J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Miller & Son’s I’m Glad My Mother is Alive

Thomas Jouvet has anger management issues. He also has mother issues. Frankly, they are more or less one and the same. In a nutshell, Jouvet was adopted and he is not about to forget it in Claude and Nathan Miller’s I’m Glad My Mother is Alive (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jouvet and his younger brother once lived with their single mother, Julie Martino. Before long, the tragically irresponsible (and somewhat trampy) Martino gives up on her maternal pretenses, surrendering the boys for adoption. Yves and Annie Jouvet raise the boys as their own, but unlike his easy going younger sibling, Jouvet’s rage constantly boils over.

Although French adoption confidentiality laws are apparently quite strict, the twelve year old Jouvet somehow finds a bureaucrat willing to break the rules. Yet, he will not reintroduce himself to Martino for another twelve years. Though their relationship is always strained, Jouvet and Martino appear to reach an armistice. He even moves into her flat, becoming a legitimate big brother to his new half-brother Frédéric. And then they reach the third act.

A collaboration between father and son filmmakers, Glad definitely shows the influence of the senior Miller’s mentor, François Truffaut. Given the rage directed at mother figures though, one wonders what the women in the Miller family think of it. Regardless, they certainly have a talent for keeping viewers on edge during ostensibly banal scenes of regular life, while smoothly integrating the frequent flashbacks.

More than simply the lead, Vincent Rottiers is the film’s engine as the twenty year old Jouvet. He is scary good and a more than a little scary, showing all the roiling anger and long held resentments that threaten to erupt at a moment’s notice.

Like many of Miller’s films, there are a number of scenes whose full significance only becomes clear later in the narrative. For instance, there is a seemingly random flirtation with an attractive movie theater cashier (played by the charismatic Sabrina Ouazan) that in retrospect actually serves as a crossroads or turning point for the protagonist.

Granted, Glad indulges in a bit of pop psychology overkill, as Jouvet gets an intimate look at the childhood he was denied. However, the Millers largely resist the temptation to wallow the more Freudian themes they sometimes imply. They also honestly follow through on the events they set in motion, rather than copping out with a cheap Oprah ending. Do not expect to see Glad on the OWN network anytime soon (or any challenging film for that matter). R.L. Burnside’s “Bad Luck City” is even heard in the soundtrack, which is very cool indeed.

Glad boasts a truly fine supporting cast, yet it is really Rottiers’ show. Sort of a “feel bad” movie, but a highly accomplished film, it is definitely recommended for everyone who does not need everything wrapped up in a smiley face for them (basically those of us living in the real world). Another intriguing film from Claude Miller and hopefully a foretaste of things to come from his son, Glad opens this Friday (9/2) at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Tsui Lark’s Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame

He was a legendarily honest and perceptive administrator during the turbulent reign of Wu Zeitan, the first and only woman to rule China in her own right. However, most westerners know him as Judge Dee, the protagonist of Dutch Asian scholar Robert van Gulik’s detective novels. Dee or more properly Di Renjie’s powers of deduction are such Wu Zeitan plucks him from prison to ferret out the truth behind a series of grisly deaths threatening to derail her coronation in Tsui Lark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

One look at the giant Buddha statue under construction outside the Imperial palace (complete with internal staircase and observation deck) should tell viewers something spectacularly disastrous is in the offing. Currently, a former associate of Die Renjie is scrambling to finish construction in time for Wu’s official ascension. Suspiciously, the court architect and lead investigator spontaneously combusted there (presumably after seeing something sinister), setting work slightly behind schedule.

Through his animal avatar, the mysterious Imperial Chaplain tells Wu Zeitan who she’s gotta call: Die Renjie. Dispatched to fetch the imprisoned Die Renjie, the trusted Jing’er finds him fending off a horde of would-be assassins with the help of his blind prison mentor. There will be plenty more for her blade over the course of their investigation, as well as a considerable helping of sexual tension with the tentatively rehabilitated Die Renjie.

Flame combines intricately choreographed martial arts sequences directed by Master Sammo Hung with big sprawling set pieces, like that giant Buddha statue and an underground city of thieves. While it straddles the mystery and fantasy genres, much of the supernatural skullduggery ultimately have Scooby Doo-like explanations (dubious though they might be). Frankly, style, setting, and action are what really count here, as Lark pulls viewers into this eerie world of intrigue and old school revenge.

Andy Lau projects an appropriately Zen-ish sensibility as Die Renjie. However, Li Bingbing really emerges as an action star, exhibiting dramatic nuance and gritty martial arts street cred as Jing’er. Likewise, Deng Chao nearly matches her step for step as Pei Donglei, an albino Imperial copper. A character as intriguing as he looks, he starts out as a jerkweed, but earns his spurs as they probe the shadowy conspiracy afoot.

In terms of artistry and ambition, Flame falls somewhere between the Ip Man franchise (which are great fun, but essentially recycle the Rocky template) and crossover masterworks like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With respect to ideology though, it is more closely akin to films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which argue in favor of a strong centralized authority, despite their occasional despotic excesses, as necessary means of unifying the country. Chinese state censors seem to like these storylines. Go figure. Regardless, Flame is a lushly rendered high-end period action film that should have appeal beyond fanboy circles (in which I should probably include myself for films of this genre). Definitely recommended, Flame opens this Friday at the Angelika Film Center and Regal E-Walk.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Corneau’s Love Crime

It is not exactly clear what Christine Riviére’s business involves, beyond high finance and cutthroat betrayals, but she is very good at it. Her supposed protégé Isabelle Guérin learns this the hard way. However, the student has a few tricks to teach the master in Alain Corneau’s devious (but misleadingly titled) Love Crime (trailer here), which opens this Friday in a dry and resilient New York.

A cruel game-player, Riviére calls herself a mentor, but she deliberately uses up and discards her direct reports like yesterday’s newspapers. Guérin is her latest victim, but she has lasted longer than most because of her somewhat ambiguous dedication to her sophisticated boss. Nevertheless, as Riviére’s exploitation becomes ever more obvious, Guérin finally starts to rebel. Not surprisingly, her boss does not take this well, publically humiliating her on multiple occasions, pushing the younger woman to her apparent breaking point.

With Guérin’s mental and emotional health in free fall, exactly the crime we might expect is committed. It appears to be an open and shut case to the authorities, but then Corneau starts pulling the switcheroo. Crime is not a big twist movie per se, but sort of a procedural, showing viewers how the big twist is executed every diabolical step of the way. Indeed, Crime follows in the tradition of some of Claude Chabrol’s best films, outwardly employing the thriller form but artfully altering the narrative focus.

No matter how you classify the film, it is a pleasure to watch the bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas unleash her inner Joan Crawford as Riviére. Tough, smart, and elegant, the term femme fatale is insufficient to describe her dangerous screen presence. Though comparatively restrained, even withdrawn, Ludivine Sagnier’s Guérin quite deftly keeps the audience off balance, which is critical for the film’s success. (To extend the comparison, she also looks a bit like Bette Davis, if you watch the film through an ace bandage.) A perfect study in contrasts, they spark off each other in darkly delightful ways.

As an added bonus, Crime utilizes Pharoah Sander’s haunting “Kazuko” as its soundtrack, which is certainly unorthodox given the exotic instrumentation (tenor sax, koto, and harmonium), but it definitely creates an atmosphere of mystery. (It also happens to be an exquisite piece of music.) Together with Yves Angelo’s cool noir cinematography, Crime is a distinctly stylish production.

Yet, ultimately it is Corneau’s masterful control of the audience that makes the film such an effective thriller, worthy of comparison to the work of Henri-Georges Clouzot. Indeed, he leads viewers exactly where he wants to, carefully stage managing what they see and when, without resorting to blatant manipulation.

Frankly, Crime is a tiny bit twisted, but it is an enormously enjoyable ride. From cast to wardrobe to music, every aspect fits together ingeniously. There just are not enough films like this, so do not miss Crime. Enthusiastically recommended, it opens this Friday (9/2) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

The Debt, Restructured

Rachel Singer understands the dark side of human nature. Her ex-husband Stephan Gold is a high-ranking cabinet official, and her daughter Sarah Gold is a journalist. In fact, Gold’s new book has reopened a number of old wounds for her parents. Singer and Gold were part of a three agent Mossad team charged with capturing “The Surgeon of Birkenau,” a National Socialist war criminal clearly modeled on Mengele. Though they were supposedly forced to kill the doctor when he attempted to escape, we quickly discover there is something wrong with the official story in John Madden’s restructured The Debt (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Based on Assaf Bernstein’s Israeli film of the same title, The Debt first presents the account of the fateful mission that made Singer a national icon in Israel. It is that story Sarah Gold told in her bestselling book, which Singer dutifully agrees to help publicize. Yet, when press reports surface of a senile patient in a Ukrainian nursing home claiming to be the notorious Surgeon, Dieter Vogel, she and her ex take it deadly seriously. So does David Peretz, the third member of the team, who was always too troubled by the events that transpired in 1965 East Berlin to enjoy their heroic celebrity.

Now a wheelchair-bound senior intelligence official, Gold’s field ops days are behind him. Though the conscience plagued Peretz has recently reappeared, he will be in no condition to deal with the Surgeon. It is up to Singer to covertly enter Ukraine and finish the job. While she cases the sanatorium, The Debt flashes back to East Berlin, showing how it all really went down.

As adapted by screenwriters Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, Madden’s Debt closely hews to the plot and structure of the original. However, the new version plays up the three Mossad agents’ romantic triangle and also adds a bit of a moralizing "truth is important" spin to the ending. However, like the source film, The Debt never suggests Singer’s team had the wrong man, only faulting their execution, the result of stress exacerbated by generational guilt and sexual tension. Indeed, The Surgeon is presented as evil incarnate, played with icy menace by Jesper Christensen.

When casting an actress of a certain age for somewhat action oriented film, Helen Mirren is pretty much the extent of the short list. Though she brings the appropriate presence and credibility to the 1997 Singer, the heart and guts of the film remain in 1965 (as was the case with its predecessor). Madden cranks the up the claustrophobic tension in their “safe” flat quite effectively, while making it vividly clear how the legacy of the Holocaust weighed on the team as first generation children of survivors.

Frankly, Sam Worthington is surprisingly compelling as the young but already too tightly wound Peretz, suggesting he might actually be a very good actor, who just had the mixed luck to be in utterly terrible but hugely successful films, like Avatar and Clash of the Titans. Yet, perhaps the greatest surprise is Jessica Chastain, who rises to challenge of playing the same character as Dame Helen, in the same film. In fact, she might even get the better of her, investing the younger Gold with equal measures of strength and vulnerability.

Though it still has not fixed the problematic third act showdown, The Debt remains a leanly muscular morality play-thriller. While the English language version might be a bit more inclined to cast the Mossad in an unfavorable light, there is never any ambiguity as to the Surgeon’s truly malevolent nature. A surprisingly faithful and well executed remake, The Debt should definitely satisfy those who enjoy a John Le Carrré-esque story, who have do not already know the twists and turns of the original. It opens this Wednesday (8/31) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Gainsbourg: the Icon and his Subconscious

Serge Gainsbourg did it all: jazz, pop, rock, and a reggae version of “La Marseillaise” that was initially not nearly as well received as Jimmy Hendricks’s “Star Spangled Banner.” For the singer-songwriter, it was just one more controversy in an eventful career dramatized with idiosyncratic flair in Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

As the feature directorial debut of one of France’s leading graphic novelists, Heroic not surprisingly begins with a cool animated title sequence. However, Sfar has far bolder imagery in store for viewers. As the narrative commences, Gainsbourg (then Lucien Ginsburg) arrives early to pick-up his yellow star from the collaborationist authorities. His Jewish heritage would continue to haunt Gainsbourg in the form of a giant anti-Semitic propaganda cartoon come to life, as if it were a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon, dogging the boy throughout his formative years. Yet, Sfar is only getting started with his fanciful twists on the old bio-pic formula.

Throughout Heroic, Gainsbourg interacts with what he calls his “mug,” his Tyler Durdenesque id, who inspires all his bad boy excesses. One could argue though, Gainsbourg does alright following his lead. After all, he would become one of the most influential figures in French music, romantically linked to some of the world’s most desired women.

Despite Sfar’s stylistic eccentricities, he still shoehorns in most of Gainsbourg’s musical highlights and notable personal scandals. We see Gainsbourg as a young man dabble in jazz piano, make his mark as a pop songwriter, and recklessly carry on with the married Brigitte Bardot (a surprisingly convincing turn from supermodel Laetitia Casta). The heart of the film though, involves his stormy marriage to British actress-singer Jane Birkin (mother to his daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he recorded the suggestive duet “Je t’Aime moi non plus.”

Tragically, British actress Lucy Gordon committed suicide shortly after Heroic wrapped. Though she will probably be remembered by more film patrons for her work as reporter Jennifer Dugan in Spiderman 3, she was truly beautiful and compelling as Birkin, unquestionably delivering one of the film’s standout performance.

In contrast, Heroic’s weakest link is the rather hard to get a handle Gainsbourg. Eric Elmosnino hints at the strange charisma of the musical legend, but the inner Gainsbourg remains a mystery, despite all the outward manifestations of his subconscious. Fortunately, there are many strong supporting performances that largely compensate, most notably Razvan Vasilescu as Gainsbourg’s traditional but nonetheless proud father.

Sfar’s surreal devices might sound distracting, but they actual give Heroic an energetic drive and witty attitude that helps the film avoid the lulls which typically plague cinematic biographies. Fresh and entertaining, Heroic is highly recommended when it opens this Wednesday (8/31) at Film Forum.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Surviving the Aftermath of 9-11: Rebirth

New Yorkers are tough. Since the horrific events of September 11th, the City has weathered blackouts, blizzards, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Still, the lingering trauma of 9-11 dwarfs all subsequent travails. Capturing the physical rebuilding of Ground Zero and the emotional healing of five New Yorkers profoundly affected by the tragedy, director and conceiving producer Jim Whittaker shot almost a thousand hours of footage, resulting in perhaps the first documentary with its own non-profit governance structure: Rebirth (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Affectionately called “Captain Manhattan,” FDNY Cap. Terry Hatton was already widely regarded as a fireman’s fireman, even before his heroic death during the collapse of Tower 1. For his best friend and colleague Tim Brown, both grief and survivor’s guilt would debilitate his psyche. Yet, despite his depression, we watch as Brown tries to take affirmative steps to prevent such acts of terror in the future, accepting an appointment to the then newly created Department of Homeland Security and serving as an advisor to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ill-fated presidential campaign.

Like Brown, Tanya Villanueva Tepper grieves a New York firefighter, her fiancé, but her new life seems to fall so well into place, she starts to feel guilt over her happiness. In contrast, construction worker Brian Lyons has a more difficult recovery process. He also mourns for a FDNY brother, his younger brother, Mike. In addition, his tireless work in the rescue and recovery efforts has left him with persistent health issues and a case of PTSD. Nick Chirls also lost someone close to him: his mother. Unfortunately, a difficult bereavement would lead to an estrangement between Chirls and his father.

Yet, of the five interview subjects, Ling Young is arguably the most compelling. A dutiful state employee at work on the 78th floor at the time of the attack, Young suffered burns so serious, they caused considerable physiological complications. Though her physical healing process remains unresolved, she emerges as the film’s most inspiring figure.

It is hard not to be moved by pain and honesty expressed by Whittaker’s POV figures. However, the time lapse footage of the Ground Zero rebuilding project might ironically prove counterproductive. While it is impressive to see the construction of the transit hub and smaller buildings in fast forward, it is conspicuously obvious the freedom tower has yet to rise triumphantly from the rubble.

To his credit, Whittaker treats his subjects with sensitivity and respect. Still, it seems clear he chose to play it safe at each juncture, glossing past Brown’s reasons for signing on with the Giuliani campaign and including only a brief vent from Chirls directed at moral relativist apologists for the terrorists. Perhaps it is just as well, focusing Rebirth squarely on the personal makes it more immediate and universally relatable, but the gaps still show. After all, what happened in Lower Manhattan was not a random happenstance, but a deliberate act of mass murder motivated by a hateful ideology. Rebirth completely ignores that reality, concentrating solely on the consequences.

In truth, it is a defensible decision, but it requires far more context than that found in Rebirth to fully understand September 11th. Technically, it is also a well crafted production, with important aesthetic contributions coming from composer Philip Glass and cinematographer Tom Lappin, who gives the oral history portions a warm glossy look. (As an aside, viewers should look for Jon Fein & Brian Danitz’s thematically related documentary Objects and Memory, also boasting a Glass score, when it airs on PBS tomorrow). Well intentioned and executed, but clearly determined to avoid controversy, Rebirth opens this Wednesday (8/31) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lewis Series IV: Death at the University

Inspector Lewis has a healthy disdain for intellectual prattle. As a member constabulary in Oxford, England, from time to time DI Lewis must deal with the University’s arrogant elite. His sergeant, DS Hathaway is a former divinity student who should feel at home amidst ivy covered walls, but he was a Cambridge man. In contrast to last season, the Oxford setting factors directly in the four episodes comprising season IV of Lewis, premiering next Sunday night on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.

Detective Inspector “Robbie” Lewis was the working class sergeant under the Oxford educated Inspector Morse, long a staple of Masterpiece Mystery. In recent years, the sidekick has become the curmudgeonly lead, succeeding Morse and the late John Thaw as a warhorse of the PBS showcase stable. The fourth season, as collected for American audiences, kicks off with one of Lewis’s more intriguing cases, Old Unhappy Far Off Things (promo here).

Diana Ellerby is an Oxford feminist scholar who has attracted a number of fiercely loyal protégés over the years. Unfortunately, one of them turns up dead at her going away party. As Lewis and Hathaway investigate, it becomes clear that all was not well between Ellerby’s special alumni. Of course, her contempt and lack of cooperation do not make their job any easier. Neither do the case’s painful echoes. Several years ago, the tragic death of his wife forced Lewis to remove himself from another murder inquiry at the same college. Guest-starring Juliet Stevenson (who never really became famous on these shores despite some high profile roles) as Ellerby, Far Off portrays leftist academia in a manner that would never fly on American television.

On the other hand, Wild Justice, set in an affiliate school clearly based on the now defunct Greyfriars, would seem to present an opportunity to even the score by bashing the friars (they are not monks, Hathaway constantly explains to Lewis). A high profile participant of an academic conference is murdered in a manner inspired by a lecture on revenge and justice in Jacobean drama. Having a lot of material to work with, the killer starts to rack up quite a literary body count. Though there is a fair amount of backbiting between the friars, it is the progressive secular candidate in the college’s impending governance election that really takes a PR pounding. A decent mystery that does not overplay the exoticism of the friars, Wild also features Christopher Timothy (best known for playing beloved veterinarian James Herriot) as an ex-copper who knows too much.

Perhaps the weakest installment of season IV, The Mind has Mountains involves a pharmaceutical company testing a new anti-depressant on wildly dysfunctional Oxford students. Easily Lewis’s most Hollywood outing this year, the Geordie detective constantly grouses about drug companies giving college kids horse tranquilizers, which really does not sound like a bad idea. To be fair, he is a bit out of sorts, confused by the cold shoulder given to him by Dr. Laura Hobson, his crime scene investigator and potential romantic interest. However, it might be the season’s most visually stylish episode, helmed by director Charles Palmer (son of veteran British television star Geoffrey Palmer), whose early investigation scenes are quite cinematic.

Rebounding with the finale, Gift of Promise delivers the most intricate plot of season IV. Young gifted and talented student Zoe Suskin is going through a rough patch. The director of the foundation that granted her scholarship is murdered, followed shortly by her book publisher father. Perhaps most distressingly, her favorite Oxford tutor is in questionable condition after an arsenic poisoning attempt. Somehow though, it all seems to involve a nasty bit of IRA infighting conspicuously missing from a former MI-5 director’s memoirs.

Throughout season IV, Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox further refine their odd couple chemistry. Watching them bicker, banter, and brainstorm has become rather pleasant television comfort food. For the most part, the actual mysteries are reasonably mysterious and well written. The frequent Oxford backdrops this season only add to the series’ atmosphere and Anglophile appeal. With this season, Lewis continues to grow as a series, while holding fast to its fundamental strengths. More than solidly respectable, Lewis is definitely worth revisiting again when Far Off premieres next night (9/4) on most PBS outlets throughout the country.

(Photos: Robert Day)

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Friday, August 26, 2011

The Scandalous Ming Scholar: Sex & Zen 3D

Imagine the world’s first 3D erotic film coming from the Disney studios while the Old Man himself was still running the show. It is almost as shocking that Hong Kong filmmakers would blaze that trail (particularly post 1997 hand-over), but such is the case. As a result, all serious film historians must surely take due note of Christopher Sun’s Sex and Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy (trailer here), currently playing in mainstream New York theaters.

Based on Li Yu’s novel The Carnal Prayer Mat, something of the Ming Dynasty equivalent of Fanny Hill, S&Z tells the story of the talented but shallow scholar Wei Yangsheng, who chunks away his respectable married life to partake in the hedonism of the nefarious Prince Ning’s secret vice lair. In return for his expertise with antiquities, the Prince allows him nearly free reign with the women. Unfortunately, his shortcomings, if you will, lead to considerable embarrassment for the faithless scholar. Not one to take things laying down, Wei Yangsheng approaches the outwardly beautifully (but androgynous where it counts) Elder of Bliss to teach him the cosmic secrets of carnal pleasure. The first step: a transplant, in 3D. You’ve been warned.

Of course, everyone is probably wondering the same thing about S&Z: just how much Zen does it really have? In truth, only a bit. The scholar’s old teacher is a Buddhist monk, whose piety draws the ire of Prince Ning. There is a lot of sex though.

Kind-of-sort-of rebooting the early 1990’s HK softcore Sex and Zen franchise, the 3D S&Z’s nudity is almost entirely from the waist up, except for what might be described as comedic prosthetics. However, there is a lot of stimulated action going on (which in a bit of a miscalculation, gets rather darker in nature down the stretch), so it should probably be considered more of an NC-17 film than a hard R.

Frankly, it is quite significant how many of the female roles had to be played by Japanese actresses. However, the stunning Saori Hara and Yukiko Suo are obviously well suited to play Ruizhu and Dongmei, the pleasure palace’s top seductresses. Yet, Vonnie Lui might be the most striking femme fatale (for lack of a better term) as the Elder. In contrast, Hiro Hayama’s Wei Yangsheng is too schmucky to be much of an emotional rooting interest.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of S&Z is the quality of the 3D. Unlike many Hollywood fixer-uppers, the 3D effects seem well integrated into the film as a whole, especially the elegant opening credit sequence evoking traditional Chinese landscape painting. Mercifully, there are not a lot of scenes of pointy things sticking out at the audience either, besides the flying daggers seen during the action sequences.

S&Z is like one of the more risqué NYAFF selections cranked up to eleven. It is more of less what you think it is, with an almost convincing paean to the superior virtues of romantic love tacked on for respectability’s sake. Destined to become a cult classic (and not without good reason), S&Z should be in theaters for quite some time (albeit most likely for late night screenings), courtesy of China Lion, the leading international distributor of popular Chinese cinema. Recommended more for informed patrons looking to enjoy some on-screen naughtiness than those looking for some 3D for its own sake, it is currently playing at the Village East in New York and the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas.

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Spanish Midnight: Julia’s Eyes

It is not clear whether Julia Levin’s tormentor is metaphorically or supernaturally invisible, but it does not matter. She could not see him anyway. Only a Hail Mary surgery can reverse the congenital deterioration of her vision. Unfortunately, it already claimed the sight and perhaps the life of her twin sister Sara in Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes (trailer here), which screens tonight and Saturday ‘round midnight in New York at the IFC Center.

Though long estranged, her sister’s suicide does not feel right to Levin. Not really suspecting anything specific, she starts poking through the remains of her life. Much to her surprise, she learns her twin had a lover, who did his best not to be seen with her. She is also warned of a stalker, whom is described as a man who has learned to be invisible to the world, much like Ellison’s invisible man. However, rather than acts of self-destructive existentialism, this mystery man’s rage manifests itself in sadism and homicide.

In fact, it is something of an open question whether the stalker’s invisibility is physical or metaphysical for most of the film’s first two acts. It is an intriguing twist that Morales pulls off quite nicely. He also clearly understands what is unseen is far more unsettling than that which is graphically visible, going so far as to obscure the face of a central character for a good portion of the film. It might be slightly gimmicky, but it is effective.

A strong rooting interest, Belén Rueda plays Levin smarter and more resourceful than most horror movie heroines. She and Lluís Homar (as husband Isaac) also make a convincing couple together, attractive in a real life down-to-earth way.

One of a raft of recent films to carry Guillermo del Toro’s producer imprimatur, Eyes actually straddles the horror and dark psychological thriller genres rather nimbly. In truth, it is almost completely bloodless, but quite intense. It also has the same dank ominous look of many recent Spanish horror movies. Still, if something is not broken, why fix it.

Appropriately creepy and tense, Eyes is a tightly executed dark genre film. Whether considered horror or not, it is nicely put together, holding up well even if seen earlier than midnight. Recommended to horror fans (broadly defined) Eyes screens this evening (8/26) and tomorrow night (8/27) at the IFC Center in New York.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Family, Indie Style: The Family Tree

The Burnetts are like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, with their sex, drugs, and guns. They are just your typical dysfunctional suburbanites who find it much easier to live together after Mom is stricken with amnesia in Vivi Friedman’s The Family Tree (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Even family counselors can’t deal with the Burnetts. Jack, the father, is an emotionally frozen man in a grey flannel suit. His wife Bunnie is an aspiring lunching lady, who is carrying on an affair with the next door neighbor—at least. Son Eric has only one talent, marksmanship, which the Hunter S. Thompson-esque Reverend Diggs encourages, while his sister gets attention acting the part of the high school tramp. They are so caught up in their petty preoccupations, they do not notice the dead body hanging their front yard, the victim of a freak peeping accident. Rockwell had a painting for that too, right?

As usual, Tree presents a clichéd stereotype of corporate life and activist Christianity. Particularly problematic is the gang of super-Christian high school enforcers the Burnett son falls in with. At least Diggs is not presented as a bad type, unequivocally condemning their tactics, in between target practice and tokes. One might even argue the film presents thinly disguised NRA members in affectionate, if still caricatured terms.

In truth, Tree is built around a clever gimmick, the amnesiac suddenly interested in being a wife and mother now that she can no longer remember her family’s multitude of shortcomings and disappointments. However, Mark Lisson’s screenplay is so overstuffed with attempts at naughty humor, it is nearly impossible to buy in on an emotional level. Mostly, the film is like a series of gags held together with self-consciously quirky family drama, but to be fair, some of the jokes are funny.

Somehow amid the affected madness, Dermot Mulroney creates a likeable, sympathetic portrait of the emasculated corporate wage slave. As his wife Bunnie, Indie stalwart Hope Davis changes gears quite convincingly as well. Unfortunately, the teenaged cast is rather underwhelming. Still, Gabrielle Anwar entertainingly vamps it up as corporate down-sizer Nina, (looking sultry yet worlds different than she did tangoing with Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman). In a slight bit of type-casting, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks also appears as a busty administrative assistant, but has literally nothing to do.

The Finnish born Friedman keeps Tree moving along at a decent pace, yet it is clear the film has little affection for any aspect of its characters’ lives. Lacking real satirical insight, Tree just delivers inconsistent American Pie style laughs. Somewhat diverting viewing on a lazy afternoon (at most), the middling Tree should wait for cable. For those fired up for its admittedly interesting cast, it opens tomorrow (8/26) in New York at the Village East.

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Apocalypse Imminent: Jerusalem Countdown

Here’s a wild premise: the Arab countries of the Middle East have united to annihilate Israel. Shocking, right? Believe it or not, Russia supports their cabal. Moreover, it is all foretold in Biblical prophecy. Perhaps that last part lost you, but it is rather central to Harold Cronk’s Evangelical thriller Jerusalem Countdown (trailer here), inspired by the book of the same title by Pastor John Hagee, which opens across the country, except New York City, this Friday.

Arlyn Rockwell is a smuggler, not a mass murder. That is why he reaches out to FBI agent Shane Daughtry after completing his latest assignment. Though initially skeptical of the old good old boy, he is convinced when an assassin comes calling. It seems Rockwell’s fateful job involved several suitcase sized objects. Yet, that is just part of the conspiracy. Daughtry and his former partner (at the Bureau and in ill-concealed romantic tension) Eve Rearden also learn an imminent attack will be made on the Israeli delegation to the latest orchestrated attempt to strong-arm the country into giving up more land, euphemistically called peace talks.

Meanwhile, a failed writer grows increasingly suspicious of his new Iranian neighbors. Suspecting something nefarious, he starts nipping over to have a looksee, cleverly asking the menacing Javed if he could borrow a cup of weaponized plutonium.

Compared to the last explicitly Evangelical film reviewed here, Countdown represents an enormous step forward in professionalism. In many respects, it is a perfectly respectable B-movie (never a term of derision around these parts), with some nicely produced action sequences.

As the lead protagonist, David A.R. White (whose credits include a recurring role on Evening Shade) is a credible and engaging protagonist. Likewise, Anna Zielinski projects a smart, charismatic screen presence as Rearden. Countdown even features Lee “The Six Million Dollar Fall Guy” Majors as Rockwell, which is totally cool. Indeed, for the most part, the ensemble cast is at least professional grade, if not considerably better.

Unfortunately, the proselytizing sequences still play more than a little clunky. To its credit, there is a surprisingly effective scene in which the agnostic agents Daughtry and Rearden start professing doubt in their doubt. However, the scenes of the writer’s wife hard-selling him her faith get repetitive quickly. Frankly, they are naggy both for his character and the audience.

To an extent though, such interludes are too be expected. What is truly disappointing about Countdown is the way in which it casts certain American intelligence personnel as villains. We expect that of Hollywood, but when Evangelical films start demonizing the CIA, what hope is there for agency supporters?

Though none of Countdown takes place in Israel, we do hear the Israeli Prime Minister cogently explain how much land Israel has already given up for peace, only to receive war and terrorism in return. In that respect, the film is quite timely, particularly when the current administration’s position of the day seems to be a return to the pre-1948 borders.

In fact, there is some decent international intrigue afoot, up until the big finish, which will limit the film’s appeal outside the Evangelical community. Regardless, credit is still due to White and Zielinski for keeping viewers focused and vested throughout. A lighter touch would have better served the story, but for the Empire State faithful, Countdown opens tomorrow (8/26) at the Newburgh Showtime Cinemas and at churches and theaters across the country.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Caller: Drop the Landline

In established horror movie tradition, Mary Kee’s threatening calls are coming from inside her own apartment. The thirty years in the past thing is a neat trick though. While never explained, viewers should just go with the cosmically crossed line set-up if they can find Matthew Parkhill’s The Caller (trailer here) opening at a theater near them this Friday.

In the process of divorcing her abusive stalker husband, Kee needed a new apartment fast. What he found was a seedy but spacious pad in a building with an endearingly lazy super and a dark past. As soon as she moves in, an unstable older woman starts calling Kee’s landline looking for her boyfriend Bobby. In addition to her galloping jealousy, the voice calling herself Rose Lazar seems to think the year is 1979. Although that is obviously crazy talk, it appears Lazar is in fact causing things to happen in the past to mess with Kee in the future.

Fixated on Kee, Lazar turns homicidal, starting with deadbeat Bobby, allowing her to assume the fateful apartment. However, Kee’s prospective new lover, John Guidi, is convinced it is somehow all part of her ex’s sick schemes. Still, as a math professor and trekker, he very considerately supplies the film’s underlying theory of time distortion.

Time travel broadly defined is like the great white whale of genre filmmakers, who more often than not only end up with a blender full of narrative mush. However, if you buy into the basic premise, the internal logic of Sergio Casci’s screenplay holds up rather well. Matthew Parkhill, a Sundance alumnus with Dot the I, also steadily cranks up the tension quite adroitly, balancing Lazar’s supernatural menace with the very real and present danger represented by her ex-husband. Frankly, this is a surprisingly scary film.

Considering The Caller also boasts cast members of Twilight and True Blood, it is something of a puzzler that it is not opening wider this Friday. Rachelle Lefevre from the Stephenie Meyer franchise is quite convincing and grounded as the time-tormented Carol Kane, establishing some pleasant romantic chemistry with Stephen Moyer, probably best known for the Charlaine Harris series (though he does not look very Italian as the first generation Guidi). As a further genre bonus, cult actor Luis Guzmán (Carlito’s Way, etc.) also appears as George, the super who knows too much.

Of course, The Caller cannot withstand rigorous logical scrutiny, but such pedantry would prevent viewers from enjoying a wicked little horror-thriller. The Puerto Rican locations, though not intrinsic to the story, also add atmosphere and texture to the proceedings. It might be relatively unheralded, but this is a seriously creepy film, definitely recommended when it opens (somewhere) this Friday (8/26).

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Fundie Funk: Higher Ground

Corinne Walker married into an exotic tribe: red state Evangelical Christians. She tries to make the best of it, but finds everything is always about God and never about her in Vera Farmiga’s star vehicle and directorial debut, Higher Ground (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

CW Walker was an angry drunk whose wife Kathleen enjoyed flirting with the fundamentalist Pastor Bud. This environment makes daughter Corinne something of a rebel, who tries to check out Lord of the Flies from the library. Eventually, she goes all in marrying garage rocker Ethan Miller. However, when an accident on the tour boss sends him back into the Christian fold, she is back where she started from. At least she has a close confidante in family friend Annika, who makes Evangelical Christianity sexy. Unfortunately, her husband is almost willfully out of touch with her needs. As a result, she feels increasingly stifled at home and at church.

Higher Ground has been hailed by Blue State critics as an even-handed depiction of Evangelical Christianity. In practical terms, this only means they are not portrayed as Doomsday child molesters holed-up in a booby-trapped compound. Aside from Annika and the disillusioned protagonist, Evangelicals are uniformly portrayed as insensitive, uneducated, judgmental, insular bumpkins. When they speak of their faith (which they often do), it is clearly with the intent of creeping out the audience with all their weird God talk.

Though based on an alleged been-there-and-lived-to-tell memoir, the guts of Ground ring glaringly false. Though not of their religious tradition, I’ve campaigned with many during my political years. In most cases, outsiders will find Evangelical Christians are not psychologically tone-deaf as Ground suggests, but eerily attuned to the emotions of those around them. Frankly, the film more resembles an outsider’s caricature than an insider’s confessional. It also hardly helps that Farmiga and Joshua Leonard never look like a remotely believable couple.

Conversely, Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa is a perfect fit for the teen-aged Corinne Walker. Beyond her obvious likeness, she proves to have a smart, engaging screen presence, more so even than the senior Farmiga, in this case. Yet, probably the film’s most memorable turn comes from Dagmara Dominczyk, the daughter of Polish Solidarity activist Mirek Dominczyk, who was forced to accept asylum in America in 1983. She brings warmth and humanity to the devout but earthy Annika, so naturally her character has to be eliminated in rather dramatic fashion.

With the exception of Hump Day’s Leonard, who looks like a reject from a Judd Apatow comedy, Ground boasts an intriguing ensemble cast, featuring several Broadway stars, including Donna Murphy as Kathleen Walker, with fellow Tony winners Bill Irwin and Norbert Leo Butz both playing folksy pastors. By and large, the problem is not one of personnel but with the material they grapple with. Though it is probably destined to air repeatedly on the Oprah network, Ground is a disappointing film, far more prejudicial than the Evangelical community it disdains. Highly skippable, it opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Referrals Required: Special Treatment

Both Alice Bergerac and Xavier Demestre charge their clients by the hour. Get the irony? You see, he is an analyst and she is an older kind of specialist. Indeed, Bergerac and Demestre’s professional livelihoods are similarly dependent on sexual dysfunction and both are raging neurotics in Jeanne Labrune’s psychologically charged drama Special Treatment (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Demestre’s marriage is profoundly on the rocks, which is awkward considering he shares a suite of offices with his wife Hélène, a psychiatrist herself and probably a better one. Even his patients seem to keep their appointments only to shower him in contempt. His colleague refers him to Bergerac, whom he aptly describes as a “specialist.” Yet, the anxious and increasingly depressed Demestre is not sure what he wants from the transaction.

Meanwhile, Bergerac is suffering from her own crisis of confidence. An educated woman of sophisticated taste, she is not getting any younger. Though still desirable to men of a certain age, Bergerac is starting to press her luck in an exploitative business. Yet, the prospect of making life-altering decisions paralyzes her.

The affinity between shrinks and the more scandalous hourly professionals is fairly path-worn territory, having been previously mined for Hitchcockian suspense and lurid fascination. Frankly, Treatment never puts any sort of fresh spin on the material, but the accomplished cast still digs into it quite impressively.

Isabelle Huppert is perfectly cast as Bergerac, outwardly fitting the part to a tee, while viscerally capturing all the character’s neuroses and simmering hostilities. Bouli Lanners also brings surprising depth and humanity to Demestre, making a character all too easy to dismiss as pompous perv the sympathetic center of the film. Co-writer Richard Debuisne’s turn as the apparently principled Dr. Pierre Cassagne is also quite intriguing and rather unpredictable. On a fundamental level, he is just an interesting screen presence to watch.

To her credit, Labrune deftly handles her cast, guiding them through some provocative scenes with their dignity intact. However, her story often lacks focus, at one point taking a detour into a sequence that could have been lifted straight out of Eyes Wide Shut, which ultimately leads nowhere and signifies nothing. A fine acting showcase that is definitely mature but not nearly as explicit as one might expect, Treatment is mostly recommended for dedicated Francophiles and Huppert fans when it opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Brit Noir: Brighton Rock

Catholicism is not the villain in Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, per se, but it holds a rather ambiguous if significant place in the overall scheme of things. Like Greene, the somewhat reluctant convert, small time hoodlum Pinkie Brown is also a professed Roman Catholic, but there is no mistaking his sociopathic behavior. Yet, somehow an innocent working girl does exactly that in Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock (trailer here), the latest adaption of Greene’s noir morality tale, which opens this Friday in New York.

It is the mid-1960’s rather than the 1930’s of the novel and classic John Boulting film, but the characters’ prospects have not changed. Brown is a thug. Rose is a waitress. They both work on the bottom end of the food chain in the seaside resort town of Brighton (known for the titular rock candy). In no way is Rose his type, but circumstances force him to seduce her, at least temporarily. She happened to be on break when Brown’s accomplices were about to settle a score with a rival gangster and one of the tourist-preying photographers captured the moment on film. Rose was given the claim check, not that it meant anything to her. Of course, Brown’s gang will stop at nothing to get it, so Brown is sent in to employ his highly questionable charm on his fellow Catholic.

Rose’s boss Ida Arnold immediately sees through Brown. Though a respectable woman, she has some understanding of the way the world works. In fact, she was a friend of the man Brown’s gang murdered. Unfortunately, the love-struck young woman remains deaf to her warnings.

As crime drama, Brighton is a handsome diversion, but nothing classic. However, it is a joy to watch Dame Helen Mirren and John Hurt bicker, banter, and flirt as Arnold and her sort-of-not-really platonic gentleman friend Phil Corkery. They both invest their characters with charm and intelligence, developing genuine chemistry together.

Of course that spark is completely lacking (by design) for Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough, as Brown and Rose, respectively. Yet, Riley never really works in the role, failing to convey the proper sense of malevolence as Brown, considered one of the most iconic heavies in British cinema and literature. As a consolation though, Andy Serkis chews the scenery with appropriate relish as Colleoni, Brighton’s local kingpin, proving he can make a substantial impression even when not buried under layers of prosthetics and CGI effects.

Based on their turns in Brighton, someone should cast Mirren and Hurt as Nick and Nora Charles-like sleuths investigating Andy Serkis as their primary antagonist. This is not that movie, but it has its moments. Regardless, it all looks great, thanks to the moody noir visual style and rich period details crafted by cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer James Merifield’s team. There is no question it is the old pros who save Brighton, but that is what old pros do. Recommended on balance, Brighton opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Tales from the Golden Age: Collectively Laughing at Communism

The oppressive Ceausescu regime tightly controlled the flow of information in Romania. Yet somehow, stories of official corruption and incompetence secretly spread like wildfire, perhaps even getting embellished here and there, as good anecdotes often are. Cristian Mungiu and his four credited co-directors collect six iconic urban legends of life during the Ceausescu era in their inspired anthology film, Tales from the Golden Age (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

The Communist propaganda machine constantly insisted Romanians were living in a “Golden Age.” Since they were literally starving, average citizens were far from convinced. In fact, the so-called journalists at the state-controlled Scinteia newspaper are among those taking their lumps as part of Tales’ sardonic nostalgia. In The Legend of the Party Photographer a front page story on French President Giscard d’Estaing’s state visit causes no end of trouble for the staff. For whatever reason, Ceausescu took his hat off during the official reception, but d’Estaing did not. To the panicked propagandists, this implies socialism showing improper deference to capitalism—something the workers cannot be allowed to see.

Indeed, petty absurdity runs rampant throughout Tales. Sometimes it explicitly skewers the apparatchiks of old, as in the opening episode, The Legend of the Official Visit. Sort of an Orwellian rewrite of The Inspector General, it depicts the arbitrary and often contradictory demands placed on a provincial village ahead of an impending motorcade drive-by. Of course, as legend has it, things did not go according to plan.

Other episodes are more circumspect in their criticism of the previous regime, but the prominent role played by foodstuffs speaks directly to the acute shortages experienced under the glorious years of socialism. It is eggs that preoccupy the characters of The Legend of the Chicken Driver, a not-so fond ode to a time when clerks and deliverymen often illicitly exploited their access to food. Likewise, the title character demonstrates the absolute worst method to kill an ill-gotten hog in The Legend of the Greedy Policeman.

Perhaps the strangest and subtlest of the bunch would be The Legend of the Air Sellers, in which two students scam recyclable bottles by pretending to be government water inspectors in need of samples. While it depicts a certain enterprising spirit on the part of young Crina and Bughi, Tales clearly implies deference authority and crummy water quality were hallmarks the “Golden Age.” In contrast, arguably the weakest story of the anthology film would be The Legend of the Zealous Activist. Dispatched to fight the illiteracy that officially did not exist, it portrays the party hack as an object of ridicule rather than a venal villain.

Though the overall concept is attributed to Mungiu, the director of the searing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, he and his co-writer-directors, Iona Maria Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, and Constantin Popescu have been deliberately cagey about just who did what, story by story, ironically making Tales a collective critique of the Communist era. While many are associated with the so-called Romanian New Wave, the format of Tales precludes any of the excesses sometimes associated with the movement. They are not really jokes per se, but every story has a set-up and punch line that must be reached in a timely manner.

Likely revisiting all-too familiar real life roles, the ensemble cast of Tales is quite strong, keeping their characters grounded in reality rather playing up their quirkiness or relying on urban mythos archetypes. Vlad Ivanov (an alumnus of 4 Months and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective) is a real standout though as Grigore, the Chicken Driver who gets in over his head.

Tales has to be the best concept for a movie anthology since who knows what? As is to be expected, Tales is somewhat uneven, but the mood is far more consistent than most episodic films. Regardless of whoever did whatever, the execution is quite sharp throughout. A clever, decidedly unromanticized look back at the Ceausescu years, Tales is far more instructive and entertaining than Andrei Ujică’s ill-conceived and punishing Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, which will soon make its way to American theaters. Highly recommended, Tales opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Circumstance: Islamist Homophobia in Iran

Trading one addiction for another is a peril of rehab. This seems to have happened with Atafeh Hakimi’s brother. Drug-free but now a virulent Islamist, Meyran Hakimi’s return destabilizes his affluent formerly secular Iranian family in Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

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

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

While the Sundance press kit descriptions of the Iranian-born, American-educated Keshavarz’s previous works sound like a somewhat mixed ideological bag, Circumstance is a legitimately bold, unequivocal critique of the institutionalized mistreatment of both women and homosexual Iranians living under fundamentalist misrule. Indeed, the film leaves no question regarding the nature and extent of the risk represented Hakimi and Arshadi’s relationship.

At times, Keshavarz also captures the absurd situations fostered by the Iranian system, as when the two young women help their gay Iranian-American friend Hossein dub Sex in the City into Farsi to hook people into watching Gus Van Zandt’s Milk strategically placed on the same bootleg disk. However, the extent to which the mullahs have evidently co-opted the supposedly atheistic Che Guevara as a symbol of their revolution is hardly surprising. After all, Che shared their zealous commitment to statism through terror.

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

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

Though Circumstance is somewhat frank depicting the women’s romantic dealings, it is not meant as titillation. Indeed, it is a revealing look at life lived under oppressive conditions. A real standout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it is an important film that demands serious attention. Highly recommended, Circumstance opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Robert Ryan at Film Forum: House of Bamboo

Post-war Japan was a place an outfit could make good money if they were ruthless enough. A gang of dishonorably discharged Americans are such men, led by Sandy Dawson, the hardest of the hardboiled. Dawson is so tough he had to be played by rugged character actor Robert Ryan in a Sam Fuller film noir. Yet, Fuller’s House of Bamboo (trailer here) was actually shot in color CinemaScope on location in Japan. A classic gangster beat-down of considerable interest to fans of Japanese cinema as well, Bamboo kicks off a special one week-run with a new 35m CinemaScope print this Friday, as the culmination of Film Forum’s Robert Ryan retrospective.

Eddie Spanier has bad luck. He arrived in Tokyo hoping to hook up with his old war buddy’s gang. Unfortunately, his fellow Army washout was shot in a heist-gone-bad days before his ship docked. Spanier quickly learns his pal’s widow Mariko knew nothing of her secret husband’s criminal enterprises, but his own thuggish ways are enough to bring him to the attention of Dawson’s gang.

Since they happen to have an opening, Spanier soon insinuates himself into the expat gangster life. However, Spanier is not really Spanier. He is a military cop named Kenner in deep cover, a secret known only to his handler and Mariko, who agrees to help by assuming the role of his “kimono” (an obvious euphemism for a relationship 1950’s Hollywood would need a euphemism for).

Bamboo’s cast looks like a Fuller dream team of the squarest jaws Hollywood had to offer, including Ryan of course, Robert Stack as Spanier/Kenner, as well as Cameron Mitchell and DeForest “Bones” Kelley as henchmen. Really, only John Ireland seems to be missing, but he always had bad luck.

Perhaps even more notable (except during a Robert Ryan retrospective) is the achingly vulnerable performance of Shirley Yamaguchi (otherwise known as Yoshiko Ōtaka) as Mariko. With a controversial wartime career in China, credits in films by Kurosawa and Fuller, and eventual election to the upper house of Japan’s parliament, Yamaguchi’s eventful life inspired Ian Buruma’s novel The China Lover. She inspires a whole lot more in Bamboo.

Frankly, Bamboo’s plot is riddled with holes and the characters’ machismo sometimes approaches misogyny (I mentioned this was a Sam Fuller movie right?). Yet, scene after scene are individual gems noir grit. Indeed, in a literal sense, Bamboo was arguably Fuller’s biggest picture, culminating on a merry-go-round atop a high-rise department store with panoramic views of the city.

Watching two craggy hardnoses like Ryan and Stack go toe-to-toe is definitely entertaining. The added appeal of real acting from the beautiful and fascinating Yamaguchi makes Bamboo quite a package. Seeing it in Scope on the big screen will be a treat, highly recommended when Bamboo opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at Film Forum.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

John Carpenter’s The Ward

To be young and crazy in the 1960’s only meant one thing. Prepare yourself for some generous helpings of electro-shock treatment. Unfortunately, the beautiful and institutionalized Kristen has even greater problems in John Carpenter’s The Ward (trailer here), which is now available on DVD.

After burning down a remote farmhouse while mysteriously decked out in her night-gown, Kristen is delivered into the care of Dr. Stringer. He does not seem like a bad fellow, but his nurse is evidently still out of sorts from all the trouble she had with that McMurphy character. Yet, despite their aggressive battery of pharmaceuticals, Kristen is often left unattended with the other four young women in her ward.

Iris, an artist, is initially the most welcoming of the group. Emily is the assertive one, often assuming the role of protector for Zoey, who seems to suffer from an acute case of arrested development. Conversely, Sarah, the catty sexpot, specializes in generating bad vibes. It would all be like a CW show in an insane asylum, except that the spirit of a former patient is apparently trying to kill them all.

Just about every horror movie fan wants the new John Carpenter film to be a triumphant return to form. As a result, there is a temptation to forgive a lot in The Ward. Truthfully though, it is just a serviceable genre picture, at best, that relies far too heavily on scares derived from stuff sneaking up behind character and going boo, rather than genuinely tapping into the fear of the unknown. Even the spooky old nut house is not all that memorable, particularly when compared to that of the Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters.

To its credit, the cast is fairly game. Though not a scream queen in the Carpenter-Jaime Lee Curtis tradition, Amber Heard is quite credible as the take-charge Kristen, which is essential given where the film is headed. Jared Harris is not exactly Peter Cushing either, but he is still pretty good as Dr. Stringer, projecting an ethically ambiguous erudition appropriate to the genre.

Though it is reasonably well executed, the big twist might frustrate genre fans as well, because we have seen it before in films of relatively recent vintage. (Here’s a hint: in one such movie Alfred Molina played the head-shrinker.) However, the biggest disappointment of The Ward is the absence of that unquantifiable but instantly recognizable eerie atmosphere that permeates the classic Carpenter canon. Judged on its own merits, The Ward is a mediocre to sort-of okay b-movie, with some featured performances arguably exceeding the industry standard. Yet compared to They Live, The Thing, the original Halloween, and even Prince of Darkness, it is rather watery beer, but fans can still check it on DVD, now available from Arc Entertainment.

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Voices of Estonia: The Singing Revolution

Imagine thirty-thousand Estonians all singing in harmony. It may sound like a colossal Coca-Cola commercial, but for the Soviets it proved to be a nightmare. The word “inspirational” now sounds trite from overuse, but it truly applies to The Singing Revolution (trailer here), principle producer-directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty’s documentary account of Estonia’s uniquely musical struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, which airs tomorrow on PBS in New York.

One of the many revelations of Singing is the extent of the Estonian resistance to their Soviet occupiers, most notably from the “Forest Brothers” partisans, last of whom were finally captured in 1978. However, the Estonian singing traditions ultimately proved more galvanizing in the ongoing resistance to the Soviets than armed insurrection. Central to this story is the quinquennial Laulupidu Song Festival, which had repeatedly been the scene of mass defiance to the illegitimate Soviet Rule.

For instance, the Party tried to coop the 1947 Song Festival as a celebration of Stalin’s regime, but an Estonian composer slipped past the censors a song based on the patriotic Estonian poem “Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love,” immediately establishing it as the underground national hymn. The 1969 festival was again the scene of national self-assertion, as tens of thousands of Estonians spontaneously broke into their forbidden anthem. Indeed, these song festivals proved to be the model for mass demonstrations against their Soviet oppressors during the waning days of Glasnost, defining the Estonian democracy movement.

Throughout Singing, the filmmakers make the history of Soviet oppression crystal clear throughout eye-witness testimony. It vividly describes the 1939 Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation under terms of the Molotov-Rippentrop (so-called Hitler-Stalin) Pact, which divided Eastern Europe between the two dictators, resulting in mass executions and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Estonians to Siberia.

Still, Singing takes pains to be fair to every party involved in the Singing Revolution. Even Vaino Väljas, the final Estonian Party Secretary appointed by Moscow, is given credit for gracefully accepting the will of the people. Other Estonian Communists, particularly ethnic Russians, were not so civilized, but amazingly, the Singing Revolution would be entirely bloodless.

Singing is a very well put together film, featuring several musical selections shrewdly chosen for both illustrative and dramatic effect. The Tustys collected some amazing archival footage and conducted many insightful interviews. Wisely, they completely eschewed the usual talking head academics, in favor of the people who really lived the story. Linda Hunt’s narration is also quite clear and authoritative, yet also rather warm and sensitive.

More than just a lesson in history and politics, Singing is about courage, both on the individual and national level. It is about the two lone police officers charged with protecting the country’s only radio transmitter tower from the invading Soviet army. It is also about hundreds of thousands of Estonians who took to the streets to protest the Soviets and to protect their Estonian government from rioting Communists counter-revolutionaries.

The stories of Singing are truly moving, especially when accompanied by the stirring large scale chorale music of Laulupidu. These events should be common knowledge, yet the recent history of the Estonian Singing Revolution, the Czech Velvet Revolution, and other such courageous movements seeking freedom from Communist rule, are being ignored, forgotten or otherwise discounted by the ADHD media.

Singing is an excellent antidote. It should be seen by every student in America, as it speaks directly about what it means to be a citizen and to live in a free society. Happily, Singing has been airing on PBS affiliates across the country this month (in a cut somewhat abbreviated from the excellent theatrical release, but still very good nonetheless), including New York’s Channel Thirteen, which will broadcast it tomorrow afternoon (8/20) at 3:00 PM.

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Sayles’ Amigo

During the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops in Cuba got all the glory (remember San Juan Hill?). By contrast, those who served during the Philippine-American War got monsoons, dysentery, and the clap. For indie filmmaker John Sayles, it also represents Viet Nam, Iraq, and everything else he does not like about America to judge from his clumsily didactic Amigo (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Rafael Dacanay, the mayor of a remote Filipino village, assures the relatively sympathetic American Lieutenant Compton he is an “Amigo,” or ‘friendly” to use terminology of slightly more recent vintage. As a reasonable chap, Compton allows him to continue on as “head man,” but he frees the dastardly Spanish priest Dacanay had imprisoned (hadn’t we just been fighting the Spanish?). Of course, it is not long before Dacanay has taken his place in solitary, thanks to some stupid misunderstandings on the part of the Americans and the villainous machinations of Padre Hidalgo.

Compton legitimately wants to win the “hearts and minds” of the villagers (yes, he really uses that expression), but his neo-conservative commanding officer Col. Hardacre (yes, that really is his name) is having none of that mushiness. He is convinced the locals have information on the guerillas and Compton is to squeeze them until they talk.

What happened during the shooting on the island of Bohol? The resulting Amigo is not just a bad movie. It is a depressing experience to watch something like this from the director of great films like Lone Star and The Secret of Roan Inish. Despite the presence of several accomplished Filipino actors, like Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro (both excellent in the arty horror movie Yanggaw), the film never rises above the level of crude political street theater.

Perhaps most embarrassing is the normally reliable Sayles-regular Chris Cooper as the grizzled Col. Hardacre. Frankly, he looks and sounds like a pirate. Rather than threatening Dacanay with hanging, the audience will expect him to make the Mayor walk the plank. These are not characters, they are stock stereotypes. Evidently, only Garrett Dillahunt was allowed to approach his character, Lt. Compton, with any nuance. It was certainly welcome though.

Those who hate America, the military, and Catholicism will probably feel compelled to pretend Amigo is a good film. It isn’t. Granted, Sayles productions are always extremely indie affairs, but even the sets here look phony. The rest of us should hope Sayles got this ideological hiccup completely out of his system and can move on to deeper, more rewarding projects. Completely skippable, Amigo opens today (8/19) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ballad of the Sad Trumpet: The Last Circus

Two things remain constant in life: clowns are creepy and General Francisco Franco is still dead. If you have anything nice to say about the latter, keep it to yourself if you happen to be in Spain, lest you fall afoul of the current government’s Memoria Histórica Law. Completely legal and wildly strange, Álex de la Iglesia’s ideologically charged The Last Circus (a.k.a. A Sad Trumpet Ballad, trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Javier always wanted to be a “happy clown” like his father, but life has made him a “sad clown” instead. During the civil war, the Loyalists forcibly impressed his father into their ranks in the midst of a children’s matinee, in full make-up, for what they knew would be a hopeless last stand. Captured, his father’s fate is decided by the sinister Col. Salcedo, whom Javier will encounter again decades later.

Essentially, Javier is a divided personality. Part of him seethes for vengeance, while the other half yearns to hear the cheers of the circus. Unfortunately, destiny made him a sad clown, the butt of other clowns’ jokes, rather than the merry jester. When he signs onto Sergio’s rag-tag company, he will only get sadder. It is not just the routines that are sadistic. The happy clown also terrorizes his company outside the ring, particularly his lover Natalia, the trapeze artist. Javier is also quite taken with her, which means trouble.

As the already traumatized Sergio becomes increasingly agitated, the historical mixes with the fictional, producing one dark but potent cocktail. Forget subtlety. That has no place in a film that climaxes at Spain’s controversial Valley of the Fallen monument, like a sinister, slightly sacrilegious North by Northwest. Viewers should understand full well there is some very disturbing imagery in Circus, but it serves a specific purpose and, more often than not, it is quite inventively conceived and rendered.

As the whipping boy of Sergio, Franco’s militarists, and Iglesias, Carlos Areces is a pretty compelling sad clown. While his crack-up is outrageously over-the-top, he keeps viewers invested in the madness, suggesting there really was a “there” in there at one point. Conversely, there is not a lot of nuance to Antonio de la Torre’s Sergio, but gee whiz, he is scary.

Granted, it defies easy categorization, but Circus is definitely a well-crafted film. Down the stretch, cinematographer Kiko de la Riko and production designer Eduardo Hidalgo’s team make The Dark Knight look like The Smurfs. Yet, perhaps the film’s shrewdest strategy is the use of Spanish balladeer Raphael’s “Balada de la Trompeta” as a recurring motif, perfectly setting the eerily mournful mood. It is a tune musicians ought to consider covering, because it really insinuates itself into your head.

Do not bring the kids to this Circus. It is a decidedly macabre and subversive affair with an idiosyncratic style all its own. However, adventurous viewers will be impressed by Iglesias’s command of all the lunacy exploding on-screen. It is so crazy, even the sledgehammer politics are lost in the shuffle, but that is a good thing. Recommended for those who like a strong dose of weird in their cinema (who will dig it like a gold rush), Circus opens tomorrow (8/19) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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