J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Erik Friedlander’s Birthday Single: Aching Sarah

It’s been real compact discs, but it’s pretty much over. Jazz and experimental cellist Erik Friedlander has already moved on. His last project debuted on vinyl in Europe, with an American digital release to come in the future. Now he has released a digital download only single Aching Sarah, which is for sale at on-line retailers and is currently available for free on his website in celebration of the musician’s fiftieth birthday.

Virtuously versatile, Friedlander largely made his name in “downtown” sessions with the likes of John Zorn and Dave Douglas. Yet his Broken Arm Trio is a swinging combo inspired by Oscar Pettiford, the bassist who became jazz’s preeminent cellist after suffering that fateful broken limb. Friedlander has also lent his cello to recordings by popular artists like Idol alumni Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken, as well as the difficult to classify Yoko Ono. It was while playing on her latest album that the cellist met trumpeter Michael Leonhart, whom Friedlander prominently features on Aching.

According to Friedlander, Aching is part of his “Cutting-Room Floor” series of compositions written for characters cut from films, existing only in the cellist’s music. As one would expect, it has a distinctly cinematic character, evoking the dreamlike atmosphere of the ethereal Sarah. Perfectly suited Leonhart’s warm tone, the vibe of Aching is not unlike that of Tomasz Stanko’s sessions with and inspired by his mentor Krzysztof Komeda, the great Polish film composer.

Even though it is Friedlander’s session, Leonhart’s trumpet is far more prominent than the leader’s cello. Yet, Friedlander’s sensitive accompaniment and eerie electronic programming give the track a strange but effective texture. It is in fact a rather notable example of how electronics can enhance a session, without overwhelming the musicians.

Aching is a sophisticated, insinuating musical statement that should appeal to a surprisingly broad spectrum of jazz listeners. The prize is right too, while Friedlander celebrates the big five-o. An intriguing piece to review, Aching probably portends more single reviews to come as the music business slowly and reluctantly adapts to new market realities. Regardless, it is a distinctive track, well worth downloading.

(Photo: Roland Rossbacher)

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Arrogant Sycophants: The Extra Man

Louis Ives is such a man of letters, the English professor even has his own personal narrator. Unfortunately, his story is rather dull, even when he joins a non-stop parade of quirkiness in Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman mannered comedy of manners The Extra Man (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Given his love of literature, particularly F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ives is perfectly suited for his teaching position in a small elite college. Unfortunately, he blows it when he momentarily succumbs to his troubling urge to cross-dress. Of course, after a scandal like that, there is only one place to go: hello New York City.

Ives quickly learns how nightmarish the housing market is here, reluctantly accepting a share with the arrogant eccentric extraordinaire Henry Harrison. The proudly prudish Harrison more or less lives hand-to-mouth, but he finagles his way into the parties and summer houses of Manhattan’s famously wealthy as a so-called “extra man,” a younger, non-threatening escort for rich widows. Ives at least has a pseudo-real job working for an environmental magazine, though it hardly seems like any real work gets done there. It is just an excuse to introduce him to his unattainable dream girl Mary. Despite his many issues, Ives allows himself to get sucked into Harrison’s world of chaste suck-uppery. If nothing else, he learns a few good tricks from Harrison for sneaking into the opera.

Adapted by Jonathan Ames (creator of HBO’s Bored to Death) from his own novel, Extra probably would have been far more satisfying as a short subject rather than a feature. Yet, the film is conspicuously padded with superfluous walking and driving scenes, stretching out a rather thin story arc. Kevin Kline is indeed perfectly cast as Harrison, the pompous social climber, delivering his witticisms with panache. However, the dreary and unconvincing character of Louis Ives, played by a seemingly half-asleep Paul Dano, just deflates the movie in scene after scene. Granted she is an environmental “journalist,” but the film glams down Katie Holmes’s Mary somewhat excessively, frankly making her rather plain looking and utterly charmless.

In truth, Extra is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Yes, there are some droll moments, but too much of the film is dedicated to Ives’s agonizing search for himself. Also, apart from the opera gag, the film never truly grounds itself in its New York location, merely using the City as a backdrop for the characters’ constant drifting about. Although not offensive per se, Extra just does not linger in one’s consciousness after it ends. For Ames admirers, it opens today (6/30) in New York at the Angelika.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

DocuWeeks ’10: Summer Pasture

Tibet is changing, which is exactly what China wants. For instance, it has become increasingly difficult for Tibetans not fluent in Chinese to conduct business transactions. Such are the challenges facing a young nomadic family in Tibet’s eastern Kham region presented in Summer Pastures (trailer here), an intimate new documentary from Lynn True and Nelson Walker (with co-director Tsering Perlo) that screens during the first week of New York DocuWeeks starting tomorrow.

In many ways, Locho and Yama are much like any other parents you would find anywhere else on Earth. Their greatest hope is for their daughter to have greater opportunities in her life than have been available for them. However, their daily chores are far removed from those western audiences will be familiar with, including the daily spreading and drying of manure for fuel that starts Yama’s daily routine. It is a hardscrabble life, but it is what they have always known.

Unfortunately, it is not clear the nomads’ way of life will be sustainable much longer. Inflation constantly drives up the price of their supplies, while they seem to have less to show for their labors. Adding further uncertainty, Yama suffers from a persistent heart ailment, yet she keeps working like an ox, in contrast to Locho, who often seems like an overgrown kid herding their livestock. Still, they seem to have a comfortable, easy-going relationship filled with laughter, until the nomads a rough patch, again not uncommon to couples around the world.

Even in their remote corner of Tibet, Locho and Yama feel the impact of great macro forces. However, True and Walker focus their sites on their deeply personal family drama. Conveying a strong sense of their personalities and relationship dynamics, Pasture will have most viewers rooting for this family as the film unfolds.

In some ways, Pasture bears comparison to Ilsa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass. Both documentaries use a livestock drive as the framework for a meditation on the potential end of a way of life. Like Sweetgrass, Pasture forgoes filmmaker commentary, instead capturing the nomads’ lives unfiltered, in a style not incompatible with that of Digital Generation Chinese independent filmmakers.

Though it requires some patience, it is certainly rewarding to meet Yama and Locho. Many western observers care about events in Tibet for a myriad of legitimate political, religious, and philosophic reasons. Still, it is the people themselves who should come foremost in such considerations. Indeed, Pasture captures their spirit and resiliency quite it vividly. It begins a one week run at the IFC Center tomorrow (7/30) as part of New York DocuWeeks.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Voices from the Killing Fields: Enemies of the People

Euphemisms can be terrible instruments of evil. For instance, when former Khmer Rouge cadres speak of “solving problems” what they really refer to is the systematic torture and execution of roughly two million Cambodians, whose only crime was to be deemed insufficiently Communist. Thet Sambath understands this all too well. After losing his parents and brother to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, he spent years interviewing former cadres to understand why they killed their countrymen. His self-funded investigation ultimately resulted in Enemies of the People (trailer here), a truly newsworthy documentary co-directed by Rob Lemkin, which opens in New York this Friday.

A newspaper journalist in Phnom Penh, Sambath’s quiet unassuming demeanor is perfectly suited to winning the confidences of his interview subjects. However, he does not advertize his tragic family history, especially not with the big fish, Nuon Chea, a.k.a. Brother Number Two, the Khmer Rouge’s chief theoretician, second only to Pol Pot (Brother Number One). For years, the largely silent Chea has maintained his ignorance of the Killing Fields, but Sambath wore down his reticence. With Chea facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, what he says on Sambath’s tapes is extraordinarily timely.

Beyond its potential relevance in the Cambodian Tribunal, Enemies is highly significant as a pioneering Cambodian documentary inquiry into the Khmer Rouge’s crimes. Providing historical context that will likely be instructive for western audiences as well, Sambath explains the Khmer Rouge directly looked to China as their revolutionary inspiration. Indeed, one can argue the Killing Fields were an indirect product of the Cultural Revolution.

The former low level cadres interviewed on camera also confirm their victims were brutalized and murdered out of ideological zeal. They were capitalist or counter-revolutionary “problems” to “fix.” The matter-of-factness of their videotaped statements is quite chilling, lending credence to Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. While some express remorse, decades after the fact, for the most part, it seems like Sambath is not tapping into feelings of guilt but a Dostoevskian compulsion to confess. Obviously suffering from his own survivor’s guilt, Sambath also has his own stories to tell. However, he appears to attain a measure of closure through his ambitious undercover research project.

In Enemies, Sambath puts to shame most western journalists who simply preen in front of cameras and regurgitate talking points. At no small risk to himself, he set out to get the truth, succeeding rather spectacularly given his modest resources. Frankly, the ignorance and misunderstanding of the Khmer Rouge borders on the criminal in the west, but Sambath and Lemkin bring their genocidal crimes into sharp focus. Thoughtful and legitimately bold, Enemies opens this Friday (7/30) at the Quad.

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The Living Funeral Party: Get Low

It was the Great Depression, a high-spirited time when small towns indulged the whims of their local eccentrics. In the case of Felix Bush, it also involved a fair amount of money changing hands. Even if it is so-called “hermit money,” the kind that comes in ratty balled-up wads of cash, there are plenty of folks willing to take it in Aaron Schneider’s Get Low (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

The real life Felix “Bush” Breazeale became a 1930’s media sensation when he held a “living funeral party” just to hear what folks would say about him after he died. To assure a proper turnout, the unconventional recluse offered his land in a lottery drawing for those who bought a ticket. It worked to the tune of 12,000 ostensive mourners.

Physically, Robert Duvall is a good fit for the historical Breazeale, known simply as Felix Bush in Low. Though once respectable, for decades he has lived in the woods with only his mule for company. Wild stories circulate about him in town that he would like told to his face. He is also preparing to “get low,” as in six feet under. However, he has more unresolved issues hanging over him than you can swing a dead possum at. While his premature funeral might help Bush find some closure, it definitely represents a big pay day for funeral director Frank Quinn, a street smart Chicago transplant.

Screenwriters Chris Provenzano & C. Gaby Mitchell have great ears for colorful regional expressions. However, their story arc holds few real surprises as it chugs along towards Bush’s redemption. In fact, when he finally makes his big public confession, it is almost anticlimactic.

Still, Bush is the sort of hardscrabble southern character Duvall seems born to play, conveying his gruff dignity as well as his caustic tongue. It is also a pleasure to see him opposite Sissy Spacek (as Bush’s very former romantic interest Mattie Darrow) in a film that isn’t Four Christmases. Bill Murray’s understated comic relief as Quinn definitely helps leaven the film’s earnest sentimentality. However, the POV character (Buddy, Quinn’s young protégé played by Lucas Black) is so bland and boring, he becomes a major drag on the film.

Low is not without its country charms, but given the talent assembled, it could have been considerably more. Notable for the wickedly sharp performances of Duvall and Murray, it opens Friday (6/30) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Regal Union Square Cinemas.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Foul-Mouthed Operatives of Operation: Endgame

Those cloak-and-dagger types are so villainous. They always want to eliminate America’s mortal foes. Of course, that just won’t do under the new Obama administration. It is time to reward our enemies and punish our allies, which leaves a cabal of old school assassins out in the cold in Fouad Mikati’s Obama-era spy spoof Operation: Endgame (trailer here), now available on DVD.

It is inauguration day, but something is definitely amiss in the underground bunker shared by Alpha and Omega, two rival black ops agencies deliberately established to counter each other—a scheme that makes sense only in Endgame’s paranoid world. Still, it supplies a decent set-up for some rude but admittedly funny office place humor. In fact, the first half hour zings along quite nicely as the explicit, politically incorrect insults fly back and forth between the assassins.

Unfortunately, it is blindingly obvious Mikati considers anyone who is not a lifetime subscriber to Mother Jones an unredeemable psychopath. Naturally, all matter of evil skullduggery is ascribed to Bush and Cheney, while the film wildly exaggerates the popularity of the incoming President, even though buyers’ remorse was by then already setting in.

The McGuffin kicking things off is botched operation to blow-up the warehouse that held all the evidence against the outgoing administration, conveniently centralized in one location. When it goes sour, it somehow ignites a death struggle between the Alpha and Omega factions. While both teams derive their codenames from tarot cards you can tell Alpha is evil because their ranks include an African-American Republican and a Southern girl who attended a mega-church. Subtly thy name is not Mikati (nor that of screenwriters Sam Levinson and Brian Watanabe). By contrast, Omega is a somewhat likeable collection of drunks, the very hot “High Priestess,” and the new guy who got tagged with “The Fool” on his rough first day on the job.

As Alpha and Omega go at each others’ throats they must improvise weaponry from common office supplies, leading to a few more grisly laughs. Indeed, Endgame could have been quite entertaining if it was not so intent on grinding its ideological axe. Rob Corddry (formerly of the Daily Show) proves to be a master of foul-mouthed insult humor as the DTing “Chariot.” Bob Odenkirk also deadpans his way to some decent laughs as “Emperor.”

Looking pretty scary, Ellen Barkin chews the scenery rather shamelessly as “Empress.” However, Maggie Q is indeed quite attractive as “High Priestess,” while also bringing some legitimate action movie cred to the proceedings. Unfortunately, Zach Galifianakis is largely wasted as the anti-social “Hermit.”

A truly squandered opportunity, Endgame potentially could have been a very funny espionage movie send-up (albeit darkly so). While Corddry and Maggie Q give the film a boast of energy whenever they appear on screen (for very different reasons), it ultimately sabotages itself with the constant halting distractions of its contemptuous political score settling. As a result, the cynical Endgame already feels dated. A real coulda-shoulda film, it releases on DVD today.

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Old School Paparazzi: Smash His Camera

Ron Galella’s photographs have hung on the walls of some of the world’s finest museums and earned him several restraining orders. A notorious pioneer of ambush celebrity photojournalism, Galella developed tactics that pushed the paparazzi envelope into stalkerazzi territory. As a result, people have plenty of things to say about him in Leon Gast’s documentary profile Smash His Camera (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In the film, attorney Floyd Abrams calls Galella “the price tag of the First Amendment,” an apt enough description to start with. Galella took photos of just about every major celebrity, whether they wanted him to or not. However, Galella’s professional interest in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bordered on the obsessive, resulting in legal action and restraining orders. One can begrudgingly admire his tenacity pursuing voluntary celebrities, suffering a broken jaw courtesy of Marlon Brando in one infamous dustup, but he seems to have crossed all sorts of lines with the former First Lady. After all, she only wanted to raise her children away from prying eyes.

Regardless of the feelings he might inspire, Gast makes it clear how directly Galella contributed to the rise of our vapid celebrity culture. Constantly immortalizing the famous in less than edifying positions, he accelerated Hollywood’s transition from classy to Kardashian. We also see him making the most of his fifteen minutes on talk shows like Dick Cavett (serving as a timely reminder of how dull television was in the 1970’s).

Best known for documenting the Foreman-Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” in When We Were Kings, Gast clearly has a keen understanding of the phenomenon of fame. Indeed, he presents another fascinating case study in Galella. Though he never outright challenges the paparazzo on camera, he gives plenty of time to Galella’s critics, including a withering assessment of his artistic merits from artist Chuck Close.

As an interview subject himself, Galella definitely brings the dish from his decades of scandal-mongering. Of course, he understands what is required of him—he is the ultimate celebrity expert. Still, it is obvious Galella finds Hollywood’s current crop of beautiful people distinctly boring as compared to the Brandos and Hepburns of his heyday. Yet, they are a product of the environment he helped wrought.

Fortunately, you do not have to like Galella to enjoy Smash. Nicely balancing tabloid intrigue with meatier issues, it is a relatively even-handed presentation of some rather controversial cultural history. It opens this Friday (7/30) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Rooftop Films ’10: Disco and Atomic War

Soviet television was so stilted and corny, even the Finns made fun of it. The Estonians saw them do it too, because they secretly watched the programs broadcasted by their Scandinavian neighbors. They also enjoyed quite a few American exports on Finnish television, much to the alarm of the Communist Party. Though they might seem cheesy to us now, Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma explain how programs like Dallas and Knight Rider helped undermine the Soviet empire in their droll documentary Disco and Atomic War (trailer here), a recent selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival which has its New York premiere this Saturday as part of Rooftop Films current season.

For Estonians of the filmmakers’ generation, Finnish TV was significant beyond mere entertainment. Kilmi recalls posting letters every week to his cousin in the south with the Ewing family’s latest scandals. Young Joosep’s early years revolved around the Finnish convertors he helped his father sell, learning the fundamentals of the black market at an early age. Indeed, nearly every Estonian seems to have been involved in some small act of rebellion, for the sake of their Finnish TV.

Of course, the Soviets were not thrilled with the Finish broadcasters and they let them know it. In fact, Disco is an eye-opening reminder of the extent to which Finland fell within what the Soviets considered their sphere of influence. To their credit, Finnish TV stuck to their guns, reporting the truth of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, leading to student protests on the streets of Helsinki. It also meant that Estonians knew the truth as well.

As important as the shocking images from Prague were, Kilmi and Aarma suggest the entertainment programming had a greater long term effect winning Estonian hearts and minds. It turns out Estonians dug Knight Rider just as much as the Germans. Disco dancing Finns and Star Wars the movie were also big hits (of course, this was before Lucas started mucking it up with new CGI).

However, the greatest triumph of what the film’s experts dub “soft power” might have been a fateful late night screening of Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle, a breakout soft-core porn film starring Sylvia Krystel that inspired dozens of sequels (which I’m sure everyone reading this is completely unfamiliar with). Officially, nobody was watching in Estonia either, but let’s just say there were a lot of tired people at work the next day.

Life under the repressive Communist system was certainly serious business, but Kilmi and Aarma have crafted some of the wittiest and breeziest cultural history viewers are likely to see on film for quite some time. They have a shrewd eye for visuals that playful tweak the dour Communists and convincingly evoke the spirit of the times with dramatic recreations of episodes from their childhoods. Ardo Ran Varres’ groovy soundtrack, heavily employing vibes and drum breaks, also helps maintain a lighthearted spirit.

As entertaining as Disco is, on a per-frame basis, it has to be the most informative documentary of the year. In its way, it is a testament to the innovative spirit of the Estonian people, who consistently found new ways to subvert Soviet censorship. It also demonstrates there is no such thing as a closed system for information, even under in an oppressive state like the USSR. Enthusiastically recommended, Rooftop Films screens Disco this Saturday (7/31) at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rooftop Films ’10: Daisies

“The world’s gone bad” two manic sisters tell us. It would get much worse two years later when the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia put an abrupt end to the period of political liberalization known as Prague Spring. Along with the tanks they also brought along many unamused censors who effectively ended the Czech New Wave of avant-garde filmmaking. Despite earning laurels on the international festival circuit, many significant Czech films were banned for decades, including Vera Chytilová’s already verboten Daisies, eventually acclaimed as a classic from the movement’s only female director. Now safely liberated from the vaults, Daisies has a very public screening this Wednesday as part of Rooftop Films 2010 summer season.

Since the world has gone bad, Marie I and Marie II decide they might as well go bad with it. For the duo, this seems to involve terrorizing prospective sugar daddies and consuming vast quantities of food in the most disruptive manner possible. In short, they are the dread terrors of Prague’s fine dining establishments. Politically though, they couldn’t give a toss.

In addition to being the only woman director of the Czech New Wave, Chytilová was arguably the most experimental as well. Freely toying with tinted filters, optical effects, and collages, epileptics should be warned on the way into Daisies. Yet, it should be a pretty groovy viewing experience for most of the Rooftop audience.

However, as a discrete cinematic statement, Daisies is more aptly described with words like “historic” and “significant” rather than “classic” and “enduring.” It is most definitely a product of its psychedelic time. Forty-some years later, the film’s provocations have lost some novelty, but the annoying Maries have not appreciated in charm.

Still, it is easy to see why the Communist apparatchiks pulled Daisies from theaters and black-listed Chytilová. It is a world away from Soviet Realism, finding heroism in hedonism. Indeed, the anarchy loosed on screen was simply bad for business in a captive nation, especially post-1968.

Today, post-post-1968, Daisies is often interpreted in feminist terms, sometimes dubbed a New Wave forerunner to Thelma & Louise. While there may well be some validity to such approaches, it seems like Chytilová was primarily concerned with testing boundaries—aesthetic rather than social or political. Still trippy after all these years, Daisies is not cinematic perfection but it is a fascinating time capsule. It screens for free courtesy of Rooftop Films this Wednesday (7/28) at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Premiere Brazil ’10: Time of Fear

Evidently, business is terrible for piano teachers in São Paulo. Fortunately, one widower finds a lucrative second job, working as a gofer for the criminal organization that runs the prison her young son is incarcerated in. Both get quite an education in criminal enterprise in Sergio Rezende’s Time of Fear (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s annual Premiere Brazil film series.

As Fear opens, Lúcia’s prized piano is suspended in mid-air outside the middle class apartment she and her son Rafael are vacating. It is sort of a cool sight, but she and Rafael find it hard to watch. Having exhausted her late husband’s death benefits, they are moving to a distinctly low rent neighborhood. Rafael is taking it particularly badly, so she lets him spend Mother’s Day evening with friends. In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Instead of taking in a movie, Rafael boasts a car and heads to the nearest street race. When things get a bit dicey there, the stupid kid accidentally kills an innocent by-stander. Of course, his mother has limited resources for his defense, but frankly Rafael does not have much of a case anyway. Ironically, he is somewhat lucky just to be sentenced to a proper prison (such as it is), instead of the over-crowded, festering holding cell.

On one fateful visiting day, Lúcia makes the acquaintance of Ruiva, a corrupt lawyer (and hair salon proprietor) who works for the criminal syndicate known as “The Command.” Essentially a Maoist Mafia, they control Rafael prison. Before she realizes it, Lúcia is running errands for Ruiva, frequently visiting the imprisoned founder, known as “the Professor,” with whom she quickly becomes romantically involved. However, there is dissension brewing.

Though it is not clear how exactly the Professor and his rivals differ ideologically, he is far less inclined to order assassinations of law enforcement figures, which should be sufficient to consider him the moderate. Since the rest of The Command is anxious to start killing, they naturally start with him. Then things really get violent.

Loosely based on an actual São Paolo prison riot that occurred on Mother’s Day 2006, Fear presents a scathing critique of the country’s justice system. Bizarrely, Brazil chose this lurid melodrama as their official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration. It had no chance. That does not mean Rezende’s film is not entertaining. In fact, it is compulsively watchable, like a James Cagney motherhood-and-racketeering B-movie on a crack bender.

Fortunately, Mother Lúcia is more-or-less a redeeming figure. Though ever loyal to her son, she also sharply reminds him an innocent life was cut short by his careless actions in one notably pointed scene. Indeed, Andréa Beltrão has a compelling everywoman presence as the piano teacher with street cred. While her work is fully developed and convincing, many of her costars are telenovella veterans and their roots often show. Yet, such performances are not out of place in a film like Fear.

Hardly Oscar bait or even art cinema, Fear is a guilty pleasure. Messy and sprawling, it would never be confused as a Brazilian tourism PSA either, but it offers an intriguing look at the nexus between radical leftism and organized crime (perhaps inadvertently). It screens again at MoMA tomorrow (7/25) as Premiere Brazil continues.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Mendoza’s Slingshot

It is an environment marked by illicit drugs, sex, violence, and dentures. Welcome to the slums of Manila. While viewers probably assumed life was hard there, Brilliante Mendoza confirms it in spades in Slingshot (trailer here), his hyper-kinetic drama of Manila’s have-nots that opens today at the Producer’s Club’s IndieHouse Cinema, Manhattan’s newest art-house venue.

Like a dodgy Paul Revere, a slum dweller runs through the Quiapo neighborhood shouting warnings of an impending police raid. It certainly seems as if everyone there has something to hide. Despite the tip-off, many are swept up in the dragnet. Fortunately, there is an election fast approaching, so the local party hacks are happy to supply get-out-of-jail cards. Frankly, everyone appears to be on the make, as the poor and marginalized prey on each other, while the sight of Manila’s finest hardly inspires relief in the citizenry. Such is the grimy, cynical picture of the Quiapo district Mendoza offers to shock viewers out of their complacency.

Though it might sound like a class conscious issue film (set during Holy Week for extra added irony), Slingshot careens through the streets of Manila like a ricocheting bullet. Engaging in some serious shaky cam, Mendoza and his fellow camera men follow a large cast of characters at street level, as they navigate the crime and degradation unfolding around them. While his early adrenaline stoked scenes of the raid and its aftermath are bracing, the film quickly becomes exhausting. It seems like Mendoza has little compassion for his characters, forcing them to endure all manner of indignities. Indeed, when the would-be cute Tess and her junkie boyfriend Rex start mucking through a sewer pipe in search of her lost dentures, the film approaches overkill.

Even though Slingshot features many established Filipino actors, it has a decidedly verité “cinema of the streets” vibe, almost like an amped up Cassavetes film. In a way, it is high praise to observe the film’s largely professional ensemble seem like untrained actors plucked from this seedy world. Still, Angela Ruiz definitely stands out as the dentally challenged Tess.

There is no getting around the grueling nature of Slingshot. In fact, it downright revels in its nihilistic naturalism. While it is undoubtedly a visceral viewing experience, without a strong rooting interest or any representative of basic human decency to latch onto, it is difficult to feel any anger or sadness during the film, unlike Mendoza’s deeply humane Lola. An accomplished but hollow film, Slingshot opens today (7/23) at IndieHouse.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Climbing, Surfing, and Sermonizing: 180° South

Chilean Patagonia is truly beautiful country that just cries out for an ambitious development scheme. At least, that seems to be the takeaway from a new documentary, unless it is trying to make a statement on conservation. It is hard to tell, because it only interrupts the on-screen action for an environmental lecture every forty-five seconds or so. That is unfortunate, because there might be a decent real life adventure film buried underneath all the proselytizing in Chris Malloy’s 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless (trailer here), which is now available on DVD.

Though they would eventually become wealthy outdoor sporting apparel magnates, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins (founders of Patagonia and North Face, respectively) were once rock-climbing surf slackers. Their 1968 ascent of Cerro Corcavado in Patagonia became the stuff of legend amongst climbers, especially for outdoor writer Jeff Johnson. As 180 opens, it looks like Johnson will finally have an opportunity to follow in his mentors footsteps up the Corcavado. Naturally though, he takes the scenic route, signing on as a crew member on a small yacht making its way to Chile.

In retrospect, this may or may not have been a mistake. In a freak accident, the mast snaps, forcing the yacht to take refuge on Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island) to improvise repairs. Though the delay shortens the window in which Johnson can safely attempt the climb, it allows him an opportunity to enjoy the local surf and to meet Makohe Ika, the first Rapa Nui woman surfer and the film’s most interesting character. When the yacht is finally sea-worthy again, she tags along to share the adventure, despite having no prior mountaineering experience.

Frankly, it would be far more interesting to learn more about how the skipper jury-rigged a new mast out of a tree trunk then to sit through the endless pontificating from Chouinard. To give credit where it is due, he and Tompkins put their money where their mouths are, buying huge tracts of Patagonia to put into conservation. However, the film frequently mentions their supposed critics, without talking to any directly or even explaining their complaints. As a result, 180 often appears to be building them up through the use of straw men. After all, what’s to debate? It is their money and their land. They can do with it as they see fit.

Indeed, the constant sermonizing in 180 frequently undercuts the inherent drama of Johnson’s expedition. It also ignores rather obvious questions that will be going through viewers’ heads, like is there anything between Johnson and Ika and if not, did he get shot down or what? Instead, we get dubious object lessons in “sustainability,” like an animated sequence attributing the near collapse of the Rapa Nui society in the 1860’s to over-consumption, rather than the wholesale slave-raiding that devastated the population.

Still, 180 is certainly pretty to look at. Daniel Moder’s cinematography conveys a sense of the breadth and majesty of Patagonia while also capturing some intense climbing and surfing sequences. It is accompanied by a surprisingly effective moody indie rock soundtrack that is likely to appeal to the film’s target demographic. However, without a stronger human story to follow, the film largely feels like a series of motion postcards, interrupted by polemical green PSA’s.

Despite the general likability of Johnson and Ika, 180 is a frustrating film that sabotages its message with its heavy-handedness. The scenery is striking though. Some may start streaming it on Netflix with the sound off, just as a screen saver. Yet, as a work of cinema, 180 is pretty thin. Now available on DVD, it also has select one-night only theatrical screenings scheduled in the coming weeks.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Return of Sally Potter’s Orlando

Virginia Woolf was never considered commercial, especially in 1993 when Sally Potter brought her fantastical novel Orlando to the big screen, nearly ten years before Nicole Kidman won an Oscar playing the modernist writer in The Hours. Despite its reputation as her most easily digested work, adapting the century-spanning gender-bending story long seemed a tricky proposition. However, Potter’s Orlando pulled it off surprisingly well, despite her postmodern stylistic flourishes, or perhaps because of them. Seventeen years later, the digitally re-mastered, high def Orlando (trailer here) returns to New York theaters for a revival run beginning this Friday.

Orlando might look feminine, but that was expected of sensitive young Elizabethan men of leisure. Still, Orlando is especially so, to the extent that the Queen herself is so struck by his delicate features, she awards him a grand estate, with the proviso that he: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” With a considerable fortune at stake, the eternally youthful Orlando honors the terms of the queen’s bequest.

Of course, being immortal gives one a lot of time to kill. At first, Orlando pursues the introspective rewards of poetry, only to be disillusioned by the ingratitude of an established poet whom he had granted an indefinite stipend. To learn something of the world, he accepts a diplomatic post in the Middle East, where in fact, he forges a manly friendship with the local Khan. Orlando’s exotic assignment truly seems to agree with him, until war breaks out. So traumatic is the experience, Orlando mystically transforms his gender, yet the newly minted woman assures the viewers she is the same person on the inside.

At times, Orlando indeed appears to address the audience directly, or perhaps he (and then she) is merely ruminating aloud. It is one of the many ambiguities that should not work but somehow does. Of course, the key to the film is Tilda Swinton’s star-making turn as the eternally youthful protagonist. Coolly detached and eerily androgynous, it is fascinating to revisit her work in Orlando after her recent performance in I Am Love, distinguished by its passion and femininity. Yet, she is oddly compelling when playing Orlando as either gender.

Potter masterfully condenses centuries into ninety-three minutes, evoking both a mock epic spirit and a sense of contemporary irony. She also self-consciously emphasizes the gender issues at play, casting gay literary icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. Yet, for all its knowing intellectual gamesmanship, Orlando is still an absorbing film..

A composer as well as a filmmaker, music always plays an important role in Potter’s films, but in Orlando it plays a critical role pulling the audience into the story. Blending classical and electronic styles, her insinuating score co-composed with David Motion creates an otherworldly atmosphere perfectly suited to her vision. Cinematographer Alexei Rodionov’s rich sweeping visuals also heighten the sense of mystery and romance.

Undeniably the product of an auteur, Orlando is already justly considered Potter’s masterwork. Though her recent films, like Rage and The Man Who Cried pale in comparison, her subversive take on Woolf has lost none of its power. As one of the most technically accomplished indie films of the 1990’s (maybe ever), it is well deserving of its digital rerelease. It opens this Friday (7/23) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

L’Affaire Farewell

Instead of the man who knew too much, he was the spy who knew everything. Codenamed “Farewell” by the French, Colonel Vladimir Vetrov was charged with reviewing the intelligence the KGB gathered on the free world—every speck of it, including the extent to which each western intelligence agency had been compromised. He also knew the Soviet government had failed to live up to its promises. President Ronald Reagan called the resulting L’Affaire Farewell: “one of the most important espionage cases of the 20th century.” It also inspired Christian Carion’s espionage drama Farewell (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday night.

Like the real-life Vetrov on whom he is based, Colonel Grigoriev was once stationed in Paris, where he rebuffed the advances of the French and American intelligence services. However, by 1981, the Colonel had come to the conclusion the Soviet Union needed drastic reform, so he approached the DST, the French equivalent of the FBI (the only western intelligence agency the KGB had not bothered to infiltrate), through Pierre, a French businessman with no formal involvement in the world of espionage.

Out of his element, Pierre wants to extricate himself from the affair as soon as possible, but Grigoriev insists on dealing only with him, considering the professionals untrustworthy. Partly in recognition of the value of Grigoriev’s intel and partly out of a sense of budding friendship, Pierre becomes the Colonel’s amateur handler, passing a wealth of information on to the DST.

While Pierre and Grigoriev meet in parks and train stations, another alliance in being forged between President Reagan and Mitterrand, France’s newly elected socialist prime minister. The President is less than thrilled at the prospect of Communist ministers in the new French cabinet, but Mitterrand has an olive branch to offer: “Farewell.”

Farewell’s portrayal of these influential world leaders is quite fascinating and surprisingly even-handed. Philippe Magnan’s Mitterrand is intelligent but aloof, coming across like more than a bit of a cold fish. Refreshingly, Pres. Reagan is not depicted as a doddering bumbler, but as an engaged and commanding leader. Yes, there are scenes of Reagan using classic film as a metaphor with his National Security Advisor (played by an almost unrecognizable David Soul), but never in way that calls his judgment into question.

Yet, there is something about Reagan’s distinct mannerisms that are hard to emulate without lapsing into caricature. American actor Fred Ward takes a good shot, but he still sounds more like a Saturday Night Live impersonation than a real flesh and blood individual. Frankly, Ronald Reagan remains such a commanding presence in the national consciousness it makes any dramatic representation problematic.

Fortunately, Farewell’s primary leads are uniformly excellent. Though he looks appropriately rumpled, Emir Kusturica plays Grigoriev sharp as a tack, keenly aware of his own personal contradictions. As Pierre, Guillaume Canet’s performance is also smart and understated, avoiding the headshaking “what-did-I-get-myself-into” histrionics. As a result, viewers believe the unqualified trust Grigoriev places in him.

Technically well produced, cinematographer Walther Vanden Ende and designer Jean-Michel Simonet effectively capture the oppressive drabness of the Brezhnev era. Yet ideologically, Farewell resists easy classification. While it certainly conveys the repressive and corrupt nature of Soviet Communism, the film sometimes suggests a John Le Carre-like equivalency, at least between the rival spy masters. However, the shrewd conclusion again challenges the audience’s conceptions of faith and loyalty, within the context of the preceding “L’Affaire Farewell.”

Considering how long it has been since a brainy spy film sneaked into theaters, Farewell is quite welcome indeed. Featuring two compelling lead performances and a meaty story that intrigues on several levels, it is an engrossing film. It also might be the fairest shake Pres. Reagan has gotten on screen since his inauguration in 1981, ironically coming by way of France. Definitely recommended, Farewell opens Friday (7/23) I n New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema.

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Potter at MoMA: I Am an Ox . . .

During World War II, Soviet Cinema propaganda often targeted women, exhorting them to do their part for the war effort. As a result, films from the era feature women willing working, fighting, and most of all suffering for the sake of the Soviet homeland. Taking its title from a period political poster, Sally Potter surveyed the contributions of women filmmakers to Soviet cinema for British television in I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman: Women in Russian Cinema (trailer here), which screens as part of the MoMA’s current Potter retrospective.

Produced in 1990 for the British television series Women Call the Shots, Ox is definitely a product of Glasnost-induced optimism. One assumes that Potter and her crew considered the privilege of shooting in the USSR significant in its own right, because the questions she asks are distinctly of the softball variety. When one Russian cinematographer mentions the stringent ideological requirements of the Soviet film authorities, Potter lets this important and telling avenue of inquiry die on the vine. Not wanting to antagonize her subjects is a reasonable concern, but she could have at least politely asked the obvious follow-up questions.

Instead, we largely hear age old questions about whether they specifically identify themselves as women filmmakers or if they consider such terms condescending. Even in that great egalitarian workers’ paradise, Ina Churikova suggests that once actresses reach a certain age, as she had, they find it increasingly difficult to find meaningful work. Evidently, Hollywood is like the old USSR in more ways than we realized.

Throughout Ox, Potter presents many intriguing movie clips that seem ripe for feminist deconstruction. In one film’s climax, a matronly commissar abandons her newborn so she can continue the fight to protect the revolution. One could easily ask if Soviet films similarly urge men to abdicate their claims to fatherhood for the sake of the Bolshevik cause. Indeed, based on the scenes seen in Ox, one could argue Soviet cinema seems to revel in the suffering of women. After all, the slogan which supplied the film’s title establishes a pretty clear hierarchy, with the ox on top and women at the end.

Yet Potter eschews any provocative analysis or interpretations. Scrupulously avoiding macro-controversies, she largely interviews her subjects about the specifics of their own careers. Of course, for those viewers unfamiliar with filmmakers like Kira Muratova, such an approach will most likely be disappointing.

Ox might have been a notable undertaking at the time, but it already feels like a dated artifact that willfully ignores the huge elephants of state censorship and repression still lumbering through the room. Only of historical interest to those studying Potter’s oeuvre, Ox screens at MoMA tomorrow (7/21).

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Rooftop Films ’10: The Ape

When movie protagonists constantly have their Bluetooth affixed to their ear, it is always a strong indication they are bad news. Being a driving instructor should probably count as the second strike against Krister. Waking up covered in someone else’s blood pretty much seals our of impression of the disturbed Swede, but director Jesper Ganslandt offers plenty more disturbing evidence in The Ape (trailer here), which screens this Friday at Brooklyn Tech as part of Rooftop Film’s summer season.

Krister is having a bad day. After waking up in the bathroom smeared in blood, he bikes over to the garage to pick-up his car. Late for his first appointment, he bickers with his co-workers and inappropriately yells at a student. Then he takes in a quick game of tennis. Something is not right here. Though Ganslandt never explicitly spells it out, it becomes increasingly obvious as the film follows Krister on his erratic path.

It is hard to discuss The Ape without giving too much away, though most viewers should have a bead on what is going on by the halfway point, at least. It is an icy cold film (even by Scandinavian standards) that never makes concessions to the audience. Ganslandt refuses delve into Krister’s psyche, only showing his surface reserve. As a result, he never invites sympathy or understanding for what we surmise he has done, presenting it all rather matter-of-factly.

As Krister, Olle Sarri is in every scene, but Ganslandt often shows obliquely him from odd angles, again deliberately discouraging attempts to bond with the character. Still, we see enough of Sarri to be chilled by his intensity. Yes, his character could be considered the titular ape, but that title also seems to refer to the film’s overwritten final exchange. It might be Ganslandt’s only misstep of the film, though it is certainly possible it plays better in Swedish.

Grimly realistic and tightly edited by the director, The Ape is an unsettlingly effective portrait of the banality of evil. However, the subtle ways Gansladt reveals his horrors might not be best suited for outdoor presentations. Regardless, that is how it will have its New York premiere Friday night (7/23). Tickets are available on Rooftop Film’s website, but if you saw Winnebago Man in theaters, bring your stub and get into any remaining Rooftop screening this summer for free.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Woman on Fire Looks for Water

No frogs were killed in the making of this film. Okay, maybe one. A whole lot of fish and cockles also met their maker during the shoot, but that is just a fact of life for a hardscrabble riverside Malay community. It might not be glamorous, but there is a living to be made from the river’s bounty. It is relationships that are difficult in Woo Ming-jin’s Woman on Fire Looks for Water, which screened at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

Ah Fin works at a shellfish factory, selling live frogs on the side. He is crazy about his sorta-kinda girlfriend Lily, keeping her well stocked with prime frog and even somewhat seriously broaching the subject of marriage. Though she also works in a fish factory, she evidently comes from a good home. By contrast, Ah Fin and Ah Kau, his fisherman father, must eke little better than a subsistence living. It would be much easier for Ah Fin if he would just accept the advances of his boss’s daughter, but he is in love.

Ah Kau understands the pain of unfulfilled love only too well. All too conscious of his impending mortality, he tries to settle some unfinished business with the woman he always pined for. Indeed, Ah Fin does not want to repeat his father’s mistake, but suddenly, like a true teenager, he falls out of love with Lily.

As Lily, Foo Fei-ling should probably be way out of Ah Fin’s league, but she brings a quiet expressiveness to the role that never wilts under Woo’s long, patient close-ups. In contrast, despite showing some convincing puppy-love chemistry with Foo, Ernest Chong is something of a cold fish as Ah Fin. However, Chung Ah-nga lends some quiet gravitas as his faltering father.

Stylistically, Woo’s approach is quite similar to the aesthetics of China’s Digital Generation of independent filmmakers. Meditative and impressionistic, Water would not be out of place in a Global Lens showcase of international cinema. Indeed, it is an art film with a capitol “A.” The audience also learns quite a bit about cleaning and salting fish and assorted mollusks during the film, whether we wanted to or not. Tidying up is a snap too, since all the waste products seem to go back in the river. It is biodegradable after all. Still, some viewers might feel like a nice piece of veal after watching Water.

As a story-teller, Woo is more interested in those on the short end of their relationship dynamic. Initially, he focuses on Ah Fin when the young man is still earnest and dutiful. When the young man turns cold and distant, he shifts the film’s orientation to Lily, who suddenly misses Ah’s attentions.

Clearly, Woo privileges mood, setting and character far above storyline. In fact, some plot points are dispensed with so elliptically, it frankly compromises narrative clarity. Woo was also represented at this year’s AAIFF with Slovak Sling, a contribution to the 15Malaysia short film collection that is Water’s stylistic polar opposite. At just under five minutes, it is essentially a punch-line short. All story and no serious character development, it is a pointed but very funny attack on the pervasiveness of petty corruption in Malaysian society.

Based on both films presented at AAIFF, Woo should definitely be considered an emerging star of the film fest set. He can also be quite demanding, as is the case with Water. It is a beautiful film in many ways, but it can also be maddening. Still, it showcases Foo’s talent quite effectively. Look for Water on the festival circuit, but do not hold your breath for a theatrical release. The 33rd AAIFF continues with more bold selections through Wednesday (7/21) in Manhattan’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Zoom Hunting

If you sleep around, at least have the good sense to close the blinds. Had a pair of illicit lovers simply done so, it would have avoided all sorts of trouble in Li Cho voyeuristic thriller Zoom Hunting (trailer here), which screened during the 33rd Asian American International Film Festival on an appropriately steamy day in Manhattan.

The Yang sisters are beautiful and creative. Ruyi, the younger, is a photographer who leaves her dirty coffee cups all over their apartment. Her older sister-roommate Ruxing is a neatly organized novelist suffering from a recent bout of writer’s block. Ruyi thinks she has stumbled on the cure. Inadvertently, she snapped some revealing photos of a couple in the apartment building across the street. Later spying the woman on the street, Ruyi follows her, deducing she is in fact a married mother involved in a torrid affair. Surely such voyeurism should also spark Ruxing’s inspiration.

Indeed, after a few initial “no-really-how-could-I’s,” Ruxing is typing away again, using her sister to stakeout the love nest. Dozing off amid her surveillance, Ruyi wakes in time to observe some sort of physical altercation going on in the apartment, but she cannot make out the details. Concerned, she calls five-o, but the plodding flatfoots do not find anything amiss. Her sister seems to be acting a little weird though. From here, suspicions start to mount.

Zoom has an odd vibe. It is sort of like a naughty late night cable thriller directed by an art-house filmmaker from a woman’s point of view. While its debt to Rear Window is inescapable, Cho keeps a few clever revelations tucked up her sleeve, divulging them quite deftly in the final act. Though the ultimate twist is a bit predictable, at least she keeps it ambiguous, which makes it less frustrating.

Though she looks like she should be in the fashion shoots rather than behind the camera, Ning Chang is convincingly down to earth as Ruyi. Playing it smart by genre standards, Chang definitely keeps the audience’s sympathy, even when the drama lurches a bit over the top. By necessity, Zhu Zhi-Ying is coolly reserved as Ruxing, effectively setting up Zoom’s big reveals as a result.

Despite content that will definitely appeal to male viewers, Zoom is clearly more in-tune with its feminine side. Though it would hardly be fair to call it a man-bashing movie, its male characters are essentially self-centered cads, boring working stiffs, or nice but goofy old guys. Still, it is hardly a war of the sexes considering how much screen time is allotted to the two sisters, Chou Heng-Yin as the married woman in Ruyi’s photos, and Chinese-American actress Michelle Krusiec in her Taiwanese film debut.

Though it has some rough stylistic edges, Zoom is never dull, pulling viewers through at a healthy gallop. Highly commercial with an engaging lead performance, it ought to at least find an American shelf-life on DVD in the future. It is one of several selections nicely showcasing Taiwanese cinema at this year’s AAIFF, which continues through Wednesday (7/21), mostly at the Chelsea Clearview and Quad Cinemas.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Running Turtle

There is not much for Det. Jo Pil-seong to do in his provincial town besides drinking and gambling. Regrettably, he is far better at the former than the latter. Typically, he only has to worry about his angry wife, until he crosses paths with a wanted fugitive. Things get pretty messy for the out of shape flatfoot in Lee Yeon-woo’s quirky manhunt film Running Turtle (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2010 Asian American International Film Festival.

Det. Jo is about as a corrupt a doofus as is humanly possible while still being generally sympathetic. His wife though is already running out of patience. When Jo gets suspended from the force, he doubles down on stupidity, cleaning out his wife’s savings to bet on a long shot in the upcoming bull butting tournament. It seems to work out though when his bull pulls off an upset. However, he loses it all when the fugitive Song Gi-tae takes out Jo’s bookie, stealing his winnings just as the slovenly copper came to collect them. Giving chase, Jo eventually mixes it up with the perp, only to wake up black-and-blue and wearing his own cuffs. It is just the first of many humiliations Jo will endure as he pursues his new nemesis, as well as his money.

While erratically careening towards a mano-a-mano showdown between the two antagonists, Turtle takes its time to savor Jo’s angst and family dysfunction. Indeed, some of the film’s most endearing scenes are those of Jo and his daughter Ok-soon, serving as a reluctant go-between for her parents.

As Jo, Kim Yoon-seuk (the breakout star of The Chaser) definitely looks like a loser, projecting an appropriately hound dog likability. Unfortunately, the next sharpest drawn character is his daughter Ok-soon, nicely played by youngster Kim Ji-na. By contrast, his colleagues on the force are blandly interchangeable. Yet, Jeong Kyeong-ho is the most problematic, exhibiting no real presence as the villainous Song. Frankly, he is just kind of dull.

Director Lee’s screenplay offers a few pointed observations of bureaucratic infighting and the vapid celebrity culture that causes some kids to adopt Song as a cult hero. He also respects the small town setting, resisting the urge to use the rural population as the butt of cheap jokes. (After all, bull-butting is probably an endlessly fascinating sport for those in the know.) While he seems to take delight in piling tribulations on Jo’s head, he never lets the tone get to dark.

Largely carried by Kim, Turtle is a small but reasonably entertaining diversion. Blending family drama and small town idiosyncrasies with traditional thriller elements rather smoothly, fans of Korean cinema will find it worth checking out when it screens this Sunday (7/18) at the Chelsea Clearview as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Norse Allegory: Valhalla Rising

Consider him the original cage fighter. It is around 1000 AD and the Christians are coming, but a band of Norsemen will enjoy their Pagan ways while they can. That includes forcing their slaves to fight to the death in Nicolas Winding Refn’s moody Viking film Valhalla Rising (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Known only as “One Eye” (for obvious reasons) a hulking Norse killing machine lives shackled inside a crude cage far up in the isolated Highlands. He is only let out only to compete in death matches. It is said no man can own the mute One Eye longer than five years. Maybe there really is a curse attached to him, or perhaps it is just gives the lethal savage more time to figure how to kill his masters. Regardless, his current owner resolves to keep him past the five year mark. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake.

After a grisly escape abetted by Are, the young boy who brought One Eye his occasional gruel, the newly liberated slaves fall in with a band of Christians off the join the Crusades. However, when their boat sails into a preternatural mist, the already portentous film veers into some truly murky allegorical waters.

Despite the ample supply of severed heads, Valhalla is not really a hack-and-slash movie. It is more like a buffet of Pagan and Christian symbolism churned through a Jodorowsky film. Indeed, lest we forget how significant it all is, we are periodically reminded by Refn’s loaded chapter titles (“Men of God,” “Hell,” “The Sacrifice,” etc.). Yet, the film’s metaphysical implications are a bit obscure, despite Refn’s agonizingly deliberate pacing, often holding scenes so long they almost become frozen tableaux. Still, cinematographer Morton Søborg dramatically captures the harsh beauty of the mountainous landscape with striking vistas that suggest the ephemeral smallness of man, except for One Eye of course.

Even those who have found Mads Mikkelsen a bit of a cold fish in previous films (like Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky) will have to admit he is all kinds of awesome as One Eye. Beyond convincing, he burns up the screen with raw Nordic seething. Frankly, he is pretty darn scary here.

Valhalla is a strange film that seems destined to find an audience in midnight screenings. Its apocalyptic themes and medieval macho-ness make an unlikely cocktail, but there is no denying Valhalla is the work of a visionary director (albeit one with a heavy hand). He truly immerses viewers in One Eye’s brutish world, giving them a tactile sense of the cold, damp, Godless Highlands. (Why one would want to go there, is another question entirely.) It opens tomorrow (7/16) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Japan Cuts ’10: About Her Brother

Tora-san, the traveling salesman and prodigal half-brother, was a comic staple of Japanese cinema from 1969 to 1995. All forty-eight films were scripted by Yoji Yamada, who also helmed all but two of them. Though much more serious in tone, it is hard not to recognize echoes of his beloved tramp in Yamada’s latest film, About Her Brother (trailer here), the closing film of the 60th Berlinale which also screens on the final night of this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

Koharu is a child of the 1970’s, who directly references the Tora-san series in the film’s introduction. However, she has an old-fashioned name thanks to her mother Ginko’s brother, her crazy Uncle Tetsuro. Though Tetsuro tried to be a responsible brother and uncle shortly after the death of Koharu’s father, he just was not cut out for it. Disappearing for long periods of time, Tetsuro usually pops up unexpectedly at the most inopportune times, to make a drunken spectacle of himself. When his surprise appearance at Koharu’s wedding thoroughly mars the ceremony, his family officially cuts their ties. Yet, Ginko still finds herself cleaning up after her younger brother.

While Brother’s storyline is strictly Melodrama 101, Yamada is a remarkably sensitive director, finding the dignity within each character. Indeed, the fitting symmetry of its conclusion nicely redeems the occasionally overly weepy on-screen drama. Yet, it is the film’s powerful central performance that really holds it all together.

Reuniting with the star of his highly recommended historical drama Kabei: Our Mother (one of last year’s ten best films), Yamada again casts Sayuri Yoshinaga as a single mother coping with trying times. A warm and elegant screen presence, her understated performance is truly touching. As her ne’er do well brother Tetsuro, Tsurube Shofukutei is not exactly subtle, but he has some poignant moments with Yoshinaga. While the role might be a bit underwritten, the endearing Yū Aoi also conveys Koharu’s maturation quite effectively.

Though not as deep or rewarding as Yamada’s recent historical dramas, Brother is a refreshingly earnest and even wholesome family film. Portraying decent, hard-working people doing the best that they can (and also good old Tetsuro), Brother has real heart. It screens this Friday (7/16) at the Japan Society, as the 2010 Japan Cuts sadly comes to a close.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Slice

It is not called Slice for nothing. In fact, Kongkiat Khomsiri’s serial killer thriller is everything you suspect and then some. You will never look at red luggage the same way if you catch Khomsiri’s dark, psychologically complex film during this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

A thoroughly corrupt cop, Papa Chin will be conveniently scapegoated if he cannot clear a particularly gruesome string of killings. Coincidently, aspects of the case suggest a connection to Tai, his former subordinate currently cooling his heels in prison as part of Chin’s nefarious machinations. Out of desperation, Chin reactivates Tai, so he can return to his hometown to follow up on his leads. Unfortunately, all signs point to Nut, an effeminate boy young Tai either befriended or bullied, depending on whether any other kids were present.

What follows is something of a cross between Stand By Me and The Silence of the Lambs as Tai plumbs his increasingly disturbing childhood memories. However, with the clock ticking and the surfer dude-looking Papa Chin using Tai’s wife as extra added motivation, the psychologically damaged Nut has apparently disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Slice is one twisted vision of humanity with a real “oh snap” ending. Not for the faint of heart, its violent sequences border on the baroque, as the mysterious killer (resembling Salieri in a red cape and mask) slashes and swirls through masses of victims. It does not shy away from taboo subject matter either, making it all too clear the ways Nut was repeatedly abused and what the long term effects of it were.

Like Vietnamese action star Johnny Tri Nguyen, Arak Amornsupasiri is bit inexpressive, but still projects a certain degree of screen presence as the protagonist Tai. Often upstaging him, Chatchai Plengpanich is indeed a great scenery-chewing screen villain as Papa Chin. However, Jessica Pasaphan’s legitimately brave performance as Noi truly defines the film’s soul.

Tightly edited by Sunij Asavinkul, Slice holds together in retrospect, even after dropping its surprise existential crisis. Though violent and unsettling, it is a stylish thriller that should generate heated viewer reaction. Thai cinema might not get much market penetration in America, but Slice’s contempt for playing it safe deserves a cult following. It screens this Friday (7/16) as part of the 2010 AAIFF at the Chelsea Clearview.

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Dylan in Dublin: Kisses

Life in the Dublin suburbs is so depressing it must be filmed in black and white. At least the big city has color. There is also considerable danger for two innocent runaways getting their first taste of street life in Lance Daly’s Kisses (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Thanks to his abusive father, Dylan’s day-to-day life is worse than his neighbor Kylie’s. However, when her sexual molester uncle visits, all bets are off. One fateful day, Dylan gets into a knock-down drag-out row with dear old dad, escaping only through Kylie’s timely intervention. Before they can really think things through, they have hopped a barge heading down the river to the beckoning city.

Initially, the runaways are energized by Dublin’s vitality. Of course, as night falls, reality sets in. Yet, the two youngsters take strength from each other, while dodging sundry criminals and deviants. All the while, Bob Dylan, Dylan’s namesake, starts to take on talismanic significance for the lost preteens.

Coming late to the party, Kisses follows a bumper crop of resourceful kids-on-their-lonesome films, like the vastly superior Treeless Mountain and the perfectly respectable Children of Invention. In truth, Daly breaks no new ground with his runaway tale, recycling a number of clichés along the way. However, Shane Curry and Kelly O’Neill are surprisingly compelling as Dylan and Kylie. In their debut performances, they never seem affected or self-conscious on-screen, showing some legitimate chemistry together.

Since there seems to be an Irish law mandating the presence of either Stephen Rea or Colm Meaney in every cinematic export, Kisses fulfills its duty with a Rea cameo as a Bob Dylan impersonator. In fact, he is pretty cool in the scene. However, the film itself is largely lost by this point in a disturbing sea of nocturnal predators, making Kisses definitely inappropriate for younger viewers.

There is a sweet purity to Dylan and Kylie’s relationship that is ultimately redemptive. While Curry and O’Neill prove to be fine actors, Kisses is so joyless, it is never able to overcome Daly’s been-there-done-that storyline. Notable mostly for the promise of its young leads, Kisses opens Friday (7/16) in New York at the Angelika.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Taipei 24H

Founded in the early 1700’s, much of Taipei’s civic character comes from its ultra-modern architecture. An international hub of economic activity, Taipei bustles with energy. Eight Taiwanese filmmakers capture the diversity of life in the city over the course of a single day in Taipei 24H, an anthology film commissioned by Taiwanese Public Television, which screens at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

24H starts cute with Feng-feng Cheng’s Share the Morning. When walking to school, a group of school children spies a cat stuck up a tree. Unfortunately, the adults of the neighborhood are rather disorganized in their rescue attempts. Filmed from the perspective of the cat, it is a light and amusing kick-off to the film. It is followed by Chang-zer Niu’s Just a Little Run, a story of two school children running away from home. Though it initially brings to mind kids-on-the-street films like Children of Invention, Niu keeps it lighter. As it turns out, this episode is more about puppy love than survival.

Perhaps the most mature installment is Debbie Hsu’s Summer Heat, a film about foiled illicit love. While the would-be lovers do not acknowledge it, evidently this fateful day is St. Valentines, which plays an important role in Hsian-tse Cheng’s Save the Lover, arguably the most fully developed story of the film. A suspicious mob boss orders his young flunky to spy on his beautiful young lover, but she turns the tables on him quite emphatically. Edgy yet oddly sweet, it is one of the highlights of 24H. With the Taipei 101 Tower figuring prominently in it, Save also makes the best use of Taipei as a distinctive setting.

Of course, anthology films are uneven by their nature. Some vignettes feel a bit slight, like Chi-yuam Lee’s Smoke, but at least it serves as an effective transition from day into night. Clearly, the most experimental contribution is Ying-jung Chen’s Dream Walker. While it ultimately redeems itself, Dream’s self-consciously surreal imagery and techno soundtrack give it the vibe of a dated music video. Though somewhat sentimental, Je-yi An’s family drama Owl Service nicely conveys Taipei’s late night ambiance and showcases a very strong performance from its young lead.

Appropriately, 24H saves its deepest and most accomplished film for last—4:00 AM to be exact. Featuring renowned Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang directed, in a reversal of roles, by his cinematic alter-ego, actor Kang-sheng Lee, Remembrance is deceptively simple. Having sold her business, the proprietress of a late night coffee shop is joined by a regular customer for a final cup of java and to watch a documentary on Luo Man-fei, a Taiwanese ballerina who died of lung cancer, but whose celebrated performance of choreography shaped by the experiences of Tiananmen Square survivors still has the power to move the night owls decades later. Brief but elegant, Remembrance celebrates quiet moments of beauty and those who inspire them. It is a perfect ending to the collaborative film.

Concluding with its finest hour, 24H is well worth seeing for Remembrance alone. While there are ups and downs throughout the day, there more than enough entertaining moments throughout 24H to recommend it as a whole. It screens as part of the 2010 AAIFF this coming Sunday (7/18) at the Chelsea Clearview.

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Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

It would have been a case of an old master dramatically one-upping the young turks, but it was not to be. Instead, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s radical foray into psychological expressive filmmaking cratered during its chaotic production. However, 185 cans of film survived of Clouzot’s obsessive tests and aborted three-week shoot, giving viewers a tantalizing sense of what his creative vision might have looked like had he successfully realized it in Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea Annonier’s documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Often labeled the French Hitchcock, Clouzot was one of the most successful French director’s of his time. Yet, the Nouvelle Vague was often rather dismissive of the man who helmed classics like Diabolique and The Wages of Fear. In 1964, he easily secured the cast he wanted for his prospective new film. Romy Schneider was to portray Odette, the young vivacious wife of middle-aged inn-keeper Marcel, played by Serge Reggiani. Initially tranquil in their wedded bliss, Marcel’s obsessive jealousy would lead to his emotional implosion. If this premise sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Claude Chabrol’s L’Enfer, starring Emmanuelle Béart, was based on Clouzot’s original screenplay. Ultimately though, Chabrol made a Chabrol film rather than the deliberately experimental work Clouzot envisioned.

Clouzot filmed the couple’s daily lives in black-and-white, but Marcel’s jealous rages were rendered in psychedelic color. With morphing faces, surrealist dreamscapes, color inversions, and other bizarre optical innovations, Inferno would have been one strange head-trip. It was also somewhat racy, featuring Schneider, already an international superstar, and French starlet Dany Carrel bare-breasted. This was completely unlike any previous Clouzot film, yet Columbia Pictures gave him carte blanche to do as he pleased.

Many of the surviving crew members speculate the blank check from Hollywood might have been a mixed blessing, removing the imposed discipline of financial constraints from a production that spun out of control. Relations deteriorated on the set, until eventually the whole enterprise collapsed. Yet, the swirling images that survive sans soundtrack still have a disconcerting effect.

Bromberg and Medrea Annonier interview a number of Clouzot’s surviving collaborators on the ill-fated project, including his assistant director Costa-Gavras. They also stage readings of Clouzot’s script with Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamlin as the troubled couple, but this seems somewhat unnecessary given the existence of the Chabrol film (which the documentary never references). Still, the combined effect their original footage and Clouzot’s extant film and story-boards give an intriguing impression of what might have been.

Documenting some compelling cinema history, Bromberg and Medrea Annonier’s film will drastically alter cineastes’ perceptions of Clouzot as an auteur. Indeed, forty-some years later, his innovative visual effects still retain a disorienting effect, and even in such unusual archival footage, Romy Schneider is always worth watching on screen. A great cinematic “what-if’ story, Clouzot’s Inferno opens this Friday (7/16) in New York at the IFC Center.

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