J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

NYAFF ’09: All Around Us

Despite its peaceful reputation, Japan evidently also has its share of violent criminals. During 1990’s the Japanese economy crashed, causing further ripples of disillusionment throughout society. As a courtroom sketch artist, the aimless Kanao sees the worst of it, while struggling with his own domestic drama in Hashiguchi Ryosuke’s All Around Us (trailer here), which screens during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Kanao is not exactly adored by his wife Shoko’s family. Kanao has been content working in a shoe repair store, with little future prospects, until a friend simply hands him his courtroom sketching gig. Shoko, his art school sweetheart, has been more career-motivated and has tried to impose order on their marital relations. However, a personal tragedy sends her spiraling down into depression, which might tear their marriage asunder if the happy-go-lucky Kanao is not able to provide Shoko the emotional support she needs.

Perhaps Kanao’s work has somewhat desensitized him to grief, since he sees mothers mourning children killed in unfathomable ways in court on a regular basis. However, it is more likely that his emotionally distant persona is the result of his peculiar life experiences. Like Shoko, he also experienced a kind of paternal abandonment, but will never have the opportunity for closure she eventually seeks.

There seems to be a recurring motif of problematic fathers or family patriarchs in several Japanese dramas recently imported onto American movie screens, including Yojiro Takita’s Academy Award-winning Departures, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s soon-to-be-released Still Walking, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s Happily Ever After, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata. While it would surely be a stretch to read anything sociological into such a trend, Around certainly fits the pattern.

Director-screenwriter-editor Ryosuke offers some subtle social commentary in Around. Yet the film is more concerned with its closely observed portrait of a marriage suffering under prolonged strain. To survive, the formerly assertive Shoko and passive Kanao must essentially reverse roles, but the question remains, how much can individuals truly change? He also adds some intriguing color and eccentric supporting characters through his use of the courtroom milieu. Emoto Akira is a particular standout as the appealingly crusty veteran print reporter Yasuda. “A sketcher?” he sneers with ill-concealed contempt when first meeting the clueless Kanao.

Though real-life graphic artist and author Lily Franky might seem like the lead as Kanao, the movie really belongs to Kimura Tae as Shoko. Her precipitous mental decline is frighteningly realistic and her anguish is palpable. It is an intense, heartrending screen performance.

Around is a quiet film, but a heavy one. It confronts head-on the intimate pitfalls of marriage with some scaldingly honest dialogue and its remarkably genuine lead performances. It screens July 2nd and July 5th at the Japan Society as part of the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Varda on Varda: The Beaches of Agnès

Agnès Varda has been called the Grandmother of the French Nouvelle Vague, for directing the New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7, casting Philippe Noiret is his first screen role, and marrying Jacques Demy, the celebrated director of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She is also handy to have around if you have a fishing-net that needs mending. Having spent significant time living and working by various seashores, The Beaches of Agnès is a fittingly literal title for Varda’s highly idiosyncratic cinematic memoir (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Varda sets the playfully surreal mood right from the start, introducing herself as the “pleasingly plump and talkative” protagonist, while her production crew sets up a series of antique mirrors on one of her many beaches. As befitting the Grand Dame of the New Wave, there are no hard-and-fast rules for her memory documentary. Some episodes from her life she recreates relatively faithfully, while others she revisits through her archival film and photographs.

Though one would not expect it from such a risk-taking filmmaker, Varda emerges as something of a sentimentalist, revisiting and restaging many of the sites and events of her largely happy early life. However, she declines to return to Cuba and China, whose Communist revolutions she venerated through extensive photo series, thereby sparing herself any uncomfortable realities which might challenge cherished memories.

Clearly, Beaches is Varda’s subjective reality. Rather than exhaustively recount her life, she takes us inside her head in a series of impressionistic episodes inspired by her experiences and films (some of which work better than others). However, the place of honor afforded to her late husband is unmistakable. In Beaches¸ Varda confirms Demy’s death was the result of complications arising from AIDS, which evidently was not widely reported at the time. During his final months, Varda raced to complete Jacquot de Nantes, a film dramatizing Demy’s childhood experiences, based on his own autobiographical writings. In fact, Beaches would form an excellent double-bill with Nantes, whose cast and crew reunite with Varda to pay tribute to their beloved friend and colleague.

While Varda’s tributes to Demy are probably the most touching moments of the film, she never revels in the maudlin. She clearly prefers to present herself as an eccentric prankster, attending her own museum exhibition in a potato costume and hiding the identity of a famous filmmaker colleague behind a big Garfield-like cartoon cat. At least it keeps the film’s pacing brisk and minimizes the risk of excessive navel gazing.

While it is hard to envision Beaches’s appeal expanding beyond enthusiasts of the Varda’s films and the French New Wave in general, Varda’s style is quite accessible. Though understandably uneven due to its episodic nature, Varda proves to be a charismatic subject and host throughout Beaches. Cineastes and Francophiles should definitely look forward to its Wednesday (7/1) New York opening at the Film Forum.

Photo credit: Cinema Guild

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

NYAFF ’09: Climber’s High

In 1985, the North Kanto News was a decent paper for reporters to learn their trade, but those with talent never stayed long. However, when JAL Flight 123 crashed in their prefecture, a national tragedy became the paper’s greatest challenge. For Yuuki Kazumasa, the mountain-climbing reporter quarterbacking the paper’s crash coverage, it would be an especially trying time, both professionally and personally, in Masato Harada’s Climber’s High (trailer here), now screening as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

After a brief moment of national glory covering the United Red Army terrorists in the 1970’s, the Gunma regional paper is now only distinguished by a potentially explosive sexual harassment suit filed against the owner-publisher. Many assume the old man appointed Kazumasa to head the JAL desk because of malicious rumors involving the reporter’s mother, allegedly a woman of dubious repute. However, nobody at the paper better understands the mountainous terrain of the remote crash-site than Kazumasa, except perhaps his mountaineering friend Anzai. Unfortunately, the overworked circulation clerk slipped into a coma following a freak aneurism, adding to Kazumasa’s worries.

Climber takes the audience into the hothouse environment of the newsroom, where the editorial staff is not necessarily working together to the same ends. Like typical journalists, they have decided biases (like the publisher who refuses to show the Japanese security forces in a positive light), and remain largely oblivious to the devastating grief of the victims’ loved ones. However, Kazumasa comes to understand how important his paper’s coverage is to the bereaved families after a quietly devastating encounter with a new widow and her young son. You have to appreciate a journalist who can tell a colleague: “520 people did not die so you could preach.”

There is an atmosphere of sadness that hangs over Climber, even beyond the catastrophic circumstances of the crash. Kazumasa is a sorrowful figure himself, a slave to his heartless newspaper, but nearly a complete stranger to his own son. Throughout the film, the metaphor of mountain-climbing as a fresh start is certainly never subtle and the contemporary scenes of Yuuki’s redemptive climb of the Partition border on melodrama.

Still, aside from a few heavy-handed father-and-son scenes, Harada’s direction is quite sure-footed. He immerses the audience in the North Kanto’s world, where sexism runs rampant, professional jealousy is common place, and cynicism is the air they breathe. Climber’s ensemble cast all look appropriately tired and jaded, both physically and spiritually. In particular, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi is the personification of world-weariness as Kazumasa, while convincingly hinting at the roiling storm submerged beneath his placid exterior.

Though based on a novel by Hideo Yokoyama, Climber echoes many of the lingering doubts regarding the cause of one of the worst air disasters in Japanese history. Climber’s gritty depiction of the provincial paper ranks as one of the most realistic, least sentimentalized portrayals of professional journalism seen anywhere on-screen in recent years. Yet ultimately, it is a love letter to the zen-like qualities of mountaineering, rather than journalism. It screens June 30th and July 2nd at the Japan Society, as part of a co-presentation with the NYAFF.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Hola Mexico ’09: Love, Pain & Vice-Versa

An attractive architect and a heart surgeon might sound like a dream couple, but unfortunately they turn out to be a nightmare together—literally. It becomes difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality, as the former increasingly intrudes on the latter, in Alonso Pineda-Ulloa’s dark psychological-metaphysical thriller Love, Pain & Vice-Versa, which screened during this year’s Hola Mexico Film Festival.

In addition to boasting some very cool graphic design, Hola Mexico proves there is more to Mexican cinema than just masked wrestlers—though they certainly have their place. The fest has a tradition of programming dark, edgy films, which definitely includes Vice-Versa this year.

Chelo thinks Dr. Marquez is the man of her dreams, which is quite understandable, since she only sees him while she sleeps. Finding flesh-and-blood men are unable to compete with her dream lover, she resolves to find him in real life. However, she adopts a less than romantic tactic by faking a sexual assault in order to give his description to the police. Suddenly, she comes face-to-face with Marquez, divided only by the two-way mirror of the station’s interrogation room. And then things get a little strange.

Vice-Versa is the kind of film that defies simple thumbnail summaries. It takes repeated twists and turns, adding further layers of meaning to every prior scene. Essentially, we see events from both his and her perspectives, but their perceptions of reality are radically different. Fortunately, Barbara Mori and Leonardo Sbaraglia, as Chelo and Marquez respectively, make it all work quite effectively, through performances that are simultaneously compellingly sympathetic and creepily ominous, depending on which perspective the same encounter is seen from.

Pineda fits together the yin and yang of the two versions of reality relatively seamlessly, though he does leave some questions open regarding how delusional certain characters truly are. He keeps the tension ratcheted up and maintains the atmosphere of mystery throughout the film. Composer Roque Banos’s Bernard Hermann-influenced score also contributes to the unnerving vibe.

Vice-Versa seems like a film that is destined to attract a passionate following. It is a tense, well constructed thriller that nicely represents the diversity of Mexican cinema. It is a perfect selection for the Hola Mexico Film Festival, which continues through Sunday night at the Quad Cinema.

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Lynch’s Surveillance

News of another David Lynch vehicle featuring the G-men of the F.B.I. is bound to intrigue fans of Twins Peaks. Even though cult-favorite Lynch only serves as executive producer, relinquishing the director’s chair to his daughter Jennifer, devotees of the cryptic television show will hope for similarly distinctive characters and idiosyncratic charm. Alas, they will be greatly disappointed by Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance (trailer here), a cynical exercise in cinematic sadism, opening today in New York.

Agents Hallaway and Anderson look a lot like Mulder and Scully, except they do not seem to bother hiding their romantic feelings for each other. They have driven all night to get to the small police station of Nowheresville, USA, where they intend to interview the surviving witnesses of a vicious spree killing.

Surveillance fancies itself as a pastiche to Rashomon, with the three witnesses’ divergent stories collectively pointing to the truth. If only. Frankly, the structure of the film can be broken into two parts: the initial flashbacks in which the cops brutalize innocent bystanders, and the present timeline, where the serial killers torture and kill the survivors.

To be fair, Lynch successfully evokes the unsettling vastness of desert highways and certainly keeps viewers on edge as the horrors unfold. Yet, Surveillance is unsatisfying as a horror film, because it never provides a cathartic release. Granted, it is does not approach the graphic gore of recent charnel house pictures like Hostel. Still, the film’s moral universe is a dark Nietzschean place, where might makes right and the audience is expected to take vicarious thrills from the on-screen brutality.

There are no heroes in Lynch’s film. Great lengths are taken to show the cops are just as cruel as the killers—but not as sexy. The cast is also quite a mixed bag. Bill Pullman is intriguingly off-kilter as Hallaway, but Julia Ormand seems wildly miscast as Agent Anderson. Ironically, the most likable performance probably comes from Michael Ironside, the character actor known for playing heavies, so it is a sure bet his Captain Billings will shortly die a grisly death.

Surveillance has a mean streak as long as Route 66. Despite the gamesmanship of its big twist, Surveillance is nowhere near as inventive as Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, or even the justly notorious Lost Highway. For Lynch diehards not easily dissuaded, it opens today in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hola Mexico ’09: Meet the Head of Juan Perez

Small-time circuses are creepy, more like carnies than the greatest show on Earth. However, magician Juan Pérez thinks he has the key to rejuvenating his ramshackle organization. It involves a guillotine. What could go wrong with that? Given the film is told in flashbacks by Pérez’s freshly severed head, it seems like his escape act has gone irreparably wrong. Then again, it all could be an illusion in Emilio Portes’s dark comedy Meet the Head of Juan Pérez (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2009 Hola Mexico Film Festival.

Even pre-H1N1, business is down for Pérez’s not so big top. Unless he can liven up his act, he will part of the next round of layoffs. However, he gets a flash of inspiration from a 16th Century guillotine on display at the local museum. It has the perfect ominous look for his illusion, which makes sense considering this guillotine is reportedly cursed, the history of which is explained in humorously bloody animated sequences. As Pérez plots to steal the imposing execution device and save the circus, a wild misadventure follows, involving disgruntled clowns, trained poodles, and an old fortune teller.

Portes adds the trappings of horror films to the madcap caper movie for a distinctly macabre comedy blend. Despite the gruesome narrative device, he maintains the breakneck pace and irreverent tone. Aldo Max Rodriguez’s upbeat score also nicely counterbalances Meet’s more sinister elements.

Meet’s ensemble cast shows an affinity for the slapstick comedy and bizarre dramatic situations, particularly José Sefami as the angry jester-turned-museum guard Gorgo. Done wrong by the world and desperately coveting Pérez’s wife, he is not exactly a crying-on-the-inside kind of ex-clown. As the spectral Viscount, the guillotine’s rightful owner, Rubén Cristiany looks like he could have stepped out of a vintage Hammer Horror film. Walking a fine line as the protagonist and decapitated narrator, Silverio Palacios deftly manages to be just likable enough so the audience will enjoy watching the weird events unfold through his eyes, but not so endearing that his apparent ill-fate would undermine the on-screen laughs.

In his debut feature, Portes demonstrates a nice touch with free-wheeling, somewhat subversive comedy. For a DIY indie production, it is impressively ambitious, involving a large cast and extensive location shots. The resulting Meet is quite a bit of fun. It screens again during Hola Mexico this coming Friday (6/26), free under the stars at the Desalvio Playground (Spring & Mulberry Streets).

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The True Story of Soraya M.

The United Nations estimates as many as 5,000 Islamic women fall victim to so-called “honor killings” every year. Whether reported or not, each instance is an appalling crime, utterly incompatible with any concept of honor. Now the true nature of honor killing has been graphically dramatized in Cyrus Nowrasteh’s viscerally intense The Stoning of Soraya M. (trailer here), opening in select cities this Friday.

Freidoune Sahebjam was a French-Iranian journalist who exposed many of the Islamist regime’s human rights abuses. When passing through a provincial town, a chance encounter with Zahra, a sophisticated older woman of the Shah’s secular era, leads to the biggest story of his career. Just the day before, her niece Soraya was gruesomely executed for the crime of inconveniencing her husband. As Sahebjam interviews Zahra, she bears witness to the terrible injustice that befell Soraya.

Zahra explains the abusive Ali wanted a divorce, so he could marry the fourteen year old girl he lusts after. However, he did not want to financially support Soraya or their two daughters. Of course, none of this violates Islamic notions of honor according to the hypocritical local mullah. Rather then live up to his obligations, Ali conspired with the mullah to falsely accuse Soraya of adultery. In post-Revolutionary Iran, this was clearly the easiest course of action for him. As the town’s mayor explicitly explains, if a husband accuses his wife of adultery, she must prove her innocence, but if a wife accuses her husband, she must prove his guilt.

Given the film’s title and the framing device, it is no secret where Stoning will end. It is not called the Narrow Escape of Soraya M., after all. However, Nowrasteh (the Iranian-American screenwriter and producer of The Path to 9-11) creates such a sense of mounting horror, it seems like the actual stoning will come as a relief. And then it happens.

Watching Stoning, you become acutely conscious of all the conventions of American legal dramas which do not apply here. There will be no heroic appeals or a last minute stay from governor. Once Soraya is declared guilty, the die is cast. However, it is also just as evident this is not a case of mob rule overwhelming the town’s better nature. What happened was deliberate, allowing plenty of time for cool heads to prevail while Soraya’s execution pit was dug.

Stoning is Soraya’s story, but it is Shohreh Aghdashloo’s film. The Oscar-nominated Iranian-American actress gives a powerful, fearless performance as Zahra. Not simply the film’s noble conscience, she is a nuanced, fully realized character—an intelligent, assertive, but ultimately vulnerable woman in a society which grants her no legal standing. As Soraya, Mozhan Marnò avoids simply playing the innocent victim, investing her with surprising inner strength and resolution. While only briefly seen during the wrap-around segments, Jim Caviezel is nearly unrecognizable but effective as the intrepid Sahebjam.

Filmed on location at an undisclosed Middle East locale, Stoning completely immerses the audience in its forbidding world. It is an uncompromising film, fueled by outrage, but also a truly moving human drama. Following the Iranian regime’s violent attacks on democracy protestors, Stoning’s theatrical release could not be timelier. Yet, this would be an important film, even if the regime was not dominating headlines with its thuggish crackdown. It is a well-crafted, absolutely absorbing film that demands a wide audience. It opens in New York this Friday (6/26) at the Sunshine Cinema.

Photos courtesy of MPower Pictures

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

NYAFF ’09: Equation of Love and Death

Driving a cab might not be prestigious work, but it ought to serve LiMi’s needs perfectly. She is doggedly searching the city of Kunming for her boyfriend who mysteriously vanished several years ago. Unfortunately, the missing Fang Wen does not seem to want to be found in Cao Baoping’s Equation of Love and Death (trailer here), which screens today during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Li-Mi is cute and tough, but she has serious neurotic tendencies as Equation opens. She compulsively rereads Fang’s letters, obsessing over their dates, hoping to glean a numerological clue to his fate. Yet all she has to show for her efforts are some alarmed customers. One day, two lost souls from the countryside hail her cab, setting in motion a tragic chain of circumstances.

For reasons initially kept obscure, the provincial fares have a rendezvous with a hipster poet on a highway overpass. However, when their contact takes a surprising nosedive into traffic, it causes a nasty accident, ensnaring another man who happens to be a dead-ringer for Fang. Back in Li-Mi’s cab, the desperate yokels become increasingly belligerent, as Equation suddenly takes a detour into thriller territory.

Equation is the sort of film where everything and everyone are ultimately related somehow. However, rather than feeling forced, it all seems like the inevitable result of the film’s internal logic. Cao deftly stage-manages his intricately constructed tale of fickle fate, holding back a few genuinely surprising revelations for the third act.

In a deliberate departure from her glamorous image, Chinese actress Zhou Xun gives a tour-de-force performance as the hardboiled but vulnerable Li-Mi. Her uncannily expressive eyes are truly haunting, belying her gruff, street-smart exterior. Zhou owns the film, but she has some able support, notably from Zhang Hanyu, as an ostensibly sympathetic investigating officer, Ye Qingcheng.

Thanks to Zhou’s remarkable lead performance and Cao’s sensitive direction, Equation is a smartly constructed, richly rewarding film. Highly recommended, it screens today and July 1st at the IFC Film Center as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

NYAFF ’09: High Noon

If ever there were a place where kids grow up in a socially structured environment, surely it must be Hong Kong. Well, maybe not always. While the prospect of the fast-approaching Beijing Olympics would seem to be a harbinger of great things, seven Hong Kong kids are not immune to the ill effects of broken homes, peer pressure, and street violence in Mak Hei-yan’s High Noon (trailer here), which screens tomorrow afternoon at the New York Asian Film Festival.

Hong Kong kids have never been so connected, seamlessly networked to each other through i-phones and psps. Yet, they also seem to be completely alienated emotionally, living meaningless lives of hollow hedonism. Seven such boys have banded together in what might uncharitably be called a gang. However, they do provide each other some semblance of social support as they drift aimlessly through life.

Each of the seven fits a certain personality type. There is the overweight joker, the slightly older ladies man, and the Billy Elliott-like would-be dancer. Wing, the newest member of the clique, is an aspiring artist who will suffer for his sensitive nature as tragedy starts to envelope his circle. When loverboy seduces a young innocent girl, he naturally films it on his handheld device to share with his friends. Much to the poor girl’s humiliation, it inevitably spreads like wildfire across the internet, leading to recriminations within the group, cracking their sense of solidarity. From that point on, life degenerates precipitously for the boys.

Directed by the twenty-four year old Mak Hei-yan, and featuring a primary cast of the average age of seventeen, Noon has an explicitly youthful look and feel. Mak gives the kids deliberately camping teeny bopper introductions, but eventually settles into a gritty documentary style, which often looks as if it could have been filmed on one of their phones. All seven boys are quite natural on-screen, with Lam Yiu-Sing a particular standout as Wing, the conscience of the group. Also notable is Yu Mun-Ming’s small but heartbreaking supporting turn as their exploited victim.

Noon is part of The Winds of September, a triptych of films conceived by Eric Tsang as an examination of contemporary youth culture in three closely-related Asian territories: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the forthcoming Mainland China. While screening as part of NYAFF’s focus on Hong Kong films, Noon is a radical departure from the HK action tradition. Though many of the kids are borderline delinquents, when violence erupts it is absolutely shocking and disturbingly realistic.

The relentless Noon can be an exhausting viewing experience. It is not for all tastes, but its unsentimental portrait of youth in existential crisis has an undeniable power, which heralds the arrival of a talented new filmmaker. It’s only NYAFF screening will be held Tuesday afternoon (6/23) at the IFC Film Center.

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Planet Connections: Hound

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes is always well served by his famous mantra: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Yet a grieving Dr. Watson might not want to eliminate the impossible in Hound, John Patrick Bray’s revision of the Hound of the Baskervilles, now playing at the Robert Moss Theater as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.

Following the outline of Doyle’s original, the eccentric Dr. Mortimer has sought the aid of Sherlock Holmes following the mysterious death of Sir Hugo Baskerville, apparently the result of an ancient family curse. However, the doctor is now a woman with quite a burlesque sense of fashion and a cranial fetish.

The good Dr. Watson is not his usual sidekick self either. As Hound opens, he is in an uncharacteristically metaphysical state of mind, questioning why Holmes, the skeptical rationalist, seemingly rose from the dead after the incident at Reichenbach Falls, while his wife’s death from a prolonged illness is irrevocable. He also seems to have an uncanny Dr. Doolittle ability to talk to dogs, which is going to be useful on this case.

As Holmes, Ryan Knowles (on the night of 6/20) is the embodiment of erudite arrogance. Physically, he brings to mind David Bowie in the role of the famous sleuth, which would actually be pretty good casting. However, this Baskerville case belongs to Dr. Watson, one of the most unfairly belittled characters in mystery fiction. Cavan Hallman fully fleshes him out, conveying his grief, intelligence, and humanity.

Bray’s clever script follows the storyline of Baskerville surprisingly faithfully, yet leads to very different outcomes for its cast of characters at each turn. His philosophical themes are quite intriguing, successfully adding another layer to the familiar Hell Hound tale. While some of the surreal monologues, like those exploring the identity of the largely overlooked housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, take the audience a bit too far out of the story, the strong stage presence of Hound’s Holmes and Watson always reasserts the show’s momentum.

Following her recent production of Go-Go Killers, director Rachel Klein again shows a flair for genre theater, staging Hound in the style of a Victorian vaudeville, complete with title cards for each change of scene, which is not inappropriate to the story. It is an often bizarre but thoughtful take on Baskerville case, which should entertain both casual and diehard Holmes aficionados. Hound runs through Thursday (6/25), with its proceeds going to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

HRW ‘09: Afghan Star

Yes, there really is an Afghan version of American Idol. The good news is that the show has provided many Afghans their first experience with the democratic voting process, which they have readily embraced. The bad news is it also illustrates fundamental Islam’s persistent hostility towards women, when even the most innocuous “dance” generates death threats for one female contestant. Such is the mixed report card on contemporary Afghan society presented in Havana Marking’s Afghan Star (trailer here), a documentary of the unlikely talent show screening tonight as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in advance of its theatrical opening this Friday.

Operating relatively free from both religious and state interference, the Tolo network has allowed Afghan Star’s producers to pursue their original conception for the show. Idealist capitalists, they envisioned the talent show as a meritocratic contest that would transcend ethnic identification and instill a confidence in the democratic process. So far, the results have been mixed. As Marking documents, the Afghan Star followers have adopted the techniques of democratic campaign to a far greater extent the American Idol fans, but their support is almost entirely based on ethnic identification.

Marking follows four finalists, two of whom are women in what would appear to be a significant social development. Hailing from the traditional Kandahar region, Lima scrupulously maintains appearances. Given local prejudices, she must take music lessons clandestinely. In contrast, Setara is more flamboyant, at least by medieval standards, showing a bit of flair with her makeup and accessories. However, when she dares to improvise a few physical embellishments during one performance—what would be considered Grandma moves in the West—she finds herself the focus of Islamist death threats.

Star makes a strong case that Tolo’s talent show is an enormously significant development for the country. Watching it seems to be a unifying cultural experience, even if viewers still vote according to their ethnicity. However, by insisting on giving the four finalists equal attention, we spend far too much with the two male contestants, who frankly are not nearly as interesting as their female counterparts. Unlike, Lima and Setara, they are not risky anything by participating and seem content to entrust their Star campaigns to leaders of their respective communities. Probably the boldest, most intriguing characters though, are the producers themselves, whose behind-the-scenes work on the show could have easily sustained the entire film.

Star is an excellent choice for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. One hopes organizers will not ignore the clear violent misogyny of contemporary Islamists, which is probably the gravest threat to human rights in the world today. Unfortunately, this year’s festival is largely dominated by politically correct offerings, and has no programming relevant to the turbulent events unfolding in Iran, which is arguably the leading human rights story of the year so far.

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Planet Connections: Child of Hungry Times

Though not widely translated in the West, Ludmila Petrushevskaya is one of Russia’s most respected contemporary authors. Not coincidently, she was also one of the most censored writers of the Soviet era. She gave voice to Russian working women, specifically mothers, struggling under an oppressive system. Five such characters from Petrushevskaya’s literary oeuvre tell their stories in Bridget Bailey’s solo show Child of Hungry Times, currently running as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.

Bailey brings to life all five desperate mothers, as well as a narrator, whose forced zeal for the great Soviet experiment slowly dissolves over the course of the show. Her transitions are quite clever, often segueing from one character to another amid their vodka fueled laughter. She tells a number of Yakov Smirnov style Communist jokes, deliberately butchering the punchlines for comedic effect. However, the experiences of the five women which form the heart of the show are mostly serious, even tragic, in tone.

Hunger is indeed a recurring motif in their stories, as is the need to sacrifice for the sake of their children. In perhaps the most heartrending storyline, one woman in the early stages of cancer makes an unimaginable choice to secure her son’s future. Of course, her diagnosis is assumed to be a death sentence, given the dim view of Soviet medicine presented throughout Child.

Child is cleverly staged, with potatoes placed on every seat, and a set complete with stockpiles of toilet paper effectively evoking the cramped quarters of Soviet era flats. Bailey nicely differentiates each of Petrushevskaya’s women, giving their testimony an emotional directness that is difficult to shake off. While the evolution of the narrator from bubbling babushka to tortured (literally) truth-teller feels a bit stagey, it certainly reflects the realities that produced Child’s source material.

Oddly, Child’s program carries a churlish note from the director which might alienate the target audience for a show based on Petrushevskaya’s writings. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Child is far timelier now, as Putin continues to consolidate power in a neo-Soviet Russia and Iran cracks down on spontaneous protests in the wake of apparent election fraud, than when it was first produced during George W. Bush’s administration.

Sometimes funny, often tragic, Child presents an intimate look at the lives of ordinary women in times of extreme scarcity. Bailey deserves credit for her compelling adaptation of Petrushevskaya’s work, which ought to be more readily available in translation. It will be staged again today (6/21) and Saturday (6/27) as part of Planet Connections, with its proceeds donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

NYAFF: Old Fish

It is tempting to think of Yu Liquing as the Chinese Abe Vigoda. Affectionately known as Old Fish, he is a jaded flatfoot, more interested in ice-fishing than police business. Strictly speaking, he has little formal training in explosives. However, he is the best option available to the Harbin police when a mad bomber starts leaving fiendishly constructed explosive devices throughout the city in Gao Qunshu’s gritty character-driven police procedural Old Fish, which screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

The Northeastern city of Harbin is still largely influenced by its Russian cultural heritage and harsh climate. Winters can be pretty grim. It is not a good time to be rushing around the city, defusing one deadly package after another, but that is the position Old Fish finds himself in. Previously, most of his bomb disposal work involved unearthed WWII-era landmines and munitions. Suddenly, he finds himself contending with ticking time-bombs and sophisticated remote control detonators. It all makes for a dangerously exhausting day for Old Fish, depicted with exacting realism by Gao Qunshu.

Gao leaves the business of chasing the bad guys to other off-camera officers, concentrating on the Old Fish’s nerve-wracking role as a one-man bomb squad. He seems to be more interested in capturing the working conditions and processes of the Harbin cops than building traditional movie suspense. Through his lens, we see a bureaucratic police force rife with cronyism, where officers have trouble expensing a simple length of rope. This naturalistic approach is perfectly served by the dark, dilapidated tenement sets and cinematographer Luo Pan’s coarse visual style.

Former policeman Ma Guowei brings complete credibility and sincerity to the title role, clearly conveying the sharp intellect beneath his laconic facade. His veteran copper is not really world-weary per se, just a bit disillusioned after years of service. The surrounding cast also has that unquantifiable cop look down pat, including Pan Xingyi as a spirited younger colleague and screenwriter Lan Jinglin as their captain.

Gao’s choices in Old Fish are certainly unconventional, de-emphasizing most of the tried and true elements of the crime thriller. However, the drama and tension of the story remain inescapable. It is an intriguing film, featuring a richly textured lead performance from Ma. It screens at the IFC Film Center during the NYAFF on June 23rd and June 25th.

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Planet Connections: Wagon Wheel

The setting is a gypsy camp in late 1940’s Eastern Europe. That means all the inhabitants are survivors: Roma who somehow endured or otherwise eluded the horrors of the Holocaust. Of course, bigotry and discrimination persisted for the Roma and Sinti people, even after the shocking events of World War II were widely acknowledged. Yet, the most immediate challenge for one group of Roma is a question of succession in Wagon Wheel, a stirring new musical playing as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.

Setting the scene is our sometimes narrator, Bohdan, the clan’s carefree cantor. After a smartly written prelude, he explains the dynamics within his group. Tomas is their tribal leader, the Rom baro. His eldest son Zjohai is his heir apparent and the youngest son Laszo is the easy-going spare. However, Tomas’s untimely death will reveal a secret that will have profound repercussions on the tribe.

While Wagon’s Lear-like story of sibling rivalry is powerful stuff, future productions might consider reducing the resulting body count. It is hard to believe the tribe could allow matters to degenerate so precipitously into violence, given how strongly their will to survive would have recently been tested. To an extent, it also feeds into unfortunate violent criminal stereotypes of the Roma. However, several death scenes lead into some powerfully staged posthumous dance sequences.

In fact, all of the musical numbers are very entertaining, particularly the flag-waving opening, which does a nice job of introducing the cast and establishing the wheel metaphor of the Roma’s nomadic life and their perseverance as a people in the face of adversity. Featuring a trio of piano, drums, and guitar (with occasional violin) Wagon’s score, composed by Erato Kremmyda, certainly has a pronounced gypsy influence, but it does not rigidly conform to Roma musical styles. While one might quibble here and there with Robin Sandusky’s book, her lyrics are quite impressive, effectively distilling the essence of the Roma experience.

The music is also well-served by an able cast and dance corps, particularly Sam Pinkleton who brings both a mischievous charm and a sense of poignancy to Bohdan, Wagon’s troubadour guide. Ani Neimann also brings notable stage charisma and down-to-earth credibility to the role of Lilika, a relatively new member of the tribe who becomes an additional point of contention between the brothers.

Wagon deserves tremendous credit for putting the spotlight on a historical maligned community. It is also very rewarding musically. As part of the Planet Connections Festivity’s charitable program, all proceeds from Wagon will be donated to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an eminently worthy cause. It runs at the Robert Moss Theater through June 27th.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

NYAFF ’09: When the Full Moon Rises

Which are more dangerous, supernatural phantoms or Communist guerillas? Both stalk the jungles of a provincial Malaysian village in Mamat Khalid’s When the Full Moon Rises (trailer here), a wildly comedic homage to Malaysian B-movies that screens during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Saleh is the Malaysian Carl Kolchak. Recently fired by his newspaper for his sensationalistic stories, Saleh finds himself stranded in a secluded village following a truly freak accident. Forced to swerve off the road, his tire is punctured by an ancient dagger clasped in the hands of a skeletal body—mysterious circumstances guaranteed to arose the suspicions of an intrepid newsman such as he.

Fortunately for Saleh, he quickly encounters a helpful mechanic, who as an added bonus has his beautiful sister Cik Putih along for company. Of course, Saleh quickly falls head-over-heels for the mysterious beauty. Stuck in town, Saleh starts investigating the unexplained disappearances that have plagued the outlying area. He also attracts the attentions of Miss Rohayah, a sultry but scrupulously proper night club singer. Others are determined to see him leave, which they make clear even to him through their repeated beatings.

Moon might be a specific tribute to the lost Malaysian cinema of the 1950’s, but viewers only familiar with American low-budget genre pictures will still get all the jokes. It is a great looking film, shot in gorgeous black-and-white. It hits all the film noir notes, like the lamenting flashback framing device, with the right degree of irony.

At times, the actual plot is nearly incomprehensible, but arguably that too is in keeping with the genre, and the likable Rosyam Nor holds it all together nicely as the befuddled Saleh. Umie Aida, Avaa Vanya, and Corinne Adri also add plenty of appeal as the femme fatales vying for the innocent reporter.

At times, Moon brings to mind the best aspects of Roger Corman’s early films, including the totally cool retro graphics of the opening title sequence. It also features a swinging jazz-flavored soundtrack by Ahmad Kamal Baharudin, featuring a groovy combo credited as “The Pallbearers.” Frankly, Vanja’s songs as Miss Royayah are also far better than one might expect.

Clearly, Khalid has a genuine affection for the noir thrillers and horror films which inspired Moon. He keeps the lunar madness moving at good pace, spinning a whirlwind of oddball characters and things that go bump in the night. His humor runs the gamut from clever verbal asides to broad physical comedy (sometimes involving poor Saleh’s hernia). It is a fun little movie with a fantastic look and sound. It screens at the IFC Film Center during this year’s NYAFF June 20th and July 1st.

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NYAFF ’09: Dachimawa Lee

Dachimawa Lee might be a 1940’s secret agent, but his look and attitude are vintage 1970’s. A true-blue Korean patriot, Lee has a score to settle with a cabal of Japanese spies in Ryoo Seung-wan’s Dachimawa Lee (trailer here), a send-up of low budget Korean hwalgeuk action fare, which screens during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Dachimawa Lee loves his country so much, he can spontaneously break into patriotic song. However, when Geum Yon-ja, his lover and partner in espionage, is killed by the Japanese, it gets personal for the humorless action hero. Fortunately, Lee is teamed-up with Mari, another bombshell agent, but being a moody 1970’s era male chauvinist, it takes him a while to warm up to her.

Dachimawa’s crazy cast of characters are chasing a golden Buddha, concealing a list of Korea’s global network of agents—sort of a 1940’s version of Mission Impossible’s NOC list. Along the way, it pokes fun at most of the spy film conventions, like the Q-like gadget inventor. There are also plenty of high energy fight sequences, using some of the tried-and-true moves perfected by the Stooges.

The helmet-haired Im Weon-heui plays Lee unyieldingly straight. Essentially, he is a constant sight gag, sticking out like a sore thumb, but unfortunately as a rooting interest, he is not particularly likable. However, Park Shi-yeon (seen in the weepy melodrama A Love during last year’s NYKFF) exudes a luminous sex appeal and fragile vulnerability as the mysterious Mari. No question about it, she has star quality.

While Dachimawa has some reasonably engaging intrigue and double-crossings, it gets bogged down with a long subplot involving amnesia midway through. Still, it builds to the film’s best fight scene, featuring a meat clever. Despite its period charm, Dachimawa does not quite live up to the early promise of its super-groovy retro-70’s titles sequence. Still, Choi Seung-hyun’s appropriately funky themes give the action sequences some real flair.

The comedy of Dachimawa is broad and slapsticky. Clearly, it is not Crouching Tiger or The Hero, but genre fans should enjoy its relentlessly goofy spirit and its old school action aesthetic. It screens as part of this year’s NewYork Asian Film Festival on June 21 and 26th at the IFC Film Center.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

NYAFF ’09: K20 Legend of the Mask

Had Japan made peace with America and Britain, they would have been spared the destruction of WWII, but would have regressed into a Dickensian world of strictly segregated social classes and Victorian fashions. Such is the alternate historical backdrop of Shimako Sato’s K-20: the Legend of the Mask (trailer here), a Japanese homage to 1940’s pulp fiction and movie serials, which screens during the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival.

Heikichi Endo has no intention of becoming a gentleman thief. However, when the notorious K-20, the so-called Fiend with Twenty Faces, frames the innocent circus acrobat for his crimes, Endo must don the mask of K-20 to clear his name. Given the rigid class system of Mask’s 1949 Japan, the deck is stacked heavily against the working-class Endo. He can trust nobody, except for some street urchins who could have come straight out of Oliver Twist and the mechanical tinkerer from his former circus. However, he might find an unlikely ally in the Duchess Yoko Hashiba. She is attractive too, but unfortunately engaged to Baron Kogoro Akechi, the police detective who has become K-20’s Javert-like nemesis.

Mask works far better than other American-produced retro-costumed caper films, like The Shadow, The Phantom, and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Sato has a real talent for the aerial action sequences, including the particularly cinematic rescue of the Duchess during her wedding dress fitting. The period costumes and production designer Anri Kamijo’s grand set pieces create a richly realized steampunk look for the film. It also cleverly integrates colorful historical details, like Tesla’s experiments and the 1908 Tunguska explosion, into its alternate universe.

As Endo, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a pleasantly sympathetic reluctant hero. Likewise, Takako Matsu is engagingly charismatic as the plucky Duchess. Yet, Toru Nakamura probably shows the most intriguing screen presence as the aristocratic detective.

Sato usually keeps it all moving along at an agreeably frenetic pace, with a lot of caped people flying through the air. Unfortunately, the excessive class warfare of her screenplay is a periodic distraction from the otherwise pulpy entertainment. Still, she gets high style points for overall execution.

Mask is the kind of energetic genre fun the NYAFF programs better than anyone else. Stylish and colorful, it easily holds its own with most of Hollywood’s special effects laden fare. It screens at the IFC Film Center June 20th and June 30th.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

$9.99: the Animated Stories of Etgar Keret

It took a global village to breath life into these puppets. Their stories were written by an Israeli. Their production team is Australian, except for the Israeli-born, New York-based director. Their city could be any city, but incorporates elements of Tel Aviv, Sydney, and New York. They inhabit the sad and magical world of $9.99 (trailer here), Tatia Rosenberg’s stop-motion animated film based on Etgar Keret’s short stories, which opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

Life is capricious for many residents of an urban high-rise apartment building. Fortunately, young unemployed Dave Peck is getting some answers from a mail order publisher promising the meaning of life at the low, low title price. As he tries to make sense of the world, many of his neighbors seem to be losing their way.

Peck’s father Jim is facing an existential crisis after witnessing the suicide of a passive-aggressive homeless man. His brother Lenny increasingly surrenders his own sense of identity to his new supermodel girlfriend. Ron has been dumped by his school teacher fiancé because of his compulsive pot smoking, egged on by the two-inch stoners who visit him. Albert the widower just wants some company, which he gets when Jim Peck’s panhandler returns as an incompetent angel. Loneliness and alienation are the norm, as the neighbors interact and go about their business, largely oblivious to the strange events going on in their building.

While the puppetry of $9.99 is quite remarkable, it is important to note the film started with the stories of Etgar Keret (co-director of Jellyfish, another film of braided storylines), unlike many animated films that seem to start with some visual concepts and cobble a story together as they go. In a way, it is like an animated Short Cuts, combining an author’s individual stories into a larger mosaic. However, the relatively brief $9.99 is far more manageable than Altman’s three hour film.

Great credit should be given to production designer Melinda Doring, puppetmaster Phillip Beadsmoore, and animators Steve Cox and Anthony Elworthy for creating the compelling look and feel of the $9.99’s world and characters. Matching the peculiarly expressive puppets, $9.99 uses the voices of some of Australia’s best known actors, including recent Tony winner Geoffrey Rush as the homeless angel. Perhaps the strongest vocal performance comes from Anthony LaPaglia (of Without a Trace fame), somewhat playing against type as the middle-aged Jim Peck, making his story the most human of the film.

Despite its deceptively whimsical style, $9.99 is a dark, moody film. It is definitely animation for an adult audience—parents should be warned, there is on-screen drug use and puppet nudity. Even if some puppet-characters feel under-developed, like slacker Ron and his ex- fiancé, it is an intriguing film that fits together Keret’s stories quite effectively. It is easily the smartest, most distinctive looking animated feature film released since Persepolis. It opens Friday (6/19) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Photos courtesy of Regent Releasing.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Henriksen’s Cartography

Cartography
By Arve Henriksen
ECM Records 2086

Inspired by the sound of traditional Japanese Shakuhachi flutes but employing the latest in sampling and programming effects, Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s music is an intriguing dialogue between the ancient and the post-modern. Happily, there is also substance to his music, making Cartography, Henriksen’s debut ECM release as a leader, a challenging but richly satisfying recording.

Often compared to label-mates Nils Petter Molvaer and Jon Hassell, Henriksen’s moody, airy trumpet style should also appeal to fans of Erik Truffaz. All four trumpeters have a penchant for mixing their refined technique with various forms of electronic effects and distortion, arguably following in the tradition established by the Miles Davis electric sessions greatly shaped and edited by producer Teo Macero.

Blending elements of improvised jazz, avant-garde minimalism, and traditional Japanese music, Henriksen creates trance-inducing soundscapes, like the opening “Poverty and Its Opposite,” in which his lyrical trumpet seems to float above Jan Bang’s pulsating samples. Henriksen’s ability to channel Shakuhachi sounds through his instrument can be heard during the eerie introduction “Before and Afterlife,” the first of two spoken word tracks featuring David Sylvian, the former front-man of the British New Wave band Japan. Henriksen’s lonely trumpet and Bang’s unsettling programming effectively compliment its themes of transience and alienation.

Henriksen’s classical inspirations are probably most explicit on “Recording Angel,” which samples the Trio Mediaeval performing “Oi me lasso,” which they also recorded for ECM on their Words of the Angel release. Thanks to Bang’s disorienting effects and the leaders plaintive trumpet, the effect is nothing like Gregorian mood music.

Despite the highly produced nature of most tracks, both Henriksen’s improvisations and compositions are often quite arresting. On the hypnotic “Migration,” his trumpet quivers and cracks over the Bang’s otherworldly loops. Anchored by bassist Lars Danielsson, Henriksen sounds much like Chet Baker playing inside a Dali collage. Yet, perhaps his most poignant playing can be heard on the haunting “Loved One.” It all concludes with the elegant “Sorrow and Its Opposite,” which nicely synthesizes the disparate classical and electronic elements heard throughout the previous selections.

Cartography is consistently compelling music that really insinuates itself into the listeners ear. While Henriksen shows a bold flair for experimentation, his music has an undeniable power and is frequently surprisingly accessible.

Given the layers of production involved in Cartography’s creation, one might wonder how he sounds in live performance. Those curious New Yorkers should check out Henriksen playing with Nils Petter Molvaer tonight (6/16) at Le Poisson Rouge.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

IndioBravo: Baler

Think of the Siege of Baler as the Filipino Alamo, except it was the Spaniards making the last stand. 1898 was a rough year for the Spanish Empire, but the officers commanding the barricaded remnant refused to consider the possibility of defeat at the hands of the Filipino revolutionaries. The nearly year-long siege would be a miserable ordeal, which also separates two young lovers in Mark Meily’s historical drama Baler (trailer here), which screened during the IndioBravo Film Festival.

Half Spaniard and half Filipino, Celso Resurreccion volunteered for the Spanish Army hoping it would eventually take him to Spain, where he could reunite with his Spaniard father. While serving his term of enlistment, he meets Feliza, the beautiful daughter of an ardent nationalist. Unfortunately, great historical events will interrupt their star-crossed love.

Although Resurreccion tries to elope with Feliza, events conspire against them. As a loyal soldier, he finds himself taking refuge with fifty-some of his comrades in Baler’s Catholic Church, the coastal town’s only stone building. Like the famous Japanese soldier who finally surrendered in 1974 (also in the Philippines), the defenders of Baler refuse to believe news of Spain’s defeat. For nearly a full year, the Spaniards would hold out, allowing Resurreccion and his friend Lope only surreptitious glimpses at their Filipino true loves.

Baler is an unapologetic historical romance filled with canon fire and lovers embracing on wind-swept cliffs. Yet, the actual historical episode is indeed quite fascinating, lending itself to cinematic adaptation, particularly the Filipino rebels’ inventive attempts at psychological warfare. While Baler essentially depicts the Spanish officers as arrogant fanatics, it frankly humanizes the rank-and-file Spaniards (and half-Spaniards) far more than the largely faceless rebel forces.

Jericho Rosales and Anne Curtis (who is actually half-Filipino and half-Australian) are reasonably credible and sympathetic romantic leads. Frankly, Mark Bautista and Nikki Bacolod are at least as charismatic in supporting roles as their best friends Lope and Luming (if not more so). Still, Meily shows a deft touch with the material, never letting the action sink too deeply into over-ripe melodrama.

Baler is an old-fashioned sweeping weeper of a romance. Fans of the genre should find it a pleasing diversion. It also effectively dramatizes an intriguing but little known chapter of the Philippines’s history, making it a compatible fit for IndioBravo’s festival program.

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IndioBravo: Himala

The villagers of Cupang believe they are literally cursed. Suffering from desperate poverty and a prolonged drought, all they have is their faith, which is about to be sorely tested in Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (a.k.a. Miracle, trailer here), an internationally acknowledged classic of Filipino cinema that screened as part of the IndioBravo Film Festival.

Although Himala is very definitely a product of the Marcos era, in many ways it feels like a medieval mystery play. While unsparing in its depiction of the extreme privation denied by the regime, it portrays a village where faith is a tangible part of everyday life. Many sincerely believe the legend of Cupang’s curse, which supposedly fell over the town after they turned away the Virgin Mary disguised as a leper. It is a story which clearly had an enormous psychological effect on Elsa, a grown foundling with a tendency to daydream.

Following an unexpected eclipse, Elsa reports of her vision of the Virgin on a craggy hilltop and the miraculous healing powers then bestowed upon her. Initially, the church tries to dissuade her from such claims of religious revelation, but when stories of her supposed faith healing gain currency, her cult-like following takes on a life of its own.

Suddenly, Cupang is swarmed with pilgrims seeking Elsa’s healing power. Yet ironically, with the religious revival comes a surge in violent crime and other vices associated with those preying on the faithful. One such entrepreneur is Elsa’s childhood friend Nimia, a former Manila prostitute, who has returned home to open a nightclub of dubious propriety.

Combining depictions of the fervor Elsa inspires with the eerily desolate landscape, Bernal creates a truly apocalyptic vision of religion. Himala is a pointed critique of a church that prefers to deny the miracles its parishioners long for, as well as the credulous nature of those all too willing to believe and be fleeced by Elsa’s handlers. Yet, Bernal eventually seems to allow for a need to believe in something larger than one’s self.

Nora Aunor became an icon in the Philippines for her earnest portrayal of the pious Elsa. However, post-modern American audiences may well be more moved by the greater nuance of Gigi Dueñas as the tough but vulnerable, and ultimately compassionate, Nimia.

Himala seems like a film ripe for deconstruction. Despite his overt hostility to religion, Bernal created such a surreal environment, faith seems to be the only response which makes sense. It holds a place of distinction in Filipino cinema, having won several international festival awards and recently winning honors as the all-time best Asian film in the CNN Asian-Pacific Screen Awards viewers’ poll. It is a challenging film of undeniable power, making it a perfect retrospective feature for the first (hopefully annual) IndioBravo Film Festival and a logical candidate for the IndioBravo Film Foundation’s forthcoming monthly screening series.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

IndioBravo: Yanggaw

Every culture has their lycanthrope legend. In the Philippines, they have the aswang monsters, which are usually women and always savagely lethal. While falling prey to an aswang might be a gruesome fate, for one father, the anguish of watching his daughter succumb to the aswang affliction, the so-called yanggaw, is a far worse nightmare in Richard V. Somes’s Yanggaw, which screened during the IndioBravo Film Festival.

Living was hard enough for Amor’s provincial family before she was forced to return home, suffering from a mystery ailment. Briefly, her health seems to rebound in the loving environment provided by her father, Junior, a former local official. However, her condition soon degenerates precipitously. Unfortunately, even basic medical care represents a considerable economic sacrifice for Junior. In fact, his wife Inday prefers seeking the more reasonably priced services of local healers, causing friction between the worried parents.

Initially, it is not clear whether Amor’s malady is medical, paranormal, or even psychological. That uncertainty puts Junior in an agonizing position, made all the more desperate by his family’s subsistence standard of living. While Somes eventually tips his hand, Yanggaw keeps the audience off-balance for quite some time, wondering if they have been immersed in a world of the supernatural or the superstitious.

Clearly, Somes understands horror films are always scariest when they suggest rather show. While there are several on-screen killings, he films them in a manner that maintains the sense of mystery rather than reveling in gore. He effectively creates a mounting sense of anxiety from the unspeakable acts happening off-camera, including behind Amor’s door. The atmosphere is further heightened by the darkly foreboding environment. That jungle would be spooky at night even without an aswang on the prowl.

Though shot on a minimal budget, Yanggaw boasts a well-known Filipino cast, including the riveting Ronnie Lazaro as Junior, evoking the deep, primal dread of a parent fearing for their child’s safety. In truth, Junior’s family is very well cast, with the actors seemingly disappearing into the roles, which makes the disturbing scenes in their home all the more realistic and frightening.

Somes truly takes the audience to a new and unsettling place in Yanggaw. It is an intelligent horror film that deserves an audience beyond midnight screenings at fests. As part of the program at the inaugural IndioBravo Film Festival, Yanggaw nicely demonstrated the diversity of contemporary Filipino cinema.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

IndioBravo: 100

100 days are often used to measure new presidential administrations or wars, but for Joyce De Leon, it represents her approximate left on this earth. The winner of the Audience Award at the 2008 Pusan International Film Festival, Chris Martinez’s film 100 (trailer here), screened last night as part of the opening night festivities of the inaugural IndioBravo Film Festival showcasing Filipino cinema.

Joyce De Leon is frighteningly organized. When she learns of her imminent demise, she writes down everything she must finish on a series of post-it notes. While some pertain to mundane chores, others involve the things she would like to do before it is too late. Those post-its give 100 a structure much like The Bucket List, but Martinez’s film is not about a quick hedonistic fling before the final curtain falls. Ultimately, Joyce’s to-do list will draw her closer to the people who really matter in her life—her family and her best friend Ruby.

100 starts out as a bittersweet female buddy comedy, as Joyce and Ruby try to live in the moment as best they can. However, as the film progresses, the tone inevitably becomes much more serious. Fortunately, the quality of 100’s sensitive featured performances and some dark humor prevent it from slipping into mere soap opera territory.

Since many of those post-its involve eating, 100 also follows in the tradition of other cooking-as-metaphor movies with their lovingly filmed scenes of food preparation, like Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and A Touch of Spice. While there are plenty of other cinematic tasks on Joyce’s agenda, like bathing in the rain, the heart of the film concerns her relationships with her widowed mother, her best-friend Ruby, and her mysterious former lover Emil.

Despite the frequently unglamorous circumstances of her character’s illness, Mylene Dizon is a radiant screen presence as Joyce. She compellingly conveys all the contradictory emotions of a woman coming to terms with her impending mortality. Eugene Domingo also brings welcome energy to the tragic proceedings as Ruby, hitting the right comedic notes to lighten the mood without overplaying the material. Tessie Thomas is a bit more melodramatic as Joyce’s mother Eloisa, but she poignantly expresses the pain of a parent losing a daughter.

100 is not afraid to jerk the tears, but Martinez navigates his way to the emotional climax so skillfully, the audience never feels cheaply manipulated. He also uses effective images of the country’s striking natural beauty to emphasize how small and fleeting one human life can be. While some might label 100 a “chick flick,” it has an emotional directness that is surprisingly affecting. It screens again tomorrow night (6/13) at the Visual Arts Theater as part of the IndioBravo Film Festival.

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Smart Sci-Fi: Moon

What do you get when you combine the corporate responsibility of the Alien franchise with the décor of 2001? Surprisingly, the answer is Duncan Jones’s Moon (trailer here), a moody character-driven science fiction film, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

The son of David Bowie, Jones entered the world with the name Zowie Bowie, which he eventually changed for obvious reasons. For the record, Major Tom does not appear in Moon, nor is “Space Oddity” heard on the soundtrack, although Bowie’s fictional astronaut shares a similar state of mind with Sam Bell, Moon’s lonely protagonist.

Bell is mere weeks shy of completing his three year contract as the solitary caretaker of an energy harvester on the far side of the Moon. In that time, he has had no live interaction with other human beings, only recorded messages from his wife Tess. His only companion is the robot Gerty, who seems to be a combination of HAL 9000 and Twiki from Buck Rodgers, but with the silky-smooth voice of Kevin Spacey.

The isolation seems to be taking a toll on Bell, both mentally and physically. He even blacks out on a routine mission, crashing the lunar SUV. When he wakes up in the infirmary, Gerty tells him his orders are to sit tight and wait for the extraction team to come make repairs and send him home. Instead, he steals away to the crash site, finding the spitting image of himself, near-dead behind the wheel of the vehicle.

Suddenly, there are two Bells tensely coexisting in the Moon station, one weak and ailing, the other stronger and more assertive. New Bell quickly figures out some sort of nefarious cloning scheme is going on, and none of their identical implanted memories can be trusted. Everything connected to the company is now suspect, and considering how thuggish the extraction team members look in their computer ID photos, the clock would seem to be ticking for the Bells.

The visual effects of Moon are indeed quite effective, seamlessly integrating the two Bells in their scenes together. Yet, it is Sam Rockwell who really sells the premise, dramatically differentiating the two Bells. Frankly, it is a bit of a shock how much pathos he is able to wring out of sickly Bell.

Jones’s direction is tightly focused, evoking the claustrophobic conditions of the lunar base and Clint Mansell’s insinuating electronic score heightens the otherworldly atmosphere. Yes, the script relies on the kneejerk stereotype of the evil corporation, but it also offers an unambiguous ethical critique of cloning, staking out a pro-life position in that context.

Ultimately, Moon is a thoughtful excursion into the science fiction genre and a probing cautionary tale of the potential dangers of unchecked, industrial cloning. Essentially, it is science fiction for those who are usually uncomfortable with sci-fi. It opens today in New York, expanding to further cities in the weeks to follow.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Festival Alert: IndioBravo

Any film festival programming a seven and a half hour film deserves credit for its ambition, particularly in its inaugural year. Beginning tonight at the MoMA, the IndioBravo Film Festival will be screening an intriguing cross-section of Filipino cinema, including Lav Diaz’s nearly eight hour Melancholia, as part of a slate of fifteen features and eleven shorts.

Wisely, Melancholia will be split in half, with part 1 screening this Saturday and part 2 following on Sunday. Most features will be far more manageable in terms of time commitments, like the festival opener 100, one of two features which directly address love and impending mortality. Whereas 100 is a dramatic story of a woman given one hundred days to live, My Only U clearly takes the romantic comedy approach to its tale of a woman born into a family whose members never live past the age of twenty-five.

Donsol, which was the official Philippines submission for the 2007 Best Foreign Academy Award, should represent Filipino art cinema, as will Tirador, directed by Brillante Mendoza, who recently won the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Mendoza’s Serbis was recently released in America and is also definitely worth catching up with. As the story of a decrepit family-run adult movie theater, Serbis is provocative, but never prurient. Mendoza’s restless camera and sharply observed scenes of urban squalor mark him as a major international filmmaker to watch.

After tonight’s MoMA opening, most screenings will be at the School for Visual Arts Theater or the Millennium Film Workshop. Look for individual reviews here in the coming days.

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BIFF ’09: Cryptic

They are considered white elephants: those obsolete cell phones stashed in drawers and closets, seemingly waiting for phantom signals. Jessie Graver’s first clunky cell was her last birthday gift from late mother, so she keeps it for sentimental reasons. However, it might offer her an opportunity to undo wrongs of the past in John Weiner & Danny Kuchuck’s Cryptic (trailer here), which screens during the twelfth annual Brooklyn International Film Festival.

Shortly after giving Jesse her ninth birthday gift, Jesse’s mother died in a freak accident. Soon thereafter, her father remarried the flirtatious neighbor lady, greatly straining his relations with his daughter. The next ten years would be difficult for the increasingly bitter and alienated Jesse. Spending a moody nineteenth birthday with her pseudo-boyfriend, Jessie comes across her old phone. When she punches in the phone number of their old house, somehow her nine year-old self answers it.

When Jesse realizes she is talking to herself on that fateful day, she desperately tries to convince her not to let her mother in the pool. As she explains the impending disaster, her younger self notices her father’s dubious behavior, which the older Jesse then consequently remembers. Suddenly, Jesse must contend with her suspicious father at ages nine and nineteen, with both timelines in a state of flux. Time is going to get messy, and so is her family life.

Though it makes no serious attempt to explain its magic cell-phone Macguffin, Cryptic navigates the minefields of time-travel’s inherent logical contradictions reasonably well. Unlike the thematically similar Frequency, Cryptic is far more convincing in its treatment of Jesse’s substantial revisions of history.

Though obviously shot on a shoestring, Cryptic makes a virtue of necessity. Its stark HD look actually helps ground the film in reality. The sound quality of her calls is also effectively modulated, clear enough to be understood, but with a level of distortion sufficient to maintain a degree of mystery, particularly with regards to that unsettling third voice nineteen year-old Jesse thinks she hears during her calls to the past.

As Jesse Graver, at ages nineteen and nine respectively, Julie Carson and Jadin Gould both give smart, intense performances nicely selling the film outlandish circumstances. Toby Huss is also suitably creepy as dear old dad. Unfortunately, Johnny Pacar is a dull, petulant screen presence as Jesse’s on-again-off-again boyfriend (depending on the timeline).

Cryptic’s premise is obviously preposterous, but Weiner and Kuchuck have constructed a tense, character-driven science fiction thriller around it. It is a clever film that will probably appeal more to indie audiences than genre fans. It screens again at BIFF this Friday (6/12).

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Betty Blue Uncut

Betty is mentally unstable and Zorg is an enabler. Isn’t love grand? After exploding on the scene with Diva, Jean-Jacques Beineix followed-up with Betty Blue, the turbulent love-story of the passionate Betty and her handyman boyfriend. Despite bringing renewed international buzz to French cinema with its initial 1986 release, Beineix's definitive cut never screened theatrically in America, though it was briefly available on home video. Happily, Betty Blue: the Director’s Cut will finally hit American screens, beginning with its New York opening this Friday.

After just one week together, it is clear to Zorg being with Betty is an intense experience. She is beautiful, but her behavior can be erratic. Things are usually fine when they are alone, but when outsiders intrude, like Zorg’s leering boss, she lashes out at provocations, both real and imagined. While hurling Zorg’s possessions out their shack window during a periodic fit, Betty stumbles across his long abandoned novel. Convinced of his genius, she types up his notebooks and begins submitting them to publishers, beginning a long chain of disappointments that will further destabilize her mental condition.

Life with Betty seems to follow a pattern. Things start out great, but then something upsets her, leading to an episode of acting out, like burning down their shack or attacking a publisher who rejected Zorg’s dubious manuscript. Eventually, calm returns, but the cycles continue, becoming more dramatic each time.

Beineix’s film is most definitely intended for adults. As Betty and Zorg, Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade have no secrets from viewers, since neither of their characters seems to own a robe. Dalle is also frequently in a state of extreme emotional exposure, simultaneously violent and vulnerable. It is a harrowing, unforgettable performance.

Betty Blue is a dark, disturbing love story, but not a cynical one. There are some tender moments that seem to make all the chaos worthwhile for the couple, evidently more of which are to be found in the extended director’s cut. They are quite effectively underscored by Gariel Yared’s haunting theme. In a particularly poignant scene, Zorg and Betty even play it on-screen as piano duet during the wake for a friend’s mother.

With a running time just over three hours, Betty Blue is longer than most historical epics, yet it never feels padded or excessive. Like Betty herself, the film varies drastically in mood, swinging from slapstick comedy to realistic tragedy, but there is always logic to its mania. It is an exhausting film, more for its emotional ups and downs rather than its considerable length, which deserves it critical acclaim and notoriety.

It opens Friday in New York at the Cinema Village, with subsequent openings set for Los Angeles’s Nuart July 3rd, Denver’s Starz Film Center August 21st, the Landmark Kendall Square in Boston September 11th, and the Landmark E-Street in D.C. on October 2nd.

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