J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Open Grave, Featuring Josie Ho

When it comes to awkward mornings-after, the women of Sex and the City have nothing on this cat. The mystery man comes to in a pit filled with corpses, suffering from a nasty case of amnesia. It will not get any easy for our confused chap in Gonzalo López-Gallego’s Open Grave (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and is already available on VOD.

Having no idea how he came to be in such a grisly state, the man is understandably alarmed.  However, a silent woman with a deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes throws him a rope.  Searching for his savior, the man who will eventually come to be called Jonah makes his way to an ominous looking country house, where he meets the woman and four other people who also have amnesia. 

Given his gore streaked appearance, suspicion automatically falls on him and he will never really shake it, at least as far as the hot-headed Lukas is concerned.  The mute woman seems to know better, but unfortunately she cannot talk and only writes in her native Chinese.  In rather short order, the strangers will encounter an external threat that ought to bring them together, but naturally has the opposite effect.

Frankly, it is too bad the film tips its hand so early, because the four amnesiacs and mute set-up is an intriguing genre premise.  As it happens, every subsequent revelation turns out to be a let-down.  While the U.S. Military is not directly responsible for their predicament, when America’s uniformed men and women finally arrive, López-Gallego and the Borey Brothers screenwriters, Eddie & Chris, sadly chose to depict them as a pack of thugs, which is both a disappointment and a cliché.

On the plus side, Grave has Hong Kong A-lister Josie Ho as the mute woman. She is tremendously expressive in a role with no dialogue, but a good deal of screen time.  Sharlto Copley (co-star of Neill Blomkamp’s hit District 9 and his career-threatening flop Elysium) is also impressively twitchy and scruffy as Jonah, whereas Thomas Kretschmann takes it somewhat over the top as Lukas, but not horrendously so by genre standards.

Considering its early promise, it is a darned shame Open Grave deflates into such a standard issue storyline.  Still, it is a strong English language (sort of) showcase for Ho (to see her horror chops at their finest, check out Pang Ho-cheung’s Dream Home).  Mostly just a time killer for cult movie fans, Open Grave is only recommended for hardcore fans of Ho and Copley when it opens this Friday (1/3) in New York at the Village East.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

In No Great Hurry: A Little More Exposure for Saul Leiter

It has been a terrible year for photography.  For many, an important form of art and journalism has been debased by the ubiquitous “selfie.”  Can a curmudgeonly but self-effacing octogenarian photographer rejuvenate viewer appreciation for the art-form in the age of Kardashian vanity?  As a matter of fact, Saul Leiter can when Tomas Leach does his best to profile his somewhat difficult subject throughout the course of In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Leiter has been called the “Pioneer of Color Photography,” but he’s not buying it. Frankly, he is rather baffled by Leach’s interest and remains not completely sold on the whole notion of appearing in a documentary.  Despite his rather modest appraisal of his career, Leiter is relatively satisfied with the recent publication of his book.  Indeed, calling the late, greater-than-he-thought photographer “unsung” might be an exaggeration.  After all, at one point in the film Leiter learns he has just been acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which he thinks is quite nice, but does not exactly have him turning cartwheels). “Undersung” would probably be more accurate.

As skeptical as Leiter is, Leach’s portrait of the artist is surprisingly entertaining, in an appropriately low key manner.  Somehow, the audience really gets a taste of Leiter’s personality.  We also get a sense of how much history is represented by every pile of slides stacked up in Leiter’s apartment.  Frankly, someone could probably make a deeply passionate melodrama about Leiter’s long, complex relationship with model-turned-artist Soames Bantry, but we only get tantalizing hints in INGH.  Leiter only offers up tantalizing hints, but piecing together his off-hand reminiscences is part of the film’s charm.

Leach also incorporates many striking photos from Leiter’s oeuvre. Best known for his street level city scenes, often shot through rain streaked store windows, Leiter documented his Lower Eastside neighborhood as it developed over the decades.  Although born in Philly, he became a quintessential New York photographer.  Although there are several Leiter self portraits in INGH, it is always impossible to make out his reflected features.  In many ways, they are the antithesis of “selfies,” but they are perfectly representative of Leiter’s work and personality.

By necessity, INGH is a small, quiet film, because Leiter would put up with just so much.  However, Leach’s conclusion still manages to be wonderfully satisfying, yet totally in keeping with his subject’s spirit.  For those who love the art form, it comes at an opportune time. Arguably, INGH is the best photography related documentary since (or maybe even better than) How to Make a Book with Steidl, unless you count Bettie Page Reveals All (which is really something completely different).  Recommended quit strongly for discerning viewers, In No Great Hurry opens this Friday (1/3) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

PSIFF ’14: Juvenile Offender

When is it too late to turn your life around and stop being a screw-up? That point seems to come awfully early for those caught up in South Korea’s juvenile justice system.  To be fair, the system is not willing to cut many breaks for the main characters of Kang Yi-kwan’s Juvenile Offender (trailer here), one of many official foreign language Oscar submissions screening as part of the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Buzz programming section.

Jang Ji-gu has had to be responsible since an early age, but he never really got it right.  While taking care of his diabetic invalid grandfather, he fell in with the wrong crowd and amassed quite a record.  His latest misadventure leads to a long stretch in the juvenile detention center.  While he is serving his time, his grandfather dies and his girlfriend Kim Sae-rom disappears.  However, the mother he assumed was dead unexpectedly re-enters the picture.

In truth, Hyo-seung is not great maternal material. She could possibly pass for the Korean Blanche Dubois, except she is practically still a child herself.  She has been sponging off her boss and reluctant roommate, an old classmate who barely remembered her. Naturally, taking in a surly teenager destabilizes the arrangements.  Still, Hyo-seung tries to make it work as best she can, but she and Jang cannot help sabotaging themselves.

In a way, Juvy is like a more realistically grounded and socially conscious alternative to Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta.  Despite all the crime involved, there is absolutely nothing lurid about the film.  It is resolutely naturalistic, but also rather understated.

Seo Young-joo (fourteen years old at the time, playing sixteen) has a quiet but forceful presence as Jang.  Viewers have the uneasy sense he is giving himself an ulcer and could snap at any time.  Jun Ye-jin’s work as Kim is also quite moving.  However, former techno-popstar Lee Jung-hyun is the real revelation as Hyo-seung.  The term hot mess perfectly applies to her, but Jun is never overly showy, eschewing cheap theatrics.  Instead, she shows the slipping façade of a desperate but tragically immature woman trying to keep it together.

Subtlety might be Juvy’s greatest strength and weakness.  Obviously, Kang and co-writer Park Joo-young have a lot to say about the Korean juvenile rehabilitation system (or lack there of), as well as society’s general attitude towards unwed mothers.  On the other hand, all the time allowed for quiet observation leads to a decidedly slack pace.  It is fully loaded with good intentions and strong performances, but it is still more of a sociological duty than a pleasure to watch.  Recommended for those with a taste for street-level social drama, Juvenile Offender screens this coming Saturday (1/4) and the following Monday (1/6) as part of this year’s PSIFF.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Hollywood Seagull: From Russia to Malibu

Hollywood and a high culture do not necessarily go together, but jealousy and disillusionment are embedded in the town’s very fiber.  Considering its central conflicts, resetting Chekhov’s great tragedy in a Malibu beach estate makes a certain amount of sense.  There is even an important Russian connection for Michael Guinzburg’s Hollywood Seagull (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Bruce Sorenson (Sorin) is a retired jurist who maintains a palatial Malibu beach house, but pines for the New York of his early years. He lives with his grandson Travis Del Mar (Treplyov), who hopes to win his mother’s approval with his avant-garde short films. Instead, Irene Del Mar (Irina) belittles her son at every turn, saving her affection for Barry Allen Trigger (Trigorin), a blockbuster screenwriter, who has yet to write a part for her.  She does not think much of her son’s new lover, Nina Danilov, either.  However, the aspiring Russian actress certainly turns Trigger’s head.

Obviously, the mutual attraction shared by Danilov and Trigger will further destabilize the already dysfunctional household.  Love will be mismatched and unrequited for nearly everyone, including the loyal live-in servants and Dr. Dorn, a longtime family friend (now a breast implant specialist in Guinzburg’s Hollywoodized version).

As viewers already know (or can guess from other Chekhov plays), there is not a lot of happiness in store for any of these characters.  In fact, Guinzburg matches the original pretty closely, even forcing in the business with the misfortunate water fowl. In truth, it works better than one might expect.  It is hard to define precisely, but there is a somewhat nostalgic vibe to the film, sort of like recent vintage Harry Jaglom films, but without the Jaglom excesses.  The mood is also nicely enhanced by the distinctive score composed by Evgeny Shchukin (with additional contributions from Doug White), consisting of light classical strings and elegant piano-and-vibes jazz interludes.

However, Guinzburg’s real ace in the hole is William “Biff” McGuire as grandfather Sorenson.  He perfectly expresses the former judge’s world weariness and his spark of wit.  He’s the guy you want to sit next to at a dinner party.  The Hollywood Seagull team seems to consider him their Oscar contender, which makes sense.  McGuire is clearly a long shot, but as an industry veteran (primarily television) going back to the days of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he would be a great story should he somehow get the nod.

Viewers might not recognize their names, but the rest of the ensemble does not lack for credits either (albeit of the “small screen” variety).  Sal Viscuso is another case in point.  The onetime Soap co-star (as Father Timothy Flotsky) finds the perfect tone of Chekhovian resignation for Dr. Dorn.  Barbara Williams is also razor sharp as the wince-inducing Irene Del Mar, while Lara Romanoff is certainly convincing as Danilov, the Russian starlet forced to do reality TV because she cannot soften her accent.  However, her scenes with her various romantic prospects are rather overcooked.

Still, Hollywood Seagull is a refreshingly stylish and literate production, anchored by McGuire’s wise and wistful turn. Frankly, it deserves more attention than August: Osage County, a film not so thematically dissimilar. Recommended for those who appreciate the source material and its Tinseltown trappings, Hollywood Seagull opens today (12/27) in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent, just in time for Oscar consideration.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

August: Osage County: Using Ham as Oscar Bait

The original Broadway production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County dominated the Tonys, netting best straight play, best lead actress for Deanna Dunagan, best featured actress for Rondi Reed, best director for Anna D. Shapiro, and another lead actress nomination for Amy Morton.  Aside from Letts adapting his play for the screen, none of the Tony winners would reprise their roles in the movie version.  Instead, it was clearly conceived as an Oscar vehicle for a number of formerly popular stars. Prepare for a lot of yelling and drawling when the John Wells helmed August: Osage County (trailer here) opens tomorrow in New York.

Pill-popping Violet Weston was a terrible mother to her grown children and remains a thoroughly rotten human being in her twilight years.  Even the onset of mouth cancer has not moderated her nasty temperament.  It seems she finally drove her beloved and despised husband Beverly to suicide, but the ambiguous circumstances leave some room for denial.  After his funeral, the extended family gathers for a memorial dinner.  The main course will be recriminations, followed by bile for desert.

Like it or not, everyone is there.  Ivy is the mousey daughter who never got out from under Mother Weston’s thumb.  Karen is the family’s Blanche Dubois, who has brought along her next prospective sugar daddy hubby.  Barbara Weston is the only daughter Violet ever respected, because she has some backbone and attitude.  Unfortunately, her relations are currently strained with her unfaithful husband and their moody tweener daughter. As if that were not enough, Weston’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (sort of a Violet-lite) will also be in attendance, along with her laidback husband Charlie, and their awkward son Little Charles, upon whom she constantly rains down emotional abuse.  The cooking and serving will be done by Johnna Monevata, the Native American domestic Beverly hired shortly before his misadventure.  If a fire broke out in the house, she would be the only one you would save.

As the film starts, Sam Shepard’s wonderfully understated near cameo as Beverly Weston suggests we are in for an acting showcase.  Then Meryl Streep shuffles in, like Dwight Frye in a Dracula movie and all hope of subtlety is thrown out the window.  Seriously, there has to be a chapter of Overactors Anonymous in Hollywood.  Admitting there is a problem is always the first step (I’ve heard there are eleven more after that), but its never going to happen until critics and guilds stop hyping every Streep performance just because they’re supposed to. There are times you think Streep will end a scene by loudly proclaiming “Acting!” like Jon Lovitz’s Thespian character on Saturday Night Live.  The way she masticates the furniture will give audiences indigestion. 

Yet, her more-is-never-enough approach sort of works during the big dinner time smackdown.  However, Julia Roberts deserves credit for hanging with her without going wildly over the top.  Frankly, it looks like she is manhandling Streep for real at one point, which provides a degree of viewer satisfaction. When Roberts and Streep go at it, the movie starts to click.  Unfortunately, this natural peak comes about midway through the film.  Every predictable family revelation that follows feels like a letdown.

Still, Roberts’ work is consistently strong throughout the film.  She also has some fine support from Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, and Misty Upham as Big Charlie, Ivy Weston, and Johnnna Monevata, respectively.  It is worth noting these are quieter, more reflective and nuanced turns.  In contrast, Benedict Cumberbatch proves sometimes less really is less, disappearing into the background as poor put-upon Little Charles.

When you see the film version of Osage, it is easy to understand why it was successful on-stage.  Perhaps Streep’s unrestrained performance would work better in that venue, if you were hard of hearing and sitting in the back row of the balcony.  On film, it is destined to rank alongside Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.  Violet probably doesn’t dig wire hangers either.  There is a lot of good work in the film version, but ultimately it is structurally unbalanced and fatally overwhelmed by its excess Streepness.  Only satisfying for diehard Roberts fans, August: Osage County opens tomorrow (12/27) in New York at the Loews Lincoln Square and the Regal Union Square.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Five Years of GKIDS: The Painting

He can channel the styles of Gauguin, Matisse, and Modigliani, but his latest canvas still remains unfinished.  This had led to a distinctly stratified caste system for the inhabitants of his unfinished work.  Love will lead to a quest for the creator in Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting (trailer here), which screens during the IFC Center’s retrospective tribute to GKIDS.

Ramo is one of the few fully painted “Alldunns” who shows a capacity for empathy.  It obviously has something to do with his Romeo-like love for Claire, the Modigliani-esque incomplete “Halfie.”  As decreed by the Grand Chandelier, the Alldunns live large in the castle, the Halfies huddle in the surrounding garden, and the poor, oppressed Sketchies are banished to the forest.  Ramo’s social mingling is strongly discouraged and social mobility is nonexistent.

Defying the Alldunn ruling order, Ramo sets out with Claire’s Halfie BFF Lola and a fugitive Sketchie to find the painter and convince him to finish his work. When the trio reaches the edge of their canvas, they discover they can hop into other paintings, including a nude study of the voluptuous Garance, clearly modeled after Odalisque. Soon they frolic in a Venice where carnival never ends and pick up a defector from a war time painting (which seems out of place in the painter’s early modern oeuvre).

Of course, it is all working towards a tidy message of tolerance.  The film’s heart is in the right place, but unfortunately there is an awkward logic Alldunns’ claim to superiority—that the artist cared enough about them to actually finish them.  Characterization is not exactly Laguionie and co-writer Anik Leray’s strong suit either, but at least Lola emerges as a resourceful role model for young girls.

Frankly, The Painting is more of a visual thing (and appropriately so).  Laguionie cleverly echoes the work of great modernists, immersing viewers in each lush, painterly environment.  His colors are consistently striking and the diverse stylistic influences are merged together quite smoothly. Kids who enjoy visiting museums will be charmed by its unique fantasy world, while parents will appreciate the classy package.  Recommended for family viewing, it screens this coming Monday (12/30) as part of the GKIDS series at the IFC Center, perfectly timed for Christmas vacation.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Invisible Woman: That Scandalous Dickens

Her actress-sister Frances eventually became Anthony Trollope’s sister-in-law.  For her part, Ellen Ternan had a much closer relationship with Charles Dickens, but she was infamously not his wife.  Ralph Fiennes brings their not-so secret affair to the screen as the director and star of The Invisible Woman (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Dickens was a genuine literary celebrity—the Stephen King of his era.  He even wrote serialized novels too.  Dickens also had ten children from his plain, unassuming wife, Catherine. As the Dickenses grow increasingly distant, it is not terribly surprising the novelist will eventually succumb to temptation with one of his many admirers.  That will be Ellen “Nelly” Ternan.

By all accounts, Ternan was a middling actress at best, but she still caught Dickens’ eye in a production of The Frozen Deep, his quasi-collaboration with Wilkie Collins.  Dickens quickly becomes a patron to the Ternan family, including her mother and two sisters, all of whom are considered better thespians than Ellen.  Of course, Mrs. Ternan is no fool, but she understands the limits of her daughter’s options. 

Nevertheless, this is still Victorian England, when scandal meant something.  To play the part of Dickens’ mistress, Ternan will have to assume the titular invisibility.  Even if she wanted to, she is incapable of flaunting social norms, like Collins and his lover.  Regardless, the truth is bound to come out sooner or later, or else Fiennes’ film would never exist.

So here it is, somewhat more preoccupied with societal conventions and class distinctions than a typical installment of PBS’s Masterpiece, but not too very far removed stylistically.  It is hardly an apology for Dickens, but Fiennes’ lead performance is easily the best thing going for it.  He rather brilliantly expresses the passion and recklessness lurking beneath his almost painful reserve.  Unfortunately, it is sort of like watching one hand clap during his scenes with Felicity Jones’ Ternan. When Fiennes is quietly intense, she is just quiet.

Frankly, Invisible must stack the deck against Dickens’ poor, anti-trophy wife to sell his attraction to the pale, mousy Ternan.  Maybe we just don’t get Jones here, but it seems like most red blooded scribblers would be more interested in Kristin Scott Thomas’s elegant and sultry Mrs. Ternan.  Regardless, Joanna Scanlon’s subverts the intended sabotage of her character, investing the real Mrs. Dickens with excruciating dignity and humility.

Certainly presentable by general British costume drama standards, The Invisible Woman is more distinguished by Fiennes’ turn as an actor than a director.  There is also plenty of fine work from Thomas, Scanlon, and Tom Hollander as Collins, but the central chemistry is lacking. Recommended mostly just for voracious Victorian readers, it opens Christmas Day in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

American Master, Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch was a passionate supporter of the New York Yankees and the Great American Songbook, so you know he was a man of discerning taste.  He also composed the music for a show that had a nice run on Broadway. It was called A Chorus Line.  Roughly eighteen months after his passing, Hamlisch gets the American Masters treatment with Dori Bernstein’s Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love (promo here), which premieres on most PBS stations nationwide this Friday.

Although Hamlisich was born to working class immigrant family, he achieved remarkable success at an early age.  He was just that good.  He also had the tireless support of his beloved mother.  Julliard recognized his talents, offering the prodigy a scholarship, but Hamlisch never became the classical recital pianist they envisioned.

Obviously, A Chorus Line will be the centerpiece of any survey of Hamlisch’s career.  There is no avoiding it.  However, James D. Stern & Adam Del Deo’s documentary Every Little Step remains the definitive documentary word on the record breaking show and the highly regarded 2006 revival. For anyone who has seen it (which presumably includes a good number of Hamlisch fans), WHDFL plays a well meaning but familiar second fiddle.

Nevertheless, Bernstein finds rich material throughout the rest of Hamlisch’s oeuvre.  It is easy to forget how huge “Through the Eyes of Love,” his romantic theme to Ice Castles was at the time, because the film itself has not aged well.  Likewise, Carly Simon offers some memorable reminiscences on recording Hamlisch’s Bond theme, “Nobody Does It Better.” The catchy archival performance clip from They’re Playing Our Song might also raise the stock of Hamlisch’s second biggest Broadway hit.

As a Tony Award winning Broadway producer, whose previous screen credits include the entertaining behind-the-scenes documentary ShowBusiness, Bernstein clearly understands the world of musical theater.  She also scored interview time with a small army of Hamlisch’s friends and collaborators, including Joe Torre, Quincy Jones, Steven Soderbergh, Donna McKechnie, and Woody Allen (via phone, but still impressive). 

Bernstein assembles a comprehensive portrait of a patriotic, down-to-earth artist with a tireless work ethic.  It is a good profile that unfairly suffers in comparison to great thematically related doc.  Recommended for fans of Broadway and American popular song, Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love airs this Friday (12/27) as part of the current season of PBS’s American Masters.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Five Years of GKIDS: Tales of the Night

It is rather ironic 3D films often feature one-dimensional characters.  In contrast, the figures of Michel Ocelot’s Dragons et princesses series are 2D, rendered through a particularly stylish form silhouette animation.  In a literal instance where “television is the new cinema,” six of the shorts produced for Canal+Family were aggregated into the 3D film, Tales of the Night (trailer here), which screens during the IFC Center’s retrospective tribute to GKIDS.

The old man used to work in movies, until he was forced to retire, while the boy and the girl are too young for the business to take notice of them.  Yet, every night they gather at a shuttered revival cinema to brainstorm ambitious films they would eventually like to make. All three share similarly romantic tastes, often staging fairy tales that offer the boy an opportunity for heroics and the girl a justification for some elaborate costumes and hairstyles.  Even the old man finds inspiration in these fables, finding the perfect locations online.

Shrewdly, Night begins and ends with two of its strongest tales, both of which happen to be set in Medieval Europe.  “The Werewolf” is obviously a story of lycanthropy, but it is more concerned with the rivalry of two princesses than gothic horror.  Easily the weakest link, the Caribbean tale of “Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connatre” probably should have been buried somewhere later in the line-up than the second spot.  The story of the adventurer, the three monsters he encounters, and a princess’s prospective hand in marriage features some problematic attempts at dialect, while sharing many elements with subsequent tales.

The movie lovers rebound considerably with “The Chosen One and the City of Gold.” An Aztec-flavored parable in which a stranger fights to save the beautiful woman selected as a human sacrifice, it is arguably the most thematically sophisticated of Night’s component films.  With “The Boy Tam-Tam,” Ocelot returns to the African settings of films like Azur & Asmar, which largely established his reputation in America.  It is a nice enough coming-of-age fable that gets a good kick from the percussive music.

Each of the roughly twelve minute installments is perfectly suitable for children, but the Tibet-set “The Boy Who Never Lies” is by far the most tragic, but that also helps differentiate it from the other tales (along with the striking Himalayan backdrops). Concluding with “The Doe-Girl and the Architect’s Son,” Ocelot’s would-be filmmakers revisit both Medieval Europe and true love complicated by shape-shifting for a suitably ever-after conclusion.

The influence of Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is pretty clear throughout Night, both in terms of its silhouette animation and its exoticism.  Frankly, each tale probably works better as a stand-alone short, as they were originally intended. Strictly speaking, there is not a lot of character development in any of Night’s constituent pieces, but it is all quite elegant looking.  There is also an appealing idealism at work in the film, celebrating the transformative power of cinema and storytelling, like an animated merger of Cinema Paradiso and the Arabian Nights. Enjoyably different for animation fans, Tales of the Night screens in 3D screens New Years Day as part of the IFC Center’s GKIDS series, perfectly timed for the holidays (and also streams in 2D on Netflix).

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mr. Stink: No, He’s not French

For their first 3D special, the BBC chose to adapt David Walliams’ mildly gross children’s book.  They should have made it in Smell-O-Vision.  Perhaps more importantly, it stars Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, which is probably why PBS will also broadcast Declan Lowney’s Mr. Stink (promo here) this Sunday on most affiliates nationwide.

He is not called Mr. Stink for nothing.  The ill-tempered vagrant is not big on hygiene.  He does not think much of kids either, yet he somehow befriends twelve year old Chloe Crumb, a social outcast in the John Hughes tradition.  Shunned at school, Crumb also feels increasingly alienated from her mother Caroline, a neophyte candidate in an important by-election, who serves as a shrill caricature of all things not properly progressive.  Intrigued by his mysterious origins and duly impressed by his power to control huge plumes of stench, Chloe offers Mr. Stink temporary shelter in their back shed.

Of course, Cruella Crumb cannot discover Mr. Stink, which pretty much guarantees she will, at the most inopportune moment.  In fact, his discovery will have political repercussions reaching all the way to Downing Street.  Yes, Mr. Stink is another show that believes the world would be a better place if heads of state just took the advice of tramps sleeping in the park.  Granted, there are millions of people due to lose their health insurance who probably think we would be better off with any randomly selected derelict, but that’s a different matter entirely.

Frankly, the BBC’s Julia Donaldson animated specials (such as the Oscar shortlisted Room on the Broom) are a lot more fun than Stink.  Still, Bonneville (a.k.a. Lord Grantham) develops some pleasant screen chemistry with the reasonably down-to-earth and grounded Nell Tiger Free as Crumb.  Younger viewers will probably focus on Stink’s pooch, The Duchess, doggedly portrayed by the game Pudsey.  At least she is not of those annoying screen pets who constantly mug for the camera, so yes, you can say the dog gives a performance of mature restraint.  The same cannot be said for Sheridan Smith and the author, who shtick up the joint as Caroline Crumb and the PM, respectively.

To be fair, there are a handful of witty lines in Stink, but the major plots points are corny clichés.  Bonneville and Smith can easily be seen in superior projects (like Downton and The Scapegoat), whereas the promising Free surely has better vehicles in her future.  Neither recommended nor truly despised (mostly just kind of meh), Mr. Stink airs on most PBS outlets tomorrow night (12/22), but Bonneville fans should just hold out for season four of Downton premiering on PBS January 5th.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Five Years of GKIDS: Summer Wars

For the generation raised on Marvel’s Star Wars comic books, King Kazma will bring back memories of Jaxxon, the big bad rabbit mercenary.  This particular battle bunny is actually one of many avatars in OZ, a virtual reality community under attack in Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of the IFC Center’s retrospective tribute to GKIDS, the animated film distributor and producer of the New York International Film Festival.

In about twenty seconds from now, our dealings in OZ will become just as important as life in the real world.  For a socially incompetent high school math genius like Kenji Koiso, OZ is both a more comfortable environment and a prestigious part-time employer.  Through dumb luck, his out-of-his-league classmate Natsuki Shinohara hires him to pretend to be her boyfriend at her great grandmother Sakae Jinnouchi’s ninetieth birthday festivities.  Of course, Koiso is painfully awkward around her family, especially after he inadvertently launches a global emergency.  Solving a brain-frying mathematical equation sent from an anonymous email, Koiso unknowingly provides the code that allows an anarchistic AI program to take over OZ’s systems.  Obviously, mathematics is about all Koiso is smart about.

Absorbing the avatars of utilities managers and government officials, the so-called “Love Machine” proceeds to wreak havoc on public safety with their passwords.  However, Shinohara’s anti-social cousin Kazuma Ikezawa still controls his avatar, King Kazma, OZ’s reining martial arts champion. He and Koiso will mount the virtual resistance to Love Machine, while the revered Jinnouchi provides spiritual leadership to her extended family of first responders.

Arguably, Summer is one of the most visually distinctive anime features produced outside of Studio Ghibli (whom GKIDS also sometimes distributes).  Hosoda has created an unusually baroque world in OZ.  It is quite a trippy site to behold, where the cute and the weird interact in surreal harmony. He also makes some valid points regarding our over-dependence online social networks and related time-sinks. However, placing some of the blame for the AI debacle on the U.S. Army is an unnecessarily annoying bit of anti-Americanism.  In retrospect, it seems particularly ill conceived at a time when China is essentially claiming all of Japan’s air space as its own (and pretty much everyone else’s too).

On the plus side, Summer persuasively argues the case to kids that math and computer programming are cool.  Satoko Okudera’s screenplay (based on Hosoda’s story) nicely balances the multi-world threatening Armageddon with Shinohara’s family drama.  It also features strong female characters, including the compassionate but iron-willed Jinnouchi and the independent minded Shinohara.

Despite its occasional discordant notes and its unabashed third act sentimentality, Summer Wars is a good cyber-punk starter kit for pre-teens and above.  For younger science fiction fans, Koji Masunari’s Welcome to the Space Show also screens during the GKIDS series.  While not as sophisticated, it also boasts some richly detailed alien worlds and a talking dog.  Both have a sense of wonder even jaded oldsters will appreciate.  Recommended with minor quibbles, Summer Wars screens this Sunday (12/22), Friday (12/27), and Thursday (1/2) and Welcome to the Space Show screens for a week (12/20-12/26) as part of the GKIDS series at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Personal Tailor: A Little Wish Fulfillment

Yang Zhong is sort of like Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, except he is always on the make.  For a price, his company realizes their clients’ fantasies.  He is nobody’s altruist, but lessons will still be learned in Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Yang is the “Director of Dreams,” his right hand man Ma Qing is the “Spiritual Anesthetist,” Miss Bai is the “Fantastician,” and Xiaolu Lu is the “Caterer of Whims.”  Together, they are “Personal Tailor” and they are used to some strange requests, like the creepy woman with a WWII martyr fetish in the James Bond-like prologue.  Many of their fantasy scenarios are a peculiar product of contemporary China, such as the chauffeur, whose recent string of bosses were all government officials convicted of corruption. Believing he would wield power more responsibly, the driver hires Personal Tailor to put his ethics to the test.

Much of the broad humor in Tailor is not particularly suited to the American market.  However, art house patrons familiar with the Digital Generation and related Chinese indie filmmakers will be amused by their next client.  Having achieved every possible measure of success for his “vulgar” films, a popular director hires Yang’s team to experience the world of art cinema, which Personal Tailor equates with hand-to-mouth Miserablism.

While the first two primary assignments are played largely for laughs, the third is a sweet tale with considerable heart.  To thank her for saving Ma from drowning, Yang’s team treats Mrs. Dan, a poor working woman, to a pro bono day as a Nouveau Riche industrialist. Song Dandan adds a touch of class and a strong screen presence in her “guest-starring” role and Feng’s bittersweet vibe is quite potent, making it Tailor’s most appealing full story arc thus far.

Almost shockingly, Tailor becomes quite pointed and strangely touching in its concluding sequences.  Lamenting the appalling state of China’s environment, Yang disperses the team on a spiritual apology mission.  It sounds corny, but it is effective.  In fact, Tailor reveals it was never the farce it pretended to be, but is in fact a work of political protest.  Yang and his colleagues bemoan the rampant corruption, widening class inequality, and environmental devastation just as strongly as Jia Zhangke’s followers, but in a manner far more accessible to Chinese popular audiences.

Chen Kaige regular Ge You is suitably manic as Yang, but dials it down nicely when the film gets serious.  Bai Baihe brings appropriate sass and seductiveness as Miss Bai, while Li Xiaolu plays the more demur Xiaolu Lu with greater sensitivity than one might expect.  Zheng Kai has the odd moment too, especially with the down-to-earth Song.

While some viewers might lose patience with Tailor’s goofiness, it is fascinating to see its serious side slowly emerge.  Frankly, one would not expect such a strong critique from Feng, who has established a reputation for flag-wavers, like Assembly and Back to 1942, which China has selected as their official submission for the best foreign language Academy Award.  Although clearly intended for popular audiences, China watchers should not dismiss it out of snobbishness. Recommended for those who prefer screwball comedy with their social commentary, Personal Tailor opens tomorrow (12/20) at the AMC Empire in New York and the AMC Cupertino in the Bay Area, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Submitted By Ecuador: Porcelain Horse

It is nice to know class privilege still counts for something under the Correa regime.  Take the well-heeled junkie brothers, Paco and Luis Chavez—please.  All they want to do is slack about and free-base.  They will do some rotten things to support their habits and largely get away them, until a reckoning finally catches up with them in Javier Andrade’s Porcelain Horse (trailer here), which Ecuador has selected as their official submission for the best foreign language Academy Award.

Of the two, Paco would be considered the more responsible older brother, if you are grading on a generous curve.  Technically, he holds down a job as a clerk in the bank his family founded (thanks solely to their influence).  He also has the dubious stability of a long term sexual relationship with Lucia, his married former high school hook-up, who is addicted to softer drugs.

Paco is his parents’ favorite, whereas his delinquent brother Luis is not. The younger Chavez brother has a mountain of debt with his dealer, but his only job is fronting a garage band so amateurish it would be a high compliment to call them punk.  Nonetheless, they start to build a following when Lucia’s spurned husband starts managing them.  Although the brothers do not get on well, they often join forces to raise drug money. However, their plans to swipe a fateful bit of bric-a-brac from their parents’ home will set in motion a tragic chain of events.  Viewers will have to wait for it to play out though.

While Porcelain’s trailer suggests a punk rock bacchanal, the film on the screen is more like an Ecuadorian Brett Easton Ellis story.  There is a whole lot of drug use and existential angst, but the slam bang stuff is mostly confined to the eleventh hour.  Frankly that is rather a shame, because Ecuador could use a good dose of punk’s snarling contempt for authority.

Still, it is good to note Columbia alumnus Andrade could return home and produce such a seedy foray into Charles Bukowski-Larry Clark territory.  You really have to wonder how much of the film the consulate representative who introduced last night’s screening had really seen.  Of course, lambasting the idle wealthy probably never goes out of style.

To their credit, Francisco Savinovich and Victor Arauz fully commit to the Chavez Brothers’ unsavory scruffiness. The former is particularly unsettling as the soul-deadened Paco.  Andrés Crespo also brings some needed fierceness as Lagarto, the uncharacteristically patient drug dealer (but he still has his limits).  Indeed, nobody looks like they are faking it during any of Porcelain’s scenes of vice and indolence.

Andrade is clearly a bold, risking taking filmmaker, but his tacked on postscript is decidedly surreal and didactic, completely at odds with the rest of the film’s jittery naturalism.  It is interesting to see Porcelain Horse is out there, but it is unlikely to be a player this Oscar season.  Those intrigued should keep an eye of Cinema Tropical’s website for future screenings opportunities.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Submitted By Poland: Walesa, Man of Hope

He is an electrician with a Nobel Peace Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  That could be none other than Lech Wałęsa, the co-founder and leader of Poland’s first independent trade union, Solidarity.  Notoriously blunt-spoken and inconveniently principled, Wałęsa has become a figure of controversy in post-Cold War Europe—so much so honorary Academy Award winner Andrzej Wajda felt compelled to set the record straight on film. Representing Poland as its official foreign langue Academy Award submission, Wajda’s Walesa, Man of Hope (trailer here), merits serious award consideration wherever it is eligible.

Robert Więckiewicz is a strong likeness for Walesa, as Wajda would know, since the Solidarity leader appeared as himself in the director’s 1981 Palme D’Or winning Man of Iron.  Revisiting the era of his classic duology, Wajda even includes brief Easter egg snippets of Man of Marble and its companion film.  However, Wajda’s fictional characters are merely cinematic window-dressing, yielding to the historical record.

Brash yet reflective, Walesa was one of the few people capable of impressing celebrated Italian iconoclast-journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose interview with the still relatively young Solidarity leader serves as the film’s framing device.  Even at this early stage of his career, Walesa has accepted his role as a man of destiny.  Yet, as he explains to Fallaci (played with suitably charismatic flair by Maria Rosario Omaggio), it was not always so.  Resolutely opposed to violence on both moral and pragmatic grounds, Walesa initially advocated more modest demands.  However, he instinctively recognizes the national zeitgeist has reached a turning point.

Wajda’s Walesa is not hagiography, except perhaps with regards to Walesa’s long suffering wife Danuta. Więckiewicz’s portrayal certainly suggests the Solidarity leader did not lack for confidence, but there is a roguish charm to his bluster (as well as the obvious historical justification).  He also constantly tries his beloved Danuta’s patience, but the love shines through in all of Więckiewicz’s scenes with Agnieszka Grochowska.  Still, Wajda clearly has special sympathy for Ms. Walesa, saving his greatest outrage for the abusive treatment she receives from the authorities when returning from Oslo with her husband’s Nobel Prize.

For a searing indictment of the Communist era, Wajda’s Katyn is tough to beat.  While his Walesa obviously shares some common themes, it is a different sort of film.  More personal in scope, it celebrates the Walesas, his comrades in Solidarity, and his unique foibles.  While Katyn’s sense of outrage is impassioned and visceral, Man of Hope is celebratory and even nostalgic for the idealism and solidarity (if you will) of Solidarity’s headiest days.

Frankly, it is rather baffling Walesa: Man of Hope has not had more Oscar buzz.  How many films feature two defining figures of their eras (Walesa and Fallaci) on-screen, with a third titan (Wajda) behind the camera?  It is a quality period production, with Magdalena Dipont’s design team perfectly recreating the look and dank, depressed vibe of Brezhnev-era Gdansk. Refreshingly earnest and enthusiastic, Wajda’s Walesa gives thanks for Poland’s new era of freedom and pays tribute to those who fought to realize it.  It is the sort of film all American civics students should see.  Highly recommended (especially to the Academy) Walesa, Man of Hope should have a considerable life on the festival circuit and eventual distribution, regardless of what Oscar decides.

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The Selfish Giant: Clio Barnard Adapts Oscar Wilde (sort of)

Under the shadow of nuclear containment domes, Arbor Fenton and his mate Swifty collect scrap metal with a horse-drawn cart.  It is more or less modern day Yorkshire, but the vibe is often Dickensian.  However, it was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Christian parable.  Light years removed from the mythical giant’s garden, Clio Barnard creates her own modern fable in The Selfish Giant (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Forget the “hard kid to love” cliché.  The aggressively annoying Fenton is a hard kid not to pummel whenever you see him.  It is not entirely his fault.  He is the irregularly medicated, hyperactive product of a completely fractured home. Fenton has affection for his mother, but openly defies her parental authority.  He is even more contemptuous of his teachers, welcoming his expulsion from school as a personal victory.  Fenton has only one friend, the mild mannered Swifty, who was also temporarily dismissed from class due to Fenton’s misadventures.

For Fenton, this is a fine turn of events, allowing them time to collect scrap metal for the dodgy local dealer, Kitten. The grizzled junkman is the sort of authority figure Fenton can finally relate to.  However, Kitten has more use for the horse savvy Swifty, whom he recruits to drive his trotter in the local unsanctioned sulkie races.  Always unstable, Fenton takes Kitten’s rejection rather badly.

Evidently, Kitten is the giant (after all, he carries an ax during his big entrance), but viewers will be hard pressed to find any other remnants of Wilde lingering in the film.  It hardly matters though.  Barnard’s Giant is a grimly naturalistic but deeply humane morality tale.  Sort of like Wilde, Barnard ends on a redemptive note, but she really makes viewers work for it.

Eschewing cutesy shenanigans, Giant features two remarkably assured performances from its young principle cast members.  It is rather rare to see such a thoroughly unlikable young character on-screen, but Conner Chapman wholeheartedly throws himself into the role of Fenton with a twitchy, petulant tour de force performance.  Shaun Thomas nicely counterbalances him as the shy, empathic Swifty.

Barnard masterfully sets the scene and controls the uncompromisingly cheerless vibe, immersing the audience in the profoundly depressed working class estate.  Viewers will definitely feel like they are there, sharing their cold, dingy, over-cramped quarters (and doesn’t that sound appealing?).  Think of it as apolitical proletarian cinema.  Recommended for the work of its young cast and Barnard’s distinctive vision, The Selfish Giant opens this Friday (12/20) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Farhadi’s The Past

It is hard to define Ahmad’s role in the family drama he re-submerges himself in.  As Marie’s soon to be ex-husband, he is intimately familiar with her and her two daughters from a previous relationship.  Of course, he is a complete stranger to Samir, her next intended husband, and his young son. That ambiguity provides rich fodder for Asghar Farhadi’s French language, Iranian Oscar submission, The Past (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Ahmad, the former Iranian expat, has returned to Paris to finalize his divorce with his French wife, Marie.  One might wonder why he should travel such a long way for a bit of paperwork.  Frankly, the same question crosses Ahmad’s mind as well.  Regardless, here he is.  Much to his surprise, he learns he will be staying with Marie and Samir in their distinctly unfashionable suburban Paris home.

Viewers quickly deduce Ahmad has a history of mental instability, whereas Marie is a bit of game-player. The now stoic Ahmad tries to take the high road, but he is soon drawn into his eldest former step-daughter’s cold war with Marie.  Lucie is dead set against her mother’s engagement to Samir, because she believes their love affair drove his comatose wife to her suicide attempt.  As Ahmad tries to counsel Lucie, he discovers the truth is considerably more complicated than anyone suspected.

Despite having no formal position in the family, Ahmad becomes the closest thing to a referee they have.  Yet, it is clear the feelings he and Marie once had for each other remain unresolved.  It is fascinating to watch him navigate this tortuous emotional terrain, acting as an honest broker and peace-maker, while keenly aware of his own destabilizing influence.  Ahmad is a tricky role to pull off, considering he often serves as an audience proxy as well as an independent actor in his own right, but Ali Mosaffa pulls it off masterfully.  It is an exquisitely humane turn that darkly suggests volumes of unspoken back-story.

Although Ahmad is central to the narrative, he is still a supporting player in the overall scheme of things.  This is Marie’s story, driven by her problematic relationships with Samir and Lucie.  The thoroughly de-glamorized Bérénice Bejo’s lead performance is earthy and passionate, constantly approaching the overwrought, put always pulling back just in time (because the working class cannot afford such indulgences).  Pauline Burlet is also quite remarkable, making Lucie’s inner turmoil vivid and believable in an angsty teen-aged sort of way.  She could be this year’s equivalent of Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.

The opening of The Past essentially closes the year in film.  Granted, there are some presumptive Oscar candidates slated to open Christmas week, but they do not deserve their buzz.  In contrast, The Past should be a contender in multiple categories.  It might not have quite the same visceral intensity of Farhadi’s A Separation and About Elly, but those films set the bar awfully high, making comparisons decidedly unfair.  The Past is a gripping film that embraces the messy humanity of its characters. It is a bracing yet forgiving film, much in keeping with the rest of Farhadi’s filmography.  Highly recommended, The Past opens this Friday (12/20) at New York’s Film Forum.

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The New Rijksmuseum: Ten Years without the Night Watch

Its restoration ran about five years late and millions of Euros over budget.  For roughly ten years, the Rijksmuseum and its Vermeers and Rembrandts were closed to the public, frustrating art lovers and hardly doing any favors for Dutch tourism.  Blame the Dutch Cyclists Union.  In order to save their members a small detour, they successfully blocked the museum’s initial renovation plans with the local authorities, handing the institution the first of its many costly setbacks.  Oeke Hoogendijk witnesses them all and documented them in the observational epic The New Rijksmuseum (trailer here), which has its world theatrical premiere this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Nobody thought the process would take as long as it did, especially Hoogendijk.  Eventually, she distilled two hundred seventy five hours of film into two hundred twenty eight minutes of film, which Film Forum will screen as two distinct parts.   Essentially, the two parts are evenly divided by the stewardships of two very different general-directors.  As part one opens, Ronald de Leeuw has boundless optimism for the Rijksmuseum’s recreation, considering the objections of the Cyclists Union baseless and parochial.  He was right on the merits, but wildly naïve on the political realities.

For years, 13,000 cyclists had availed themselves of the bike thoroughfare running beneath the museum and they had no intention of stopping, regardless of the Rijksmuseum’s plans.  Ironically, Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz had won the Rijksmuseum commission precisely because of their design for a grand entrance that would sacrifice the bike path.  Suddenly, they were forced to revise their plans, jettisoning the very elements they were chosen for. It will be the first of many absurdist developments. It would also send a signal to contractors and bureaucrats that perhaps the Rijksmuseum was not the invulnerable titan they might have assumed.

Tiring of wrestling with nuisance complaints, endless red tape, and budget-busting contractor estimates, de Leeuw eventually bails.  He is replaced by the more vigorous and political astute Wim Pijbes.  However, Pijbes cannot resist taking another run at the original Cruz y Ortiz entrance scheme, causing quite a stir amongst the bureaucratic class.

Stylistically, New Rijksmuseum is sort of like a Wiseman documentary in which a plot unexpectedly breaks out. Hoogendijk follows a strict Direct Cinema approach, avoiding on-camera interaction with any of her subjects. Yet, there is real drama unfolding, with the museum’s very fate at stake. When a polished professional like Pijbes goes off on an extended on-camera rant, you know it is a bad sign.

Yet, Hoogendijk also captures the idealism of the curatorial staff, dedicating considerable time to their painstaking restoration work (on individual pieces in their respective collections) and their hopeful exhibition plans.  Perhaps the most inspired subplot follows the acquisition of two striking Japanese Temple Guard statues that will remain unseen for years, with commentary from Menno Fitski, the Asian Pavilion curator, who has exactly the sort of enthusiasm you would want from a museum curator.

Indeed, it is the staff’s spirit and dedication in the face of crushing delays that makes the film rather inspiring.  Wisely, Hoogendijk holds the Rijksmuseum’s signature piece in reserve for the climatic conclusion, but its intrinsic value as an institution is expressed in nearly every frame.  Indeed, it is worth protecting from the Vandals, like the Cyclists Union’s Marolein de Lange, who literally sneers at the word “culture.”  Recommended for all art and architecture lovers, The New Rijksmuseum opens this Wednesday (12/18) in New York at Film Forum.  While the screenings will be in two parts, there is two-for-one admission to both parts, with the flexibility to choose same-day or later screenings of the second installment.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

How Sherlock Changed the World: The Literary Godfather of All CSIs

We think of Sherlock Holmes stories as classic mysteries, but they were practically science fiction when they were first released.  Such was the state of forensic science at the time—it simply did not exist.  Various forensic fans pay their respects to the consulting detective in the two-part, one-night special How Sherlock Changed the World (trailer here), which premieres this Tuesday on most PBS stations nationwide.

The first Holmes story came out during the Jack the Ripper investigation, when most of London had concluded most of the city’s coppers were just a pack of dumb thugs—and not without justification.  Crime scenes were not preserved and nobody bothered to give them the once-over for telling information.  Instead, it was round-up the usuals and beat out a confession—a strategy doomed to fail with a serial killer.

The fact that the fictional Holmes served as a catalyst for smarter investigative techniques makes perfect sense, considering how science fiction has always inspired technological breakthroughs.  In the early segments, producer-director Paul Bernays and his expert witnesses make a strong case for Sherlock’s influence on the pioneers of forensic investigation, particularly Edmond Locard, a French Holmes fan who assembled the first legitimate crime lab in 1910.

Eventually, HSCTW settles into a familiar pattern, introducing an investigative avenue prefigured in Doyle’s stories (like toxicology, ballistics, and hair and fiber analysis) and then demonstrating real world applications from the case files of its talking heads, including the sometimes controversial Dr. Henry Lee, probably best known for his work on the notorious “Woodchipper Murder.” Initially a bit of a revelation, the Sherlock tribute largely becomes reasonably diverting comfort viewing for true crime fans.

Obviously, HSCTW was shrewdly programmed to stoke viewer enthusiasm for the upcoming third season of PBS’s Sherlock.  We do indeed see clips from the Cumberbatch show, but most of the points are illustrated with original recreations of Holmes at work.  Granted, clearances can be tricky, but the HSCTW cast lacks the distinctive presence of the many classic screen Holmeses, such as Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Jeremy Brett, Patrick Macnee, Tom Baker, Christopher Plummer, or even Ronald Howard.

HSCTW is television viewers can safely dip in and out of.  Nonetheless, it makes a compelling case on behalf of the contributions made to criminal justice by Holmes, as well as his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.  In fact, it leads one to believe Doyle’s stock is rather undervalued given his post-Sherlock endeavors.  While it has a fair amount of filler, How Sherlock Changed the World also provides some intriguing cultural history.  Recommended as a pleasant distraction for Holmes and CSI fans eagerly anticipating the new season of Sherlock, it airs this Tuesday (12/17) on most PBS affiliates nationwide.

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

AIA’s Practical Utopias: The Bird’s Nest

Beijing National Stadium is the symbol of China’s Olympic PR triumph, but it was designed and built by two Swiss architects and a dissident artist.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the construction was almost as dramatic as the soaring finished structure.  Christoph Schaub & Michael Schindhelm follow the complicated process in their documentary, Bird’s Nest: Herzog & de Meuron in China (trailer here), which screened as part of the Practical Utopias programming at AIA New York’s Center for Architecture.

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron had prospective projects in China fall through before, but they clearly did not let that inhibit their ambition.  In addition to the iconic Olympic venue, the architects were also planning an ambitious mixed-use urban development for the Jinhua district.  Five years later, the Bird’s Nest would be completed, but the Jinhua project still exists only on the drawing board. Frankly though, the Swiss architects did rather well for themselves, given the eccentricities of the Chinese bureaucracy.  For one thing, they carried on without ever having one of those whatamacalits: a contract.

Shrewdly, the Swiss architects recruited a prestigious team of local collaborators and advisors, most notably including Ai Weiwei, demonstrating their good taste if not exactly a determination to curry favor with Party apparatchiks.  For the establishment, they also called on the counsel of Dr. Uli Sigg, the former Swiss Ambassador, and several other academics and architects.

Happily, Ai Weiwei is his irrepressible self throughout, expressing rather mixed feelings about the whole Olympic appeal to “nationalism.”  It is too bad he is not around more. There are many telling encounters with state corruption, incompetence, and rampant CYA-ing in the film, but Schaub & Schindhelm show a pronounced editorial preference for scrupulously sober, academic moments.

Still, in many ways, Bird’s Nest offers an intriguing perspective on China’s go-go development.  At one point, the Swiss partners attend the opening of Architecture Park, a public park conceived by Ai Weiwei to showcase small creations of prominent world architects, including de Meuron.  It was envisioned to serve the residents of the as yet undeveloped Jinhua development, but instead it is a surreal Dahli World in the middle of nowhere.

The Center’s post-screening discussion also added helpful context on the issues involved, including post-Olympic development in host nations.  According to Thomas K. Fridstein, Executive Director of the Cunningham Group China, the Bird’s Nest has seen little use since the 2008 Games, aside from drawing a bit of tourist traffic.  However, it still looks great despite the lack of upkeep and will probably remain as it is, because of its tremendous symbolic value to the regime. 

Those contemplating a Chinese co-venture will probably find Bird’s Nest instructive and any screen time devoted to Teacher Ai is always worthwhile.  Recommended for those fascinated by the subject matter rather than general interest doc watchers, Schaub & Schindhelm’s Bird’s Nest is distributed by Icarus Films, so keep an eye on their website for future nonprofit screenings.

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