Friday, May 31, 2013

BFF: A Better World (short)

Think of this as what happens after the famous 1984 Apple commercial.  Big Brother has fallen.  Unfortunately, Henry Dremmel is no Winston Smith.  Adjusting to a post-dystopian world will be difficult for him in Sacha Feiner’s short film A Better World (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Dremmel the tool, works for the Domestic Denunciation Program.  All days he monitors security cameras, reporting even the slightest deviations from the norm.  One fateful night, Dremmel wakes to the sound of fireworks.  The regime has fallen.  Freedom has broken out, but the Denunciator cannot handle it.  He prefers the structure of his drab, harshly regimented former existence.

Audiences are unlikely to see a film more explicitly associating the compulsive need for security with oppressive statism in a month of Sundays.  What’s even more mind-blowing is that it hails from Belgium, the EU’s happy host nation.  Regardless, writer-director Feiner really cuts to the heart of the matter.  Dremmel is not an odious villain.  A pathetic figure, he is the final victim of a de-humanizing collectivist system.

Better World is also quite an impressive looking production.  Olan Bowland’s bleak, washed-out cinematography and Julia Irribaria’s imposing sets create a perfectly Orwellian environment.  Almost a prop himself, Vincent Kohler is appropriately cringey and clammy as Dremmel.

Despite its twenty-four minute running time, A Better World has more to say than most features.  A genuinely challenging work (especially for Williamsburg hipsters), it is one of the best dystopian films of any length to hit the festival circuit.  Very highly recommended, it screens this coming Monday (6/3) and Wednesday (6/5) as part of the 2013 Magnetic edition of the Brooklyn Film Festival.

DWF ’13: Kumpania Flamenco Los Angeles

Maybe there’s yet still hope for Los Angeles.  The city is home to a small but vibrant flamenco scene.  Of course, nobody is making much money—quite the contrary.  The musicians, vocalists, and dancers all simply share a passion for the music.  Katina Dunn documents their musical camaraderie in Kumpanía Flamenco Los Angeles (trailer here), which screens this afternoon during the “Sweet Sixteen” edition of Dances With Films.

Flamenco originated in the tightly knit Roma community of Seventeenth Century Spain.  Musicians and dancers from other cultures have been drawn to the music, but according to one vocalist, only Spaniards can sing Flamenco with the right accent.  Yes, he happens to be a Spanish expat.  Regardless of authenticity issues, the Los Angeles Flamenco community is distinctly diverse.  Many local Hispanic musicians have adopted the music as their own, including Joey Heredia, a professional drummer comfortable crossing stylistic lines, whose impressive credits include work with Tania Maria, Poncho Sanchez, and Diane Reeves.

Japanese artists are also well represented in KFLA.  Kyoto native Jose Tanaka is not just a leading guitarrista and composer, but clearly serves as a leader holding the community together.  However, if one star truly emerges from the film, it would have to be Bailaora (dancer) Mizuho Sato.  A striking performer with flawless technique, her sequences will hold viewers spellbound.  She also provides real insight into the Flamenco aesthetic, especially when explaining how the demur nature of the presentation is part of what makes it all smolder.

Dunn nicely conveys the scene’s vibe and gives interested viewers an easy starting point to check out the assembled artists live—namely, the Fountain Theatre.  Her selective but clever use of archival footage adds fitting context as well.  She does right by the music, which is the most important thing.

While not reaching the lofty heights of Fernando Trueba’s Calle 54 (the true gold standard of music performance docs), KFLA is still quite a dynamic and engaging film.  At just a whisker over an hour, it will leave most viewers wanting more.  Appealing to the eyes and ears, Kumpanía Flamenco Los Angeles is recommended for general audiences when it screens this afternoon (5/31) as part of the 2013 edition of Dances With Films, in Hollywood, California.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

BFF ’13: Dragon Girls

Will one of these girls be the next Michelle Yeoh?   Possibly, but none of them seems to harbor such lofty aspirations.  Regardless, they all train harder than most professional athletes in hopes of earning a better life for their families (shouldn’t that be the other way around?).  Inigo Westmeier observes the rigorous routine of the Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu School’s students in Dragon Girls (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival.

For these mostly poor provincial students, kung fu school can lead to better military and police jobs than might otherwise be available to them.  Unfortunately, the seven day training regime does not leave much time for the kids to be kids.  The Shaolin Tagu School accepts both boys and girls, but Westmeier devotes about ninety percent of his attention to the latter, focusing on three particular girls with complicated family circumstances.

Much like the apparently abusive Shanghai Circus School documented by Guo Jing & Ke Dingding, life at Shaolin Tagu does not look like a lot of fun.  On the other hand, at least it offers the girls some camaraderie.  Given the realities of life for poor rural girls (such as the protagonist of Wang Bing’s Three Sisters), things could arguably be worse for the students.  Still, the sanctimonious headmaster is obviously cutting corners with respects to sanitation and nutrition.  Yet, the most trying aspect for most of the girls is the lingering sensation of abandonment.  Clearly, the school functions as an alternative to an orphanage for many essentially absentee parents.

Westmeier captures his three primary POV figures at their most open and vulnerable moments.  Frankly, it is often difficult watching them struggle physically and emotionally, because they are really just kids.  The extent of the headmaster’s authoritarian indoctrination is nearly as disturbing, if not more so.

Despite all the issues the film raises, seeing the collective student body of 35,000 in action is admittedly impressive.  For an observational style doc, there is a heck of a lot of spectacle in Dragon Girls.  These kids are good—but the monks in the Shaolin monastery next door are probably better.  As one might expect, they are less dogmatic and far more Zen-like in their approach to martial arts.  Westmeier tellingly contrasts the two so-close-yet-so-far-apart Shaolin institutions without belaboring the point.

Dragon Girls further testifies to the vast class divisions demarcating today’s China.  It might be tough viewing, but it is an honest reflection of reality. The extent to which Westmeier melds the social issue documentary with martial arts cinema is also rather notable.  Recommended for fans of both genres who can handle some unvarnished truth, Dragon Girls screens this Saturday (6/1) at Windmill Studios and the following Thursday (6/6) at IndeiScreen as part of the “Magnetic” 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival.

BFF ’13: 113 Degrees (short)

In space, no one can hear a heart break—unless, the aggrieved lover decides not to bear her disappointment in silence.  Confined environments are difficult places to work out relationship problems as the crew of a two-person space station learns in writer-director Sabrina Doyle’s short film 113 Degrees (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Francesca and Joe have grown close during their time in space together.  At this point, they share the same bunk.  It would seem to be an Eden-like situation, but an interstellar call from Joe’s terrestrial wife serves as a rude awakening for his commander.  Disturbed by the incident, she carries her agitation with her during a supposedly routine space walk.  This leads to serious complications.

Granted, most romantic tragedies are not overly concerned with cooling systems, but the guts of 113 involve the lovers’ betrayal and sacrifice.  This is really the sort of film that uses science fiction trappings to tell a straight forward human story.  Indeed, it hits some deep chords.  However, it is important to note Doyle, producer Matilde Barbagallo, and editor Marian Jiménez are all women, lest the film be accused of perpetuating the stereotype women are more likely to become emotionally overwrought than men.

As Francesca and Joe, Lizzy Davis and Brian Groh quickly convey a sense they share some long, intimate history together.  They are a believably flawed couple.  However, his long haired hipster coif looks rather out of place.  Even in the future, aside from space tourists, most astronauts are still likely to be ex-military.

Regardless, the rest of the production is technically quite impressive, especially considering Doyle’s budget constraints.  Hollywood tent-pole veteran Greg Derochie’s VFX team convincingly renders Francesca’s space walk outside the station and the deteriorating conditions within.  One could easily believe this is the same world as the Alien franchise or Duncan Jones’ similarly scrappy Moon.  Recommended for SF fans with a weakness for tales of star-crossed love, the twenty-one minute 113 Degrees screens Monday (6/3) and Wednesday (6/5) as part of this year’s “Magnetic” BFF.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Wall: A Very Private Apocalypse

When the television adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome hits the airwaves, fans will duly wonder where he gets his ideas from.  Hmm, maybe Christoffer Boe’s Allegro or Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand.  Of course, both predecessors are much more introspective in nature.  Indeed, viewers witness a very private apocalypse in Julian Pölsler’s adaptation of Haushofer’s 1963 novel, The Wall (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

A woman is holidaying with friends in the Austrian mountain lodge.  Her hosts drive into town for supplies and never return.  Venturing out the next morning she discovers an invisible barrier blocking the road.  Scouting the mountainside, she discovers the strange wall encircles her.  She can see people on the other side, but they appear frozen in place.  Time seems to only pass on her side of the wall, but it passes very slowly.

Told in flashbacks via the unnamed woman’s journal entries, The Wall consciously echoes Robinson Crusoe.  With no Man Friday, the woman develops a close bond with the couple’s dog, Lynx.  Indeed, it is largely her rapport with animals that keeps the woman engaged in her solitary world.

Obviously, The Wall implies much about man and our unbalanced relationship with nature.  The English language voice-overs are often rather heavy-handed (and clash with the limited subtitled German dialogue) but the film’s vibe and rhythm are eerily evocative.  Viewers will feel like they are getting a true taste of what it would be like to be the last sentient person on Earth.

Shot over the course of several seasons, Pölsler and his battery of cinematographers fully capitalize on the stunning scenic vistas that utterly dwarf the lone woman.  Carrying the film almost single-handedly, Martina Gedeck (co-star of the modern classic The Lives of Others) gives a remarkably assured performance.  Mixing depression and empowerment, it might be the purest cinematic portrayal of existential living.  However, it is also worth noting Pölsler’s own dog Lynx is quite the performer in his own right.

The Wall may well be a rebuke of patriarchy and industrialization, but it still works rather well as a survivor’s story.  Admittedly, it is deliberately paced (for obvious reasons), but the overall effect is hypnotic.  Recommended for those who appreciate apocalyptic and allegorical cinema, The Wall opens this Friday (5/31) at the IFC Center.

BFF ’13: Sado Tempest

Sado is like the Japanese Isle of Elba.  It was there that the Emperor Juntoku and Buddhist priest Nichiren were exiled in eras past and it is there that a dissident punk rocker is imprisoned in the dystopian near future.  Yet, the island environment he wakes to appears frozen in time, existing in a state of perpetual winter.  Amid the gloom, demons will haunt Welsh expat John Williams’ Noh-styled Shakespearean pseudo-adaptation, Sado Tempest (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Juntoku’s band Jitterbug regularly yells truth to power during their gigs.  This one will be their final one.  The Agent Smith-like Sekihara drugs the lads backstage and whisks them off to Sado. Presumed dead by the outside world, they are now helpless captives of the brutal warden Sugi.  There is also a strange woman named Miranda, who obsessively hums lines of a legendary demon song as she trudges about the place.  Eventually, Juntoku suspects her ancient verses might hold the key to a supernatural renewal.

Right, there’s some Tempest in here somewhere.  Regardless, there is plenty of ethereal atmosphere, evocative taiko drumming, and Kappa like demons to transport viewers well out of the familiarity zones.  Essentially, Shakespeare is one of several influences, just like the Zen Buddhist flavoring the pronouncements of Omuro, the Prospero figure.  Williams clearly privileges mood over narrative, but there are some deviously subversive bits, as when the corrupt Sugi browbeats the band into recording that last album for their label to discover in the vaults.

Fans of Jitterbug should enjoy hearing them do their thing.  Yet, even through subtitles, the centerpiece “Demon Song” has a real old world vibe, in keeping with the film’s Shakespearean inspiration.  Lead singer Yasunori Henmi does right by it, even if he is a somewhat stiff screen presence.  While the cast largely provides deliberately strange and forbidding performances, there is something haunting about Noriko Eguchi’s Miranda.  As the villainous Sekihara, Kill Bill’s Yoji Tanaka is also appropriately cold blooded and venomous. 

Dystopian cinema has rarely looked so barren and windswept.  Nobody is apt to confuse Sado Tempest with Hunger Games or Battle Royale for that matter.  Indeed, this is about as post-modern as Shakespeare and Noh Theater can get.  Yet, the archetypal themes still resonate.  The sage Omura explicitly challenges conventional notions of time and narrative on Williams’ behalf, but the film itself is relatively linear.  Nonetheless, Sado Tempest is hardly accessible for mass market audiences.  Eerily hallucinatory, Sado Tempest is a must for cult cinema fans with a more post-structuralist intellectual bent.  It screens this coming Sunday (6/2) and Monday (6/3) as part of this year’s “Magnetic” Brooklyn Film Festival.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shadow Dancer: The Informer 2.0

They say peace finally came to Northern Ireland when both sides lost their appetite for killing.  Collette McVeigh’s family has not reached that point yet.  This makes her a potentially valuable source of information in James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Young Collette was supposed to buy her father a pack of cigarettes, but she sent her brother instead.  The bullet that cut short his life would send her down the path of violent terrorism.  Even with a child to raise McVeigh stays active in the cause.  However, her latest mission is an unqualified disaster.  Her bomb fails to detonate, which is somewhat fortunate since she is also pinched by MI-5.  Her interrogator, Mac, has a rather awkward talk prepared for her.  That bullet that killed her brother?  Not British.  More to the point, if she ever wants to see her son again, McVeigh must start informing on her high ranking IRA brothers.

Kind of sort of agreeing, McVeigh stalls for time, but Mac forces her to commit.  Soon McVeigh navigates the perils of a double life, but her handler looks out for her interests as best he can.  Mac is old school.  He believes in protecting assets, so he is troubled by the actions of his superior, Kate Fletcher, who seems rather callously disinterested in McVeigh’s safety.

Shadow is bit of a slow starter, but it is a strong closer.  Largely (but not completely) de-politicized by Marsh, the film speaks more directly to the mindset of Eric Hoffer’s “true believer” rather than the particularly grievances of the Troubles.  Neither side exclusively represents the heroes or the villains.  Some individuals are simply more reasonable than others.  For instance, McVeigh’s brothers illustrate fanaticism at its worst, while Fletcher personifies Machiavellianism at its most cold blooded.

Marsh is a world class filmmaker, who seems to have a knack for gritty noir material, such as the middle (and best) film of the Red Riding trilogy.  In his hands, Shadow Dancer is as much a classical tragedy as it is a thriller.  McVeigh and Mac are both pawns trying to assert themselves in a fatally deterministic world.  In fact, the film’s pessimism is what really lingers with viewers.  Clearly, the terrorist mindset will always opt for blood over an honorable peace.  American audiences will also wonder if the aptness of McVeigh’s name was coincidental or intentional.

Clive Owen is fantastic as Mac, balancing his ruthlessness and humanity on a razor’s edge.  Likewise, Andrea Riseborough’s McVeigh looks like a stress fracture about to happen.  Red is definitely her color, but it is still a bit hard to see her as a potential temptress, which makes the evolution of her relationship with her handler somewhat problematic.  While she is not exactly a multidimensional character, as Fletcher, Gillian Anderson also gives an ice queen performance worthy of Kristin Scott Thomas.

Marsh meticulously sets the scene and methodically escalates the tension.  Adapting his own novel, screenwriter Tom Bradby fully establishes the sad internal logic of the late Troubles era.  Admirably free of sentimentality, Shadow Dancer mostly plays it straight (while not entirely reining-in a lingering bias against MI-5 and the police charged with maintaining public safety).  Worth seeing as a result, it opens this Friday (5/31) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

BFF ’13: Black Out

Those idiots from the Hangover franchise have nothing on Jos Vreeswijk, who is about to wake up next to a dead body, a smoking gun, and no memory of the last twenty four hours.  He has one day to get it all sorted if he wants to make it to the church in time for his wedding in Arne Toonen’s Black Out (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Vreeswijk was once a criminal, but he went straight.  It seemed to take, up until the point he woke up with a corpse in his bed.  His fiancée Caroline knows he has a shady past, but she accepts him nonetheless.  His prospective father-in-law is less understanding, but he seems to be up to his eyeballs in the mess enveloping Vreeswijk.  Evidently, it involves twenty kilos of cocaine two rival gang lords think he owes them.  To get back to the straight-and-narrow, Vreeswijk will have to boost somebody else’s coke.  There seems to be plenty around, but holding onto it is a trickier proposition.

Black Out is a darkly comic, slightly cartoony criminal caper which hums along quite energetically.  You have your ballet dancers-turned Russian mobsters, psycho baby doll enforcers, malevolent grandpas, and out of their depth dog groomers all getting in on the action.  Yet, it is the steely Robert Conrad-esque Raymond Thirry who anchors the bedlam quite effectively as the reformed everyman, Vreeswijk.  Despite all the betrayal and confusion exploding around him, he is always manly and never whiny.

Likewise, Kim van Kooten is pleasantly down to earth and pragmatic as the innocent Caroline.  All the crazy acting out is left to the rest of the cast, who gorge on scenery like a Bonanza buffet.  Arguably, the subtlest, most intriguing supporting character is Renee Fokker’s Inez, the “Connoisseur of Coke” and formerly Vreeswijk’s close associate.

Tonnen is obviously influenced by Tarantino and the recent bumper crop of Scandinavian noirs, but even if he never reinvents the wheel, he keeps things punchy and pacey.  Violence and eccentricity are liberally mixed together, but Black Out still feels fresh thanks to Thirry’s grounded center.  A slickly entertaining one-darned-thing-after-another gangster romance-beatdown, Black Out is recommended pretty enthusiastically for genre fans when it screens this coming Sunday (6/2) and Monday (6/3) at Windmill Studios, as part of the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Chinese Realities: The Questioning (short)

When the cops show up to “inspect” your hotel room, it is a case of pure intimidation.  It is also something of a badge of honor in today’s China.  Film producer and festival impresario Zhu Rikun was the target of such a police roust, but he had the presence of mind to keep his camera rolling. His resulting short documentary The Questioning screens with Ai Weiwei’s thematically similar Disturbing the Peace as part of MoMA’s continuing Chinese Realities/DocumentaryVisions film series.

Evidently, it takes six cops to ask for Zhu’s papers.  Surely being familiar with Teacher Ai’s experience, Zhu handles himself masterfully.  He is distinctly uncooperative, but never gives them anything they could describe as provocative.  The entire episode degenerates into absurdist theater, with Zhu refusing to answers basic questions, instead referring his interrogators to the very documents they hold in their hands.  Viewers can well imagine the flustered enforcers reassuring themselves how badly they shook up Zhu once they retreat from his room.

Indeed, Questioning plays like a revised scene from the ill fated Chengdu trip in Disturbing, but unfortunately, Ai Weiwei and his team were not so deft at handling their harassers.  Teacher Wei would take a shot to the head, which would eventually led to a serious medical crisis, and his assistant would be held incommunicado in gross violation of ostensible law.

In her insightful post-screening Q&A, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry director Alison Klayman really put her finger on the phenomenon both films document.  Both Zhu and Teacher Ai could be so assertive in confrontations with authority figures, because there is no rule of law to govern such encounters.  As a result, the strongest personality has an advantage.  Ironically, that gives Teacher Ai the advantage.  Zhu is certainly no shrinking violet either.

Disturbing the Peace is a film everyone should watch to understand contemporary China.  Zhu’s The Questioning is also quite valuable.  It is short, but extremely telling.  One could argue he does not do much directing, per se, merely turning on the stationary camera his surprise guests never notice, but as a cinematic journalist, he is incredibly gutsy.  However, his overly large cast is lousy at taking direction.  Both highly recommended films screen together again (sans Klayman) this coming Saturday (6/1), concluding Chinese Realities at MoMA.

Monday, May 27, 2013

KCS Korean Movie Night: Sunny

If Rizzo were dying of cancer, surely Frenchie would reunite the Pink Ladies.  Such is the position married and well-to-do Im Na-mi finds herself in.  Some members of the girl gang are happy to get back together, but others are harder to find in Kang Hyeong-chul’s monster hit Sunny (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s free Korean Movie Night in New York.

While not exactly a life of quiet desperation, Im leads a sheltered existence that is not wholly fulfilling.  Since her husband and daughter are too busy to visit her mother-in-law in the hospital, she upholds their obligations.  During one such visit, she chances across the room of Ha Chun-hwa, the leader of the clique dubbed “Sunny.” When Im’s family moved to Seoul from the countryside, Ha took the shy teen under her wing.  As we watch in flashbacks, most of Sunny quickly fell in line, but not Jung Su-ji, the moody prospective model.

When not rumbling with other girl gangs, Sunny practiced their choreography.  However, they were never able to perform their big number, for reasons that will eventually be revealed.  Hmm, anyone smell some unfinished business here?

In a Korean film, when a character is introduced with fatal illness in the first act, it is a cinch there will be an emotional funeral coming down the pike.  This goes way beyond Chekhov’s gun.  Without a big weepy payoff, audiences would want their money back.  Not to be spoilery, but Sunny delivers the goods.

Yes, this is a chick flick, but it is an admittedly well crafted film.  Employing some surprisingly striking transitions for each temporal shift, Sunny is more visually stylish than it probably needed to be.  In fact, Nam Na-yeoung won the best editing honors at Daejong Film Awards for good reason.  As the narrative unfolds, it pulls you in, despite viewers’ macho or hipster resistances.

Yoo Ho-jeong plays grown-up Im with admirable restraint, never overplaying the gilded cage empowerment card.  Likewise, Shim Eun-kyung is earnest and awkward as teenaged Im.  Yet, both Jin Hee-kyung and Kang Sora really outshine the ensemble as the ailing adult and fearless teenaged, Ha, respectively.  Although hardly a teen herself, singer Min Hyo-rin has her moments as the high school ice queen, Jung.  As for her adult counterpart, that is really the question driving Sunny’s third act.

If Cyndi Lauper floats your boat and you prefer Boney M’s version of the title song over Bobby Hebb’s original, than Sunny’s unabashedly 1980’s soundtrack will be your catnip.  The ways screenwriter-director Kang interjects and darts around the May 1980 democracy protests also gives the film a bit of seasoning.  He certainly conveys his point of view, without waving the bloody shirt.  Sunny is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, but it does exactly what it sets out to do.  Recommended for those looking to celebrate sisterhood, it screens tomorrow (5/28) at the Tribeca Cinemas—free of charge, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Weir Revived by the Irish Rep

Is it the booze or is it the blarney?  The two go together for the patrons of a remote Irish pub.  However, their ghostly tall tales take an unexpectedly serious turn in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of Conor McPherson’s The Weir (trailer here), which officially opened last Thursday night in New York.

Brenden’s pub is a quiet, out-of-the-way spot, aside from the dreaded nights when busloads of German tourists descend on the barkeep like locusts.  Jack, the pugnacious mechanic, and the morose mother’s boy Jim have come to spy on Finbar Mack, the local wheeler-dealer as he attempts to charm the village’s newest resident.  Valerie is a woman and therefore of interest to everyone present.

The former Dubliner seems genuinely interested in the history of the area and the legendary fairy road that supposedly runs through Brenden’s public house, opening the door for a series of ghost stories.  Initially, they seem like campfire fare, but they have a profound effect on her.  It seems she has her own deeply tragic story to tell that will echo and amplify the uncanny elements of their prior anecdotes.

McPherson is a great writer, with a flair for dialogue and a wonderfully sly approach to the telling of a tale.  His mature, humanistic handling of supernatural themes comes as a welcome antidote to the adolescent angst of Twilight and the like.  McPherson’s dramas, most certainly including the Olivier award winning The Weir, are also Irish to the bone, making them perfect vehicles for the Irish Rep.  Indeed, The Weir boasts some wickedly droll “pub” humor.  Yet, despite the heavy portents, it is shockingly endearing.  While there are definitely spooky components, at its core The Weir speaks to the therapeutic benefits of getting pie-face hammered and talking malarkey.

The Weir is a true ensemble piece, but Jack the diehard Guinness man gets the big, climatic monologue and Dan Butler (probably best known as Bulldog on the Frasier show) absolutely kills with it.  He masterfully expresses all of Jack’s bluster and his deepest regrets.  In contrast, the hospitable Brenden might be the least showy role, because he is the only character who does not have his own personal yarn to spin (remember, it is a bartender’s job to listen).  Still, he gets most of the funny bits, which Billy Carter makes the most of.  He also develops some subtle as a dew drop chemistry with Tessa Klein’s Valerie.

A strong five-handed cast all around, John Keating and Sean Gormley add earthy color and character as Jim and Mack, respectively.  Listening to their eerie camaraderie is a finely staged pleasure.   Director and Irish Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly seamlessly guides the memorable production through McPherson’s subtle tonal shifts.  Patrons should know coming in it runs straight through without an intermission, but ushers will remind you about a thousand times before it starts.  Highly recommended, The Weir runs through July 7th as part of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 25th anniversary season.

(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Casks & Caskets: Blood of the Vine, Seasons 1 & 2

Murder and vino have always gone together, ever since Montresor offed Fortunato in “A Cask of Amontillado,” so who would make a better amateur sleuth than an enologist (wine expert)?  For a vintner accused of murder, Benjamin Lebel is the man to call in Blood of the Vine (promo here), seasons one and two, now available as two separate 2-DVD sets from MHz Networks.

In the series opener, Tears of Pasquin, the Bordeaux based Lebel puts the moves on an attractive colleague, France Pelletier.  She is mature enough to consider his assistants, Mathilde and Silvère, wet-behind-the-ears kids, but she is still young enough to look good on his arm.  Over the next two seasons, she will become accustomed to having romantic dinners and weekend getaways interrupted by murder.

Pasquin happens to be one of the series’ more intriguing crime stories.  What appears to be a serial killer case ultimately involves the nasty legacy of Vichy era collaboration. That still seems bold for French television.  Pasquin also introduces Lebel to Commander Barbaroux of the Bordeaux police force, who is admittedly befuddled by the rare bottles of Pasquin left at multiple murder scenes.  He calls in Lebel as a consultant, but quickly has misgivings.

Loyal Silvère looks different in Le Coup de Jarnac, but replacement Yoann Denaive and the rest of the regulars will stick around for the balance of the first two seasons.  Hired to audit the storied Aludel cognac distillery divided by feuding siblings, Lebel and his assistant receive a rather frosty reception at the chateau.  However, Lebel is quite welcome at the tavern in town co-owned by his old flame, Shirley.  Unfortunately, the legendary mixer and friendliest Aludel heir falls victim to an untimely accident. 

Vine often features well known guest stars (at least to French audiences), such as Marisa Berenson, the co-star of films like Barry Lyndon and Cabaret, as well as a one-time guest host of The Muppet Show.  As Shirley, she and series star Pierre Arditi have a nice wistfully flirtatious thing going on.

Likewise, Margaux’s Robe features another notable guest star, Arditi’s daughter Rachel, playing Lebel’s daughter, Margaux.  Recently, returned from New York, Margaux Lebel has accepted a PR job with a new Chateau owner who is absolutely, positively not a member of the Russian mob.  When sabotage kills Margaux’s co-worker-lover and badly injures her, the Soviet educated Swiss mogul puts pressure on Lebel to solve the case quickly or he will do it his way, which adds a good twist to elegant sleuthing.

Fittingly, the first season ends with one of the better crafted mysteries, while also challenging Lebel’s loyalties.  When a former assistant’s struggling chateau is beset by a suspicious outbreak, Lebel comes to investigate.  Knowing the grand dame who once fired him covets their land, Lebel pays a visit to the regal Mme. Newman.  Both Arditi and Judith Magre (probably best known for Louis Malle’s The Lovers) clearly relish their affectionately acid-dripped banter.

Season two begins with A Question of Brandy . . . or Death.  Once again, Lebel and his assistants have been hired to assess a struggling distillery.  In this case, it is the Baron Castayrac who expects Lebel to simply sign off on his insurance claim, but the enologist does not play that game.  Pretty much every key element of the series comes into play in this episode, with a union boss of questionable repute thrown in as an added bonus.

Golden Wedding in Sauternes might be one of Vine’s best episodes, thanks to a surprisingly touching performance from Dominique Pinon (Micmacs, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) as Milou Savin, the ailing friend of an elderly wine collecting couple gunned down by a presumed thief.  On the other hand, the subplot in which Silvère does everything possible to make himself a suspect gets quickly tiresome.

Food and Setbacks in the Loire Valley starts off with a clever murder set-up.  A famous actor accidentally kills his co-star wife when a stage gun is replaced with the real deal.  There are betrayals all over the place and of course, a wine cellar, but what really distinguishes the episode is pro-handgun theme.  A victim of an awful crime at a young age, Mathilde now carries a piece and she knows how to use it—a fact that comes in handy.

Inheritance is major preoccupation in Vine, for obvious reasons.  In The Silky Widows Lebel finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between a recently widowed matriarch and her less recently widowed daughter-in-law.  On the positive side, he finally gets an opportunity to craft his first champagne.

Blood of the Vine is a good mystery series for Memorial Day viewing.  Unlike typically urban noirs, most of the action takes place in sun-drenched fields and picturesque chateaus.  It definitely skews towards an older audience, but there is considerably more hanky-panky and tons more drinking than in Murder She Wrote.  Much like BBC mysteries, each installment clocks in around an hour and a half, so there is time for a fair amount of plot development.  Still, it is usually easy to spot the murderers.  They are the ones who have had their characters established, but do not seem to have something specific to do.

A regular presence in Alain Resnais films, Arditi looks like he enjoys the rich trappings of Lebel’s rarified world. Vaguely resembling musician John McLaughlin, he rather nicely balances the mature and mischievous aspects of Lebel’s persona.  There is nothing revolutionary here, but it is all quite pleasant and sophisticated.  Recommended for Francophiles and cozy mystery fans, Blood of the Vine is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chinese Realities: Though I Am Gone

Wang Qingyao’s words have an eerie resonance.  He is determined that his wife’s murder during the Cultural Revolution will not be denied or forgotten by the guilty and embarrassed parties.  Despite his personal pain, he documented his family’s tragedy with remarkable thoroughness.  It is an acutely personal story, but one with national significance for China that unfolds in Hu Jie’s Though I Am Gone (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.

During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing schools were the incubators of the institutionalized insanity.  Unfortunately, Wang’s wife was a middle school vice principal in the wrong city, at the wrong time.  When the Red Guards began terrorizing the country, their children followed their lead.  Even though Bian considered herself a loyal Communist since before 1946, she was forced to endure physical beatings and public humiliations on a daily basis.  Fearing for her family’s safety, Bian resigned herself to the torments.  One day, the students took it too far and rather than taking her to the hospital literally one block away, they just threw her out like a sack of garbage.

Her husband was not on hand to witness the torture she endured.  It only would have made things worse for her.  However, the trained journalist photographed her battered body and saved evidence of her ordeal, including the blood and excrement soaked clothes she wore during her final hours.  Years later, an anonymous source came forward to give him an exact accounting of the events.  Not surprisingly though, only Bian’s fellow victims agreed to participate in Hu’s documentary.

As a filmmaker, Hu’s approach is as simple and straight forward as it can be.  Even eschewing soundtrack music, he focuses his camera on Wang and his photographs, allowing the man to tell her story in his own words.  He also incorporates archival recordings of the state sanctioned madness as well as personal testimony from Bian’s colleagues.

Speaking of the need to bear witness, Wang Qingyao echoes sentiments often heard in Holocaust survivors’ oral histories.  When he eventually produces a photo of the smoke coming from the chimney of the crematorium where his wife’s remains were incinerated, the symmetry becomes profoundly unsettling.  While Hu maintains an intimate focus on Bian’s story, he masterfully conveys a sense of how truly representative it was of rampant, widespread horrors.

On a technical level, Though I Am Gone is a simple film, but it is emotionally devastating.  This is an incredibly brave expose of events the Party would prefer to forget.  Highly recommended for general audiences, particularly including middle school aged students, Though I Am Gone (also distributed by dGenerate Films) screens this coming Tuesday (5/28) and the following Saturday (6/1) as part of Chinese Realities at MoMA.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Nancy, Please: Put that in Your Thesis

The world anxiously awaits a new PhD thesis on Little Dorrit.  A grad student has promised to deliver, but he is running late.  Conflict with a former roommate will badly sidetrack him in Andrew Semans’ Nancy, Please (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the reRun Theater in Brooklyn.

Paul Brawley thinks he has turned a corner moving in with his girlfriend.  No longer must he endure his anti-social ex-housemate, Nancy. Unfortunately, he left behind his study copy of Little Dorrit, with all his precious notes on the endpapers.  It ought to be a relatively simple matter to retrieve it from Nancy, but things escalate with every ignored call and missed connection.  As Brawley’s frustration with Nancy mounts, both his mental and physical health deteriorates and his relationship suffers.

This film seems to think it has some major jujitsu in store for the audience, but it is nowhere near as clever or shocking as it thinks it is.  Semans makes a key error apparently assuming viewers will automatically identify with a hipster Yale TA rather than a waitress with “bad hair.”  In truth, most viewers will be ready to go all in with Nancy after the first twenty minutes—half an hour at the most.

At least, Will Rogers does his job, maximizing Brawley’s annoying qualities at every turn.  To her credit, Eléonore Hendricks largely manages to preserve Nancy’s ambiguousness, while simultaneously maintaining her intensity.  Santino Fontana also provides some interesting moments as Brawley’s devil-on-his-shoulder friend Charlie.  Yet, it is impossible to invest in the fundamental clash of former housemates.

In all fairness, perhaps your faithful correspondent is not the best person to cover Nancy, Please, having little patience for writers who cannot grind out their hack work, such as Brawley’s tiresome thesis.  Regardless, watching his fall from grace is oddly uninvolving.  It is like recognizing a homeless panhandler was the grade school bully from your past.  Intellectually you can acknowledge the waste involved, but emotionally it leaves you unmoved.  While not an affront to cinema (thanks largely to some interesting supporting performances), Nancy, Please ultimately falls flat and rings hollow.  It opens this Friday (5/24) at the reRun in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Wedding Invitation: A Korean and Chinese Rom Com Production Marriage

Love means never having to ask: “where have you been for the last five years?”  When dumping Li Xing, He Qaio Qaio thought they needed time to establish their careers.  If they were still single five years later, they should get married at that point.  However, a lot can happen in five years, including his eleventh hour engagement to the boss’s daughter.  As you might have guessed, He will try to win back her soul mate in Oh Ki-hwan’s A Wedding Invitation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Yes, you probably think you have seen this film before, just with a less attractive cast.  He Qaio Qaio does indeed travel to Beijing, ostensibly to celebrate Li Xing’s wedding, but really with the intent to seduce and disrupt.  She even enlists her gay best friend to pretend to be her lover, in hopes of making Li Xing jealous.  Oh, but not so fast.  In its third act, Invitation veers into three hanky territory, doing what commercial South Korean cinema does best.

Frankly, if you want to enjoy the guilty pleasure of a weepy melodrama, you have to look east.  Hollywood does not do Affairs to Remember anymore.  Everything has to be ironic or quirky these days.  A Multinational co-production, Wedding features a Mainland and Taiwanese cast and a largely Korean crew on the other side of the camera. 

It is a division of labor that works relatively well.  As He, the luminous Bai Bai-he is initially exasperating in the Julia Roberts portion of the film and then heartbreaking in the Il Mare-esque conclusion.  Although Eddie Peng is no stranger to the rom-com genre (having been totally overshadowed by Shu Qi in Doze Niu’s Love, for instance), he really comes into his own with his work as Li Xing.  While suitably earnest, there is also an edge to his Top Chef contending leading man turn.  Pace Wu (a.k.a. We Pei Ci) does not get much dramatic heavy lifting, but she is far more charismatic than comparably inconvenient fiancées in rom-coms past.

In the opening screwball section, viewers are likely to wince at the flat-footed He, but down the stretch they are guaranteed to get a little misty-eyed for her.  Sure, that is all very manipulative, but audiences will feel like they have been through a lot with these characters.  Oh, the rom com specialist, deftly manages the frequent flashbacks and keeps the proceedings pleasantly pacey.  Recommended for those not afraid of a little sentiment (or a lot), A Wedding Invitation opens this Friday (5/24) at the AMC Empire in New York and the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Pig Across Paris: The Other White Meat Goes on the Black Market

This little piggy is supposed to go to the black market.  It is Marcel Martin’s job to take him, but he cannot schlep four suitcases fully loaded with pork goodness on his own.  He will have some dubious help from a mysterious stranger in Claude Autant-Lara’s classic A Pig Across Paris (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Martin was once a taxi driver, but the German occupation has been bad for business, what with the curfews, rubber and gasoline rationing, and constant military patrols.  Technically, he is unemployed, but Martin still provides for his somewhat out of his league wife through black market gigs.  Skeptical of her fidelity, Martin button-holes Grandgil, a stranger he suspects of being her lover.  When satisfied this is not the case, he recruits the stout fellow to help him carry his freshly slaughtered baggage across town.

Much to his surprise, his new companion more or less takes over the operation.  He is resourceful but somewhat reckless.  They bicker like an old married couple and the leaking baggage draws a pack of appreciative dogs, but somehow the two men proceed to navigate the nocturnal world of air raids and police check points.  Yet, irony is always waiting just around the corner for them.

A Pig Across Paris (a.k.a. Four Bags Full, a.k.a. La traverse de Paris) is one of those films that almost got away.  Surprisingly, it was a hit in France, but at the time, it snuck in and out of American theaters like a black-marketeer with a side of bacon stuffed in his trousers.  Happily, it now returns to circulation with a newly translated set of subtitles.  There is indeed a reason the Nouvelle Vague enfants terribles singled out Pig as one of their few worthy French predecessors.  Autant-Lara’s depiction of occupied Paris is far bolder and more barbed than really any of the films they produced in the 1960’s.

Adapted from a short story by Marcel Aymé, Pig presents a full spectrum of cowardly and/or opportunistic behavior.  This is the black market after all, not the resistance.  Indeed, the latter are nowhere to be found.  As befitting Autant-Lara’s lefty inclinations, rather pronounced class differences emerge between the two men.

They are well paired though.  As the more well-heeled Grandgil, Jean Gabin is both appropriately manly, in a Spencer Tracy kind of way, but also convincingly sophisticated and rather condescending.  Likewise, Bourvil (as André Robert Raimbourg billed himself) perfectly balances broad comedy with tragic pathos as the increasingly put-upon Martin.  They are one of the great big screen odd couples.

There are a lot of funny bits in Pig, but it never whitewashes the era.  Frankly, Autant-Lara’s film is not so far removed from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, both in terms of their morally ambiguous milieu and quality of execution.  Highly recommended for general audiences, A Pig Across Paris opens this Friday (5/24) in New York at Film Forum.

Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon: Martial Arts On-Stage

Revenge is a family business for the characters of Lone Wolf and Cub.  This is not exactly an official stage adaptation, but fans of the manga and films will recognize certain elements.  The Rogue Assassin’s young Boy did indeed choose the sword over the ball.  However, they might just meet their match in the form of the titular nemesis in Fred Ho & Ruth Margraff’s musical martial arts stage-production, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! (trailer here), which officially opened this weekend at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.

Once, the Rogue Assassin was the Shogun’s Kaishakunin, until the Imperial councilor, Iyagu of the ruthless Yagyu clan, convinced the old tyrant to turn against his loyal executioner.  Iyagu’s assassins succeed in killing his wife, but the Shogun’s betrayed “second” escapes with his infant son.  This proves to be a costly escapade.  For ten years, the Rogue Assassin cuts through the Imperial assassins and ninjas like butter, depleting the Shogun’s treasury and undermining his ruling authority.

Rather sick of it all, the Shogun imports three super assassins from abroad, at considerable cost to Iyagu’s face.  Not inclined to take matters lying down, the old conspirator plays his trump card, unleashing the She-Wolf Assassin.  Raised from infancy to be Iyagu’s personal La Femme Nikita, her fate is mysteriously intertwined with that of the renegade father and son.

Much fighting ensues, impressively choreographed by lead actor Yoshi Amao for swords and Emanuel Brown (Electro in Broadway’s Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark) for martial arts beatdowns.  The resulting spectacle is musically accompanied by the Afro Asian Music Ensemble, under the direction of conductor-multi-reed player Masaru Koga, performing Fred Ho’s funky Lone Wolf-inspired score.  Incorporating elements of electric bass and baritone sax driven blaxploitation soundtracks and traditional koto and shakuhachi music, Ho’s themes are hip and propulsive, yet still fit the Jidaigeki action on-stage.

Unfortunately, Ho’s hardcore leftist ideology does not serve the story as well.  Frankly, the Uncle Sam assassin caricature is just laughably didactic.  A chicken fried colonialist, Colonel USA is a bit of agitprop street theater that does not fit the otherwise dignified Noh-esque production.

Regardless, the stagecraft of She-Wolf is quite impressive.  The lighting and smoke are suitably moody and the spare set is rather evocative.  Likewise, the costumes provide the right period look without interfering with the fight choreography. 

The cast holds up their end too.  Yoshio Amao is all kinds of brooding badness as the Rogue Assassin, but Ai Ikeda does him one better as the steely She-Wolf.  Takemi Kitamura also shows some dramatic flair and action cred as She-Wolf’s sister (the most substantial of her three roles).    As is standard practice, two young actors rotate as the Boy. Bradley Fong showed real presence in the part Sunday afternoon, never drowning amid all the stage effects and melee unleashed around him. (His alternate, Jet Yung is surely quite good as well.)  With Perry Yung’s Iyagu chewing the scenery with admirable villainous glee, it is a strong ensemble all around.

This is one of the better martial arts themed productions to grace New York’s independent stages in a fair amount of time and the music is always very cool.  There are certain awkward excesses to She-Wolf, but that is sort of par for the course in New York’s theater world.  Hopefully, Mr. Ho is happy with director Sonoko Kawahara’s muscular staging, considering the program’s sad note regarding his ill health.  Recommended for martial arts fans and soul-world fusion jazz listeners, She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! runs through June 2nd at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.

(Photo: Kenji Mori)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chinese Realities: Yumen

That hardly took long.  An oil boomtown in the 1990’s, Yumen is now a deserted ghost town—literally so if you believe some of the stories told by stragglers.  Regardless, viewers certainly get a vivid sense of contemporary China’s “burn rate” in Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao & J.P. Sniadecki’s Yumen (trailer here), which has its North American premiere tomorrow during MoMA’s ongoing Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.

According to one disembodied voice-over, the abandoned hospital is and was haunted by the spirit of an infant.  She once saw it with some friends, one of whom still bears a scar from the encounter.  Another man also remembers the hospital, having frequently visited an ambiguously sickly woman there.  These remnants of Yumen’s glory days are like ghosts themselves, often filmed like ant-like specks shuffling through the surreal post-industrial landscape.

The directorial trio consistently plays games with the doc format, incorporating what sound like staged reminiscences and showing the seams in between their 16mm reel changes.  Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the reality of the northwest Gansu town.  It is impossible to recreate ruins of such scale on an indie budget.  It looks like Pripyat outside of Chernobyl, just without the background radiation (as far as we know).

For what it’s worth, the woman’s ghost story is kind of creepy.  Yet more to the point, the intertwining memories and images clearly illustrate the pain and dislocation resulting from the death of a community, even one not especially beloved by its residents, such as Yumen.

Yumen is an impressive looking film, but even at its sixty-five minute running time, it feels a smidge stretched.  Certain visuals start to repeat themselves and a late scene rather overindulges in globalist irony, as one of their POV figures strolls through a nearby open air market singing along to Springsteen’s “My Hometown.”  As a multi-millionaire and self-appointed spokesman of the proletariat, Springsteen might actually be the perfect voice for today’s China, but the sequence just feels too long and stagey.

If you want to get a good look at Yumen this film is probably your best option, because the government is not like to sponsor tours there anytime soon.  It is not for everyone, but it should fascinate those with a taste for more experimental documentaries in the spirit of Disorder and San Yuan Li.  Recommended for aesthetically adventurous China watchers, Yumen screens this Monday (5/20) at MoMA, presented in-person by Sniadecki, the former American expatriate filmmaker, whose previous credits include Chaiqian and Sognhua, two similarly naturalistic observations of Chinese daily life.