Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Café de Flore: The Melody Lingers On

Music has the potential to be a collective experience, uniting people who are utterly unaware of each other’s existence.  One swinging sixties lounge tune will connect characters of radically disparate eras and temperaments in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore (trailer here), which was to open this Friday in New York, but was bumped to the 9th, post-posting.

Life will be difficult for Jacqueline as a single working mother in 1967 Paris.  Her husband walked out when their son Laurent was born with Down-syndrome.  Undaunted, she will fiercely dedicate herself to her son, to an extent that might prove too intense.  Four decades later, Antoine Godin seems to have it all.  Blessed with two healthy daughters and a blossoming career as a techno DJ, he ought to be happy, but isn’t.  Partly this is due to his codependent ex-wife Carole, who resents his prospective fiancée Rose.  He met the younger woman in AA, which is both good and bad.  In each storyline, a tune called “Café de Flore” will persistently pop up.

Vallée rapidly cuts between the two narratives, unfolding them nearly simultaneously.  Viewers have to keep on their toes, even though cinematographer Pierre Cottereau clearly delineates the drab 1960’s from the high gloss of contemporary Montreal.  Frankly, viewers will need to find their sea legs during the first act, but the bravura work of Vallée, who served as his own film editor and screenwriter, is worth the effort.

Frankly, viewers will most likely be unprepared for Flore, especially if they are familiar with Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. and The Young Victoria.  While on the surface, the critically over-lauded former film addressed similar themes of family dysfunction, Flore takes a radical turn into the metaphysical that would be spoilery to spell out in any great detail.  Nonetheless, Vallée develops it credibly and organically.  The title song, licensed from British electronic DJ and occasional big band leader Matthew Herbert, also travels nicely between the two time periods.

Vanessa Paradis gives a career performance as Jacqueline.  It is a complex and emotionally raw portrayal that hits the audience with staggering force.  Though thoroughly de-glamorized, the face of Chanel is still quite a striking presence.  Bilingual indie-folk-rocker Kevin Parent is also quite compellingly as Godin, but in a less showy way.  Unfortunately, Hélène Florent is stuck with the thankless story-facilitating role as the mopey Carole.  However, there is an immediacy and vulnerability to Évelyne Brochu’s Rose that is rather shocking.

Granted, Vallée is a name director, but Flore is still the surprise of the year.  It is a deep, rich film with whiff of the otherworldly (but in no way should it be considered a genre film).  Assembled with genuine artistry, Café de Flore is highly recommended for mainstream adult audiences when it opens next Friday (11/9) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

The Bay: Barry Levinson Finds Some Eco-Terror Footage

Evidently, chicken and seafood are not such a good mix after all.  It seems the local poultry processing plant has been dumping the cluckers’ waste and entrails into the Chesapeake Bay.  All the hormones and genetic boosters mixed with a little radiation have had a nasty effect on the isopods.  The resulting bio-scare is documented by a rookie reporter and scads of random handheld devices in Barry Levinson’s massively disappointing The Bay (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In her online introduction, former journalism intern Donna Thompson ominously explains to the audience they are about to see the truth the government tried to cover up.  Fortunately, the g-men never ran a simple web search, which would have brought up a good chunk of the film we are about to sit through.  It is the Fourth of July in Claridge, Maryland, but all is not well.  Large schools of fish have washed up dead.  Then humans start showing alarming symptoms.

With a good part of his town breaking out in boils and coughing up stomach lining, Mayor Stockman reacts by going into full stonewalling mode.  We know he must be a bad guy, because he has nice things to say about business.  His name is Stock Man, that says it all, doesn’t?  However, the overworked emergency room doctor duly notifies Homeland Security, who spring into action half a day later.  Okay, that part we can buy into.

The found footage genre usually has weak characterization, because the conceit does not allow for much getting-to-you development, but The Bay hits a new low.  As much as we are supposed to hiss at Mayor Stockman, he is the film’s most distinctive personality.  Aside from some rueful self-deprecating remarks, the audience gets absolutely no sense of Thompson as an individual.  Yet, though she seems to be the protagonist, she hardly figures in any of the action.

It is a problem when a film’s climax sneaks past you, but that is exactly what happens in The Bay when the credits start to role after a brief voiceover attempts to tie up the rat’s nest of loose ends.  In contrast, anyone seeing North By Northwest for the first time will realize it is do or die time when Cary Grant is hanging off Mount Rushmore.  Of course, Hitchcock’s film is a classic and Levinson’s genre outing is a didactic snooze.

Anything can be forgiven in an effective creature feature, but The Bay hardly has any narrative arc to it, whatsoever, and no real suspense to speak of.  It is truly surprising a consistently commercial director like Levinson (Bugsy, Diner, Good Morning Vietnam) could helm such an inert, lifeless film, but here it is.  A dud on every level, The Bay is not recommended at all when it opens this Friday (11/2) in New York at the IFC Center.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Miami Connection: The Dragon Sound Experience

Miami Vice lied to you.  It wasn’t Cuban or Colombian cartels that controlled the South Florida drug trade in the 1980’s.  It was the ninjas.  However, they met their match in Tae Kwon Do grandmaster and inspirational speaker Y.K. Kim.  He and his students lay down some hard rocking justice in his long lost, feather-haired, labor of love, Miami Connection (trailer here), which Alamo Drafthouse saved from obscurity to conquer the world through a series of midnight screenings, beginning this Friday in New York.

The Miami Ninjas pick a fight with the wrong band when they try to roust Dragon Sound from their new gig at “Central Florida’s hottest new night club” in Connection, co-directed by Kim and experienced exploitation auteur Woo-sang “Richard” Park.  They are a tight band, who live, train, and rock together with Mark, their Tae Kwon Do master.  The ninjas and drug dealers might have formed an alliance, but they are no match for the one-two punch of Tae Kwon Do and cheesy 80’s synthesizer rock. 

Further complicating matters, Mark’s number one protégé John has been dating Jane, the kid sister of Jeff the gang leader, against his wishes.  Granted, he overreacts, but it is hard to blame him for being underwhelmed by the gawky lover-boy.  Indeed, things get personal quickly.  The plot might be a touch hackneyed (you know when a Dragon Sound member puts on a fancy new suit for a special occasion, he is in for a world of hurt) and the dialogue is what it is (and that’s not much), but the fighting is pretty awesome, courtesy of Grandmaster Kim, who clearly has no aversion to a spot of blood here and there.  Former champion kickboxer Maurice Smith certainly knew how to conduct himself in a fight scene as well, but he has some of the most laughable drama as Jim, the keyboard player with the unhealthy mailbox obsession.

Hats off to the in-damn-domitable Y.K. Kim, who is finally getting distribution and cult fandom for Miami Connection, after the snobby Florida critics brusquely dismissed its ill-fated Orlando release in 1987.  Thanks to those stick-in-the-muds, Kim & Park’s heartfelt smackdown was almost lost to posterity.  That said, the Miami Connection experience is best shared with a rowdy group of likeminded viewers.  Hopefully, large and vocal crowds will duly turn out when it screens this Friday and Saturday nights (11/2 & 11/3) at the Landmark Sunshine in New York.

A Liar’s Autobiography: Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is in There Somewhere

He was the one with the pipe.  Graham Chapman could be as silly as any of the Pythons, but only he had the noble bearing to portray King Arthur, the would-be messiah Brian Cohen, and a battalion of aristocratic British military officers.  He also played the title role in Yellowbeard, but nobody’s perfect.  Indeed, that could be the mantra of Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett’s A Liar’s Autobiography: the Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (trailer here), a hyperkinetic kitchen sink of an animated biography, which opens in 3D this Friday, day-and-date with its 2D premiere on Epix.

Viewers of Jones (son of Terry) & Timlett’s Monty Python: Almost the Truth will know Chapman was the tragic Python, who struggled with substance and sex addictions, before succumbing to cancer at the terribly early age of forty-eight.  Chapman was also perfectly open, if rather ambivalent, about his sexuality.  Such a dramatic life offers plenty of grist for a biopic treatment and it all in Liar’s Autobiography—somewhere.

Fourteen different animation houses using seventeen different animation styles illustrate the events of Chapman’s life, as narrated by the subject himself from the memoir that would inspire the film.  Given the relatively brevity and rapid succession of each constituent episode, it is hard to keep them all straight. At least, they proceed in a somewhat orderly narrative fashion, depicting Chapman as a rather macabre baby (not unlike Seth Macfarlane’s Stewie), a precocious student, and as one of the gaggle of monkeys co-founding Monty Python. 

The thread is easier to follow in his early years, though Autobiography is still prone to distraction, even dramatizing one of the Biggles war stories (strikingly rendered by Made Visual Studio) that captivated young Chapman.  However, by the time Autobiography reaches Treat Studios’ Space Pods, the connection to reality has been gleefully severed.

The greatest irony of Autobiography is that its biggest laughs and greatest emotional payoff comes from the real-life-honest-to-gosh video of John Cleese’s eulogy for Chapman, in which he promises to avoid “mindless good taste.”  Most of the Pythons are represented in Autobiography, playing themselves as well as other co-conspirators and innocent bystanders.  Fans will be delighted to hear honorary Python Carol Cleveland turns up for old time’s sake too.  Bizarrely, Cameron Diaz, who also used to famous once, supplies the voice of Freund.  However, Eric Idle is MIA, though his song “Sit on My Face” gets the full “Blame Canada” Busby Berkley treatment.

You don’t walk out of Autobiography, you stagger.  While the 3D is characteristically hit or miss, the film[s] bombards the audience with wacky, tripped out imagery.  At times, it is almost too much, but it least it scrupulously observes Chapman’s wishes regarding gratuitous good taste.  You have to give its spirit proper due.  Recommended more for the fanatical Python fan than the causal viewer (quick, what is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?), A Liar’s Autobiography will be the first 3D release to play at the Angelika Film Center when it opens this Friday (11/2) in New York, simultaneous with its 2D broadcast on Epix.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters—Photography at its Most Cinematic

For Gregory Crewdson’s career-defining Under the Roses project, each individual photo had a production budget comparable to most independent films.  The money was not going to big name models.  The dollars are in the details of the photographer’s elaborately constructed photo tableaux.  Ben Shapiro documents the photographer at work in Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Inspired by artists like Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Edward Hopper, David Lynch, and Alfred Hitchcock, Crewdson’s photographs capture the surface of hardscrabble western Massachusetts towns, while hinting at dark secrets lurking below.  Each photo suggests an unfolding narrative, but only provides viewers an isolated moment in time.

Frankly, Crewdson truly is best likened to a movie director.  At least for the Roses project, he was not technically the man behind the camera.  That would be his “director of photography” Richard Sands, an expert in all matters related to light, who had held the same title on film shoots.  Instead, Crewdson coaches his models (almost entirely local residents) in much the same manner as a film director and determines every detail of what will be captured in the camera’s field of vision.  Clearly, it is still very much his work, though he is the first to credit Sands’ importance as a collaborator.

Meant to be seen large, Crewdson’s images hold up well on a big screen.  While not as upbeat as Bel Borba, the Brazilian artist recently seen in his own documentary at Film Forum, Crewdson is rather open and engaging when discussing his work.  He never comes across as a dry academic or a self-serious hipster.  He might be slightly neurotic maybe, but by New York standards, it is hard to tell.

Ten years in the making, Brief takes the tried and true approach to art docs, capturing the making-of process for many of the Roses pictures, while periodically cutting away for on-camera interview segments.  Crewdson really is his own best spokesman, whereas his novelist friends Russell Banks and Rick Moody are conspicuously eager to read socio-economic meaning into his shots of Massachusetts’s obviously depressed rustbelt.  Yet, that is the sort of superficial analysis Crewdson is challenging viewers to go beyond.  By setting such mysterious scenes, Crewdson suggests there is more to his modest homes, bars, and motels than meets the initially eye.

Crewdson’s Beneath the Roses project is definitely visually and intellectually stimulating enough to sustain the full seventy-seven minutes of Shapiro’s film, which is always a key question for art documentaries.  Yet, the next major body of work that Crewdson embarks on just as Brief winds down, may be even more intriguing for cineastes.  Recommended for photography and documentary patrons, Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters opens this Wednesday (10/31) at Film Forum, assuming it is not flooded or over-run by flesh-eating zombies.

A Late Quartet: The Fugue’s Requiem

In classical string quartets, they say the second violinist is not necessarily subservient to the first.  They also say there are no small parts, only small actors, but nobody believes that either.  The complicated inter-relationships of an acclaimed string ensemble will be challenged to their breaking point in Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Fugue Quartet has performed together for nearly twenty-five years.  Yet, as their quarter century anniversary approaches, their future becomes uncertain.  Cellist Peter Mitchell, the senior member of the ensemble, has been diagnosed with early Parkinson’s.  He can still function well enough to teach his students, including Alexandra Gelbart, the daughter of second violinist Robert and violist Juliette.  However, it is not clear whether he is up to the rigorous demands of concert performance, especially Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor, a punishing seven movement piece that offers no resting place for musicians who tackle it.

It quickly becomes apparent Mitchell was the glue holding the quartet together, even though first violinist Daniel Lerner largely dominated the quartet’s artistic decisions through the force of his personality.  He also has romantic history with Juliette Gelbart, one of the many reasons for Robert Gelbart’s burgeoning resentment.  Yet, recognizing his talent, the Gelbarts send their daughter to him for personal tutoring, resulting in drama that could permanently rip the Fugue asunder.

Essentially, Quartet is soap opera at its most sophisticated and refined.  There is plenty of angst and jealousy at play, but the screenplay (penned by Zilberman and Seth Grossman) really sings when addressing the musicians’ approach to their art.  For those coming from the jazz tradition, it is fascinating to watch the debate between Robert Gelbart, who wants to play Beethoven’s Opus without charts to give it a freer, more emotionally spontaneous feeling, and Lerner, who insists on following every little notation, to the squiggle.  Gelbert is not advocating improvisation, just a bit more interpretive latitude in their attack, but for Lerner this would ignore the benefit gleaned from years of careful study.

Although he refrains from eccentric Walkenisms, Christopher Walken still steals nearly every scene he appears in as Mitchell.  Knocking some richly written lecture scenes out of the park, one wonders if perhaps he missed his calling as a music teacher.  Yet, the most Oscar worthy performance comes from the one member of the quartet not previously nominated.  Mark Ivanir really opens up the icily precise Lerner, markedly laying bare the messy insecurities so many great artists share.  In contrast, as the Gelbarts, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener stay on familiar ground, depicting the petty tribulations of the privileged class.  We have seen this from them both before, but at least Zilberman shows them bickering in interesting places, like Sotheby’s.

Perhaps Zilberman’s most important collaborator is the Brentano String Quartet, whose elegantly elegiac rendition of the Opus powerfully underscores the film.  Their fans will also enjoy seeing cellist Nina Lee appearing as herself, whom Mitchell is determined to recruit as his replacement.  Memorably capturing the heart and milieu of classical music, Quartet deserves attention during award season, particularly for Ivanir and Walken.  Yet, as a true chamber piece, it may lack the bombast the academy responds to.  Recommended for classical listeners and those who appreciate the drama inherent in creative differences, A Late Quartet opens this Friday (11/2) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

SAIFF ’12: Akam (Palais in Bloom)

They are known as Yakshis in southern India, but we would think of them as succubi.  Every culture has their equivalent, but one architect fears he married one.  Yet, his perception of reality may or may not be so reliable in Shalini Usha Nair’s Akam (Palais in Bloom), which screened at the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival in New York (trailer here).

Srinivas seemed to have his life laid out perfectly, until an accident left the young architect visibly disfigured.  Abandoned by his girlfriend, he descends into a deep existential depression.  It is only the chance late night meeting with a mysterious woman that snaps him out of his lethargy.  Just what Ragini was doing at his construction site at that hour is a question that will bother Srinivas in months to come, but it concerns him little during their brief courtship.

For a while everything is great and then just as suddenly things are terrible again.  Srinivas finds himself besieged by minor misfortunes and ailments that he is convinced Ragini has caused.  He is convinced she is a Yakshi, who seduced him in order to torment and eventually murder him, because that is what Yakshis do.

If Ragini is a Yakshi, Nair isn’t telling.  There is evidence in the film to support either conclusion, but none of it trustworthy, because of the manner Srinivas’s obviously warped POV skews the film’s narrative.  Indeed, Akam’s open-endedness clearly gave some SAIFF patrons fits, just as Nair intended.

Loosely based Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s novel Yakshi, Akam could have featured a spot of gore here and there, but Nair elected to keep it off-screen, which will further frustrate genre fans.  That simply is not the tradition the film flows out of.  However, there are enough hat-tips to Vertigo to inspire an angry missive from Kim Novak.  Present day Kerala might seem worlds and centuries removed from Puritan New England, but Srinivas could almost be considered a Malayalam Hawthorne character, whose outward disfigurement corresponds to a spiritual disfigurement.  The real horror of his story is the uncertainty whether he is the victim or the tormentor, much like a Goodman Brown. 

As Srinivas, Fahadh Faasil vividly portrays a man plagued by inner demons and insecurities, while Anumol K’s Ragini certainly suggests a woman with closely guarded secrets.  Freed from traditional genre demands, Nair’s pacing is decidedly patient.  Unfortunately, the frequent flashbacks are not well delineated from the present day, often causing viewer confusion.  Yet, her sparing use of sound, and the overwhelming sense of darkness and stillness are unusually effective.  Akam has a genuinely foreboding atmosphere that makes the ambiguous gamesmanship possible. 

This is definitely not Bollywood.  Technically, it is Mollywood, but do not expect any Malayalam musical numbers.  While the austerity of Nair’s style is demanding at times, the overall vibe really gets under your skin.  Though not perfect, this is a film more festival programmers ought to consider.  Recommended for cineastes who have a taste for the macabre but prefer mood over mayhem, Akam is set to have a limited Indian release this November.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

SAIFF ’12: Chakravyuh

Welcome to India’s “Red Corridor.”  While referring to the ideology of the militant Naxalite-Maoists who exercise de-facto governing authority in some of the country’s poorest provinces, it applies just as readily to the blood they shed to maintain their power.  However, one ambitious policeman is determined to reestablish law and order in Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh (trailer here), a selection of the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, co-starring Bollywood legend Kabir Bedi, who will participant in special intimate on-stage conversation at the Helen Mills Theater this afternoon.

SP Adil Khan is so by-the-book, he must be headed for a fall.  He is for a rude awakening when he accepts his newest posting, replacing a fallen friend and colleague in the Red Corridor.  Just like his predecessor, Khan is lured into an ambush by false Naxalite informants.  At least Khan lives to tell the tale and change tactics.  Unlike his colleagues, Khan tries to win over the dirt poor villagers’ hearts and minds, but whenever one reaches out to the copper, they are publically executed by the ruthless Rajan.  It looks bad for the home team until his academy drop-out buddy Kabir volunteers to go undercover.  With no formal ties to the cops, he is the only one with a puncher’s chance of surviving the vetting process.

Thanks to their cover story, Kabir fits in with the Naxalites rather easily.  He feeds Khan breakthrough intel, turning the tide against the Maoists.  Yet, as Kabir starts to go proletarian, Khan realizes he may have made a mistake sending an impressionable hothead prone to snap decision-making on a sensitive infiltration mission.

This film would give Debbie Schlussel a conniption fit.  Basically, it features the Muslim cop Khan (the only character whose religion is expressly identified, at least to western eyes) waging war against an increasingly sympathetic terrorist cult.  Indeed, Chakravyuh is problematic in multiple ways, but also fascinating in much the same manner as the best Soviet propaganda films.  There is no doubt India’s rural poor have a hard lot in life, but it is pretty clear by now the shining path offers no salvation.  Perversely, Kabir and Rajan spend most of the film fighting the steel plant Kabir Bedi’s evil industrialist is trying to build, doing nothing to increase local employment opportunities. 

Obviously, the irony of China allegedly supporting the Naxalites while explicitly repudiating the Maoist excesses of the Cultural Revolution is an irony lost on Jha.  At least, he can stage rousing gun battles and spectacular massacres.  Jha also integrates the musical numbers into the action in a manner that is more organic than one might expect.  Yes, this is most definitely Bollywood. 

Jha gets a critical assist from Arjun Rampal, who is an appropriately forceful presence as Khan.  Had Jha belived in his mission, Rampal’s Khan might have joined The Raid’s Iko Uwais as the second great Muslim action hero of the year.  Unfortunately, we are clearly meant to identify more with Abhay Deol’s Kabir, but his brooding is more petulant than Byronic.  Still, Chakravyuh has the beautiful and well-armed Esha Gupta as Khan’s fiancée and comrade, Rhea Menon.  SAIFF special guest Kabir Bedi also chews the scenery in a manner befitting a former bond villain (the lethal Gobinda in Octopussy).

Chakravyuh is simplistic and didactic, but it is never dull.  Suitable for action fans who are able to discern and discount propaganda and dogma, Chakravyuh is now playing at the AMC Loews Newport Centre in Jersey City, following its North American premiere at the 2012 SAIFF.  It is likely to be among the topics discussed during the special conversation with Kabir Bedi this afternoon (10/27), as SAIFF continues in Chelsea.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Secret of Crickley Hall: a Bad Year to be an Orphan

On the anniversary of their young son’s disappearance the Caleighs try to heal their grieving family by renting out the most haunted house in England.  Most of the former orphanage’s charges supposedly died in the great flood of 1943, but the truth is far more sinister.  It might also have very personal implications for the Caleighs in The Secret of Crickley Hall (promo here), a special three hour adaptation of James Herbert’s novel, which airs this Sunday on BBC America.

Eve Caleigh blames herself for the apparent loss of their son Cam.  So does everyone else, but they try not to say so.  She was the one who dozed off at the playground and woke up to find him missing.  She used to have a pseudo-psychic connection with her son, but since Cam vanished she has not felt his consciousness—until they move into Crickley Hall.

Convinced her son is still alive and in danger, Caleigh starts investigating the old house.  It is not pretty.  Most of the orphans were supposedly sucked into the well dug into the cellar during the tragic storm, but two remain unaccounted for.  Her best source of information is the old gardener, Percy Judd, who understood the grim realities of Crickley the rest of the town was unwilling to face.  He knew the headmaster was badly abusing the children, particularly a shy Jewish refugee, despite the heroic efforts of his potential girlfriend, the new teacher at Crickley, as viewers witness during the frequent flashbacks to 1943.

Thematically similar, Crickley is sort of like the TV miniseries version of Nick Murphy’s The Awakening.  Considering they still have two perfectly good daughters to lose, it is hard to believe the Caleigh’s do not turn on their heels as soon as they take a gander at that ominous looking well.  (What more do they need, a desecrated cemetery in the backyard?)  Yet, Gabe Caleigh stubbornly refuses to accept his wife’s ghost talk, despite all the spookiness going on around them.  Nonetheless, director-adaptor Joe Ahearne wrings plenty of chills and suspense from the eerie setting.

Although the ensemble does not have a lot of big names by the standards of Hollywood television magazines, it holds plenty of geek interest.  Suranne Jones, (co-star of a fan favorite Doctor Who episode) is compellingly guilt-ridden as Eve Caleigh.  Playing another mournful husband much like his character in The Fades, Tom Ellis is about as sympathetic and convincing as possible for the frustratingly incredulous Gabe Caleigh.  However, it is reliable veteran David (Tron, Time Bandits) Warner’s Judd who really gives the film heart, while Game of Thrones alumnus Donald Sumpter also bears watching as the mysterious old parapsychologist come to allay everyone’s fears.

Even though none of the revelations are shockingly original, Ahearne still pulls it all together rather effectively in the third hour.  He plays the old dark house card for all it is worth and juggles the two narrative time periods fairly adeptly.  Still, the well produced, half-period Crickley’s three hours could have easily been condensed into two without losing much.  Of course, it is important to bear in mind Herbert is a major best-seller in the UK, so a longer Crickley would make sense for the BBC over there.  All told, it is fairly scary stuff for an early Sunday evening.  Recommended for fans of British supernatural programming, The Secret of Crickley Hall premieres this Sunday (10/28) on BBC America.

Silent Hill: Revelation—Pyramid Head Takes Another Hack

Heather Mason’s teenaged years have been difficult.  Her name is actually Sharon Da Silva, but she and her father Christopher, currently known as Harry, constantly move to new towns under assumed identities.  Supposedly, he is on the run from the law, but it is really to keep a step ahead of a bizarre death cult.  Yet, they constantly call her back to their shunned ghost town through supernatural means.  There will be a macabre homecoming in store for her in Michael J. Bassett’s Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (trailer here), which opens today across the country.

Considered one of the better film adaptations of a video game, the first Silent Hill struck some chords with viewers by seriously addressing themes of faith and sacrifice.  To save her daughter, Rose Da Silva accepted banishment on the other side of Silent Hill’s dimensional portal.  Her husband has done his best to protect Sharon/Heather.  However, when Rose sends him a Candyman-style inter-dimensional warning, it may already be too late.  Sleazy gumshoe Douglas Courtland tracked down the Da Silvas before he fully appreciated the nature of his clients.  In order to save her father, Sharon/Heather resolves to give her tormentors the showdown they want.

Those who have played the survival game will know there is a complicated backstory to Silent Hill, involving Alessa, the all-powerful witch-girl, whose curse holds the cult’s powers in check.  There are also a number of monsters living in this netherworld, including fan favorite Pyramid Head.  Apparently, one of the knocks on the first film was his relative lack of screen time, so it is rather odd Revelation also uses him rather sparingly.   However, Malcolm McDowell has a long and unleasant scene as blind bogeyman Leonard Wolf, the former cult leader committed by his own daughter.  Gee whiz, it has been quite a while since his career-defining work with Lindsay Anderson, hasn’t it?

Frankly, it is pretty easy for non-gamers to follow Revelation’s first two acts, but once Sharon/Heather arrives at Silent Hill, all bets are off.  Sure, there is a clear narrative chain of events, but the underlying logic of the how’s and why’s is rather vague.  In fact, it is rather like watching someone playing a videogame when you do not understand the rules.

Adelaide Clemens is perfectly credible horror heroine, even delivering a promo-reel worthy speech early in the film.  Of course, Sean Bean certainly knows his way around a special effects-driven production by now.  As Da Silva, he helps elevate the proceedings with his earnest everyman presence.  In contrast, McDowell and Carrie-Anne Moss do not exactly make classic villains as the Wolf family cultists.

In all honesty, Revelation still probably represents the high end of the bell curve for video game adaptations.  Good and evil have very real meaning here.  While as a gamer Bassett was reportedly already steeped in the game’s mythos, he loses control of the third act, letting the film descend into poorly lit mayhem.  There is a measure of payoff, but it comes after a head-scratching sojourn through the titular town’s sub-basements.  Only for diehards franchise fans, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D opens today (10/26) in New York at the AMC Kips Bay and Regal E-Walk, obviously scheduled with Halloween in mind.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

NYTVF ’12: Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon

Those of us of roughly a certain generation, fondly remember the Captains we came to know and love through kid’s programming, you know, like Captain Kangaroo, Captain America, Captain Crunch, and Captain Morgan.  Captain Cornelius Cartoon follows in the tradition of them all.  He and the crew of the Manta Ray salvage public domain cartoons from the watery graveyard of the Cartoon Lagoon, in order to riff on them MST3K style.  The resulting blend of puppetry and retro nostalgia trips makes Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon (trailer here), the animated standout of the 2012 New York Television Festival’s Independent Pilot Competition.

The title is a little confusing, but this is indeed animated.  Maybe they should have worked in the word cartoon a few more times.  Regardless, the potential of creator Manny Galán’s concept is hard to miss.  The biggest surprise is how cartoons from established franchises such as Popeye and Caspar the Friendly Ghost could fall into PD.  There is no way you will ever see Mickey in the Lagoon.  Yet, the clear highlight of the Lagoon pilot was an episode of the long forgotten mid 1970’s Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo (another Captain) that bears absolutely no resemblance to Jules Verne.

The Me Generation Nemo is a blow-dried, jutting jawed male model who accidentally runs over a dolphin, permanently scarring his two juvenile companions for life.  To nurse the dolphin back to health, Nemo puts it in a steel cage, while giving loud dramatic readings from Fifty Shades of Grey to scare away the sharks.  Or something like that.  Obviously, Nemo’s narrative development is a bit sketchy, making it a perfect foil for the Manta Ray crew.

The Lagoon creators readily acknowledge their debt of inspiration to MST3K, following the same format, right down to the portal door through which the cartoon goodness enters.  It really works though, because the creative team has the right pop culture sensibility.  Lagoon delivers laughs from start to finish, sprinkling a number of truly memorable quips throughout the pilot.  The old school miniature puppetry bringing to life the Manta Ray crew also appealingly resembles a slightly rum-soused Rankin/Bass special.

It is easy to see how a cable network could pick up Lagoon with confidence.  That is not so true for the rest of the animated competition this year.  Nathan Floody’s corporate head-hunting send-up Hunters is also wickedly cutting at times, but its raunchier inclinations might make it harder to place.  However, the Captain pilot is never inappropriate for younger viewers, even though many jokes are aimed above their heads.  Nicely executed and consistently funny, Captain Cornelius Cartoon’s Cartoon Lagoon ought to have a long life ahead of it, following its well received screenings at the 2012 NYTVF.