Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Claudel Project: Noon Divide

As the former French consul in Shanghai and a devout Catholic, it is easy to understand how the anti-Western, anti-Catholic Boxer Rebellion might horrify playwright Paul Claudel. However, it was a less than epic event from his own life—namely an illicit affair—that inspired his drama of rootless French expatriates advancing towards their ill-fate in turn-of-the-century China. Yet, as is often the case in his work, the worldly take on hidden, cosmic import in Noon Divide, the final production of the Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre’s Paul Claudel Project, now running at the Church of Notre Dame.

The entire notion of love, in any context, is highly problematic in Divide. Mesa, an unremarkable French civil servant, has given up on it completely, renouncing his kinship with his fellow man. For the flirtatious Ysé, it is a dangerous, but effective tool. On the proverbial slow boat to China (for the even more proverbial forty days), Mesa resents her attentions, while hating himself for the feelings they stir. There is definitely something percolating between them, catching the attention of the rakish Almaric, but escaping the notice of her easily manipulated husband De Ciz. Claudel though, is more interested in Mesa’s attempts at abnegation than consummation, finding more drama inherent in the former.

As befitting a Zhivago-like romantic saga, the fate all three men will become intertwined with Ysé as the Boxer Rebellion inexorably boils over. Nevertheless, Claudel almost entirely shuns the macro picture, using the Boxers solely as background noise. Instead, his focus is more intimate and infinitely wider. It is a tricky duality that directors Stephen Logan Day and Peter Dobbins pull off quite nicely.

Granted, Claudel’s dramatic instincts might sound counter-intuitive, but he certainly could write. One is immediately struck by the richness of his language and the effectiveness of the French translation of Divide. His dialogue is heavy with significance, but it never sounds awkward or affected. In fact, it is often quite sharp—witty, even.

Claudel’s words are probably not a little daunting, but the four-handed cast proves quite game. Projecting a malevolent magnetism, Chris Kipiniak is particularly gripping as Almaric. Co-director Dobbins also conveys all the contradictions and uncertainties of Mesa, while still coming across as acutely human.

A deep and challenging production, Divide is a strong conclusion to the Claudel Project. Frankly, it leaves one wondering why Claudel’s work has been so rarely revived. While he addresses faith in sophisticated and uncompromising terms that might not attract the materialistic or shallow, his plays offer much for directors to sink their teeth into. Divide is a case in point. Highly recommended, it plays at the Church of Notre Dame through November 20th.

Wende Flicks: Burning Life

Thanks to the reunification process, the former DDR was spared most of the “Wild East” lawlessness that some former Soviet satellites had to work through (and has since been institutionalized in Russia). Despite the orderliness of Germany’s transition, two East German women bandits could still be embraced as cult heroes in Peter Welz’s Burning Life, which screens next Wednesday during the final night of the Wende Flicks retrospective of post-Fall of the Wall films from the East German DEFA studio at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.

Anna Broder is the outgoing one. A could’ve been jazz singer, she is seriously scuffling, with only a vintage Soviet Chaika sedan to her name. Always the quiet type, Lisa Herzog hardly reacts to her father’s suicide. Instead, she decides to take her pains and frustrations out on a bank. When Broder just happened to be there to provide a timely assist, it starts something bigger. Suddenly, they are on the lam with Herzog’s pet rat (named Nikita in honor of old Khrushchev), playing Robin Hood after each bank job. Of course, it is all rather embarrassing for the reconstituted post-Wende local authorities striving to re-assert their legitimacy.

Considering Burning’s unambiguous riffs on Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, it is difficult not to draw parallels between the two films. However, Welz keeps the tone lighter, down-playing the feminist victimization themes that defined its American predecessor. By Hollywood standards, it is a decidedly apolitical film, aside from its cynical regard for authority.

Rather than document the still lingering decay of the East, Welz does his best to mask it, primarily going for humor instead, using Nikita in several gags and staging some musical numbers that stretch the boundaries of credible verisimilitude. If seen in conjunction with some of the other Wende Flicks that combine gritty naturalism with surreal absurdity, Burning will feel like an easygoing respite.

In fact, it is pleasantly amusing, in large measure due to the chemistry between leads Anna Thalbach (not playing her namesake) and Maria Schrader (who is an appropriately okay but not great vocalist). Though deliberately intended as a commercial road movie, Welz twists the genre enough to be interesting to American audiences. While it might be one of the slighter films of the Wende Flicks series, it was one of the more popular of its day. A likable diversion, Burning screens this Wednesday (11/3) at Anthology Film Archives.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wende Flicks: Latest from the Da-Da-R

A small school of late East German filmmakers came to embrace the anarchic surrealism of dada as the only logical artistic response to life under Communism. After the fall of the wall, the movement’s leading light was not about to go bourgeoisie. Produced in 1990, Jörg Foth’s Latest from the Da-Da-R puts East Germany (pre- and post-Wende) into an absurdist blender, invoking Beckett and Brecht in equal measure. Highly political but resolutely anti-ideological, Foth’s Da-Da-R screens next Monday as part of the Wende Flicks retrospective of post-Fall of the Wall films from the East German DEFA studio at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.

The humor of Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel was always edgy. The poet-singer-actors had adopted the clown personae for their provocative stage shows. Their clear debt to Brecht might have been a reason the DDR authorities tolerated their act, but their friends in high places (with impeccable “anti-Fascist” credentials) surely did not hurt. Yet, their iconoclasm must have raised brows. In Foth’s film, they essentially reprise their stage roles, as Meh and Weh, two clowns recently released from prison, set loose on Wende-era Germany. Have white-face, will satirize.

Trying to impose an ideology on their lunacy will result in migraines, but it is fair to say the old regime takes its lumps. Particularly cutting is a send-up of an old style Soviet medal ceremony that degenerates into a scene worthy of the Three Stooges. There are also pointed references to the extreme shortages endured under Communism. Yet, the new reality is also highly problematic. Indeed, Da-Da-R unmistakably questions whether it is truly merciful to free them from their apparently benign prison. All the while, Foth and cinematographer Thomas Plenert capture the DDR’s blighted landscapes and dilapidated public housing in all their depressing glory.

There are indeed moments when Mensching and Wenzel’s physical comedy is legitimately funny and some of their songs are actually quite catchy (albeit bizarrely so). Yet, Da-Da-R is hardly light comedy. There is a profoundly dark edge to their antics, which are clearly intended to disturb more than amuse.

Some interpret Da-Da-R’s journey and ultimate conclusion in hopeful terms. However, the most optimistic aspect of the film was probably the mere fact that it was allowed to be produced. Uncompromising in its Dadaism, it is a pointed summing-up of the DDR experience. Like most of the Wende Flicks selections, it is a film of tremendous historical importance that ought to be more widely seen and debated by cineastes. It screens this Monday (11/1) at the Anthology Film Archives, with an introduction from Foth, the filmmaker, who will also be in attendance for the screening of Miraculi.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Digging the Japanese Scene: Live from Tokyo

Music is a tough profession everywhere, but particularly so in Tokyo. They even have a word that explains why: Noruma. It means the band pays to play the club, rather than vice versa. It is pretty much the norm for the Tokyo electronic-alternative-hardcore-experimental-ambient scene, but there is still a whole lot of gigging going on anyway, as Lewis Rapkin records in Live from Tokyo (trailer here), his documentary serenade to the Japanese indie music scene, which screens tonight at the Asia Society, presented in conjunction with New York-Tokyo.

Reflecting their hyperkinetic, compulsively connected environment, Japanese indie musicians across genre are constantly experimenting with innovative technology and processing new information. Like musicians in America, the digital revolution has been a double-edged sword. Many bands have built global fan-bases as a result, but they are not making money from their recordings due to illegal or low-cost downloading. Yet, due to the Noruma system, they still have to shell out to play the “live houses.” (It makes the standard American tip jar gig look downright profitably by comparison.) Arguably, the heroes of LFT are the passionate proprietors of a select number of houses, like Enban in the more out-of-the-way Koenji district, who do not charge the bands they book.

LFT should definitely be catnip for devotees of the Tokyo independent music scene. Yet, those walking a blank slate should still find it an evocative docu-tone poem of Tokyo by night. Pseudo-ambient bands like PARA seem to perfectly compliment the energy and scope of LFT’s cityscape scenes. Indeed, the film makes Tokyo look both exhilarating and overwhelming.

Though not intended to be exhaustive, LFT is rather informative when exploring the technical tinkering of artists like Makoto Ohiro. In fact, many groups, such as the strangely catchy Sexy Synthesizer, take explicit inspiration from video game music. However, most of the talking head commentary from American expats involved in the scene is hardly earthshaking material.

Many of LFT’s groups really are quite good, and even reflecting jazz influences. Nicely presenting the eclecticism of Tokyo’s live music scene, director-editor Rapkin and cinematographer Ian Sotzing also effectively convey the dazzling neon and lonely crowds of the city, making viewers want to visit, even if they do not love the ultra-now music driving the film. A good shot of hipster Tokyo love, LFT screens tonight (10/29) at the Asia Society (and Bay-Area residents can catch it November 12th at the Viz Cinema).

The Hollywood Creation Story: Moguls and Movie Stars

In a mere twenty years, moving pictures became America’s 5th largest industry, supplying 80% of world’s films. It did not happen through glamorous star power alone. Combining vision and tenacity, a handful of enterprising immigrants built the American movie business, producing scores of cinematic masterpieces in the process. Now those behind-the-scenes entrepreneurs get equal billing with the celebrated stars whose careers they fostered in Turner Classic Movies’ seven part original documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: a History of Hollywood (promo here), which begins this coming Monday.

In the first episode, Peepshow Pioneers, viewers will learn the Michener-like early history of the nickelodeon and so-called magic lantern shows. However, we also meet the men who saw the commercial potential of moving pictures, including the legendary inventor Thomas Edison. In fact, the final scene Edison Studios’ best known film, The Great Train Robbery remains one of the indelible images of cinema history.

As M&M continues with The Birth of Hollywood, the recognizable names of Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, and Jack Warner begin to emerge as serious industry players. In addition to a number of film historians and Robert Osborne, the well-respected face of TCM, the series features personal reflections from surviving relatives of nearly every mogul. Perhaps the most insightful commentary comes from Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., a film producer in his own right, who explains how his father literally put up the family house as collateral for every film he produced after being ousted from MGM, the studio that still bears his name.

Series writer-producer Jon Wilkman shoehorns a great deal of Hollywood history into each episode without sacrificing watchability to a parade of names and dates. In a sharp contrast to recent history, M&M clearly documents how both the moguls and their stars embraced the war effort in the 1940’s. Yet perhaps the most intriguing segment involves the aptly named William Bioff, a mobbed-up union leader, who shook down the moguls for some substantial protection money. On the other hand, its treatment of the HUAC hearings is a rather simplistic, Hollywoodized treatment that completely ignores the post-Cold War revelations regarding the nature of the CPUSA. Indeed, M&M never plumbs any Hollywood controversy too deeply, preferring to keep its march through history brisk and snappy.

To a degree, M&M reinforces the stereotype of the early Hollywood moguls as gruff, cigar-chomping businessmen, who were more interested in profits than highfalutin notions of art. Of course, those preconceptions are not wholly baseless. As Goldwyn, Sr. once famously said: “Pictures are for entertainment. Messages should be delivered by Western Union.” Yet, that was the same Goldwyn who displayed consistently good taste in his own productions, like Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights, and Best Picture winning The Best Years of Our Lives.

Though traditional in its approach, M&M’s subject matter readily lends itself to the tried and true format of generous film clips, interspersed with talking head interview sound-bites. The dramatic visuals of the silent era segments might even inspire some viewers to check out early classics, like D.W. Griffith’s brilliant Intolerance (even though it evidently was not a big hit in its day). Christopher Plummer’s professorial narration also adds a Ken Burnsian air of authority to the proceedings. For movie buffs, particularly those interested in Hollywood’s early years, M&M is overall quite informative and entertaining. It debuts on November 1st, continuing each Monday evening through December 13th (with encore broadcasts on Wednesdays), on the TCM network.

Queens Swan Song: Last Play at Shea

Shea Stadium was old and creaky, but according to former Mets, they used to feel a mystique playing there that gave them a legitimate home field advantage. So, how’s that new Citi Field working out so far? To be fair, the team’s early years at Shea were an exercise in abject futility, but then in 1969 everything suddenly changed. In addition to sports history, a fair amount of great musical moments happened there too, like a 1965 concert featuring young band from Liverpool. Fittingly though, it was Long Island’s native son Billy Joel who closed the stadium with a post-game concert that is lovingly documented in Paul Crowder and Jon Small’s Last Play at Shea (trailer here), which screens opens today in New York.

Partly a Behind the Music-like profile of Joel, partly a chronicle of the Mets and the stadium in which they played, with a dash of borough history thrown in for context, Play is a paean to all things Queens. Built by Robert Moses to be a modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, aesthetically Shea fell fall short. The team William Shea found to inhabit it was also an initial disaster, but fans came anyway.

As a Mets fan, the Levittown raised Joel clearly understood the significance of playing Shea’s final gig. The film revisits the ups and downs of his long career, interviewing many of his close associates. Based on her segments, Joel clearly still seems to be on good terms with his ex-wife, Christy Brinkley which speaks well of both. However, wife #1 and her brother, the ex-manager who allegedly robbed him blind, are conspicuously absent, for obvious reasons. Overall, one definitely gets an appreciation of his longevity and resiliency in Play. His instincts for structuring the set also seem right-on-target, starting with a respectful, on key rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Play is hardly innovative filmmaking, but as nostalgia it is totally effective and surprisingly entertaining. A flood of memories will come back to Mets fans watching Crowder and Small’s film, including the black cat incident, the infamous Buckner error, and their recent painful late season collapses. However, the one glaring omission are the J-E-T-S, who played their most celebrated seasons at Shea before leaving for the Meadowlands.

As a concert film, Play is pretty solid, especially for Billy Joel fans. There are also several very cool musical guest artists, including Tony Bennett, joining him for a duet performance of “New York State of Mind.” Frankly, you have to give Joel credit for still bringing the energy, obviously connecting with the enormous audience on a personal level.

A thoroughly entertaining concert film, sports history, and an elegy to glory days gone by, Play was a real sleeper hit at this year’s Tribeca. Even Yankee fans from Manhattan have been charmed by it. A great New York doc, it opens today (10/29) at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wende Flicks: The Land Beyond the Rainbow

Arthur Koestler and his fellow apostates from Communism called the ideology “The God that Failed.” One can see how apt a term that was in Herwig Kipping’s The Land Beyond the Rainbow, a scathing critique of the secular religious fervor mandated by Stalinism. A selection of the 1992 Berlinale, Beyond remains a scorching critique of Communism, which screens next Tuesday as part of the Wende Flicks retrospective of post-Fall of the Wall films from the East German DEFA studio at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.

It is hardly a coincidence Beyond takes place during the eventful year of 1953. Of course, that was the year Stalin died. Three months later, Soviet troops invaded East Germany to suppress an outbreak of strikes and demonstrations. However, life appears peaceful in the fictional provincial collective of Stalina. Both Hans and Rainbowmaker have eyes for Marie, the film’s ethereal narrator. However, Rainbowmaker’s grandfather, a strict Party leader, brings the isolated community to grief.

From his cowl-looking cloak to his prayer-like invocations to the recently deceased Stalin, Rainbowmaker’s grandfather is an unambiguous figure of orthodox faith. He also appropriates whatever he pleases from the collective and purges members at will. However, his greatest specialty appears to be encouraging children to inform on their parents. Unlike more allegorical films produced behind the Iron Curtain, there is absolutely no question what he represents. In fact, Stalin’s apologists are probably watching Beyond in Hell for the rest of eternity.

Yet, the blistering Beyond cannot be dismissed as mere post-Wall score-settling, given the eerie rendering of the hyper-Communist community and Kipping’s occasional flights of surrealist fantasy. This is an angry film, but an artful one as well. It also features some surprisingly compelling turns from the then young trio of Stefanie Janke, Thomas Ewert, and Sebastian Reznicek, as Marie, Hans, and Rainbowmaker, the pre-pubescent love triangle.

There may truly be no more viscerally anti-Communist film than Beyond. However, Kipping’s in-your-face Christ-like imagery might put off some Christian audiences. Indeed, there are strong visuals throughout the film, the cumulative effect of which is a damning indictment of the DDR. Accordingly, anyone with a scrap of interest in the Communist and immediate post-Communist eras should make a special effort to see Beyond when it screens next Tuesday (11/2) as part of Wende Flicks at Anthology Film Archives.

Bill Nighy, the Assassin Guy: Wild Target

Meet a proper British hired killer. Refined and fastidious (the uncharitable might even say repressed), Victor Maynard could have been played by Sir Alec Guinness sixty-some years ago. Instead, it is Bill Nighy who comfortably dons the tailored suit and sun-glasses of the increasingly frustrated assassin-protagonist in Jonathan Lynn’s Wild Target (trailer here), an old-fashioned, silly Brit-com that opens this Friday in New York.

Maynard is the best hitman working in England. He is even starting to expand to the Continent. Carrying on the family business, he learned from his father and was driven to excel by a controlling mother, with whom he lived for years. Then one fine day, he accepts an assignment to dispatch Rose, a free-spirited con-artist who pulled the old Rembrandt switcheroo with the wrong shady art collector. There is something about her though, that is just hard to kill, so he doesn’t, which is a big professional no-no.

While taking another shot at completing his contract, Maynard finds himself rescuing Rose from her replacement killers. Dubiously claiming to be a private detective, the assassin finds himself protecting Rose and Tony, a pasty-white homeless kid they picked up along the way. Mother Maynard will not be happy.

Naturally, Maynard and Rose bicker like cats and dogs, but in Tony, the single late-middle-aged professional killer sees someone who can carry on the Maynard business. Of course, the audience is waiting for Rose to finally clue into who her protector really is, while they three set up house at the Maynard country estate.

As Maynard, Bill Nighy is the perfect model of uptight urbanity. He also demonstrates a subtle, old school command of comedic language and timing. Unfortunately, there is a lot of dumb humor going on around him, which is a bit surprising considering director Lynn’s credits include the droll Yes, Minister series and the perennial favorite My Cousin Vinny.

Though she might be kind of cute, Emily Blunt’s Rose is so annoying, it is hard to understand why Maynard, the stone killer, does not just cap her and be done with it. Martin Freeman, now familiar to many as Dr. Watson in BBC’s new Sherlock, is almost unrecognizable as Maynard’s ruthless competitor Hector Dixon (perhaps because he is so effective in Sherlock, but not so much here).

Target is a film viewers will want to like because of Nighy’s winning presence. Unfortunately, it mostly spins its wheels like a middling Carry-On movie. A harmless film, Target opens tomorrow (10/29) in New York at the Regal Union Square.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wende Flicks: Miraculi

Filmmakers working behind the Iron Curtain had a natural affinity for the absurd and the surreal. Given their experiences under Communism, they could easily relate to such Kafkaesque cinemscapes. It also behooved them to keep their social critiques obscured by layers of allegory and symbolism. A passion project only made possible by the fall of the Berlin Wall (or the epochal “Wende”), Ulrich Weiß’s Miraculi represents the culmination of such cinematic strategies. Finally produced in 1991, Miraculi screens next week as part of Wende Flicks: Last Films from East Germany (series trailer here), a retrospective of the East German DEFA studio’s final years (1990-1994), presented at Anthology Film Archives in conjunction with the Goethe-Institut New York.

In the Czech Republic, one of the few annoying holdovers from the Communist era are the plain clothes transit inspectors looking to fine riders who cannot produce their appropriately punched tickets. Evidently, East Germany had these transit narcs as well. Through a series of chance circumstances, Sebastian Mueller, a mild mannered juvenile delinquent, joins the ranks of the volunteer transit inspectors. In truth, he is not very good at his duties, but he takes them very seriously, alienating his father, who labels him a traitor to the workers.

Episodic and trippy, Mueller’s story defies pat description. In a strange way, Weiß invests Mueller’s reviled voluntarism with strange and cosmic dimensions. Yet, one can easily glean the power dynamics at work. As one character explains, stiffing the tram is truly the only safe method of rebellion available to her, so who cares if she is caught.

Miraculi’s dense layers of meaning are thought to be fully grasped only by those who experienced the oppressive drabness of the GDR. That may well be so, but there are plenty of signifiers astute westerners should be able to catch. Indeed, the significance of an abnormal psychology lecture delivered to Mueller and his fellow inspectors is hard to miss, if viewers have any familiarity with the Soviet bloc’s record of institutionalized psychiatric abuse.

Undeniably both subversive and demanding, there is no possible way Miraculi could have been produced under the Soviet-dominated GDR regime. It is a world away from Soviet Realism, even though it scrupulously captures the depressed grunginess of industrialized East Germany. It is a rich, challenging work, recommended to viewers who do not have to “get” everything they see, to appreciate a film. It screens this coming Monday (11/1) at Anthology Film Archives as part of the remarkable Wende Flicks series. Truly a cinematic event, many of the Wende selections have never been subtitled or shown outside of Germany, until now. Yet, films like Miraculi are both historically important and fascinating in their own right. The Wende Flicks series runs in New York from November 1st through the 3rd.

Creature Feature: Monsters

Suddenly, that border wall looks like a heck of a good idea. While that probably is not the sentiment enterprising indie filmmaker Gareth Edwards was going for with his zero budget creature feature, it is a logical enough response when otherworldly cephalopods turn half of Mexico into an “infected zone” in the prosaically titled Monsters (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Shortly after a NASA probe crashed in Mexico, the monsters appeared. The American and Mexican militaries have joined forces to contain those creatures in the so-called infected zone. The border is completely sealed off, which should be reassuring, unless you happen to be a couple of clueless gringos who somehow lost their passports south of the border. They would be Andrew Kaulder and Sam Wyden.

Kaulder is a jaded news photographer assigned to escort home Wyden, the do-gooder daughter of his Rupert Murdoch-like publisher. Basically, it is his fault they find themselves in such a fix. As a result, they will have to cross the fortified border the hard way, while hoping they do not run into any rampaging behemoths.

Using straight off the shelf commercial software, Edwards’ monster special effects look surprisingly good. Shrewdly we first see them on the big screen within the small screen of cable television news reports, giving us a general idea of what we are dealing with, but not showing them in the slimy, tactile flesh until the final reel. Roger Corman should definitely approve. However, Edwards’ most effective visuals are the surreal burned-out, monster-scarred landscapes he creates, outdoing all prior post-apocalyptic wastelands previously seen on film.

Unfortunately, the whole notion of Kaulder and Wyden struggling to cross the border is obviously intended to carry heavy political significance, but really just falls flat. Still, their bickering, bantering chemistry somewhat exceeds the industry standard for micro-produced horror movies. Indeed, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able are not bad as the cocky photographer and resentful daughter of privilege, respectively. Still, the real attraction to the film is the hyper-real vibe Edwards successfully crafts.

Fortunately, the veneer of “relevance” is thin enough that Monsters can be enjoyed simply as a low budget genre flick that made good. Costing about as much as a cocktail in some midtown bars, Edwards’ effects look good enough to cover the price of a middling steak dinner as well. Recommended for us genre geeks, Monsters opens this Friday (10/29) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Salander’s Parting Shot: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

It is unlikely this film will carry the AARP seal of approval. Few movies have had as many murderous geriatrics as the concluding installment of the Lisbeth Salander Millennium trilogy. Indeed, “never trust anyone over fifty-five” could be the motto of Daniel Alfredson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (trailer here), which opens quite widely for a foreign film this Friday.

As the film opens, Salander is lucky to be alive. Shot in the head during a confrontation with Alexander Zalachenko, her abusive Soviet defector father, and her hulking half-brother, Salander owes her life to crusading leftist journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Since the incident threatens to expose the shadowy extra-governmental cabal protecting Zalachenko, a battery of wheezing geezer assassins spring into action to silence Salander. However, their best hope comes down to Dr. Teloborian, the pedophile psychiatrist who regularly abused Salander while she was institutionalized under his supervision.

Unfortunately, Hornet loses sight of its strongest asset, the dragon-tattooed fire-playing Salander herself. In previous films, she is always a paragon of subversive empowerment. Even in the first film with its infamous rape scene, Salander clearly refuses to play the victim. Unfortunately, throughout most of Hornet she is merely confined to hospital beds and prison cells, while Blomkvist rakes the muck on the insidious “Section.” As something of a consolation, Blomkvist’s sister, attorney Annika Giannini, finally has comes to the fore representing Salander in the pivotal heated competency hearing, after two films of merely shaking her head indulgently at her rabble-rousing brother.

A hard-core leftist, author Stieg Larsson’s politics were smeared all over the Millennium trilogy (so named for the advocacy journal Blomkvist edits). Arguably though, this gave a bit of a kick to the opening Dragon Tattoo, which delved into Sweden’s less than edifying history of collaboration with the German National Socialists. In the middle film Fire, the details of the meta-conspiracy were still so murky they never became a distraction. However, the more we learn about the “Section” in Hornet, the sillier it sounds.

Though they may have secretly tilted towards the west, it seems rather hard to believe neutral Sweden would have gone to such lengths to protect a Soviet defector (especially one like Zalachenko, who we are led to believe was a highly dubious source of intel), for over a decade after the end of the Cold War. In fact, Larsson’s trust in a large powerful state apparatus largely undermines the inherent tension of Hornet’s quasi-governmental cabal. All Blomkvist has to do is ferret out the conspirators and the tweedy Federal Security bureaucrats will duly round them up. It’s really that simple.

Of the three Millennium films, Hornet is also the least self-contained. Those new to the series should be able to follow the action, but will probably be confused by large cast of characters and their relationships to Salander. However, for fans of the series, it ties up all the loose ends and offers some satisfying retribution for all the wrongs done to her.

Though Hornet is the weakest of the trilogy, it has been entertaining to see all three films released in relatively short succession. They have deservedly made Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist international stars for their work as Salander and Blomkvist, respectively. While Daniel Craig is a credible choice to replace Nyqvist in the American remake, Rooney Mara seems a highly suspect stand-in for Rapace, especially considering how her performance has taken on nearly iconic dimensions. Frankly, she should have had more to do in the concluding Hornet. While still slickly watchable, it is not likely to appreciably expand the Salander fan base when it opens this Friday in New York at the Beekman, Lincoln Plaza, and Sunshine Cinemas.

Chabrol’s Inspector Bellamy

Conceived as a tip of the cap to Belgian crime novelist Georges Simenon and his best known sleuth Jules Maigret, the rumpled Inspector Paul Bellamy is renowned for his intuitive insight into the criminal mind. That’s his job and he’s good at it. However, he is somewhat distracted by family issues of late, not that he is supposed to be working while on holiday. Yet, as often happens in the paperback mysteries he reads, a new case finds him anyway in Inspector Bellamy (trailer here), the fiftieth and final film of Nouvelle Vague suspense auteur Claude Chabrol, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Bellamy is whole-heartedly devoted to his wife Françoise, keenly aware he married quite a bit out of his league. His mind might be sharp, but Bellamy is doughy and pear-shaped, often reduced to audible wheezing by the stairs of her family’s vacation house in Nîmes. Openly contemptuous of the local inspector, Bellamy cannot resist getting involved in a sensational crime dominating the regional news, especially considering one of the principals has trampled his wife’s flower beds while loitering outside their cottage.

Seeking the detective’s help, Noël Gentil has a convoluted tale of murder, fraud, and adultery to tell, but Bellamy’s attentions are somewhat divided. His self-destructive half-brother Jacques Lebas has unexpectedly appeared, predictably antagonizing Bellamy and adding stress to his marriage. While the case of the mysterious Gentil (or whoever he is) largely plays out off-screen, Bellamy struggles with his domestic front—not his strong suit.

The supposedly retired Gérard Depardieu might be the Brett Favre of French cinema, but he is a perfect fit for Bellamy. He certainly looks like an out of shape middle-aged man, while also projecting a shrewd intelligence and a deep-seated insecurity. Indeed, jealousy and resentment arguably play a greater role in the film than old-fashioned greed, with Bellamy turning out to be one of the primary offenders, along with his prodigal half-brother. As the bitter Lebas, Clovis Cornillac holds his own quite well, convincingly suggesting the years of contentious history shared between them.

Chabrol, who only recently passed-away last month, was a master of the cerebral thriller. Especially in his later films, he often relegates the nefarious skullduggery to the deep background, only dropping hints amid the ostensibly benign action on-screen (his subtly sly The Flower of Evil is a near perfect example). While we do see Bellamy pursue his investigation, Chabrol once again engages in some artful sleight of hand. As usual, Chabrol’s longtime collaborators cinematographer Eduardo Serra and composer-son Matthieu Chabrol also give Bellamy a rich, classy luster befitting his final cinematic statement.

Productive to the end, Chabrol was a giant of cinema, who will be missed. Even his misfires like A Girl Cut in Two still make for interesting viewing. Though Bellamy is a small, intimate work compared to some of his signature suspensers, it certainly features a huge star in Depardieu. Watching their first and final collaboration is definitely worth the wait when Bellamy opens this Friday (10/29) at the IFC Center in New York.

SAIFF ’10: Anima and Persona

Evidently, Tamil gangsters are much like those found the world over, measuring their worth by their swagger. Unfortunately, when one aging godfather loses his potency, it indirectly precipitates all sorts of trouble in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Anima and Persona (trailer here), which screens this Saturday at the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival.

A captive trophy, Subbu does not want to spend a lot of quality time with Ayya, a big boss in decline. His inability to perform only makes his mistreatment of her worse. Already aware he is losing a step, he resents the goading of his chief henchman Pasupathy. Ostensibly agreeing to Pauspathy’s plan to pull a fast one on their competitors, he intends to dispatch the uppity soldier during the course of the operation. Of course, the disposable henchmen can’t get the job done, which forces them to take Pasupathy’s girlfriend hostage as a consolation prize.

The super bad Pasupathy is a dangerous enemy to have on the loose. Ayya also has to worry about the missing drug shipment he expected to appropriate and the rival gang from which it was swiped. Into this inter-gang skirmish wanders the comic relief, a bumbling villager and his sharp tongued young son, who desperately need a big score themselves, but are way out of their depth when the hot potato lands in their laps.

Anima is a Tamil film, but it features the established Bollywood star Jackie Sheroff as Ayya. Though there are no musical numbers here either, it is closer to the spirit of commercial Bollywood than other Indian films in the festival, particularly in its scenes involving the forbidden romance blossoming between Subbu and the apprentice henchman Sappai, as well as the slapstick of humor of the father and son country bumpkins.

Though the international title oddly invokes Jungian analysis, Anima is best when dramatizing Paupathy’s zen-like theory of gangsterism. Indeed, Sampath Raj emerges as a fantastic anti-hero protagonist, grittily intense and physically imposing throughout the film. Yasmin Ponnappa is also quite interesting to watch as Subbu, the femme fatale-in-distress. However, the low comedy of Somasundaram’s bumbling hick Kaalayan gets old quickly and rather clashes with the Pulp Fiction-like tone of the rest of the film.

Still, Kumararaja proves to be quite adept at juggling story lines, tying them all together rather cleverly. Though often quite cynical, Anima should prove to be a crowd pleaser at SAIFF, largely thanks to the very cool presence of Raj. An engaging gangster film with a few inventive narrative wrinkles, Anima is definitely worth catching when it screens at SAIFF this Saturday (10/30) at the SVA Theatre.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Art from Trash: Waste Land

Brooklyn-based Vik Muniz takes understandable pride in his status as Brazil’s most collectable contemporary artist. Whatever captures his interest will eventually become a topic of conversation in the gallery world. When Muniz turned to Rio’s Jardim Gramacho landfill (the largest in the world) for inspiration, it also commanded the attention of filmmaker Lucy Walker, who documented the project in Waste Land (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Like Egypt’s Zaballeen, Rio has a small marginalized class of garbage “pickers” who eke out a living salvaging recyclables from the landfill. Needless to say, this takes a toll on their self-esteem and social standing. It is these lumpenproletariats Muniz sought to directly involve in his project.

After a few days of taking in Jardim Gramacho’s festering spectacle, Muniz started choosing his subject-helpers. After photographing a number of pickers, both at work and in his studio, Muniz projected giant outlines of their portraits on the floor of his studio, which the pickers used as an outline to fill in with recyclables taken from the landfill. The resulting mosaics were then photographed and printed, so Muniz could whisk them away to an auction in London (the proceeds from which went to the pickers’ start-up mutual aid society).

To its credit, Waste does not duck the issues raised by Muniz’s work. Several within Muniz’s inner circle directly question the wisdom of temporarily employing the pickers and possibly even taking them to London for the auction, only to dump them back at Jardim Gramacho once the project had run its course. Also, given the extent of the pickers’ hands-on involvement, one might also debate how appropriate it is to attribute the pieces to Muniz. However, unlike a Jeff Coons, in addition to directing the process from above, Muniz also shot the original photos (often conceived as pastiches to famous paintings, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat) and he can also be seen adding graphite shadings, for what might be deemed the artistic touch.

People are not recyclable. Walker seems to get this. Though she clearly embraces the environmental implications of Muniz’s work, she never fetishizes the pickers’ way of life simply because they recycle, unlike Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander’s problematic documentary portrait of the Zaballeen. Indeed, Walker and Muniz both seem to understand it would highly desirable if the Jardim Gramacho workers could find cleaner, less wearying employment elsewhere.

Wisely, Walker keeps the human element front-and-center in Waste. However, Moby’s electro-ambient soundtrack sounds oddly sterile for a film about garbage and conveys no sense of the Brazilian favelas where the pickers live. Despite its ideological preoccupations, Waste is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at a large-scale contemporary art project. It opens this Friday (10/29) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

SAIFF ’10: Between Two Worlds

Sri Lanka is both a beautiful country and an ugly country. Young, listless Rajith appears to be making it uglier. He is not alone in that respect. Yet, one should not always trust the evidence of their senses in Vimukthi Jayasundara’s reality defying Between Two Worlds, which has its New York premiere this coming Sunday at the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival.

We first see Rajith literally falling from the sky into the ocean, but our earliest sense of who he really is comes as we watch him kicking a defenseless man while he is down. We have cut to the city, where there is a riot going on. Rajith is not one of the cooler heads, but for some reason the driver of a white van offers him an escape from the melee. He is all over his fellow passenger, an attractive Chinese woman. Since she was raped by Rajith or a man who looks much like him, she understandably prefers the attentions of their driver, which in turn provokes a violent outburst from Rajith.

Wisely ditched by his companions, Rajith sets out for the remote home of his late brother’s widow, but his violent fantasies persist to the point of intruding on reality. Indeed, notions of time and linearity get a thorough working over in Worlds. This is deliberate art cinema that has earned Jayasundara frequent comparisons to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. However, unlike the Thai auteur’s dark, murky looking Uncle Boonmee, Jayasundara’s images are bold and beautiful, arrestingly lensed by cinematographer Channa Deshapriya. From his rain speckled oceans to his wind-swept verdant hills, it is easy to get caught up in his visual poetry, even while he plays hide and seek with the narrative.

Indeed, he indulges in some serious gamesmanship with Worlds’ circular structure and problematized nature of reality. Yet, sometimes the narrative playfulness is interesting (if a bit obscure), like the strange tale the Zelig-like fisherman has to tell. Still, it is a bit off-putting when Jayasundara completely chucks away any semblance of ostensive reality in the final reel.

Intriguingly, the writer-director throws audiences a bit of a change up with the character of Rajith. We might expect the archetypal young man on a journey with its time honored coming of age and end of innocence themes. However, Rajith is no babe in the woods, even though he might have just fallen out of the sky. He may or may not be many unappealing things, but it is safe to say he is rather self-centered. Thusitha Laknath is quite effective projecting both the petulance and the latent dangerousness of the deeply flawed youthful protagonist. Though her early scenes are somewhat difficult to wholly buy into, Huang Lu is also quite haunting as the fragile unnamed Chinese woman. Still, this is a director and cinematographer’s film much more than an actor’s showcase.

Jayasundara truly has a painter’s eye for visual composition, but his pacing is not exactly zippy. This is definitely a festival film for those seeking an immersive, tactile cinematic experience. Recommended to the adventurous yet patient, Worlds screens during the SAIFF this Sunday (10/31) at the SVA Theater.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

SAIFF ’10: That Girl in Yellow Boots

Legitimate massage therapists undergo rigorous training in human anatomy and physiology. However, Ruth Edscer is the sort of masseuse that gives the profession a bad name. She is not the sort of person who would ordinarily perform such dubious work. She just needs the money from her extra services to find her prodigal Indian father in Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots (trailer here), which screens this Wednesday as the opening night film of the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival.

Edscer comes from a broken home—shattered might be a better word. After her sister committed suicide, her father abandoned his British family for his home country, leaving his surviving daughter behind with her moralizing mother. Running away from home in search of the father she hardly knew Edscer finds herself immersed in the seamy side of Mumbai, while seeking elusive clues to his whereabouts. It does not help matters when her junkie boy friend runs afoul one of the local drug gangs. This might not be the romantic India Edscer envisioned, but at least she can accessorize.

Boots is so not Bollywood—and not just because it lacks a musical number. While not exactly explicit per se, it addresses sex and drugs in uncharacteristically frank terms. Of course, nobody is likely to spontaneously break out into song in the scummy red light districts Edscer navigates. (If you don’t know what she means by a “happy ending” you definitely shouldn’t be going to massage parlors by yourself.) Indeed, Kashyap creates a visceral sense of place that might not be to the liking of Mumbai’s tourism authority.

Though actually French-Indian, Kalki Koechlin looks and sounds the part as the British Edscer. It is a pretty fearless performance, as she endures some quite realistic looking humiliations with a pathos that is hard to shake. Likewise, the great Hindi actor Naseeruddin Shah supplies the film’s heart as Divakar, Edscer’s only straight client, making the most of his relatively limited screen time.

Boots also forgoes the easy redemption of most Bollywood melodramas, opting instead for a grim naturalism. Though the film has the odd thriller elements, Kashyap (and co-writer Koechlin) are clearly more interested in exploring Edscer’s character. They spare her little, making Boots an exhausting film. Yet there is something unsettlingly poetic about its closing scene.

In a sense, Boots is a bold selection for SAIFF’s opening film. It is not a feel good movie, nor is it an enticing showcase for Mumbai. Still, Kashyap has an international reputation to attract cineastes and fans of Indian cinema will certainly recognize Koechlin and Shah. Indeed, their work here is quite powerful, making Boots the sort of film that lingers with you well after the ending credits roll. Recommended to patrons of international cinema, provided they understand not to expect Bollywood, Boots opens this year’s SAIFF Wednesday night (10/27) at the SVA Theatre.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fandom Love: Saturday Nightmares

One thing you pick up working for a science fiction publisher is the extent to which fans are fascinated by their own fandom. That certainly appears to be the case for horror fans as well. While it might be met with indulgent shrugs by the mere mortals of the world, true devotees will eagerly scarf up Michael Stever’s Saturday Nightmares (trailer here), a short documentary behind-the-scenes look at the eponymous horror expo held at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre earlier this year. Now available on DVD in time for Halloween, true fans (you know who you are) can catch a special screening tonight with John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Chelsea Cinema.

Though Carpenter’s name is dropped several times in Saturday, most notably by his ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau, the film’s touchstone figure and guest of honor is unquestionable George A. Romero, the horror auteur best known for the Living Dead franchise. After Romero and Barbeau (who appeared Romero’s Creepshow), probably the most recognizable Saturday guest would be actor-director-make-up artist Tom Savini whose host of horror credits include Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, which he helmed.

Most of the other featured horror heroes would probably be considered fan favorites, like Ken Foree and Joe Pilato, both best remembered for their roles in Dawn. The one non-Romero related ringer of the program is Louise Robey, who appeared in the Friday the 13th television series that was completely unrelated to the slasher movie franchise.

Stever gives us the requisite scenes of the set-up process, which will probably make anyone who has worked a lot of trade shows nauseous. We get a bit of footage of the gory cos play and some candid footage of several of the invited guests. Some of the expo stars were gracious enough to do sit-downs with the filmmaker, including Barbeau who comes across remarkably down to earth (and evidently travels entourage-less). Surprisingly, based on his remarks to the audience, we also learn Foree could have a future in talk radio.

If nothing else, Saturday is an effective commercial for the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre, the grand old single screen movie palace where the horror expo was held. Slightly decrepit in a lush Hammer Films kind of way, it was definitely an appropriate spot for the horror movie love-in.

Those who live and breathe horror films will appreciate some of the insights to be gleaned into Romero’s work from the interviews and panel discussion excerpts. However, if you didn’t get the genre before, you won’t get it now. For fans though, the double bill with Carpenter’s The Thing should be a very cool show. They screen together tonight (10/23) at the Chelsea Cinema, while DVDs of Saturday are currently available through the film’s website.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The New Sherlock

So many distinctive actors have already played Sherlock Holmes, including the likes of Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Robert Downing, Jr., mystery fans are predisposed to give each new taker a fair crack at the role. Benedict Cumberbatch has an advantage not available to most prospective Holmeses, recreating the role in a modern context. Indeed, he brings the Holmes attitude in spades for the BBC’s Twenty-First Century reboot Sherlock (trailer here), which debuts for American audiences this Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.

Recently returned from his tour of duty in Afghanistan, Dr. John Watson is at loose ends. In need of a job and flat, he accepts a share with a rather eccentric gent with a high opinion of himself. You already know the name and the address. Holmes is still a consulting detective who delights in showing up the long-suffering Detective Inspector Lestrade. However, in today’s London, Holmes’ notoriety spreads via his website rather than the Strand magazine.

The three episode run begins with this Sunday the getting-to-know-you mystery of A Study in Pink. A rash of seemingly unconnected suicides is sweeping London, leaving the police baffled, not even convinced there is a crime to investigate. Of course, Holmes knows better, as he makes clear to the coppers in embarrassing public forums. Supposedly recovering from post-traumatic stress, Dr. Watson is only too willing to jump into the fray with his high-handed roommate, despite the efforts of a shadowy government official to warn him off.

Frankly, the mystery of Pink is weakest of the series, borrowing elements from an old Law & Order episode. However, it sets up the meta-storyline quite effectively, including a tantalizing hint of a malevolent criminal mastermind lurking on the fringes of the action. Indeed, one of the strengths of Sherlock is the manner in which it integrates the Moriarty mythos into the narrative.

Probably Sherlock’s most intriguing case comes in The Blind Banker, combining a modern twist on the locked room mystery with old school ciphers, and the Victorian preoccupation with triads and tongs. Guest star Gemma Chan also makes a strong impression as Soo Lin Yao, an expert in Asian antiquities who most likely holds the key to the mystery, but has gone into hiding for understandable reasons.

In the concluding The Great Game Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman really hit their stride as Holmes and Watson. Their friendship starts to deepen organically, while the stakes increase as Holmes’ shadowy nemesis finally starts to show his hand. There is not much time to chew on the intrigue though as the two race around London solving a diverse series of crimes—a speed sleuthing challenge, if you will.

Picking up considerable momentum as it goes along, Sherlock leaves viewers knowing there will be more to come. Overall, it is a well crafted mystery series, with feature director Patrick McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) slickly helming Pink and Game. Cumberbatch is convincingly arrogant in an appropriately entertaining way, while Freeman projects the right salt of the earth decency as Watson, without coming across as a Nigel Bruce bumbler. By and large, the modernization is also smartly realized, making Holmes a creature of texting and the internet just barely on the right side of creepy. However, it just does not sound right to hear him say the “game is on.” Highly entertaining, Sherlock premieres on Masterpiece Mystery this coming Sunday (10/24), continuing on the next two successive Sundays on most PBS outlets nationwide.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ozu at IFC: Late Autumn

It could be considered a case of turn-around being fair play. After appearing in several Yasujiro Ozu films as a daughter needing to be married off, Setsuko Hara finally played a mother trying to make matrimonial arrangements for her own daughter in Ozu’s Late Autumn (trailer here), which screens tomorrow at the IFC Center as part of their ongoing Ozu weekend series.

Though ostensibly based on different source novels, Autumn is clearly a reworking of Ozu’s Late Spring, with Hara assuming the role of the single parent, Akiko Miwa. It is about time her daughter Ayako married and moved out, but the dutiful young woman refuses to leave her mother by herself. However, instead of a gossipy aunt, Akiko has the dubious help of three of her late husband’s old cronies. When the source of Ayako’s objections becomes clear, one of them even starts to get ideas regarding her mother, noting how attractive she still is (yeah, no kidding, she’s Setsuko Hara).

Autumn is one of the films that truly immortalizes Hara’s image as a paragon of virtue. Ever dedicated to her daughter in life while loyal to her husband in death, she personifies domestic goodness. She is also still a radiant screen presence. In contrast, Shin Saburi brings the curmudgeonly charisma in spades as her husband’s friend Soichi Mamiya, essentially reprising his gruff but warmhearted persona from Equinox Flower. Mariko Okada, dubbed “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous” by a Japan Society retrospective earlier in the year, is really none of those things as Akiko’s best friend Yukiko Sasaki. Still, there are times the busybody middle-aged men of Autumn would beg to differ, but her on-screen charm is always totally winning.

Though the parallels with Spring are inescapable, Autumn still holds up on its own even for those who truly adore Ozu’s 1951 masterpiece. Switching Ayako’s surviving parent to a mother (particularly one played by Hara) certainly increases the pathos of their natural parting. Yet, nothing can approach the bittersweet beauty of Spring’s final moments.

As usual, Autumn is punctuated by Ozu’s peaceful transitional shots of home and hearth. A sad but gentle film, it perfectly represents his themes and motifs. It is also underscores Ozu’s stature as the preeminent artistic chronicler of Japan’s middle class, at a time when many were trying to maintain their traditional values while simultaneously enjoying a hard-earned prosperity and respectability. Though maybe not quite the transcendent masterpiece of Spring, Autumn is still a wistfully elegant classic. Recommended as a top-tier Ozu film, it screens this Friday (10/22) through Sunday (10/24) at the IFC Center.

Shopping for Lungs: Inhale

Evidently, if you pop over the border to Juarez, in addition to some cheap tequila and genuine Mexican stoplight candy, you can also pick up some human organs. Unfortunately, the sellers are kind of particular. You don’t call them, they call you. This is a problem for the desperate father in Baltasar Kormákur’s Inhale (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The law is the law for prosecutor Paul Stanton. He is even throwing the book at a man accused of shooting the predator suspected of molesting his child. Tough case. Sadly, Stanton has problems of a different nature with his own daughter. Her lungs are rapidly deteriorating and only a transplant can save her. While perusing the organ waiting list, the Stanton family doctor notices something funny. James Harrison, Stanton’s pseudo-mentor and front-running gubernatorial candidate, had his name taken off the list. In theory there are only two ways this could happen, a successful transplant or death.

It turns out Harrison got a mysterious call, offering him an organ transplant if he showed up in Juarez with a briefcase full of cash. Under ether most of the time, all Harrison can offer Stanton is a name—Dr. Novarro, which the big clumsy Yankee starts recklessly throwing around as soon as he crosses the border. Not surprisingly, this gets his butt thoroughly kicked several times over.

Icelandic director Kormákur (best known for Jar City) seems to have a knack for capturing the gritty border town milieu, appropriately steeping the film in seediness. He sets up the ticking clock tension fairly effectively as well. However, Inhale’s character development is a very mixed bag. Perhaps the greatest surprise is the evenhandedness of the Harrison character. Though clearly identified as a Republican, the film never indulgences in political cheap shots. As he tells Stanton straight-up, he never took bribes or abused his position. The only time he ever broke the law was his jaunt as an organ tourist, which he did not initiate (and who can blame him?). Indeed, Sam Shepard brings some convincing color to political wheeler-dealer, without resorting to caricature.

Though not given much to work with as Stanton’s concerned wife, Diane Kruger is also able to scratch out some memorable moments. Unfortunately, their daughter Chloe is rather thinly sketched out. However, Paul Stanton is a wholly problematic tangle of contradictions. Dermot Mulroney brings a real intensity to the role, but at the risk of hinting at spoilers, his do-gooder sensibilities assert themselves at the darnedest times. One would think if you traipse across the border looking to buy a lung, you have essentially crossed an ethical Rubicon. Instead, we get a lot of overwrought moral anguish that is not believable for a second.

Strangely, the Scandinavian Kormákur has a good feel for the divey cantinas and sketchy clinics of Juarez. Yet, Walter Doty and John Claflin’s script is just riddled with head-scratching moments that will probably sacrifice general audience satisfaction along with its overall credibility. A strangely self-imploding film, Inhale opens this Friday (10/22) in New York at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Shindo’s Kuroneko

It wasn’t just Poe who found black cats spooky. They can be found in macabre Japanese folk tales as well. Such a story inspired social issues filmmaker Kaneto Shindo’s second masterful foray into the horror genre. Though filled with supernatural dread and suggestion, perhaps the darkest aspect of Shindo’s Kuroneko (or “Black Cat”) is human nature itself, as can be seen in the glorious new back and white 35m print that will screen at Film Forum starting this Friday (trailer here).

It was miserable to be a peasant in feudal Japan. Take Shige and her mother-in-law Yone as a case in point. Years ago, her husband was impressed off their meager land to serve in some futile war. While dutifully awaiting his return, the women were brutalized and murdered by a gang of rogue samurai. To conceal their crimes, they torched the bodies and razed their home. Yet, this one black cat witnessed it all.

Sometime later, newly christened samurai Yabu-no-Gintoki is ordered by his Mikado to investigate a series of murders by the Rajomon gate. It seems many of his samurai brethren have had their throats ripped out and their blood drained. As we have witnessed, two vaguely feline wraiths whose features resemble Shige and Yone have been luring arrogant samurai back to their quarters for an evening of sake and seduction that culminates in some serious pay-back. However, when the three come to suspect they are all part of the same family unit, it creates a bit of a karmic quandary.

In contrast to the lush Kwaidan, Kuroneko has a stripped-down, minimalist ambiance. While Shindo’s staging has often been likened to kabuki and noh theater, there is also definitely a film noir vibe to Kiyomi Kuroda’s cinematography. Shindo’s lefty filmmaker sensibilities inform the proceedings as well, clearly positing a worldview in which peasants are routinely exploited, with the women victimized the most.

In fact, Shige and Yone’s suffering does not end with death. They still find themselves making sacrifices, if we are to believe what were told. Of course, Kuroneko has its ambiguities (which might allow Gintoki room for denial). Indeed, the unsettling performances of Nobuko Otowa and Kiwako Taichi, as the otherworldly mother and daughter-in-law play an essential role in keeping viewers off balance. Taichi projects a delicate vulnerability, even when in the throes of blood lust. Otoya on the other hand, is fierce and scary, but also lays a guilt trip on Gintoki (and by extension the audience) truly worthy of a mother.

To mangle the Truman quote, if you want to feel good about humanity buy a dog, don’t look to Japanese horror films. The implications of Kuroneko’s terrors run awfully deep. Unquestionably dark but frequently visually arresting, it is one of the few horror films (along with Kobayashi’s Kwaidan) that constitute true cinematic art. It begins a special one week run at New York’s Film Forum starting this Friday (10/22).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taiwan Film Days ’10: Seven Days in Heaven

Seven days ought to be enough time for a lot of people to cycle through each stage of grief at least once, maybe twice. Understandably, scrupulously observing the traditional Taoist seven days of ritualized mourning takes a toll on Mei and her brother in Wang Yu-lin and Essay Liu’s Seven Days in Heaven (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s Taiwan Film Days at the Viz Theater.

Unlike her street vendor father, Mei left for the big city to make something of herself. Yet, theirs was always a loving relationship, as we come to understand through flashbacks. The good news is a distant relation who also happens to be a priest will oversee the arrangements to ensure everything is done properly. In a way, this is bad news as well. At least his partner, corporate entertainer and professional griever Chin has a knack for shaking down the local political wheels for more tangible expressions of condolence. Still, the round-the-clock program of sacraments drives Mei and her decidedly unmotivated brother to near exhaustion.

Though not as emotionally devastating as Yojiro Takita’s Academy Award winning Departures, Heaven is still a rather complex and insightful examination of the grieving process. It might even be educational for some Yankee audiences, introducing them to customs like the burning of spirit money. While not every character of the large ensemble is as sharply drawn, it is anchored by a highly sympathetic, identifiably realistic protagonist, the more-or-less dutiful daughter Mei.

Indeed, Wang Li-wen (best known as a producer) is quite remarkable in Heaven, really lowering the emotional boom in the film’s quietly powerful epilogue. She also has some lovely bittersweet father-and-daughter moments with veteran Taiwanese character actor Chang Chia-nien (a.k.a. Tai Bao) that Wang and Liu shrewdly never let get too saccharine. While the roles of her brother and cousin are a bit underwritten, Cheung Si-yin always brings a welcomed infusion of energy to the necessarily depressing proceedings as the dynamic Chin.

Yes, the dramatic possibilities of funerals have often been explored cinematically, but Wang and Liu end Heaven in a place not often seen on film. Liu’s screenplay (based on her essay-story) has a few gentle laughs mixed in here and there, but the dramedy unquestionably leans more towards the dramatic. Definitely recommended for the honest humanity of its father-daughter relationship, Heaven screens this Saturday (10/23) and Sunday (10/24) as part of the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Green’s Portuguese Nun

For his latest film, Eugène Green did not set out to adapt The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, the scandalous epistolary romance now attributed to the Comte de Guilleragues, but he plays a director shooting such a project. Yet, even that film-within-a-film is highly unorthodox in Green’s oddly spiritual The Portuguese Nun (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the Anthology Film Archives.

Julie de Hauranne is a Portuguese-French actress fluent in her mother’s language, but making her first trip to Lisbon for Denis Verde’s avant-garde re-working of The Portuguese Nun. There will be no dialogue and few scenes of her together with her co-star. Instead, they are filming the visuals that will accompany their pre-recorded voice-overs. Those rather easy set-calls allow her plenty of time to explore the city. In doing so, she makes a fleeting, but perhaps deep connection to D. Henrique Cunha, a would-be aristocrat disgraced by his family’s connections to the Salazar and Caetano regimes. She also meets Vasco, a veritable street urchin and becomes fascinated with a real Portuguese nun, Sister Joana, who prays nightly at the candlelit Nossa Senhora do Monte Chapel, a place where the spirit could move even an avowed atheist.

If nothing else, Nun will convince viewers Lisbon is a spectacularly beautiful city. The word “picturesque” just does not cut it—not even by half. Its architectural splendor is perfectly matched by a soundtrack of exquisitely sensitive fados. These things are particularly noticeable since Green seems determined to keep the audience at arm’s length from the on-screen drama.

Rarely do Nun’s verbal cadences ever approach anything realistically conversational. Instead, there is a distinctly recitative quality to the dialogue, which Green emphasizes all the more by regularly directing his cast to deliver their lines straight into the camera in self-conscious close-ups. Though de Hauranne is frequently in motion roaming through the city, the film often feels static, like a series of frozen tableaux. Despite the sparkling sheen of Raphaël O’Byrne’s cinematography, Nun has the rigid formality of medieval paintings. Appropriately, it also takes questions of religious faith just as seriously.

Though one suspects the “North American born,” French naturalized Green leans somewhat to the left, there are absolutely no cheap shots taken at Catholicism in Nun. Instead, meeting Sister Joana is a transformational experience for de Hauranne. In an exchange one could never find in a Hollywood film, the saintly Nun explicitly connects faith and love with words that are powerful, because they are spoken with humility. Likewise, instead of being a snarky Bill Maher, the worldly actress’s questions elicit heartfelt responses, because they are meant in good faith, so to speak.

Frankly, Nun is a strange film to get a handle on. At times, Leonor Baldaque is so deliberately inexpressive as De Hauranne, she could be mistaken for a bad CGI effect. Though essentially playing himself, Green is nearly just as stiff when appearing as Verde. Conversely, Diogo Dória’s turn as the haunted Cunha is deeply compelling and fundamentally humane, while Ana Moreira radiates piety as Sister Joana.

In terms of method and tone, Nun almost approaches experimental filmmaking, yet it has a romantic soul and a respect for the transcendent faith of Sister Joana that borders on genuine reverence. It also shows unexpected flashes of a sardonic wit. Clearly, Nun is intended for an exclusive, self-selecting audience, yet it has moments of arresting beauty well beyond the sights and sounds of Lisbon. It would surely baffle multiplex audiences several times over, but the elusive Nun is highly recommended to the stylistically adventurous. It opens this Friday (10/22) in New York at the Anthology Film Archives.

Taiwan Film Days ’10: Tears

Detective Guo is one of those crusty late middle-agers who can thoroughly kick the butts of men less than half his age. In an American film, he might have been played by a Clint Eastwood or Tommy Lee Jones fifteen years ago. However, the hardened cop carries a lot of baggage that might finally catch up with him in Cheng Wen-tang’s Tears (trailer here), which screens this weekend as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s Taiwan Film Days at the Viz Theater.

Guo has not cried in ten years, but he is clearly sick at heart. Separated from his wife, he has no enthusiasm for patching up the family unit. For years he has been passed over for promotion, preferring to alienate his fellow officers with his cynicism and contempt for espirit de corps. It hardly helps ingratiate the prickly detective to his colleagues when he gets a bee in his bonnet over the apparent open-and-shut overdose death of a young supposedly former junkie.

Yet, Guo has a soft-side. He regularly volunteers at a long-term care hospital and looks out for Xiao Wen and Xuan Xuan, the two cute young women who work at an all-night betelnut kiosk. Perhaps, they are all linked by some secret in Guo’s past, but Cheng will not yield them up too quickly and Guo certainly isn’t talking. While Tears is somewhat coy about where it’s headed, at least it has someplace to go. Some of the more self-indulgent directors of the Romanian New Wave (ahem, Cristi Puiu) should take note of how Cheng crafts a deliberately paced intimate character study that never feels like a drag.

In fact, Tears is quite an intense, if slightly idiosyncratic, variation on the cop in search of redemption story. Tsai Chen-nan is pitch-perfect as Guo, looking like the personification of world-weariness. He perfectly captures the bearing of a veteran cop, while projecting the turmoil churning deep below his façade of resignation. Taiwanese singer-songwriter Enno Cheng also sneaks up on viewers, bringing substantial nuance and depth to Xiao Wen. If not as demanding a role, Taiwanese heavy metal superstar Doris Yeh is at least suitably energetic as Xuan Xuan.

While Hsin-Hua Feng’s digital cinematography is rather pedestrian and several flashbacks from minor players merely serve as unnecessary distractions, the combined strength of Guo’s character and Tsai’s performance doggedly pull viewers through. A gritty, street smart film that definitely earns its occasional moment of sentimentality, Tears is a very strong selection for Taiwan Film Days. It screens this coming Saturday (10/24) and Sunday (10/25) at the Viz Theater in San Francisco.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

NYMF ’10: Trav’lin the Musical

Everybody recorded J.C. Johnson’s songs, most notably including Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, yet his name has largely been forgotten, even among passionate devotees of the Great American Songbook. However, Johnson’s stories of jazz and Harlem nightlife made a strong impression on the young ears of Gary Holmes, eventually inspiring Trav’lin the Musical, whose book he co-wrote with Allen Schapiro. Years in development, Trav’lin finally graces New York stages as part of the 2010 NY Musical Theatre Festival in a limited run that ends tonight.

As the “unofficial mayor of 132nd Street,” Deacon George keeps an eye on his neighborhood. Naturally, he notices each new arrival, especially one that looks eerily similarly to Billie, his old flame from New Orleans. Now calling herself Ethel from Mississippi, Billie prefers not to reveal herself just yet, even as she finds herself romantically drawn to George once again.

No longer working on a Pullman Car, George has settled down into his community peacemaker role. Now, it is his nursing student niece Ella who is seeing a traveling man, straight-laced Nelson, a Bible salesman. He used to have eyes for Ros, the neighborhood beautician, but she remained true to her own traveling man, even if the smooth operating Archie was not always true to her. As Billie and Ros mentor the younger Ella their own romances fizzle and flair to the music of J.C. Johnson.

Johnson often wrote on love and longing, leaving many evocative standards and should-be-standards to chose from, including probably his best known tune “Trav’lin (All Alone),” a real highlight of the show performed as an epistolary dialogue between George and Billie/Ethel. However, the biggest showstopper has to be the low down “Empty Bed Blues” performed with verve and sass by Brenda Braxton channeling Bessie Smith as Billie.

Indeed, it is not surprising Johnson’s songbook lends itself so well to musical theater, since he often wrote for the stage, including The Jazz Train, a survey of popular African American music, with each train representing a particular period. (Though not widely seen in America, it was something of a sensation in Europe at the time and its cast album has since been reissued by Sepia, the British collector’s label.) A nice showcase for Johnson’s music, Holmes and Shapiro also pay tribute to his great collaborators through their characters’ names—Ella, Billie, and Ethel being readily apparent, while George is a tip of the cap to vaudeville lyricist George A. Whiting.

Trav’lin has a great cast and a strong four piece combo backing them up on-stage. Multi-reed player Marc Phaneuf has a distinctly bluesy sound on clarinet that sets the scene quite effectively. Musical director John DiPinto is also a strong player, but one wishes they could have shoehorned an upright piano into the theater for him, because music of this era never sounds quite right on a keyboard. Still, rhythm section mates Brian Brake and Benjamin Brown, on drums and bass respectively, set a swinging tempo that the cast definitely responds to. All six performers have strong voices, but Brenda Braxton and Doug Eskew arguably shine the brightest as Billie and George, the older experienced couple. While she excels in the Bessie Smith number, he nicely expresses the wistful nostalgia of “Louisiana,” which might have been Johnson’s most recognizable song in his day.

Cleverly staged by director Paul Stancato, Trav’lin feels like a bigger show than the limited space of the TBG stage would otherwise allow. An endearingly old-fashioned romance set to some swinging sounds, Trav’lin is faithful in spirit to the music that inspired it. Enthusiastically recommended, it runs once more under the auspices of NYMF, tonight (4:30), but hopefully it will soon return in some form for a longer run.