J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Forgotten Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock

Daisy Bates was an instrumental leader in the victorious Little Rock school desegregation campaign, but she is hardly mentioned in histories of the civil rights movement. Could it be the civil rights establishment was uncomfortable sharing the spotlight with a woman? That is not something documentarian Sharon La Cruise implies. She more or less says it outright in Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock (trailer here), which premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens this Thursday.

As the wife of a respected African American newspaper publisher, Bates was prominent in the community, but she became an activist and leader in her own right. She does not seem to have been the type to suffer fools gladly. Though aesthetically attractive to us in this day and age, her assertiveness led to serious difficulties in the 1950’s. More than anyone, she was responsible for recruiting and supporting the so-called “Little Rock Nine,” who desegregated Central High, despite constant intimidation from the rabble encouraged by white Democrat Governor Orval Faubus. Clearly, she was the right person to assume the leadership mantle, but it appears from interviews with some of the Nine, she did not exactly wait to be asked.

Bates is a fascinating figure, with plenty of virtues and flaws to take into balanced consideration. Unfortunately, La Cruise sometimes injects herself into the story to explain what a revelation it all was to her, which needlessly wastes time in a broadcast cut clocking-in just under sixty minutes.

To her credit though, she does not lob cheap shots at Eisenhower. Instead, the film recognizes it is not an easy course of action to deploy American troops on their home soil, but when enough got to be enough, Ike did exactly that. La Cruise describes it as a victory for Bates within the civil rights community, which seems fair enough. After all, she somehow held things together up to that point.

Overall, First Lady is a brisk and informative chapter of overlooked Twentieth Century history, particularly well attuned to the difficult choices faces by its principle players. Recommended for its straightforwardness, it airs on Independent Lens this Thursday (2/2), as part of its special February programming.

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Perfect Sense: Love in the Time of the Apocalypse

So this is how the world ends—with a collective whimper, which turns out to be nearly as good as a bang. A global epidemic slowly strips everyone of their sensory abilities. This development is rather bad for the restaurant business, but on the upside, a self-involved chef may have finally found the love of his life in David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

As is always the case with pandemics, it starts with only a handful of people who have lost their sense of smell. It is not contagious in any discernable way, but cases spread like wild fire nonetheless. There is no reason to panic though. When smelling is gone, Michael and his colleagues simply crank up the spices. Meanwhile, he and Susan, the epidemiologist living across from his Glasgow restaurant, just might be bantering their way into each other’s hearts. Even when the sense of taste mysteriously vanishes, people still eat out to enjoy the sight and textures of a good meal. Eventually though, the time will come to panic.

Michael and Susan are rather unappealing characters, yet somehow Ewan McGregor and Eva Green still develop some effective romantic chemistry together. Perhaps the idea they are mutually taking themselves off the market is reassuring in some way. Green in particular hits some oddly brusque notes, often sounding like she is trying to channel Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, calling everyone “sailor” for reasons she duly explains at length.

However, Sense has some wonderful supporting turns from seasoned vets, including McGregor’s uncle Denis Lawson (who played Wedge in the real Star Wars movies, so show some respect), as Michael’s restaurant owner-mentor. Stephane Dillane’s always intriguing screen presence also brings out unexpected nuance in Susan’s cerebral boss, Samuel.

Throughout Sense, Mackenzie walks a tightrope, but mostly keeps his balance. While the story might seem to roughly parallel recent epidemic movies, the tone is more fable like, with a fairly steamy romance layered on top. Despite the apocalypse it appears to be hurtling towards, Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay constantly depicts humanity’s persistent adaptability, emphasizing the best of our nature rather than our worst.

Indeed, Sense is pretty good social science fiction, but it is clearly spooked by the metaphysical implications of its premise (especially since each stage is preceded by a burst of profoundly felt emotion—not exactly the typical handiwork of bacteria). Yet, the only references to a higher power come from religious fanatics seen on news broadcasts claiming the outbreak is a manifestation of God’s wrath (a contention the film frankly provides nothing to dispute).

To his immense credit, Mackenzie never tries to tack on an unconvincing environmental message, avoiding didacticism and maintaining a palpable air of mystery. That Sense is not really a downer at all is somewhat remarkable, all things considered. Recommended for viewers who like their genre elements on the softer, lighter side, Sense opens this Friday (2/3) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Sundance ’12: Grabbers

Believe it or not, that Guinness before you is the last best line of defense against the alien invasion. Fortunately, the villagers of Erin Island are up to the demands of survival in Jon Wright’s Grabbers, which screened during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Garda Lisa Nolan is a workaholic who spends her vacation temping for the sergeant on the tight little island. Busy drowning a broken heart, local Garda Ciarán O’Shea is not impressed, at least not by her ambition. Fortunately, nothing ever happens there, at least until the aliens invade. At first, the only one to see the blood-sucking mollusks who lives to talk about it is the town drunk (and he’s not O’Shea). After a bit of investigation, it turns out the aliens do not have a taste for .2 alcohol levels. With a storm fast approaching, there is only one thing to do. Lock everyone in the pub and get them hammered.

Frankly, Grabbers is a surprisingly mild midnight selection at Sundance (particularly considering this is the year they launched V/H/S). Gentler even than Tremors, it is quite similar in tone to R.W. Goodwin’s unapologetically nostalgic Alien Trespass. Considering the central role played by public inebriation, midnight audiences were probably expecting liberal helpings of gross-out humor that never materialized. Indeed, Grabbers is more about soft chuckles than big belly laughs.

Granted, this is not the sort of film one looks to for rigorous logic, but it makes no sense the high-functioning alcoholic would be the only one to stay sober, beyond providing O’Shea with an opportunity for redemption. Still, Richard Coyle is reasonably charismatic as the formerly degenerate Garda. In contrast, Ruth Bradley does not leave much of a mark as Nolan, but David Pearse scores some of the film’s funniest moments as Brian Maher, the short-tempered barkeep.

Wright keeps things moving along well enough and the monster effects are realized quite well (arguably better than they should be in an old school creature feature). The results are all very pleasant, but never quite live up to the promise of its clever premise. Nice, but not crazy, Grabbers should nonetheless find an appreciative genre audience following its midnight screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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The Pruitt-Igoe Reality

Brutalism is a style of architecture distinguished by its huge blocky shapes, typically utilizing concrete or roughened stone. In the mid Twentieth Century, it was commonly employed for government structures, most definitely including housing projects. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing development would be a perfect example, had it not been imploded by the St. Louis Housing Authority in 1972. Chad Freidrichs seeks to rehabilitate the project’s image, and by extension that of government social engineering efforts in general, with the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (trailer here), which is now playing in New York at the IFC Center.

It opened in 1954 with high hopes. For a time, hard working former residents of St. Louis’s slums enjoyed clean modern living conditions there. Over time, maintenance deteriorated, rents went up, crime precipitously increased, and tenants steadily moved out, culminating in the spectacular televised destruction of the buildings.

Freidrichs and his commentators argue what happened was not the fault of the Pruitt-Igoe complex per se, but of wider macro factors. However, the case they make rather supports the opposite conclusion. First we hear the Pruitt-Igoe was the victim of a fatal misconception, because the city planners were projecting stable population growth when St. Louis population actually contracted substantially over the life of the complex. While true enough, it clearly calls into question the wisdom of activist government planning in general, particularly that which gave rise to Pruitt-Igoe. We also learn many of the city’s housing programs were used to maintain a de-facto segregation, which again demonstrates the frequently perverse unintended consequences of government regulations and spending.

Perhaps most damning is the revelation Pruitt-Igoe management actively banned men from the buildings, often forcing away would-be male heads of large households for the sake of an affordable apartment for their families. Yet, Myth resists fully exploring the implications of this policy, lest it be accused of revisiting the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown controversy.

The over-riding point of the film is that the Pruitt-Igoe project was a victim of wider urban pathologies, such as unemployment. Yet, it steadfastly ignores questions like which party controlled the mayor’s office since 1949 or what barriers to blue collar employment might have been posed by closed shop unionization.

Perhaps most disappointingly, Freidrichs seems completely disinterested in Pruitt-Igoe from an architectural point of view. The fact the imploded buildings were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, is an eerie historical footnote he skips over. However, the very nature of Brutalist architecture deserves some analysis in a film like this. In his own documentary, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster (also distributed by First Run Features), Norman Foster unequivocally criticizes concrete as a medium of construction, describing it as an ugly magnet for graffiti. The Pruitt-Igoe experience seems to bear out his aesthetic convictions.

Freidrichs makes a convincing case the Pruitt-Igoe houses were profoundly misconceived and mismanaged. Just how exactly their status as a poster child for government failure supposedly constitutes a “myth” will baffle viewers, based on the very evidence presented in his film. Ultimately, Pruitt-Igoe Myth has to be considered a failure as well, considering it largely proves the opposite of its thesis. An odd polemical misfire, it is now playing in New York at the IFC Center.

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Sundance ’12: Bestiaire

Zoos, farms, and taxidermy shops are good places for gawking at animals. French Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté essentially invites viewers to do precisely that. Supposedly, the clever part is that the animals will gawk back. However, they do not seem particularly interested in holding up their end throughout his non-narrative documentary Bestiaire (trailer here), which screened as a New Frontier selection of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Côté’s title is derived from the medieval bestiaries, which evoke images of lavish illustrations on gilt-edged illuminated pages. He takes rather the opposite approach, de-emphasizing the exoticism of the animals, focusing instead on the drabness of their surroundings. Unlike recent animal documentaries, such as the Jouberts’ Last Lions, Nick Stringer’s Turtle: the Incredible Journey, and even Nicholas Philibert’s Nenette (a film much closer akin to Bestiaire in terms of tone), Côté discourages attempts to impose individual personalities on the animals by framing them from off-kilter perspectives and completely eschewing mood setting soundtrack music.

A considerable portion of Bestiaire was shot at Quebec’s Parc Safari, whose animal handlers are likely to stoke the zeal of anti-zoo protestors with their dispassionate professionalism. Indeed, Bestiaire could almost be considered an expose for people who really need films to be about something. Regardless, less adventurous viewers will be decidedly uncomfortable during the sort-of observational doc.

If you want to learn something about the process of taxidermy, Bestiaire eventually delivers the goods. On the other hand, if you want to get to know some of the beasts, Côté will deliberately undercut any such attempts. There is no question the filmmaker accomplishes exactly what he set out to do. Yet, it remains wholly fair to ask “so what?” Probably more interesting as a concept than as a viewing experience, Bestiaire was definitely for the New Frontier track die-hards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Slamdance ’12: The First Season

There are far easier ways to go broke than opening a dairy farm from near scratch. However, if they work like dogs, Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh might eventually break even. The ups and downs of their agricultural start-up are documented in Rudd Simmons’ The First Season, which screened during the recently wrapped 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

The Van Amburghs’ new old farm looks like it could have been painted by Andrew Wyeth, but as viewers watch the expensive refurbishing process, it is hard not to think there must be a reason the previous owners stopped farming there. Though hardly expecting to make a fortune, the Van Amburghs are still a bit surprised at how much it will all cost and how slim their margins will be.

Season will teach the audience quite a bit about modern dairy farming practices. One might come to suspect this is an industry that requires economies of scale as a result. Nonetheless, viewers have to root for the neophyte farmers as they grind away. They are hardly city-slickers bumbling about on their pretend farm. Instead, they appear to understand the process quite well and appear to be physically and temperamentally suited to such a life.

Indeed, the Van Amburghs should appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers. Their new venture partly reflects their desire to go back to nature, and a preference for reasonably pure, locally grown crops. However, they are also deeply family oriented and have relentless work ethics. If they were not already, they are now fiscal conservatives as well, at least in practice.

Clearly, Simmons (whose producer credits include Boardwalk Empire and Dead Man Walking) had constant access to the Van Amburghs. Yet, despite the mounting bills and taxes, the Van Amburghs never come across as whiny or resentful, which certainly helps maintain viewer sympathy. He also vividly captures a sense of the stark loneliness of their upstate New York farm and the surrounding environment.

Viewers who want to see a film about herd animals will find the Van Amburghs’ cows far more engaging the beasts in Denis Côté’s Bestiary, which screened at the other Park City festival. For idealists, the Van Amburghs are also rather refreshingly no-nonsense people. While their film will probably dissuade others from following in their footsteps, audiences will certainly wish them the best. Considerably more involving than one might expect, First Season is well worth catching as it makes the festival rounds, having started strong at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival, right on scenic Main Street.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sundance ’12: The Return (short)

He is like a Kosovar Sommersby, except he is completely legitimate. That does not make the long held prisoner of war’s homecoming any easier though in Blerta Zeqiri’s The Return (trailer here), the winner of the Jury Prize for Short Film International Fiction at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

The man has been missing for four years, one of the many who disappeared during the dirty war. Suddenly released by his Serbian captors, he reunites with his wife and still relatively young son. It is awkward, even before she recounts her harrowing wartime experiences on the homefront.

Frankly, Return is more compelling before it delves into its truly heavy revelations. As the wife and mother, Adriana Matoshi vividly portrays the inappropriate emotional responses born of nervousness and confusion. There is something very honest and raw about her early scenes with Lulzim Bucolli’s shell-shocked ex-POW, as they tentatively reacquaint themselves.

Dedicated “to the missing and the victims of war crimes,” Return is not necessarily an optimistic film, but it is a forgiving one, granting allowances for the couple’s unfortunate responses and thoughtless remarks. It perhaps implies a degree of hope, but justice clearly remains unfulfilled.

Sensitively shot by Sevdije Kastrati, Return has a soft warm glow. Zeqiri also smartly avoids overt manipulation, despite the intimacy of her focus. Respectfully recommended, it screens again tomorrow (1/29) in Park City as part of a program of award winning short films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Wiseman’s Crazy Horse

Renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman once again turns his lens on a dance institution, but the Crazy Horse is more about covers and drink minimums than season tickets. The inner workings of the Parisian nightclub considered home to the world’s most artistically refined nude dancing is quietly observed in Wiseman’s Crazy Horse (trailer here), now playing in New York at Film Forum.

Choreographer Philippe Decouflé has grand plans for a new revue, but management will not close down long enough for a suitable development period. This will be the central conflict of Wiseman’s time in residence at the storied cabaret. An iconic institution for over sixty years, Crazy Horse (a.k.a. Le Crazy) management claims they cater to a significant female clientele. Perhaps, but this certainly is not the Paris Opera Ballet featured in La Danse, nor the American Ballet Theater Wiseman studied in Ballet. It is light-years away from the Idaho state legislators seen in his C-SPAN-like State Legislature.

There is no getting around the eroticism of the club’s shows. However, their production values are undeniably impressive. Particularly striking are the often suggestive lighting effects that put the old disco ball to shame. Decouflé and artistic director Ali Mahdavi have crafted some very stylish numbers and the dancers are of an elite caliber. Competitively selected from open try-outs, they are certainly attractive, but they clearly have dancers’ physiques rather than, you know, strippers.’

Wiseman and his longtime cinematographer John Davey vividly capture the colors and spectacle of le Crazy’s stage-shows. There is also an unusual amount of music for a Wiseman film, recorded during the course of the dancers’ performances, which is mostly rather up-tempo and poppy. Indeed, this might be one of his most upbeat and zesty films, perhaps ever. At a brisk one hundred and thirty-four minutes, it is almost like a short subject for the filmmaker.

Crazy Horse is pretty steamy. However, considering the attention lavished on the steps, costumes, and lighting of its celebrated dancers, le Crazy’s shows would still probably be distinctive, even if they were more fully clothed. Indeed, that is the real measure of their artistic merit. Without question, Wiseman’s film will instill in audiences a healthy appreciation for the Parisian hot spot. Recommended for mature adults, Crazy Horse screens at Film Forum through Tuesday, February 7th.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Sundance ’12: V/H/S

Pretty soon, VHS tapes will be nothing more than odd curios. A group of lowlife thugs is out to steal one that is particularly collectible. Supposedly, they will know it when they see it. If that sounds ominous, it should, because they are about to stumble across some deeply disturbing found videos in the anthology horror film V/H/S, which has generated monster viral buzz at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Adam Wingard’s framing device characters are an ugly lot, who enjoy videotaping their violent crimes. Upon breaking into their target home, they find the owner long dead amid a pile of sketchy looking VHS tapes. Each one they screen tells a twisted tale.

David Bruckner’s opening Amateur Night follows a trio of unenlightened young men as they set out the bed drunk women and record their conquests through the geeky one’s spy camera. They somehow bring two women back to their hotel room, but one promptly passes out and the other is a bit twitchy. While we have a good idea where this is headed from the outset, Hannah Fierman’s penetrating eyes are spooky as all get out. As the mystery woman, she is simultaneously alluring and unnerving.

It is road trip time in Ti (House of the Devil) West’s Second Honeymoon, duly documented by the vacationing couple on their camcorder. Unfortunately, they are having trouble shaking this strange vagrant woman. While it might be the most traditional in its approach, West’s contribution arguably boasts the film’s single freakiest scene.

However, the best chapter is easily Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th, which gives the horny teens in the woods subgenre a wicked twist. Whatever it is out there stalking them, it has a distorting power over the camera, greatly affecting our perceptions of events, which makes what goes down quite nerve-racking. Within the horror genre, it is light-years away from McQuaid’s strangely underappreciated I Sell the Dead.

Perhaps the weakest link is Joe “Mumblecore” Swanberg’s The Strange Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, which purports to be the recorded Skype chats between a woman with a haunted apartment and her long distance boyfriend—on a moldy old VHS tape. Really? Digital to analog, how did that work exactly? Maybe similar objections could be raised regarding Amateur Night’s spy glasses, but it is not so glaringly anachronistic. Still, there is definitely some weird stuff happening in the corner of the screen.

It is back to old fashioned camcorders for the youtube tag-team Radio Silence’s 10/31/98, a story of carousing youth looking for a Halloween party and finding a house full of evil instead. The quartet clearly understands how to milk tension out of empty hallways and unsettling knick-knacks, before letting loose complete chaos.

Regardless of the hype surrounding audience members passing out and getting nauseous during a screening at Sundance, this is a legitimately scary movie, exponentially more frightening than the Blair Witch Project. Frankly, shaky cams work better for horror than any other genre. It is always what we don’t see that scares us, so those what-the-hack-was-that moments are quite effective (whereas they are simply annoying in action films). However, the reliance on the hand-held found footage motif levels out the filmmakers’ differences of style, providing the film with a largely consistent look, aside from Swanberg’s internet ringer.

This is easily the scariest film in years. It can be bloody and it depicts some casual cruelty in the introduction that is not a lot of fun to watch, but once Bruckner’s story builds up some steam, V/H/S really buries its hooks into viewers. Recommended for bold genre fans not suffering from altitude sickness, it screens again this Saturday (1/28) during this year’s Sundance in Park City.

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Happy New Year: All’s Well, Ends Well 2012

It’s Donnie Yen as you’ve never seen him before: singing power ballads. His character might be stuck in the 1980’s, but he can still find love in Chan Hing-ka and Amy Chin’s All’s Well, Ends Well 2012 (trailer here), the sixth film of the popular HK rom-com series, which opens today in New York.

A frustrated divorcee creates a Craig’s List to make men useful. The payment for miscellaneous services rendered is supposed to be a simple hug, but things get much more complicated for these couples. Julie Sun, an edgy photographer, hires construction foreman Kin Holland to serve as her nude model, while Hugo, the shaggy romance novelist, agrees to explain love to Charmine, a beautiful but blind dancer. Chelsia, a former teen idol, hires would-be hair band rocker Carl Tam to pretend to be her husband at a difficult reunion dinner. Meanwhile, Richard the hardball divorce attorney acts as a surrogate father for Cecilia, an orphaned heiress, as she evaluates prospective suitors.

Naturally, Holland falls for Sun hard, but her not so much. Hugo falls for Charmine too, but he is painfully stupid when it comes to dealing with her blindness. Of course, once she gets the cornea transplant, he totally freaks. Tam just wants to rock and rebuild Chelsia’s confidence, while the attorney finally acts like the father to Cecilia that his estranged daughter has never allowed him to be.

With a title like “All’s Well, Ends Well,” audiences should have a pretty good idea where it is all headed. A thematic series, several cast-members have already found love in previous installments. As an anthology film (whose characters only overlap in the final scene), Well 2012 is not surprisingly somewhat uneven. The best arc features co-producer and Well regular Raymond Wong appealingly co-conspiring with Yang Mi’s poor little rich girl. At the other end of spectrum, it is a little cringy to see veterans like Donnie Yen and Sandra Ng belting out their cheesy songs as Tam and Chelsia

The other two couples fall somewhere in the middle, freely mixing broad comedy with romantic angst. In fact, Ip Man fans who can handle Yen’s over-the-hill rocker should rather enjoy seeing Lynn Xiong (billed as Lynn Hung when playing Ip’s wife) elevating the novelist and dancer story with her exquisitely fragile turn.

Evidently, the Well series is constantly reconfiguring its romance to comedy ratio. 2012 probably leans too far towards the latter, whereas a bit more of the former would travel better for American audiences. Still, it is a hard film to not have some affection for. The cast is quite attractive, most definitely including Yang Mi, Lynn Xiong, Kelly Chen as Sun, and Magic to Win’s Karena Ng, briefly appearing as Richard’s angry daughter. For the ladies, Louis Koo’s Holland is shirtless, a lot (you tell me how impressive that is).

Timed as a Lunar New Year release, Well 2012 is determinedly cheerful, right down to the compulsively happy closing pop song. For fans of the series, it delivers the cute. For hipsters, it shows the sporting nature of its famous cast. For those who like their cinema sugary sweet, it opens today (1/27) in New York at the AMC Empire and in San Francisco at the AMC Metreon, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sundance ’12: Wrong

It is the story of a man and his dog, but do not expect Lassie from provocateur Quentin Dupieux, a.k.a. Mr. Oizo. He cast off all logic-based constraints and was creatively liberated for it, to judge by the distinctively strange results in Wrong (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Dolph Springer’s dog Paul has mysteriously vanished. His neighbor is less than sympathetic, because he is too busy going mad. He is not the only one. Eventually, it seems Paul was kidnapped by Master Chang, a tripped out New Age guru, for reasons that defy conventional reason, but make perfect sense in this world. Springer’s gardener, a pizzeria girl, and a detective also careen in and out of the film, in ways that cannot be explained in a lucid thumbnail description.

In his somewhat notorious Rubber (the killer tire movie), Dupieux came up with an eccentric premise and a clever twist, but seemed too hemmed in by the circumstances he created. In contrast, throughout Wrong he allows anything to happen, whether it makes objective sense or not. The resulting absurdity is quite entertaining to behold.

Jack Plotnick is a heck of a good sport. For Wrong to work, he has to play it all relatively straight, while everyone else acts insane. In fact, he brings an earnest sincerity to Springer that is rather endearing. Prison Break’s William Fichtner clearly enjoys hamming up Master Chang’s wacked out Zen, while Alexis Dziena plays Emma from the pizza shop appropriately over-the-top, like a sweetly innocent version of Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest.

Wrong is stylistically surreal and subversive, but rather gentle in tone, which is why it works so well. Unlike David Lynch’s Lost Highway, it never leaves viewers bereft of faith or hope. Indeed, Springer is sort of an everyman model of stick-to-itiveness that is actually sort of refreshing.

Rife with postmodern gamesmanship and goofy sight gags, Wrong is definitely aimed at a hipster audience, but it goes down way easier than one might expect. It is a funny, good natured film, recommended for the somewhat adventurous. It screens again during Sundance today (1/26) and tomorrow (1/27) in Park City.

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Modernist from Manchester: How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

As a child in World War II era Britain, Norman Foster was often terrified by German bombers. As a world renowned architect, he designed the reconstructed Reichstag for the reunified Germany. The significance is not lost on the self-made architect, whose career and work are surveyed in Norberto López Amado & Carlos Carcas’s How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster (trailer here), now playing in New York at the IFC Center.

A man comfortable with his success, Norman Foster is an appealing figure in many respects. The son of working class parents, the young Foster literally lived on the wrong side of Manchester’s tracks. A RAF veteran, his first architectural job was as part of a firm’s general office support staff. Recognizing his talent, a partner gave him a shot with something more design-oriented. It worked out well.

An enthusiast for America and American architecture, Foster would study at Yale before opening his own firms. Once out on his own, he would design some incredibly striking buildings, bridges, and airports, including the Reichstag, the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, the American Air Museum in Cambridgeshire, the London Millennial Bridge, the Great Court of the British Museum, the Millau Viaduct in southern France, and the Hearst Tower, his only building here in New York. Each is spectacularly shot in Weigh from dramatic vantage points that really make them come alive for viewers.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Foster was a longtime friend of Buckminster Fuller and readily admits the controversial geodesic designer’s influence on his work. In fact, the film’s title comes from a question Fuller once asked Foster. Yet, one can see the Fuller effect in the geometric shapes and materials Foster favors.

As thoughtful and well-spoken as Foster certainly is, his buildings are the real stars of the film. Arguably, a bit much is made of his passion for aviation and the late lecture on sustainability gets a tad repetitive. Still, there are some highly relevant lessons to be learned from Foster’s experiences. According to one partner, the firm won the Beijing International Airport competition a year and a half after losing a London airport assignment, but their terminal was operational seven years before the London project they lost out on. Perhaps this implies something about comparative competitiveness?

Thanks to the loving attention of the co-directors and cinematographer Valentin Álvarez, Foster’s building look truly dazzling throughout the film. Weigh also sounds quite appealing, featuring softly swelling light classical themes composed by Joan Valent and some occasional jazz selections arranged by bassist Toni Cuenca and performed by his combo. An attractive showcase for Foster’s work, Weigh is definitely recommended beyond the armchair architects and design students who will automatically seek it out. It is now showing at the IFC Center in the West Village.

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Midnight at the Grand Guignol: The Theatre Bizarre

Marionettes are creepy, especially when they look like Udo Kier. Fittingly though, that fairly well sums up Pegg Poett, the master of ceremonies for The Theatre Bizarre (trailer here), a horror anthology film screening midnights this Friday and Saturday in New York.

Once the reluctant audience member settles into her seat in the spooky old theater, Poett starts the show with Richard Stanley’s Mother of Toads. Effectively combining Lovecraftian themes with the eerie backdrop of the French Pyrenees, it is easily one of the film’s best looking chapters, with special credit due to the design team. It is hard not to dig a film with a “toad wrangler” credited and the appearance of Lucio Fulci regular Catriona MacColl as Mère Antoinette is a major bonus for genre fans.

Buddy Giovinazzo’s I Love You is arguably the best of show. Set within a Berlin apartment, his tale of passion and madness has a distinctive European sensibility. Giovinazzo deftly builds the tension out of the claustrophobic setting and gets a terrific lead performance from Andre M. Hennicke, a well established German actor known for supporting turns in Jerichow and A Dangerous Method.

Though gore legend Tom Savini’s Wet Dream looks rather muddy, it has its clever moments and certainly delivers what his fans expect. In contrast, Douglas Buck’s excellent The Accident is a horse of a completely different color. Sensitively portraying a young girl’s first exposure to death, it is somewhat out of place in Bizarre, but a good short film is a good short film, regardless where you find it. Indeed, Lena Kleine and Melodie Simmard are both quite natural and engaging, as the mother and daughter, respectively

While it is at times very disturbing, Karim Hussain’s Vision Stains might be the most original and ambitious constituent film in Bizarre. Addressing themes of memory, consciousness, and perception, it depicts an extremely anti-social woman who steals the image-memories of dying homeless women by injecting their optic fluid into her eyes. (Yes, we see this process up close and personal.)

Unfortunately, Bizarre ends on a low note. David Gregory’s cannibalism tale Sweets is both unpleasant and predictable. Still, Bizarre’s ratio of good to bad is about four and a half to one, which is an impressive batting average for anthology films.

Bizarre covers a lot of bases, but I Love You, The Accident, and Vision Stains should all appeal to serious film patrons, while also delivering some jolts along the way. Recommended surprisingly highly for horror movie fans, it screens this Friday (1/27) and Saturday (1/28) nights in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Troma fans take note: Wet Dreams co-star Debbie Rochon is scheduled to attend the first screening.

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Sundance ’12: Wuthering Heights

Remember Sir Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in William Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s romantic classic? If you do, you had best forget them now. Andrea Arnold radically reconceptualizes the familiar story in her mud and thatch version of Wuthering Heights (trailer here), which screens at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

The basic elements are still here. Heathclliff is a sullen young waif adopted by Earshaw, a stern but charitable farmer of property. The lad forges a deep bond with his sort-of sister Catherine, but earns the enmity of Earshaw’s son Linton, for usurping his father’s affections. When the devout farmer dies, Linton inherits the farm, stripping Heathcliff of his family standing. Now a lowly servant, Heathcliff nurses his resentments, which will lead to tragedy.

However, Arnold’s take on Brontë strips away the high costume drama romanticism, tacking an earthy, naturalistic course. Her casting of Afro-Caribbean actors as Heathcliff has garnered much attention, but that is really the least unconventional aspect of her approach. This is a highly impressionistic and ruminative film that revels in closely observed nature studies (masterfully lensed by Robbie Ryan) and relies on ambient noise rather than complimentary music and even dialogue. Set amid a harsh, unsentimentalized environment, Earnshaw’s home, Wuthering Heights, is simply a working farm, with all the muck and mire one should expect. Even Thrushcross Grange is cut down to size, nowhere near as imposing as Highclere Castle (a.k.a. Downton Abbey).

That is not to say it is not effective. As young Heathcliff and Catherine, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer forcefully portray their characters’ animalism and instinctive defiance. Glave is a particularly electric screen presence, who largely carries the quiet film on his shoulders. By contrast, James Howson is far less dynamic as the older Heathcliff, lacking the charismatic malevolence the role demands. Frankly, he hardly looks much older than Glave.

Indeed, Arnold’s Heights is at its best during Heathcliff and Catherine’s formative years. Like most adaptations, the late chapters concerning their grown children are omitted. Since the film proceeds without a narrator, Mr. Lockwood also gets the boat. However, Heathcliff’s relationship with Isabella is shoehorned in rather awkwardly, perhaps to placate the faithful.

Heights’ Spartan brutality is truly haunting. However, it is doomed to collect decidedly negative online feedback. People who go to Brontë films, do not want to see something new and different. They want the “Oh, Heathcliff” scene on the moors. This is not that kind of film. It viscerally expresses a host of tactile sensations, de-emphasizing melodramatic plot turns. Despite a comparatively weaker third act, it is a bold work that really stays with you after viewing, but due to its nature, it is only recommended for adventurous, fully informed audiences. It screens again during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival tomorrow (1/27) in Park City and this Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sundance ’12: Ai Weiwei—Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei’s distinctive “Bird’s Nest” design for the Beijing National Stadium was one of the defining images of the 2008 Olympics, but Ai sought to redefine the Beijing games, forcefully decrying the tremendous suffering they caused for China’s vulnerable underclass. Choosing the struggle for Chinese human rights over a life of privilege, Ai is arguably the world’s most important activist-artist, whom Alison Klayman profiles in the fascinating and infuriating Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (trailer here), which screens at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival well underway in Park City.

Considering the recurring middle finger motif in Ai’s work, it s hardly surprising he is not a favorite of the regime. Yet, there is more to Ai than mere symbolic defiance. Klayman trenchantly traces the roots of Ai’s nonconformist spirit to the suffering his family experienced during the Cultural Revolution. While Ai made some noise when he repudiated the Olympics, few could hear it within China. However, his mastery of social media, specifically Twitter, would change all that. Indeed, Ai and the legions of everyday Chinese citizens he inspired through Tweets ought to put everyone following vacuous celebrities like Ashton Kutcher to shame.

Most westerners should know Ai was recently held incommunicado for a long stretch by the police, but the projects that earned the artist the Communist government’s wrath may come as a revelation. Most notable were his efforts to document each name of the thousands of school children who died during the Sichuan earthquake as a result of flimsy “tofu” school construction. In any transparent society, this information would be in the public record, but it China all such efforts were explicitly forbidden.

There are scores of lessons to be found in Sorry, including the importance of recording such tragedies for history, rather than letting the innocent victims of Sichuan fall through the Communist memory hole. At times, Ai’s public criticisms of the regime are shockingly bold. Clearly, his guts are made of steel-reinforced concrete. Although Klayman largely focuses on his activism, she still conveys a vivid sense of Ai’s personality. Partly this comes out through some shrewdly edited interview segments. Yet more fundamentally, Ai just seems to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person.

Indeed, Klayman wisely focuses squarely on her subject. As a documentarian, she is rather blessed Ai recorded so many of his protests and the subsequent government crackdowns for his social network followers. The word “controversial” should not really apply here. What Ai says has happened, most definitely including a notorious police assault, really did go down. He has the scars and the video to prove it. Aside from some helpful context provided by talking heads and an innocuous score, Sorry is essentially Ai’s show—and appropriately so.

We want to call a film like Sorry “inspiring.” It is a term that undeniably applies to Ai. Unfortunately, though he might be out of immediate physical danger, Ai’s relative freedoms within contemporary China remain harshly curtailed, so viewers are likely to feel several conflicting emotions when the film ends. Anger would be a good one to go with.

This documentary is important, because the international spotlight must shine with far more intensity on his situation if circumstances are ever going to change. Given the Chinese CP’s nasty habit of harassing their critics, Klayman also earns a fair amount of credit for having the guts to tackle this project in the first place. Hopefully, she will have to produce a happy postscript for Sorry sometime in the future, but surely she would not begrudge the extra work.

As it is, the efforts invested in Sorry are considerable. One of two standout documentaries at this year’s Sundance (along with The Other Dream Team, review to come), the earnestly recommended Sorry screens again this Thursday (1/26) and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, Friday (1/2/7) in Sundance Resort, and today (1/25) in Salt Lake.

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Sundance ’12: The Other Dream Team

In the late 1930’s, Lithuania twice won the European basketball championship. In 1940, it was invaded and subjugated by the Soviet Union. Yet, the tiny Baltic country’s proud sporting tradition helped sustain it during those painful decades, culminating in the newly free Lithuania’s Olympic victory over the Russian-Unified team in 1992. The incredible history of the Lithuania’s break from the Soviet Union and the game that announced their independence to the world is told in Marius Markevicius’s stirring documentary The Other Dream Team (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

America’s 1988 Olympic loss to the Soviets was the impetus for the creation of the so-called “Dream Team” of NBA all-stars, including Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. However, four of the Soviet team’s starters were actually Lithuania. In fact, warriors like Arvydas Sabonis and Šarunas Marčiulionis had dramatically mixed emotions about their 1988 gold. They were proud of their accomplishments, but it was not the anthem they wanted to hear on the medal stand.

Four years later, much had changed. Sabonis and his colleagues were finally allowed to play in the NBA as a reward for their Olympic glory. At great risk, Lithuania had asserted its independence and held out against invading Soviet forces. The freshly sovereign country could field one of the best basketball teams in the world but had insufficient resources to send them to Barcelona. However, help would come from an unexpected source: the Grateful Dead.

Dream gives roughly equal time to sports and history, but each part is equally uplifting and informative. Indeed, people often forget it was Nobel Peace Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev who sent the tanks into Vilnius. In fact, independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis is just as much a protagonist as Sabonis and his teammates.

Just about all the starters from the 1992 team are heard from in great length throughout Team and each has their share of telling anecdotes. As is so often the case with survivors’ reminiscences of the Communist era, they are often simultaneously funny and sad. Yet, simply considered as a sports doc, Dream is one of the best in years. Even basketball fans who think they know the players well will learn something new here.

This is a great story, smartly constructed with rich details and full historical context. The many Grateful Dead tunes included in the soundtrack are also a nice bonus. For those looking for a movie that celebrates the spirit of freedom, Dream will get you choked-up, in a good way. Legitimately inspiring and hugely entertaining, it is one of two truly standout documentaries at Sundance this year (along with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry). Enthusiastically recommended, it screens again today (1/25) and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as well as this Friday (1/27) in Salt Lake.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sundance ’12: Lay the Favorite

It is easier to get a job in Vegas messengering about large sums of gambling money than a gig as a cocktail waitress. Fortunately, Beth Raymer has a knack with numbers, leading to a checkered career in the betting business. Raymer’s memoir becomes the stuff of light-hearted dramedy in Stephen Frears’ Lay the Favorite (clip here), which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

“Lay the Favorite” is one of those old school gambler’s expressions Raymer’s new boss Dink Heimowitz uses. Dink Inc is not a bookmaker, it is a betting establishment. Every day Dink and his employees work the phones, placing legal bets around town. As long as he wins fifty-five percent of the time, it’s all good. With Raymer’s arrival, Dink comes out of a losing slump, leading him to conclude the ditz-savant is his good luck charm. This does not sit well with Tulip, Dink’s Bravo reality show worthy wife.

Dink once did time for bookmaking, so now he keep things strictly legit. The emotionally needy Tulip also keeps him on a tight leash, which means the openly flirtatious Raymer has to go. However, Dink becomes increasingly concerned when Raymer gets involved with an outright bookie, so sleazy he has to be played by Vince Vaughn.

In a way, Favorite seems an odd fit for Sundance. It is a very commercial but rather pleasant film that ought to be better suited for a studio release than an art house run. It offers some interesting Damon Runyon-esque peaks into the world of legal and illicit sports betting, but this is definitely a women’s film. Breezy with a periodic outburst of angst, it is probably a lot like what One for the Money should have been (but most likely isn’t).

However, it is supporting characters and slightly sleazy milieu that really make Favorite work. Vaughn does his usual shtick well enough, but Bruce Willis really stands out, perfectly suited for Dink. Like his character, he seems to comfortably fit somewhere in between a romantic lead and a father figure. Nearly unrecognizable, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Tulip to hilt, with relish. So does Rebecca Hall, but her Raymer often comes across too Erin Brockovichy, which is never good, in any context. At least, she isn’t shy.

Favorite is hardly what we would expect from Frears either, but the Dangerous Liaisons helmer has a nice touch with the material, never letting Raymer’s melodrama overwhelm the upbeat vibe. It is not a big important film, but Favorite is an entertaining diversion, featuring some of Willis’s best work in a while. Recommended in that modest spirit, but not an ultra-high priority at Sundance, it screens again this Saturday (1/28) and Sunday (1/29) in Park City.

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Slamdance ’12: Ed Wood’s Final Curtain

In recent years, major international filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Agnieszka Holland have branched out into dramatic television in-between their feature work. Cult-film legend Ed Wood had a similar idea decades ago, but alas, for the cross-dressing director, it was not to be. Unseen for fifty-five years, Wood’s long lost spec pilot Final Curtain premiered last night at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Conceived as the first installment of an anthology series called Portraits of Terror, Curtain starts with an appropriately hyperbolic introduction telling viewers the characters to follow are “Creatures to be pitied. Creatures to be despised . . .” We’ve been so warned. There will be no Criswell narration here. However, the protagonist’s wonderfully overwrought voiceovers are handled by Dudley Manlove, another Wood stalwart, recognizable as the snippy alien in Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Curtain chronicles an actor’s fateful night in a dark theater long after the last performance of his play. Naturally, he played a vampire, but for some reason the stage sets resemble a prairie cabin. Of course, for Ed Wood continuity errors, this is small beans. Throughout the run, something supernatural has been calling, calling to him. At last, he faces it or perhaps we are witnessing his descent into madness.

Wood claimed Bela Lugosi died reading his Curtain treatment, which is pretty heavy, considering the general quality of the scripts that came his way. Adding yet another layer of meta-weirdness, Curtain briefly features Jenny Stevens as “The Vampire,” about whom nothing is known aside from her appearance in a previous Ed Wood film, leading some to suspect she was the director’s drag persona.

This might sound incredible, but the darkened backstage setting is actually kind of spooky. Somehow Wood and his crew gained access to a real working theater, so at least the soundboards and orchestra seats are not cardboard cut-outs, listing from side-to-side. The twenty-two minute running time also keeps Wood’s story somewhat focused, not that the actor’s decisions make much sense.

Curtain is pretty much exactly what you think it is. Knowing that it exists and has been preserved for posterity alone justified a trip to Park City. The restoration’s executive producers, Jason Insalaco and Jonathan Harris, are clearly motivated by an abiding love for the Wood canon. In Fact, Insalaco’s uncle was Paul Marco, a long time Ed Wood co-conspirator, known to the faithful for his recurring character, Kelton the cop. A really strange piece of Hollywood history, Curtain should have a long life of midnight screenings in its future. Indeed, its premiere was a real event at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’12: Red Lights

Sigourney Weaver has gone from ghost-busting to ghost debunking. However, she may have met her match in Simon Silver, a notorious television psychic from the 1970’s, who comes out of retirement for nefarious purposes in Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Dr. Margaret Matheson (a Richard Matheson hat tip perhaps?) is the chair of the department of skepticism. Her rival Dr. Paul Shackleton is the chair of the department of believing any spooky thing that might bring in funding. She and her colleague Dr. Tom Buckley expose psychic frauds, while Shackleton plays with his flash cards. Simon Silver was the one that got away. Supposedly vindicated by a flawed laboratory study Matheson refused to sign off on, Silver’s triumph has always been a blot on her reputation.

With the Uri Geller inspired villain back in the public eye, Buckley is spoiling for a fight, but Matheson is gun shy. Even if he does not have psychic powers, Silver is a master of finding his critics’ weak spots and exploiting them. Yet, with all the stuff suddenly going bump in the night, we are led to wonder whether or not the psychic really does command dark forces after all.

The first half of Red is a rather nifty little paranormal investigation procedural, but once Weaver’s Matheson is out of the equation, the film completely craters. Logic is treated with contempt and the indie breakout sensation Elizabeth Olsen is stuck standing around with nothing to do, besides sleep with her T.A. To make matters worse, Buckley’s closing monologue and subsequent voiceover narration invite open mockery. They are so over-the-top, they make the newly rediscovered Ed Wood film sound sharp and focused by comparison.

Weaver brings a reliably smart and mature presence to the film as Matheson and she develops a likable and realistic chemistry with Cillian Murphy’s Buckley. Frankly, the female mentor-male protégé relationship is not often seen in films and it is quite nicely turned here. Unfortunately, all the woo-woo effects get awfully sour very quickly. It is also another depressing reminder of the fall of Robert De Niro, once again playing an icily impassive villain in a dark suit.

Red really can be divided into two distinct parts. One is pretty engaging. The other is ridiculous and utterly clichéd. Sadly, the latter is the somewhat longer concluding piece, which essentially sinks the entire film. Recommended for a severe return trip to the editing bay, Red is ultimately a disappointment at this year’s Sundance, where it screens this Wednesday (1/25) and Saturday (1/25) in Park City and tomorrow (1/24) in Ogden.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Sundance ’12: The Raid

Law enforcement is a noble calling. One rookie SWAT cop will be doing a heck of a lot of enforcing. Unfortunately, he is assigned to a decidedly dodgy mission in Gareth Huw Evans’ spectacularly awesome The Raid (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Tama the kingpin rules the Indonesia underworld from atop his high-rise fortress. He rents apartments and immunity from police harassment to any cutthroat willing to pay rent. However, Rama’s squad is supposed to change all that. They are to systematically secure the building and capture Tama. Of course, it turns out Tama has the drop on them. Since no reinforcements will be coming for their off-the-books operation, Rama and a handful of survivors will have to fight their way out in the same manner they came in—floor by machete-wielding floor. Or in other words: Hell, yes.

The Raid is the sort of film that could turn the prim and proper into martial arts fanboys. Evans maintains an absolute breakneck pace and stages some massive action sequences. Yet, the film is at its absolute best during its many scenes of extended close quarters combat, choreographed by its breakout lead Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, who co-stars as Tama’s self-explanatory henchman, Mad Dog.

Indeed, The Raid should catapult Uwais to the ranks of international superstardom. As Rama, he does something stilted indie films, didactic imports, and vapid reality shows have failed to do: provide a sympathetic Muslim protagonist with broad cross-cultural appeal. By the same token Ruhian’s Mad Dog is a most satisfyingly ferocious villain.

Many action film trailers just dice up some of their best scenes and spit them out at viewers machine gun style. In contrast, The Raid’s trailer is perfectly representative of the film’s hyper-charged energy (if anything, it is toned down a notch). Evans also shrewdly capitalizes on Tama’s seedy and imposing building, further boosting the tension through the claustrophobic setting. Frankly, the film is somewhat reminiscent of early John Woo, simultaneously gritty and operatic.

The Raid is the real deal. Packed with carnage, it is an old school martial arts shootout, with genuine art-house credibility. Highly recommended, it has been a major crowd pleaser at this year’s Sundance, where it screens again this Thursday (1/26) in Park City and Saturday (1/27) in Salt Lake.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sundance ’12: The Pact

Annie and her sister handle stress badly. The former just runs away, while the latter self-medicates. They are both attractive though, so midnight movie patrons will likely forgive them their shortcomings in Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact, which screens late nights during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

The two sisters had a horrible childhood, but we never really learn why. It was so bad though, Annie has never forgiven her mother for it. As a result, the ex-junkie sister is stuck being the responsible one when their mother passes away. Then one night (in a Grudge-like opening scene) something bad happens to her in their old house. Reluctantly, Annie finally comes to investigate her sister’s disappearance, suspecting she has simply relapsed once again. However, after spending her own harrowing night in the family casa, Annie comes to understand there is something seriously sinister afoot there.

For some seemingly out-of-character reason, biker Annie goes to the coppers to report her house is haunted. Of course, all this really gets her is an opportunity to indignantly protest her sanity. At least, Creek the good cop is willing to swing by to take a few photos or something.

To be fair, the horror movie mechanics of The Pact are pretty good, including the first (and probably last) genuinely creepy internet search. McCarthy also blends the elements of the supernatural and psycho killer sub-genres fairly effectively. Still, there is an over-reliance on unrealistically dumb flat foots and cheap scares built around sudden loud noises. The clear implication that the outward Christian piety of Annie’s family masked something profoundly hypocritical is also a tiresome cliché. Just once it would be cool to see a horror movie in which the psychopath was a loud mouth atheist jerk.

Again, it must be conceded Caity Lotz and Agnes Bruckner have the right assets to play the haunted sisters. They truly look like twins and already have considerable scream queen cred with the fanbase. Evidently Starship Troopers’ Casper Van Dien is now taking the parts Michael Biehn passes on, but he is not terrible as the jaded but decent Creek.

You will see better horror movies than The Pact and you will see worse. Fanboys will certainly want to see more of Lotz and Bruckner. Overall it is a serviceable, but only occasionally inspired chiller, probably best seen with a large and slightly buzzed audience at this year’s Sundance. It screens again this Tuesday (1/24) and Thursday (1/26) in Park City and Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake.

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Slamdance ’12: Faith Love + Whiskey

Sofia, Bulgaria looks like a great city for night life, but not so hot for finding a job. That is why Neli is supposed to marry her rich American fiancée. However, her lingering feelings for her reckless Bulgarian ex threaten to derail the plan in Kristina Nikolova’s Faith Love + Whiskey (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in snowy Park City.

Neli’s grandmother might be losing her eyesight, but she still has that twinkle in her eye. She is delighted her granddaughter will be marrying the wealthy and attentive Scott. As far as she is concerned, there is no future for her in Bulgaria. Frankly, Scott might be a bit too nice. Stifled by it all, Neli precipitously returns to Bulgaria and launches into a bender of booze and passion with her former lover, the slightly Rutger Hauer looking Val. It is uncertain just how long they can maintain this flight from responsibility, but those dead soldiers sure do pile up fast on the balcony of their motel room.

Whiskey is a relatively simple story that takes a major New Wave-art-house turn in the third act, but it vividly evokes a sense of the Eastern European after hours vibe. It will make viewers (particularly festive Park City patrons) want to visit Sofia. Indeed, quite a bit of the Bulgarian club music heard throughout the film is surprisingly catchy and distinctive.

It would be perilously easy to lose patience with a character like Neli, but the Macedonian Ana Stojanovska projects a sense of emotional confusion more than mere self-indulgence, which is honestly quite human and relatable. Poor John Keabler does not have much to work with as the terminally nice Scott, but Ljuba Alexieva is quite charming and appealingly grounded as her silver-haired grandmother. As for Valeri Yordanov’s Val, even though he is a bit stiff on-screen, at least he is definitely a credible barroom brawler.

Although it was clearly shot on a shoe-string budget, Whiskey is quite an interesting looking movie. Alexander Stanishev’s grungy, gauzy cinematography seems perfectly suited to Bulgaria. Nikolova also capitalizes on her cinematic locales, while maintaining an intimate focus on her characters.

Whiskey is a cerebral and sensual film, which is actually a rather cool combination. It should definitely resonate deeply with former expats. Recommended for serious festivalers, it screens again this coming Wednesday (1/25) during the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sundance ’12: The Ambassador

Ambassadors are generally addressed as “your Excellency,” which is nice. They can also carry briefcases loaded with diamonds through customs, no questions asked. That is even cooler. It is definitely what mad Mads Brügger had in mind when he set out to buy a diplomatic post. His resulting misadventures are documented in The Ambassador (trailer here), Brügger’s latest gutsy cinematic provocation screening at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

If you have seen Brügger’s Red Chapel (and I really hope you have), you will be familiar with his fearless brand of documentary filmmaking. The plan this time is to buy an ambassadorship representing Liberia in the Central African Republic (CAR) through a “diplomatic broker.” Once credentialed, Brügger will establish a match factory as a cover for his illegal diamond smuggling operation. The shocking thing is he pretty much goes about doing exactly that, but there are complications.

For the record, these are very definitely blood diamonds he is talking about. There just aren’t any other kind in the CAR. That means the politically connected mine owner Brügger starts negotiating with is a pretty scary character. Indeed, there are real stakes for Brügger in this masquerade, including life and limb.

Frankly, Ambassador would be hilarious if it was a feature narrative, but as a documentary, it is rather staggering. The wholesale government corruption Brügger captures on film is widespread and pervasive. While some blame for the country’s lawlessness and desperate poverty is laid at the feet of their former colonial power, the good old French, there is truly no excuse for such dire conditions to exist in a country so richly blessed with mineral resources. Clearly, something is rotten in the failed state of CAR, and Liberia is hardly any better.

Looking like a character from a Graham Greene novel, Brügger plays his part to the hilt. Unlike Red Chapel, where the director was in a constant on-screen dialogue with the viewers and his co-conspirators in his attempt to punk the North Korean regime, Brügger largely stays in character throughout Ambassador. His neck is also on the line when things get dodgy.

Had a conventional Michael Moore-inspired doc-grinder tackled this subject, they simply would have ambushed the receptionist at Liberia’s UN mission and claimed a great moral victim when the low level employee could not discuss their countries diplomatic personnel in the CAR chapter and verse. Brügger puts them to shame. (This specifically includes the Yes Men.) Until they start challenging the kind of people who can make them disappear, on their home turf, they are not worthy of carrying Brügger’s cigarette holder. Another have-to-see-it-to-believe-it film from the muckraking provocateur, The Ambassador is very highly recommended when it screens at this year’s Sundance in Park City on Tuesday (1/24), Thursday (1/26), and Friday (1/27), as well as next Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake.

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Sundance ’12: Wish You Were Here

Southeast Asia really is not the wisest place to go on a drug and booze-fueled bender, particularly if you are parents and even more so if you are pregnant. Nonetheless, the Flannerys decides you only live once in Kieran Darcy-Smith’s cautionary tale, Wish You Were Here (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Dave and Alice Flannery have two kids, with a third on the way. Despite her advancing pregnancy they cannot say no when her sister Steph McKinney’s new boyfriend offers to treat them all to a vacation in Cambodia. A sketchy import-exporter, the fast-talking Jeremy King claims he can deduct it all. Evidently, Australia must have quite an indulgent tax code. At first, the quartet has a blast, as the audience can plainly see from the long opening montage. However, only three of them came back. Somewhere along the way, they lost King.

Actually, quite a bit went down in Cambodia that threatens to break their family ties. Since they all assume King’s disappearance involved his stash of XTC, they have trouble deciding just what they should tell the Australian authorities. Needless to say, there are probably lingering dangers from that fateful night they should also worry about.

At times, the Flannerys can just be hair-pullingly dumb. An iota of communication would have spared them so much grief. Still, the slow reveal of King’s fate is rather effective (though the resolution of the mystery is somewhat underwhelming). The Cambodian locales are also quite cinematically exotic and seedy. Yet throughout Wish, it is impossible to shake the notion the Flannerys got off easy. Haven’t they seen Midnight Express? Drug use in a less than transparent country is usually a distinctly bad idea.

Poised to succeed Russell Crowe as Hollywood’s favorite square-jawed Australian, Joel Edgerton definitely has the right intense screen presence and everyman quality for Dave Flannery. Granted, it is a stressful set of circumstances, but Felicity Price’s Alice Flannery often comes across as somewhat overwrought and irrational. In contrast, even though he draws the short straw, Anthony Starr is rather memorably dynamic as the ill-fated King.

Wish is a serviceable thriller-slash-family drama, but it holds no real surprises in store for viewers. It probably will not do much for Cambodian tourism either, even though the beaches look inviting. Not a special priority, Wish screens tonight (1/21) in Odgen and this coming Wednesday (1/25) and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as this year’s Sundance swings into high gear.

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Sundance ’12: Where Do We Go Now?

Isolated and picturesque, the Lebanese village of Taybeh offered the perfect locations for the country’s official submission for this year’s best foreign language Academy Award. The church and mosque built side by side will be particularly significant in Nadine Labaki’s stylized musical, Where Do We Go Now? (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Accessible only by an impossibly torturous bridge, the Christian and Muslim inhabitants live in peace, or at least the women do. The men are uneasy in their truce as news of fresh violence in the outside world vaguely drifts in. Tired of their perpetual mourning, Amale, the Christian widow who operates the town café, organizes the women like a Lebanese Lysistrata. They sabotage the television and radios, while doing their best to distract the restive men. When all else fails, they bring in a troupe of Ukrainian strippers, in a bit of a departure from the film’s classical Greek forerunner.

In a bit of a twist, the women’s few real male allies include the village’s priest and imam, whom the film presents as friendly colleagues rather than hateful zealots. Of course, Labaki and co-writers Jihad Hojeily, and Rodney Al Haddad strenuously avoid taking sides. Indeed, the whole crux of the film is the interchangeability of the two faiths.

The occasional musical number certainly helps liven-up the proceedings. Some are rather somber, like the funeral procession taking a slight Fosse-esque detour. However, Amale’s fantasy dance with Rabih, her Muslim handyman, is pretty hot stuff. As Amale, Labaki is also rather alluring, but her smart and sophisticated presence seems at odds with the rest of the largely matronly townswomen. Indeed, she seems distinctly out of place in this town full of stock characters.

Still, the choreography is striking and Christophe Offenstein’s cinematography is often quite arresting, soaking up all the scarred beauty of the weathered village and the rugged surrounding landscape. Though well meaning, Where remains a minor film that ultimately lacks the gravitas it presumes to have by virtue of its subject matter. Pleasant for those who enjoy an unconventional movie musical, but hardly a priority at Sundance, it screens today (1/21), Wednesday (1/25), and the following Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as well as this Sunday (1/22) in Salt Lake.

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