J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Ken Burns Goes Original Gangster: Prohibition

They thought if Prohibition could make it here in New York, it could make it anywhere. Well, it didn’t. The combination of some of the hottest night life, wettest politicians, a large immigrant population, and close proximity to the Canadian border and Long Island Sound made enforcement more or less impossible. Ken Burns and his filmmaking partner Lynn Novick bring their flair for assembling archival material to bear on America’s misadventure with temperance in Prohibition (promo here), which airs three consecutive nights on PBS, beginning this coming Sunday.

Perhaps the best installment of Prohibition is the first, A Nation of Drunkards, in which a number of preconceptions about the prohibition movement are challenged. In the years leading up to the 19th Amendment, consumption of hard liquor was far greater in America than it is now. Evidently, public drunkenness was a genuine social problem that attracted the notice of the reform movement. Indeed, more than a religious phenomenon, prohibition was initially aligned with progressives and the suffragette women’s movement.

Perhaps most tragically, “dry” activists provided decisive support for the 16th Amendment establishing the federal income tax. Until then, the U.S. government had been overwhelmingly dependent on liquor taxes to fund its operations. Unfortunately, it would not be repealed by the 21st Amendment, along with the notorious 19th it helped bring about.

Burns and Novick’s Prohibition is also quite adept at capturing the colorful character of several notorious bootleggers, who sprang up in the tradition of old western gun-slingers. Though Al Capone got the most ink (which was always how he wanted it), the example of former Seattle copper turned gangster Roy Olmstead might arguably be more significant. Eventually taken down through wiretaps, his case launched a branch of Constitutional law still debated to this day.

Unfortunately, the talking head segments are a tad weak this time around for Burns and Novick. Should you have a drink every time the audience is told we cannot legislate morality, you would be very wet indeed. Presumably, this means they also advocate repealing every morally motivated reform from the Progressive Era, perhaps starting with child labor laws.

Commentators who suggest there are often unintended consequences to government regulation are rather more on target. Yet, there do seem to be concrete lessons to be learned from the Dry interregnum that Prohibition the film prefers not to belabor. For instance, we learn the brewers tried to throw the distillers under the bus rather stand united against the increasingly militant temperance movement. For their efforts, they got the absolutist Volstead Act, putting everyone out of business, at least temporarily.

Once again, Wynton Marsalis provides an original era-appropriate jazz score that evokes the free-wheeling spirit of the speakeasy milieu. However, the rich voice of Keith David, the narrator of Jazz and Unforgivable Blackness, is definitely missed in Prohibition. Frankly, lead narrator Peter Coyote sounds rather dry (so to speak), by comparison.

Combining striking images, good history, entertaining music, and so-so social commentary, Prohibition is PBS’s marquee event of the season. A finely crafted production, it is definitely well worth watching (though perhaps with a bit of Tivo fast-forwarding). It airs back-to-back-to-back this Sunday through Tuesday (10/2-10/4) on just about every PBS outlet nationwide.

(Photo ©Scherl/Sueddeutsche Zeitung/The Image Works)

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NYFF ’11: Carnage

For obvious reasons, Roman Polanski did not appear at a festival press conference, nor will he be participating in post-screening Q&A’s. However, Carnage (trailer here), the 49th New York Film Festival’s opening night film, is still one of the most eagerly anticipated selections for New York cineastes, who have been packing to capacity the recently concluded Polanski retrospective at the MoMA. A nearly instant sell-out, patrons will have to decide whether they want to try their luck with stand-by tickets tonight, or wait for the film’s scheduled theatrical opening on December 16th, via Sony Pictures Classics.

Penelope and Michael Longstreet are liberals, or at least she is. Alan and Nancy Cowan are conservative, or at least he is. There is no question who wears the pants in each family, but that does not mean Michael and Nancy do not resent their subordinate positions. They have gathered in the Longstreets’ remarkably spacious and stylish Manhattan apartment to address a violent quarrel between their young sons. The Cowan boy (or thug as his father calls him) picked up a handy stick and knocked Master Longstreet alongside the head.

Both sets of parents want to resolve the incident, but clearly differ in their approaches. The Longstreets, meaning Penelope, want to bring the kids together for a healing moment, whereas the Cowans (both of them really) are more down-to-business and practical. At first, everyone wants to show how civilized and rational they can be, but the longer the Cowan’s reluctantly tarry in that apartment, the more nerves are frayed and simmering hostilities are bluntly expressed.

Cleaving first along family lines and then turning on each other, Carnage spares nobody. Yet arguably the PC hypocrisy of the Longstreets takes it harder on the chin than Alan Cowan’s self aware social Darwinism. Indeed, the whole premise of the film largely validates his world view.

Adapting Yasmina Reza’s hit Broadway play God of Carnage for the screen, Polanski embraces the staginess of the one-set four character verbal battle royale. Indeed, it is easy to see why it was such a successful star vehicle on stage. All four cast members get a chance to behave badly in the spotlight and chew on some scathing dialogue. Once again, Christopher Waltz does Oscar caliber work as Cowan, making condescending arrogance enormously entertaining. Since John C. Reilly still does not have his own little gold statue though, he might be the focus of the film’s Academy campaign, even though it is the least showy performance. As for their better halves, Jodie Foster loses her cool outrageously as Penelope-not-Pen, while Kate Winslet is a bit more grounded, slowly breaking through Nancy Cowan’s icy reserve, eventually reaching a virtuoso state of manic aggravation.

In many ways, Polanski is undeniably an appalling human being. In a more just world, he would be sharing a cell with O.J. Simpson in California’s skuzziest prison. Those who want nothing to do with his films have every right to their contempt. However, they will miss a really darn funny film in Carnage. Though smaller in scope and talkier than most of his films, it is pointedly witty, performed with considerable flair by its all-star cast. There are four sold-out screenings tonight, divided between the Walter Reade and Alice Tully Hall. Good luck getting in.

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Loznitsa’s My Joy

Like anyplace, Russia has its share of urban legends, but theirs seem to carry the oppressive weight of the country’s tragic history. At least, such seems to be the case with the stories that inspired documentarian Sergei Loznitsa’s narrative feature debut, My Joy (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Having spent considerable time on the road, truck driver Georgy is no babe in the woods. He is hardly shocked by the venal cops who hassle him or the teenaged (if that) prostitute hustling business when a major accident closes the highway. Still, he tries to help her, but like contemporary Russia, she will have none of it. However, his trip goes seriously awry when he tries to take a detour around the backed-up traffic.

Though not overtly supernatural, the fateful back road takes the driver into a very malevolent place, somewhat in the spirit of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Like a horror film written by Beckett, Georgy is sucked into an absurdist village, where predatory behavior is the norm. Time becomes indeterminate in this twilight world, with the tragic past echoing strongly in the corrupt present day.

This is particularly true of an old hitchhiker’s story, easily the film’s strongest mini-arc. According to the mysterious stranger, he had been a heroic Lieutenant during WWII, but when a crooked local Commander robbed and humiliated him, his response permanently relegated the man to the nameless margins of Russian society. One of many discursive interludes, the Lieutenant’s flashback is rather bold because it directly challenges the great patriotic mythos built around the Soviet war years, as do the mutterings of a quite possibly mad veteran, apparently boasting of a Katyn Forest style massacre, heard later in the film.

Loznitsa presents a vision of a country sick in psyche, where those who have served it best are victimized the worst. He does not exactly tell this story in a straight line, bouncing off characters and subplots like a pinball. Frankly, Joy can be a little tricky to follow, but the heavy parts are hard to miss.

Though a Russian narrative, Joy was filmed in Ukraine working with a Romanian cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, who lensed acclaimed films like Tales From the Golden Age and 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days. He vividly conveys a sense of the harshness of a Russian winter and the dreariness of Georgy’s village with no exit.

As befits the material, Loznitsa’s cast is appropriately dour and weathered looking. If not exactly charismatic, Viktor Nemets is rather scarily effective as the protagonist, losing all sense of persona in the madness enveloping him. Again, perhaps the strongest turn comes from Alexey Vertkov, who is viscerally intense as the Lieutenant whose story might be “fake but true” as the old media likes to say.

With its sometimes murky connections and several subplots that sputter out as soon as they are introduced, Joy is undeniably messy. Yet, things tie together in intriguing ways, perhaps requiring repeated viewing to fully pick up on. It also holds an unflattering mirror up to Mother Russia, both present and past. Indeed, when it works, it is viscerally powerful stuff. Recommended for those well versed in the thematically and stylistically similar films of the Romanian New Wave, Joy opens today (9/30) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

NYFF ’11: Miss Bala

Drug cartels are worse than the most controlling stage mothers. One long-shot Mexican beauty pageant contestant learns this the hard way when an embattled kingpin champions her cause in Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala (trailer here), which screens this weekend at the 49th New York Film Festival.

There are few opportunities for young people in the city of Baja, even if they are attractive like Laura Guerrero and her friend “Suzu.” That is why they want to take a shot at the upcoming Miss Baja California contest. Looking to pull a few strings with the judges, Suzu drags Guerrero to a sketchy club to party with some crooked DEA agents she knows. Unfortunately, Lino Valdez and his crew arrive to make a bloody statement. Though Guerrero escapes with her life, Valdez comes looking for her when she starts asking questions about Suzu.

Rather than killing her, Valdez decides to take Guerrero for himself, using her as a mule and clearly signaling what other services she will be expected to perform. He also puts in the fix with the Miss Baja contest, while engaging in open warfare with the police.

Bala (as in bullet) is the sort of film that viewers would need a clicker to keep track of the body count. Yet, Naranjo shows very little violence directly on-screen. Instead, it mostly plays out just beyond Guerrero’s POV, as she cowers under beds and in dark corners, listening to the barrage of gunshots and blood curdling shrieks. Still, there is never any question as to the horrific nature of the carnage unfolding around her.

As in many contemporary Mexican films, it is not worth bothering to distinguish the police and government officials from the gangsters like Valdez. It also portrays the local media in rather cynical terms, while depicting U.S. border security as what might charitably be termed porous. In short, it is a work of unremitting realism, but Guerrero’s inspired-by-a-true-story misadventure gives the film the feeling of an urban legend.

As Guerrero, Stephanie Sigman (who has been doing media to promote Bala at NYFF) is on course for international stardom. Watching her sinking deeper into the moral anarchy of Baja is absolutely exhausting, but completely riveting. Noe Hernandez is also pretty scarily convincing as Valdez, projecting all kinds of menace, but romanticizing nothing about his thuggish existence. Though little more than a cameo, American actor James Russo (the ill-fated Mikey Tandino in Beverly Hills Cop) also makes a strong impression as Jimmy, Valdez’s DEA agent on the take.

Bala is an intense film, but not really a thriller per se. Nor is it an effective PR film for the Baja Chamber of Commerce, yet it has been selected as Mexico’s official submission for the best foreign language Academy Award. Rather, it is a bold, gritty look at the narcoterrorism enveloping Mexico and periodically spilling across our border. Recommended for those who take their cinema black, without a chaser, Bala screens this Saturday (10/2) and Sunday (10/3) at Alice Tully Hall, as a Main Slate selection of the 2011 New York Film Festival.

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Dark Sin City of the Future: Bunraku

In the future, gangsters will respect the global gun ban, despite their willingness to murder, maim, white slave, and cheat at cards. This might seem to contradict the experience of thousands of years of human history, but it is really just an excuse to combine swords and cars in Guy Moshe’s Bunraku (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Our Easternized cyberpunky story takes place in a post-apocalypse not-Japan, where Eastern Europeans rule the underworld, and everything else by extension. Nicola the Woodcutter is the shadowy #1, who only leaves his hideout for his weekly poker game and the occasional meal at his favorite sushi restaurant. A nameless drifter wants in on that game. He seems to have a score to settle with the kingpin, but he lacks the funds to buy in.

Another mysterious stranger also wandered into town with a purpose. A master of a Zen-focused martial arts discipline, Yoshi has been charged with recovering his family’s heirloom medallion from Nicola. He happens to be traveling with a considerable roll. Yoshi and the Drifter ought to join forces, but perhaps they should first beat the snot out of each other for the sake of appearances.

Bunraku is one of the most frustrating action films of the year. Technically, it is consistently inventive, incorporating some hyper stylized animation inspired by the titular traditional form of Japanese puppetry. It also boasts some wickedly sardonic narration (by Mike Patton) and a funky score penned by jazz musician and film composer Terence Blanchard, who also added a brief but tasty trumpet solo to the opening sequence. It mashes up the imagery of retro-action and cyber-punk films quite effectively and features some very funny fight sequences clearly modeled after video games.

As an action protagonist though, Josh Hartnett simply does not have it. His Drifter is lethargic rather than quietly intense and that mustache just looks ridiculous on him. Japanese pop-star Gackt is not bad as Yoshi, but it is rather insulting to watch his character struggle to scratch out a draw against the Drifter. You probably already guessed Ron Perlman plays Nicola. It is his usual shtick, but it still works within the context of a self-aware B-movie. Arguably Woody Harrelson best acquits himself as The Bartender with no name, who guides Yoshi and the Drifter into an alliance, while seeming to be above it all in an amused kind of way.

Fifteen years ago or so, it would be hard to believe Harrelson and his Indecent Proposal co-star Demi Moore could reunite in a film with relatively little fanfare, but here it is. Echoes of that previous film can even be read into their characters’ relationship here. Moore is not bad either, but playing Nicola’s kept woman (to put it euphemistically) cannot be the most rewarding of gigs.

Yet, probably most distracting is Bunraku’s highly problematic use of Communist iconography and terminology. Eventually, the boys align themselves with the “Freedom” army of the “Proletariat,” who train under vaguely Cyrillic red letters decked out in Mao caps. Tragically though, the Red Cadres whom they evoke had nothing to do with freedom whatsoever, prosecuting the reign of terror known as the Cultural Revolution with wanton disregard for human life and dignity. Such sloppy symbolism in Bunraku is frankly rather shameful.

It is hard to think of a film so inspired in many respects that also got so much so far wrong. Credit cannot go to one man alone, it was a team effort. Though often cool looking, those hoping for a martial arts fix should wait for a future release from China Lion or Well-Go/Variance Film. Not recommended, Bunraku opens this Friday (9/30) in New York at the AMC Empire

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NYFF ’11: Melancholia

It is the end of the world or the end of Lars von Trier’s career. Whichever it is, it will finish with a bang. After this year’s Cannes, Melancholia is probably carrying more baggage as well as more laurels than a porter in the Roman Senate. Yet, it is worth considering von Trier’s Melancholia (trailer here) separate and apart from extraneous controversies when it screens during the 49th New York Film Festival.

Frankly, Justine would probably welcome the apocalypse on her wedding day. Hours late to her own reception, family tensions are already boiling over. Her hotelier brother-in-law John resents footing the bill for the lavish shindig when she does not even appear to take it seriously. Her very divorced parents are eager to start clawing at each other again, while her crude boss chooses the ostensibly happy occasion to play a weird round of mind games with his newly promoted employee. Claire, her slightly less highly strung sister, tries to hold the night together, but chaos is inevitable.

As Melancholia’s second part opens, Justine is now a basket case, having driven the adoring Michael away. Through Claire’s insistence, she is staying her sister’s family, acting weird and getting on John’s nerves. In addition to her family drama, Claire is increasingly anxious over doomsday scenarios regarding Melancholia, a hitherto unknown planet projected to cross quite close to the Earth. As an amateur astronomer, John assures her she should not pay attention to such media claptrap, but it is clear viewers should give her concerns credence.

Melancholia has been dubbed Another Earth’s evil doppelganger. To an extent, this is a valid analogy, particularly in the manner both films use science fiction concepts in what are otherwise very personal and intense human dramas. Yet, the comparatively free-wheeling first half of Melancholia feels more closely akin to fellow Dogma 95 filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. Indeed, it is a joy (though perhaps a slightly sadistic one) to watch Melancholia’s top shelf cast tear into each other.

The Best Actress winner at Cannes, Kristin Dunst really is quite unsettling as Justine. The term hot mess could have been coined with her in mind, yet she is never excessively showy in the role. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland might sound like the most unlikely of couples, but they are quite convincing together as Claire and John (though at times we would not mind watching him open up a can of Jack Bauer on sundry family members).

Not surprisingly, the old pros Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt nearly upstage everyone as the bickering exes, luxuriating in their tart sarcastic zingers. They also look perfectly cast as Gainsbourg’s parents (though maybe not so much for Dunst). Yet, the biggest laughs (and they are considerable) come from von Trier regular Udo Kier as the snippy wedding planner.

In the moodier, more impressionistic second part, Gainsbourg and Sutherland largely shoulder the dramatic burden, which they handle quite adroitly. In fact, Sutherland’s nuanced work might be the biggest surprise of the film. The notorious von Trier also stages the end of the world quite inventively, employing a simple but cinematic device to depict the rogue planet’s advancing approach.

Though accessible for general audiences, Melancholia is not the sort of film one can give a pat nutshell response to. Rather, it is the sort of film one studies and revisits over a period of years. A fascinating example of big picture movie-making on an intimate scale, Melancholia is the cineaste event-film of the year. Highly recommended, it screens this coming Monday (10/3) and Thursday (10/6) at Alice Tully Hall as a Main Slate selection of the 2011 New York Film Festival.

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NYFF ’11: Le Havre

As the home of smugglers and cutthroats, ports are always the perfect setting for hardboiled crime drama. However, not Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre. It is nothing like the French film noir of Henri-Georges Clouzot, perhaps because Kaurismäki is Finnish. Instead, the marginalized roughnecks inhabit a quietly whimsical and deeply humanistic community in Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (trailer here), which screens during the 49th New York Film Festival.

Marcel Marx works the streets as a shoe-shiner in the tradition of Jacques Tati. He never had much money nor any worries before his beloved wife Arletty is hospitalized. Shielded from her fatal prognosis, he is at loose ends puttering about the waterfront, until he chances across Idrissa, a young illegal African immigrant hoping to be reunited with his parents in England.

Initially, he merely leaves some food for the boy. Then he opens his home to the sad-eyed Idrissa. Before long, Marx (hmm, heavy name, that) and his salt of the earth comrades are working in concert to help their furtive guest elude Monet, the dour flatfoot.

Granted, a thumbnail description of Le Havre probably sounds unappetizingly didactic. However, Kaurismäki astutely employs a light touch with the material, emphasizing the inherent innocence and charm of Marx and Idrissa. Unlike far too many filmmakers, he seems to understand the old adage about catching more flies with honey. He also recognizes and capitalizes on the considerable charisma of his proletarian leads.

The twinkle in André Wilms’ eyes could light up a city block, yet he still invests Marx with a wonderful sense of dignity and a genuine élan. In contrast, Jean-Pierre Darroussin is his near total inverse as Monet, projecting an exquisitely French fatalism. As a bonus, cinematic Francophiles should keep their eyes peeled for Truffaut and Godard regular Jean-Pierre Léaud in a brief but fittingly idiosyncratic cameo.

Yet, it is the look and feel of the city itself that will dominate viewers’ impressions of the film. Cinematographer Timo Salminen gives Le Havre a warm glow that is inviting and nostalgic, while the back alleys rendered by Wouter Zoon’s design team look ideally suited for dancing in the rain.

Though never tackily melodramatic or cloyingly quirky, Le Havre has to be one of the most heartfelt, unabashedly old-fashioned films to carry major festival laurels this year. Regardless of politics, it is hard not to be swept along by its effervescent spirit. Definitely recommended, it screens Sunday (10/2), Monday (10/3), and Wednesday (10/5) as a Main Slate selection of the 2011 New York Film Festival.

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NYFF ’11: Patience (After Sebald)

W.G. Sebald rose to prominence late in life, but due to his accidental death at a relatively young age, he is probably already due for a critical rediscovery. Yet, for a brief period, he was considered one of the leading candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature and influenced many artists working in diverse disciplines. Rock music documentarian Grant Gee radically shifts gears, using Sebald’s fictionalized travelogue-essay The Rings of Saturn as a jumping off point for his meditative documentary, Patience (After Sebald), which screens Sunday during the 49th New York Film Festival.

Though keenly aware of the pitfalls of such an approach, Patience largely retraces the steps of the fictional narrator Sebald’s walking tour of the picturesque but lonely Suffolk landscape in the German expatriate’s acknowledged masterwork. Yet, it quickly becomes clear Sebald the author is a subject who resists biographers’ conventional strategies.

Instead, Sebald is often presented as a series of paradoxes. The German-born English professor wrote all his significant books in his original tongue, requiring their translation in to English. Several commentators note that it is really the Michael Hulse translation of Saturn on which his reputation really rests. His work was deeply informed by the Holocaust, but is not easily aligned with any subsequent ideology. Indeed, despite increasing invitations to serve as a public intellectual, Sebald remained a private, almost inscrutable individual.

For practical purposes, this leaves Gee with Sebald’s text and some striking East Anglia scenery, beautiful in a grey Wuthering Heights kind of way. Sounding like the essence of erudition, Jonathan Pryce’s voice-overs perfectly suit the former, while the mostly black-and-white photography of the latter evokes a mood of quiet introspection. However, Gee’s reliance on an academic researcher’s online map of Sebald’s sojourn, though impressive scholarship, consistently undermines the film’s visual style.

In a case of truth in titling, Patience is not exactly a breakneck film. However, it treats the written word with admirable reverence. In many ways as much a work of literary criticism (rather more insightful than the current academic standard) than a documentary profile, Patience is recommended for select genuinely literate audiences. It screens this coming Sunday (10/2) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the 2011 New York Film Festival.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

NYFF ’11: A Separation

As a well educated, comparatively liberal Iranian woman, Simin wants to live abroad, not so much for herself, but for her daughter Termeh. Unfortunately, her travel visa will soon expire and her husband Nader refuses to leave. It causes what westerners would call irreconcilable differences for the couple. It also sets in motion a tragic chain of events that will jeopardize their way of life in Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear winning A Separation (trailer here), which screens during the 49th New York Film Festival.

Nader is not exactly a fundamentalist either, but he is stubborn. He also must care for his Alzheimer’s stricken father, though Simin considers this a questionable excuse. Since divorce is not an easy no-fault proposition in Iran, she moves back in with her parents as their case drags on. Requiring help with his father, Nader hires Razieh as an in-house aide. She is poor, uneducated, extremely religious, and married to the abusive Houjat.

She only accepts the position in place of Houjat when the deadbeat is thrown in jail for his debts. Yet, as soon as she appears to settle into the routine of the household, a moment of chaos turns their world upside down. Suddenly, Nader is on trial for causing the death of Razieh’s unborn child while the thuggish Houjat harasses his family.

Granted, A Separation’s portrayal of Iranian jurisprudence does not inspire a lot of confidence, but it is almost the least of Nader’s problems. Instead, he becomes his worst enemy, responding to Razieh and Houjat in the worst possible way at every juncture. Yet explaining his decisions to his acutely sensitive daughter is often his greatest challenge.

Much like Farhadi’s Tribeca award winning About Elly, Separation vividly depicts how one tragic mistake compounds over and over again. It is an intense film, almost to the brink of exhaustion. Like many of the persecuted Jafar Panahi’s films, it shines on searing spotlight on the divisions of Iranian society, largely cleaving along professional and secular-as-they-dare versus poor and fundamentalist lines. Ostensibly, Nader and Simin should have the upper hand, but this is Iran.

Separation is also smart and scrupulously realistic on the micro level as well. The relationship dynamic between Simin and Nader is particularly insightful, rendered with great sensitivity by leads Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi. We clearly understand this is a couple with a lot of history together who do not hate each other. They are unable to make it work, but they cannot stop trying. Likewise, teenaged Sarina Farhadi (the director’s daughter) gives remarkably finely-calibrated performance as the insecure Termeh.

Separation and Elly before it are like Iranian Cassavetes films, uncomfortably intimate and direct, but undeniably visceral in their impact. Their place within the contemporary Iranian cinema establishment is a little trickier to pin down. Separation had to be produced outside the official film system without government support after Farhadi cautiously spoke out on behalf of the imprisoned Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Reportedly though, he has since walked back those comments and Separation was subsequently chosen as Iran’s official submission for best foreign language Academy Award consideration. It is hard to judge an Iranian artist for whatever survival strategies they might employ. Regardless, Separation is an unusually powerful film. Highly recommended, it is easily one of the best of the festival. It screens this Saturday and Sunday (10/1 and 10/2) at Alice Tully Hall as a Main Slate selection of the 2011 New York Film Festival.

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T & D vs. E

It is like the polar-opposite of Kevin Smith’s Red State. In this horror movie mash-up, it is the snobby elites who are out to get the innocent red necks. Still, there is enough grisly slapstick humor to keep the studio-bashing director entertained. Indeed, the killer hillbilly movie gets a subversive twist in Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Dale is the shy one and Tucker is the more outgoing one. Neither is what you might call well educated or snappy dressers. They mean well though. On their way to Tucker’s vacation cabin (newly purchased at a bargain price because of its notorious history) the innocent bumpkins cross paths with a group of snotty college students. Mistaking the overall-clad lads’ leering in awe for leering with intent, the kids become easy prey for the anti-hillbilly venom of the Mephistophelean Chad, who carries a deep seated hatred of all backwoods residents.

Whipping his friends into a paranoid frenzy, Chad convinces his companions to attack first. However, it does not work out well for the preppy predators, who inadvertently maim and kill themselves in a series of gruesome encounters that combine Harold Lloyd with Final Destination. There is one exception though, the lovely and empathic Allison, who is majoring in conflict resolution studies.

T & D vs. E is definitely a meathead movie that delights in devising new and outrageous ways for college kids to die. Yes, there is a wood-chipper to be found at Tucker’s cabin. Indeed, you have to admire its plucky determination to keep one-upping itself, without breaking the Rube Goldbergian format. Still, the reversal of the well established Deliverance formula is quite refreshing, particularly after Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs remake shamelessly trafficked in such red state vs. blue state stereotypes. As a bonus, the media takes a few hits as well in the wrap-around framing device.

Alan Tudyk & Tyler Labine share a likable, easy-going chemistry as T & D, respectively. It is strange to think, but there are few recent movies that have depicted male friendship in similar unconditional terms, free of any psychological baggage. While obviously blessed with physical beauty, Katrina Bowden also shows a nice sense of comedic timing as Allison. Indeed, her character’s attempt to apply her conflict resolution training is a real riot. Who would have ever thought a 30 Rock cast-member could actually be funny?

Obviously, T & D vs. E is all about gory laughs rather than social commentary. Still, the extent to which it humanizes hill-and-holler dwellers, while casting big city elites as the villains is somewhat notable. It also has chainsaws and other assorted power tools. Recommended with affection for those who enjoy their comedy with a body count and a spatter pattern, T & D vs. E opens this Friday (9/30) in New York at the Village East.

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NYFF ’11: Andrew Bird: Fever Year

When a musician breaks out after years of scuffling, they should strike while the iron is hot. Andrew Bird understands this. When his tricky to categorize hybrid of string band and jam band alternative music caught on, he spent nearly an entire year on the road headlining concerts at up-scale theaters. It took a toll physically, as viewers witness in Xan Aranda’s behind-the-scenes concert documentary, Andrew Bird: Fever Year, which screens during the 49th New York Film Festival.

Bird is definitely a live act. A musician with a jazz background who spent years gigging as a solo, the multi-string instrumentalist and vocalist incorporates a great deal of improvisation into his shows. His current band was specifically chosen for their ability to react and play-off his in the moment decisions. In fact, bassist and reed player Michael Lewis also has a jazz background, as befitting the son of a jazz musician.

Through much of the tour, Bird suffers from the titular low-grade fever. Yet, this almost seems to be something the musician masochistically needs to struggle against in order to maintain each show’s freshness. Indeed, he explicitly demands their concerts be spontaneous and never feel scripted, well aware this sometimes involves falling without a net.

Wisely, Bird and Aranda focus almost entirely on the subject of music. We learn next to nothing about his private life and glean no idea about his political views (not that we care, anyway). Frankly, it is refreshing to listen to a musician discuss the performance process with such insight. Hearing Bird breakdown his thought process during one the live numbers captured in the film should be fascinating for his established fans and create a few new converts as well. Though equally interesting material, his Zen-like composing methods are so idiosyncratic, they are unlikely to be applied by other musicians. Mind-boggling, he uses no notation, simply molding each song from memory day after day. Still, it has produced a considerable body of work, so more power to him.

Aranda deserves a great deal of credit for the integrity of her approach, displaying confidence the audience will be interested in Bird’s creative process and the music itself, rather than the usual extraneous rubbish. The resulting Fever definitely proves Bird is a technically accomplished musician, a fleet improviser, and an eloquent interview subject. She also ends it on the perfect note: Bird’s encore number and only cover we hear from the concert. Recommended for Bird fans and first-time listeners alike, Fever screens this Saturday (10/1) and Sunday (10/2) as part of the 2011 New York Film Festival.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

NYFF ’11: Dreileben

There is a fugitive in the woods. He might be an innocent man or a dangerous psychopath. Determining the truth is a tricky proposition in Dreileben, a trilogy of interlocking films produced for German television in the tradition of Red Riding, which screens in its entirety this coming Saturday as part of the 49th New York Film Festival.

Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, begins the cycle, but keeps most of the crime drama off-screen. While visiting his dying mother in hospital, the convicted murderer Molesch essentially walks away from his police guard. A manhunt ensues. To shield him from inquiries, Dr. Drier gives some time off to Johannes, the nursing intern on duty that fateful night. It allows the pre-med student time to pursue a passionate in-the-moment romance with the tempestuous Ana, a Bosnian refugee working as a maid in the hotel that will eventually factor into the police investigation. He might even forget Sarah Drier, the head doctor’s daughter, who dumped Johannes in no uncertain terms.

Petzold’s Dead and Dominik Graf’s subsequent Don’t Follow Me Around are like some of Claude Chabrol’s craftier late films, presenting the nefarious business obliquely, while ostensibly focusing on the workaday lives of those seemingly on its margins. Yet, Petzold creates a palpable undercurrent of menace that carries over for his filmmaker colleagues. He also presents an unusually dark and intense vision of young love (or lust) that sometimes borders on the unsettling.

Luna Mijovic burns up the screen as Ana, viscerally projecting her raw self-destructive impulses and insecurities. Jacob Matschenz is also quite effective keeping the audience off-balance as the everyman Johannes, while Vijessna Ferkic is appropriately hot and shallow as Sarah Drier. Indeed, not only is Dead the strongest film of the trilogy, it also (quite conveniently) stands alone better than its companion films.

Still, for those willing to buy into Dreileben, Graf’s Follow is also quite clever, nicely explaining a few of the confusing moments in Dead. Johanna is a single-mother police psychologist in the tradition of the old Profiler show, sent to help the corrupt and incompetent local constabulary capture Molesch. Yet, she is considerably more interested in revisiting some important episodes from her past with her old friend Vera, with whom she is staying. We also briefly meet Marcus Kreil, the one competent copper who will be featured prominently in the final film.

While Graf shows bits and pieces of the investigative process, he keeps the mood lighter, centering his film on themes of friendship and family more often encountered in women’s fiction than police procedurals. Though the tonal ringer of the trilogy, it still keeps viewers intrigued in the macro story.

Though arguably the most visually stylish of the three, Christoph Hochhäusler’s One Minute of Darkness unfortunately fails to tie everything together, leaving a rat’s nest of loose ends unresolved, even adding several of its own. Molesch finally comes front-and-center, but in a way this is a mistake. Granted, it is something of a pay-off to finally understand his escape and strange sojourn through Ana’s hotel. Yet, as evidently something of a man-child, Molesch is better represented as the wolf in the woods than a figure we come to know on intimate terms. To be fair though, Stefan Kurt nicely conveys the ambiguity of his character keeping open the possibility Molesch may either be a naïf or a maniac.

Darkness works best when focusing on Kreil, played with haggard gravitas by Eberhard Kirchberg. In addition to juggling family issues (like Johanna), the honest copper is responsible for some of Dreileben’s smartest police work, more of which would have strengthened Darkness.

Like Red Riding, Carlos, Mesrine, and Mysteries of Lisbon, Dreileben is the sort of sprawling canvas worth spending time with, just to appreciate its ambition. Naturally somewhat uneven as the product of three directors, Dreileben also peaks with its first film. Yet, there is something insidiously compelling about this shared world, like a more grounded German Twin Peaks, that holds true for all three installments.

If festival patrons only see one part of Dreileben, it should be Petzold’s film. If time and interest allow for two, Follow is readily recommended as well. Though the concluding Darkness is a bit of a letdown, it is ultimately worth seeing for Kirchberg’s work and the partial closure it provides. Altogether, it is a genuine screening event and one of the highlights of the 2011 New York Film Festival. The full trilogy screens this coming Saturday (10/1) at the Walter Reade Theater, while the constituent parts screen on successive nights the following Tuesday through Thursday (10/4/10/6) at the Francesca Beale Theater.

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Stormy in the Heartland: Take Shelter

Better safe than sorry was the principle guiding our mayor in the days leading up to Hurricane Irene’s fly-by. Curtis LaForche would not necessarily agree with him. Nevertheless, he is compelled to act on his visions of apocalyptic storms in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

LaForche is a hard-working family man, completely dedicated to his wife Samantha and their daughter Hannah. He has a steady job with good benefits, but times are still difficult, especially since Hannah lost her hearing. The last thing he needs is the end of the world, but he cannot shake the increasingly horrific dreams plaguing his sleep. Despite his better judgment, LaForche begins upgrading his old tornado shelter in anticipation of a Biblical-level storm.

Contrary to viewer expectations, LaForche is not portrayed as a Fundamentalist lunatic. In fact, his lack of church attendance is a point of contention with his in-laws. Rather, as the son of a mother living under permanent supervision, LaForche is only too aware mental illness runs in his family. Responsibly, he seeks professional help, but the dreams persist.

Shelter is unusually sensitive in its depiction of a Middle American family under stress. The LaForches’ experience grappling with Hannah’s deafness could have easily been a movie unto itself rather than just a sizable subplot. Still, the second act is a bit sluggish, continually repeating the cycle of increasingly creepy visions, followed by LaForche’s subsequent erratic behavior. However, the gritty honest performances from the central players should keep audiences invested throughout the lulls.

Perfectly cast as LaForche, Michael Shannon has the right rough-hewn look, while expressing a host of inner conflicts with delicate nuance. He creates a fully dimensional, legitimately engaging character. It is hard to imagine any other actor in the part. The suddenly hyper-busy Jessica Chastain is also totally convincing as the more practical, down-home Samantha, sort of playing a more accessible variation on her break-through role in Tree of Life.

Throughout Shelter, Nichols never looks down on his Red State, God-fearing characters, treating their dramas with the seriousness they deserve. Indeed, it has no snark and no irony. Rather, Shelter challenges viewers to put themselves in LaForche’s place. An unexpectedly humane film featuring a lead performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, Shelter is definitely recommended (ironically more for audiences in the heartland than typical patrons of the art-houses it will most likely play). It opens this Friday (9/30) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

House of Blues: Hugh Laurie’s Let Them Talk

If you have spent much time in Starbuck’s lately, you have surely heard a good portion of British actor Hugh Laurie’s new CD, a tribute to the music of New Orleans. Though undeniably the beneficiary of a considerable marketing campaign, the man known as Dr. House can definitely carry a tune in his medical kit and has an agreeable touch on the ivories. Laurie explains his love for those Crescent City sounds and performs a set of jazz and blues standards in Great PerformancesHugh Laurie: Let Them Talk (preview here), which premieres on most PBS stations this Friday.

In his introductory voice-over, Laurie tells viewers every man is entitled to one pilgrimage in his life. Laurie had the good taste to take his in NOLA. He took the scenic route getting there though, stopping off at bluesy-rootsy roadside attractions, like Euclid Records, whose mail-order operations are well beloved by many of us, and sitting in at Maggie Mae’s in Austen, Texas, with Miss Lavelle White, who can vocalize a mean harmonica.

Granted, just about anyone would sound okay fronting a band assembled by New Orleans R&B maestro Allen Toussaint, performing with special guests Irma Thomas and Sir Tom Jones. In truth though, Laurie is at least pretty good in his own right on vocals, piano, and a spot of guitar. He offers the appropriate support to Thomas, “The Soul Queen of New Orleans," on “John Henry” and backs up Jones nicely during “Baby Please Make a Change,” a soul shouter perfectly suited to the Welsh icon. Laurie also has a surprisingly strong left on the ivories, opening a real can of barrelhouse on “Swanee River” and gamely tackling the Professor Longhair classic “Tiptina.”

As a vocalist, Laurie has a strong, clear tone that expresses the plaintiveness of “St. James Infirmary” quite strikingly. Arranged with stately funkiness by Toussaint, it is obviously positioned as the concert’s showcase number, and rightly so. The highlight of the set, it is here that Laurie really puts his stamp on an old school New Orleans classic. It ought to be the title track, but it might have confused some of his House fans (though it sounds medical).

Mostly, Let Them Talk is a respectfully traditional celebration of the NOLA songbook, (though Laurie earns further credit for capturing Jelly Roll Morton’s idiosyncratic attitude in “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”). Much like the still vital local music scene one can find in the small clubs on Frenchmen Street, Laurie and Toussaint effortlessly blend jazz, blues, and R&B throughout the set. It is quite pleasant, but if it rocks your world, just wait until you check out the original recordings from Toussaint, Louis Armstrong, James Black, and ‘Fess Longhair.

While some of Laurie’s narration is a bit hokey, the music will remind many of us once again why we fell in love with New Orleans, which is what good valentines are supposed to do. There is one glaring misstep though: Toussaint’s band is never introduced on camera or allowed to take the bow they earned. An enjoyable love letter nonetheless, Laurie’s Let Them Talk airs on most PBS outlets this Friday (9/30), including New York’s Thirteen, as part of the current season of Great Performances.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Yeonghwa ’11: Hello Ghost

He wanted to become a ghost, but a failed suicide starts seeing them instead. Somewhat against his will, he becomes a good host, working diligently to grant their final wishes. While it starts out in a comedic vein (of both the broad and black varieties), as often happens in popular Korean films, heartstrings will be tugged hard in Kim Young-tak’s Hello Ghost (trailer here), which screens this afternoon during Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, co-presented by MoMA and the Korea Society.

An orphan with no memory of his birth parents, Sang-man is ready to chuck it in, but he cannot get the job done. Waking up in the hospital, he quickly discovers he is the only one who can see the cherubic man chain smoking on his bed. It is the same for the bratty little boy, weeping woman, and crusty old man who start popping up unexpectedly. Little comes from his visit with the hospital’s shrink, but he certainly makes a strong impression on Jung Yun-soo, the cute nurse on-duty. Nevertheless, he will halting attempt to romance her as their paths continually cross. He will have the help of his spectral companions who promise to leave him be once he has helped them conclude their unfinished business.

It takes a long time for the ghosts’ backstories to be revealed, but when they are, it is waterworks time. You might kick yourself if you did not see the gist of it coming, but it all makes perfect sense in the way the film is presented. Indeed, despite a fair amount of physical possession gags a la Steve Martin in All of Me, Hello is much more in the tradition of Il Mare, the Korean tearjerker that Hollywood remade as The Lake House (copping out on the tragic ending). As it happens, an American remake of Hello is in development with Chris Columbus set to direct. However, those who want to see the concept while it is still original, mostly likely with less treacle and more angst, should catch Kim’s first take at MoMA.

As Sang-man, Cha Tae-hyun is not afraid to put the big “L” in loser. He also sells the big climax quite effectively. A luminous screen presence, Kang Hye-won is undeniably endearing as Jung. Yet, it is Jang Young-nam and Ko Chang-suk who really lower the emotional boom as the crying and smoking ghosts, respectively.

Frankly, American filmmakers (both studio and indie) have a hard time with honest sentiment. In contrast, the Korea film industry does not. Indeed, this is the sort of movie they do really well. Though nakedly manipulative, Hello pays off just the same. Recommended to those looking for a respite from irony, Hello screens again this afternoon (9/24) as Yeonghwa continues at MoMA.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Yeonghwa ’11: Rolling Home with a Bull

There were like a Korean Jules & Jim trio of friends, who dubbed themselves Peter, Paul & Mary. Peter was Mary’s recently deceased husband. He is also Paul’s old plough-driving bull. No, this is not a case of reincarnation, but there is plenty of karma in Yim Soon-rye’s Buddhist themed Rolling Home with a Bull (trailer here), which screens today as part of Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, co-presented by MoMA and the Korea Society.

Sun-ho was Paul, the loser in the love triangle. A failed poet, he works on the family farm resenting every minute. After a typical argument with his father, Sun-ho packs up the old man’s beloved bull into the trailer and lights out for the livestock market. Finding no takers, he starts driving across Korea, looking for a buyer. Through the power of “life on the road,” he crosses paths with Mary, or Catherine to continue the Truffaut analogy. Her real name is Hyun-soo and she is still in mourning for her husband, Peter.

Interested in perhaps rekindling with Sun-ho, or at least achieving some proper closure, Hyun-soo initiates further encounters, but he is having none of it. At least the bull is starting to grow on him, which is why it irks him when Hyun-soo starts calling him Peter. However, his subconscious (or maybe the collective unconscious) is trying to tell him something important throughout his deceptively random pilgrimage.

Despite the rollicking title and the big snorting bull, Rolling is a deeply spiritual film. Though it does not completely ignore the comic possibilities of life on the road with an old grumpy cow, it treats the material very seriously. Much like Naoki Katô’s excellent Abraxas, Rolling takes what sounds like a sitcom premise and turns it into a sincere and thoughtful exploration of Buddhist tenets, particularly the need to let go of the past and embrace forgiveness.

Kim Young-pil and Kong Hyo-jin are nearly perfect together as Sun-ho and Hyun-soo, conveying all the painful history and lingering attraction that continues to entangle them. It is a well played and smartly scripted on-screen relationship that passes up several opportunities for neat and convenient conclusions, forcing the couple to really work through their issues. The bull is nice too.

Rolling is a richly rewarding film that sneaks up on viewers, bringing out hidden dimensions as it unspools. A real crowd pleaser, it has legitimate breakout commercial potential, but not as another exercise in quirky cuteness. Highly recommended, it screens again during Yeonghwa (that is Korean for “film”) this afternoon (9/23) at MoMA, so New Yorkers should contrive an excuse to sneak out of the office early.

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Small Market Blues: Moneyball

In the dead of December, New York sports fans turn their attention to Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings. Of course, Yankee fans are always hoping their well-heeled team pulls off a blockbuster deal. Yet, the business side of baseball holds a fascination, even for fans of so-called small market teams. Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane tried to radically alter the business operations of shallow-pocketed teams. His somewhat successful efforts spawned a host of imitators, a nonfiction bestseller from Michael “Liar’s Poker” Lewis, and a subsequent, long-in-development Hollywood adaptation, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

As a teenager, Beane was recruited hard by MLB scouts. Foregoing a full-ride Stanford scholarship, Beane pursued glory on the baseball diamond and failed badly, scratching out a front office management career instead. As Moneyball opens, his team has just been knocked out of the post-season by the dreaded Yankees and is about to be gutted by free agency. With an owner unwilling to pony up the big bucks, Beane spurns the star system of free agency, using unconventional methods to select players.

With the help of his Ivy-League educated numbers cruncher, Beane signs statistically under-valued players, placing greater emphasis on on-base-percentage than sexier stats, like homeruns and stolen bases. This produces a roster full of players considered rejects by the sports media, because they mostly were. They were cheap though and could fulfill their specific roles.

Not surprisingly for a film co-written by Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball takes a few liberties with the historical record, ignoring the fact Beane’s predecessor (and current Mets GM) Sandy Alderson initiated the team’s “sabermetric” approach. Unfortunately, Alderson looks nothing like Brad Pitt, so that’s Hollywood for you. Using the Yankees as a symbol of large market imperialism is also getting to be a tired cliché, especially considering many of the plays of their late 1990’s championship team were farm system products.

However, for some baseball commentators, Moneyball’s depiction of A’s skipper Art Howe might prove to be the most controversial aspect of the film. As portrayed with icy reserve by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Howe appears to deliberately sabotage Beane’s attempts to reconfigure the team, but is only too happy to take the credit in the media when his efforts bear fruit. In fact, it seems as if Beane even does more nut-and-bolts coaching than Howe at the player level. Yet, Mets fans still trying to forget Howe’s disastrous two year stint at old Shea will probably have no trouble buying into it.

Regardless, for those who do not know or care who made the last out of the 2001 ALCS and baseball fans willing to allow for a bit of license, Moneyball is an engaging trip to the ballpark. The dialogue is sharp and snappy, which is impressive considering how much of it revolves around statistics. Whether truly accurate or not, its depiction of front office wheeling and dealing is also pretty entertaining.

Pitt certainly cranks up his star-power likability, but he also conveys a fair amount of grit as the sometimes mercurial GM. He develops a nice bantering rhythm with Jonah Hill, who is surprisingly grounded and convincing as his sabermetric lieutenant, Peter Brand, a fictionalized version of assistant GM Paul DePodesta. He also has some reasonably endearing chemistry with young Kerris Dorsey playing Beane’s daughter Casey. Indeed, it is a relationship just real enough to be humanizing, while sparing us any extraneous melodrama. Rest assured, there will be no homeruns dedicated to her while she recuperates in the hospital. Beane’s players are supposed to walk anyway.

Even though there is very little in-game action, Moneyball is a very good baseball movie. In a way though, it is paced much like the game itself. The faithful can get caught up scoring every pitch, while casual viewers can step out for a hotdog and easily pick up the narrative thread when they return. One of the smarter sports films of recent vintage that still wears its heart for the game on its sleeve, Moneyball opens nationwide today (9/23), including small markets.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Visions of a New China: Once Upon a Time Proletarian

At best, the peasants live at subsistence level. The workers are exploited and young entrepreneurs forgo today, to invest for the future. Yet, there are those making enormous sums of money and consuming conspicuously in contemporary China. Whether it is called globalism, crony capitalism, or old fashioned authoritarianism, Guo Xiaolu (born in China, based in Britain) gives a human face to those grappling with realities of today’s China in Once Upon a Time Proletarian (trailer here), which screens at the Asia Society this Sunday, launching their latest film series, Visions of a New China.

Like a documentary sampler platter, Proletarian presents twelve (or an uneven baker’s dozen) sketches of life in post-Olympics go-go China. Not surprisingly, the old peasant is bitter, expressing open nostalgia for the days of the Mao regime, when the peasantry was at the top of the country’s social hierarchy. Migrant workers are nearly as disillusioned, including those employed at luxury hotels. Though it might sound more pleasant than factory or farm work, their long shifts without bathroom breaks certainly would not pass muster with OSHA. Perhaps most intriguing is the young partner in a prospective chain of economy hotels. She is overseeing the construction of their second hotel, which when finished will cater to construction workers. That is one way to ensure quality control.

As connective tissue, Guo films young school children reading ironic stories (the term joke would be too strong) from their readers, which do not really relate to the following profiles per se, but express the peculiar zeitgeist of unbalanced times. Eventually though, Guo turns her camera on them in earnest, getting a sense of their personalities and ambitions. They are all bright and engaging. Indeed, they represent the best of their country’s future, yet for some reason, the government is trying its best to make them scarce (particularly the girls, who appear somewhat under-represented).

Though largely following in the recent tradition of so-called Digital Generation (or D-Generate) of independent filmmakers, Proletarian is far more cinematic. Guo captures a number of evocative images and her black-and-white transition scenes are actually quite stylish. As one might expect, there is also a lot of blight and angst in Proletarian, but its speed-documentary format lends it greater pacing and variety than the typical vérité films associated with the movement.

Yet, like many D-Generate filmmakers, Guo is rather subversive in her approach, challenging the Communist state with the values and vocabulary generally considered leftwing in any western context. Just to underscore the disconnect between rhetoric and reality, she concludes the film with Paul Robeson’s recording of the Soviet anthem, which is quickly drowned out by angry Chinese post-punk hardcore music. It is hard to miss that symbolism. An effective corrective to the PRC state hype machine, Proletarian is definitely recommended for China watchers when it kicks off the Visions of New China series at the Asia Society this Sunday afternoon (9/25).

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HK Cinema at SFFS: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

It must be a sign of the zeitgeist when HK action auteur Johnnie To and his frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai set their latest film in the world of high finance in a deliberate attempt to appeal to Mainland audiences. What would Madame Mao say? Yet, their love triangle rom-dramedy is the sort of material that has appealed to average movie patrons for generations. Still, they do instill Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (trailer here) with enough in-the-now to make it quite a fitting and appropriate way to close the San Francisco Film Society’s first class Hong Kong Cinema series this coming Sunday.

Chang Zixin is smart enough to predict the recent global “hard correction,” but she is not so shrewd in love. Yet in a promising development, she has been flirting with the Cheung Shen-ran, whose fat corner office can be seen from her bullpen station. As will happen in rom-coms, he inadvertently asks both her and the hottie in the office below her out for coffee at the same time. In a moment of weakness, he chooses the one with the larger endowments and lives to regret it.

Cheung is not the only one interested in Chang. Fate also brought her together with Fang Qi-hong, a spiritually down-and-out architect, more interested in boozing than building. He gave her a little confidence after last break-up and she gave him her ex’s pet frog. She also inspired him to clean up his act and fall in love with her. Not so suddenly, the bottom falls out of the market, taking Cheung down with it. Three years later, he returns to the game as Chang’s new boss. Across the way, Fang’s new architectural firm has taken over Cheung old office space. Let the rivalry begin.

Despite the disruption of the financial bubble, Heart is not really about the sort-of-great crash. It is however, very definitely preoccupied with the near-misses and hyper-connected loneliness of contemporary urban professionals. For its three principals, the mere act of making a connection must be significant, because it is so unlikely.

Yet, if it all sounds dour and serious, rest assured To and Wai keep the tone largely towards the lighter side. They also have the benefit of three ridiculously attractive primary cast members, as well as To regular Suet Lam as an office manager very much in the Ricky Gervais tradition. However, Gao Yaunyuan’s Chang is so radiantly cute, it is hard to understand how the heck Cheung keeps blowing it with her. Not just a HK Bridget Jones, she is actually a smart, self-aware fully-dimensional woman.

Frankly, the degree to which To and Wai stack the deck in favor of Fang eventually becomes a tad ridiculous. The comfortable old-shoe charisma Daniel Wu projects as Fang further exaggerates the disparity between her suitors. While he might be rich, it is hard to fathom how Louis Ko’s preening smugness as Cheung could be appealing to anyone. Still, Chang’s investment of time and emotional commitment is understandably difficult to walk away from.

Considering how unbalanced it is, Heart ought to be termed an isosceles love triangle. Yet, somehow To, Wai, Gao, and basic human nature maintain a sense of uncertainty as to whom she will ultimately choose. That is saying something for this genre. Stylish executed (even with the 1980’s-ish pop and smooth jazz soundtrack), Heart even features an enormous CGI-skyscraper, rising as triumphant testimony to the power of love. Lehman Brothers references notwithstanding, it is essentially a old school movie romance and a rather satisfying one at that. Though doubtlessly a disappointment for most To fans, Heart will be a pleasant conclusion to the Hong Kong Cinema series this coming Sunday (9/25) at the New People Cinema in San Francisco.

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Journey from Zanskar: Geshe Lobsang Yonten, Hero of the Himalayans

The geography of Zanskar is decidedly harsh. While physically cold and arid, its position as a minority Buddhist enclave amid the tinder box of Kashmir is politically and culturally precarious. As a result, the needs of Zanskaris, particularly the education of their children, have not exactly been a high priority for either the national or local Indian authorities. Concerned with the nearly uniform illiteracy in Zanskar and the potential extinction of the Tibetan language, two monks led a group of Zanskari children to distant Manali, where a place in school and hope for a better life awaited them. Their arduous trek is documented in Frederick Marx's Journey from Zanskar: a Monk’s Vow to Children (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, “Geshe” is an honorific bestowed on the completion of an advanced course of academic studies. As a Geshe originally from Zanskar, Geshe Lobsang Yonten keenly understood the value education and was alarmed by the lack of opportunities for children in his native region. Identifying Zanskar’s most promising children, the Geshe and his order arrange their enrollment at a school in Manali, where they will be taught both Tibetan and western academic curriculum. However, getting there will be a trick.

The eastern route is considered the most dangerous, due to the Muslim extremists who frequently murder Buddhists on the roads near Pakistan. There is little risk of such violence on the western route, but it leaves them more beholden to the elements. The direct route, it would take the monks, their young charges, and the accompanying parents, over a series of mountains passes, by foot, in frigid temperatures and altitudes reaching 17,000 feet. They chose the latter (and according to Marx during a Q&A session at the Rubin Museum of Art last year, it almost killed him).

The most striking aspect of Journey is the charisma of its subjects. Though the trip wears on the Geshe as well, he exudes indomitable charm and remarkable optimism throughout their odyssey. Likewise, the kids all seem to have smiles that could light up any room. Their spirit is best represented by a scene late in the picture, when one boy tasting his first sample of nuts ever, reaches over to share with Marx.

Journey might be somewhat manipulative, but it absolutely works. Audiences will definitely root for these kids and feel for their parents, who essentially must give them up for years, in order for them to have better opportunities in life. Marx, best known as one of the filmmakers of Hoop Dreams, also deserves credit as a documentarian (along with primary cinematographer Nick Sherman), both for enduring the elements and exhaustion for the sake of the film, as well as for scrupulously keeping himself out of the picture, instead focusing exclusively on the monks and the children.

Watching Journey, it is clear these are good-hearted kids who deserve a better life. Viewers who want to help the monks’ efforts to build a school for them in Zanskar should visit savezanskar.org. A genuinely moving, highly recommended film, Journey begins its regular New York, Oscar-qualifying theatrical engagement this Friday (9/23) at the Quad Cinema.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chris Evans Goes Grunge: Puncture

Would you hire a tattooed barely functioning drug addict to litigate a major anti-trust case? Mike Weiss made A Civil Action’s Jan Schlictmann look like a corporate clock-watcher. He got better results too, despite burning out spectacularly. His tragically flawed character is portrayed with intriguing nuance, whereas his final case is presented in the most manipulatively simplistic terms possible in Adam and Mark Kassen’s based-on-a-true-story Puncture (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Weiss is something of a junkie savant, whose drug fueled benders produce flashes of legal brilliance. He and his more conventional partner Paul Danziger get by on a combination of ambulance chaser and referrals from Houston wheeler-dealer Daryl King. The latest cast-off from their connected friend’s firm involves a nurse, Vicky Rogers, who contracted AIDS from an infected needle.

Through Rogers, Weiss and Danziger meet her mad inventor friend, Jeffrey Dancourt, who developed a safety syringe that would prevent future accidental needle sticks. Yet, hospitals are unwilling or unable to buy it. Evidently, the group purchasing organizations (GPO) designed to give health providers greater buying clout are only interested in buying from their cronies.

Not surprisingly, Puncture ignores the obvious irony that Obamacare is ostensibly built upon the same principle of greater economies through fewer purchasers that is supposedly so nefarious in GPOs. It is not big on irony in general, presenting Weiss and Danziger as earnest legal crusaders, even as the former sinks further into a drug-induced haze. In fact, the film’s greatest moment of clarity comes from a sympathetic senator, who bluntly tells the increasingly erratic Weiss his cause is just, but he is so toxic, she could never invite him to testify before her committee.

Chris Evans does manic grunge shockingly well, conveying Weiss’s descent with compelling honesty and directness. Who knew he had it in him? If Puncture were more Lost Weekend and less Silkwood, it would have been a much more effective film. Instead, we have to sit through lectures from Michael Biehn’s “Red,” a character who seems to exist only to explain how awful plastic syringes have been for the third world. The film is practically like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, yelling “no plastic needles.”

Despite the film’s determination to play it safe, Evans gets some distinctive support from Marshall Bell as the socially awkward Dancourt and Brett Cullen as the silky smooth corporate attorney Nathaniel Price. Unfortunately, co-director Mark Kassen proves to be fairly middling on both sides of the camera, coming across dull instead of memorably nebbish as the second banana, Danziger.

In Puncture, Evans proves he can carry a film otherwise saddled with a by-the-numbers predictability. While it might be an important film for his professional development, it is not something movie patrons need to rush out and see ASAP. A so-so outing in nearly every other respect, Puncture opens this Friday (9/23) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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HK at SFFS: Echoes of the Rainbow

Fifty years ago, there were still quiet family neighborhoods in Hong Kong, where everyone knew everyone’s business. Writer-director Alex Law pays tribute to this innocent world of his youth gone by in the unabashedly sentimental Echoes of the Rainbow (trailer here), Hong Kong’s recent official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s Hong Kong Cinema showcase.

Shot on-location around historic Wing Lee Street, Rainbow saved that last remnant of “old” (meaning 1960’s era) Hong Kong from redevelopment after his partly autobiographical feature won the 2010 Berlin Film Festival’s Crystal Bear in the children’s division. Run down but respectable, it is a neighborhood where a cobbler’s family might live. Times are difficult, but the Law Family sacrifices for the sake of older brother Desmond’s education. A star in the classroom and on the track field, all their hopes rest in him.

As for the slightly klepto younger brother, not so much, but “Big Ears” has his own dreams of becoming an astronaut. This explains the fishbowl he often wears around town like a space-helmet. In fact, fish factor prominently in Rainbow. Desmond fights and bonds with his younger brother over the fish they keep. Fish also play a role in the older Law’s tentative courtship of the ridiculously cute Flora. Unfortunately, just about every imaginable tear-jerking complication will thwart their budding romance.

There is absolutely no irony in Rainbow—zero, none. Instead, it wears its heart on its sleeve, which is completely endearing. Buzz Chung is a legitimately charismatic young actor, who handles Big Ears’ heavy dramatic moments quite convincingly. Whereas the photogenic Aarif Rahman and Evelyn Choi should also well satisfy tweener fans of sappy CW/WB youth soaps.

However, Simon Lam provides the real heart of the film as Mr. Law. His initial appearance is deceptively simple, a grunting man hunched over his workbench. Slowly but surely, Lam expresses with exquisite nuance all the dignity, humility, and desperation of a father who only wants a better life for his sons. It is also rewarding for American audiences to watch Lam in such a departure from his frequent gangster roles in Johnnie To movies (even though those are profoundly cool). Known more for comedic turns, Sandra Oh does a bit of fast-talking as Mrs. Law, but develops some genuinely touching chemistry with Lam. Together, they are simply devastating in late scenes, as they struggle to save their son.

Shot with gauzy sensitivity by cinematographer Charlie Lam, every aspect of Rainbow aches with wistful nostalgia. While it might sound melodramatic at times, the film’s honesty and sweetness cannot be denied. Though probably too tragic for small children, many parents and pre-teens should find it an engaging respite from the jaded cynicism of Hollywood. Yet another official foreign language Oscar submission that is considerably better than this year’s winner, Rainbow screens Saturday (9/25) at the New Peoples Cinema as part of SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema series.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

King of Clubs: Limelight

Believe it or not, the one-time undisputed king of the New York nightclub scene originally hailed from Canada. Former club kids of a certain age will know that could only be one man: Peter Gatien, the controversial figure behind legendary night-spots including the Limelight, Paladium, and Club U.S.A. His spectacular rise and epic legal battles are chronicled in Billy Corben’s latest documentary, Limelight (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Though a teenage hockey incident resulted in Gatien’s trademark eye-patch, he quickly embraced the roguish image it lent him. An entrepreneur at an early age, he used the compensation from the accident to start his first venture. Hearing of a bankrupt club in Miami, Gatien scooped it up and turned it around in record time. He quickly became the nightclub king of Florida, but in his business, he knew New York was not just the big leagues, it was the only game that counted.

Of course, Gatien made it here and stayed on top for quite a while. Indeed, some of the best sequences of the film explain how he manufactured his clubs’ popularity, identifying and co-opting the right club kids to bring in their friends, knowing the suburban wannabes would follow. Some peer leaders turned out to be a bit unsavory and just about all of them did drugs. For years, Gatien was hounded by charges of facilitating drug commerce, but not directly trafficking himself. Unfortunately, the film unambiguously suggests Gatien fell for the wrong woman who opened him up for specific financial prosecutions, as well.

Though he beat the drug related charges fair-and-square, the film rather protests too much when it frequently complains Gatien was persecuted by the zero-tolerance Giuliani administration. Do not even try to tell us Gatien did not understand illegal substances were indirectly fueling his businesses. After all, Limelight is directed by Billy Corben, the man who made Square Grouper and the Cocaine Cowboys movies. Drug docs are what he does (and that’s cool). Just level with us: the music was kicking, the drugs were flowing, and it was awesome.

In that spirit, Limelight is quite an entertaining hybrid of true crime and Behind the Music-style documentaries. Corben easily exceeds the scandal quota, which is a good thing, whereas the reflective but still steely looking Gatien is definitely an interview subject who came to play. In fact, he seems to cry out for a bio-pic starring James Woods. The blue-tinged neon lighting is also a nice touch, setting the right smoky, after hours mood.

Corben knows this beat and he keeps pace brisk. However, as a rather successful filmmaker, certainly by documentary standards, one would hope he could afford better looking graphics by now. While ultimately they are neither here nor there, their cheesy look is a bit of a distraction from the business at hand. Regardless, Limelight is an enjoyable tell-all reminiscence of slightly old school New York, recommended to the nostalgic and the gawkers when it opens this Friday (9/23) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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