Friday, February 28, 2014

Stalingrad: The Russians Still Win (This Time in 3D)

Those who question Russia’s commitment to sustainability should at least give them credit for recycling their titles. In 1989, Fedor Bondarchuk received one of his earliest acting credits in Yuri Ozerov’s Stalingrad. Twenty-some years later, the thesp-turned-director has helmed Russia’s first film produced entirely in 3D IMAX—and it happens to have the same title. It essentially ends the same way too, but some weird editorial choices distinguish Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (trailer here), Russia’s reining box office record holder, which opens today in New York.

In large measure, Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad is inspired by the heroic exploits of Pavlov’s House, the strategically located apartment complex doggedly defended by Sergeant Pavlov and his men. In this case, it is Captain Gromov and his comrades who have dug into a reinforced tenement right across from pretty much the entire German army. While most civilians have evacuated, the elfin Katia has defiantly remained, to stoke jealousy amongst Pavlov’s men and to give them something personal to fight for.

A few steps away, Captain Peter Kahn is tasked with crushing all pockets of Russian resistance. However, National Socialist war atrocities have dampened the Prussian elitist’s morale. He is more concerned with Masha, another Russian women stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the tradition of bodice rippers, he initially “ravishes” her, but then starts to fall in love with the Russian beauty. She also seems to warm to him as a protector, but fears for the consequences if and when the Soviets expel the Germans.

Perhaps the weirdest element of Bondarchuk’s film is the framing device, in which a Russian emergency responder tells a group of Germans trapped in the rubble of the Tōhoku earthquake how his mother met his five fathers during the siege of Stalingrad, because nothing is more reassuring than episodes from the bloodiest battle in human history. Dude, next time, don’t help. Frankly, the way the film exploits Japan’s 3-11 tragedy would be deeply offensive, if it were not so ludicrous. Seriously, Russian rescue workers digging out Germans in Sendai?

On the plus side, Bondarchuk makes stuff blow-up really well. Obviously, he did not intend to waste his blank check in the IMAX store.  He devises all sorts of dramatic perspectives on the action, while vividly capturing a sense of the claustrophobic nature of close quarters fighting. He is also either surprisingly fair to the Germans or simply lets Thomas Kretschmann run circles around the rest of the cast as the ethically nuanced Kahn.

Frankly, he represents the film’s most believably complicated character and develops some powerfully ambiguous chemistry with Yanina Studilina’s Masha. In contrast, Gromov and the other four fathers are all either colorless Reds or borderline war criminals. Either way, they make little lasting impression. It almost makes a viewer wonder if Bondarchuk set out to be deliberately subversive.

It seems unfathomable that a Russian WWII epic can make audiences sympathize with the Germans. Yet, if you close your eyes and think of Stalingrad a few days after taking it all in, it will be Krestchmann and Studlina whom the mind’s eye will recall. Nevertheless, Russia duly submitted Stalingrad as its official foreign language Oscar contender. Perhaps it is still preferably in Russia to declare a dubious victory than admit an obvious defeat. Sort of recommended in a confused way for those who appreciate battlefield spectacle, Stalingrad opens nationally today (2/28) including in New York at the AMC Empire and Lincoln Square theaters.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

HairBrained: Beat Harvard

Haven’t we all been waiting for the definitive College Bowl movie? They call it Collegiate Mastermind here, but it is the same idea. However, viewers should be prepared to grade on a very generous curve when Billy Kent’s HairBrained (trailer here) opens tomorrow in New York.

Fourteen year-old Eli Pettifog might be a child prodigy, but will have to settle for Whitman College, a small east coast liberal arts school of modest reputation, instead of his dream school: Harvard. Perhaps not unreasonably, he finds himself rooming with Leo Searly, a forty-something (at least) compulsive gambler amidst a mid life crisis. Of course, this only heightens his sense of social isolation. Naturally, the dumbest of the jocks picks on him mercilessly, because his Yahoo Serious hair is simply a magnet for bullying.

Yet, Pettifog starts to make a place for himself when he takes over Whitman’s Collegiate Mastermind team. Powered by Pettifog’s brain, they start crushing their Ivy League competition. Soon the Whitman Warring Hares attract mighty Harvard’s attention—in a bad way.

HairBrained might not be the most original film, but the villains are from Harvard, so it has that going for it. Pettifog’s hair and his Dickensian name are about the only things in the film that are not lightweight. Still, Julia Garner is quite winning as Shauna, the townie prodigy, whom Pettifog takes a shine to. Greta Lee (recognizable to hipsters from her work on Girls) has some moments as well as Pettifog’s teammate, Gertrude. It is also hard to fault Brendan Fraser, who labors like a rented mule trying to make man-child Searly likable.

The problem is Pettifog is just sort of boring, which is obviously a big one considering how much of him there is in HairBrained. Frankly, Real Genius covered similar territory in the 80’s, but with considerably more wit and edge.  Nonetheless, there is a real tonal issue with respects to Pettifog’s mom (a criminally wasted Parker Posey), who is presented within the film as a lovably boozy trollop, but in real life would probably warrant a social services investigation.

There is not much to say after watching HairBrained, except “eh.” To his credit, Kent keeps it moving along at a reasonably healthy pace. It is mostly harmless and professional, but not a lot more. Earning a shrug more than anything else, HairBrained opens tomorrow (2/28) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Venus Talk: Naughty Coffee Klatching

Some critics will reflexively compare this Korean relationship drama to that old HBO show that ended its run a decade ago. However, the three stars of this import were secure enough to allow a cameo appearance from BoA, the young and glamorous “Queen of Korean Pop.” In fact, the forty-something cast looks considerably younger than their long-faced American forerunners. They will still inevitably mismanage their private lives in Kwon Chil-in’s Venus Talk (trailer here), which opens in select theaters this Friday.

Frankly, this trio of friends is not so interested in talking, but they have to do something when they meet for brunch at Hae-young’s coffee shop. She is a single mother with a grown daughter she can’t get out of the house and the best boyfriend of the bunch. Sung-jae is mature, sensitive, and handy around the house, but harbors been-there-done-that feelings about marriage. Mi-yeon appears to be happily married, but her demands will put a strain on her relationship with her Viagra-bootlegging husband, Jae-ho. Shin-hye is more interested in her work as a television producer than any sort of romance, but a drunken fling with Hyun-seung, a much younger colleague complicates her carefully calibrated career.

Into these lives great turmoil will fall, but they always stick together—after a bit of judgmental cattiness. Sure, you probably suspect where Kwon and screenwriter Lee Soo-a are headed and have a pretty good idea how they will get there, but it must be said Venus is surprisingly fair to the guys. Frankly, the women are at least as responsible for their relationship angst and their partners, if not more so. This is particularly true in the case of Mi-yeon and the woefully cringey Jae-ho.

While never explicit, Venus is rather saucy, especially by the standards of Korean cinema. Not for no reason, most of the more suggestive scenes feature the photogenic Uhm Jung-hwa and Lee Jae-yoon as the impressively fit Shin-hye and Hyun-seung, respectively. They have okay chemistry together and Uhm nicely mixes attitude and professionalism in her straight forward dramatic scenes.

Yet, Cho Min-su once again steels the picture in a complete change of pace from her soul-shattering turn in Kim Ki-duk’s bracing Pieta. As Hae-young, she brings more dignity, forgiveness, and general humanity to Venus than you would ever expect to find in a cougar-ish chick flick. In contrast, Moon So-ri is stuck with the least sympathetic and most over-the-top of the lot, but she fully commits to the voracious Mi-yeon nonetheless.

There have been films like Venus before and there will be plenty more like it to come. Even so, it is a credit to Kwon, Uhm, and Cho how smooth it goes down, especially for those who do not have a strong affinity for the genre. It is well executed, but never pushes the envelope of women-centric relationship dramas. Mostly recommended as a women’s-night-out movie, it opens this Friday (2/28) in Honolulu at the Consolidated Pearlridge and in Vancouver at the Cineplex Silvercity.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jazz and the Philharmonic: Real Jazz on PBS

For many ardent listeners, the words “jazz” and “philharmonic” have heavy significance when used in close proximity. It automatically summons images of the all-star concerts and recording sessions the legendary Norman Granz produced in concert halls around the country. This is not a Granz production. The philharmonic reference is more in keeping with the classical tradition. However, the jazz is still for real in Jazz and the Philharmonic (promo here), a concert featuring alumni of the National YoungArts Foundation, the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, and some of the top names in jazz, which airs on most PBS stations this Friday (yes, real honest-to-gosh jazz on PBS).

Of course, jazz and classical crossover fusions are nothing new. That is exactly what Third Stream Jazz was all about. While many of the program selections feature jazz soloists playing with the Mancini Orchestra (whose namesake would surely have approved of the program, especially the theme from Charade), there are several straight-up solo, duo, or trio jazz performances, which is obviously not a bad thing.

In fact, it is a very good thing when Chick Corea, Dave Grusin, and Bobby McFerrin open the concert with an elegant but persistently swinging “Autumn Leaves” for voice and two pianos. Corea fans really get their money’s worth throughout the concert, with the NEA Jazz Master performing in a variety of settings, mostly notably joining the Mancini Orchestra on his “Spanish Suite,” a composition perfectly suited to the evening. His duet with McFerrin, “Armando’s Rhumba” is not as distinctive, but they clearly enjoy making music together, which is part of the fun of a show like this.

In addition to “Spanish Suite, Terence Blanchard also has feature spots on “Fugue in C Minor” and “Solfeggietto,” probably the two most overtly swinging-the-classics numbers of the evening. However, he is probably best showcased fronting the orchestra for a rendition of “Charade,” a wonderfully lush arrangement that brings to mind his classic Jazz in Film CD. Yet, perhaps the most effective jazz and classical dialogue comes when Elizabeth Joy Roe and Shelly Berg tackle “The Man I Love” as a lyrical but muscular piano duet, from the classical and jazz sides, respectively.

Nevertheless, the surprise peak of the concert integrates the sounds of deep roots Americana as well as jazz and classical when violinist Mark O’Connor joins pianist Dave Grusin on a sensitive and soulful version of “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker standard subsequently incorporated into Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. Rather fittingly, Grusin’s “Mountain Dance” follows. Purists might dismiss it as too “smooth,” but man, is it ever a pretty melody, sounding almost tailor made for the full orchestral treatment. It also provides a nice launching pad for O’Connor. In fact, Grusin takes two rather impressive solos as well: one fleet and swinging and the second surprisingly adventurous—so take that jazz snobs.

Aside from a weird choice for a closer (Also sprach Zarathustra from 2001, really?), Jazz and the Philharmonic is an extremely welcome dose of jazz on primetime PBS. It ranges from pleasantly entertaining to downright revelatory. It should motivate viewer-listeners to keep an eye out for a talented newcomer like Roe and catch up with the work of accomplished veterans like O’Connor and Blanchard. Naturally, it always sounds great from a technical perspective, thanks to the late, great engineer Phil Ramone, in whose memory it is dedicated. Highly recommended, Jazz and the Philharmonic airs on hip PBS outlets this Friday night (2/28).

Odd Thomas: Koontz’s Spooky Short Order Cook Finally Makes it to the Big Screen

This Dean Koontz protagonist is not shy when it comes to voice-over narration, but never exactly breaks the fourth wall, per se. He is probably entitled to his own eccentric commentary, considering he has the ability to see ghosts and bodachs, supernatural parasites that feed on fear and suffering. However, his greatest nemesis might be lawyers, given the legal wrangling that long delayed the release of Stephen Sommers’ Odd Thomas (trailer here), which finally opens in New York this Friday.

Thomas comes from crazy stock and therefore understands the need to keep his dubious gift secret. Only a handful of people know of his power, including Pico Mundo’s chief of police Wyatt Porter, who appreciates the sort of inside information Thomas can provide. His loyal girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn is also in on the truth and a few of their friends vaguely suspect he has the Shine.

Normally, he chases down workaday serial killers before they can murder again, like his former classmate Harlo Landerson from the film’s prologue. However, the alarming number of bodachs converging on Pico Mundo portends a tragedy of grander scale.  They seem particularly interested in “Fungus Bob” Robertson, so dubbed by Thomas and Llewellyn because of his unfortunate grooming habits. Robertson also has an unhealthy interest in Satanism and a couple of mystery friends. Thomas will try to sleuth out Robertson’s plans without alerting the bodachs to his uncanny powers of perception, because they do not take kindly to folks like Thomas.

Frankly, the first half of Odd Thomas feels like a ghost-hunting TV show from the 1980’s, with its quaint small town setting and Thomas’s wholesome courtship of Llewellyn. However, as the stakes and tension start to rise, the film becomes considerably darker.  Sommers (best known for The Mummy and G.I. Joe franchises) pulls off some third act sleight-of-hand surprisingly adroitly and the manner in which earthly cults intersect with paranormal malevolence is somewhat intriguing.

Still, Anton Yelchin and Addison Timlin are almost too cute and freshly scrubbed-looking as Thomas and Llewellyn. Frankly, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy was much edgier, notwithstanding the characters’ dark backstories in the Koontz source novel.  Still, Odd Thomas has the distinction of featuring Willem Dafoe as an unqualified good guy, without even the hint of moral compromise, perhaps for the first time since Triumph of the Spirit. He is actually not bad plodding along with all due decency as Chief Porter.

Arguably, the biggest issue for Odd Thomas is the lack of a strong villain. Broadway actor Shuler Hensley is game enough as Robertson, but the character is played more for yucks than scares. Likewise, the bodach effects are serviceable enough, but not especially memorable.

When watching Odd Thomas one can see how it probably works so much better as a novel. There is some pop at the end that presumably has even more kick on the page. Yet, the film as a whole has the feel of an extended pilot that it never shakes off.  Better than you might expect, but still better suited to the small screen, Odd Thomas finally opens this Friday (2/28) in New York.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Fatal Assistance: NGOs Gone Wild

When the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, many who of us worried our close Japanese friends and allies were not getting the same high level attention in Washington and international diplomatic circles as the 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti. Ironically, Japan might be more fortunate in that respect. Leftist filmmaker Raoul Peck argues international aid efforts in Haiti have largely done more harm than good in Fatal Assistance (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

With mostly good intentions, the world rushed to aid quake-devastated Haiti. The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) was instituted with Bill Clinton and Haitian PM Jean-Max Bellerive installed as co-chairs. Right from the start, it acted like any other hydra-headed multi-national quasi governmental body.

Peck irrefutably establishes some of the charges in his wide ranging indictment. Without question, the various competing NGOs woefully underperformed in the debris removal process. They were so focused on grand rebuilding schemes, they had neither the expertise nor the donor interest in doing the very work necessary to make the rebuilding stage possible.  It is also pretty hard to defend the flood-prone temporary housing constructed (at not inconsiderable cost) in the temporary camps that became permanent new slums. Also, Peck gives rather short shrift to the effect of the UN’s pointless arms embargo, which left Bellerive unable to arm his new police recruits.

However, Peck does not connect the international conspiracy dots nearly as well as he thinks he does. Often, he shows various IHRC proceedings as if they were “ah-hah” moments, but only he can see the smoking gun. In fact, he does his best to ignore the widespread corruption that made the NGO sector legitimately leery of the Haitian government. It might be disappointing that Peck lets Haitian politicians off the hook so easy, but it is understandable, considering he happens to be one himself, having served as Minister of Culture under PM Rosny Smarth’s short-lived administration.

As much as Peck wants to focus on the international relief “industry,” questions regarding domestic corruption are highly pertinent. Recently, the Filipino expat community largely shunned government agencies in favor of organizations like the International Red Cross precisely because of similar concerns.  Still, it is hard to have much confidence in the IHRC, the OAS or any of the rest of the do-gooding alphabet soup based on the results Peck documents.

In fact, if anyone emerges as Fatal’s genuine bad guy, it is Bill Clinton, whom Peck explicitly accuses of using the tragedy as a disgusting ego-stroke.  According to Peck and frustrated aid workers, the Hot Springs native is far more concerned with preening at ribbon cutting ceremonies than actually resolving the IHRC’s internal divisions or doing any sort of work in general.

Peck will convince just about every viewer of his general thesis: international aid is often misallocated and counter-productive. However, his assorted sub-points do not always convince. Frankly, Fatal just as easily supports the sort of Public Choice Theory analysis developed by the late Nobel Lauriat James Buchanan, who argued government (and presumably extra-governmental NGO) bureaucrats are just as influenced by self-interest as anyone operating in the private sector. Fatal will engender pity for Haiti and contempt for Clinton, but Landon Van Soest’s Good Fortune remains a more thoughtful exploration of unintended consequences of first to third world aid programs. Sometimes quite revealing, but rather scattershot in its insight, Fatal Assistance is narrowly recommended for those interested in the politics of disaster relief when it opens this Friday (2/28) at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

New Nordic Cinema: It’s Only Make Believe

In Norway, the criminal justice system is naturally all about rehabilitation. Unfortunately, underworld types are not so likely to forgive and forget. Indeed, they are rather inclined hold a grudge as one single mother trying to go straight learns in director-screenwriter-cinematographer-editor-production designer-whatever-else-needed-to-be-done Arild Østen Ommundsen’s It’s Only Make Believe (trailer here), which screens this week as part of the New Nordic Cinema series at Scandinavia House.

When Jenny tells her scruffy boyfriend Frank she is pregnant, he responds with a not completely freaked out proposal, complete with a nicked engagement ring. It is a nice moment, but it will not last. The two mildly delinquent lovers continue on their mission to retrieve a bag of drugs from a greenhouse for a dodgy pal. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a much heavier situation than he led them to believe. Guns will be discharged, leading to at least one corpse and a very pregnant Jenny serving a ten year prison sentence.

Despite her incarceration, Jenny still comes to know her daughter Merete, a ridiculously angelic little girl, who never seems to resent her mother’s criminal history. However, when the model prisoner is finally released, Merete’s foster mother will not just automatically hand her over. She will have to demonstrate stability and a healthy living environment, which her plumbing-challenged family home is definitely not. The drug-dealing thugs demanding Jenny pay off her “debt” from the misadventure in the greenhouse will not help either.

There are moments of jarring violence in Make Believe, as well as pastoral time-lapse interludes, accompanied by ever so sappy soft alt rock tunes.  Obviously, the violence is more palatable. While it has its goey moments, the film is not likely to be confused with a fairy tale, as the English title vaguely implies. Ommundsen never turns away from man’s predatory nature, suggesting it is nearly impossible for a straying waif like Jenny to break out of her vicious cycle. The thug who adopts the name “Eddie Vedder” is also a nice touch.

Silje Salomonsen is acutely compelling as Jenny, even when her character makes forehead-slappingly bad decisions. She certainly expresses her motherly instincts, which is absolutely essential. Make Believe also benefits from a number of understated but keenly sensitive supporting turns, especially including Tomas Alf Larsen as Gary, her formerly chubby high school chum, who still carries a torch for her. The look and demeanor of Egil Birkeland’s “Vedder” is quite something, as well.

So yes, it is a bummer to be an ex-con, even in Norway. Make Believe covers some familiar territory, but Ommundsen and Salomonsen still steadily pull us into this very human drama. Recommended for those with a taste for tragic naturalism, It’s Only Make Believe screens in New York at Scandinavia House this Wednesday (2/26) and Friday (2/28) and also during this year’s upcoming Cinequest (on 3/6, 3/9, and 3/13) in San Jose.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Doc Fortnight ’14: The Private Life of Fenfen

Evidently, fifteen minutes will not get you very far in today’s China. Guo Lifen (familiarly known as Fenfen) gained considerable new media-social network notoriety as the subject of Leslie Tai’s collaborative documentaries, but the reality of her class and circumstances remained unchanged. Her personal travails will become grist for public consumption in Tai’s The Private Life of Fenfen (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Documentary Fortnight at MoMA.

Guo Lifen has a lot of history with Tai. By giving her editorial control over their previous film, Tai hoped to avoid issues of exploitation. The divorced Guo also has considerable history with men that could be considered unambiguously exploitative. After completing their collaboration My Name is Fenfen and her own Sister Heaven Sister Earth, Tai gave a camera to record Guo video diary. Three years later, Guo handed Tai over one hundred hours of tape, declaring her dreams were now “dead.”

It is stark stuff, including accounts of family strife, domestic abuse, and an abortion precipitated by her lowlife fiancé’s drunken attack. Guo recounts it all matter-of-factly, as if she were already dead on the inside. Frankly, her testimony is quite spooky, but Tai’s presentation strategy is somewhat debatable.

Rather than simply edit it together, she films closed circuit broadcasts of Fenfen’s diaries, as if it were a legit reality TV program, in the sort of greasy spoons and hole-in-the-wall shops that cater to migrant workers such as Guo. While it adds an uncomfortably voyeuristic dynamic to the film (particularly when we hear some of the viewers’ unkind commentary), it also provides the constant reminder that this is where Guo came from and this is where she will inevitably return.

Guo is still relatively young. She should be able to make mistakes and get on with her life, but she clearly does not think she has that option. At best, she hopes for a modest measure of peace and quiet.  In its unassuming way, that is a damning indictment of contemporary China. Well worth seeing, The Private Life of Fenfen screens this Monday (2/24) and Thursday (2/27) as part of a double bill with Xu Huijing’s extraordinarily revealing Mothers, during MoMA’s annual Documentary Fortnight.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Doc Fortnight ’14: Mothers

Granted, motherhood is an endeavor that always requires courage and conviction, but the level exhibited by Chinese mothers resisting mandated sterilization is something else entirely. Documentarian Xu Huijing captured the local cadres of provincial Ma village going about their shocking business in his very personal expose, Mothers (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Documentary Fortnight at MoMA.

As Xu explains in his brief opening narration, he would not be here today if the Communist Party had had its way. He was a second child conceived in the fourth year of the One Child campaign. Like his mother, Rong-rong has already had a second child and paid a hefty fine as a result. She has also paid several subsequent fines for not consenting to mandatory sterilization.

Zhang Qing-mei, Ma’s “director of women’s care,” and thug-turned village deputy Zhang Guo-hong can no longer tolerate her disobedience. They have to meet the quota of fourteen sterilizations handed down from high. The problem is Ma is running out of fertile women. To make matters worse, women who voluntarily request such a procedure do not count towards the quota. Shamelessly, in full view of Xu’s camera, Deputy Zhang will brazenly harass Rong-rong’s grandmother and direct the local school to expel her children to put pressure on the fugitive mother.

The manner in which the Zhangs conduct “family planning” will make most jaws drop, but the real kicker comes when they complain about the village’s dwindling number of marriages and children enrolled in the local school. Hello McFly, that’s what happens when you sterilize everyone. Their village is slowly dying, yet they double-down on the very policies so obviously responsible.

Mothers clocks in just short of seventy minutes, but it is loaded with incendiary moments. Frankly, it brings to mind A Handmaid’s Tale, even including the dystopian religious fervor, courtesy of Zhang Qing-mei, who bizarrely likens Mao Zedong to a saint and a divine emperor. The mind reels.

Recently, the Communist government has promised some flexibility in One Child enforcement, but broad reforms still seem unlikely (just ask the great filmmaker Zhang Yimou). In any event, the policy has already wrought tremendous emotional damage that will reverberate for decades. You can see it clearly in Mothers. A bold work of cinematic journalism and a gripping human interest story, Mothers is highly recommended when it screens Monday (2/24) and Thursday (2/27) with Leslie Tai The Private Life of Fenfen (another worthy selection) during MoMA’s 2014 Doc Fortnight.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Holy Ghost People: This is not Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain

Shouldn’t all those snakes be on a plane somewhere? Oh, but this is the back hill country, so these serpents have been provided for your worshipping convenience.  There will be a lot of praising the Lord, but not enough passing of the ammo in Mitchell Altieri’s Holy Ghost People (trailer here), which releases today in select theaters and on itunes.

Charlotte, the recovering drug addict cocktail waitress, needs help rescuing her not-so recovering drug addict sister from a messianic cult in the West Virginian backwoods.  After watching Mitchell, the alcoholic Afghanistan veteran get the snot beat out of him in a bar fight, she decides he must be the man for the job. With the help $200 in thoroughly crumpled bills, she convinces him to escort her up Sugar Mountain to the Church of One Accord, where Brother Billy preaches the Gospel for his cult-ish congregation.

Brother Billy looks a little nuts, but he has a way with words. However, he is a model of stability compared to Smiling Bobby, who seems to aspire to be the worst Dick Tracy villain ever. Everything about the place is seriously off, but Charlotte still manages to talk her way into spending the night, ostensibly as prospective new members. However, it pushes Mitchell’s nose out of joint when everyone assumes he is Charlotte’s father. In fact, the tension between the outsiders will grow steadily.

The first ten minutes of HGP has a certain degree of grit and the concluding showdown has its moments. Unfortunately, the bulk of the film consists of vaguely sinister sounding Jesus talk and a fair amount of snake handling. Frankly, it seems a little odd the film is still launching today, considering the tragic and widely reported death of National Geographic’s snake handling Pastor Jamie Coots. After all, whenever there is a spree shooting, every film with firearms is duly postponed until the next year the Rangers win the Stanley Cup.  Of course, there is probably a good chance you did not know a snake handling movie was opening today until you read this review.

Regardless, Emma Greenwell is not bad as the protagonist.  Co-writer Joe Egender has a real flair for fire-and-brimstone and chews the scenery with appropriate relish.  Veteran TV character actor Roger Aaron Brown is also a steadying presence as the not so nutty cult member, Brother Cole. Conversely, as Wayne, True Blood alumnus Brendan McCarthy looks like he was dying for the film to wrap.

Some might see HGP as an attack on Evangelicals, but it is really just a bore. Basically, it is hicksploitation that never gets adequately exploitative. There is some okay atmosphere, but the overall experience is underwhelming. Not recommended, Holy Ghost People opens today (2/21) in select theaters.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Doc Fortnight '14: Campaign 2

Don’t call it a last hurrah. Kazuhiko Yamauchi, Kawasaki’s world famous city council candidate, has decided to throw his hat in the ring again. This time, he will forgo the indignities of electioneering, running a bare-bones campaign as a complete independent with no party support. He will also be the only candidate adopting an anti-nuclear position in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. The result will be another lesson in Japanese democracy, recorded in Kazuhiro Soda’s documentary sequel, Campaign 2, which screens tomorrow as part of MoMA’s 2014 Documentary Fortnight.

Even though Yama-san was successful as the LDP’s unlikely standard-bearer in the special council election Soda followed the first time round, he soon resigned his position, claiming frustration with the recalcitrant political system. Six or so years later, the stay-at-home dad is giving it another go. This time he is only spending money on the filing fee and the tightly regulated campaign posters. Shrewdly, his closely resembles the poster for Soda’s original documentary.

Since he is not hiring loud-speaker cars or harassing commuters at transit hubs, Yamauchi has a lot of time to chew the political fat with his old classmate Soda. Frankly, in Campaign 1, Yamauchi was cringingly obsequious, but the more experienced Yama-san has some surprisingly acerbic commentary to offer regarding his colleagues. However, his anti-nuclear platform is still not so well thought out, unless he is eager for Japan to start importing massive tons of coal and fossil fuels.

Of course, Yamauchi is still the protagonist of Campaign 2, but Soda’s focus is wider.  It is clear he is as preoccupied with the ways the 3-11 disasters have affected daily life in Japan as Yama-san, if not more so. Perhaps even more fascinating are his interactions with the politicians who know him from their supporting roles in Campaign 1.  In fact, New Yorkers accustomed to Chuck Schumer will be absolutely flabbergasted to see politicians who do not want to be filmed (shocking, but true).

Arguably, the real takeaway from Campaign 2 is not Yama-san’s anti-nuclear platform, but the shallow nature of Japanese political campaigns, especially at a critical post-3-11 juncture. Bizarrely, an apparent gentlemen’s agreement still holds, largely nixing candidate debates. Basically, they just smile and repeat their names.

At one hundred fifty minutes, Campaign 2 could stand for some pruning here and there. However, Yamauchi’s new found wit and attitude is a nice surprise that does not come at the expense of his lovable loser likability. Like its predecessor, Campaign 2 is another eccentric yet serious look under the hood of Japanese democracy. Recommended for political junkies and Yama-san groupies, Campaign 2 screens tomorrow (2/21) and Saturday (2/22) as part of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight, with Soda present for Q&A both days.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Almost Human: What Happens in Maine

As an independent station way up in northern Maine, Channel 83 is not exactly the fast track to a network career, but they know how to cover mysterious disappearances. Thanks to an unearthly entity, they can look forward to some salad days in Joe Begos’ throwback 1980’s style sci-fi slasher flick, Almost Human (trailer here), which releases this Friday in Los Angeles and on VOD.

Something in the Maine woods chased Seth Hampton to his buddy Mark Fisher’s cabin. Initially, the outdoorsman dismisses Hampton’s panic, but it turns out the alien force prefers the burly Fisher.  After a flash of blue light and piercing tone, Fisher is sucked out of the house, leaving Fisher’s girlfriend Jen Craven and the guilt-ridden Hampton behind. For a while, the police key in on Hampton as their prime suspect, a development the confused Craven does little to discourage.  However, no evidence can be found to implicate Hampton.

Two years later, Hampton tries to live a quiet life as the town weirdo, but he is plagued by disturbing visions of similar horrors. We soon learn Fisher has returned, or at least the shell of his body under alien control. As he preys on Maine’s backwoodsmen, Hampton and Craven reconcile, hoping to find some answers and a bit of closure. Not so fortunately, the malevolently mutated Fisher soon comes looking for Craven.

Throughout Almost Human, Begos deliberately goes for a low budget retro-eighties look, much like Ti West did with House of the Devil, except even grubbier. Frankly, it seems strange to emulate the look of 1980’s straight-to-video horror, when it is so easy for genre fans to find the genuine article. Still, he shows a flair for inventive gore, but the narrative is defiantly workaday stuff.

Arguably, the work of Graham Skipper and Josh Ethier are also a cut above those typically found in 80’s grind ‘em outs. Skipper (whom some might recognize from the Off-Broadway production of Re-Animator: the Musical) is actually quite engaging as the everyman Hampton trying to hold onto the last shred of his sanity.  Conversely, Ethier (who also doubled as editor and co-producer) is an interesting looking heavy, whom we can sort of buy into as a hardscrabble one-man version of Jack Sholder’s under-appreciated The Hidden.

In a way, the consistency of Begos’ no-frills vision is quite impressive (right down to the old school UHF news reports we see from the fictional Channel 83), but a little goes a long way. Ultimately, Begos just defrosts some red meat leftover from the 1980’s (admittedly a great decade) rather than pulling together a nourishing feast.  Serviceable as a midnight movie, but nothing viewers will carry with them after the show, Almost Human opens this Friday (2/21) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema and next Wednesday (2/26) in New York at the IFC Center.

Sting’s Last Ship

Capital—malign it all you want, but you’ll miss it when its gone. The Wallsend Shipyard is a case in point. After decades of strikes and work stoppages, work stopped there for good. Maybe the workers were supposed to inherit control of all means of production, but they just wound up unemployed. Sting still remembers when there were laboring jobs to be found in the northern British city and the massive ships that towered over his boyhood home. The former Police frontman’s childhood memories have inspired his forthcoming Broadway book musical, which he performs as a special concert preview in Sting: The Last Ship (promo here), debuting on most PBS outlets this Friday as part of the current season of Great Performances.

Since hundred dollar-plus Broadway tickets are intended for the proletariat, Last Ship is naturally centered around the shipyard, focusing on the angst caused by its imminent closure. To keep the men’s spirits up, the parish priest inspires them to “occupy” the shipyard and build themselves one last ship. Cool, then what?

As a concert presentation, there is no acting per se in the Last Ship performed last year at the Public Theater. However, prospective cast member Jimmy Nails is on-hand to spell Sting on the vocals. A fixture of British television and recording charts, Nails’ casting is probably considered something of a coup on the other side of the Atlantic. He certainly understands the working class theatricality of Sting’s tunes.  However, the greater hook for American audiences will be back-up singer Jo Lawry, who is featured in 20 Feet from Stardom, the consensus favorite to win best documentary at this year’s Oscars. In fact, she has a lovely duet with Sting on “Practical Arrangement.”

The music itself definitely has that book musical vibe, but the Northumbrian musicians give it a distinctive Celtic-ish twist. The title tune has the right overture quality to it, yet it sounds vaguely familiar. Likewise, “Shipyard” is an effective role call for the cast of characters, including the overtly Marxist union rep (and also includes another brief but appealing solo spotlight for Lawry).  Similarly, “Dead Man’s Boots” establishes much of the show’s driving conflict, poignantly addressing the emerging generational divide.

In contrast, “Sky Hooks and Tartan Paint” is a bit of a novelty number in terms of lyrics (albeit a jaunty one), but Kathyn Tickell’s violin solo is the real deal.  Arguably, the concert’s highpoint also goes for laughs. The Rockabilly “Jock the Singing Welder” finally lets Sting unleash his strutting inner rockstar. It is catchy as all get out and loaded with attitude.

There is a reason why fans will probably latch on to “Jock.” Frankly, many of us would rather remember Sting as the shirtless villain in Dune kicking Kyle MacLachlan’s butt than as the sensitive memory play-book musical composer. Still, there is no denying his affection and empathy for the rough diamonds of his formative years.

Time passes on though, which is probably why audience shots are relatively few and far between. Let’s just say it is an older looking crowd than you would have seen in the Police’s CBGB heyday.  Regardless, it is still worth hearing Sting in an intimate setting with musicians of the caliber of Tickell and Lawry.  Recommended for those who enjoy a good labor chantey, The Last Ship premieres on PBS’s Great Performances this Friday night (2/21).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Doc Fortnight ’14: ‘Til Madness Do Us Part

Perhaps you always suspected Chinese mental hospitals were not very hospitable. If so, your suspicions have been definitively vindicated by documentarian Wang Bing’s nearly four hour descent into the everyday lunacy of a decrepit facility located somewhere in the southwest provinces. Tellingly, the inmates often joke this place will “drive you crazy.” The same might be said for viewers, but there is no denying the weightiness and immediacy of Wang’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, which screens tomorrow as part of MoMA’s 2014 Documentary Fortnight.

Yes, some of the patients/inmates/prisoners have been committed for being politically difficult. However, they have been mixed in with killers, hardcore schizophrenics, and slightly loony relatives someone wanted to get out of the house. Unlike bad old Soviet psychotherapy, the doctors are not constantly poking and prodding the patients. In fact, staff members are rarely seen throughout the course of a day. Think Lord of the Flies instead of 1984. Frankly, it is like Bedlam in there.

Throughout most of the film, Wang and his fellow cameraman Liu Xianhui are confined to the top men’s floor of the facility.  The layout not so coincidently resembles a prison, with a central corridor overlooking the interior courtyard.  Viewers will become quite familiar with this fenced in passageway, because Wang and Liu will pursue many a disturbed patient as they go tearing around and around it.

Obviously, there are many issues with this sanatorium, starting first and foremost with the conspicuous lack of resources. The level of care is also problematic, mainly consisting of the daily dispensing of happy pills, at least as far as viewers can tell. There is even a mute inmate whose identity remains a mystery to staff and patients alike. Right, what are the chances he will be cured of what troubles him?

Given the 228 minute running time, Wang can hardly be accused of selective editing. Madness is an immersive experience more than a muckraking expose. Yet, the micro and macro implications are inescapable. Nobody would want to be there. Yet, Wang still finds pockets of humanity in the bleakness, such as the man who has somehow commenced a romantic relationship with a woman confined to a lower floor, mostly through stolen conversations through barred doors and the like.

Everything about Madness will intimidate casual audiences, with good reason. Frankly, the best way to see it is probably as a reviewer, because we are able to break it down into manageable pieces. Nevertheless, Wang is arguably the leading Chinese documentary filmmaker of our day. Anyone who seriously follows independent Chinese cinema will want to keep up with latest. While not nearly as emotionally involving as his heartbreaking Three Sisters or the draining Fengming: a Chinese Memoir, it still has plenty of sobering moments. Recommended for stout-hearted cineastes, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part screens tomorrow (2/19), in all its 228 minute glory, as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Dolmen: Getting Blood from a Druid Stone

It must be one of those island prejudices. They do not think much of cops on Ty Kern, even when one of them is Marie Kermeur, the belle of the isle. She has returned home from Brest to marry her childhood sweetheart, but when dead family members start piling up, she insists on getting all detectivey in the six-part French miniseries Dolmen, which is now available on DVD from MHz Network.

The Kersaint and Le Bihan families are like the Montagues and Capulets of Ty Kern. The Kermeurs are civil with both, but you would not say they are close. Something happened way back when that tied the island families together. Everyone seems to know about it, except Marie, le flic. Her family is delighted to have her back on Ty Kern for her wedding to racing skipper Christian Bréhat, but they are just as eager to see her on her way. However, when her brother Gildas has a fatal misadventure near the island’s druid stone circle, Kermeur smells a rat.

Indeed, the circumstances surrounding his death are quite suspicious. For instance, one of the menhir stones starts bleeding his blood shortly after the murder (as foul play is soon established). Kermeur is also slightly agitated by her nightmare that sort of presaged his death. Initially, Kermeur is pulled from the case, for obvious reasons.  Of course, she quickly insinuates her way back into the investigation, because none of the locals will talk to Maj. Lucas Fersen, the hotshot officer dispatched from Brest.

In terms of tone, Dolmen is something of a throwback to the if-I-had-only-known novels of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Frankly, the series’ willingness to kill off Kermeurs is quite impressive, a bit like Game of Thrones in that limited respect. There is no getting around the melodrama of a bride-to-be mourning a brother and learning no end of deep dark family secrets. Still, series writers Nicole Jamet and Marie-Anne Le Pezennec make the most of the eerie Breton locales, incorporating supernatural legends and purported cult activity into the mix. In fact, for most of the series, it is an open question whether the happenings really are of an occult nature or whether there will be a tidy Scooby-Doo explanation for it all.

Teenage boys should keep in mind Dolmen is the product of French television, because Marie Kermeur is the sort of cop who can give men interrogation fantasies. Popular TV star Ingrid Chauvin truly has supermodel looks and soap opera thesp chops, but Dolmen arguably plays to her strengths in both respects. She also works out some decent chemistry with Bruno Madiner’s Festen, who steadily grows on viewers as he sheds his by-the-book stiffness.

Like a Twin Peaks off the Brittany coast, Dolmen is chocked full of colorfully cranky supporting characters, but by far the most intriguing is Patrick Ryan, an Irish mystery novelist and expert in Celtic lore, played with flair and gravity by Yves Rénier. French cinema connoisseurs will also be surprised to see Hippolyte Girardot appears as the churlish Kersaint heir apparent, but does not get his name in the opening credits. In fact, he is totally on the money as the resentful Pierre-Marie, but his character is not given much to do besides glower and sulk until episodes five and six. Likewise, Nicole Croiselle makes a great villain as Yvonne Le Bihan, somewhat looking and sounding like Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein, but always playing it scrupulously straight. On the downside, Chick Ortega’s portrayal of the developmentally disabled Pierric Le Bihan is pretty darn cringey.

Dolmen has enough mystery, intrigue, and windswept longing to seduce even the snobbiest viewers. Technically, there is even a ripped bodice, which is appropriate considering the series’ romantic mass market appeal. It is definitely really fun stuff (tailor made for binge viewing), like a slightly more gothic and popcorn-ish Broadchurch, with way more attractive leads. Recommended for those who enjoy French scandal, Dolmen is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.

Monday, February 17, 2014

SF Indie Fest ’14: Karaoke Girl

Before New York’s disgraced former congressmen and governors embark on their next vice tour of Thailand, they ought to give some thought to the women working in Bangkok’s redlight district. Sa is one of them, but the extent of her nightclub work is kept somewhat ambiguous in Visra Vichit-Vadakan’s docu-fiction hybid Karaoke Girl (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 San Francisco Indie Fest.

Sa Sittijun essentially plays herself, a pure-hearted country girl, who came to the city to provide for her family. Initially, she really did work in a factory, but when it closed she was forced to take a hostess job in a karaoke bar. Of course, her family still thinks she is cracking eggs on the assembly line. It is probably more tiring work at the club, requiring constant maintenance. Due to the late hours, Sa also often has close contact with dodgy sorts. In fact, crime is a very real occupational hazard.

Despite all the hardships she endures, Sa gives alms with great frequency. She also sends money home quite regularly and returns periodically to drag her ailing father to the doctor.  In short, she deserves better than the lot she drew in life, most definitely including her unreliable lover, Ton. One can only hope the Thai release for Karaoke and its success on the international film festival circuit will lead to better things for Sittijun.

Clearly, Vichit-Vadakan had up close and personal access to Sittijun’s life (or at least a revealing approximation of it). Yet, since she mostly avoids the lurid aspects of the redlight business, it does not feel as intrusive as it might. Instead, we come to understand “bar girls” must spend time on their laundry and pursue problematic relationships, just like everyone else.

Frankly, Karaoke is the sort of visually arresting docu-straddler These Birds Walk was supposed to be, but fell short of. For one thing, Sa is a far more engaging (and even sympathetic) focal character. Also, the rural backdrops and nocturnal city scenes are considerably more striking than Birds’ visuals. Great credit is due to co-cinematographers Chananum Chotrungroj and the American executive producer, Sandi Sissel (whose credits also include Salam Bombay) for maintaining an intimate focus on Sa, but still capturing a powerful sense of place.

No matter how much of her actual life is reflected on screen, Sittijun expresses a whole lot of emotional truth. Quiet but powerful, with a surprisingly spiritual dimension, Karaoke Girl is recommended for all those concerned with the condition of working women (broadly defined) in the developing world. It screens at the New Parkway Theater (in Oakland) this Thursday (2/20) as part of this year’s SF Indie Fest.

Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises: This Year’s Worthiest Oscar Nominee

Jiro Horikoshi is a Studio Ghibli character Tony Stark would approve of.  He was the engineer responsible for designing Imperial Japan’s Model Zero fighters, but he dreamer rather than an ideologue.  At least, that is how Hayao Miyazaki re-imagined Horikoshi’s private persona in his fictionalized manga, which he has now adapted as his reported final film as a director.  Spanning decades of Japan’s tumultuous pre-war history, it is also a deeply personal film that was justly nominated for best animated feature. After brief festival appearances, Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (trailer here), opens for real this Friday in New York.

As a young student, Horikoshi yearns to fly, but he realizes his spectacles make it nearly impossible for him to become a pilot.  Borrowing an aviation magazine from an encouraging teacher opens up a new path for the earnest lad.  Through its pages he learns of Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni, who becomes his inspiration.  Setting his sights on an engineering career, Horikoshi regularly meets Caproni in his dreams and reveries, where they share their mutual passion for flight.

Circumstances of history will conspire to make Horikoshi’s life eventful.  His first day as a university student is marked by the catastrophic earthquake of 1923, which will resonate profoundly with contemporary viewers mindful of Fukushima.  Yet, out of that tragedy, Hirokoshi meets and temporarily loses the great love of his life.

Despite his intelligence, Japan’s stagnant economy offers few opportunities for Horikoshi when he graduates.  He joins Mitsubishi at a time when the company appears to be on its last legs. Gambling its future on military contracts, the company sends Horikoshi to Germany, hoping he can help them reverse-engineer whatever the Junkers will let them see.  Of course, he will be able to raise the company’s game substantially.

In no way, shape, or manner does Miyazaki justify Japan’s militarist era, but he has still taken flak from both sides of the divide over Wind.  Frankly, it presents a gentle but firm critique of the Imperial war machine.  At one point, Horikoshi is even forced into hiding, designing the military’s fighter planes while he evades the government’s thought police.  Indeed, such is a common experience for the best and the brightest living under oppressive regimes.  Yet, Miyazaki is just as interested in Horikoshi’s grandly tragic romance with Naoko, a beautiful artist sadly suffering from tuberculosis.  Horikoshi makes a number of difficult choices throughout the film, every one of which the audience can well understand.

Given its elegiac vibe, Wind makes a fitting summation film for Miyazaki.  Covering the immediate pre-war decades, it compliments and engages in a wistful dialogue with Gorō Miyazaki’s charming post-war coming of age tale From Up on Poppy Hill (co-written by the elder Miyazaki).  One can also see and hear echoes of master filmmakers past, such as Ozu and Fellini, throughout the film.  Any cinema scholar surveying Miyazaki’s work will have to deal with it at length, but it still happens to be a genuinely touching film.

After watching Wind, viewers will hope the real Horikoshi was a lot like Miyazaki’s (and the same goes for Caproni). Miyazaki seriously examines the dilemmas faced by his protagonist while telling a lyrical love story.  Visually, the quality of Studio Ghibli’s animation remains undiminished, but the clean lines of Horikoshi’s planes and the blue open skies lend themselves to simpler images than some of his richly detailed classics.  Regardless, The Wind Rises is an unusually accomplished film that transcends the animation genre.  Highly recommended for all ages and interests, it opens this Friday (2/21) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine, in dubbed and the infinitely preferable subtitled versions.