Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Joyce Vincent was Here: Dreams of a Life

Joyce Vincent was almost a footnote—the sort of ghoulish factoid that gets recycled to demonstrate some point about the disconnectedness of the information age.  Yet, there was more to Vincent than the three years her body laid undiscovered in her London studio apartment.  Carol Morley reconstructs her story in the hybrid-documentary Dreams of a Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

It was an article that struck a chord with tabloid readers.  For three years, Vincent’s landlord, creditors, friends, and four sisters never came looking for her.  When she was finally discovered, her television was still running, but her body had literally decomposed into the floor.  As a result, her cause of death remains undetermined.  Many more questions persist, such as where were those sisters, who not so surprisingly declined to appear in Morley’s film.

However, many of Vincent’s friends, including two former lovers who were once deeply enthralled with her, talk openly and earnestly about the tragically-fated woman.  By most accounts, she was a charming person who at one time held responsible positions in finance.  While nothing about Vincent’s life becomes “clear,” per se, it seems safe to conclude her inner demons spurred her to push people away, based on the testimony Morley collects.

The picture of Vincent that emerges is incomplete, but far more complicated than the sensational headlines would suggest.  This was a woman who once had entrée into the world of pop music, bringing Isaac Hayes and Nelson Mandela into her story as minor supporting characters.

Combining brutally intimate interviews segments with reenactments of episodes from her still murky life (primarily featuring Zawe Ashton as the adult Vincent and Cornell S. John as her problematic father), Dreams stretches the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, at the risk of coming across like cable true crime programming.  Yet the humanistic ethos driving the film keeps it safely on course.  Indeed, the genuine emotions expressed by Vincent’s friends, lovers, and coworkers are rather overpowering at times.

Ironically, Dreams sounds great, featuring funky instrumental themes composed by Barry Adamson as well as many touchstone songs from the era, even including a nicely soulful demo Vincent herself cut (how sad is that?).  Hearing her voice is actually rather spooky.

Sensitively helmed by Morley, Dreams is always compassionate and never exploitative.  It also acts as a sharp corrective to the reductive impulse that would superficially recast Vincent’s fate into a cautionary tale for the internet age.  It may well be that as well, but first and foremost, it is a story that should be told for its own sake.  To Morley’s credit, Dreams powerfully illustrates that point.  It might sound depressingly, but in a way, the film is quite life-affirming, by virtue of its commitment to documenting Vincent’s life for posterity.  Unusually empathetic, Dreams of a life is highly recommended when it opens this Friday (8/3) in New York at the IFC Center.

The Babymakers: Broken Lizard in a Family Way

Three years of marriage have evidently taken a toll on Tommy Macklin.  He paid for his wife’s wedding ring by making “deposits” at the sperm bank, but now that they are trying to get pregnant, his stuff has lost its get-up-and-go.  Obviously, the wisest course of action would be to break-in and steal the last of his vintage brew.  That is indeed the plan in Jay Chandrasekhar’s The Babymakers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Macklin might strike viewers as more of an Apatowesque man-boy than good potential father stock, but his wife Audrey Macklin is ready to give it a shot anyway.  Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem to take.  Given his secret moonlighting in the past, Macklin is convinced it cannot possibly be him.  However, when he finally agrees to a check-up he learns his mojo has left him.  Tracking down his potent samples, Macklin learns there is only one test tube left—and that is slated to be shipped out in a manner of days.

Not to worry, Macklin’s doofus-buddies have a plan.  They will hire the sketchy Ron Jon, allegedly a former second story man for the Mumbai mafia, to mastermind their heist.  Complications arise.

Directed by comedy troupe co-founder Chandrasekhar (who also appears as Ron Jon), Babymakers is sort of, but not really a Broken Lizard film, featuring co-member Kevin Heffernan and several regulars from their previous films, including Nat Faxon (who is fusion drummer Stave Gadd’s son-in-law, according to imdb).  It is certainly similar in tone to The Slammin’ Salmon, combining some tasteless gags with a soft-hearted affection for their characters.

Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn look the part as the Macklins and also handle their sexually charged banter fairly nicely.  Heffernan’s big lug Wade is certainly game for all manner of physical comedy, while in a Cosmo Kramer-ish turn, Chandrasekhar goes all in, heedless of political correctness or good judgment.

Frankly, Babymaker’s naughty humor is amusing, but it is hard to be shocked by supposedly outrageous discussions of this or that act anymore.  The result is a diverting but slight comedy, best suited for drunken giggles after a long night out.  Recommended for those who prefer their comedy broad and blue, The Babymakers opens this Friday (8/3) in New York at the AMC Village 7.

Monday, July 30, 2012

AAIFF: I Am a Ghost

Just because you’re a ghost, doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted too.  For Emily, “haunted” is not exactly the right term.  Her situation is rather more complicated and creepy as all get-out in H.P. Mendoza’s I Am a Ghost (slightly too revealing trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Emily’s existence is one of strictly regimented routine.  Unfortunately, this also includes regular instances of self-abuse.  The audience knows this because we see her repeat the same day over and over.  It might sound laborious in an indulgent experimental kind of way, but stick with it.  When deviations from the pattern start to emerge, they are significant and jarring. 

Emily is a ghost, endlessly repeating the tragic memories she imprinted on the spooky old Victorian house, or at least that is what the disembodied voice tells her.  Understandably, that is not something she wants to her.  Yet, Ghost is just getting started.  Emily has some rather wicked revelations in store for her.

With Ghost, Mendoza might actually break new ground in the field of horror films.  It is really nothing like his previous films, Colma and Fruit Fly, since it is not a musical—not even remotely.  Frankly, Mendoza risks trying viewers’ patience, but he pays off their tolerance with some of the most disconcerting scenes of supernatural dread to hit screens in years.  In fact, the scares in Ghost are so unusually deep, because they are more metaphysical in nature.  Mere violence is small potatoes here.  However, it is difficult to explain how novel and challenging the twists and turns truly are, without getting spoilery.

It is safe to say Ghost is a very cool example of how a chillingly effective genre film can be produced with hardly any special effects.  Aside from maybe one sequence, Ghost relies solely on its lead performance and the moody atmosphere of the fateful house, overstuffed with evocative curios, masterfully rendered by art director-prop designer (and producer) Mark Del Lima.

Still, it is Anna Ishida carrying the picture more or less alone as Emily.  It is quite an extraordinary performance, covering the entire dark side of the emotional spectrum, with only an off-screen voice for support. 

Ghost definitely has the stuff of a cult classic that ought to be a breakout film for both Ishida and Mendoza.  It is smart, original, and unsettling.  Highly recommended for fans of ambitious horror films, I Am a Ghost screens this Friday (8/3) at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Assassin’s Bullet: La Femme Sofia

Someone is killing Europe’s top Islamist terrorists.  This is a problem for American intelligence bureaucrats, because it makes them look bad.  The vigilante has taken out priority targets they could not even find and therefore must be stopped, post-haste.  That assignment falls to a former FBI agent assigned to America’s Bulgarian embassy in Isaac Florentine’s Assassin’s Bullet (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Still wracked with guilt over his wife’s death, Robert Diggs is taking a timeout from life in Bulgaria.  Happy overseeing on in-country educational initiatives, Diggs is reluctant to get back into investigative work.  However, Ambassador Ashdown is a political appointee very aware he is in over his head and in need of Diggs’ services.  Reluctantly, Diggs starts tracking the vigilante, who is obviously also the English teacher at the Embassy-sponsored high school, as well as the belly dancer who has been come-hither dancing for Diggs at his favorite night club.

The good news about Bullet is that it has no tears for the vigilante’s prey.  Her motivation is clear: terrorists murdered her family.  Had they lived, her targets would have only spread more death and misery.  It even unambiguously associates the keffiyeh scarf with terrorism, which makes it a pretty dumb choice of accessory for Diggs during the climatic third act.  The bad news is a spoiler that will not be much of a surprise: there is some shadowy villainy going on at the highest levels of the American diplomatic-intelligence services.

So Bullet isn’t really a great movie, but it is sort of a shame you can hardly see serviceable B-movies like this in the theaters very much anymore.  Back in the day, this totally would have been worth a trip to the drive-in or the bargain cinema.  In fact, on a technical level, Bullet is a surprisingly polished production.  Florentine stage-manages a couple of nifty little fight scenes.  Of course, that is his specialty, having previously helmed the Scott Adkins Undisputed series and the Power Rangers, for both the big and small screens (don’t scoff at that gig, they don’t entrust important franchises like that to hacks).  Shot on location, Florentine made the most of the exotic Sofia sites and cinematographer Ross W. Clarkson gives it all a moody, mysterious sheen.

The real mixed bag here is the cast.  Christian Slater is more or less okay as the earnest Diggs and co-scenarist Elika Portnoy is sort of, kind of okay as the mystery woman.  At least, Donald Sutherland does not disappoint doing his stately roguish thing as the Ambassador.  Yet, the high point might be Timothy Spall, clearly enjoying the ambiguity of the friendly but inscrutable Dr. Kahn, a part that would have had Donald Pleasance’s name all over it in years past.

As it happens, Bullet’s DVD release is already scheduled to follow hard on the heels of its New York opening.  Make of that what you will.  Frankly, it ought to find an audience through more affordable means of distribution.  It is not classic, but some considerable filmmaking talent went into it (most definitely including the contributions of Florentine, Clarkson, and Spall).  Eventually recommended for B-movie lovers at B-movies prices, Assassin’s Bullet opens this Friday (8/3) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fantasia ’12: Black’s Game

Iceland enforced the prohibition of alcohol from 1915 until 1935, maintaining the ban on strong spirits until 1989.  Can such a country have an appetite for cocaine?  Sure, especially if it is 100% pure Peruvian.  As the millennium approaches, a young degenerate witnesses the Icelandic drug trade’s changing of the guard and “misplaces” a shipment of said goods in Óskar Thór Axelsson’s Black’s Game (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Fantasia Festival.

Ironically, “Stebbi Psycho” is considerably less volatile than his colleagues.  Nonetheless, he is the one with an assault charge hanging over his head.  Just after his release on bail Stebbi crosses paths with old childhood chum Tótí.  Lucky or not, it will be a fateful encounter.  Soon thereafter, Stebbi joins Tótí’s narco-gang, getting their high-price defense attorney on his case, as part of the bargain.  Things get a bit violent when Tótí decides to take down the old school Studio 54-ish rival outfit.  However, when the seriously deranged Brúnó takes over their operations, the blood and mayhem really ramp up a notch.

Game proves what our mothers always used to tell us: sleepless four-day coke benders are not conducive to good business decisions.  Indeed, Stebbi makes some awfully bad choices, but he is not alone.  To be fair, it is not just the drugs clouding his judgment.  He is also distracted by Dagný, his blonde cokehead party-girl colleague in the drug-trafficking network (that happens to be modeled after Herbal-Life).

As is often the case in such films, our out-of-his-league protagonist is the least interesting character in Game.  In contrast, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanesson is charismatically ferocious as Tótí (looking somewhat like a young, pumped-up Tor Johnson, who can act), but he is not the real villain here.  That would be the appropriately Mephistophelean Damon Younger oozing slimy evil as the serpentine Brúnó.  While Maria B. Bjarnardottir is an intriguing screen presence as Dagný, Axelsson makes it intentionally hard to draw a bead on her character, obviously dropping hints about her motivations, but leaving them all naggingly unresolved.

While Game casts human nature in rather brutish and pessimistic terms, it should not dissuade anyone from visiting Iceland.  In fact, the surrounding landscape is quite striking (in a Nordic kind of way) and the nightlife looks like its jumping.  Axelsson certainly capitalizes on both.  While it periodically tries too hard to shock, Game’s energy and attitude are impressive.  Recommended for those who enjoy pitch black, sharp-edged crime bacchanals, Black’s Game screens Wednesday (8/1) as part of this year’s Fantasia in Montreal.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fantasia ’12: Easton’s Article

It is 1997.  The internet bubble has yet to burst and dial-up is still commonplace.  Easton Denning is an internet expert who has seen the future.  Unfortunately, he is not a part of it.  Time will bend as the computer wonk challenges fate head on in Tim Connery’s high concept, low-gloss science fiction drama Easton’s Article (trailer here), which screens at the 2012 Fantasia Festival.

After high school, Easton left Iowa and never looked back, until now.  He had his reasons, which will be revealed as he deals with his current crisis.  One night, his internet spiders retrieved a massive data dump.  Most of it was just corrupted files and the like, but there was one document that spooked Denning: his future obituary.

Along with his death notice, the scanned file includes hand written notes instructing him to be at certain places at certain times.  He will know why when he gets there.  Obediently, Denning returns home, duly encountering the father and girlfriend of his close high school friend, who died under murky circumstances their senior year.  Somehow, karma appears to be using the internet to do its thing.

Frankly, the time travel elements in Article are basically hocus pocus, likening a digital information deluge to a flood of water, effectively spilling over into the past.  However, the characterizations and the overriding vibe of tragically unfinished business are strong enough to overwhelm logical pedantry.  Perhaps the closest comparison film would be John Weiner & Danny Kuchuck’s clever Cryptic, which deserved more attention when it played the festival circuit.

Indeed, Article represents the road not taken often enough in the science fiction genre, telling an intimate yet speculative story, with little or no special effects required.  Connery’s completely linear script fits together the pieces without any distracting seams, while fully immersing viewers in his characters’ lives and Midwestern environment.

Looking like everyday regular people, the small ensemble is smart and engaging throughout Article.  Given the anti-social protagonist’s myriad flaws, Chad Meyer has a somewhat tough road to hoe, but he portrays Easton as a haunted, fully dimensional human figure.  Likewise, Kristina Johnson brings substance and sensitivity to Hayley Reed, Easton’s potential love interest.  A more sharply drawn role than typically expected in low budget genre fare, Reed is a refreshingly active participant here and not simply stuck on the sidelines wringing her hands.

Easton’s Article might just be the definitive Iowan science fiction film.  Moody and thoughtful, it is definitely for the high end of science fiction fandom’s bell curve, but by the same token it is also quite accessible to non-genre audiences.  Recommended accordingly, Easton’s Article screens this coming Wednesday (8/1) at this year’s Fantasia Festival up north.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Quebec After Dark: Nuit #1

In Quebec, they have to do something to pass those long cold nights.  Two strangers work up quite a sweat, but much to her annoyance, he insists on talking afterwards . . . and talking and talking and talking.  Eventually though, they do start saying some interesting things in Anne Émond’s Nuit #1 (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Clara ought to be out of unemployed slacker Nikolaï’s league, but she is not very discriminating in such matters.  When she goes back to his place, it is good for him, but not for her.  That is one reason she tries to stealthily sneak out of there, but it is really just her standard M.O.  Intercepting her, Nikolaï tries to engage Clara in conversation, but she is not very receptive at first.  Nonetheless, before the night is out, they will share things more intimate than sex.

In the early rave and hook-up scenes, Émond really unleashes her inner Adrian Lyne.  It is hypnotizing, but ultimately vacuous, but in a way, this is part of the film’s larger point.  For a considerable time, their halting conversation is tediously forced and laboriously clunky.  However, when Clara starts revealing her inner demons, Nuit #1 breaks some fresh ground. 

In films like Elles and its ilk, viewers are constantly assured all varieties of kinky debauchery are really liberating for women.  Clara’s’ story is a sharp rebuke to such cinematic apologias for deviancy.  She forthrightly admits to being a sex-addict, using casual encounters to compensate for deep-seated emotional issues.  Yet, just like any addict, she requires more and more stimulus for shorter and shorter highs.  Ultimately, what she is doing is not glamorous.  It will be the death of her and she knows it.

To its credit, Nuit #1 does not ignore the reality of STDs either.  In fact, Clara has had her share in the past—a revelation Nikolaï did not want to hear.  Yet, neither he nor the audience should be so surprised, given what each has seen during their fateful night together.

As Clara, Catherine De Léan’s performance is viscerally compelling.  It is like watching someone literally bare their soul, which is not such a comfortable thing.  Unfortunately, it takes quite a while to reach the guts of the film.  Sure, it starts out with a bang, so to speak, but there are plenty of options for that sort of thing, if it is really what you’re looking for in a movie.  Essentially, Dimitri Storoge’s Nikolaï plays the helper role, getting De Léan to her big close-up, but frankly, it is hard to remember what he looks like a few days after screening Nuit.

Commendably, Émond’s script never takes the easy way out.  Still, the claustrophobic vibe and ever so slowly building early scenes will make even the hardiest of cineastes antsy.  Despite the slack pace, it is refreshing to see a film depict the hedonistic party lifestyle’s dark consequences.  Narrowly recommended for those fascinated by extreme morality tales (think Abel Ferrara instead of Zalman King) rather than the hipsters who will most likely gravitate to it, Nuit #1 opens today (7/27) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

AAIFF ’12: Telegram Man & Jin (shorts)

The trauma of war always ripples outward in concentric circles, deeply affecting entire communities.  During World War II, rural Australia faced devastating losses.  Nobody understood this better than the beleaguered messengers, like Bill Williams, who sets off on yet another sad task in James Khehtie’s short film, The Telegram Man (trailer here), which screens as part of the How To . . . shorts program at the 2012 Asian American International Film Festival.

Williams used to be a popular fellow, so folks in town try to keep up appearances around him.  However, delivering death notices has taken a toll on his social life and his psyche.  Sadly, he has one of his worst calls ahead of him.  Based on the short story “American Farm ‘44” by John Boyne, the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Telegram Man easily transfers from the United States to Western Australia, because the underlying issues and emotions are so universal.

Khehtie had Boyne and director Bruce Beresford on-board as advisers, but his real ace in the hole is lead actor, Jack Thompson.  You might not recognize the unremarkable name, but you will know the craggy face from crossover hits from down under, like The Man from Snowy River, The Sum of Us, and Beresford’s Breaker Morant.  Though he is often cast in parts that capitalize on his commanding presence, his performance here is marked by an acute sensitivity.

Though Khehtie is Asian, Telegram Man might not exactly be the sort of film one would expect to find programmed at AAIFF.  Nevertheless, it is a very assured and compassionate work, so good for them for selecting it.  In contrast, the K-town gangster drama Jin (trailer here) might seem like a more traditional choice, but Il Cho’s AFI-supported short is also an emotionally complex and gripping work.

After the death of their immigrant parents, Jin raises his school-aged brother by himself.  It is not easy, because he works nights.  He is low level enforcer for a gang operating in Los Angeles’s Korea-Town.  Essentially enlisted in the mob’s management training program, he has been assigned to an increasingly erratic lieutenant.  Clearly, the current arrangement is not conducive to the stability Jin hopes to provide his little brother.

Featuring strong gangster movie elements and a touching story of sibling dedication, Jin nicely combines the best of both cinematic worlds, albeit in a starkly noir package.  Indeed, optimism might be the one thing Il Cho leaves out of the mix, but the performances are dynamite.  Justin Chon is magnetically riveting as the title character, while Lance Lim’s bright, endearing presence as his young brother serves as an effective counter-point.  With Josiah D. Lee falling apart rather spectacularly, it is quite the small but impressive ensemble.

AAIFF has a history of selecting interesting shorts and both Telegram Man and Jin continue the tradition.  Recommended for general audiences, they screen together as part of the How To . . . shorts block this Saturday (7/28) as the 2012 Asian American International Film Festival continues in Chelsea.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

IFC Midnight: Rites of Spring

It’s time to spring forward—into a violent, bloody death.  There is a reason a small rural Mississippi county always has perfect weather for their crops.  Initially, a ruthless band of kidnappers couldn’t care less about agriculture when they abduct a young girl for ransom, but they soon will in Padraig Reynolds’ Rites of Spring (trailer here), which begins a run of midnight screenings this Friday in New York at the IFC Center and will also be available nationally on VOD.

Rachel Adams is drowning her guilt at a local tavern.  Thanks to a mistake she made, the office doormat got canned. Unfortunately, it is also the first day of spring.  That means an old farmer has to find five sacrifices to the “it” living under the trap door in his barn to maintain the supernaturally good local weather.  Adams and her friend Alyssa Miller are about to see the inside of his psycho-stalker van.

Ben Geringer is the dumb jerk from Adams’ office.  Somewhat disappointed by recent events, Geringer agrees to a dodgy plot to kidnap the daughter of his now former boss.  However, Paul Nolan, the ostensive mastermind, seems to nurse an even deeper grudge against their well-heeled target.  Naturally, Geringer and company hole-up in a shuttered high school not far from the old coot’s farm, so when Adams manages to escape, she blunders into their abduction drama.  Of course, the ravenous beast also follows.

This will probably disappoint many potential viewers, but they should know there is no Stravinsky on Spring’s soundtrack.  As a genre hybrid, it is somewhat uneven.  However, it is surprisingly effective as a rather dark and nasty crime drama, at least for a while.  Sonny Marinelli makes a particularly entertaining villain as the all kinds of bad news Nolan.  As Geringer and his Lady Macbethish girlfriend, indie genre vets A.J. Bowen and Katherine Randolph also fare quite respectably in the straight crime scenes.

Conversely, the supernatural-slasher side of the coin is often pretty silly.  It is hard to believe the old farmer still has enough gas in his tank to lug about full grown adults, while the what-ever-it-is just looks like a dude with gauze tied around his head.

Reynolds team scouted some good locations, most notably the big spooky industrial looking school building.  He is also builds some nice claustrophobic tension, only to let it deflate as soon as the action shifts to the evil farmhouse.  The rather abrupt ending does not help much nor does the brief but befuddling stinger.  Frankly, the film has its moments, but it just doesn’t pan out.  That’s life.  A serviceable midnight movie candidate, but highly flawed when judged on its merits, Rites of Spring screens round midnight at the IFC Center, starting tomorrow (7/27).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Klown: Danes Behaving Badly

At last, the Dogme Hangover is here, via Denmark, where they prefer their humor raw and black.  Even if you wanted to, you are not likely to see a raunchier film in an art-house theater this year than Mikkel Nørgaard’s good taste defying Klown (totally nsfw trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The feature film follow-up to the successful Danish television show (just like Sex and the City, in this one limited respect), Klown picks up with comedians Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, playing crude, self-absorbed versions of themselves.  The lads are about to embark on a canoe trip that Christensen envisions as a smorgasbord of cheap illicit sex, but Hvam has other issues on his mind. 

After doing something unspeakably heinous (think the “styling mousse” scene in Something About Mary raised to the power of ten), Hvam’s pregnant girlfriend starts questioning his potential as a father.   Naturally, he responds by kidnapping her socially awkward twelve year-old nephew Bo to burnish his paternal cred on their tour of debauchery.  (Actually, Christensen uses a more colorful word than “debauchery,” which you can probably guess.)

Looking like a taller, slightly less pear-shaped Drew Carey, Hvam is basically a decidedly blue Costello, while the wiry Christensen is a real horndog of an Abbott.  While they have a good bantering rhythm, the fundamental essence of their humor is their willingness to go “there,” as in you can’t believe they just went there.  Based on the movie version of Klown, it seems like no joke is too naughty for them, but consistency can be an issue.

By the way, Klown is absolutely not for children.  The fact that a minor like Marcuz Jess Petersen appears as Bo might be grounds for prosecution in a few jurisdictions, especially given the questionable taste of some of his scenes.  Good luck at to him at school now that this is out there.  Yet, it is Christensen and particularly Hvam who always suffer the worst humiliations.

In a bizarre, tripped-out way, Klown could be interpreted as a pro-life movie, because Hvam goes to ridiculous lengths to convince his girlfriend not to abort their unborn baby.  Nonetheless, it is impossible to imagine the Church endorsing it any time soon, or GLAAD for that matter.  While it is a bit slow out of the blocks and Nørgaard’s approach lacks breakneck energy, there are some genuinely huge laughs to be found down the stretch.  Bracing in its tasteless outrageousness, Klown is recommended for those who rather enjoy being shocked and are weary of the phony uplift of Will Farrell-Judd Apatow Hollywood vehicles.  Have no fear of that when Klown opens this Friday (7/27) in New York at the Village East.

AAIFF ’12: Shanghai Calling

Go-getting corporate attorney Sam Chao is used to doing things his way.  So is China.  China’s bigger.  Temporarily posted to the go-go city on the East China Sea, Chao is in for a steady diet of culture clashes in director-screenwriter Daniel Hsia’s Shanghai Calling (trailer here), the 2012 Asian American International Film Festival’s opening night film, produced by this year’s Asian American Media Award recipient, Janet Yang.

Chao is not thrilled with his new assignment, but it is clear the partnership he covets depends on his performance opening the Shanghai office.  His firm has come to China because that is where their most important client, eccentric industrialist Marcus Groff, has relocated.  Never really in touch with his Chinese heritage, Chao does his level best to offend all his new colleagues as quickly as possible, particularly his assistant Fang Fang and his expat relocation specialist, Amanda Wilson.  Unfortunately, Chao is going to need their help when makes a hash of Groff’s latest deal.

For reasons that remain elusive, Fang Fang has eyes for the boss, whereas Chao finds himself attracted to Wilson.  That would also seem to be an odd choice on his part, but it fits with Chao’s cultural identity.  He is the whitest guy in the room, especially compared to Wilson and expat business community leader Donald Cafferty, the “Mayor of Americatown.”

Hsia’s screenplay is quite astute observing the dynamics of the American business community in Shanghai, contrasting the old school old guard, represented by Cafferty, with the yuppie upstarts.  It definitely feels like Calling reflects an insider’s perspective.  However, the vibe of the romantic subplots are a bit too Gary Marshall (even the poster looks a bit reminiscent of New Year’s Eve).  At least, Hsia keeps the cast of characters manageable.

Daniel Henney (geek-famous as Agent Zero in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) maintains an easy likability, even when he is cruising for his ego bruising.  Likewise, Eliza Coupe is like a cross between vintage Meg Ryan and Bonnie Hunt as Wilson, the harried single mother.  However, some of the brightest lights are found in the supporting cast.  In what could have easily been a shticky caricature, Bill Paxton brings out the wit and humanity of “Mayor” Cafferty.  Not just window dressing, Zhu Zhu (of the Chinese remake of What Women Want) plays Fang Fang with real spirit and sensitivity, while Geng Le has a nice understated nerd charisma as Awesome Wang, a journalist-fixer often hired by the expats.

Clearly, Calling is not interested in muckraking.  When Chao crashes the factory bootlegging Groff’s revolutionary cell-phone, it looks nothing like the Foxconn NPR describes.  Nor does it have anything to say about China’s internet freedoms, or lack thereof.  That might limit its documentary value, but it is rather pleasant as an East-meets-West courtship (of both the personal and professional varieties).  Though becoming more common, such American-Chinese co-productions still must present challenges (indeed, such is the basic premise of the film), so 2012 honoree Yang’s contributions as producer are surely considerable.  Recommended for those who enjoy light cross-cultural rom-coms, Shanghai Calling screens tonight (7/25) as part of the 2012 AAIFF’s opening gala and also on Saturday (7/28), but both showings are sold out, so good luck queuing stand-by.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Korean Outbreak: Deranged

For a slacker-copper, the good news is his latest dodgy stock recommendation appears to be panning out.  The bad news is pretty much everything else.  A pandemic is sweeping Korea and the pharmaceutical company he was tipped to may be somehow involved in Park Jung-woo’s Deranged (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Thanks Jae-pil’s dubious stock picks, his beleagured brother Jae-hyeok found himself deep in debt, with a wife and two children to support.  Once a promising medical researcher, he now kowtows to doctors on behalf of Joa Pharm, an industry bottom-feeder.  Things are bad for the brothers and they will quickly get worse when Jae-pil investigates one of the first victims of a mutated parasite.  At first, it stimulates the appetite, but hosts never gain weight.  They become increasingly thirsty, eventually feeling compelled to submerse themselves in water, at which point the parasites burst out Alien-style, leaving a desiccated husk behind.  It is not a pleasant way to go, but pandemics never are.

As the scope of the epidemic becomes apparent, Jae-hyoek’s family starts showing symptoms of contamination.  Again, there is some good news.  A consumer drug evidently fights off the parasitic agents.  It is even one of his company’s products, but they recently discontinued production due to low demand.

As Jae-hyeok desperately scours the black market for the suspiciously scarce pills, Jae-pil peels away layers of the nasty corporate conspiracy.  Indeed, Deranged suffers from a rather pronounced case of Big Pharma-derangement syndrome.  Yet, in a way, it serves as a reminder that the pharmaceutical industry produces products that save lives, whereas politicians do not produce anything at all of lasting value.

Nevertheless, Deranged is an awfully darn scary depiction of the mob mentality in full force.  It is not pretty to witness.  In fact, it takes on classically tragic proportions when each time Jae-hyeok tries to act decent and compassionately, the irrational rabble only further stymies his efforts to save his wife and children.

As the frantic Jae-hyeok, Kim Myung-min is convincingly guilt-ridden and distraught.  Yet, it is former pop idol Kim Dong-wan who really commands the screen as the slightly roguish Jae-pil.  Unfortunately, former Miss Korea and current vegan cooking show host Honey Lee (a.k.a. Lee Ha-nui) does not get to do much more than look concerned as Yun-joo, Jae-hyeok’s former colleague and Jae-pil’s frustrated lover.  However, Lee Hyeong-cheol totally perfects evil smugness as Joa CEO Jason Lee.

Slickly shot by cinematographer Ki Se-hoon, Deranged shrewdly avoids the gruesome in favor of the more horrifically human.  Despite the not so occasional soap-boxing, it is a rather tight, character-driven outbreak thriller.  Recommended for those who can easily overlook its anti-corporate bias, Deranged opens this Friday (7/27) at the CGV Cinemas in Los Angeles, the AMC Cupertino in the Bay Area, and the AMC in Ridgefield Park, NJ, sort of near New York.

Profile in Courage: Ai Weiwei—Never Sorry

Having chosen the struggle for Chinese human rights over a life of privilege, Ai is arguably the world’s most important activist-artist.  Yet despite his international prominence (he even has an asteroid named after him), Ai faced a head-spinning array of specious charges trumped up by the Communist authorities.  Alison Klayman offers a timely documentary-profile in courage with the fascinating and infuriating Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Considering the recurring middle finger motif in Ai’s work, it s hardly surprising he is not a favorite of the regime.  Yet, there is more to Ai than mere symbolic defiance.  Klayman trenchantly traces the roots of Ai’s nonconformist spirit to the suffering his family experienced during the Cultural Revolution.  While Ai made some noise when he repudiated the Olympics, few could hear it within China.  However, his mastery of social media, specifically Twitter, would change all that.  Indeed, Ai and the legions of everyday Chinese citizens he inspired through Tweets ought to put everyone following vacuous celebrities like Ashton Kutcher to shame.

Most westerners should know Ai was held incommunicado for a long stretch by the police, but the projects that earned the artist the Communist government’s wrath may come as a revelation.  Most notable were his efforts to record each name of the thousands of school children who died during the Sichuan earthquake as a result of flimsy “tofu” school construction.  In any transparent society, this information would be in the public record, but in China all such efforts were explicitly forbidden.

There are scores of lessons to be found in Sorry, including the importance of documenting such tragedies for history, rather than letting the innocent victims of Sichuan fall through the Communist memory hole.  At times, Ai’s public criticisms of the regime are shockingly bold.  Clearly, his guts are made of steel-reinforced concrete.  Although Klayman largely focuses on his activism, she still conveys a vivid sense of Ai’s personality.  Partly this comes out through some shrewdly edited interview segments.  Yet more fundamentally, Ai just seems to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person.

Indeed, Klayman wisely focuses squarely on her subject.   As a documentarian, she is rather blessed Ai recorded so many of his protests and the subsequent government crackdowns for his social network followers.  His own documentaries Disturbing the Peace and So Sorry are staggering exposes in their own right, still quite findable on the internet and ardently recommended.  The word “controversial” should not really apply here.  What Ai says has happened, most definitely including a notorious police assault, really did go down.  He has the scars and the video to prove it.  Aside from some helpful context provided by talking heads and an innocuous score, Sorry is essentially Ai’s show—and appropriately so.

We want to call a film like Sorry “inspiring.”  It is a term that undeniably applies to Ai.  Unfortunately, though he might be out of immediate physical danger, Ai’s relative freedoms within contemporary China remain harshly curtailed, so viewers are likely to feel several conflicting emotions when the film ends.  Anger would be a good one to go with. 

This documentary is important, because the international spotlight must shine with far more intensity on Teacher Ai’s situation if circumstances are ever going to change.  Given the Chinese CP’s nasty habit of harassing their critics, Klayman also earns a fair amount of credit for having the guts to tackle this project in the first place.  Hopefully, she will have to produce a happy postscript for Sorry sometime in the future, but surely she would not begrudge the extra work. 

As it is, the efforts invested in Sorry are considerable.  One of two standout documentaries at this year’s Sundance (along with The Other Dream Team), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry earns  a very high recommendation as well when it opens this Friday (7/27) in New York at the IFC Center.

Fantasia ’12: Reign of Assassins

It is the stuff dreams are made.  However, in Ming-era China, it is not a little black bird, but an ancient monk’s corpse—two halves of it to be precise.  While her Dark Stone assassin guild will kill or die for the fateful body, one former femme fatale would prefer to go straight in Su Chao-pin’s Reign of Assassins, “co-directed” with the John Woo (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Fantasia Festival (after packing the house at last year’s NYAFF).

According to legend (and Reign’s cool animated prologue), when the Bodhidharma came to China, he perfected the practice of martial arts.  So profound was his kung fu enlightenment, it became ingrained in his very body.  That is why his divided cadaver was plundered from the tomb.  Wheel King, the shadowy leader of the Dark Stone, is determined to find and unite the monk’s remains.  Yes, he wants that martial arts mojo, but he has other secret motivations as well.  However, Drizzle, one of his top lieutenants, has gone rogue at an inopportune time.

Changing her features, Drizzle becomes the beautiful but mild mannered Zeng Jing, a street vendor with a huge stash of silver under her floor.  Naturally, she turns the heads of all the men in town, but only the foot courier Jiang Ah-sheng is worth a second look.  It turns out he is worth marrying.  Unfortunately, when bandits strike close to home looking for the Bodhi body, her façade starts to slip.  Suddenly, Zeng former colleagues come knocking.

Reign has a massive karmic twist that might be guessable, but still packs an archetypal punch.  It also has Kelly Lin as the before Drizzle, Michelle Yeoh as the after Zeng (talk about twice lucky), and Barbie Hsu as the hot psycho Dark Stone recruit, Turquoise Leaf.  Indeed, Reign is blessed with a great action heroine in Yeoh, who is still impressive in the fight scenes, as well as several memorably colorful villains, most definitely including Hsu.  Once again, Wang Xueqi does his thing, making Wheel King one heavy older cat.  Yet, Reign also has some nice quiet moments shared by Yeoh’s Zeng and Jung Woo-sung as the apparently genial Jiang.

While Reign does not exactly break any new action choreography ground, there are some highly cinematic sequences featuring Drizzle/Zeng’s “water-shedding-sword” technique.  It might not display very many Woo-isms, but it has a well crafted period look.  It is also fun and oddly comforting seeing Yeoh bring it once again.

After blowing the lid off the house last year at NYAFF, Reign finally makes it up to Montreal.  It will be worth the wait for wuxia and Yeoh fans (though presumably there is a lot of crossover between the two).  Recommended for those who appreciate elegant, character-driven martial arts cinema, Reign of Assassins screens tomorrow (7/25) and next Friday (8/3) during the 2012 Fantasia Festival, north of the border.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice

Generally ascribed to Yuan Dynasty playwright Ji Junxiang, The Orphan of Zhao is the first Chinese play to be translated in Europe.  It was even adapted (quite liberally) for the French stage by Voltaire.  Profoundly tragic but also rather violent in places, it has timeless elements that continue to appeal to audiences.  Celebrated auteur Chen Kaige vividly captures both qualities in his grand big screen version, Sacrifice (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

General Tu Angu is not a man to take the slights of the Zhao clan lightly.  Framing the patriarch and his son, General Zhao Shuo, for the murder of the ruling Duke, Tu uses the outrage as pretext for wiping out the Zhao clan.  A swifter, more awe-inspiring massacre you are not likely to see on film anytime soon.  However, he misses two of the Zhaos, the young General’s wife, Princess Zhuang and her newborn baby.  Sacrificing herself for her child, Zhuang entrusts the infant heir to her doctor, respected commoner Cheng Ying.

As fate would dictate, Cheng’s wife has also recently delivered.  Suddenly having a newborn is dangerous business and Cheng has two.  In a truly Biblical turn of events, Tu orders all the town’s babies to be collected at his palace to be duly vetted.  Through a catastrophically Shakespearean turn of events, the Zhao and Cheng babies essentially trade places. 

Growing up as Cheng Wu, the presumed son of Dr. Cheng, the Zhao orphan knows nothing of his birthright.  However, unbeknownst to the boy, the doctor is grooming him to take wreak his vengeance at the appropriate time.  To do this he plays a dangerous game, entering the service of the Tu retinue, manipulating his nemesis into serving as Cheng Wu’s godfather.  Needless to say, some rather messy issues of filial loyalty arise.

Some have often knocked Chen’s films as pretty but rather bloodless historical dramas, but this is absolutely not the case with Sacrifice.  While the period trappings are as richly detailed as ever, there is also plenty of blood.  In fact, the first act is quite a spectacle of mayhem, segueing into tense cat-and-mouse game, in which the fate of the city’s infants hang in the balance.  Yet, it ultimately settles into a stone cold revenge drama.

Featuring several of Chen’s semi-regulars, Sacrifice’s talented ensemble is equally adept at the stately tragedy and the gutty action sequences.  As Tu Angu, Wang Xueqi is in his element.  Ruthless yet charismatic, he is the sort of villain viewers find themselves identifying with, in spite of themselves.  While Ge You might be better known to American audiences for his shticky work in Let the Bullets Fly, he wrings real pathos from his performance as Dr. Cheng.  While her character is not long for the world, Fan Bingbing is a typically ethereal presence as Princess Zhuang.  Yet, it is Mainland TV star Hai Qing who really lowers the emotional boom as Cheng’s equally ill-fated wife.

Admirers of Chen’s Chinese Opera sagas Farewell My Concubine and Forever Enthralled should still appreciate the classical elegance of Sacrifice.  It is based on a play, after all.  Likewise, fans of more action-driven Asian cinema should never get bored with the relentless scheming and vigorous swordplay.   Indeed, Chen integrates the intimate and the epic halves quite masterfully.  Highly recommended for fans of literate historicals and the wuxia genre, Sacrifice opens this Friday (7/27) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

AAIFF ’12: Mr.Cao Goes to Washington

Anh “Joseph” Cao was elected to Congress in 2008, a generally bad year for Republicans.  He was defeated in his re-election bid two years later—a decidedly good year for Republican candidates.  In a mere two years, the idealistic former Jesuit seminarian received an eye-opening education in all manner of group-think politics.  Cao’s short tenure in office is documented in S. Leo Chiang’s Mr. Cao Goes to Washington (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Immigrating to America while his father was still a captive of a Communist Vietnamese re-education camp, young Cao led an eventful life before he even considered a political career.  Choosing law school over a life of the cloth, Cao became an activist leader in Versailles, New Orleans’ small but enterprising Vietnamese community (profiled in Chiang’s previous documentary, A Village Called Versailles).  Louisiana’s second congressional district was deliberately drawn to elect an African American Democrat, everything that Cao is not.  However, the ethical issues dogging William “Cold Cash” Jefferson gave Cao a once in a lifetime opportunity to flip the seat—and he was precisely the transcendent candidate to do it.

The question throughout MCGTW is whether or not Cao can hold his seat against a relatively untarnished Democrat (if one can be found in the Crescent City).  Unfortunately, most viewers already know the answer, undercutting the suspense, but also preparing them for the inevitable crushing disappointment.

Chiang and film editor Matthew Martin arduously walk a political tight-rope, trying to frame Cao to be as appetizing as possible to left-of-center film critics.  Much is made of Cao’s relative liberalism within the Republican caucus, including many laments that he might be better suited to the other party.  Yet, Cao remains staunchly pro-life throughout his term of office, so so much for that idea.  Frankly, Cao had no complaints with his Republican colleagues, getting more than his share of their earmarks for his ungrateful district.  Conversely, the figure who emerges in Chiang’s doc as the poster boy for political hypocrisy and opportunism is none other than the current (but perhaps not long term) occupant of the Oval Office.

Initially wooed by Obama, Cao genuinely believed the President’s pretenses of friendship.  Indeed, Cao took a lot of heat voting for the House’s first Obamacare bill.  However, when Obama inevitably cuts a commercial for his Democrat opponent (a less than inspiring figure with a history of disbarments and barroom brawling), it is profoundly disillusioning for Cao.  Indeed, for all the film’s attempts to distinguish Cao from the national GOP, time and again it is the Democrats (both nationally and in New Orleans) who refuse to look past party labels and racial identity.  To their credit, Chiang and his team show this quite clearly.

Nonetheless, MCGTW is so intent on presenting Cao in non-partisan terms, it declines to correct a few inaccuracies.  While Cao was the only Asian American Republican in Congress at the time of his election, he was eventually joined by Charles Djou, the first Thai American congressman, who won a special election in Hawaii (but was subsequently defeated in 2010, like Cao).  Perhaps more problematically, MCGTW lets a local provocateur’s incendiary racial attacks on the GOP stand unchallenged.  Still, it illustrates the sort of rhetoric Cao faced from some extremists.

Perhaps most importantly, MCGTW always treats Cao fairly, recognizing his earnestness and integrity.  He is clearly the real Horatio Alger deal, with the attractive wife and cute kids perfectly suited for campaign brochures.  Watching his re-election campaign unfold will be a frustrating experience for viewers of most political stripes.  If anything, it suggests the greatest problem with the current political system is not money or PACs, but the voters themselves.

That is a real downer of a Pogo-like message, isn’t it?  Still, Cao’s frank, vigorous spirit is quite refreshing.  After viewing MCGTW, one hopes for a sequel with a more satisfying ending.   Clearly, Cao is talented man and Chiang has a keen understanding of the community he represents.  Considering the mildness of its biases, the mostly fair and responsible Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is recommended for political junkies on both sides of the aisle, particularly those who following events in New Orleans from a distance, when it screens this Thursday (7/26) at the Chelsea Clearview as an official selection of the 2012 AAIFF.

Japan Cuts ’12: Isn’t Anyone Alive?

You might expect the end of the world would get played up more in the media.  Unfortunately, they only have time to report a few train crashes before it is pretty much too late for breaking news bulletins.  Indeed, the end comes swiftly but dramatically for the residents and visitors of a sleepy provincial university in Gatukyu (formerly Sogo) Ishii’s Isn’t Anyone Alive (trailer here), which screened last night at the 2012 Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Japanese Cinema.

Adapted by playwright Shiro Maeda from his own stage drama, IAA is about as reserved as apocalyptic films ever get.  The darnedest comedy of manners, it takes its time establishing a group of college students, only to start killing them off. 

Evidently, this campus has two specialized fields of study: medicine and urban legends.  Maki is a medical technician receiving an unwelcome visit from her ne’er do well brother.  Nana is the chair of the urban legend studies association, who has been advancing the campus myth that high level military research goes on in the hospital’s third sub-basement.  When people start keeling over, they naturally blame the hospital’s apocryphal black ops projects, but it is all balderdash Maki assures anyone still alive to listen.

Frankly, we never have any real idea what is going on, because nobody has enough time to determine anything.  Yet, when facing the apocalypse, those still living struggle to develop a new etiquette for impending collective death, which is nonetheless ignored as often as it is observed.  There is a lot of razor sharp dialogue and distinctly black humor in IAA.  Frankly, it is rather a bummer when Nana is the first character to go.  However, it is just as well for her.  In Ishii and Maeda’s bleak world, the last one left standing is the cosmic loser.

As Nana, Mai Takahashi exhibits an upbeat screen presence that would ordinarily mark her as the leading candidate to survive a conventional horror movie.  Rin Takanashi, Hakka Shiraishi, and Asato Iida also hilariously play out one of the unlikeliest love triangles, as the world burns unbeknownst to them.  Yet it is Shota Sometani who nicely turns IAA’s defining scenes as the decent work-study café employee Keisuke, through whose eyes the audience ultimately sees the totality of it all.

IAA is one of the oddest end-of-the-world movies you are likely to see.  Yet, cinematographer Yoshiyuki Matsumoto makes it look eerily believable, slowly but surely transforming a sunny afternoon into an ominous Judgment Day.  For those who enjoy their cinema dark and slightly off-kilter, it is definitely worth taking a gander at when it plays at this year’s Fantasia Festival (7/31 & 8/3), but naturally Japan Cuts screened it first, presenting the North American premiere last night.