J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Classroom 6: Found Footage on Campus

1960s institutional buildings are basically what they look like—projects designed and constructed by the lowest bidders. They are pretty horrifying from an architectural perspective, even without a portal to Hell. Rumor has it that is precisely what has led to a series of mysterious disappearances tied to a shunned college classroom. For the sake of journalism, an ambitious local reporter locks herself in the creepy academic building, but all that remains of the ill-fated crew is the surviving video that ostensibly makes up Jonas Odenheimer’s found footage horror film Classroom 6 (trailer here), which is now available on iTunes.

We are watching the disturbing tape recorded before Annie Monroe’s disappearance, because that is what she would have wanted. At least, that is what the station manager claims and she isn’t around to contradict him. Like the missing student and professor she came to investigate, Monroe and her team vanished without a trace—as in no bodily remains. Prof. Harrold Thomas used to teach a class on witchcraft in the notorious room six, which really seems like he was asking for trouble. Since then, the administration decided to close off that room to any further use, merely out of sensitivity mind you, but they do not seem to be doing a very good job of securing it.

To get to the bottom of things, Monroe and her skeptical crew will lock themselves in the building overnight. For expert advice and commentary, she also brought along the campus psychic Jack Doggett, who immediately starts getting bad vibes. However, he cannot put his finger on what exactly he is sensing. Unfortunately but predictably, the media morons disregard his warnings until it is profoundly too late.

This should go without saying, but if you plan to lock yourself into some spooky old building as some kind of PR stunt, you really ought to have an escape route scoped out, just in case. Seriously, haven’t they seen reality TV crews do the same dumb thing in Hollows Grove and Grave Encounters, with the same grisly results? At least the location scout found an impressively crummy, cut-rate International style-looking building for everyone to die in. The creepy New Agey mural is also a particularly nice touch.

You know things are bad when the psychic is the voice of reason, but Monroe and her colleagues are from the old media, so what can you expect? It is hard to really develop character within the found footage conceit, but Mike McLaughlin’s Doggett still comes across as a smart, intense cat. As Monroe, Valentina Kolaric wrings a few laughs out of her shallowness, but the rest of her crew is rather bland and featureless.

To his credit, Odenheimer takes his time establishing the ominous atmosphere and physical layout of the infernal building. He seems to understand simple things, like McLaughlin’s business with a tennis ball, are often much creepier than big swirling special effects. However, we have just seen this sort of thing too many times before. Odenheimer does not add enough fresh wrinkles to withstand comparison to the original Grave Encounters, in whose conspicuous shadow C6 so obviously stands. Still, if you cannot get enough found footage horror, Classroom 6 is arguably somewhat better than average. For hardcore subgenre junkies, it is now available on VOD platforms.

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Friday, October 09, 2015

Reversion: Thanks for the Memories

These days, kids will stick anything in their ears, even if it causes hearing damage or memory loss. You cannot blame the latter on earbuds. That is all Jack Clè’s doing. He has developed the Oubli, a Blue Tooth like device that vividly recalls your happiest memories. One of the so-called side effects is a generally dimming of unpleasant recollections, but opinions differ as to just how bad that really is. However, his daughter and marketing director starts to experience some rather nasty malfunctions on the eve of their product launch in Jose Nestor Marquez’s Reversion (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Sophie Clè is not just an Oubli user. She is unhealthily dependent on it. Rather than living in the present, she constantly revisits the last happy memory she has of her late mother. Thanks to her hype and some creative regulatory evasion, Jack Clè stands to make a fortune off the Oubli, but his triumph is jeopardized the night before their big Steve Jobsian media event, when Ms. Clè is kidnapped by a disturbed woman raving about her implant. Unfortunately, she seems to fiddle with a similar implant Clè never knew she had. She manages to escape soon thereafter, but Oubli use no longer has the same soothing effect. Instead, she starts experiencing violent flashbacks of her mother’s death that seem to implicate her father.

With the help of her loyal driver-bodyguard Ayden, Clè will seek answers from the unstable Isa and her father’s estranged research director, Elizabeth. Clearly, some kind of conspiracy is afoot, but like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, it is not clear whether she can handle the truth.

For the most part, Reversion is a slickly competent near future thriller, but rather than being cool and exciting, the implications of its new technology are quite sad and depressing. Granted, we should always remember our loved ones, but we still need to move on. That is a worthy message, but Reversion still has its strange headscratchers, like why does the bodyguard know where all the corporate secrets are tucked away?

As Sophie Clè, Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away with Murder) comes apart at the seams pretty convincingly. Of course, a smooth talking ambiguously villainous figure like Jack Clè is right in Colm Feore’s power zone. Arguably, he is the best part of the film, especially considering how he carries out the big reveal. On the other hand, Gary Dourdan’s Ayden looks like he hasn’t slept for days, which could in fact be true. Unfortunately, the tragically twitchy Isa is also rather underwhelming, while Amanda Plummer phones in her near cameo as Elizabeth.

There are worse films opening this weekend (looking at you, Knock Knock), but Marquez’s pacing is a little too slack and Dourdan is a little too vacant looking for it to really come together in a big way. Conceptually, it is an interesting little oddity, but it could have used more spring in its step. Still, you can’t argue with all the screen time it gives Feore. For King’s fans, it opens today (10/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire.


Tibetan Warrior: Loten Namling Campaigns Against China’s Occupation

An optimist might argue Tibetan Buddhism has already defeated Maoist Communism, because it continues to rapidly gain converts around the world, while nobody believes in the CCP, not even the Politburo. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama is globally revered, whereas those who know of Premier Li Kequiang are generally not favorably disposed towards him. However, pessimists will counter nonviolence is doomed to fail against a government that ruthless massacred its own people at Tiananmen Square. Traditional Tibetan musician and activist Loten Namling is definitely a glass-is-half-empty sort of person, but he continues to do his part to advance the cause of Tibetan freedom through nonviolent means. However, the increasingly oppressive situation in occupied Tibet and the alarming reports of self-immolation protest-suicides escalates the urgency of his efforts in Dodo Hunziker’s documentary Tibetan Warrior (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD.

Namling is Tibetan, but he has never set foot in his country. He was raised in Dharamsala, but Switzerland has been his home for many years. Namling has achieved some prominence popularizing Tibetan music, even performing for His Holiness. Not surprisingly, music will play a role in his latest campaign, but that will be the easy part. First he will make a pilgrimage from Bern to Geneva, on foot, dragging a coffin to raise awareness of Tibet’s plight. Once he has completed his journey, he will play in a consciousness-raising concert, co-organized by Franz Treichler of the New Gods.

When Namling set off on his trek, thirty-some Tibetans had self-immolated. In a relatively short period of time, the number rises above one hundred thirty. Maddeningly, the only media outlet reporting on the phenomenon is the Chinese propaganda media, which blames the “Dalai Clique.” Ironically though, His Holiness advocates a non-confrontational policy of coexistence known as the Middle Way Approach. Namling is losing confidence in the Middle Way and his is deeply disappointed in the Swiss government’s proposed free trade agreement with Beijing. Nevertheless, he is only too aware of the Chinese government’s overwhelming military and economic power.

This is a grim conundrum viewers will grapple with, along with the frustrated Namling. He might be an activist, but Namling is not an idiot. In fact, he is refreshingly down to earth. He never claims to have all the answers, but he is certainly eloquent explaining the problems. His concern for the long-term survival of Tibetan culture and the health of the country’s once pristine environment are entirely justifiable.

One can immediately see why Hunziker focused in on Namling as his subject. He is a charismatic, interesting looking figure who really fills the screen. He is not a poseur chanting slogans. His life has been shaped by the occupation, fragmenting his family. It is a sobering and timely film that gives audiences a fuller perspective on the Tibetan exile experience. Respectfully recommended for everyone concerned about human rights in Tibetan and the predatory destruction of ethnic cultures, Tibetan Warrior is now available on DVD and VOD, from Garden Thieves Pictures.

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

NYFF ’15: Carol

Ironically, one of the most literarily significant lesbian novels of the pre-Stonewall era was written (pseudonymously) by a notorious anti-Semitic mystery and suspense novelist. Yes, the same difficult mind that created the talented Tom Ripley also gave birth to Carol Aird. Journey back to Manhattan in the early 1950s, when Madison Avenue wasn’t so mad yet. Lesbianism might have been a love that dared not say its name, but the sophisticated Aird is still not one to mince words in Carol (trailer here), Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

Therese Belivet is a mousy but proper young woman working in a Manhattan department store, while secretly harboring ambitions of a photography career. When assisting Carol Aird schedule a delivery, she is quite taken by the older woman, in an uncertain kind of way. After she haltingly reaches out to Aird, she is surprised and pleased when Aird reaches back. Soon, they are spending more and more ambiguous time together. However, the development of their relationship is complicated by Aird’s messy divorce proceedings with her future ex, Harge, who still refuses to let go. (With a name like Harge Aird, he must be Ivy League, possibly even a future CIA director.)

In order to win her back, Harge is willing to play dirty. That includes calling out Aird’s past fling with Abby Gerhard, her childhood friend and now platonic confidant. Feeling overwhelmed by the tawdriness of it all, Aird packs up Belivet for an impulsive road trip. Naturally, further complications will ensue.

Cineastes generally get Haynes’ affinity for the era and its attendant angsts, but the quality of Carol’s period details are still impressive in their seamless accuracy. As we see, this is a time that predates the LP, when music stores stocked ten inch records in brown paper sleeves. The film also has the good taste to prominently feature Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Easy Living,” recorded with the great Teddy Wilson. In fact, Holiday is a rather fitting choice, given the film’s themes. However, it should also be noted the uncharacteristically lush orchestral score is one of Carter Burwell’s best.

Carol looks great and sounds great it is not quite the instant classic some represent it to be. Despite the breathless plaudits it has generated, there is something rather affected about Cate Blanchett’s performance as Aird. Instead of truly submerging herself into the character, she looks and sounds like she is doing Aird as if played by Joan Crawford or Rosalind Russell. Still, who wouldn’t like to see either of them dig into such a juicy role?

In contrast, Rooney Mara delves inward for an unusually brittle and disciplined turn. You would half expect her to shatter if she tipped over. However, Sarah Paulson steals scene after scene as the earthy, no-nonsense Gerhard, while Kyle Chandler manages to humanize square old Harge remarkably well.

As a recreation of the 1950s, Carol is richly realized, but it is less convincing as a relationship drama. Nevertheless, it takes viewers to a specific time and place, where it duly scores it points. Earning a moderate recommendation for its technical merits, Carol screens tomorrow (10/9) and Saturday (10/10) at Alice Tully Hall, as part of this year’s NYFF.

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Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse

Yakuza and vampires depend on carefully balanced ecosystems that are not so different from Social Security. There absolutely must be more people bleeding money and plasma into the system than sucking it out. Due to his inexperience, a freshly turned Yakuza vampire threatens to upset the long term equilibrium, but he will have more pressing concerns when three agents of doomsday start wreaking cosmic havoc in Takashi Miike’s Yakuza Apocalypse (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Genyō Kamiura is a benevolent Yakuza boss and a vampire, who refuses to drink civilian blood, even though it is sweeter and more nourishing than the bitter swill running through Yakuza veins. He has taken earnest Akira Kageyama under his wing, even though the lad’s skin is too sensitive to tattoo. They see eye to eye when it comes to giving civilians a fair shake, so when Kamiura is fatally jumped by Kyoken, a martial arts maniac and his boss, a Spanish priest carrying a disintegration ray in a casket, the last thing his severed head does is turn Kageyama into a vampire. Unfortunately, the unprepared Kageyama then accidentally turns a civilian, who immediately turns another, and so on. Soon nearly the entire town consists of vampires sporting supernatural Yakuza tats.

Obviously things are a mess, but they will only get worse with the arrival of the third representative of the cosmic syndicate. Kaeru-kun might look like a guy in a fuzzy green frog costume, but he is as lethal as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. What part of this being a Miike film didn’t you get?

Yakupoc has been dismissed as a Miike greatest hits package and there is a kernel of truth in that. One might have thought he worked through all his Django riffs in Sukiyaki Western Django, but apparently not. However, Miike is such a gleefully kitchen sink kind of filmmaker he constantly throws in inspired bits where you least expect them. Indeed, the audience’s introduction to Kamiura, in which a small army of earthly Yakuza learn the folly of trying to whack a vampire is truly vintage Miike. There are also a number of wonderfully droll lines sprinkled throughout the film and without question, it features some of the best fight choreography ever conceived for a dude in a downy soft animal costume.

Hayato Ichihara is shockingly engaging portraying Kageyama’s maturation process from awestruck henchman to hardnosed vampire. Largely playing against his usual hound dog type, Lily Franky is off the hook awesome as Kamiura. Unfortunately, Yayan Ruhian (the unrelated Mad Dogs in the Raid films) does have much of a character to work with in Kyoken, or much room to chew scenery. At least he still has all kinds of moves. The rest of the Yakuza underlings largely blur together.

When Miike is working in his chaotic one-upsman bag, his films are sort of like the weather. If it isn’t working for you, just wait ten minutes and it will change. Yet, even it clicks in fits and starts, it is exhilarating to watch him embrace the bedlam. His prolific work ethic is also pretty darn impressive. Recommended for Miike fans, but maybe not the best starter film for the uninitiated, Yakuza Apocalypse opens tomorrow (10/9) in New York, at the Village East.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

NYFF ’15: The Assassin

The cinematic tradition of the butt-kicking woman wuxia warrior can be traced directly to Red Heroine from 1929. It might date back even further, but sadly few Chinese silent films survived Mao’s many destructive mass campaigns. In the succeeding years, Michelle Yeoh and Cheng Pei-pei made their legendary careers playing such characters. However, they never had the sort of exquisitely lush backdrops afforded to Nie Yinniang, the titular anti-heroine of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s long-anticipated first wuxia film (and Taiwan's official Academy submission), The Assassin (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

As child, Nie Yinniang was promised in marriage to her cousin Tian Ji’an but scandal tore those plans asunder. After an ill-fated episode trespassing in a rival family’s palace, Nie is trundled off to Jiaxin, a martial arts nun, who trains her to be the perfect assassin. At twenty-three, her education is complete, but she still shows traces of a conscience. After sparing her most recent target out of sympathy for his young son, Nie is sent home, ostensibly to visit her parents. However, her next assignment will be the very same Tian Ji’an, who is now the headstrong military governor of Hebei Province.

To further complicate matters, Tian Ji’an is openly plotting against Tian Xing, one of his military commanders, who also happens to be a distant relative. Nie Yinniang might just be inclined to intercede on Tian Xing’s behalf, but that is decidedly not what Jiaxin had in mind.

Frankly, Hou’s narrative (also credited to three co-screenwriters) is rather murky and elliptical. Wuxia fans simply have to be content knowing some kind of intrigue is going on, even if the who’s and why’s are a tad tricky to follow. Instead, this is a film meant to wash over viewers. Even at the deliberately confined Academy ratio, The Assassin is a staggering sight, often resembling traditional Chinese watercolor scrolls, with one lone figure (usually Nie) tucked away in the corner of a sprawling landscape. Mark Lee Ping-bin has been one of the best cinematographers not named Christopher Doyle for years, but The Assassin is his finest work yet. Not to belabor the point, but the film is gorgeous.

Having Shu Qi as the lead does not hurt either. In fact, the film would not have worked without her. As a standout in previous Hou films (remember the opening tunnel scene in Millennium Mambo), she can withstand his close scrutiny, quietly projecting a host of emotions with power and economy. Yet, she also has legit action chops forged in films like Journey to the West. In contrast, Chang Cheng looks ill at ease as Tian Ji’an, even though he certainly knows his way around a wuxia film. However, as Jiaxin, Sheu Fang-yi (also excellent as a very different teacher in Touch of the Light) is a wonderfully ambiguous antagonist and a fitting equal to Shu Qi’s Nie.

Martial arts fans might well be put off by Hou’s approach to the fight scenes. For the most part they are executed spectacularly quickly, but that is how an assassin like Nie Yinniang would want to take care of business. It will likely prove divisive among genre diehards, but it is worth experiencing just to see how Hou’s aesthetic translates in a wuxia setting. Recommended for its remarkably accomplished artistry and what may very well prove to be an iconic turn from Shu Qi, The Assassin screens this Friday (10/9) at Alice Tully Hall and Saturday (10/10) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYFF, in advance of its October 16th New York opening at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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The Final Girls: Revenge of the 1980s Slasher Film

Camp Bloodbath is pretty much what it sounds like. The early 1980s slasher film has a loyal cult following, but nobody would what to become a part of it. After all, there will only be one young scantily clad woman who survives the massacre. Sadly, it is not the character played by Max Cartwright’s actress mother. That makes it even more disconcerting for her when she and her high school associates are swept into the vintage exploitation movie. Not even the Scream franchise was as satirically meta and self-referential as Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Max and her mother Amanda Cartwright were always scuffling, but at least they had each other—until the fatal accident. Her biggest part was Nancy the camp counselor who unwisely relinquishes her virginity in Camp Bloodbath. Unfortunately, its campy reputation was more of a hindrance than a help whenever Cartwright auditioned for parts. Therefore Max has rather mixed feelings towards the film. Nevertheless, she agrees to attend the anniversary screening organized by her best friend Gertie’s annoyingly Tarantino-esque step-brother Duncan, in exchange for help in the class she is failing.

Gratifyingly, Chris, the classmate she is most definitely interested in, comes to offer moral support. Less agreeably, his codependent ex also tags along to gum up the works as best she can. Somehow, when disaster strikes they are all supernaturally transported into the world of Camp Bloodbath. Of course, it takes a while to figure out where they are and what are the rules that apply to them. Fortunately, Duncan knows precisely when and where bullied camper turned savage serial killer Billy Murphy will strike. They assume if they stick close to surviving “final girl” they should be fine. However, that will not be Nancy, whom Cartwright cannot help relating to as her mother.

Without a doubt, Final Girls is the best horror send-up since the original Craven-era Scream films. While there are a decent number of laughs, it is more about visual inventiveness than set-ups and punchlines. The world of Camp Bloodbath is actually a closed ecosystem that strictly follows its own rigid logic. Frankly, it all makes perfect sense if you are a horror movie fan.

Final Girls also features an unusually big named cast for a horror spoof-nostalgia trip. Honest to goodness, Malin Åkerman is shockingly sweet and poignant as Amanda Cartwright and the character of Nancy as played by her. She also has some really nicely turned scenes with Taissa Farmiga, who makes a worthy prospective “final girl” as Max. As Gertie, Alia Shawkut is sort of doing her Arrested Development shtick again, but it works pretty well in the film’s context. However, Angela Trimbur and Tory N. Thompson steal scene after scene as Tina the nymphomaniac counselor and Blake the ultra-New Wave counselor.

It will probably be a cold day in the netherworld before production designer Katie Byron, art director Alexi Gomez and the rest of the design team get the awards recognition they deserve for Final Girls, but they make the film look terrific, in an eccentrically macabre way. Movie fans with any love for eighties horror will find it seriously stoked by M.A. Fortin & Joshua John Miller’s thoroughly clever screenplay and Strauss-Schulson’s high energy level. However, viewers should be cautioned to look for that plural “s.” The recently released Final Girl singular is an entirely different film. Highly recommended for retro genre connoisseurs, The Final Girls opens this Friday (10/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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NYFF ’15: Right Now, Wrong Then

Ham Chun-su is definitely the sort of director who needs more than one take. That is just as true of his own life as it is with his films. Strictly speaking, he will not know he is replaying his visit to a modestly prestigious film festival. The ultimate results will not vary so drastically either, but sweet regrets are much nicer than sour ones in Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

Through miscommunication, Ham has come to Suwon one day before his film screens, but we doubt he had anything better to do. While killing time, he finds himself drawn to the shrine at Hwaseong Haeng-gung palace, possibly because Yoon Hee-jung is also a frequent visitor there. Despite his awkwardness, Ham strikes up a conversation, learning she is a former model who has forsaken her former life to become a fulltime painter. She is therefore impressed to learn he is an art-house film director transparently based on Hong.

Ham manages to spend the rest of the day and most of the night with her, but the drunker he gets, the more he sabotages himself. What was once a reasonably pleasant ships-passing encounter turns out to be rather disappointing and uncomfortable for all parties. Take two. Everything happens more or less the same, yet it is different. Yoon initially seems sadder, but Ham is more honest. Of course, since this is a Hong Sang-soo film, he gets just as drunk.

If you enjoy Hong’s films, you will flip for RNWT, because it represents the filmmaker at his Hong Sang-soo-iest. On the other hand, those who are not so into him might still give it a shot, because it is much less mannered and considerably more resonate than many of his prior films. Still, all his hallmarks are present and accounted for. It is a defiantly talky film, featuring a filmmaker protagonist and a bountiful stream of booze—so what’s not to like?

As the smitten Ham, Jang Jin-regular Jung Jae-young shows he also has the stuff to hang in Hong’s neurotic world. It is fascinating to see how dramatically he alters the colors and shadings of his performance with one small twist of the dial. While Kim Min-hee is just as understated, she lights up the screen with her sensitive, luminous presence. It is a wonderfully wise and sad performance that gets richer the second time through, even though her character remains in essentially the same headspace.

In RNWT, Hong captures the impressionistic sense of a late night spent with an almost complete stranger that you wish would never end almost as vividly as Zhang Lu’s Gyeongju (which is an absolutely terrific film). As with his previous film Hill of Freedom, Hong engages on an emotional level in RNWT, rather than just playing narrative games and reveling in clever banter. Bittersweet and subtle (two qualities that do not go together so often), Right Now, Wrong Then is recommended for those who appreciate mature relationship dramedies when it screens this Friday (10/9) at the Walter Reade and Saturday (10/10) at the Beale, as part of the 2015 NYFF.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Target: The Korean Action Take on Point Blank

A former mercenary like Baek Yeo-hun would never be the good guy in a Hollywood movie. “Good” is a strong term for the former employee of a Blackwater-like outfit, but he is immeasurably better than the cabal of crooked cops running rampant through the city. Inconveniently, Baek nearly starts the film as the dead guy, but an unsuspecting ER doctor has the misfortune of saving his life in Chang’s The Target (trailer here), the Korean remake-reconception of Fred Cavayé’s Point Blank, which releases today on DVD and digital, from Lionsgate.

When adapting Cavayé’s French fugitive-style thriller, Chang (a.k.a. Yun Hong-seung) opted to go bigger and bolder every chance he could. Instead of a burglary, Baek steps into a frame-up intended for his developmentally challenged brother. They were not expecting someone with Baek’s particular set of skills, but he nearly makes a premature exit anyway. Dr. Lee Tae-jun manages to save him, but he is rewarded for his troubles with the abduction of his mega-pregnant wife, Jeong Hui-ju. The kidnapper’s demand is straight forward, but difficult to execute—trade the recuperating Baek for Jeong.

Nevertheless, Dr. Lee smuggles the suspect out of the hospital, turning into an outlaw as a result. Unfortunately, Baek refuses to cooperate, giving the doctor the slip. Eventually, Lee will catch up to Baek—and they will even join forces when they realize a band of corrupt coppers is trying to kill them both.

While the formerly comatose anti-hero was a mere safecracker in Cavayé’s original, albeit one played by the hardnosed Roschdy Zem, Baek is a bad cat of an entirely different stripe. He takes over the movie from the innocent Wrong Man doctor, turning it into an old school beatdown. He is the kind of grizzled action hero who can easily take on twenty men at once. It might not be credible, but it is really fun to watch.

Sort of like the original, Target climaxes with a showdown in the police station, but Chang cranks up the action to levels nearly as earth-shaking as Alan Yuen’s explosive Firestorm. He really lets Seoul institutional buildings have it, unleashing all kinds of bedlam in the hospital and police station. However, Jun Chul-hong’s adapted screenplay also increases the emotional stakes with the addition of honest Inspector Jeong Yeong-ju’s implied lesbian relationship with her junior partner, Park Su-jin.

Baek is totally in Ryu Seung-ryong’s steely, hardboiled power zone and he duly knocks it out of the park. He is perfectly counterbalanced by Yu Jun-sang, who is flamboyantly evil as Senior Inspector Song Gi-cheol, the ruthless mastermind. Although he loses a lot of screen time in the translation, Lee Jin-uk manages to withstand the withering force of Ryu and Yu’s hardcore personas. Somehow, Kim Seong-ryeong and Jo Eun-ji also manage to add some depth as Inspector Jeong and Park.

Wrongfully accused thrillers sometimes get a bit angsty because of the alienation involved, but like Choi Ho’s rock’em sock’em Big Match, Chang keeps the adrenaline amped so far up, genre fans will not sweat the dire existential stakes and just enjoy the ride. Crackling good fun, The Target is enthusiastically recommended for action fans. It is now available on DVD and digital from Lionsgate.

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Du Welz’s Alleluia

As usual, no internet use goes unpunished in the movies. This time, Michel Bellmer will provide our object lesson. He is an adventurer who specializes in conning lonely women out of money. He also engages in strange occult rites, but he is nothing compared to the psychopathic women he unfortunately charms. Belgian extreme auteur Fabrice du Welz darkly riffs on the already pretty macabre case of the “Lonely Hearts Killers” throughout Alleluia (trailer here), which releases today on DVD, from Doppelganger Releasing.

Evidently, Bellmer’s pre-date photo burning ritual worked, because mousy Gloria falls for him hard. After an uncharacteristic one night stand, she is only too happy to loan him money for his supposedly struggling business. Of course, women like Gloria are Bellmer’s business—and he is already working on his next deal. However, Gloria is not ready to move on. She tracks him down, but instead of demanding her money back, she offers to be his accomplice, as long as they can periodically steal some intimate time together.

Gloria has one stipulation—no more sex with the marks. Although Bellmer agrees, he knows there is no better way to seal the deal than offering a little sugar. Unfortunately, whenever he tries to hurry things along, Gloria erupts in a lethal jealous fury. Frankly, she is the past the point of being bad for business, but Bellmer is stuck with her.

As if Alleluia was not creepy enough, lead actor Laurent Lucas was the victim of an internet death hoax a few months ago. Happily it was bogus, but this feels exactly like the sort of film that could become notorious for the curse-like deaths of its cast-members. Strictly speaking, it is an earthly serial killer film, but Manu Dacosse’s tripped out, massively feverish cinematography gives it all a supernatural looking haze. Du Welz and co-screenwriter Vincent Tavier are pretty vague on the geo-particulars, so for all we know, it could be in one of the outer circles of Hell. It certainly starts to feel that way for Bellmer.

The hopefully very alive and kicking Lucas is terrific as Bellmer, convincingly portraying his unique character development arc, from sociopathic ladies man to psychotically henpecked common law husband. However, Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas is the black soul at the center of the film. She is profoundly unsettling as the deeply disturbed Gloria (and vice versa). It is also worth noting the fine work of Héléna Noguerra as the rebooted Lonely Hearts Killers’ third prospective victim, the well-to-do widowed mother, Solange. She brings real presence to what could have been a largely disposable role.

This should go without saying, but if the French lover you just met over the internet wants to move in with his unstable Spanish sister, you need to put your foot down and say no. Alleluia should surely will not do any favors for online dating services. Instead, it is an unusually impressive genre film, but it might actually be too effective, by not giving us any breathing space in between the psychotic episodes. Tense and disorienting, Alleluia is recommended for fans of art-house horror when it releases today (10/6) on DVD and BluRay.

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Nocturna: Vampires in NOLA

It makes sense vampires are drawn to New Orleans. The city is unusually preoccupied with its cemeteries and mausoleums. Still, you would think that whole below-sea-level thing would complicate their undead rest, but the two antagonistic vampire clans have found safe lairs. However, two rogue cops intend to root out the sadistic Molderos, as long as they enjoy the protection of their rivals by night. Of course, it gets messy when humans and vampires mingle in screenwriter-director Buz Alexander’s Nocturna (trailer here), which releases today on DVD, BluRay, and VOD from Alchemy.

Harry Ganet is a bitter, grizzled NOPD veteran, who is less than thrilled to be baby-sitting his new partner, the mayor’s gung ho nephew Roy Cody. There is just no talking to the green detective when they find a so-called “Parish Kid,” one of the waifs branded with a vampire clan’s insignia. The term comes from the mysterious empty parish where they live, waiting to be sucked dry of blood or turned into vampires themselves. Cody figures he march right over and give the girl’s captors and stern talking to, but it does not work out so well for anyone.

The upshot is the Molderos are out to get Ganet and Cody, so the slightly less sinister Brisbane offers them a deal. They can crash at his crib during nights, if they sleuth out the Moldero resting places while the sun is up. Despite his surly attitude, Ganet seems more inclined to accept their hospitality than Cody. Perhaps it has something to do with Lydia Sonata, who also holds a grudge against the Molderos. She was once one of their branded possessions, but Brisbane rescued and turned her.

Granted, Nocturna is more than a little rough around the edges, but it combines elements of the Anne Rice and Underworld mythoi in interesting ways. Yet, Alexander does not share their erotic or action-oriented approaches, focusing instead on the grudges and betrayals of the respective clans and the human interlopers. Frankly, the pseudo-triangle of Sonata, Ganet, and Brisbane is more intriguing than you would expect, because of the supernatural implications of the relationships in question.

Mike Doyle and Mariana Paola Vicente actually display strong screen presences and develop interesting chemistry together as Ganet and Sonata. Danny Agha’s impossibly naïve Cody gets a little tiresome, but after the first act set-up, he disappears for long stretches at a time. As the respective clan leaders, Johnathon Schaech and Billy Blair are the sort of gothy strutting vampires we have seen innumerable times before, but the nearly unrecognizable Estella Warren plays the Moldero queen with a Mommie Dearest edge that is certainly disturbing.

Frankly, Alexander could have used some help coordinating his fight scenes, as well as some more convincing stunt personnel. Nevertheless, he maintains a reasonably creepy vibe and soaks up plenty of atmosphere from Baton Rouge and the Parishes outside New Orleans, where Nocturne was shot (we’d ordinarily complain about the lack of jazz and zydeco on the soundtrack, but these vampires just do not seem like the hip jazz sort of undead). It is just sort of okay, but there have certainly been less auspicious debuts. For those who support NOLA/Louisiana film production, Nocturna releases today (10/6) on various home viewing formats.

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Monday, October 05, 2015

The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers—Israel’s Legacy of Leadership Continues

Israel is the only state in the Middle East that grants freedom of religion, equal rights under law to women and gays and lesbians, and maintains strong environmental protection laws. Ironically, former soldiers have often led this progressive state as its Prime Minister. Yet, in the tradition of Nixon going to China, it was Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin who negotiated some of the region’s most significant peace treaties. Former Ambassador Yehuda Avner served them both. His history of Israel’s highest political office continues to serve as the roadmap of Richard Trank’s The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Throughout the follow-up to The Prime Ministers: the Pioneers, Trank continues to draw on Avner’s insider knowledge, but he starts with a telling incident that predated the diplomat’s government service. In the so-called Altalena Affair, Rabin-led Haganah-IDF forces and Begin’s Irgun found themselves clashing in a very public and embarrassing manner. However, they would soon settle into political roles as leaders of the majority Labor government and the Likud minority, respectively.

As trusted aide to Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, the British-born Avner’s services were retained by the newly elected Rabin, who was determined to forge stronger ties with the United States, but dealing with Kissinger was a complicated task. Yet, they made headway, including a grand state dinner at the Ford White House, which supplies one of the best anecdotes of the doc duology.

The surprise election of Menachem Begin, the first transfer of power in Israel’s history, coupled with the less surprising election of Jimmy Carter ushered in an even trickier era. It was not a good personality match, but Begin was more committed to the peace process than most political commentators realized. Despite the naïve bungling of the Carter Administration (Avner duly provides more than enough examples), Sadat was also ready to deal. While most viewers have seen the familiar Camp David video, the archival footage of Sadat’s earlier visit to Israel really puts the Accords in a whole new context.

Indeed, providing fuller, richer historical background and context is exactly the mission of Trank and Moriah Films. You can trust them to give the entire story of Israel’s triumphs, as well as its failures (such as the shelling of the Altalena). There is a great deal of important history in both Prime Ministers that will give students and concerned citizens a better understanding of Israeli and Middle Eastern history.

The late Avner was also a wonderfully eloquent and engaging guide through Israel’s momentous Twentieth Century history. He is so lively and forceful in the film, it is hard to believe he is no longer with us. At least he left quite a testament. Like the previous installment, Soldiers and Peacemakers is also unusually well crafted by documentary standards, featuring a classy symphonic score composed by Emmy winner Lee Holdridge and the dramatic narration of Michael Douglas and Christoph Waltz, giving voice to Rabin and Begin, respectively.

Watching Soldiers and Peacemakers will help viewers clearly understand where we are now with respects to Israel and the Middle East. Yet, thanks to Avner’s wit and insights, it is never dry or stodgy. Highly recommended for students and general audiences, The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers opens this Friday (10/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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NYFF ’15: Bridge of Spies

In 1986, Soviet Refusenik Natan Sharansky gained his freedom through the final Cold War exchange conducted on Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge. Brooklyn attorney James B. Donovan found himself negotiating the first. At trial, he had represented convicted Soviet spy Col. Vilyam Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, a British born KGB agent, who had narrowly escaped Stalin’s purges during his time with the NKVD. Presumably, the Russians will want him back, just as America wants Francis Gary Powers safely returned. To negotiate the deal in his unofficial capacity, Donovan navigates the murky political waters of Berlin during the final days of the construction of the Wall in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

Donovan the kind of stickler lawyer you do not want to be haggling with. Since he was also a junior member of the Nuremberg prosecution team, the Brooklyn Bar helpfully nominates him as Abel’s attorney. Although not thrilled, Donovan does his duty more diligently than anyone anticipates. Nevertheless, Abel is convicted, but conveniently not sentenced to death.

Sometime after U-2 pilot Powers’ capture and show trial, Donovan receives a strange overture from East Germany. With the CIA’s blessing but no official portfolio, Donovan tries to negotiate an Abel-for-Powers deal, but it is complicated by the arrest of American economics student Frederic Pryor on transparently bogus espionage charges. Suddenly the dodgy Wolfgang Vogel representing the GDR wants to swap Pryor for Abel, while the Berlin KGB station chief is willing to deal Powers for Abel.

While there is a bit of le Carré equivalency baked into screenwriters Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Cohen’s depiction of the respective intelligence agencies, there is no denying the oppressive bleakness of East Berlin. Production designer Adam Stockhausen’s team vividly recreates the rubble strewn streets, bombed out blocks, and ominously imposing Berlin Wall. To his credit, Spielberg also shows exactly what happened to those who tried to scale it.

Of course, Donovan is exactly the sort of exceptional everyman that has become Hanks’ specialty. While he brings an instant credibility and a certain comfort level to the character, he never delivers any surprises—only sniffles as Donovan endures an awful cold. On the other hand, Mark Rylance is weirdly mesmerizing as the off-center Abel, precisely because of his restraint. It is like his face is a Rorschach test, which you cannot stop staring at.

For traditional villainy, Sebastian Koch chews plenty of scenery as Vogel, but he gets somewhat shortchanged on screen time. However, nobody is as embarrassingly unnecessary as Amy Ryan, playing an underwritten Mary Donovan, whose sole function in the film is to hassle her husband to bring back Harrods marmalade from his supposed fishing trip to Scotland.

Thanks to Stockhausen and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Bridge looks terrific, but it is relentlessly over-scored by Thomas Newman. Instead of evoking a noir atmosphere, he indulges in symphonic sentimentality. Granted, it is a Spielberg movie, but it sounds too much like a Spielberg movie. Just imagine what could have been if someone like the great Tomasz Stanko (a Krzysztof Komeda protégé) had composed its themes instead. Regardless, there is plenty of striking work on view, including that of Mr. Dreamworks himself, who still has eerily keen instincts for maximizing the emotional impacts of his shots. Recommended for reasonably enthusiastically for fans of Spielberg and espionage movies, Bridge of Spies screens again tonight (10/5) at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 2015 NYFF, in advance of its October 16th theatrical release.

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Victoria: One Take is All You Get in Berlin

It is like Hitchcock’s Rope on MDMA. It is 4:30 in the morning, but the day is not over yet. There is still plenty of hedonism to indulge in and crimes to commit. Unfortunately, one Spanish expat will ill-advisedly become involved with the latter in Sebastian Schipper’s legitimate, no-cheating one-take feat Victoria (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After an aimless night of clubbing, Victoria intends to get a quick rest and then report for work at the organic coffee shop around the corner. However, her plans will be fatefully derailed when she runs into Sonne and his three rowdy friends, Boxer, Blinker, and Fuss. Despite her better judgement, she drinks with them, engaging in a minor bit of delinquency. His three amigos are definitely knuckleheads, but there is a real attraction developing between her and Sonne. That is why he is so reluctant to ask for her help when the dead-drunk Fuss is unable to hold up his end of a dodgy bargain—and why she is willing to agree.

While in prison, Boxer enjoyed the protection of the gangster Andi, who has suddenly called to collect. He has a job for Boxer and the lads—a bank job. He happens to know of an early opening branch office with a stash of cash in a safety deposit box. If you think the heist sounds poorly planned, wait till you see the getaway.

Considering it was shot in twenty-two centrally situated locations in uninterrupted real time, Victoria is an absolute marvel of organization. Yes, they stay within a tight geographic perimeter, but the cast and crew were still covering a great deal of ground, running up and down staircases, in and out of buildings, executing chase sequences that bring to mind Run Lola Run, in which Schipper had a supporting role (some might also recognize him as the strongest co-lead of Tykwer’s 3). That is a whole lot of logistics that all came together perfectly.

Frankly, the first act set-up takes a surprisingly long time, but it convincingly establishes Victoria’s budding relationship with Sonne. After the time we spend with them, we can fully accept her decision to serve as their getaway driver. Of course, from that point on, the film is off to the races.

Laia Costa and Frederick Lau are terrific as Victoria and Sonne, while Franz Rogowski and Burak Yigit are all kinds of bad news as Boxer and Blinker, but in a flamboyantly colorful way. Yet what really defines the film is its evocative sense of place (slightly sketchy, hipsterish Berlin) and the after-hours vibe. Schipper perfectly captures that slightly alienating feeling of being awake when all respectable people are safely asleep.

In addition to running his butt off following the action, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gives everything a properly disorienting haze, reflecting the influence of the drugs, alcohol, and trance-inducing club music. Arguably, he also serves as the film’s editor, making editorial decisions on the fly, through his framing. In fact, some of his choices are remarkably astute.

Although the dialogue is largely improvised, there is real substance beneath Schipper’s flashy style. Audiences will not resent investing in his characters. Still, let’s not kid ourselves. The frenetic one-take style is the reason to see his grittily fatalistic caper and it is impressive. Highly recommended for heist movie fans and anybody who just wants to see a filmmaker pull off something cool, Victoria opens this Friday (10/9) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.

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Sunday, October 04, 2015

NYFF ’15: Steve Jobs

He was a horrible boss and a problematic parent. Even by his own admission, Steve Jobs’ greatest talent was for using people. Yet, probably no other corporate executive ever enjoyed such an intense popular following. He has become iconic through his celebrated product launches, which in retrospect, were just as effective crafting Jobs’ image as they were at introducing new Apple products. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin starts with the familiar image of Jobs the showman, but pulls back the curtain to show all the personal and professional chaos roiling in his wake throughout Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (trailer here), the Centerpiece selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

It turns out Ridley Scott has two films at this year’s festival. In addition to the sneak peak of The Martian, we will also see his celebrated 1984 Apple commercial heralding the coming of the Macintosh personal computer, in its entirety. It has just caused a sensation airing during the Super Bowl and it duly whips Jobs’ audience into a frenzy. However, the backstage vibe is hardly one of triumphalism. We quickly learn technical problems threaten to sabotage the Mac’s unveiling, but when informed of the glitches, Jobs is his usual motivating self.

To be fair, he is under a great deal of pressure. He has had a rough time of it in the press recently, thanks in large part to Chrisann Brennan, the high school girlfriend who recently won the paternity suit she filed against him. She is also present, with Lisa, the daughter he still refuses to recognize in tow, hoping to secure greater financial support. At least the new Apple CEO John Sculley has his back, right?

Boyle and Sorkin then flashforward to 1988. Ousted by Apple, Jobs is about to launch the first cube-like personal computers of his new venture, NeXT. Jobs needs to make a perfect pitch, because the word on the street is spectacularly bad. Yet, he seems to have a secret ace up his sleeve, which both encourages and irks his loyal marketing director, Joanna Hoffman. Once again, like Scrooge on Christmas Eve, Jobs is visited backstage by ghosts from his, including Sculley and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, as well as Lisa and Chrisann Brennan.

This pattern will repeat again in 1998. Through a combination of luck and guile, Jobs returned to Apple just in time to right the sinking ship. He is about to introduce the iMac, sparking one of the greatest corporate comeback stories in business history. However, the indulgent Hoffman finally puts her foot down, insisting Jobs man-up and set straight his messy personal life.

Probably no screenwriter has as many annoying hang-ups as Sorkin, but his triptych take on Walter Isaacson’s biography is kind of inspired. He literally takes the image of Jobs the pitchman that we have in our mind’s eye and turns it inside out. While everything in the film is constructed around the three big media events, we never actually see them happen. After all, they are just elaborately orchestrated hype sessions. The real drama Jobs cannot control—and it clearly vexes him.

Although he is hardly the spitting image of Jobs, Michael Fassbender connects with the arrogant, insecure, borderline Asperger’s essence of the man. It is a cold, clammy performance, yet we can see how Jobs maintained such Svengali-like control over everyone in his orbit. His emotional detachment makes everyone crave his approval even more. This probably goes without saying, but he puts Ashton Kutcher to shame.

Frankly, Steve Jobs the film deserves to be in the running for every best ensemble award because it is fully loaded with rich supporting turns, starting with the selflessly glammed-down and spot-on Kate Winslet as Hoffman. She lives up to Hoffman’s reputation as the only Apple employee who could stand up to Jobs. Getting serious, Seth Rogen aches with geeky dignity as Wozniak. Working as a battery of Lisa Brennans, Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine all withstand Fassbender’s withering Mephistophelean presence, each developing some intriguing chemistry with his Jobs. You might expect these sequences to be hopelessly manipulative, but they are quite the contrary (at least until late in the third act).  

However, probably nobody does as much to rebuild their characters’ reputations as Jeff Daniels, who elevates Sculley’s stature to tragic levels nearly commensurate with that of Jobs. Again, their ruptured surrogate father and son relationship might sound like cheap armchair psychiatry, but the restraint of Daniels’ performance and the sharpness of Sorkin’s writing makes it work relatively well.

Given its structure, Steve Jobs could easily be reconfigured into a stage production, but Boyle’s dynamic visual flair prevents it from ever feeling stagey. While it is light years removed from hagiography, it is still rather hard to fathom why current Apple CEO Tim Cook felt compelled to engage Sorkin in the press. Despite the character flaws it so deliberately establishes, the film is ultimately quite forgiving of Jobs. Smart and bracingly honest, it is the best shake the Apple co-founder has had from the cinematic world since Noah Wylie played him in the TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, but Boyle incorporates it in a much more stylish and sophisticated package. Recommended for old school Mac partisans and Fassbender fans, Steve Jobs opens this Friday (10/9) after playing to packed houses as the Centerpiece of the 2015 NYFF.

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Saturday, October 03, 2015

NYFF ’15: Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words

It is to believe now what a scandalous figure Ingrid Bergman was in 1950. The Kristen Stewarts and Lindsay Lohans of today should bow down to Bergman, both in recognition of her vastly superior talent and in gratitude for all the heat she took, helping normalize their chaotic private lives in the years to come. It was a profoundly difficult time for Bergman, but she never stopped being a grand movie star. To commemorate her centennial, Bergman tells her own story through home movies, private letters, and the diaries she kept nearly her entire life in Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words (trailer here), which screens as part of the Spotlight on Documentary section of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

Björkman immediately establishes how deeply unhappy Bergman’s early childhood years truly were. Her mother died before she ever really knew her and her beloved father passed away when she was only twelve. Subsequently, her caretaker maiden aunt also died not long after taking her in. Although Björkman and some of Bergman’s children speculate Bergman sought to find the love and acceptance she longed for as a child through her acting career, many viewers will just figure she deserved a break during the Rossellini-Magnani “War of the Volcanoes” feeding frenzy.

Björkman chronicles her career as an extra beaming out crowd scenes, her initial Swedish success, the Hollywood glory years, her difficult collaborations with her second husband Roberto Rossellini, and her triumphant return to America cinema. She may well be the only screen thesp who worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, George Cukor, and of course, Rossellini. It also shows how some films appreciate over time, whereas others depreciate critically. Bergman won an Oscar for Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (her third), but it gets scant mention here.

While Björkman worked closely with Isabella, Ingrid, and Roberto Rossellini, Bergman’s three adoring grown children with Rossellini père, he still assembles a remarkably balanced profile. Arguably, the most revealing interview segments are with Bergman’s eldest daughter, former New York arts correspondent Pia Lindström. It is not that she is critical or resentful, but she clearly has a more complex and nuanced perspective on the mother she rarely saw during her formative years.

Much of the archival photos and video of Bergman is quite stunning. This is Ingrid Bergman, the woman millions of people start each New Year with as part of the annual Casablanca re-watching tradition, enjoying family celebrations in their Italian villa or jockeying for the camera’s attention as a young drama student in Stockholm. Yet, she has the same look that tormented Bogart and seduced Cary Grant.

Somehow Björkman nimbly walks the fine line, crafting a balanced enough portrait to avoid charges of white-wash, while sufficiently capturing his subject’s charm and warmth to satisfy her family. It is also worth noting, Alicia Vikander, the current Swedish toast of Hollywood, narrates the extracts from Bergman’s journals and correspondence, which probably resonate with tremendous meaning and irony for her. Regardless, Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words is an intimate but classy doc that should well please her fans when it screens this coming Monday (10/5) at the Walter Reade and Tuesday (10/6) at the Gilman, as part of this year’s NYFF.

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Friday, October 02, 2015

Northern Soul: Heroic Crate-Digging

Sure, there had been celebrity radio DJs like Alan Freed, but the idea of going out specifically to hear a DJ spin live really gained traction with the localized explosion of popularity of American soul in the North of England. The more obscure the platter, the better. In fact, many top DJs concealed the identity of their best records, in order to keep them out of the hands of the competition. John Clark and his mate hope to be the next big thing, but they will have some growing up to do first. The characters are fictional, but the music, venues, and amphetamines are true to life in Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Clark is your basic anti-social under-achiever, but when he hears his first Northern Soul record at the youth center, it hits him like a lightning bolt. John is the one who played it. He was given a limited tryout window, but most of the crowd is not as hip as Clark. At least a fast friendship is forged when Clark weighs into the ensuing melee on John’s behalf. Soon, the somewhat older emancipated youth is tutoring Clark in music and fashion. They become a DJ’ing duo and hatch a scheme to hunt down obscure soul gems in America.

However, it eventually becomes apparent John is the big talker, whereas Clark is the doer. It is also clear the latter is a self-sabotager, who cannot hold his amphetamines as well as Clark. Consequently, inevitable tensions threaten to tear their partnership asunder. On the plus side, Clark might finally be getting somewhere with Angela, the pretty nurse he has long carried a torch for.

Interestingly, the interracial nature of their halting relationship never seems to be an issue, which is all quite nice. However, the question of white appropriation of African American music is never addressed either, which is more problematic. Of course, we are expected to infer the white Northern Soul fans are drawn to the music because of their status as economic underdogs, much like Roddy Doyle’s Commitments.

Clearly, Constantine profoundly digs the Northern Soul sound. She also gets credit for forthrightly depicting the rampant drug abuse corrupting the scene. There is a lot of grit and Fame-like resiliency permeating her film, but the narrative is not blindingly original. In fact, Northern Soul weirdly parallels Jason Lei Howdon’s Deathgasm, except for the whole demon apocalypse thing.

Regardless, Elliot James Langridge certainly looks like a pasty-white, poorly socialized record collector. He also gets effectively bug-eyed and clammy as Clark’s speed intake increases. Frustratingly, the charismatic presence of Antonia Thomas is largely wasted in scenes where Angela coyly smiles at Clark from afar. Conversely, Josh Whitehouse is so convincingly annoying as John, you will want to hit him with a two-by-four, but that is what he is supposed to be going for. It is a strong ensemble, but fans should understand Steve Coogan is Northern Soul just enough to justify his name on the poster. Still, his casually contemptuous high school teacher is instrumental setting up Clark’s big teenage defiance scene.

This should almost go without saying, but the soundtrack is awesome.  Lou Pride’s “I’m Com’un Home in the Morn’un” is especially catchy as established DJ Ray Henderson’s secret “cover-up” song. If you like Northern Soul, Northern Soul delivers as promised. It just comes with some melodramatic excesses here and there. Overall, it is quite evocative of an era and a musical phenomenon. Recommended for all manner of Soul and R&B fans, Northern Soul opens today (10/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Partisan: Vincent Cassel’s Li’l Assassins

They say it takes a village to raise a child-assassin. In the case, it is more of a utopian commune, which is even better. Alexander is the oldest among the dozens of children training under the charismatic Gregori. Rather logically, that makes him the first to question the Svengali-like father-figure’s authority in Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Gregori “picked up” Susanna at the least likely of times—right after the single mother had given birth to Alexander. It is safe to assume she was feeling somewhat vulnerable at the time. Since then, Gregori has provided for all her material needs. Susanna is content to dote on the somewhat unruly Alexander, sharing Gregori with the half dozen or so women he subsequently invited into their fortified compound. The world outside is scarred by war and post-industrial malaise, but their cloistered oasis has an almost hippyish vibe. Nevertheless, everyone fully understands the lethal nature of the errands the children are periodically tasked with.

When it comes to completing errands, none of the children is as efficient as Alexander. In fact, it is starting to give him a bit of status around the compound. However, the carefully balanced equilibrium will be upset by the arrival of Leo, a difficult eleven year-old who is clearly somewhere on the spectrum. Although he does not mean to be rebellious, Leo’s willfulness and bluntness clearly rattles Gregori. Their conflict sets in motion an inevitable chain of events that will reveal Gregori’s true nature to Alexander.

Conceived and executed (so to speak) as a dark fable, Partisan has a distinctive vibe that is hard to define, but it is very potent. The compound interiors could pass for a post-apocalyptic bunker designed by Wes Anderson, while the world outside looks like a demilitarized zone, consisting mostly of mammoth bombed-out housing complexes. Those outdoor shots were filmed in Georgia, so part of the credit for the eerie atmosphere is probably due to Vladimir Putin (thanks, but you really shouldn’t have).

Vincent Cassel has played plenty of “intense” characters in the past, but the scariest thing about Gregori is not his mania, but how well he keeps it together. His portrayal suggests equal parts Jim Jones and Dr. Spock. While you could say he chews a good deal of scenery, Cassel still refrains from a lot of screaming and arm-waving, so when he raises his voice, you know its serious.

Jeremy Chabriel is a bit inconsistent as Alexander, but he projects the appropriate rodent-like ruthlessness when he needs to. He also develops some believably affectionate chemistry with the Isabella Rossellini-esque Florence Mezzara. Both happen to be French transplants living in Australia, so they obviously shared a connection. They also reinforce the film’s ambiguous national identity.

It is similarly difficult to pigeonhole Partisan in terms of genre. There are plenty of guns laying about, but it is far moodier than conventional thrillers. Regardless, Kleiman takes you someplace you have never visited in movies, where he then unleashes karma to do its thing. Rather unsettling but also quite sly, Partisan is recommended for adventurous cult film fans when it opens today (10/2) in New York, at the Village East.

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