J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Best in Theaters

Integrity, dignity, and ingenuity might be dismissed as old-fashioned virtues, but they are still the stuff of great movies. Indeed, such characters qualities distinguish several (though not necessarily all) of the ten best films that made it by hook or by crook onto New York screens this year. With a bit of fudging, the following non-scientific list presents the best films with arguable New York theatrical distribution, in strictly alpha order.

A searing indictment of an act of legalized plunder committed by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia, Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal might not be the most edifying film of the year, but it does the nearly impossible, making estate law absolutely fascinating. Rigorously establishing its case step by step, it is a clinic in documentary filmmaking that Alex Gibney should be forced to watch repeatedly as part of his penitence for the wildly speculative, utterly unsubstantiated Client 9.

By contrast, Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma’s droll documentary Disco and Atomic War celebrates the resourcefulness of the Estonian people, who went to great lengths circumventing the Soviet censorship of Finnish television stations and the iconic American shows it carried. Enormously entertaining yet easily the most informative film of the year on a frame-by-frame basis, Disco represents what more docs should aspire to.

Also based on stranger-than-fiction Cold War history, Christian Carion’s Farewell grippingly dramatizes the unusual friendship that developed between a high-ranking Soviet informer and the average French businessman he chooses as his handler. It also gives President Reagan his fairest shake on film since his days as a working actor.

Luca Guadagnino’s exquisitely crafted I Am Love was easily the best adultery drama of the year (and there were plenty of them). Featuring a bravura lead performance from Tilda Swinton and perfectly incorporating the music of John Adams, Love is a film of operatic passion and grandeur.

Working from an unproduced screenplay by the late great Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet flawlessly captures the screen mime’s gentle but sly physical in the wise and wistful The Illusionist, the best animated film of the year, by a country mile.

Though its inclusion might be a case of rewarding a film for the sake of its subjects, director Frederick Marx also earns credit for nearly dying while recording one Tibetan Buddhist monk’s quest to bring a group of hopeful children over an icy mountain pass to the nearest school in Journey from Zanskar. Though the trek is dramatic, it is the spirit and fundamental humanity of the Zanskari children that are truly memorable. Since the Rubin Museum of Art is positioning itself as a first run theater as well as the leading exhibitor of Himalayan art, Zanskar gets shoehorned into the theatrical list.

Beginning as a period drawing room comedy but subtly evolving into something larger and deeper, Tom Hooper’s The King's Speech is one of the few Oscar contenders of the year that deserves its award buzz.

Shooting a film that forthrightly addresses the Cultural Revolution on-location in China also takes a fair amount of guts. Somehow, Bruce Beresford pulled it off, bringing the inspiring story of Chinese dancer Li Cunxin’s defection to the screen, while also capturing a vivid sense of his passion and talent for ballet in Mao's Last Dancer.

Combining music with tragedy rather than heroism, Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats is a powerful indictment of Iranian censorship. About as indie as indie gets, Ghobadi illegally filmed his drama set in the world of Tehran’s underground music scene on the city streets and in the real life basement clubs where bands risk their lives by playing their haram music every night.

Exhausting in a good way, Marco Bellocchio’s feverish drama Vincere stylishly speculates about the life and fate of Mussolini’s mistress Ida Dalser. Bold and sweeping, Vincere also unambiguously portrays Mussolini as a manipulative socialist who never really changed his ideology, just his rhetoric.

Just like last year, 2010’s ostensive Oscar contenders are a so-so lot, but there are always quality films sneaking into New York’s art-houses. These ten are highly recommended as they expand nationally or find their homes on Netflix. Here’s to happy screenings in 2011.

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Early Animation: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Though opinions vary, most consider it the first animated feature film ever produced. It is also a benign example of German affinity for the Arabic world (of course, darker manifestations would develop during WWII). Judged on its own merits, Lotte Reiniger’s silent The Adventures of Prince Achmed (trailer here) is still a rich visual feast, ranking as a significant technical feat eighty-some years after its initial debut. Relatively recently restored, Lotte’s Achmed returns to the IFC Center this holiday weekend as the conclusion to its retrospective tribute to Milestone Films.

Reiniger was a multi-talented artist, but her signature animation films were not drawn. Rather, they incorporated her remarkable facility for creating paper silhouettes. Of course, describing Achmed as a series of paper cutouts would be akin to dismissing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a motley assortment of sketches. Frankly, it is hard to think of a modern equivalent, though some of the animation of Nina Paley’s utterly charming Sita Sings the Blues suggests Reiniger’s influence.

Granted, the Achmed’s characterization might seem a bit (forgive the term) two-dimensional, but the look and atmosphere of the film is so elegant, one cannot help but fall into the film’s exoticism regardless. Drawing on stories from the Arabian Nights, the Prince battles the evil African Sorcerer over a series of episodes, in order to protect the honor of his sister and rescue his true love, the Peri Banu, the former ruler of the spirit island Wak-Wak. Even Aladdin and the Emperor of China get in on the act.

These oft-told tales never looked better and that most definitely includes Disney versions. Indeed, Walter Ruttmann’s gorgeous backgrounds are suitable for framing. The restoration also re-recorded the original score composed by Wolfgang Zeller, adding sheen to an already classy package. This is film as an object of high art, yet smart kids ought to appreciate its charms. At a manageable sixty-six minutes, it should hold nearly every attention span, even without overly hip dialogue and obligatory Randy Newman songs.

Lovely to look at, Achmed is a rather impressive work of both filmmaking and film restoration. Animation enthusiasts should absolutely catch up with it, either at the IFC Center this weekend (12/31-/1/2) or streaming on Netflix.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Many Happy Returns: Army of Shadows

Reportedly, French critics were scandalized by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows on its initial release, finding its depiction of General De Gaulle far too heroic. However, it is hard to think of a film less inclined to the critical bugbear of “jingoism” than Melville’s uncompromising story of duplicity and intrigue within the French resistance. In a case of American reviewers and audiences rediscovering that which their French counterparts intemperately dismissed, Melville’s film was a breakout art house hit in 2006. To celebrate the New Year, Army (trailer here) has triumphantly returned to New York’s Film Forum for a special engagement now underway.

A local leader of the underground, Philippe Gerbier has been arrested by the Vichy police. It will not be the last time he is taken into custody. During the prison transfer, Gerbier pulls off a daring escape. It will not be his last either. Eventually, he rendezvouses with his comrades and sets out to execute the man who double-crossed him. This pattern too will repeat.

In a way, there is something peculiarly French and appropriately existential about Army. There is an unspoken sense that betrayal will mark the ultimate end of all the resistance fighters. The only question is whether they will be forced to inform on their colleagues or be informed upon. Victory is only measured by the time they continue to act as free agents in the covert battle. As result, Army manages to be simultaneous cynical and idealistic, forgiving the sins it so ruthlessly exposes.

The picture of world-weariness, Lino Ventura is lynchpin of the film. It is hard to think of a more compelling yet quietly understated screen performance. Of course, he has strong support, including the great Simone Signoret perfectly conveying the complexities and nuances of a key member of his cell. Though little more than a cameo role, Serge Reggiani is also unforgettable as a patriotic barber.

It is a convenient myth that nearly all the French were actively involved in the resistance. Army acts as an unambiguous corrective to such romanticism, as does Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest. Yet, it also suggests that many of the French still did the best they could under impossible circumstances. A film of uncommon depth that is also enormously entertaining, Army is easily the best film screening in New York theaters this week. It runs at Film Forum through Tuesday (1/4).

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2010: Best of the Fests

Here in New York, the entire world comes to us, via some of the nation’s best film festivals. It isn’t always pretty though. Indeed, the world is a messy place, where respect for freedom under constitutional law is all too rare. However, such crucibles often produce significant films that deserve a theatrical life after screening on the festival circuit. The following is perhaps a provocative list of the ten best films of the 2010 fests that have yet have a regular theatrical run in New York, submitted for your debating pleasure.

Call it a fanboy pick, but Lê Thanh Son’s Clash was easily the best of Tribeca’s Cinemania (formerly Midnight Movies) selections and one of the best of the fest overall. Amped up and dripping with style, it delivers the action goods and there is no arguing with the star power of Ngô Thanh Vân (a.k.a. Veronica Ngô, a.k.a. NTV), kicking butt as the beautiful and mysterious Phoenix. Word has it this could be coming to screens next year, which seems like a no-brainer.

If there was a better film in 2010 than Tetsuya Nakashima’s jaw-dropping, hyper-realistic drama Confessions, than this will rank with 1939 as one of the all time great year’s for film. A joint selection of the Japan Cuts and New York Asian Film Festivals since submitted by Japan for best foreign language Oscar consideration, Confessions tells its story of middle school murder and revenge with devastating power. Its opening twenty minute sequence alone packs more punch than a month of boxing pictures.

A nasty little crime thriller in the best sense of the term, Wojtek Smarzowski’s cleverly constructed The Dark House also offered some pointed insights into the unsavory nature of the Martial Law-era Communist regime when it screened at the Brooklyn International Film Festival.

How such an endearing and accessible film as Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife by-passed theaters heading straight to domestic DVD is a real head-scratcher. A truly heartfelt tale of chaste love between a Bengali man and his Japanese pen pal “wife,” Sen’s film can make grown men bawl like babies. Indeed, there were plenty of sniffles after its screening at this year’s Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival (MIAAC).

The irony that Pakistan’s former cottage Pashto film industry was based in a Taliban stronghold brought Australian filmmaker George Gittoes over for a look-see. The results seen in The Miscreants of Taliwood are simply jaw-dropping, including a frank examination of widespread Islamist homosexuality on the down-low, culminating with Gittoes’s own production of two zero-budget Pashto action programmers. With Gittoes literally putting his life on the line, Miscreants is one of the few documentaries that can legitimately be described as bold. It was also a fairly gutsy selection for MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight.

2010 saw many long, multi-installment films screening in art theaters. Though not quite as long as Carlos, Raúl Ruiz’s epic film adaption of Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon was even more satisfying when it screened at the 48th New York Film Festival. A rich, old fashioned tale of intrigue and romance filmed with a modern sensibility, Lisbon is a beautiful and ambitious film well worth the 272 minute investment.

Sadly, with the recent conviction of Russian industrialist Mikhail Khodorkovsky on dubious charges for his real crime of not towing Putin’s line, Cathryn Collins’s Vlast (Power) is even timelier now then when it screened during MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight. A first-time documentarian, Collins is admirably even-handed, providing helpful context to understand both the Kremlin’s campaign against Khodorkovsky and the state of Russia in general.

Sometimes not being political is construed as a political act in and of itself. Such is partly the case with filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi who have recently been sentenced to six years in Hellish Iranian prisons on specious “propaganda” charges. Their recent collaboration, The White Meadows, directed by Rasoulof and edited by Panahi only too appropriately uses the collection of tears as its driving plot device. A visually arresting fable whose allegorical implications were wisely kept veiled (but evidently not obscure enough), Meadows was rightly hailed at Tribeca. The only good news in this story so far is that the Global Film Initiative has selected their film for the 2011 Global Lens film program, which will provide American audiences the screening opportunities denied to Iranians.

1934 was an inconvenient year for ideologues. The Stalinist purges were in full swing and even word of their anti-Semitic nature was starting to get out. The closing film of the New York Jewish Film Festival, Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind captures the tenor of those dark times quite effectively, vividly recreating the persecution of Soviet academic Evgenia Ginzburg. In addition to its brutal honesty, Whirlwind is also notable for showcasing the great German actor Ulrich Tukur in a rare English language role, bringing dignity and humanity to horrifying historical episode.

Finally, Axelle Ropert’s The Wolberg Family easily could have been a cloying connection of quirky family clichés. Instead, it is deeply humanistic portrayal of family and impending mortality, executed with unfailing grace. Deceptively simple, it was an unexpected highlight of this year’s French Rendezvous.

Thousands of films screen at New York festivals and then disappear from sight. All ten of these films deserve a better fate. The Academy’s foreign language division could ensure a future audience for Confessions should they heed these subtle recommendations.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blue Valentine, Blue-ish Movie

Being a parent is easy, marriage is hard—or something like that. Dean and Cindy are going through a rough patch, but as you might have heard, the sex is still there. Though Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine has generated considerable Oscar buzz, it is really most notable for the outside controversies involving its original MPAA rating of “NC-17,” which the Weinstein Company has since appealed down to an “R.” Still not for children, the accessibly R-rated Valentine (trailer here) opens today in New York, uncut, reflecting Cianfrance’s directorial intentions.

He used to crash in Brooklyn squats, while she got taken advantage of in her white bread Pennsylvania schools. Their very different worlds briefly intersected when he happened to move an elderly gentleman into her grandmother’s nursing home. Immediately smitten, he moved Heaven and Earth to get a date, which we see in all its glorious eccentricity over a series of flashbacks.

Of course, the bloom is off the rose in the here and now. Dean has forged a special connection with their daughter Frankie, perhaps because he is somewhat childlike himself. Cindy however, has had enough. Again, we witness the disintegration of their relationship in excruciatingly intimate detail.

It is hard to fathom why Valentine has been such a critical darling and festival favorite. While Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are separately quite effective, poignant even, as Dean the slacker goofball and Cindy the icily professional RN, together they are never the least bit believable as a couple. Frankly, their quirky courtship is like fingernails on a chalkboard. By the time their marriage completely implodes, despite a Hail Mary trip to the local no-tell motel that got the MPAA’s full attention, it is hard to see how they lasted so long in the first place.

Valentine is part of an indie movie sub-genre that finds white trash angst artistic in and of itself, but its cocktail of sex, bickering, and reminiscence grows increasingly tiresome. Though its simulations might leave a tad less to the imagination than customary, the film will hardly shock anyone who has seen a fair number of European imports.

To be fair, all three principles, including Faith Wladyka as Frankie, are quite strong. Gosling in particular, taps into something deep and honest as Dean. Yet, they are so mismatched from the get-go and so unremittingly annoying down the stretch, it is hard to do anything but shrug as the inevitable unfolds.

At least Valentine understands the consequences of its tale, clearly conscious of the unfortunate ramifications for Frankie. Still, it is not exactly the second coming of Kramer vs. Kramer. Essentially a case of indie slumming, Valentine does not live up to its ample fanfare. It opens today (12/29) at the Angelika Film Center, with Cianfrance taking questions after the 7:45 screening.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Submitted by Mexico: Inarritu’s Biutiful

He is a Spanish ghost whisperer. It is not a scam, Uxbal really believes he can sometimes reach the very recently deceased. Unfortunately, he knows he will soon be joining their ranks, but he is not ready to go in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (trailer here), Mexico’s official submission for best foreign language Academy Award consideration, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Ironically, Uxbal’s second sight is his only business on the up-and-up. His main employment involves smuggling and concealing illegal laborers from China. He kids himself into thinking they are working to build a better life for themselves in Spain, even trusting Li, a nurturing Chinese worker, to sit for his daughter Ana and son Mateo. As it happens, he has other things to distract him from their slave-like conditions, like the cancer eating away at him.

Uxbal might not be perfect, but he is a far better parent than his estranged floozy wife, Marambra. Understandably, securing his children’s future preoccupies him, until tragedy inevitably strikes, leaving him profoundly shaken.

Biutiful is not exactly what one might call a happy film. Visually though, it is often quite striking, with Iñárritu (previously on Oscar’s radar with Babel) adroitly mixing modest doses of subtle magical realism into a grittily naturalistic world. In its own way, Biutiful is actually a deeply moral film as well, clearly suggesting karma can be a real infernal boomerang. It is also somewhat ironic to see such a bitterly tragic story about “undocumented workers” set in Spain, which has not exactly carried the EU economy in recenmt years. Indeed, Iñárritu paints a harsh portrait of Spanish society, suggesting it is corrupt and exploitative in no uncertain terms.

However, though logic may not be an unfailingly human trait, there are times when Biutiful’s characters make decisions that truly exasperate all remnants of patience. Granted, they have a host of issues, but there is a lot of self-destruction and self-contempt on display. Such behavior combined with the abject meanness of the environment and the constant presence of death makes the film quite a draining experience.

Javier Bardem’s Oscar buzz is certainly justifiable, following his best actor honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. As Uxbal, he truly looks like remorse personified right from the start and he only deteriorates from there. Yet, his on-screen work is thoroughly credible each step of the way, rather than an indulgence in showy, clip-reel acting. Likewise, young Hanaa Bouchaib also modulates her performance as Ana quite well, while in a small-ish supporting role, Lang Sofia Lin is truly haunting as poor (even by Spanish or Mexican standards) Li.

Biutiful is certainly technically accomplished film, featuring a very fine turn from Bardem. Yet, aside from its rather grim sow-what-you-reap implications and a legitimately touching framing device, the film does not leave viewers with much, after demanding plenty. Still, that is not nothing. Given the extent Iñárritu’s colleagues have championed Biutiful, it is probably a favorite for the best foreign language Oscar, but it is not likely to duplicate the audience reach attained by recent winners, like The Secret in Their Eyes and The Lives of Others. Recommended for hardy cineastes, Biutiful opens tomorrow (12/29) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Manoel de Oliveira’s Strange Case of Angelica

A true marvel of world cinema, Portuguese centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s latest film is a paranormal romance, still the hot genre all the young girls are crazy for. Of course, no bodices are ever ripped in de Oliveira’s elegantly meditative The Strange Case of Angélica (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

There are no vampires or angels (strictly speaking) in Strange either, but there is a serious case of love from beyond the grave. Isaac is an outsider, both culturally and temporally. A Sephardic Jewish immigrant to the Douro region of Portugal, he prefers vintage cameras to modern technology and romanticizes traditional forms of manual labor. In the dead of night, he is summoned to stately home of the local landed gentry. Their young daughter Angélica died shortly after her wedding, so the family matriarch wants a final photo to preserve her ethereal beauty. Respectfully obliging, Isaac is shocked to see Angélica suddenly open her eyes through his lens. Not only does she show signs of life, she seems almost flirtatious.

So begins a most unusual cinematic courtship. As Angélica visits Isaac in dreams, he becomes ever more preoccupied with the tragic beauty. Yet, even though de Oliveira’s spectral bride story sounds like something akin to the works of Poe and Irving, he consistently de-emphasizes the gothic elements, while holding fast to a distinctly European sensibility. Indeed, Strange is both an elegy for Angélica, the Annabel Lee dying before her time, and for the Old World that gave way to the new.

Though playing the part of a corpse might not sound demanding, one look from Pilar López de Ayala’s Angélica says a lot. As Isaac, Ricardo Trêpa is also convincingly earnest and confused. Yet, de Oliveira keeps viewers at arm’s length, refusing to allow any crass displays of emotion. Eschewing manipulative melodrama, he earns Strange’s gracefully mournful atmosphere the hard way.

At 102, de Oliveira is reportedly in pre-production on his next film. Given his longevity, he obviously knows what he is doing. Though de Oliveira sets a contemplative pace for Strange, it is always clearly headed someplace with a purpose, packing a great deal into the deceptively simple vessel. A finely crafted film, Strange is certainly recommended when it opens tomorrow (12/29) at the IFC Center.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Punking North Korea: The Red Chapel

Talk about disclaimers: Danish director Mads Brügger explains all the footage the audience is about to watch had been thoroughly vetted by North Korean state censors. Yet his suspicion that the post-modern irony he would unleash on the world’s most isolated country would not be recognized as such by the Communist authorities proved largely correct. The gutsiest act of cinematic provocation perhaps ever and easily the highlight of this year’s New Directors/New Films, Mads Brügger’s The Red Chapel (trailer here), begins a well deserved theatrical run at New York’s IFC Center this Wednesday.

Ostensively, Brügger came to North Korea with two Danish Korean comedians, Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell to stage a good will show. However, his real intent was to expose the oppressive nature of DPRK system. Though submission to state censorship was a given right from the start, Brügger thought he had an ace in the hole: Nossell.

A self-described “spastic” (Nossell’s words, not mine), the subversive director knew the comedian would make the North Koreans uneasy, since those born with disabilities simply do not survive in their socialist paradise. Brügger also hoped Nossell would be able to speak freely on film, because none of the censors would understand his “spastic Danish” (Brügger’s words, not mine).

As soon as the Danes arrived in the North, their minder, Mrs. Pak, stuck to them like glue. Her response to Nossell was particularly bizarre, almost smothering him with attention. However, even Mrs. Pak could not fake an enthusiastic response to the program the comedians had prepared. Featuring skits in drag and an unclassifiable rendition of Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” it was not just bad, it was awe-inspiringly awful. It is hard to say which is funnier, their variety show on crack or the stone-faced reactions. However, seeing the propaganda potential of the show, the North Korean authorities began thoroughly revamping it to their ideological purposes. So much for cultural exchange.

While Chapel is at times a riotous exercise in comedic performance art, the overall film is as serious as a missile attack. The pathological nature of DPRK society weighed particularly heavily on Nossell, causing frequent rifts between him and the director. It all comes to a head when Nossell very publically refuses to participate in one of the regime’s big scary anti-American mass demonstrations. It is scene fraught with its own irony, as Mad Mads Brügger, the rebellious gadfly, tries to cajole his countrymen into professing support for what he calls the regime’s “mother lie,” the Communist myth that American aggression precipitated the Korean War.

Though he makes a noble effort, Brügger fails to capture the smoking gun scene that would utterly lay bear North Korea’s tyranny. Of course, he was doomed from the start, because the Communists set all the rules and could change them at their convenience. Still, they are plenty of telling moments (particularly the climatic demonstration), as well as some outrageous humor.

Chapel has been compared to the “Yes Men,” but that does not do Brügger justice. Unlike the play-it-safe leftist pranksters, Brügger was punking a target that exercises absolute, unchecked power, on its own turf. Based on the DPRK’s apoplectic response to the film, it is doubtful Brügger will ever return to make a sequel. He probably will not miss the place. Beyond surreal, Chapel simply has to be seen to be believed. Enthusiastically recommended, it opens tomorrow (12/29) at the IFC Center.

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Weir’s The Way Back

They endured harrowing extremes, including Siberian winters, blistering deserts, and utopian ideologies. In 1940, a Polish POW and six assorted political prisoners walked away from their gulag. Their ultimate destination was India. A harrowing tale of physical and spiritual survival adapted from Slavomir Rawicz’s novelistic memoir, Peter Weir’s The Way Back (trailer here) briefly opens an award qualifying engagement this Wednesday in Los Angeles, in advance of its regular January theatrical run.

1940 was a bad year to be a Pole in Russia. It was also pretty miserable being a Russian in Russia, unless your name was Stalin. Janusz, a Polish Cavalry officer, was fighting the invading Nazis from the West. The Russians invading from the East branded him a spy (using his “contact” with the Germans as a staggeringly hypocritical pretense) and imprisoned him in a Siberian work camp. Here he meets a broad cross-section of Soviet society swept up in Stalin’s purges.

Janusz quickly befriends Khabarov, a Russian actor sentenced for his overly sympathetic portrayal of an aristocrat. He also comes to respect Mr. Smith, an American engineer lured to Russia during the Great Depression with promises of work, but he is instinctively distrustful of Valka, one of the “Urki” (a.k.a. “Thieves By Law”), the career criminals who run the camps at the barracks level. However, they let the thug to join their escape attempt because of the knife he brings to the party. Along the way, they also reluctantly allow a girl to join their ranks: Irena, an orphan of the purges. Though Smith fears she will slow them down, she seems to be the only one able to draw the men out of their prison-hardened shells.

The plan was simple—head towards Lake Baikal with the only rags they had on their backs and then improvise from there. Of course, there were plenty of complications, like food and shelter. It is hard to imagine a more daunting landscape than the one they faced, including the Ghobi desert and the Himalayans. This long trek was not the original idea. Yet, when they realized Mongolia had also succumbed to the ideology of Communism, they had no choice but to press on.

While Way works very well as a man against nature film, it also captures the realities of the Stalinist era quite forthrightly. For instance, we see the abandoned remnants of Buddhist monasteries razed by the Communists, which echoes the experiences of Voss, a Latvian Orthodox priest, whose soul was essentially destroyed along with his church.

With its forbidding vistas and scorching sunlight, Way is a perfect vehicle for director Weir’s visual sensibilities. The audience really does feel like it is seeing remote corners of the globe never previously trodden by human feet. Yet, the film also features some considerable performances. Although Jim Sturgess has appeared in some high profile screen projects in the past, none of his previous work has been of this caliber. It is hard to be the “good guy” among an ensemble cast, but he actually makes Janusz the most memorable of the escapees, effectively establishing the deeper motivations fueling his superhuman drive. Ed Harris is also well cast as Smith, nicely expressing his guilt, resentment, and fundamental decency. Really, nearly the entire cast becomes one with their characters, blending seamlessly into this epic story of average people, except for Colin Farrell, who stands out a bit awkwardly as Valka.

Way might be a story of rugged survival among the elements, but it is really part of a larger man-made tragedy. Weir nicely drives that point home with his evocative final payoff. A finely executed, emotionally engaging human drama absolutely worthy of award consideration, Way begins a highly limited LA run this Wednesday (12/29) at the AMC Covina.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Techine’s Thieves

André Téchiné is one of those uncommon directors who can deftly stage an ambiguous morality play without indulging in pretention or didacticism. A film like 1996’s Thieves (Les Voleurs) has an icy intelligence that probably won’t get him programmed on Oprah’s network anytime soon, but it deserves to reach its audience. Happily, Téchiné’s Thieves is now available to discerning viewers through Columbia Classics’ new Screen Classics by Request collector’s line of previously unavailable films.

Justin’s father Ivan has died. The details are murky. However, we can tell the young boy is not thrilled by the presence of his Uncle Alex. There was indeed some biblical sibling rivalry festering between them. We start to understand their feud better as Téchiné shifts time and POV, showing us how Alex, an honest but joyless cop, met Juliette Fontana, the woman he brought to his brother’s wake. Their first encounter was strictly professional, when Alex, acting out of character, let her walk on a shoplifting charge. The next time he runs into her, it is part of the dodgy scene at Ivan’s dubious nightclub.

Thus begins an affair that is neither loving nor passionate, but base and animalistic. It works for Alex though. The exact nature of her relationship with Ivan remains obscure, but she has another lover who is everything Alex is not. Marie Leblanc is supportive, sophisticated, considerate, and yes, a woman. Strangely enough, Alex and Leblanc will become allies of a sort when Juliette is caught up in Ivan’s funny business.

Of course, nothing is straight forward in Thieves, which Téchiné makes all the more mysterious with his elliptical narrative structure. It is not that the audience cannot guess the general nature of the very real crimes afoot. It is more about who knows what and how they feel about each other.

Daniel Auteuil is perfectly cast as Alex, the iceman who starts to crack, nicely conveying the dangerous resentment below his reserved exterior. Likewise, Catheine Deneuve is completely convincing as the book-smart but unworldly Leblanc. However, it is hard to understand their mutual attraction to Laurence Cote, who seems neither intriguing nor particularly alluring as Fontana.

Thieves is a film for smart adults, unfolding in unexpected ways. Its razor-sharp dialogue, co-written by Téchiné and Gilles Taurand often has a bracing “oh snap” character that gives the film a considerable edge. A very good outing from a major filmmaker, Thieves is an excellent selection for Columbia’s promising new Screen Classics By Request imprint.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Tati Magic: The Illusionist

He was France’s favorite uncle, “Monsieur Hulot.” Indeed, the gentle but ever so sly physical comedy of Jacques Tati enchanted audiences the world over in classic Hulot films, like Mon Oncle and Play Time. However, Tati would have taken on a new role as a father figure in a screenplay he completed yet chose not to realize on film. With the blessings of his estate, renowned animator Sylvain Chomet sensitively adapted Tati’s unproduced script as the pitch-perfect The Illusionist (trailer here), which opens Christmas Day in New York.

As the film begins, the perhaps once great Tatischeff (Tati’s given name) schleps his mean-spirited rabbit and assorted magical gear to and from dilapidated theaters and middling private gigs. In a pleasant surprise, one of his best bookings turns out to be a small pub far up in the Scottish Highlands. The locals are all friendly in their strange Gaelic way and appreciate the show well enough. Alice, a shy young maid in his public house, is particularly fascinated by the Illusionist and his illusions. Something about her touches him as well, inspiring an act of kindness on his part. So when she invites herself along with the Illusionist, he begins to act as a kind of surrogate father.

While there is a gentle wistfulness to most of Tati’s comedies, Illusionist reaches a poignancy of a far greater order. Time passes the Illusionist by, both professionally and personally, as the girl matures and his magic falls even further out of vogue. Yet, like a truly Chaplinesque figure, he indomitably carries on as best he can.

Simply seeing Tati come to life as the scuffling vaudeville magician Tatischeff is a joy. Chomet’s animated rendering is absolutely spot-on, capturing the look and mannerisms of the French cinematic mime to a tee. His Illusionist is a gentle soul, a clown more apt to make us cry than laugh.

From the rugged Scottish landscape to the vintage 1959 city settings of Paris and Edinburgh, Illusionist has a richly detailed, handcrafted look. It even sounds impeccable, sparingly employing dialogue that matches the disembodied resonance of Tati’s great comedies. Completing the elegant ambiance, Chomet’s own appropriately wistful themes nicely suit the on-screen drama, while evoking French Chanson chanteuses, Josephine Baker, and Hot Club Jazz.

Illusionist is one of fifteen films to qualify for Oscar consideration as best animated feature and “Chanson Illusionist” is one of forty-one tunes to eligible in the best song category. Frankly, in a just world it would win both awards in a walk. Tati’s Illlusionist, by way of Chomet, has far greater soul and humanity than anything cranked out by Disney or Pixar this year. It is so good it deserves easily quotable superlatives like: “wise and sad, but touching and beautiful.” Not just the best animated film of the year, The Illusionist is one of the best films overall, which fittingly opens Christmas Day in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Christmas Cheer: Vampire Circus

Ho, ho, ho, nothing says Christmas like a late period Hammer Horror film. While it is always cause for celebration when a fan favorite finally bows on DVD, the release of Robert Young’s Vampire Circus (trailer here) is particularly festive, marking the 100th release from Synapse Films. It is now available from finer online retailers, but many wage slaves might find Synapse’s own site for discerning horror cineastes nanny-blocked (as it is at my office).

In 1971, vampires were still Hammer’s bread and butter. After the success of The Vampire Lovers starring the late great Ingrid Pitt, the studio was no longer afraid of a little raciness. Perhaps more accurately, they were reluctant to release films without some crowd pleasing sexual content. With Circus, they delivered plenty just in the extended twelve minute prologue. Anna Müller, the hot wife of the local school teacher, has taken up with Count Mitterhaus, lord of the castle and undead vampire. After feasting on an innocent young girl, they grapple together in dark, evil ecstasy. Then the villagers arrive, pitchforks in hand, led by her slightly put out husband. They take care of business readily enough, but not before he curses the whole town of Schtettel, promising to return through the deaths of the children. The end, as if.

Circus flashforwards a few years to find the town dying again. This time it is a plague which superstitious townsfolk blame on the curse. Schtettel’s hopes depend on Dr. Kersch (who resembles a slightly less fat and pompous Thomas Friedman) getting through the quarantine blockade and returning with medicine. To while away the time, they enjoy the “gypsy” circus that mysteriously appeared, staging bizarre Cirque de Soleil shows, like that of the ferocious tiger woman in striped body paint. It hardly takes a genius to suspect the Circus of Nights is up to no good, but the doctor’s son Anton is a bit slow on the up-take.

While the DVD commentators somewhat overstate their case, suggesting Circus was heavily influenced by the work of Fellini and Bergman, the film certainly features some pretty trippy imagery. It was also a welcomed return to the quality production values that marked the studios early output. Though set in a remote Serbian town at an unspecified time, it also has the distinctly Victorian vibe Hammer perfected.

Although the Hammer superstars (Pitt, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee) are notably absent, at least one Hammer semi-regular still turns up. David Prowse, whom any movie geek worth his still-in-the-box Snaggletooth action-figure can tell you filled-in the Darth Vader body suit, appears as the circus strongman, getting about as much on-screen dialogue as he did in Star Wars. In general, the cast is pretty good, if occasionally a bit stiff, but Domini Blythe remains quite memorable as the alluring Anna Müller. Likewise, as her spurned husband, Laurence Payne nicely steps into the Cushing-esque role of anguished monster slayer.

Stylishly directed by horror novice Young, Circus is entertainingly creepy. If not quite a swan song, it is definitely a late blooming from the studio—a good reminder why so many horror fans love Hammer. Synapse also did right by its packaging too, including both DVD and Blue Ray discs (yep, that blood sure is red), with a fairly generous selection of extras, including featurettes on the making of the film and the tradition of circus and carny themed fright flicks that are a cut above average by bonus standards. A good, clean stocking stuffer, Circus is now available on DVD/Blue Ray, courtesy of Synapse Films.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Existential Nothingness: The Sound of Insects

A well fed corpse decays quickly. Ironically, when an anonymous suicide sets out to slowly starve himself into nothingness, his lean, dehydrated body is nicely preserved through natural mummification. It is an unfathomable way to go, agonizingly conveyed in Swiss director Peter Liechti’s cinematic essay, The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy (trailer here), which had its American theatrical premiere last night in New York at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Whoever the nameless starvation artist was, he was not missed. Though based on a Japanese novel by Shimada Masahiko, which in turn was based on real life incident, Sound is not a dramatic adaptation, per se. Rather it is an impressionistic representation of person X’s final sixty-two days, through evocative natural imagery and voice-over narration of his deathwatch diary (which comes in both English and German variations). Even in that final testament, he offers no clues to his identity or back-story, but graphically details his extreme physical deterioration.

Clearly, Sound is not a film for mass audiences, but it fits nicely with the Rubin’s current programming focus on Buddhist concepts of an all encompassing totality often translated as nothingness. Its Japanese lineage should also appeal to patrons of the Tibetan art museum, even though Liechti shifts the setting to Austria (a move that makes no practical difference, aside from some faceless crowd scenes). X also makes the occasional reference to the Buddha, but is more preoccupied with western death motifs, such as the River Styx, at least according to Masahiko’s text, as adapted by Liechti.

Though grim, there is a certain existential poetry to X’s journal for about the first fifty days or so. Unfortunately, the final two weeks become something of a forced march, with X’s writings primarily restating the “why is this taking so agonizingly long” theme. Aside from the inelegant looking digital opening, Liechti creates some striking collages, mixing POV scenes from the site of the deed, with murky archival film footage, much in the style of experimental filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. Indeed, had the overlong Sound’s running time been roughly equivalent to that of Rosenblatt’s long shorts, it would have better maintained its macabre lyricism.

While Sound is not a documentary, it has won European documentary awards. Essentially, it is experimental filmmaking with literary credentials. To say it is not for all tastes would be a crushing understatement. Indeed, Liechti’s integrity of vision engenders great respect, but also taxes the patience. Still, it is an interesting example of the Rubin’s ambitious programming, which includes first-run film screenings like Sound and Journey from Zanskar, Frederick Marx’s excellent documentary about the efforts of the indomitable Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Lobsang Yonten to bring a small group of geographically isolated children to the nearest Tibetan school. The endearing spirit and fundamental goodness of the Zanskar students really stays with you after viewing the film, so to support the Geshe’s efforts go here. Sound continues its debut engagement at the Rubin with nine further screenings on December 26th, 29th, January 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 9th.

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Blinding Faith: Hadewijch

Céline obviously never read Eric Hoffer. Ardent devotion is all very well and good, but her excessive self-denial thoroughly creeps out the nuns of her prospective order. At least the leader of the local Islamist terror cell appreciates her extreme need for an ecstatic religious experience in Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (trailer here), which in a case of rather odd timing opens this Friday, Christmas Eve, in New York at the IFC Center.

Céline is known as Hadewijch in the convent, where she has turned the sisters into Italian mothers, who implore her to eat something and dress warmly. Gently but firmly, they send her back to her life as Céline and her parents fabulously opulent Parisian home, for the sake of her health and stability. However, her budding platonic friendship with Yassine, a horny Muslim youth from the projects, brings her into the orbit of his older, radical brother Nassir. Sensing her vulnerability and idealization of martyrdom, he whisks off for a whirlwind tour of the West Bank. Those only slightly more intuitive than Céline will realize Nassir has some rather ominous plans for her.

To Dumont’s credit, Hadewijch is far superior to his previous film, the brutal and didactic Flanders. Though it is a quiet film burdened with a heavy allegorical load, Hadewijch still provides a fairly substantial plotline to hold onto, until mysticism finally trumps narrative logic in the third act. In contrast, its implications are more than a bit fuzzy.

On a surface level, the Catholic nuns come across relatively rationally and humanely, telling Céline “the convent door will never be barred to you,” but you have to leave for your own well-being. Yet, Dumont seems to suggest a pious Christian is just as likely as a Muslim to become a suicide bomber, even though the very reality posited in Hadewijch hardly lends credence to such a Bill Maher stance. If nothing else though, it offers some insight into how extremists like Nassir so easily manipulate the spiritually hungry and disaffected.

Perfectly cast as Céline/Hadewijch, Julie Sokolowski (in her screen debut) is a picture of waifish innocence, which Dumont fetishizes with his intimate close-ups and not infrequent scenes of ostensibly incidental nudity. Though her challenging character is deliberately cold and distant, Sokolowski manages to project something redeemingly genuine about her. Though Hadewijch features a small cast with few concretely developed figures, Karl Sarafidis also takes a memorable supporting turn, portraying Nassir with appropriately malevolent charisma.

Throughout most of Hadewijch, Dumont clearly appears to critique faith and religious fervor, yet even that take-away is ultimately muddled. As a result, it is devilishly difficult to know what to make of it all. A tangle of contradictory polemics blessed with a shockingly good central performance, Hadewijch opens for the bold tomorrow (12/24) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Forty Year-Old Diva: Nenette

She is either gruffly charismatic or a pale shadow of her natural self. Either way, she is an orangutan. She is the ripe old grand dame of Paris’ Jardin des Plantes Exotiques zoo and her life (and its quality) are captured simply and directly in Nicolas Philibert’s Nénette (trailer here), which opens today in New York at Film Forum.

Nénette is an estimated forty years old. She has had four baby orangutans with three mates. Two hundred years ago, that would be considered a full life for most humans. However, Nénette has lived hers in the confinement of the zoo since 1972. In that time, she has become an institution at the world’s oldest operating public menagerie, with scores regular dedicated visitors. We hear (but do not see) many of them as they observe, discuss and project upon the more-or-less disinterested Nénette.

Granted, at forty years of age, Nénette is not the most active monkey in the house. However, Philibert captures expressions that at times appear listless but also sometimes seem legitimately bemused. Ironically, her handlers often inadvertently supply the most persuasive case against such captivity. Yet, Nénette’s very longevity (an estimated five years beyond standard orangutan expectancy) argues otherwise.

At only sixty-seven minutes, Nénette is a tad brief, but in a shrewd programming move, Film Forum has paired it with Nick (Wallace & Gromit) Park’s Academy Award winning animated short Creature Comforts. Thematically related, Creature synchs real life audio of miserable Londoners with claymated animals confined to zoo cages. Though they lack Gromit’s genial charm, they are still an excellent example of the animation style that bagged Park four Oscars (and how his Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death lost #5 to the one-joke Logorama earlier this year remains ever mystifying).

Scrupulously observational (albeit with some odd off-camera commentary), Nénette is essentially like a long visit to Paris zoo to study its most famous inhabitant. Of course, as a true Parisian, the blasé Nénette is hardly concerned with converting new fans. Yet, for those who are intrigued by the diva of the Jardin des Plantes (you primate groupies will already know who you are), it is an economical means of sharing a genuine City of Lights experience at ground level. It opens today (12/22) at Film Forum.

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The Eye-Patch Returns: True Grit

Rooster Cogburn is not just a familiar character, he is an icon. Considering the critical drubbing of the Coen Brothers’ last classic movie remake, The Lady Killers, taking on such a storied figure of Americana certainly was gutsy. Yet thanks to their satisfying command of the western genre the Brothers Coen’s True Grit (trailer here) is able to establish its own identity, while keeping faith with the spirit of the original film and source novel. Considered to be a major player for Oscar campaigning (despite being blanked by the Golden Globes), Grit opens today in New York.

Of course, Grit has an Academy Award winning lineage. John Wayne won his only Oscar for playing the one-eyed, cantankerous old Cogburn. Given the large shadow the Duke casts, it is quite impressive how comfortably Jeff Bridges eases into the role. In a weird way, there might be a similarity between Cogburn and Bridges’ “Dude” from the Coens’ Big Lebowski. Both have a healthy disregard for social convention. However, Cogburn is not exactly what one might call laidback.

As in the Henry Hathaway classic, young Mattie Ross is looking to avenge her father, so she hires the grizzled old Cogburn to track down the killer, Tom Chaney. La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger, is also on Chaney’s trail, in hopes of collecting the reward offered for another murder the fugitive committed. Ross is not is not looking for courtroom justice though, but the frontier variety. Despite Cogburn’s questionable commitment, they press on into forbidding country, in a halfway alliance with La Boeuf.

Though Grit is a tad slow out of the blocks, the Coens show a deft touch staging old school western shootouts. Genre purists will be happy to hear not only is Cogburn’s famous battle cry still in the film, Bridges totally nails it. Exhibiting assurance on-screen beyond her years, Hailee Stenfeld invests Ross with considerable grit as well. Unfortunately Matt Damon often seems distractingly off target as La Boeuf, almost portraying the Texas lawman as a caricature of Talladega Nights’ John C. Reilly. Still, the Cogburn is the key to the film and Bridges really does pull it off.

Slightly more wistful than the original, the Coen Grit will pleasantly surprise diehard fans of the John Wayne film nevertheless. Indeed, Bridges ought to be in contention for Oscar consideration. Executed with the gusto the filmmakers are known for, Grit represents a welcome big time return to the western genre for the American film industry. Definitely recommended, it opens today (12/22) in New York at the Regal Union Square.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine

Some small towns are friendly and inviting. Miryang in rural South Korea is not one of them. Residents of this burg could safely be termed stand-offish. Nonetheless, a young widowed mother tries to make a new start in her late husband’s former provincial hometown in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Frankly, Lee Shin-ae’s late husband was no prince, but she honors his memory anyway. Despite the closeness of their relationship, her son Jun naturally still misses his father. She assumes Miryang’s slower pace of life will better suit them, but the town does not exactly open its arms to her, aside from Kim Jong-chan, the smitten local mechanic, who tries way too hard. Yet, just as she starts to find her place, tragedy strikes again.

Secret is not simply a study of grief and loss. It is also a razor-sharp depiction of Korea’s burgeoning Evangelical Christian movement. Indeed, at her lowest moment Lee Shin-ae either finds solace with, or falls prey to, Miryang’s Evangelical community. Rather than launching a clumsy broadside, director Lee (ROK’s former Minister of Culture and Tourism) takes a more patient approach, really burrowing into that world and letting its characters speak for on its behalf relatively credibly. However, he eventually lowers the boom with some rather thorny questions regarding the convenience of forgiveness and grace.

Nobody gets off easy in Secret, least of all the audience for its angst-filled 142 minutes. However, there is no denying its artistic integrity and the remarkable work from its primary leads. Jeon Do-yeon justly took best actress honors at Cannes for her performance as Lee Shin-ae. She might be a hard character to embrace, but Jeon makes her acutely human, taking her through nearly every extreme emotion an average person can ever expect to experience. Song Kang-ho (recognizable in the U.S. from Korean imports like The Host and Thirst) is appropriately cringe-inducing as the loveless Kim. A better than average young actor, Seon Jung-yeop is also quite convincing as Jun, a basically good kid with some understandable issues.

Secret is an uncompromising film (bordering on the overwhelming), dominated by Jeon’s fearless performance. While it very definitely offers a hot-button critique of current Korean social trends, it is fundamentally rooted in universal human dramas. Recommended for those accustomed to high art-house fare but not predisposed to depression, Secret opens tomorrow (12/22) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Bertolucci’s The Conformist

Due to a family emergency, reviews might be slow in coming over the next few days.--J.B.

Cogs love their machines. So it is with Marcello Clerici, a typically banal fascist who willingly sacrifices his soul to claim a place in Mussolini’s state during the course of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, which begins a special one week revival run today at Film Forum.

As envisioned by Bertolucci, Mussolini’s Italy is all about two things: architecture and sex. The former is severe and imposing, while the latter is rather decadent. In contrast, the individual counts for little, so perhaps Clerici really is not giving up much by relinquishing his sense of self. Though not a particularly dynamic individual, he has married Giulia, who is attractive yet both coquettish and bourgeoisie. At least their marriage offers Clerici what he considers the structure of “normalcy.”

Clerici’s honeymoon also provides a pretext to travel to Paris on an assignment for the government. He has orders to assassinate his former professor, Luca Quadri, a prominent anti-Fascist now living in exile. Even though Quadri and his trophy wife Anna fully understand Clerici’s politics, they welcome the couple into their home, perhaps because they both appear to be attracted to Giulia. Further contributing to the sexual tension, Clerici develops a passionate fixation on Anna. It all unfolds like tragic spectacle under Bertolucci’s operatic direction.

Though French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is perfectly cast as the wan Clerici (putting the anti in anti-hero), Conformist is really defined by the work of Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Indeed, the director’s bold use of the ostentatious fascist backdrops effectively dehumanizes the characters, while Storaro’s light and shadows are often quite eerie.

There is also rather a lot of sexual content in Conformist, but unlike his notorious (and problematic) Last Tango in Paris, it serves a greater point by illustrating the moral rot of the totalitarian system. It is also more restrained and suggestive, rather than intentionally scandalous.

Conformist is one of Bertolucci’s two straight-up masterpieces, along with The Last Emperor. A chilling political morality play and a great art-house film, Conformist still retains its full power. It opens today (12/17) in New York for a special weeklong engagement at Film Forum.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Astruc’s Adriatic Sea of Fire

He was the man who could have been Jean-Luc Godard. Alexandre Astruc was one of the original theorists of the French Nouvelle Vague. While he made a few highly regarded films during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, his later output were largely conventional programmers produced for television or to be dumped into the international market. Recently released on DVD from Pathfinder, Astruc’s Adriatic Sea of Fire (co-directed with Stjepan Cikes) certainly falls into the latter category, but the French language Yugoslavian war film is still of considerable historical interest to cineastes.

Considering it only took the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ten days to capitulate to the Germans, it is easy to see why French filmmakers would have an affinity for the former Balkan country’s wartime experiences. Much like France, Yugoslavia also compensated for its military humiliation by idealizing its heroic partisans.

Indeed, that’s the stuff one officer serving on the battleship Zagreb is made of. Unfortunately, with hostilities against Germany only days old, most of Michel Masic’s fellow officers do not grasp the seriousness of the situation. There even seems to be a high-ranking saboteur aboard. When a critical engine part is damaged under mysterious circumstances, Masic must race against time to find a replacement from the military depot in the process of evacuating. It sure looks like he is being played, but it least it gives him the chance to put the moves on Mirjana, a femme fatale trying to get out of Dodge.

Frankly, Adriatic’s component parts are far more interesting than its unremarkable whole. In addition to the former New Waver Astruc, it also boasts Claudine Auger (best known as Domino in the Bond movie, Thunderball) as Mirjana. While her romantic relationship’s lightning fast progression is a bit silly, she still has a striking screen presence. There is also plenty of vintage hardware, thanks to the Tito regime, which evidently carved out a niche leasing WWII-era military armaments to international film crews.

Still, no one should expect Adriatic to be hailed as a lost classic. While Gérard Barray was a credible French action-adventure star of the day, he looks nearly identical to at least two of his fellow officers. At times, the only way to tell them apart is through dramatic context. It also has that weird, slightly garish color that seems to have been developed for late 1960’s Italian exploitation films. Yet to be fair, Pierre Jansen’s romantic score is quite nice.

Back in the days before streaming Netflix, Adriatic was the sort of movie you might find yourself drawn into late at night for no good reason. As a film in its own right, it qualifies as “distracting,” at best. However, as a collaboration between a faded star of the Nouvelle Vague, a Bond Girl, and Marshall Tito, it ought to be in every institutional collection for film scholars and students to refer to.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wild Eastern: Alien Girl

Though she has no dragon tattoo, Angela (a.k.a. Alien) is definitely cut from the same cloth as Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Nicknamed in honor of the Alien film franchise launched by Ridley Scott, Angela is not exactly the victim she first appears to be in Anton Bormatov’s Alien Girl (not completely sfw trailer here), a selection of the recently concluded 2010 Russian Film Week, which opens theatrically in New York this Friday.

Rasp is a malevolent, middle-aged crack-head gangster with a problem. A captured underling is imminently expected to cut a deal with the law. Needing a fast trump card, Rasp dispatches a team of hired muscle to retrieve the former henchman’s sister, whom the crime-lord banished to the Prague underworld. Ironically, Angela is actually glad when they arrive, liberating her from her predatory abductor. She is even happier to discern how susceptible the young and relatively innocent “Whiz” will be to her charms.

As a post-post-Communist “Wild Eastern,” Alien is already retro. Whether the name is Rasp or Putin, the gangsters have long since won the war. The game is fixed—the only question is who is playing whom. Indeed, the film feels decidedly fatalist, even by Russian standards.

Gritty to a fault, Alien looks like cinematographers Dmitri Kuvshinov and Anastasiy Michailov shot it on vintage Soviet era film well past its expiration date. Still, it fits the film’s grungy milieu. Unfortunately, despite a few flashes of exploitation panache, there are few surprises in store for viewers, with Sergey Sokolyuk’s screenplay cursorily glossing over considerable plot developments.

Natalia Romanycheva certainly is not shy as the title character. In fact, she makes a decent femme fatale, but it is Eugene Mundun who really smacks down an impression as the creepy, serpentine Rasp. He is a great movie villain, which is why it is disappointing we never really get a satisfying face-off between them.

Though Alien has the self-consciously hip spirit of a host of Tarantino imitators, perhaps the most ironic aspect of the film is the list of production companies sharing screen credits: “Red Square,” “Profit,” and “Fox International.” Despite the strength of its anti-hero and her antagonist, the connecting story falls oddly flat. For hardboiled Russophiles, it opens this Friday (12/17) at the Village East.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

NY Turkish Film Festival ’10: Kosmos

Those holy fools usually say the sagest things, but not this one. He might be legitimately miraculous though. He is also animalistic and frequently annoying, as the populace of one northern Turkish town learns firsthand in Reha Erdem’s Kosmos (trailer here), which screened during the 60th Berlinale and closed the 12th New York Film Festival last Sunday night.

Kosmos has no back-story. Somehow, he just happens to be in cold, snowy Kars. It is a case of right place-right time when he pulls young boy out of the freezing river and magically resuscitates him. The town folk want to make an honest citizen of him, but he is more interested in the young boy’s older sister, Neptün. While her father is appalled by the prospect, she sort of-kind of falls for his innocent wildness. While maybe not quite willing to go the full Lord of the Flies with him, she is willing to do some serious behavioral slumming. (Indeed, Kosmos’ horror movie looking poster is deceptive. That is just their snapping and snarling flirtation.)

Much like the Filipino classic Himala, word of the fool’s alleged power of healing soon gets out. Naturally though, the feeling of impending tragedy is impossible to shake. Just to keep audiences thoroughly off balance, Erdem even drops X-Filish hints late in the film. Yet, the oddest aspect of Kosmos is the title fool himself. Neither a truth-talking trickster nor a wounded innocent, he is an almost feral figure, intentionally made difficult to embrace through his high-pitched keening and compulsive restlessness.

Sermat Yeşil truly goes for broke as Kosmos, yelping and twitching like a mad man, but still expressing a weird, instinctive sensitivity. Likewise, Tükü Turan is nearly just as bold as the intriguing Neptün. However, most of the villagers represent a typical small town conformity that seems completely defensible when contrasted with Kosmos’ wild acting out, supernatural powers not withstanding.

Largely eschewing color, cinematographer Florent Herry gives the film a cold severe beauty appropriate to its frozen environment. To his credit, Erdem never compromises his vision, but the finished product feels overly conscious of it portentous symbolism and its art film status.

Kosmos features a visceral, gutsy lead performance from Yeşil, but that does not necessarily mean viewers will enjoy spending time with him. Though certainly memorable, Kosmos really is a festival film, but along with popular films like Love in Another Language, it gave patrons a good sense of the spectrum of Turkish cinema at the recently concluded 2010 NY Turkish Film Festival.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Takemitsu at Film Forum: Ballad of Orin

Opportunities were limited for blind women in early Twentieth Century Japan. Able-bodied men on the other hand, were in high demand for military service in Siberia. Despite their hardships, a beautiful gozé (a blind troubadour) and an army deserter forge a deep but unconventional bond of love, perfectly reflected by Toru Takemitsu’s strange love songs in Masahiro Shinoda’s The Ballad of Orin, which screens this Wednesday and Thursday as part of Film Forum’s two week retrospective of films scored by Takemitsu.

Abandoned as a young girl by her mother, Orin was taken in by a gozé house for musical training. In no way should gozé be confused with geisha. The women lived a monastic existence as brides of the Buddha. Of course, they were often called to entertain at worldly parties, bringing them into contact with men and temptation. Those who succumb are banished to a life on road as wandering minstrels, which indeed happens to Orin.

Senzo Tsurukawa is not like most men Orin meets in her travels. Rather than moving in for the conquest, he offers himself as her platonic protector. He even insists they call each other brother and sister, much to her frustration. Yet, even though they want different things from each other, the love they share is genuine. They even seem to have a semi-respectable future together running a clog stall, until Tsurukawa’s past starts to catch up with him. By the time they reach the appropriately ominous sounding village of Obama in the Wakasa province, tragedy seems inevitable.

Ballad is a perfect choice for Film Forum’s Takemitsu retrospective, given the role music plays in the story. Yet, despite the prominence of Orin’s songs, the music never overwhelms the on-screen drama. Though traditional in form, Takemitsu gives his score a postmodern-minimalist twist that sets a delicate but unsettling tone throughout the film.

Though worlds away from his New Wave noir films like Pale Flower, Ballad is one of Shinoda’s masterworks. There are unshakable images throughout the film, even during the opening titles. Also aptly known as Melody in Gray, Shinoda and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa use a color palette dominated by grays and greens, making coastal Japan look like Seattle. It perfectly suits Takemitsu’s melancholy score and Shinoda’s naturalistic approach.

Shima Iwashita is fantastic as Orin, powerfully projecting vulnerability and passion, without the benefit of her eyes. Yoshio Harada plays Tsurukawa like a young Toshirō Mifune, full of gruff bluster, but with a soft heart concealed inside. Their chaste love is arguably one of the most touching movie romances of all time.

Having also recently screened as part of the Shinoda sidebar at the 48th New York Film Festival, Film Forum’s Takemitsu retrospective will be one of the few chances to see Ballad on the big screen in the foreseeable future. A truly haunting film, Shinoda’s Ballad is highly recommended this Wednesday and Thursday (12/15 & 12/16), as is the entire Takemitsu series, which concludes on Thursday.

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