J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Deathgasm: Heavy Metal Horror

As long as there are angst-ridden teens, there will be a market for really loud music. Punk has the advantage of its cool anarchist ideology, but there are more bikini-clad women in heavy metal videos. Of course, reality is nothing like that for bullied metalheads like Brodie. However, the satanic apocalypse could reshuffle the social order of Brodie’s white bread New Zealand high school, if he survives it. Heavy metal and demons really do go together like a horse and carriage in Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters and also releases on VOD.

After his mother is institutionalized, Brodie is forced to move in with his Ned Flanderish Uncle Albert, whose jerky jock son goes out of his way to torment him at school. Initially, the only people who will hang out with him are the D&D playing band geeks (C’mon, doesn’t Howden know Pathfinder has taken all of their marketshare?), until he meets Zakk, an older, more sociopathic metalhead. Naturally, they all form a band: Deathgasm. Through an unlikely chain of events, Brodie comes into possession of a heavy metal black mass that literally unleashes H-E-double hockey sticks when they play it.

Anyone within earshot who was not jamming on the tune turns into a bloodthirsty demon. It is all very inconvenient, but at least it gives Brodie an opportunity to kill his family in good conscience. In fact, it turns out Medina, Brodie’s out-of-his-league crush is one of the best demon killers around—and she is developing an ear for heavy metal.

So in Deathgasm you have heavy metal, demons, shadowy satanic cultists, gore with chainsaws, and gore with sex toys—basically everything that made Harry Potter popular with third and fourth graders. Yet, underneath all the blood, guts, and contempt for easy listening, Deathgasm actually has a good heart. Brodie’s halting courtship of Medina is nearly as sweet as it is unlikely. On the other hand, his frienemy antagonism with the jackastical Zakk is certainly believable enough. Still, what really sells the film is Howden’s feel for the disaffected metalhead lifestyle and the outsider appeal of the music. The short-lived character of Rikki Daggers, a legendarily reclusive former metal star is particularly spot-on.

Howden does not exactly reinvent blackly humorous carnage, but he goes about it with admirable enthusiasm. There are a number of spectacularly gruesome gags, which Howden is never afraid to double-down on. As Brodie, Milo Cawthorne sometimes gets annoyingly sad-eyed and mopey, in an Adrien Brody kind of way, but James Blake and Kimberley Crossman bring plenty of energy as Medina and Zakk, respectively.

It should be noted Deathgasm has a stinger that is arguably worth sticking out the credits for. It is a proud meathead movie that delivers the right vibe and the right attitude. Recommended for genre fans who like their films loud and rude, Deathgasm screens after midnight this Friday (10/2) and Saturday (10/3) at the Nitehawk in Brooklyn.

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Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

Dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi sort of brought the Taxicab Confessions concept to Iran, but most of the sins that need atoning are those of the Islamist government. The idea of Panahi working as a cabbie might sound appalling, but it makes sense as a cover for his defiant underground filmmaking. Cabs are a common sight on the streets of Tehran and they also have the advantage of being a moving target. Frankly, nobody is really sure how scripted it is, but each fare he picks up is significant in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

As the third film Panahi has made since being banned from filmmaking, Taxi is quite an accomplishment just for existing. Although his post-ban films are very self-referential by necessity, Panahi has yet to repeat himself. In this case, he appears to be making a hidden camera documentary about the average citizens who hail his cab, but some of the dialogue is so on the nose calling out his situation and echoing his previous films, it sounds suspiciously hybridized. Of course, on a more general level, the film itself can easily be interpreted as an homage to Abbas Kiarostami’s dash-cam taxi drama, Ten.

Some of Panahi’s “fares” recognize him, while some do not, but they all have something to say. His first two unrelated fares (picking up multiple hails is a standard practice in Tehran) argue about Sharia Law. She is appalled by the public executions, but he seems to think they serve a constructive role controlling society. His job? Mugger.

The third ride-sharer avoids political arguments, eventually revealing himself to be a bootleg hawker. Even Panahi has used his services in the past, because how else would he see Once Upon a Time in Anatolia? He is eager to sell the taxi-driving auteur on a sleazy “Panahi Recommends” bootleg scheme, but the director will not bite. We take it Panahi met plenty would-be exploiters of his ilk during his periods of house arrest. However, things start to really get serious when Panahi is flagged by an accident victim and his wife. During the brief trip to the hospital, they desperately try to hash out some sort of legal arrangement that would not leave her destitute should he die, since Iranian wives do not have inheritance rights under law.

In This is Not a Film, Panahi’s docu-essay capturing the frustration of his time serving the house arrest sentence, he was somewhat upstaged by his pet iguana Igy. However, he never stands a chance once his niece Hana steps in the cab. She has natural comic timing and a flair for delivering dialogue with a mischievous twist. If her scenes were extemporized than Heaven help her parents. Obviously, Panahi thinks she is the bee’s knees, even when she is delivering the heaviest commentary of the film. As part of a class assignment she is tasked with filming a “distributable” film. However, her teacher has given her a long list of absurd restrictions. Panahi knows them well.

Moments like that risk coming across as rather didactic, but Panahi maintains a street-level vitality that makes everything sound fresh and realistic. Beyond Hana, the movie-star in the making, his entire cast of “participants” always keep the film down-to-earth and the energy level cranked up. It would be nice to associate names with our praise, but they remain deliberately unidentified, for their protection.

As one would expect, the reality of Panahi’s situation is reflected in every minute of Taxi, by the secretive nature of its production. Still, he does not force his points, preferring to tease out a critique of current Iranian government and society over time. It is a clever and engaging film that would screen well in dialogue with Sanaz Azari’s criminally under-programmed I for Iran. Frustrating in its honesty, yet strangely satisfying for its resiliency, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is very highly recommended for everyone who values free expression when it opens this Friday (10/2) at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Saving Mr. Wu: Andy Lau Plays His Co-Star

Why should Wu Ruofu replay the worst experience of his life when he can get Andy Lau to do it for him? Instead, he takes on the part of the police chief scrambling to rescue the kidnapped actor. It might sound slightly meta but the drama is as gritty as it gets in Ding Sheng’s Saving Mr. Wu (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Although Wu (scrupulously referred to as “Mr. Wu” throughout the film, in Dragnet-Naked City-style) is a Mainland actor primarily known for television, he is reinvented here as a Hong Kong leading man movie star and former Cantopop idol, to capitalize on the Lau persona. However, the basic arc is reasonably faithful to the actual incident. While coming out of a Beijing karaoke club where he had been celebrating with a producer, Wu is kidnapped by a gang impersonating police officers. Frankly, Wu is never really fooled by them. After all, he has played plenty of cops in action movies. However, Zhang Hua and his accomplices have superior numbers and arms.

Clearly, Zhang is not as smart as he thinks he is, because Xing Feng and his boss, Captain Cao Gang (portrayed by the steely-looking Wu himself) manage to capture him. Unfortunately, they have not discovered his hideout and they suspect Zhang left orders to kill Wu by a certain time. Thus Saving unfolds in a split narrative, as the kidnapping drama catches up with the cat-and-mouse game playing out in the interrogation room.

Normally this sort of flashing-back and flashing-forward structure is just asking for trouble, but Ding maintains such tight control over the temporal shifts, they actually help build suspense. It also facilitates the ironic juxtaposition of Mr. Wu wrapped in chains and the apprehended Zhang ensconced in an iron maiden-ish contraption that looks like it would give Amnesty International a cow if it were used in any other country besides China.

When you watch Lau in Saving, you realize he is not one of the world’s biggest movie stars for nothing. This is a subtle, slow-burning performance that sneaks up and coldcocks you. Watching him protect Xiao Dou, a fellow kidnapping victim who was in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time becomes seriously poignant. Conversely, Wang Qingyuan is massively creepy as the cruel and erratic Zhang. With him, every twitch screams trouble.

Frankly, as Gang, the real Wu is so hardnosed and grizzled, it seems strange that he has not made more films—or that anyone would want to try their luck kidnapping him. As an extra added bonus, Lam Suet appears as Wu’s trusted army buddy Mr. Su, playing it totally straight, but still showing the dynamic presence that enlivened so many Johnnie To films.

Saving is a tight, tense ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that gets shockingly mature and emotional in its climatic moments. Ding’s Police Story: Lockdown is far better than its reputation suggests (honest, it is), but this film should take him to the next level—and pretty much keep Lau at the top. Gripping and unusually satisfying, Saving Mr. Wu is highly recommended for all fans of procedurals when it opens this Friday (10/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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NYFF ’15: Mountains May Depart

Evidently, in Chinese discos around 1999, “Go West” was like “The Final Countdown” in Czech dance clubs. When they played it, everybody hit the dancefloor. However, when you heard the Pet Shop Boys’ cover, you knew it was 12:00 sharp, the start of a new day. It heralds the dawn of a new era, but not necessarily a better one in Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (clip here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

Shen Tao and her friends are going to party like it is 1999, because it is. New Year is approaching, when she will once again sing Fenyang’s big celebratory song. Obviously, the school teacher is the village sweetheart, but the well-heeled wheeler-dealer Zhang Jinsheng and her dirt poor childhood chum Liangzi are particularly smitten. A traditional love triangle forms, but Shen is (perhaps willfully) unaware how dirty Zhang is willing to fight.

By most objective measures, she makes the wrong choice and deals with the consequences in the second act set during 2014. Divorced from Zhang, Shen lives a comfortable life as Fenyang’s leading patroness, but it is a lonely existence without her seven year old son Dollar, as his father insisted on naming him, which pretty much tells you what you need to know about Zhang. However, she gets a poignant reminder of what might have been when the long absent Liangzi returns to Fenyang with his family and a nasty case of black lung.

The 2014 arc concludes with Shen attempting to make some sort of peace with Dollar before he immigrates to Australia with Zhang and his trophy wife. Flashing forward to 2025, the eighteen year-old can hardly remember his mother. Zhang’s dodgy dealings have caught up with them, causing no end of embarrassment for the son. For obvious Freudian reasons, Dollar explores an ambiguously romantic relationship with his professor Mia, a Hong Kong immigrant (by way of Toronto) who happens to be about Shen’s age.

Both the 1999 and 2014 sections include documentary footage Jia shot before knowing they would have a place in Mountains, but not the 2025 segment, at least not as far as we know. Frankly, the opening scene of Jia’s muse and now wife Zhao Tao leading a “Go West” get-down is so infectious, it demanded a film be crafted around. Yet, following its sheer retro joy, the rest of the film down-shifts, maintaining an exquisitely bittersweet vibe.

To match his vintage footage, all of the 1999 scenes are in boxy Academy ratio (as per the state of digital cameras at the time) and feature vivid saturated colors (especially the crimson reds of Shen’s wardrobe). In accordance with technological advances and increased pollution, Jia cranks up the 2014 scenes to standard ratio and dilutes the colors, while the 2025 Australian sequences are shot in sterile looking widescreen. You can also notice the population density of the streets and the screen precipitously decline.

It is all rather fitting and clever as a commentary on the impact of technology on human relationships, but what really sticks with you is Jia’s characteristic use of pop songs, which has never been as poignant. In addition to The Pet Shop Boys, HK Cantopop superstar Sally Yeh’s love songs rouse all kinds of sentimental and nostalgic feelings, in the way only effective pop tunes can.

Zhao Tao is absolutely perfect for Shen Tao. She truly looks ageless and timeless, yet she can eerily convey so much through so such subtle expression. Probably nobody working in film today can hold an audience rapt with a silent close-up as long as she can. Your heart aches for her, but you have to respect Shen for accepting responsibility for her mistakes and carrying on with dignity.

Zhao brings more than enough presence for any film, but Mountains also has the revered Sylvia Chang, hot on the heels of Office after a five year absence from film. Few people have her combination of maturity and sensuality that is so aptly suited for Mia. Think of her as a potential HK Helen Mirren, in a few years’ time. There are no end of pitfalls to depicting May-Septemberish relationships, but she develops convincingly imperfect chemistry with Dong Zijian’s Dollar that makes it work in dramatic terms.

The more you think about Mountains, the more it gets into your head and your soul. It is the sort of film that might break you out in tears later in the night rather than while you are in the theater, which is rather considerate of it, really. It is also further proof that Zhao Tao is the finest screen actress of our generation, bar none. Very highly recommended, Mountains May Depart screens again tonight (9/29) at the Beale Theater, as part of this year’s NYFF.

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NYFF ’15: Chums from Across the Void

Is one of Enver Hoxha’s infamous Albanian bunkers your idea of a happy zone or a safe space? Then let Jim Finn whisk you away Calgon-style with his self-help program for Reds weary in their nonexistent souls. However, only Trotskyites need apply for Past Leftist Life Regression Therapy in Finn’s short experimental essay film Chums from Across the Void, which screens all day Friday as part of Projections Program A at the 53rd New York Film Festival.

It is time to get in touch with your past Bolshevik lives, with the help of stylized stroboscopic cinematography and suitably distressed-looking archival imagery. Perhaps you were Maria Spiridonova or “Little” Karl Radek. In any event, you came to a bad end, but that is to be expected. By now, we all know Revolution devours it children. So let the soothing Socialist visuals wash over you and try to make something of it all.

Finn digs his Commie iconography, but in past films like The Juche Idea it has been hard to determine whether this is hipster kitsch or slyly subversive irony. However, Chums rather seems to lean towards the latter, given the painful fate some of our Bolshevik spirit guides met at Stalin’s hand. The Albanian bunker motif is also a possible “tell,” considering how wasteful and absurd the “bunkerization” campaign was for the isolated Marxist state.

Arguably, you could consider Finn the filmmaker most closely akin to Guy Maddin who still maintains a distinctly idiosyncratic identity. Based on some of his other projects, it is hard to make a hard and fast conclusion regarding his politics, but in the case of Chums, it will probably be most enjoyed by unreconstructed Cold Warriors with a healthy sense of irony, which is cool. Recommended for the aesthetically adventurous with seventeen minutes to kill, Chums from Across the Voids screens this Friday (10/2) as part of the continuous Projections Program A loop, during this year’s New York Film Festival.

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NYFF ’15: Arabian Nights Vol 1-3

It is a cold, hard, immutable fact of life that any nation surrendering control over its monetary policy must therefore use fiscal means to solve its fiscal problems. However, Miguel Gomes simply cannot grasp this self-evident principle. Unfortunately, in this case ignorance does not produce great art. Instead, Gomes proves the folly of didacticism with his three-film cycle, Arabian Nights (trailer here), a haphazardly assembled grab bag of leftist tropes and half-baked literary archetypes that screens as three misguided Main Slate selections of the 53rd New York Film Festival.

In his initial intertitles, Gomes warns us his Arabian Nights has nothing to do with the traditional Arabic folk tales, even though it appropriates the title, as well as the use of Scheherazade as the narrator. These are episodes of woe resulting from Portugal’s austerity policies, allegedly passed by “a government seemingly devoid of social justice.” Of course, the Greek Syriza government has social justice coming out of its nose, but they passed an even more stringent austerity package. That is what happens when you can no longer devalue your way out of debt.

Be that as it so obviously is, Gomes is determined to score his ideological points as best he can. After a haltingly Godardian preamble in which Gomes literally runs away from the supposed ambition of his film(s), Scheherazade commences the motely tales of Arabian Nights: The Restless One. The first is a representationally inconsequential sketch about politicians and their erections.

Gomes then segues into the meat of the film, “The Cockerel and the Fire,” one of the least political charged fables of the cycle. When an annoyingly shrill rooster is put on trial, a Dr. Doolittle-like judge is sent to hear his defense. It turns out, he is trying to warn people of future disaster resulting from a love triangle, which we then watch as a tale within the tale. In fact, the jealous lover’s morality play is reasonably diverting and incorporates texting in an unusual clever fashion. Sadly, the film loses all momentum with the didactic and repetitive “Magnificents,” in which a handful of structurally unemployed relief-seekers recount their sorrows in obsessive detail, before taking the plunge in a union-sponsored Polar Bear-style swim.

Vol. 1 is a problematically mixed bag, but there are elements here and there that give cause for hope. Nonetheless, Arabian Nights: The Desolate One is basically more of the same, even starting with a jokey, slightly grotesque warm-up. However, Desolate’s centerpiece, “Tears of the Judge” is by far the high point of the entire pseudo-trilogy. It also features a genuine, engaging performance from Luisa Cruz as the judged tasked with getting to the bottom as an increasingly outlandish house-that-Jack-built chain of crimes. It would be a winner if Gomes had spliced it out and sent it into the world as a short. Unfortunately, Desolate peters out during “The Owners of Dixies,” a true shaggy dog story that shows initial promise but drags on interminably.

Nonetheless, Desolate is easily the most watchable of the feature triptych, so it is not so random that Portugal chose it specifically as its official foreign language Oscar submission, at least if these were the only three films released in the country this year. Sadly though, all hope is quickly abandoned once Arabian Nights: The Enchanted One starts. Finally, Scheherazade appears in her own story, but it never really goes anywhere.

Yet, it looks downright plotty compared to “The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches,” a nearly eighty minute observational pseudo-documentary about rugged bird trappers. No, seriously. These rustic gentlemen might be fascinating, but Gomes shows little confidence in them. Instead of letting them speak on camera, everything is explained through Scheherazade’s on-screen text, making Enchanted a mighty chore to sit through.

Briefly, it perks up with “Hot Forest,” a tale within the non-tale, narrated by a Chinese exchange student who visited Portugal and became the kept woman of a rugged cop who sympathizes with the anti-austerity rioters. This might have amounted to something if Gomes had embraced the irony of a socialist demonstrating against exploitation, who turned into an exploiter himself, but Gomes just isn’t in the irony business. It is also another awkward example of how Gomes casually equates Asian women with sex objects, like the twelve Chinese “mail order brides” who turn up in “Tears of the Judge.”

Let’s not mince words. I am here to tell you the emperor has no clothes. Gomes’ Arabian Nights has no business being at the New York Film Festival or any half-serious fest. In any merit-based universe, it would be spell the end of Gomes as a filmmaker worthy of serious press attention, but critics have fallen in line behind it, intimidated by its leftist screeds. Nevertheless, as a viewing experience, it is sorely lacking. The narratives of the constituent stories are fragmentary at best, character development is almost nonexistent, and it all has a dingy, pedestrian visual style. Don’t buy the hype. There is no there there.

The Enchanted One is so lifeless and contemptuous of the viewer’s time, it drags down the previous two installments in retrospect. If you are dead set on getting a taste of Arabian Nights it should absolutely, positively be The Desolate One, but even that is not worth any great effort. They certainly do not need to be seen in a block to inform each other. There are only a handful of call-backs throughout the entire cycle and they are each mere throwaways. None of them are really recommended, but The Enchanted One should be resolutely avoided. For those who need to take their penance, The Restless One screens this Wednesday (9/30) at the Walter Reade, followed by The Desolate One on Thursday (10/1), and The Enchanted One on Friday (10/2), as part of this year’s NYFF.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Shanghai: Gong Li Lights Up the Foreign Concessions

We tend to forget Japan fought with the Allies in WWI. Afterward, British and American interests were just as determined to exploit the Foreign Concession system as their Japanese counterparts. Yet, Shanghai’s complicated and contradictory multinational governance made it one of only two completely open safe harbors for Jewish refugees during the so-called “Solitary Island” period. Obviously, the city is the perfect place to conduct espionage. Unfortunately, one of America’s best agents has just been murdered, but his friend and colleague intends is out to find the killer and make him pay in Mikael Håfström’s Shanghai (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

Paul Soames has assumed the cover of a National Socialist-sympathizing journalist, but he is really a democracy and freedom loving Naval Intelligence officer. However, his friend Conner was the true idealist. Yet, his prescient warnings about National Socialist and Imperial Japanese aggression were routinely ignored. Soames soon deduces Conner seduced Sumiko, the opium-addicted mistress of Tanaka, the police captain of the Japanese Concession and more importantly the local intelligence chief. Now suspiciously missing, Tanaka is turning the city inside out looking for her.

Soames’ search for Sumiko brings him into the orbit of gentleman gangster Anthony Lan-Ting and his society wife Anna. Lan-Ting has accepted an alliance with the Japanese for the sake of business, but his wife has secretly risen through the ranks of the resistance. Soames ingratiates himself with both Lan-Tings when he saves Anthony from an attack on Japanese officers organized by his wife, but executed without the surgical precision she had expected. She genuinely loves Lan-Ting, but like the wife of the local German military contractor, she finds Soames jolly fun to flirt with. Yet, as Tanaka cranks up the pressure, the attraction shared by her and Soames becomes more seriously ambiguous.

If you watch Shanghai soon after Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home, you will be astonished by Gong Li’s range. While she just rips viewers’ hearts out as the achingly tragic mother in Zhang’s literary masterwork, she plays Håfström’s noir heroine with all the va-va-voom you could ever hope for. She makes the screen smolder, even opposite a little twerp like John Cusack. Yet, she also compellingly projects the inner turmoil of a woman whose loyalties are divided between her husband and her country. It is a big, juicy, psychologically complex role, but Gong has the skills to pull it off.

Cusack just is not right for a Rick Blaine-ish romantic role, but fortunately, his gee whiz, fish-out-of-water persona works well enough for most of his solo scenes navigating the various intrigues. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Conner with characteristic intensity in his flashbacks (too bad he wasn’t the one paired up with Gong), but the ever-reliable David Morse is grossly under-employed as Soames’ embassy contact.

Of course, Gong owns the film, but Ken Watanabe basically walks away with every scene she is not in. He is hardly another Captain Renault, but he is no Maj. Strasser either. Watanabe rather keeps us guessing, humanizing Tanaka, while playing his extremes to the hilt. Strangely, Chow Yun-fat is the one most conspicuously short-changed for screen time, but you can rectify that by watching The Last Tycoon, a natural companion film that focuses on a similar gangster-turned reluctant patriot. Unfortunately, Rinko Kikuchi is just squandered as the seldom seen Sumiko.

Attentive eyes will also spot future-star-in-the-making Andy On as one of Anna Lan-Ting’s comrades-in-arms. His appearances are brief, but his screen presence and action chops still come through loud-and-clear. Also look for Benedict Wong, who is quite good in the small but significant role of Juso Kita, Soames’ informer.

Håfström shifts gears from big historical set pieces to noir intimacy relatively adroitly. Hossein Amini’s screenplay intelligently incorporates the circumstances of the Foreign Concessions, as well as the events leading up to Pearl Harbor. Although he is clearly riffing on Casablanca, he wisely avoids paralleling the Bogart classic beat-for-beat. As a result, it all works quite well, in a pleasingly old fashioned kind of way.

Frankly, it is rather baffling why Shanghai’s release has been so long-deferred. In the intervening time, On’s star has risen, but Cusack’s has fallen, yet Gong remains on top of her game. She is more than enough reason to see Shanghai, along with Julie Weiss’s elegant costuming, Watanabe’s slyly villainous turn, and an unusual deep and accomplished supporting cast (blink and you miss Downton’s Hugh Bonneville). Recommended for fans of historical espionage thrillers, Shanghai opens this Friday (10/2) in key markets.

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NYFF ’15: Cemetery of Splendour

Believe it or not, the Thai government might have picked the absolute worst place for its new military clinic. It only just opened, but its future is already in doubt thanks to the ominous excavation going on around it. In fact, the land in question holds secrets that date back centuries. Still, as one patient observes in a rare moment of lucidity, it is a nice place to sleep. Sleep they will in Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (trailer here), which screens during the 53rd New York Film Festival.

This is no ordinary satellite clinic. The patients here all suffer from a severe form of narcolepsy, presumably resulting from shellshock, frequently manifesting in a near catatonic state. They are here to sleep and Jenjira has joined her old friend (and onetime care-giver) Nurse Tet to volunteer. Along with Keng the psychic, she will mostly just sit by their bedsides, tending to their needs should they happen to wake. Despite his unconscious state, she feels increasingly “synchronized” with the still vital looking Itt. When he suddenly rouses, he confirms their connection.

While there are mildly erotic overtones, their relationship is essentially one of surrogate mother and son. After all, Jenjira is quite happily married to the shy but affable American Richard Widner. She devoutly prays for all three of them, leaving offerings at the shrine of two legendary Laotian princesses. They so appreciate her efforts, they come alive to visit Jenjira, warning her the hospital is built atop the burial ground of ancient Thai kings. This is not Poltergeist, but that sort of mixed land use is usually problematic. However, Weerasethakul maintain an ambiguous perspective on potential spirit interference with the living, albeit extremely sleepy patients.

Without question, Cemetery is one of Weerasethakul’s most accessible films to date. Unlike his over-hyped Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, it is fully stocked with richly developed characters and engaging situations. This time around, his forays into natural realism are—dare we say it—quite charming. Yet, there is still that seductive otherworldly vibe and the arresting use of the surrounding landscape.

The cast, led by Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner, also contributes remarkably subtle and finely calibrated performances. Pongpas is wonderfully warm and earthy as her namesake. She develops some fascinatingly ambiguous chemistry with Banlop Lomnoi’s Itt, whose hesitancy and gentleness is strangely poignant. As Nurse Tet, Petcharat Chaiburi nicely balances strength and sensitivity, while Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw and Bhattaratorn Senkraigul add grace and a spirit of enjoyment as the goddess princesses.

Sort of like the scene of the catfish ravishing the princess in Boonmee, Cemetery has a roughly analogous centerpiece in which attention is lavished on Jenjira’s badly swollen leg. While that was about all Boonmee had going for it, Cemetery needs no such provocative indulgences. In fact, it is an unnecessary distraction from the film’s full-bodied characterizations and redolent sense of place. Despite that misstep and a noticeable third act slackening, Cemetery is a deeply humanistic and surprisingly satisfying excursion into the mystical mysteries hidden in everyday plain sight. Highly recommended for those who appreciate the obliquely fantastical, Cemetery of Splendour screens this Wednesday (9/30) at Alice Tully Hall and Thursday (10/1) at the Beale Theater, as a Main Slate selection of this year’s NYFF.

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VIFF ’15: Mr. Zhang Believes

In telling his story, “Anti-Rightist” Campaign survivor Zhang Xianchi fittingly quotes Georg Büchner’s famous line from Danton’s Death: “Revolution is like Saturn, it devours its own children.” Further passages from the German play would also resonate with Zhang’s oral history, such as: “The sin is in our thoughts” and “Your words smell of corpses.” The dramatic references would be appropriate, considering the expressionistic theatricality of Qiu Jiongjiong’s boldly experimental hybrid-documentary Mr. Zhang Believes (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Qiu will indeed talk to Zhang and his remaining “Rightist”-denounced colleagues, but even these sequences have a bit of visual kick to them. However, must of the film dramatizes his story in highly stylized stage sets and sound stages, much like an old school Maoist propaganda pageant or a Brecht production before that. This is itself is a rather bold strategy, using the Party’s own techniques to criticize it. Yet, there is no shortage of substance underpinning the style.

Zhang spent years in Maoist-era work camps, but most of the film is devoted to explaining how he got there. Although Zhang’s father was a low level KMT official, he had once been a Communist and it is he who first radicalizes his son out of some misplaced nostalgia that he probably regretted. Still, it is because of his demonstrable record of revolutionary subversion and blinding zeal that Zhang is initially accepted into the PLA.

Time and again, Zhang witnesses Party hypocrisy during his military service, but he resolutely clings to his illusions. However, it becomes even harder to kid himself when he and his new wife Hu Jun and their families struggle to survive due to their “class enemy” heritage. Unfortunately, all their remaining self-delusions will be crushed during the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Using Zhang’s testimony, Qiu clearly establishes the deceptive nature of the “Thousand Flowers” Campaign, inviting criticism from progressive true believers like Zhang and Hu Jun, so that it could subsequently label them “Rightists” and purge them accordingly. Of course, that only left sycophants and psychopaths in positions of power, exactly as the Party wanted. Yet, Zhang slyly observes his most enthusiastic tormentors had even worse done unto them during the Cultural Revolution. Cue Danton.

Mr. Zhang Believes defies just about every manifestation of authority imaginable, including the political, ideological, and aesthetic. However, it is not experimental for the sake of experimentalism. As an accomplished painter, Qiu has a strong sense of composition. With cinematographer Peng Fan he creates some staggering black-and-white imagery. Frankly, there is not a thrown-away second of the film. Each frame is artfully arranged and suitable for framing, even though they often depict great tragedy.

There are also real performances unfolding on-screen. Jimmy Zhang plays Zhang Xianchi as a guileless but credible everyman, often too studious for his own good, while Ma Xiao’ou is acutely haunting as the ill-fated Hu Jun. Arguably though, one of Qiu’s most effective decisions is his use of Zhang’s young adoring sister Ba Mei (whom he and Hu Jun temporarily adopt for his mother’s sake) as the innocent witness. Engagingly played by Cai Yifan, she metaphorically serves as the Shakespearean character who survives to tell the tale.

Mr. Zhang Believes is an avant-garde film in many respects, but it packs more emotional punch than most shamelessly manipulative melodramas. Somehow Qiu pulls it off. He draws viewers in and Zhang’s testimony lays them out. Indeed, the irony and finality of his closing words are simply devastating. It is a rare example of a documentary (liberally defined) that is truly a work of art. Very highly recommended for anyone interested in Twentieth Century Chinese history, Mr. Zhang Believes screens this Wednesday (9/30) and next Monday (10/5) as part of this year’s VIFF.

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The Creeping Garden: Day of the Slime Mold

Whatever you do, do not call slime mold fungi. That was yesterday’s classification. Mostly they are mycetozoan amoebozoa, but they definitely have a fungus-like look. However, they exhibit an unclassifiable collective intelligence that would scare the bejesus out of Dr. Nils Hellstrom. Slime mold finally gets its well-deserved close-up in Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp’s The Creeping Garden (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Although slime mold has never attracted as much attention from nature lovers and scientists as birds or pretty much every other species of animal, it still manages to attract a small but hardy group of “admirers.” Grabham & Sharp will knock about the woods with one such citizen naturalist, ogling the oozing patches they find on dead logs. They will also retreat into the lab, where legitimate scientists study slime molds’ ability to navigate mazes and detour around poisoned spots. We even meet science-inspired artists who use the branching patterns of slime molds in their work.

In addition to marveling at its slow but steady creepiness, Grabham & Sharp also celebrate the time-lapse photography that made their film possible. They even pay tribute to Percy Smith, the British pioneer of time-lapse microscopic technology in a cool tangent. Frankly, his 1931 slime mold documentary Magic Mixies still holds up pretty well, at least from what we see of it.

Smith may have gotten there first, but Grabham & Sharp are not exactly traveling down a well-worn path. Perhaps realizing audiences might need some selling on slime mold, they evoke the trippy 1970s vibe of The Hellstrom Chronicle and the eccentric docs based on Future Shock and Chariots of the Gods without overplaying their hand. They also include archival footage of John Chancellor reporting the discovery of a mysterious batch of slime mold in Texas, on what must have been the slowest news night in recorded human history. Yet, the film still feels slightly padded, especially during a gimmicky human-slime mold social behavior experiment that goes on too long.

Still, you have to admire a film with this much confidence in viewers’ intelligence. It almost sounds like the product of a dare, but Grabham & Sharp prove you can make a compelling film about slime mold. Grabham and co-cinematographers Ben Ellsworth and Clare Richards capture some incredible scenes of slime mold growth and development—it is all pretty gross at times, but mesmerizing. Recommended for your inner nose-picking bratty kid fascinated by creepy-crawling things, The Creeping Garden opens this Wednesday (9/30) in New York at Film Forum.

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Submitted by Germany: Labyrinth of Lies

Johann Radmann is the sort of lawyer Hollywood loves—and they will have the chance to do so, since Germany has selected his composite story as their official foreign language Oscar submission. Radmann is young, idealistic, and somewhat rash. He also has a pretty girlfriend and all the right enemies. Much to his colleagues’ dismay, the young public prosecutor starts building a murder case against the 8,000 Germans who worked at Auschwitz. Those events leading up to the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials are respectfully dramatized in Giulio Ricciarelli’s Labyrinth of Lies (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Freshly appointed to the office of Prosecutor General Fritz Bauer, Radmann is such a stickler for the law, he will not let an attractive traffic violator like Marlene Wondrak off without the full mandated fine. Of course, since she is broke, he will pay it for her. It is not exactly a meet-cute, but somehow it will suffice. Fortunately, Radmann will also get a timely assist from crusading journalist Thomas Gnielka.

Recently, Gnielka tried to make a scene in the prosecutor’s office to call attention to the many National Socialist war criminals living openly in West German society. Radmann was the only one listening. When he tries to follow-up on reports of a concentration camp guard teaching high school, the road blocks thrown in his way by officialdom serve as quite a wake-up call.

Of course, Radmann is not about to simply drop the matter, but he will have to get more organized. By 1958, the statute of limitations had run out on all National Socialist crimes except murder, so Radmann will have to tie the school teacher and his former comrades to the actual mass murder at Auschwitz. Fortunately, he will have the personal backing of the universally respected Bauer. In time, he will uncover some potentially game-changing evidence, but his obsession with capturing the notorious Josef Mengele threatens to distract him from more winnable cases. No so surprisingly, the combined stress threatens to derail Radmann’s once promising romance with Wondrak.

In many ways, Labyrinth is a smart, honest, and insightful film, but the decision to end it just as the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials begin is rather strange. The film thoroughly primes us for some dramatic cross examinations and stirring closing statements, but then it simply relates the outcome in an anti-climactic post-script text.

Still, a number of sequences bristle with power, such as the wordless montage depicting the overwhelming depositions given by Auschwitz survivors. Ricciarelli and co-screenwriter Elisabeth Bartel make the depths of the older generations’ denial and the younger generations’ ignorance disturbingly clear. Unfortunately, the serious business is too frequently interrupted by Radmann’s groan-worthy relationship travails.

It is good that the Radmann character is believably flawed, but Alexander Fehling’s portrayal never seems to grow in maturity or stature. However, he is surrounded by some remarkably accomplished supporting work. The chameleon-like Johannes Krisch (seen at TIFF in Jack) is absolutely devastating as Simon Kirsch, the artist and Auschwitz survivor who inadvertently set all the events in motion. André Szymanski is also charismatically rebellious but credibly grounded as the real life Gnielka, while the late Gert Voss personifies stately gravitas as Bauer.

Although the reality of the Holocaust is largely accepted today in Germany and the rest of the West, Labyrinth still offers some eye-opening revelations when it explains how closely Bauer coordinated with the Mossad during their campaign to capture Eichmann. It is a well-intentioned period production that evocatively conveys the look and atmosphere of the Adenauer “Economic Miracle” era West Germany. However, some of its narrative choices are a little puzzling. Nevertheless, its dramatic and historical merits are greater than the mild assorted reservations it spawns (still, it cannot match the intensity and artistry of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, which Germany passed over in favor of Labyrinth as their Oscar contender this year). Recommended accordingly, Labyrinth of Lies opens this Wednesday (9/30) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza.

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

NYFF ’15: De Palma

Brian De Palma’s career is marked by distinct streaks of good and bad luck, but he could never complain about his score composers. He worked with John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Pino Dinaggio, Mark Isham (on The Black Dahlia), and most notably Bernard Hermann. Probably no other director so self-consciously tried to process and build on Hitchcock’s visual kitbag for building suspense, so it is fitting two of Hermann’s final scores were for De Palma’s psychological thrillers. The brand name director surveys his filmography, film by film, in Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow’s De Palma, which screens during the 53rd New York Film Festival.

De Palma sits in a comfortable chair and basically tells us how it all went down. It is a straight forward approach to documentary filmmaking, but his stories have a lot of zing to them, so it largely works. Reportedly, De Palma has been regaling his young colleagues for years, but now they have finally convinced him to do it on camera.

To an extent, your enjoyment of De Palma the film will depend on how much you appreciate his movies. Still, there are lessons learned here that would apply to any aspiring filmmaker. De Palma does not reminisce about each film’s production dramas. He dishes on their messy development processes too. He seems to remember exactly how much each and every film was budgeted for, which is a lesson in itself.

There is also a good deal of time devoted to his student work and early independent films, most of which will be entirely new material for a lot of his casual fans, who may not know De Palma gave Robert De Niro his first featured role in his very independent Greetings. Frankly, you can largely judge what De Palma thinks of a film by the amount of time allotted to it. For instance, he probably talks at greater length about Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video than Passion, his unnecessary remake of Alain Courneau’s Love Crime. He is even reasonably forthright revisiting the notorious disaster that was Bonfire of the Vanities.

However, in a glaringly conspicuous (yet convenient) omission, there is no acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding his graphic anti-American anti-war film Redacted. Although it is now generally accepted Arid Uka was motivated by the 2007 film’s violent rape scene, taken out of context and represented on youtube as actual video footage, when he shot and killed U.S. Airmen Nicholas Alden and Zachary Cuddeback in the Frankfurt Airport. Let’s not mince words. Ducking a controversy of that magnitude is just gutless.

Of course, acknowledging De Palma’s polemics evidently played a significance role in such a senseless tragedy would also be a real downer. Baumbach & Paltrow clearly prefer to keep things light. As a result, De Palma the movie is breezily entertaining. It does indeed make you want to revisit some of his classics (like The Untouchables) or catch up with intriguing early films. Recommended for fans of De Palma and 1970s and 1980s genre filmmaking, De Palma screens this Wednesday (9/30) at Alice Tully Hall, as a special presentation of the 2015 NYFF.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

NYFF ’15: Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang

Like many filmmakers selected for this year’s New York Film Festival, Jia Zhangke gets more distribution internationally than in his native country. However, in Jia’s case, it is not because he is an elitist or lacks a popular following. In fact, many of his films have been widely seen through bootleg copies. It is simply a matter of government censorship. Despite his uncertain status with the official state film establishment, Jia is received like a favorite son when he revisits his home town and other scenes from his resolutely independent films in Walter Salles’ documentary, Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang (clip here), which screens during the 53rd New York Film Festival.

The concept behind Guy from Fenyang is hardly a new one. Damien Ounouri essentially did the same thing in his hour-long documentary Xiao Jia Going Home from 2008. However, a lot can change in seven years, especially in today’s China. Nor is Jia one to be idol for long. Indeed, as Salles’ doc opens, Jia and actor Wang Hongwei walk through the streets of Fenyang that were lined with karaoke bars when they made their earlyfilms like Platform, but are ominously shuttered now.

For someone who cannot get his films approved for Mainland theatrical distribution, Jia sure has a lot of people approach him on the streets. Yet, he is always gracious about it. He also seems like a dutiful son when he visits his mother and eldest sister. In somewhat oblique fashion, Salles reveals the importance of family to Jia, especially with respects to his father. As a university faculty member, who had the profound misfortune of keeping a diary since his teenage years, the Cultural Revolution was especially difficult on Jia’s dad. It was also hard on his grandmother, who was the widow of a land-owning doctor. Clearly, his family’s experiences have influenced his work, most notably Platform, but there is a nonconformist humanist perspective reflected throughout his work. Of course, that is exactly why he has such trouble with the censors.

In addition to Jia, Salles also talks to several of his key collaborators, notably including his wife, muse, and frequent leading lady Zhao Tao, who explains how her life inspired The World. In accordance with Jia’s democratic spirit, Salles also elicits insights from his frequent cinematographer Yu Lik-wai and sound designer Zhang Yang. Fittingly, he liberally illustrates the film with clips of Jia’s work, but none are as evocative as the visually striking (and perhaps comparatively underrated) The World.

Picking up on Jia’s concerns regarding overdevelopment and callous demolition, Salles often compares and contrasts the locales of Jia’s film as they were then with their present radically altered conditions. It is hard to miss the devastation wrought on working class neighborhoods. Although Jia never gets explicitly political, we get a clear idea of the social inequities that distress him.

At one point Jia suggests he makes films about average people living common lives. That is sort of true, but it is nearly impossible for anyone to be average or common during a period of hyper-reality. Jia captures that zeitgeist with vivid directness (see A Touch of Sin for a particularly blistering example). Salles provides the cultural and political context necessary to understand Jia’s significance in contemporary China, while conveying a sense of his resilient personality. Recommended beyond Jia’s admirers for anyone interested in independent Chinese film and culture, Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang screens this Wednesday (9/30) at the Beale and Thursday (10/1) at the Gilman, as part of this year’s NYFF.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

NYFF ’15: Journey to the Shore

Mizuki and Yusuke never actually use the “g” word. It carries too much baggage. After all, Yusuke still has physical form. He can walk around during daylight hours and be seen by others. It just so happens that Yusuke drowned three years ago. However, there are still rules to his current state of being, but Mizuki will accept them as best she can, to reacquaint herself with her dead husband in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore (clip here), which screens during the 53rd New York Film Festival.

Since Yusuke’s body was never recovered, Mizuki never had the closure she needs. However, when Yusuke suddenly appears, she sees it as an opportunity to renew their relationship. In a situation like that, you might as well be optimistic. Rather than fall into their old rut, Yusuke convinces her to take a road trip with him, visiting all the good decent people with whom he spent considerable time as he worked his way back to Tokyo from the coastal scene of his demise.

Most of them will be living, but some are also spirits, like Shimakage, the provincial newspaper distributor, whose persistent guilt for mistreating his wife keeps him tethered to the terrestrial world. It is all very instructive for Mikuzi, especially when she learns Yusuke worked as a cook in the traditional take-out restaurant owned by the very much alive Jinnai and Fujie. Yet, the latter is also profoundly haunted by mistakes from the past. Unfortunately, as they travel on, Mikuzi will start to understand their extra time together is probably not sustainable when she meets a similar couple suffering from supernaturally and stress-induced forms of mental instability.

Journey is an achingly delicate, profoundly humanistic film that will choke you up several times over. It is all about forgiveness and acceptance, fully understanding there are no easy answers in life (or death). It is doomed to be compared to Kore-eda’s Afterlife, but with good reason. Both present an unfussy vision of the afterlife limbo, finding acutely human drama in such a metaphysically significant situation. They are both just great films that renew our faith in cinema without resorting to any special effects or gimmickry.

Although, strictly speaking, she is the one being haunted, Eri Fukatsu is absolutely haunting as Mizuki. It is a performance of quiet power and maturity, the likes of which we rarely see. She also develops believably complex and ambiguous chemistry with Tadanobu Asano’s Yusuke. However, her most emotionally devastating scene probably comes opposite Nozomi Muraoka as the guilt-ridden Fujie. (It is so overwhelming in its simplicity and honesty, it almost unbalances the narrative flow.)

Journey is a spiritually and psychologically intelligent film, featuring a terrific lead performance from Fukatsu and scores of accomplished supporting turns. Kurosawa never sets out to dazzle, but there are numerous scenes that sear themselves into memory. You could say it lives up to the unfulfilled promise of the disappointing screen adaptation of Matheson’s What Dreams May Come. Very highly recommended, Journey to the Shore screens Tuesday (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall and Thursday (10/1) at the Gilman Theater, as a Main Slate selection of the 2015 NYFF.

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HFF ’15: The Key

Tackling a novel previously adapted by the great Kon Ichikawa and the notorious Tinto Brass ought to intimidate most filmmakers. Arguably, Ichikawa was perfectly suited to convey the psychological complexity of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Key, whereas Brass has a strong handle on its sexual content. Jumping in with both feet where wiser directors might fear to tread, Jefery Levy reconceives it as a dreamlike fantasia, with generous nods to silent era cinema. Prepare yourself for the overload of visual stylization in Levy’s The Key (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Hollywood Film Festival.

Despite erroneous online references, Tanizaki did not win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but one of the most prestigious Japanese literary awards is named in his honor, so he is still important. To convey the epistolary nature of Tanizaki’s novel, most of the film is relayed through the voice-over narration of a dysfunctional married couple writing in their respective journals. They have basically have one thing on their minds, especially Jack.

It is safe to say Jack is way more into Ida than vice versa. As the film opens, Jack resents her frigidity, even while reproaching himself for being an inadequate lover. Ida largely confirms his unsatisfactory skills, but claims to have mixed feelings about him overall. After all, they live in opulent splendor, nestled in the Hollywood Hills. They also have a grown daughter who still lives on the estate, resenting Jack for being weak and her mother for being more beautiful than her.

Knowing they both keep diaries, Jack and Ida each deliberately write assuming the other reading, while making a show of not stooping to such an invasive low themselves—or so they claim. Exploiting Ida’s fondness for wine, Jack starts regularly exploiting her during the stupors he encourages, yet he half-suspects she might actually be conscious and passing judgement the entire time. To indulge his emotional masochism, he also pushes her into having an affair with his young assistant Kim (a dude, whose name is derived from Kimura).

If you enjoy deliberate over-exposure, faux distressed film stock, and the juxtaposition of color and black-and-white cinematography, than The Key just might be your aesthetic ideal. However, if you would prefer a smooth viewing experience, The Key will drive you to distraction with its never ending trick bag of visual distortions and pretentiously arty camera angles. Levy and cinematographer William MacCollum are not exactly Orson Welles and Gregg Toland, but there is something tragically compelling about their over-reaching ambition.

Sadly, Levy takes Tanizaki’s celebrated novel and turns it into purple prose. Still, somehow David Arquette and Bai Ling deliver their narration with level voices, in all scrupulous earnestness. Frankly, Ling has some surprisingly potent moments, giving a hint of what she might have done had better roles been available when she first made a name for herself. She also has absolutely no fear or self-consciousness when it comes to playing Ida’s more physically and psychologically revealing sequences. In contrast, the awkward Arquette never looks right as the dissipated Jack, sticking out like Deputy Dewey in his straight dramatic scenes.

The Key could be considered the Calvin Klein commercial Guy Maddin never made. It fancies itself an avant-garde exploration of sexuality and codependency, but it has the maturity of Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Almost worth seeing just to confirm it exists, The Key screens this Sunday (9/27), as part of this year’s Hollywood Film Festival.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

NYFF ’15: Genre Shorts

When we use the term “genre film,” we usually do not mean genres like romance and coming-of-age movies. It definitely covers horror and science fiction, but could also encompass thrillers, gangster movies, and maybe even westerns. Basically, it means somebody is going to die, probably pretty darn painfully. By that standard, the short films collected in the 53rd New York Film Festival’s Short Program 2: Genre Stories are as genre as it gets.

The programming block starts out with its best foot forward. In Territory (trailer here), Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi’s co-director on Persepolis and Chicken with Plums, takes us to the Pyrenees, circa 1957. Pierre is a rustic shepherd who can handle just about anything with his trusty herding dog. However, even he is a bit concerned when the paratroopers start landing. Soon he gets a good look at why they are there—and its decidedly Cabin Fever-ish or zombie apocalyptic.

For a short film, Territory has massive scope. Paronnaud gets his money’s worth from the Pyrenees location and the genre business is suitably freaky. Obviously, it is far gorier than his collaborations with Satrapi, but it is worthy of their company. That is saying a lot too, because Persepolis is a straight up modern classic and you could make a strong case on behalf of Plums as well.

In comparison, Stephen Dunn’s We Wanted More is a bit of a letdown. It is definitely the smallest film of the bunch, but he does pull off a rather macabre surprise. A child begat through a spot of body horror generally primes us to go in a certain direction, especially when she has perfect powers of mimicry, but Dunn zags the other way.

There is no question Percival Argüero Mendoza’s Sânge is the most disturbing film in the genre program. It is the sort of horror film that hates horror films, showing what happens to a horror buff like Cassandra and her film snob boyfriend when she insists on attending a sketchy Romanian found footage film the ominous Petru Beklea is four-walling in a decrepit, out of the way theater. Let’s just say it looks unnervingly realistic. Seriously, this is a film that could really mess some people up.

For something completely different, Helen O’Hanlon gets downright whimsical in How to be a Villain. A distinguished evil gentleman will give us the 411 on super-villainy and how we can be a part of it. There are amusing lines, but it basically has the depth of a New Yorker cartoon. Still, Mark Stubbs’ mostly black-and-white cinematography and O’Hanlon richly detailed haunted house set design are wonderfully nostalgic for those of us raised on Universal and Hammer monster movies.

The “genre’ definition is at its stretchiest for Andrei Cretuescu’s Ramona, but it has a grindhouse sensibility that definitely still qualifies. There seems to be quite a bit of backstory to the title character that viewers might not entirely pick up. Nevertheless, she is clearly out for payback and her determination is kind of awesome. For grittiness and sleaziness, it is tough to beat.

Indeed, having such ill-tempered, exploitative short films at the New York Film Festival is a real treat. As the class of the field, Paronnaud’s Territory could fit in at any festival, but all of the films have at least some merit. Recommended for horror and revenge thriller fans, Shorts Program 2: Genre Stories screens this Sunday (9/27) and Wednesday (9/30) at the Beale Theater as part of this year’s NYFF.

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VIFF ’15: Kaili Blues

Chen Sheng is a much better uncle to his beloved nephew than his half-brother Crazy Face is a father to young Weiwei. Chen is also a medical doctor and a published poet, yet he is the one with a criminal record. Life is complicated for Chen, but he will have the opportunity reflect on his choices in proper Proustian fashion during the course of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Chen bought into a medical practice established by the older Guang Lian in southeastern Kaili City. Except for Crazy Face, it is mostly quiet there, but that suits him fine. He tries to supply Weiwei with the things his father cannot or will not provide, so it greatly concerns him to hear Crazy Face may have sold the boy. Chen sets out after Weiwei, but a detour through provincial Dangmai holds unexpected significance. Time seems to warp for the medical poet, as he encounters a teenager who seems to be the Weiwei of the future and a hairdresser who is the spitting image of his late wife, Zhang Xi.

Blues is not exactly a plot driven film—and what narrative there is unfolds rather elliptically. However, as a mood piece it is pretty potent stuff. It is also visually quite striking, especially the Rope-like centerpiece sequence, in which the camera follows Chen and Yangyang, the older Weiwei’s sort of girlfriend as they walk throughout nearly every inch of the city and traverse back and forth across the river in a single, unbroken forty minute take. It is a technically accomplished bit of filmmaking, but it really works because Dangmai and the surrounding lush, verdant mountains are so wildly cinematic.

Yes, it looks great, but Chen Yongzhong’s scrupulously restrained performance is surprisingly powerful, in a hushed kind of way. He completely convinces us this is a man with an unresolved past. Though she only appears briefly, Liu Linyan is exquisitely arresting and vulnerable as the woman resembling Zhang Xi. Guo Yue is also terrific as Yangyang, subtly conveying her dissatisfaction and uncertainty for the future.

In most respects, Blues is a decidedly nonpolitical film, but occasional references to the disappearing Miao culture (that of the ethnic minority to which Bi belongs) peek through here and there. This is absolutely not a film for those who hold conventional tastes. Frankly, Bi does not want their patronage, so he is not about to compromise for their sake. The results can be glacial at times, but Wang Tianxing’s cinematography is lovely to look at and there is a real emotional center to it all. Recommended for admirers of slow cinema, Kaili Blues screens Sunday (9/27) and Wednesday (9/30), as part of this year’s VIFF.

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