J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

HK at BAM: Dragon Inn

It was a dark time in Chinese history, when blood thirsty eunuchs terrorized the land. No, seriously. Operating from his power base in the so-called East Chamber bureaucracy (responsible for intelligence gathering and warfare development), Tsao Siu-yan usurped the Emperor, in terms of practical power if not in official title. Naturally, this did not sit well with the warrior class. Tsao and his fellow eunuchs attempt to entrap one of their more resourceful military rivals using the children of his mentor as bait in Raymond Lee’s wild wuxia epic Dragon Inn, (produced by Tsui Hark, trailer here), which screens as part of BAM mini-retrospective Hong Kong Favorites, co-presented by Subway Cinema.

In the unforgiving desert, only the remote Dragon Inn offers shelter from the baking heat and flash thunderstorms. Like a Ming Dynasty Mos Eisley, an uneasy truce is enforced in the roadhouse by Jade, its sexpot proprietor, whose meat pies are made with Sweeney Todd’s special recipe. Disguised as a man, the Xena-like Yau Mo-yan rescues the children, taking them to the dodgy inn to await Chow Wai-on, their father’s former lieutenant and her prospective lover. However, when the warrior arrives, he turns the jaded Jade’s head. Entering into the intrigue as a wildcard, she devises ways to keep Chow’s party in her inn and get him into her chambers, all while maintaining her Swedish neutrality.

Boasting an all-star cast, Dragon Inn presents Donnie Yen as you have never seen him before: evil and emasculated. Frankly, it is hard to believe it is him pimped out as Tsao. However, it is a familiar role for Brigitte Lin, kicking male butt in Yau’s male garb. Neither is Maggie Cheung (Olivier Assayas’s ex) unaccustomed to playing the sultry femme fatales, vamping it up something fierce as Jade. Indeed, when Lin and Leung square off, it is definitely worth the price of admission (though more of a suggestive ice-breaker than a bone crusher). However, Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-wai who scorched up the screen with Maggie Cheung in 2046 and In the Mood for Love) is a bit bland as Chow. It is hard to see how he could inspire such romantic rival, beyond his willingness to stand up to the eunuchs.

Known as New Dragon Gate Inn throughout Asia, Lee’s film is considered a liberty-taking reboot of King Hu’s 1966 Dragon Gate Inn. It definitely makes use of the Flying Dagger style technological advances, sailing its combatants through the air, every which way. Yet, it is all rendered in the gritty washed out color spectrum of Sergio Leone westerns. The blood is still deep crimson though. In fact, the final showdown is decidedly gory, in a way that is surprisingly macabre. (It also defies logic, but that is neither here nor there.)

New Dragon Inn is more a film for established fans (capable of rolling with its sub-Shaw Brothers visual quality) than a wuxia introductory calling card for the uninitiated. However, for those who want to watch Lin kill people in the air and Leung steam things up on the ground, it definitely all that. Good clean eunuch killing fun, Dragon Inn screens tomorrow (8/1) at BAM as part of the too-short Hong Kong Favorites series.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Maya Indie: All She Can

Weightlifting is one of those sports most people only pay attention to during the Olympics—and even then, not so much. That is something of a problem for Luz Garcia. Since it is not an official varsity sport at UT, the only scholarship money available goes to the winner of the Texas State meet. She will be hitting the gym hard in Amy Wendel’s All She Can (formerly known as Benavides Born at Sundance this year), which is currently screening in New York as part of the traveling Maya Indie Film Series (trailer here).

Garcia competes in the lightweight division, so you would hardly know she bench-presses like a monster from looking at her. She also has solid grades, but her mother’s questionable finances have undermined her hope for financial aid. Scared of taking on more debt, no family member will co-sign a student loan for her. About the only person in her largely Hispanic Texas town who is not enthusiastic about the military, Garcia starts to consider ways to get an added additional edge. That might not help her anger management issues much.

ASC might sound like a clean-and-jerk Rocky, but it does not climax with the big meet. Instead, it flounders about for a while, as Garcia struggles for redemption. Part of that process involves assisting an illegal and her son reunite with her husband in San Antonio. Indeed, it seems Garcia’s actions are intended as a conscious censure of the well-established Mexican-American community, exemplified by her brother-in-law Luis, whom viewers are clearly supposed to be scandalized by their unaccommodating response to illegal immigration. However, when Wendel cranks down the didacticism, ASC and Garcia begin to find themselves, embracing a new sense of personal responsibility and straightening out her life trajectory with the wise counsel of reasonable adults.

Corina Calderon has the right look for the film—attractive but not delicate. She is a compelling presence, even during the melodramatic detour. Julio César Cedillo’s Coach Chapa is also an engaging figure. Indeed, he is a rare movie animal: an authority figure with dedication and integrity. Yet, perhaps Joseph Julian Soria stands out the most for his dynamic, richly nuanced turn as Luis, even if the film is rather ambivalent about his character’s work ethic and respect for law.

Once viewers understand ASC is following the indie template rather than the crowd-rousing sports movie model, they will largely know where it is headed. Still, there are some honest moments and very well developed performances to be found along the way. A pretty good film when not desperately trying to be topical, All She Can screens at the Quad Cinema in New York, once a day through this coming Thursday (8/4), as part of the Maya Indie Film Series.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

The Interrupters: Not So Sweet Home Chicago

Evidently, Chicago desperately needs a Giuliani. Days with multiple shootings are the norm while hope is scarce in its violence plagued inner-city neighborhoods. Though lacking decisive leadership at the top, at least a hardy band of social workers are working doggedly on the micro level, intervening to prevent potential incidents. Three on-the-spot responders for the non-profit organization CeaseFire are followed over the course of a year, up-close and personal, in Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters (trailer here), which opens today in New York at the IFC Center.

Dr. Gary Slutkin founded CeaseFire on the theory urban violence acts like a disease, spreading from person to person like cells in the body. To interrupt a potentially violent situation in effect blocks the transmission process. Whether Slutkin’s theory is valid or not, the so-called “interrupters” are undeniably on the frontlines, attacking the problem of violence at the most immediate juncture. Of course, it is not a path without danger for the Interrupters, as viewers eventually learn.

Director James (the acclaimed documentarian of Hoop Dreams fame) and co-producer Kotlowitz (a journalist whose New York Times Magazine story brought CeaseFire to James attention) largely zero-in on three Interrupters, all of whom renounced a life of crime themselves. In fact, it is that street credibility, for lack of a better term, that allows them to operate effectively.

Ameena Matthews was essentially born into gang life as the daughter of Jeff Fort, the cofounder of the Black P. Stones Gang who was convicted of conspiring with the Libyan regime to commit acts of domestic terrorism in 1987. Cobe Williams resolved to turn his life around after several terms in prison, where he endured the pain of separation from his family. Similarly, Eddie Bocanegra remains wracked with guilt over a murder he committed as a teenager, despite the fourteen year sentence he served.

The drama James captured (serving as the film’s sole cameraman) is real and compelling. Yet, the nihilism and self-aggrandizing behavior they confront (and largely tolerate unchallenged) time and again, is utterly depressing. It used to be widely accepted that it was proper to grant everyone common courtesy, but respect had to be earned. Now respect is an entitlement. Those who do not duly grant it are punished with violent righteous indignation. Indeed, this is pathological in the truest sense.

Wisely, James and Kotlowitz focus almost exclusively on the personal dramas, eschewing questions of root causes and the like. Slutkin briefly addresses such issues, arguing violence is the problem in and of itself, suggesting employers will return into blighted neighborhoods once they are safe again. Indeed, he makes a valid point.

Clearly, the Interrupters earn everyone’s respect for their courage and dedication. However, at nearly two and a half hours, the film becomes somewhat repetitive, without ever building to a natural climax. Granted, life is messy that way, but by the same token, after witnessing several interruptions and subsequent follow-up sessions, we totally get the program. Still, to his credit, James is an expansive filmmaker who commits to his subjects fully and absolutely. A well-intentioned, worthy film that will give audiences a fresh appreciation for life in New York (at least for now), The Interrupters opens today (7/29) at the IFC Center.

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Saw with a British Accent: Spiderhole

New York City landlords, your horror movie has arrived, imported from the UK. Four British art students are too cool to pay rent. Unfortunately, they try to squat in a creaky old house owned by Jigsaw. As a result, they have their heads handed to them (not quite literally, but nearly so) in Daniel Simpson’s Spiderhole (trailer here), which screens late nights this weekend at the IFC Center.

By the time they find a suitably abandoned casa, it is already quite late at night. Molly, the relatively smart one, has a bad feeling about it all. When they find a cupboard full of bloody clothes, she is ready to bolt, but Toby, the veteran squatter, assures her everything will look better in the morning. Of course, her milquetoast boyfriend just wants to go along to get along, whereas Toby’s girlfriend Zoe only wants to get frisky in the dark dank cellar.

Needless to say, Molly’s instincts were right. When they wake up in the morning, all the doors have been welded shut from the inside and their phones and tools have disappeared. At first, it is not clear just what they are dealing with, but it certainly isn’t screwing around. However, viewers quickly learn an evil geezer in medical smocks is behind it all. Considering the extent of the metalwork he did over the night, he must be one spry old cat.

There is something problematically passive about a horror movie serial killer whose M.O. entails patiently waiting for squatters to show up. Despite the clear debt owed to films like Saw and Hostel, Spiderhole is somewhat tame by torture horror standards. On several occasions, just as the mysterious surgical-masked man is about to get down to business, he is distracted by a noise in another room. This hardly constitutes great screenwriting, but it is a mercy for viewers nonetheless. In fact, there are numerous instances where characters could have spared themselves great pain and grief simply by reacting like normal people. Yet, for all that, Spiderhole’s English accents somehow make it more interesting, by the grisly standards of the subgenre.

Nobody really distinguishes themselves here, but Amy Noble at least shows a bit of spark as the more free-spirited Zoe. Daithi Magner’s design team also creates a rather ominous but convincingly seedy looking house of horrors. It is easy to understand why they would want to get out of there, but hard to fathom why they stayed in the first place.

At only eighty-two minutes, Simpson keeps the tension cranked up rather effectively down the stretch, only to founder on the rocks of a wholly unsatisfied conclusion. Spiderhole might fit the bill for midnight talk-back-to-the-screen shows, but as graphic horror cinema, it is just more of the same. It screens at 12:30 AM this Friday and Saturday nights (7/29 & 7/30) at the IFC Center in Manhattan’s West Village.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Assassination Games: Van Damme vs. Adkins

In 2010, former Interpol President Jackie Selebi of South Africa was convicted on corruption charges. Two hired killers will learn there is considerably more illegal skullduggery going on at the international law enforcement agency in Ernie Barbarash’s Assassination Games (trailer here), which opens this Friday in regions of the country that can get behind a straight forward action beat-down.

Assassins do not often forge friendly rivalries. Taciturn Vincent Brazil does not have friends, period. However, he finds himself working with the highly motivated Roland Flint to take out Eastern European mobster Polo Yakur. Brazil only wants to fulfill the million dollar contract Interpol secretly put on his head. Flint wants revenge for his wife Anna, who suffered severe brain damage at the hands of Yakur and his thugs.

It is not that simple though. Interpol released Yakur from prison to deliberately flush out Flint, their former contract killer of choice, who now knows too much. The international bureaucrats are even willing to team-up with the Euro Jabba the Hutt to take out their former man Flint. Further complicating matters, Brazil’s aborted first attempt claims the life of Yakur’s brother, leaving the gangster somewhat out of sorts. As a result, there will be a lot of double-crossing and revenge taking in AG.

At one point, Flint and Brazil engage in some absolutely brutal hand-to-hand combat, yet walk away unfazed as reluctant partners. Frankly, it is rather cool to see a film like this again. AG is much like the relatively ambitious action B-movies Van Damme made on his way up (who can resist Bloodsport when it pops up on cable?). In fact, Barbarash and cinematographer Phil Parmet give it a legitimately stylish look, nicely exploiting the faded grandeur of their Bucharest locations.

Playing to his strength, the Belgian Van Damme portrays Brazil with ice cold detachment up until the very end. Conversely, British martial arts star Scott Adkins seethes like a madman as Flint, often looking like he could fry an egg on his forehead. Indeed, it is rather a good pairing. For the hardcore, Adkins might have more street cred these days, but regardless, the two action stars certainly know how acquit themselves in a fight scene. (They are both rumored to be in the running for the prospective Expendables 2 as well.)

Perhaps AG’s coolest turn though comes from Andrew French as Brazil’s suavely duplicitous business agent, Nalbandian. The film is also something of a family affair for Van Damme, with his daughter Bianca Van Varenberg in the thankless role of comatose Anna Flint and his son Kristopher Van Varenberg trying to kill the old man as one of the crooked Interpol henchmen.

If not revolutionary, AG is a super-slick retro-action blast. However, depicting an intergovernmental agency like Interpol in such villainous terms is somewhat bold. Even the upcoming UN peacekeeping drama The Whistleblower largely cops out, shifting its outrage to Dyncorp, a Blackwater-like security contractor in a feat of cinematic jujitsu. Of course, AG is really just about beating the snot out of bad guys, which Adkins and Van Damme do quite well. Recommended for nostalgic action movie viewers and Adkins’ fans, AG opens this Friday (7/29) in Miami, Charlotte, the Mall of America, and cities across Texas.

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Invasion Brixton: Attack the Block

These kids from South London do not have much of a sense of wonder. That’s okay, the aliens they stumble across are not exactly cuddly E.T.’s. A juvie street gang and a marauding pack of aliens take it to each other real good in writer-director John Cornish’s sci-fi invasion mash-up Attack the Block (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Council estates (a.k.a. the projects) are not a fun place to live. Just ask Sam. The over-worked under-paid nurse is mugged by Moses and his cronies on her way home from work. Much to everyone’s surprise, a crash-landing alien distracts the delinquents, allowing her to give them the slip. After a few tussles with the critter, Moses draws first blood, but there are plenty more on the way from who knows where. Before long, the kids will need the services of a nurse, even if she did finger them to the coppers. It is a reluctant alliance, but the screaming balls of teeth are a strong motivation.

As a mere fifteen year-old, Moses is the oldest amongst his mates. Though poised to become a junior drug dealer for High Hatz, the estate’s top dog, he still has limited access to weaponry. Fortunately, they have well developed survival instincts and killer attitude. Some might see it all as an allegory for the inner city’s ever-repeating cycle of violence, but it is definitely game on regardless.

Cornish has a great ear for dialogue (when Yankee audiences can discern it), keeping the super cool banter flying fast and furious. Frankly, Block has the sort of the knowing genre edge overly broad spoofs like Black Dynamite sorely lack. Yet, the film works rather well as an invading horde movie in its own right, capitalizing on the specifics of the council estate environment, like the notoriously slow elevators and winding hallways, for some cleverly staged thrills.

Sam the nurse is also a refreshing surprise, showing some backbone rather than merely assuming the role of passive victim. Indeed, Jodie Whittaker clearly plays her smart rather than dumb, which helps keep viewers rooted in the story. The young cast also bounces off her rather well in their scenes together, particularly the intense John Boyega, who is Block’s real find as Moses. He convincingly portrays the young tough growing up and coming to terms with his life choices, which is almost as hard to do in character as it is for real.

Wisely, Block largely eschews explicit politics, trusting those inclined to find class-consciousness in the council estate setting will duly find it. What is on the celluloid is an energetic, consistently inventive space alien smack-down. Definitely recommended as a high-end summer roller coaster, Block opens this Friday (7/29) in New York at the AMC Empire and Regal Union Square 14.

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Spawn of Saddam: 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 (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York, after leaving Sundance audiences completely slack-jawed earlier this year.

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 viewers 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. Indeed, the extent it depicts the Iraqi Olympic Committee as an extension of Saddam’s secret police will be a genuine revelation 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.) Yet, Tamahori never neglects the thriller aspects of Yahia’s story, keeping the tension amped up to Mountain Dew levels throughout.

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 Double even less palatable to critics, Tamahori and cinematographer Sam McCurdy rendered the film in a wickedly slick, visually dynamic style reminiscent of the 1990’s glory years of Michael Mann and Tony Scott. Without question, this is a major production, with the talented design team perfectly recreating the ostentation and tackiness of Saddam’s palaces.

Predicting unfavorable reviews for Double from politicized critics is a pretty short limb to climb out on. Its implications will threaten many world views. However, it constitutes bold, bravura filmmaking on several levels and features a truly riveting dual performance from Cooper. Highly and enthusiastically recommended, it opens this Friday (7/29) in New York at the AMC Empire 25 and Union Square 13.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Maya Indie: Where the Road Meets the Sun

People who live in hostels are generally there for a good reason. Most are broke. Others are hiding from their pasts, while a few are simply head-splittingly annoying. Tenants from three different countries represent each particular profile in Mun Chee Yong’s Where the Road Meets the Sun (trailer here), which screens for a week in New York as part of the traveling Maya Indie Film Series.

After waking up from a long-term coma, the mysterious Takashi is still trying to forget the trauma that precipitated his accident. With nothing tying him down in Tokyo, he sets off for Los Angeles, crashing at the hostel managed by Blake, a transplanted New Yorker. The grizzled proprietor is also haunted by memories of the one that got away or more precisely, the wife he dumped. Definitely counting as broke, Julio is in the U.S. illegally, trying to raise enough money to bring over his family. That leaves Guy, a British party punk, as the obnoxious one.

As somewhat kindred souls, Takashi and Blake become fast friends. Despite his better judgment, Julio also finds himself hanging with Guy. Things will work out far better for one pair of improvised friends than for the other. While women play an important role in the film, few are seen save for fragmentary flashbacks, except for the bright and attractive Sandra, who seems too grounded and together to be staying in Blake’s dive.

In truth, the storyline involving Takashi works considerably better than the other intertwined strands. While the character taps into the archetype of the disgraced wandering warrior (or yakuza), Witchblade’s Will Yun Lee (technically Korean-American, but so be it) still expresses genuine human remorse and regret. Conversely, Julio’s storyline is often awkwardly didactic, but Fernando Noriega nails some pointed scenes dressing down Guy for playing the dilettante illegal alien. Indeed, if Luke Brandon Field was going cringe-inducing irritation, his Guy succeeds spectacularly. At least his character knows where to take a lady for a memorable first date (see picture).

Sort of like a skid-row version of Grand Hotel, California-based Singaporean filmmaker Mun Chee Yong deftly balances her ensemble cast in Road, perhaps displaying a slight favoritism towards Julio and Guy. Still, despite the politicized naturalism of the former’s tribulations, she never lets the proceedings get too maudlin. Ultimately though, it is Takashi, a finely drawn character memorably brought to life by Lee, who redeems the film. While hardly required viewing, Road has its moments of merit for those who wish to check it out during the Maya Indie Film Series, kicking off this Friday (7/29) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Miranda July’s Future

After seeing what is store for these characters, one can hardly blame them for their apprehension. Of course, their unfulfilling self-absorbed live are entirely their own faults. Angst runs wild in Miranda July’s The Future (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When Jason and Sophie volunteer to adopt a cat requiring constant medical care, they resolve to grow-up and settle in their lot (and for each other, by implication). However, when faced with the thirty day waiting period before they can pick-up tabby, they decide to give their immature instincts free reign during their final month of “freedom.” Both quit their supposedly crummy jobs, with no real plan for the future. Granted, it is easy to see how his tech support job could be soul deadening, but Sophie’s gig teaching kids to dance ought to be quite coveted in today’s economy, especially since she does not seem all that talented.

As they stumble around the Los Angeles of the aimlessly freelancing, the couple begins to drift apart. Sophie even starts carrying on with an older man, leading to the least erotic sex scene of the year. Eventually, regrets set in, but things only get worse when Jason goes to extreme lengths of magical realism to halt the damage.

The first two thirds of Future play like the world’s most self-important sitcom. Jason and Sophie are truly perfect for each other, because you would be hard pressed to find anyone more depressing or depressed. Their uncomfortable misadventures simply do not have currency with viewers living in the real world of everyday work and stress. Ironically though, the weird fantastical curveball nearly redeems film, finally tapping into that primal urge everyone has felt to stop time to reverse a screw-up of some sort.

While the highly stylized voice-overs sound rather artificially mannered, the use of the cat as an omniscient narrator is still a somewhat effective device. Unfortunately, it leads viewers to pass a decidedly harsh judgment on the characters, even though it is meant to be forgiving.

Plumbing the depths of shallow people only gets you so far. Despite the film’s pedestrian look, the third reel’s metaphysical climax is strangely distinctive. It takes a long time to get there though. Essentially, a film for the neurotic looking for on-screen company, The Future opens this Friday (7/29) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Brendan Gleeson is the Guard

Sergeant Gerry Boyle is too corrupt to be corrupted. The Archie Bunker of the Irish Garda (with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson), his flaws are manifest, but misunderestimate him at your own peril in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When Boyle and his new partner discover a dead body connected to a trio of rogue drug traffickers, the curmudgeonly copper takes it in stride. He is certainly not about to cancel his regularly scheduled assignation with two up-scale call girls imported from Dublin. However, when Boyle’s partner turns up missing, he starts to take matters more seriously.

In contrast, the FBI is quite concerned about the ruthless (but eccentric) gang, dispatching Special Agent Wendell Everett to take charge of the case. Needless to say, the straight-laced agency man clashes with the decidedly unimpressed Boyle. Unfortunately for Everett, Boyle is not only the smartest cop on the force, he is also the only one not on the take.

McDonagh’s razor-sharp dialogue is a joy to hear, particularly coming from Brendan Gleeson as the jowly and jaundiced Boyle. Gleefully subverting the jolly Irish cop stereotype, his Boyle comfortably occupies the hazy border between hero and anti-hero. Likewise, Don Cheadle is appropriately intense, but still cool, as the strictly business Everett. Their standoffish relationship and pointed banter is well beyond the stuff of standard buddy-cop fare.

Completing the package, Guard also boasts a full battery of colorfully distinctive villains. Liam Cunningham, recognizable as the commanding Pres. Richard Tate in BBC America’s Outcasts, chews the scenery with relish as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a homicidal self-styled gentleman of literary refinement. Though much more understated, Mark Strong’s turn as Clive Cornell, the gangster cynically disaffected with illicit drug trade and the crooked cops who abet it, gives the film a real cutting edge.

Cleverly written from start to finish, The Guard is the most quotable film in years, right up there with the original Fletch. Boyle may very well be a character Gleeson was born to play. In fact, he more-or-less reprises the role in Noreen a very funny short written and directed by his son, Domhnall Gleeson, that also screened at Tribeca this year. Indeed, his richly comedic work as Boyle ought to make him a household name in America as audiences see and recommend The Guard. It’s that good. Thoroughly entertaining, it opens this Friday (7/29) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Maya Indie: Without Men

In the sleepy Latin American village of Mariquita, the battle of the sexes is over. Essentially, the women have won by default. A win is still a win though. Indeed, it allows the new mayor to institute some radical changes in Gabriela Tagliavini’s Without Men (trailer here), which screens for a week in New York as part of the traveling Maya Indie Film Series.

One fateful day, a band of Marxist guerillas arrive to liberate Mariquita. This entails shooting the mayor and forcibly impressing the rest of the village’s males into their ranks. Only the horndog priest is left behind in this village of supermodels. Rosalba should be the most distraught, since it was her husband who was executed. However, he was an unfaithful dog of a man, so good riddance. As she was always the brains behind his administration, she wastes no time in assuming office. Unfortunately, the rest of the village is at loose ends.

The first half of Without Men is likely to cause apoplexy among any women vaguely identifying as feminists. Incapable of even changing a light bulb on their own, the women of Mariquita basically sit around pining for some sexual healing. Naturally, to offend the Catholics in the audience, Father Rafael cons them all into believing the Holy Spirit has called him to ensure procreation continues unabated. Yet, once they boot him out of town (for running out of mojo), they start building a feminist utopia. This all sounds like a good story the gonzo reporter who supplies the film’s framing device.

About ten seconds of internet research will reveal Eva Longoria makes out with another woman in Without Men. In fact, lesbianism becomes a major theme of the film. Even the great Maria Conchita Alonso gets in on the act. Frankly, her presence alone makes one far more predisposed to like the film. A truth-teller who has criticized the oppressive Chavez regime in her native Venezuela and its Hollywood cheerleaders, the film’s anti-Communist prologue must have appealed to her. However, aside from the general helpings of naughtiness (but nothing explicit), Without Men is fairly insubstantial.

In fact, Oscar Nuñez’s shtick as Father Rafael really is pretty offensive. Eva Longoria is game enough as the type-A Rosalba, but Kate del Castillo is rather pedestrian as her butchy new love interest. Frankly, they are both outshined by the dazzling Yvette Yates and Fernanda Romero, who have little to do except look hot, but they do that well. Christian Slater recycles his familiar slickster screen persona as the reporter likably enough, but Camryn Manheim is just embarrassing as his potty-mouthed boss.

Given all the teasing going on, the net result is certainly watchable. Tagliavini keeps everything bright and colorful, always showing his cast at the most flattering light. Ideologically, it is something of a mish-mash, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. There just is not much to it though, aside from Longoria’s scenes of you-know-what. One of the weaker installments of the Maya Indie Series, Without Men screens at the Quad Cinema in New York, once a day for a week starting this Friday (7/29-8/4).

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Trigun: Badlands Rumble, the Feature Prequel

The steely Wolfwood puts Paul Bettany’s Priest to shame. This bodyguard for hire brandishes an impressive cross-shaped weapon, but still maintains his priestly scruples, at least to an extent. While not exactly his origin story, fans of Yasuhiro Naito’s manga and anime series will at least learn how he first hooked up with his future compatriots in Satoshi Nishimura’s feature prequel, Trigun: Badlands Rumble (trailer here), which has a special two-day theatrical run this Friday and Saturday in New York.

Trigun’s strange desert world (combining elements of steampunk and spaghetti westerns), is a dangerous environment, but insurance is available. Not surprisingly though, the Bernardelli insurance company is in a rather shaky financial position. As a result, adjusters Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson mostly work to find ways not to pay claims. They have come to Macca City to assess the safety of the gaudy bronze statue the mayor ensured for five billion dollars.

It is hard to imagine anyone stealing the grandly ostentatious thing, but feared outlaw Gasback has targeted it as part of his vengeance against the mayor, a double-crossing former henchman. Gasback also has the protection of his reluctant bodyguard, Wolfwood, whose services he acquired in a moment of life-and-death desperation. Gasback also seems to have the reckless outlaw Vash the Stampede looking out for him, for perversely pacifistic reasons. However, he will have to contend with the mysterious Amelia, a resourceful young woman who seems to hold a bit of a grudge against Gasback.

Considering all the heavy films landing (sometimes face-first) into art-house theaters recently, Badlands comes as a welcome palate cleanser (at least for some of us). For cinema studies types, one can certainly find a host of symbolism in Wolfwood’s axe—especially in the way he carries it. Also quite notable is the borderline socialist resource scarcity rhetoric Gasback often uses to justify his crimes—sort of like getting held up by Henry George. Of course, he is the villain. Conversely, Stryfe and Thompson would seem to be craven corporate lackeys, but they are clearly meant to be cute and funny in an anime kind of way.

More than anything though, Badlands is about shooting up the joint and blowing stuff up, all of which is badly needed during a stifling summer heat wave. By anime standards, Trigun’s characters are quite well delineated, with the superbad Wolfwood being particularly cinematic. As a prequel, Badlands is by definition only the beginning of the characters’ stories. However, anime newcomers can at least be assured of getting a complete and self-contained storyline. Heartily recommended for its energy (and the thimble of grist for those so inclined to analyze), Trigun: Badlands Rumble screens this Friday (7/29) and Saturday (7/30) at the Big Cinemas Manhattan in both dubbed and subtitled versions.

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The French Fugitive: Point Blank

Don’t call it a discovery. Hollywood has already come calling French director Fred Cavayé. Unfortunately, it was Paul Haggis who remade his debut feature as The Next Three Days, but it still counts. He might have knocked the wind out of James Bond, but the jinxed former Scientologist should not derail Cavayé based on his sophomore outing, Point Blank (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

In the tradition of Dr. Richard Kimball, Samuel Pierret is the wrong man—an innocent man. He also happens to be a nurse’s assistant with a very pregnant wife. After saving the life of a thug convalescing in his hospital, Pierret receives a grim ultimatum—either he delivers his shady patient, stone-cold safecracker Hugo Sartet, or he will never see his wife alive again. Pulled into a wider criminal conspiracy, Pierret learns Sartet’s kidnapping accomplice is the least of his concerns. A battalion of crooked cops are out to them both deader than dead.

There is something refreshingly old school about Blank. Rather than try to dazzle viewers with huge special effects spectacles or outlandish stunt work, Cavayé earns his thrills the honest way, forcing his characters to jump from ledges, bluff their way out of tight spots, and run for their lives through the streets of Paris.

A versatile actor, Lellouche makes a credible wrongly accused everyman in the Hitchcockian tradition. However, the film really belongs to Roschdy Zem as Sartet. Those who bemoan the paucity of masculine movies stars need to check out his filmography. Quietly intense and smoothly charismatic, Zem makes a killer noir anti-hero, occupying that rare cinematic zone of true moral ambiguity. As Sartet, he exemplifies screen presence. Overdue for international stardom after memorable appearances in films like Outside the Law, 36th Precinct, and The Girl from Monaco, Blank should finally settle the matter.

Cavayé also earns breakout props for Blank. Tightly paced and sharply executed, it is quite an agile thriller, even showing the occasional flash of mordant wit. He also demonstrates a legitimate talent for choreographing near riot scenes, deftly balancing the mass chaos with the need to show the characters’ action with clarity.

Indeed, it is easy to buy into Blank as it propels forward at a breakneck pace. Yet, it never loses sight of the gritty personal element. Even if he is not the major protagonist per se, the film is perfect star vehicle for Zem, as well as an effective showcase for Cavayé’s flair for the genre. Highly recommended, Blank opens this Friday (7/29) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Maya Indie: Forged

Jesus “Chuco” Barrera has committed all kinds of thuggish felonies. Yet, it was an unplanned crime of passion that sent him up the river. It also devastated the life of his son Machito in William Wedig’s Forged (trailer here), which screens for a week in New York as part of the traveling Maya Indie Film Series.

It a fit of possibly substance-heightened jealous rage, Barrera shot his wife, in the face, at point blank range, in front of his young son. Barrera got manslaughter, Machito got a foster home. The kid probably had it worse. By the time Barrera is released on good behavior, his son is homeless and dead set on revenge.

Though their reunion is not what one would call heartwarming, Barrera tries to clean him up and find livable shelter for the boy. However, there is no easy sentiment in Forged, let alone instant forgiveness. Yet perhaps the fifty G’s in drug money he is carrying back to Cesar, his not so ex-crime boss, can help set up his son in a new life. Of course, walking away with mob money always leads to complications.

There is no question Manny Perez has breakout star potential. Though much of the same creative team from his middling but promising La Soga is again on-board here, Forged represents a big step up for Perez. Intense without undue showiness, he creates a compellingly unromaticized anti-hero in Barrera. He also has a more supportive supporting cast this time around, including a great stone cold villain in Jaime Tirelli’s Cesar, the king pin of Scranton, PA. Tony-nominated Margo Martindale also adds real flesh-and-blood dimension to the film as Barrera’s alcoholic mother.

Relatively few films are shot on-location in Scranton and it is not so hard to see why. However, it gives Forged a genuinely gritty vibe. Evan Wilson’s darkly-hued, vaguely bluesey score also helps set the ominous mood. Even the bleak washed-out color palate employed by cinematographer Zeus Morand materially contributes to the overall effect.

In Forged, what starts as tough-minded naturalism steadily evolves into high tragedy. That might not be the light summer popcorn fare some viewers are seeking, but it makes for a heck of a star vehicle for Perez (but not necessarily for depressed Scranton). One of the stronger entries of the Maya Indie Series, Forged screens at the Quad Cinema in New York, once a day for a week, starting this Friday (7/29-8/4).

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An American Tragedy: Honest Man, R. Budd Dwyer

When acquitted by a Bronx jury of a specious political prosecution, former Secretary of Labor Ray Donovan famously asked “which office do I go to get my reputation back?” Former Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer understood the sentiment. At least, Donovan survived with his life and liberty relatively intact, whereas Dwyer took his own life during a press conference. While the media has always preferred to dwell on those final shocking images, James Dirschberger shines a light on Dwyer’s record of public service and the controversial prosecution that precipitated his suicide in the new documentary, Honest Man: the Life of R. Budd Dwyer (trailer here), which screens in Los Angeles this Friday.

The media assumed Dwyer’s fateful presser would be their gloat session, where the recently convicted Dwyer would announce his resignation. Instead, they stood by watching as a man shot himself and then ran the video over and over again. Thanks to dubious testimony extracted under a plea bargain agreement, Dwyer had just been convicted of bribery, even though he never received any money from the government witness in question. He had not been sentenced yet, which proved to be the tragically significant impetus for his final. Once that would occur, his family would lose all his pensions, while stuck with his mounting legal bills.

The refrain frequently heard in Honest Man is if this could happen to Dwyer, it could happen to anyone. There is no question John Torquato intended to bribe Dwyer for a state contract he was already best qualified to win. However, the prosecution conceded no money ever changed hands. Instead, acting U.S. Attorney James West offered the reputedly mobbed-up Torquato and his attorney William Smith a deal if they would establish Dwyer’s intention to accept.

Frankly, Honest Man largely glosses over most of the ins and outs of the legal proceedings. It also stretches the point when attempting to connect Dwyer’s prosecution to his public disagreements with then Gov. Richard Thornburgh, West’s former boss and immediate predecessor at the U.S. Attorney’s office, never establishing any solid linkage between them.

However, when addressing the human cost of West’s prosecution the film is remarkably powerful. Although the pain is still very real and acute, Dwyer’s family members talk eloquently and openly on-camera about the case. Perhaps the most compelling (and easily the most cinematic) figure though is Vince Yakowicz, an old school Democratic appointee Dwyer held-over when he was elected treasurer. West however, is only seen in file footage. His absence speaks volumes.

Arguably, the strongest takeaway from Honest Man is the profound inadequacy of the media. Obviously, nobody would have understood the case from their coverage. We watch nauseating footage of the so-called journalists defending their coverage, including former state capitol reporter Tony Romeo, who claims Dwyer “had himself blockaded and barricaded pretty good.” Yet, somehow reporters were able to get around the small podium Romeo found so daunting, to take reams of photos of Dwyer’s body. According to Dirschberger, the local stations have been happy to license their video of the moment of impact far and wide, but none of them were willing to release footage of his speech up to the appearance of the gun. That pretty much says it all, does it not?

Honest Man is an important film in several respects. It makes a lucid (but not quite conclusive) case that Dwyer was the victim of a grave injustice. A former teacher and life-long Republican whose anti-Communism was confirmed in his youth while an exchange student in Poland (a fact one hopes the leftist blogger moderating the post-screening panel will respect), Dwyer had much to offer his state and country. Indeed, the world is poorer for the efforts and negligence of an expedient prosecutor and a complicit media. Sensitively helmed by Dirschberger (especially with respects to the notorious video), Honest Man is a cautionary documentary that demands a wide audience. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (7/29) in Los Angeles, presented at the Royal/T by Cinema Speakeasy.

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Anti-Friends: Good Neighbors

Maybe Canadians are not so nice after all. While Quebec will soon vote to stay united with English-speaking Canada, the residents of a Montreal apartment building are turning on each other rather viciously. Though the police are a bit slow on the up-take, it seems a serial killer is stalking women in the Notre-Dame-de-Glâce (NDG) neighborhood and the perp might just be a fellow tenant in Jacob Tierney’s Good Neighbors (spoilery trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Longtime residents Louise and Spencer consider the recent rash of murders great sport to follow in the newspapers, at least until her waitress co-worker becomes the latest victim. Fortunately, English-Canadian Victor just moved into the building and is instantly smitten with Louise. She has next to no interest in him, but it is convenient to have someone on-call to walk her home at night. Spencer will not be volunteering anytime soon. An accident have left him wheelchair bound. He also happens to be a bitter, mean-spirited jerk.

Unfortunately, Victor, the anti-Ross, is also profoundly flawed. In his delusional mind, he and Louise (the anti-Rachel) are already a couple. Of course, this would make him highly susceptible to manipulation, should she be so inclined. Needless to say, there is a killer in the mix there somewhere.

Neighbors definitely courts trouble by so deliberately calling to mind Rear Window and a host of superior Hitchcockian films. Yet to its credit, Tierney’s film offers some decidedly twisted (but relatively gore-free) new spins on the serial killer genre. Viewers will have no urge to give any of these characters a big warm hug, not even poor out-of-his-depth Victor. Yet, Tierney adeptly maintains the one-shocking-thing-after-another tension while capitalizing on the confining dorm-like environment of his setting. You know that one tenant you never want to meet in the hallway? The whole building is like that.

Scott Speedman is all kinds of creepy as Spencer (the anti-Chandler?), largely carrying the Neighbors on his own. In contrast, Jay Baruchel comes across rather mannered and shticky as trying-too-hard Victor, whereas Emily Hampshire’s Louise is certainly convincingly cold and calculating, but it is hard to see her as a blinding object of infatuation.

Despite telegraphing some punches and an altogether annoying protagonist, Neighbors is a good cut above the serial killer industry standard. Though the poster art is a tad ambiguous, it really should be categorized as suspense rather than horror. Never dull, Neighbors should distract those who enjoy dark thrillers when it opens this Friday (7/29) in New York at the Quad Cinema (though they could safely wait for Netflix).

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Kitchen Elite: El Bulli

Compared to a table at master chef Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, getting a reservation at Nobu is just like snagging the corner booth at a White Castle. They only accommodated around 8,000 people per season, before packing up for the winter to develop a completely new menu of rarified culinary creations. Yet since the celebrated Catalan restaurant is schedule to permanently close its doors this coming Saturday, adventurous connoisseurs will have to settle for the vicarious meal developed in German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel’s documentary El Bulli—Cooking in Progress (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

There is no falling back on greatest hits at El Bulli. Adrià throws out the previous season’s set menu, thirty-some sequential small plate courses, starting entirely from scratch. The only guiding principle of El Bulli is originality, with a preference for ingredients employed in radically new contexts. Yet, Adrià and his staff do not carry on like crazies cooks let loose in the kitchen. Rather, they more closely resemble research scientists conducting closely controlled laboratory experiments.

Frankly, Cooking in Progress could use a bit of messiness. Save for one harsh verbal dressing down (that seems largely unwarranted), there is not much drama to found throughout the film. Instead, the audience quietly watches as they quietly refine each new course. While Gereon’s fly-on-the-wall observational style certainly leads to an appreciation of Adrià’s methodical approach, it can leave viewers rather cold.

In fact, it is rather difficult to glean a sense of Adrià’s personality and even harder for his trusted lieutenants, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatrach, beyond their master-apprentice relationships. Though they are definitely working under deadline as the new season approaches, Progress does not seek to exploit the ticking clock for dramatic effect. However, the unveiling of the new dishes delivers the hoped for pay-off. Even culinary laypersons will be impressed to see what the raw ingredients ultimately become. Indeed, cinematographer Josef Mayhofer nicely captures the elegance of both the striking coastal restaurant and its artfully rendered cuisine.

Progress is a cooking film in the purest sense. Hardcore Food Network viewers will probably be enthralled by it, but those lacking a serious culinary grounding, including seasoned doc watchers, might find it somewhat austere and slow. Yet, for the considerable target audience, Progress will be a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a celebrated restaurant, soon to be remembered in mythic terms. Eminently respectable, Progress opens this Wednesday (7/27) at Film Forum, with chefs and culinary science experts in attendance for several opening week evening screenings.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Luke Perry in Sweden : Midsummer Sex Comedy

Midsummer is the longest day of the year. That is why there is no “night” in this film’s title, even though it feels like it should be there. This is just one of the lesser perils of openly evoking Woody Allen’s Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. Yet, a largely Swedish cast (with 90210’s Luke Perry in tow) bravely risks such head-on comparisons throughout Ian McCrudden’s A Swedish Midsummer Sex Comedy (full frontally trailer here), which is now available on digital platforms, including i-tunes.

Contrary to expectations, it turns out Swedes are just as neurotic about sex as Americans, if not slightly more repressed, at least if Emil’s friends constitute a representative sampling. He has invited them to his island getaway home for the annual Midsummer celebration and what he hopes will be a spontaneous wedding. He has not let his fiancé Susanne in on his plans, just his Peter Pan American college buddy, Sam. Naturally, every character has distinct issues and hang-ups. One couple has struggled to get pregnant, while another could deliver at any minute. Eva is on the rebound from her sexually confused minister boyfriend, but she recognizes a scammer like Sam when she sees one.

Sure, everyone gets naked and jumps into the lake from time to time, but SMSC is more about romantic insecurities than naughty hedonism. Indeed, it can get surprisingly angsty at times, though American filmmaker McCrudden (whose credits include co-directing the excellent documentary Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer) keeps the action skipping along rather spritely, giving viewers plenty of sailing montages and the like. Cinematographer Dan Coplan makes the scenery of Emil’s Swedish Martha’s Vineyard sparkle, while Timo Räisänen’s music is compulsively upbeat.

Luke Perry portraying a James Dean poseur hardly constitutes radical casting, but at least he does not require much suspension of disbelief as goodtime Sam. However, Daniel Gustavsson is rather good as Emil. When he is freed to act out, he runs with it memorably. Anna Littorin’s Eva also has some nice moments flirting with Perry and carrying a torch for Gustavsson.

Surprisingly, SMSC is really kind of not bad. It is definitely not what one would expect, delivering far less frolicking than the average Carry-On film, but providing considerably more dramatic calories. Frankly, it is the sort of pleasant but quickly forgotten distraction that goes over well on a scaldingly hot weekend afternoon. It is now available on i-tunes, recommended for everyone who intrigued at the prospect of watching Luke Perry in a (mostly) Swedish film.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

NewFest ’11: My Last Round

Boxing and love can both cause severe brain damage. There is no question which is riskier. Get serious, it is obviously boxing. A fighter can be irreparably hurt in the ring. It could even be the death of one gay epileptic pugilist in Julio Jorquera’s My Last Round (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 NewFest.

Octavio Palooka is decent fighter, but he never really had his shot. A man’s man around the gym, he attracts the attention of ostensive ladies man Hugo. However, the younger kitchen worker initially panics when Octavio puts the moves on him. Eventually though, they launch into a furtive relationship. When Octavio’s latent epilepsy surfaces, the fighter is forced to retire from the ring. In a way, this clears the way for the two men to start a new life together in the big city of Santiago, where people mostly keep to themselves. Unfortunately, Jennifer, the daughter of Hugo’s new boss, is not one of those people. Yet, perhaps Octavio’s desire for one last Rocky moment will be a greater obstacle to their happily ever after.

Round desperately wants to be likened to Brokeback Mountain, but it bizarrely lifts the mournful circular ending from Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain, almost lock, stock, and barrel. It made perfectly tragic sense in the context of the Balkans’ endlessly repeating cycle of violence. In Round though, it is just kind of weird.

Arguably, Round works best when steeped in the grungy atmosphere of Octavio’s provincial gym. Jorquera’s focus is sharper and sensation of place is quite strong, whereas the big city scenes descend into rather plodding melodrama.

Perfectly cast as Octavio, Roberto Farías’ slow burning and deep yearning are quite compelling stuff. Conversely, Héctor Morales is just sort of okay as Hugo, presumably intended to be something of a cold fish and a cipher. However, Manuela Martelli brings out some human dimensions in the disruptive Jennifer.

Farías’ hardnosed intensity is impressive, but there is no question about the overall direction Round is heading, notwithstanding the concluding miscue. While it begs comparison to a number of A-list films, like The Fighter and The Wrestler, it just is not in their league. Pretty inescapably average overall, Round screens Sunday (7/24) at the Cinema Village as part of this year’s NewFest.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Japan Cuts ‘11: Into the White Night

It is not clear whose parents are worse. For a time, the police suspect Yukiho Karasawa’s mother of murdering Ryoji Kirihara’s degenerate pawnbroker father. The mystery will haunt the investigating detective for years in Yoshihiro Fukagawa’s Into the Night (trailer here), the closing film of the 2011 Japan Cuts New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema.

Kirihara’s mother was carrying-on rather openly with their slimy employee Matsuura, while Kirihara’s father furtively met Karasawa’s mother. There are a lot of incriminating circumstances, but not a lot of hard evidence. When Karasawa’s mother apparently commits suicide after the body of her other lover is discovered with Kirihara’s lighter, the case is conveniently closed. However, Detective Sasagaki cannot forget the eyes of the two ten year olds.

Over the next two decades, the three go in seemingly disparate directions. The strikingly beautiful Karasawa rules her prep school and university through her charm and manipulations. Kirihara drops out of conventional society, working on the margins of the illicit sex business. Sasagaki neglects his career due to family crises, but as his retirement approaches, individuals tangentially related to the old case start to turn up dead.

Most aptly compared to the Red Riding trilogy, Fukagawa’s two and a half hour Night is an ambitious and coolly stylish mystery, incorporating multiple time frames and some truly shocking subject matter. The influence of the past is always keenly felt in the present, while viewer sympathies are repeatedly upended. Fukagawa peels back each layer quite assuredly, rendering it all with an austere grayness to match the film’s moral ambiguity.

Without question, Shiori Fukumoto and Yuki Imai serve as the film’s cornerstone. Indeed, they are hauntingly affecting as young Karasawa and Kirihara, respectively. Maki Horikita is also scary good as the older, driven Karasawa. However, Eiichiro Funakoshi is truly the glue that holds it all together. He achieves a level of pathos worthy of high tragedy, yet completely believable thanks to his down to earth presence.

The emotionally bracing Night is a heck of a hard film to shake off. Though viewers might anticipate the general direction it takes, the totality of its implications are heavy to the point of overwhelming. This is bravura filmmaking, but the relatively long running time might be an unfortunately difficult obstacle to clear for legit American theatrical distribution. That would be a shame, because the highly recommended Night is one of the best films screening anywhere on the domestic festival circuit this year. Friday’s closing night screening (7/22) is already sold-out, but stand-by (or resold) tickets are well worth investigating when this year’s Japan Cuts concludes at the Japan Society.

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NewFest ’11: One Night Stand

It sounds like a drama school drinking game. Some of Broadway’s top talent were divided into teams and given twenty-four hours to write, score, rehearse, and perform four original short musicals, with all the proceeds going to charity. It turns out to be a somewhat stressful undertaking (even without the added challenge of mounting inebriation), recorded for posterity in Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton’s behind the scenes documentary, One Night Stand (trailer here), which has its world premiere this Sunday evening at the 2011 NewFest.

Stand has a fool-proof inherent dramatic device—a ticking clock. Indeed, there is not a lot of time for anyone to get diva-ish, but neuroses will definitely be let loose. It starts with the book writers and composers, who pretty much go with the first workable concepts they come up with. Dr. Williams lampoons hospital soap operas in gleefully broad and ribald terms. A bachelorette outing goes somewhat awry in Rachel Said Sorry. Multiphobia stages a mini-revue inspired by exotic fears, while Islands chronicles a zoot-suited Madoff’s quest for sanctuary on Staten Island. Given the abbreviated gestation time, the music is surprisingly memorable, downright catchy in cases.

Though none of the final products are what you would call polished, they are mostly quite entertaining. Of course, the professional cast definitely helps make it all work, the biggest names probably being Alicia Witt, Cheyenne Jackson (recognizable as Mark Bingham in United 93), and Richard Kind (quite good as a replacement in the Broadway production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Jackson in particular really nails his numbers, despite struggling with the material during rehearsal. Of course, he was hardly alone.

Granted, Stand follows a somewhat predictable arc, watching the four teams flounder through rehearsal but more or less pull it together at show time. Yet, the scruffiness of their creative processes is quite engaging. Frankly, Broadway remains strangely under-explored by documentary filmmakers, aside from a handful of docs like Dori Bernstein’s perfectly solid Showbusiness and Stern and Del Deo’s truly outstanding Every Little Step. Stand probably falls someplace in between the two, which is a rather respectable place to be.

At least two of the 24-Hour Musicals, Dr. Williams and Rachel Says Sorry, have songs that lodge in the head, which is certainly saying something. The rather hot choreography designed for Mary Poppins’ Scarlett Strallen also makes Stand another good NewFest selection for straight guys. Briskly energetic and thoroughly appealing, Stand is highly recommended when it premieres this Sunday (7/24) at the SVA Theatre as part of the 2011 NewFest.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Long Island Angst: A Little Help

Laura Pehlke never really grew up, but now she is a widowed mother. Her husband died of a freak heart attack, but her son pretends to be a September 11th survivor. It all has a very TV movie vibe, but it has been produced as an indie feature. At least, writer-director Michael J. Weithorn does not let anyone wriggle off the hook too easily in his Long Island-set A Little Help (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Pehlke and her husband Bob were going through a rough patch that only got worse when he died. Since an emergency room doctor (played by celebrated Wittenberg University alumnus James Rebhorn) seemingly misinterpreted his symptoms, Pehlke’s domineering older sister, Kathy Helms, insists she file a malpractice suit. She even has the right ambulance chaser lined up. However, Pehlke has a nagging feeling her late husband lied to the attending (about whether he was engaged in strenuous activity) to conceal an affair.

Meanwhile, her relations with son Dennis have deteriorated to next to nothing. Initially unhappy in his new school, he suddenly enjoys the attention of his teachers and peers when he claims his father was murdered at the World Trade Center. Though she has a bad feeling about it, Pehlke plays along, even assuming the role of 9-11 widow. Frankly, she is more preoccupied fighting with her caustic sister and disapproving parents.

There is definitely something to the basic premise of Help. The notion of sympathy envy and attention-seeking behavior, in the context of September 11th or any tragedy, holds a great deal of dramatic potential. The rather cynical depiction of truth-be-damned malpractice litigation is also surprisingly on-target and Kim “Sons of Anarchy” Coates is appropriately serpentine as thirty-three-percenter Mel Kaminsky. However, the draggy pacing and whiny characters constantly undercut the film.

This is definitely a small box affair from Weithorn, best known as a writer for Family Ties and the executive-producer of The King of Queens. Frankly, Rebhorn probably has the most big screen credits, but he appears rather fleetingly. As Pehlke, Jenna “The Office” Fischer shows laudable commitment and range, but the constant tantrums and panic attacks she must realize quickly get repetitive. Unfortunately, Brooke “Grey’s Anatomy” Smith’s sister Kathy is shrewish beyond credibility, while Rob “Felicity” Benedict is simply cringe-inducing as the torch-carrying brother-in-law. However, Dion “Runaround Sue” DiMucci is still totally cool, appearing as himself on a radio call-in show.

Help is not terrible, but it has a whole lot of the angst and faux empowerment that give indie films a bad name. To its credit, it also has an edge, but it could have used considerably more. Something of a lost opportunity, Help opens this Friday (7/22) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7.

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Character-Driven SF: 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 the same as our own. It is hard to say for sure, but this seems to be the case in writer-director-editor-cinematographer Mike Cahill’s Sundance conquering Another Earth (trailer here), a quiet character drama subtly built around a durable sci-fi device that opens this Friday in New York.

The astrophysics is a bit sketchy, but it seems that 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 the 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 a tad over-baked stylistically, indulging in 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 (controversial director of NASA’s Space Grant Consortium) fits into the flow better than one might expect.

Despite a reasonably sized 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 it is still clearly a first narrative feature. Still, the net effect is a surprisingly memorable film, marking him as a filmmaker worth tracking. Recommended with a fair degree of enthusiasm, AE opens this Friday (7/22) at the Landmark Sunshine.

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