J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

American Master/Rebel: Margaret Mitchell

Except for perhaps Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell was America’s greatest literary one-hit wonder, but what a blockbuster hit it was. American Masters profiles both Pulitzer Prize winning novelists this Monday, with the broadcast premiere of Mary McDonagh Murphy’s Hey Boo, seen in New York theaters last May, Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel, airing nationally this coming Monday on most PBS outlets.

Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind. End of story? Actually, writer-executive producer Pamela Roberts nicely traces the roots of the famous Civil War novel to the stories turn-of-the-century baby Mitchell heard from the Confederate veterans of her youth. However, for many viewers, the considerable financial support Mitchell gave to traditionally African American Morehouse College will be Rebel’s greatest revelation. It also counterbalances the expected criticisms of Mitchell’s problematic depiction of mistress-house slave relationships.

Still, there is no getting around the significance of Gone with the Wind. Had Mitchell not written the novel, it is doubtful anyone would produce a documentary about a one-time Atlanta Journal correspondent, regardless how trailblazing her relatively short tenure was at the time. That is what viewers will want to hear about anyway. Fortunately, Roberts has some pretty good publishing stories and duly covers the celebrated film, while keeping the focus squarely on Mitchell throughout.

According to Rebel, Mitchell’s lifelong maid constantly answered phones calls from fans who wanted to know if her protagonists ever got back together. She brusquely replied neither she nor her employer could say. Indeed, O’Hara’s resolve to face the world alone, even with the slap in the face ending, is rather the whole point. That is why the estate’s authorized sequels are such a travesty.

Clocking in at just under an hour, Rebel effectively makes Mitchell’s case as a significant cultural figure without overstaying its welcome, which is quite considerate of it, in a Southern kind of way. Informative and easily digestible, Rebel is pleasant enough viewing when it broadcasts this Monday (4/2) as part of the current season of American Masters on PBS.

(Photo: Atlanta History Center)

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Dickens Bicentennial: Great Expectations

Just in time for Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, the BFI discovered what is thought to be the earliest Dickens silent film: G.A. Smith’s The Death of Poor Joe, circa 1901, depicting a brief scene from Oliver Twist. Over one hundred years later, the Dickens canon is still a source of inspiration for both cinema and television. PBS’s Masterpiece Classic celebrates the Dickens Centennial with two new (at least for American audiences) productions, starting this Sunday with Great Expectations (promo here).

Phillip Pirrip is simply known as Pip. It is not just a nickname. It will become his identity. As a young orphan, Pip encounters Abel Magwitch on the moors. Though terrified, the lad helps the escaped convict, at the risk of incurring his guardian older sister’s wrath. Shortly after Magwitch’s capture, Pip is enlisted to serve as the companion to Estella Havisham, the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham, a mysterious spinster with a tragic past.

His trips to Miss Havisham’s Satis House are strange affairs, but they lead Pip to believe her interest will raise him out of his mean station. Yet, as soon as his hopes are raised, his would be patroness arbitrarily dashes them. However, when a mysterious benefactor arranges for Pip to live the life of a gentleman in London and assume a considerable fortune upon reaching legal adulthood, Pip assumes he is back in the Havishams’ good graces.

Yes, this is definitely Great Expectations (Masterpiece’s second adaptation as it happens, and fifteenth Dickens work overall), following the source novel quite scrupulously. The only question is which ending screenwriter Sarah Phelps chose: the more cinematic and canonical upbeat ending or Dickens’ original conclusion favored by critics such as George Orwell.

In fact, her treatment nicely captures the spirit of the great novel, well establishing the major supporting characters so viewers can fully appreciate the significance when they reappear in different contexts. Perhaps most importantly, she and director Brian Kirk devote sufficient time to Pip’s relationship with Herbert Pocket, his onetime rival turned intimate friend. In a way, their friendship proves people can change for the better, which is one of the novel’s central questions.

Expectations should also interest Game of Thrones fans, featuring three alumni: Kirk at the helm, Mark Addy as the blowhard Mr. Pumblechook and Harry Lloyd engagingly earnest as Pocket (a complete departure from the entitled Viserys Targaryen). However, much of the attention will center on Gillian Anderson as a decidedly younger, but rather spooky Miss Havisham. Indeed, her portrayal of an emotional stunted woman almost literally haunted by her past, as well as Kirk’s embrace of the story’s gothic elements, should appeal to genre viewers.

Always reliable, Ray Winstone is perfectly cast as Magwitch, projecting the appropriate ferocity and sensitivity, depending on the circumstances. Masterpiece regular David Suchet also adds a dash of roguish flavor as Mr. Jaggers, the solicitor administering Pip’s trust. Unfortunately, the charisma and chemistry of romantic leads Douglas Booth and Vanessa Kirby is somewhat lacking, but as with most good Dickens productions, Expectations can be easily enjoyed for the secondary characters.

Great Expectations is solidly entertaining television, even if the tragic love story fizzles somewhat. Unequally divided into one and two hour installments, it is freely recommended for its meaty supporting turns and rich period trappings when it premieres on most PBS outlets this Sunday (4/1), concluding a week later (4/8), as part of the current season of Masterpiece.

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Norwegian Pie: Turn Me On, Dammit

One of the horniest films at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival took home the Best Screenplay—Narrative Award. Granted, there is no getting around Alma’s short term goals, but as a teenager, that is how she is sort of supposed to be. Unfortunately, she earns quite a reputation for it in writer-director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s pretty darn directly titled Turn Me On, Dammit! (slightly toned down from the original “Goddammit,” trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Alma is very interested in the blandly attractive Artur, as are a number of girls in Skoddeheimen, her stiflingly dull provincial town. Unfortunately, when she impulsively mentions his clumsy bit of show-and-tell at a party, he publically repudiates her. Suddenly, she is shunned by her classmates as an allegedly sexually-obsessed horndog with difficulty distinguishing between reality and her overactive fantasy life, which is largely true, but completely unfair. The only person who understands her is the soothing voice at her favorite sex line, but when the phone bill inevitably arrives her Calvinist mother insists she get a job to pay for it. When that predictably leads to more awkwardness, Alma starts yearning for life in the big city, as well as the other stuff to be found there.

Just to review, Alma, a cute blonde, is ostracized in high school for her raging lust. Okay, fine whatever, but those Norwegians sure are weird cats. Be that as it may, Turn is indeed a mostly charming little film. Helen Bergsholm has a winning screen presence and a flair for outrageous comedic situations. Likewise, Malin Bjørhovde comes across realistically grounded as Alma’s last remaining friend Sara, a frustrated activist, who wants to write to American convicts on death row, but seems a little hesitant about letting them have her address.

It is important to note this story of high school sexual angst was directed by a woman, because it shows a bit more than you might expect (though little outright nudity). Still, Jacobsen handles the potentially prurient material with a light touch, so the film never feels smarmy (except maybe when writing about it after the fact). She is particularly deft at blurring Alma’s fantasies into reality, often catching the audience off-balance as a result. Though a winning film, it is somewhat odd Turn would win a screenplay award, because despite the film’s energy and fresh characterizations, there is never really any doubt where it is heading.

Regardless, Turn is gently entertaining with the potential to reach a wider audience than typical for limited release foreign language films. Rather sweet, but tricky to write about for a family outlet, Turn is recommended adult audiences when it opens today (3/30) in New York at the Angelika and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Centers.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Saving the Titanic: Still a Disaster 100 Years Later

Trade unionism helped sink the Titanic. Of course, there was also an iceberg and an ocean full of water. Viewers will get a cogent explanation of how the celebrated ship sank as well as the heroic efforts made my her engineering crew in Maurice Sweeney’s documentary-narrative hybrid Saving the Titanic (promo here), which airs on most PBS stations this Sunday as part of Public Broadcasting’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the vessel’s maiden and final voyage.

Not to be spoilery, but Chief Engineer Joseph Bell and his men do not save the Titanic. Not long after she struck the iceberg, they knew her fate was sealed. Yet, they stayed at their posts below deck, working furiously to maintain power and forestall the inevitable, giving passengers more time to reach the life boats.

Though hardly high praise, it is worth noting Saving is significantly better than Cameron’s Titanic, particularly in the 3D fixer-upper form now looking to cash in with theater patrons. It is something of an odd blend of forms, periodically interrupting the below decks drama with charts and voice-over explanations of what exactly was going on from a technical standpoint. It might be a stylistic change-up, but at least it is often interesting. According, to Saving, there was a coal strike on at the time, which was significant to an entirely coal-powered vessel like the Titanic. As a result, she was stocked with cheap coal that was much more likely to combust spontaneously. This indeed happened, weakening her hull.

Probably the most recognizable face in Saving is that of Primeval’s Ciarán McNenamin, (at least) ten times manlier than little DiCaprio as lead fireman Fred Barrett. In a departure from his mad comic supporting turn in The Guard, David Wilmot gets to plays the hero this time as the dedicated Chief Engineer. In fact, the actors (and men they all are, no Kate Winslets in this telling of the Titanic tale) acquit themselves rather well, helping Sweeney establish the engineering crew’s unsung heroism. In contrast, the bridge crew’s reputation does not fare so well.

Evidently, there is a longer festival cut of Saving devoting more time to Catholic-Protestant divisions amongst the Irish crew. PBS viewers will be largely denied most of that, but there are no glaring holes in the broadcast version. Informative and engaging by casual television viewing standards, Saving is a shrewd bit of programming from PBS when it airs this Sunday (4/1) on most outlets nationwide.

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Extreme Private Ethos: Love Song 1974

You might think you have seen some extreme behavior on reality television, but it is nothing compared to the Japanese counter-culture of the early 1970’s. Everyone has had awkward and demoralizing moments with their ex. Radical filmmaker Kazuo Hara edited his into a documentary. At one time he may have had a happy relationship with Miyuki Takeda, but happiness did not satisfy her. However, she allows Hara to film her most intimate moments. Ultimately, the collaboration between her contempt and his self-loathing became Hara’s 16mm Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, which concludes Extreme Private Ethos, the Asia Society’s recent retrospective film series of uncomfortably personal Japanese documentaries, this Saturday.

Hara and Takeda had a young son together and viewers will feel for him quite acutely throughout the film. Wanting to maintain their connection, Hara and his camera invade her new life without him, but she allows it, apparently as a means of inflicting passive aggressive humiliations. Indeed, Hara willingly watches as she launches into an unstable lesbian relationship, moves to Okinawa to become a bargirl, becomes the submissive lover of an African American GI, and has someone’s baby (we not told whose). Hara’s spares the audience nothing, including a front-and-center, but slightly out of focus shot of her delivery.

Eventually moving into an urban commune for former bargirls and their children, Takeda tries to give her choices the patina of radical activism, but what happens on screen is really just a mess. When she forthrightly proclaims her preference for her biracial baby girl over her good natured toddler son, knowingly on-camera, it is rather quietly shocking. You have to feel for the young guy. To get back at his mother, he is probably now a conservative member of the LDP and a staid family man.

Frankly, the alternative lifestyles depicted in Eros make it pretty clear why the traditional ones have endured so long. The distinctly unprofessional midwifery practiced at the commune is particularly disturbing, but none of the choices made in the film appear to turn out well.

Eros is the sort of work that will leave viewers shaking their heads in disbelief. Again, one cannot help feeling sorry for the children born into this chaos. On the other hand, by the end of the documentary, most audience members will conclude Hara and Takeda deserve each other. A scalding antidote to early 1970’s counter-culture romanticism, but not exactly a barrel of laughs, Extreme Private Eros memorably concludes Extreme Private Ethos, the film series clearly titled after it, this Saturday (3/31) at the Asia Society on New York’s famous Park Avenue.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Smokeless Romance: Love in the Buff

It was smoking that brought together Cherie Yu and Jimmy Cheung, but it might be everything else in life that splits them apart. They met during cigarette breaks soon after Hong Kong workplaces went smoke-free in Pang Ho-cheung’s Love in a Puff. Unfortunately, work and time undermine their romance in Pang’s completely stand-alone sequel Love in the Buff (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It seems the couple has quit smoking to judge from Buff, but that might be the only responsible thing Cheung has done in his personal life. He has gotten serious about his career, but at the cost of his relationship with Yu. She is something of his mirror image, ready to make a commitment to him, but sleepwalking through her days working retail for Sephora. Eventually, they break-up, with a shrug rather than a bang. That lack of definitive closure will become an issue for them both when they later cross paths again in Beijing.

Transferred by their companies (for very different reasons), the ex-lovers planned to start fresh on the Mainland. Each will find a significant other who would seem much better suited to their respective temperaments. Yet, before long, they have reverted to form, sneaking around with each other behind their partners’ backs.

Do not get the wrong idea. The “Buff” in the title is only really there because it rhymes with “Puff.” In truth, Buff is about as risqué an average episode of Friends, perhaps even less so. Yet, it is definitely a film for adult sensibilities (in the best sense of the term). In fact, Pang’s treatment of their relationship issues and dynamics is brutally honest and at times rather caustic.

As a result, viewers will feel acute sympathy for the deceived lovers. Indeed, the earnestness of the beautiful Shang You-you and Sam, the gentlemanly divorcee, will make viewers want to see them get together instead. However, Buff is too sincere for such “change partners” gimmicks (though there are a number of novelty cameos from Chinese/HK celebrities that will be largely lost on American audiences).

Instead of trying to be compulsively likable, Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue are consistently maddening in a very realistic down-to-earth way as Yu and Cheung, respectively. They really convey a sense of flawed chemistry that is so central to the film. Not simply set decoration, Mini (Mi) Yang projects a tangible needy vulnerability that should have quite the effect on audiences. As for Xu Zheng’s Sam, well okay, he is rather likable.

At times Buff approaches the edge of melodrama, yet always pulls back at the last minute, just in the way people do in real life every day. Altogether, it is a well written look at the pitfalls of romance with a highly attractive cast and an appealingly swinging soundtrack. Recommended for movie-goers looking for something smart but not too heavy, Love in the Buff opens this Friday (3/30) in New York at the AMC Empire and AMC Village 7 as well as in San Francisco at the AMC Metreon, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

ND/NF ’12: Twilight Portrait

In Moscow, you can never find a cop when you need one—if you’re lucky, that is. While ostensibly nonpolitical, a scathing picture of the Putin era’s petty corruption, casual cruelty, and moral malaise emerges in Angelina Nikonova’s Twilight Portrait (trailer here), which screens this week during the 2012 edition of New Directors/New Films.

Initially, Marina appears to be a woman who has it all: a career she is ambivalent about, a husband she cannot respect, and a lover she despises. Unfortunately, after another unsatisfying tryst, the wheels come off Marina’s life. A stolen handbag, a broken heel, and a bit of dishevelment later, the cops pick up Marina on the assumption she is a prostitute and therefore fair game. The details are kept deliberately obscure from the audience, but we know some combination of the three officers rapes her in their patrol car.

Twilight’s second act might be the most realistic, bluntly unvarnished portrayal of the aftermath of such trauma yet rendered on film. Marina’s depression and anger manifest themselves in ways that are sometimes understandable, but often perplexing and off-putting. However, Twilight is just getting started. When Marina takes up with Andrei, one of the cops from that fateful night (who apparently does not recognize her in a different context), the film gets even darker. Is this part of an elaborate plan for revenge or compulsive self-debasement? Perhaps it is both or neither. Indeed, part of her seems drawn to Andrei’s unapologetic masculinity in much the same way Russia collectively submits to an authoritarian strongman, like Putin. Twilight keeps its cards close to its vest, but it is safe to surmise their relationship is deeply twisted.

At this point, it might be helpful to point out Twilight was co-written by Nikonova and her lead actress, Olga Dihovichnaya. Nonetheless, some might find the film’s sexual dynamics, as described above, considerably troubling, which is perfectly reasonable. This is not a film for everyone, just like Bad Lieutenant is not a film for the masses. However, like Ferrara’s arguable masterwork, there is always a point to the degradation. Frankly, Twilight is not very explicit, in terms of what it shows on-screen, but the implications of the character’s words and actions are undeniably disturbing.

Beyond visceral, Dihovichnaya gives a phenomenal performance that will make viewers squirm in discomfort. Film patrons will not see better work on-screen this year, but it is so brutally honest and tightly controlled, Dihovichnaya is unlikely to get the accolades she deserves, at least around these parts. (We will probably just shower our awards on Meryl Streep’s next shticky impersonation.)

Nikonova masterfully controls what the audience sees and what it thinks it perceives, keeping them off-balance and edgy throughout the film. It is not an easy film to watch, but it has some real arsenic to it. Recommended for those who fully understand what they are getting into, Twilight screens this Friday (3/30) at MoMA and Saturday (3/31) at the Walter Reade Theater, as the 2012 ND/NF wraps up a particularly strong year.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Puck Love: Goon

Doug “the Thug” Glatt is like a Hanson Brother, but with a good heart and a complete lack of guile. He sure can fight though. In fact, he will brawl his way into a minor league hockey contract in Michael Dowse’s crowd-pleasing Goon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Always overshadowed as the underachiever in a family of doctors, the socially awkward Glatt lives the anonymous life of a bar bouncer. At first, hockey would be the province of his loud mouth buddy Ryan, who produces a hockey webcast. However, when Glatt lays a beat down on a skid row player rushing the stands to get at his obnoxious pal, he catches the eye of Rollie Hortense, the home club manager. Before he knows it, he has a real minor league contract up north, playing for Hortense’s brother Ronnie.

When Glatt starts out, he can barely skate, but that is okay. He was not recruited to score or even defend, but to enforce. He is to be a cement head in the Dave Semenko tradition, except more so. He is to retaliate for cheap shots, spark his team with a momentum swinging altercation, and protect Laflamme. A former hockey prodigy, Laflamme flamed out after finding himself on the received end of a brutal hit from legendary enforcer Ross Rhea. As luck would have, Rhea has been busted down to the minors, building fan anticipation for a cement head showdown.

There will be fists flying, but aside from Ryan’s crude humor, Goon is shockingly endearing. Even though the Halifax Highlanders are a squad of mismatched misfits, Glatt takes pride in being part of the team. Of course, his spirit of camaraderie catches on with most of the grizzled journeymen. He also tries to woo the jaded party girl Eva with refreshing Leave It to Beaver innocence.

Indeed, there is nothing ironic or smirky about Seann William Scott’s work, which is why it is so earnestly engaging. Like every fan favorite, he provides a strong rooting interest—a Rudy level underdog, in love and sport. Who knew Stifler had it in him?

Perhaps since they are both Canadian Kim Coates and Nicholas Campbell (a.k.a. Domenic DaVinci) really look and sound like hockey coaches. Yet, Liev Schrieber (who is American but can easily pass) plays Rhea with appropriate animal intensity, creating one of the best sports movie nemesises since maybe Clubber Lang.

Goon is an unusually sweet sports film. There is something aesthetically appealing about its embrace of the minor league milieu. Ultimately though, Goon works just as well on and off the ice, which is the real test for this genre. Recommended with affection for audiences well beyond the hockey target market, it opens this Friday (3/30) at the Village East.

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ND/NF ’12: Generation P

Only a bold film would invoke the name “Ishtar,” but Victor Ginzburg is clearly a bold filmmaker. The context is much different here of course, but Elaine May’s notorious box office dud might have been quite popular in the old USSR, since it co-starred Reds helmer Warren Beatty. As it happens, Soviet era nostalgia plays a significant role in Generation P (trailer here), Ginzburg’s adaptation of Viktor Pelevin’s Illuminatus!-esque novel of late Yeltsin-era Russia, which screens this week as part of the 2012 New Directors/New Films.

Eventually viewers learn the Babylonian goddess Ishtar has a special relationship with Russia and its secret history. Though previously oblivious to the byzantine machinations of the behind-the-scenes power players, Babylen Tatarsky has always felt a kinship to all things Mesopotamian because of his name, originally conceived as a hybrid of Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar and Lenin. A failed poet working in a kiosk owned by the Chechen mob, Tatarsky falls backwards into a “creative” gig at one of the upstart Russian advertising agencies catering to the nouveau riche industrial class.

Tatarsky specializes in calibrating campaigns to appeal to Soviet nostalgia. He does not believe in it himself though, because he does not believe in anything. That ideological flexibility allows him to advance to larger, more connected firms. However, he has a spiritual advisor in the person of Gireyev, a Buddhist mystic and expert harvester of psychedelic mushrooms.

The “P” in Generation P is an ironic reference to Pepsi, the cola of Glasnost. Though it never outright glamorizes terrorism, P is not that far removed from V for Vendetta, exhibiting similar anarchistic inclinations. However, the closest comparison might be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, giving viewers a hallucinogenic tour of Russia worthy of Hunter S. Thompson.

P arguably peaks halfway through. At its most inventive, it mixes Mesopotamian and Soviet imagery to evocative hint at ancient mystic secrets. However, once Tatarsky reaches the inner circle, the film gets bogged down in rather standard dog-wagging conspiracy rigmarole.

Beyond its heavy-handed critique of consumerism, it is hard to get a bead on P’s exact ideology. While Tatarsky’s cynical nostalgia campaigns are clearly intended to be problematically simplistic, the only real reference to Russia’s Communist past are the fondly remembered Pioneer Days, which are presented with a Norman Rockwell like patina of lost innocence.

The film also has little love for Yeltsin, but plot developments ironically absolve him of much of his buffoonery. Likewise, there is constant white noise equating all capitalists with oligarchs, but they constantly wind up assassinated for running afoul the mob or the government. Yet, the similarities between a blunt-talking nationalist “reformer” literally created on a hard-drive and the current Russian president who refuses to relinquish his grip on power are difficult to miss.

Amidst the maelstrom of satire and metaphysics, Vladimir Epifantsev somehow creates a memorable, multidimensional portrait of Tatarsky, the everyman turned insider. Ginzburg also keeps viewers’ feet solidly on the ground, giving them plenty of narrative handles to guide them through the complicated and surreal storyline. It is a very accomplished work, but it is not clear what it all adds up to, particularly for those coming from what the film somewhat mockingly refers to as a “Soviet mentality.” A strange, sometimes dazzling film certainly worth attempting to decode, but in no way should be considered the final word on the immediate post-Soviet years, Generation P screens this Friday (3/30) at the Walter Reade Theater and Sunday (4/1) at MoMA, as this year’s ND/NF concludes in New York.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

ND/NF ’12: Huan Huan

China is a man’s world and becoming ever more so. In addition to making young girls increasingly less common, China’s One Child policy poisons the personal relationships of several working class provincial villagers in Song Chuan’s Huan Huan, which screens during the 2012 New Directors/New Films, jointly presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Huan Huan has not taken control of her own life. She passively married a habitual gambler and acquiesced to the advances of “Doctor” Wang, a dodgy practitioner of “Chinese and Western medicine” married to Chunfeng, the village’s government enforcer. When their ill-concealed affair becomes public, Chunfeng starts harassing Huan Huan’s family, while Wang starts paying a monthly consideration to her deadbeat husband. Huan Huan’s eventual pregnancy complicates matters tremendously, particularly in light of the One Child policy and Chunfeng’s infertility.

Indeed, given the harsh procreation laws, everyone is interested in Huan Huan’s baby, hoping for a son of course. As a result, what might be a passionate infidelity melodrama in the West becomes a study in cold calculated decisions for Huan Huan’s circle. The frank matter-of-factness with which Song Chuan addresses the One Child policy and the petty corruption of local officials is nothing less than stunning. He also clearly argues contemporary Chinese society is sexually objectifying women, most notably in the low pop culture it imports.

Unfortunately, though Song’s social criticism is undeniably trenchant, his unprofessional cast largely acquit themselves as such. Actually, lead Tian Yuefang is rather convincing in a true to life way as the sullen and self-destructive title character. However, the supporting cast is guilty of frequently awkward line readings and a clumsy fight scene that would not pass muster in most dinner theaters.

In addition, Song follows in the aesthetic tradition of independent Chinese filmmaking initiated by the Digital Generation (or DGenerate) School. As a result, Huan Huan features the long static shots and unhurried ground level naturalism that are hallmarks of the movement, but can be distancing for undisciplined viewers. He displays a strong sense of composition though, vividly conveying the hardscrabble environment of Yunnan.

Ultimately, Huan Huan is more interesting for what portrays than as a fully engaging drama for audiences to submerge themselves into. According to Deadline Hollywood, Song was denied a visa to attend ND/NF, so it worth seeing on those grounds alone. A bold undertaking, but quite a mixed bag cinematically, Huan Huan screens this Tuesday (3/27) at the Walter Reade Theater and Wednesday (3/28) at MoMA.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Korean Rom-Com: My Girlfriend is an Agent

Evidently Jamie Gorelick also set up an information-sharing firewall for Korean intelligence. Unbeknownst to each other, two agencies are tracking the same Russian gangster-spies out to purchase the latest monster virus. Nor do Ahn Soo-ji and her ex realize they work for the rival agencies. Things get rom-com complicated in Shin Tae-ra’s My Girlfriend is an Agent (trailer here), which screens this Tuesday in New York as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s current It’s a Fine Romance film series—for free.

Ahn is an excellent operative, but things like rejection make her loose her cool. In contrast, Lee Jae-joon is completely incompetent, but he is a rookie. At least his Russian background will be useful. Obviously, the evil Victor Somethingrussian has a huge advantage. Every Korean operation targeting him is blown when Ahn and Lee blunder into each other.

Of course, they fight like cats and dogs, providing much entertainment for the local coppers, while scrupulously maintaining their classified affiliations. When Ahn and Lee’s teams finally start to suspect their respective exes, they assume each is in league with the Russians, as duly required in secret agent comedies.

Agent is not afraid to milk a public yelling match for all its worth. Indeed, the comedy is pretty broad here, but it barrels ahead quite confidently. To give credit where it is due, Shin and screenwriter Cheon Seong-il certainly know how to introduce their heroine, immediately putting Ahn into the field as a pistol-packing, jet-ski driving undercover bride. That so works.

In fact, as Ahn, Kim Ha-neul makes a pretty engaging action protagonist, poised in her fight scenes and rather endearing when navigating her romantic frustrations. However, the slapstick incompetence of Kang Ji-hwan’s Lee is lathered on far too strongly, quickly undermining any possible dramatic credibility. Still, his goofiness is not difficult to translate.

Clearly, Agent just wants viewers to have fun, which is cool. Frankly, it contrasts rather favorably with Hollywood spy comedies of recent vintage that unfailingly portray either the CIA or the U.S. military as the “real villains.” Though they have their secrets, Agent’s heavies are still Russian, through and through.

A smash hit in Korea, it is fairly easy to understand Agent’s appeal. Light and breezy with a healthy dose of romance, it is an amusing bauble. It ought to be quite pleasant to watch it with an appreciative audience—again, for free—so plan to arrive early when it screens this Tuesday (3/27) at the Tribeca Cinemas, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

4:44 Last Day on Earth: Armageddon on the Lower East Side

Abel Ferrara is determined to vindicate Al Gore. He will have to destroy the world to do it, but surely that is a small price to pay. Armageddon indeed comes to the Lower East Side in Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (trailer here), which opens today in New York at the IFC Center.

The details are vague (for obvious reasons), but we are told Gore was more right than even he knew. Global warming has become so severe, all life will end at 4:44 am in some sort of great microwaving, but of course women and children will be hit the hardest. At least it is not daylight savings, because it would be a real bummer to lose an hour tonight. Cisco and his girlfriend Skye will spend their final hours together, as New York prepare for the end.

Frankly, Ferrara’s set up is surprisingly effective. During the first half hour or so, New Yorkers will be reminded of the empathic solidarity that swept over the City on 9-11 and to a lesser extent during the blackout. He really creates a convincing sense of what it would be like to knowingly experience the apocalypse in New York.

As the day progresses, Cisco and Skye frequently make love in between her creative bursts of painting, which is perfectly appropriate given the dramatic context. However, viewers will start to wonder where Ferrara is taking it all. Frankly, nowhere.

Essentially, 4:44 shows us scene after scene of Cisco puttering about his apartment, wrestling with the mother of all existential crises. Late in the day, Ferrara makes a half-hearted attempt to gin up some phony drama, but it quickly subsides. We also get one cheesy montage before its Hasta time.

During the long stretches of Wilem Dafoe gamely channeling his inner Ferrara as Cisco, we hear intrusive excerpts from an old Gore appearance on Charlie Rose and several streaming lessons from the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers. It is as if the secular faith of environmentalism is battling Buddhism for the soul of the apartment. Considering how clumsily Ferrara tilts the playing field in favor of the former, most viewers will want to throw their lot in with His Holiness.

Strangely, despite the Dalai Lama’s archival appearance, 4:44 is largely unconcerned with the religious ramifications of the end of the world. Indeed, it never speculates on the implications for the cycle of reincarnation so important to the Buddhism, but viewers might as their attentions start to wander. In another piece of good local color, 4:44 also shows the final broadcasts of NY1 anchor Pat Kiernan. He might not be particularly well known outside New York City, but that is okay, considering ninety-nine percent of the film’s audience will come from a handful of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan neighborhoods.

As you would expect from such a quintessentially New York filmmaker, Ferrara nails the City vibe, but that is about all 4:44 has. Quite skippable in theaters, it might be worth sampling the first twenty minutes on cable eventually, but do not make any special effort. For Ferrara’s die-hard fans, it opens today (3/23) at the IFC Center.

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Extreme Private Ethos: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Kenzo Okuzaki conducted one of the most reckless murder investigations ever. He suspected two privates in his old regiment were executed to cover up something nefarious. He ought to have a nose for such things. He served ten hard years for murdering a real estate agent. The combination of his moral outrage and erratic behavior is fascinating to behold in Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which screens this Sunday as part of Extreme Private Ethos, the Asia Society’s film retrospective surveying uncompromisingly intimate Japanese documentaries.

Getting an exact bead on Okuzaki’s ideology is tricky, but there is no question he despises the then Emperor. In addition to his murder wrap, he also did time for shooting a slingshot at the palace and distributing pornographic leaflets with the Emperor’s likeness. He is not subtle, nor particularly restrained, but he is not necessarily wrong about the suspicious executions in the 36th Regiment.

As he questions the surviving players, first with the sister and brother of the presumed victims in tow, later to be replaced by his wife and an anarchist colleague “playing the parts,” a number of disturbing facts are established. He conclusively establishes the men were shot after the war ended. He also kicks lose a lot of speculation about cannibalism within the ranks. While he never uncovers the precise source of the fire, he certainly finds a lot of smoke.

When talking fails, Okuzaki often lashes out physically. Yet, at times when he actually gets his interview subjects to open up, he interrupts them to assert his moral superiority. In short, he is sort of a nut, yet he appears to be on the right track.

An inspiration to Michael Moore (but don’t hold that against him), Hara’s approach throughout Army is deceptively straight forward. Filmed over a five year span, the documentary largely consists of Okuzaki’s slow building interrogations that frequently seem to erupt into mayhem out of nowhere. It definitely seems the filmmaker tries to keep Okuzaki’s volatile nature somewhat under wraps, even with Army’s shocking but rather offhanded conclusion.

Clearly, Hara is not “playing it straight” in Army, preferring to side with a marginalized outsider of Dostoyevskian dimensions. It is rare that such a talky movie can be so unsettling. Indeed, Army is a bizarre viewing experience every serious doc watch should partake of. It screens this Sunday (3/25) as Extreme Private Ethos continues at the Asia Society.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

NYICFF ’12: The Monkey King—Uproar in Heaven

Wan Laiming was the Walt Disney of China. Unfortunately, his long planned masterwork finally came to fruition on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Just as the second part of his animated adaptation of the Ming-era novel Journey to the West was released to general acclaim, the Chinese film industry was shuttered for reasons of ideological madness. Recognized as one of the greatest Chinese animated features ever, Wan’s complete The Monkey King—Uproar in Heaven has been meticulously restored, frame-by-frame, and converted to widescreen 3D. Su Da and Chen Zhihong’s Monkey King restoration had its North American premiere screenings during the 2012 New York International Children’s Festival.

Being in fact a monkey, the Monkey King is perfectly suited to animation. Supernaturally powerful, he happily leads the monkey tribe of Flower Fruit Mountain, but his rambunctious nature attracts celestial attention. On the orders of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey King is whisked up to the heavens, only to be given a dubious title and shunted off the a harmless corner of the cosmos. The Monkey King does not play that game though. He creates quite the ruckus before returning to his clan on Flower Fruit Mountain. However, the beings of the higher realm consider his rebellious drive a threat and will not leave well enough alone.

Often thought to be influenced by Hindu deities, the Monkey King clearly fits the Trickster archetype. While he eventually settles down in the source novel, Uproar features him at his most uproarious. Frankly, some of his moves prefigure several signature sequences from the Matrix franchise. He is also quite proficient with his magical staff, delivering plenty of satisfaction for martial arts fans.

However, the look of Wan’s film, by way of the Su and Chen’s restoration, is truly remarkable. It has a rich lushness, but there is also a mystical vibe that resists comparison to other films. It is also hard to describe the film’s color palate, but it is quite distinctive (and a testament to the filmmakers’ restoration efforts). Some sequences are incredibly graceful, such as the Monkey King’s encounter with a wonderfully cinematic group of fairies, at least until his mischievousness asserts itself. In addition, the restored Uproar is one of the most skillful and refined examples of 3D rendering, aside from Wim Wenders’s Pina. More than just pointy objects jutting out from the screen, the 3D here emphasizes depth on a grand scale.

The Monkey King’s story holds a place of honor amid China’s rich cultural legacy, which the ideological campaigns of the mid and late 1960’s tragically nearly destroyed. Presumably, some purists will debate aspects of the 3D digital refurbishment, most definitely including the 3D itself, but also the restoration directors’ abridgment of the film, the newly composed and recorded soundtrack (directly inspired by the Beijing Opera) and their alteration of the aspect ratio. However, these debates are good to have.

Ultimately, their efforts will bring Wan’s images to a new generation of viewers and ensure they will be preserved for generations to come. Perhaps more to the point, Uproar is an enormously entertaining spectacle that is both high-brow and action-oriented. Recommended for kids and animation fans with an interest in Chinese Culture, The Monkey King—Uproar in Heaven is likely to have a long life on the festival circuit and in specialty distribution, following its enthusiastically received screening last night at NYICFF.

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ND/NF ’12: The Raid—Redemption

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: Redemption (trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2012 New Directors/New Films in advance of its Friday opening in New York.

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, when it was known simply as The Raid. In truth, the subtitle is unnecessary and somewhat ill-fitting, but who cares? Some also find it a bit odd such monster cinematic badness found a home with Sony Pictures Classics, but (as the trailer points out) the art-house distributor previously released Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, as well as Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time Redux, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and his criminally underappreciated Coen Brothers’ remake, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, so they certainly recognize something cool when they see it. Highly recommended, it screens at both MoMA and the Walter Reade Theater today (3/22) as part of ND/NF, before opening for real tomorrow at the UA Union Square in New York and the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

ND/NF ’12: The Rabbi’s Cat

It is a time in Algiers when Jews and Muslims lived together harmoniously. It is also an animated fantasy with a talking cat.  Nonetheless, there is a distinctive mix of gentle nostalgia and broad comedy in Joann Sfar & Antoine Delesvaux’s The Rabbi’s Cat (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 New Directors/New Films.

The time is the early 1920’s, after the Russian Revolution, but before World War II. We know this because Rabbi Sfar regularly gets shipments of Russian Rabbinical texts sent to him for safekeeping from the Bolsheviks. He has a cat with no name, known only as “le chat du rabbin.” While his identity comes from the Rabbi, it is the Rabbi’s voluptuous daughter Zlabya whom the cat loves best. However, the Rabbi temporarily forbids the cat to see his mistress when he mysteriously begins talking one day.

Actually, the talking thing comes and goes to the Rabbi’s befuddlement. He will have even more to puzzle out when through a turn of magical realism, a Russian refugee is found alive and well in his latest cargo from the Soviet Union. Of course, nobody can understand his Russian, except the cat, who inconveniently is currently amid one of his speechless stretches.

There are enough Jewish identity jokes in Cat to fill Billy Crystal’s next Catskills set. Yet, there is also something seductively exotic about this cat’s eye view of Algiers. Sfar and Delesvaux earnestly want to present a picture of interfaith tranquility, perfectly represented by the Rabbi and his Sufi cousin, Sheik Mohammad Sfar, two branches of the same but diverse family. They even skewer the unrehabilitated and pre-Spielbergized Tintin in one rather random scene. Yet, they do not completely burry their heads in the Kumbaya sand, depicting the touchy intolerance of an Islamist Bedouin clan, whose hospitality quickly becomes somewhat precarious for the inclusively motley Sfar expedition.

Considering Cat adapts non-sequential volumes of Sfar’s popular graphic novel series, it is hardly surprising the narrative jumps around quite a bit. In an odd way though, that hop-scotching gives the film its energy. Those looking for something to offend them will probably find it here, but Cat is mostly just harmless fun. Though a bit spicy at times, it is probably okay for older kids, but parents should probably decide on a case by case basis.

Evocatively rendered, Cat’s animation captures the spirit of the original comic art, while conveying the allure of the Middle Eastern locales. It also represents a bit of festival history, holding the distinction of being ND/NF’s first 3D selection and their first screening deliberately intended for family viewing. Recommended for animation fans, particularly admirers of Sfar’s work, and kids who can handle subtitles and more advanced thematic material, but still enjoy talking animals, The Rabbi’s Cat screens this Sunday (3/25) at MoMA and the following Tuesday (3/27) as ND/NF continues at both venues.

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ND/NF ’12: Romance Joe

Even in Korea, the movie business is a tough racket. It disillusions people something fierce. However, the characters in Lee Kwang-kuk’s directorial feature debut might have been that way before they got into the industry. They also might be each other or possibly just passing their stories off as their own. Let the narrative games begin when Lee’s Romance Joe (trailer here), screens at the 2012 New Directors/New Films.

This will get complicated. Our first narrator will be Seo Dam, but as an aspiring screenwriter, his storytelling skills cannot compare to someone who has seen a bit of life, like Re-ji, who works for a coffeehouse, whose motto might as well be “coffee, tea, or me.” The parents of a long struggling assistant director have come to his friend Seo Dam fearing their absent son may have committed suicide, just like Woo Joo-hyun, a popular actress with whom he once worked.

As they mill about wondering what to do next, Seo Dam tells them the story of his new screenplay, in which a young boy arrives at Re-ji’s establishment looking for his long lost mother. Simultaneously, Re-ji delivers coffee and hard sells her services to Lee, a screenwriter-director in need of inspiration. She gets him to bite with the tale of “Romance Joe,” a depressed filmmaker who previously checked into the same hotel with suicidal intentions. She had inadvertently walked in on the man while making a delivery with the young boy from Seo Dam’s screenplay. As Romance Joe warms to her, he tells her an episode from his youth, when he fell in love with the haunting Kim Cho-hee after unwanted notoriety drove her to also attempt suicide.

Is Re-ji also the long lost mother of the boy in the screenplay, because they both once tried to end it all by cutting their wrists, just like Kim Cho-hee? This question will be definitively answered. Is Woo Joo-hyun also Kim Cho-hee? Is Re-ji Kim Cho-hee as well? No, most likely not (but don’t take my word for it). It appears safe to assume Re-Ji is Re-ji, whether appearing as subject or narrator and then subject again. Likewise, the missing assistant director is pretty clearly established to be Romance Joe. As for the sequestered director Kim, since Re-ji compliments him on his ironic approach to narrative, he seems the more likely fictional analog to Lee Kwang-kuk than Romance Joe.

That took more time to distill than you want to know. Yet, RJ is a tragic love story at heart, presenting an unlikely vehicle for such bravura postmodern gamesmanship. In contrast, a cerebral mystery like Mariano Llinás’ head-reeling Extraordinary Stories leads itself to such an approach quite well, because viewers do not resent have information withheld from them and perspectives fiddled with.

In a way, RJ is like a set of deliberately mismatched Russian dolls that do not quite fit within each other. Yet, the drama is so genuinely earnest, particularly that of the young lovers, it still pulls viewers in, even with the constant narrative shifts. Lee Chae-eun is quite remarkable, equally convincing and heartbreaking as the teenaged and thirtysome Kim Cho-hee. Yet, it is Shin Dong-mi who really makes the film sing. It is a star-making turn, appealingly wry or saucy, depending on the circumstances. Unfortunately, the relative blandness of several male cast members does not help viewers looking for hooks to grab onto, but impressive young David Lee develops some poignant chemistry with the older Lee Chae-eun.

No matter how viewers respond to RJ, it is a film that will stick with them, daring them to make conclusions about what they saw and when it happened. Lee Kwang-kuk rather subversively deconstructs Korean tearjerkers like Il Mare (ill-advisedly remade by Hollywood as The Lake House), but it is Shin and the other Lees, David and Chae-eun, who really make it work. Recommended for adventurous film snobs, Romance Joe screens this Saturday (3/24) at MoMA and Monday (3/26) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of New Directors/New Films 41.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

NYICFF ’12: The Gruffalo’s Child (short)

This bogeyman has become an Academy Award nominated Christmas tradition. Like its predecessor, The Gruffalo’s Child (trailer here) debuted as a BBC Christmas Day special. Whether it also finds a place on the Oscar ballot remains to be seen, but Johannes Weiland and Uwe Heidschotter’s adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s children’s book should have a well established fan base for its screenings during the 2012 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

As Mother Squirrel told her little ones in the previous film, the Gruffalo was an ogre-like monster a wily mouse thought he was inventing to scare away his predators, yet it turned out to be quite real. Even a bogeyman needs a bogeyman, so the Gruffalo tells his daughter stories of the “big bad mouse” to keep her safely in the cave during the night. However, being a chip off the old block, she resolves to track down the supposed dread beast one dark and snowy eve. Eventually, she comes across the same sly mouse, who must do a spot of quick thinking to avoid becoming her midnight snack.

Gruffalo’s Child is very cute, with a brains-over-brawn message most parents will appreciate. It also looks like the animators have stepped up their game in the new installment, impressively rendering the sensation of motion and textures, while maintaining their focus on the young Gruffalo’s childlike expressions.

Adults should also be amused by the big name vocal talents, including Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, and Rob Brydon, who sadly never lets loose a Michael Caine impression as the sinister snake. However, jaded viewers will wonder just how the Gruffalo came to be a single parent (an amicable divorce or did Mrs. Gruffalo disappear under mysterious circumstances?). For those of us steeped in genre films, the young Gruffalo’s stick figure doll will also summon Blair Witch images that really have no place here.

Be that as it may, The Gruffalo’s Child is sweet and charming. At nearly half an hour’s running time, it is the central dominant selection of the Shorts for Tots program. Recommended without reservation for family viewing, The Gruffalo’s Child and the rest of the tots shorts screen again this Saturday (3/24) at the Scholastic Theater, as the 2012 NYICFF enters its final weekend at venues across the City.

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Davies Adapts Rattigan: The Deep Blue Sea

It seems unfathomable in hindsight, but after leading the United Kingdom through its darkest hour, the British electorate turned out Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Of course, Sir Winston would eventually return to Number 10. For one raffish ex-RAF pilot, the Second World War represented his finest hour and his post-war prospects are rather anemic. A married woman has grand ambitions to make a future with him, but it is not be in Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Hester Collyer is married to Sir William Collyer, a man of means and position. She is forty years old in an era when forty was considerably older than it is now. Perhaps she should be grateful for her comfortable life, but she is eager to chuck it away for Freddie Page. He cut quite the heroic figure during the war and Collyer still sees it in him.

For a brief period, everything is lovely between them. However, Page is quickly put off by the intensity of her ardor. It is all rather tacky to a hedonist like him. After his passive-aggressive contempt drives her to attempt suicide, Page has had enough. However, Collyer is not ready to let him go.

Arguably, nobody has a better feel for the post-war milieu than Davies. He and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (whose credits include AMC’s The Prisoner reboot) create the dark malaise-ridden British equivalent of a series of Norman Rockwell paintings. It is a world of drab browns and soft incandescent lighting that invites nostalgia for an era of pessimism.

The problem with Sea is that Simon Russell Beale’s Sir William comes across as such a dashed decent fellow (though his mother is another story altogether) and Tim Hiddleston’s Page is so churlish, it is hard to believe the adulterous wife is not considerably more torn between the two. Furthermore, it is a bit hard to believe Rachel Weisz’s Collyer cannot envision other options besides those two, even during a time of pronounced economic recession.

Even if the melodrama does not quite click, Davies pulls viewers along forcefully, largely with his masterful use of music. He stages two scenes of communal pub singing that brilliantly convey the solidarity it instilled in most working class patrons, as well as the loneliness and alienation it engendered with those who felt they were on the outside looking in. Indeed, there is no missing the prominently mixed music, including Jo Stafford’s early 1950’s rendition of “You Belong to Me” and Samuel Barber’s elegiac Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which serves as the film’s primary soundtrack.

Davies anchors Sea so effectively in its time and place, viewers will come to understand how their social environment bred their hang-ups and forgive accordingly. Still, their indulgent brooding will try contemporary sensibilities (and intellectually seem somewhat out of place in such a period of reduced expectations and compromise). A handsome and wearying film, Sea is recommended for admirers of the Merchant-Ivory canon when it opens this Friday (3/23) in New York at the Paris Theatre and the Angelika Film Center.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

All In: the Poker Doc

It is thought that the city of New Orleans introduced the game of poker to America, just like jazz, another enduring staple of Americana often associated with vice. Fittingly, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band provides the soundtrack for All In (trailer here), Douglas Tirola’s brisk and informative poker documentary, which opens this Friday in New York.

For poker players, April 15th is a date of infamy, even beyond its tax implications. It was on that date last year that the government indicted three of the largest online-poker sites, effectively ceasing their operations (funny, this Justice Department was supposedly not in the business of enforcing morality). The ripple effect was tremendous, leading to the cancelation of the poker television shows that fueled the game’s spike in mainstream popularity.

If the so-called “Black Friday” is All In’s key date than Chris Moneymaker is its touchstone figure. Often perilously broke due to a bad sports book habit, the average looking accountant reached the World Series of Poker through an internet tournament. When he was randomly assigned to the televised table, his underdog performance made him a star.

Black Friday was so significant to this subculture or industry (call it what you will), it sent Tirola and his team scrambling to re-cut and update what had been a much more upbeat All In. Ironically, some of his interview subjects, including big name players like Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer (son of linguist Richard), have been implicated in the more serious charges surrounding Full Tilt Poker. To his credit, Tirola acknowledges the fact forthrightly.

The net effect leaves All In hanging in a rather interesting but precarious position. It still gives a pretty good nutshell overview of poker’s history and cultural significance, but assumes an actual explanation of the game would be unnecessary. Hey, the best way to learn the game is just by sitting down at the table, right? Indeed, some of the most amusing sequences involve professional players’ reactions to John Dahl’s entertaining Rounders, which they thank for bringing millions of sucker dollars into the game.

It is great to hear the Preservation Hall Band throughout All In. Indeed, their swinging sounds are even more important now, preserving the jauntiness appropriate to a film celebrating the country’s rakish gambling tradition. (They do not play “The Saints” though, presumably because that costs extra.) All told, All In is a pretty fascinating look at game that was riding high mere hours ago but will always appeal to players looking to bluff their way ahead. Though seemingly tailored-made for a high profile cable broadcast, it is still recommended for the curious when it opens this Friday (3/23) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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ND/NF ’12: The Minister

Imagine Jonathan Lynn’s Yes, Minister played deadly seriously, in French. Such is the morality tale director-screenwriter Pierre Schöller has to tell. Bertrand Saint-Jean is a dull technocrat, but he does not lack ambition. He has built up his portfolio through the help of his loyal secretary, a respected veteran of the civil service. However, a series of political crises will shine a harsh light on his flawed character in Schöller’s The Minister (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New Directors/New Films, jointly presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

The transport minister is woken from a wildly Freudian dream with grim news. A charter bus was involved in a severe traffic accident, killing many school children returning from a class trip. Saint-Jean heads to the crash site to lead the investigation and keep the media at bay. It will be his finest hour in the film, as a politician and a human being.

Subsequently, Saint-Jean’s public standing gets a nice little bump, but it is short-lived. Soon thereafter, he is a pulled into a controversy involving the privatization of train stations. Like his secretary Gilles, he is adamantly opposed, but the finance minister is in favor. In fact, it seems to be required by the EU, but Saint-Jean would prefer to kick the can down the road for his successor to deal with. Yet, it seems he will be forced to make some difficult choices, for the sake of his political career.

It is hard to think of a more cynical depiction of “the art of compromise” than Schöller’s Minister. As a former idealist, Saint-Jean’s self-contempt is palpable. Viewers watch some rather brazen pandering, including the temporary hiring of a long-term unemployed blue collar working as a ministerial driver, purely for PR purposes. Yet, despite the central role played by the privatization plan, Schöller’s screenplay sidesteps the issues of its normative and qualitative economic merits quite nimbly. Instead, it is treated simply as the MacGuffin to test Saint-Jean’s principles and loyalties. However, the Minister’s long drunkenly patronizing visit to his new driver’s home rings distractingly false.

For the most part though, Dardenne Brothers regular Oliver Gourmet raises blandness to levels of epic tragedy as Saint-Jean. Yet, there is something downright Clintonesque about his insecure need for approval. It is a shrewdly restrained but neurotic performance. Conversely, Michel Blanc makes mousiness dignified as the old school bureaucrat, ever loyal to his boss, as the embodiment of the system he has always served.

For those who really want to follow the specific issue at hand, the film’s treatment does not always make sense. Regardless, Schöller wields it effectively to cleave divisions in Saint-Jean’s staff and party. What emerges is a sort of modern Faust, as Saint-Jean makes the same awful bargain over and over again. Rare among political films, The Minister forthrightly depicts the psychological baggage of politicians in a way that can be appreciated by audiences across a wide ideological spectrum. Recommended for intelligent, slight jaded patrons, it screens this Friday (3/23) at MoMA and Sunday (3/25) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

NYICFF ’12: A Letter to Momo

They are the supernaturally incompetent: former gods demoted to mere goblins. It is not hard to see why. They certainly do not impress a young Japanese girl mourning her father after an initial round of scares. Still, they seem to have a specific reason for hanging around in Hiroyuki Okiura’s A Letter to Momo (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Momo Miyaura bitterly regrets her last words to her late marine biologist father. They had a fight. To be more accurate, she really let him have it. Shortly thereafter, his ship went down. Going through his things, she finds a letter he started writing to her, but never got beyond the “Dear Momo.” For obvious reasons, this letter preoccupies her thoughts as she and her mother relocate to the remote island of Shio.

Her stiff upper lip mother is not around much, leaving Miyuara with time on her hands. This becomes a real problem when she discovers three bizarre entities living in the attic and mooching their food. Apparently, nobody else around her can see them, with one exception having little bearing on the overall plot. At first she is understandably alarmed, but quickly gains the upper hand over the intruders. However, they continue loiter about, making nuisances of themselves.

Of the three, only the rather addled Mame looks anything like a traditional goblin. However, his slimy tongue and Zenned-out mannerisms make him the most original of the trio. Iwa the gentle giant is also appealing in an archetypal way, but the amphibious-looking Kawa has an unfortunate Jar Jar thing going on.

Only Okiura’s second film, following-up his breakout 1999 debut Jin-Roh: the Wolf Brigade, Letter has been compared to Studio Ghibli both in terms of style and subject matter. Indeed, it bears strong thematic similarities to The Secret World of Arrietty and Makoto Shinkai’s Miyazaki-influenced Children who Chase Lost Voices from Down Below (which also screened at this year’s NYICFF). Yet, Okiura consistently elevates the realistic family drama well above the many otherworldly creatures. That unwritten letter is not merely a metaphor. It serves a genuinely important role in the story, which is quite earnest and touching.

Almost entirely generated by hand, Okiura’s animation is quite striking. Evidently, that is one reason his sophomore feature was so long in coming. Reportedly, he resolved only to work with Japan’s top animators (including animation director Masashi Andô) and was willing to wait until their schedules cleared. The lush nature backdrops are definitely Ghibli-esque and their figures are unusually expressive, by any animation standard.

There is definitely something very universal to Momo’s story. Okiura tells it with grace and emotional conviction. Indeed, this is the rare animated film that might hit too close to home for youngsters and parents dealing with similar losses. For the rest of us, its unabashedly open heart is rather refreshing. Recommended particularly strongly, but not exclusively, for young girls, A Letter to Momo screens again next Saturday (3/24) at the Asia Society as NYICFF continues at venues throughout New York.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

ND/NF ’12: Goodbye

It is not exactly a common cultural zeitgeist, but immigration has become an increasingly frequent topic of both American and Iranian films. In the case of the former, viewers are asked to identify with those trying to enter the country illegally. For the latter, audiences watch as desperate everyday people try to get out, by any means necessary. Needless to say, getting into America is much easier (and safer) then leaving Iran. One expecting mother-to-be struggles with this grim reality in Mohammad Rasoulof’s Goodbye (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New Directors/New Films, jointly presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Noura was a human rights attorney in Tehran. Disbarred for obvious reasons, the only work now available to her is gift-wrapping. Her husband has been forced into an ambiguous exile up north, leaving her alone to deal with her pregnancy. This makes life particularly challenging, since Iran requires a man’s authorization for even the simplest medical procedures. Her baby is important part of the immigration scheme hatched by a dodgy passport broker. However, she is having doubts whether she should keep her. Yet, there is little to be done about it, without a husband’s permission.

Goodbye ought to be hailed as the international feminist watershed film of the decade. Yes, it directly addresses abortion, but the issues in question are far more fundamental than that single hot-button issue. As an unaccompanied woman, Noura is unable to undergo an ultrasound or check into a hotel on her own. Yet, she faces more than just gender oppression, which becomes clear when the police confiscate her satellite dish.

Facing a year in prison and the loss of his film production business, Rasoulof can clearly relate to such travails. Yet, he could at least authorize his own medical treatment—a fact clearly not lost on him. While he previously employed layers of allegory to obscure his social critique in the visual arresting White Meadows (edited by his colleague Jafar Panahi, with whom he was arrested in late 2010), Goodbye is a bold exercise in street level realism. Still, from time to time he conveys Noura’s psychological state with powerfully impressionistic moments more in keeping with the tone of Meadows (an insufficiently heralded modern masterwork).

Considering Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced to ninety lashes for her thematically similar role in Granaz Moussavi’s My Tehran for Sale (reduced on appeal to three months in prison), Leyla Zareh’s performance is courageous on multiple levels. Rather than play to audience sympathies, she portrays Noura emotionally guarded to an almost soul deadening extent, for the sake of self-preservation. It is a harrowingly convincing turn.

Of course, Goodbye ends as it must, to keep faith with those who experienced what happens to Noura. As a result there are no real surprises in the film, just tragedy compounded. In truth, this will be somewhat familiar ground for those who have seen Moussavi’s film and Panahi’s The Circle, but Rasoulof’s execution is quite compelling and sensitive, nonetheless. Important as a document of contemporary Iranian life and as an aesthetically distinctive work of cinema, Goodbye is one of the clear highlights of this year’s ND/NF. Earnestly recommended, it screens this Thursday (3/22) at the Walter Reade Theater and the following Saturday (3/24) at MoMA.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Gerhard Richter Painting (and Scraping)

Perhaps no artist represents the force of creative destruction better than Gerhard Richter. Not surprisingly, such a Schumpeterian painter was ill-suited to the Social Realist doctrine dominant in the former DDR. Finding refuge in the West two months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Gerhard’s work has reached dizzying prices at recent auctions. Filmmaker Corinna Belz documents the artist at work in Gerhard Richter Painting (trailer here), now showing in New York at Film Forum.

For some, Richter’s work probably confirms their uncharitable preconceived notions about modern art. The Dresden-born artist is best known for his large abstract paintings and photo-realistic work that would seem to be stylistically at odds with each other. Throughout the film, Belz captures the increasingly self-conscious Richter at work on two canvases in the former style.

After seeking asylum in West Germany in 1961, two Richter murals in the East were painted over out of dogmatic spite. Ironically, Richter deliberately subjects his work to similar treatment, roughly scraping his canvasses with paint squeegees to see how it alters their character. This process might continue past the point paintings are hung for exhibition. Indeed, there is something very Darwinistic about his approach, causing his assistants to openly speculate whether certain paintings will be able “to hold their own.”

GR Painting follows in the tradition of similar documentaries from Kino Lorber-Alive Minds, observing an artist or craftsman at work in their studio-space. However, the portrait of Richter is considerably more engaging than Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking in Progress or Sophie Fiennes’s Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, because Belz brings a more visually dynamic approach to bear on her subject, without the same hushed reverence. However, Richter and his colleagues do not offer the sort of witty commentary heard fly-on-the-wall style from photography book publisher Gerhard Steidl and his roster of artists in Wetzel & Adolphe’s shockingly entertaining How to Make a Book with Steidl.

While Belz touches briefly on Richter’s fateful flight west, her focus falls squarely on his creative process. Frankly, for those with more traditional aesthetic inclinations, each successive scraping often renders the two canvasses in question less interesting, blurring the color contrasts and breaking down the paintings’ implied compositional structure. That is just the reality of his working method. Many will find it fascinating, many others will not. At least Richter is a rather interesting figure to spend time with. Recommended for patrons well steeped in the contemporary art world, GR Painting screens through Tuesday the 27th at Film Forum in Manhattan’s eternally chic West Village.

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