Saturday, June 30, 2012

NYAFF ’12: 10+10

Taiwan is a country with a tragic history and rich legacy of pop music.  Both factor prominently when ten established Taiwanese filmmakers and ten emerging new talents were commissioned by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival to create a five minute films expressing the country’s unique character.  The resulting anthology 10+10 screens this coming Thursday as an official selection of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Viewers going into 10+10 should not get hung up on consistency.  These twenty filmmakers will cover a lot of emotional and thematic ground.  The tension between tradition and modernization will be a recurring motif, beginning with Wang Toon’s opener, in which a bickering pair of cousins treks up to a remote shrine.  They intent to curry favor with the spirits by showing them the 3-D DVD of Avatar.  It is a quiet but clever piece.

Nostalgia is also on tap in Wu Nien-jen’s A Grocery Called Forever.  Depicting a spirited elderly woman who insists on keeping her family’s corner store open, it is a pleasant slice of life.  Taiwan’s aging population play central roles in several constituent films, perhaps most touchingly in Cheng Wen-tang’s Old Man and Me.  Told from the persona of a now deceased man suffering from Alzheimer’s, it serves as his thank-you to the townspeople who searched the countryside for him when he wandering off to his demise.

Given the approximate five minute durations, many of the installments are rather sketch-like.  Indeed, entries like Wang Shaudi’s Destined Eruption and Yang Ya-che’s The Singing Boy seem to end just as they are getting started.  However, several pack quite a bit of narrative into their limited running times.  Somehow, Chang Tso-Chi’s Sparkles shoehorns the entire 1949 Battle of Kinmen Island into less than ten minutes.  A powerful war film, it follows an innocent girl being escorted to the island’s doctor by the Nationalists, as they desperately try to hold off the invading Communists.

Featuring plenty of explosions, Sparkles is probably one of the most NYAFF-esque films in 10+10.  The other would be Chung Mong-hong’s satisfyingly dark Reverberation.  What starts as a teenaged bullying drama takes a dramatic u-turn into gangster territory.  Karma will be a hard thing.

Easily the strongest shorts are those directly inspired by music.  Chen Kuo-fu’s The Debut is a lovely ghost story, portraying the spectral encouragement offered to a discouraged pop ingénue by one of the great torch singers from yesteryear.  Likewise, Rendy Hou Chi-jan pays tribute to the sentimental ballads of the 1960’s, depicting one song’s power to transcend time.  Ranking just a notch below the lyrical pair, Cheng Yu-chieh’s Unwritten delivers some ironic laughs satirizing the concessions made by the Taiwanese film industry to the mainland market.  Frankly, it is increasingly relevant to Hollywood as well.

Not every film works particularly well.  Wei Te-sheng’s Debut ought to be a DVD extra for his aboriginal war drama Seediq Bale, essentially following his first-time actor Lin Ching-tai as they take the epic to the Venice Film Festival.  Arguably, the low point comes with Kevin Chu Yen-ping’s uncomfortably manipulative and awkwardly didactic The Orphans.

Surprisingly, there is a fair amount of star power in 10+10, including Shu Qi looking typically radiant in marquis contributor Hou Hsiao-hsien’s slight but nonetheless engaging closer La Belle Epoque.  Kwai Lun Mei also graces Leon Dai’s oomph-lacking Key.  Despite attempts to glam her down, she remains a vivid screen presence.

By their nature, anthology films are inherently uneven.  Yet, there are enough good things going on in 10+10 to satisfy connoisseurs of either short films or Asian cinema.  On balance, it is an effective sampling of Taiwanese cinema, well worth a look when it screens this coming Thursday (7/5) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Friday, June 29, 2012

NYAFF ’12: Dead Bite

If a group of bikini-clad women are attacked by marauding zombies, you are apt to see a lot of bikini-clad zombies before long.  That inescapable logic is pretty much the guiding principle for Joey Boy’s Dead Bite (trailer here), which screens with authority during the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Joey Boy is a Thai rapper, who convinced his group, Gankor Club, to play themselves in his scrappily independent zombie-mermaid religious cult movie, probably with the help of their co-stars’ wardrobe.  Due to the framing device, we know Gankor Club’s latest gig went profoundly wrong.  Basically, it was supposed to be the old three hour cruise, shooting promotional videos while partying with some gorgeous women.  Unfortunately, they chose the wrong isle: Mermaid Island.

The first clue would be the marine zombies shambling out of the waves.  Trying to take refuge inland, they run smack into the Forest Goddess, who rules her Mermaid sect through fear and sexual tension.  Of course, Joey Boy and his mates had no idea what they were stumbling into.  Yet, for some reason inexplicably connected to WWII, Japanese tourist Miyuki intentionally came to Mermaid Island to plunder a mermaid mummy.  It might hold the secret of immortality or something.  Meanwhile, the Gankor dudes are dying like flies and then popping up again as the undead.

Dead Bite is sort of like a Piranha 3D, except it is 2D and Thai, both of which make it way cooler.  Evidently, Joey Boy and Gankor Club are the real deal in Thailand and also have major cred with their American counterparts.  As actors they certainly do not seem very self-conscious, throwing themselves into their Scooby and Shaggy roles with admirable energy. 

As an auteur, Joey Boy keeps it all quite snappy.  There is also a strange postmodern aspect to his self-referential story that might be purely accidental.  Of course, Dead Bite would not be possible without its game supporting cast of attractive women, including Kumiko Sugaho and Lakana Wattanawongsiri as Miyuki and the Forest Goddess, respectively, whose contributions are obvious.  Despite all the lunacy and ogling, they more or less maintain their dignity throughout.  Surely, their next stop will be Cannes with Joe “Uncle Boonmee” Weerasethakul.

It is nice to see a director’s vision up on-screen, knowing he made exactly the film he intended.  Gleefully manic and unabashedly randy (in a PG-13 sort of way), Dead Bite is everything a zombie beach movie ought to be.  Just good, clean, blood-splattered fun, it is highly recommended for fans of a wide array of B-movies when it screens next Friday (7/6) and the following Wednesday (7/11) as this year’s NYAFF continues at the Walter Reade Theater.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Endeavour: the Young Inspector Morse

Consider it a portrait of the curmudgeon as a young man.  Inspector Morse would make a name for himself as the prickly but refined Chief Inspector with a taste for opera and poetry.  However, in 1965, Endeavour Morse was an Oxford drop-out just hoping to catch on with the Thames Valley force after a stint in the military.  His first case will be difficult, bringing him back to his former college in Endeavour (promo here), the one-off Inspector Morse prequel, premiering this coming Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.

Mary Tremlett, a local school girl, has been murdered and her former lover, an Oxford student, has committed suicide.  It is supposed to look like an open-and-shut affair, but the details do not quite fit.  Constable Morse’s inquiry leads him to the faculty member tutoring Tremlett (under questionable circumstances), who happens to be married to Morse’s favorite opera diva.

Though preoccupied on several fronts, Morse doggedly follows the clues leading to sleazy car dealer with half the force in his pocket.  To proceed, he will need the career-risking assistance of his prospective mentor, the somewhat Morse-like Detective Inspector Fred Thursday, who drives a Jaguar and has little patience for his colleagues’ corruption.

For a television mystery, Endeavour is fairly successful misdirecting viewers, despite dropping some fairly obvious clues.  It also comes fully approved and vouched for, featuring a cameo appearance from Morse author Colin Dexter, as well as Abigail Thaw, the daughter of the late John Thaw (the star of the original Morse series), appearing briefly as the editor of the Oxford newspaper.  Frankly, it seems strange that Endeavour was initially produced as a one-shot, much like the Morse spin-off, Inspector Lewis, but in each case, the viewers have clearly spoken.  A full four episode season of Endeavour is reportedly already in the works.

In his eponymous first outing, Shaun Evans looks appropriately awkward and earnest as Constable Morse, but it will be interesting to see how the character and his performance evolve over time.  Indeed, it is easy to understand how this early case would appreciably contribute to his disillusionment.  Fortunately, Roger Allam (who once played a suspect on the flagship Inspector Morse) provides plenty of color as the flamboyant but principled DI Friday.  The only real weaknesses on Constable Morse’s maiden voyage are his suspects, who are a rather bland lot, in an English upper crust sort of way.

Sure to please the preexisting base, Endeavour should also appeal to viewers of PBS period dramas.  There is definitely a sense of nostalgia here that should help the prequel series establish its own discrete identity.  An entertaining feature length murder mystery that has plenty of potential for growth (again, much like Lewis before it), Endeavour is easily recommended for Brit TV fans when it airs this Sunday (7/1) on most PBS stations nationwide.

NYAFF ’12: War of the Arrows

Sure China invaded Korea, but it was all for the sake of greater regional stability.  The year is 1636 and only an unemployable archer with an attitude problem stands between Joseon and an army of Manchurian invaders in Kim Han-min’s War of the Arrows (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Choi Nam-yi and his sister Ja-in should not be alive.  When their father is wrongfully branded a traitor, they barely escape to the home of his lifelong friend, who raises them in secret.  Unable to live a productive public life, the grown Choi becomes a sullen slacker, wasting his life with his Falstaffian cronies.  He only excels at one thing: archery.

In contrast, his sister has fallen in love with Kim Seo-goon, the son of their protector.  Believing they can lead a normal existence together, Kim has convinced his parents to allow their marriage.  Unfortunately, the Qing army happens to choose their wedding day for their invasion.  They only make one mistake, scooping up Choi’s sister and new brother-in-law along with the rest of their prisoners.  Somewhat put out by this, Choi dogs the returning Qing forces, becoming a guerrilla army of one.  Of course, the trail of arrow-impaled bodies he leaves in his wake attracts the attention of an elite company of archers led by the seriously hardnosed Jyushinta.

A commanding screen presence, Ryoo Syeung-ryong makes quite the villain as the relentless Jyushinta.  He seethes with authority and projects a quiet sense of menace perfect for his role as the Qing commando leader.  While Park Hae-il’s Choi lacks a similar gravitas, he is a convincing action figure, letting the arrows fly as he careens through the forest.

War is one fierce archery film.  Those who considered Hawkeye the biggest take-away from The Avengers are in for a treat.  This is warfighting at its most personal level.  Though already available on DVD, it is the sort of film that should be a blast to watch with an appreciative NYAFF audience when it finally gets an overdue New York ovation tomorrow.  Well worth seeing on a big screen, it would have also made a good 3-D fixer-upper (unlike say, Clash of the Titans), considering how many projectiles come flying out towards the audience.  Like the best action historicals, War of the Arrows is both high tragedy and a total blast.  Enthusiastically recommended, it screens Friday night (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the intrepid 2012 NYAFF.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

NYAFF ’12: The Sword Identity

The Ming Dynasty valued stability.  For the four martial arts masters of coastal Guancheng, a new discipline based on forbidden Japanese swords represents anything but.  The nameless warrior will have to prove his late master’s sword the hard way in Xu Haofeng’s The Sword Identity (trailer here), which screens during the eagerly anticipated 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Anyone who has seen Donnie Yen, this year’s Star Asia Award recipient, in the Ip Man franchise knows full well what a new master in town has to do before they can open a new school.  They have to fight through the martial arts establishment, even if that means going toe-to-toe with Sammo Hung on a rickety table top.  Coincidentally, Xu is the screenwriter for Wong Kar-wai’s long-awaited competing Ip Man epic, so he must have an affinity for innovative masters.

The unnamed swordsman and a somewhat less fierce comrade duly smack their way through the first three vested interests, but the fourth will be a trickier proposition.  Labeling them Japanese pirates because of their sword, the acting fourth Master Qie and his predecessor, the reclusive Qiu Dongyue, will not play ball.  Suddenly a fugitive, the man with no name teaches a foreign dancing girl (and potential love interest) Sailan a secret move to hold off all comers, while he sneaks over to Qie’s, spoiling for a fight.  Again, he cannot connect with his slippery nemesis, but there he enlists the unfaithful wife of old Qiu to similarly defeat hordes of martial artists single-handed, allowing him to continue his skulking about.

Essentially, the swordsman’s second secret move boils down to blindsiding people as they come through the door, but Xu makes it sound mysterious and mystical.  If it works, it works.  The sword is what is really important.  The invention of the nameless man’s master, the late illustrious General Qi Jiguang, it was devised specifically to counter the verboten swords employed by real Japanese pirates, which makes its current identity crisis so frustrating for the disciple.  Indeed, Identity is more about notions of legacy and loyalty than martial arts spectacles.

Still, there are some memorable fight scenes in Identity, but Xu’s approach is distinguished more by its cleverness than full-throttled adrenaline.  While some of the drama going on with Qiu, Qie, and Madame Qie is a bit awkward, there is some nice chemistry developed between the swordsman and Sailan, played by Song Yang and Xu Fujing, respectively.  Frankly, they should have had more scenes together.

The austere look of Identity is a refreshing change of pace from the many lushly produced post-Crouching Tiger Wuxia epics, chocked full of CGI.  Song Yang is an engaging Spaghetti Western martial artist and Sailan’s attractive dancer colleagues provide some appealing comic relief (though not so much the pompous officer of the guard they adopt).  Distinctive and ultimately quite satisfying, The Sword Identity screens this Sunday (7/1) and Wednesday after next (7/11) as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

NYAFF ’12: Nameless Gangster

Though still a young democracy, by the early 1990’s the South Korean government had run out of patience with the unchecked lawlessness of organized crime.  Choi Ik-hyun became one of their top targets.  He did not look like much of a criminal, but he was very organized.  It is time to get your gangland beatdowns on as the New York Asian Film Festival comes roaring in with a whole new slate of fresh selections.  Yun Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (trailer here) will deliver plenty of said when it screens at the 20012 festival this Saturday.

Choi is a low level customs inspector, corrupt in the pettiest of ways.  His family was once wealthy and respected, but their fortunes have fallen.  However, he remains hyper connected amongst the larger Choi clan hierarchy.  Stumbling across a shipment of heroin, Choi parlays it and his surname into a business relationship with the Busan mob’s top gun, Choi Hyung-bae. 

This Choi looks the part of a gangster.  Though initially skeptical of the doughier Choi, the steely cool gangster comes to appreciate the value of the older man’s connections and his skill at exploiting them.  For a while, they become a very profitable team.  However, Choi Ik-hyun’s greed and vanity will lead him to flirt with his “god-son’s” chief rival, Kim Pan-ho, destabilizing their alliance.  Gangsters always do that kind of thing.

Nameless is far broader in scope than a mere series of gangland rumbles.  Nonetheless, when the Choi and Kim factions start bashing each other fifty shades of black and blue, it is quite impressively cinematic.  Still, Yun is more concerned with the zeitgeist of the time, the ROK’s years of transitional democracy, while depicting the base cunning of a wanna-be consigliere.

Indeed, special festival guest Choi Min-sik is quite compelling as his slovenly namesake.  It might sound like a role quite removed from the ferocious serial killer he played in I Saw the Devil.  Yet, both characters are small men who react desperately when their method of empowerment is threatened.  However, it is Ha Jung-woo who really makes a lasting impression.  Icily fatalistic, but not without the capacity for explosive rage, his Choi Hyung-bae is exactly the sort of performance that makes great gangster films tick.  Likewise, Kim Seong-gyoon has a nice flair for ruthless and reckless villainy as the younger’s Choi’s lead enforcer.

It’s been a while since there was a mob movie with the sweep and ambition of Nameless.  It certainly is good to have another one.  Despite the wider historical context, Yun keeps the action gritty and violent.  It is a big picture, but it has a tight focus.  Enthusiastically recommended, it screens this Saturday (6/30) and next Tuesday (7/3) as part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Neil Young Journeys: Another Demme Concert Film

Toronto’s Massey Hall was the site of a now legendary bebop concert, producing the only live recording cut by the all-star quintet of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charlie Mingus.  That was in 1953.  A lot of headliners have played the storied hall since then, including native son Neil Young, whose rather workaday 2011 homecoming solo sets are documented in Neil Young Journeys (trailer here), his latest concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, which opens this Friday in New York.

If you like distortion, these were the Neil Young shows for you.  Despite the presence of greatest hits like “Hey Hey, My My,” Young draws fairly heavily from his then latest CD, Le Noise, as rockers are apt to do.  It is not called “The Noise” for nothing, but the hard rocking vibe helps compensate for the whininess of his more activist fare, like “Ohio.”

Surprisingly, some of Journeys’ strongest scenes feature Young talking rather than playing.  Cruising to the gig in a vintage 1956 Crown Victoria, the rocker discusses growing up in Omemee, Ontario and his father, the late sportswriter (most notable hockey, but of course) Scott Young for Demme’s camera. He even gives viewers a drive-by of the elementary school named for his father.

If nothing else, one thing comes through loud and clear during Journeys: Young is very definitely still stuck in the 1960’s.  Granted, fans will expect to hear “Ohio,” but the Kent State A-V guilt trip (the only time Demme departs from his intimate, in-his-grill focus on the guitarist) is more than a tad heavy-handed, not to mention disproportionate, compared to scope of subsequent tragedies, like September 11th.

By and large, the concert footage’s saturated neon colors are reasonably cinematic, while cinematographer Declan Quinn and his mike-cam capture all Young’s stubble and spittle (for real).  Though it is unlikely to win over a host of converts, Young fans have probably been psyched for it, ever since it played Toronto and Park City.  In point of fact, several online sources currently misstate Journeys’ festival credentials, confusing Sundance (where previous Demme-Young docs screened) and Slamdance (where this one had a special featured screening earlier in the year).  Regardless, this is one largely for the faithful.  It opens this Friday (6/29) in New York at the AMC Empire and Landmark Sunshine.  The Quintet’s Jazz at Massey Hall by contrast, is recommended for wide audiences and is available from all quality online retailers.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Techine’s Unforgivable

Evidently Venice is a lot like New York.  You will find a lot of writers and realtors there.  One fateful day, a French mystery novelist walks into a former fashion model’s real estate agency.  It will be the start of a very complicated relationship for the lead characters in André Téchiné’s latest pseudo-thriller, Unforgivable (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between Francis’s creative productivity and his domestic happiness.  He came to Venice to write in seclusion, but took up with Judith instead.  At least she had the perfect rental for him: a secluded old villa on the island of Sant’Erasmo.  Happy with his new home and lover, Francis has not written a word in months.  Fortunately or unfortunately, that will all change when his ostensibly grown daughter Alice comes to visit.

Either to get back at Francis or her vastly more responsible ex, Alice disappears without warning, apparently taking up with a penniless aristocratic drug dealer.  Not inclined to let things be, Francis hires the half-retired private detective Anna Maria, a woman from Judith’s past, to shadow his daughter across the continent.  As Francis’s escalating emotional neediness turns to jealousy, he hires Anna Maria’s delinquent son to shadow Judith in turn.

Based on Philippe Djian’s novel, Unforgivable is a perfect example of Téchiné’s knack for skirting the boundaries of the thriller genre without fully crossing over.  He toys with plenty of noir conventions, such as a mysterious disappearance, a smarmy underworld figure, and a whole lot of skulking about the streets of Venice.  Yet, Téchiné is more concerned with his characters’ extreme emotions—the passion, jealousy, and contempt driving their actions.

Perfectly cast as Francis, André Dussollier projects the appropriate sophistication, arrogance, and insecurity, while still connecting with something fundamentally human and sympathetic about the character.  However, the real pleasure of Unforgivable is seeing Carole Bouquet (the most under-appreciated “Bond Girl” ever in the pinnacle film of the Roger Moore era, For Your Eyes Only) as Judith, the mature femme fatale.  Indeed, it is a smart, delicately calibrated performance.

Capitalizing on the mysterious Venetian backdrop, Unforgivable is like a film noir for those who avoid on-screen violence and cynicism.  It is literate and worldly, yet compassionately forgiving of its characters self-defeating foibles (title notwithstanding).  Highly recommended for French film connoisseurs, it opens this Friday (6/29) in New York at the IFC Center downtown and the Beekman Theatre uptown.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gypsy: A Roma Tragedy

Historically, the Roma have been ethnically targeted by police forces worldwide, far beyond the much derided “racial profiling” of current controversies.  As a result, it was already hard being Roma in an area like eastern Slovakia, but the death of Adam’s father makes things much worse for the young man.  His mother’s hasty marriage to his thuggish uncle does not help either in Martin Šulík’s Shakespearean social issue drama Gypsy (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Despite the echoes of Hamlet, Adam’s father was hardly the King of the Roma and he is certainly no prince.  He is still visited by his father’s ghost, but the dear departed is more concerned with his son’s well being than seeking vengeance for his early demise.  Still, there is something naggingly suspicious about the accident that claimed the old reformed ruffian’s life.

Seething with resentment for “whitey,” Uncle Žigo is not a stabilizing influence.  Much to Adam’s alarm, he involuntarily recruits the young man and his more passive brother for a number of dubious criminal schemes.  The local Catholic priest tries to keep Adam on the straight and narrow, but he is no match for the brutish Žigo.  Meanwhile, Adam pursues his Ophelia, the younger but less tragic Jula, but again, his Uncle’s ruthless gangsterism is a hindrance.

Wisely, Gypsy does not try to correspond to Hamlet on a one-to-one basis.  In addition to many obvious plot diversions, the dynamics of Adam’s interpersonal relations differ in subtle but important ways.  Most importantly, unlike Claudius, Žigo’s villainous nature is unambiguously established.  Whether or not he killed Adam’s father, he is undeniably a bad guy.

Šulík and co-writer Marek Leščák are also clearly out to make a statement about the living standards endured by the nearly universally despised Roma of Eastern Europe.  Frankly, the conditions of Adam’s settlement are almost pristine compared to what some muckraking docs have recorded.  Regardless, the violent prejudice of the Slovakian coppers is hard to miss.

Looking like a decidedly young fourteen, Janko Mižigár gives a remarkably assured, quietly forceful performance as the barely teenaged protagonist.  He also has some nice youthful infatuation chemistry with Martinka Kotlárová’s Jula.  Yet, his strongest, most resonate scenes are played with Ivan Mirga, appearing as his spectral father.

Šulík has a sharp eye for detail, conveying a full picture of the Roma’s outcast existence.  While his chief antagonist is not exactly an overpoweringly malevolent presence, young Mižigár’s forceful work is quite noteworthy throughout.  Grim, gritty, and periodically brutal, Gypsy is not a pretty picture, notwithstanding some handsomely framed shots from cinematographer Martin Šec.  However, it holds a mirror up to nature quite effectively, while telling a relentlessly naturalistic coming of age story.  Recommended for those who enjoy tragic drama spiked with consciousness-raising realism, Gypsy opens this Wednesday (6/27) at New York’s Film Forum.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

PBS Arts: Mariachi High

It is like Friday Night Lights, except with more talented kids.  For some Texas high schools, Mariachi band competitions are a big, big deal.  Small upstart Zapata High School has a winning tradition, but they had some rebuilding to do after many top seniors graduated.  The Zapata Halcon ensemble is out to recapture their title in Ilana Trachtman and Kim Connell’s documentary Mariachi High (promo here), which kicks off the PBS Summer Arts Festival this coming Friday on most Public Broadcasting outlets.

Conceived as a program to keep students from dropping out, Texas’s High Mariachi bands have been a resounding success. However, Zapata High School is not a blackboard jungle.  As presented by Trachtman and Connell, the rural school is clean, orderly, and academically rigorous.  Not so coincidentally, the school’s top students also belong to Mariachi Halcon.

The high expectations for the Zapata band members start with their director, former professional musician Adrian Padilla.  Obviously a good coach, he never berates the students over wins and losses, but accepts no excuses for an insufficiently entertaining show.

Watching High, one suspects there is a longer cut out there making the festival rounds.  The version airing Friday feels a little rushed, marching through try-outs, an important tournament, and the state championship, only briefly stopping for getting-to-know-you scenes with Padilla and the band.  Still, to the filmmakers’ credit, they never skimp on the music. Nor do they shy away from some of the more politically incorrect, chauvinistic lyrics.

Even at its fifty-four minute broadcast running time, High would be a good companion film to Bruce Broder’s CHOPS, a film that should have gone farther after screening at Tribeca five years ago.  It is invigorating to see young people’s enthusiasm for music in both films.  It is also a depressing reminder of how much was lost by the borderline criminal mismanagement of the late lamented International Association of Jazz Education.

Aside from a concluding pitch for music education funding, High wisely avoids politics.  Yet, the depiction of high achieving college bound Hispanic students and their supportive parents might well challenge a number of stereotypes out there.  While not as rousing (or flat-out funky) as Mark Landsman’s Thunder Soul, there are plenty of feel good moments in Mariachi High.  Nice stuff for free TV, it airs Friday (6/29) on New York’s Thirteen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

J’Adore ’12: Operation Casablanca

Switzerland’s national police has plenty of experience with diplomats, but they are about to get a crash course in Islamist terrorists—not that there is much difference between the two.  Unfortunately, a bad case of mistaken identity puts an illegal economic immigrant on the run in Laurent Nègre’s light-hearted Opération Casablanca (trailer here), which screens today and tomorrow in Denver as a selection of J’Adore: Focus on French Language Cinema.

Saadi is a Moroccan passing for El Salvadoran passing for invisible.  When his restauranteur boss Michel sticks him in the cooler to avoid labor inspectors, the hard worker gamely complies.  However, when the sleazy employer pushes him too far, Saadi walks—straight into the kidnapping of UN Secretary General Takahata.  Being the profoundly wrong guy in the wrong place, Saadi is roughly interrogated by the Swiss authorities (better late than never, guys) and Takahata’s security specialist, Isako.  She would be the one in the Emma Peel wardrobe.

Maybe half believing Saadi’s innocence, the Swiss browbeat him into impersonating the real terrorist.  Right, what could go wrong with that plan?  Fortunately, Isako goes rogue to team up with the amateur infiltrator.  Actually, Saadi thinks fairly well on his feet for a put-upon schmuck, but he still has difficulty sussing out the evil scheme big league Hassan expects him to implement.

Casablanca definitely follows in the tradition of the OSS 117 franchise, but it is slightly less silly.  For a Swiss film featuring a lovable undocumented worker, it is also surprisingly forthright in its depiction of terrorism.  For Hassan and his cohorts, it is not about jobs or social welfare.  It’s all about Islam.

Tarik Bakhari has a likable screen charm and a nice, not too over the top flair for physical comedy.  The French-Cambodian Elodie Yung (due to become internationally geek famous when the mercifully postponed G. I. Joe sequel finally lurches into theaters) brings plenty of action cred and an intriguing presence to the film as Isako.  Veteran Swiss actor Jean-Luc Bideau sure hams it up though, as Michel.

Essentially, Casablanca aims to please, while presenting a portrait of a working class Muslim who rejects the violence of his extremist co-religionists.  Neither of those are bad goals.  There are also some relatively clever developments in Nègre’s script, as a small bonus.  Energetic and upbeat, Opération Casablanca should be a pleasant palate cleanser amongst the more serious fare at the Denver Film Society’s J’Adore series.  Handled internationally by The Yellow Affair, it is worth checking out when it screens this afternoon (6/22) and tomorrow night (6/23).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Stella Days: A Reluctant Irish Country Priest

This is the story of the picture house Father Daniel Barry built.  He is supposed to be raising money for a new church, but his salt-of-the-earth parishioners are rather stingy donors.  However, a legitimate movie theater would bring in a steady flow of ticket receipts to fund the construction efforts.  Frankly, the good Father does not really want a new church anyway in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Stella Days (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York (and is already available on-demand from Tribeca Films).

Father Barry would rather be in Rome and he never bothered to hide his feelings from his flock.  Transferred back to Ireland as punishment for a bit of a personal spat with Vatican colleagues, the priest’s anticipated return to Rome has been postponed for the sake of the parish capital drive.  Father Barry would hardly seem to be the man for the job, but his passion for cinema and friendship with Tim Lynch, the comparatively cosmopolitan new school teacher, inspire his vision for The Stella Theater.  It obviously complicates the overall plan considerably, but the good Father can get behind efforts to build a neighborhood cinema much more readily.

In the mid 1950’s, electrification was still quite new in rural hamlets like Father Barry’s parish.  In fact, the priest is the town’s leading advocate for all that new fangled technology.  Indeed, the priest is the progressive in this period piece.  His Bishop—not so much.  However, sourpuss politician Brendan McSweeney is the real thorn is the Father’s side.  McSweeney’s pressure and a scandal involving Lynch and the technically still married woman he boards with hasten Father Barry’s simmering crisis of faith.

Frankly, McSweeney’s judgmental villainy is rather shopworn stuff by now.  The hiss-able social conservative actually represents a rare off-par performance from the normally reliable Stephen Rea.  Finding nothing human in the character, Rea seems to be going through the dastardly motions simply to advance the plot.

In contrast, Father Daniel Barry, as played by Martin Sheen, is a different matter entirely.  Though the character could have easily descended into an unfortunate Catholic stereotype, Days presents his internal conflicts in the sympathetic tradition of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.  Sheen’s sensitive turn clearly suggests parish priesthood has tremendous value and Father Barry’s snowballing doubts simply make him human and fully dimensional.

Aside from the serpentine McSweeney, Stella Days is a considerably restrained film.  Despite its love for cinema, O’Sullivan never relies on stereotypical shots of audience staring in wide-eyed wonder at the flickering images on the screen.  Nor is Father Barry’s struggle with his calling in any way cheap or demeaning.  Lynch is even an Artie Shaw fan, which shows some taste. 

An appropriately muted looking period production, Stella Days rarely takes the easy way out, making it a legitimately humanistic portrait of an Irish country priest.  Recommended for patrons of Irish film and those interested in its themes of Catholicism and cinema’s role in society, Stella Days opens tomorrow (6/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s Black-and-White New York

There was a time when New York City was entirely in black-and-white.  At least that is the impression we get from classic photos, many of which were taken by artists and journalists associated with the Photo League.  Members like Ruth “American Girl in Italy” Orkin and Ansel “Yosemite National Park” Adams were brought together in part by politics, but politics would also be the group’s downfall.  Their early to mid Twentieth Century climb to prominence and subsequent dissolution are documented in Daniel Allentuck & Nina Rosenblum’s Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Photo League was a direct offshoot of the Film and Photo League, a syndication service providing images to radical leftist press outlets, including the Daily Worker.  Co-founders Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman shared a grand vision combining Popular Front ideology with naturalistic documentary photo aesthetics.  A school, gallery, and support system for photographers of all skill levels, the League ironically acted something like a private WPA for its New Yorker members.

Indeed, one of the League’s most celebrated endeavors was the Harlem Document, a five photographer project capturing the vitality and iniquities of the famous upper Manhattan neighborhood.  The League also played an active role preserving and publicizing the work of nearly forgotten elder statesmen, such as Lewis Hine, now best remembered for his photos of the Empire State Building construction workers toiling high above the City.

In 1951, the party ended rather precipitously.  An apostolic descendant of explicitly Marxist organizations, the League was suddenly on the wrong side of the national zeitgeist.  Naturally, plenty of scorn is heaped upon a certain alcoholic two-term senator from Wisconsin in the film.  Yet, none of the surviving League members are reflective enough to question why the League never explicitly followed the lead of intellectuals like Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender, who formally repudiated Communism after the Stalinist Show Trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression treaty came to light.  Not only would it have been a more principle position, it would have saved the League great heartache during the post-war years.

Frankly, nobody should look to a photography documentary for lessons in geo-political history or economics.  What Miracles has in gracious supply are wonderfully evocative photos of New York in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Arguably, the most striking visuals are the crime photos taken by newspaperman Athur Feelig, a.k.a. Weegee, perhaps because of his own hardboiled archival commentary.

Not surprisingly, such images are the heart and soul of the film.  Ordinary Miracles also sounds great, featuring licensed musical selections from Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, and Django Reinhardt with Stéphane Grappelli (actually the latter two do not exactly scream 1940’s New York, but they are always cool, nonetheless).  However, the remember-when segments with League veterans do not add much insight.  Glossing over a lot of ideologically messy developments, Ordinary Miracles is recommended for narrowly focused Weegee-like photo enthusiasts, when it opens this Friday (6/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

LAFF ’12: Return to Burma

Coca-Cola may have just announced its imminent return to Burma, but China maintains a chokehold on its client state’s closed economy.  Such is the situation an expatriate construction worker finds on his homecoming.  Regardless of potential political liberalizations, economic opportunities remain few and far between in Midi Z’s Return to Burma (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival.

After years of working and saving in Taipei, Wang Xing-hong is returning home.  He had planned to travel with his co-worker Rong, but instead he will carry his countryman’s ashes.  Transferring from bus to bus he hears the saccharine radio jingles proclaiming the promise of progress through new elections.  Yet, he arrives home to the same depressed provincial town, except now maybe even more so.

Traveling between Taiwan and Burma is an expensive and complicated proposition.  Clearly, Wang would prefer to stay and put down roots.  Simultaneously, his sporadically employed younger brother is about to leave for Malaysia in search of work.  The fact the neighboring country offers greater opportunity than the more richly resource-endowed Burma is a testament to decades of government mismanagement and plunder.  Yet, that is the state of things.

The pseudo-characters of Return are a lot like New Yorkers compulsively discussing comparative rents and maintenance fees at a dinner party.  Viewers will leave knowing the market wage for just about every form of manual labor in the country as well as the start-up cost for numerous small service proprietorships.  The lesson is clear—do not relocate to Burma.  By the way, Midi Z and his colleagues obviously call it Burma and not Myanmar, unlike the military junta and the legacy media.

Shot surreptitiously on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, with non-professional actors kind of-sort of playing themselves, Return is the first domestically produced Burmese feature (evidently ever).  It was also more or less illegal.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it is closely akin stylistically to the Digital Generation school of independent Chinese filmmakers.  Deliberate and observational rather than action-driven or chatty, the film is really all about conveying the experience of Burma’s underclass—and that includes everyone except the top military and government officials.

It is probably a small miracle the Burma-born Taiwan-based Midi Z and his crew-members were not imprisoned during the Return shoot.  They earn considerable kudos for vividly capturing the atmosphere of Burma.  There are times when you can practically smell the humid night air.  Still, the languid pace and hardscrabble living conditions have a rather claustrophobic effect.  It is a worthy but wearying look inside the isolated society.  Recommended for dedicated Burma watchers (but not necessarily casual connoisseurs of Asian cinema), Return to Burma screens this Friday (6/22) and Saturday (6/23) as an International Showcase selection of the 2012 LA Film Fest.

Kumare: That was No Guru . . .

Vikram Gandhi is from New Jersey (so allowances should be made).  He will pass himself off as an Indian guru, finding plenty of New Age suckers to fall for his docu-punking.  While all religions are his stated target, he will inadvertently prove Hamilton’s maxim about falling for anything if you believe in nothing.  Indeed, it is like Marin County at the height of the est craze in Gandhi’s Kumare (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

After a trip to wardrobe and a stop at hair & makeup, Gandhi is ready to give Phoenix Whole Foods customers the full Borat treatment in his Sri Kumare persona.  Fresh from his Indian ashram, Kumare makes the rounds of the local yoga circuit trolling for disciples.  To look legit, he has two co-conspirators, Purva Bedi and Kristen Galgaro, who act like Price is Right models for the holistic scene.

Granted, it takes a bit of time for Kumare to kick start his guru practice, but before long, he has a room full of Volvo drivers hanging on his every word.  The devilish part is the essence of Kumarism: Kumare is fake—you are your own guru.  It is so obvious, one can almost see how his loyal followers missed such a fundamental clue.

If nothing else, Gandhi proves he can shoot fish in a barrel.  It is pretty clear the spirituality set is just asking to be taken for a ride.  Frankly, they are lucky to have fallen in with Kumare, who scrupulously refrained from fleecing the flock.  However, they hardly prove Gandhi’s bigger rational materialist point.  Ironically, had they been asked, Kumarists would probably have said they were too free-thinking for organized religion.  Indeed, it seems a safe bet they are “spiritual, not religious.”

Kumare derives a considerable number of laughs from Gandhi’s brazen chutzpah.  To his credit, he starts to feel bad about just how far he is able to take the joke, but his attempt to wrap it all up in a Kumbaya teaching moment falls way flat.  Make no mistake, the joke is unequivocally on his would-be disciples.  Lacking the guts and intellectual heft of a Mads Brugger, Gandhi really is like a Sacha Baron Cohen for the art-house market.  Recommended for those who need to feel smarter than other people to maintain their sense of self-worth, Kumare opens tomorrow (6/20) in New York at the IFC Center.

Monday, June 18, 2012

LAFF ’12: P-047

They are temporary occupiers.  Nearly invisible in their mall jobs, Lek and Kong break into affluent apartments to borrow a few hours of the tenants’ lives.  They rarely steal anything outright, unless they are sure it will not be missed.  Unfortunately, there seems to be something not quite right with their world on a higher metaphysical level in Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s P-047, which screens during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Lek is a locksmith, whose skills are wasted in his kiosk.  Kong sells magazines, but fancies himself a writer and ladies man.  At Kong’s instigation, they start invading strangers’ flats to experience how the more prosperous live.  They carefully observe each target before their home invasions, but one day the inevitable happens—violently.  From there, all bets are off.

What starts as a pretty grounded excursion into petty crime and economic voyeurism takes a sharp turn into the meta-weird, challenging viewer assumptions regarding objective reality and discrete character identity.  Perhaps Lek and Kong are the same person, though in many respects, this does not seem to be the case.  Yet the hospitalized Lek takes on much of Kong’s persona, while befriending Oy, a strange fellow patient who compulsively sniffs found containers, in search of scents past.

P-047 is clearly intended as a head-scratcher.  Even the appearance of the title digits remains deliberately open to interpretation.  Despite the unwieldiness of the reality-problematizing later scenes, Jaturanrasmee still hooks viewers in quite readily.  Thai recording artist Apichai Tragoolpadetgrai is particularly notable expressing Lek’s social awkwardness and desperate-on-the-inside alienation.  In effective contrast, there is something clearly a little off about Prinya Ngamwongwarn’s Kong.

Frankly, P-047 seems to even lose itself down the stretch.  Nonetheless, the premise is so intriguing and many scattered sequences are so fascinating, one wants to assume all the pieces add up to something significant, somehow.  That counts for something.  The haunting use of Debussy’s Ballade and Umpompol Yugala’s icy cinematography also contribute substantial style points.  Selectively recommended for connoisseurs of Thai film and post-modern cinema, P-047 screens this Wednesday (6/20) and Sunday (6/24) as an International Showcase selection of this year’s L.A. Film Fest.