J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year’s Binge Viewing ’16: Legend of Bruce Lee, Vol. One

There was a time when Ip Man movies were the closest the Bruce Lee family and estate would let filmmakers get to the icon. That is why there was such a bumper crop of films on the grandmaster. Ironically, Master Ip has probably been better served by Wong Kar Wai, Wilson Yip, and Herman Yau than various portrayals treated the Jeet Kune Do popularizer himself. The 50-episode Mainland CCTV series is a case in point. The ratings were sky high, but it takes its sweet time getting to the heart of the story, which will vex fans hoping to binge The Legend of Bruce Lee, Volume One, executive produced by his daughter Shannon Lee, now available on DVD from Well Go USA.

Lee always had good footwork, going back to his days as a teenage cha cha champion. That is where director Li Wen Qi and screenwriters Qian Linsen and Zhang Jianguang pick up the Lee tory, skipping over his childhood star turn in The Kid. That is about all they leave out of this conspicuously padded epic. Most of Vol. One dramatizes Lee’s high school years in Hong Kong and his college days in Seattle, culminating with the establishment of his first Kung Fu school (technically, we don’t quite make it to opening day, but at least we see Lee unpacking the wooden practice dummy).

Back in Hong Kong, Lee was initially bullied by entitled English snob Blair Lewis (played by a surprisingly good Ted Duran), until he learns boxing and trains under Master Ye (a.k.a. Ip Man). After ringing Lewis’s bell to become the school boxing champ, Lee’s former nemesis volunteers to coach the future legend when he squares off against David Koffer, the dreaded Hong Kong prep school boxing champ. This pattern will repeat throughout the series.

When Lee starts believing his own hype, he takes on the protection gang led by Wang Li Chao—pretty successfully all things considered, but his family still finds it prudent to ship him off to Uncle Shao (portrayed with real dignity and pathos by Wang Luoyong, who also appeared in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) in Seattle, where evidently the clothes and cars always looked like the mid-2000s. There he meets his first student, Jesse Glover, wins over former karate master Taky Kimura the hard way, and starts romancing his future wife Linda. We finally start to get someplace when the Karate association recruits master Yamamoto (that would be Mark Dacascos), but episode ten ends before they can properly settle things.

Frankly, the opening credits are a bit of a bait and switch, promising Gary Daniels and Michael [Jai] White, as well as Dacascos, even though they never appear in Vol. 1. Previously, the entire series was cobbled together into a three-hour feature, which sounds like a harsh edit, but seems reasonable after watching the first ten episodes. It is draggy at times (episode eight is especially uneventful), but the biggest problem is the hardcoded English dubbing. Well Go USA usually does a first-rate job with their releases, but this time they do not allow consumers the option of the original Mandarin soundtrack with subtitles. Even the English-speaking characters are overdubbed. As a result, those disembodied voices make everyone sound like they are possessed by demons.

Baby-faced Danny Chan Kwok-kwan really is a dead ringer for Bruce Lee. He has the Kung Fu moves, but he sure seems awkward in romantic scenes. There are some decent martial arts scenes, but both Rob Cohen’s 1992 bio-pic and any and all Ip Man films are vastly superior.

The first ten episodes are entertaining in patches, but they are way more frustrating than they ought to be. Yet, if given an opportunity, we would probably keep going to see how they cover all those classic films, like Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. It is also rather bizarre to hear Lee talking about the “Chinese people” in stilted, Mainland propagandistic terms, when he was about as Hong Kong as you could get, at a time when Hong Kongers were speaking Cantonese and pretending 1999 would never come. Regardless, as fans, we have to hope it builds in later episodes. For now, The Bruce Lee Story, Volume One is quite a mixed bag, now available on DVD, from Well Go USA.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Contenders ’16: Hacksaw Ridge

Cpl. Desmond T. Doss was a lot like Sergeant York, but he held fast to his religious principles. The Army considered him a conscientious objector, even though he voluntarily enlisted. Despite their best efforts to force him out of the service, Doss persevered all the way to Okinawa and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Deservedly tipped for awards consideration, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (trailer here) screened last night as part of MoMA’s annual Contenders series.

Hopefully, this means we can now forgive and forget Gibson’s drunken outburst. The selectivity of the outrage was particularly egregious. After all, Nicki Minaj spent millions to deliberately make a video drenched Nazi-symbolism and got away with a sorry-if-you-were-offended non-apology. Frankly, Gibson is one of a handful of directors who do justice to a film like this. We need them more than we need self-aggrandizing pop ditties.

Regardless, the example a Conscientious Objector winning the Congressional Medal of Honor is one we can all appreciate. Thanks to some boyhood traumas and a father still suffering with PTSD from the first World War, Doss was always a bit socially awkward, but his Seventh Day Adventist faith was very real. He supported the justness of our entry into WWII and duly signed up, but his recruiter clearly misled Doss into believing he could serve as a medic without touching a firearm or training on Saturday (his Sabbath).

Sgt. Howell and Capt. Glover will try to disabuse him of that erroneous notion, but Doss sticks by his guns, so to speak, eventually winning the right to rush into one of the grisliest battles of the Pacific Theater without even a side arm for protection. Yet, his raw courage as a battlefield medic, single-handedly saving seventy-five wounded servicemen (in a manner that is truly better seen than explained), will humble his fiercest critics.

Frankly, Andrew Garfield is embarrassingly miscast in Scorsese’s Silence, but the aw-shucks Doss is squarely in his power zone. To give credit where it is due, Garfield is pretty terrific as the slightly twitchy but deeply devout G.I. Although it is not a super complex role, Teresa Palmer is a humanizing influence on the film as Doss’s understanding fiancée, Dorothy Schutte. Vince Vaughn is nearly unrecognizable unleashing his inner R. Lee Ermey as Sgt. Howell and Sam Worthington is characteristically intense as Capt. Glover. Yet, the most notable supporting player has to be Damien Thomlinson, an Australian veteran of Afghanistan, who lost two legs to an IED, portraying Ralph Morgan, a G.I. enduring a similar experience. Since his dramatic chops are first-rate, many viewers will probably miss the wider significance of his performance, assuming he has the advantage of make-up and prosthetics.

The warfighting scenes in Hacksaw are as intense as anything in Saving Private Ryan, Fury, or any recent WWII film. Yet, the most hair-raising heroism involves the saving rather than taking of lives, which pretty much vindicates Doss, chapter and verse. Still, the first two acts are probably somewhat unfair to the Army. To survive a Hellish battle like Okinawa, the troops need to act as a cohesive unit, which is difficult when resentment and favoritism saps moral. However, Doss really did serve and sacrifice above-and-beyond what he promised (resulting in long-term health issues not covered during the film). He was the real deal, so it is nice to see him finally get wider recognition. Very highly recommended, Hacksaw Ridge should absolutely be in contention, including Gibson for best director. It is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire and screened to a near capacity audience as a selection of MoMA’s Contenders.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Contenders ’16: La La Land

It is easier to be scuffling in New York rather than Los Angeles, because you can do it without a car here. You are also more likely to find talented but gig-challenged jazz musicians in The City. However, Mia Dolan manages to run into Sebastian Wilder more frequently than either would prefer. At least, that is how it starts. Eventually, it evolves into something serious, but these things never last in LA, do they? The attractive couple will have to enjoy the music and the romance while it lasts in Damien Chazelle’s movie musical, La La Land (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s Contenders series, in addition to seven hundred-some theaters nationwide.

Wilder is in a bad place. Recently, he has been torturing himself over the loss of a storied jazz club relaunched as a samba and tapas joint. He is also on the verge of losing his cocktail piano gig. Despite their bad starts, pursuing Dolan gives him some needed focus. Even though she already has a boyfriend, the well-heeled Greg Earnest will be no match for a revival screening of Rebel Without a Cause and a midnight excursion to Griffith Observatory. Wilder will even teach Dolan (and hopefully the rest of the audience) to appreciate jazz. Unfortunately, when Wilder goes on tour with his former smooth jazz nemesis, the time apart will put a strain on their relationship.

You have to give Chazelle credit for what he pulls off with La La Land. While his first crack at the genre, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was a very nice film, La La is the best original movie musical since maybe Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is obviously a touchstone referential film for Chazelle. The film and the music composed by Justin Hurwitz (with lyricists Pasek and Paul) is just that good. Frankly, if “City of Stars” does not win the Oscar for best original song than the Academy must not have any ears whatsoever. “Stars” will be one for the Great American Songbook, but “Another Day of Sun” and “A Lovely Night” are also total winners.

But wait, there’s more—like Mandy Moore’s energetic yet stylishly old school choreography. She cleverly incorporates the traffic-bound cars in the opening flag-waving “Another Day of Sun” (beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren) and stages an awesomely ambitious third act fantasia, somewhat in the tradition of An American in Paris (both the film and the Broadway musical).

Even though he looks ten years older than Emma Stone’s Dolan (at least), Ryan Gosling convincingly broods and self-sabotages like a jazz musician. He also learned a heck of a lot of piano for the film, which is cool. Emma Stone is charming as Dolan, but she also conveys all the desperation and self-doubt plaguing the struggling actress. There is a great deal of chemistry between the two co-leads, as one might hope, since this is their third romantic pairing together.

Even though La La boasts a huge cast, very few of them register besides Stone and Gosling. Of course, there is no missing J.K. Simmons’ arch cameo as the club owner who fires Wilder (sort of a victory lap for his Whiplash Oscar). Likewise, John Legend is reasonably credible as Wilder’s sellout classmate. More importantly, legit jazz musicians Kevin Axt, Wayne Bergeron, Peter Erskine, Dan Higgins, Andy Martin, Bob Sheppard, and Graham Dechter keep the soundtrack real and sounding terrific as the La La Land Jazz Ensemble.

La La Land is as good as you’ve heard—maybe even better. It seems strange Chazelle’s under-seen Park Bench has not been reissued to capitalize, but maybe that will happen if Oscar comes calling. Regardless, it is terrific film that stays true to Chazelle jazz roots and his big screen musical influences. Very highly recommended, La La Land screens next Wednesday (1/4) as part of MoMA’s contenders and is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Holiday Binge Viewing ’16: Hiroshima

If you still think Donald Trump is unlikely presidential stock, you might be right, but at the time Harry S. Truman succeeded FDR, he inspired even less confidence. Most of the country considered him a hack from Boss Pendergast’s machine, because he was. Yet, he stepped up and made difficult decisions at the most crucial juncture of the Twentieth Century. In the tradition of Tora! Tora! Tora!, Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode and Japanese filmmaker Koreyoshi Kurahara follow the War in the Pacific from both sides in the three-hour miniseries Hiroshima (trailer here), which is now available on DVD, from Mill Creek Entertainment.

When Eleanor Roosevelt breaks the bad news to Truman, she is clearly concerned for him—and not without reason. FDR thought so little of his VP he kept him out of all cabinet discussions of the war. One of the things Truman will quickly be brought up to speed on will be the Manhattan Project, which is progressing smoothly, despite the misgivings of scientists like Leo Szilard (played by Saul Rubinek in a showy cameo).

In early 1945, the war had clearly turned in America’s favor and against the Japanese, but it was still bloody as Hell. Unfortunately, the military authorities were firmly in command of the Japanese government and they were hellbent on mounting an all-out to-the-last-man-woman-and-child defense of the homeland rather than surrender. The Atomic Bomb was precisely what Truman needed to prevent such a costly battle.

Frankly, the Japanese scenes helmed by Kurahara (who trained to be a human landmine in expectation of an American landing) are way more damning of Japanese militarism than the American sequences (shot in Canada), which are more concerned with Truman’s awkward elevation. Kurahara and Japanese screenwriter Toshirô Ishidô depict the intransigence of the senior officers in terms that go beyond extremism, approaching the stuff of a death cult. Clearly, they indict the militarists for misunderstanding American resolve and marginalizing the Imperial faction, which supported more proactive peace overtures.

These passages are indeed the most eye-opening, especially including the efforts to recruit Stalin to broker a peace deal, given Japan and the Soviets had their own non-aggression treaty, much like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Like many recent films, such Emperor and The Sun, Hiroshima offers a humanizing (perhaps an ironic choice of words) revisionist portrait of Emperor Hirohito, which seems defensible in light of his cooperation with the American occupation.

While the Japanese half of the mini is a more interesting viewing experience, if you appreciate intrigue and historical irony, the best performance by far comes from Kenneth Welsh, who so embodies Truman it is almost spooky. It is probably his most prestigious role and some of his best work, but he’ll always be Twin Peaks’ Windom Earle to us.

Yet, arguably the historical figure getting the best PR in Hiroshima is Republican Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who convinced Truman to remove the culturally significant ancient capital city of Kyoto from the target list. As it happens, Stimson is played with steely patrician dignity by the late Wesley Addy, who also appeared in Tora. On the Japanese side, Kôji Takahashi (from Masahiro Shinoda’s classic Samurai Spy) brings out the heroic tragedy in hardline Gen. Korechika Anami, up-staging better-known historical figures with his intensity.

Hiroshima is a talky production, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It definitely adheres to a great men theory of history, taking viewers into the rooms-where-it-happened. Refreshingly, it is not preoccupied with American guilt, presenting Hiroshima and Nagasaki as horrible but completely reasonable options, given the circumstances. Spottiswoode and Kurahara dexterously juggle hundreds of characters and both rather cleverly integrate archival newsreel footage with the on-screen drama. It will be too cerebral and accurate for certain kneejerk audiences, but it is definitely worth seeing. Recommended as a thoughtful co-production, Hiroshima is now available on DVD from Mill Creek, just in time for holiday viewing.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Close to the Enemy: A Grand Hotel for Espionage

For many of Britain’s Greatest Generation, it was hard to believe how quickly things changed after the war, like the towering Winston Churchill getting turned out of office. That was obviously a mistake they rectified in 1951. For partially PSTD-rattled Victor Ferguson, making nice with “useful” National Socialist scientists is also a mistake. His older brother, Capt. Callum Ferguson might just agree with him, but his latest and most likely last assignment involves winning over a reluctant German aeronautical engineer. At least he will have agreeable digs for the gig. Ferguson and his charge will be “safely” ensconced within London’s only functioning luxury hotel in Close to the Enemy (trailer here), a seven-part British limited series, which releases today on DVD, from Acorn Media.

Victor Ferguson survived Monte Cassino, but he has been acting erratically and anti-socially ever since his discharge. Capt. Ferguson landed at Normandy. Outwardly, he is cool and confident, but we are given reason to believe his psyche is deeply troubled. Babysitting Dieter Koehler was not his idea, but if he can convince the German to help his new British patrons break the Sound Barrier first, he will be in a highly advantageous position to restart his engineering career. There are also fringe benefits to being stationed in the Connington Hotel. The food is decent and the aspiring actress-working girl staying in the next-door room is certainly friendly. Plus, an expat American jazz diva leads a legit swing band in the basement club, which is of particular interest to a frustrated composer like Ferguson.

Ferguson will steadily gain Koehler’s trust, initially through pleasing his little girl Lotte. Unfortunately, he is frequently called away to tend to brother Victor’s dramas. For reasons we never really understand, Ferguson also commences an affair with his best friend’s rich American fiancée, Rachel Lombard. More interestingly, the Captain develops a highly complicated working relationship with Kathy Griffiths, an investigator in the British war crimes office. Of course, she is trying to prosecute exactly the sort of people who have been stashed away at the Connington. Yes, much to Ferguson’s own surprise, it turns out there is another old National Socialist a rival agency is keeping on ice in the hotel.

Enemy is stuffed with characters and subplots, which espionage genre fans generally appreciate. In this case, it means the lists of what works and what flops are both long and detailed. The basics are pretty strong, starting with the Connington setting. Generally speaking, it is good fun to watch Ferguson skulking around mothballed building. It is sort of like Grand Hotel or Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, but with guns and war criminals. To give credit where it is due, Jim Sturgess, who can be pretty hit-or-miss is really terrific as Capt. Ferguson, nicely handling both his flip façade and slow-burning angst. However, his relationship with Charlotte Riley’s Lombard is never the slightest bit believable, especially when Charity Wakefield seems like so much more fun, as the slightly scandalous Julia.

Regardless, Capt. Ferguson is all business with Griffiths, but their scenes crackle with energy, thanks to the first-rate platonic love-hate chemistry Sturgess and Phoebe Fox share together. Speaking of fun, Angela Bassett is clearly having a blast playing the Billie Holiday-Josephine Baker composite. Then there’s Freddie Highmore as Victor Ferguson—and there’s just so blasted much of him. His petulantly boyish screen presence is so annoying, Martin Scorsese will probably make him the lead of his next six films if DiCaprio suddenly goes through puberty. Whenever Victor lurches onto the scene, everything comes to a screeching halt, even when the crafty old vet Alfred Molina tries to cover for him as Harold Lindsay-Jones, a retired Foreign Office official, who takes an interest in the Brothers Ferguson.

So, both columns of Enemy’s ledger are pretty full. Yet, thanks to Sturgess and the nearly bullet-proof hotel-for-spies premise, it keeps viewers sufficiently intrigued and invested to sit through Victor’s interminable acting up, so they can get back to the good stuff. Recommended for fans of British period spy dramas (despite Victor “Fingernails-on-the-Blackboard” Ferguson), Close to the Enemy is now available on DVD and BluRay, from Acorn Media.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

MICFF ’16: Molly Monster

Which came first, the monster or the egg? That question is a little too deep for a little monster like Molly, but she understands where baby monsters come from. Momma monsters give birth to eggs that poppa monsters then hatch. The hatching takes place on Egg Island, where monster children are not typically allowed. However, Molly is not the sort to be intimidated by tradition in Matthias Bruhn, Michael Ekbladh & Ted Sieger’s Molly Monster (sometimes billed as Ted Sieger’s Molly Monster, trailer here), which screens (in an English dub) during the 2016 Miami International Children’s Film Festival.

Even if you did not grow up with the beloved German cartoon series created by Sieger, it will not take long to get the gist of Molly’s world. She is a sweet kid, who spends most of her agreeable days playing with her best friend Edison, a sentient wind-up rodent toy. However, the little monster on the way threatens to disrupt their equilibrium. Ironically, it is not Molly who is jealous at the prospect of losing the attention of her parents, Popo and Etna. It is Edison who worries Molly will lose interest in him.

Molly was excited to make the journey to Egg Island, so she is crestfallen to learn she will have to stay at home with her goofball Uncles, Alfredo and Santiago. However, when she realizes the baby’s hat has been left behind, she gives her idiot uncles the slip and heads off towards Egg Island, with the reluctant Edison in tow.

Molly Monster the character and the film are both very sweet, but they definitely skew towards younger viewers. Still, there is nothing wrong with a little sweetness in a film like this. It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to assure parents eventually the family gets back together again and everyone learns a few lessons along the way. There is absolutely no subtext for adults to pick up on, but the animation is pleasingly bright and colorful.

Parents can also appreciate the virtues Molly Monster demonstrates: filial love, loyalty, determination, and just enough rebelliousness to be interesting. It is also healthy to introduce kids to animated characters that do not come with their own line of merchandising, at least in this country.

Molly Monster is well-intentioned and nicely executed. It has a lot of merit as a family film, but it will probably not reward animation connoisseurs like GKIDS’s more sophisticated releases. Regardless, it is good to see Molly Monster has more screenings ahead of it, including her Florida premiere today at noon (12/26) and this Thursday morning (12/29), during the Miami International Children’s Film Festival.

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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Submitted by Germany: Toni Erdmann

Germany does not have a terrific reputation for parenting. Seriously, ever seen Haneke’s White Ribbon? Winfried Conradi will not help it much. He is not a bad guy, but he was not a great father. He will try to patch things up with his semi-estranged grown daughter Ines, but it is not clear he has the proper skill set in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Conradi had been content to while away his retirement pranking unsuspecting deliverymen in his “Toni Erdmann” persona. However, the death of his beloved pooch stirred a need for human connection, so he decides to drop in unannounced on Ines in Romania, where she works for an international consulting firm. She is certainly surprised but not exactly thrilled to see him. It is an incredibly awkward visit, but the client perversely enjoys Conradi’s humor, exactly because it is so embarrassing for his daughter.

Just when Ms. Conradi thinks she is finally rid of the old man, he shows up wearing his Toni Erdmann wig and false teeth, claiming to me a consultant and career coach. Since “Erdmann” drops all the right names, Conradi’s expat business friends assume he is legit, despite his obvious eccentricities. Yet, instead of protesting or discouraging him, Conradi rather passive aggressively eggs him on. It gets to the point where the joke takes on a life of its own and it becomes unclear just who the jokester is. However, old man Conradi never loses his knack for embarrassing his daughter.

This film is over two and a half hours long. Yes, that is excessive, but you have to stick with it, because it really comes together in the third act. Ade could have probably tightened up the first hour without much sacrifice, but you can’t say she doesn’t establish the heck out of her characters. That also allows her to really lower the emotional boom down the stretch. In fact, the film crescendos with a boldly extended gag worthy of Blake Edwards at his peak, except Ade executes it with an edge of hostility that makes the film uniquely itself.

Yet, TE will probably be defined (in iconic terms) by the pitchy but defiantly in-your-face karaoke rendition of George Benson’s “The Greatest Love of All” (hip viewers will know Whitney Houston was covering the pop jazz guitarist’s theme song for The Greatest, starring Muhammad Ali as Muhammad Ali) Erdmann cajoles Conradi into performing. It is a perfect choice in the context of the film, due to Conradi’s bitterly ironic spin on Linda Creed’s saccharine lyrics of empowerment.

Ade certainly asks much of Sandra Hüller—and she gives it all. As Ines Conradi, she is stripped naked physically and emotionally. It is a bold, brittle performance that thoroughly shuns the safe harbors of likeability and sentimentality. She also forges some perfectly apt, profoundly dysfunctional chemistry with Peter Simonischek’s Winfried Conradi and/or Toni Erdmann. When his character is in character, it gives us an idea how hideously annoying Robin William’s Patch Adams would be in real life. Yet, we can always tell he is a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown.

It is Hüller and Simonischek who put on the show, but Ingrid Bisu still effectively presents a pointed counterpoint as Anca, the naïve junior co-worker who often bears the brunt of Ines Conradi’s professional frustrations. She definitely rolls it downhill, which Ade clearly presents as a problematic, ultimately self-defeating practice.


In terms of visuals and music (save for Hüller’s big number), Toni Erdmann is an unfussy production. More to the point, Ade really understands the messiness of father-daughter relationships as well as the stateless limbo existence of international consulting work. It pays off at the end, but it still seems like an unlikely Oscar frontrunner, Regardless, the group has spoken and the Academy has listened thus far, including Ade’s film on the 9-title foreign language shortlist. Given its accessibility, Toni Erdmann is recommended for fans of art-house crossover hits, when it opens today in New York, at Film Forum. Merry Christmas.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Silence: Scorsese Finally Adapts Endo

Shūsaku Endō’s classic 1966 novel was generally shaped by his Catholic faith and directly inspired by a visit to the monument for the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki, who became canonized representatives of the hundreds of thousands who fell victim to 17th Century Japanese Christian persecution. In the mid-1500s, there were thought to be upwards of 300,000 Japanese Christian converts, but most were ruthlessly exposed and subsequently forced to apostatize through torture during the early to mid-1600s. The missionary Father Cristóvão Ferreira really was among the Christians who was forced to renounce his faith.  The fragmentary news of Ferreira’s downfall is difficult for his young protégés to accept, so they follow their calling to Japan in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited adaptation of Silence (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Portuguese Jesuits Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe naively assume news of Ferreira’s apostasy must be greatly exaggerated, but when they secretly arrive in Japan, the climate of fear and oppression is beyond their worst expectations. The Christian faith has been forced underground, much like the era of the Roman catacombs. Their guide will be Kichijiro, an apostatized Christian convert, who perhaps still believes. However, his frequent willingness to trample fumi-e, images of Christ and the Virgin expressly fashioned to smoke out secret Christians, makes him decidedly untrustworthy.

Desperate their perilous circumstances, the honesty and purity of the “hidden Christian” Kakure Kirishitan faith touches Rodrigues deeply. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before the priests are captured by the grand inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, who is confident breaking the last Jesuits in Japan will deal a decisive blow to the Kakure Kirishitan remnant. Father Rodrigues is a surprisingly tough nut to crack, even while undergoing an understandable crisis of faith, but Masashige has a nefarious trump card to play: the former Father Ferreira at his beck and call.

Scorsese’s Silence is easily one of the most challenging and uncompromising films about Christian faith produced in the last twenty years. Utterly free of triumphalism, it depicts the hair-raising brutality of martyrdom and forced conversion. Christianity is laid low over and over again, yet there is more concealed in the margins of this story. Much like Endō’s tonally dissimilar post-script, Scorsese’s long denouement holds the key to the entire epic tragedy. If you do not stay with it from start to finish, you will miss the whole point.

Scorsese’s rigorously austere aesthetic perfectly suits this harsh morality play. It is like nature itself serves witness to the atrocities meted out, thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s windswept vistas and co-composers Kathryn & Kim Allen Kluge’s naturally-derived ambient soundscapes.

Although he never really sounds Portuguese per se, Liam Neeson has the appropriately weighty presence for Ferreira. His sad eyes and slumped shoulders say everything he can no longer say. Sadly, Andrew Garfield is terribly miscast as Rodrigues. He just doesn’t seem capable of properly addressing the film’s profound questions. Adam Driver fares somewhat better (and looks more Portuguese) as the comparatively more dogmatic Garrpe. However, the real soul-searing devastation comes from Tetsuo auteur Shinya Tsukamoto’s visceral performance as Mokichi, a believer doomed to Masashige’s martyrdom. If you have anything left after his sacrifice, Nana Komatsu (from Bakuman and World of Kanako) will finish you off with her brief but devastating portrayal of naïve Kakure Kirishitan convert Haru (a.k.a. Monica).

Garfield’s relative weakness is problematic, but it opens the door for Yôsuke Kubozuka, who becomes the film’s de facto [anti-]hero as the morally unclassifiable Kichijiro, easily the film’s most complex character. Yet, nobody better personifies the existential dilemmas faced by Edo-era Christians. Silence is also well stocked with memorable antagonists, like the smoothly sinister interpreter icily portrayed by Tadanobu Asano. However, everyone pales compared to the crafty old Masashige, played with to-the-hilt flamboyance by Issei Ogata that is apparently historically accurate.


Despite its casting issues, Silence is worth the wait, which is frequently not the case with long gestating passion projects. It is a bracing film that offers precious little consolation, but it is a deeply sincere statement of Christian faith. The fact that nobody has re-released Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation represents a bafflingly lost opportunity, but Scorsese’s take will be challenging enough for many fans of his gangsterish films. Highly recommended, warts and all, Silence opens today (12/23) in New York, at the Regal Union Square downtown and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Every Brilliant Thing: Finding Laughter in Depression

Depression is a serious medical condition and potentially a life-threatening illness. At a time when sore-losers throwing temper tantrums claim to be suffering from depression because an election did not turn out as they hoped, playwright Duncan Macmillan and comedian Jonny Donahue remind us what depression really means. Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato document Donahue performing Macmillan’s sort of one-man show during live 2015 performances at the Off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre in Every Brilliant Thing (trailer here), which premieres this coming Monday on HBO.

Playing Macmillan’s narrator rather than exposing the darkest nights of his own soul, Donahue will milk the comedy from ripe topics like the death of a beloved childhood pet, his mother’s initial suicide attempt, and her ultimate suicide ten years later. Obviously, this is tough stuff for a kid to process, but the young protagonist hoped to convince his mother to choose life by amassing a list of brilliant, life-affirming things that were too good to miss out on. Some are kids’ stuff, like “ice cream” and others are clichés, such as “falling in love” and “surprises,” but that does not mean they do not have value, especially in the context of their compilation.

Apparently, the boy’s list was lost on his mother, despite his attempts to push it on her. However, it holds therapeutic value for him as he grapples with the ripple effects of his mother’s acute depression. It even helps him relate to the understanding college girlfriend he would ultimately marry. Unfortunately, Donahue’s stage persona eventually becomes alienated from his now mammoth list, slipping into his own pernicious morass of depression.

Sounds like funny material, right? Yet, somehow it is. Sort of like vintage Gleason, Donahue earns a lot of laughs from reaction shots when he impresses unsuspecting audience members into service, playing his gruff but well-meaning father, the compassionate veterinarian who euthanized his dear Sherlock Bones, and his forgiving [ex-]wife. He also distributes numerous brilliant things throughout the audience, to be recited on cue. Despite all the audience participation, Bailey & Barbato translate the show rather remarkably well to the small screen.

The last thing Macmillan and Donahue ever suggest is that there are any easy answers for families struggling with depression-related issues. Really, the whole point of the show is to emphasize how difficult but not uncommon it is to face such tribulations, especially if they do not seek professional help—without ever coming across like a public service announcement.

In fact, there is an awful lot of wit in EBT, coming from both Macmillan and Donahue. The playwright also has great taste in music, making the narrator’s father a jazz fan, whose LP collection includes Albert Ayler, a tragic case of presumed suicide. He also throws in some knowing bits about the pleasures of record collecting, which gives the narrative even greater resonance.

The running time clocks in just over an hour, but when EBT wraps, we feel like we have lived through the narrator’s stormy life with him. Throughout it all, Donahue commands the stage and our attention. Based on his star turn, you might expect him to become something like the next Mike Birbiglia. Highly recommended for general audiences, Every Brilliant Thing airs on HBO this coming Monday (12/26), very definitely scheduled with the holidays in mind.

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A Monster Calls: Bayona’s Tear-Jerking Genre Fable

You do not have to dig very deep to find Britain’s pagan roots when almost every other pub is called the Green Man. That leafy mythological figure (who also frequently pops up on church cornices) provides a primal connection to nature and the great wheel of life. Who better to teach a distressed thirteen-year-old lessons in life and the acceptance of death than a giant Green Man-like monster? Although the morals of his stories are not readily apparent, the Yew tree creature might just help young Conor O’Malley come to terms with his mother’s mortality in J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls (trailer here), adapted by Patrick Ness from his own young adult novel, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Conor O’Malley is a sensitive but angry kid. His formerly hippyish mother Lizzie is clearly fading, but he keeps doubling-down on false hope. However, the Yew tree monster will force O’Malley to face facts when he rather ominously appears to the young lad. Like a reverse Scheherazade, the Monster will tell O’Malley three cryptic fables over three successive nights, at which point the confused boy must be prepared to tell the monster his “truth”—the secret eating away inside him.

Meanwhile, O’Malley must deal with his materialistic grandmother, the absentee father he yearns to know better, and the school bully, who just won’t give the kid a break. Of course, he searches for interpretations of each tale that suggest reasons for hope, but the Monster offers radically different but perhaps even more pertinent meanings.

If all the elements had not lined up just right, Monster Calls might have been embarrassingly mawkish. However, the film’s striking technical artistry is neatly matched by some fearlessly vulnerable performances. Yet, it is probably Liam Neeson’s pitch-perfect voice for monster, combining his wrathful Taken-style intonations with a gruff sensitivity and that subtle lilt suggesting a deeply rooted connection to the old country that really makes the film. In short, he is the perfect Green Man.

Frankly, Lewis MacDougall’s desperately twee and sad-eyed act as O’Malley will often have viewers pulling their hair out in frustration, but he rises to the occasion during the emotionally raw climax. Felicity Jones really lowers the boom in her Camille-worthy deathbed scene. Sigourney Weaver gives real flesh-and-blood dimension to O’Malley’s reserved but not-as-frosty-as-she-lets-on grandmother, while Toby Kebbell memorably adds to the human messiness as O’Malley’s somewhat self-serving but charming expat father.

Unlike typical genre films that build towards thrills or chills, Bayona’s Monster is single-mindedly concentrated on reducing the audience to a blubbering wreck. However, the early investments in O’Malley’s painful denial and anticipated survivor’s guilt pay massive dividends in the third act. It also looks amazing, displaying the sort of visual craftsmanship we would expect from Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura (who also notably collaborated on The Orphanage). The Monster design, based on Jim Kay’s original illustrations, is archetypally evocative, appearing fearsome or redemptive, depending on the narrative context.

Monster Calls is utterly and defiantly manipulative, but it is hard to resent it, because it is so seamlessly and lovingly realized. Every carefully dotted “I” and crossed “T” ultimately builds towards the bittersweet, body-slamming payoff. Refreshingly free of cynicism, it truly wears its heart on its earnest sleeve. Recommended for fans of movie fables, A Monster Calls opens tomorrow (12/23) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Holiday Gift Guide ’16: Phantasm Ravager

Could this be the end of Don Coscarelli horror/sci-fi franchise? Say it isn’t so. Phans are always down for more, but the death of Angus Scrimm means the iconic Tall Man will no longer menace Mike Pearson. Arguably, Scrimm was the greatest surviving heir to the horror tradition embodied by Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Cushing. He will be missed, but perhaps Kat Lester’s Lady in Lavender can tag in for him. At least Scrimm provides Phans some final creepy moments in David Hartman’s Phantasm: Ravager (trailer here), co-scripted and produced by Coscarelli, which is now available on DVD and BluRay from Well Go USA.

Reggie the ice cream man is having a bad day, but he has not had a lot of good days in the last thirty-seven years. As a close friend of Mike and Jody Pearson, the horny troubadour was pulled into the battle against the Tall Man and his intergalactic hellions years ago. So far, he has survived, but the Pearson Brothers’ status is uncertain.

Reggie is desperately looking for Mike, his one-time ward, but he keeps slipping through time in planes of existence, roughly a la Slaughterhouse-Five. Each version of the world offers its own particular perils, but they all involve the Tall Man. There is the dystopian Terminator-like world and the Potemkin-feeling interludes, in which Reggie is a sanitarium patient diagnosed with early dementia. However, the most Phantasm-like sequences involve Reggie’s attempts to woo a stranded motorist that will eventually be interrupted by the Sentinel Spheres.

Frankly, there is so much jumping around for Ravager, any sense of narrative cohesion goes out the window. Naturally, the ending is also maddeningly indeterminate, so it is highly debatable whether it adds up to anything. On the plus side, there are a lot of cleverly executed Phan favorite call-backs, including a long chase scene featuring the ‘Cuda muscle car and the Spheres. The Sentinel Spheres themselves are badder and bloodier than ever. Scrimm does his thing with relish and the bond shared by Reggie and the Pearsons is as potent as ever. There is even a return trip to Morningside Mausoleum.

In fact, it is those themes of friendship, family, and loyalty that give the Phantasm franchise way more emotional heft than most low budget genre movies. Reggie Bannister (in the role he was born to play, since it was written expressly for him) maintains the energy and attitude Phans expect and Scrimm could still kill small animals with a withering stare. Depending whether you are a glass-half-full-or-empty kind of person, you could either say there is too much crammed into Ravager or just enough. Yet, as always, something about the characters and their travails will stick in your subconscious. Phantasm: Ravager is mostly recommended for Phans, whereas every genre enthusiast should either catch up with or revisit Phantasm: Remastered (seriously, the original essentially has the same plot as A Monster Calls, with Scrimm and Liam Neeson playing the monsters). Both are now available on DVD, BluRay, and digital, from Well Go USA.

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Patriots Day: The Boston Marathon Bombing from All Angles

It is an official state holiday in Massachusetts, Maine, and Wisconsin, commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord (they do not actually celebrate it in Florida, but residents are encouraged to like it on Facebook). By far, the best-known Patriot’s Day event is the Boston Marathon, considered the world’s oldest marathon still held on an annual basis. It still is, even after the storied competition was rocked by tragedy and terror in 2013. The events of the Boston Marathon Bombing unfold from all angles in Peter Berg’s Patriots Day (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Unless viewers really followed the case closely at the time, Berg and co-screenwriters Matt Cook and Jeff Zetumer will greatly expand your perspective on the savage atrocity and the resulting manhunt. One of our primary POV figures will be Sgt. Tommy Saunders, a composite cop working the finish line as punishment for unspecified disciplinary infractions. As first on the scene and a former beat cop for the neighborhood, Saunders assumes a lead role in FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers’ (he’s real) investigation.

Of course, we know radicalized Chechen Islamist brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were responsible and they planned to plant more pressure cooker-style bombs in Times Square. To get there, they carjacked Chinese national Dun “Danny” Meng, whose story will be a major revelation for many.

In addition to the cops and the terrorists, Berg follows several victims from the start of that fateful Patriot’s Day and throughout the aftermath. Somehow, Berg walks a perfectly fine line, depicting the grisly horror of the bombing, in no uncertain terms, without risking charges of exploitation or bloody shirt-waving. Even after watching the film, most of us civilians still will not really know what it is like to respond to this kind of terrorist attack, but this will be plenty close enough. Some real hardliners might object to the film’s depiction of Dzhokhar as a puppet controlled by his Svengali-like older brother, but their Islamist ideology is clearly and consistently portrayed (as is the younger brother’s taste in hardcore porn).

Mark Wahlberg is terrific, in a blue collar, slow-burning kind of way as Saunders. Obviously, he steps into the role of a Boston copper with a lot of credibility, but it is an honest performance that eschews showiness. Kevin Bacon nicely channels his inner Jack Webb as DesLauriers and J.K. Simmons is well-grizzled as Watertown Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese.

On the other side of the law, Alex Wolff is eerily petulant and amoral as the younger Tsarnaev, showing chops we’ve never seen from him before. However, the breakout star of Patriots Day should be Jimmy O. Yang, who sure-footedly covers the full emotional gambit as Meng. Arguably, the most poignant scenes feature the immensely likable Jake Picking and Lana Condor as MIT police officer Sean Collier and a robotics graduate student. However, it must be noted Khandi Alexander comes out of nowhere, delivering one of the greatest cameo performances since Alec Baldwin gave the motivational speech from Hell in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Patriots Day definitely goes for the heartstrings, but it earns it the hard way, carefully establishing dozens of characters and their places in the community. If you don’t feel something at the end of the film, you should probably be on a watch-list. Yet, Berg still stages the shootout scenes with enough gusto to impress action movie fans. Very highly recommended, Patriots Day opens today (12/21) in New York, at the Regal Union Square downtown and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Golden Kingdom: Young Novices Home Alone

Coming is age is hard enough without separatist violence. However, one resourceful young novice Buddhist monk will also experience spiritual discoveries and existential peril in American filmmaker Brian Perkins’ Golden Kingdom (trailer here), a Burmese language narrative, shot on location at a working provincial monastery, which is now available on VOD from Kino Lorber.

Ko Yin Witazara is not the biggest of the four novices, but nobody objects when the abbot puts him “in charge” while he visits the nearest city on business. Initially, the four boys enjoy their freedom from supervision, but they largely keep to the same routine, because what else would they do in a rural monastery? Unfortunately, the good vibes are short lived. Soon they start hearing mortar fire from the hills and more alarming noises from the surrounding brush. Things get desperate when the neighboring farmer stops delivering rice. For the sake of his novice brothers, Witazara will venture out in search of food, encountering insurgents and perhaps the spirits that feed off their violence.

Eventually, Kingdom takes a mystical turn, but Perkins never over-sells the supernatural elements. Frankly, the first act could well appeal to admirers of Into Great Silence. Yet, at its heart, his narrative is always about Witazara assuming responsibility. Shine Htet Zaw is a striking natural, giving one of the deepest, least affected performance you could ever hope to see from a youthful thesp. As Witazara, he carries the film squarely on his shoulders. The young lead also forges some easy camaraderie with Ko Yin Saw Ri, Ko Yin Than Maung, and Ko Yin Maung Sein, who as Ko Yin Wezananda, Ko Yin Thiridena, and Ko Yin Awadadema, respectively, always come across as convincing novices, because they are.

Bella Halben’s arresting cinematography is perfectly suited to the stillness of the monastery and the archetypal magical realism. Both the look and the ambient sounds of nature really transport viewers to Burma (that’s what the Burmese still call it, so that’s good enough for us), not unlike Scorsese’s upcoming Silence. Throughout it all, Shine Htet Zaw emerges as modest but commanding young star. Highly recommended for those who appreciate its coming-of-age and Buddhist themes, Golden Kingdom is now available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

The Autopsy of Jane Doe: Forensics Get Macabre

The tradition of using “John” and “Jane Doe” as anonymous monikers dates back to late Fourteenth Century English estate law. Typically, “Does” are either identified or forgotten, but the one that lands on the slab at the Tilden family-run mortuary and morgue is about to get Medieval on her examiners. The father and son are in for a frightful night when they start incising her body in André Øvredal’s aptly titled The Autopsy of Jane Doe (trailer here)—a Wednesday opener in New York, just in time for Christmas.

Upstairs, a seemingly normal family has fallen victim to an apparent triple homicide. In the basement, an otherwise pristine naked corpse lies half buried, with no obvious cause of death. The sheriff wants answers, so he asks crusty old Tommy Tilden to put a rush on the mysterious woman’s autopsy. To help meet the deadline, his lab technician son Austin will postpone a hot date with his girlfriend Emma.  In retrospect, that will definitely be a mistake.

As the Tildens start cutting into the Jane Doe, their findings only raise more questions. Her wrists and ankles were savagely broken and her organs were singed, but there are no outward signs of trauma. Around the time they start finding foreign objects in the mystery corpse, things start going bump in the night at the Tilden morgue.

Presumably, Autopsy was a simpler, more intimate production shoot than Øvredal’s Troll Hunter and perhaps even his dystopian short film The Tunnel, but it is devilishly clever “chamber” horror film. Just the concept of taking the terror to the morgue (presumably where most horror movie victims wind up) is a subversive twist. It is also rather amusingly ironic (in the right way) to see the original Hannibal Lecter, Brian Cox, playing a perfectly sane coroner. Frankly, the mounting unease of the first half is probably better than the supernatural woo-woo-ing of the concluding balance, but overall, it is a pretty nifty dark-and-stormy-night movie.

Cox might not sound like a Virginia country coroner, but it hardly matters. The sort of piercing intelligence he projects on-screen is more important. He also forges some appealingly comfortable chemistry with Emile Hirsch (as Austin). We immediately pick up on their years of shared family history and the sort of shorthand they developed from years of working together. They also look believable puttering about the autopsy lab. In unconventional support, Olwen Catherine Kelly is chillingly believable as the unblemished Jane Doe, thanks to extensive yoga and meditation training. Maybe she should tackle Beckett’s Not I next.

A lot of nice production design work went into the Tilden Morgue. However, the lighting sometime is too dark to properly show it off (at least via the medium in which we saw it). Regardless, Autopsy is a creepy film, with genuinely memorable, multidimensional co-leads, which is saying something for the genre. Highly recommended for horror fans, The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens Wednesday (12/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Maggie Cheung at Metrograph: 2046

It is the sequel to end all sequels. Frankly, it is hard to imagine they were conceived together, yet Wong Kar-wai reportedly was already planning it while he was filming the masterful In the Mood for Love. They might sound radically different on paper, but the same longing and regret is present throughout Wong’s 2046 (trailer here), which screens as part of the Metrograph’s retrospective series Maggie Cheung: Center Stage.

In one sense, 2046 might seem like a ringer in the Cheung series, because she only appears in brief flashback scenes, but her absence thoroughly dominates the film. Chow Mo-wan has returned from Singapore and Cambodia, picking up his literary and journalistic career as best he can. He never saw Cheung’s Su Li-zhen again, but her memory clearly haunts. In fact, his unresolved feelings make him incapable of maintaining a healthy relationship.

Chow and Su used to meet in room #2046 of his residency hotel, so he requests the same number in Mr. Wang’s seedy, but assignation friendly Oriental Hotel (we are still in the mid-1960s here). However, he will settle for #2047. At first, #2046 is occupied by Lulu, a.k.a. Mimi, a callback from Wong’s Days of Being Wild. When she precipitously moves out (a not-so uncommon practice in Wang’s establishment), Bai Ling moves in. Chow definitely notices her and can often hear her entertaining through the thin walls (and vice versa).

For a while, they carry on an ambiguous something, but he can never give her what she needs. He also assumes the role of a flirtatious Cyrano figure for Wang Jing-wen, the owner’s eldest daughter, who conducts a secret long distance love affair with a Japanese man her father disapproves of, due to national prejudice. Chow cannot even make things work with the second Su Li-zhen, a mysterious professional gambler who saves his skin in Singapore.

Yet, Chow himself duly notes, the women who lose patience and exit his life often turn up in his fiction, particularly his science fiction stories, “2046” and “2047.” In this dystopia universe, 2046 is ambiguously both a time and a place of stasis, reachable by a train staffed with sexually compliant automatons (two of whom look like Wang Jing-wen and Lulu). Heartsick lovers often travel there to revisit past memories, but nobody ever came back, until Tak (a dead ringer for Wang’s Japanese lover) embarks on a return trip.

When seen in close succession, Mood and 2046 pack a mean one-two combination punch. We definitely miss Cheung’s Su, but that is the whole point. We also fall hard for Bai Ling, Wang Jing-wen, and the second Su, yet we understand exactly why Chow is so emotionally hobbled.

Even with his Errol Flynn mustache, “Little” Tony Leung Chiu Wai just radiates broken-hearted weariness. He has panache, but he cuts a rather gloomy, existential figure. However, it is Zhang Ziyi who really gives viewers a kick in the teeth as the radiate but heart-rending Bai Ling. Arguably, Faye Wong covers an even greater spectrum as the more upbeat Wang Jing-wen and the exquisitely tragic gynoid. Carina Lau makes the most of her diva turn as Lulu, but Gong Li is an outright showstopper as the Singapore Su. Nobody else could wring so much intrigue and dark romance out of such limited screen time.

Production on 2046 was inconveniently interrupted by the SARS outbreak, but you would not know it from the finished film. It is seductively sad in a way that flows naturally from Mood, even during its flights of fantastical speculation. Without question, it features some of the best screen thesps of our time, working with one of the most distinctive international auteurs and accomplished cinematographers (Christopher Doyle, with an assist from the skilled Kwan Pung-leung), all of whom are working at the peaks of their creative powers. Very highly recommended, 2046 screens twice today (12/18) at the Metrograph, as part of Maggie Cheung: Center Stage.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Maggie Cheung at Metrograph: In the Mood for Love

Four years after Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Maggie Cheung once again starred as half of a not quite-romantic couple, whose lives would be symbolized by romantic pop music. Unfortunately, Sinatra’s “Change Partners” was not on either Su Li-zhen or Chow Mo-wan’s playlists when they discover their respective spouses have been carrying on a secret affair. As they struggle with this realization, they start to develop feelings for each other. However, everything will conspire against a turnaround-is-fair-play affair, most especially themselves in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (trailer here), one of the first straight-up classics of the 2000s, which screens as part of the Metrograph’s retrospective series Maggie Cheung:Center Stage.

Both Su (or Mrs. Chan, depending on the custom of those addressing her) and Chow move into spare rooms in adjacent flats on the same day. Coincidentally, both have been left by their partners to handle the move on their own. Renting rooms in strangers’ flats might sound grim, but this is 1962 Hong Kong. Real estate is just as scarce as it is now, but there was less wealth to drive development. Nevertheless, many look back on this time with nostalgia, as a uniquely social period in their lives, but for Su and Chow, it will be far more complicated.

Both Su’s husband and Chow’s wife travel abroad, which affords them ready alibis, but also means their exclusive gifts for each other are tell-tale signs. Since both betrayed spouses are intelligent professionals, they pick up on the clues rather quickly, but they are unsure what to do about it. Meeting secretly, they “rehearse” confrontations with their unfaithful partners are try to simulate key moments in the affair, for the sake of their own understanding. They also discover shared interests, including a fondness for wuxia novels. The audience can tell they would be perfect together, but reserved early 1960s HK society would not see it that way.

Wong never directly shows us Mr. Chan or Mrs. Chow, only affording them voiceovers and back-of-the-head shots, like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels and Robin Masters in Magnum P.I. It is a very effective strategy for controlling viewers’ perceptions and emotions, but we can’t help wondering what do these people look like that they could tempt their lovers into cheating on Maggie Cheung and “Little” Tony Leung Chiu Wai? Seriously, together they make one undeniably photogenic couple.

Regardless, Mood is an achingly romantic film, but it has a decidedly dark edge. Su and Chow are the aggrieved parties, but they do not necessarily always act with the best of intentions. They are both inclined to brood, yet we still cannot help wanting to see finally consummate their yearnings.

Wong always makes it clear how the confined spaces and nosy neighbors constantly undermine their forbidden feelings for each other. He regularly frames his co-leads through cramped passage ways and narrow doorways, powerfully evoking a sense of claustrophobia. He also crafts some arresting images in the process. Frankly, Mood is one of a precious few films, whose dazzling auteurist style actually brings us into the hearts and head-spaces of its characters, rather than keeping viewers on the outside looking in.

In terms of chemistry, Cheung and Leung are just stunning together. Reportedly, Mood and Comrades are two of a handful of films that really mean something personal to Cheung, which will make perfect sense to viewers judging from what is on the screen. They both give career-defining performances, but Rebecca Pan humanizes the messy situation even further as Mrs. Suen, Su’s well-intentioned but conservative mahjong-playing land lady.

Thanks to the stylistically dissimilar yet somehow consistently compatible cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bing (not to mention Cheung’s elegant cheongsam wardrobe), Mood always looks absolutely beautiful. The exquisitely sentimental love songs of Zhou Xuan, Nat King Cole, and traditional Cantonese Opera also make it sound wonderfully old-fashioned. It is easily one of the best films of 2000 (with its only real competition coming from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Very highly recommended, In the Mood for Love screens this Sunday (12/18) and Wednesday (12/21) at the Metrograph, as part of Maggie Cheung: Center Stage.

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Friday, December 16, 2016

Kadokawa at Japan Society: W’s Tragedy

As early as the Elizabethan era, the play within the play has been a postmodern device for meta-truth-telling. Such is particularly the case for the ingénue actress toiling in a thankless supporting role in a stage adaptation of the Shizuko Natsuki mystery novel published in America as Murder at Mt. Fuji. The events on-stage add ironic resonance to the backstage intrigue of Shinichirō Sawai’s W’s Tragedy (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society retrospective: Pop! Goes Cinema: Kadokawa Films and 1980s Japan.

“I’ve stabbed Grandpa to death” is the familiar opening line of the many television adaptations of Natsuki’s Daburyū no Higeki. Unfortunately, Shizuka Mita will not be reciting them—at least not yet. She auditioned for the role of apparent murderess Mako Watsuji (the “W” of the tragedy), but the company cast her as the maid, while also assigning her prompter and wardrobe duties. The early out-of-town try-out performances are often demeaning, but her former actor suitor tries to buoy her spirits—even while encouraging her to withdraw from show business.

However, Mita gets the kind of big break that could easily ruin her when Sho Hatori, the production’s grand dame leading lady asks the innocent girl to cover for her. Hatori’s rich married patron dies in the saddle so to speak, so she convinces Mita to dress the body and pretend he had been her caller. The resulting publicity will be a double-edged sword, but Hatori will keep up her end of the bargain, elevating Mita to the prime featured role of Mako.

At first, Sawai keeps the production of W’s Tragedy very much in the background, which must have baffled audiences already familiar with the novel and television adaptation just one year prior to the film’s release (at least four more TV miniseries would follow). In fact, the first act almost has a vibe like Fame, even including an ultra-1980s aerobics sequence.

References to Mita’s supposed plainness are a little baffling, given she is played by former idol and Sailor Suit and Machine Gun star Hiroko Yakushimaru, but she is terrific expressing all the aspiring actress’s insecurities and self-doubt. She is openly vulnerable, yet there is a dark edge to ambitious resolve. Yet, nobody upstages Yoshiko Mita, who commands the screen as Hatori, like Lauren Bacall in her Queen of Broadway days.

By today’s standards, Sawai is quite restrained with the self-referential business, obviously trusting in his mostly original screenplay and first-rate ensemble. W’s Tragedy has an ambiguous vibe that is sometimes reminiscent of Day for Night, which is high praise indeed. As dark as it gets, it is also reassuring that the show still must go on. Very highly recommended, W’s Tragedy screens this Saturday (12/17) at the Japan Society, concluding their edgy yet nostalgic Kadokawa retrospective.

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