J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

In Like Flynn: Before He was Wicked

He was one of the biggest stars of his era, but Hollywood has not been kind with its posthumous depictions of Errol Flynn. Probably the most sympathetic portrayal was Peter O’Toole’s Alan Swann analogue in My Favorite Year. However, Australia has not turned its back on its favorite son. The iconic Robin Hood is once again young, adventurous, and Australian in Russell Mulcahy’s In Like Flynn, based on the actor’s semi-autobiographical novel Beam Ends (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Flynn is not looking for gold in the Raiders of the Lost Ark-evoking prologue, but he learns the hard way a tribe of New Guinea natives is rather determined to protect their ancient store. He made the trek escorting a pair of Hollywood filmmakers hoping to record some authentic footage for their latest picture. That mission is certainly accomplished. Naturally, Flynn impresses, but he will be chasing gold of the mineral variety before seeking the kind offered by Tinseltown.

The naïve Flynn recruits a motley crew for his adventure, starting with Rex, a down-on-his-luck Canadian boxer. The Bertie Wooster-ish “Dook” Adams serves as navigator and salty old “Charlie” will try to keep them all alive. He is the original owner of the Sirocco, the boat Flynn liberates from the Chinese Triad. It is probably a mistake when Adams jettisons a crate of awful tasting “tea” overboard, but what’s done is done.

Technically, Flynn and the lads never make it back to New Guinea, but they find plenty of [mis]adventures in Australia. It was definitely wild country in the early 1930s. Although fans of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft might feel like the film fails to live up to its treasure-hunting promise, the serious third act turn of events should impress everyone else.

In the lead, Thomas Cocquerel cannot buckle swash the way Flynn so effortlessly did, but he is a genial, energetic screen presence. Clive Standen is appealingly grizzled as Charlie, channeling equal parts Robert Shaw in Jaws and Humphrey Bogart in African Queen, as well as any mortal man could. William Moseley’s Dook settles in over time, but Corey Large’s Rex almost never stops bickering and blustering. Even though Achuan, the Triad leader, is a bit of a “Dragon Lady” stereotype, Grace Huang plays her with a refreshingly modern sensibility. David Wenham also effectively plays against type as the cold, clammy corrupt mayor of Townsville.

Mulcahy has mostly been working in TV lately, but it is good to have him back helming features. Between Flynn and the cult-classic Razorback, you could make a case he is the ultimate Australian filmmaker. He again proves he has a knack for whipping up action and mayhem, while working within strict budget constraints. Flynn is no Highlander (still probably his best film), but it is appealingly old fashioned. Recommended for Flynn fans, In Like Flynn opens this Friday (1/25) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Berlin & Beyond (Honolulu) ’19: Godless Youth

Those clean-cut Aryan teens certainly enjoy fresh mountain air and vigorous outdoor sports. Yet, somehow, an elite class’s outdoor-bound style retreat took a sinister turn in Ödön von Horváth’s final anti-totalitarian novel. Nearly a century later, his parable of hyper-competitive sociopathic students looks like an eerily prescient forerunner of the already past-its-prime Hunger Gamey wave of YA dystopian novels. The best and the brightest show their true colors in Alain Gsponer’s contemporary-near-future adaptation of Godless Youth (trailer here), which screens during Berlin & Beyond’s 2019 Honolulu series.

Zach is physically and intellectually at the top of his class. Ordinarily, he would be a major contender during the Rowald University competition, but he is a tad bit distracted by the recent suicide of his father. He also has been developing a social conscious, which will not exactly be an asset for him either. Initially, the ambitious Nadesh is thrilled to be paired up with the big-man-on-campus, but she is frustrated by his apathy. Her attempts to bond through clumsy expressions of sympathy are also counter-productive. The truth is Zach just isn’t interested in her or the program. Instead, he is fascinated by Ewa, a rebellious squatter illegally living in the forest.

Alas, Zach’s tense relationship with Nadesh will take a tragic turn. Their teacher Herr Lehrer is partly to blame. He rather likes Zach, even though the lad’s idealism reminds him of what a pathetic sellout he has become. Unfortunately, his attempts to interfere backfire spectacularly.

So, Godless really is like a German-speaking Hunger Games, but ironically, it has considerably less gladiatorial blood lust. Yet, given Twentieth Century history, the fact that it is a German film adds an element of unsettling discomfort. While Horváth’s source novel gives it a literary pedigree, its aesthetic is really much more YA dystopia (Darkest Minds, Divergent) than Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.

This is definitely a case of good-looking twenty-somethings playing teens acting badly. Yet, Jannis Niewöhner and Alicia von Rittberg deserve credit for developing a convincingly chilly lack of chemistry as Zach and Nadesh. Fahri Yardim also guilt-trips something fierce as Lehrer. Plus, Rainer Bock (who also appeared in White Ribbon) is interesting to look at as the crusty old Trainer.

Despite the Horváth lineage, Godless Youth is highly derivative, but also highly watchable. Somehow, Gsponer and screenwriters Alex Buresch & Mattias Pacht get away with a massively manipulative third act. Oddly enough, the film sort of works, even though it probably arrived several years too late. Recommended for fans of (somewhat classier) YA dystopian fiction, Godless Youth screens tomorrow (1/20) at the Honolulu Museum of Art, as part of this year’s Berlin & Beyond.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

First Look ’19: Turning 18

It is an awkward milestone. Young adults start to take on legal responsibilities at the age of eighteen, but they are still just kids. Usually, the eighteenth birthday is a cause for celebration, but there will be much more frustration than joy in the lives of two Native Taiwanese girls. Ho Chao-ti follows the teenagers as they navigate their late teen years in Turning 18 (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

Chen and Pei are not really close. They just happened to meet during a summer vocational training program, but they both have been dealt a tough hand by life. This is especially true for Chen, who has been sexually abused by her father and other male family members. She struggles to maintain a close relationship with her mother, but the older woman’s alcoholism and health problems make matters difficult.

In contrast, Pei has arguably contributed to her difficult situation by making some questionable decisions, most definitely including shacking up with her deadbeat boyfriend Wei. Of course, there must be reasons she would so passively accept her bad situation, but we do not learn very much about her backstory.

Regardless, viewers will quickly come to ache for poor, struggling Chen. In addition to having the more compelling life-drama, she is also a hugely charismatic figure on-screen. Plus, her narrative arc covers considerably more territory, especially when she comes out of the closet and begins to openly experience romance and heartache.

In many ways, Turning 18 is a perfect example of how documentaries often serve as the snobby cineaste’s version of reality TV. Ho definitely incorporates issues of discrimination against Native Taiwanese, but there are scenes of Chen pining for an unfaithful lover and Pei arguing with Wei that would not be out of place on MTV’s old Real World voyeurism festival.

Regardless, Ho’s commitment is impressive. She clearly earned her subjects trust, even becoming a confident over the years that she filmed Chen and Pei. There are plenty of social issue justifications to be made for the doc, but it still often feels intrusive and even exploitative (for the record, the same is true of Grey Gardens, for the same reasons). Recommended for patrons of up-close-and-personal documentaries, Turning 18 screens this Sunday (1/20), as part of First Look at MoMI.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Close: The Latest Noomi Rapace Netflix Movie of the Week

Which mining company would you expect to act more ethically, the one based in Morocco or the cronied-up firm from Beijing? It should be a no-brainer, but the Paris Hilton-esque heir to the Hassine mining empire is not helping much. Generally speaking, it is bad for the corporate image when the principal shareholder is accused of killing a cop. Rather awkwardly, it happens to be true in the case of Zoe Tanner. Granted, she was acting in self-defense, but she might not live long enough to tell her side of the story. Fortunately, she has a pesky bodyguard in Vicky Jewson’s Netflix original movie, Close (trailer here), which starts streaming this Friday.

Sam Carlson never loses a client, even when they are obnoxious brats like Tanner. She just inherited a controlling interest in the Hassine company, much to her step-mother’s shock. It is particularly galling for Rima Hassine, because her family built up the mining concern in the first place. She just might have to do something about that.

For Carlson, it is supposed to be an uneventful one-week temp gig, but she suddenly must foil a kidnapping attempt during her final night at the Hassine Casbah. Alas, they fall out of the frying pan and into the fire when a group of corrupt cops tries to finish the job. Tanner really makes a mess of things when she kills one of them, thereby making her a fugitive from justice and a major PR problem for the Hassine company, right at a time when it is competing with a Chinese firm for a major deal in Zambia. Spurned by her stepmother, the heiress can only trust Carlson, who continues her protection duties, out of professional pride and her own maternal guilt.

Somehow, Noomi Rapace has become the queen of mediocre Netflix original films, following up the mildly entertaining Bright and the ho-hum What Happened to Monday? with the competent but unremarkable Close. At least, she shows some of the grit and action chops that brought her international stardom in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but most of the time, she looks like she is on auto-pilot (and why shouldn’t she be?).

Easily the most interesting elements of Close are the character of Rima Hassine and Indira Varma performance as the aforementioned. Both are more complex than the Cinderella Stepmother viewers are initially set-up to expect. On the other hand, the entitled Zoe Tanner and Sophie Nélisse portrayal of said are like fingernails on a blackboard. Rather problematically, very little effort is made to distinguish the various thugs, assassins, and crooked coppers who densely populate the film.

Reportedly, Close was based on the experiences of real-life bodyguard Jacquie Davis, but we can only hope she is not as humorless and downbeat as Carlson. Presumably, the title is a reference to keeping close to the client, or maybe the old “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” saying. The Moroccan locations are quite cinematic, but it is more likely to become background television than a film anyone will be compelled to give their rapt attention. Regardless, Close starts streaming this Friday (1/18) on Netflix and nobody should feel any urgency over that fact.

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Who Will Write Our History?

It was history, scholarship, and paperwork at its most heroic and subversive. Under the leadership of Emanuel Ringelblum the Oyneg Shabbos circle of academics and journalists documented life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto, collecting eye-witness accounts and ephemerals that the National Socialists most definitely did not want preserved. The efforts of Ringelblum and his colleagues are documented and partially dramatized in Roberta Grossman’s Who Will Write Our History? (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the Quad.

Most of the film is told through the words of the Oyneg Shabbos group (so-called because they often met on Sundays), particularly Rachel Auerbach, one of the few survivors. In large measure, the film also draws from visuals preserved within their hidden archives. In doing so, Grossman breaks from and explicitly criticizes previous docs that have relied on the propaganda images produced by the National Socialists themselves, such as the film Warsaw Ghetto, examined in-depth during Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished. In fact, the two documentaries would pair up provocatively.

Of course, there are also talking heads, including Samuel Kassow, whose eponymous book served as a road map for Grossman’s film. Much like Grossman’s Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, WWWOH also incorporates dramatic re-enactments. These live-action interludes work well enough, because they recreate moment of high danger and intrigue, but they lack a central figure who is comparably compelling as the tragically young and idealistic Senesh.

WWWOH has been positioned as a documentary on Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabbos, but it really uses them as a mirror to reflect the Warsaw Ghetto. Patrons who want the nuts and bolts on how the archive was assembled would probably be better directed towards Kassow’s book. Nevertheless, Grossman’s film will undoubtedly be eye-opening for many viewers, but there could be expectations issues for those better versed on the Warsaw Uprising and Holocaust history in general. It is not as richly entertaining as the Above and Beyond, Grossman’s rip-roaring chronicle of the creation of the Israeli Air Force, but WWWOH clearly has a different reason for being.

You can be sure WWWOH is a well-intentioned, worthy film. The Hon. Ronald Lauder, former Ambassador to Austria and current president of the World Jewish Congress would not be on-board as an executive producer if that was not the case. Recommended for general audiences, Who Will Write Our History? opens tomorrow (1/18) in New York, at the Quad.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Retro: Silent Rage

It is Walker, Texas Ranger and Deputy Flounder versus the Wolverine from Hell. Chuck Norris, the man who never loses a fight takes on a killer who can never die and the results are pure 1980s—early ‘80s, in fact. Fittingly, Michael Miller’s Silent Rage (trailer here) releases today as one of Mill Creek Entertainment’s new retro-VHS-packaged BluRay releases.

Twitchy John Kirby just killed the other residents of his halfway house, so it is probably safe to assume the medical experiment using him as a guinea pig was a total failure. Sheriff Dan Stevens is pretty sure his deputies mowed him down with a sufficient hail of bullets, but his doctors discover he still has some life left in him. Dr. Tom Halman is the responsible one, so he wants to pull the plug, but Dr. Phillip Spires is determined to keep pumping him full of lightning, like Colin Clive in the original Frankenstein movies. Unfortunately, it works only too well, stimulating superhuman powers of healing and regeneration.

As it turns out, Stevens’ ex is Halman’s sister Alison, who cannot help falling for the Sheriff’s cocky charm when they run into each other in the hospital. Stevens will be busy rousting bikers, putting the moves on Ms. Halman, and mentoring his schlubby Deputy Charlie, while Kirby runs amok in the hospital.

Okay, there is no point in denying the first act is awkward and surprisingly pokey. Still, Rage is just a cornucopia of weird connections and trivial claims to fame. First and foremost, Norris credits/blames this film for his reluctance to do love scenes in his future films. His uncomfortable looking love interest is played by Toni Kalem, the future Mrs. “Big P” in The Sopranos, who succumbs to his muskiness while the turntable plays a cheesy pop ballad sung by Katey Sagal, the future Peg Bundy.

Believe it or not, Norris has some decent buddy chemistry with Stephen Furst, who everyone knows best as Kent “Flounder” Dorfman in Animal House. The late, great Ron Silver is about as charismatic as anyone possible could be as the too-ethical-to-live-long Halman. As an added bonus, William Finley (cult-famous for his appearances in the films of Brian De Palma and Tobe Hooper) adds some weirdness as Dr. Paul Vaughn, the scaredy-cat third scientist poking and probing Kirby.

There are a couple of entertaining fight scenes in Rage, but it just isn’t at the level of his other pre-Cannon, post-Golden Harvest action classics. Still, it is a total cinematic time capsule, especially with Mill Creek’s old school packaging. Plus, it is always great fun to watch a young Chuck Norris throw-down. Honestly, he looks very much like he did when he went toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee in the Roman Colosseum during the climax of Way of the Dragon. You just can’t beat this kind of nostalgia. Recommended for fans of early 1980s genre films, the special BluRay edition of Silent Rage is now on-sale, from Mill Creek Entertainment.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches

All registered users of Oxford’s Bodleian Library must take an oath promising they will never remove any volumes (or set any fires therein). Nothing in the collection should ever be lost, but an extraordinarily rare alchemical manuscript has been mysteriously missing for centuries, Yet, somehow, a visiting American scholar is able to call it up from the stacks one fine day. She happens to be a witch, but she is not adept at wielding her powers. The uncanny appearance attracts the attention of some very dangerous witches and vampires in the first season of A Discovery of Witches (trailer here), which premieres this Thursday on Sundance Now and Shudder.

Diana Bishop never thought she had much power—and what she had she struggled to contain. Nevertheless, she casually summons thee infamous “Ashmole 782” via a regular materials request. However, when she opens it, all the creatures in the vicinity of Oxford experience a major disturbance in The Force. Rather hastily, she sends it back where it came from, but it is too late. She is now on the radar of some very powerful creatures, who have been engaged in a long-running power struggle.

The two most formidable players are Matthew [de] Clairmont, an Oxford geneticist and 500-year-old vampire, and Peter Knox a sinister witch clan leader, who we quickly learn was most likely responsible for the death of Bishop’s parents. Despite Clairmont’s brooding arrogance and their “cross-species” status, romantic attraction quickly percolates between the witch and the vampire. Clairmont shifts his interest from the manuscript to protecting Bishop, but their taboo relationship raises the consternation of “The Congregation,” the shadowy group regulating the hidden world of vampires and witches (as well as the second-class demons).

Adapted from Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy, Discovery is like the Underworld franchise reconceived for fans of Inspector Lewis and Inspector Morse. The first season fully exploits the Oxford locales, definitely including the cinematic Bodleian, notwithstanding its side trips to France and upstate New York. There is plenty of magic (rendered quite nicely in some quality visual effects), but the narrative is driven by ancient secrets and nefarious intrigues.

Matthew Goode is terrific as Clairmont, fluidly segueing between the aristocratic and animalistic sides of the vampire’s persona. It is some of the busy thesp’s best work since Stoker and Dancing on the Edge. Teresa Palmer develops some potent chemistry with Goode, but the passive nature of Bishop (at least at this stage in the series) might frustrate some viewers. However, there is nothing passive about the great Lindsay Duncan, upstaging everyone as the regal Yasbeau de Clermont, Clairmont’s vampire mother. Unfortunately, the villains are a bit of a mixed bag. Game of Thrones’ Owen Teale probably fares the best as the scheming Knox, but Trevor Eve (who portrayed Jonathan Harker in the Frank Langella Dracula) never looks comfortable as the ruthless vampire clan leader, Gerbert d’Aurillac.

Miami-born Juan Carlos Medina shows he has quite affinity for British supernatural-related material, following up the criminally under-rated Limehouse Golem by helming the pilot and sophomore episodes of Discovery. Veteran genre television directors Alice Troughton and Sarah Walker maintain a consistent vibe of mystery and forbidden romance. The biggest frustration is the ending, which does not feel like a logical breaking point.

Regardless, Discovery is an addictive, binge-friendly series that does not even feel like a guilty pleasure, thanks to the classy sheen (that Oxford tweed makes anything respectable). Great fun for fans of the fantastical (even if they are not familiar with Harkness’s source novels), A Discovery of Witches starts streaming this Thursday (1/17) on both Shudder and Sundance Now.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

First Look ’19: Carwash

Imagine O. Henry as realized by Éric Rohmer. Wilfrid, a small-time carwash chain owner, is being held captive by Thomas and Francis, two even smaller-time criminals—and he is basically okay with it. After all, there is no need to get worked up when you are enjoying a leisurely summer in Claude Schmitz’s Carwash (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

It really is all about chump change. To repay a debt to their boss, the two lowlife crooks agree to abduct Wilfrid, forcing him to give up the coins generated by his carwashes everyday (12 Euros for a standard cleaning). Much to their relief, the minor carwash mogul is quite cooperative and civilized. In fact, he rather seems to enjoy the company. Soon, a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome sets in. The two bumbling thugs start drinking and singing late into the night with the ostensive captive. They even invite their girlfriends to enjoy a country getaway.

The Rohmer vibe in Carwash is so prominent, it must be deliberate. There is a similar, low-fi look, sparingly punctuated by a soundtrack of occasional snippets of classical and cheesy pop music. It is heavy on dialogue and light on dramatic plot points, but Carwash agreeably evokes the heat and smells of summer in the countryside.

The largely unknown cast playing their namesakes all blend in with Schmitz’s ultra-natural aesthetic. They definitely seem to be the awkward, grungy characters they play. Francis Soetens is roguishly charming, in a Belgian, mullet-sporting kind of way, as the older captor. Thomas Depas is reserved and schlubbily sad as his younger, comparatively more rational accomplice. Yet, Wilfrid Ameuille overshadows everyone as the sly, deceptively silly carwash owner.

This is a talky film that clocks in just a whisker under an hour, but sometimes you find yourself in the mood for something modest and pleasant. It is also very French. If you like Rohmer, you will flip for Carwash. Recommended for Francophiles in the mood for a quick, low-stress viewing experience, Carwash screens this coming Saturday (1/19) as part of First Look at MoMI.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

First Look ’19: Turtle Rock

There are ten families with four surnames who have lived for generations in this tiny mountainous village. None of them talk very much—probably because they are out of practice. It is a hard life, but native-born filmmaker Xiao Xiao cannot help feel nostalgic for it when he documents the daily toils of his grandmother and their fellow villagers in Turtle Rock (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

Turtle Rock village was named for a distinctly shaped rock formation. It is indeed picturesque, at least for outsiders. Villagers still work the land as best they can, but they are experiencing diminishing returns. Granted, this is the last site readers should go to for geologic analysis, but it looks pretty obvious Turtle Rock has some severe soil erosion problems.

Yet, despite the scarred landscape and hardscrabble homes, Turtle Rock is absolutely arresting in visual terms. Xiao Xiao (serving as his own cinematographer, editor, and sound guy) frames some stunning images, in stark black-and-white. The way he marries them with the natural, ambient sounds truly makes Turtle Rock an immersive film. He really puts you there in that distant corner of Hunan.

However, there is not a lot of drama going on in this documentary, just a lot of work and chores (quite a bit of which seems to involve pipes). Frankly, Xiao Xiao and “co-director”-producer Lin Lin will likely challenge many viewers’ conception of cinema. Just one look will make you respect his work, but it can be tiring. At one point, Xiao Xiao follows a villager silently trudging up a hill carrying a heavy bag of rice on his shoulders. It is an image that perfectly represents Turtle Rock’s subject matter and viewing experience.

Clearly, Turtle Rock is exactly the sort of village that has been overlooked by the Party and the PRC government, but the film itself almost entirely avoids addressing politics. Yet, there is one telling moment when villagers notice a broadside posted by the district Party enforcer, denouncing 16 unfortunates from neighboring villages, who had been “discredited.” Going to the trouble of shaming them in Turtle Rock seems like serious overkill.

Xiao Xiao’s talent is conspicuously evident, but if he maintains the strict aesthetic approach of Turtle Rock, he will remain a filmmaker for festival audiences. Watching his film is the closest thing to most of us will ever get to visiting Turtle Rock, even if the village continues to persist in its current state, suspended outside of time. Recommended for patrons of tactile, observational documentaries, Turtle Rock screens tomorrow (1/13), as part of First Look at MoMI.

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Friday, January 11, 2019

First Look ’19: Rojo

Generally speaking, it was prudent to be polite to people connected to the establishment during the mid-1970s in Argentina. Alas, the man who causes a scene with Claudio, a well-respected provincial lawyer is not prone to prudence or politeness. His boorish behavior precipitates a crisis that haunts the counselor during the months to come in Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

Everything goes to heck during the first act, but first comes the prologue, wherein a seemingly respectable suburban house is stripped of its furnishings by the seemingly respectable neighbors. This house will also have a call-back later in the film. For now, Claudio is patiently waiting for his compulsively late wife at his table in a crowded restaurant. An angry, slightly-hippyish outsider quite begrudges him his table and the privilege it implies, as he makes clear in no uncertain terms. Claudio will relinquish the table but he gives the stranger such a brutal dressing down for his lack of good breeding and adequate socialization, the aggrieved younger man will come looking for Claudio after dinner.

One unlikely thing leads to another and before you know it, Claudio is taking the man on a late-night drive deep into the desert, where he will be permanently deposited for sake-keeping. Claudio’s life proceeds uneventfully (just the way he likes it) for a few months and then it suddenly gets complicated. First, a social acquaintance recruits him for a scheme to profitably acquire the abandoned house from the prologue. Next, Sinclair, a celebrity detective from Chile arrives to investigate the disappearance of the man from the first act. Tangentially, they are both connected. Thematically, they are also symptomatic of the pre-coup moral malaise.

Rojo is considered Naishat’s most accessible film to date, but there are still moments when the dramatic awkwardness borders on the outright surreal (like there’s a touch of Yorgos Lanthimos in there, but nothing close to the full Lobster). Nevertheless, he incorporates some legit thriller elements, while executing the political morality play with a surprisingly light touch. This is definitely an off-center film that is often disconcerting, but it is also highly watchable.

Dario Grandinetti shows impressive range as Claudio, from the grand moralizer who obliterates the angry man’s self-image to the craven weasel dissembling and prevaricating under Sinclair’s questioning. Diego Cremonesi is bitterness personified as the angry mystery man, while Alfredo Castro gleefully chews the scenery as Sinclair, like an infernal cross between Det. Columbo and Inspector Javert.

Naishat definitely captures the dingy tackiness of the 1970s as well as the overheated tenor of the times. It is an odd film, but Naishat lands his punches and brings it all together down the stretch. In many ways, it is considerably more effective than the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes. Highly recommended for moderately adventurous viewers, Rojo screens this Sunday (1/13), as part of First Look at MoMI.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

First Look ’19: The Pluto Moment

It is even harder to be an independent filmmaker in China than it is here. Fortunately, Wang Zhun is all about doing things the hard way. He will lead a scouting trip into the Sichuan mountains in search of an authentic performance of a traditional mourning song before his producer can arrange adequate financing. He hasn’t even finished the script, for that matter. Nevertheless, he might just find something to stimulate his creative process, even if he was not looking for it in Zhang Ming’s The Pluto Moment, which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

Wang is famous enough to be married to superstar Gao Li, but not commercial enough for her management to encourage her appearance in his upcoming film. Yet, she is still willing, if he would just finish the script. For inspiration (or procrastination), Wang and his producer Ding Hongmin head off to provincial Sichuan, hoping to record The Tale of Darkness, an epic oral poem that somehow was converted into a funeral dirge. Ding is also hoping to land a sponsorship from one of the county governments through the back-scratching of their fixer, Luo, a modestly corrupt local official. Alas, both song and funding prove elusive.

They have no money and no script, but they still have crew problems when the assistant director Du Chun goes AWOL. Ding immediately suspects Wang has engaged in a smarmy behavior with her. Although there is something between them, it is more complicated and ambiguous than the producer (and everyone else) assumes. Eventually, the skeleton crew decides to follow Luo’s vague leads for legit Tale of Darkness performances at even more remote villages. At this point, Wang’s troubled film becomes the no-budget equivalent of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Gilliam’s Man of La Mancha.

In the third act, Pluto takes a sharp turn and a dramatic shift in perspective that you just have to go with, because it really makes the film different and sad and special. Zeng Meihuizi (a.k.a. Chloe Maayan) is remarkably sensitive and sensual as Chun Tai, the widowed innkeeper who hosts Wang Zhun. Wang Xuebing does some of his best work to date as the lost (literally and figuratively) director. It hardly seems like much of an armchair psychiatrist’s stretch to speculate how his own career scandal gave him greater affinity for the professionally marginalized Wang Zhun.

It is a strong ensemble all the way around. Liu Dan is so acerbic and jaundiced as Ding the producer, you have to be charmed by her. Likewise, Yi Ping portrays all of Luo’s pettiness and pomposity in a very human way, without resorting to shtick or bombast. Only Yi Daqian looks like he is reaching as Bai Jinbo, the young actor forced to serve as the production gofer.

Cinematographer Li Jinyang makes the Sichuan mountainside look mysterious and even mystical. Frankly, this is one of the few films that would probably continue to yield more through repeat viewings over time. It is one of the best films about the filmmaking process since Day for Night, which is high praise indeed. Very enthusiastically recommended, The Pluto Moment screens this Sunday (1/13), as part of First Look at MoMI.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2019

IrFFNY ’19: I Want to Dance

If you dance through the streets of New York, like you are in a vintage MGM musical, you will get a lot of quizzical looks, but people will also appreciate your eccentricity. Not so in Tehran, where the authorities are distinctly unamused by eccentricity and hardliners still maintain a hostile stance towards music in general. However, Bahram Farzaneh has the mother of all earworms stuck in his head and he can share it with others in Bahman Farmanara’s I Want to Dance (trailer here), which screens during the 1st Iranian Film Festival New York.

After a minor accident, Farzaneh can suddenly hear an infectious Persian dance song in his head. It is so vivid, it is like he is picking up a radio signal. The widowed writer with decades-long writer’s block is not concerned by this turn of events. He just wants to dance. If people lean in close enough, they can hear it too.

Suddenly, the morose Farzaneh has a spring in his step. In the past, he might have been alarmed by the unnamed woman—of questionable repute—who runs a rather casual extortion con on him, but the rejuvenated Farzaneh converts her into an unlikely platonic friend. He even agrees to write her story, even though he has no idea what it is, but the creative license he takes is inspiring—and liberating.

There is more whimsy in Dance than you usually find in Persian cinema, but there is still a serious undertone of elegiac sadness. Due to the occasional flashforward, we understand things maybe do not work for Farzaneh as we might hope, but that old cat still takes those lemons and makes lemonade.

Maybe we are making an allegorical reach (if so, why stop now?), but to an outsider, it looks like there are parallels to be drawn between Farzaneh’s big dancing in the street musical number and the Green Revolution protests. One minute everyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing a moment of glorious camaraderie and the next minute, it is like it never happened. Yet, Farzaneh still has the song in his heart.

Nevertheless, the really bittersweet stuff involves Farzaneh’s undefinable relationship with the woman. Reza Kianian and Mahnaz Afshar develop some wonderfully ambiguous, sly bantering chemistry together. Omid Sohrabi’s wistful screenplay avoids most of the standard issue clichés, like “Madame,” Farzaneh’s torch-carrying neighbor lady, who chooses to befriend the mystery lady and get in on their game rather than resenting her as a rival.

I Want to Dance is either considerably sadder or quirkier than this review makes it sound. Somehow, Farmanara balances the vibe on a knife’s edge, vacillating between the two moods. As an added bonus, the big centerpiece musical number is a real showstopper. Frankly, the film addresses all kinds of hot button issues, most notably including police conduct, gender inequalities, and mental health treatment, but it never feels political. Highly recommended, I Want to Dance screens this Saturday (1/12), as part of the 1st IrFFNY, at the IFC Center.

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First Look ’19: The Trial

It was like the Court TV and legal reality shows of the 1930s, but none of it was true. The Moscow Show Trials were a propaganda spectacle that had nothing to do with justice (or truth). Prolific documentarian Sergei Loznitsa whittles eleven days of archival footage recordings of the so-called “Industrial Party Trial” down to a one hundred twenty-some minute found footage documentary in The Trial (trailer here), which screens during this year’s First Look at MoMI.

In late 1930, a group of engineers and economists dubbed “The Wreckers” were put on trial for economic sabotage, scapegoating them for the Soviet Union’s dismal economic performance. Aside from the names and employment history of the accused, not one single truthful word was uttered during the proceeding. It was all a fabrication—every word and every syllable. Yet, the accused duly confessed to the charges leveled against them. Some had surely been worked over by the OGPU (an earlier forerunner of the KGB), whereas others perhaps confessed due to psychological pressure and a perverse sense of loyalty, like Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

Even though The Trial only presents events that were deliberately staged for public consumption, it vividly illustrates how the Soviet legal system was designed to crush the spirit of the accused. Frankly, we would have confessed to anything to stop the constant, soul-deadening repetition of charges against the alleged “Industrial Party” members. Yet, that is definitely part of the “Big Lie” strategy employed by the Soviets. It is also rather disconcerting to the pre-approved spontaneous demonstrations against the accused playing out on the streets outside

Rather ominously, The Trial is only too relevant in the modern day and age. Although the Russian Neo-Soviet regime has conducted secret trials of abducted Ukrainian nationals, like filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, the outcome is just as rigged as Moscow Show Trials. It was not pretty, yet in some cases, the ultimate fate of several “Industrial Party Members” remains unknown.

The Trial can be difficult to watch, for both aesthetic and humanistic reasons. However, Loznitsa’s meticulous craftsmanship is quite impressive. Viewers who fight their way through to the finish will glean a deeper understanding the machinery and propaganda of oppressive regimes. Obviously, The Trial is an acutely timely film, in a depressing second-verse-same-as-the-first kind of way, but it is also fascinating to see the images of the early Soviet era echo and reverberate over time. Recommended for hardy, free-thinking cineastes, The Trial screens this Saturday (1/12), as part of First Look at MoMI.

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IrFFNY ’19: Sly

No country has a monopoly on buffoonish presidents, but probably none was scarier than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fortunately, his over-the-top saber-rattling rhetoric, mangled syntax, and constant accusations of nepotism finally turned even his hardline Islamist extremist patrons against him. Yet, he still has a name and a following, so this no-holds-barred satire is undeniably quite a bold work of cinema. Qodrat Samadi follows a very different career trajectory, but Iranian viewers will immediately recognize his physical and ideological resemblance to Ahmadinejad in Kamal Tabrizi’s Sly (trailer here), which screens during the 1st Iranian Film Festival New York.

Samadi is convinced he is destined to save Iran from infidels and Western agents, but the hardline political parties never accept him as a candidate, because of his clownish demeanor and excessive (even by their standards) intolerance. Nevertheless, a small group of hardcore rabble rousers remains loyal to him. Then one fateful day, Samadi and his band of thugs break up a state sanctioned rock concert by yelling out bomb warnings from the stage. To his utter shock, an actual bomb explodes shortly after Samadi scares everyone out of the theater. Suddenly, the hapless reformist party sees him as a hero figure, whom they recruit to be their standard-bearer in the upcoming election.

Of course, Samadi is an awkward fit for his new party, but he gets some timely coaching from a progressive journalist he rather fancies. In fact, the brash firebrand has a strange habit of speaking out more forcefully than his timid patrons. Unfortunately, just when he is poised to take off in the polls, his past comes back to haunt him.

Even though Ahmadinejad’s old allies have reportedly cut him loose, it is still pretty stunning to see such brazen political ridicule coming out of Iran. We will get a chance to see it, which is very cool, but it remains to be seen whether it will be allowed to screen within Iran. It would not be surprising if the powers-that-be deem it generally bad for business, but hope springs eternal, does it not?

Regardless, Hamed Behdad completely embraces Samadi’s absurdism, playing him like Ahmadinejad, by way of Chauncey Gardiner from Being There. He is sort of like Redford in The Candidate, but he is asking “what do I do now?” right from the start. Ironically, you could argue this is the best press Ahmadinejad has had in years, but he probably does not see it that way.

Even though the journalist is a somewhat underwritten part, Vishka Asayesh has a Persian Katharine Hepburn thing going on that plays well on-screen. It is still hard to understand why she doesn’t push Samadi under a bus. On the other hand, director-thesp Mani Haghighi is quite droll as hypocritical newspaper editor out to sabotage Samadi’s campaign (again).

It is darned impressive Tabrizi finished Sly and has taken it to international festivals. Iran’s Islamist power brokers may have severed ties with Ahmadinejad, but they are not inclined to appreciate this kind of impish mockery of an authority figure. Of course, we’re all in favor of it. Recommended for its subversive wit and general boldness, Sly screens this Saturday (1/12), as part of the 1st IrFFNY, at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

First Look ’19: Donbass

Many of the so-called separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk region are really Russian military out of uniform. What are the implications for Russian-speakers who chose to support this illegal military operation? Nothing short of the death of civil society and the beginning of their own oppression. That is the inescapable takeaway that comes through loud and clear in Belorussian-born, formerly Russian-based Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (trailer here), Ukraine’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens as the opening night film of this year’s First Look at MoMI.

Disinformation (the term “fake news” makes it sound trivial) is a major theme running through Donbass. As the film opens, a group of extras are in makeup, awaiting their closeups in a bogus Russian news report about a phony “fascist” bus bombing (torched by the Russian propagandists themselves). It is crude, yet somewhat effective.

Thus, begins a rondo-style film, in which members of the would-be Russian breakaway puppet-state confront their new masters. We see paramilitaries menace the German journalist their commanders are trying to favorably impress. One of the new political wheeler-dealers tries to make a show for the staff and media of a stockpile of supplies supposedly confiscated from the former hospital director, but nobody is buying it (least of all him).

In one of the film’s most potent and stinging sequences, a Russian-inclined small business owner learns what happens when he tries to assert his rights and claim the van appropriated by the separatist paramilitaries. Viewers familiar with Loznitsa’s work will see shades of My Joy in a narrative arc that out as a satire of bureaucracy, but quickly evolves into a blend of Kafkaesque and Orwellian horror. Perhaps the most damning but least overtly political segment chronicles the rowdy marriage ceremony of two ghoulish crude supporters of the new Russian-backed regime. Here we see shades of the grotesque absurdity he previously unleashed in A Gentle Creature.

Yet, frame-for-frame and second-for-second, easily the most horrifying segment dramatizes the public pillorying of a Ukrainian self-defense force volunteer captured by the Russian-controlled separatist gangs. The brutal beatings and humiliations meted down on him are a sickening spectacle, which his tormentors gleefully record on their smart phones. It is a staggering sequence of cinema, anchored by the silent dignity of Valery Antoniuk’s performance as the tortured prisoner.

Yet, the kicker is the wrap-around conclusion that returns to the actors appearing in the propaganda reports. What happens to them makes it bitingly clear those collaborating with the Russians are only sowing the seeds of their own misery. It is a brilliant, bracing finish.

In some ways, Donbass is stylistically akin to Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, but it comes from the other side of the political spectrum and it has much more to say. Granted, the relay-rondo structure inevitably produces a bit of unevenness, but it is frequently razor-sharp, forceful as heck, and relentlessly honest. This is a major cinematic statement from one of the most important filmmakers working today. Very highly recommended, Donbass screens this Friday (1/11) at MoMI, launching First Look 2019.

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IrFFNY ’19: Pig

They say when you are on the outs in Hollywood, you can’t even get arrested in the company town. The outlook is even worse for blacklisted Iranian director Hasan Kasmai. He can’t even get murdered. Somebody is ritualistically executing Iran’s most prominent filmmakers and it is killing Kasmai that nobody is killing him in Mani Haghighi’s Pig (trailer here), which screens during the Iranian Film Festival New York.

Kasmai cannot work, so as far as he is concerned, nobody else should either, especially not his actress mistress Shiva Mohajer. He might be a victim of Iran’s thought police, but the entitled egomaniac is a hard man to like. Nonetheless, Mohajer and his wife and family put up with him. His self-image was already bruised, but when less talented directors are found decapitated, with the word “pig” carved across their foreheads, he cannot help feel jealous of all the attention they receive. Add in a stalker of Kasmai’s own and you have quite a stew of trouble.

Frankly, Pig would be a pretty gutsy satire if it were Hollywood-set and made. As an Iranian film that so explicitly addresses the sort of filmmaking bans that have been imposed on Jafar Panahi, it is bold to the point of inviting trouble. Obviously, the use of the word “pig” adds an additional charge to the film. Mostly, it offers up some razor-sharp social observations, but there are some legit genre elements to Pig as well.

Hasan Majuni out-everythings Tim Robbins in The Player as the ragingly self-absorbed, utterly obnoxious Kasmai. Yet, there is something about his sad hound dog persona that maintains our unlikely audience sympathy. It is also deeply compelling to watch the great Leila Hatami put up with one darned thing after another as the long-suffering Mohajer. Ali Mosaffa is hilarious (not a word often associated with Persian cinema) as Sohrab Saidi, Kasmai’s shallow but infinitely more politically shrewd rival, while Ali Bagheri is weirdly, ambiguously disconcerting as Azemat, the lead investigator of the “Pig” murders.

It is hard to believe this film exists at all. Although it depicts some pretty extraordinary developments, it features plenty of telling details. Regardless of the circumstances, it is highly problematic when a witness of interest is brought into a police station for questioning blindfolded. Just about everyone takes it on the chin during Pig, including the Iranian film industry, the cops, and social media. Some of the dream sequences look a bit cheesy, but the film’s reality is so hyper-real, it will blow your mind. Highly recommended, Pig screens this Friday (1/11), as part of the 1st IrFFNY, at the IFC Center.

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Hell Fest: People are Queueing-Up to Get In and Dying to Get Out

Horror movies are supposed to be cathartic, but you wouldn’t want to be in one, unless you already were. Take Natalie and her boring friends. They are characters in a horror movie, so they might as well go to a special horror theme park, because it will make it much easier for a serial killer to stalk them there. They should know better, but they will break just about every rule of horror movie survival in Gregory Plotkin’s Hell Fest (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

For some reason, Natalie has been out of the picture for a while, but now she is back. To celebrate, her bestie Brooke has organized a trip to Hell Fest with her new roommate, Taylor (who Natalie never could stand) and their respective guy pals. In Natalie’s case, she and Gavin are not quite together yet, but he is hoping the VIP access he arranged at Hell Fest will duly impress. Unfortunately, an unnamed serial killer who preys on patrons of haunted houses and creepy theme parks also came to play. Typically, he can rack up a decent body count, because potential witnesses usually assume it is all part of the show. This time around, Natalie notices his first kill of the night looks a little too real, so he starts stalking her group.

Hell Fest makes us wish we had given Owen Egerton’s Blood Fest a more enthusiast review, because it does so much more with precisely the same premise. In Blood, the rules of horror movies are important. Whenever somebody breaks them, they know they are asking for trouble. In contrast, the stock characters of Hell Fest split up and wander off on their own all the time, without giving it a second thought. Egerton also creates a richer backstory, including scores of fictional horror franchises that are incorporated into the Blood Fest park attractions. Horror fest keeps everything generic and therefore indistinguishable from dozens of previous horror flicks (like The Funhouse Massacre, which is probably even better than Blood Fest).

The characterization is minimal, but the cast is not bad. Amy Forsythe’s Natalie is relatively intuitive and assertive, especially by genre standards. Bex Taylor-Klaus scratches out a few laughs as the snarky frienemy. Fans will also be psyched to see the name of genre legend Tony Todd in the credits, but he is mostly heard as the official voice of Hell Fest—and only briefly seen as “the Barker” in one of park’s gruesome stage shows.

Speaking of genre legends, super-producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens, The Walking Dead) lent the film her prestige and organizational talents, but it is hard to understand why, judging from thee final product. To put it plainly, this general concept has been done better in at least two vastly superior films that arguably have more respect for the fans and conventions of the horror genre. So, what’s the point of Hell Fest? Not recommended, it is now available on DVD and BluRay.

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Monday, January 07, 2019

Beyond the Night: Coal Country Noir

Ray Marrow’s hometown is sort of like a Coal Country Twins Peaks. They are still obsessed with the disappearance of July Rain Coleman, years after the cheerleader’s disappearance. The recently returned soldier does not have time for such true crime nostalgia, because he is too busy grieving his late wife and trying to up his mediocre parenting game. Unfortunately, his son’s mysterious knowledge of Coleman will pull them both into the mysterious cold case in Jason Noto’s Beyond the Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Frankly, Marrow probably already has some issues to work out from his service in Syria, even before his wife was struck down in a hit-and-run accident. Despite being a protective father, Marrow is still awkward around their son Lawrence, but he is not shy about administering a little payback to anyone who gawks at the young boy’s birthmark. They are moving back to Marrow’s home town, which his son never visited before. Yet, he seems to recognize many of the landmarks and people.

A little déjà vu is all fine and good, but when Lawrence starts talking about the missing (presumed dead) Coleman, it causes quite a stir, especially with her thuggish father Bernie. When the boy claims to remember her “from before” the out-of-town child psychologist concludes his past-life memories are resurfacing due to his recent trauma. Marrow does not want to hear that kind of woo-woo talk, but the anguished Coleman will grasp at any straw for answers.

Arguably, Beyond continues a minor trend of indie thrillers, like Lost Child, that have respect for Red State Americans and military veterans (even if it is always assumed they have PTSD). People in Noto’s film generally respect cops and God, probably even Bernie Coleman. Lost Child is a particularly apt comparison, because both films offers a slyly ambiguous take on their possible supernatural elements. It would be an exaggeration to call Beyond a blue-collar analog to Branagh’s Dead Again, but there are some parallels.

Zane Holtz is convincingly tightly-wound as Marrow, but Azhy Robertson is quite remarkable, in a completely natural, unaffected way, as the troubled young Lawrence. Tammy Blanchard is reliably down-to-earth as Marrow’s sheriff’s deputy sister, Caroline. Yet, Chance Kelly is the real standout as the grieving Coleman. The subtle shadings and emotional range of his performance make it difficult to pigeon-hole Coleman as a traditional villain, which in turn, complicates the film’s dramatic dynamics.

As thrillers go, Beyond is unusually thoughtful and sensitive. It is also a bit slow out of the blocks. If Noto can maintain his empathy and human insight while cranking up the pacing in future films, he will really be on to something. Regardless, Beyond the Night is an intriguingly hard-to-pin-down thriller, well worth the time of indie fans when it opens this Friday (1/11) in the LA-area, at the Glendale Laemmle.

IrFFNY ’19: Tale of the Sea

A writer ought to take satisfaction from the publication of his work, but it doesn’t work that way when the authorities censor and bowdlerize books arbitrarily. Alas, Taher Mohebi will not find much consolation on the home front either in Bahman Farmanara’s Tale of the Sea (trailer here), the opening night film of the inaugural Iranian Film Festival New York.

Mohebi suffered from a trauma-induced schizophrenic breakdown, but he is now sufficiently stable to return home. The problem is his wife Jaleh does not want him back. In fact, she wants to divorce the Gloomy Gus. However, his concerned doctor convinces her to humor the “Maestro,” at least for the near term.

Unaware of Jaleh’s frustrations, Mohebi slips back into his old absent-minded habits. He also starts hallucinating encounters with long-departed friends. However, things come to a head when Parvaneh, the daughter of Jaleh’s estranged best friend, now deceased, requests permission to visit.

Tale is an elegiac film several times over, dedicated to a number of Farmanara’s fondly remembered fellow artists, particularly Abbas Kiarostami, whom Mohebi calls out by name at one point in the picture. It is all about coming to terms with loss, disappointment, and failure in the twilight of life. Tale is definitely a meditative film, but Farmanara also rather boldly and openly slips in plot points involving Mohebi’s conflicts with censorship and the travails of his former student Amir Dashti, who is hunted and beaten by the secret police.

Farmanara himself plays Mohebi with the befuddled elegance Alec Guinness might have brought to the role in an Ealing comedy. He is charming and dignified, but it is easy to understand why his wife finds him insufferable. Yet, viewers will still sympathize with him when he finally faces the full totality of his life’s decisions.

Fatemah Motamed-Aria is emotionally brittle and intense as the long-suffering Jaleh, but Leila Hatami really lowers the boom as Parvaneh, an innocent born of scandal, almost like a character out of Hawthorne novels. Ali Mosaffa (Farhani’s The Past) is solid but somewhat under-employed as the conscientious doctor, but veteran thesp Ali Nassirian adds sly grace as the ghost or vision of Mohebi’s friend Hooshang.

Farmanara says quite a bit in Tale, while keeping up deceptively simple appearances. Although it is not an overtly allegorical film, it is not much of a stretch to argue Mohebi represents a generation of artists who did not get what they expected from the Iranian history they lived through. Very highly recommended, Tale of the Sea screens this Thursday (1/10), kicking off the 1st IrFFNY, at the IFC Center.

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