Sunday, September 30, 2012

NYFF ’12: Beyond the Hills

Alina is either tragically codependent or possessed by the Devil.  Radically different measures would be required depending on the diagnosis, but either way, she will visit a host of trials upon her girlfriend Voichita and her fellow Orthodox convent residents in Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (trailer here), Romania’s latest official best foreign language Oscar submission, which screens as part of the main slate of the 50th New York Film Festival.

Meek and pious, Voichita appears perfectly suited to a cloistered life.  Alina is a different story.  However, since her former friend has no real family, Voichita arranges for her to stay temporarily in her quarters.  Yet, as soon as she arrives, Alina starts badgering her former friend to leave with her.  Gently rebuffing her, Voichita watches in alarm as her visitor’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and disruptive, evetually manifesting in several public meltdowns.  The priest and the nuns do not want to abandon a soul in need, but after the medical establishment washes their hands of Aline, there seems to be only one remaining course of action: exorcism.

Mungiu implies a great deal in Hills, very definitely including the nature of Aline and Voichita’s relationship, while leaving just as much open to interpretation.  It would also have been very easy to portray the priest and good sisters as stereotypical zealots dangerously convinced of their own infallibility.  However, Hills constantly reasserts the messy humanity of each character.  In fact, the ambiguity of the “possession” gives the film quite a distinctive flavor.  Frankly, after about two hours of Aline acting out, most viewers will be ready to throw their lot in with the nuns, holding down the devil-woman as the priest reads the purification scriptures over her.

With a running time of 150 minutes, Hills often feels like what it is, a product of the Romanian New Wave of independent filmmaking.  It probably would not have killed anyone had Mungiu shaved off twenty minutes or so.  Nonetheless, he elicits several riveting performances, the most notable being Cosmina Stratan as Voichita, the confused innocent.  As Alina, Cristina Flutur is also scarily convincing engaging in all manner of aggressive, self-destructive behavior.  Yet, it is Valeriu Andriută’s work as the priest, simultaneously severe and sympathetic, that really forestalls snap audience judgments.

Based on a novelized account of a real life incident in Moldova, Hills is not a kneejerk attack on Eastern Orthodoxy.  Nonetheless, as the Russian Orthodox Church hemorrhages international credibility due to its perceived alliance with the Putin regime, it is hard not to invest Hills with an additional layer of meaning, whether or not Mungiu intended it.  Given its ambiguous but evocative treatment monastic life and supernatural possession, Beyond the Hills would be a fascinating film to see in conjunction with Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels.  Challenging in multiple ways, Beyond the Hills is recommended for hardy cineastes with at least a couple of Romanian New Wave films already under their belts when it screens tomorrow (10/1), next Sunday (10/7), and the following Thursday 10/11), as part of the 2012 NYFF.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

NYFF ’12: The Satin Slipper

America represents the land of opportunity, but the Islamic world remains a very real danger.  It is the late Sixteenth Century or perhaps the early Seventeenth.  French playwright Paul Claudel might have taken a few liberties with his historical timeline, but that is almost to be expected of an epic spanning three continents and bridging Heaven and Earth.  Adapting Claudel’s Satin Slipper is a daunting proposition, but Portuguese centenarian auteur Manoel de Oliveira took up the challenge at the youthful age of 77.  Originally a selection of the 1985 New York Film Festival (in a drastically edited form), Oliveira’s full 410 minute Slipper makes a return appearance tomorrow as part of the Masterworks section of the 50th New York Film Festival, now officially underway.

The Old World has discovered the New World and Spain rules the seas.  However, her grip might be loosening somewhat.  For Don Pelagio, it is a dubious honor to have the King’s confidence at such a time.  He is being dispatched to shore up Spain’s African holdings at a time when his marriage is being sorely tested.  The much younger Doña Prouheze has attracted the unwelcomed attention of Don Camillo as well as the reciprocated affection of Don Rodrigo. 

Due to the political maneuvering of the King and her husband, Prouheze reluctantly accepts command of the Spanish outpost at Mogador, forcing her into the clutches of Camillo and forever separating her from Rodrigo.  However, she eventually entrusts her daughter to the thwarted lover who could never have conceived her, yet to whom she bears an eerie resemblance.

Slipper is talky, rangy, and top heavy with exposition.  It is also a masterpiece of world drama, but an absolute beast to stage.  While full productions generally clock in around the seven hour mark, the Dominican Black Friars Repertory mounted a svelte but worthy three hour abridged Slipper as part of their Claudel Project in early 2010.  Oliveira deliberately emphasizes the dramatic source material, using an apparent proscenium stage production as a framing device and using highly stylized theatrical sets throughout the film. 

This is a strategy that becomes considerably more efficacious as the film progresses.  In fact, the scenes involving the celestial angels are far better served by his contra-realist visuals than they could have been rendered with mid 1980’s special effects.  Unfortunately, Oliveira’s transition away from the ostensive stage undercuts the powerful opening, in which a Jesuit Father lashed to the mast of sinking ship prays directly to God for the redemption of his impetuous younger brother, Don Rodrigo.  It is a rather profound scene that essentially encapsulates the themes of redemption and sacrifice Claudel will explore in the hours to come, in mere minutes.

Despite its lack of verisimilitude and Oliveira’s occasional postmodern flourishes, his cast connects with the deep yearning of Claudel’s characters.  Luís Miguel Cintra conveys both Rodrigo’s recklessness dash and his severe brooding quite well.  As Prouheze, Patricia Barzyk (Miss France 1980) has to be one of the fiercest tragic screen heroines ever.  Probably the most recognizable face in Oliveira’s Slipper is French actress Anne Consigny, who also has some fine moments with Cintra, serving as her adoptive father’s conscience.

Most viewers will need time to acclimate to Slipper’s look and language, just as the ensemble visibly seems to get their sea legs as the film picks up steam.  While periodic scenes of Shakespearean bumpkins offering their rustic commentary could have been excised without causing any grievous bodily harm, the totality of Oliveira’s production is undeniably impressive.

NYFF deserves all kinds of credit for programming Satin Slipper.  At a whisker under seven hours, it presents certain scheduling challenges (note: there will be a half hour intermission).  Yet, it dovetails rather nicely with other selections at this year’s fest.  Oliveira admirers can also watch the master at work helming The Strange Case ofAngelica in Luis Miñarro’s documentary short 101 (Oliveira’s age at the time), which proceeds Francesco Patierno’s War of the Volcanoes tonight (9/29) and this coming Wednesday (10/3). 

Although it is predominantly about Spanish characters, written by a French playwright, Slipper also incorporates a fair bit of Portuguese historical geopolitics, making it an interesting companion film to see in dialogue with Valeria Sarmiento’s Lines of Wellington (originally developed by the late Raul Ruiz), screening October 9th and 10th.  Regardless, Oliveira’s Slipper is an ambitious attraction in its own right—one festival patrons will not have many other opportunities to see on the big screen in all its seven hour glory.  Recommended for the literate and adventurous, Satin Slipper screens this Sunday afternoon (9/30) at the Walter Reade Theater.

Friday, September 28, 2012

NYFF ’12: Liv & Ingmar

They collaborated on some of the least romantic films ever (see Hour of the Wolf, for instance).  Yet, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann became the first couple of international art cinema.  The Swedish auteur’s romance with his Norwegian muse would not last, but their relationship continued to evolve and endure.  Ullmann reflects on each stage of her career-defining association with Bergman in Dheeraj Akolkar’s Liv & Ingmar (trailer here), which screens as part of the 50th New York Film Festival’s Cinema Reflected sidebar.

What a difference a few years and a more northern latitude make.  Whereas Ingrid Bergman was pilloried for leaving her husband to take up with Roberto Rossellini, Ullmann essentially did the same thing with Bergman, but with no attendant outrage from the world press.  As she tells it, she was widely encouraged by friends to do so.  Indeed, the film is entirely presented from Ullmann’s perspective, relying almost entirely on her narration and extended interview sequences to tell their story.

Nevertheless, there is no score settling in L&I.  Even after the dissolution of their intimate cohabitation, the legends of Scandinavian cinema remained on good terms, eventually becoming the closest of friends.  There is definitely a lesson in that, especially if you think documentary crews will one day be interviewing your former lovers.  However, it might not make the most compelling viewing. 

Ullmann still offers some insight into the dark places manifested in Bergman’s films, but that is about as far as the film goes.  As a result, L&I is permeated with a fatal sense of respectability.  Granted, nobody wants or needs to see a great filmmaker like Bergman trashed by an ex.  The fact that he and Ullmann continued to mean so much to each other is quite touching and nearly the extent of the film’s takeaway.

Scenes of Ullmann revisiting Bergman’s Fårö Island home give the documentary a vivid sense of place and there are plenty of tellingly illustrative clips from their films.  L&I is quite a heartfelt tribute, but as a work of cinema in its own right it is hardly essential (though it is an interesting film to see in conjunction with Francesco Patierno’s thematically related War of the Volcanoes, also screening during this year’s NYFF).  Mostly recommended for dedicated Bergman and Ullmann admirers, Liv & Ingmar screens this coming Monday (10/1) and Tuesday the 10th during the 2012 New York Film Festival.

NYFF ’12: Barbara

Intimacy is based on trust, so is it ever really possible in police state like Soviet-era East Germany?  Obviously, that is not the Stasi’s problem.  They are out to do everything possible to isolate and demoralize a dissident doctor.  Yet, in spite of her better judgment, she will develop ambiguously complicated feelings for her minder in Christian Petzold’s Barbara (trailer here), Germany’s official best foreign language Academy Award submission, which screens during the 50th New York Film Festival.

As soon as Dr. Barbara Wolff applied for an exit visa, her brilliant career was effectively over.  Transferred from a prestigious East Berlin hospital to a provincial backwater, Dr. Wolff is all too aware of the eyes on her.  The most obvious set belongs to Andre, Barbara’s ostensive supervisor, whose role as the designated Stasi snitch is an open secret.  He has a surprisingly convincing good guy act though and he definitely seems to care about their patients, particularly Mario, a young man suffering from a mysterious head trauma that defies diagnosis.  Yet, the case that resonates deepest with Dr. Wolff is that of Stella, a recaptured prison camp escapee suffering from meningitis.

Wolff is not inclined to meekly submit to the Stasi’s mounting harassment.  Having hatched an escape plan with her West German lover, she believes her time in East Germany is limited, which is why she is so surprised by her growing attraction to Andre and her emotional investment in their patients.

Barbara has been described as Petzold’s response to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant The Lives of Others.  That is true to an extent, but not in a polemical sense.  There is no nostalgia here for the Honecker regime, let alone a defense.  Petzold’s parents made the flight to freedom Dr. Wolff is anticipating, so he is understandably sensitive to the everyday tribulations endured by East Germans.  Indeed, the film is best at conveying the guarded nature required for even the most prosaic of conversations and the jarring sound of that dreaded knock in the night.

Barbara Wolff easily represents Nina Hoss’s best performance to reach our shores.  Outwardly diffident but profoundly uneasy beneath her facade, the good doctor might be the best woman’s lead role of the year (and most years prior).  It is a tricky proposition to convey her character’s roiling inner turmoil as well as her concerted efforts masking it from the world, but Hoss pulls it off remarkably.  Former East German Ronald Zehrfield also helps complicate audiences’ emotional responses as the flawed but perhaps still idealistic Andre, who might also be a victim himself, in that manner unique to captive citizens of police states.

Exercising a masterful control of mood and ambient sound, Petzold vividly recreates a sense of life in the GDR, in all its oppressive austerity.  It is a lean, tense narrative, yet Petzold derives much of the suspense from within his characters rather than through external cloak-and-daggering.  A very accomplished film featuring Oscar-worthy work from Hoss, Barbara is very highly recommended when it screens this coming Monday (10/1), next Saturday (10/6), and the following Tuesday (10/9) as a main slate selection of the 2012 New York Film Festival.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

NYFF ’12: Final Cut—Ladies & Gentlemen

It is the classic Hollywood story.  Everyman meets everywoman, with everycomplication ensuing.  One-upping Chuck Workman, György Pálfi aggregates clips from some of the greatest milestones of international cinema, as well as two of his own previous films, into the loose narrative form that is Final Cut—Ladies & Gentleman (trailer here), which screens as part of the Cinema Reflected sidebar at the 50th New York Film Festival.

As Charlie Chaplin, the protagonist wakes up and stretches.  As Gene Hackman he shaves and knots his tie as Leonardo DiCaprio, amongst others.  A chance encounter on the street will lead him to pursue a mystery woman, who turns out to be a nightclub singer, played by the likes of Liza Minelli and Jessica Rabbit.  Despite the efforts of a jealous ex-boyfriend(s), they fall in love and marry.  Yet, domestic life presents its own challenges.

Final Cut is light years removed from the kind of unpleasant Taxidermy, Pálfi’s last film to have an American theatrical release—and a good thing that is.  What started as a creative response to the Hungarian film industry’s economic doldrums became the 2012 Cannes Classic’s closer.  However, his love letter to cinema is not likely to ink a distribution deal anytime soon, since Pálfi was never bourgeoisie enough to actually seek permission to use his constituent snippets.  Considering Walt Disney and Lucas Films are well represented in the mix, one would not be shocked if there are a few cease & desist letters in its future.

Make no mistake, we all recognize intellectual property rights here, but it is sort of shame a home DVD release is not likely for Final Cut.  It could be quite the party game for movie buffs, looking for bragging rights for how many more films they can recognize than their friends.  While many of us will recognize the Kurosawa and Godard excerpts, some of the Eastern European selections might be a little tricky.  The idiosyncrasies of Pálfi’s editorial sensibility are also sometimes surprising (Angel Heart, again?).  For those wondering, Hitchcock’s Vertigo did indeed make the cut, at the risk of drawing another eyebrow-raising statement from Kim Novak, a la The Artist.

Granted, Final Cut is hardly groundbreaking.  There are several short films floating around the internet based around similar concepts, but Pálfi takes it further, even tossing in the occasional full frontal for comedic effect.  If nothing else, it brings back a flood of movie memories and should spur wide ranging post-screening did-you-ever-see discussions.  Not particularly deep or perhaps even legally defensible, Final Cut—Ladies & Gentleman is still a fair amount of film geek fun.  It screens this coming Monday (10/1) at the Francesca Beale Theater during the 2012 NYFF.

NYFF ’12: The War of the Volcanoes

Before Pitt, Jolie, and Aniston dragged their relationships through the tabloids, Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Anna Magnani thoroughly outraged the filmmaking world.  However, they did it with exponentially more talent.  Francesco Patierno documents their headline-making scandal and the competing film sets on which it played out in The War of the Volcanoes (trailer here), a selection of the Cinema Reflected sidebar at the 50th New York Film Festival.

Rome, Open City was an international triumph for both Magnani and her director, Rossellini.  They quickly became close collaborators and lovers, despite their differences in temperament.  Magnani was the passionate, ever faithful diva.  Rossellini was the charmed smooth talker.  It probably would not have lasted, even without Rossellini’s mutual admiration for the unhappily married Ingrid Bergman.

Looking for a break from the Hollywood system, Rossellini’s Stromboli appeared to be the perfect project.  A morality play set against the exotic backdrop of the volcanic Aeolian Islands, Stromboli was largely lifted from a proposal developed by Rossellini’s cousins—or at least that is how they saw it.  Slightly put out by the appropriation, the budding filmmakers produced their film anyway, with Hollywood director William Dieterle at the helm and none other than the spurned Magnani herself as the star.  Guess which director brought their film in on-time and within budget.

As production began on the isolated Stromboli Island, thanks to Howard Hughes, the relationship between Rossellini and Bergman intensified.  With rumors swirling and pictures of PDA’s splashed across the newspapers, she became radioactive for her former Hollywood colleagues, leading to no end of stress for the Swedish movie star.  The narrative elements of both competing films, featuring disgraced women shunned by narrow-minded islanders, did not exactly help either, but it certainly represents fertile soil for film critics and historians to analyze.

Most movie fans will know the broad strokes of this infamous story, but the details are fascinating.  Patierno completely eschews talking heads, telling the tale through anonymous voiceover narration, archival publicity footage, and shrewdly selected clips from the principles’ films that thematically fit the events under discussion (like for instance, Hitchcock’s Notorious).  Almost entirely black-and-white as a result, Volcanoes captures a vivid sense of the era’s sophistication.

While rather a shorty at fifty-two minutes (preceded by a ten minute short following the eternal Manoel de Oliveira during the filming of The Strange Case of Angelica), War of the Volcanoes is nonetheless quite informative and entertaining, like a gossip show for upscale cineastes.  Recommended for fans of Italian cinema and Hollywood’s golden age, War of the Volcanoes screens this Saturday (9/29) and the following Wednesday (10/3) as part of the 2012 NYFF.

NYFF ’12: Up the Valley and Beyond (short)

He has been called the most successful independent filmmaker of his era.  Yet, there was no secret formula to his films.  The hallmarks, so to speak, of Meyer’s oeuvre are impossible to miss.  Todd Rosken dramatizes the sexploitation pioneer’s creation story in Up the Valley and Beyond (trailer here), which screens as part of Shorts Program 1 at the 50th New York Film Festival.

Meyer was a war hero, as he is happy to explain to anyone who asks.  During the post-war pre-Mad Men era, he sets out to reinvent himself as a pin-up photographer.  However, he has difficulty finding a subject that truly excites his artistic sensibility, if you will.  Then a colleague refers him to Eve Turner, a diva model whose qualities unmistakable—both of them.

Meyer fans will be surprised the grindhouse auteur never even picks up a movie camera in Valley, so there will be no behind-the-scenes treatment of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  Still, Rosken and co-screenwriter Bobby D. Lux cleverly hint at the roots of frequent Meyer motifs.  As Meyer, Jim Parrack’s performance is somewhat akin to Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood, portraying his earnest gusto with almost guileless naiveté.  In contrast to Wood though, Meyer’s cinematic vision is easy to “get,” continuing to reverberate with fans decades after his glory years.

Although it is part of the shorts program, Valley would also be a good fit for NYFF’s Cinema Reflected sidebar.  It certainly captures the enthusiasm of a particularly idiosyncratic filmmaker.  Quite a presentable period production with a number of affectionate laughs, Up the Valley and Beyond is recommended for all cult movie fans when it screens this coming Monday (10/1) and Sunday, October 14th, as part of the first short film programming block at the 2012 NYFF.

Yeonghwa ’12: From Seoul to Varanasi

Lee Yeong-woo is a book publisher, so he must be immediately suspect.  He is indeed engaged in an illicit affair with one of his writers.  Yet, his unassuming wife may just be mixed up in something more nefarious in Jeon Kyu-hwan’s From Seoul to Varanasi (nsfw trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2012 edition of Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, now underway at MoMA.

Though his characters are mostly late middle-aged, Jeon sees no reason why they cannot have sexually charged love affairs, showing viewers Lee and his mistress Su-yeon full-frontally nude and entwined in just about every position in the book.  In contrast, his wife Ji-yeong seems naturally more demur.  Perhaps that is one reason why feels a kinship with Kerim, a devout Lebanese Muslim immigrant she befriends through an unlikely chain of events.  Though Kerim finds himself increasingly attracted to the sensitive Ji-yeong, his radicalized associate is always there to keep him on the straight and narrow.

Nonetheless, something is clearly about to go very wrong.  Jeon’s fractured narrative makes it deliberately difficult to establish a clear timeline, but it is clear a major terrorist bombing will take place in the holy Indian city of Varanasi that will in some way affect Ji-yeong.  Just who was manipulated into doing what are the questions Jeon will teasingly reveal, but a judicious application of Occam’s razor will not lead the audience far astray.

A festival darling for his Town trilogy, Jeon is definitely pitching his material for an exclusive international audience.  His temporal shifts are likely to madden casual viewers.  However, there is some substance to the film beyond its narrative exhibitionism.  Ideology clears plays a subtly corrosive role in the events at hand.  However, Varanasi is really more of a character study—quite a frank one, in fact.

Despite his myriad of faults, it is hard to condemn Lee.  After all, at one point he takes his mistress to a blues club.  Self aware of his insecurities and hypocrisy, he is a complicated figure, who tries to do the right thing when he realizes how deep his estranged wife is in over his head.  It is a breakout performance for the very tall Yoon Dong-hwan.  Choi Won-jung is also quite compelling in a quiet way as Ji-yeong.  Frustratingly though, Jeon is often working at cross-purposes with his cast, distracting viewers from their often meaty performances with his constant shifting back and forth.

Aside from some picturesque shots of the teeming Varanasi streets, Jeon largely focuses on the acutely personal throughout the film, embracing its low budget aesthetic.  It is a thoughtful work featuring some truly significant screen performances. If anything, Jeon just tries too hard to put his auteurist stamp on the proceedings.  Recommended for very select audiences for it insights into infidelity, a rather chilling depiction of Islamist extremism by art-house standards, and the performances of its primaries, From Seoul to Varanasi (a.k.a. just plain Varanasi) screens tonight (9/27) and Sunday (9/30), as Yeonghwa continues at MoMA.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria

How are producers different from the world’s oldest profession?  There is nothing the former won’t do for money.  Don’t believe it?  Well, watch as the producer-protagonist explains it all to his film school audience in Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

To Wai-cheung is a second rate producer of C-grade sexploitation films.  He owes Lawyer Tsang, his sharkish ex-wife, scads of alimony and takes the blame for all his little girl’s troubles in school.  Nothing is going right with his life.  Nonetheless, he keeps cobbling together dubious film projects.  After his latest pitch crashes and burns, he takes a dinner meeting with Brother T-Rex, a Guangzhou gangster with outrageous kinks (that mule is on the poster for a reason).  Against his better judgment, To agrees to produce a comeback vehicle for Tyrannosaur’s old crush, 1960’s Hong Kong sex symbol Susan Shaw (appearing as herself).

Of course, the last thing the down to earth Shaw wants to do in her sunset years is make a nudie movie.  No problem, To will just CGI her head onto ambitious sexpot Tsui Ka-yan’s curvy body.  Known as Popping Candy for reasons we can’t explain on a family website (well, sort of), Tsui turns out to have more substance than To gave her credit for.  However, he might have completely sold out his soul and his dignity to stay in the producing game.  Yet, if he can dredge up the repressed memories, he will confess them all to the film studies class he is addressing in the film’s flashback narrative device.

A real change of pace from Pang’s relationship dramedies like the misleadingly titled Love in the Buff, Vulgaria (rather aptly titled) follows more in the tradition of The Player and other satiric treatments of the movie-making process.  While never showing anything really graphic per se, Pang goes for broke embracing the film’s outrageous jokes (again, you saw that mule, right?).  Yet, the comedy works more often than not, traveling quite well from Hong Kong to America.

Pang regular Chapman To easily fits into the role of his namesake and the embarrassing situations that go with it.  Never too cringy, he portrays producer To in that Larry David-George Costanza zone, where the sad sack and the roguishness intersect.  As Tsui, Dada Chan is quite the discovery, exhibiting a sweetly endearing presence, but with plenty of va-va-voom.  Young Jacqueline Chan also gives the film some genuine heart as To’s forgiving daughter, also named Jacqueline. While many in the supporting cast play it way over the top, the material sort of lends itself to that approach.

Vulgaria is a lot like original The Producers-era Mel Brooks transplanted to the internet age, infectiously delighting in its political incorrectness.  It is a lot of laughs, but not for anyone who gets hung up on a naughty joke or the occasional mistreatment of animals.  Consistently funnier than the intermittent Klown, Vulgaria is recommended for those who appreciate the boldness (especially by HK standards) of its gags when it opens this Friday (9/28) in New York at the AMC Empire and in San Francisco at the AMC Metreon, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NYFF ’12: The Savoy King

To his colleagues, Chick Webb was a musicians’ musician.  For dancers, he was their bandleader of choice.  Yet, the man who drove the Savoy’s house band is not as widely recognized alongside the Dukes and Counts of jazz royalty as he ought to be.  Surviving friends and fans help rectify that in Jeff Kaufman’s thoroughly entertaining documentary profile, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music that Changed America (trailer here), which screens as part of the 50th New York Film Festival’s On the Arts sidebar.

Chick Webb did not have much margin for error in life.  He was an African American, naturally slight of stature, whose childhood back injury led to a broken body and a short lifetime of pain.  He could play those drums though.  A reluctant bandleader, Webb held his outfit together during some decidedly hard times, largely thanks to the quality of his personality and music.  Eventually, they hit it big through the perfect combination of venue and band.

Under progressive management, the Savoy Ballroom was unlike other Harlem nightspots, allowing interracial socializing.  It welcomed neighborhood residents onto its dance floor—and dance they did.  The eternally youthful Frankie Manning explains how the Chick Webb Orchestra became the band of choice for Lindy Hoppers in general and especially for him.  In fact, it was Webb providing special rhythmic support for the first time Manning publically unveiled his still dazzling air-steps.

Those familiar with Ken Burns’ Jazz will also know the basic story of Webb’s legendary battle of the bands with Benny Goodman.  Yet, Savoy King tells it from a slightly different perspective, through the written recollections of his friend and promoter, Helen Oakley Dance.  Webb also had the distinction of giving a band singer named Ella Fitzgerald her first big break.  It all happened in thirty-four all too brief years.

Indeed, one of the many drawbacks of dying at a young age is the difficulty of staking one’s claim on history.  Savoy King rightly does so on his behalf, calling upon expert testimony from the likes of Manning, the impossibly cool Roy Haynes, and trumpeter Joe Wilder, a true gentleman of jazz if ever there was one.  He also enlists an all-star cast to give voice to the giants of the era, including Bill Cosby (a frequent host of the Jazz Foundation of America’s Great Night in Harlem gala concerts) fittingly cast as Webb himself.  For his colleague and favorite arranger Mario Bauzá, Andy Garcia is also about as perfect a match as you could hope to make.  However, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald?  She wishes.

Savoy King is a compelling blend of cultural and social history that shrewdly always keeps the music prominent in the mix.  Although director-producer-writer Kaufman fully explores Webb’s many tribulations, it is a pleasure to revisit the early swing era in his company.  Hip and sensitive, Savoy King is an obvious highlight of this year’s NYFF for jazz fans, but it is also highly recommended for general audiences when it screens this Saturday (9/29) at the Walter Reade Theater and the following Tuesday (10/2) at the Francesca Beale.

Solomon Kane: Puritans Kick Butt

Yes, it’s been said before, but it bears repeating—don’t pick a fight with the Puritans.  Seventeenth Century ruffians are particularly advised to give a wide berth to a reformed killer with a satanic price on his head.  There will be a fair amount of dark fantastic swashbuckling as Robert E. Howard’s hero searches for redemption in Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane (trailer here), which wayfares into theaters this Friday.

Kane was once a warrior so ruthless, he sort of accidently made a pact with the Devil.  When Scratch’s minions come to collect, the adventurer is a bit freaked.  Taking refuge in a monastery, Kane converts, pledging to never take another life.  With the forces of darkness still pursuing him, Kane’s presence is rather bad for business, so the penitent sets out to confront his destiny.  He finds it with the Crowthorns, a truly Christian family of pilgrims.

When his traveling companions are attacked by a demonic militia, Kane watches helplessly out of obedience to his oath.  However, when they carry off the eldest Crowthorn daughter, Kane pledges to rescue her, even if it costs his very soul.  Yet, Kane will find her fate is intertwined the secrets of his past, as we would expect.

If nothing else, Kane is a nattily accessorized action hero.  Although some liberties are taken with his origin story, Bassett taps into something powerfully archetypal in his depiction of the menacing Puritan.  His script treats concepts of damnation and redemption with deadly earnest, which is appreciated.  In a way, SK is a far more effective Evangelical film than those made for the express purpose of proselytizing.  There is also a fair amount of hack and slash.

James Purefoy is about as good fit for Kane as one could hope to find.  He is no Ryan Gosling or Reynolds, thank the merciful Heavens.  Quite good in the superior Ironclad, he is equally credible here both in the action scenes and brooding like a man accursed.  Adding further heft, the late great Pete Postlethwaite memorably portrays the dignity of faith as William Crowthorn.  Max von Sydow is also very Max von Sydow as Kane’s noble father, seen in flashbacks.

Yet, when you get right down to it, SK ought to be more fun than it is.  The religious overtones are actually rather distinctive, but the film just gets bogged down too often.  There are simply too many scenes of Kane riding through forests, while the climax over-relies on Harry Potter style magical pyrotechnics.

Still, Bassett was definitely onto something in Kane.  Howard readers should appreciate how well he captured that sense of ancient corrupting dread.  Not perfect but a worthy effort, Solomon Kane is recommended for Howard fans and more adventurous Evangelical audiences when it opens this Friday (9/28) in New York at the AMC Empire.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stars in Shorts: Branagh, Firth, Knightley, and Company

Following his epic adaptation of Henry V, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s third Academy Award nomination came for a short film—a treatment of Chekhov’s Swan Song.  Although he has now reinvented himself as a tent-pole director, with the new Jack Ryan thriller on the way, Branagh periodically returns to shorter forms of filmmaking.  That is indeed Branagh appearing as the villain in Benjamin Grayson’s Prodigal, which screens as part of Shorts International’s Stars in Shorts program (trailer here), opening this Friday at the IFC Center.

While Branagh is a delight as Mark Snow, the head of a shadowy research group (and namesake of the X-Files composer), Prodigal (trailer here) largely recycles a number of the themes and motifs familiar from Chris Carter’s television series.  David O’Neill regrets entrusting Samantha, his young daughter with powerful telekinetic abilities, to the Prodigal institution.  He enlists the help of a secretive branch of the federal government, but in retrospect, this is probably a further mistake.  Aside from Branagh, the cast is a bit colorless, but Prodigal certainly looks like a polished production.  Fans of Winter Ave Zoli (from Sons of Anarchy) will be also interested to see her as David’s wife Angela.

Probably the funniest short of the block is Robert Festinger’s The Procession, starring Lily Tomlin and the sort of starrish Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the shallowest, most self-centered mother-and-son tandem you would never want to be trapped in a car with during a funeral procession.  It basically plays like an unproduced episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it works.

One of the standouts of the program, Rupert Friend’s Steve also starts out in a somewhat comedic vibe, but takes a decidedly dark turn.  A couple’s bickering is interrupted by a neighbor’s seemingly reasonable inquiry about a leak.  However, the title character will be back, with weirder complaints.  He will also expect tea.  Colin Firth is memorably off as Steve, while the glammed down Keira Knightley is convincingly harried as his reluctant host.  It is a nice short acting showcase, fittingly helmed by Friend, recognizable as the protag-journalist in Renny Harlin’s 5 Days of War, among other big screen roles.

Film and sound editor Jay Kamen’s Not Your Time is pretty amusing as well.  Featuring Jason Alexander as Sid Rosenthal, an editor who always wanted to helm a Busby Berkley musical, it mines Player style laughs by featuring a cast of Hollywood insiders as themselves.  Music students will also appreciate Kamen’s send-up of atonal avant-garde classical composition.  While the humor is distinctly dark, Alexander’s shticky persona best fits brief running times, like NYT’s twenty five minutes.

Neil LaBute continues to seek redemption for his The Wicker Man remake with two characteristically cutting contributions.  Jacob Chase’s After School Special, written by LaBute, is an ironic twist kind of short, with its name “star,” Wes Bentley, not really factoring in the business end of the film.  Nonetheless, the closing scene definitely stings.  Sexting, both penned and helmed by the playwright, builds to a more obvious punchline, but Julia Stiles is deliciously catty as the other woman, burying herself in a mountain of LaButian dialogue.  It is smart gig for Stiles, who was terrif in Shakespeare in the Park’s Twelfth Night years ago, but seems to get the dumbest parts offered to her.

Perhaps the slightest constituent film is also the one with the greatest built in audience anticipation.  In Chris Foggin’s Friend Request Pending Dame Judi Dench and her crony engage in a bit of social networking and cyber flirtation, presumably before they nip off to India’s greener retirement pastures.  One of the floating heads on the program poster, Tim Hiddleston also eventually appears in a jokey cameo during Pending’s closing seconds.  A harmless reunion of My Week With Marilyn assistant director Foggin and co-stars Dench and Penny Ryder, it will probably endear itself to the Marigold Hotel set.

Though shorts programs are often inconsistent by their aggregated nature, there is no out and out clunker in StarsSteve might be the high point, but it notably represents a good way to see Branagh, Stiles, and LaBute doing their thing.  Recommended for fans of short films and LaBute, Stars in Shorts opens this Friday (9/28) in New York at the IFC Center.

Six Million and One: In Their Father’s Footsteps

David Fisher chose to drag his siblings to the historic sites of Austria that the country would rather hide away from the world.  They would visit the concentration camps their father survived.  It is a trip Israeli filmmaker Fisher’s sister and two brothers make quite reluctantly.  Nevertheless, they experience family history as a form of therapy they never knew they needed in Fisher’s Six Million and One (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Fisher somehow lived through his internment at the Gusen and Gunskirchen camps, but just barely.  Amongst the last camp populations to be liberated, the Fishers’ father easily could have been the National Socialists’ final victim, the titular six million and first.  He did survive, but he never told the tale, except in the unpublished memoir discovered after his death.  While most of the family has no interest in plumbing the depths of their father’s wounded psyche, the documentarian brother obsesses over it, using it as the blue print for SMAO.

Brother David starts the voyage solo, traveling to Austria, where he meets several townspeople who were slightly surprised to learn they had moved into houses across the street from a concentration camp.  He also journeys to America to interview some of the surviving GI’s who liberated the Austrian camps and still suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome decades later.  In fact, these might be some of the most eye-opening scenes of the film, arguing for separate documentary treatment in their own right.

Eventually, Fisher cajoles his siblings into returning to Austria with him.  They literally retrace their father’s steps on the notorious death march between camps and in the munitions tunnel he dug as a slave laborer.  Yet, having not read their father’s chronicle, they are unaware of the significance of each leg of the journey until it is revealed by their filmmaker brother. 

Notwithstanding the humanistic empathy of his visit with America’s “Greatest Generation,” SMAO revisits some well traveled documentary roads.  For those of us who have covered many thematically related films, it clearly bears close comparison to Jake Fisher’s A Generation Apart (presumably no relation), as well as any number of films documenting Survivors’ return journeys to their old fateful homelands (such as Inside Hana’s Suitcase or Blinky & Me for instance).  However, the refreshing wit and attitude of the Fishers helps differentiate SMAO from the field.  It is clear they are never reading from a pre-written script, nor are they interesting in indulging in cheap-and-easy sentiment.

Yes, there have been a lot of films about this uniquely horrific episode in human history, but SMAO still finds something new to say.  Though it displays a bit of inclination towards the discursive, writer-director-producer Fisher and editor Hadas Ayalon ultimately shape it all into a compelling narrative.  Ran Bagno’s ECM-ish blend of chamber strings and experimental music also nicely underscores the dramatic presentations on-screen.  Recommended for thoughtful audiences, Six Million and One opens this Friday (9/28) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Yeonghwa ’12: Poongsan

Not much is known about the poongsan breed of doggie, because of their native region: North Korea.  Given the stories of their tenacity, it seems like an apt enough moniker for a mysterious messenger who traverses the DMZ seemingly at will.  It also happens to be his favorite brand of cigarette.  Unfortunately, his unique talent will attract the wrong sort of attention in Juhn Jai-hong’s Poongsan, which screens during the 2012 edition of Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, now underway at MoMA.

Poongsan never speaks.  For his line of work that is not so bad.  Typically he smuggles video-taped messages and family heirlooms to loved ones on opposite sides of the border.  Occasionally, he carries a child across.  Those trips only go in one direction—south.  Finally getting wind of the silent mystery man, the South Korean NIS recruits him for a special gig.  They eagerly covet the intel a North Korean defector has promised them, but he refuses to talk until they also bring over his lover, In-oak.  No problem, he can deliver her in three hours.

While the nameless antihero is good to his word, this crossing was more eventful than usual.  Those intense three hours left an impression on In-oak.  Considering her feelings for her former Communist sugar-daddy-defector lover were already ambiguous at best, their reunion quickly turns sour.  Meanwhile, the NIS rewards their taciturn freelancer by opening a can of interrogation on him, obsessively asking whose side he is on.  Soon the Poongsan smoking trafficker and In-oak become pawns in a shadowy game played by the NIS and a ruthless NK terror cell.

Written and produced by Kim Ki-duk (the proud new owner of Venice’s Golden Lion for Pieta), Poongsan is somewhat akin to other why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along espionage thrillers coming out of the South in recent years (like for instance, Secret Reunion), but at least it shows the Northern Communist agents are at least as coldblooded as their Southern counterparts—and quite arguably crueler.  The fact that most people are starving in the DPRK is also acknowledged if not belabored.  Nonetheless, the hawkishness of the NIS seems to take it disproportionately in the shins throughout the film.  Indeed, how dare they try to protect their country from a personality cult willfully starving its population into submission.

Though working strictly non-verbally, former boy band member Yoon Kye-sang gives a career making performance.  Totally credible in the action scenes, he also expresses the sort of deep passionate yearning that never goes out of style at the Korean box office.  Likewise, Kim Gyu-ri develops vivid chemistry with him, culminating in one of the most extreme (yet chaste) love scenes you will ever see on film.  However, her little-girl-lost act gets a tad wearying when her taciturn protector is not around.  At least, Kim Jong-soo is not afraid to let loose the oily bile as the dubious defector.  Confusingly though, several of the supporting cast members look as though they were recruited at a Song Kang-ho lookalike contest (but no, that does not include Song himself).

By action movie standards, Poongsan is remarkably dour.  Yet, the film’s need to be tragic is apparent right from the start.  Kim Ki-duk protégé Juhn has a strong handle on both the tense border crossing sequences and the star-crossed romance.  However, he lets the scenes of morally equivalent in-fighting get a bit draggy.  Nonetheless, Bourne fans should appreciate the gritty vibe and Yoon’s star turn.  Recommended accordingly, Poongsan screens this coming Wednesday (9/26) and Saturday (9/29) as part of MoMA’s annual Yeonghwa celebration of Korean cinema.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Yeonghwa ’12: A Fish (Mulgogi)

You never know how much you will miss someone until they run off to become a shaman.  Just ask Professor Lee Jeon-hyuk.  He is determined to drag his wife home from her spiritual retreat, or so he thinks.  Things will get metaphysically messy in Park Hong-min’s A Fish (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Yeonghwa Korean film series at MoMA.

Lee has hired a cringy private detective to track down his wife.  He inspires little confidence, but evidently the gumshoe has found the missing spouse on southwestern Jindo Island.  The academic and the professional sleaze will share an awkward journey that is unlikely to produce a heartwarming reunion.  Meanwhile, two apparently unrelated bickering strangers find themselves deep-sea fishing together, even though they have no previous memories and no idea how they got there.

As a darkly cosmic story involving the sport of worm-drowning, A Fish would be a highly compatible companion film to Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyun’s iPhone-shot short Night Fishing.  In fact, it is almost exactly the same film, building up to remarkably similar revelations.  Yet, the Park Brothers’ big fish tale is told in a much more economical thirty minutes, even with the musical prologue.  However, Park Hong-min’s fish madness is distinguished by what might be the most unnecessary use of 3D to ever baffle bespectacled viewers.  Small in scope, but moody and murky in tone, Park’s approach to A Fish just does not cry out for the sensation of depth perception.

Lee Jang-hoon’s performance as Prof. Lee is about as uptight and tightly wound as is humanly possible, whereas Kim Sun-bin is just about as convincingly annoying as the detective.  While her character closely guards the film’s secrets, Choi So-eun at least suggests great depths of sensitivity as the wife turned shaman.  The entire cast fulfills their functions like good soldiers, but the overall battle plan never really comes together.

Though the primary players and shamanistic elements work well enough in context, A Fish tries too hard to be a mysterious mind-trip, losing sight of the fundamental human element.  Frankly, we feel like we have been down this lost highway before.  Best saved for fans of David Lynch and his imitators, A Fish screens today (9/22) and Wednesday (9/26) as part of Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, now underway at MoMA.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Masquerade: the King is not Himself Today

It is like the Joseon era equivalent of the eighteen minute gap in the Watergate tapes.  Fifteen days of King Gwanghae’s official court history mysteriously disappeared.  There was a fair bit of intrigue afoot during that period, but the king missed most of it.  It is his double who briefly tends to matters of state in Choo Chang-min’s Masquerade (trailer here), which opens today in select cities, including New York and Los Angeles.

When Gwanghae first assumed the throne, there was great hope for his reign.  Unfortunately, he turned out to be a capricious ruler.  Sound familiar?  At least in early seventeenth century Korea, there were worse alternatives.  Given the unsavory nature of his rivals in court, his loyal Chief Secretary Heo Gyun opts for full cover-up mode when the king is incapacitated by a life-threatening mickey.  Already employing look-alike actor Ha-seon as the King’s double on a limited basis, Heo Gyun installs him on the throne full time until the royal doctor nurses the king back to health.

Ha-seon knows little about the issues of the day, but his fundamental decency leads him to make better decisions than had been coming from Gwanghae of late.  Trying to make nice with the beautiful Queen Consort, he starts doing those little things, like ending her brother’s torturous inquisition.  Of course, these edicts only further antagonize the conspirators who brought about Ha-seon’s impersonation in the first place.

Essentially, Masquerade is the Korean costume drama version of Dave, but the stakes are higher for everyone involved.  Obviously, not everybody will make it through the picture alive.  The only questions are how high will the body count be and will it include the secret social climber Ha-seon?

In his first true period piece, action star Lee Byung-hun (internationally recognizable for G.I. Joe and I Saw the Devil) handles the dual role of king and clown rather well.  He is convincingly imperious as Gwanghae and not terribly shticky as the in-over-his-head Ha-seon.  However, it is the supporting cast that really shines, particularly Ryoo Seung-ryong (scary good in War of the Arrows), whose hardnosed Heo Gyun personifies steely gravitas.  Likewise, Jang Gwang’s understated turn as Chief Eunuch Jo really sneaks up on viewers.  Han Hyo-joo makes the most of the underwritten Queen Consort role, but Shim Eun-kyung really lowers the dramatic boom as Sawol, the young taster who awakens the conscience of the pretend king.

Costume designer Kwon Yoo-jin’s colorful threads look appropriately rich and finely wrought, but Choo is not overawed by the trappings of royalty, largely narrowing his focus to the micro human tribulations rather than the macro geo-politics.  While there is more backstabbing than swordplay in Masquerade, it should still satisfy the entire spectrum of period action and romance audiences.  Recommended for fans of Korean epic historicals, Masquerade opens today (9/21) in New York at the AMC Empire and in L.A. at the CGV Cinemas, courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

They Call It Myanmar: Burma from the Inside

Even the Buddhist monks got fed up with Burma’s oppressive military regime.  A deeply devout nation, the Burmese people were shocked when the army fired on the monks' peaceful demonstrations.  Yet, the junta still rules.  Physics professor, novelist, and independent filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman explores the tragic dynamics of the Southeast Asian country from a layman’s point of view in They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Perhaps because of the wide variety of professional hats Lieberman wears, he was recruited to participate in a State Department sponsored filmmaker mentoring program.  Having gained entrée into the “second most isolated country on the planet,” Lieberman recognized what an unusual opportunity he had.  Over the next two years, Lieberman furtively filmed the people and their customs, keeping his eyes peeled for anything that might shed light on the nation’s political and social realities.  He even scored an on-camera sit-down interview with the recently released Aung San Suu Kyi, which should always be good for bragging rights around the Cornell faculty lounge.

Culled from hours of footage, Call mixes sort of National Geographic-style appreciations of Burma/Myanmar’s stunning temples, their distinctive application of thanaka facial paste (for cooling and cosmetic purposes), and the like, with legitimate muckraking, all via handheld camcorder.  Indeed, at not insignificant personal risk, Lieberman conveys a real sense of the fear and paranoia fostered by the military police state.  Yet, perhaps even more shocking are the truly Sisyphean hand-to-mouth living conditions endured by the overwhelming majority of Burmese, vividly documented in Call.

For obvious reasons, Lieberman scrupulously maintains the anonymity of his interview subjects.  Their commentary is consistently illuminating and more often than not depressing, suggesting the regime’s pervasive oppression has even affected the populace’s psychological ability to think as a political free agent.  Still, for true profundity, it is hard to top Suu Kyi’s parting words: “politicians who think they’ve gone beyond being politicians are very dangerous.”  Someone should carve that in marble where the current and future occupants of the Oval Office will see it every day.

There is nothing more frustrating than an ostensibly independent filmmaker producing a puff piece in a notorious closed society.  To his credit, Lieberman chose to take the tougher path.  The result is a solid boots-on-the-ground overview of contemporary Burma, periodically spiked with moments of shocking outrage.  Interested viewers who find it a good general introduction can then fill in the details with more specific case studies, like HBO2’s Burma Soldier and Luc Besson’s Suu Kyi biopic The Lady.  Recommended for general audiences, They Call It Myanmar opens this Friday (9/21) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.