J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Portland Film Festival ’14: Blemished Light

The Indian subcontinent is a fractious, factionalized region, but the criminalization of homosexuality is an unfortunate constant. Of course, there are violent extremists who seek to further impose their strict Islamist agenda on those they deem unbelievers or apostates. In his split narrative following a closeted lesbian’s desperate attempt to find love and a Muslim terrorist stalking a moderate academic, director-co-writer Raj Amit Kumar issues a plea for tolerance and civility, but finds little of either in Blemished Light (trailer here), which had a special midnight screening at the 2014 Portland Film Festival.

Leela Singh is the apple of her senior police officer father’s eye, but she simply cannot submit to the proper marriage he has arranged for her. The doting but stern Devraj will be scandalized when he learns Singh is a lesbian, who intends to win back her former secret lover, Sakhi Taylor, a bi-sexual Indian-American artist. Taylor holds a downtown hipster image of herself, but she still cares about how she is perceived in Indian society. Their reunion will be uneasy, but for Singh the die is already cast, thanks to the video confessional she left for her father.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Husain has arrived in New York for a grim mission he whole-heartedly embraces. He has been chosen to abduct and execute Fareed Rahmani, a prominent proponent of a more liberal vision of Islam. In his frequent media appearances, Rahmani argues true Muslims do not go about killing people. Husain intends to demonstrate otherwise, but first is supposed to extract a confession of heresy.

While the two discrete storylines never intersect, they are highly compatible thematically and make it difficult to dismiss the film as mere “Islamophobia.” Clearly, Kumar and co-writer suggest prejudice based on religion, gender, and sexual orientation is an issue endemic to the region that transcends demographic categories.

Blemished also benefits from the imprimatur of the legendary Victor Banerjee (best known in the West for A Passage to India and several Satyajit Ray films), whose mastery of his craft remains unabated. As Rahmani, he fully humanizes the potential martyr figure (in an uncorrupted sense of the term), ultimately delivering a devastating punch to the viewer’s gut. In contrast, Adil Hussain’s Devraj Singh is appropriately intense and decidedly disturbing, credibly laying the groundwork for some otherwise unfathomable choices as a father. Bhavani Lee also demonstrates future star power potential and a vivid screen presence as the complicated and contradictory Taylor.

This is a film rich in telling scenes, such as the stilted interactions between Husain and his Americanized support network, many of whom seem to be trying to preserve their plausible deniability. There are issues here and there, including an underdeveloped subplot involving Singh’s pregnant platonic girlfriend and an excursion into surreal imagery that looks quite striking but clashes with the overall tone of social realism. However, the film’s visceral immediacy demands an audience.

Inspired by the verse of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, it is a bold and bracing film, featuring an extraordinarily compelling and humanistic performance from Banerjee. Highly recommended for his fans and patrons of accessible Indian Parallel Cinema (or high-end Bollywood), Blemished Light is sure to generate controversy as well as a long life on the Indian and LGBT festival circuits following its special screening at this year’s Portland Film Festival.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Cesare Mori: the Iron Prefect

To this day, there is a reservoir of good will for Mussolini’s Fascist Party in Sicily, thanks in large measure to the “Iron Prefect.” Although he had a checkered personal history with the Fascists, he pursued the Mafia like an Italian Elliott Ness, getting better results for his efforts. After all, they do not give you a nickname like the Iron Prefect for nothing. Gangs will be busted but not permanently eradicated in the historical crime mini-series Cesare Mori (trailer here), which is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.

Mori was a hard cop to kill. During his first posting in Sicily, he stepped on all the wrong toes pursuing the Carlino Gang and the murder of Count Chiaramonte. Mori succeeds in routing the Carlinos, perhaps too well, leaving a vacuum open for the Mafia factions responsible for the Chiaramonte homicide. Making a deal with the devil, the widow Elena Chiaramonte forges an alliance with the Mafia’s facilitators. She will regret this, but not before she supplies a bogus alibi to her husband’s murderer.

With his prosecution scuttled, Mori is promoted up and out of Dodge. In Bologna, he became the only Prefect to stand up to Black Shirt thuggery. Yet, Mussolini was still willing to return him to Sicily with greater authority when the Mafia’s power started to eclipse that of the state.

Without question, the most intriguing aspect of Cesare Mori the mini-series is Mori’s ambiguous relationship with Il Duce. Conveniently, the real life Mori died before the onset of WWII, so he cannot be implicated in any Fascist war crimes. Still, he was a Party member, who somehow made his peace with Mussolini. Clearly, Pietro Calderoni and his battery of co-screen-writers portray Mori’s fascism much like a reluctant Democrat assistant district attorney in Manhattan. He is keenly aware of the party’s corruption and incompetence, but it is the only game in town if he wants to pursue a career in justice.

On the other hand, the clunkiest storyline in Mori involves Saro, an orphaned mobster’s son temporarily adopted by the Moris until the ambitious future Don Tano Cuccia re-establishes the Mafia’s custody. Watching his high-strung wife pine for the ingrate Saro gets old fast. The production is also rarely helped by Pino Donaggio’s overwrought music, which makes several perfectly respectable dramatic scenes sound and feel unnecessarily melodramatic.

Still, Vincent Pérez (probably best known for the “red cloak” scene in Queen Margot and succeeding Brandon Lee in The Crow: City of Angels) is suitably commanding as Mori. He can also ride a horse, which is important. Evidently, Mori preferred to make his entrances on horseback rather than clambering out of an auto, to cut a more imposing figure with the criminal element. When he swaggers and seethes, Mori works quite well.

Comedic actor Adolfo Margiotta is also surprisingly effective as his deputy, Francesco Spanò, who turns out to be more serious and competent than his hound dog looks suggest. As the Countess, Gabriella Pession generates some flirtatious heat with Pérez, but she is saddled with a problematic character that spends most of the decades-spanning production kidding herself about the state of her affairs.

Mori is a fascinating historical and television figure, whereas Saro is just rather sorry. In fact, it is hard to watch Cesare Mori without analyzing what its respective depictions of Mori, Mussolini, and the Mafia say about current Italian attitudes. In fact, it might be controversial with some audiences because dead-ringer Maurizio Donadoni’s portrayal of Il Duce is unflattering on balance, but not so very different from your average politician on the make. Despite its flaws, director Gianni Lepre keeps the 200 minute mini moving along briskly, while Pérez’s performance provides a steely anchor of conviction. Recommended for fans of gangster dramas with minor aesthetic reservations, Cesare Mori is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Here Comes Uncle Joe: He Delivers

Unfortunately, (Joe) Byung-gi Cho is not in a growth business. He has an extremely loyal but steadily shrinking customer base. For years, he has delivered groceries and sundries to the elderly residents of rural An-dong.  Not just a merchant, he has become an integral part of their lives. However, the demands on his time often cause friction with his own family. Filmmakers Wooyoung Choi & Sinae Ha document his quiet but not necessarily simple life in Here Comes Uncle Joe (promo here), which airs this Sunday on PBS World’s Global Voices.

Once, “Uncle Joe,” as the Aunties and Uncles call him, was a promising academic, until his relationship with a former student short-circuited his career. They are still married, with children, but she begrudges all the time his spends with his An-dong clientele. For many of his customers, Uncle Joe is a lifeline for nutrition and socialization. To some he is a drinking buddy and to others he is a surrogate for the grown children who never visit. He cannot help getting emotionally involved with them, so when one of his aging customers inevitably passes away, it is hard for him to shake it off.

HCUJ is not just about plucky oldsters and the younger sensitive cat who hangs with them. It is largely a gentle observational doc, but the filmmaking duo never sugarcoats Uncle Joe’s disappointments in life or his own family issues. Yet, despite catching him in moments of sadness and regret, they clearly suggest his life has meaning.

So yes, Uncle Joe seems like an unabashedly good guy. The hour long broadcast cut captures some moments of real drama, especially when a beloved community member passes. Still, there is nothing in the film you would consider shocking, by any stretch. Somehow though, the co-writer-co-directors keep all the niceness from getting too cloying. Towards that end, Lee Byung-hoon’s elegant acoustic soundtrack provides a key assist, setting a vibe reminiscent of some Kore-eda’s family dramas.

HCUJ is not as cute and quirky as Marigold Hotel fans might prefer, but it reaffirms the messiness of life nonetheless. While far from indispensible, it is a sensitive look at rural, traditional values-holding Korea. Recommended for Reader’s Digest subscribers with an international interest, Here Comes Uncle Joe airs this Sunday (8/31) as part of the current season of PBS World’s Global Voices.

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Houdini, the Man, the Miniseries

He collaborated with H.P. Lovecraft and became the sworn enemy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the nearly eighty-eight years since his death, nobody has approached Harry Houdini’s fame and accomplishment as an illusionist and escape artist, while perhaps only the Amazing Randi has equaled him as a debunker of psychic phonies. Yet, despite some vintage stills and a brief flirtation with those new-fangled moving pictures, his live performances were almost solely the stuff of memory. Yet, the fascination with Houdini persists. The man in chains takes center stage once again when the two-night miniseries Houdini premieres this Labor Day on the History Channel (promo here).

As we meet young Erik Weisz (soon to be Ehrich Weiss and eventually Harry Houdini), it is clear he is a mother’s boy, with deep-seated father issues. These themes will constantly return over the two nights like swallows to San Juan Capistrano. Due to his youthful confidence, the future Houdini is convinced his facility for magic tricks will bear great fruit eventually. Naturally, he spends years scuffling, but at least he meets his future wife Bess through those down-market gigs. However, when Houdini’s handcuff escape starts generating buzz, he re-invents himself as an escape artist and his career ignites.

Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (The Seven Percent Solution novel and screenplay) takes viewers on a mostly breezy jaunt through Houdini’s colorful life, largely sticking to the facts, or in the case of Houdini’s supposed work with the American and British Secret Services, well reported suppositions. Whether it is true or not, Tim Pigott-Smith looks like he is having a ball playing British spymaster William Melville, the original “M.” It is also allows for some entertaining intrigue, as when Houdini thoroughly befuddles the Czar and his fellow faker, Rasputin.

The second night is necessarily darker, progressing as it must towards the inevitable, with the bulk of the drama devoted to Houdini’s drive to debunk false mediums using parlor tricks to fleece the grieving. There is very little that could be considered truly genre-centric in the séance sessions, but the trappings will still have a bit of appeal to fans.

Although he is considerably taller than the spark-pluggish Houdini, Adrien Brody’s gaunt, sad-eyed persona fits the escape artist rather well. He also looks like he put in the time when it came to the crunch sit-ups. As Bess, Kristen Connolly’s earthy energy plays off him well, even if their chemistry is a little flat. While he has little dramatic heavy lifting to do, Evan Jones’s earnestness also wears well on Jim Collins, Houdini’s assistant and chief co-conspirator.

There are a lot of fun sequences in Houdini (the disappearing elephant is particularly well staged), but the visually stylized punch-to-gut symbolic motif is way over done and the effects look terrible on screen. Still, the mini addresses Houdini’s Jewish heritage in respectful, sympathetic terms, which must have been a strange change of pace for director Uli Edel, whose highly problematic terrorist apologia Baader Meinhof Complex suggests killing Jews is nothing to get upset about.

Fans with a checklist will be able to tick off just about all of the iconic escapes, from straightjackets to milk cans. Overall, it is a nice blend of fact-based fiction and somewhat more fanciful speculation. However, it feels slightly stretched to cover two nights. Recommended for admirers of Houdini the performer and scourge of spiritualists, Houdini the mini-series airs this Monday and Tuesday night (9/1 & 9/2) on the History Channel.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Road to Ninja, the New Naruto Movie

Naruto Uzumaki is a lot like your classic adolescent fantasy protagonist, but the trappings are ninja-related rather than the stuff of sorcery and knight errantry. Growing up as an orphan, he is rash on the outside and sensitive on the inside. Even though fans know his creation story quite well, it will be revisited in detail and perhaps even altered when the junior ninja finds himself whisked into an alternate world in Hayato Date’s Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Uzumaki’s father and mother bravely sacrificed their lives defending Konohagakure from the rampaging Nine-Tailed Demon Fox. Even though his parents are immortalized on the village’s Rushmore-like monument, Naruto is often shunned because they were forced to mystically seal the demon within him. Naruto is usually a pretty plucky kid, but he is going through a rough patch, making the absence of his family particularly acute. In contrast, his crush-rival Sakura Haruno is feeling especially embarrassed of her intrusive, ultra-square parents.

However, before you can “alternate Star Trek universe,” the malevolent Tobi traps them in the Tsukuyomi world, based largely on their deepest subconscious desires. Much to their surprise, Haruno is now the celebrated orphan of the village heroes, while Uzumaki’s parents are alive and well. Instead of martyrs, they are workaday ninjas and loving parents (who insist on calling him Memna rather than Naruto). Everything looks the same, but most of their friends have reversed their primary character traits. In a way, this makes Road an easy series entry point, since most of the backstory no longer applies.

The Naruto franchise is classified as Shōnen manga, which usually means a lot of fighting. Road is no exception, but its themes of sacrifice and parental love give it more Capra-esque sentiment than you might expect. Since it was plotted out by series creator Masashi Kishimoto, you know it is legit. It is a rather self-contained story arc, but it arguably offers fans greater character development. Frustratingly though, like many anime features, the big showdown relies on a lot of flash-and-dazzle spectacle that largely becomes a blur of fireballs and fix-demons. It would be more effective to bring things down to a more personal level, like Mel Gibson and Gary Busey duking it out on Danny Glover’s front lawn.


Under Kishimoto’s watchful eye, Date and company maintain the franchise’s quality control. In fact, there are some great images of Konohagakure and its environs, evoking Edo-era Japan and Tolkien-like fantasyscapes in equal measure. There is more heart to Road than you usually find in well established warhorse properties, which might be why it is the Japanese box-office’s top performing Naruto feature thus far. Nevertheless, it requires a predisposition to teenaged ninjas and all the angst and combat they face. Solidly executed but probably not crossing over from the fan zone, Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie screens this coming Sunday (8/31) and Monday (Labor Day, 9/1) in New York at the Village East. For a complete list of cities and dates, check the Eleven Arts website here.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Damned: The Witch in Pandora’s Box

When you see a little girl in a horror movie, run for all your lungs are worth. Unfortunately, the Reynolds family does not realize they are in a fright flick. Sure, they are stranded in an old decrepit hotel in the middle of nowhere, but they are initially too preoccupied with their passive aggressiveness in Victor García’s The Damned (a.k.a. Gallows Hill, trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Following his wife’s death, David Reynolds’ relationship with his daughter Jill has been strained. She makes no secret of her lack of enthusiasm for his upcoming marriage to Lauren and receives plenty of encouragement for her petulant acting-out from her hot aspiring journalist Aunt Gina. Determined to drag her back to America for the wedding, the Reynolds must take a major detour to retrieve her passport, because roaming around Colombia without papers is such a good idea for international travelers. Of course, a torrential storm and a highway mishap forces them to take refuge in an ominous boarded up resort that now only houses creepy old Felipe and the little girl he has locked in the basement cell.

When they inevitably discover innocent looking Ana Marie, he warns them not to listen to her evil lies, but they do. Needless to say, Felipe is soon proved correct. It turns out the spirit of a witch executed on Gallows Hill was possessing his daughter and is now out for revenge against the descendants of her executioners.

At first, The Damned looks like a Colombian riff on Charles Beaumont’s classic “Howling Man” Twilight Zone episode, but it also takes elements from Gregory Hoblit’s underrated Fallen and gives them a good twist. In fact, the whole system of possession is a rather clever bit of horror movie mechanics. However, the film’s best asset is the incredibly eerie setting. Unlike the Stanley, this is one movie hotel horror fans will not want to visit.

Twilight vampire franchise survivor Peter Facinelli is pretty solid as the exasperated father. He makes a convincing couple with Sophia Myles, who adds some welcome grace and class as the eternally understanding Lauren. On the other hand, Nathalia Ramos’ constantly pouting quickly makes Jill a tiresome eye-roller, while Colombian superstar Carolina Guerra is almost distractingly sultry as Aunt Gina, the supposedly scuffling reporter.

Thanks to cinematographer Alejandro Moreno and production designer Asdrúbal Medina’s team, The Damned is a fine example of how much visual style and ambience can add to horror film. Although García and screenwriter-co-producer Richard D’Ovidio never reinvent the supernatural wheel, they keep it spinning quite effectively. Recommended with confidence for genre fans, The Damned opens this Friday (8/29), late night, at the IFC Center and is currently available on IFC Midnight’s VOD platforms.

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The Calling: Popping Pills and Chasing Serial Killers

It is hard to say which are dumber in this non-mystery: the Christians who willingly sacrifice themselves in rituals that violate nearly every tenet of their faith or the Keystone cops who spend more time chasing their tails than the only suspect we ever see. At least, Detective Hazel Micallef has the excuse of being a pill popping drunk. Nonetheless, she is the only copper smart enough to figure out a serial killer is on the loose in Jason Stone’s logically challenged The Calling (trailer here), opening this Friday in select theaters.

Micallef lives with her mother, drinks too much, and openly carries on with a married man in the small Canadian town of Fort Dundas (perhaps that should be Fort Dunderhead). She is currently the town’s acting police chief by virtue of seniority, but her position is tenuous at best. However, when one of her mother’s church cronies is decapitated, Micallef’s atrophied intuition says it must be the work of a serial killer.

With the help of her long suffering deputy and a green transfer from Toronto, she identifies similar facial manipulations in other bodies just outside her jurisdiction. For some reason, she seeks the counsel of Father Price, who immediately confirms each victim’s mouth has been molded to form part of a long forgotten early Christian sacrificial-reincarnation prayer. Gee, that’s not suspiciously convenient at all.

Of course, about ten seconds later we learn the good Father is indeed well acquainted with the killer. While he is morally conflicted (because Donald Sutherland could not possibly play an out-and-out bad guy in a Susan Sarandon movie), he still acquiesces to the mysterious Simon’s dubious scheme.

The Calling is based on the first of three Micallef mystery novels written by Michael Redhill under the Inger Ash Wolfe pseudonym. However, there is not much mystery in the film and common sense is also scarce as hen’s teeth. On paper, the Micallef character sounds promising, but Sarandon is the wrong person for the role. Instead of embracing her degenerate nature, she plays her like some sort of martyr, trying to be a hard drinking Sister Helen Prejean with a badge.

Evidently, Gil Bellows is the new go-to-guy whenever a casting agent needs a small town deputy, but he provides a much needed sense of stability for the ludicrous plot. As Father Price, Sutherland manages to say some ridiculous lines with a straight face. Sarandon’s fellow Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn must have owed one of the producers a big favor, because she has absolutely nothing interesting to do as Micallef’s mother. Regardless, she appears natural and credible in all her scenes, unlike the awkward looking Topher Grace, sticking out like a sore thumb as the freshly re-assigned Ben Wingate. However, Christopher Heyerdahl brings real presence and a bit of ambiguity as Simon, the symbolically loaded bogeyman.

Ill conceived and executed in a manner that minimizes any potential suspense, The Calling just doesn’t have much going on. Clearly, Scott Abramovitch’s screenplay fancies itself some sort of Bill Maher critique of faith-before-reason Christianity, but its defining characteristic is its blandness. Not recommended, it opens this Friday (8/29) in select cities.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kundo—Age of the Rampant: the Butcher vs. the Bastard

If the peasants won’t take to their pitchforks, the Chusul Clan will do it for them. They are sort of like Robin Hood and his men, but they aren’t very merry. The Chusul outlaws definitely believe in stealing from the rich. That would be Jo Yoon, a Naju lord’s sociopathic illegitimate son. It is the have-not’s versus the man who has everything except a proper name in Yoon Jong-bin’s smash hit Kundo: Age of the Rampant (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It was sort of the Chusuls’ fault that the death of Lord Jo Won-suk’s son opened up a void to be filled by his new presumptive heir, Jo Yoon. Still, at the time, it was a highly satisfying mission for Dae-ho, the Chusul captain. Indirectly, it also brings Dolmuchi into the picture. The lowly clever-wielding butcher is hired by Jo Yoon to murder his half-brother’s pregnant widow. However, Dolmuchi has an outbreak of conscience at the last moment.

Slightly disappointed, Jo Yoon has the poor butcher’s family murdered, but Dolmuchi is saved at the last moment by his future Chusul comrades. Despite the wise spiritual counsel of Ddaeng-choo, “the Vicious Monk,” Dolmuchi is consumed with a desire for revenge. However, Jo Yoon’s almost superhuman martial arts were nearly the death of him the last time they faced off. Frankly, the Naju usurper might be too powerful for Dolmuchi’s adopted clan, but when he really starts to squeeze the peasantry, Dae-ho resolves to act.

The obvious class warfare themes drive Kundo like the runaway bus in Speed, but it never loses sight of the action. In fact, there are numerous spaghetti western hat-tips, including a big noisy one to the original Django, which is awesome. There is also the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai/Seven Warriors dynamic of the rag-tag Chusul action team coming together, including the hulking Chun-bo, Lee Tae-ki, a former aristocratic turned outlaw, and Ma-hyang, the strictly-business archer they both carry a torch for.

It seems like the creepiest villains in Korean cinema are often distinctly androgynous—and Jo Yoon is no exception. Freshly discharged from his mandatory military service, Gang Dong-won’s performance has the grace and menace of a psychotic ballet dancer. He is flamboyantly cruel, but screenwriter Jeon Cheol-hong takes pains to establish the linkage to his miserable childhood.

Indeed, Gang chews the scenery quite effectively as the clammy Jo Yoon. Conversely, Ha Jung-woo practically blows smoke out his ears as the massively intense Dolmuchi. Lee Sung-min and Yoon Ji-hye are both steely cool as Dae-ho and Ma-hyang, respectively, while former MMA trainer Ma Dong-seok (a.k.a. Don Lee) is reliably energizing as the Friar Tuck-ish Chun-bo. However, veteran character actor Lee Kyoung-young (practically unrecognizable without his glasses) nearly steals the show as the hardcore but deeply compassionate priest. Unfortunately, viewers who blink might miss Korean indie star Kim Kkobbi fleetingly appearing as Jo Yoon’s fugitive half-sister-in-law.

Kundo literally tells us serfs: “United you are people, divided you are thieves.” Fortunately, it then proceeds to kill a bunch of extras. Frankly, the rhetoric might sound more DPRK than ROK, but Jo Yoon’s tyranny just as easily validates Lord Acton as it does Leon Trotsky. More importantly, the action sequences are pretty spectacular. Dolmuchi even fights like a butcher, which is quite cinematic. Recommended for those who enjoy epic, morally black-and-white, two hour-plus epic historical conflagrations, Kundo: Age of the Rampant opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

The Notebook: A Different Kind of War Diary

Perhaps no nation’s history during World War II is as torturously complex as the Hungarian experience. Although Regent Miklós Horthy largely refused to abet National Socialism’s Final Solution, his resistance was tragically reversed by a full scale occupation and the Arrow Cross coup d’état. In war-torn 1944, twin thirteen year old brothers will learn the worst lessons possible from Germans, Soviets, and their fellow Hungarian countrymen alike in János Szász’s Oscar nominated The Notebook (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The nameless twins had lived sheltered lives, but the war’s grim turn changes everything. Fearing for their safety in the city, their mother deposits them with the grandmother they have never known. She is not pleased to meet them. Conspicuously estranged from her daughter, the old woman feels no emotional bond to the two boys. Reluctantly accepting their presence on her farm, she works them like animals for meager rations. When they complain, she beats them before drinking herself into a stupor.

The boys receive similar treatment from the villagers, who openly refer to the old woman as a witch. As a survival strategy, the twins banish all memory of their parents. To harden their bodies and deaden their souls, they institute a training regimen of physical abuse and voluntary starvation. Their only friend is “harelip,” a somewhat older girl on a neighboring farm, who tutors them in criminal techniques. Yet, they still document their daily lives in the notebook, in accordance with the father’s instructions.

Based on Agota Kristof’s source novel, The Notebook is sort of the fictional anti-thesis of Anne Frank’s Diary. While the brothers document the horrors of war from a young person’s perspective, there is nothing life-affirming or empathic to glean from their journal entries. Instead, it is a harrowing account of their efforts to become inhuman in order to survive an inhumane situation. Yet, the brothers do not evolve into true sociopaths. Rather, their remnants of decency consistently manifest themselves in problematically violent ways.

Ironically, the brothers’ only protector is the local ranking German officer, who displays suggestively pedophilic tendencies. Ensconced in their grandmother’s former home, he appreciates their singular training sessions. Not so surprisingly, when the Soviets arrive, they act more like rapacious conquerors than liberators. Yet, the worst abuses of Hungarians are arguably committed by other Hungarians.

Since the brothers largely react with such stoic indifference to each new outrage, it is difficult to pass judgment on the young leads, András and László Gyémánt, except to commend their poker faces. In contrast, Piroska Molnár is an absolute dread terror as their Grandmother Dearest, but her monster is not without pathos. As the officer, Ulrich Thomsen is the model of Teutonic severity, whose black leather neck-brace adds creepy Fifty Shades overtones to his appearance.

At times, Szász cranks up the privations and tribulations to almost excessively lurid levels, but the film’s black soul consistently pulls it back into a stark naturalism. Innocence is not merely killed in Notebook it is incinerated and its ashes are dispersed into nothingness. Yet, irony still asserts itself in uncomfortable ways. Recommended with respect rather than affection for those who appreciate uncompromising morality tales, The Notebook opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Canopy: War is a Personal Business

Australia and Singapore enjoy close diplomatic and economic ties. There is a free trade agreement between the two countries and Singapore provided assistance to Australia’s Afghanistan deployment. It is a special relationship forged in WWII by soldiers like the two protagonists of Aaron Wilson’s intimately experiential Canopy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For a pilot like “Jim,” being shot down over the dense jungles of Singapore is a double-edged sword. The thick vegetation provides natural cover, but it is an unforgiving and disorienting environment. It makes it difficult to distinguish friend from foe, which becomes an issue when he encounters “Seng.” Somehow, he conveys to Jim he is a Singaporean-Chinese soldier trapped behind enemy lines. An alliance is quickly forged, but few words are exchanged. Even if they were not stealthily evading the Japanese patrols, they could not understand each other anyway.

With its near complete lack of dialogue, Nic Buchanan & Rodney Lowe’s stunning sound design, and Stefan Duscio’s ominously beautiful cinematography, Canopy is likely to generate comparisons to Terrence Malick. It is a richly crafted film, but it is also a taut viewing experience that packs a real emotional wallop. With incredible subtlety, Wilson implies whoever survives the long dark night will honor the memory of their fallen nocturnal comrade for the rest of his life. Clearly, the length of time is not important in Canopy. Rather it is the intensity that matters.

Frankly, it is quite a complement to contend Canopy’s eighty-four minute run time (including credits) actually feels short, given its quiet wordlessness and the measured deliberateness with which Wilson submerges viewers in the murky setting. Yet, just as it is for Jim and Seng, Canopy is over before you know it.

Given Wilson’s approach, Canopy necessarily entails a distinct acting challenge for his two co-leads, but they rise to the occasion quite impressively. For Khan Chittenden, looking like a younger Matt Damon is probably both a curse and a blessing, but such cosmetic matters quickly melt away in Wilson’s jungle. As Jim, he expresses the film’s spirit of solidarity in a way that is genuinely moving. Likewise, the Taiwanese Mo Tzu-yi is silently eloquent and utterly believable as the wounded but resourceful Seng.

Co-productions are all the rage right now, but unlike Hollywood courting China, audiences can feel good about what this Australia-Singapore joint venture represents. Canopy violates nearly every war movie convention, yet it better represents the realities of combat than most of its forerunners. Highly recommended (for disciplined audiences), Canopy opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Man Who Lost His Head: Repatriation Rom-Com

The town of Otakataka on New Zealand’s rugged west coast is economically depressed and it is all Britain’s fault. Years ago, the dastardly imperialists lured Chief Takataka into a life of debauchery and captivity. Before shuffling off his mortal coil, the once promising leader left his wood carved mask to his people, prophesying its arrival would herald better times. Unfortunately, it has yet to leave England—and it is repressed Ian Bennett’s job to see that it stays there in Terry Johnson’s The Man Who Lost his Head, which might be turning up on select PBS stations anytime in the coming months.

Bennett’s entire professional life has been spent at the British Museum of Imperial Plunder, or whatever screenwriter Mark Wallington calls it. He is not very politically adept, but his engagement to the director’s daughter ought to give him a leg up over his showbiz oriented rival, Adrian Minter. Bizarrely, the museum has opted for Minter’s South Pacific exhibition over Bennett’s Egyptian proposal. That seems counter-intuitive for anyone with a layman’s understanding of museum attendance, but the fictional soon-to-be released Captain Cook film starring Brad Pitt partly explains it away.

Regardless, unforeseen complications arise when the museum takes Takataka’s mask out of mothballs. Tightly wound Maori activist Zac promptly files a claim, which the museum has no intention of honoring, but they have to put on a show of due consideration for appearances sake. To seal the deal for his promotion, Bennett is dispatched to Otakataka for some glad-handing and fact-finding that should all culminate in a summary rejection of their claim. Yet, despite his reserved demeanor and social awkwardness, a halting romantic attraction develops between him and Lollie, the local school teacher.

Essentially, Lost Head is like a Hugh Grant rom-com from the early 1990s, except the principals are ten or fifteen years older. It is a cinch that fuddy-duddy Bennett will learn some late life lessons and British imperialism will swiffered into the dustbin of history. Still, it is appealing to see middle-aged romance blossom on screen. As Bennett and Lollie, Martin Clunes (a.k.a. Doc Martin) and Nicola Kawana duly forge some pleasant chemistry.

Nevertheless, the narrative is such a by-the-numbers affair, it gives viewers plenty of time to pedantically pick apart the raggedy details. For instance, the precipitating claim to Takataka’s mask seems especially weak considering it has never been out of British possession or traveled off England’s green and pleasant land. The supporting Otakataka villagers are also predictably quirky, beyond all reason. Most frustratingly, Johnson rarely capitalizes on the surrounding natural beauty of the North Island locale.

This is a television movie that never exceeds the expectations for television movies. Fans of Hallmark productions that enjoy watching soulmates discover each other under unlikely circumstances should find it is safe and reassuring, but the rest of us will consider it a decaffeinated time-waster, at best. For Clunes fans, it is now available for participating PBS stations, including Kentucky’s KET, where it is scheduled for this coming Saturday night (8/30).

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Strange Lands: The End of August at the Hotel Ozone

Jaromír Vejvoda’s “Roll Out the Barrel” (a.k.a. “Beer Barrel Polka”) is probably the bestselling polka tune of all time. Will Glahé hit #1 on the U.S. charts with his traditional recording before it was reworked into the Andrews Sisters’ wag-waver “Here Comes the Navy.” It is also the only record to survive the apocalypse in Jan Schmidt’s The End of August at the Hotel Ozone, which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center current series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

Frankly, a beer might help those settling in to watch Ozone, because Schmidt presents a distinctly bleak and vaguely absurdist vision of the future. Years after some sort of nuclear Armageddon (the details are hazy), an old woman with implied military training leads a band of unruly women born post-apocalypse through the Doupov Mountains. It seems the end of the world hit men the hardest, due to their higher vulnerability to the subsequent diseases. The old woman honestly doubts there are any left, but she keeps looking anyway, in the vain hope one of her rag-tag troupe will become the Eve to his Adam.

Unfortunately, the younger women do not inspire much confidence in humanity’s future. During most of the rather aimless opening half, the teen to twentysomethings mostly quarrel with each other in between random acts of animal cruelty (Peta would have a conniption fit if anyone ever tried to reshoot some of Schmidt’s sequences). However, their wanderings eventually take them to the “Hotel Ozon,” which is still maintained by its old caretaker. Yes, he is a man, about the same age as their leader. Initially, he is overjoyed by their company, especially that of his fellow doomsday survivor. However, ignorance will inevitably lead to tragedy.

Ozone is a dashed hard film to get one’s head and arms around. Presumably, it was green-lit by the Party authorities with the expectation it could serve as a pseudo-peacenik propaganda piece, attacking the capitalist warmongers. Instead, it is a politically neutral indictment of human nature and a sharp rebuke to utopianism in any form.

Considering the grave circumstances, it is difficult to understand how the younger women could be so reckless and wasteful with scarce resources. Perhaps we are supposed to ask whether they are any different than those who caused the end of the world. Still, the film brings to mind a famous Reagan story. Reportedly, while still governor, his official motorcade was briefly blocked by protestors, one of whom tapped on his window holding a sign saying “we are the future.” Without skipping a beat, he jotted the response: “then I’m selling my bonds.”

Indeed, there is little by way of character development for any of the post-Armageddon women. In contrast, Beta Ponicanová’s performance as the old woman is unusually mature and subtlety shaded. Likewise, Ondrej Jariabek is achingly tragic as the old man. Their scenes together carry real weight and power. Nevertheless, the film leaves us feeling sort of confused and stranded.

So yes, youth is wasted on the young. Happily, the world did not end in 1967. In fact, then Czechoslovakia successfully threw off its Communist oppressors during the Velvet Revolution. Unlike the almost feral younger generation of Ozone, Vejvoda’s son Josef would honor his father legacy and respect his musical tradition, becoming an accomplished jazz drummer and composer. Check out his arresting “Angel’s Cry in My Head, Angel’s Laughter in My Heart” here. The recording quality is not so hot, but the venue is quite fitting and the quote from “Barrel” makes it barely relevant to the discussion at hand. Granted, Schmidt’s Ozone is an interesting relic from the past, but the music of both Vejvodas is more strongly recommended. Not exactly unmissable, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone screens this coming Thursday (8/28) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Strange Lands: Morel’s Invention

Morel’s Mediterranean party palace looks like Xanadu as refurbished by Le Corbusier. The music and fashions are vintage 1920s, whereas the technology he has developed is considerably more to near side of “near-future” than when Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1940 novel was first published. Nevertheless, its big revelation still comes as a surprise. Yet, the real drama derives from the fugitive protagonist’s tortured response in Emidio Greco’s Morel’s Invention (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

He is a castaway who does not wish to be found. Washing up on a deserted island, he finds a dusty, closed-up villa, but as soon as he reconnects the power and water, Morel arrives with his guests for a week of low impact revelry. The interloper tries to avoid them, but he becomes fascinated with the beautiful Faustine. His infatuation grows deeper when he witnesses her rebuffing Morel. However, when he rashly approaches her, she refuses to acknowledge him.

Of course, something extraordinary is afoot or Invention would not be programmed during Strange Lands. However, be advised some of the FSLC descriptive copy gives away too much of the game. Frankly, you might kick yourself for not guessing it, but editor Mario Chiari seamlessly cuts the film together, effectively hiding the secret in plain sight.

For those previously unfamiliar with the Argentine novel[la], Greco’s Italian film, or a subsequent English short film based on the same source material, Morel’s Invention is the biggest find of the series. The first act set-up requires a little patience, but the pay-off is shockingly moving. Even though it is very much set in the terrestrial world, it completely takes viewers out of their current mindset.

Godard’s onetime muse Anna Karina is absolutely perfect as the beautiful but distant Faustine. The role of Morel, the inventor with profound tunnel vision, also fits British Giallo veteran John Steiner like a glove. Nevertheless, it is Giulio Brogi who really lowers the emotional boom as the tragic castaway.

Invention’s coastal beaches and art deco interiors are absolutely stunning, rivaling the Village from The Prisoner series as desirable speculative fiction setting for a vacation getaway. In fact, that helps explain certain decisions that are made. Masterfully orchestrated by Greco, it is an under-heralded masterwork of international cinema. Highly recommended, Morel’s Invention screens this coming Wednesday (8/27) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

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Strange Lands: The 10th Victim

It is odd when an author novelizes himself, but is sort of what Robert Sheckley did. He wrote the short story adapted as the film that he subsequently wrote the novelization for. He then wrote two original sequels. Give the credit to Ursula Andress’s deadly brassiere. Sure you can call it satirical sociological science fiction, but it is really about being beautiful in Rome. Life is short but hedonistic in Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

To placate humanity’s violent instincts, the global authorities instituted the Big Hunt. Participating players compete in ten hunts, alternating as hunter and victims. Hunters are fully informed of their prey’s habits and background, whereas victims simply better be careful. Players who survive ten hunts win fame and a fortune in 1965 dollars. Those that don’t are dead.

American Caroline Meredith is one hunt away from completing the cycle. Her victim will be Marcello Polletti, an upcoming Italian player saddled with excessive debt and excessive lovers. To maximize publicity for her sponsor, the Ming Tea Company, Meredith plans to kill Polletti on live television at the Temple of Venus. Of course, Polletti is automatically suspicious when Meredith approaches him in the guise of a television reporter. Nevertheless, they are instantly (albeit warily) attracted to each other. Even though he suspects he will have to kill Meredith, Polletti starts to play along, hoping it will not come to that.

With its depiction of legalized murder serving as a social pressure relief valve, 10th Victim predates scores of dystopian films, such as Running Man, The Purge, Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and the French film Le Prix du Danger, which was based on another Sheckley short story. However, the Big Hunt is arguably more about alleviating the ennui of modern life than appealing to man’s more savage instincts.

Playing a bored playboy, Marcello Mastroianni truly spread his wings in 10th Victim. Considering he had to romance Ursula Andress, he also really took one for the team. Frankly, it is a little bizarre to see Andress playing a Yank, given how often distributors over-dubbed her for the American market. However, she looks great in Meredith’s lethal couture (but not so much Mastroianni’s blond die job). Yet, even with their tongues firmly planted in cheeks, Mastroianni and Andress generate plenty of heat together.

10th Victim’s script (credited to Petri and a battalion of collaborators) is almost too glib for its own good, but the style is to die for. Petri prioritizes attitude over suspense, thoroughly sending up the hyper-real decadence of Mastroianni’s Fellini oeuvre. It all looks and sound great, thanks to Piero Piccioni’s wickedly groovy soundtrack, cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo’s eye for flash-and-dazzle, and costume designer Giulio Coltellacci’s fab frocks. You don’t really invest in 10th Victim as a movie, but it is hard not to enjoy it on its own terms. Recommended for fans of the superstar cast and those who can appreciate some mordant Italian irony, The 10th Victim screens this coming Wednesday (10/27) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Macabro ’14: Darkness by Day

Had Lillian Hellman ever written a horror film set in provincial Argentina, it might have looked a lot like this. Shades of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla are also easily discernible in Martín Desalvo’s near two-hander, Darkness by Day (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Macabro, the Mexico City International Film Festival.

Virginia leads a sheltered life on the family’s ancestral estate in the middle of nowhere. At his brother’s behest, her father leaves Virginia home alone to check on her critically ill cousin Julia. As soon as he leaves, Virginia’s other cousin Anabel arrives in a state of extreme exhaustion. Something is clearly vexing her too. She has no appetite and only seems to rouse herself at night. These are also odd times in the village at large. There are reports of a rabies outbreak and other young women seem to be suffering from symptoms similar to those afflicting Julia.

Strangely, the confused Virginia cannot seem to reach her father by cell or land line. Yet, as Anabel strengthens, the shy woman becomes more enthralled by her mysterious cousin. This seems to greatly concern her father and uncle when they finally return bearing bad news.

It would be interesting to watch Darkness in close dialogue with Mauricio Chernovetzky & Mark Devendorf’s The Curse of Styria, which also screens at Macabro. Both favor mood and atmosphere over blood and cheap thrills, but Darkness is an especially slow builder. Unlike Styria, Josefina Trotta’s screenplay eventually embraces the lesbian overtones of Le Fanu’s classic. In fact, Darkness is quite Hellmanesque, depicting the cousins’ fathers as not just paternal but paternalistic.

Mora Recalde (Desalvo’s real life partner) compellingly portrays Virginia’s innocence and her subsequent fall from grace. She subtly hints at the young woman’s possible arrest development, without overplaying her hand. However, Romina Paula really ought to be more seductive as Anabel.

Visually, Darkness is unusually elegant, creepy, and evocative by horror movies standards, thanks to the first class work of cinematographer Nicolás Trovato and art director Fernanda Challi. That old spooky family manse was a real find. Recommended for genre fans who appreciate moodier gothic films, Darkness by Day screens this Sunday (8/24) and next Friday (8/29), as part of the 2014 Macabro. Also recommended, the thematically related Curse of Styria launches the festival with a free screening tonight (8/21).

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Macabro ’14: Sapi

Which is more dangerous: torrential monsoons, demonic possession, or the tabloid media? All three are coalescing into a perfect storm in Metro Manila. As reports of spiritual possession sweep the city, two rival networks will race to bottom trying to scoop each other. The story takes on personal dimensions for one particular news crew in Brillante Ma Mendoza’s Sapi (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Macabro, the Mexico City International Film Festival.

It is a Catholic country, so they take demonic doings quite seriously. It is also a ratings driver. SBN even has a show dedicated to it: Sapi, meaning possession. Unfortunately, PBC has been eating their lunch. The case of a school teacher named Ruby is a perfect example. By the time reporter Dennis Marquez got there with his producer Meryl Flores, PBC had already caught all the juicy Linda Blair action, so they had to settle for a bland sit-down with the apparently exorcized woman.

In a Mary Mapes level breach of journalistic ethics, Flores strikes a deal with Baron Valdez, their freelance cameraman, to smuggle some of the good footage out of PBC. However, when their pilfered video runs on SBN, they neglected to pixelate Ruby’s face. Suddenly, a lot of people are unhappy with Flores and her team, perhaps including a supernatural agency. In fact, ever since they left Ruby, the three tabloid journalists have been plagued by disturbing dreams and gory visions.

Sapi is a strange genre hybrid that probably spends more time on the dodgy side of journalism than the business of supernatural horror. Thankfully, Mendoza does not go the found footage route, but the film clearly has a deliberately handheld video-on-the-fly look just the same. Yet, since Sapi is so grounded, when Mendoza springs a paranormal jolt, it is really freaky.

Unfortunately, in addition to being morally challenged, the SBN journalists are also kind of dull. Rather, it is the supporting veteran character actors who really add color and flavor to the proceedings, such as Jon Achaval and Raquel N. Villavicencio as the bickering news director and station chief.

Nonetheless, Mendoza uses the city to full noir effect. He captures a vivid sense of its chaos and grittiness, without wallowing in poverty porn. It is even more ragged around the edges than he intended, with many of the pieces rather haphazardly forced together, but his mastery of mood and tone is impressive. Throughout Sapi there is a persistently unnerving sensation something sinister lurks just outside our field of vision and the notion of bottom-feeding journalists exploiting demonic possession feels all too here-and-now. Recommended for those who prefer a healthy dose of social commentary with their horror films, Sapi screens this Saturday (8/23) and the following Friday (8/29), as part of this year’s Macabro.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MWFF ’14: Scars of Cambodia (short)

For a fifty-some year old fisherman who survived the Maoist Khmer Rouge reign of terror, words cannot adequately describe the tortures he endured. Yet, he is compelled to silently testify, nonetheless. Despite the language barrier, Tut conveys the horrors of his ordeal to filmmaker Alexandre Liebert in the short documentary Scars of Cambodia (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Tut is a fisherman in the coastal village of Kampot. He is a rugged man of dignity, who was swept up in the genocidal Khmer Rouge machine that killed an estimated twenty-one percent of the nation’s population. The titular “scars” are metaphorical, but Tut also bears plenty of physical kind, still visible decades later.

Arguably, Scars represents a somewhat experimental approach to documentary filmmaking, but it succeeds on its own terms. Tut rarely speaks and Liebert never subtitles him, yet his body language is beyond eloquent. It becomes crystal clear Tut endured beatings, stabbings, electrocution, and that favorite of torturers down through the ages—the old pliers to the finger nails.

Without question, it is an act of courage on Tut’s part just to revisit these ghastly memories. As some consolation for viewers, he now seems to be a respected member of his community. Yet, the audience will be left with numerous unanswered questions, especially considering Tut and his wife are probably old enough to have a large extended family, yet it seems to be just the two of them from what we can glean.

Although conceived as part of a larger prospective web-documentary series and photo exhibit project, Scars ably stands on its own. It probably should not be the first or last film anyone sees on the Khmer Rouge’s socialist madness. Everyone really should initially have it initially spelled out for them. Still, Scars of Cambodia is an unusually powerful manifestation of non-verbal oral history. Highly recommended, it screens Monday (8/25), Tuesday (8/26), and Wednesday (8/27) during this year’s MWFF.

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Strange Lands: In the Dust of the Stars

Would you travel halfway across the galaxy to check out a prank call? Supposedly, that is exactly what this star-faring crew has done. However, once they arrive on TEM 4, they are assured there is nothing to see here, so please move along. Thanks to the brainwashing, most of them are inclined to agree. Of course, there is a sinister scheme afoot in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

Say what you will about the locals, but they throw a smashing party. The entire crew is quite taken with their psychedelic hospitality, except Suko the navigator, who stayed behind to nurse his suspicions about the “accidental” distress call that brought them to this swinging planet. As a result, he is the only one not to get dosed by their sonic mind-blocking device. Rather put out by his fellow crewmembers’ giddy compliance, Suko will single-handed uncover the truth on TEM 4. However, it is not like his comrades would be much help, even under the best of circumstances.

Frankly, the Cynro crew inspires even less confidence than Peter Davison’s Doctor Who—and it starts right at the top. In 1978, a woman space captain might have been considered a progressive symbol, but Akala is no Janeway, not by a long shot. She is indecisive, gullible, and conspicuously frustrated by her unconsummated longing for Suko. Clearly, he shares her lust, but he makes do with a willing subordinate instead, presumably out of respect for the chain of command.

The entire Cynro crew looks like a wish fulfillment fantasy, consisting of a couple middle aged dudes and half a dozen hotties in mod jumpsuits. Indeed, Dust features some of the most flamboyant costumes this side of The Fifth Element. In terms of narrative, it is sort of like a middling Star Trek episode in which Yeoman Rand performs a naked interpretive dance, but Dust is really about its candy-colored sets and costumes, as wells as its free-loving melodrama.

It is hard to believe this was a co-production of the GDR and Romania. One can only imagine the expressions of bewilderment on the scoldy state censors’ faces as they watched the Temer dancers Vogueing through the “Boss’s” Henry Moore sculpture garden, but since the oppressed eventually rise up against their oppressors, Dust was apparently safe as houses.

The general hamminess of the ensemble hardly matters either. Arguably, Alfred Stuwe fares the best as Suko and Jana Brejchová (the one-time Mrs. Miloš Forman) gets by okay as Akala. On the other hand, Ekkehard Schall and Milan Beli bring extra cheese as the boss and his chief enforcer, Ronk.

Dust is a ton of fun in a trippy retro kind of way. Karl-Ernst Sasse’s groovy soundtrack is a classic of its kind and production designer Christa Helwig truly crafted a strange land. Recommended as a lava lamp curio from the DEFA filmography, In the Dust of the Stars screens this Saturday (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the Strange Lands film series.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

MWFF ’14: New Territories

Even in death, Chinese citizens remain victims of the Cultural Revolution. Since those dark days, burial has been illegal in the PRC, banned due to its religious connotations. As a result, entire generations have been consigned to an eternal fate as disquiet ghosts, at least according to traditional beliefs. The tragic connection between intrusive government funerary policy and a young migrant worker will be revealed in Fabianny Deschamps experimental hybrid New Territories (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Hong Kong’s New Territories represent the Promised Land for Li Yu. It is there she is to meet her fiancée, after the human traffickers smuggle them across the border. However, her fate will somehow become entangled with Eve, a French sales executive pitching alkaline hydrolysis to the Chinese authorities as a carbon neutral alternative to cremation. She had traveled to Li’s home province, because of its high rate of compliance with the government’s cremation mandate. Understandably, she chose to seal the deal in Hong Kong, where she can celebrate in style once the business is done.

The audience does not see much of Li, for reasons that will eventually be revealed. However, she is omnipresent as the film’s narrator. Eschewing conventional dialogue and narrative forms, Territories is somewhat akin to João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, except the execution is far superior. In all honesty, this might be the most emotionally resonant pseudo-experimental film you will see in a month of non-narrative Sundays.

Of course, there is very definitely a story underpinning Territories, which even takes on genre dimensions. Though rarely seen, Yilin Yang’s voiceovers as Li are absolutely devastating. Eve Bitoun deliberately portrays her namesake as something of a cipher, but her descent into spiritual oblivion is quite compelling (while her Fifty Shades scene is unnecessarily off-putting). Deschamps also gives viewers a unique perspective on time-honored practices, such as the burning of spirit money.

It is difficult to identify the right audience for New Territories, because it demands receptiveness to avant-garde forms, yet is still deeply rooted in the social and historical iniquities of Communist China. Although it is largely set in HK’s financial district and takes its name from the peninsular region, the guts of the film concern realties on the Mainland. Cinematographer Tomasso Fiorilli perfectly lenses HK, in all its alluring menace. It is a very thoughtful, artful film, highly recommended for the adventurous (and sufficiently prepared), when it screens this Friday (8/22), Saturday (8/23), and Sunday (8/24) as part of this year’s MWFF.

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