J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Finnish No Man’s Land: Into Eternity

Developing reactors that recycle nuclear waste is one of the research areas Bjorn Lomborg recommends to tackle global warming and save the planet. Finland is not waiting for anything so pie-in-the-sky. They are taking a state-of-the-art approach to one of the oldest strategies for making inconvenient things disappear. Essentially they are burying their nuclear waste in their backyard, about over 1,700 feet deep, in a stainless steel temple known as Onkalo. If all goes according to plan, humanity will never set foot in Onkalo again once it becomes operational, making Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen’s tour of the facility a rather eerie experience in his meditative documentary Into Eternity (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Onkalo is meant to last 100,000 years. Considering the Iron Age was only just commencing in Europe approximately 3,200 years ago, this is constitutes a really long time. Within that span, civilizations could rise and fall several times over and written communication may well morph into something completely unrecognizable. Such matters directly concern those responsible for designing Onkalo’s “danger: keep out” signs.

Actually, some of Eternity’s speculative issues expressed by Onkalo’s ethical advisory team seem slightly overwrought. Any people enterprising enough to burrow that deep into the Earth ought to be able to puzzle out the voluminous warnings in multiple languages. However, what really works in the film is its man-standing-on-the-dark-side-of-the-moon vibe. Like an enormous secret installation straight off the page of a comic book, rendered in ultra-modern Ikea style, there is a genuine otherworldliness to Onkalo, perfectly captured by Heikki Färm’s cold, glossy cinematography and nicely reinforced by the ambient science fiction soundfield designed by Nicolai Linck and Øivinde Weingaarde.

Produced with dispassionate coolness by a Danish filmmaker documenting a Finnish undertaking, Eternity might be the quintessential Scandinavian documentary. While the “arrogance of man” message is somewhat overstated, it takes viewers to someplace they have truly never been before, and its creators ardently hope, will never go again once they seal it up. An intriguing film (though a bit brief at seventy five minutes), Eternity opens this Wednesday (2/2) in New York at Film Forum.

Labels: , ,

New Russian Shorts, Post-Sundance

New Yorkers are paranoid about bedbugs, but evidently Russians have to worry about far more dangerous mutations. If you choose to believe television news reports, they are as big as dogs and attack people right on the street. Several average Russians face extreme situations (including those mutant parasites) in three short films from emerging Russian filmmakers visiting New York, by way of Park City, for a special New Russian Shorts screening this Tuesday in Tribeca, sponsored by CEC ArtsLink.

In Elena Bychkova’s Express Course in Buddhism, there is a whole lot of worldliness happening on a train full of randy demobilized soldiers, but Stas is beyond on that. He has just shaved his head in anticipation of a life dedicated to Zen Buddhist studies. However, the teacher who visits him during his meditations has an important piece of advice: do not ignore the cute girl trying to talk to him. What starts as a Kung Fu like device, takes a droll Woody Allen turn before Bychkova’s smart film ends on a rather ironic note. Deftly balancing contradicting tones, Express is quite an accomplished work, especially for a graduate film, yet it is the clever supporting turn form the Buddhist teacher that really gives the film its unique character.

Two young lovers look like they might have walked out of a Chekhov story, but instead of an anticipated eclipse, they are in for a sort of mad Walpurgis Night in Anton Koskov’s Abyss. Though there are hints of the supernatural, the real horror is supplied by human nature, which Abyss suggests will revert to savagery when given the opportunity. Though not likely to win Koskov a feminist filmmaker award any time soon, it is a handsomely rendered film. Dmitrij Vladimirov’s lush sunsets and eerily flickering fires create an atmosphere of malevolent seduction perfect for the film’s paganism.

Perhaps the best film of a strong program, Sergey Groznov’s We Were Watching TV . . . examines how ordinary Russians process news reports of the promised, yet still unseen, mutant bedbugs as they simultaneously work through their own problematic relationships. On one level, it offers a subversive commentary on the tabloid media, while portraying three couples with very different but believably down-to-earth problems. In particular, Evgeniy Stichkin and Elvira Bolgova establish a good bickering, bantering rhythm as the final couple, Misha and Anna.

Though very different in terms of mood, all three films share a sense of hyper-realism, approaching genre cinema, yet never quite crossing the threshold. Polished productions, all three are worth checking out when they screen this Tuesday (2/1) at the Tribeca Cinemas, under the auspices of CEC ArtsLink, the City’s leading programmer of Russian cultural programs.

Labels: , ,

Sundance ’11: Position Among the Stars

The most populous Muslim nation is not in the Middle East, it is Indonesia. A Christian like Rumidjah Shamshudin can often find herself on the outside looking in, even within her own family. Still, she remains a strong matriarchal figure in Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars (trailer here), his third documentary chronicling the Shamshudin family, which won the Special Grand Jury Award at the recently wrapped 2011 Sundance Film Festival, making Helmrich the first two-time Sundance and IDFA award winner.

As a documentarian, Helmrich comes out of the Wiseman observational school rather than the Moore-Spurlock self-aggrandizing tradition. He gives us what in this case could be termed a roach-on-the-wall view of the Shamshudin family’s daily struggles in the booming but not necessarily progressive majority-Muslim nation. The matriarch has hopes for something better—not for herself, but for her granddaughter Tari who will soon graduate from high school. She is determined to enroll Tari in college, but her son Bakti (Tari’s guardian) only sees the considerable cost involved. In fact, Rumidjah is not too pleased with her under-achieving son for a number of reasons, including his mistreatment of his wife Sri, the only reliable breadwinner in the family.

Position is a film that takes its time, letting its dramas evolve naturally while viewers patiently watch. Though it can be a bit slow at times, Helmrich captures some truly eye-opening scenes, like the aftermath of the municipal neighborhood roach spraying, which you really have to see to believe.

In a way, the Shamshudins are a microcosm of Indonesia, requiring a scorecard to track their religious affiliations. In fact, Rumidjah, A Christian convert, seems to be the only one in the family that takes faith seriously. By contrast, Muslim conversion seems like a matter of convenience for some. Still, Muslim son Dwi appears genuinely angry when she takes his son Bagus to Catholic mass.

Though billed as the third (and therefore concluding) installment of Helmrich’s trilogy, it is difficult to predict whether the future will favor the Shamshudins. Frankly, life is just too messy to end on a neatly pat note, especially in Jakarta. Instead of closure, Helmrich gives viewers a visceral sense of life in Jakarta’s slums and fair taste of the countryside as well. He has an eye for weirdly telling interludes that help pull viewers through Position's more workaday scenes. It is an intriguing and ultimately ambiguous look at the slum-level reality for a nation still in flux that continued to rack up festival acclaim at this year’s Sundance.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sundance ’11: Elite Squad 2

Watch out for those left wing academics. They will steal your wife and poison your son against you. At least that is what happened to Colonel Nascimento, the leader of Rio’s SWAT team equivalent, the Special Police Operation Battalion, or BOPE in the Portuguese acronym. However, Nascimento still finds himself working with his nemesis to bring down a crypto-fascist criminal empire run by crooked cops and politicians in José Padilha’s Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (trailer here), which screened during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Diogo Fraga is the Brazilian Al Sharpton. Whenever the inmates riot (which is often), they send for him to act as a “mediator.” However, when the latest standoff gets tense, Fraga starts to look like a legit hostage. When Nascimento’s protgege Matias sees his shot, he takes his shot, as per his training. Unfortunately, the resulting blood splatter all over Fraga’s peace t-shirt is too rich not to exploit in the media, even if was meant to save his behind. As the officer in charge, Nascimento bears the brunt of Fraga’s protests, but the fearful public is completely behind him. Left with only one recourse, the politicians kick him upstairs to some sort of homeland security position.

Suddenly, Nascimento is setting criminal justice policy on a state level. He gives BOPE the resources they always needed and turns them loose on the cartels. Actually, it works too well, leaving a vacuum to be filled by “The System,” a ruthless syndicate run by crooked cops and hypocritical “law & order” politicians.

Evidently, Padilha was stung by the criticism of Elite 1 as an endorsement shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later vigilantism, considering how far he swings the pendulum over in Elite 2. Now it is depose first and ask follow-up questions later in committee hearings.

At least Wagner Moura is still the ever-popular Nascimento, who looks like a non-descript everyman, but is a seriously bad hard-nose. His no nonsense presence helps redeem Elite 2 from its constant attempts at redemption through sociopolitical relevancy. In a standout supporting turn, André Ramiro brings a scary intensity to the tightly wound Matias. Brazilian music lovers should also keep an eye out for superstar vocalist Seu Jorge, appearing early in the film as powerful drug kingpin.

There are some tightly executed action sequences in Elite 2, but it is ultimately undone by its didactic political subplots. After all, one doubts many favela residents would identify over-zealous policing as the greatest problem they face. While not without its moments, Elite 2 strays too far from its roots, which ironically, probably makes it more attractive to American distributors, following its high profile screenings in the Spotlight section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Labels: ,

Sundance ’11: Beats, Rhymes & Life

If not necessarily the road not taken, A Tribe Called Quest definitely represents a road less traveled for hip-hop. Influenced by jazz and African musical forms whilst largely eschewing the nihilism of gangster rap in favor of a more spiritual message, ATCQ achieved a level critical acclaim unusual for hip-hop, yet still maintained their grassroots popularity. Alas, it would not last forever. Indeed, Michael Rapaport records the band’s break-up in his up-close-and-personal documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Despite sitting for many interviews and allowing backstage access to Rapaport’s crew, the very vocal Q-Tip has reportedly since turned against the project. It is hard to understand why though. As backstage conflict goes, ATCQ’s is pretty tame stuff. Indeed, there’s nothing Charlie Sheen worthy to be witnessed in the film. As seen through Rapaport’s cameras, their break-up appears to be largely attributable to the stress of Phife Dog’s health issues and the inevitable resentments bred by long period of familiarity. Frankly, as behind-the-music profiles go, BRL makes ATCQ look pretty together.

After beginning at the apparent end, Rapaport rewinds to the beginning, giving a brisk overview of the band’s history. Signed for what was then an unprecedented advance, ATCQ was under pressure to deliver from the start, but that was not a problem. The early years were glory years, both in terms of music and sales. Perhaps the group reached its artistic high-water mark when collaborating with De La Soul in the egoless super-group Native Tongue.

Throughout their tenure, ATCQ had a rep as a musician’s hip-hop group. Not surprisingly, the best moments of BRL capture a sense of the group’s grounding in jazz and soul. A committed crate-digger, Q-Tip in particular emerges as an authority on vintage soul jazz LPs, like (Dr.) Lonnie Smith’s Drive, which he famously sampled and discusses at length in the film.

While opinion amongst ATCQ seems decidedly mixed, BRL will hardly damage their legacy. It is rather more likely strengthen their reputation as the thinking man’s hip-hop group. Though a snip here or there would not have been the end of the world, the animated sequences created by James Blagden & Phillip Niemeyer and the original incidental soundtrack by Madlib tie it all together in a solid, often entertaining package. Given the band’s continuing popularity as well as Rapaport’s name recognition as an actor, it seems like a good bet there will be considerable demand for BRL following its recent Sundance premiere. Well put together and only occasionally voyeuristic, BRL was a hit at Sundance, which concludes this Sunday (1/30) with special screenings of this year’s award winners.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sundance ’11: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same

They might look a little like the Coneheads, but these aliens banished to Earth are somewhat different. Rather than suburbia, they make their way to Chelsea, where a shy stationary store clerk falls hard and fast for one of the socially awkward visitors in Madeleine Olnek’s Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (trailer here), a title that pretty much says it all at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Zoinx and her fellow displaced aliens loved too much, generating excess emotional discharges that were destroying their planet’s ozone layer. Or something like that. Maybe they just wanted to get rid of the overly needy exiles. Regardless, the powers that be laid down the law, not allowing them to return from Earth until their hearts are thoroughly broken. However, Zoinx finds the wrong Earthling for the job in Jane, a mousy stationary store clerk. Romance quickly blossoms between the two, all under the watchful eyes of two X-Files-style government agents.

Codependent is probably the gentlest Park City at Midnight selection of this year’s festival. Never gory, it really has a romantic heart. However, it is not particularly clever or ambitious either. A bit more edge would have helped drive the story. Instead, the spoof of old school alien invasion movies more or less ambles along, nicely and politely.

Frankly, Nat Bouman’s black-and-white cinematography looks more polished than the films that inspired it. The film’s deliberately cheesy effects also hit their marks well enough. Yet, while not conical per se, the strong similarities between the Codependent aliens and those from Saturday Night Live, both in terms of look and mannerisms, prompts unfortunate comparisons.

Still, Codependent’s ensemble gamely embraces the film’s eccentricity, particularly Dennis Davis as an insecure Man in Black. Lisa Haas even brings a credible measure of earnestness to the proceedings, as the lovelorn Jane.

Despite the obvious LGBT themes, Codependent is not aimed solely at that audience, but has wider (or maybe narrower) geeky retro-B cult appeal. Amusing if not essential, it is one of the more manageable films on the Midnight track at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it screens again tonight (1/29) at 11:59 PM.

Labels: , ,

Sundance ’11: The Mill and the Cross

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a truly subversive old master. Known for his paintings of the Dutch peasantry as well as Biblical episodes, his five hundred character masterwork The Way to Cavalry depicted the Spanish Militia then occupying Flanders as the Roman soldiers crucifying Christ. While Bruegel’s commentary on the Spanish occupation is inescapable, the painting is rife with hidden signifiers, which the painter himself explains in Lech Majewski’s unclassifiable The Mill & the Cross (trailer here), a painstakingly crafted cinematic recreation of The Way to Cavalry, which had its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Employing state-of-the-art computer generation, scores of seamstresses and artisans, and an enormous 2D background recreation of Bruegel’s celebrated work painted by the director himself, Majewski brings the great tableaux to life on the big screen. Amongst those five hundred characters are Brueghel and his friend a collector, Nicholas Jonghelinck, to whom he explains his projected new painting, The Way to Cavalry.

It is impossible to hang a pat label on Mill. Though it screened as part of Sundance’s New Frontier track for more experimental work, such a rubric really does not fit Majewski’s film. It certainly is not non-narrative filmmaking, since it encompasses the greatest story ever told. However, it completely challenges linear notions of time, incorporating Christ’s Passion and the world of 1564 Flanders, in which Bruegel and Jongelinck are simultaneous observers and active participants.

Years in the making, Mill is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. Majewski represents the social continuum of Sixteenth Century Flanders, recreating the mean living conditions of the peasants, the clean, unadorned quarters of the relatively middle class Bruegel, and the privileged environment of the well-to-do Jongelinck. Majewski’s visuals are often arresting, like the scenes of art director Stanislaw Porczyk’s towering mill, which resembles the enormous set pieces of Terry Gilliam films. Perhaps most stunning are the wide shots of the Cavalry landscape, with the figures literally coming alive on Bruegel’s canvas. Yet, Majewski also captures moments of both tender intimacy and graphic torture, rendered with powerful immediacy.

Indeed, the wealthy collector clearly serves as the conscience of the film, decrying the capricious religious persecution that was a fact of life for Flanders under the Militia. Despite the almost overwhelming visual sweep of the film, Michael York gives a finely tuned performance as Jongelinck that really sneaks up on viewers. Rutger Hauer (worlds away from his other Sundance film Hobo with a Shotgun) also brings a forceful heft to the rather mysterious artist.

A personal triumph for Majewski, who also served as producer, co-cinematographer, co-composer, and sound designer, Mill effectively blurs the distinction between film and painting, yet it is more of a “movie” than nearly anything ever deemed “experimental film.” A unique, highly recommended viewing experience, Mill has its European premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival this Sunday (1/30) and its French premiere at the Louvre on Wednesday (2/2). There are worse reasons to travel to Europe on short notice. Indeed, it was one of the standouts at this year’s Sundance, which concludes tomorrow (1/30) with special screenings of the festival award winners.

Labels: ,

Sundance ’11: Being Elmo a Puppeteer’s Journey

Sesame Street can essentially be divided into two eras: before and after Elmo. Actually, the red Muppet had been around for a while, but had always suffered something of an identity crisis until puppeteer Kevin Clash took him over. Reconceived as the sweetest of sweethearts, Elmo loved everyone and the love came right back at him, as Constance Marks documents in her profile of Clash and his furry alter-ego, Being Elmo: a Puppeteer’s Journey (clip here), which was one of the hottest tickets at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Growing up as a budding puppeteer in his lower middle class Baltimore neighborhood was not always easy for Clash. However two important people recognized and encouraged his talents: his parents. Thanks to his mother’s cold call, an important figure came to share that faith in Clash—Kermit Love, the guru-designer of Henson’s Muppet studio. With love’s encouragement, Clash would be working professionally on national television soon after graduating from high school. Yet, for years, the timing just did not work out for him to join the Henson Company.

Eventually, the stars aligned. His early days with Henson were pleasant if mostly unremarkable, but an off-hand assignment to figure out something to do with the show’s red-headed stepchild proved to be a turning point. Previously rather monosyllabic and not particularly gracious, Clash’s Elmo was now outgoing, eager to express his affection for the world. Suddenly, Elmo was no longer an obscure supporting Muppet, but the marquee star of Sesame Street.

Journey is part Horatio Alger story, chronicling Clash’s rise to the pinnacle of his profession. Throughout the film, he frequently acknowledges all those who mentored him along the way, including not just Henson and Love, but also his colleagues from the local Baltimore affiliate where he first cut his teeth in children’s programming.

There is also a whole lot of Elmo in Journey as well. Yes, he is the touchy-feeliest of the Muppets, but he is also the most frequently requested by Make-a-Wish kids. Viewers who do not get a little misty-eyed during those scenes need to get their souls tuned-up.

Indeed, Journey is quite an antidote for cynicism. Wisely, Marks takes a conventional approach to her subjects, relying on the charm of Clash and Elmo. Featuring a whole lot of feel good material, like Clash’s American success story, the strength that comes from family, the value of friendship, and the continuing legacy of Henson’s creative genius, Journey is a crowd pleaser for audiences of all ages. A hit at Sundance, it should have a long life after the festival, which concludes this Sunday (1/30) in Park City.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sundance ’11: A Few Days of Respite

France has long maintained close relations with Iran. Yet, the country does not exactly welcome a pair of gay undocumented Iranians seeking refuge from oppression in Algerian filmmaker Amor Hakkar’s A Few Days of Respite, one of several films examining persecution in the Islamist country selected for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Mohsen is definitely the assertive one in their relationship. He controls the money, but insists they pretend to travel separately when on public conveyances. The loyal Hassan agrees to everything, even though he sometimes shows subtle signs of resentment. Realizing their relationship carries a death sentence, they have made it all the way to France. Their ultimate destination is Paris, but they have a brief layover in a mountain village, where they standout rather conspicuously. However, a lonely middle-aged woman Mohsen befriends on the train might represent a safe harbor, at least for him. Though Yolanda is eager to shelter Mohsen indefinitely, he can keep Hassan surreptitiously stashed in her attic for only so long. As Hassan’s jealousy builds, it becomes clear the situation is untenable.

Respite is a quiet, contemplative film that only directly addresses the oppressive policies of the Iranian government at its very beginning and end. However, those moments are certainly significant. Still, the clear majority of the film combines intimate character studies with elements of the illegal immigration issue drama, much in the tradition of Philippe Lioret’s oh-so ironically titled Welcome.

Regardless of its issues it might raise, intentionally or not, Respite showcases some very fine acting from its three principals. Director Hakkan gives a finely nuanced performance as the flawed but deeply human Mohsen. Samir Guesmi is understated almost to a fault as the intense Hassan, while Marina Vlady portrays Yolande with genuine dignity and vulnerability.

Respite is a work of great sensitivity, but it is a small film by any measure. Nice but not essential, it screens again today (1/28) and tomorrow (1/29) as the Sundance Film Festival continues in Park City and other points throughout Utah.

Labels: , , ,

Sundance ’11: Legend of Beaver Dam (short)

What is it outdoorsy types say: “take only memories, leave only blood spatter.” Something like that, right? They are definitely plenty of campers and hikers here in Park City, making Sable & Batalion’s musical horror short The Legend of Beaver Dam (trailer here) a perfect selection for the Sundance Film Festival, where it precedes Jason Eisener’s neo-exploitation film Hobo with a Shotgun.

Danny Zigwitz is not a born scout. Annoyed by the sensitive young geek, the troupe leader humiliates him while telling the story of Stumpy Sam, a figure of campfire lore somewhat in the tradition of Candyman. However, when the murderous bogeyman actually shows up, Zigwitz has a chance to shine while belting out a rock opera anthem that sounds as if it were lifted straight from Rent. Or perhaps not.

Bloody, profane, and subversive, Beaver is considerably funnier than the feature film following it. While you might not leave the theater humming Zigwitz’s big show-stopper, Sable & Batalion’s music is frankly better than it has to be. Midnight movie regulars will also be happy to see makeup specialist Hugo Villasenor’s gore is professional grade.

In truth, Beaver’s humor often works better in a short form than as a full feature, where the need for filler often kills the energy level. For those who do not mind piles of dead kids here and there, it is a pretty funny little horror short. Destined to be a cult favorite, it screens with Hobo today (1/28) and Saturday (1/29) during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Labels: , ,

Sundance ’11: If a Tree Falls

There is an old saying: “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” It sure is convenient to quote if you happen to be accused of terrorism. Daniel McGowan certainly falls back on it in If a Tree Falls: a Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Marshall Curry’s public relations salvo on behalf of the convicted eco-terrorist (with Sam Cullman credited as co-director), which screens at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

First radicalized at New York’s Wetlands Preserve, a now defunct music club and clearing house for environmental agitation, by his own admission former Earth Liberation Front cell member McGowan took part in dozens of destructive “actions” targeting lumber companies, forestry research facilities, and the like. However, he claims a particularly ambitious double operation soured him on the ELF.

McGowan and his co-conspirators believed Superior Lumber was engaging in genetic engineering that violated the tenets of their environmental faith. Actually, they were not, but the ELF only discovered this fact after burning the company’s offices to the ground. Simultaneously, the arson planned for an agricultural geneticist’s university office burned out of control, taking part of the school’s library with it. Sorry dudes, our bad.

If a Tree is really two irreconcilable films grafted together. In the first half, ELF supporters revel in their glory years, unambiguously boasting that they were finally putting palpable fear in the hearts of the world’s polluters and lumber barons. However, once McGowan and his codefendants were caught, the very same people decry the injustice of applying domestic terrorism laws to the ELF defendants. (For his part, MacGowan has no such scruples throwing around the word himself, proudly sporting a tee-shirt labeling Pres. George W. Bush an “international terrorist.”) Yet, the fear and intimation resulting from their actions were not unexpected by-products but the conscious and deliberate goals of the ELF operations. To then debate whether McGowan’s actions meet the legal definition of terrorism constitutes mere sophistry.

McGowan and Curry make much of the lack of human casualties directly attributable to ELF actions, but it is hard to think of a lower ethical bar to clear. In a wider sense though, it is actually not true. Given the businesses damaged and even outright destroyed by McGowan and his fellow eco-terrorists, many innocent people clearly lost their livelihoods. These are working people, whose lives were shattered by McGowan, but Curry steadfastly refuses to delve into such inconvenient details.

To Curry’s credit, he gives the Assistant U.S. Attorney and lead detective who brought down the ELF a fair opportunity to speak for themselves, never casting them as fascist caricatures. However, that is the extent of his fairness doctrine. Aside from those brief segments with law enforcement and the rather unlucky Superior Lumber proprietor, Curry confines his interviews solely to those supportive of the ELF, scrupulously avoiding its critics. He never once challenges McGowan’s radical environmental pronouncements nor does he explore the full repercussions of the ELF’s crimes.

Well beyond one-sided, If a Tree should not be considered a documentary at all, but the work-product of McGowan’s defense team, while the sympathy it elicits for the convicted domestic terrorist is profoundly misplaced. Yes, he destroyed property, but he also intentionally terrorized people and ruined lives. It is highly skippable this morning (1/28) at Sundance.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sundance ’11: The Green Wave

Are a stolen election and a massive, coordinated assault on human rights enough to forestall reform in the Islamic Republic of Iran or will they fuel the fires lit by the “Green” coalition? While our current administration was busy being scrupulously “nonprovocative,” hundreds of Iranians from all walks of life were arrested during the protests of 2009, many of whom would never be heard from again. The courage and idealism of those Iranian activists is celebrated in Ali Samadi Ahadi’s partially animated documentary The Green Wave (trailer here), which screens as part of the Premiere section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The revolution that nearly was, was not televised in Iran. However, it was recorded on twitter, blogs, and cell phone cameras. Based on the blog entries of real Iranians, Wave gives a voice to those whom the government silenced, telling their stories with animation stylistically similar to that of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. Each POV character had previously given up on politics, yet the candidacy of Mir Hossein Mousavi inspired them to reengage with the political process.

Adopting green as their official color, they campaigned with a hopefully fervor reinforced by polls showing a landslide victory for their candidate. Then on Election Day the predictable reports of “irregularities” began, culminating in a government blackout of the media and the inevitable announcement of Ahmadinejad’s dubious re-election. Outraged but empowered, the Green activists took the streets in protest. Wave pulls no punches documenting the brutal suppression that followed.

Yes, in many ways Mousavi is a problematic figure, who had been handpicked by the ruling establishment to serve as Ahmadinejad’s opponent. While his stance towards Israel might not have been appreciably different, he embraced the Green platform of liberalization. He also had the virtue of not holding a messianic complex, unlike his chief rival.

Wave is a well constructed film, integrating strikingly dramatic animation well suited to representing the abject brutality of the Iranian government with eye-witness video shot on handheld devices. As a result, no one watching the film can possibly question whether these abuses really did happen. Further bolstering the case, Ahadi includes some moving testimony from survivors of the government’s orchestrated attacks amongst his talking head interviews. Perhaps the most chilling animated testimony though, comes from a militia man who considers himself most likely damned (in the eternal sense) for his actions in the crackdown.

Wave manages to be both an infuriating and inspiring film. Dedicated to the protestors who were tortured and killed, it expresses hope the spirit of their movement will eventually serve as a catalyst for meaningful reform in Iran. Yet, it is difficult to share that optimism given the atrocities it documents. Socially significant and aesthetically accomplished, Wave is one of the most important films at Sundance. Highly recommended, it screens again during the festival tonight (1/27), tomorrow (1/28), and Saturday (1/29).

Labels: , , , ,

Sundance ’11: Another Earth

What if Star Trek got it wrong? Suppose there really is an alternate Earth, but instead of a world full of evil Kirks and Spocks, it is pretty much like our own. It is hard to say for sure, but this seems to be the case in writer-director-editor-cinematographer Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, a quiet character drama subtly built around a durable sci-fi device that screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

The astrophysics are a bit sketchy, but it seems an identical Earth has always existed, hidden from view by our mutual sun. One fateful night, our orbits shifted and Earth 2 suddenly appeared in the sky. It is exactly the sort of phenomenon Rhoda Williams looks forward to studying at MIT. Tragically, it is not to be. Craning to get a glimpse of the new Earth, the drunk-driving Williams slams into another car, killing composer John Burroughs’ pregnant wife and their young son. She spends the next four years in a juvenile prison, while he descends into an alcohol-fueled depression.

Though eventually released, Williams remains a captive of her own guilt. She even approaches Burroughs to apologize, but the words will not come. Instead, she pretends to be from a cold-calling maid service. Much to her surprise, Burroughs (unaware of her identity due to their local juvie offender laws) hires Williams for a much needed weekly house cleaning. Slowly, a relationship develops between the two, but their fates still seem to be intertwined with Earth 2.

At this risk of sounding nauseatingly condescending, Another Earth is a film that shows tremendous promise. Cahill’s use of sf elements to tell a fundamentally human story is smart and ambitious. Particularly intriguing is the premise that the moment of awareness led to a break in the two Earths’ synchronization. Like the best of old-fashioned speculative fiction, this opens up the door for redemptive possibilities. However, AE is stylistically over-baked, indulging distractingly odd camera angles and visual tableaux more appropriate to Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy. Oddly though, the periodic portentous narration from Dr. Richard Berendzen (director of NASA’s Space Grant Consortium) fits into the flow better than one might expect.

Despite a reasonably large cast, AE is essentially a two-hander, with co-writer-co-producer Brit Marling and William Mapother impressively carrying the load as Williams and Burroughs, respectively. They consistently feel like real people struggling with real pain. While their budding romance is a tough sell given the context, but they pull it off quite credibly.

A filmmaker with a background in documentaries, Cahill does a lot right in AE, but also a fair amount wrong. The net effect is a surprisingly memorable film, marking him as a filmmaker worth tracking. A selection that really fits the Sundance mission, AE screens again during the festival tonight (1/27), Friday (1/28), and Saturday (1/29).

Labels: ,

The Master Returns: Ip Man 2

Ip Man is a peaceful warrior, but for some reason, people keep making him kick their butts. Not a good idea. After all, the Wing Chun master knows what he is doing. Even if you have not heard of Ip Man, everyone recognizes his most famous disciple: Bruce Lee. Immediately following the events of the previous film, the second chapter of Master Ip’s story finds him in Hong Kong, where he would eventually meet his destined pupil (but that will have to wait for a future film, should the Lee estate ever allow it). First though, he will have to battle the entrenched local martial arts guild as well as some thoroughly ugly Brits in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 2 (trailer here), with fight scenes directed by the legendary Sammo Hung, which opens this Friday in New York, as it was meant to be seen, uncut and undubbed.

Nobody enjoys sparring more than Master Ip, but he will do his best to avoid actual street brawling. Of course, he could deal with any challenge, but with great power comes great responsibility. Indeed, he is as much attuned to the spiritual aspects of his discipline as its more awe-inspiring physical feats. Having successfully defending the honor of the Fushan martial arts community during the Japanese occupation, Master Ip and his family have relocated to Hong Kong. Times are tough though.

The Master tries to eke out a living teaching Wing Chun to disciples, but the local teachers demand he respect their authority, which includes facing all challengers during an initiation rite. Master Ip hardly breaks a sweat on the first two comers, but then things get serious when Master Hung (played by Master Hung) steps into the ring. However, the rival masters will unite when a British boxer starts disrespecting their art in a series of supposed good will exhibition matches. A sneering monster, The Twister has no regard for tradition or human life. Obviously, Master Ip will have to teach him a good, hard lesson in Wing Chun.

Since his family tightly controls the use of Bruce Lee’s name and image, the HK movie industry green-lit competing Ip Man films as the next best thing to a Lee bio-pic. Yip’s Ip was first out of the gate and sets a high standard for future competitors (including a forthcoming take from art-house auteur Wong Kar-wai). While its period details are first-rate, it is Donnie Yen who really makes the series work as Master Ip. He is able to be charismatic and compelling, while faithfully maintaining the master’s quietly serene demeanor. He can certainly handle a fight scene too. Yet, his Master Ip is not a superman, showing signs of age and human fallibility in the second installment.

Yip’s Ips are essentially HK Rocky movies, with each concluding in a climatic bout against a savage foreigner. However, Lynn Hung is way, way more attractive than Talia Shire as Ip’s wife, Zhang Yong Cheng. Unfortunately, she is not given much to do in 2 besides looking pregnant and concerned. Still, the addition of Sammo Hung really adds gravitas and verve to the proceedings.

Intended as an uplifting crowd-pleaser, Ip Man 2 delivers the goods, in large measure thanks to its winning cast, particularly including Yen and the two Hungs. Produced with a glossy sheen and featuring some very cool fight sequences choreographed martial arts legend Hung, Ip 2 is a worthy sequel in a top flight Asian action franchise. Recommended even beyond fanboy circles, it opens Friday (1/28) in New York at the Village East.

Labels: , , ,

Sundance ’11: Hobo with a Shotgun

Trailers are considered the movie industry’s most important marketing tool, but does it really make sense to start with a clever teaser and re-engineer an original film from there? Much like Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun started as a gag trailer for a fictitious grindhouse film submitted to a contest co-sponsored by Rodriguez. Unlike Machete, at least Eisener’s Hobo (trailer here) makes no pretensions to socio-political relevance, simply delivering sleazy action at its Park City at Midnight screenings during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Like the high plains drifter or Sanjuro, a mysterious hobo rides into town on the rails. He has a past that we will never know, but he has a dream—to buy a mower and start his own lawn care company. He is in the wrong town for that. This vaguely Midwestern burg is owned lock stock and smoking barrel by Drake, a poor man’s Joe Pesci kingpin, and his two sadistic idiot sons, Slick and Ivan. The Hobo gets a taste of how things work in town when he foils an attempt to kidnap the local hooker with a heart of gold, earning himself a beat-down at the hands of the crooked cops. However, the Hobo comes back for more, this time with a shotgun in hand.

As titles go, Hobo with a Shotgun certainly represents truth in advertising. Initially, it also has the vintage grindhouse look down cold. However, as the film progresses, it veers closer in tone to 1990’s Troma than 1970’s exploitation. Not only is violence ridiculously over the top, the villains (particularly the evil twins) look like they walked straight out of a 1980’s world of Dippety Do hair gel and cheesy metal bands with flying V guitars.

Casting Rutger Hauer as the Hobo was an inspired choice. Shotgun essentially tries to invert the classic 1980’s schlocker The Hitcher, inviting audiences to root for Hauer’s drifter killing machine rather than another boring first-initial Thomas Howell character. Unfortunately, the Hobo is absolutely riddled with angst, adding a layer of grimness to what is intended as a blackly comic romp.

In truth, like Machete, a trailer’s worth of this Hobo might be just about right. The opening credits hit the perfect nostalgic note and there are three or four meathead pleasing action sequences. The rest of the film’s brutal and nihilistic connective tissue simply gets tiresome. Be that as it may, those looking for gory laughs will probably find them in Shotgun, but legitimate grindhouse connoisseurs will more likely be disappointed. It screens again tomorrow (1/28) and Saturday (1/29) during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sundance ’11: Resurrect Dead

Criticized for his overly “metaphysical” approach, historian-philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee’s writings fell out of favor with the smart-set in the 1960’s. One mysterious urban propagandist has undertaken an unlikely guerrilla campaign to re-popularize Toynbee’s more outlandish speculations. His cryptic tiles have baffled many and intrigued a hardy band of investigators, who try to crack the riddle of his identity in Jon Foy’s documentary, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, which screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

If you live in New York, Philadelphia, or a host of other cities in the Northeast and Midwest, you might have stepped on or driven over a Toynbee tile. The basic message reads as follows:

“TOYNBEE IDEA
IN KUBRICK’S 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER”

As if that were not weird enough, many tiles also feature sidebar tiles that rant against the government and media in terms sometimes approaching outright anti-Semitism. In other sidebars, the tilist claims sole responsibility for the Toynbees, despite their appearances across the country and in four Latin American countries.

For various reasons, the rag-tag group of Toynbee researchers take him at his word, narrowing in on three marginalized Philadelphians as their prime suspects. While their investigative process is often fascinating, Foy spends far more time than necessary introducing the self-styled Toynbee experts, particularly his central POV figure, underground artist Justin Duerr. Good for them for being intellectually curious, but they are not exactly enthralling on-screen.

At its best, Resurrect explores a fascinating intersection of outsider art and conspiracy theory subcultures. The pursuit takes them to some unlikely places, including the shortwave radio community, which is evidently still alive and broadcasting. Yet, perhaps the weirdest surprise of the film is the extent to which the mystery man reasonably interprets Toynbee. Though the historian did not necessarily say it would happen on Jupiter, he did hypothesize on the future possibility of resurrection through the rejuvenation of dead molecules. (However, the Kubrick connection is something of a stretch.)

The Toynbee tile phenomenon is a great idea for a documentary and it is cool that Foy retains some of the mystery surrounding them. Though it could stand to lose about ten minutes of Duerr’s backstory, Resurrect is still one of the more satisfying documentaries at this year’s Sundance. Definitely recommended, it screens again today (1/26), tomorrow (1/27), and Saturday (1/29) as the festival continues.

Labels: , ,

Unfairly Snubbed: When We Leave

Like many Turkish immigrants, Umay came to Germany in search of a better life for herself and her young son Cem. In their case, that meant getting away from her abusive husband Kemal. Unfortunately, she finds the traditional baggage from her home country is hard to shake in Feo Aladag’s When We Leave (trailer here), Germany’s unfairly overlooked official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Friday in New York.

Due to Leave’s framing device, we start the film under the assumption things will not work out for Umay. Actually, we have no idea. A strikingly beautiful woman, Umay’s husband uses her as a domestic slave. However, when he begins terrorizing their son as well, Umay decides to flee. At first, her family in Germany is delighted to see her, but they keep asking about Kemal. When her father Kader and older brother Mehmet learn the truth, they have only one word for Umay: “whore.”

Despite Umay’s protests, Kader makes it unequivocally clear Umay must return to her rightful owner, or consider herself banished from the family. While Umay must protect herself and her son, she cannot turn her back on the only family she has ever loved. Unfortunately, the warning of her friend proves tragically correct—her family will always choose their community over a mere daughter.

Leave is a truly intense film that frankly depicts all manner of crimes committed in the name of so-called honor. We witness spousal abuse, abduction attempts, stalking, and worse. Yet, for Umay, the emotional isolation for her family is the hardest to bear.

The strikingly beautiful Sibel Kekilli deservedly won best actress honors at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival for her heartrending portrayal of Umay. An active supporter of Terre de Femmes, a German-based non-profit dedicated to Muslim women targeted with physical violence, Kekilli clearly drew from real life in her riveting performance. It is hard to watch at times as her Umay is spat upon (literally and figuratively) by her formerly loving family.

The unblinking intimacy of Aladag’s approach viscerally captures a wealth of unspoken nuances passing between characters. She also elicits some quite accomplished work from her supporting cast. As Umay’s German boyfriend Stipe, Florian Lukas adds a bit of depth to a part that could easily be dismissed as the schmucky nice guy. Yet perhaps the most surprising turn comes from Settar Tanriögen as Umay’s pained father, evoking a sense of high tragedy through Kader’s cowardice and conformity.

Frankly, it is something of a scandal Leave did not even make the nine film shortlist for the best foreign language Oscar. It is a powerful film, featuring a truly brave lead performance from Kekilli. Far superior to the five nominees announced yesterday, the remarkable Leave opens this Friday (1/28) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Labels: , ,

Sundance ’11: To.get.her

If anyone out there ever thought shows like Gossip Girl and Melrose Place would be better if they were duller and more depressing, there is a film for you at Sundance. Five attractive young women get together for a girl’s night out, but we are told from the get-go only one will survive in Erica Dunton’s To.get.her, which screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Ana Frost has a bad relationship with her soon-to-be step-father. Care to make a wild guess why? She is not the only one of her fab five having problems. For instance, China Rees is emotionally distraught over her recent break-up with her boyfriend. Again, care speculate what’s going on there? All five supposedly high school aged women have secrets that will be revealed during the course of their “Night of No Consequences.”

Though framed to set the audience up for a thriller, those expecting something in the tradition of And Then There Were None will be disappointed. Thriller or not, To.get.her takes longer to get started than most Michener novels. Yet, its ultimate destination is so grim and unsatisfying (not to mention derivative), one wonders why Dunton and her cast bothered.

Frankly, To.get.her can be a painful movie to watch, particularly during the many scenes shot with the camera pointed directly into the sun. Of course, the adults in the film are uniformly stupid, even including Bryan, the friendly drug-pusher living next door to the Frost family beach house. It also hardly helps that none of the cast really look age appropriate, except perhaps model Jazzy De Lisser, evidently a big enough It Girl in the UK to merit her name above the title in the opening credits.

To be fair, De Lisser is rather good as Ana the ringleader. Audrey Speicher also takes a compelling turn as Abigail Pearce, the conflicted daughter of religiously conservative parents. (Gee, what could she be grappling with?) Unfortunately, their efforts are somewhat wasted on a flat, clichéd story and further undermined distractingly gauzy visual style that brings to mind some of the 1970’s horror films seen on MST3K.

To.get.her probably supplies the most unintentional humor of the festival, but at least that’s something. Indeed, the cast certainly tries, but it just doesn’t work. For those still intrigued, it screens again tomorrow (1/27) during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Labels:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sundance ’11: Restoration

To this day, Steinway pianos are assembled by hand in a long, painstaking process. The resulting fractional differences give each Steinway its own unique individual sound. The preferred choice of many concert pianists, Steinways are works of art in themselves. One vintage 1882 Steinway might even save an elderly antique woodworker’s business in Yossi Madmony’s Restoration, which screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Yaakov Fidelman knows wood better than anyone. His partner Maxim Malamud knew people. With his sudden death, their jointly owned restoration business may not survive the loss of its public face and bookkeeper. Equally troubling, Fidelman begins to suspect his son Noah might have considered his late partner more of a father than the senior Fidelman.

Indeed, Fidelman and his ambitious attorney son have never been close. It is a void Fidelman’s mysterious new assistant would like to fill. The homeless Anton is a former pianist from a well-to-do family. In fact, it is he who recognizes the potential value of the Steinway languishing in the corner of the workshop. Perhaps as a musician who no longer plays, it makes sense Anton would be attracted to Noah’s pregnant wife Hava, a former Israeli teen TV idol who no longer sings. Steadily mounting resentments all lead to an almost Biblical confrontation between Fidelman’s metaphorical son and his blood offspring.

While the conflicts of Restoration are deeply seated, the film is the very picture of elegant restraint. Unfolding at a stately pace, Madmony focuses like a laser-beam on Fidelman’s quiet soul-searching. Sasso Gabay subtly anchors the film as the difficult craftsman, suggesting much inner turmoil, but never betraying the character’s taciturn reserve. It is a wholly engrossing character study.

Lushly lens by cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yacov and featuring a pitch-perfect chamber-music score by Avi Belleli, Restoration represents film fully realized as fine art. Considering the Israeli film industry is arguably more reflexively anti-Israel than Hollywood, it is also quite a pleasure to see such an apolitical cinematic import from the country. Wise and sad, Restoration is a film for mature adults (in the best sense of the term) that is likely to have a long life on the Jewish Film Festival circuit following Sundance. Highly recommended, it screens again in Park City on Wednesday (1/26) and Friday (1/28).

Labels: ,

Sundance ’11: The Wind is Blowing on My Street (short)

The media constantly assures us Muslim women actually find veils and headscarves liberating or comforting in some way. However, one young Iranian woman cannot wait to tear it off once she is safely home. This leads to some tense moments when she accidently locks herself out of the family flat with head uncovered in Saba Riazi’s short film The Wind is Blowing on My Street, which screens as part of Short Program II at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Riazi’s second year NYU graduate school film tells a relatively simple story, but it raises a number of significant issues regarding the state of (perhaps not-so) contemporary Iran. Noticing her predicament, young man of college age newly arrived in the neighborhood keeps her company, even though each passer-by is a very real cause for concern.

The misogynist implications of a society that makes uncovered head a legitimate crisis are inescapable. However, Wind clearly suggests Iran will be a heavy price for its extremism, precipitating a study-abroad exodus of its best and brightest students seeking escape from the regime’s intolerance, like the film’s two lead characters. Yet, maybe the film’s most telling commentary comes in the closing credits, where the lead actress is simply billed as “anonymous.”

Riazi helms with a deft touch, in no way overplaying the potential menace of the situation, but never letting viewers forget the vulnerability of the young woman’s position either. She also elicits some quite natural, down-to-earth performances from her principal leads. A very good short film, Wind is one of several bold Iranian themed selections at this year’s Sundance. It screens again with Short Program II on Friday (1/28) and Saturday (1/29).

Labels: , ,

Sundance ’11: The Devil’s Double

Somewhere in the lower depths of Hell, Saddam and Uday Hussein are watching this film as they slowly roast on their spits. Graphically dramatizing the sadist brutality and drug-fueled hedonism of Saddam Hussein’s ruling family, Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double lands the first unequivocal knock-out punch at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it has one more can’t-miss public screening this Saturday.

Latif Yahia had the profound misfortune to resemble Saddam’s psychotic son Uday. Even more despised than his despot father, Uday recruited Yahia to serve as his double. It is not like the Iraqi officer is given any choice in the matter. He could either relinquish his identity to serve as Uday’s public doppelganger or his family would be tortured to death in Abu Ghraib. He knows the junior Hussein means it only too well. As his first tutorial on being Uday, Yahia is forced to watch videotape of his shadow self at work as the head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, raping and tormenting the nation’s athletes. It is a disturbing scene, but Double is just getting started.

Beginning during the Iran-Iraq War and continuing through the first Gulf War, Double forces the audience to witness Uday’s crimes up-close-and-personal. We watch as he abducts underage school girls straight off the street and violently rapes newlywed brides still in their wedding dresses. Truly, there is really no perversion too heinous for him.

Obviously, being a party to such crimes, albeit against his will, takes a profound emotional toll on Yahia. While his assignment progressively eats away at his soul, Yahia embarks on a dangerous affair with Sarrab, Uday’s favorite amongst his women on-call. Yet, even without their assignations, it is clear life in the House of Saddam is always brutish and short-lived.

It is one thing to intellectually concede the crimes of the Husseins, but it is quite another to confront it in such visceral and immediate terms. To its credit, Double waters down nothing. Nor does it indulge in any anti-American cheap shots. This is about Uday (and to a much lesser extent Saddam) Hussein’s crimes and Tamahori and screenwriter Michael Thomas offer them absolutely no mitigating circumstances or justifications. Adding to the film’s newsworthiness, the extent it depicts the Iraqi Olympic Committee as an extension of Saddam’s secret police will be a genuine eye-opener for many. (Though no fan of the Husseins, it is important to note the real life Yahia is also a vocal critic of the CIA and Operation Iraqi Freedom.)

In a truly intense dual role that will probably take years of analysis to recover from, Dominic Cooper gives a career-making performance as Uday and Yahia. In terms of mannerisms (and behavior), his Uday bears a strong resemblance to Pacino in Scarface. Twitchy and erratic, he is an unsettling presence, even when apparently at rest. By contrast, Cooper portrays Yahia as a serious slow burner, outraged and slowly deadened by the atrocities surrounding him. Providing further seasoning, the French Ludivine Sagnier is at her most sensual ever as Sarrab, far eclipsing her sex appeal in films like Mesrine and Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two.

No, Double is not a subtle film. Likely making it even less palatable to critics, Tamahori and cinematographer Sam McCurdy rendered the film in a slick, visually dynamic style reminiscent of the 1990’s glory years of Michael Mann and Tony Scott. Indeed, this is a major production, with art director Charlo Dalili perfectly recreating the ostentation and tackiness of Saddam’s palaces.

Predicting unfavorable reviews for Double from the rest of the Sundance press corps is a pretty short limb to climb out on. Its implications will threaten many world views. However, it constitutes bold filmmaking on several levels. Double also serves as a pointed corrective to the Doug Liman-ACLU-PEN sponsored “performance-installation” on the alleged use of torture by the American government scheduled this Saturday. For those in Park City who really want to understand the horrors of torture, skip the performance art and try to scrounge a ticket for Double this Saturday (1/29) at the Prospector Square Theater as a Premiere selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sundance ’11: Circumstance

Trading one addiction for another is a peril of rehab. This seems to have happened with Atafeh Hakimi’s brother. Drug-free but now a virulent religious Islamist, Meyran Hakimi’s return destabilizes his affluent Iranian family in Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance, which screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Mehran was once the most promising musician in his musical family. Much to their regret, the newly radicalized prodigal son has forsaken such pursuits. Unbeknownst to his family, Mehran’s career path now involves the secret police. This will directly complicate Atafeh’s life when they both fall in love with her best friend, the free-spirited Shireen Arshadi.

Needless to say, neither lesbian relations nor free-spiritedness in general cut much ice with Mehran. Having wired the family flat for surveillance, the jealous brother understands exactly what is going on between the young women. As Hakimi and Arshadi press their luck in Tehran’s underground party scene, brother Mehran bides his time, not about to let the inevitable crisis go to waste (as our current administration would counsel).

While press kit descriptions of the Iranian-born, American-educated Keshavarz’s previous works sound like a somewhat mixed bag, Circumstance is a legitimately bold, outspoken critique of the institutionalized mistreatment of both women and homosexual Iranians under fundamentalist misrule. There is no question Hakimi and Arshadi’s relationship puts them at existential risk. At times, Keshavarz also captures the absurd situations fostered by the Iranian system, as when the two young women help their gay Iranian-American friend Hossein dub Sex in the City into Farsi to hook people into watching Gus Van Zandt’s Milk strategically placed on the same bootleg disk. However, the extent to which the mullahs have evidently co-opted the supposedly atheistic Che Guevara as a symbol of their revolution is hardly surprising. After all, Che shared their zealous commitment to statism through terror.

Circumstance is an intriguing film on multiple levels, examining not just gender and sexual orientation, but also class in contemporary Iran. The Hakimis are the sort of privileged family that are assumed not to exist in Iran, but their father’s early support for the Islamic Revolution during his student days preserves their position, despite their relative moderation. Yet, those allowances only extend so far.

Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy are undeniably charismatic as Hakimi and Arshadi, respectably, which makes their dire straits quite disturbing. Though a relatively small part, Sina Amedson leaves a strong impression as Hossein, deftly serving as the film’s conscious when he directly challenges Hakimi and Arshadi to strive to “change their circumstances,” (thereby supplying the film’s title as well).

Though Circumstance is somewhat frank depicting the women’s relations, it is not meant as titillation. Indeed, it is a revealing look at life lived under oppressive conditions. A real standout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Circumstance screens again on Tuesday (1/25) in Salt Lake City and Wednesday (1/26), Thursday (1/27), Friday (1/28), and Saturday (1/29) in Park City.

Labels: ,

Sundance ’11: Ticket to Paradise

In 1993, Cuban youths liked their head-banging music just as much as their American counterparts—possibly more so. Of course, the underground scene was decidedly dangerous thanks to frequent police rousts and the ravages of AIDS. The latter will take on ironic significance in Cuban filmmaker Gerardo Chijona Valdes’ Ticket to Paradise (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Cuba is no workers’ paradise for Eunice. Sexually abused by her widower father while her teacher turns a blind eye, she has reached her breaking point. After a physical altercation with the old man, she runs away from home in hopes of finding shelter with her grown sister. Quickly running out of money, she falls in with a trio of pill-pushing metalheads on their way to Havana. Alejandro, their informal leader, has told their butch girlfriend-with-benefits they are going for a concert, but he has different, rather foolish and shocking plans once they arrive.

Truthfully, the first half of Paradise is pretty compelling, as Eunice and her new found friends navigate the seedy underbelly of Communist Cuba. However, Chijona Valdes springs the horrifying twist too soon, leaving at least a full third of the film to wallow in his characters’ how-low-can-they-go suffering and depravity.

If Paradise was intended as pro-regime propaganda, it does not even come close to working. Throughout the film, the entire country looks like it is falling apart, while the law of the jungle seems to rule among the people. At least it faithfully propagates the myth of Cuba’s crackerjack health system, which must have been how the film was approved by some clueless apparatchik.

Miriel Cejas deserves considerable credit for her work as Eunice, enduring all manner of on-screen humiliations. It is not her fault that Paradise’s final scenes ring so false. (Instead, the blame lies solely with the manipulative story.) By and large, her three primary compatriots are also quite convincing, looking like they came straight off the streets themselves.

Chijona Valdes certainly creates a visceral atmosphere of menace and decay (of course, it is not like any of his locations had been refurbished since 1993). His indulgence in lurid melodrama simply undermines what could have been a rare work of gritty Cuban naturalism. Interesting but ultimately just too much everything, Paradise screens again during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival this Tuesday (1/25), Thursday (1/27), and Saturday (1/29).

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sundance ’11: Abraxas

This might be the quietest film about punk-rock ever produced. Sure, Jonen could peel the paint off the walls when he was shredding, but his subsequent gig as Buddhist monk is much more sedate. Yet, there is a connection between the two that screen writer-director Naoki Katô intriguingly explores in Abraxas (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Abraxas will likely shatter most viewers’ preconceptions of Buddhist monks. In addition to his punk-rock past, Jonen is a bit of drinker with a cute but increasingly exasperated wife Tae and young son Riu. Genshu, the resident temple priest also has an attractive younger wife, making Abraxas quite the recruitment film for Buddhist religious service. Genshu however, is at peace with his path. Jonen by contrast, hears the siren call of the extreme music he used to make. Yet, it is not the past glory he misses, but the oneness with sound. He is not looking to fill a void, rather he seeks the void.

Indeed, the punk-rock playing monk might sound precious, but there is nothing cutesy about Abaraxas. To his credit, Katô never dumbs down the material crafting one of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking films about Buddhism (or any religion) in quite some time. Despite the importance of punk, it is only heard sparingly in Abraxas. Instead, it is the sounds of rain and even more prominently silence that Katô shrewdly employs to set the tone throughout the film.

Still, Katô ‘s film is hardly the cinematic equivalent of a scholarly religious treatise. Dealing with universal issues like loss and the need for belonging, Abraxas would be an excellent companion film to Yojiro Takita’s Oscar-winning art-house breakout hit Departures.

Appropriately Zen-like, the entire ensemble demonstrates ease and restraint in their parts. Though Japanese alt-rocker Suneohair (a.k.a. Kenji Watanabe) gets to rock-out and act a little crazy from time to time, it is still a very grounded and sincere performance. In many ways, Kaoru Kobayashi quietly supplies the heart and soul of the film as Jonen’s senior Genshu, expressing wisdom and tolerance while sounding like a fully dimensional character instead of a cliché in the Kung Fu tradition. Manami Honjo brings a warm, smart presence as Genshu’s wife Asako, while as Tae, Rie Tomosaka supplies surprising depth and nuance in what could have easily been a standard issue nagging wife role.

Abraxas may very well be too subtle to generate the heat it merits in Park City. Yet, it is a richly accomplished film that deserves to find audience (and an American distributor). Highly recommended, Abraxas screens again on Tuesday (1/25), Wednesday (1/26), Thursday (1/27), and Friday (1/28) as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Labels: , ,

Sundance ’11: In a Better World

For one young boy, it is tough being the Swedish kid in his Danish school. While his father is an advocate of turning the other cheek, his new friend is a proponent of more direct action. As a global meditation on bullying, Susanne Bier’s In a Better World (trailer here) should probably be considered a leading contender amongst the nine shortlisted films for the best foreign language Oscar. Its chances will probably be further bolstered when it screens this week during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival now underway in Park City, Utah.

Swedish plus conspicuous retainer equals frequent poundings for Elias, a good kid struggling with his parents’ separation. He idolizes his father Anton, an altruistic doctor often absent volunteering his services at free African medical clinic. One fateful day, the new kid Christian intervenes in a bullying session, walloping his tormentor with a bicycle pump before pulling a knife on the larger boy. Problem solved.

Christian has a few issues himself, including a deep-seated resentment of his father following his mother’s untimely death from cancer. Though their fast friendship should represent healthy socialization for Elias, Christian proves to be a nakedly manipulative little wretch. Better is also not exactly subtle hinting at his self-destructive impulses, portraying him like Poe’s Imp of Perverse, constantly haunting the roof of a hulking old factory while brooding darkly. Yet, it will be Anton’s conflict avoidance strategy when encountering a grown-up bully in front of the boys that serves as a catalyst for Christian’s potentially tragic plans.

Better is sort of like a Nordic Crash, with the teachable moments coming at a regular clip. Unfortunately, the film often confuses earnestness with profundity, offering plenty of the former, but not nearly as much of the latter. In fact, it seems like Bier somewhat loses control of her message. Comparing the brutality Anton witnesses in Africa with Christian’s escalating anti-social behavior, she clearly implies the tendency towards the animalistic is present in all of us, even ostensibly civilized Scandinavians. Yet, one could easily conclude within the context of the film that a little fight out of Anton might have been moiré productive, preventing considerable tragedy in both settings.

Though laboring under Better’s self-conscious serious-mindedness, much of the ensemble distinguish themselves rather well. As problematic as his character seems in retrospect, Mikael Persbrandt brings a compelling dignity to Anton, largely selling his Gandhi routine in-the-moment. After accepting too many villainous roles in English speaking productions, Ulrich Thomsen redeems himself with a deeply humane supporting turn as Christian’s grieving father Claus. Amongst the young actors, William Jøhnk Nielsen’s work is particularly notable, projecting the full range of emotions roiling within the understandably pained Christian.

Even if Better’s “so there” takeaway really is not there, it is the kind of prestige picture that perfectly suits the Academy’s sensibilities. Indeed, cinematographer Morten Søborg captures the harsh beauty of the African landscape, bringing to mind many past Oscar favorites. Clearly, tremendous passion went into Better, but it falls short of its ambitions. While not an out-and-out failure, it should not be a priority for those making the Sundance scene when it screens again on Wednesday (1/26), Saturday (1/29) and Sunday (1/30).

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sundance ’11: Kaboom

For college kids, secret societies should only involve getting hammered after performing silly rituals. Unfortunately, Smith has stumbled across an apocalyptic death-cult intent on igniting nuclear Armageddon. It is kind of a bummer, but at least he never lets it cramp his sex life in Gregg Araki’s Kaboom (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in advance of its New York opening next week at the IFC Center.

Smith’s orientation vacillates between gay and bi, but his considerable unrequited lust for his surfer roommate Thor remains constant. Though undeniably hetero, the dumb blond exhibits enough meterosexual tendencies to keep hope alive. About the only person on campus Smith wouldn’t sleep with is his lesbian BFF Stella. Acting as Stella’s wingman at a party, Smith eats a bad cookie, if you know what I mean. Much to his mild surprise, he hooks up with London—a chick. Soon thereafter, Smith thinks he witnessed the murder of a mysterious Red-Haired Girl from the party while tripping his lights out on the way home. There is no evidence to be found in the light of day, but strange occurrences seem to suggest “they” know he knows. Then things get weird.

This is a Gregg Araki movie, so there is more sex of various persuasions than an MTV show aimed at young teens. If you can deal with that, it is all rather amusing watch Smith, his platonic friend Stella, and friend with benefits London get pulled into a totally outrageous end of the world scenario. It turns out Stella’s new lover is a witch—not a Wiccan, but a real witch, and quite a possessive one at that. Meanwhile, Smith learns his father did not die when he was young after all, but succumbed to the dark side of the Force, taking over the doomsday cult he had been researching.

Despite its goofiness, Kaboom is rather bold in one respect, explicitly comparing Smith’s cultist father to L. Ron Hubbard. Most likely half of Hollywood will never work with Araki now, but he is probably less inclined to care than Ricky Gervais. Yet, the strange thing about Kaboom is that in between all the hooking-up and snappy snark, the secret conspiracy story is actually fairly tense, at least until Araki goes all-in with an outrageously over the top third act.

Even with his creepy unblinking eyes, Thomas Dekker makes a surprisingly compelling hipster protagonist. Clearly comfortable with acid-drenched dialogue, he establishes a nice bantering rhythm with Haley Bennett as Stella. Kelly Lynch also adds a welcome measure of mature tartness as Smith’s unsentimental mom, Nicole. She helps to compensate for the ridiculously broad (even clumsy) supporting turns from Chris Zylka as Thor and James Duval as “The Messiah,” their stoner R.A.

Though Araki is steadfastly indie, cinematography Sandra Valde-Hansen gives it a professional luster that rivals the disposable studio teen comedy of the week. Thanks to production designer Todd Fjelsted, Kaboom really has a legit campus atmosphere as well. Make no mistake though, those who look for things to be offended by will have no trouble finding them in the film. It is over-sexualized and nihilistic, but also more funny than not. Recommended to those who already know they’ll dig it, Kaboom screens at Sundance tonight (1/22), Monday (1/24), and Saturday (1/29) and opens real next Friday (1/28) at the IFC Center in New York.

Labels: , ,