Monday, March 31, 2014

The Galapagos Affair: What the Tortoises Saw

Even halfway around the world, Germans had trouble playing nice during the early 1930’s. A small handful of German expats tried to establish new homes on Floreana, an island in the Galapagos archipelago. What they lacked in numbers they made up for with sheer prickliness. What exactly happened on Floreana remains a mystery, but Dana Goldfine & Dan Geller document the rivalries and resentments that presumably led to several premature ends in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Some of the Galapagos Islands have a long history of human tenancy, but Floreana was not one of them. That was part of the appeal for Dr. Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch. They were married, just not to each other. Ritter assumed the remote and exotic locale would be the perfect place to openly cohabitate with his mistress while he wrote his grand philosophical treatise (which sounds like it would have been a warmed over synthesis of Nietsche’s Superman and Rousseau’s Noble Savage). Much to their consternation though, they attracted unwanted press attention as a modern day “Adam and Eve.” They also had to deal with unwanted neighbors.

First, the Wittmers arrived hoping to build a new life as Twentieth Century homesteaders. Ritter and Strauch found them insufferably middle class, but they still stomached their presence as best they could. The Austrian Countess Eloise von Wagner Bosquet was a different matter. Her high handed manner and plans to develop a luxury hotel made her highly unpopular on Floreana, but the locals on the neighboring islands appreciated her charms. Although not a radiant beauty by contemporary standards, she had enough allure to simultaneously ensnare two considerably younger lovers. In retrospect, this arrangement was probably inherently unstable.

The exact fate of the Countess and her preferred lover remain unknown, but it is presumed they met with foul play. Initial suspicion quickly fell on the remaining boy toy, especially given the speed with which he vacated Floreana. However, the discovery of his desiccated body on a desolate islet years later only raises more questions. In fact, death would return to Floreana after the Countess’s disappearance, but the memoirs of Dore Strauch and Margaret Wittmer paint very different pictures of the incident.

Sort of like a Teutonic documentary analog of Michael Radford’s White Mischief, the scandalous drama of Brits behaving badly in 1940’s Kenya, Galapagos is fully stocked with vague hints of infidelity and presumed murder. In this case, the persistent mystery heightens the fascination with the case (or cases). By doc standards, it is unusually cinematic, particularly through its in-characters readings of the Floreana residents’ journals and letters by an all-star voice-over cast, including Oscar winner Cate Blanchett as Strauch, Diane Kruger as Margaret Wittmer, and The Lives of OthersSebastian Koch as Heinz Wittmer. Goldfine and Geller also discovered and restored a wealth of amateur film shot on Floreana, including a would-be feature film, shot by the Countess and some of the local sailors, showcasing her as a prospective adventure heroine—for real.

Goldfine and Geller chronicle an intriguing story and provide a good deal of useful historical context regarding the European expatriate experience on the Galapagos. However, they never directly address the concurrent rise of National Socialism in Germany (whereas Radford’s film pointedly contrasts the hedonism of Happy Valley with the resolute sacrifice of Londoners during the Blitz). Ironically, the Floreana expats would probably compare well against their countrymen in this limited respect.

Still, Goldfine and Geller set the scene remarkably well and even build a degree of suspense as they recreate alternate versions of this murky business from some eighty years ago. Highly recommended for fans of strange-but-true documentaries and historical mysteries like Heat of the Sun (British Kenya again), The Galapagos Affair opens this Friday (4/4) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lost in Thailand: They’re Off and Bickering

It out-grossed Titanic in China, but Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio still make a way funnier couple. Sort of, but not really a sequel to Lost on Journey, China’s hit answer to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, it blew the doors off the Chinese box office, but it probably will not travel so well for American audiences. Co-star Xu Zheng’s directorial debut, Lost in Thailand (trailer here) is here nonetheless, available on DVD, BluRay, and digital platforms from Well Go USA.

Xu Lang has been so busy developing his revolutionary “Supergas” formula, his exasperated wife has finally decided to file for divorce and claim sole custody of their daughter. This is a real bummer for him, but he has bigger fish to fry. To administer the Supergas project as he sees fit, Xu needs Zhou, the firm’s majority shareholder, to sign-off on a power-of-attorney. However, weasely Gao Bo has his own underhanded plans. We know he must be the villain, because he wants to do business with the French, which also requires that power-of-attorney up for grabs. It turns out Zhou is ensconced in a temple in Thailand, so Xu heads out to find him, with Gao in pursuit.

To accommodate his last minute travel needs, Xu’s assistant books him into a tour group that also includes the extraordinarily annoying Wang Bao. One thing inexorably leads to another, separating both travelers from the tour. It is not that they are lost per se—they just do not know where to go.

Yes, Lost rang up over a billion yuan during its theatrical release, but it is baffling for outsiders to understand why. For the most part, it is a goofy, harmless film, even though the “Thai ladyboy” references are embarrassingly cringey. Even so, it has a decent heart overall, clearly embracing family values over go-go materialism. Perhaps that slow-down-and-reconnect-with-loved-ones message just hit a nerve with local audiences. There is also a notable cameo from a major superstar (yep, that's her) that is more substantial than her weird drop-in shot for the Chinese cut of Iron Man 3.

It is hard to believe the same Wang Baoqiang who plays the rubber-faced Wang Bao was also so chilling as the motorcycle-riding sociopath in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, but such is the case. Needless to say, the latter film is a better showcase for his skills. Still, you cannot say anyone in the ensemble lacks commitment to the material. In fact, the broad slapshticky humor is not any sillier than what you might find in Dom DeLuise or Don Knotts films from the early 1980’s.  It is not appreciably smarter or wittier either. A local phenomenon that will only interest those who closely follow Chinese popular culture, Lost in Thailand is now available for home viewing from Well Go USA.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

ND/NF ’14: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

Sometimes you have to wonder if Fifty Shades helped normalize some downright dangerous behavior. This is one of those times. Sex and violence are intimately linked in Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s latest Benelux giallo pastiche, but it is not clear whether this is intended to horrify or titillate the audience. Fasten your restraints, because The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (trailer here) will be a heck of a bumpy ride for most viewers when it screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Dan Kristensen is in for it. Returning from a business trip, he finds his creepy Brussels flat is chained from the inside, but his wife Edwige is missing. When the cops finally show up, he has roused all his neighbors and heard a rather unhelpful story from the old lady in number seven, explaining how her presumably late husband also disappeared under similarly murky circumstances. Naturally, the flatfoot suspects Kristensen, especially when he subsequently wakes up in bed, next to her severed head.

So, Tears would be downright plotty compared to the Grand Guignol memory play, Amer, Cattet and Forzani’s previous valentine to the giallo genre, if it were not for their myriad excesses. Repetitive cycles are a really big deal for them, but it is hard to feel much suspense or dread when the same crummy things keep happening to Kristensen, with only mild variations that make matters progressively worse for the poor slob each time.

There is no question the filmmaking couple has quite the eye for composition and cinematographer Manu Dacosse gives it all a lushly lurid look. Even though they are not original, the musical hat-tips also set quite the mood. However, their constant jump cuts, violent expressionistic interludes, and is-this-a-dream game-playing hobble the film’s pacing, narrative cohesion, and basic sense of flow.

Frankly, despite all the stylistic madness going on around him, Klaus Tange still gives an admirably presentable performance as Kristensen. Nonetheless, it is production designer Julia Irribarria’s team that takes the honors, creating a truly creepy, yet luxuriant backdrop, like the Belgian (or pseudo-Italian) equivalent of the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby. With its marble floors, gold paneling, and Mucha-esque screens (much like the awesome one-sheet), it might just be worth losing the occasional spouse to live there.

On a technical level, Tears is quite polished. Cattet and Forzani accomplish everything they set out to do, but the resulting film is deathly static. Masterful visuals are all very nice, but they cannot compensate for ill-defined characters and muddled plot points. Instead of a sensationalistic indulgence, it becomes a rather taxing chore to watch. Recommended for fans of the Maria Beatty fetish films John Zorn scored, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears screens again tomorrow (3/30) at the Walter Reade, as the 2014 edition of ND/NF comes to a close.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Fateful Findings: Midnight Movies Get New Agey

Prepare to have all your suspicions about the New Age mindset confirmed. We might be poised on the brink of the Age of Aquarius, the Harmonic Convergence, or whatever, but it comes bundled with some of the stiffest performances and clunky dialogue you will ever feast your previously jaded eyes and ears upon. Self-financed by writer-director-producer-lead actor-craft services Neil Breen, Fateful Finding (trailer here) blows into town tonight for a weekend of ‘round midnight screenings at the Landmark Sunshine. Let the “magic” commence.

Any attempts to describe Fateful must be approximate. The link between cause and effect is often rather tenuous in this world and the exposition is more confounding than explanatory. We can say with certainty, eight year-old Dylan and Leah were once inseparable. On the last day of their final summer together, they discover a magic rock that he will keep with him as a talisman. We know it was a “magical day” because that is what she wrote in her diary, underlined multiple times for effect. Shortly thereafter, her parents whisked her away, perhaps because they were concerned about that creepy Dylan kid.

Flashing forward, Dylan is now a successful novelist with a devoted wife, but he never got over Leah. However, when a Rolls Royce plows into him, spraying red food coloring everywhere, Dylan makes a remarkably speedy recovery thanks to that cosmic stone. Finding himself in a spiritual crisis, Dylan chucks in his writing career, resolving to use his hacker skills to expose all the corrupt collusion between the government and big business. You see it’s actually believable, because he has his masters in computer science.

Meanwhile, he also facilitates his wife Emily’s addiction to the meds refuses to take, perhaps because she read the script and figured she would need pharmaceutical help to get through the shoot. Eventually, he completely loses interest in Emily once he realizes the physician consulting on his case is none other than his long lost love, Leah, who did not recognize him under the Invisible Man bandages and evidently never bothered to read his chart.

Right, so there is some kind of plot afoot to get Dylan as well as some kind of paranormal agency at work, but you would hardly know it, because Breen devotes far more time to the marital travails of Dylan’s next door neighbors, Amy and Jim. As far as the shadowy conspiracy goes, it seems to consist solely of an underachieving henchman, who conveniently leaves his written instruction behind at the scene of the crime.

Indeed, Breen has a maddening habit of getting bogged down in the most mundane details at the expense of his big picture concept. Occasionally, we see visions of Dylan leafing through a big glowing mystical book (probably an old heirloom dictionary bought at a garage sale), but he painstakingly establishes whether or not Amy wants to try the wine at Dylan’s dinner party.

Be that as it may, just like fellow cult favorites The Room and Birdemic, it is sheer folly to apply any sort of rational critical standard to Fateful. These are passion projects that come from an indescribably bizarre aesthetic plane of existence. Logic is completely out the window from the get-go in nearly all respects, starting with the fact Breen looks about twice as old as the adult Leah. More importantly, there is able space for vocal audiences to insert their own commentary (such is the advantage of a talky film with frequent awkward pauses). 

Frankly, some of Breen’s choices will mystify even experienced screen-talking midnight movie patrons. Still, it amply lives up to the singular reputation it developed on the festival circuit. Recommended for those who appreciate a healthy dose of communal cinematic lunacy, Fateful Findings screens tonight (3/28) and late night Saturday (3/29) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

ND/NF ’14: Trap Street

It is the street where Guan Lifen works, but young Liu Qiuming’s attraction to Forest Lane is still a lot like the old Lerner & Loewe standard. However, this side street is mysteriously invisible to GPS systems. Infatuation will lure him back to Forest Lane, but it will also bring him to the attention of China’s security and surveillance apparatus. That will not be a happy turn of events in Vivian Qu’s Trap Street (clip here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Liu has had some bad luck, but he is chipping away at his debts through his jobs as a digital surveyor and a surveillance system installer (and sweeper on the side). Then he saw Guan Lifen walking along Forest Lane. Much to his delight and his older partner’s displeasure, they must redo the sleepy side street the next day, because the system disallowed their data. Liu’s lingering pays off with the opportunity to give Guan a lift home. Better still, the business card holder she left in the back seat gives him an excuse to contact her again. Unfortunately, it will be her condescendingly gracious boss who comes to retrieve it.

Of course, Liu is not ready to abandon his strategy of loitering on Forest Lane. For a while, it appears his efforts might bear fruit, until things go very wrong indeed. Small fries like Liu simply are not equipped to defend themselves when the state lowers the Kafkaesque boom. Frankly, he lacks the sufficient confidence or vocabulary to even protest his situation.

Right off the bat, Trap earns points for not indulging in clichéd as-seen-through the grainy black-and-white CCTV lens sequences. In fact, the surveillance and paranoia motifs are introduced relatively slowly and subtly. Likewise, Liu’s history of victimization extends beyond his immediate problems with the secret police, giving the film even wider significance.

Like many independent Chinese films, Trap does not exactly move at the speed of the Shanghai Stock Exchange, but there is quiet power in the scenes shared by Liu and Guan. Lü Yulai (looking maybe two thirds of his youthful thirty one years) and He Wenchao (a filmmaker in her own right) develop some genuine screen chemistry together, while the latter still maintains an alluring air of mystery.

Even if you consider them a guileless patsy and his femme fatale, nearly every viewer will get pulled into their predicaments. Previously known as an indy producer, Qu shows an impressive command of mood and tension in her feature directorial debut. Granted, the epilogue might be too ambiguous for its own good, but Trap still offers up a compelling mixture of intrigue and social criticism, all of which cinematographers Tian Li and Matthieu Laclau give an appropriately noir luster. Highly recommended for China watchers and discerning cineastes, Trap Street screens tomorrow (3/28) at the Walter Reade and Saturday (3/29) at MoMA, as part of the 2014 edition of New Directors/New Films.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ND/NF ’14: Fish & Cat

Even in Iran, you can find sketchy backwoods types out in the provinces. In one true-life incident, a provincial restaurant actually served up human flesh. That is what you call rustic. It is also easy to see how this sensationalistic episode could easily be adapted for the big screen. However, Shahram Mokri takes his lurid inspiration in a cerebral art-house direction with the marathon one-take, circular narrative, Fish & Cat (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

There seems to be a lot of offal and detritus littered about Babak and Saeed’s greasy spoon. They also act highly suspicious when a carload of college students stops for directions. Deciding there are “too many of them,” they send the kite festival goers on their way. Instead, they start hassling Kambiz (another festival entrant) and his emotionally stunted father. For all viewers know, they eventually kill the old man. Kambiz just leaves him there and he is one of the few characters Mokri never revisits.

Making his way to the campsite, Kambiz starts interacting with other students participating in the festival. Mokri will move from one character to another Slacker-style, periodically doubling back to an early to an episode or conversation we have already seen, but showing it from a different perspective—all within the same continuous tracking shot. In addition to the intersecting narrative, Mokri also plays games with characters’ interior monologues that often obscure as much as they illuminate.

Yet, F&C is an oddly tense film, ever mindful of its macabre elements. Mokri deliberately plays on the sense some serious slasher business is always about to erupt, particularly during the nerve-wracking sequence in which Babak lures one of the young women into the woods on a dubious pretext. There is no question F&C is a highly accomplished work. Mokri just pushes his luck, taking one too many spins around the narrative track. The film clocks in at one hundred thirty-four minutes, but it really should have been twenty minutes shorter. Frankly, some of the characters Mokri introduces right before the final “pay-off” are not nearly as compelling as those we have been following since the first and second acts (roughly speaking). The unbroken chain of crisscrossing narratives also just gets exhausting over time.

Still, you have to admire Mokri’s ambition and his execution. The whole thing hangs together remarkably well and his cast (mostly drawn from the stage) rises to the challenge quite commendably. Ostensibly, there is nothing of a political nature for state censors to object to in F&C, but it is still somewhat surprising it has not been run afoul of the authorities, who have been known to object to any “negative portrayal” of Iranian society. A film about hillbilly cannibals would not exactly fit their Lake Woebegone vision of contemporary Iran, where everybody is above average.

Of course, nobody would wish him trouble and we should all be glad to have F&C screening openly for international audiences. Combining elements of We Are What We Are and Before the Rain, Fish & Cat is rather highly recommended for patient and adventurous viewers. It screens tomorrow (3/27) at MoMA and Friday (3/28) at the Walter Reade as part of the 2014 ND/NF.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chinese Zodiac: Jackie Chan, Relic Repatriation Specialist

Jackie Chan’s Asian Hawk character from Armour of God is back—sort of. He is known as a “JC” now (a heavy set of initials if ever there was), but he is in the same treasure hunting business. Such details hardly matter. Either way it is Jackie Chan giving his all to please audiences as action star, action choreographer, co-writer, and director of Chinese Zodiac (a.k.a. CZ12, trailer here), which releases today on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

During the Second Opium War, the French and British largely razed the Old Summer Palace. (Time, civil wars, and the Cultural Revolution would eventually finish the job.) On that day of Imperialistic excess, twelve Chinese Zodiac statues were indeed plundered. Lost for well over a century, they have suddenly hit the market one-by-one. At least, that is the MacGuffin that swings JC/Hawk into action. The antiquities holding firm MC Corp hires JC and his team to track down the seven heads they have not yet auctioned. They are also the bad guys. No, it does not make much sense, but it gives Chan plenty of opportunity to scamper across roofs, get chased by dogs, and fight pirates.

Whatever, nobody is going to watch CZ12 for the intricate plotting. The whole attraction is the acrobatic action and elaborate stunts Chan can evidently still pull off at a youthful fifty-eight years. He may have slowed down a little, considering most of the painful outtakes shown during the closing credits come from previous films, but he still looks like the real deal leaping and fighting.

The opening sequence, involving JC’s getaway from a Russian military base through the use of a luge-like human roller-ball suit, might sound a little goofy, but the execution is extremely cinematic (and suddenly timely). It also memorably introduces former Chinese taekwondo champion turned actress and model Zhang Lanxin as CZ12’s secondary action figure. There is also plenty of cat burglary, a huge action spectacle involving a massive shipwreck that serves as the centerpiece, and a climatic skydiving throwdown that looks cool but ends a bit precipitously. However, the best sequence is a good, old fashioned rumble between JC and a small army of henchmen.

When Jackie Chan mixes it up, CZ12 is on solid ground, even though the villains (led by Oliver Platt) are a bit weak. Since they frequently assure JC they have no intention of killing anyone, it rather minimizes the stakes (but at least as movie businessmen go, they are only mildly nefarious). Chan’s periodic soap-boxing to advocate restitution of national relics is somewhat more distractingly problematic. It all seems a little ironic considering his notorious assertion that the Chinese people are too anarchic and “need to be controlled.” In that case, would not China’s dynastic treasures be better off in a stodgy western institution, like the British Museum?

Regardless of Chan’s muddled politics, he remains a ridiculously likable screen presence. He clearly wants to entertain and continues to take a fall to do so. Frankly, he is probably the one man on Earth who takes more back pills than Chevy Chase, but he still does his thing with verve. Shu Qi also looks radiant but understandably confused in her blink-and-you-missed-it cameo, while Zhang definitely earns her shot at a leading action role in the future. Recommended for Chan fans, Chinese Zodiac is now available for home viewing from Universal.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Jews of Egypt: Censored by the Temporary Morsi Regime

Why would a supposedly democratically elected government prohibit any public screening of a film with absolutely no violent or sexual content? In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi administration, a documentary describing how a sizable Jewish community once peacefully coexisted with Egypt’s Muslim majority was evidently not considered fit for public consumption, despite slavishly hewing to an “anti-Zionist” line. Arriving as a modest cause célèbre due to the fallen Morsi government’s misadventure in censorship (they eventually relented), Amir Ramses’ Jews of Egypt (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, a number of Egypt’s leading citizens happened to be Jewish. To this day, Laila Mourad remains one of the nation’s most popular recording artists, though many are apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage, judging from the brief man-on-the-streets interviews that open the film.

According to surviving members of the community, nearly all Jewish Egyptians self-identified with their country first and foremost, whereas their Jewish religion and culture was of secondary concern—if that. Everyone goes to agonizing lengths to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, clearly pre-supposing there is something fundamentally problematic about the latter. Yet, despite the vehement anti-Israeli sentiment expressed by many prominent Jewish Egyptians, they collectively found Egyptian increasingly inhospitable following Nasser’s ascent to power.

Ironically, the experience of the unflaggingly loyal anti-Zionist Jewish Egyptians dramatically proves the Zionist point. Despite their Communist, anti-colonialist political affiliations, they were still arm-twisted into immigrating and, most painfully, renouncing their Egyptian nationality. Some were even imprisoned on the scantest of charges, solely because they were Jewish.

Nonetheless, Ramses and his assembled talking heads are not particularly inclined to ironic self-awareness. As far as historical accuracy goes, JOE is also highly suspect. Frankly, the film works best when examining the interrelations between the various members of the loose-knit Jewish-Egyptian society. Who knew whom and where they all wound up is rather engaging stuff.

The Orwellian impulse to erase all trace of Egypt’s considerable Jewish population is depressing, but not especially shocking. At least Ramses plants a flag that says these people existed. Considerably better at painting a picture of a unique cultural milieu than explaining the wider geo-political forces at play, Jews of Egypt is still a decidedly mixed bag. Viewers should go in already well grounded in the history of the region and Israel’s constant battle for survival. For those intrigued by its rocky pre-release reception, it opens this Friday (3/28) at the Quad Cinema in New York, via Art Mattan Productions.

Finding Vivian Maier: The Nanny with a Camera

Vivian Maier was a much better photographer than she was a nanny, but nobody knew during her relatively anonymous life. Were it not for a fateful box of negative bought on-spec at a clearance auction, Maier and her work would have quietly slipped into oblivion. John Maloof, the scrounger who “discovered” Maier & co-producer-co-director Charlie Siskel uncover the unheralded street photographer’s life and art in Finding Vivian Maier (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Given her resemblance to RKO contract player Edna May Oliver, it was probably preordained that Maier would be a nanny. Maier’s former charges all remember her carrying a camera on their outings, as well as her forceful personality, but none of the families she worked for (briefly including single father Phil Donahue) ever thought they really knew her. They certainly had no idea of the extensive photographic archive she amassed.

Ironically, Maier’s photos did not really fit the project Maloof was working on, but he recognized they had “something.” He put a few on the net and they quickly went viral. Suddenly administering the Maier collection became his calling. Somewhat to his surprise, the proper photographic art establishment has been reluctant to embrace Maier (although sage viewers might not be slack-jaw shocked to find them jealously guarding their cultural gate-keeping roles). However, some of the most striking sequences of Finding compare Maier’s work side-by-side with thematically related pictures from canonical photographers, including Diane Arbus. Needless to say, her work holds up. Indeed, a blind viewing of her photographs might lead one to guess they were the work of an artistic affiliated with the Photo League in its heyday.

Finding effectively showcases Maier’s oeuvre, but it is not hagiography. Far from being St. Vivian the Undiscovered, Maier’s behavior evidently took a problematic turn in her later years. To their credit, Maloof & Siskel never shy away from troubling incidents detailed by the grown children once entrusted to her care. After all, artists often exhibit anti-social tendencies. Considering her interest in macabre subjects (even shooting crime scenes when the opportunity arose), an armchair Freudian would readily assume she had a host of unresolved issues.

Remarkably measured, Finding does its best to present a full portrait of the elusive Maier. It is marked by a deep sense of mystery, but Maloof also vividly captures the exhilaration of discovering her rich body of work. It is considerably more of a film-viewing experience than the majority of art docs, which mostly just invite the audience to marvel at how nice such-and-such pieces might be. Instead, Finding is a tad edgy, but still oddly uplifting. Highly recommended for photography connoisseurs and anyone who appreciates documentaries executed with a bit of style, Finding Vivian Maier opens this Friday (3/28) in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

NYICFF ’14: Giovanni’s Island

If Russia successfully annexes Crimea, what happens to the ethnic Ukrainian and Tartar population? If history is any guide, we should not be shocked by forced deportations. Frankly, they should probably consider themselves lucky if they do not take a detour through a Russian gulag. Residents of the Soviet occupied Kuril Islands were not so fortunate. The Production I.G team best known for the Ghost in the Shell franchise revisits a painful episode of Japanese history with Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island (trailer here), which screened during the 2014 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Giovanni and Campanella are not traditional Japanese names, but they are the main characters of Kenji Miyazawa’s fantastical classic, Night on the Galactic Railroad. Tatsuo Senō is so fond of the novel he named his sons Junpei and Kanta to roughly correlate. At the time of Japan’s surrender, the elder Senō is the island’s civil defense coordinator, but since he is not technically military, he is not rounded up with the other soldiers.

Initially, rumors spread like wildfire of what the Americans would do when they arrive. Unfortunately, it is the Soviets instead. Needless to say, their arrival is quite disruptive for the island community. Many families, including the Senōs, are displaced to make room for the occupiers. Similarly, Junpei’s class is forced to share space with the lower grades to make room for the soldiers’ children. Still, he forms an unlikely friendship with the commander’s daughter Tanya that steadily develops romantic overtones.

Sadly, the Soviets will do no favors for tweener romance.  After his father is arrested for distributing rice to needy villagers (so much for “to each according to their needs”), Junpei, Kanta, and their school teacher Sawako (who long carried a torch for dad) are forced to board the supposed repatriation transport without him. Ominously though, they do not seem to be bearing south towards Japan.

Frankly, screenwriters Shigemichi Sugita and Yoshiki Sakurai are remarkably restrained in their depiction of the Russian occupiers, perhaps for fear of reprisals. Nevertheless, the grim realities of the forcible deportations are inescapable. For all intents and purposes, the occupied islands were ethnically cleansed. Those familiar with Miyazawa’s short novel will also realize the Senō family is destined to experience acute tragedy.

Indeed, the way the Galactic Railroad is weaved into Giovanni’s narrative is quite thoughtful and literate. Hardly stuck in denial, the film forthrightly acknowledges the misfortune of Koreans displaced by the Imperial military, whom the Russians never bothered to repatriate. There are also a few decent Russians in Giovanni (such as Tanya’s parents), but the Stalinist war machine is a brutal, impersonal fact of history.

Much like Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart, Giovanni uses poetic imagery to soften the blow of the on-screen heartbreak. Yet, there is a maturity to the film and how its characters (especially the young) resolutely “endure the unendurable” that is quite powerful. Viewers will not feel bereft at the end, despite the grueling journey it takes us on. While it focuses quite intimately on the Senōs and those closest to them, it is a rather epic story. Featuring characters you will care about caught up in historical forces likely to repeat themselves, Giovanni’s Island is the sort of animated film adults will appreciate as much or more than children.

Highly recommended as a legit big screen drama, Giovanni’s Island had its first screening outside of Japan at this year’s NYICFF. Patrons should keep an eye on their website, just in case another screening is added. Regardless, it should have a long life on the festival circuit. For additional NYICFF reviews also check out Steve Kopian’s coverage at Unseen Films.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

ND/NF ‘14: The Story of My Death

Remember Tony Curtis in the naughty Euro-farce, The Amorous Mis-Adventures of Casanova? Sure you don’t, but forget it anyway. This incarnation of the aging rogue is worlds removed from Curtis’s leering carouser. It is the end of the party and the close of the Enlightenment era for Casanova, announced by none other than Dracula himself in Albert Serra’s defiantly dense and stately slow The Story of My Death (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Casanova has become a dirty, sacrilegious old man. He still pursues his pleasures where he may, be they pomegranates or chamber maids. Initially, this all seems like a good gig to his new manservant, whose primary duties appear to listening to Casanova pontificate on whatever. However, he becomes somewhat disillusioned with his master during their questionable Carpathian holiday. Naturally, Casanova starts trifling with the daughters of a suspiciously accommodating land owner, but the undead Count also has eyes for the lasses.

On paper, Death probably sounds like a super commercial mix of sex and gothic blood-sucking, but Serra’s approach is unapologetically meditative, bordering on the explicitly experimental. This is not Anne Rice or even Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.  It is one hundred fifty-eight minutes—and viewers will feel each and every second.

Serra might have a healthy contempt for narrative, but he has an eye for composition. Frame after frame intentionally evoke the Old Masters with their chiaroscuro effect and Serra’s extraordinary attention to mise-en-scene. Even though the score is credited to four composers (count them: Ferran Font, Enric Juncá, Joe Robinson, and Marc Verdaguer), there is not a lot of music heard during Death’s two and a half hours. Yet, in a rare genre concession, what there is sounds surprisingly distinctive and creepy.

Heading a typical Serra cast of non-traditional actors, poet Vincenç Altiaó rather livens up the proceedings, hedonistically chewing the scenery and relishing his self-consciously wicked dialogue. Eliseu Huertas also has an intriguing screen presence as the Count and his high-pitched keening is truly unsettling. Still, it is strange that he looks as old (or older) than Altiaó’s Casanova, yet his Dracula is supposed to represent coming era of Rousseau’s Romantic savagery.

Death could be considered the Hammer Horror film Terrence Malick has yet to make. Few vampire films feature half as many scenes of wind rustling through the grass. Frankly, Serra’s work demands to be considered solely on its own terms. Maddening and anesthetizing for the uninitiated, Death still takes viewers from one specific point to another. Selectively recommended for hardcore fans of Malick and Ben Rivers, The Story of My Death screens this coming Wednesday (3/26) at MoMA and next Saturday (3/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2014 ND/NF.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Rob the Mob: What Could Go Wrong with that Plan?

During 1991 and early 1992, New York was about as depressed as depression gets. The only ray of hope came from a series of high profile organized crime prosecutions initiated by then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. Yet, somehow John Gotti, the “Teflon Don,” kept wriggling out of the net—at least until Sammy “the Bull Gravano” turned state’s evidence. His testimony would also reveal the locations of several mafia-affiliated “social clubs” in open court. Tommy Uva used this information for the extraordinarily daring but not particularly well thought out crime spree that inspired Raymond De Felitta’s Rob the Mob (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Uva is a loser, but Rosemarie loves him anyway. However, the rest of the Uva family still blames him and his lowlife ways for the death of his father. Uva on the other hand, vehemently blames the mafia loan sharks for their family tragedy. You could say he has a bit of a complex when it comes to wiseguys.

After a brief prison stretch, Uva gets a job with Rosemarie’s debt collection agency—probably the only business hiring during the Dinkins years. However, he is preoccupied with the Gotti trial. When he hears Gravano explain guns are verboten in their neighborhood front clubs, Uva hatches a very dangerous idea explained pretty clearly by the film’s three word title. One night, he takes in a pretty paltry score, but one of the old-timers at the Waikiki Club happened to be carrying something seriously incriminating.

As films go, Rob is about as New York as it gets. The period details are spot-on and the attitude is razor sharp. Nobody cares what the New York Times has to say in their milieu. The journalist who gets the Uvas’ story is naturally the Post’s organized crime beat writer, Jerry Cardozo. De Felitta (better known for dramedies like City Island and docs, such as ‘Tis Autumn), deftly juggles the large ensemble of gangsters, cops, reporters, and Uvas, maintaining an appealingly gritty vibe.

However, the ace up De Felitta’s sleeve is once again Andy Garcia, who plays the composite don of dons “Big Al” Fiorello with tragic dignity worthy of a Shakespearean figure. As Garcia slowly reveals his backstory, we come to understand Fiorello reluctantly reached his current position through a strange twist of fate. He is a complicated figure, but he is about the only ethically nuanced gangster. In contrast, his underlings are a craven lot and just about everyone on either side of the side thinks Gotti is complete pond scum.

While he does not quite knock it out of the park like Garcia (partly because De Felitta does not pitch him comparably fat fast balls over the plate), Ray Romano’s characteristic nervous energy and deadpan delivery still nicely serve Cardozo, a substantially straight dramatic role. While their over-the-top outer borough affectations are rather off-putting at first, Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda still develop some rather touching (and convincingly reckless) screen chemistry as the couple ironically dubbed “Bonnie and Clyde” by Fiorello’s gang. However, for real old school street cred, nobody can touch Burt Young doing his thing as aging mob lieutenant Joey D.

Granted, everyone will readily form an educated guess of the general direction Rob is headed, even if they are not familiar with the Uvas’ case, but De Felitta’s sure-footed execution will still keep viewers keyed in from start to finish. Featuring an award-worthy supporting turn from Garcia, Rob is one of the best American gangster films in several years. Particularly recommended for New Yorkers (who might be getting a glimpse of our de Blasio future as well as our Dinkins past), Rob the Mob opens today (3/21) at the Angelika Film Center.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lars Volume One

When Lars von Trier and the increasingly controversial Shia LaBeouf collaborate on a film, it creates a certain level of expectations. Add in a generous helping of explicit sexual content and you would anticipate of perfect storm of provocation. Instead, it will be fans of the Dogma 95 co-founder who will feel vindicated by his latest bout of risk-taking. Far from a source of joy, sex is an act of existential alienation in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Volume One (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Seligman is a good Samaritan, who offers to take Joe to a hospital when he finds her battered in the street. She firmly demurs, only reluctantly allowing the older man to patch her wounds in his nearby flat. Joe not only blames herself for her alarming state, she rather seems to think she had it coming. She will explain why over a hot cup of tea.

Joe discovered her power turn men into animals at a young age. Like a playboy notching his belt, she regularly challenges her chum B to a contest of who can score the most men in a given period. However, B starts breaking one of their cardinal rules, allowing affection (or worse still, love) to influence her erotic pursuits. As a result, Joe becomes a solitary seducer, who deliberately leaves broken lives in her wake. Yet, Seligman insists on finding redemptive elements in each of her tales—or so he tries, in between fishing analogies and literary allusions.

Nevertheless, Joe’s self-indictment is consistently and cumulatively damning. In a particularly memorable episode, Mrs. H outdoes Medea, shaming her wayward husband and the trampy Joe by crashing their vice-pad with her shockingly young sons. Yet, Joe really is not shamed. She is already hollow inside, desensitized by her carnal compulsions.

Yes, there is a lot of sex and nudity in Volume One, but it is not the least bit seductive or titillating. Instead, this is an unrated morality tale, which explicitly cautions viewers of the dire consequences wrought by divorcing sex from love (or least like to a reasonable extent).

It should be noted, this all applies solely to Volume One seen independently of Volume Two. Based on the teaser that runs during the closing credits, von Trier apparently cranks up the lurid content of the concluding installment. Whether or not this anticipated foray into Shades of Grey territory will come with a disingenuous claim of “empowerment” remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Volume One ends at an oddly logical and unsettling point.

Frankly, it is not the naughty business that is interesting, but the conversations between the not-as-young-as-she-used-to-be Joe and Seligman. Von Trier’s language is highly literate and rich with meaning. Past von Trier alumni Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård quickly develop the darnedest screen chemistry, encompassing morbid fascination and humanist compassion. Despite the film’s explicit content, von Trier assembled quite a cast, including Uma Thurman, who knocks the wind out of viewers as the ferocious Mrs. H.

In a case of trial by fire, Stacy Martin makes a bold screen debut as the twenty-something Joe, but her character is so glacially reserved, the role better demonstrates her willingness to serve the needs of a film rather than her emotional range, per se. On the other hand, Christian Slater cannot shake off his snarky b-list persona as Joe’s henpecked father. (By the way, if any von Trier fans are wondering, Udo Kier will duly appear in Volume Two.)

With Volume One, von Trier stakes a claim to being a truly subversive contrarian. He makes sex look like no fun whatsoever. In fact, hedonism takes a toll on the soul and inextricably leads to some very dark places. Better to go fishing instead. Recommended for mature, fully informed audiences as a film in its own right, Nymphomaniac Volume One opens this Friday (3/21) in New York downtown at the Landmark Sunshine and uptown at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

CIFF ’14: Monsoon Shootout

It’s sort of like Sliding Doors or Kiewslowski’s Blind Chance with a lot more rain and guns. On his first day with Inspector Khan’s special anti-crime unit, a fresh recruit confronts a suspected murderer, sans back-up. He will either freeze, shoot to kill, or possibly split the difference in Amit Kumar’s muscularly moody crime drama, Monsoon Shootout (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Cleveland International Film Festival.

As the son of a totally above-board cop, the green Adi is a bit shocked by Khan’s borderline vigilante tactics. Mumbai’s top brass makes a show of tut-tutting at the frequency his suspects are shot while trying to escape, but it is clear they are turning a blind eye. Khan is determined to bring down the Slum Lord, Mumbai’s descriptively named vice and extortion kingpin. His best lead is Shiva, one of the Slum Lord’s most reckless and dangerous assassins. After a rocky start, Adi’s brief career goes from bad to worse when he faces Shiva in that classic dark alley setting. Should he shoot or stand there flat-footed letting Shiva escape? Khan will have some choice opinions regarding either decision that he will express as viewers watch Adi’s alternate timelines play out.

One of the cool things about Shootout is the way the competing narratives parallel each other in clever ways, despite the distinctly different choices made by poor hapless Adi. At various times, he seeks treatment from his ex, Anu the nurse with a social conscience. By the same token, he always tracks down Geeta, a prostitute favored by Shiva. Conversely, radically different sides of Khan’s character present themselves during each variation on the theme.

As Khan, Neeraj Kabi excels at grizzled badassery, while bringing out more human qualities when the various circumstances allow. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Shiva also delivers enough glowering menace to satisfy any genre fan. While not a lot of heavy lifting is required of model-turned-indie actress Geetanjali Thapa, the more traditional romantic role of Anu represents something of a departure from her migrant workers advocacy films, such as I.D. She has passable screen chemistry with Vijay Varma, who broods as well as anyone could ask, even though Adi is to a large extent a passive puppet of fate.

Even though Shootout has a somewhat gimmicky structure, Kumar deftly uses each take to build and expand the tragic irony. All three parts also hum along quite nicely as gritty procedurals.  It is a quality production with considerable genre appeal, particularly distinguished by cinematography Rajeev Ravi, who makes the rain and nocturnal slums look like visual poetry. Recommended for fans of parallel and popular Indian cinema, Monsoon Shootout screens Saturday (3/22) and Monday (3/24) during this year’s CIFF.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ND/NF ’14: A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

You have to do something to while the time away in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and the Baltics. A Brooklyn based musician will chew the fat in a hipster commune, soak up the wonders of nature, and play a death metal gig in a grubby little club, but less adventurous viewers will still look in vain for narrative hooks throughout Ben Rivers & Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Any decent sized festival ought to serve up some properly labeled experimental offerings just to prove their depth and breadth. Spell certainly fills that niche, but if you have a taste for hardcore metal, the final segment of the triptych will also give you plenty to bang your head to. Viewers will follow Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe as he wanders through northeast Europe, starting in an Estonian hippie colony. Amidst the bull sessions, one Finn tells a very funny story that we cannot describe in a family outlet, but could nicely stand alone as an amusing short.

In fact, there are a number of “lucid” moments in Spell, as when said Finn sheepishly prefaces his tale by apologizing for its length. However, his interlocutor insists stories are supposed to be long—that is the whole point of telling them. He has a point. After all, storytelling is a ritual that harkens back to the mead-grogged Vikings orally transmitting the epic of Beowulf. Ironically, the nearly narrative-free Spell helps viewers develop the vocabulary to explain why the avant-garde so frustrates them.

After leaving the commune, Lowe will spend Spell’s relatively short second movement communing with nature in the wilds of Finland. Visually, these are the most striking sequences (bringing to mind vintage ECM album covers), but they are also the most cinematically static.

Eventually, it is time for Lowe to get down to business in a small Norwegian club. As the Bens pan and re-pan the on-screen audience, we see considerably older cats than we might expect for such a fierce show, but when an out-of-town band comes to play, the locals probably go regardless. It is also worth noting the poster of Sun Ra in the backroom, which speaks well of the club’s hipness.

There is an awful lot of grasping at small details in the above analysis, but a film like Spell openly invites viewers to impose their own meanings where they may. It has some interesting bits, but it is specifically intended for a small, self-selecting audience. Deliberately languid and deliberate, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is recommended for those who embrace the lulling effect of video installations more than conventional bourgeoisie narratives when it screens Saturday (3/22) at MoMA and Tuesday (3/25) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2014 edition of New Directors/ New Films.

The French Minister: Old Europe Quotes Heraclitus

In the days leading up to the Iraq War, Jacques Chirac strained French relations with the new democracies of Eastern Europe by condescendingly declaring they “missed a golden opportunity to shut up.” After the fall of Saddam Hussein, several French officials, such as the former UN ambassador Jean-Bernard Mérimée were implicated in the Oil-for-Food scandal. However, no such troubling details will intrude on the self-aggrandizement of France’s political class in The French Minister (trailer here), a rare misfire from Bertrand Tavernier that opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Technically, Alexandre Taillard de Worms is a “conservative,” but his contempt for America is so great, he has no problem hiring a young lefty like Arthur Vlaminck to be his new speech-writer. It is hard to write for the eccentric minister, but a couple of quotes from Heraclitus usually placates him. Essentially, the Taillard doctrine boils down to this: French intervention in its former African colonies is good, but American intervention in the thinly fictionalized Lousdemistan is bad.

While Taillard often acts like a pompous buffoon, especially during a lunch with an American Nobel Prize winning novelist (supposedly based on a real life incident still remembered in hushed tones around the Quai d’Orsay), French Minister has all the satirical bite of a retirement roast. That old Taillard might be nuts Tavernier and his co-writers Antonin Baudry and Christophe Blain tell us, but he is crazy like a fox. As for any soul searching regarding French colonialism, Oil-for-Food, or France’s grand ambition to subordinate EU policy making to its own ends, do not hold your breath.

Even if you agree with the film’s extreme Chirackian-Gallic perspective, it is still difficult to watch Thierry Lhermitte’s ridiculously over the top turn as Taillard. You will see less shtick in an average Pauly Shore film. On the other hand, Raphaël Personnaz’s vanilla Vlaminck does nothing more than applaud his boss’s dramatic outbursts like a trained seal. The only measure of redemption comes from the unflaggingly reliable Niels Arestrup, who plays veteran civil servant Claude Maupas like a sly, understated cousin to Nigel Hawthorne’s Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister.

Bertrand Tavernier has made some great films, including one of the all time great jazz movies, Round Midnight, as well as the elegantly tragic historical, The Princess of Montpensier. This is not anywhere close to their league. Frankly, Pierre Schöller’s similarly titled The Minster brings far more wit and insight to bear on French politics, but frustratingly, it has yet to find an American distributor. Smugly self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, The French Minister desperately wants to soak up the adulation it hasn’t earned. Not recommended, it opens this Friday (3/21) in New York at the IFC Center.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

ND/NF ’14: The Babadook

Whenever a strange book mysteriously turns up, google it before cracking it open for a bedtime story. Like Candyman, the protagonist of a creepy picture book arrives when bidden and there will be no getting rid of him in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Six years ago, Amelia husband was killed in a traffic accident as he was rushing her to the hospital. She survived to delivery Samuel, their physical healthy but deeply maladjusted son. Naturally, celebrating his birthday is always awkward affair. Prone to acting out, Samuel is a real handful. Lately, he is pushing his still grieving mother to her breaking point. Then a rather peculiar picture book titled Mr. Babadook appears.

Since Samuel is fascinated by magic and old school magicians, the hirsute creature in a top hat depicted on the cover initially suggests it might be his cup of tea, but its true nature quickly becomes apparent. Both mother and son are soon plagued by Babadooky nightmares. Before long, the Babadook seems to take corporeal form, constantly lurking in the shadows. Try as they might, they cannot lose or destroy that infernal book and its constant reminder: “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

On paper, Babadook might sound like an atypical genre selection for ND/NF, but former Australian TV thesp Kent is indeed a new director. She also takes a stylish approach to the material. Max Schreck’s Nosferatu would feel at home in Amelia’s severely gray, creaky old house. In a nice hat tip, the magically themed films of George Méliès are often seen on television, further setting the mood. Likewise, Alex Juhasz’s Babadook illustrates are creepy and eccentric, recalling the better work of Tim Burton before he lost his edge.

By genre standards, Babadook is an unusually accomplished production, but its two tormented leads really try a viewer’s patience. Admittedly, some serious paranormal skullduggery is afoot, but Essie Davis’s Amelia becomes rather problematically overwrought, flirting with outright melodrama. Usually, moms are the level-headed ones in times of crisis, but not here. Likewise, the clammy bug-eyed presence of her partner in this near two-hander often undercuts the drama.

On the plus side, Kent’s instincts were on spot-on perfect when determining how much of Bobby Duke she would show and in what context. The look and mechanics of the film are quite strong (with considerable credit also due to cinematographer Radek Ladczuk), but viewers might find themselves rooting for the little hobgoblin rather than against him, which is not necessarily a terrible thing. Recommended for horror fans inclined to grant style points, The Babadook screens this Saturday (3/22) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (3/23) at MoMA as part of the 2014 ND/NF.