanding mistress of Pemberley, counterbalancing her sometimes gruff husband. Her sister Lydia is not to be received at Pemberley, especially not with her mercenary husband, George Wickham. However, they are determined to crash the Darcys’ formal ball, in the company of Wickham’s former army buddy, Captain Martin Denny.

Unfortunately, there will be no dancing for anyone. During the coach ride to Pemberley, Wickham and Denny have a nasty row that spills over into the ominous woods. Shots are fired, with Wickham subsequently discovered with the body, babbling “it’s all my fault.” To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Darcy must hand over the investigation to Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, an old family rival. Hardcastle has no sympathy for uppity commoners like Wickham. Darcy does not suffer them gladly either, but he is tied to Wickham by marriage. Should Wickham’s sensational motives for murder be exposed, it would shame the family and possibly even jeopardize the continued health of Pemberley.

Frankly, there are equal parts Downton Abbey and Nick & Nora Charles in DCTP, which makes sense considering how much PBS viewers love drama based on estate management and scandal suppression. Penelope Keith even parachutes in for a scene as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, very much in the tradition of Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.

Neither Darcy really sets out to crack the case either, they just respond as events develop. If not the most intricately plotted Brit mystery, DCTP is still quite winning thanks to the perfect casting and elegant chemistry of its Darcys. Matthew Rhys plays Mr. Darcy with a mercurial temper and sly wit that are great fun to watch, while Anna Maxwell Martin’s Elizabeth Darcy is sensitive but down to earth in a manner that should pass muster with Austen-philes. They are terrific together, elevating the romance and strained marriage melodrama well above our expectations.

Matthew Goode’s rakish shtick certainly suits Wickham and Jenna Colman is convincingly annoying as Lydia Wickham, but the X-factor in the large supporting cast is unquestionably Trevor Eve, who turns a few surprises and rather humanizes the curmudgeonly Hardcastle over the course of DCTP. In contrast, even by British standards, Eleanor Tomlinson and James Norton are tragically vanilla as Darcy’s slightly scandal-tinged sister Georgiana and her progressive would be suitor, respectively.

Veteran Brit TV director Daniel Percival frames some picturesque scenes and the period production values are all up to BBC/PBS Masterpiece code. It is also a veritable cavalcade of familiar British mystery veterans, such as Rhys (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Scapegoat), Martin (The Bletchley Circle), Goode (Dancing on the Edge), Eve (In the Heat of the Sun), and Rebecca Front (Chief Supt. Innocent in Lewis), which should further please fans. A pretty sturdy costume drama with a corpse, Death Comes to Pemberley should satisfy both the regular mystery viewers and the Austen cos-players when it airs tomorrow night (10/26) and next Sunday (11/2) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Industrial Terror: Abby

The film collection at the J.B. Speed Art Museum is named in honor of scrappy Louisville exploitation filmmaker William Girdler, but it does not include any of his films. Arguably, a good print of his “Blaxploitation Exorcist” would be a rarity worth curating. Caught up in a studio copyright infringement case, it has only circulated in rather distressed formats. Nevertheless, Anthology Film Archives will make the best of what is available when they screen Girdler’s Abby as part of the Industrial Terror film series.

Since someone must necessarily get possessed, it makes sense that it would be Abby Williams, a sunny, upbeat marriage counselor, who happens to be the wife and daughter-in-law of ministers. Bishop Garnet Williams is a man of the cloth to be reckoned with, but he inadvertently causes all the trouble when he accidentally frees a spirit claiming to be Eshu, the demigod of lust, during a research trip to Nigeria. Eshu wastes no time possessing Abby Williams, turning her into a wanton harlot who constantly belittles her husband’s masculinity. Fortunately, her brother Cass Potter is a cop who can cover for the Williamses when she gets violent, but they will need the Bishop to perform the E word.

Rather than try to match the profound dread of Friedkin’s classic, Abby picks up on the sucking-you-know-what-you-know-where demonic dirty talk and runs with it. There is no question Eshu is evil and corrupting, but it saves on the special effects and gets Williams into swinging after hours clubs.

Actually, the mumbo jumbo backstory is not bad, particularly when the commanding William Marshall tells it. Cult famous as Blackula, Dr. Richard Daystrom in “The Ultimate Computer” episode of the original Star Trek, and at least half a dozen stage and television productions of Othello, Marshall has the authority and presence we need in a modern day Van Helsing.

Much like the film it admittedly ripped off, Abby finds its salvation in Christian faith. In a way, the Bishop sort of fortifies his Christianity with a little West African spirituality, but when you are going into an exorcism, you had better be loaded for bear. The enterprising Girdler (who tragically died at the youthful age of thirty while scouting what would have been his tenth feature) keeps it zipping along quite energetically, emphasizing funky attitude over gore. It is a lot of fun, even with beater prints, so it should be a real blast with an appreciatively rowdy audience. Recommended for fans of Blaxploitation, exploitation, and horror films, Abby screens tomorrow (10/25), Wednesday (10/29), and Halloween Friday (10/31) at Anthology Film Archives, as part of the Industrial Terror series.

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Citizenfour: Softballs for Snowden

Ironically, the outrage generated by Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations comes at a time when many people are increasingly relinquishing their privacy. Of course, voluntarily “sharing” is quite a different matter than finding the government has secretly rummaged through your email and social networks. Advocacy filmmaker Laura Poitras does not have time for such cultural observations. Unfortunately, she is not inclined to ask her subject any challenging questions either. As a result, she does Edward Snowden and her audience a disservice in Citizenfour, which opens today in New York.

Using the alias Citizenfour, Edward Snowden reached out to Poitras through a series of encrypted emails before he ever went public. She was in Snowden’s fateful Hong Kong hotel room with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from day one, documenting each bombshell revelation, practically in real time—except not really. William Binney, whom Citizenfour also celebrates as a whistle-blowing hero, once flat-out suggested (and subsequently walked back) Snowden “is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor” by leaking detailed information regarding American cyber espionage in China to the South China Morning Post. Obviously, that is an inconvenient episode for Poitras’s narrative, so she makes it un-happen.

Frankly, that is exactly the sort of thing she should have called out Snowden on. Many Americans have conflicted feelings on Snowden. They are concerned about the scope and pervasiveness of NSA snooping, but are also alarmed by Snowden’s document dumps, such as the SCMP affair. It would help his personal standing and engender confidence in his and Poitras’s cause if he would address such concerns head on and perhaps admit some mistakes were made.

The missing episode further underscores a fundamental disconnect from reality in Citizenfour, given how much of it is set within that HK hotel room. Granted, in 2013, one could maybe get away with assuming Hong Kong’s capitalists really did not care if their democracy was a sham orchestrated by the Mainland government, but the subsequent demonstrations and violent crackdowns make Snowden’s short residency look somewhat problematic for a self-appointed champion of civil liberties. However, the charge of hypocrisy becomes blazing obvious when Snowden accepts asylum in Russia, a state that assassinated investigative journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and imprisoned critics of the Putin regime, including Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khordorkovsky, on dubious charges.

Again, this is an elephant in the room that Poitras willfully ignores. It is a real shame, because Snowden’s earnestness is compelling and convincing. Just listening to him explain the operational structure of the NSA is bizarrely fascinating. Had she pushed him to admit his own discomfort with his new hosts and challenged some of his assumptions, viewers could judge how well withstood some tough questioning and his overall credibility by extension.

Clearly, there is no ideological or journalistic daylight between Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden. From day one, they present a united front. Yet, that does not serve the audience’s interest and it might not be in Poitras’s best interests either, considering recent court decisions have not recognized the confidentiality of sources for filmmakers judged to be operating in an advocacy capacity rather than as independent journalists.

Yes, we should be concerned about what our government is up to, but we should also be skeptical of Citizenfour. The big finale wherein Poitras and Greenwald tease further revelations from an even bigger source demonstrates why. Greenwald scribbles a series of bombshells on notepaper for an increasingly amazed Snowden to behold. Some he also shows to the camera, but some he does not. Poitras always knows when to zoom in and when to back off, clearly indicating they have choreographed this scene to some extent beforehand. It makes you wonder how much else they have stage-managed for the audience’s presumed benefit.

Probably nobody with a camera will ever have the same level of intimate access to Snowden that Poitras had in Hong Kong. Yet, she never has him look into the lens and give a straight-up defense of his actions and motivations to the American people. That was a missed opportunity that might come to haunt Poitras in the days to come. Instead, Citizenfour becomes almost fannish, just assuming that everyone is following along in lockstep with Snowden, Greenwald, and company. What isn’t there in Citizenfour is definitely missed. In fact, it makes it impossible to recommend when it opens today (10/24) in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Revenge of the Green Dragons: Infernal Flushing

The 1980s were glory days for Queens, especially 1986, unless you were working in virtual slavery to pay off the human trafficker who brought you into the borough illegally. Sonny and his adopted brother Steven will be two of the ostensibly lucky ones who are recruited by the Green Dragon street gang, but their life expectancy will be limited. Survival of the fittest comes with a code of silence in Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo’s Revenge of the Green Dragons (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Nobody has to tell Sonny life is not fair. When his mother died during the harsh passage over, the traffickers forced Steven’s mother to take him in. They never warmed to each other, but the boys became fast friends and sworn brothers. For years, they were relentlessly bullied, until a Green Dragon leader intercedes. Soon they are rising through the ranks, especially the even-keeled Sonny.

There are many Asian gangs in 1980s Queens, but the Green Dragons are the most sophisticated and badassedest. Paul Wong, their benefactor, represents the Dragons in the board room, but in the backroom, they are led by Snakehead (who is presented like she is Fu Manchu’s daughter). Wong has engineered a grand scheme that will give them a stranglehold on the Queens Heroin trade, but Steven jeopardizes the established order when he kills a white guy by mistake.

Sadly, Andrew Lau does not replicate the magic of Infernal Affairs in Queens. There is a fair amount of violence, but the film is caught betwixt and between an issue-driven immigration morality tale and a gangster thriller. Frankly, it is spectacularly tone-deaf, constantly interrupting the action with loaded video snippets of Presidents Reagan and Bush I. It is not just heavy-handed. It also confuses the narrative thread by cutting away to a Reagan speech on immigration during the early 1990s.

The FBI agent Michael Bloom is another case in point. Presumably, he represents the racist Federal government, constantly issuing dire warnings about the Asian mobs, but since he is played by Ray Liotta with his usual energy and attitude, he comes to be an audience favorite, since he at least relieves the boredom. Indeed, even though the film wears its immigration heart on its sleeve, it is hard to envision many viewers walking out of a screening convinced we need a “pathway to citizenship” after watching the Green Dragons racketeering, raping, and murdering with abandon.

It is a shame Green Dragons wastes a likable lead like Justin Chon. Some will know him from the Twilight franchise, but AAIFF patrons will recognize him from festival fare like Innocent Blood and the excellent short Jin. He develops some finely wrought chemistry with Shuya Chang’s Tina, the daughter of a former HK celebrity now beholden to Wong’s patronage. Unfortunately, the film cuts them off just as they are getting started. It also completely wastes Eugenia Yuan (Cheng Pei-pei’s daughter) as Snakehead.

Admittedly, Lau and Loo turn a heck of a twist down the stretch, but it feels like it takes much longer than the film’s ninety-some minutes to get there. Despite some nice performances, it is an awkward mishmash that is too heavy on message and too light on fun. Disappointingly not recommended, The Revenge of the Green Dragons opens tomorrow (10/24) in New York at the Village East.

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Margaret Mead ’14: The Return

There are those who use the term “right of return” as a holy mantra, but if it were ever granted to the Jewish diaspora in every country that ever dispossessed their Jewish citizenry, nearly all of Europe and the Middle East would face serious legal implications. However, at least one nation would readily welcome them back. That would be Poland, which has embraced its Jewish history in recent years, even though its Jewish population remains small. Nevertheless, there are a significant number of Poles who belatedly learned of their families’ secret Jewish heritage in the post-Communist era. In very different ways, four such women will chose to embrace their Jewish roots in Adam Zucker’s The Return (trailer here), which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

During the National Socialist occupation, anyone whose family was the smallest part Jewish had every reason to keep it secret. The circumstances were somewhat less dire under Communism, but it is important to remember the atheistic Party periodically launched its own anti-Semitic campaigns. However, in a modern Poland shaped by Walesa and Wajda, attitudes are dramatically different. In one scene, we see a long abandoned provincial synagogue with the words “Jews, we miss you” scrawled across it, in a weird but affecting graffiti tribute.

Tusia and her boyfriend are scouting that building, hoping they can repurpose it into some sort nonprofit that will serve both the local town and pay tribute to those who once worshipped there. However, their future is uncertain, because they both feel the lure of Bushwick, Brooklyn (there’s no accounting for taste). In fact, all four women profiled share a common dilemma. Do they stay in Poland to rebuild the Jewish community or do they go abroad for the sake of their families and careers? Both Kasia, a leftwing activist, and Maria (who alone among Zucker’s subjects was born and bred Orthodox) find the grass is greener in Israel, either for academic research or raising children. Similarly, Katka, a Slovakian Orthodox convert, will debate where she should pursue her studies.

One of the great ironies of Return is the sort of ambiguous state Kasia and those whose mothers were not Jewish find themselves in. While not technically considered Jewish, they would have been more than Jewish enough to be persecuted under the previous regimes. It is a thorny question that the Kasia and Katka resolve in their own ways.

Together with films like 100 Voices: a Journey Home, Return presents a more complete portrait of the tolerant, modern day Poland that deeply mourns its Jewry lost to National Socialism and further repressed by Soviet Socialism. It even has some celebrity cachet, thanks to Matisyahu, whose performance at the Krakow JCC clearly held a great deal of personal significance for the performer. However, the film’s POV figures are maybe not as consistently riveting as one might hope. Nonetheless, it is a laudably optimistic film that offers a lot of helpful context and food for thought. Respectfully recommended, The Return screens this Saturday (10/25), as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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Viktor: Depardieu: Art Thief, Action Hero, Friend of Putin

Perhaps for his next action picture, Gérard Depardieu could team up with fellow friend-of-Putin Steven Seagal to fight for lies, injustice, and the Neo-Soviet way. Best of all, he would not pay any French taxes on his earnings. Another strange chapter in the Depardieu saga opens with Philippe Martinez’s bizarrely watchable Russian payback thriller, Viktor (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

After doing a seven year stretch in his native France, expatriate art thief Viktor Lambert has returned to Russian to get to the bottom of his son Jeremy’s murder. Plutova, a hot Russian copper, immediately puts him on notice not to try any gangster stuff. She also requests his “assistance” tracking down a still missing masterwork heisted from the modern art museum. Of course, Lambert has different ideas.

With the help of his old art thief-choreographer crony Souliman, Lambert figures out his son was killed by an elite gang of gem smugglers, in about fifteen minutes of highly motivated asking-around. However, before he can go on the offensive, Lambert will need a place to stash his son’s pregnant girlfriend. Fortunately, his old flame Alexandra Ivanov has a country home and a couple of loyal retainers to spare. There will also be a day trip to Chechnya, where Jeremy Lambert is inexplicably buried.

Granted, Martinez rather forthrightly presents the gangsterism running rampant in Putin’s Russia, but watching Depardieu stomp through the streets of Moscow just makes the head spin. Wisely, most of his action scenes have him hunkered down behind the wheel of a speeding car or trading gun shots from a fixed cover position. At least we cannot hear him audibly wheeze, like in Chabrol’s Inspector Bellamy.

Regardless, nobody should ever doubt Elizabeth Hurley’s acting chops ever again, because as the sultry Ivanov, she never busts up laughing during her romantic afterglow scenes with Depardieu. In fact, she brings some spark and presence to the proceedings. Likewise, Eli Danker’s Souliman is hardly shy when it comes to fretfully chewing the scenery and Evgeniya Akhremenko is appealingly cool and severe as Plutova. Unfortunately, the villains are a rather dull, forgettable lot.

Technically, Viktor is perfectly presentable, sporting a suitably noir sheen thanks to cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens (whose credits include the super-charged District 13: Ultimatum). Still, it is awfully hard to get one’s head around Depardieu, the action hero, in Chechnya. Recommended for members of the U.S.-Putin Friendship Society, Viktor opens tomorrow (10/24) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Margaret Mead ’14: Vultures of Tibet (short)

If ever there was a documentary short that cried out for the IMAX treatment, this would be it. The expansive vistas are truly breathtaking, but this is not merely travelogue. It is a scathing critique of cultural insensitivity and exploitation, shot guerilla style without the sanction of the Chinese authorities. That is usually a promising indicator and Russell O. Bush’s Vultures of Tibet (trailer here) is no exception. Indeed, it is a particularly fitting selection of the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival, which screens the twenty-one minute documentary this weekend.

The Tibetan “Sky Burial” represents a supreme act of Buddhist charity, in which the body is offered to the great Griffon Vultures, closing the great cycle of life. However, photos and videos of the vultures devouring bodies of the devout have become a crass internet sensation, inspiring a cottage industry of wildly inappropriate tours.

Although Westerners also come to gawk, it is the Chinese sightseers who seem to be particularly invasive. Clearly, there are multiple meanings to the titular vultures, who become a metaphor for a metaphor. Obviously, the Chinese tourists are vulture-like intruders, but they are really manifestations of a wider, more insidious cultural and political exploitation.

For greater perspective, Bush interviews several Tibetans, maintaining the integrity of their commentary, but re-recording their responses with the voices of Tibetan exiles to preserve their anonymity. Like the best Iranian films, much of the credits are simply ascribed to “anonymous,” which says quite a bit about the human rights situation for average Tibetans.

Vultures is a particularly effective film, because it is not overtly political, per se, but the implications are inescapable. It is also quite impressive on a technical level, with considerable credit due to cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos for the incredible shots he captured. It is a challenging work that ought to strike a nerve with festival patrons. Highly recommended, Vultures of Tibet screens this Saturday (10/25) with Tender (an Australian funerary-themed feature doc), as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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Industrial Terror: Blood Feast

He evolved from a purveyor of nudie cuties into the “Godfather of Gore,” eventually transforming into an internet marketing guru. Herschell Gordon Lewis always had a good sense of where a buck could be made. Today, we’re here for the gore. Notoriously graphic in its day (be forewarned, a cow’s tongue will stand-in for the human article), Lewis’s groundbreaking Blood Feast screens as part of the Anthology Film Archives’ Industrial Terror film series (not safe for lunch trailer here).

Someone is killing and dismembering the young women of Miami. That would be Fuad Ramses, an Egyptian caterer, who is stocking up for the cannibalistic smorgasbord that will be the centerpiece of the resurrection ritual for his mistress, the goddess Ishtar. He is a sweaty, club-footed sad sack (bizarrely, he looks a little like Torgo in Manos: the Hands of Fate and has vaguely similar theme music), but Ramses is still lethal enough to keep Det. Pete Thornton working overtime. Fortunately, the copper can rely on the patience and understanding of his new girlfriend Suzette Fremont, whom he met through their weekly Egyptian Studies lecture series. They are both crazy about Egyptian culture. So much so, Fremont’s mother seeks out Ramses to cater a party in Suzette’s honor.

There is really no point in pedantically dissecting the narrative inconsistencies of Blood Feast. The whole point was the splattering gore. Yet, it is a strangely chipper film given the carnage it unleashes. While Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead transcended their budget constraints, Feast really looks like it was made on the cheap and its ensemble is hardly professional grade, but it accomplishes everything Lewis set out to do, so there you go.

Without question, the best known cast-member is former Playboy Playmate Connie Mason. Ordinarily, the Playmate thespian does not inspire much confidence, but she is far from the worst offender when it comes to awkward line readings—far, far from the worst. You could even argue she adds an upbeat, appealing presence, but that is admittedly grading on a steep curve.

By today’s standards, the Godfather’s gore looks quite amateurish, but we had to start somewhere. This is a pretty bad film according to just about any rational criteria, but it has been truly influential, paving the way for every explicit horror film that followed. You have to laugh at it, but it is way too much for a show like MST3K to handle. Given Lewis’s cult following, any serious horror film cineaste will have to deal with it at some point, so the Industrial Terror film series is probably the perfect venue to bite the bullet. It screens with Carving Magic, a short Lewis whipped up for Swift & Co. teaching the proper technique for carving meat. That’s right, meat carving. What more needs to be said? For exploitation fans in need of some sleaze, they screen together this Friday (10/24) and Monday (10/27) at Anthology Film Archives.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Margaret Mead ’14: The Darkside

It is sort of like ethnographic research for the campfire. Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton invited Australians to submit stories about their interactions with the spirit world as part of a larger oral history project with an aboriginal focus. However, the results were not always as spooky as he expected. Family and loss are the primary themes of the thirteen tales re-told by screen-actors in The Darkside (trailer here), Thornton’s documentary by monologue, which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Like nearly every anthology film, Darkside is a bit uneven, but Thornton, serving as his own cinematographer, always gives his static shots a warm eerie glow befitting the subject matter. By far the scariest story (and the one most riveting to watch) chronicles the tragedy wrought on the narrator’s family by a cast-off Ouija board. Occasionally, Thornton breaks format, as when he pans and scans the darkened corridors of the National Film and Sound Archive. Another more traditionally creepy tale of the supernatural, it should particularly interest AMNH patrons, since it involves poet Romaine Moreton’s brush with the malevolent spirit of Sir Colin Mackenzie, the notorious director of the discredited Australian Institute of Anatomy, whose building was repurposed to serve as the film archive.

For fans of 1980s movies, it is quite amusing to see Bryan Brown turn up as one of the storytellers, but his yarn does not have the archetypal weight of the better installments. Easily, the most emotionally resonant tale is logically the final chapter, whereas the penultimate segment features the liveliest delivery. Oddly, the weakest anecdote, a mere sketch about a traditional aboriginal grandfather’s response to a lunar eclipse apparently inspired the one-sheet, but at least most of the constituent ghost stories hold some sort of deeper cultural significance.

Executed with tremendous sensitivity, Darkside is a quiet film that takes its time finding its footing, with some of the earlier stories feeling like warm-ups for the heavier stuff to follow. It is a bit unusual to have a Margaret Mead selection that is so appropriate for Halloween programming, but its concern for indigenous people and oral history nicely fits the festival’s mission. More elegiac than scary overall, The Darkside is recommended for viewers interested in indigenous Australian culture and the ghost story-telling tradition when it screens this coming Sunday (10/26) at the American Museum of Natural History as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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Exists: Bigfoot Stomps About

It turns out Bigfoot is as big and blurry as he looks in photos. Frankly, it is probably smart not to show too much of your monster, too soon. Of course, if anyone knows their way around a found footage horror film it is Blair Witch and VHS2 co-director Eduardo Sánchez. An annoying camera geek will naturally have the tools to document the mayhem when a group of friends get on Sasquatch’s bad side in Sánchez’s Exists (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For some reason, Uncle Bob stopped going to his rustic hunting cabin, so his nephews Matt and Brian had to steal the keys for a weekend getaway. Convinced it will be Shangri-La up there, they drag along Matt’s girlfriend, their pal Todd, and his girlfriend. Actually, their friends are more Matt’s than Brian’s. Matt is the brooding, popular brother, while Brian is the goofy one who hopes to post a Bigfoot video on youtube. Oh, he’ll have some footage alright. However, he was asleep when their car hit some sort of mysterious furry object.

No, whatever it was, it was not a deer. The state of Uncle Bob’s cabin is also a bit of a buzz kill. It sure looks like he left in a hurry. Nevertheless, the five not-as-young-as-they-act partiers start drinking and getting on each other’s nerves before Bigfoot basically lays siege to the joint. Unfortunately, ‘Quatch is probably the smartest character in the film.

To be fair, Chris Osborn is not bad as Brian, nibbling on the scenery here and there. In contrast, the rest of the ensemble is so nondescript viewers will hardly remember them from scene to scene. Still, the Sasquatch could serve as a highly credible Wookie audition for big and athletic Brian Steele.

Exists is like the Busch Beer of horror movies. If you want to sit back and savor a drink, there are much more refined options, but if you just want to get hammered, it will get the job done. We have seen found footage of plenty other cabins in the woods, but Sánchez has a strong command of the genre mechanics. Shrewdly, he keeps the big harry one under wraps in the early going, framing some rather effective what-did-we-just-see-out-of-the-corner-of-our-eyes shots.

Even if it does not break any new genre ground, Exists is a lean and brisk foray into the dark woods, thanks to Mike Elizalde’s creature design, Andrew Eckblad and Andy Jenkins’ tight editing, and Sánchez’s willingness to occasionally fudge the found-footage format. There are better Halloween selections screening during Anthology Film Archives’ Industrial Terror series, but there are far worse possibilities at the multiplex. It opens this Friday (10/24) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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UNAFF ’14: The Gold Spinners

He was Soviet Estonia’s Don Draper, the only Mad Man operating in a barking mad system. Thanks to a unique set of circumstances, his Esti Reklaamfilm (ERF) Studio prospered nicely as the only production house for television commercials in the USSR. Peedu Ojamaa looks back on his strange but groovy career in Hardi Volmer & Kiur Aarma’s The Gold Spinners (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

Ojamaa started at as a cub reporter, transitioning into newsreel production, specializing in uncommonly watchable reports, at least by the admittedly dismal standards of the Soviet media. Of course, Estonians were familiar with the TV commercial as concept, because they were furtively watching Finnish broadcasts (by all means, see Aarma’s even more rollicking Disco and Atomic War for the full glorious story).

Why oh why, would a Socialist Workers’ Paradise need something as crassly capitalistic as the commercial spot? To help perpetuate certain illusions, such as the non-existent demand for some state-mandated products. Conversely, even though scarcities like butter and sugar would immediately sell-out anyway, ERF’s commercials created a false image of plenty.

Arguably, Ojamaa became the first crony capitalist when Soviet planners, in their infinite wisdom, declared one percent of all state enterprises’ annual budgets had to be spent on advertising. As a result, ERF probably produced spots for products that never really existed—and the likely examples are pretty incredible to behold. Frankly, many of ERF’s commercials are considerably more entertaining than Super Bowl ads, like animator Priit Pärn’s energy conservation PSA. While prudish Party censors maintained a tight rein on programming, ERF was also apparently “free” to pursue the old adage “sex sells,” so parents be warned.

Granted, there is a good deal of nostalgia for the work ERF produced, but no illusions regarding the corruption and inefficiency of the Soviet Socialist system. One might say, Volmer and Aarma treat the Communist era with the irony it deserves. Regardless, the impish humor of both the film and the commercials it documents are quite winning.

Indeed, Spinners has the same punchy editing, subversive humor, upbeat soundtrack, and wickedly insightful cultural-political history that made Disco such a blast. Aarma and his collaborators on both films prove documentaries can be wildly entertaining and enormously informative at the same time. Very highly recommended, The Gold Spinners screens this Sunday (10/26) as part of session 29 of this year’s UNAFF.

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Industrial Terror: The Night of the Living Dead

It was the very last film ever screened at the late, lamented Two Boots Pioneer Theater. Obviously, they had no intentions of going quietly. It was also one the few films broadcast on MTV at the height of its 1980s cool cachet and now holds a richly deserved spot on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Yet, the auteur who would inaugurate the zombie genre spent years whipping up commercials for Pittsburgh television as one of the principals of the Latent Image production house. Rightly and necessarily, George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead screens together with a selection of his commercial work as part of Anthology Film Archive’s Industrial Terror film series.

Somehow this film is just as potent the twentieth or thirtieth time around. As you really ought to know, at least according to the LOC, the original Living Dead follows the plight of a group of strangers stranded in a farm house during a mysterious zombie apocalypse. Yet, despite the peril outside, they end up turning on each other.

It is a simple formula many have tried to replicate, but never with the same success. Romero masterfully doles out information via the unreliable media, using zombies sparingly in the second act. Instead, he relies on human nature to build the tension. Of course, he delivers the zombie cannibalism when he is good and ready.

On yet another repeat viewing, a few things jump out about Living Dead. After witnessing her brother’s death, the character of Barbra spends the rest of the film in a state of shock, which we rarely see in horror movies, but it is a much more believable response than dropping a series of ironic pop culture references.

While it has been said before, Duane Jones really should have become a much bigger star. He immediately instills viewer confidence as Ben and the subtle manner in which he takes a protective interest in Barbra is quite touching. A few more of him and things might have turned out better.

Keith Wayne’s Tom also serves as an effective audience surrogate. He is the sort of conciliator you want in your life boat and he is handy with tools. Yet, it is probably Bill Hinzman who truly made the film. As the first zombie in the cemetery, his gaunt face has become an iconic image of cinematic zombies.

Decades later, Living Dead’s conclusion remains the same stinging slap in the face. Indeed, it all holds up remarkably well. You have seen it before, but this is the perfect venue to see it again, along with some apt commercial selections, including a groovy riff on Fantastic Voyage for Calgon and a racially-themed presidential campaign spot, which should scare the willies out of everyone with the prospects of a McGovern administration. Highly recommended under any circumstances, the original black-and-white (non-colorized) Night of the Living Dead screens this Saturday (10/25) and Tuesday (10/28) at Anthology Film Archives, as part of Industrial Terror.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

1,000 Times Good Night: Getting the Shot, No Matter the Cost

Yes, women have also become homicide-suicide bombers in Afghanistan. An Irish photojournalist with the hints of a French accent has the photos to prove it. In fact, she could not stop taking them, contributing to a premature detonation while she was still within the general blast area. She survives, but the damage done to her family unit will be harder to patch-up in Erik Poppe’s 1,000 Times Good Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If you find it problematic to compulsively document (and consequently somewhat fetishize) a terrorist bomber’s final hours, than congratulations. You had the appropriate human response. On the other hand, Rebecca argues she is bearing witness to the inhumanity of the world, but at some point bearing witness will come to resemble abetting through inaction.

Good Night’s opening sequence consists of some truly provocative, visceral stuff, but to really understand it, you also have to see the symmetrically related conclusion. Ultimately, the film forces Rebecca to confront the ethics of her calling in gut-wrenching, soul-churning terms. However, to reach that point, we have to slog through some just okay family drama.

When Rebecca is finally discharged from the hospital, she has clearly lost a step physically and might be gun-shy for the first time in her career. Her marine-biologist husband Marcus is ready to divorce her and their daughters are emotionally reeling from the near permanent loss of their often absent mother. Frankly, the youngster bounces back faster than moody teenaged Steph, perhaps because the older girl better understood the circumstances. For the sake of her family, Rebecca resolves to retire, but maybe she can be convinced to take Steph on a bonding tour of a Kenyan refugee camp, because it’s absolutely, positively safe as houses.

If Juliette Binoche ever gave a bad performance, the sun might start orbiting the earth. In fact, she is admirably restrained, given the horrors her character witnesses and the bodily and spiritual wounds she suffers (had Meryl Streep overacted the part in her place, she would have been rending her garments and howling at the moon). Instead, Binoche smartly and convincingly portrays a woman forced to emotionally blinker herself, for survival’s sake.

While the mother-daughter melodrama becomes tiresome over time, Lauryn Canny is still quite impressive as Steph. Likewise, Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau does his best to scratch out something as the long suffering hubby. U2 fans should also keep their eyes open for Larry Mullen, Jr, who is perfectly respectable as Tom, a friend of the family.

Good Night is an uneven film, but when it does connect, it is with a haymaker. You have to keep with it, but it is worth it if you do. Recommended on balance, 1,000 Times Good Night opens this Friday (10/24) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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Margaret Mead ’14: Kismet

Many of them sound more like telenovelas than soap operas, but whatever you call them, Turkish television serial melodramas are doing boffo business internationally. Bulgaria and Greece are important markets, but the popularity of Turkish television has exploded in the Middle East. Greek filmmaker Nina Maria Paschalidou documents the progressive influence of Turkey’s primetime soaps in Kismet (trailer here), which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Only in the Middle East could a series about a sultan and his harem be considered liberal and progressive. That would definitely be the awkward case study in Kismet. A far better example is Fatmagul, an extraordinary bold drama following a woman’s quest to bring her three rapists to justice. In the Islamist world, that is explosive stuff. Other shows frankly address issues such as arranged marriages to child brides, spousal abuse, and genital mutilation, inspiring women to speak out and even seek divorces. Not surprisingly, one misogynistic bureaucrat in the Emirates’ Department of Religious Affairs launches into quite a tirade against Turkish television (it goes without saying, but if your government has some sort of Department of Religion, you probably live in a theocratic fever-swamp).

Paschalidou profiles the fans who watch the programming, the cast-members they adore, and the creative staff (often led by women) who put them together and keep them going. While the strongest sequences focus on the Middle Eastern market, she also interviews fans in Bulgaria and Greece (where there is also growing resentment of Turkish programming, not for ideologically reasons, but simply due to its Turkishness).

Frankly, Kismet’s execution will not blow anyone away, but the premise is fascinating. Paschalidou vividly illustrates her points with film clips shrewdly selected for their taboo-breaking content and their inherent theatricality. You are unlikely to see any of these shows picked up by American broadcasters anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. Still, a program like Fatmagul really ought to be available to some extent, just for the way it uncompromisingly reflects the violence and exploitation of women endured by women in the Middle East (and the greater Islamic world).

Having received production support from Al Jazeera and clocking in at about an hour, Kismet definitely has the feel of a television special report, albeit one of reasonable depth and substance. However, you are unlikely to see the hidebound news media tackle this subject, so intrigued viewers should see it now. Recommended for patrons concerned about global women’s rights, Kismet screens this Friday (10/24) at the AMNH, as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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Cannibal: The Tailor of Granada

He has the fastidiousness of Hannibal Lecter and the social grace of Norman Bates. He has his faults, but his work is extremely dignified. He is Granada’s finest tailor. He also cooks—people. However, the threadsmith may or may not try to turn over a new leaf in Manuel Martín Cuenca’s Cannibal (trailer here), available on DVD today from Film Movement.

Outside of the kitchen, Carlos definitely seems to have issues with women. We never really learn how he reached this point, but the comments of his cranky old seamstress suggest he was always a little off. We immediately see Carlos stalking his prey and the almost sensual manner in which he goes about the butchery. He seems comfortable with his predatory existence until two Romanian sisters throw him off his game. Alexandra is the player and Nina is the plugger. When the former moves into his apartment building, she first tries to use the resolutely unseduced tailor to help build a clientele for her massage services. Soon though, she is pulling him into a drama with her abusive boyfriend.

When Alexandra disappears under mysterious circumstances, the earnest Nina comes looking for her. Despite his better judgment, Carlos constantly offers her small bits of assistance. Clearly, he feels an attraction to her, but is it romantic or culinary?

Without question, this has to be the most restrained cannibal movie in the history of the exploitation subgenre. There is no gore and precious little blood, but it shows the savagery of human nature in no uncertain terms. Cuenca also revels in the city’s ancient architecture and prominent Catholic trappings, using them as an ironic counterpoint to Carlos’s unspeakably lurid deeds.

Cannibal will be a hard film for man viewers to swallow, because it definitely invites sympathy for the devil or at least prompts us to root for him to change his spots. There is a lot of ambiguity, but arguably heinous sin will be its own punishment. Indeed, Cuenca’s film is light-years removed from Cannibal Apocalypse. In point of fact, it is shockingly refined and sophisticated, featuring the truly elegant cinematography of Pau Esteve Birba. Throughout the film, you can just feel the weight of Andalusian history and smell the humid evening air.

Aside from a few stock figures here and there, Cannibal is essentially a three-character two-hander, with Olimpia Melinte playing both sisters. In each personas, she develops subtly hued, erotically charged chemistry with Antonio de la Torre’s Carlos, who really supplies the bloody guts and dark soul of the picture. Arguably, it is the best cinematic serial killer performance since Anthony Perkins made the terribly under-appreciated Psycho sequels in the 980s, but de la Torre did not have the benefit of Norman Bates’ somewhat sympathetic backstory.

Cannibal is a strangely accomplished and deliberate film that slowly builds into classical tragedy rather blood-splattered mayhem. Its audience will fall within a narrow band of the cineaste spectrum, being too refined for midnight movie fanatics and too transgressive for proper art-house patrons. Recommended accordingly for adventurous and demanding viewers, Cannibal is now available on DVD from Film Movement.

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UNAFF ’14: My Stolen Revolution

It is pretty heavy when an atheist Marxist confesses nostalgia for the Shah of Iran. Nahid Persson Sarvestani does not express such a sentiment in those exact terms, but she comes close, readily arguing the Islamist regime that followed the Shah’s secular authoritarian rule turned out to be far, far worse. Essentially establishing the Islamist-theocratic corollary to the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, Persson Sarvestani collects the harrowing oral history of several former comrades in My Stolen Revolution (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

As a teenager, Persson Sarvestani was an ardent leftist, who had no qualms about joining forces with the Islamic fundamentalists against the Shah. In retrospect, this was a mistake. She ruefully admits the Islamists had superior organization, which launched them into power when Carter pulled the rug out from under our ally the Shah. Soon, the new regime was imprisoning and torturing proven troublemakers like Persson Sarvestani. Although she was able to get out of the country while the getting was good, her younger brother was executed in her place.

Long nurturing an acute case of survivor’s guilt, Persson Sarvestani sought out several revolutionary comrades who were not so fortunate, in the hope they could offer some insight regarding her brother’s final days. However, the reunion with her former cadre leader does not go so well. Persson Sarvestani is appalled to find the good leftist has found solace in the Muslim faith she once rejected. For Persson Sarvestani, that is a deal-breaker.

Fortunately, the subsequent colleagues she tracks down have remained reasonably true to their ideals. Instead of a misogynistic religion, they take comfort in art. Unlike Persson Sarvestani they saw the insides of Iran’s political prisons and lived to tell about it—barely. Indeed, most of the women are dealing with the lingering pain and physical ailments caused by the extreme torture they endured.

Their stories are so harrowing it is no exaggeration to say Persson Sarvestani’s experiences pale in comparison. She is clearly just as aware of this as viewers will be, yet there is still an awful lot of her throughout the film. When she invites her new friends on a retreat to share their testimony, the film would have been better served if she had just stepped out of the way, rather than making such a point of grappling with her own feelings.

Nevertheless, the women’s individual indictments of the Revolutionary regime are powerful stuff. Of course, the ruling ideology and theocratic state apparatus responsible for the physical and psychological torture of sixteen year old girls remains unchanged. Despite a few video diary indulgences, My Stolen Revolution is a timely and valuable film. Recommended for viewers concerned about international women’s rights, it screens this Saturday (10/25) in Palo Alto, as part of session 25 of this year’s UNAFF.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me: the Long Farewell

As a one-time member of the first-call studio ensemble, the Wrecking Crew, Glen Campbell could definitely play. His livelihood depended on it. That musical prowess will not abandon Campbell, even when he faces the early and intermediate stages of Alzheimer’s. His “Goodbye Tour” will be a tense high-wire for his family and sidemen, but there will be moments that justify the stress. James Keach documents the good times and mounting frustrations on-stage and behind-the-scenes in Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For those who only know “Rhinestone Cowboy” in a rather condescending way, Keach does a nice job encapsulating Campbell career in the film’s opening minutes. He and his fourth wife Kim (a former Rockette) will soon get the unambiguous confirmation of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Even at this early stage, it is clear she understands the implications far better than he. In fact, Kim Campbell is really the protagonist of I’ll Be Me more than her husband, because she is the one who will take the responsibility and do the work, with the help of their grown children Ashley, Cal, and Shannon, who are also regular members of Campbell’s band.

Despite the risks, the Campbells decide to embark on one last tour, as a way to give longtime fans a sense of closure. In the early going, performing also seems to have a therapeutic benefit for Campbell. The shows are generally quite good, but there are always awkward moments that will become more frequent over time.

In many ways, I’ll Be Me is the equal inverse film of Alan Hicks’ Keep on Keepin’ On, documenting Clark Terry’s continuing dedication to his student while his physical health precipitously declines. Terry’s body might be failing him, but he remains a supportive and insightful music teacher and mentor. On the other hand, Campbell is still strong as a bull, but his brain chemistry is betraying him.

By its very nature, I’ll Be Me asks just what performers owe to their fans and vice versa. Like most real musicians, Campbell during happier days would probably have said he owed them everything and they owed him nothing. Yet, the way the fans pick him up and cover for his rough patches during the later dates is rather touching. So too are bonds shared by Campbell, his wife, and their children. In fact, I’ll Be Me could very well launch Ashley Campbell as a chart-topper in her own right. Yes, she is photogenic, but she can also play like a chip off the block.

In any documentary closely chronicling sickness and tribulation, there is always the risk of confusing exploitation with intimacy. Keach always stays on the right side of the line, showing enough for reality to hit home, but never intruding into the truly ugly moments. Sensitive to all concerned but still honest to the circumstances, he largely redeems himself for helming the misguidedly cloying Waiting for Forever. Recommended for fans of Campbell and fans of his fans (such as Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, and Taylor Swift), Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me opens this Friday (10/24) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Industrial Terror: Carnival of Souls

It must be the only film selected for both the Criterion Collection and the Rifftrax treatment. Rightly or wrongly, it was largely ignored when first released and would be the only feature narrative helmed by its producer-director. Yet, Herk Harvey remained a prolific filmmaker, releasing scores of educational shorts through his Kansas-based Centron Corporation. Like Harvey, many future horror auteurs honed their craft and bided their time making educational and industrial films that often strangely foreshadow their macabre work to come. Fittingly, Harvey’s Carnival of Souls with the Centron short None for the Road screen together during Anthology Film Archive’s before-and-after film series, Industrial Terror.

When reluctant street racing passenger Mary Henry manages to walk away from a fatal accident, it ought to be an occasion for some soul searching. However, she seems determined not to process it. Always temperamentally aloof, she simply proceeds with her prior plans, accepting a church organist position in Utah arranged by the owner of the local pipe organ factory. In her new town, Henry tries her best to cut herself off from social contact, even though she dearly needs an emotional support system.

Beginning during her lonely drive into town, Henry has been haunted by visions of a ghoulish man. Perhaps even more troubling, she experiences episodes of time-stoppage, during which the townspeople around appear oblivious to her freaked-out presence. Spurning offers of help from the kindly priest and concerned Dr. Samuels, Henry becomes increasingly obsessed with the darkly picturesque abandoned carnival outside of town.

That carnival setting is definitely creepy, but most of Harvey’s film is a rather Edward Hopper-esque take on the horror movie genre. There is no gore at all, but the lighting and shadows are all kinds of eerie. Refreshingly, this is the sort of film where priests and factory owners are good people. Unfortunately for Henry, there is also very real supernatural business afoot.

Granted, some of the line readings are a little stilted, but Harvey’s visual style is remarkably accomplished, particularly his smooth jump-cut transitions. He patiently builds an atmosphere of foreboding, rather than resorting to sudden shock scares, perfectly supported and emphasized by Gene Moore’s unnerving organ score.

The performance of method-trained Candace Hilligoss (who bears some resemblance to Judith O’Dea in Romero’s original Night of the Living, another Industrial Terror selection) is almost too inwardly focused for the demands of the genre, but she is certainly convincingly brittle and standoffish. While the supporting ensemble is admittedly all over the place, Stan Levitt provides a solid anchor as Dr. Samuels and Harvey himself is effectively ghastly as the ashen apparition man.

Carnival will have its critical champions and detractors, but you can see its influence in scores of films, such as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. It is a strong example of the greater efficacy of suggestiveness rather than splatter in horror movies. Thematically, it is also a good fit with None for the Road, in which a research scientist gets lab mice hammered and tries to balance them on metal dowels, while telling kids if they are going to drink and drive, get so blitzed the Highway Patrol is guaranteed to pull them over. Science is hardcore. Carnival of Souls is also weirdly potent stuff. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (10/24) and next Tuesday (10/28) as part of Industrial Terror at Anthology Film Archives.

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Frank Capra at Film Forum: The Donovan Affair

Although everyone recognizes Frank Capra was spoofing old dark house mysteries in Arsenic and Old Lace, few understood he was also spoofing himself. That is because his very first 100% talky was a murder mystery set in an atmospheric manor, but almost nobody has seen it since its 1929 premiere. Perversely, there is decent print preserved in the Library of Congress, but none of its sixteen inch Vitaphone soundtrack discs survive. On the other hand, we have the sound for its trailer, but not the film.

As part of his efforts to mount comprehensive Capra retrospectives, Film Forum repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein has reconstructed the dialogue to produce special “live read” presentations of Capra’s The Donovan Affair. Twenty-some years in development, Goldstein and company’s stagings were a highlight of last year’s TCM Film Festival and the current Frank Capra film series soon to conclude at Film Forum.

Jack Donovan is a gambler, adventurer, and all around cad. If you didn’t want to kill him, you probably didn’t know him very well. His next dinner date will be his last. He has been invited to the birthday party of Capt. Peter Rankin, who hates his guts, because he knows Donovan has been blackmailing his trophy wife Lydia (but he has not used any of the proceeds to pay off his gambling debts). Donovan also has eyes for her step-daughter, which rankles her tightly wound fiancé. To make matters worse, Donovan happens to be available now that he seduced and subsequently abandoned the Rankin’s maid.

Yes, Donovan only has himself to blame, especially when he has the lights turned out to show off his glowing cat’s eye ring, in a scene that only works in a synch-sound picture. When the lights come on again, we see someone has availed themselves of the opportunity to dispatch the heel. Soon the blustering Inspector Killian and his oafish right-hand man Carney are on the scene, but they do not inspire much confidence, especially when their attempt to recreate the murder works a little too well.

Yes, if we could hear them, Jack Holt and Fred Kelsey are probably putting the “ick” in shtick as Killian and Carney, but Capra seems to be having great fun playing with sound. Complicating matters for Goldstein and crew, Capra experiments with conversations conducted between people in different rooms, often outside the camera’s field of vision. Plus there are plenty of those chaos-generating blackouts. It is quite the tricky shoot, featuring a good deal of skulking outside the house and the exchanging of loaded glances.

Eschewing the MST3K aesthetic, the live read cast plays it scrupulously straight within the film’s dramatic context. Of course, they still convey the larger than life nature of their characters, maintaining an appropriately madcap energy level. For many viewers, Boardwalk Empire’s Allen Lewis Rickman and The Practice’s Michael Badalucco will be the most recognizable fuming and bickering away as Killian and Carney, respectively. However, for discerning patrons, James Karen is the man, having appeared in The Return of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, Samuel Beckett’s Film, and the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Yes, wow. Naturally, he brings the voice of authority to Capt. Rankin.

From time to time, lost films are rediscovered, but this is more like a resurrection. Donovan must have been somewhat successful, since Capra’s career continued on an upward trajectory following its release. It is clearly a product of its time, but it is frankly scandalous that Columbia could misplace both the sound and the script (forcing Goldstein and his cast to supplement an incomplete dialogue transcript found in the files of the defunct New York State Board of Film Censors with studious lip-reading sessions). This Frank Capra we are talking about. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are not just movies, they are pillars of American culture.

The effort was definitely worth it. Despite the nostalgic creakiness of the film, it leads to a greater appreciation of the breadth and depth of Capra’s career and his early mastery of sound. It is also just a lot of fun to watch the dark and stormy bedlam. This is something you cannot see every day, so if Goldstein and the Donovan players ever mount a live-read near you, jump at the chance to see it. The Donovan Affair definitely added something special to Film Forum’s Capra retro, but they have yet another special to come. Following the Wednesday night (10/22) screening of You Can’t Take It With You, Rickman will moderate a Q&A with Anne Kaufman and Chris Hart, the daughter and son of playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

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