J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

NYAFF ’11 & Japan Cuts ‘11: Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha: The Great Departure

People think religion is all about sermonizing and casting judgment, but not Osamu Tezuka. His Eisner Award winning manga serialization of Gautama Buddha’s life emphasizes all the good parts, particularly the violence and passion of India circa 500-600 BC. Check your peaceful coexistence t-shirts and bumper stickers at the door when Kozo Morishita’s anime adaptation, Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha: The Great Departure (trailer here), the first installment of projected feature trilogy, screens as a joint presentation of the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2011 Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema.

Of course, Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, the privileged son of the king of the Shakya Kingdom. Shakya’s bounteous natural resources are coveted by the more Spartan Kosala kingdom, but providence has protected somewhat more peaceful Shakya, so far. As the Kosalan Army masses for an invasion, providence gets a bit of help from Tatta, an untouchable Oliver Twist with a supernatural power to possess nature’s creatures. Much to Tatta’s surprise, his new running mate Chapra takes advantage of the fog of war to save the Kosalan general, earning his protection and patronage as a supposed warrior class orphan.

None of this really has anything to do with Siddhartha. His path will only tangentially cross that of Tatta and his compatriots, at least in this film. However, as untouchables, they act as an effective counterpoint to the insular upper-class life Siddhartha will eventually reject. Indeed, Departure is a pointed critique of the chaste system, largely driven by the story of Chapra’s forbidden attempt at social mobility. Naturally, combat will play a significant role in his efforts.

In terms of tone and plot developments, Departure is more closely akin to Braveheart than Little Buddha. Still, the anime Siddhartha is far more expressive and multi-dimensional than Keanu Reeves. Naturally, Buddhist themes and motifs abound, but the narrative is really driven by hack-and-slash warfighting. One can only guess what His Holiness would think of such an approach (which is never disrespectful to the Buddha in his earthly incarnation), but it should go down real smooth with NYAFF regulars.

Tezuka (1928-1989) was an anime legend for crossover hits like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, which genre fanboys consider the unacknowledged source material for The Lion King, to put it diplomatically. While Departure’s animation is a cut above Astro Boy or run-of-the-mill anime, it never creates the sense of wonder present in the work of either Miyazaki. Still, Morishita’s team delineates the battle scenes with guts and clarity, while also sensitively rendering the archetypal images of Tezuka’s story.

Departure definitely falls well towards the high end of the anime spectrum, especially in terms of its ambition. Even if not as lushly crafted as the senior Miyazaki’s masterworks, its considerable scope is still better served by the big screen. Recommended for anime enthusiasts and student-admirers of Buddhism (who do not get hung up on historical details), Departure screens next Thursday (7/7) and the following Sunday (7/10) at the Japan Society as part of both the 2011 NYAFF and Japan Cuts festivals.

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The Peagler Case: Crime After Crime

Years from now, outgoing Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley may find himself a case study of the costs of an inadequate PR response. With a new documentary alleging misconduct in his handling of a re-opened twenty-six year old murder case, intrepid critics going online in search of a thorough response from Cooley will find exactly nothing. As a result, the history’s judgment on the prosecutor may well be largely determined by Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

If you have a plot of land in Southern California you would like to rezone, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran are the people to see. Specialists in land-use law, they volunteered as part of a pro-bono California Bar initiative to help convicted inmates with cases eligible to be reopened under a then new state law, due to extenuating domestic abuse circumstances. There were fortunate to draw a client they wholeheartedly believed in, but Deborah Peagler’s case would consume years of their professional careers (much to the surprise of their indulgent firm).

The arsenic of Potash’s film involves Cooley’s decision to welsh on a deal to plead Peagler’s murder conviction down to manslaughter, which would thereby facilitate her release. All the statements from his office have been terse largely unusable copy for the media. While he might have had some understandable misgivings about Peagler’s pre-meditated and subsequent actions with regards to the murder-for-hire killing of her abusive husband, his office never effectively articulates them and Potash is not about to provide him an assist.

As cinema, Crime After Crime has a similar appeal as Steve Zaillian’s A Civil Action, but Costa and Safran are more engaging POV figures than Travolta’s Jan Schlichtmann. Lucidly edited by Potash, every twist and turn of the case is easy to follow. Yet, the deliberate one-sidedness of it all should nag at the back of viewers’ minds. Still, Cooley is partly to blame for leaving the message exclusively in Potash’s hands.

Make no mistake, Crime is an advocacy film, inextricably tied into a campaign to commute the sentences of women convicted of murders directly linked to the abuse they endured. Yet, purely as a chronicle of a protracted and complex legal case, Potash’s documentary is rather compelling stuff. Recommended (with reservations) to legal junkies, Crime opens tomorrow (7/1) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

NYAFF’11: Machete Maidens Unleashed!

Machetes and maidens: two great things that go great together and evergreen staples of Filipino exploitation films. Following up Not Quite Hollywood, his epic survey of Ozploitation, Mark Hartley gives the That’s Entertainment treatment to the scrappy low budget actioners produced in the Philippines. Prepare thyself for an education when Hartley’s Machete Maidens Unleashed! (trailer here) screens during the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival, once again bringing a heavy dose badness to the Lincoln Center, kicking-off this Friday.

Much like Tito in Yugoslavia, Marcos had plenty of military hardware laying about that he was more than willing to rent out to international productions. With the memory of the American liberation during WWII still fresh for older generations, the Filipino climate was relatively pro-America and definitely open for business. Yet, it took a visionary like Roger Corman to fully recognize the possibilities.

The Philippines made a star of Pam Grier, who starred in several women-in-jungle-prison films for Corman’s New World Pictures. Corman also recruited local talent such as Eddie Romero to grind out Brides of Blood movies for New World. As with protégés like Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, and James Cameron, who learned to crank them out fast and cheap under Corman’s tutelage before finding wider acclaim, Romero would eventually be recognized as an official National Artist of the Philippines. Yet, he happily sits down to talk about Black Mama, White Mama and similar cinematic milestones.

Like Hartley’s NQH, MMU will leave viewers thirsty for many of the films sampled in glorious detail. For instance, Bobby Suarez’s Cleopatra Wong looks particularly intriguing (killer nuns) and vaguely PG-13-ish. Whereas, many alumni of Corman’s prison films frequently express amazement at just how much they were able to get away with in terms of lurid sexual content—a point Hartley is not shy about illustrating.

Breezily paced, MMU features first-person interviews with Corman and scores of his American and Filipino colleagues, unabashedly gleeful in the naughtiness and profitability of their masterworks. While the commentary is not as laugh out loud funny as NHQ’s, it still has its moments, often courtesy of Corman vet John Landis. A good clean night at the movies (but best to leave the kiddies at home), MMU is a perfect example why NYAFF is pound for pound the most entertaining fest of the year. It screens with the straight-up legit Filipino exploitationer Raw Force this Saturday (7/2) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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What's Eating Terri

Yes, those are pajamas, but the high school kid wearing them to class is no Hefner. He is a rather sad and lonely young person, whose closest friend might actually be the school’s vice-principal in Azazel Jacobs’ Terri (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Beyond his odd wardrobe and unmistakable “huskiness,” Terri Thompson just does not fit in with his peers, but he does not seem to want to. His parents are gone, for reasons implied perhaps, but never overtly stated. He lives with his late middle-aged Uncle James, whose faculties are slowly ebbing away, largely inverting their caretaker-ward relationship. However, Mr. Fitzgerald, vice-principal for discipline, is on a mission to reach out to misfit students like Thompson. One could almost say he collects them, yet his heart is still mostly in the right place.

Terri the film is far more interesting when watching Terri the character interact with adults than navigating the standard issue peer pressure and raging hormones of high school. Frankly, we have seen all that angst before. However, Mr. Fitzgerald is worth keeping an eye on. Neither a heroic Joe Clark nor an odious “Dick” Vernon from The Breakfast Club, Fitzgerald really wants to make a connection with kids like Thompson, but he is not above cutting corners and recycling lines in the process. Yet, he displays a genuinely deep and forgiving understanding of human nature.

In the lead, Jacob Wysocki is completely convincing, conveying a lot of pain and confusion with unexpectedly assured understatement. While on comfortable ground as Fitzgerald, the flawed everyman, John C. Reilly makes every scene and each line count. His sharply written near-monologue addressing the necessary hypocrisy to be expressed by his temp secretary about to go fulltime following her predecessor’s death is well worth showing the Academy during awards season.

Perhaps the greatest surprise though is former Grassroots guitarist and eponymous American Office cast-member Creed Bratton as Uncle James, who rings quiet dignity from what could have been a largely throwaway role. Thanks to Bratton’s work, when old James has his moments, they are heavy indeed. Also making the leap from small to large screen, Rescue Me’s Olivia Crocicchia shows real screen presence, even if her character, Heather Miles, the school’s reluctant sexpot, is a rather familiar stock figure.

Oddly enough, Terri is the second film released this year featuring a sensitive PJ-clad protagonist. Fortunately, Jacobs’ take is exponentially superior to the embarrassing dreck of Waiting for Forever, because he and writer Patrick Dewitt understand on some level Thompson is a troubled kid with difficulty expressing his feelings. This is not cutely eccentric, but acutely human. Though there are no real surprises, Terri boasts a host of finely drawn performances. An often uncomfortable but well executed return to high school (from the son of experimental auteur Ken Jacobs), Terri opens this Friday (7/1) at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

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NYAFF ’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 New York Asian 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 hardcore music he used to make. Yet, it is not 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 assured 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, but 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 subtler than many NYAFF regulars will expect. Yet, it is a richly accomplished film that deserves to find audience (and an American distributor). Highly and enthusiastically recommended, Abraxas screens Monday and Tuesday (7/4 and 7/5) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

David Hyde Pierce is the Perfect Host

Broadway patrons who saw David Hyde Pierce in the revival of La Bête have a sense of his range well beyond Frasier. Though a complete change-up from Restoration comedy in rhymed couplets, his character still has serious hospitality issues in Nick Tomnay’s small-in-scope but ruthlessly able indie thriller The Perfect Host, which opens this Friday in New York.

John Taylor is a desperate man. Wounded in a bank hold-up, Taylor needs a place to hide out and tend to his wounds. Of course, suburban Los Angeles is not the most welcoming neighborhood for a bleeding criminal. Somehow though, Taylor bluffs his way into the affluent but fastidious Warwick Wilson’s elegant home. Wilson does his best to be gracious while preparing for a dinner party before inevitably Taylor goes Dog Day Afternoon on him. However, neither Wilson nor his ostensive dinner party are what they initially seem. Let the cat-and-mouse games begin and best of luck to Taylor.

Essentially, Host follows in the Sleuth tradition of pitting a crafty old mastermind against a younger dumber antagonist with highly developed survival instincts. In fact, Tomnay pulls several rather inventive switcheroos without the proceedings feeling too clever or forced.

Unquestionably, Pierce is Host’s ace card. Both capitalizing on and subverting his Niles Crane persona, Pierce carries off each of Wilson’s revelations with élan. As Taylor, poor Clayne Crawford simply is not in the same league, but he keeps his cool and plugs away diligently enough. Though he does not have much to do beyond looking tall and suspicious of the goings on, it is also amusing to see Nathaniel “Inspector Lynley” Parker appear as a detective with LA’s finest.

Tomnay maintains a tense atmosphere while keeping viewers invested in the over-the-top gamesmanship. The production design team also earns considerable credit for creating the perfect claustrophobic setting with Wilson’s eerily immaculate house. Unfortunately though, the film is visually drab, never evoking a noir look or any sense of cinematic style.

Prospective viewers should try to avoid the Host trailer, because it is hard not to be spoilery with a film like this, even with the best of intentions. Tomnay works awfully hard keeping the twists coming, which will probably bug snootier audiences. For those who enjoy an entertaining stage thriller (largely one set and two or three characters), Host is quite a good time at the movies, definitely recommended when it opens this Friday (7/1) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Subterranean New York: Dark Days

They are not Morlocks, but profoundly flawed human beings. While many have questioned the veracity of a widely cited early 1990’s book-of-the-moment on the so-called “Mole People,” this is the straight dope, produced with the very denizens of New York’s Amtrak tunnels serving as the crew. Eleven years after sweeping Sundance’s documentary awards, director-cinematographer Marc Singer’s Dark Days (trailer here) returns to theaters, opening this Friday in New York.

Everyone living in the tunnel stretching from Penn Station up to Harlem has a story. Many involve drugs, but there are all terribly human. Quite a few are also absentee parents, whose own demons have cost their children dearly. They insist they are not homeless though and maintain a sense of community, albeit a rather harsh one. Supposedly, they chose to live underground to avoid cops and the larcenous junkies who haunt the shelters looking for anything remotely saleable. Yet, when crack addicted Dee’s lean-to is burned down as part of a vaguely criminal dispute, there is not a lot of sympathy forthcoming. Still, she finds temporary shelter with Ralph.

Though clearly intended as an advocacy film, Dark is more like the equivalent of a film noir documentary, immersing viewers in a world of dramatic shadows and ominous dread. Each character also has a secret past and a fatal flaw which inexorably shape their fates. Insightful one minute but profane or possibly stoned the next, the men and women of Dark are far too complex to pigeonhole. While that might not make particularly efficacious propaganda, it is certainly fascinating cinema, which is considerably more valuable.

The British born Singer (not of Beastmaster and V fame, alas) gained the tunnel dwellers’ trust living amongst them and employing them as crew. Through happenstance and necessity, his harsh lighting and grainy black-and-white film stock is spookily evocative. It is perfectly underscored by DJ Shadow’s eerie award-winning soundtrack, representing the absolute high end of instrumental hip hop. The combined effect comes perilously close to romanticizing the hand-to-mouth existence of Dark’s subjects. Frankly though, Singer’s only misstep occurs when he tries to gin up outrage over Amtrak’s plan to remove the tunnel dwellers, for a variety of reasons (including their own safety), essentially breaking the spellbinding mood he created with some up-top talking head sound-bites.

Dark is a peculiarly New York movie, trading on urban legends and illuminating a furtive corner of a city on the rebound, but only a year away from its gravest heartbreak. A haunting film in terms of look, sound, and subject matter, Singer’s documentary is definitely worthy of a revival life. It opens (again) this Friday (7/1) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Anton Perich’s Muhammad Ali, Resurrected

He was the most famous person in the world, bar none. Yet, the once-and-future heavyweight champion readily granted a group of Manhattan cable-access filmmakers entree to his training camp, at a time when hardly anyone knew what cable access was. After one unheralded airing, Anton Perich’s Muhammad Ali was lost and forgotten. Reconstructed by Perich, Muhammad Ali 1973-74 screens this Friday at Anthology Film Archives in conjunction with a new installation of filmmaker’s work at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn.

There are no talking heads in Perich’s hazy black & white first generation Sony Portapak film, unless you count Ali’s, which talks a lot. Indeed, the Ali in Perich’s Ali is a perfect Rorschach, electrically charismatic to his fans, or an egomaniac prone to braggadocio to his detractors. Either way, it is the same Ali. In fact, Perich’s film allows viewers to make up their own minds (should that still be necessary at this point), providing extensive raw (in more ways than one) footage of Ali while preparing to retake his title.

Along with throngs of fans who flocked to Ali’s Dear Lake, PA training camp and pseudo dude ranch, we watch Ali sparring and conditioning in long uncut sequences. Few if any fighters ever heard as much applause as Ali, simply as he went about his regiment. There are also long segments of Ali regaling his thoroughly dazzled “interviewers,” Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie, with his aphorisms. Perhaps the biggest scoop of the film comes while Ali names the boulders dotting the ranch after famous boxers. Perhaps surprisingly, he gives respectful nods not just to Italian Stallion Rocky Marciano, but also his old nemesis, Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

For Ali’s fans, Perich’s film is a straight shot of the pugilist icon, presented in an unfiltered fly-on-the-wall style. Rather than editing them per se, Perich lets his scenes play out, as if viewers really are in the Deer Lake audience. Only Ali could command this sort of attention.

In a way, Perich’s film underscores just how public a celebrity Ali truly was. Watching the ease with which Ali assumed his outward “sting like a bee” persona in the 1970’s, one wonders if he still has a private persona now that the ravages of age and an occupation in which brain damage is a day-to-day fact of life have forced the legend to retreat into privacy. Yet, for hundreds of millions, he remains “The Greatest,” a judgment Perich’s film will likely reinforce. A unique opportunity to see the fighter in his prime, Perich’s Muhammad Ali screens this Friday (7/1) at the Anthology Film Archives.

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Puiu’s Aurora

It might be a new wave, but it’s a slow wave. The so-called “Romanian New Wave,” a relatively young school of filmmakers from the former Communist bloc country, has been toasted on the international festival circuit for their intensely personal, unflinchingly intimate work. If that sounds like a euphemism for dull and plodding that can sometimes be the case with the more indulgent representatives of the movement. This brings us to Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at the IFC Center.

Viorel does not look threatening, but there is something profoundly off about the doughy Droopy Dog. His personal and professional lives are in a state of deep freeze. Though divorced, he tries to stay engaged as a father, but makes a poor show of it. Still, he definitely seems to be laying the groundwork for some sort of violent plan.

For three hours (which feel like nine), Puiu shows Viorel (played by Puiu himself) going about his obsessive but obscure business in minute detail. There are no real surprises in Aurora because every plot development (such as it might be) is telegraphed well in advance. Of course, viewers also have plenty of time to process everything on-screen, with few distractions of a dramatic nature.

As an actor, Puiu does not give the audience much more than he does as a writer-director. Still, he has a haunted look that is undeniably unsettling. He also helps himself from the director’s chair, framing Viorel in ways to consciously heighten the air of mystery surrounding him. He is not bashful either, willingly revealing his pasty whiteness for the world to see. For better or ill, Aurora is his film from stem to stern. Indeed, his behavior as Viorel is so deeply idiosyncratic and anti-social, it is difficult to remember any other characters in the film.

Arguably, Aurora would have been far more compelling as a short. It sets the mood of alienation rather effectively, but then just keeps setting it throughout the balance of the film. Frankly, it is not like we have not seen similar Travis Bickle cousins in scores of previous films. Granted, Aurora is stylistically consistent with Puiu’s acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, but his earlier film tapped into deep Kafkaesque archetypes of bureaucracy and Catch-22 proceduralism. In contrast, Aurora deliberately tries to keep the audience at arm’s length and to that extent it succeeds.

At 181 minutes, Aurora is a long forced march. The film will certainly have champions, primarily among critics looking to atone for their bourgeoisie original sin. If that sounds like a good way to spend three hours, then have at it. A punishing viewing experience, Aurora opens this Wednesday in New York (6/29) at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

On the Job, En Français: 36th Precinct

It’s a case of bad cop-really darn bad cop. That might sound hard on the criminals, but these Parisian policemen are more concerned with doing unto each other in former copper turned actor-director Olivier Marchal’s hard-boiled and hard-bitten 36th Precinct (trailer here), now available on DVD and Blue-Ray from Palisades Tartan.

There is a crew taking down armored cars in Paris. There are good at what they do and frequently lethal. Neither the BRI or the BRB divisions of the Police judicaire have any leads. Even if they did, they are not inclined to cooperate. Léo Vrinks is definitely a paperwork flaunting corner cutter in the tradition of Dirty Harry. He is the good guy. The borderline incompetent CYA-ing Denis Klein is the bad guy. Unfortunately, he plays politics far better than his BRI counterpart.

Vrinks appears to gain the upper hand when an informant calls him with information. Naturally, it comes with a wicked catch. Out on a two day prison leave, Hugo Silien manipulates the mostly straight Vrinks into abetting the murder of the underworld figure who ratted him out. The intel is still good though. Of course, you know there has to be a witness out there somewhere and guess who takes on the case. As it turns out, it was Klein’s snitch that got whacked.

Klein is a transparent stand-in BRB head Raymond Mertz, who was protected and promoted by the police bureaucracy despite erratic actions which reportedly led to the death of a fellow officer during a shootout with the so-called Wig Gang. It is safe to assume Mertz did offer publicity support for 36th Precinct or 36 Quai des Orfèvres as it was known in France (sort of the Parisian equivalent of One Police Plaza). Well known for a series of French cop shows, Marchal has probably burned a few bridges with 36 as well, though he most likely represents the views of many rank-and-file on the job at the time. Indeed, there are scenes in 36 that crackle with visceral outrage at Klein/Mertz’s charmed ascent.

As Vrinks, Daniel Auteuil is so intense he looks brittle enough to snap in two. Gérard Depardieu, not yet as ballooned-up and wheezy as he is in the more recent Inspector Bellamy, radiates a sense of calculating villainy as Klein. As usual though, nobody can out do Roschdy Zem’s Silien for stone cold badness. A truly all-star French cast, André Dussollier also has some memorable moments as the patrician police chief Robert Mancini, while the director himself notably plays against type as the ailing ex-con Christo.

36 is quite well constructed, tying together what first appear to be episodic subplots into a rather tidy package. It also has armored carload of guns. An entertaining fix of shootouts and police corruption, 36 is far better than many French imports released theatrically over the last few years, very definitely worth checking out on DVD.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

ContemporAsian: The High Life

It might be unorthodox, subversive even, but the underground “trash” poetry one Chinese prison has his inmates read aloud surely beats the little red books of old. They agree quite enthusiastically, mostly. It is still hard living, both inside and out, for regular citizens excluded from China’s economic boom times in Zhao Dayong’s High Life (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of MoMA’s ContemporAsian film series.

Perhaps new arrivals to Guangzhou ought to know better than to give money to a job placement consultant whose office is a card table on the street. Sadly, desperation delivers a fairly regular stream of suckers willing to pay for Jian Ming’s supposed services. Departing from procedure, he actually finds a job for Xiao Ya at a dodgy beauty parlor. Yes, she is young and cute, but his assistance comes at a steep price. Xiao Ya’s misfortune will temporarily jar Jian Ming out of his moral lethargy, indirectly leading him to prison, where High spins off in a completely different direction.

Dian Qiu is a prison turnkey, a cog in the state machinery of oppression. Unlikely enough, he is also a trash poet, who composes sexually and politically charged verse suitable for a hardcore hipster slam. The prisoners seem to enjoy reciting his naughty lines aloud (including a thinly veiled reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre) while they work. Of course, it is not like they have much of a choice. Still, he seems to have a genuine rapport with the women inmates, which might even extend to romance with number 58. Unfortunately, tenderness never lasts long in such a brutal environment.

The protest poet-prison guard might sound like it could only happen in New York, but Dian Qiu is actually played by Shen Shaoqiu, a real life copper who moonlights as an underground poet. He is also a remarkably assured and natural actor. His scenes with the wonderfully expressive Diao Lei as 58 are touching in a realistically mature and restrained way. Indeed, their presence and chemistry makes High’s second half far stronger than Jian Ming’s now familiar story of street hustler naturalism. Qui Hong is not particularly engaging as the con man either, but Wang Teng is rather effective and affecting as Xiao Ya.

Stylistically, High follows right in line with the work of China’s so-called “Digital Generation” of independent filmmakers, but cinematographer Xue Gang has a good eye for the teeming Guangzhou backdrop, rendering it like a blighted Brazilian favela. While the tenuously connected narrative halves might sound gimmicky, the film frankly gets a shot in the arm from the shift. A challenging film well worth sticking out the slow start, High screens again today (6/25) and tomorrow (6/26) at MoMA.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Unitarians in Love: Raw Faith

Some think of Unitarianism as religion for atheists. Regardless of perceptions, if it helps people find spiritual meaning and comforts them in trying times, than that is a wonderful thing. Following in the footsteps of former Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marilyn Sewell became one of the most prominent voices of liberal Christian theology, but it is her search for September romance that preoccupies Peter Wiedensmith’s documentary Raw Faith (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

During Sewell’s stint at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, the congregation nearly tripled. A good listener with an engaging style in the pulpit, Sewell became an integral part of her parishioners’ lives. Yet, she was only fulfilled in her professional life. Lonely without a suitable life partner and still struggling with the pain of a chaotic childhood, Sewell finds herself at a turning point. In something of a leap of faith, Sewell announces her retirement, hoping to finally resolve these issues.

Good people of any faith will hope Dr. Sewell attains personal satisfaction and romantic fulfillment, just on principle. However, an entire feature documentary largely devoted to her pursuit of romance will test audiences’ standards of the cinematic. Indeed, Raw’s most touching moment has to be Sewell’s courageously revealing homely addressing her tragically flawed father. As for her new silver-haired gentleman friend, God bless them both, but their courtship is just not riveting movie magic.

Though Sewell is notable spiritual figure of the left, Raw wisely almost entirely avoids partisanship. (That “War is never the answer” sign in her yard surely refers to Libya, right?) However, if the film had allowed more time for Dr. Sewell to discuss the Unitarian Universalist theology (as she does in this uncharacteristically informative HufPo piece), it would have made Raw far more relevant and even educational for many viewers.

Perhaps faith is better served lightly pan-seared with a blend of savory spices. Though she is clearly learned and caring, only Sewell’s pre-existing admirers will have patience with Raw’s sluggish mid-section. The Cheryl Crow song prominently plugged on the poster is also rather bland pop. Strictly for the converted, Raw opens today (6/24) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Old Media: Page One

At least when watching a documentary about the New York Times, you know you will not have to sit through a bunch of boring fact-checking scenes. While the Jayson Blair scandal is briefly acknowledged, there will be little on-screen stock-taking or soul-searching. However, the chronicle of the courtship and marriage of convenience between the Times and WikiLeaks is rather inadvertently revealing in Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Page essentially opens and closes with the Times running major WikiLeaks pieces. At first, they are scrambling to figure out who the subversive group is that recently posted a heavily edited youtube video purporting to show the American military killing journalists during a fire fight. The fact that the raw unedited footage largely contradicted the Leakers characterization is treated as merely an interesting sidebar in the “A-one” editorial meeting. That should all be tucked into one of the stories executive editor Bill Keller tells the staff. Of course, this would seem to undercut the entire story, but clearly the Times had already bought into the Leakers’ wider narrative.

David Carr ought to have some choice words to say about this. The f-bomb tossing Times media columnist clearly has a hair-trigger b.s. detector. Unlikely enough, the former junkie (as he will readily admit to just about anybody) emerges as the primary POV figure as we watch him covering issues on the margins of Page’s central questions: will new media kill off old media and we should we mourn its passing?

Well, that depends. Aside from the acerbic Carr, the Times staffers make it hard to care. Not to flay a dead horse, but the audience never witnesses any fact-checking and one uncorroborated source appears to be more than sufficient for the paper’s standards of reporting. Yet, the ease with which Keller and company slide into an alliance with the ideologically charged Leakers largely defines Rossi’s year at the financially troubled paper. As the Times starts publishing only slightly redacted Wiki document dumps, claiming they are just another source, Carr finally starts musing over the ethics of it all.

If media conferences and symposia are your idea of movie magic, than Page is the film you have been waiting for. Several arms also come perilously close to snapping as a result of strenuous back-patting. Structurally though, Page lacks any distinctive arc. It starts with the Times hemorrhaging readers and advertisers while its stock price languishes in the basement and that is pretty much where it ends as well. Even their collaboration with WikiLeaks lacks dramatic interest, since apparently nobody at the paper saw reason to object. Frankly, it is only during a round of layoffs that Page even suggests a whiff of conflict.

Though mostly dull and underwhelming cinema, Page has its moments of unintentional humor. As the paper takes flack for its unpopular new internet pay-wall, one editor rhetorically asks how people can expect them to provide their services for free. Maybe the complainers have been reading Times editorials. Surely, if the paper made all content available completely free of charge, the savings realized from forgoing collections would more than cover their operating costs. After all, is that not the foundation of Obamacare? Essentially an infomercial produced under insular circumstances, Page lacks drama and self-awareness. Safely skippable, it opens in the Los Angeles area today (6/24) at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5, while expanding in New York to the Kew Gardens Cinema.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

From Britain with Love: NEDS

The 1970’s were a decade of malaise and recession for the United Kingdom. Economic conditions were particularly bad in Scotland. For the uneducated and unskilled youth, the outlook was downright bleak. Young John McGill joins their delinquent ranks in Peter Mullan’s NEDS (trailer here), which screens today as part of the From Britain with Love touring showcase at the IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center’s newly opened Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

McGill was studious lad with aspirations of a journalism career in America. Perversely, his own teachers do their concerted best to stifle his ambition and self-esteem. Though he plugs away for a while, peer pressure finishes the job started by the leveling educational system. Eventually acquiescing to social realities, McGill seeks acceptance amongst the semi-organized gangs of NEDs, Non-Educated Delinquents. Of course, he hardly gets any positive reinforcement at home, but at least his absent elder brother Benny’s street cred greases his entrée into the hooligan life.

NEDS is a tragic film about the sheer waste of not just McGill’s potential but that of his contemporaries. It is a story very much of it time and place, where social mobility was discouraged from below just as much as from above (if not more so). Still, its inclusion in a showcase of British cinema (featuring the Union Jack in its logo) might be a tad controversial for many Scots, including the majority Scottish National Party.

Be that as it may, NEDS creates a strong sense of depressed 1970’s Glasgow with seamless period detail. While the “husky” Conor McCarron must be dashed big for fourteen, he is convincingly sullen and resentful. However, Mullan himself leaves the film’s most indelible impression as McGill alcoholic father. An abusive and broken man, his turn as the senior McGill is not a pretty picture, but it is a very human one.

Despite the fine performances (as characters who often seem as if they would be at home in Frederick Wiseman social welfare documentary), NEDS largely covers familiar ground. Mullan (currently best known for directing The Magdalene Sisters and his lead performance in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe, but soon to be seen in Deathly Hollows part two) can definitely stage a rumble, but there are no surprises to be found in his naturalistic amorality tale.

Essentially, viewers will probably take away from NEDS just how badly the UK needed a middle class green grocer’s daughter to take the reins of government in 1979 (though one supposes this was hardly the intention). Respectable but never extraordinary, NEDS screens tonight (6/23) at the IFC Center and next Saturday (7/2) at the Howard Gilman Theater in the brand new and shiny Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ode to Southern Agrarianism: General Orders No. 9

The South was supposed to have won the Civil War rather handily. The Confederate States had all the best officers and the richest natural resources. All the north could rely on was a wealth of unsightly heavy industry (and a great president). Nearly 148 years after Gettysburg, director-cinematographer Robert Persons mourns the victory of industrialism of agrarianism in the experimental docu-essay General Orders No. 9 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

This is the land Huck and Jim roamed. However, the verdant mysterious wilds circumscribed by the Mississippi and Savannah Rivers no longer exists we are told, except for the generous tracts of unspoiled land Persons lovingly films, to remind us what we have lost. The more urban we get, the less individualistic we become, he asserts, through the evocatively rough-hewn narration of William Davidson. Yet, most of the images, whether they convey natural majesty or urban sterility, are deliberately calibrated to make views feel small and insignificant.

Despite the Lee at Appomattox reference of the title, very little of the film is distinctly Southern, per se. Indeed, much of General’s central argument could easily be applied to Robert Moses’ grand but disruptive civil planning schemes in New York. In truth, there are reasons people aggregate into cities. Large communities offer opportunities for greater economic specialization and more diverse socialization. Living in the Chattahoochee-Oconee Forest might sound appealing during a hot and hectic summer day in Brooklyn, but only a Unabomber would actually do it.

In fact, Persons never really brings his strands together into a coherent thesis. Instead, he revels in scenes of unspoiled Edens and rustic Americana, while commenting (much like the Bunkers): “those were the days.” It all sounds great though. Davidson’s voice is truly drenched in character, whereas the distinctive soundtrack (mostly credited to Chris Hoke) suggests a blend of four parts Tangerine Dream and one part bluegrass, with arrangements by Philip Glass.

Eleven years in the making, General is laudably ambitious, but the nostalgia ultimately rings hollow. After all, Persons set out become a filmmaker, not a mountaineer or a shaman. Still, on one level, it is rather refreshing to see a film express affection for the Deep South and small town life. It just does not have a lot to say. For diehard fans of experimental film and ambient music, General opens this Friday (6/24) at the ReRun Gastropub in the Borough of Kotter.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Turtle: An Incredible Transatlantic Crossing

Loggerhead turtles, especially the young, are actually kind of cute, in a Charlie Brown sort of way. Unfortunately, their first moments are rather trying. If they can make it to the ocean, instinct takes over, carrying them across the Atlantic and back as they grow and harden. It is an epic process captured in Nick Stringer’s Turtle: the Incredible Journey (trailer here), a new nature documentary carrying the Seaworld imprimatur, which opens this Friday in New York.

Loggerhead turtles are born buried on sandy beaches, where the females will eventually return to lay their eggs. Just digging their way to the surface is a labor for the newly hatched turtles. Once above ground, they must contend with predatory birds and crabs as they scramble towards the sea. This will probably be the most challenging scene for young viewers. Even adults might find themselves hoping Stringer’s crew will intervene on the loggerheads’ behalf. Of course, this would be a major violation of the Starfleet Prime Directive. As it happens, older loggerheads will in turn feed on similar crabs, as the circle of life comes around.

Turtles have no gills, yet they still live most of their lives in and under the water. Hardwired with considerable instinctive sense, the young turtle hitches a ride on the Gulf Stream, riding a patch of seaweed across the Atlantic. While an eddy sends her on a long detour in the notoriously still Sargasso Sea, her journey’s hiatus allows the turtle time to mature. In due course, she makes her way to the North Atlantic, across to the shore of Nova Scotia, down to the Caribbean and finally back to the Florida beaches of her birth. There are plenty of dangers along the way (yes, including humankind), but mature loggerheads are made of sturdy stuff.

The vivid clarity of Rory McGuiness’ mostly underwater photography is quite stunning. Using a variety of cameras, Stringer brings viewers up close and personal with the loggerheads and their fellow denizens of the deep (Discovery Channel fans should note, there are also quite a few sharks swimming through Incredible). Evidently, some VFX enhancements were sparingly added in post, which might sound like a bit of a cheat, but it serves the film’s intimate focus on the POV loggerhead as she mingles with the diverse and forbidding ocean community.

Miranda Richardson’s narration should be clear and soothing for young audiences. While maybe not the most expressive of creatures, the loggerhead is surprisingly photogenic, at least as filmed by Stringer and McGuiness. Although their numbers had dipped, the film informs us the loggerhead population is on the rebound—happy news, indeed. Of course, they still close with a soft pitch for the Save Our Seas conservation effort, which is fair enough. Admirably well crafted and surprisingly engaging, Incredible is one of the better representatives of the recent wave of nature films to making their way to theaters. It screens in 3-D at select locations, but good old fashioned 2-D is perfectly sufficient. Recommended for families and nature lovers (even the more casual types), the safely G-rated Incredible opens this Friday (6/24) in New York at the Regal Union Square.

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A New York Schooling: The Best and the Brightest

Every year, parents across New York’s social strata are humbled by the private school application process. Of course, the City’s public schools are always an option, or if parents prefer to save some time, they can always ship their children directly to prison. Surely, that is an exaggeration, but the angst experienced by the Jasinskis is definitely grounded in reality. The Delaware transplants go to extreme comedic lengths to enroll their daughter at an elite kindergarten in Josh Shelov’s The Best and the Brightest (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Taking the “if you can make here” lyrics to heart, Jeff and Sam Jasinski packed up the U-Haul and move to Manhattan. However, they quickly discover how competitive private kindergarten admissions truly are. Evidently, the time to start applying is around the third trimester. Sue Lemon can help. The slightly manic consultant specializes in pulling strings for parents willing to pay and she happens to know of an opening Coventry Day.

Unfortunately, the snobby headmistress Katherine Heilmann is having none of the Jasinskis, forcing them to appeal directly to the board. Ostensibly chaired by the “PC Guy,” the real power on the board are “The Player” and his politician wife, who would be ridiculous Republican caricatures if they were not so much more fun than everyone else in the film.

Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. Player bandy about some deliciously cutting lines, frankly outdoing the outrageousness of Amy Sedaris’ Lemon. Maybe viewers are supposed to despise them, but they certainly liven things up around the joint. Shelov and co-writer Michael Jaeger also create some slightly naughty but appropriately manic situations, largely revolving around the Jeff Jasinski’s masquerade as an explicit hipster poet.

Neil Patrick Harris shows effective restraint, largely playing Jasinski straight. Bonnie Somerville gets a bit tiresome as the somewhat tigerish mom, but Sedaris’ eccentric energy helps compensate. Still, Christopher McDonald and Kate Mulgrew steal all their scenes outright as the Republican power couple (in real life, best of luck finding their likes on the Upper Eastside). Conversely, chicken-legged Peter Serafinowicz is rather flat and underwhelming as the Jasinskis’ rich ne’er do well friend, Clark. Hardcore geeks should take note though, in addition to Voyager’s Mulgrew, Bridget Regan from Legend of the Seeker also appears as Robin, Jeff Jasinski’s unstable ex.

Overall, Brightest is a pleasant, if modest, picture, featuring several clever sequences and some acerbic zingers. Shelov maintains a light tone and keeps things moving along nicely. An amusing diversion a step or two above TV sitcoms (decidedly of the pay cable variety), Brightest opens this Friday (6/24) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Leclerc’s Names of Love

Despite his position as the sitting French Prime Minister, Socialist Lionel Jospin suffered the indignity of finishing third behind his arch-rival Jacques Chirac and notorious firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential election. Yet, animal pathologist Arthur Martin even more closely identified with the famous loser, as a result. However, Martin’s temperament is quite conservative, making him an apparently unlikely match for the free-spirited Baya Benmahmoud in Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Martin’s Jewish mother survived the Holocaust, but never discussed the experience. Instead, she became Frencher than French, marrying outside her faith. Nevertheless, that which the Martins never spoke of, always hovers over their heads. Half-Algerian and all radical, Benmahmoud could not be more dissimilar. She will talk about anything, with great passion, but anyone who might disagree with her she labels a fascist. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. She is determined to use her feminine allure to convert any man to the right of Jospin.

Despite his socialist voting record, Martin’s respect for authority and buttoned-down reserve are sufficient to attract her attention. The namesake of a famous French appliance line, Martin grew up with the jokes an Oscar Meyer might hear in America. He now works with dead things. Naturally, his kind-of sort-of affair with Benmahmoud greatly upsets his scrupulously ordered life.

Though much of Names’ humor is political in nature, Leclerc and Baya Kasmi’s screenplay is never over politicized, which is quite a neat trick. In fact, viewers across the ideological spectrum should be able to appreciate its clever appeal. It also adroitly touches on some sensitive issues, like the Holocaust and the sexual abuse Benmahmoud suffered as a child, without deflating the film’s light and sweet overall mood. Despite an obvious affection for the French left, Names, through the ever level-headed Martin, offers a few correctives to Benmahmoud’s own extremism along the way.

As Martin, the perfectly cast Jacques Gamblin makes boring surprisingly interesting. Highly camera-friendly, Sara Forestier finds the charm in Benmahmoud’s ditziness. Together they develop genuine romantic and comedic chemistry, totally selling their stormy courtship. Adding further dimension, the restrained pathos of Michelle Moretti’s Madame Martin brings real heft to the film.

With a clear stylistic debt to Woody Allen, Names draws on not just politics, but religion and ethnicity as sources for its gentle laughter. Even Martin’s beloved Jospin makes a cameo as himself, (though not quite in as dramatic fashion as Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall). Droll and endearing, Names is one of the smartest and richest romantic comedies of the year. Recommended for general audiences, it opens this Friday (6/24) in New York at the Paris and Landmark Sunshine theaters.

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HRWFF ’11: The Team

Like Atlanta in America, nearly every African connecting flight transfers through Nairobi. Not just a transportation hub, Kenya was considered the island of ethnic stability on the African continent. So when the deadly 2007 election riots cleaved largely along ethnic lines, many Kenyans were profoundly disturbed. Hoping to heal division, particularly amongst Kenya’s swelling youth population, an experienced but still idealistic television crew began filming a telenovela about a multi-ethnic football (soccer) team. Patrick Reed documented the production and reception of their serial drama in The Team (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

John Sibi-Okumu, the eloquent script consultant for the series The Team, explains the urgency of the production when he speculates on the likelihood “the machete brigades are getting ready again” for the 2012 elections. Despite Kenya’s relative prosperity, human nature remains a malevolent force, especially when collected into mobs. The Team documentary captures this in visceral terms when the television crew attempts to film a mob attack in the Nairobi slums that nearly escalates into the real thing. While the chaotic scene ends without serious injury, life will eerily and tragically imitate art shortly after the first season wraps.

There is one unequivocally dirty word in The Team: “tribalism.” Whether as an instrument of distraction wielded by the ruling classes or a reflection of more primal hatred, just about everyone agrees it has been a divisive force, both in Kenya and across Africa. We even hear the current occupant of the Oval Office decry it during a speech in Ghana, his first teleprompter reading in Africa. It is hard to argue with the point made by Sibi-Okumu and others, particularly when we see the embers still flare up amongst the cast, even after walking through a photojournalism installation about the 2007 riots.

For their part, the crew comes across as unfailingly resourceful professionals. Though the series’ cast nearly entirely consists of all first time actors, they all seem at least passable and in some cases quite polished in their roles from what the audience can glean from the making-of scenes. Yet, perhaps the greatest talent would factor directly in the film’s third act heartbreak.

Reed captures some intense human drama, which is actually quite unfortunate for his subjects. On a positive note, the series becomes a hit. Still, the final sequences of cast and crew organizing community screenings to spur teaching encounters feels tacked-on (and falsely hopeful). Nevertheless, The Team has some strong moments and makes some valid points. It is a fairly solid and appropriate selection for this year’s HRWFF. It screens tomorrow, Wednesday, and Thursday (6/21-6/23) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

HRWFF ’11: The Price of Sex

Istanbul might be a beautiful city, but the women living in the Aksaray neighborhood would not know. That is because it is a red light district and most of the prostitutes there are slaves, confined to seedy sex clubs and prison-like quarters. Crusading photojournalist Mimi Chakarova tells the stories of the voiceless women trafficked into sexual slavery in The Price of Sex (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

There is no question, sex trafficking is a problem in Western Europe and the Americas. However, when Chakarova wanted to investigate ground zero for sex slavery, she took her hidden cameras to Istanbul’s Aksaray and Dubai, two cities which obviously have absolutely nothing in common, right?

Chakarova briefly acknowledges the hypocrisy of Muslim communities rather openly indulging in the fruits of sex slavery. Evidently, in Turkey, pre-marital sex is illegal but prostitution is not. There would seem to be an inherent contradiction there, but the crooked cops doggedly look the other way. While conditions might be slightly better in go-go Dubai, the fundamental realities remain the same. Demand for Eastern European women is also quite high in both “markets,” reflecting a “Natasha” fetish amongst the clientele. Indeed, the frequency with which Eastern European women are targeted by trafficking rings hit close to home for the naturalized Bulgarian-American Chakarova.

While Chakarova does not serve the material particularly well when injecting her own relatively undramatic family history into the film, her intrepid undercover work posing as an Eastern European prostitute in Aksaray earns her a pass. She also scores serious documentary filmmaking street cred for her on-camera interview with two Aksaray brothel customers, who also happened to be cops. Having her cameras stolen from her Dubai hotel room pretty much represents the hat-trick for the filmmaker.

Still, Chakarova is far more effective exposing the brutality and corruption of the trafficking system, than analyzing root causes. She clearly blames the fall of Communism for leaving Eastern European women vulnerable to traffickers’ false promises. Yet, Moldova and particularly Belarus, two of the prime suppliers of enslaved women, are hardly bastions of capitalism and individual rights—quite the opposite, in fact.

There is nothing sexy about Price, but what it documents is obscene. Though addressing painful subjects, Chakarova is a sensitive yet probing interviewer. She also wisely resists falling back on feminist “man-bashing,” trenchantly pointing out the recruiters are nearly always women. It is a worthy documentary, which actually addresses human rights, making it one of a handful of recommended selections at this year’s HRWFF. Price screens this coming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (6/24-6/25) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

HRWFF ’11: Love Crimes of Kabul

Witness Islamic Sharia Law in practice. It is impossible to consider it anything less than institutionalized misogyny after observing the prosecution of “moral crimes” in Afghanistan. With remarkable frankness, Iranian-American filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian takes viewers inside the Badam Bagh women’s prison, where half the inmates are incarcerated on dubious morals charges in Love Crimes of Kabul, one of the laudable selections of the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival that actually addresses human rights abuses.

All three of Kabul’s primary POV figures are bright and attractive young women. All three stand accused of the heinous crime of premarital sex, but only one of them actually engaged in what would be perfectly legal behavior in a rational society. Not to be spoilery, but care to guess which one gets the most lenient sentence? Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that justice has no place whatsoever in Islamic Law.

Easily the most shocking case is that of seventeen year old Sabereh, who simply had the misfortune to be caught eating a meal alone with a boy. Suspiciously, when a medical examination confirms her virginity, the prosecution switches gears, charging her with sodomy, the equivalent of going nuclear. Of course, Eshaghian’s cameras were banned from Sabereh’s trial, lest the railroading be exposed to sunlight, but the fix was obviously in.

At first, Kabul makes the audience’s blood boil, but as the full implications of the injustices perpetrated in Badam Bagh become clear, viewers’ stomachs will turn to ice. Eschewing talking heads and voiceovers, Eshaghian captures a visceral sense of life for the accused. She also records some brutally honest conversations as the women struggle with their Kafkaesque situations. Despite the relatively short running time, Eshaghian patiently lets scenes play out so viewers can appreciate their full import. Though her overall access is quite impressive, when her cameras are banned (as during Sabereh’s “trial”), the significance is similarly inescapable.

While Eshaghian’s unfiltered approach is undeniably bold and bracing, she leaves one rather obvious question largely unexplored. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of Kabul is the considerable presence of toddlers in Badam Bagh, who were either delivered whilst their mothers serving their time or were essentially abandoned by their fathers. Strangely though, Kabul never tackles the issue of these true innocents growing up behind bars.

The injustices faced by the women of Badam Bagh in general and young Sabereh in particular demand official American intervention. No doubt, our current administration will get right on that, sometime after the U.S. Open. A shocking indictment, Kabul is a worthy companion film to The Green Wave, both of which are highly recommended at this HRWFF. It screens this coming Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (6/20-6/22) at the Walter Reade Theater. Part of HBO’s Documentary Films Summer Series, Kabul also premieres on the network July 11th.

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Late Night Kung Fu: Executioners of Shaolin

Obviously, God intended us to screen foreign films with subtitles. Yet, watching cheesily dubbed Kung Fu movies in drive-ins or on night-owl television is a rite of passage in danger of passing. Happily, Fuel-TV is going old school with Late Night Kung Fu, a Saturday night showcase of dubbed HK martial arts gold, hosted by Kelly Choi, which premieres tonight with Liu Chia-liang’s Executioners of Shaolin (trailer here).

When civilians think of martial arts movies, it is probably the releases from the Shaw Brothers’ studio they have in mind. With their eerie mystical look and prototypical kung fu dubbing, SB films secured global distribution and a rabid cult following. Frankly, Executioners is just as good a film to start with as any other from the Shaws, guaranteeing a fair amount of gravity defying aerial fighting.

Hung Hsi-kuan is a near master of tiger style kung fu. His wife Wan Yung-chun is quite accomplished in crane style. Their son Hung Wen-ding is okay with crane but a complete novice at tiger. Maybe the family that trains together, stays together, but the senior Hung has sworn vengeance against Pai Mei, the evil albino eunuch priest who killed his Shaolin master and brothers. Nearly invulnerable, the legendary Pai is a deadly kung fu practitioner (who turns up in Tarantino’s Kill Bill as well). It is also a bad idea to kick him in the junk. It works out poorly for the kicker and leads to some of the most uncomfortable PG images in martial arts cinema.

There are some cool fight scenes in Executioners and a whole mess of training sequences that do not make a lot of sense. Of course, that is part of the genre’s charm. Shaw Brothers veteran Chen Kuan-tai certainly knows how to acquit himself during a fifty-to-one melee. In fact, Hung Sr. is one of his signature roles. However, it is Lily Li Li-li who really delivers the beat-down goods as Wan.

Ragingly politically incorrect, Executioners is a lot of fun in just the way you would expect. As an added bonus, Late Night Kung Fu is hosted by Kelly Choi. Though I have not seen any of her segments yet, I’m totally on-board with them in principle, especially if she plays them straight. Airing Saturdays at 11:00 PM Eastern, which seems like the appropriate time, Late Night Kung Fu kicks off the Shawfest tonight (6/18) with Executioners.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Still Belgian After All These Years: Poirot XI

David Suchet is an excellent character actor, but cineastes that came of age watching Sir Peter Ustinov’s joie de vivre in the role likely had trouble warming to him as Masterpiece Mystery’s incarnation of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Yet, after eleven seasons on PBS, the people have spoken. Just four novels, one play, and a short story away from adapting the entire Christie Poirot canon, Suchet is clearly comfortable in the part and Dame Agatha’s fans are comfortable with him. Poirot XI premieres this Sunday on most PBS outlets with Three Act Tragedy, which will be of interest to fans of other Brit mysteries as well.

Pleasingly cinematic, Tragedy capitalizes on its scenic Cornwall location. Poirot’s friend Sir Charles Cartwright, the famous actor, has retired here to enjoy the sailing. Unfortunately, the old vicar has the poor taste to drop dead during his cocktail party. Poirot assures him, these things happen, mon ami. However, when Cartwright’s good friend, noted psychiatrist Sir Bartholomew Strange, dies under identical circumstances several months later, Poirot changes his tune to mea culpa. As Poirot investigates with the enthusiastic assistance of Cartwright and his considerably younger lover Egg, the case seems to hinge on a mysterious patient recently admitted to Strange’s looney bin.

Regular Masterpiece Mystery viewers will immediately recognize Martin Shaw, who succeeded Roy Marsden as Inspector Dalgliesh, playing the sidekick role as Cartwright. Art Malik, most recognizable as Mr. Amanjit in the recent Upstairs, Downstairs reboot (but also a veteran guest star Mystery series like Lewis and Second Sight) takes a lethal dose of nicotine poisoning for the team as Dr. Strange.

Altering the story of Dame Agatha’s source novel to a surprising extent, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt cranks up the cloak & dagger elements in The Clocks. A Naval lieutenant attached to MI-6, Colin Race’s true love and co-worker was murdered by a cell of German spies. While investigating the case, he collides with a profoundly panicked young woman running away from a respectable townhouse. Though not quite a fallen woman, Sheila Webb has certainly stumbled a bit. A typist with secretarial agency, Webb was instructed to let herself into the house in question and wait for her mysterious client.

What she found was a dead body and room full of clocks, none of which the home’s rightfully owner, the blind Mrs. Pebmarsh, knows anything about. She also disavows any knowledge of Webb, putting the young typist squarely in a fix. Fortunately, she is cute, so Race knows she must be innocent. Believing the crimes are related, Race enlists Poirot’s help clearing her name.

The dovetailing of the mystery and espionage elements actually adds an effective element of misdirection to Clocks. However, Dame Agatha would most likely not approve of the adaptation’s anti-anti-Communism. Supposedly, several of the ultimate traitors are motivated by their fear of the Soviets and a preference for Germany as a devil they can deal with. Of course, Clocks appears to be set around the time the Soviets and the National Socialists were allies, dividing Poland between themselves. Indeed, the Comintern was explicitly instructing the international fronts to oppose war with Germany at all costs. A more likely source of fifth columnists would have been former Fabian and Labour MP Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

Jaime Winstone (daughter of Ray) nicely balances vulnerability and sauciness as Webb. Anna Massey (daughter of the great Raymond Massey) looks appropriately severe and birdlike as the prim and pacifist Pebmarsh. Recognizable from about a jillion British television appearances (including opposite Dame Judi Dench in As Time Goes By), Geoffrey Palmer’s Vice Admiral Hamling definitely comes across as a man one would not want to tell his secret naval plans are still missing. Of course, Suchet does his Poirot schtick with a fair amount of panache, but he also has a chance stretch a bit dramatically in Tragedy.

Suchet’s Poirot has been one of the reliable, if not spectacular, workhorses of Masterpiece Mystery. Season XI is somewhat more notable for its prominent cast, particularly Winstone, who has considerable film work to her credit. It concludes with Hallowe’en Party, which appears to involve kids, so is probably much less interesting. Solid and respectable, Poirot XI kicks off with Tragedy this coming Sunday night (6/19) on PBS.

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Cine Fest Brasil NY ’11: Boca

A vice-lord of the notorious Boca do Lixo district in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Hiroito de Moraes Joanides never had a chance to see Pacino’s Scarface. If he had, he might have understood how bad it is to become one of your own best customers. Indeed, his indulgences lead directly to his downfall in Flavio Frederico’s gangster drama Boca (trailer here), which screens again tomorrow night during Inffinito’s 2011 Cine Fest Brasil in New York.

More or less based on the memoirs of the late gangster known to many as just plain Hiroito (like “Prince” or “Cher”), Boca chronicles his ruthless rise and chaotic fall. Drugs are most definitely involved, but he started out on the management side of the prostitution business. That is how he meets his wife Aleíde, a new street-walker in São Paulo, who nails her interview with the so-called “King of Boca do Lixo.”

While he looks somewhat like Clark Kent, Hiroito has a real psychotic streak, which his burgeoning drug habit hardly moderates. However, Aleíde displays more gumption than one would expect from the wife of the Brazilian Jacques Mesrine. This will not be a happy marriage, nor will there be peace in the Boca district, with Hiroito picking fights he really should avoid. It is all good clean gangster movie fun though, with a touch of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure.

Daniel de Oliveira might be intense and charismatic, but he is still something of a cold fish as Hiroito, coming across more serpentine than Mephistophelean. Conversely, Hermila Guedes exceeds expectations, investing Aleíde with genuine grit and sensuality. Yet, like any good gangland saga, the real charm of Boca is its many colorful supporting turns, including Milhem Cortaz as the duplicitous meathead Osmar and Jefferson Brasil as Hiroito’s stone cold rival Nelsinho.

Boca has verve and style in abundance, delivering the dirty deeds in a well crafted period production. Highly entertaining, Boca is one of the best selections of this year’s Inffinito’s festival in New York. It screens again tomorrow (6/18) at the Tribeca Cinemas.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Brit SF: Outcasts

Life on Earth has become untenable. It is not so much environmental conditions, per se, but man’s own inhumanity towards man that is destroying the planet. With drug cartels taking over Europe and Chinese militarism running unchecked, war is the only terrestrial constant. As a result, many have evacuated in giant space arks. Those lucky enough will find refuge on the planet Carpathia (named for the ship that stopped to rescue Titanic survivors). However, the colonists of Forthaven will find their new home is not exactly an Eden in Outcasts (promo here), a new eight-episode science fiction series premiering on BBC America this Saturday.

Though still a relatively young community, Forthaven already has a tragic history. During their early years, a mystery disease called C-23 nearly wiped out all their children. The steps President Richard Tate took to deal with the disease will haunt the geneticist turned political leader in future episodes. With post-C-23 birthrates perilously low, the arrival of a new ship from Earth is understandably big news. Forthaven needs to replenish its future generation. Bringing down the transport safely is Tate’s highest priority, but a domestic incident will have macro implication for the colony.

Viewers quickly learn Carpathia’s dirty laundry. Tate had initiated and then canceled an ambitious genetic engineering program to create cloned humans, or “Advanced Cultivars” (AC’s). Presumed dead, those AC’s now live a nomadic existence outside Forthaven, which they most definitely hold a grudge against.

After a strong start, episodes three and four get somewhat bogged down with the dour ethical implications of the AC program. Fortunately, Outcasts rebounds thereafter (no sense crying over spliced genes), as the nefarious Julius Berger, a prominent survivor of the transport ship, plots a coup d’état against Tate. Series creator Ben Richards establishes a suitable environment for intrigue, with the PAS officers (the cops in charge of internal security) remaining loyal to Tate, while the XP’s (the military Expenditionaries) are inclined to side with Berger. As if Tate did not have enough to worry about, he also learns in dramatic fashion there is a reason the Carpathia’s indigenous hominid life forms died out eons ago. As they say in science fiction, they are not alone.

Richard Tate is a great sci-fi character and the key reason why Outsiders works so well. Initially, he appears to be a commanding humanitarian in the Jean-Luc Picard vein. Yet, Tate is a darker, more complicated figure. Profoundly touched by tragedy, he is still able to make hard decisions and sleep relatively well at night. Character actor Liam Cunningham has the perfect hard-nosed gravitas for the part, as well as the sonorous voice that plays so prominent a role in episode one.

In a bit of a misfire, Hermoine Norris plays PAS chief Stella Isen, Tate’s closest ally, with frosty reserve, much like her character Carol Jordan in Wire in the Blood. That worked much better playing off the manic squirreliness of Dr. Tony Hill than the steely resolve of Tate. Conversely, Amy Manson and Daniel Mays are rather engaging as Fleur Morgan and Cass Cromwell, respectively, our primary POV PAS agents, who harbor a Tracey & Hepburn attraction to each other, but are also burdened with secret pasts.

Though the effects of Outcasts are imminently presentable, the series is more concerned with social speculation and character development. Sadly, it appears that the first eight episodes are all we are getting, at least for the time being. While the conclusion offers a measure of satisfaction, it provides little closure, leaving Forthaven poised on the brink of a multi-front war for survival. Indeed, one could easily envision the story continuing in a hard-driving action film. It is worth hoping for. Indeed, Outcasts is one of the better conceived and executed science fiction series featuring a genuinely compelling lead protagonist. It is recommended for all sf fans and Anglophiles when it debuts this Saturday (6/18) on BBC America.

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