J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 10 Theatrical Releases of 2011

It was another tough year at the box office, with the film industry feeling the pain of a not quite dead but extremely sleepy economy and the karmic payback for their over-reliance on 3-D premium tickets. However, discerning viewers could have found some comparative values at theaters this year, considering half of 2011’s ten best films clocked in at well over three and a half hours. The this year’s list of the ten best films to have arguable theatrical distribution (as opposed to festival screenings) follows in alpha order, rather than descending running times.

It has become almost a cliché to heap honors on Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, but it truly is a charming film, refreshingly free of cynicism and quite inventive in the ways it both maintains and breaks its novelty format.

About twenty years after the fact, Edward Yang’s nearly four hour masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day finally got a legit New York theatrical run courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In his hands, the juvenile delinquents of 1960’s Taiwan became the stuff of epic tragedy.

Though it landed on PBS less than a month after it opened in New York, Amanda Pope & Tchavdar Georgiev’s Desert of Forbidden Art had more revelations per frame than any other nonfiction film in 2011. Not only is it a fascinating hitherto unknown chapter of Cold War history, the work of the Soviet era modern artists saved by Igor Savitsky is absolutely stunning, clearly ranking alongside their western contemporaries.

Wickedly slick and brutally honest, Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double took serious guts to make. However, his visceral dramatization of Uday Hussein reign of perverse terror will be recognized in the future as the definitive cinematic depiction of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Postmodern by postmodern standards, Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories turned film noir conventions on their head over the course of four and a half twisty-turny hours. Audacious in its narrative gamesmanship, its subplots have subplots, yet it is completely engaging every step of the way.

Second only to the Czech Rebelove among musicals that forthrightly address the era of Communist oppression, Valery Todorovsky’s Hipsters was sexy and stylish like its title characters. It is also a deeply humane film that even pays homage to Charlie Parker. New Yorkers are still waiting for this distinctive crowd pleaser, which has already opened in Los Angeles.

It is impossible to hang any pat label on Sion Sono’s four-hour Love Exposure, but once you have seen it, you know you saw a film. Chocked full of sexualized religious imagery, this tale of a panty-peeking amateur pornographer’s battle against a doomsday cult is a major work from a master auteur.

Only too brief at 272 minutes, the late Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon is an exquisitely rich period production and utterly absorbing storytelling. While its swashbuckling romance is wonderfully old fashioned, it is also mischievously sly in its telling.

Striking to look at, Sherwood Hu’s The Prince of the Himalayas presents Shakespeare’s Hamlet on its greatest stage ever: the Tibetan mountain range. Hu also fearlessly rewrites the Danish play in ways that are shockingly effective. Now screening in New York at the Rubin Museum of Art, it is the Shakespearean film of the year, featuring one of the most beautiful and haunting Ophelias ever.

190 minutes of madness, Kôji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army gave audiences an inside look into Japan’s notorious Marxist terrorist group as they turned on each other in an orgy of violent “self-criticism” and torture. Probably more damning and outright terrifying than their former comrade Wakamatsu realizes, it should be requiring viewing to understand the nature and tactics of the extreme left.

The platoon of self-proclaimed Oscar contenders slipping in and out of theaters in December to meet eligibility requirements always complicates best-of lists. Michelle Yeoh gives an Academy worthy performance in Luc Besson’s The Lady, which is currently embargoed for reviews, except year-end consideration. Also worthy for year-end shout-outs, Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong are two of the year’s best villains, wonderfully erudite and sarcastic in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard. Finally, Jonathan English’s Ironclad deserves credit for the best use of a severed arm as a bludgeon. Happy New Year.

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The Worst Film of 2011: The Ledge

The Sundance press corps is not exactly a hotbed of Evangelical Christianity, so when they unanimously diss and dismiss a self-proclaimed atheist “thriller” as a steaming pile of rubbish, it is worth noting. This was the case with Matthew Chapman’s deservedly panned The Ledge, which is indeed the worst film of 2011, but not for the reasons he might assume.

In a way, it is sort of a gift to dub a film like this the worst, because it probably plays to his persecution complex. However, if this dissuades only one person from enduring his lame potboiler, it is worth it. Sadly, there were several other candidates in 2011. In fact, this piece should carry a huge asterisk, since I have not been subjected to the precociousness of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’m also at a loss to explain why Peep World was produced or why anyone would think Sarah Silverman is funny. The staggeringly ill-conceived Waiting for Forever was a particularly close contender, but it so earnestly wants to be loved, it is hard to empty another critical clip into it. There is no such problem with the Ledgeroo.

The Ledge begins with a dude on a ledge and the sooner he jumps, the better. This is Gavin Nichols, an aggressively atheist hotel manager, who decided to "seduce" one of his maids (evidently, because he lacks the sense of moral responsibility that comes with a belief in a higher power) as a way to get back at her Evangelical husband and by extension all Christians. This constitutes workplace sexual harassment. No matter what Chapman might think, there is nothing cute or romantic about it. It is illegal and no woman who finds herself in Shana’s place has to take it.

Of course, in the godless world of The Ledge, his victim, Shana, falls in love with her sexual predator, while her faithful husband is presented as the creep. In violation of all Christian principles, he takes Shana hostage, issuing Nichols a grim ultimatum: kill thyself by the appointed hour or Shana’s death will be on your head. At this point, dumb copper Hollis Lucetti wanders onto the ledge, so we can watch Nichols’ stilted story in flashbacks.

Though Chapman’s story and dialogue are howlingly bad, his cast does not do him any favors either. Terrence Howard’s flat-footed Lucetti basically makes surliness boring. As Nichols, Charlie Hunnam looks like a surfer and sounds like a used car salesman, while Liv Tyler basically sleepwalks through each of Shana’s scenes, as if she were zonked out on Thorazine.

Considering the thinness of the characterizations, the hamminess of Hunnam’s lead performance, and the clumsy plot contrivances, one has to wonder if it was all produced by Max Bialystock, but the poorly executed The Ledge is just a mirthless mess. Frankly, this is an unusually mean-spirited and hypocritical film, exhibiting the same judgmental intolerance it makes such an exaggerated show of condemning. Petty and genuinely misogynistic, The Ledge is the worst film of 2011. Happy New Year.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Santa Stinks en Français

What’s a merry Christmas without a little collateral damage? Fortunately, the French are there to remind us how aggressively crummy the holidays are. If you spent December 25th alone, Jean-Marie Poiré’s Le père Noël est une ordure will make you grateful. Demurely translated as Santa Stinks (trailer here), this French yuletide favorite is now playing a special holiday engagement at MoMA.

Pierre and Thérèse are WASPY volunteers at a suicide hotline working Christmas Eve for their well-to-do busy-body supervisor, Madame Musquin, who will spend most of the night stuck in the elevator. She will be the lucky one. A flamboyant transvestite caller, their mega-pregnant client Josette, and her nebbish but psychotic husband Félix will reduce their evening to anarchy, periodically interrupted by visits from their immigrant neighbor Preskovic, bearing ever more unlikely dishes of his scatological native cuisine.

If the basic premise of Ordure sounds familiar that is because Nora Ehpron neutered it with her American remake Mixed Nuts. In truth, a film like this could never be made here today. The professionally aggrieved, most definitely including GLAAD and CAIR, would have a seizure. Truly, there is something to offend everyone: gay jokes, foreigner jokes, sex jokes, animal husbandry, and language that would make rappers blush, even in subtitles. Basically, it is everything you could every ask Santa for wrapped up under the tree and since it is screening at MoMA, you can even get your film snob on while you watch.

Based on a stage play mounted by the Le Splendid company Ordure is wickedly funny, but not exactly an acting workshop. Frankly, Splendid trouper Thierry Lhermitte mugs something awful as Pierre, but you can’t say he isn’t working for his laughs. Yet, he is downright subtle compared to Christian Clavier’s cross-dressing Katia. Perhaps Anémone gives the driest, most understated turn as Thérèse, but it is only by comparison to her colleagues’ unrestrained lunacy.

Ordure is so shamelessly unrepentant, it comes as a breath of fresh air. Surly and dirty-minded, it has the attitude of a mid 1970’s Mel Brooks movie with an inflamed skin rash. As a longstanding Christmas tradition, it gives one a new appreciation for the French. It also makes you want to keep them at a distance. Highly recommended, but absolutely not for children or the easily offended, it screens through Monday (1/2) at the Museum of Modern Art. Happy Holidays.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Man in the Hood: El Sicario, Room 164

Don’t ask who that masked man is. You don’t want to know. In 2009, a sicario (a professional killer working for the Mexican drug cartels) gave an in-depth interview to Charles Bowden for a revealing Harper’s article. Despite the cartel’s $250,000 bounty, he subsequently consented to a lengthy on-camera interview with Bowden’s filmmaker colleague Gianfranco Rosi, who shaped his pseudo-confession into the documentary El Sicario, Room 164 (trailer here), now playing in New York at Film Forum.

Rosi and Bowden are deliberately sketchy about the details, but the film was shot in a border town hotel room (number 164), where the masked sicario once held and tortured someone who owed money to his cartel. Eventually, he turned the battered man over to another team of sicarios. While he does not know his victim’s ultimately fate, he knowledgeably assumes a grisly end. Though this disturbing information seems to lend considerable significance to the location, it quickly becomes apparent the sicario has done such crimes innumerable times before in similar motels and so-called “safe houses” on either side of the border.

The sicario might very well be embellishing a host of individual details, but the broad strokes he sketches out ring chillingly true. Like a talented young baseball player, the sicario was recruited by his cartel at a young age. After serving a drug-running apprenticeship, the cartel greased his way into the police academy. Yes, the killer is also a copper. He estimates about a quarter of the graduates of all Mexico’s law enforcement academies are cartel plants. Not surprisingly, the free access to squad cars greatly simplifies the kidnapping process.

164 is all kinds of scary. Frankly, it makes it pretty clear narco-terrorist warlords have taken over the country. This is not happening in remote Afghanistan, but along our southern border. It is also evident the current administration is not capable of thinking sufficiently strategically over the long term to combat them in any meaningful way. Sending them a bunch of free guns as part of Operation Fast & Furious just is not going to do it.

Rosi focuses nearly exclusively on the hooded sicario as he uses a sketch pad to delineate the structure and methods of the cartels with icy precision. For occasional bumper shots, he shows scenes of the sicario’s scarred and sordid Juárez, sort of like Ozu transitions from Hell. Essentially, we are in that motel room (or one very much like it) listening to the anonymous assassin. It might not sound especially cinematic, but it is riveting.

If just half of what the sicario says is true, then the drug war is over in Mexico. The cartels won. It is tempting to get hung up on the particulars of his story, most notably his conversion story which rivals that of Saul on the road to Damascus. Then again, there must be some reason he is talking about the inner workings of his former business to director-cinematographer Rosi and co-producer Bowden, in defiance of the quarter million dollar price on his head. Indeed, it might be the most brutal talking head film ever produced, with the off-camera violence palpably lingering in the air. Recommended for viewers who can handle a talky dose of reality, 164 is now playing in New York at Film Forum.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Servant: Chun Hyang’s Story Turned Inside Out

During the Joseon era, seduction was a form of blood sport. Chun Hyang was one of the star players. Though the low-born daughter of gisaeng singer is celebrated for her chastity in legend and song, Kim Dae-woo paints a rather different portrait in The Servant (trailer here), now available on DVD from Pathfinder Entertainment.

Chun Hyang’s mother Wol-Mae knew what she wanted for her daughter and the noble scholar Lee Mong-ryong fit the bill well enough. While duly setting her sites on the big fish, Chun Hyang also turns the head of his servant Jeon Bang-ja, a future outlaw, who tells the tale to his prospective biographer in a series of flashbacks. Despite his commonness, Bang-ja (as he is traditionally referred to) also catches Chun Hyang’s eye thanks to the tricks of seduction he learns from Lee’s dissolute old house guest.

Before long, the servant appears to have out maneuvered his master, seducing Chun Hyang first and more satisfactorily, if you will. However, the stratagems in this game are decidedly long term, as Bang-ja learns when his former master returns as a newly appointed government inspector. Like most cowards, Lee is petty and dangerous by virtue of his power.

While Servant has the outward veneer of a prestige costume drama, it often inhabits some sexually provocative territory somewhere between tease and softcore, much like Kim’s previous film Forbidden Quest, except more so. One assumes its take on Chun Hyang’s famous story resonated with Korean audiences in much the same manner Shakespeare in Love spoke to the English-speaking market, but with more naughty bits. Yet, the surprisingly complicated intrigues and cutting comedy of manners should still appeal to viewers previously unfamiliar with the legend.

Jo Yeo-jeong fearlessly takes on the iconic role, vividly portraying her hitherto unknown Machiavellian instincts and seductiveness. She has a real screen presence, yet Ryu Hyeon-gyeong is quite possibly hotter as Hyang Dan-yi, Chun Hyang’s maid who carries a torch for Bang-ja. (Arguably, Kim Seong-ryeong is as well, playing the gisaeng stage mother with delightful relish, but she is one of the few cast members to stay fully clothed.)

As far as the men are concerned, Ryu Seung-beom is appropriately hissable and cold-blooded as the serpentine Lee. Yet Kim Ju-hyeok is a bit of weak spot for the film, never really delivering the animal magnetism required of Bang-ja.

Servant really is a lushly produced period drama. Indeed, Jeong Gyeong-heu’s costumes look great while the cast wears them. Those who know a bit about the epic folktale will also appreciate the clever ways director Kim’s screenplay invokes and subverts it. It is definitely for adults, but it is one of the smarter lusty films you will see. Freely recommended for fully informed and mature viewers, The Servant is now available on DVD.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Honored and Preserved: These Amazing Shadows

It took a special talent to rile up the great Jimmy Stewart, but the not so great Ted Turner had it. However, the hue and cry he raised against the Mouth from the South’s colorization program ultimately put the Library of Congress in the film preservation business, as the custodians of the National Film Registry. Filmmakers and scholars discuss many of the officially recognized films cafeteria style in Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s These Amazing Shadows (trailer here), which airs this Thursday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Responding to the concerns of Stewart and his colleagues, Congress sprang into action, passing a bill none of them had read. Eventually, the Library of Congress’s legal staff determined they had been charged with selecting twenty-five culturally and artistically significant films each year to be preserved for generations to come. Though the list is largely determined by a panel of experts, public input is also solicited. It is a retrospective honor, reserved for films at least ten years old, with practical consequences for posterity.

Naturally, there are many clips of widely acknowledged classics, such as The Godfather and It’s a Wonderful Life. However, Mariano and Norton seem more interested in the oddities on the list, like Gus Visser and His Singing Duck, an early experiment with soundie technology from 1925 and films whose inclusion are clearly noted to criticize the notions of American exceptionalism, such as Dave Tatsuno’s Topaz, a collection of amateur films documenting life in a Japanese internment camp.

Perhaps Star Wars fans will be most frustrated by Shadows because it raises but never addresses what will be an obvious question for them. Not surprisingly A New Hope, a.k.a. Star Wars, was selected for the Registry, but given Lucas’s persistent habit of making alterations both large and small, one wonders which version has been preserved? The broadcast version of Shadows never explores this issue.

There are tons of talking heads in the documentary, but none really has anything stop-the-presses insightful to say. Mostly, we simply get bromides about how nice it is to see movies in theaters because it is part of a communal experience. Whereas, just why Peter Coyote is selected as an expert on the Zapruder Film frankly remains a bit baffling.

For an honor like the National Film Registry, what is not on the list is just as controversial as what has been selected, but the broadcast cut never tackles the subject of arguable omissions. Of course, since films do not have any window of eligibility, it is never too late to rectify an oversight, which is why the absence of such discussion is so glaring. Though this year’s list will be announced imminently, I am happy to suggest for next year: Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky, King Vidor’s The Fountainhead, and Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm.

Essentially, Shadows is like a lite beer version of a Chuck Workman film, replacing his visual wit and verve, with some flat commentary. It is a passable time killer for movie lovers, but hardly appointment television when it airs this Thursday (12/29) on Independent Lens.

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Farhadi’s 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 very way of life in Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear winning A Separation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at Film Forum.

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 driving audiences to the brink of exhaustion. Like many of the persecuted Jafar Panahi’s films, it shines a 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, given their superior resources, 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 and understandably confused 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 partially walked back those comments and Separation has subsequently been submitted as Iran’s official contender for best foreign language Academy Award consideration. It is hard to judge an Iranian artist for whatever survival strategies they might employ. Regardiless, Separation is an unusually powerful film. Highly recommended, it is easily one of the year’s best. It opens this Friday (12/30) in New York at Film Forum.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Time is Running Out for Bonnie & Clyde

It was still tough, but New York offered comparatively more opportunities during the Great Depression (as opposed to the current lousy one), thanks to the skyscraper building boom. In contrast, West Dallas was pretty much dust bowl bleak. However, two tempestuous lovers rose up from this hardscrabble environment to become folk heroes in their own time. Forever immortalized in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, the more historically accurate life story of the bank-robbing duo has been set to music. However, if you want to see Bonnie & Clyde (promo here) on Broadway you had better move fast. It closes this Friday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

West Dallas was sort of the end of the line in the 1930’s. It was where Clyde Chestnut Barrow’s family drifted into a squatter’s camp after losing their sharecropping work. Constantly in trouble with the law, the young Barrow grew up idolizing Billy the Kid. Bonnie Elizabeth Parker saw herself as the next Clara Bow, but she would settle for anything but average.

Barrow and his brother Buck were already fugitive escapees when he first meets Parker. The Brothers Barrow would soon be back in the slammer, with Buck voluntarily turning himself in and Clyde returning the hard way. In fact, this prison stretch would change everything for the famous Barrow, turning him into a killer, even before Parker aided and abetted his escape. At that point, the die is essentially cast for the gangster-lovers, but they intend to go out in style.

Is there anything as romantic as a hail of bullets? Shrewdly, book writer Ivan Menchell puts it up top, telling their story in flashback form in a way that seems almost empowering, as though Bonnie and Clyde are going out on their own terms. Indeed, B&C is pretty hot for Broadway, aside from the thinly veiled prison rape references, which are a real mood killer. They certainly sway audience sympathies towards Barrow though.

It is rather surprising drama critics did not more fully embrace B&C, considering how easy it would be to dub it the Occupy West Dallas musical. Clearly tapping into the Steinbeckian Depression era mythos, it even employs iconic Dorothea Lange photos as part of its backdrop image projections.

If you want a lesson in economic history, you should probably not look for it in a Broadway theater. In truth, one of the great distractions of B&C is that it never asks what ultimately happens to the many mom & pop general stores Barrow hold-up. On the other hand, if you are coming for the music, Frank Wildhorn’s tunes are quite strong, deftly integrating elements of era-appropriate Gospel, blues and roots music, while staying within the comfort zone of Broadway performers. Don Black’s lyrics are also sharp and frequently loaded with smart historical references. Their words and music are well served by some inventive staging, with several tunes cleverly evolving into unexpected duets.

It is also surprising that B&C could not generate more heat from the presence of lead actress Laura Osnes as the “ravishing redhead.” The winner of the NBC reality show You’re the One that I Want that produced the cast of the most recent Grease revival, she is one of the few pure theater performers who can claim a national following. She is also quite good in the part, displaying a rich voice and scorching Maggie the Cat-like stage presence. Although not as magnetic, Jeremy Jordan has the right fierce intensity to carry off Barrow and also has pretty strong chops as well.

It is a shame B&C is closing, because it is a fine star vehicle for Osnes and it employs some very stylistically flexible musicians in the pit, who, led by musical director Jason Howland, really have a spring in their step. Despite its relatively short stage life there will be a cast album forthcoming and a production is scheduled to open in Tokyo next month, so there will be a few more chapters for the show. Recommended for those who like a bit of blues and twang in their book musicals, Bonnie & Clyde runs through Friday (12/30) on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld.

(Photo: Nathan Johnson)

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Submitted by the UK: Patagonia

The last recorded use of the stocks as a form of corporal punishment occurred in late nineteenth century Wales (thank you Alan Ayckbourn for this timely information). Although most spent their time laboring in the mines rather than confined to the medieval devices, it was certainly a difficult period for the Welsh. Hoping for a better life, a small group of settlers established a Welsh colony in Argentine Patagonia. This Welsh-Argentine connection inspired the two parallel but unconnected stories of Marc Evans’ Patagonia (trailer here), which has been officially submitted by the United Kingdom for Academy Award consideration as the best foreign language film of the year.

Rhys and his girlfriend Gwen are having a rough patch in their relationship. Though they have been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant, she remains unsure about the whole marriage thing. At the last minute, she joins his trip to photograph the ridiculously picturesque Welsh chapels of Patagonia, with the intent of ironing out their issues. However, the plan is complicated by the presence of their guide Mateo, a rugged Welsh gaucho.

Meanwhile, the aging Cerys takes her unsuspecting nephew Alejandro in the opposite direction. Supposedly accompanying her for a routine hospital visit, the nebbish sci-fi reader finds himself en-route to Wales, where Cerys intends to seek out her ancestral farm.

Wisely, the twains are never forced to meet in some unlikely third act contrivance. Nor are their thematic relations particularly strong, beyond the Welsh Patagonian angle, which is admittedly pretty distinctive cinematic territory. The scenery is also quite pleasing for both story arcs, whether it be the rolling hills and stone cottages of Wales or the striking mountain vistas of Patagonia.

Matthew Gravelle’s poor old Rhys might not be a bad chap, but if your impression of Welshmen is largely informed by Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas, and Sir Tom Jones, the moody photographer is bound to be a disappointment. The sensitive man of action Mateo (somewhat confusingly played by Matthew Rhys) certainly compensates in this regard. Frankly though, the love triangle (with its third side nicely played by Nia Roberts, director Evans’ wife) is the weaker of the two narratives. (So much angst and heartache could have been avoided had they simply jotted each other a few quick notes at key junctures.)

In contrast, there is something about Cerys’ return to her roots that strikes a deep chord. Evans never overplays it though, letting the significance of her sentimental journey evolve organically. Likewise, Marta Lubos is quite charismatic as Cerys, but keeps her scrupulously grounded. While saddled with a bit of a wishy-washy character, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart certainly plays Alejandro with whole-hearted earnestness. Still, the amount of mascara lathered on Welsh pop star Duffy as his potential romantic interest Sissy is just distractingly out of place.

Like Terreferma and Montevideo: Taste of the Dream, Patagonia looks great (cinematographer Robbie Ryan has a keen eye for the disparate environments) and also sounds quite pleasant. Both Joseph LoDuca’s score and “Mateo’s Theme” composed by Angelo “Twin Peaks” Badalamenti take clear inspiration from the romantic music of Argentina. Nonetheless, much of the drama is rather forced. Not without merits, Patagonia is considerably better than last year’s best foreign language Oscar winner, so Academy voters could probably do far worse the Welsh-Spanish film this year.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Submitted by Italy: Terraferma

The tiny Sicilian island of Linosa looks like a Mediterranean paradise. Unfortunately, regular work can only be found there two months out the year. In addition to tourists, illegal immigrants from North Africa have also been flocking to the isle, further complicating the local economy. Indeed, immigration is the driving concern of Emanuele Crialese’s Terraferma (trailer here), which has been officially submitted by Italy for Academy Award consideration as the best foreign language film of the year.

Filippo is not too bright, but the kid has not had a lot of breaks in life. After his father was lost at sea, his grandfather and uncle have waged a cold war over his future. The old salt-of-the-earth Ernesto wants Filippo to be a fisherman like his father before him, whereas the smarmy Nino offers his nephew seasonal work catering to tourists. Unsatisfied with either dead-end option for her son, Giulietta resolves to leave the island after the upcoming season, a decision that does not sit well with Filippo.

Even though Filippo remains determined to stay, a series of disparate new arrivals will challenge his family’s traditional way of life. First, his mother rents out their home to three tourists from the “dry land,” including the very noticeable Maura. Soon thereafter, Ernesto and Filippo fish out several drowning Ethiopians from the sea, secretly sheltering the pregnant Sara and her young son. For their efforts, Ernesto’s boat is confiscated. From this point on, Terraferma is not very subtle.

That water sure is blue though. Not merely background color, the deep azure sea is a critically important visual element for the film. Crialese pointedly contrasts images of tourists playfully diving off pleasure cruisers with that of illegal immigrants desperately abandoning sinking makeshift vessels. It is heavy-handed, but striking.

Dazzlingly lensed by Fabio Cianchetti, Terraferma captures all the natural beauty of Linosa. He also evokes the chiaroscuro effect of old masters in several hushed scenes of good Samaritans ministering to the despised huddled masses. There are plenty of bikini shots as well, not that anyone will ever confuse the film with Beach Blanket Bingo.

Cianchetti’s camera also loves Mimmo Cuticchio, both an award winning puppeteer and an accomplished actor. Resembling a wiser, more weathered Andrew Weil, Cuticchio has the perfectly seasoned gravitas to serve as Ernesto, the film’s proletariat moral compass. Filippo Pucillo does not have any of that going on as he namesake. Granted, the twenty year-old is supposed to be immature, but one starts to wonder how he has gotten this far in life. Conversely, Donatella Finocchiaro plays mother Giulietta with a convincing world-weary earthiness, despite not looking particularly matronly. Former model Martina Codecasa also shows a bit of unexpected substance beyond mere eye candy as the topless sunbathing Maura.

Terraferma is mostly quite effective as a bit of fun in the sun with a guilty social conscience, though the spectacle of throngs of prospective asylum seekers overwhelming Filippo’s “borrowed” skiff like a horde of zombies nearly undermines the message. Regardless, it is an absolutely lovely looking film. Indeed, both the lush visuals and simplistic humanism ought to appeal both to Academy voters and prospective distributors.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Submitted by Serbia: Montevideo—Taste of a Dream

In 1930, Yugoslavia’s national football (a.k.a. soccer) team had quite a run during the very first FIFA World Cup. If you think Serbia still remembers with pride that celebrated team consisted entirely of Serbians, you would be correct. The story of how a team of underdogs played their way into the tournament, in spite of a Croatian boycott, is dramatized in Dragan Bjelogrlic’s historical sports drama Montevideo: Taste of a Dream (sometimes also subtitled as God Bless You, trailer here), which has been officially submitted by Serbia for Academy Award consideration as the best foreign language film of the year.

Serbia is a long way away from Uruguay. With the memories and repercussions of WWI still very fresh for the newly formed country of Yugoslavia, the team requires a serious patron to underwrite their journey, like the king. He will need some convincing. Unfortunately, the national team is a motley bunch, largely overlapping with Belgrade’s sort of-kind of professional club, conveniently owned by their chairman. There is hope though when they sign the poor but cocky Tirke Tirnanić, who can do just about anything with a soccer ball (from here on, we’re sticking with the American vernacular). Still, he has a good heart, always looking out for the film’s Oliver Twisty narrator, Stanoje, a street urchin who must wear a leg brace.

Naturally, Tirnanić has a rival on the team, the comparatively well-heeled Mosha Blagoje Marjanović. Initially, they clash over differences of style and then over two women: Rosa, the good girl barmaid and Valeria, the vampy artist. It is pretty clear who should be with whom, but somehow they get mismatched.

Montevideo might be an Oscar long shot, but a forward-thinking art-house distributor should snap it up fast. It is easily one of the most commercial films in contention. Soccer continues to grow in popularity with Americans and fans tend to be rather internationalist in their outlook (so subtitles should be no problem). As sports films go, Montevideo has plenty of on-field action to satisfy enthusiasts, as well as two beautiful women. Of course, it is also totally manipulative. It is a sports film, after all.

Despite his baby-face, Petar Strugar makes a convincingly dashing rogue as Marjanović. While Miloš Biković’s nice guy right-winger (that is his position) comes across as something of an earnest stiff, such is the nature of sports movie protagonists. On the other hand, Nina Janković is downright fascinating as the nuanced troublemaker, Valeria.

A lovely period production, Montevideo captures all of Belgrade’s old world charm. Nemanja Petrovic’s design team’s attention to detail shows in every frame, while cinematographer Goran Volarevic gives it all a lush, nostalgic look. Still, given recent history in the Balkans, the occasional flash of nationalism remains a little scary, as when the crowd spontaneously bursts into the Serbian anthem after a pivotal game.

While a tad long at one hundred forty minutes, it is quite entertaining in a pleasingly old-fashioned way, with an appropriately hot and swinging-ish soundtrack. Considerably better than last year’s best foreign language Academy Award winner, Montevideo ought to have a further distribution life regardless of what Oscar does.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Dutch Cat Woman: Miss Minoes

Do not call Miss Minoes catty. The proper term is feline. She should know what passes for political correctness amongst the cat population. She used to be one. Indeed, she has a difficult time acclimating to the human world in Vincent Bal’s Miss Minoes (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

After an unfortunate accident involving a mysterious barrel of chemicals from the local deodorant factory, Miss Minoes suddenly transforms into a human. However, she retains many of her feline characteristics, including a taste for fish, the fear of dogs, and an ability to caterwaul. Though some of her former friends now shun her, she can still communicate with the cats of Killendoorn, whom she uses as a network of informers for Tibbe, the incompetent journalist temporarily sheltering her. Naturally, newsmakers do not think twice about talking in front of cats. They are commonplace in this quaint little town and frankly rather disposable.

For a while, Tibbe becomes top dog at the paper. Unfortunately, when Miss Minoes and her feline associates goad him into writing an unsourced attack on the deodorant factory owner (a secret animal hater) he becomes the Mikael Blomkvist of Killendoorn. Still, a philanthropic industrialist will surely be no match for a woman with the mentality of a house cat and the eight year old girl living below Tibbe.

Without question, Carice van Houten’s work as Miss Minoes is quite a pleasant surprise. Her twitchy cat-like mannerisms and wide-eyed naivety are rather disarmingly winning. Though an international star, she is clearly not afraid to look silly, which is cool. On the other hand, Theo Maassen’s Tibbe is just a big lunkhead. He might be somewhat “likable,” but it is hard to invest in a character that is dumber than the animals around him.

Yet, the biggest problem with the film is the standard issue villain, Mr. Ellemeet of the DEO factory (broadly but flatly played by Pierre Bokma). Frankly, the nefarious businessman-slash-hypocritical fussbudget is such a cliché even the cats in the film seem bored with him. It really is a shame, because his subplots are so rote and uninspired, they weigh the film down like an albatross around its neck.

Indeed, there are some nice elements to be found in Miss Minoes, including an appealingly eccentric lead turn from van Houten. Cinematographer Walther Vanden Ende’s warm lighting and autumnal color palette are also quite inviting. They just get no help whatsoever from the inert, paint-by-numbers screenplay, based on Annie M.G. Schmidt’s Dutch children’s book. For cat loving little girls, it is probably still quite engaging, but parents should be warned, there is some mild dubbed cursing. Cineastes should also beware, the dubbing is considerably below current anime standards. Mostly harmless and occasionally charming, despite trafficking in the worst class-based stereotypes, Miss Minoes opens tomorrow (12/23) in New York at the Cinema Village and Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wenders’ Pina in 3D

Pina Bausch appeared in films directed by Federico Fellini and Pedro Almodóvar. Her work had been documented fairly extensively on film, but never adequately, at least according to her friend and admirer, Wim Wenders. 3D would be a game-changer, making possible immersive documentary experiences like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and now Wenders’ Pina (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

It is somewhat unusual for countries to choose documentaries as their official best foreign language Academy Award submission and it is usually a mistake when they do. However, Bausch is a genuine cultural icon in Germany and Wenders has an international reputation. As a result, not only was Pina selected, it is considered one of the top contenders (perversely this also means it is in great jeopardy of being snubbed altogether, given the Academy’s erratic history in this category). Regardless, it involves the most artful and innovative uses of 3D technology perhaps ever (or at least since the “educational” Sex and Zen 3D).

Tragically, Pina 3D was nearly over before it began when Bausch unexpectedly died on the eve of the film’s rehearsals. Though Wenders initially canceled the production, Bausch’s troupe convinced him to carry on. Never merely followers of direction, Bausch’s dancers were active collaborators in the development of her choreography, responding physically to her verbal “questioning.” As a result, many formed an unusually close bond with Bausch.

Most of the works selected by Wenders and Bausch are amongst her best known and most celebrated. Yet, they also fully embrace some of the darker imagery and overtly Sisyphean themes of her work. The burying motifs in particular are not likely to be confused with The Nutcracker any time soon. Yet, if that challenges some, it will be refreshingly striking to other, especially those who appreciate modern dance.

Still, it is important to emphasize the wit and physicality of Bausch’s work. It is not drily intellectual. In fact, the eccentric social dance and snappy 1920’s music (composed by Charlie Chaplin, among others) often lend Kontakthof an air of giddiness. Decidedly not staid in his approach, Wenders opens-up the film rather effectively by filming many dances on location around the city of Wuppertal. However, the enormous boulder and man-made waterfall of Vollmond (designed by longtime colleague Peter Pabst) dramatically set the scene for the film’s real show-stopper.

With a third dimension, Wenders represents Bausch’s choreography quite powerfully. On the other hand, his practice of showing archival footage as projected film flickering against diegetic surfaces is a distracting contrivance. Though heartfelt, the interview soundbites with her dancers are not especially memorable either. In truth, Pina is really only about one thing: showing Bausch’s steps to the fullest extent possible. This it does quite well indeed. Recommended for connoisseurs of contemporary dance and those looking for a redemptive encounter with 3D glasses, Pina opens this Friday (12/23) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Shindo in LA: The Naked Island

Kaneto Shindō is the Japanese Manoel de Oliveira. At just two years shy of the century mark, Shindō’s latest film, Postcard, has been selected as Japan’s official foreign language Oscar submission. Ironically, Shindō thought his self-produced The Naked Island (trailer here) might be the final film of his career, way back in 1960. However, international critics embraced the work. Somewhat fittingly, it is the cornerstone of the Shindō retrospective starting today at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.

A nameless man, his wife, and their two sons live a meager existence terrace farming on the rocky Setonaikai archipelago. We get the sense that time has stood still for this hardscrabble family. They are deeply tied to the unforgiving land, working in near total isolation. They toil as best they can, but just as we start to feel for their daily plight, an act of casual abuse undermines our sympathies.

Evidently, such is life amongst the peasant-proles. It will get far more tragic as Shindō’s documentary-style tone poem poverty continues. Gorgeously filmed and featuring a lush, highly sought after soundtrack by Hikaru Hayashi, Island is probably one of the most artful vérité films ever produced. Yet, like its closest analog, Margot Benacerraf’s Araya, Island arguably fetishizes the islanders’ poverty as much as it decries it. Indeed, it seems downright elegiac for their disappearing way of life, with all its drudgery and mean living conditions, despite the obvious resulting misery.

As befitting an old Marxist, these themes of existential vulnerability are a constant in Shindō’s films, including his ambiguous horror-ish films, particularly Onibaba, in which an old woman’s economic survival depends on the superstitious trickery she employs to keep her daughter-in-law in her household.

Despite the ideological championing of Island, Onibaba and Kuroneko are truly Shindō’s masterworks. Nonetheless, his pseudo-doc is a haunting film. Rendered nearly without dialogue, it is a powerful example of how imagery and music can compliment and accentuate each other. Kiyoma Kuroda’s black and white cinematographer is striking, perfectly framing Shindō’s visuals. Although they are Shindō regulars, Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama could easily be mistaken for legitimate anthropologic subjects as the couple too poor to be named. Indeed, Otowa is ultimately rather devastating as the emotionally overwrought mother.

Island is a rich feast for the eyes and the ears, but that is about as deep as it goes. Though ostensibly genre films, Onibaba and Kuroneko have the arsenic that seeps into your subconscious. Island screens tonight, tomorrow, and Thursday (12/20-12-22) as part of the Cinefamily’s Shindō retrospective, with Kuroneko also screening tonight (12/20) and Onibaba screening this Friday (12/23). The latter two are highly recommended, at any time.

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Fincher Remakes the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Faithfully)

For a while, Lisbeth Salander was like Scarlett O’Hara with a nose ring. Every actress claiming to be under thirty who was not in contention, should have fired their agents. Eventually, Rooney Mara was chosen to follow in Noomi Rapace’s footsteps. It was one of several odd choices that produced David Fincher’s surprisingly straight forward remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (trailer here), which opens tonight in New York (a few hours earlier than first announced).

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Lisbeth Salander is a difficult woman to get to know. However, the hacker for hire can find out all there is to know about anyone else—for a price, of course. Her latest target she actually finds sort of interesting: Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist just found guilty of libeling a controversial businessman. Based on Salander’s vetting, Blomkvist has been hired by retired industrialist Henrik Vanger to solve the decades old disappearance of his favorite niece Harriet.

Still grieving the loss of the teen-aged girl, the old Vanger finds little comfort from the rest of his ghoulish clan, many of whom were (and continue to be) open National Socialist sympathizers. With a large, ugly family full of suspects to check out, Blomkvist has his work cut out for him, but he will find an unlikely ally in Salander, once she has dealt (severely) with some of her own personal issues.

As fans of the series already know, Blomkvist and Salander soon suspect the disappearance of the Vanger niece is part of a hitherto undetected pattern of serial killings. Indeed, anyone who has seen Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish Tattoo will find no surprises in Fincher’s remake. All the villains and shocking revelations remain exactly the same.

Frankly, Fincher’s approach to the material is nearly identical as well, delving into lurid family secrets to find grisly thrills. Nor does he shy away from the forerunner film’s two infamous inter-related scenes involving Salander and her so-called legal guardian. Yet, despite the cool dark vibe, Tattoo is not particularly Fincheresque. Compared to Fight Club and even The Social Network, it is far more conventional than auterist.

In terms of casting, Daniel Craig is a perfect fit for Blomkvist, looking like the slightly younger and more attractive brother of his Swedish predecessor, Michael Nyqvist. He is very convincing as the world weary journalistic everyman with an edge. In contrast, Rooney Mara is impossible to buy into as Salander. To put it bluntly, she looks like a horrendously made-up little girl rather than a grown woman, which might be in keeping with the source novels, but simply does not work on-screen, especially in her more harrowing scenes.

If you are going to remake one of the Salander films, Tattoo is the one to do. It features the most intriguing mystery that best stands alone. Wisely, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay downplays Blomkvist’s leftist ideology, but it also waters down the subplot involving the Sweden’s Nazi-sympathizing past, which gave Oplev’s version some of its distinctive seasoning. Still, when Blomkvist and Salander’s investigation starts humming along, it is easy to get caught up in the film’s energy.

Fincher’s Tattoo is certainly a professionally crafted film. Cinematography Jeff Cronenweth gives the film an icy grey look that perfectly represents Sweden. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s electro-industrial-ambient score is also eerily effective, largely establishing an independent identity for the film by itself. Still, considering how closely this Tattoo parallels the original, one wonders why they bothered to remake it. Critically miscast in a key role, Fincher’s Tattoo is a watchable but unnecessary remake. An acceptable compromise film during the holiday season but not worth standing in long lines for, it opens tonight (12/20) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Hamlet Reincarnated: The Prince of the Himalayas

Shakespeare famously wrote in As You Like It: “all the world’s a stage.” That includes the “Roof of the World” as well. In an act of sheer cinematic bravura, Sherwood Hu moves the Danish tragedy to the high Tibetan mountains, taking invigorating liberties with the Shakespeare play in the process. Appropriately, Hu’s The Prince of the Himalayas (trailer here), will have its premiere American theatrical engagement exclusively at the Rubin Museum of Art (home to the largest collection of Himalayan art in the West and some of the City’s finest film and jazz programming), starting this Friday.

Returning from his studies in Persia, Prince Lhamoklodan is distressed to learn he just missed his father’s funeral. He is also put-off by the news his uncle Kulo-ngam will become the crown-regent by marrying his mother Namn. Indeed, one ceremony closely follows the other, as his school chum Horshu observes. However, it is the ghost of his father who confirms Lhamoklodan's suspicions, setting him on a bloody course of vengeance.

So far, so Shakespearean. Yet, Hu has several surprises in store for viewers, most notably his decision to make the Himalayan Gertrude and especially its Claudius, the sympathetic core of the film. We learn rather early Kulo-ngam always loved Namn, but his not so dearly departed older brother cruelly intervened. As a result, Lhamoklodan comes across as one of the harsher, more spiteful Hamlets ever seen on-screen. Conversely, the ethereally beautiful Osaluyang is one of the most heartbreaking Ophelias. She also reaches rare heights of madness in a role often required to discretely slip into the water off-screen or off-stage in many conventional productions.

Borrowing elements from Macbeth and Sophocles, Hu’s adaptation of Shakespeare is inspired, but hardly slavish in its faithfulness. Yet, he arguably remains true to the spirit of the original play (nevertheless, you probably would not want to argue the point with Harold Bloom). Without question though, the Tibetan mountains and tundra must be the grandest, most expansive setting for any staging of Hamlet. If there is any misstep in the Himalayan Prince, it is that of over-scoring. The vast spaces of the Jiabo kingdom call out for eerie silence rather than prestige picture orchestrations.

Hu is a bold, slightly reckless filmmaker, who gets some powerful performances from his cast. Purba Rgyal is appropriately fierce and charismatic as Lhamoklodan, but Dobrgyal gives the film its soul as the acutely conflicted Kulo-ngam. His scenes with Zomskyid’s Namn/Gertrude are achingly touching, as is the exquisitely vulnerable performance of Sonamdolgar as Odsaluyang.

While Hu’s Prince often rather abruptly segues from scene to scene, his breakneck pacing wraps up Shakespeare’s longest play in an impressively economical 108 minutes. Purists might take issue with his alterations to the time honored tale (alas, poor Yorick did not make the cut). However, it is worth noting Kurosawa’s masterpiece Throne of Blood yielded probably the greatest death scene in motion picture history by revising the ending of Macbeth.

Granted, Hu’s Prince is not quite at that level, but not for a lack of ambition and vision. Indeed, it is a richly produced period piece, considerably superior to most of the supposed Oscar bait coyly dropping in and out of theaters over the next two weeks. Grand in scope and enormously satisfying, it is highly recommended when it screens at the Rubin Museum in New York over the course of ten non-sequential days, beginning the Friday (12/23) through Saturday, January 14th. Check their website for specific dates and times, as well as information about their world-class exhibits.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Park Chan-wook’s I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK

Schizophrenia, violent flights of fancy, and the occasional spot of bloodshed: this is how Park Chan-wook does young innocent love. Set in a mental institution, it is decidedly lighter fare from the Oldboy helmer, but it could still eat Benny & Joon for breakfast. That is a good thing. For fans of Korean cinema in all its varieties, Park offers both edgy genre elements and sentimental romance in I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK (trailer here), now available on DVD from Pathfinder Entertainment.

Both Cha Young-goon and Park Il-sun had horrible mothers. Largely raised by a loving but slightly unbalanced grandmother (who thought she was a mouse), Cha is convinced she is a cyborg. After Park’s mother abandoned him, he became a kleptomaniac. Exhibiting a host of anti-social tendencies, Park periodically admits himself when he realizes he needs reigning in. In contrast, Cha has been committed against her will, after an attempt to recharge her batteries nearly killed her.

Quite the troublemaker, Park specializes in stealing the powers (i.e. the craziness) of his fellow patients. He has trouble with basic human emotions, like sympathy, but when the distressed Cha arrives, it kindles something inside him. He has trouble applying these new feelings though, which is understandable given the circumstances. One of his most pressing challenges will be figuring out a way to get her to start eating again without fear the food will blow her circuitry.

Aside from the transcendently satisfying Underwater Love, Cyborg is about the sweetest film you can see without jeopardizing your hipster Asian cineaste street cred. This asylum is basically bedlam, allowing its patients to run amok largely unsupervised. Fortunately, they are not violent, though Cha would like to be. Part of her psychosis involves revenge fantasies against the “white ‘uns” (the be-smocked medical staff) for what their brethren did to her grandmother. Yet, the relationship that slowly evolves between her and Park is quite touching.

The waifish Lim Su-jeong is the picture of vulnerability as Cha, conveying her feverish delusions and self-destructive instincts in a way that pulls the audience in towards her, rather than pushing us away. Korean pop-star Rain is also solid enough as Park, credibly portraying his increasing affection for Cha.

There is nothing cheap about Cha and Park’s relationship. In fact, Cyborg has unexpected heft, depicting a troubled young man at a time when love demands he finally grow-up and start emotionally engaging with the world around him. That is some pretty heavy territory, but the genre trappings allow Park Chan-wook to lightly scamper about, while honestly earning his genuinely rewarding payoff. Underappreciated by fans of his relatively darker (as compared to nearly any film) Vengeance Trilogy and Thirst, Cyborg is a finely-tuned, deceptively deep film, highly recommended as your next DVD pick.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Southern and Slightly Gothic: The Undying

Dr. Barbara Haughton’s personal life is in a very bad place. The two men in her life are a comatose white trash thug and the ghost of a Confederate soldier. Somehow she manages to entwine herself in a love triangle with them both in Steven Peros’s The Undying (trailer here), which is now available on DVD from MTI Home Video.

Still blaming herself for the death of her fiancé, Haughton has rented a converted farm house in the far exurbs. Reputedly, it is haunted by the ghost Elijah Permenter, a Johnnie Reb killed by marauding union soldiers, along with his lover. Obviously, this is last place Haughton should live, but she takes it anyway. Before long, the spirit is doing all those little spooky ghost things, but she stays, increasingly enthralled by the picture of Permenter that came with the crib.

Meanwhile back at the hospital, Haughton is also strangely drawn to Jason Donovan, a mean cuss with a long history of violence, rendered brain dead by a recent altercation. Happy to be well rid of him, his wife approves pulling the plug. Acting on impulse, Haughton attempts resuscitation. Low and behold, up pops Permenter in Donovan’s body. Or is it? That is the film’s central question.

Rather than holding the formerly dead Donovan for observation, Haughton takes him home. One might think a mid-sized hospital would miss a dead body, but it takes them a while to notice. Frankly, for an educated woman Haughton does not appear to really think through the consequences of her actions. Her boss, the hard-drinking, sexually-harassing Dr. Lassiter, does not either, also acting like an anachronism from a bygone era in his own unappealing way.

Peros aims more for a Ghost Whisperer vibe than the terrrors of The Exorcist throughout this tale of love and possession. Often pretty to look at, there are some effectively eerie scenes in the first act and Robert F. Smith’s gauzy cinematography nicely suits the love from beyond the grave themes. However, it is devilishly hard buying into any of the relationships, dead or alive.

As Haughton, Deadwood’s Robin Weigert is a fairly bland woman-in-jeopardy protagonist. At least Anthony Carrigan certainly looks like a redneck lowlife as Donovan. Fortunately, the ever cool Wes Studi is on hand to grace the film with his dynamic presence, even though he is not provided any backstory or distinctive character traits to work with as Lt. Frank Wascoe.

Peros shows a real aptitude for establishing a gently otherworldly atmosphere in his sophomore feature outing Footprints, a small picture that nicely appreciates in memory with the passage of time (which in fact, is currently playing at the Roxie in San Francisco). One can see hints of that scene-setting skill in Undying, but it is mostly just a conventional paranormal romance. For non-discriminating fans of the light-supernatural, it is now available on DVD.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Pope Joan the Apocryphal

She was a figure of anti-Catholic lore largely but not decisively debunked by Protestant scholars. For centuries millions truly believed in the existence of a legendary female Pope. Indeed, enough references could be found in various sources (before you ask, this definitely includes Martin of Troppau’s Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum) to provide Donna Woolfolk Cross the hooks on which to hang a speculative novel about Johanna Anglicus, the woman who would be Pope (allegedly). The most likely apocryphal and very definitely controversial story comes to television when director-co-adapter Sönke Wortmann’s two part Pope Joan (trailer here), debuts this Sunday on ReelzChannel.

Like the other Joan, the life of Johanna (not yet known as Anglicus) will be short but epic. Her father is a priest from Britain who came to convert the godless Saxons. Unfortunately, most of his zeal is reserved for terrorizing his family. Despite her natural aptitude and general thirst for knowledge, he refuses to allow her any formal education. However, through the intercession of an unusually progressive Bishopric, Johanna eventually begins her studies at the Cathedral school, while staying as a guest of Count Gerold. She quickly forms a deep emotional bond with the Count, but not so much with the Countess.

War will soon disrupt their lives, but it offers Johanna the opportunity to assume her younger brother’s identity and take his place in a monastic order. There she will begin her ecclesiastic career, living in constant fear her secret will be revealed.

Pope Joan is not exactly a love letter to the Church (there was only one at the time), but not all of the clergy depicted are intolerant Savonarolas. In fact, at critical junctures of her life, Johanna is championed or protected by many men of the cloth, usually of the older and wiser variety. Frankly, one of the most sympathetic characters is Pope Sergius II, whom Anglicus (as he/she is then known) loyally serves. Still, her dogmatic father is so unremittingly abusive, it makes several of the early scenes punishingly difficult to watch.

Despite the gender-bending element of Anglicus’s supposedly suppressed story, Pope Joan is not really preoccupied with psycho-sexual issues. Instead, it is a more traditional feminist critique of an old world social order that afforded little or no opportunities to women. It does so with healthy doses of war, pestilence, and intrigue.

Having previously played an acting president on The West Wing, an unlikely British monarch in King Ralph, and the mother of all governors, Huey P. Long, John Goodman rounds out his resume with the portrayal of a Pope. While he somewhat stands out amid the European cast, his larger than life presence fits Sergius nicely.

Obviously, Johanna is the trickiest part to cast, because she must be boyish enough to pass for male, yet feminine enough to attract the attention of the manly Count Gerold. Frankly, that is probably impossible, but Johanna Wokalek has enough of a Tilda Swinton vibe to suspend disbelief in each context. With credits including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and 300, David Wenham brings plenty of hack-and-slash action credibility to the proceedings as Gerold, also developing some relatively convincing chemistry with Wokalek.

Pope Joan follows in the tradition of the epic miniseries so popular in the early 1980’s, but with a Euro sensibility. It recreates the early medieval era quite well, featuring production values at least a notch better than Spartacus. Wortmann has a good handle on the sweeping battle scenes and keeps the skullduggery humming along nicely. Recommended for fans of chewy historicals with a somewhat revisionist bent, parts one and two of Pope Joan premiere this Sunday (12/18) and Monday (12/19), respectively, on ReelzChannel (TimeWarner channel 131 and RCN channel 140 in New York), the network that brought viewers the Emmy winning Kennedys miniseries. It also plays in its entirely New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. (For help finding the network in your area go here.)

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Designing Modernism: The Eames

Charles and Ray Eames have been hailed as two of the most influential designers of the Twentieth Century. They have legions of hipster admirers, but their best known work was produced for corporate clients. Indeed, they were delighted to have the business. The power couple of modern design are profiled in Jason Cohn & Bill Jersey’s Charles & Ray Eames: the Architect and the Painter (trailer here), which airs this coming Monday on PBS’s American Masters.

Charles Eames was an architect who was never officially licensed to practice. His wife (not brother) Ray Eames was a painter who studied with Hans Hofmann. They are best known for the molded Eames chairs, which became a staple of chic suburban décor in the 1950’s. Royalties from the Herman Miller furniture company would underwrite many of the Eames’ more experimental work. However, some of their most ambitious projects were corporate work-for-hire, including the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Perhaps one of the biggest revelations of A&P is the role the Eameses played in Cold War history. At the behest of the U.S. Information Agency, the Eames studio produced a film for the previous 1959 World’s Fair, famous for the so-called kitchen debate, to introduce Soviet citizens to their typical American counterparts. Employing seven individual screens simultaneously, it can now be considered a precursor to the I-max experience. Though relatively few people have ever seen the film, it was a big hit at the Fair.

As a documentary, A&P is a real breath of fresh because it takes their remarkably creative corporate work so seriously. While Eames chairs will always have admirers, it is satisfying to see the architectural and design work of projects like the Pavilion and the IBM-sponsored Mathematica exhibition for the California Museum of Science of and Industry get their just due.

Cohn & Jersey handle the complicated circumstances of the Eameses’ private lives fairly adroitly, explaining enough so they cannot be accused of whitewashing their subjects, but never sensationalizing the details. They also shrewdly navigate issues of attribution, suggesting some of their studio employees might have appreciated more recognition, while also clearly implying the more outgoing Charles was quite forthright about the shier Ray’s role as a creative collaborator, but the clueless ADD media just was not listening.

Frankly, the filmmakers only made one mistake, going for James Franco’s big name as the narrator. Unfortunately, his voice is rather dry and characterless, completely lacking the rich resonance of a Liev Schreiber or a Keith David. The man just can’t “host.”

Boasting some striking graphics and scores of intriguing vintage images, A&P is much more visually dynamic than the standard issue documentary portrait of the artist. Audiences have clearly responded to it, considering its theatrical run continues in New York at the IFC Center. However, viewers can see it for free in the comfort of their own home when it premieres on PBS this coming Monday night (12/19). Entertaining and informative, it is a worthy addition to the American Masters roster.

(Photo: © 2011 Eames Office, LLC)

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Meth and Facial Hair: Cook County

Dealing crystal meth ought to be pretty darn recession-proof, but “Uncle Bump” has still found ways to mismanage his business. Like Tony Montana, he has become his own best customer. This leads to some rather tense moments for his family in David Pomes’ Cook County (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Abe is miserable living with his drug-addled uncle. Acting as the gopher for the slipshod meth operation, Abe is regularly sent into to town to buy up all the cold medicine from the oblivious general store. However, he forces himself to stay, so he can watch out for his little cousin. Though not explicitly abusive towards her, Bump opens up their home to all kinds of unsavory elements. Honest Abe initially hopes things will improve when his father, confusingly named Sonny, returns home from a stretch in the big house. However, it quickly becomes clear there simply will be no talking to Bump, while Sonny appears to have his own secretive agenda.

Cook should not be considered a redneck Scarface. Despite the madness engulfing Bump, Pomes de-emphasizes the genre elements, opting instead for a grittily naturalistic vibe. As a result, viewers do not have an action-driven escape hatch whenever Pomes shows us something disturbing (which he does, often). Rather, we are essentially stuck there, forced to revel in the meanness of it all.

While such white trash voyeurism is fairly shopworn indie grist, Cook is notable for allowing a pair of dependable character actors a turn in the spotlight. Currently generating some career heat in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, Anson Mount is frighteningly intense as the increasingly paranoid Bump. He certainly looks like a psycho-junkie. Yet, it is Xander Berkeley (the ill-fated George Mason on 24) who really delivers the goods as Sonny. He convincingly creates a multifaceted portrait of a tragically Machiavellian small-timer.

As a salvo in the cultural wars, Cook is largely a wash. The Evangelical rich relations in Houston really are portrayed as good-hearted God-fearing people. On the other hand, Bump’s periodic preening in front of American flags certainly seems to imply a commentary on Red State voters and values. There are some meaty performances in Cook, but viewers will know exactly where it is headed and it is not a lot of fun getting there. It opens tomorrow (12/16) in New York at the Cinema Village, just in time for the holidays.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New Orleans Middle East Film Fest ’11: Dog Sweat

They said Prohibition could never work, because you cannot “legislate morality.” Try telling that to Iran’s Islamist government while you’re looking for a bottle of spirits in Tehran. Of course, it can be found on the black market, but the risks are considerably higher and the costs are far greater than New York in the 1920’s. Still, a group of young Iranians keep the party going as best they can, until the messy realities of life overwhelm them in Hossein Keshavarz’s Dog Sweat (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2011 New Orleans Middle East Film Festival.

Massoud and his cronies love their illegal hooch, or “dog sweat” as they call it. He sobers up quickly though, when his mother is critically injured by a driver who cannot afford to pay “blood money.” He is in no mood to hear how it is all one of the trials of life mandated by God, considering it more a test of Iranian society, which it fails miserably. Hooshang and Homan also enjoy the Tehran nightlife, but once the former gives into his wealthy family’s demands that he wed, the once constant companions no longer spend time together. Sweat never explicitly states why, but the implication is impossible to miss.

Hooshang’s new wife Mahsa also makes sacrifices to conform to the life expected of her. A talented underground vocalist, she must give up her forbidden musical career for the sake of married respectability. In contrast, Katie is involved in a more conventional love triangle, balancing the attentions of the impetuous Bijan and the older well-to-do Mehrdad, who also happens to be married, to her cousin. Held a virtual captive by her controlling mother, Katie bristles at the freedom allowed to her brother Dawood. Yet, he still cannot manage to find a place to be alone with his prospective girlfriend, Katie’s best friend Katherine.

Obviously produced without the official sanction of the Iranian film authorities, Sweat has much to say about gender inequality and the repression of sexual identity in contemporary Iran. It also addresses the lack of free artistic expression and the judgmental severity of religious fundamentalism. To top it all off, Mahsa’s mother Forough takes a pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq, Iran’s traditional rival, experiencing for the first time in her life a feeling of peace and spiritual fulfillment there.

Given such themes, it is a bit of a surprise the undeniably bold Sweat does not feel heavier. Indeed, some decidedly tragic events occur and nobody (aside from Forough) is ever really happy, but Keshavarz and co-writer-producer Maryam Azadi (who both served as associate producers on his sister Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance) never revel in the misery and meanness. Instead, he shows it all to viewers in a straightforward, direct manner and then rotates his focus to the next set of characters. Although a product of necessity, the guerilla vérité-style production gives the film a raw, intimate look that nicely fits the subject matter.

In fact, it is a tribute to the ensemble cast that we do not consider them actors, but authentic people, perhaps in some ominous version of Real World Tehran. Still, Shahrokh Taslimi’s animal intensity as Massoud stands out fiercely.

When watching Sweat one has the sensation of sharing in the lives of this generation of young professional Iranians, who navigate a world that is half underground and half above-board. Granted, it is not perfectly executed. Keshavarz leaves a lot of messy lose ends and unresolved questions, but he definitely takes viewers into the world and heads of these acutely human characters. Highly recommended, Sweat screens tonight (12/14) during the New Orleans Middle East Film Festival, as part of a slate of films varying widely in terms of quality and political sophistication.

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