J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Infidelity Italian Style: Come Undone

In most infidelity dramas, the illicit lovers are carried away in a passion that blinds them to their own loyal and ironically attractive partners. In contrast, it is not hard to see how Anna and Domenico would consider each other a considerable step up. That does not make things any easier for the furtive couple in Silvio Soldini’s Come Undone (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Blond and petite, Anna definitely comes from the north of Italy. She ought to be well out of her big slovenly lover Alessio’s league, but they have settled into a comfortable but boring relationship. Dark and wiry, Domenico is about as Mediterranean as one can get. Between his nagging wife and two noisy young children though, he finds neither peace nor passion at home.

It starts haltingly with a chance encounter. Yet after a few text messages and an interrupted late night assignation in Anna’s office, things get heated quickly. Regularly meeting at an hourly motel on their only free night of the week, Anna becomes increasingly attached, while simultaneously, Domenico’s wife becomes ever more suspicious. Both lovers vacillate between guilt and obsession, but they keeping coming back to each and a situation which appears unsustainable.

It is an old story—commitment is hard and responsibility is a drag. However, Soldini captures the in-the-moment recklessness of their passion with scalding immediacy. Indeed, it is a mature film, but not a prurient one, often uncomfortable in its intimacy. Still, cinematographer Ramiro Civita gives it a rich warm look, effectively reflecting the fevered turmoil of its leads and aptly underscored by Giovanni Venosta’s moody pseudo-ambient music.

As Anna, Alba Rohrwacher (recognizable as Tilda Swinton’s daughter in I Am Love) dominates the film with her forceful screen presence. She projects a tangle of nervous energy and insecurities, but also considerable confidence in her allure. High maintenance does not begin to describe her. Though no shrinking violet, Pierre Francesco largely finds himself fretting and moping as Domenico, while watching Giusepppe Battison’s Alessio stumble through the film with a “kick me” sign permanently affixed to his back is simply cringe-inducing. Frankly, Rohrwacher owns the picture, but Gigio Alberti still hams it up with gusto as her boss Morini and Gisella Burinato is wonderfully sly as good old Aunt Ines.

While there is also a mild class dynamic at play in Undone, it works best when closely scrutinizing its characters’ compulsive behavior. It denies them any convenient justifications for their betrayal, leaving them with only the blindingly oblivious grass-is-greener reasons. Neither a nonjudgmental nor a moralizing film, it is rather an honest and direct take on infidelity. One of the better adultery dramas of the year (eclipsing several fairly recent French imports on the subject), Undone opens this Friday (12/3) in New York at the Quad.

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Asia Society: Age of Assassins

In the 1960s, Japan was quite embarrassed by its World War II affiliations. One mad scientist was the exception. He is only too happy to lend a few of the specially conditioned killer-inmates from his mental asylum to a Neo-Nazi with grand plans in Kihachi Okamoto’s Age of Assassins, which screens this coming Sunday in New York at the Asia Society as part of their ongoing Japanese Cinema 1960s free film series.

Get ready to be played. It is the swinging sixties, but Shinji Kikyo does not swing. A vision-impaired criminal psychology professor with an unpleasant case of athlete’s foot, he hardly seems the type to get mixed up in international intrigue. Unfortunately, his name is one of three randomly picked out of the phone book by Herr Bruckmayer to test the mad Mizorogi’s loony-bin assassins. The first two die easy as pie, but somehow Kikyo overpowers his would be assailant through sheer dumb bumbling. Of course, nobody believes Kikyo’s story, not even Keiko Tsurumaki, a correspondent for a true crime magazine, but she smells a good story.

Needless to say, subsequent attempts on Kikyo’s life convince her there might be something going on here after all. To better play his role, Tsurumaki gives him a James Bond makeover. The game is on now, as it becomes increasingly clear Kikyo’s involvement is not so random after all.

Perhaps the definitive Japanese leading man for western audiences, it is frankly bizarre to see Tatsuya Nakadai geeked-up and slapsticky as Kikyo. Still, he handles the nutty humor like a good sport. As Tsurumaki, Reiko Dan definitely has a saucy Bond Girl appeal that never goes out of style. Most of the rest of the cast realize they are playing caricatures, so they just go with it, without any sense of restraint.

With its groovy soundtrack and whimsical animated titles, Assassins has a similar spirit to contemporaneous American spy spoofs. Perhaps the WWII twist gives it a bit of historical-sociological significance, but everything is plainly played for laughs, which is fine. Naturally, the story makes no sense at all. In fact, whenever the film backtracks to explain itself, it digs itself a deeper hole. Yet, that is part of the charm of the genre.

Who knew Nakadai could play a Clouseau role? To be fair, he and Toshiro Mifune developed a nice comedic rhythm in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, but nothing like the broad high-jinks seen in Assassins. An energetic cinematic exercise in cross and double-cross, it is goofy departure from the high tragedy that is often programmed for Japanese film retrospectives. It screens this Sunday (12/5) at the Asia Society and again, admission is free.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Jaglom’s Queen of the Lot

Hollywood is the world’s capitol of insecurity. It is the perfect place for Maggie Chase. Do not bother talking to her about the craft of acting. She is too busy tracking her google standing. Yet, there is an outside chance she might reluctantly examine her life choices while serving a DUI house arrest in Henry Jaglom’s Queen of the Lot (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

More-or-less a sequel to Jaglom’s Hollywood Dreams, Chase (formerly Chizek) has sort-of-kind-of made it. A poor man’s Cynthia Rothrock, she is the star of the popular down-market Red Wrecker action series. However, Chase’s low self-esteem and alcohol are a bad mix. While serving her ankle-braceleted sentence in the home of her manager-partners Kaz and Caesar, Chase’s PR team makes her a tabloid sensation. She even has entrée into the glamour of old school Hollywood through her boyfriend Dov Lambert, a scion of a legendary mini-mogul. Yet, her inconvenient attraction to Dov’s younger brother Aaron, a writer and self-described failure, complicates Chase’s single-minded pursuit of her shallow goals.

As required, Tanna Frederick is convincingly needy and superficial as Chase. At times she almost rivals Sidney Falco from The Sweet Smell of Success in her cravenness, but Aaron Lambert still sees something in her worth pursuing. Indeed, ER’s Noah Wyle is the big news of Lot, bringing surprising depth and edginess to the younger brother. His scenes with Frederick bristle with uncomfortable honesty.

Once again, Jaglom assembles an intriguing supporting cast, including Zack Norman (best known as Danny DeVito’s crocodile admiring cousin in Romancing the Stone) as Kaz. Perhaps most appropriately, Peter Bogdanovich plays Pedja Sapir, a well-regarded director who has not made a film in years. (Though perfectly fine in the role, wouldn’t everyone prefer to see him making a new film of his own?)

Often sharply amusing, Lot has little of the sappiness of Irene in Time, Jaglom and Frederick’s last collaboration. Its old-fashioned jazzy soundtrack (much in the tradition of Woody Allen films) is also a considerable improvement. Presumably another of Jaglom’s scripted-and-improvised hybrids, Lot is somewhat uneven. Still, the humor is smart and consistent, while Wyle and Frederick exhibit legitimate on-screen chemistry. A considerably above average skewering of Hollywood for the hardcore indie scene, Lot opens this Friday (12/3) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Asia Society: Naruse’s Yearning

It is a classic Japanese film for Walmart haters. The survival of the neighborhood market that kept war widow Reiko Morita connected to her in-laws is threatened by the arrival of a new fangled supermarket in their sleepy backwater town. As is often the case, economic uncertainty exposes deeper emotional turmoil for the Morita family in Mikio Naruse’s Yearning (trailer here), which screens this Friday in New York at the Asia Society as part of their ongoing Japanese Cinema 1960s film series—and take note: admission is free.

It is not exactly a forbidden love, but it is certainly frowned upon. Twenty-five year-old Koji has significant feelings for his older brother’s widow. Chucking in an office job in Tokyo, he returns home to be a mahjong and pachinko playing lay-about, simply to be near her. However, she remains eternally faithful to his brother’s memory, selflessly dedicating herself to his family’s market. Unfortunately, the price-cutting supermarket upsets the status quo. The married Morita sisters would like to sell out, but that leaves the delicate question of what becomes of their sister-in-law Reiko?

In a sense, Yearning is a grittier version of an Ozu domestic drama, featuring a dutiful, self-denying daughter-in-law as its protagonist. Like Tokyo Story, it also subtly addresses the lingering pain of the war for the many widows left behind. Unlike most Ozu films though, Yearning deals with sexual themes in franker terms and is more judgmental of its characters.

Even if she is his sister-in-law, it is hard to blame Morita for falling for Reiko when she is played by the legendary Hideko Takamine. Strikingly beautiful yet desperately vulnerable, her heartrending performance is on-par with her celebrated star turn in Naruse’s masterwork, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Along with Setsuko Hara, Takamine eclipses the stars of golden age Hollywood for their timeless appeal. In contrast, as brother Koji, Yûzô Kayama’s glowering petulance often comes across as distractingly self-defeating.

Yearning is already a tragedy before viewers even know its full backstory. It becomes ever more so, as per the dictates of fate. Again, the exquisitely sensitive Takamine is truly haunting throughout the film. An undeniable classic, Yearning screens this Friday (12/3) at the Asia Society and admission is free.

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The Film Formerly Known as Brilliantlove: O Diaries

Is “erotic fine art” a contradiction in terms? The meteoric rise of Manchester, an ambitionless slacker with a knack for snapping dirty Polaroids, might make one suspect as much. Art or not, his notoriety as a photographer takes a toll on his relationship in Ashley Horner’s The Orgasm Diaries (trailer here), known as Brilliantlove at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which is now available on IFC Demand and screens unheralded at the IFC Center this Monday through Thursday, only in the afternoons.

Manchester and his amateur taxidermist girlfriend Noon live like innocent primitives in their country squat. They spend most of their time writhing together naked, which Manchester randomly documents with his pictures. When he absent-mindedly leaves the latest batch at the pub, he ought to be in serious trouble back home. Instead, he is discovered by Franny, a serious, moneyed collector of dirty pictures.

Before you can say “naked Cinderella,” Franny is making plans to launch Manchester in an ostensibly respectable gallery. However, the time the aimless young couple spends with Franny and his wife Leah, a former porn star turned women’s studies professor (naturally enough), fundamentally alters their relationship dynamic.

O Diaries might not be any great shakes, but there have been worse films foisted on the art-house circuit. Frankly, its premise has satiric promise, but instead of putting the screws to the pretentious gallery world, Horner focuses on his frequently naked cast instead. At least Nancy Trotter Landry is clearly in great shape. On the other hand, the constant sight of Liam Browne in various states of undress as the pale, greasy Manchester is what it is. While not exactly an acting showcase, Michael Hodgson best distinguishes himself as the strangely stable and professional Franny.

Essentially harmless, O Diaries might have pretensions of sociological significance, but it is really just interested in the naughty bits. Still, Horner keeps it moving along relatively smoothly and can hardly be accused of a teasing bait-and-switch. Those who would go for the film know exactly who you are. It plays late afternoons this Monday through Thursday (11/29-12/2) in New York at the IFC Center and is also available through IFC’s pay-per-view arm.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

ADIFF ’10: Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story

Hebba Younis wants to be Chris Wallace. Her husband wants her to be Oprah Winfrey. However, when at his behest she temporarily forgoes her hard-hitting newsmaker interviews in favor of women’s interest features, it somehow antagonizes the Egyptian government even more in Yousry Nasrallah’s Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (trailer here), a recent selection of the Venice Film Festival which has its New York premiere during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival.

They should be Cairo’s most fearsome media couple. Younis is the formidable host of a morning talk show. Karim Hassan is an up-and-coming journalist in line to become editor-in-chief of one of Egypt’s state-owned newspapers. Unlike Younis though, Hassan never met a government official he wouldn’t suck up to. Reluctantly, she agrees to lay low during the editor selection process. Yet, as she invites average Egyptian women on her show to tell their stories, a portrait of a corrupt and misogynist Islamic society emerges that hardly thrills Hassan. When cabinet ministers start to be implicated in her guests’ stories of victimization, there will be trouble.

Essentially, Scheherazade is four films in one, telling three discrete story arcs in flashbacks within the framework of Younis’ show. As the least controversial (and therefore least memorable), her first interview with a late middle-aged volunteer social worker gives Hassan reason for hope. While it runs a bit long, the second woman’s story is a much different matter. Convicted of murdering the man who was playing her and her two spinster sisters, it raises hot button questions about women’s legal rights in Egypt specifically and under Islamic law in general—not exactly territory Hassan and his political masters are eager to explore. When Younis’ third guest Nahed, a dentist from a prominent family, accuses a sitting minister of sexually and financial preying on mature unmarried women, all bets are off.

While cinematographer Samir Bahsan gives Scheherazade a lush, sophisticated look, it is a surprisingly tough film. Though Hassan might appear to be a modern dope-smoking yuppie, it becomes clear he would prefer his wife veiled and cloistered rather than more famous than him. Evidently, Mona Zaki has been the target of some heated disparagement from Egypt’s medieval quarters for her portrayal of the relatively liberated and assertive Younis. While she is a smart and attractive lead, Sanaa Akroud really steals the picture as Nahed, an older but still striking woman. Akroud brings out her intelligence and resoluteness, making her not-so uncommon circumstances a particularly effective indictment of Islamist Egypt.

Scheherazade would be bold for any Islamic country and is especially so in an Egypt where most media is wholly owned by the Soviet-sounding State Information Service. A feminist film in the best sense of the term, Scheherazade is honest look at the status of Egyptian women today. Timely and definitely recommended, it screens as part of the 2010 ADIFF this Friday (12/3) at the Anthology Film Archives and the following Sundays (12/5, 12/12) and Tuesday (12/14, the concluding night of the festival) at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

ADIFF ’10: Evil Angel

She was Adam’s ex, not Frasier Crane’s. Lilith was the first wife #1 to get dumped for a younger model. Still a bit out of sorts over it, she has been venting her fury on Adam and Eve’s descendants ever since. She will be creating quite a bit trouble for one paramedic, both professionally and personally, in Richard Dutcher’s indie horror movie Evil Angel (nsfw-ish trailer here), which has its New York premiere during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival.

Marcus Galan is going through what could be called a rough patch. He is under investigation for the death of a diabetic prostitute not wearing her medical alert bracelet, while his compulsively unfaithful and suicidal wife makes his home life miserable. Yet, he is most tormented by another patient he was unable to save, the saintly Emma Carrillo, who lived a cloistered life in service to the poor.

Private investigator John Carruthers is supposed to be examining Galan’s case, but he has been sidetracked by a number of bodies that have cropped up, especially that of his son and partner, Vic. They all seem to trace back to that prostitute Galan inadvertently misdiagnosed, who like several other characters, underwent a radical change of personality after a near death experience. See a pattern emerging?

Angel has two things really going for it. Ving Rhames costars as Carruthers. He would be cool simply reading the newspaper, but Rhames investigating an ancient demon is some serious badness. There is also a fair amount of naughtiness in Angel, which at least makes it watchable.

In truth, Angel executes its supernatural premise relatively well, but it shares the same hereditary flaws present in nearly every horror film of the last thirty years. People definitely do stupid things here (like carelessly telling the ancient evil in human guise everything they know about her), but to an extent that would be forgivable. Like most other horror filmmaker, Dutcher also seems to have something against closure, giving viewers a predictably clichéd open-ended coda. However, he takes a surprisingly effective supporting turn as Martineau, Galan’s eccentric former colleague who seems to have listened to far too much Art Bell during those graveyard shifts (or could he be onto something after all?).

Angel looks considerably more polished than most indie genre pictures and Rhames is always an engaging screen presence. Still, the film would have benefited had Dutcher adhered less to the standard horror movie template. Essentially following in the tradition of workaday horror programmers, Angel screens this Thursday (12/2) and Saturday (11/4) at the Anthology Film Archives as part of the 2010 ADIFF.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

ADIFF ’10: Prohibited Love

When African American servicemen like the Harlem Hellfighters’ Henry Johnson and Eugene Bullard, the first African American combat pilot, received the Croix de guerre and were hailed as heroes by the French during WWI, word got out back home. As a result, many African American GIs were particularly hoping to liberate the French during WWII. However, even in 1940’s France, race relations are decidedly complicated in Philippe Niang’s Prohibited Love (a.k.a. Les Amants de l'Ombre), a rather cinematic French television movie that screens during the 2010 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Nurse Louise Venturi has been a good wife, loyally waiting for her husband Pierre to return from the war. The occupying “jerrys” have cleared out of town, mere steps ahead of the Americans. Much to the provincial French town’s surprise, when the liberating Yanks arrive, there is an African American company among them. Many of the town’s women are attracted to them as “exotic” foreigners, but not Venturi.

Strangely though, as soon as she moves back in with Pierre’s parents to tend to her injured father-in-law Ange, his letters suddenly stop coming. Simultaneously, Gary Larochelle, a French speaking New Orleanian, makes no secret of his attraction to her, creating a perfect storm of sexual tension.

While Prohibited depicts American race relations with a characteristic sense of French superiority, it also features a fair amount of French prejudice, as well as some hypocritical score-settling by the Johnny-come-lately super-patriotic FFI. In fact, the circumstances surrounding the death of Venturi’s young sister-in-law’s jerry lover, sets in motion a tragic series of events for their entire family.

As the nurse-protagonist, Julie Debazac handles some potentially melodramatic material with nuance and class. While their Anglais is often suspiciously phonetic sounding, Québécois actor Anthony Kavanagh and the French Edouard Montoute have the right swagger of liberating GI’s and an easy-going charm as Larochelle and his comrade Sidney Jackson. Greco-French movie-star George Corraface (best known in America as Christopher Columbus, but also quite excellent in the Greek culinary drama A Touch of Spice) gives a solid Brian Dennehy-esque performance as the salt-of-the-earth Ange, as well.

Though produced for television, Prohibited holds up well as a feature. Although it is hardly subtle, at least it slams France nearly as much as the U.S. As much a revisionist take on post-liberation France as a blistering critique of American segregation, Prohibited is an intriguing film, definitely worth seeing during this year’s ADIFF, where it screens next Friday (12/3) at the Riverside Theatre and the following Saturday (12/4) at the Anthology Film Archives.

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Mumbling Memphis: Open Five

“Mumblecore” is a hipster term for slow and meandering. Sure, one can argue John Cassavetes was a forerunner of the Mumblecore school of largely improvised zero-budget twenty-nothing relationship films, but there seems to be a pernicious tendency towards navel-gazing in the sub-culture sub-genre. At least Kentucker Audley’s Open Five (trailer here) earns points for industriousness and generosity, as it begins a week of free screenings (or $3 for advance tickets) today at the reRun/Gastropub in the County of Kings.

Since women in New York are crazy about men with unkempt beards, baseball caps, and cut-off jeans, musician Jake has no problem convincing BKLN-based actress Lucy to visit him in Memphis. However, at this last minute she decides to bring along her friend Rose. Fortunately, she immediately falls in with Jake’s friend Kentucker, who just happens to be a filmmaker. For nearly the balance of the film, we watch as these two would-be couples warily circle around each other.

Shot on a poor man’s shoe-string budget, it is hard to bag on Open, because it is such a self-starting, self-reliant enterprise. Still, would it kill them to, you know, do something? After all, they scratched together the cast and crew, so why not make a movie?

Of course, great films can be made about ostensibly small, idiosyncratic subjects. Indeed, the film begins to take flight somewhat when the guys give their guests a jaundiced hipster’s eye tour of the Memphis music scene. This is a subject they can riff on convincingly. Unfortunately, in an effort to sound “real” most of their relationship dialogue comes across as rather dull instead.

Kentucker Audley’s name is awesome. As actors, he and Jake Rabinbach are more-or-less convincing sort of-kind of playing themselves. Shannon Esper and Genevieve Angelson should be out of their leagues, but they do their best to make the not quite relationships credible. Yet, it just never goes anywhere.

Open is about as independent as it gets, but it takes itself far too seriously. Still, give Audley and Rabinbach credit for bringing their film in, on-time and on-micro-budget. It is also short (67 minutes) and free starting today (11/26) at the reRun/Gastropub in Brooklyn, so those so inclined will not have to make much of an investment to satisfy their curiosity.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mishima at the Viz: Ken

Often considered a leading contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Yukio Mishima also tried his hand at acting with rather mixed results. Far better were the films based on his writings. Still, a Mishima martial arts movie might sound a bit unlikely. However, the unflagging preoccupation with honor uncompromised and the latent sexual tension of Kenji Misumi’s Ken are certainly in keeping with Mishima’s motifs. To mark the 40th anniversary of his strange and dramatically public seppuku, the Viz Cinema kicks off a Mishima mini-retrospective this Friday with Misumi’s Ken (trailer here).

Jiro Kokubu is not at college to party. The captain of the university kendo team, he lives an austere life, driving himself and his teammates to be the best of the best. His pursuit of purity rubs some of the team the wrong way, particularly his chief rival, the rakish Kagawa. However, the rookie “cadet” Mibu falls under the sway of Kokubu’’s anachronistic asceticism. Of course, there are hints of a more scandalous attraction, but Misumi keeps such matters safely repressed, so to speak.

Unable to best Kokubu in fair combat, Kagawa attacks his mojo, enlisting the beautiful Eri Itami to bring him down to their sordid level. While definitely a master manipulator (and also a jazz fan to judge from the Mingus album cover adorning her wall), Itami might actually feel something for the kendo captain. Indeed, the triangular relationship between the three suggests that of Dangerous Liaisons.

Ken is one of the moodiest martial arts pictures ever made. It is hardly the most action-packed though. There is no “big match” climax here. Rather, the film focuses on, arguably fetishizing, their arduous training regiment and Kokubu’s severe discipline. Well befitting its volatile psychological gamesmanship, Chishi Makiura’s black and white cinematography has a distinctive film noir style. Raizô Ichikawa is able to hint at the stress and strain beneath Kokubu’s stern façade rather well, while Keiju Kobayashi brings considerable depth and nuance to Itami, the pseudo-femme fatale.

Based on Mishima’s novella, Ken eerily parallels the author’s life. While a little more action and a little less brooding might have been optimal, it is still an intriguing take on martial arts and 1960s college life. Currently not widely available in America, San Francisco residents should definitely check it out at the Viz Cinema, where it screens as part of their Mishima tribute beginning tomorrow (11/26) through Tuesday (11/30).

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Peruvian Contender: Undertow

In Cabo Blanco, the villagers’ lives are intertwined with the ocean. Most definitely Catholic, they have developed their own traditions, including burial at sea. They fear those not properly laid to rest in accordance with their customs will become restless spirits. One sexually confused man has his traditional beliefs simultaneously challenged and confirmed when his furtive lover’s spirit returns to him in Javier Fuentes-León’s Undertow (trailer here), Peru’s official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Miguel Salas is a pillar of his community. He and his buxom pregnant wife Mariela are active in the church and he is popular with his fellow fishermen. He has a secret though. He has been seeing Santiago La Rosa on the down low. A painter from a family of apparent means, La Rosa is more or less open about his sexuality. Largely shunned by the villagers, he retains affectionate feelings for Cabo Blanco rooted in his happy childhood memories. Still, he really stays for Salas.

Not surprisingly, Salas is a bit conflicted about everything, but his insistence on absolute secrecy tries La Rosa’s patience. After another where-is-this-all-going argument, La Rosa dies in a swimming accident, disappearing in a titular undertow. Yet, since his body is not properly disposed of in a proper Cabo Blanco send-off, his spirit begins to haunt Salas. Promising to recover his body, Salas starts to like having La Rosa’s spirit around. Yet, even without La Rosa’s corporeal presence, town busybody start to form suspicions that lead to gossip.

Cabo Blanco looks like a wonderful place to be dirt poor. While the scenery is definitely picturesque, Fuentes-León also sets a pleasantly gentle vibe. Though Salas and La Rosa are certainly portrayed as consenting adults, Undertow is never excessively explicit. Particularly surprising for a gay-themed film, he also resists cheap Catholic bashing. At his most judgmental, Padre Juan only gives Salas a mild scolding for passing out on the beach naked in a drunken stupor (or so he assumes), which seems reasonable enough.

Of course, Undertow’s story arc is about as predictable as its “to thine own self be true” moral, but it executed with grace rather than indignation. As Salas, Bolivian Cristian Mercado combines the right macho façade with effective pathos and insecurity. However, Tatiana Astengo really lowers the emotional boom as his increasingly concerned wife.

Despite the presence of La Rosa’s ghost, Undertow largely downplays the supernatural aspects of the film, focusing more on its tight little village dynamics. Still, the vibrant cinematography of Mauricio Vidal and the appealing Latin pop songs (two of which were penned by Fuentes-León) make a quality package that could lend it an appeal beyond the obvious core audience. An ultimately forgiving film, Undertow opens tomorrow (11/26) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

ADIFF '10: Josephine Baker, Black Diva

She was the first African American woman to be awarded the French Croix de guerre. It put her in strange company, including the likes of Curtis LeMay and South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Josephine Baker might have been American-born, but she captured the heart of Paris. A truly transcendent and diasporic figure, she is perfect touchstone for the 2010 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York. In addition to featuring her iconic likeness on this year’s program, the ADIFF showcases Annette von Wangenheim’s respectful documentary tribute, Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World as part of a gala screening this coming Tuesday.

Judiciously, Diva begins with Baker not in her racy “jungle” costumes, but performing in garb of sophisticated elegance. Those drawn to Baker for reasons beyond musical or historical interest should also be assured, there are plenty of the revealing outfits that made her famous (and still seem daring even by today’s standards). Baker was already paid like a star before she left America. However, it was only as an expatriate in Paris that she was treated as such.

In truth, the vaunted notion of French tolerance and acceptance of African American artists like Baker has been re-evaluated somewhat in recent years. Indeed, Diva addresses Baker’s expat popularity in the context of the aesthetic “primitivism” and Colonial paternalism that informed French popular culture at the time.

Still, there is no denying the connection Baker forged with her more-or-less adopted country. Indeed, the extent of her service on behalf of De Gaulle and the French underground will likely come as a revelation to many viewers of Diva. So will the longevity of her career. We think of Baker frozen in time—specifically the 1920’s, wearing her famous banana skirt. Yet, her stage career extended well into the 1970’s.

Diva briskly tells Baker’s story, detailing her activism as well, without getting bogged down in politics. There are also plenty of conventional talking heads included, but when two of them are legendary dancers like Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, their perspectives are definitely worth hearing.

It is almost eerie how alluring Baker remains eight decades after her Parisian debut. Nicely balancing the sex appeal and the artistry, von Wangeham creates an entertaining and informative valentine with Diva. Recommended with the affection it inspires, Diva screens with From These Roots at Thursday’s (11/30) film gala presentation and also on December 3rd, 7th, 12th, and 14th at Symphony Space Thalia Theater (except for the 12/3 showing, which will be at Anthology Film Archives).

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From Spare to Heir: The King’s Speech

Primogeniture can be a risky roll of the dice. Though 1936 was not a convenient year for a constitutional crisis, it afforded the United Kingdom an opportunity to correct a mistake of fate. Rumored to be a fascist sympathizer, Edward VIII’s abdication allowed for the ascension of his younger brother, subsequently known as King George VI, a former Royal Naval officer tailor-made to be a war-time monarch. However, well before he succeeded his brother, a persistent stammer complicated his official duties. A genuine prestige picture based on the true story of how Prince Albert, Duke of York found his royal voice, Tom Hooper’s The King Speech (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York after recently launching MoMA’s 2010 Contenders series.

Though overshadowed by his more dashing older brother, the future ex-king, Prince Albert always does his duty. Their father King George V might not be the warmest of parents, but he recognizes Albert’s greater substance, which is why he pushes him to take a more active role on behalf of the royal family. Unfortunately, this involves a fair amount of public speaking. After a number of excruciatingly painful addresses, the Prince reluctantly consults with Lionel Logue, a frustrated actor and unorthodox speech therapist.

At first, they seem to be a bad match, yet Logue is the only specialist who seems to get results. An unlikely friendship even starts to develop, but great challenges loom over the British Empire. His brother might have confidence “Herr Hitler” can satisfactorily “sort out Europe,” but Conservative backbenchers like Winston Churchill are much less sanguine. Further complicating matters, even after his brother assumed the throne, he continues carrying on with the scandalous Wallis Simpson, a twice divorced American of dubious repute.

Hooper, who previously helmed the vastly different historical drama The Damned United, shows a nimble touch with what could be dismissed as over-inflated Masterpiece Theater material. He starts Speech essentially as a three-hander, as Prince Albert, Lady Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), and the somewhat eccentric Logue secretly meet in his working class quarters to tackle that stammer. Yet, it slowly unfolds to show the bigger picture of an England fighting for its very survival.

Although Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are essentially co-leads of equal weight, the Weinstein Company is reportedly positioning Colin Firth for best actor and Geoffrey Rush for best supporting actor, as King VI and Logue, respectively. Even in Hollywood, it is evidently good to be the king. Still, for most cinema patrons, this really just means Speech has the good fortune of two very strong central performances. Indeed, Firth perfectly personifies the stiff upper lip fortitude associated with the best of British royalty. Likewise, Rush gives his best performance since Shine, projecting “common” dignity as Logue. It is a performance of genuine humanity and of course, excellent elocution. Though not required to stretch as much dramatically, Helena Bonham Carter delivers some of the films sharpest quips with appropriate aplomb as Lady/Queen Elizabeth.

Not simply another British drawing room drama, Speech offers a portrait of nobility that lives up to its title. Gentle yet stirring, it is probably the best PR the House of Windsor has had in years. It is also one of the best films considered to be in contention for the upcoming award season. Highly recommended, Speech opens this Friday (11/26) in New York at the Lincoln Square and Union Square Theaters.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ADIFF ’10: London River

Nothing brings back the terrible memories of 9-11 like the sight of home-made missing person posters. Evidently, they were a common sight in London as well during the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings of 2005. One desperate mother hopes against hope that they will help her find her missing daughter in Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2010 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Elisabeth Sommers lives a quiet life tending her farm on the island of Guernsey. Estranged from his family in Africa, Monsieur Ousmane works as a forester in France. She is a protestant, while he is a Muslim, but they soon discover they are linked by the 7/7 bombing. Neither her daughter Jamie nor his son Ali has been heard from since that tragic day. Much to their surprise, it turns out their missing adult children were involved in a serious relationship. They were even learning Arabic together—a revelation Sommers has difficulty processing.

Eventually, the nervous Sommers and the stoic Ousmane form an uneasy truce that slowly evolves into something like friendship. Yet, the nagging uncertainty of their children’s fate looms over their time spent together.

River is a quiet film about every mother and father’s greatest nightmare. Bouchareb largely eschews the political in favor of the starkly intimate. Still, some realities are impossible to avoid. Does it give pause to any of River’s many Muslim characters that their co-religionists just murdered 52 innocent people? Perhaps the ever taciturn Ousmane hints at such misgivings when he confides in Sommers his own failings as a father. It is hardly a transcendent epiphany, but it is an honest, sensitively turned scene.

While River boasts a large cast, it is essentially a two-hander for two vastly different parents. The Oscar-worthy Brenda Blethyn is agonizingly convincing as the distraught Sommers, perfectly counterbalanced by the deliberate Sotigui Kouyaté as Ousmane. Chronically ill during the shoot, Kouyaté passed away earlier this year, but his Silver Bear at the 2009 for River was well-deserved. Though quiet and reserved, he brings Ousmane to life not merely as a stereotypical symbol of non-western wisdom. Instead, he is a flawed individual, whose character arc is just as heavy as that of Sommers.

Though often a political filmmaker, the French-Algerian Bouchareb’s greater loyalties clearly lie with his story and characters. That is why his most recent film, Outside the Law, is such an interesting take on the Algerian independence movement, in which it devilishly difficult to differentiate the rebels from the gangsters. With River, he focuses like a laser on the pain and fear of his primary leads. Bouchareb also gets a nice assist from composer Armand Amar whose jazz-inflected score adds a wistful air to proceedings. A simple, moving film that deftly sidesteps polemics, River is a good way to start the 2010 ADIFF. It screens this Saturday (11/27) and next Thursday (12/2) at Anthology Film Archives, with a final showing the following Sunday (12/5) at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater.

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Ozu’s Tokyo Story

Thursday is Thanksgiving, a time for families to come together. However, when an aging couple visits their grown children in Tokyo, the experience is more bitter than sweet. Time passes and generations drift apart as they always must in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Indeed, his universally acknowledged masterpiece Tokyo Story (trailer here) is certainly no exception. The best known of his three “Noriko” films featuring Setsuko Hara as a dutiful daughter of said name, Story begins a special two-week run at the IFC Center this Friday.

Shukichi Hirayama and his wife Tomi live peacefully in a remote coastal village with their youngest daughter Kyôko, an unmarried school teacher. They rarely make the long trek to Tokyo where their eldest son Koichi and daughter Shige work. Though they never say so directly, this trip might be the last time they see them. They will also visit the Noriko, the ever-faithful widow of their middle son who was lost in the war. Unfortunately, the self-absorbed Koichi and Shige neglect their parents during their stay, while only Noriko makes time for her in-laws. Of course, the supposedly mature siblings will realize their short-sightedness, but only when the family reconvenes under sadder circumstances.

Tokyo is a film to make viewers fall in love with Setsuko Hara, either for the first time or all over again. Undeniably a beautiful woman, she radiates a warmth and humanity rarely seen on screen. Of the three Noriko films (also including Early Summer and the truly perfect Late Spring), Tokyo is Hara’s most heartbreaking role. Quiet but powerful and emotionally direct, it is one of the great performances in the history of cinema.

Those who partook of the IFC Center’s Ozu Weekend series will recognize many of his regular staple of players, besides Hara. Once again, Chishu Ryu is the gentle family patriarch, who displays the perfect lived-in comfort level with Cheiko Higashiyama (also the mother of Early Summer) as his wife Tomi. Haruko Sugimura also reappears as the tart-tongued Shige, the sort of role she specialized in for Ozu. Though not part of the unofficial Ozu repertory company, Kyôko Kagawa also is quite touching as the youngest namesake daughter.

Perfectly representative of Ozu’s style, Toyko features his usual landscape and cityscape transitions, as well as an atmosphere of calm resignation, even though society is in a transitional period. Yet throughout it all, post-war life just seems to be too harried for the senior Hirayamas.

There seem to be a number of constants in Ozu’s films. Young boys are always bratty, the prospective of marriage is always complicated, and above all, Hara (particularly as Noriko) always gives a devastatingly heartfelt performance. Despite their similarities, each of Ozu’s family dramas has an infinite richness all its own. Perfect as a capstone to the IFC Center’s celebration of Ozu or as a neophyte’s introduction to the Japanese auteur, Toyko (note the new 35 mm print) opens this Friday (11/26) at the IFC Center.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

On-Stage: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

They enthusiastically call themselves “Dick-Heads.” They are fans of the postmodernist science fiction writer Philip K. Dick and they certainly appreciate irony. No doubt, they will also flock to the Untitled Theater Company’s new stage adaptation of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, now officially open at the 3LD Art and Technology Center in Lower Manhattan.

Director Edward Einhorn’s adaptation is much more faithful than any cut of the movie Blade Runner, also loosely based on Dick’s original source novel. Though undeniably a classic, Ridley Scott’s film seems to have a different ending every few years. Still, Einhorn also takes his own liberties, at times to emphasize gender differences in the brave new world of the future.

The so-called World War Terminus left most of the Earth radioactive. Nearly every species of animal is extinct, but lifelike replicants are available for those who can afford them. Unfortunately, bounty hunter Rick Deckard just killed his electric sheep. That is what he does. He tracks down and terminates renegade humanoid androids as a freelancer for the local police. Deckard has become disturbingly good at it.

There are several methods for determining if a suspect is human or an “andy,” but Deckard prefers the Voight-Kampff test, designed to measure a suspect’s ability to feel empathy. However, Deckard’s ruthlessness towards the synthetics is starting to raise questions about his own capacity for empathy. He also finds himself increasingly attracted to an android, Rachel Rosen, the spokesperson on Earth for the Mars-based Rosen Corporation and the ostensive daughter of the company’s founder. Three of Rosen’s most advanced androids have gone rogue, perhaps including Rosen herself, or an identical model.

Neal Wilkinson’s sets eschew the slick cyberpunk look of Scott’s film, deliberately evoking a 1950’s sense of the future, with grainy monitors and low tech devices that even pre-date the 1968 publication of Dick’s novel. It is effective world-building though, creating the atmosphere of a crummy dystopia, but not one so oppressively regulated by Big Brother that Deckard’s services would not be required.

If anything, Sheep might be too stylized. For those going into the theater with only a long past viewing of Blade Runner under their belts, it takes a few beats to catch up with some of the gizmos and lingo. Yet, the play’s thorough deconstruction of “Mercerism,” a strange ideology of empathy and resurrection that seems to offer a glimmer of optimism, renders the world of Sheep a rather soulless, materialistic place. Indeed, the bizarre visions of Mercer in the “empathy boxes” appear to serve as stand-ins for religion writ large, all of which, we are duly lead to believe, are false.

Sheep’s cast often find themselves in challenging positions, frequently zonked out on mood enhancers, half-fried by radiation, or otherwise existing in some explicitly inhuman state. They largely sell it, even when that requires them to sink into the backdrop rather than rise to the fore. However, Alex Emmanuel is quite compelling as Deckard, progressively agitated as the humanity of everyone around him (and even his own) is called into question.

Sheep is at its best when asking the philosophical questions the Untitled Company specializes in. Specifically, the replicants directly challenge the notion of “empathy” as a higher virtue. If one is just imagining one’s self in another’s position, is it not simply a projection of selfishness? Unfortunately, Sheep does not have a good corresponding answer, leaving audiences only the hope of survival in a nihilistic world. It is a meaty production, but ultimately also a cold one, yet Dick loyalists should definitely appreciate its literate ambition. Now official open, it runs through December 10th at the 3LD Art and Technology Center.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Truth and Consequences: Kawasaki’s Rose

Everybody despises collaborators and informers, but what of the secret policemen who press them into betrayal? That is just one of the difficult questions raised by Jan Hrebejk’s Kawasaki’s Rose (trailer here), the Czech Republic’s official submission best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Pavel Josek was a signatory to Charter 77. A critic of the Communist government’s perversion of psychiatric medicine (his chosen profession), Josek’s dissident credentials are unimpeachable. As a result, he is seen as a logical choice to receive the annual “Memory of the Nation” award for demonstrating moral integrity during the oppressive Communist regime. However, while working on a television documentary on Josek, his estranged son-in-law Ludek (a child of Communist apparachiks) starts to unearth troubling questions about the great man’s early years.

Josek’s wife Jana had once been the lover of Borek, an artist too idiosyncratic and honest to prosper under the Communist system. It begins to look like Josek might have played a small part in the campaign against the sculptor that culminated in his banishment to Sweden.

Whatever Josek did, it was relatively limited and his motives were complicated. He was not the state security officer stubbing out cigarettes on Borek’s hand. Known as “Kafka,” he apparently pays no price for his crimes, smugly dissembling for Radka, Ludek’s television reporter lover. Conversely, Josek starts to slowly twist in the wind.

Martin Huba perfectly captures Josek’s complexity and contradictions in one of the year’s best screen performances. He has scenes discussing the perils of guilt with his mildly delinquent granddaughter that would be fraught with peril for lesser actors. Yet, Huba sells them perfectly with his understated world-weariness.

The weak link of the film is unquestionably the marital strife engulfing Ludek and Josek’s daughter Lucie. Frankly, the confrontation between husband, wife, and mistress makes no sense whatsoever, merely distracting from the more significant drama at hand. Indeed, there is a measure of closure to be found in Rose, when the audience finally meets Borek. Spiritually reborn during his time in Sweden, he has befriended Mr. Kawasaki, a Japanese artist who chose a self-imposed life of exile after his entire family was murdered during the 1995 Sarin gas terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway.

Though long out of power, the Communist regime continues to cause suffering throughout Rose. It is a deeply humane film, but not a completely forgiving one, as evidenced by the bitter irony of its coda. Thoughtful and challenging, Rose is most likely a long shot for Oscar recognition, but it one of the better films of the Award season, well worth seeing when it opens Wednesday (11/24) in New York at Film Forum.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hard Boiled HK: Exiled

It is late 1998, right before the Portuguese handover of Macau to China. Most people are looking for an opportunity to get out, but one banished gangster decides to return home. Though set in Macau, Johnnie To’s Exiled (trailer here) was Hong Kong’s official 2007 submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration. Dripping with style, it is an exemplary representative of the work of action-oriented auteurs like To, whom the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebrates with their on-going weekend retrospective Hard Boiled Hong Kong.

After crossing Boss Fay, Wo took to the wind. However, he has returned to Macau, hoping to live quietly with his wife and newborn son. That is not likely to happen, if Blaze and his partner have anything to say about. However, two of Wo’s childhood gangster friends also turn up. After a getting to know you shootout, they proceed to help Wo move in. Realizing his options are limited, the fab four help Wo pull one last job for the sake of his wife and son. Bullets will most certainly fly.

Though widely compared to Spaghetti Westerns (particularly due to the romantic looking Portuguese architecture) Exiled really follows directly in the tradition of great samurai films by the likes of Kurosawa and Gosha. Much like those wandering ronin, Wo and his friends often invite fate to chose their path. Likewise, all five adhere to an ironclad code of honor, despite living outside the law.

To is one of the world’s great directors of gunplay, sitting at the (bloody) crossroads of art-house cinema and genre programmers. Throughout Exiled he sets up familiar action premises, but always gives them an inventive twist. Cinematographer Cheng Siu Keung gives it all a rich Miami Vice gloss, befitting To’s uber-cool attitude and technique.

Though not a sequel, Exiled deliberately echoes To’s The Mission, with four mercenary friends trying to save a fifth from an out-of-sorts crime boss, in both cases played by Simon Yam. Though there are many familiar faces from HK cinema (including Mission alumnus Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, and Francis Ng), Anthony Wong blows everyone off the screen as the somewhat older, much more jaded Blaze. He out-Eastwoods Eastwood in the steely-eyed badness department.

A thoroughly entertaining action exercise and a surprisingly wistful Fin de siècle tragedy, Exiled is one of the more artful gangster films of recent vintage. It screens tonight (11/20) at LACMA (where Hard Boiled Hong Kong continues through November 27th) and also streams on Netflix.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Restored: The Cry of Jazz

1959, the year that saw the release of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, seems a bit early to be declaring the “death of jazz.” Of course, jazz has had more premature obituaries than Mark Twain, yet it keeps soldiering on. Though traditionalists had proclaimed jazz’s demise as early as the 1930’s with the dawn of the swing era, probably the most provocative eulogy came in Edward Bland’s The Cry of Jazz, freshly restored by the Anthology Film Archives, where it screens this weekend for the first time ever in 35mm.

Though strictly speaking a cinematic essay, Cry has more narrative form than many festival films. As it opens, a college jazz appreciation society is wrapping up its meeting, when one of the white chicks thanks her date for explaining how jazz and rock & roll are really the same. These are fighting words for Alex, an arranger for a local jazz group.

In a nutshell, he argues jazz is the fundamental expression of joy and suffering in the African American (they use the term “Negro,” the polite expression of the time) experience. The solo represents the shout of elation, whereas the chord changes and melodic form represent their chains of bondage. Only African Americans had the requisite musical heritage and resilience in the face of oppression to create such music. Yet, because of its internal contradictions, jazz is dead, at least in body, but its spirit endures to show savage white America the possibility of redemption.

Theirs is a heavy rap session to be sure, but calling Cry “the most controversial film since The Birth of a Nation” is a bit hyperbolic. It also seems to inadvertently imply a certain equivalency in the vastly different films’ racialist attitudes. However, leaving aside the early expression of Black Power ideology, Cry’s musical analysis is nearly as controversial. Featuring a more-or-less bop-based soundtrack by an early Sun Ra combo (billed as Le Sun Ra), Cry still gives viewers a handy overview of jazz’s stylistic development. Ironically though, it echoes Wynton Marsalis’ notion that jazz is defined by the essence of “swing”, arguing without that, jazz is no longer jazz. Of course, in a few years the free jazz movement would directly challenge traditional approaches to swing, rhythm, harmony, and melody, with Sun Ra himself in the vanguard.

Though Sun Ra would indeed move onto to bigger, more cosmic things with his avant-garde yet still swinging Arkestra big band, his group here sounds great. As is often the case with the musician’s voluminous discography, the exact line-up for the Cry sessions remains a bit hazy, but it is thought to include Arkestra stalwarts like John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen on alto, Pat Patrick on baritone, and Julian Priester on trombone. While the soundtrack might be more conventional (and accessible) than Sun Ra’s score for Phill Niblock’s experimental short The Magic Sun, it is passionate with a rough-around-the-edges quality appropriate to Bland’s film.

The thirty-four minute Cry plays with Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy of approximately the same length. Featuring the madcap antics of Beat poets Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, Daisy is based on an episode from Neal Cassady’s life that became grist for his friend Jack Kerouac, who supplied the improvised narration. Frankly, it largely confirms every Beat Generation caricature. However, David Amram’s music is still reason enough to watch it. One of the first to play improvised jazz on the French horn, Amram is a New York institution, who just celebrated his 80th year with a gala concert at Symphony Space and is a regular fixture downtown at the Cornelia Street Café. His Daisy compositions still sound cool, particularly the title song performed by Anita Ellis.

Despite its strident militancy, Cry remains the far more vital of the two long shorts, precisely because it takes the music—jazz—so seriously. While its cast consisted entirely of volunteer amateurs, who often come across as such, George Waller’s Alex effectively anchors the film with his charismatic presence and authoritative narration. An enduring underground classic, the newly restored Cry is definitely worth checking out for the early Sun Ra this weekend (11/19-11/21) at AFA.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Plastic Surgery from Hell: Heartless

Everyone knows the clichés: “beauty is only skin deep, it’s what’s inside that counts, blah, blah, blah.” Try telling that to a photographer with a disfiguring heart-shaped facial birthmark. His vocation and his non-existent love life say otherwise. Unfortunately, he apparently never heard the old adages about deals with the Devil in Philip Ridley’s Heartless (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

London’s street gangs have become inhumanly savage. In fact, they are truly inhuman. The worst of the worst appear to be hoodie-wearing lizard-like creatures. Photographer Jaime Morgan got just a good enough look to know something seriously strange is going on in his economically depressed neighborhood. However, they know that he knows. To send a message, they attack his mother, burning her alive before his very eyes. Despite this shocking act of brutality, when their Mephistophelean leader Papa B reaches out to Morgan, he takes the meeting. Foolishly, Morgan accepts B’s deal: complete removal of his birthmark in return for a minor favor later, such as some sacrilegious graffiti or the like. Of course, it turns out to be much bloodier than that.

Ridley’s stages several creepily memorable scenes, including a wicked cameo by Eddie Marsan as the demonic “Weapons Man,” but the picture does not hang together well as a whole. Indeed, there are huge credibility issues at every turn. Granted, Morgan’s working class means are limited, but one would think he would at least price out plastic surgery before making the proverbial deal with the Devil. One would also think he might hold a bit of a grudge over his mother’s gruesome murder. Whatever, he has an aspiring model to woo, so why get hung up on the finer points?

If his character were not such a tool, Jim Sturgess would be pretty good as Morgan. He captures the photographer’s pathos and desperation rather well, but is stuck doing a lot of stupid things. Further undermining the film, Clémence Poésy makes a rather bland, underwhelming love interest-femme fatale as the supposedly alluring Tia. At least Noel Clarke provides some energy and edge as Morgan’s knowing hipster neighbor A.J.

Ridley shrewdly uses the demilitarized-looking East London settings to full unnerving effect. Yet, it is nearly impossible to invest in such problematic leads. Ending more on a shrug than a shudder, Heartless is mostly just a mish-mash. It opens this Friday (11/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Labored Film: Made in Dagenham

In the late 1960’s United Kingdom, trade unions dominated industrial policy, but did chauvinism trump class warfare? 187 women find out when their strike brings the mighty Ford plant to a standstill in Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In one of the all time penny-wise-pound-foolish decisions, Ford reclassified the seamstresses working at Dagenham as “unskilled” rather than “semi-skilled” workers. This naturally resulted in a corresponding pay cut for the women. Encouraged by Albert, the factory’s union rep, they vote to authorize a work stoppage if their semi-skilled status is not reinstated. Though not previously active in the union or politics of any sort, Rita O’Grady is selected to attend the negotiations between Ford and their union. She is supposed to sit quietly in the corner, but when Monty Taylor, the feather-bedding head of their Local tries to sell out the Dagenham women, O’Grady gives them a case of what’s what.

Suddenly, the strike is on. However, the parameters have widened. With the encouragement of Albert, a former military officer raised by his single working mother, the Dagenham women are insisting equal pay for equal work. With 55,000 men now out of work, the union leadership is decidedly unenthusiastic. Ford is not too thrilled either. However, Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson’s minister for labor relations is quite impressed by the Dagenham women, while her boss is rather befuddled by it all.

Dagenham is a mostly harmless, Swinging Sixties Norma Rae, yet it veers awfully close to the patronizing attitudes it takes pains to skewer. We are clearly meant to cheer when O’Grady asserts herself with the sexist old boys around the negotiating table, but why shouldn’t she? William Ivory’s screenplay never actually uses the term “plucky gals,” but one can feel it floating in the air.

While Dagenham frames the issues surrounding the strike in simplistic terms, at least it earns credit for its pointed portrayal of the union leadership, a venal, Marx-quoting lot of chauvinist pigs. Of course, the overall membership is the salt of the earth, who eventually rally to the Dagenham women’s cause. Yet wisely, the film resists the dour naturalism of most union movies. Instead, it gives us Jaime Winstone in a mini-skirt.

Do not get the wrong impression though, Winstone (daughter of Ray) is mere window dressing. Dagenham is clearly intended as a star vehicle for Sally Hawkins. Certainly, she is “likable” enough. Everyone in the film is likable, unless they are management, in which case they are despicable. However, her soft-spoken, twitchy performance makes it hard to understand how she becomes such as a galvanizing force.

Granted, his big speech is ridiculously manipulative, but as the big-hearted Albert Bob Hoskins still sells it, supplying the film’s most heartfelt moments. Though Wilson incisively contrasted himself with his Conservative opponent’s aristocratic background during the 1964 campaign, John Sessions plays him like an upper-class twit, emasculated by a look from Miranda Richardson as Castle, but at least they also supply some dramatic flair.

It might be faint praise, but Dagenham could have been far worse. When it doubt, Cole clearly opted to keep the tone light, which makes the film watchable, if predictable and stilted. It opens this Friday (11/19) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Denis’ White Material

It is a term of disinterested contempt for the items left behind by the former French colonial remnant. It is not just their Johnny Hallyday CDs and whatnot. Maria Vial and her dysfunctional family also constitute “white material.” Whether or not they can ride out the civil war engulfing their unnamed African nation solely on the strength of her iron will be determined in Claire Denis’ White Material (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Vial cannot say she was not warned. As a last ditch effort, the French send choppers to implore her to leave the country while she can. However, Vial is made of sterner stuff than the French army. She refuses to evacuate until she has completed the annual coffee harvest. The rest of her family’s resolve is a very different story.

Her ex-husband Andre Vial believes he has cut a deal for their safety with the local mayor and aspiring warlord, the terms of which might even involve ownership of the plantation she is struggling to save. Following a humiliating brush with a rebel unit, her slacker son Manuel has adopted the skinhead look and a revolutionary persona. Meanwhile, her father-in-law wanders about like King Lear, apparently oblivious to the violent storm brewing. Increasing the precariousness of their position, the so-called “Boxer,” a symbolic leader and cooler head among the rebels, has taken refuge on the Vial plantation.

Clearly, Vial is operating under a form of denial as well, but at least she is action-oriented, recruiting workers amongst those stranded in-country with no means of escape. Anarchy is literally breaking down around her, yet she will not abandon her crop. Of course, there will come a point of metaphoric no return.

It is difficult to imagine a less hospitable environment than the Africa Vial calls home. The climate is harsh, the soil is infertile, and the factionalism is dangerously bitter. In fact, it is difficult to tell the rebels from the militias. One thing is clear though, with the exception of Andre’s son from his second wife, the Vials are white. As the Mayor ominously warns her, they stand out.

Given the revolutionary exhortations heard on the local reggae station, it is hard not to hear echoes of the violent hate radio that fueled the Rwandan genocide, though Denis keeps the exact nature of the conflict and combatants obscure. Unfortunately, that extends to the Boxer, whose reason for seeking shelter at the Vial estate is never adequately explained. Still, Denis viscerally depicts the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, fueling an ever mounting sense of impending doom.

There are a lot of ragged edges to Material, but Isabelle Huppert stands out as an indomitable (if perhaps foolhardy) spirit, a post-Colonial Scarlett O’Hara with a thousand times the guts of the weak willed men surrounding her. It is fascinating to watch her inter-family relationships, particularly with Andre’s second son with whom she shares no blood relation. Yet she accepts responsibility for this shattered family unit, even though she risks destroying it in her determination to save their Tara. In a departure from the genre programmers American audiences typically see him in, Christopher Lambert is also quite convincing as the undependable Andre.

Based on a novel by Doris Lessing, the implications of Material are fearlessly politically incorrect. Regardless of the fictional country’s colonial past, it is clear Vial belongs there. Indeed, the sight of the petite Huppert against the sweltering landscape is the defining image of the film, stark in its beauty. Though the ideological knee-jerks might have difficulty with its all-too realistic portrayal of post-Independence violence and anti-white racism, it is a smart, bracing film. Well recommended, it opens this Friday (11/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

MIAAC ’10: Lahore

Nothing says “goodwill” like kick-boxing. Unfortunately, when Dheeru Singh the new young Indian national champion is killed by Noor Muhammad (the Drago-like great Pakistani hope) in the Asian Games, it casts a pall over the upcoming Indian-Pakistani goodwill match. When the games proceed as announced, Singh’s brother Veerender may have some goodwill of his own to spread in Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan’s Lahore (trailer here), which had its U.S. premiere at this year’s MIAAC Film Festival.

India and Pakistan share quite a bit of difficult history together, some of which involves the Punjab capitol of Lahore. Holding the good will games there would evoke certain historical rivalries under the best of conditions. However, emotions are inflamed after Muhammad kills Singh in the ring with a cheap shot. Neither the international kick-boxing authorities nor the Indian government press the matter though, so as not to jeopardize all that goodwill. Of course, Veerender has different ideas.

Originally a kick-boxer as well, he became a cricketer instead, because he lives in India and that is where all the prestige is. He still has a lot of the moves though, as we see when he lays a beat-down on a gang of toughs hassling his brother’s girlfriend Neela. Can brother Veeru get back into fighting shape fast enough to make the national team and return Muhammad’s good will with interest? He has the support of the esteemed Indian national coach S.K. Rao, as well as Ida, the patronized psychiatric intern with the Pakistani team.

Lahore’s debt to Rocky IV and The Best of the Best is blindingly obvious. Still, it mostly works as a martial arts film thanks to the completely credible fight choreography of Hong Kong action director Kuang Hsiung. Anyone with any familiarity with real world martial arts will be able to buy into his fight sequences. Singh’s tentative Romeo & Juliet romance with the Pakistani Ida is also executed relatively painlessly. Frankly, if the energy is there, the revenge-in-the-ring convention works just about every time. Yet, Chauhan deliberately tries his best to undermine it with an eye-rolling Kumbaya conclusion.

All too conscious of geo-political realities, Lahore tries to have it both ways, emphasizing Pakistan’s enormous human-dwarfing mosques and showing their kick-boxing team training in the mountains in scenes that seem to intentionally call to mind al-Qaeda camps. Yet, it also wants to assure us of our universal brotherhood, which evidently becomes clear after a few rounds of bruising combat.

Aanaahad and Sushant Singh are more or less adequate as the battling Singh brothers. Fortunately, the Pakistani villains supply the necessary color. Mukesh Rishi seethes malevolently as the hulking Muhammad and Sabyasachi Chakraborty chews the scenery with relish as the insidious Pakistani coach, who seems to have more hush-hush political clout than George Soros. He is nicely matched by Farooq Shaikh as the media-savvy Indian coach Rao.

There was a time when it would be unthinkable that India, the de-facto leader of the non-aligned nations, would receive such shabby treatment from any international body. Arguably though, Islamic Islamabad probably trumps the increasingly capitalistic India these days. Given such fundamental differences, whether or not they really can all just get-along remains to be seen. Despite its simplistic moral, Lahore brings plenty of crowd-pleasing fighting, making it a good potential fit for Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet slate of international genre movies. A big hit in India, it seems a more likely Hindi film to eventually score American distribution. While the official selection screenings of this year’s MIAAC have concluded, the Smita Patil sidebar continues at the Walter Reade Theater through Thursday (11/18).

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

MIAAC ’10: The Japanese Wife

It is hard to find a Japanese translator in rural Bengali. The converse is not so easy in Japan either. Somehow two pen-pal-lovers are able to make do with English, their halting second language, in Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife (trailer here), one of the best received films of this year’s MIAAC Film Festival, which is already available on DVD.

Unassuming does not begin to describe Snehamoy Chatterjee. A school teacher in a remote West Bengal village, he makes a mere $100 a month. His only joys are the letters and packages he receives from Miyage, a pen pal he found through a magazine classified. Also quite shy, she recognizes a kindred soul in Chatterjee, but is anchored to Japan and the sick mother she cares for. Nevertheless, she proposes a marriage of the spirit, consummated by the post. For fifteen years, they remain faithful to each other, even as fate brings Sandhya, his aunt’s attractive god-daughter widowed at a tragically young age, to test his fidelity. While their idealized love might endure jealousy and temptation, there are more ominous clouds on the horizon.

Wife is an unabashed, heartstring-tugging tearjerker in the tradition of Il Postino. It might be manipulative as all get-out, but it works in spades. Dubbed a “love poem by Aperna Sen” in the trailer, there is indeed something poetically beautiful about their chaste love and the emotional support they lend each other across geographic and cultural boundaries. Frankly, it seems like its DVD release was premature, because if there was ever an international film tailored made for breakout American art-house success, it would be Wife.

Ironically, Rahul Bose and Chigusa Takaku really do not have the chance to develop chemistry as a couple, but they are both sweetly endearing as Chatterjee and his title wife, respectively. On-screen nearly the entire film, Bose finds the right balance, portraying the schoolteacher as oh-so mild-mannered and withdrawn, yet never to the point of freakishness. Though Takaku is an ethereal presence during most of the film, she is radiantly beautiful and emotionally devastating in her final scene.

Sen grounds viewers in the realities of West Bengal, where the idea of jetting off to Japan is as unrealistic as hitching a shuttle ride to the moon. The viscous mud oozes through her lens, yet ultimately her imagery of the traditional white sari mourning dress defines the tenor of the film.

Wife is international cinema for people who hate foreign films. It will make grown men bawl like babies. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of films like Departures, Wife is currently available at Netflix. It also scored a major hit last night at MIAAC, which continues tomorrow (11/14) at the SVA Theatre.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

MIAAC ’10: Ashes

Indo-Americans seem to be under-represented in New York’s seedy drug world. This is a good thing. However, one son of Indian immigrants tries to earn a quick crooked buck while caring for his emotionally unstable older brother. As one would expect, something has to give in Ajay Naidu’s Ashes (trailer here), which had its New York premiere last night at the 2010 Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival.

Ashes is in major denial. He insists his drug dealing is temporary and only “herbal” in nature. Yet, he just helped broker a major deal to facilitate the distribution of opium imported from India, almost inadvertently. Like it or not he is up to his neck in some serious business. At the same time, his chemically unbalanced older brother Kartik shows signs of relapsing. However, with major power plays going down, he reluctantly accepts his brother’s less than persuasive assurances. He is also neglecting his own girlfriend, suspiciously paying more attention to the machinations his patron’s mercenary lover Jasmine (played by Naidu’s fiancé producer Heather Burns).

Naidu seems to be going for an early Scorsese-style street-level morality tale customized to reflect the Indo-American experience. It doesn’t quite get there, but it gets the grittiness right. Frankly, the brother’s keeper drama is surprisingly strong, with Naidu and Faran Tahir looking and acting quite convincing as the second generation brothers, Ashes and Kartik respectively. In contrast, the intentionally murky criminal subplot does not work as well, as various gangsters wash in and out of the film without effectively establishing an identity or their place in the underworld hierarchy.

An intense screen presence, Naidu really outshines most of his cast. As director, he makes the most of his BKLN locations, without overdoing the Coney Island backdrops. Frankly, it has an evocative pre-Giuliani vibe of ever present menace and hopelessness. Yes indeed, times are changing.

While imperfect, Ashes is a promising directorial debut, rough around the edges in an old school New York kind of way. Those who dig indie crime drama should find its spirit to their liking. A somewhat outside-the-box selection for MIAAC, Ashes goes global with its UK premiere this coming March as the closing night film of the London Asian Film Festival. Here in New York, the MIAAC Film Festival continues this weekend with official selections screening at the SVA Theatre and the Smita Patil sidebar underway at the Walter Reade.

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