Thursday, December 31, 2015

PSIFF ’16: Nahid

Iran’s so-called “temporary marriages” are exactly that—marital unions that are good only for a finite pre-determined time. Before they expire, they are considered completely valid by the Islamist powers that be. If you think some Iranians enter into these contracts to facilitate a little action, you would be right. Unfortunately, temporary marriages are temporarily the best option for a desperate single mother in Ida Panahandeh’s Nahid (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Nahid’s dirty, smelly heroin addicted first husband Ahmad was a mistake, but according to Iranian law, he still retains all parental rights to their obnoxious young son Amir Reza. Ahmad has magnanimously granted her custody on the condition she maintain a chaste single life. She has fallen in love with Masoud Javonroodi, the widower hotel owner for whom she temps. Unfortunately, she cannot act on his advances for fear of losing Amir Reza, but her own precarious financial situation is simply not sustainable.

When Nahid finally levels with Javonroodi, he convinces her to marry him in a formal ceremony, but only sign papers for a temporary marriage. They will continue to re-up until his lawyers successfully press for a custody hearing. However, Nahid insists they must keep their arrangement secret from the petulant Amir Reza. Indeed, he is the weak link in this otherwise impressive non-ideological, small “f” feminist drama. A mother’s love is one thing, but Nahid really ought to just sell him to the circus.

When your country’s family law statutes continually provide inspiration for searing social issues films, it ought to tell you something is wrong, but the message hasn’t trickled up yet in Iran. Both in terms of theme and quality, Nahid sits easily alongside Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, Reza Mirkarimi’s Today, and Rakshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales. It is also interested to see Iranian life away from Tehran, up near the Caspian Sea, much as in Safi Yazdanian’s What’s the Time in Your World.

Sareh Bayat does tour-de-force work as the title character and Pejman Bazeghi is deeply compelling as Javonroodi. They each make regrettable mistakes and act rather ghastly at times, because they are so darned human. Both give remarkably well modulated performances. Navid Mohammad Zedah’s Ahmad is also messily complicated and tragically self-aware, but the less said about the kid, the better.

Much like several recent Iranian films, lies have a way of perniciously compounding in Nahid. Yet, Panahandeh leaves the door open a crack for a few rays of optimism to shine in. She also has a clear affinity for directing actors in intimate settings (except perhaps children performers) and a striking eye for visuals (although the Pieta image was a bit over-the-top, especially since Amir Reza is only mildly sick during the scene in question). Overall, Nahid is recommended rather strongly for her mature relationship with Javonroodi when it screens this Saturday (1/2) and Thursday (1/7), as part of the 2016 PSIFF.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Himalayas: Climbing Everest with a Purpose

There is no crying on Everest. It could cause frostbite. Nobody understands that better than alpinist Um Hong-gil, the first Asian member of the fourteen highest summits club. However, he will return to Everest on a dangerously emotional mission in Lee Seok-hoon’s based-on-a-true-story The Himalayas (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

They don’t call Um “The Captain” because he can’t climb. He was already knocking on celebrity status before he notched Everest. However, he did not suffer fools on mountains gladly. Rather awkwardly, that initially includes Park Moo-taek and Lee Don-gyoo. When they first meet, the rookie climbers are schlepping the lifeless body of their fellow university expedition member down the Nepalese mountain face. Not a good first impression. Nevertheless, Park and Lee maintain their alpinist ambitions and successfully make the cut for Um’s Kanchenjunga expedition (peak #3). Things are indeed different this time, leading to some serious male bonding and a summit for Um and Park.

For a while, Um and Park become an inseparable tandem on the mountain. However, it all comes to a premature end when the lingering effects of a leg injury force Um into retirement. Now, Park is the Captain, but despite his experience with Um, he is still no match for the erratic wrath of Everest’s “Death Zone.” To provide some closure for Park’s young widow, Choi Su-young, Um and his old teammates will head back to Everest on a longshot recovery mission.

There has been a bountiful harvest of good mountaineering documentaries over the last few years (Meru, The Summit, Beyond the Edge), but narratives have been more hot-or-miss. However, you can count on the Korean film industry to incorporate plenty of tear-jerking into the budding genre. Frankly, the best comparison is the excellent but sadly under-screened Japanese film Climber’s High, but without the acidic portrayal of newsroom politics.

Hwang Jung-min is terrific as the gruff but soulful Um. We can definitely believe he has spent time freezing on mountains and absorbing the wisdom of the Himalayans. He has the right presence and the proper reserve for an old cat like Um. On the flipside, Jung Woo has the right earnestness and preternatural youthfulness for Park. Despite her problematically comedic first appearance, Yung Yu-mi also packs quite a punch in her later scenes as Choi.

Frankly, Yung is not the only one dealing with tonal inconsistencies. However, the first act humor is never as broad or shticky as the mugging that weighed down Lee Seok-hoon’s The Pirates. Most viewers should be able to deal with it, especially if they want to see some extreme mountaineering.

You had better believe Himalayas can be manipulative, but Hwang Jung-min masterfully sells the best of those scenes. Unless you are just a total scat-heel, there is one speech in particular (not even a climatic one) that will have you choked up like its Lou Gehrig’s farewell address. That’s pretty good filmmaking and absolutely first-rate work from Hwang. The Film will also make you welcome the unseasonably warm winter. Recommended for fans of Hwang and mountaineering pictures, The Himalayas opens this Friday (1/1) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

This is Bossa Nova: Listen to the Founders

Bossa Nova originally started as a spontaneous synthesis of West Coast Jazz, Samba, Romantic Era classical music, and influential Brazilian songwriters, like Ary Barroso. However, American jazz artists adopted Bossa Nova rhythms, re-importing the music back into jazz. For a while in the 1960s, everyone released a Bossa Nova album. Some were legit, some were legit-ish. Two of the first generation Bossa Nova artists take viewers back to where it all began in Paulo Thiago’s This is Bossa Nova (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When it comes to Bossa Nova, Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal are the real deal. Essentially, they found each other and a group of like-minded musicians when they were all exploring “modern” sounds and less maudlin, more contemporary lyrics. A slightly older staff arranger named Antonio Carlo “Tom” Jobim took them under his wing, helping polish some of their compositions and writing scores of his own standards with them in mind.

Lyra and Menescal frequently visit the campuses, flats, and concert halls where the music was incubated, often carrying their guitars (and a tune along with them) troubadour-style. It is a much more active, entertaining way to take a trip down memory lane. Of course, all the greats, like Jobim, João Gilberto, and Oscar Castro-Neves were just as great as we always thought, but Lyra and Menescal also make a case for less prominent artists, including influential predecessors, such as Johnny Alf (the legendary Hotel Plaza jazz pianist) and Sinatra-esque bandleader Dick Farney.

There are a wealth of archival performances collected in TIBN, including Jobim performing and discussing “One Note Samba” with Gerry Mulligan (on clarinet), as well as a bounty of original renditions from Menescal, Lyra, his daughter Kay Lyra, Leny Andrade, Wanda Sá, João Donato, and the late great Alf. It is worth noting his piano trio is unusual well mic’d and mixed—you can actually hear the bass. Kay and Carlos Lyra also sound quite lovely on “Voce E Eu,” but this probably wasn’t their first time working together.

There are some cool associations that come to light throughout TIBN, like the influence Barney Kessel’s sessions with Julie London had on Carlos Lyra. Thiago also devotes sections to vocalist Nara Leão, Vinicius de Moraes (whose play was adapted as Black Orpheus), and journalist-lyricist Ronaldo Bôscoli, whom he dubs the “Muse,” “Poet,” and “Theorist” of Bossa Nova.

This is a terrific film that gives viewers many complete performances and a considerable insight into the music we hear. Lyra and Menescal are perfect hosts. They exude laidback charm and have all the credibility in the world. Cinematographer Guy Gonçalves makes it all look pleasantly bright and inviting. It is really the perfect film for a warm summer’s night on the beach or a winter in New York City. Absolutely charming and gently infectious, This is Bossa Nova is indeed highly recommended when it opens this Friday (1/1) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Welles’ Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles really made his reputation staging Shakespeare, particularly the “Voodoo Macbeth” produced for the Federal Theatre Project. Unfortunately, it was another Shakespearean production that perfectly symbolized the auteur’s mid-1960s fall from critical favor. In retrospect, it is rather embarrassing The New York Times was more preoccupied with Welles’ girth than his artistic vision. It is worth remembering the next time the editorial page decides to give us a lecture on civility. Still, a lot of people missed the boat on Welles’ Falstaff and rights conflicts made it difficult for more appreciative later generations to catch up with it. Happily, the Welles’ under-heralded Chimes at Midnight (trailer here) gets a special, restored DCP limited engagement, starting exclusively this Friday in New York at Film Forum.

Don’t hold your breath for St. Crispin’s Day. This is Falstaff’s story, not Prince Hal’s. Never shy about reworking Shakespeare, Welles basically plundered Falstaff’s greatest hits for the Henriad cycle, throwing in a few line here and there from The Merry Wives of Winsor. However, the guts of the film come from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, focusing on Prince Hal’s competing loyalties to two father figures, the hedonistic yet strangely gallant Sir John Falstaff and his severe father, Henry IV. Falstaff is way more fun, but the King represents his future.

Aware the Lancasters’ claim to the throne is iffy at best, the King would be much relieved to see Prince Hal start to take his duties more seriously. Instead, he prefers to carouse in bawdy houses with Falstaff and the more polished but just as disreputable Ned Poins. Unfortunately, his profligacy only encourages rebellion among the nobility, who have rallied behind the dashing and popular Sir Henry Percy, a.k.a. Harry Hotspur, as their champion. Prince Hal cuts a poor figure beside him.

As for Falstaff’s figure, it is impressive, in its way. As the Times so brutally pointed out, you can’t spell Falstaff without an “f,” “a,” and “t.” Yet, there is more to Welles’ Sir John than the low comedy we associate with the reprobate. It is like he is a metaphor for Welles’ own career. Shticky on the outside, like the persona hosting Nostradamus documentaries and Paul Masson wine commercials, but he was heroic on the inside, like the director who labored for years to complete Don Quixote. Just like Falstaff, Welles was once the toast of Hollywood and a critical darling, but the establishment would turn against him in his later years, much like Prince Hal will inevitably renounce his friendship with Falstaff.

Whether Welles consciously identified with Falstaff on that level scarcely matters. It is still all there on the screen, in all its glorious pathos. Without question, Welles is the definitive Falstaff, puffed up with bluster, but achingly sensitive on the inside. His love for the Prince feels absolutely, painfully real.

Keith Baxter is also a minor revelation as Prince Hal. Probably better known for his stage work, Baxter is electric as he young prince. He might just be the coldest, most ruthless Prince Hal/Henry V seen on film, arguably bordering on the sociopathic. Yet, the great Sir John Gielgud might just upstage everyone, Welles included, as the ascetically noble and remorseful Henry IV. Even though most people automatically harken back to Arthur whenever his name is dropped, Chimes might be the best film to remember him by. Welles only had two weeks with Gielgud, but they made every second count. As a bonus, Jeanne Moreau also finds the earthy dignity in Dolly Tearsheet, Falstaff’s favorite “hostess.”

Chimes is a major Wellesian work that takes his signature visual flair to an even higher level. Every frame is a work of art, but the gritty grace and caustic wit of the ensemble performances remain incisive throughout. Wonderfully stylish and elegiac, Chimes at Midnight should be considered a worthy film in Welles canon. Very highly recommended, it opens New Year’s Day at Film Forum.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mojin: the Lost Legend—the Other Blockbuster Franchise

It is currently the #2 film at the global box office, nipping at the heels of The Force Awakens. It is also the second adaptation of the bestselling Chinese Ghost Blows Out the Light series of novels. In a weird distribution of rights, one consortium of film companies optioned the first four novels, and another group of partners bought the latter quartet. This is the one starring Shu Qi as American-born Chinese tomb raider Shirley Yang, which partially explains its brisk business. Yang and her associates will shimmy into crypts and flee hordes of zombies in Wuershan’s Mojin: the Lost Legend (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Yang, the Byronic Hu Bayi, and the rubber-faced Wang Kaixuan are trained in Mojin, the art of grave “borrowing.” As per their time honored practice, they carefully light a candle in the corner of each tomb they visit. By blowing it out, the tomb’s ghost makes his displeasure known, forcing the trio to leave accordingly. However, if the candle still burns, then its all good. They are in for an exception to the rule. Things will get bad, but Hu and Wang have seen worse during their first subterranean excursion.

Flashing back to the Cultural Revolution, Hu and Wang are sent to Inner Mongolia as part of their re-education. Both fall in love with the comrade Ding Sitian. She is still adorable, even though she believes the revolutionary slogans far more than they do. Through a strange chain of events, they stumble into an ancient tomb. Of course, the cadres urge them to be “true materialists” and “smash the Four Olds.” Unfortunately, in this case, the Olds are not merely ancient. They are undead.

Hu and Wang carry the scars of their backstory. It is why Hu has never properly put the moves on the super-interested Yang. Similarly, the more impulsive Wang will sign up with a dodgy expedition financed Madame Ying, a Chinese born Japanese industrialist and cult leader in search of the mythical Equinox Flower, hoping he can use it to resurrect the late Ding. Putting aside their Tracy-and-Hepburn-esque differences, Yang and Hu set out to save Wang from his bad judgement. Frankly, they cannot completely blame Wang for the ensuing trouble. The whole deal was brokered by their dodgy agent Grill. At least he will quickly cone to regret it.

Believe it or not, Mojin’s narrative probably makes even less sense on screen, but it hardly matters. Wuershan maintains enough breakneck energy and the all-star cast exudes enough raw charisma to keep the film galloping forward, with or without logic. The special effects are Hollywood tentpole quality and the Inner Mongolian vistas are wildly cinematic. This is a big film, in many respects.

Yet, there were apparently risks involved, starting with its very premise. Tomb-plundering is not exactly politically correct in China these days, which reportedly caused more than a little uncertainty during the development process. The scenes set during Cultural Revolution are also a tad bit gutsy, especially when the Red Guards order the young Hu’s detachment to smash the Kitian artifacts.

Shu Qi is one of the few movie stars working today, who can quietly kneecap viewers with a single look (this has been her specialty for Hou Hsiao Hsien, including the recent The Assassin). It must be noted, Shirley Yang is quite the heroine, since it was Yao Chen filling her boots in Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, which American audiences have yet to get a good look at.

As Hu, Chen Kun puts his shaggy look and brooding manner to good use, much as he did in Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal. Bo Huang mostly keeps the shtick in check as Wang, but it is fair to say Xia Yu’s Grill lacks his reserve. However, Angelebaby is acutely cute as Ding, while also bringing some tragic depth to their ill-fated romantic interest. Yet, Cherry Ngan shows off some of the best action chops as Madame Ying’s henchperson, Yoko.

At times, Mojin feels like Wolf Totem with zombies in place of the wolves, which is a cool place to be. Some of the broader, more localized humor fails to land, but there is more than enough adventure, supernatural bedlam, and ironic historical references to keep subtitle readers on-board and invested. In fact, viewers will probably be primed for the competing Ghost Blows Out the Light film franchise and Mojin’s inevitable sequels. Recommended for action fans, Mojin: the Lost Legend is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Fandor Criterion Pick: Lady Snowblood 2, Love Song of Vengeance

The late Meiji Era was a good time to be a bourgeoisie Zaibatsu, unless you happened to provoke Yuki Kashima, a.k.a. Lady Snowblood. Kashima consummated her vengeance in the first film, but she is still out there (despite the serious injuries she sustained in the previous climax). Instead of killing to fulfill her blood pact for payback, she now dispatches running dog flunkies of the corrupt ruling class that rub her the wrong way. That is all fine and good, but is nowhere near as satisfying. Even with a moderate case of sequelitis, the title character remains iconically awesome in Toshiya Fujita’s freshly restored Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (trailer here), which streams on Fandor as a limited-time Criterion Pick.

The four thugs who killed Kashima’s father and brutalized her mother are now deader than dead, but that does not mean the cops are willing to let things slide. After enduring the spectacular opening beatdown, they finally capture Lady Snowblood and quickly convict her in a kangaroo court. However, the foppish civil servant Seishiro Kikui offers her a reprieve from the gallows if she will assassinate anarchist rabble-rouser Ransui Tokunaga. Kashima agrees because what does she have to lose, but double crosses Kikui as soon as she takes Tokunaga’s measure.

Briefly, Lady Snowblood takes on the role of bodyguard, but she is a much better assassin. When Kikui launches a full scale attack, Kashima barely escapes with her life and Tokunaga’s incriminating documents. Fortunately, Tokunaga’s estranged brother Shusuke practices medicine in one of the slum’s no-go zones. Shusuke Tokunaga’s animosity for his brother and sister-in-law-ex-wife remains unabated, but he isn’t about to turn away Lady Snowblood, because obviously.

The biggest problem with Love Song of Vengeance is Kashima’s less proactive role. It is not that she is passive, but she is reactive, deciding who to align with and then killing off the other side accordingly. It is still beautiful to watch her do her thing, but it doesn’t resonate in your gut like the original film. Also, the depiction of the corrupt, war-mongering Meiji government as a stand-in for Vietnam-era capitalism now looks like a clumsy relic of the past.

On the other hand, Fujita stages two of the franchise’s best action sequences, both featuring Lady Snowblood (naturally) hacking and slashing her way through crooked coppers as she walks down narrow pathways towards the camera. The blood still flows a bright crimson red, liberally pooling as the result of Kashima’s handiwork. Kikui is also a suitably odious villain, who even weaponizes the plague virus in his scheme to bring down the Tokunagas and Kashima.

The camera still loves Meiko Kaji’s Lady Snowblood, whose action chops are arguably even stronger the second time around. As Kikui, the preening Shin Kishida absolutely gorges on the scenery. Jûzô Itami (now better known for directing crossover hits like A Taxing Woman and Tampopo) also plays Ransui Tokunaga with all proper dignity and even a little edge. However, the blustery Shusuke Tokunaga inexplicably lurches all over the map to serve the whims of the narrative.

There is plenty of betrayal and blood splatter in Love Song, but the grafted-on social conscience is distractingly superfluous. Needless to say, the sequel works best when Fujita allows Lady Snowblood to be Lady Snowblood. The original Lady Snowblood is an exploitation masterwork every cineaste should catch up with. Love Song is passable diversion they can also squeeze in if they have the time. Together, they do make a rather appealing mini-binge for the holidays, while they are available for the next eight days as Criterion Picks on Fandor.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Yellow Day: the Good Man and the Woman in Church

In “Yellow Days,” Sinatra sang about “when the sunlight had a special kind of brightness.” This is a different sort of Yellow Day, but it still involves bounteous sunshine and a pair of separated lovers. Lovers might be too strong a word, but the man and the woman in question would make a perfect pair if they could only find each other again in Carl Lauten & G.P. Galle Jr.’s Yellow Day (trailer here), which opens this Christmas Day in select markets.

Half the film takes place in a Catholic Church, yet the balance of Yellow Day feels very much like an Evangelical film. “The Good Man” has come to Camp Grace hoping to find Monica. They had found themselves locked inside St. Joseph’s Chapel, It Happened One Night style. Of course, nothing really happened that night, but a connection was forged. Nevertheless, Monica abruptly disappeared the following morning. Only knowing that she is a regular counselor at Camp Grace’s annual Yellow Day celebration, the Young Good Man has come in search of her.

Unfortunately, Monica is nowhere to be found this Yellow Day. However, the Good Man has faith—and a spirit guide in a little girl who could be the spitting image of Monica at age ten. She knows all about Yellow Day, but she is still susceptible to ominous bouts of dread. When she appears to him, the film usually shifts gears into symbolic animated sequences, drawing heavily on chivalric Christian imagery.

By the standards of Evangelical cinema, Yellow Day is remarkably professional. The co-leads, Drew Seeley and Lindsey Shaw are not just competent, they are winningly charismatic. They develop real (but chaste) chemistry together. Ashley Boettcher is similarly polished and likeable as the mysterious little girl. St. Joseph’s Chapel is also a wonderfully warm and cinematic setting for their faith-based courtship. However, the supposedly expansive Camp Grace looks comparatively small on-screen.

Through the animated segments (passably but unremarkably crafted), producer-screenwriter Galle adds an allegorical level to the film that is admirably ambitious, but it often obscures more than it illuminates. However, the Catholic Galle falls into the same trap that ensnares most Evangelical filmmakers. He just cannot let much time elapse without “a word from our sponsor.” Yes, the film has a tendency to get a tad preachy, especially when on the grounds of Camp Grace. He is entitled to convey his message and it happens to be a rather worthy one, but it would be more effective he slipped it in more subtly and selectively.

Still, compared many overtly Evangelical releases, Yellow Day represents a significant step up in filmmaking game. Perhaps it is well-served by the Catholic-ecumenical background of its creatives. The good will generated by Seeley, Shaw, and Boettcher also goes a long way. Frankly, even for the defiantly cynical and/or agnostic, it is relatively easy to watch—maybe even pleasant. As a point of comparison, most viewers will be receptive to the next film from Galle and his team, whereas nobody in their right mind would want to see another John Martoccia film after soldiering through Death of a Tree. Exceeding expectations with its general sweetness, Yellow Days opens in carefully selected theaters today, such as the Awataukee 24 in Phoenix, with a wider release to follow on January 8th, including the AMC Empire in New York. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Contenders ’15: Memories and Confessions

You have to give the Instituto Português de Cinema credit for their patience. They produced Manoel de Oliveira’s highly personal docu-memoir in 1982, but it was only just released this year. It was intended as a final cinematic testament to be screened after the then seventy-three year-old filmmaker’s death. However, Oliveira would have the greatest second wind in movie-making history. Nearly thirty-three years, twenty-four narrative features, and numerous shorts, documentaries, and anthology film contributions later, Oliveira finally passed away. Reportedly, he had several films in active development. It is a shame we will not get the chance to see what they could have been, but at least Oliveira left us his final film, circa 1981-1982. Automatically significant due to the circumstances surrounding it, Oliveira’s Memories and Confessions screened last night as part of MoMA’s annual Contenders series.

Arguably, Oliveira’s best work was ahead of him in 1981 (when principle photography was shot)—way, way ahead—but the Portuguese auteur was clearly feeling a bit weary at the time. The authoritarian Salazar government had fallen, but Oliveira was about to lose his grand family home due to some strange financial flimflamerry. The Oliveira factory had already been occupied and gutted by its workers, leaving them mired in tax debt.

Perhaps appropriately, we first enter the Oliveira house in the company of spectral intruders, whose voiceover narration is often impressionistic and philosophical. Before long, we stumble across Oliveira typing out yet another script. Up until M&C, all his films had been written in that cozy study. It is a home with history. Designed by Portuguese modernist Jose Porto, it had been the scene of weddings, deaths, extended illnesses, and child rearing. It was also there that Salazar’s enforcers arrested the politically-averse Oliveira.

Seemingly confused by the episode himself, Oliveira revisits the scenes of his arrest and ten-day detention. He also takes us on a tour of the hollowed-out Oliveira factory and the then-working but soon-to-be-defunct Tobis Portuegesa, the nation’s last working film studio.

It is just rather strange to consider how much Oliveira would accomplish while his final cinematic statement was resting snugly in the vault. The film is like the ghost of a ghost, capturing Oliveira at a crossroads that now looks more like a mid-life stock-taking than a career summation. It is a thoughtful, meditative film, but not surprisingly, the more you know of Oliveira, the richer the viewing experience will be.

Frankly, some of the disembodied narration comes across as awkward and stilted. However, Oliveira is an engaging storyteller and the imminent loss of his home gives the film a bitter sweet end-of-an-era vibe. The lived-in elegance of Chez Oliveira also comes through in every frame. It is a small Oliveira (as opposed to the 410 minute epic The Satin Slipper that Oliveira released in 1985), but we are happy to have it. Recommended for fans of films about filmmakers, Memories and Confessions should have a lot more festival screenings to come. Regardless, MoMA’s curators clearly place it in contention, at least as a film to reckon with.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Fandor Criterion Pick: Lady Snowblood

Nothing is as satisfying on the big screen as revenge and nobody did it better than Yuki Kashima, a.k.a. Lady Snowblood. The Angela Mao vehicle Broken Oath is transparently based on her payback story, which also directly inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill. As cool as Mao is, nobody can touch the original. Newly restored by Janus Films, the legendary Lady Snowblood (trailer here) streams for a limited time as part of Fandor’s Criterion Picks, just in time to make the season merry and bright.

At the dawn of the modernizing Meiji Era, a quartet of criminals killed Kashima’s schoolteacher father and brutalized her mother. Sayo Kashima takes care of one of her assailants personally, but is subsequently convicted of his murder. In prison, she gives birth to Lady Snowblood, mystically passing along her thirst for vengeance through her difficult, ultimately fatal delivery. Trained by Dōkai, a severe Buddhist priest to believe she is an Asura demigod of vengeance, Kashima develops a very particular set of skills.

With the help of Matsuemon’s underground beggar clan, Lady Snowblood starts tracking her three blood enemies. In the process, she crosses paths with tabloid journalist and novelist Ryurei Ashio, who starts telling her story in a popular serialized novel. Like Don Quixote, the telling of Lady Snowblood’s story becomes self-referentially part of her narrative, but with more spurting blood.

Lady Snowblood is sort of the Citizen Kane of Chanbara revenge morality plays. It is exquisitely stylish and relentlessly exploitative. It also just might be the greatest use of color film since Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Cinematographer Masaki Tamura sure made those reds pop. It is a visual feast that will change how you think about umbrellas forever. Fujita clearly navigates the film’s tricky flashback-heavy narrative structure and stages some wildly cinematic fight sequences.

Meiko Kaji was already approaching cult legend status as the star of the Stray Cat Rock and Female Convict 701 series, but Lady Snowblood totally sealed the deal. She has tons of stone cold femme fatale cred and action chops, but as Kashima, she also happens to give a dashed subtle and complex performance. As Snowblood, she is the complete package. She is the one we watch, but Toshio Kurosawa’s Ashio is also intriguingly complex and appealingly disreputable.

In all truth, Lady Snowblood is one of those films everyone has to catch up with eventually, unless you are just hyper-sensitive beyond all hope. It looks terrific and Kaji remains an awesome icon of vengeance. Compared to Fujita’s classic original, Kill Bill seems rather shallow and shticky. Perfect for a holiday mini-binge, Lady Snowblood and its sequel stream as limited-time Criterion Picks on Fandor for the next eleven days, with a Criterion DVD and BluRay release scheduled for early January.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mr. Six: Feng Xiaogang Delivers One of the Year’s Best Performances

Zhang Xuejun, a.k.a. Mr. Six is the sort of old timer who is always around to deliver a lecture on manners. However, this semi-retired gangster can back up his words. Mr. Six always lived by a code, but to the younger, nihilistic generation of thugs consider that a weakness. Still, he has character and that counts for a lot in Guan Hu’s Mr. Six (trailer here), which opens this Christmas Eve in New York.

Mr. Six is a stabilizing, protective figure in his working class Beijing hutong neighborhood, but he gets along better with his not-so-talkative songbird than his son Bobby. Mr. Six has not heard from the twentynothing since he moved out several months ago. He assumed the kid was just sulking as usual, until he finally starts asking round. It turns out Bobby was kidnapped by the punky nouveau riche leader of a street racing gang as part of a dispute over a girl and a scratched up Ferrari. Mr. Six understands Kris can act with impunity as the son of a corrupt government official, so he arranges to pay Bobby’s debt/ransom. Of course, complications continue to snowball.

Feng Xiaogang is one of China’s most commercially successful directors, who has occasionally turned up in front of the camera for relatively small roles. However, those brief appearances will not prepare fans for the heavy soulfulness of his performance as the title character. He hardly needs to speak a word (even though he delivers some stone cold dialogue with earthy flair)—the aching dignity and regret just radiates out of him. Thanks to his flinty presence and Guan’s reserved approach, Mr. Six might just be the definitive aging gangster.

He is also surrounded by a top-notch ensemble, starting with the kind of awesome Zhang Hanyu as Mr. Six’s slightly younger, hardnosed crony, Scrapper. He is probably worthy of his own film. Kris Wu also defies all expectations, bringing elements of humanity in his initially reckless and entitled namesake. Ironically, Li Yifeng hits a more consistent, less nuanced note as the resentful Bobby. Still, his shortcomings are redeemed by Xu Qing’s heartfelt but intelligent performance as Mr. Six’s patient lover, Chatterbox.

Mr. Six is a tremendous film that levels a potent critique of China’s contemporary social attitudes and government corruption. Thematically, it might sound a lot like Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen, but it is much closer in tone to the Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown. Feng displays none of the bombast he unleashed in films like Assembly and Aftershock, giving a gritty, utterly real, street level performance. Even though it is not exactly inspirational, per se, Mr. Six is a great film to end the cinematic year with. Very highly recommended, Mr. Six opens this Thursday (12/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Monday, December 21, 2015

45 Years: Rampling and Courtenay

It is like Banquo’s ghost appearing forty-five years after Macbeth’s crime, except Geoff Mercer has nothing to feel guilty about. Right? That is exactly the question his wife Kate will wrestle with when word arrives of the discovery of his tragically deceased former girlfriend Katya’s body. The fact the she died before the Mercers even met is a crucial detail. Frankly, all the details are important in 45 Years (trailer here), Andrew Haigh’s rigorous examination of an ostensibly comfortable marriage under sudden stress, which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

The fact that she was named Katya is almost too much. She and Geoff Mercer were quite the item but she got too close to the edge while hiking in the Alps and over she went. After all these years, she has finally been found, perfectly preserved in an ice crevice. Initially, Geoff Mercer tries to shrug with “oh, surely I mentioned her” prevarications, but his distracted manner speaks volumes. Still, Kate tries to allow him a little melancholy nostalgia as she finalizes the plans for their forty-fifth anniversary party. Despite never having children, she always thought they had built something solid and meaningful. Yet, the absence of photos documenting their life together takes on nagging significance, especially since old Geoff still has pictures of Katya.

He does indeed, but audience members should not expect to see them. Shrewdly, Haigh only allows us oblique and obscured glimpses of the eternally young and vivacious Katya. How we see the Mercers seeing her is more important than getting a good gander at the spectral home-wrecker.

Casting 1960s era icons like Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay is almost too on-the-nose, but their considerable chops casts aside any gimmicky casting reservations. Courtenay no longer looks anything like a long distance runner, as we can plainly and shirtlessly see, whereas Rampling is still ramrod straight and naturally elegant. Yet, they still feel like a couple that is well familiar with each other. They are still two of the best in the business, who say more with silence and restraint than someone like a Meryl Streep ever could with all the shtick and histrionics at her disposal. There is just something uncomfortably honest about their performances. Just watching the film feels like an intrusion into a very private drama.

Haigh almost overdoes matters with references to the 1960s, but those clichéd pop songs Kate Mercer choses for the party rather underscore the generic nature of their relationship. They do not really have a song. She just picks something that fits. She and Geoff listen to the popular songs of their day, read the right books according to the right reviews, and hold properly reflexive left wing opinions to mark them as products of their generation, but none of that means anything. That truth and the other doubts it fosters are what makes 45 Years so potent. It is a mature, uncompromising film likely to earn (further) award notice for its two accomplished stars. Recommended for sophisticated palates, 45 Years opens this Wednesday (12/23) at the IFC Center.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Surprise: Journey to the West Gets a Ribbing

His name is Sun Wukong. He is better known as the Monkey King and he means business. Unfortunately, nobody else does. When he loses his powers through a wacky chain of events and his loser companions are magically trapped, Stone Ox village will have to rely on the over-confident but underachieving Wang Dachui, who always finds ways to misuse the thimble full of magical powers he possesses. Journey to the West takes a detour through Zucker Brothers territory in Surprise (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Technically, Stone Ox village already has a mystical protector, but “Mr.” Murong has not been himself lately. The supernaturally imprisoned evil force his descendants swore to maintain watch over has really been giving him the full court temptation press. Wang Dachui, a sort of wuxia analog of the popular Chinese webisode slacker, thinks he is the man, but he is no match for the cat demon looking to plunder the village’s secret weapon. Fortunately, Murong saves his bacon, but the ensuing battle greatly weakens the guardian, leaving Stone Ox vulnerable as a result.

Feeling unappreciated, Wang decides it might be best to get out of Dodge for a while. He temporarily hooks up with the Monkey King, who has been separated from his colleagues: the monk, Tang Seng (a.k.a. Xuanzang), Zhu “Pigsy” Bajie, and Sha “Sandman” Wujing. Sun is now mostly mortal, but he still has considerable anger management issues and a wicked facility with the quarter staff. However, he is no match for the temper of Su Xiaomei, the rice cake vendor, who reluctantly employed Wang as a delivery boy. Nevertheless, the clumsy would-be-hero will return to Stone Ox to save her from the dark whatever it is that is up to no good (frankly, it is never very clear, but it is definitely bad news).

Whether as director, screenwriter, or co-star (appearing as Sandman), Yi is never intimidated by broad, over-the-top humor. This will be “Chinese humor” an audience member warned me before the screening—and she was right. Yi and rubber-faced star Ke Bai have no time for subtlety or sophisticated word play. On the other hand, few comedies can boast so many earth-shaking cataclysms, aside from Stephen Chow & Derek Kwok’s Journey to the West. Funny how that works.

Ke Bai certainly has no reservations when it comes to realizing the humiliations meted out on Wang. He takes a pasting and keeps on preening. As Su, Yang Zishan (recognizable from So Young and 20 Once Again) probably gets biggest, most exportable laughs cutting Wang down to size. Liuxun Zimo also makes a surprisingly credible action figure as the Monkey King. In fact, there are some pretty respectably choreographed action sequences, especially those involving the cat demon.

Although it is a goofball comedy, Surprise brings plenty of cosmic chaos. If there is another special effects spectacular opening this weekend, they have sure kept it quiet, so fantasy buffs really ought to consider checking out the exploits of Wang Dachui and the Monkey King. It has its charms, like watching the Three Stooges running amok through The Lord of the Rings. Recommended for fans of screwball genre films, Surprise is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

For Your (Unlikely) Consideration: Paranoid Girls

Ana (short for Anita) is shocked to find Madrid’s exclusive modeling scene is rife with sex, drugs, booze, and power games. She might be a fashion blogger, but she is ill-equipped to deal with so much reality. However, all this messiness might be temporary. The center of Spanish fashion industry is shifting to Barcelona, spelling serious trouble for Diana, the sharp-elbowed director of the Nueva Moda agency’s Madrid office. The claws will come out in Pedro del Santo’s Paranoid Girls (trailer here), which is campaigning in multiple Oscar categories, including best picture and best score.

Spain chose Jon Garaño & Jose Mari Goenaga’s Flowers as their official foreign language Oscar submission—and they were not necessarily wrong, even though it failed to make the recently announced shortlist. In all honesty, it is the better film. Not to be deterred, the Paranoid Girls producers and backers decided to take matters into their own hands by launching their own long shot campaign in virtually all categories. It really has no chance, even though Javier del Santo’s jaunty jazz-flavored score deserves a good listen. Fortunately, the proper paper work was submitted on his behalf.

Still, don’t hold your breath for any Oscar love. However, if Team Paranoid gets enough screeners into enough hands, somebody might just pick up Paranoid Girls. Essentially, it is a straighter, trashier Almodóvar film, featuring plenty vicarious sex and partying, held together by a sentimental off-the-shoulders wrap.

Ana has come to the big city to pursue her studies and fashion blogging aspirations, finding digs with Paula, a part-time model. Paula quickly convinces the provincial innocent to start modeling with her for Diana’s agency. Just when Ana and Paula start to click, their next closest friend Veronica threatens to leave Diana’s stable. She has fallen hard for Miguel, the kinky and brooding photographer of the moment who has gotten her hooked on coke. Diana cannot afford to let either of them walk, so she schemes accordingly. Ana and Paula will do their best to provide Veronica moral support, while a love triangle develops between them and Paula’s sincere, better-suited-for-Ana ex, Andrés.

It is not hard to grasp the appeal of Paranoid Girls beyond J. Del Santo’s smoothly elegant themes. Mairen Muñoz is appealingly earnest as Ana and Patricia Valley’s Veronica is a bombshell. Frankly Marta Mir Martín’s Paula is a bit of a pill, but what can you expect? She pales in comparison to Bárbara de Lema, who is great fun vamping it up and chewing the scenery as Diana. There are also guys in this film, but you are not likely to remember them.

So good luck to Paranoid Girls. It is not Oscar caliber, but it is a guilty pleasure. As a frothy bauble that looks and sound great, it is likely to find more screening opportunities after awards season.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Scorpions: Forever and a Day—the Glasnost Soundtrack

Frankly, the Scorpions were almost as skeptical as everyone else when they announced their “farewell” tour. Of course, with each extension, the question looked increasingly moot. Nevertheless, the tour finally ended, but Katja von Garnier was there to document their relentless string of stadium concerts in Scorpions: Forever and a Day (trailer here), which is now available on DVD from MVD.

The Scorpions were the original road warriors, so all the current members are unsure how they will keep themselves once they retire from active touring. Right from the start, they granted themselves a loophole for special one-off gigs. They just wanted to avoid looking ridiculous by staying too long at the Headbangers’ Ball. After all, the band has recently joined the Rolling Stones in the exclusive ranks of rock band still active after their fiftieth anniversary.

Von Garnier also chronicles the creation story, growing pains, and international success of the band. Founding guitarist Rudolf Schenker has been the only constant since they formed in 1965, but for many fans, the Scorpions’ history really starts four years later when lead vocalist Klaus Meine joined. Even if you are not a metalhead, the two veteran band-members are surprisingly interesting and engaging to meet on screen. For instance, despite the decades of touring (and everything that implies) Meine remains happily married to his longtime wife (although the doc rather implies there is more to the story than they care to share).

In contrast, Schenker is sort of the bad genius guru of the band. He had the vision to drag the Scorpions to Russia in 1988 when the Communist government was still giving rock music the bureaucratic stink eye. They lost money on that initial show, but when they came back one year later, they found the seeds they had sown had sprouted a large popular following during the Glasnost thaw. Their Russian experiences inspired “Winds of Change,” which became the power ballad anthem of Glasnost and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (recorded by a German band, singing English lyrics, the band duly notes). Mikhail Gorbachev does not appear in many rock docs, but he turns up here (and he’s still a fan).

You have to give any band credit when they hit the fifty year mark, no matter how many personnel changes they have had. Although following the tour is repetitive by its nature, von Garnier does her best to exploit drama when it arises. Will Meine get voice back in time for the concert at Paris’s Bercy Arena? No spoilers here.

In any event, Forever is a solidly entertaining, highly accessible rock documentary. For perspective, it is on par with The Other One: the Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir and considerably superior to Janis: Little Girl Blue. Highly recommended for Scorpions fans and worth checking if you are somewhat intrigued or baffled by the band’s longevity, Scorpions: Forever and a Day is now available on DVD and BluRay from MVD.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Anguish: Mothers and Possessed Daughters

Tess’s father has been deployed to Middle East. At least he will be safe there from the malevolent power apparently possessing his daughter. Tess’s young mother Jessica will be the unfortunate one stuck dealing with her erratic behavior. Unfortunately, the teen’s long history of emotional problems will delay a more supernatural diagnosis until it is almost too late. There are indeed trying time ahead in screenwriter-director Sonny Mallhi’s Anguish (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

It is easier for Jessica to deal with Tess when her husband is around to teach her how to play guitar and skateboard. The teen is more than a little socially awkward, but it is not her fault. All her life, her brain chemistry has worked against her. She has responded positively to her latest dosage, so her parents hope and pray she has turned a corner. However, things take an ominous turn for the worse when Jessica relocates them to a sleepy burg in Illinois. It seems the spirit of Lucinda, the teenager killed in the film’s prologue, might have some kind of dark hold over her.

For a horror film, Anguish is remarkably grounded and stylistically Spartan. Clearly, Mallhi understands parents and teens are often scarier to each other than anything that goes bump in the night. Of course, Tess’s painful history and awkwardly reserved demeanor make her especially vulnerable to possession. In a way, Anguish is not unlike The Babadook, but the difficult child is older and the beleaguered parent is younger. Yet, instead of kicking around fairy tales tropes, Mallhi taps into the primal fears and puritan anxieties that make classic supernatural horror so unsettling.

Being moody and gritty is all very fine as an aesthetic choice, but it does not give the cast the sort of overblown effects and an exploitative excesses they could hide behind. Fortunately, they are all quite down-to-earth and credible as average, overwhelmed people, especially Annika Marks, whose work as Jessica is uncompromisingly honest. Granted, we sometimes want to shake Ryan Simpkins’ Tess by the shoulders, but that is sort of the whole point. Ryan O’Nan’s Father Myers is also refreshingly sympathetic and decent, even though Mallhi ultimately takes the film in a different direction than the classic Blattyesque priest-versus-evil spirit climax.

Anguish is a very good horror film that is on par with the unjustly under-appreciated The Diabolical and superior to the over-hyped Babadook. Despite some vaguely New Age elements, Mallhi has a good sense of what everyday life is like for God-fearing, military-serving working class people. He also delivers some well-timed jolts in the early going and some serious dread during the third act. Highly recommended for horror fans, Anguish opens tomorrow (12/18) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema and also launches on VOD platforms.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun

Dany Dorémus could be a serious femme fatale, but she lacks the confidence. Perhaps it is because of her glasses. Her parents probably did not help either. Apparently, in French author Sébastien Japrisot’s source novel, they were rather notorious during the German occupation, but that subtext is completely buried in Joann Sfar’s The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

Dorémus is bizarrely mousy given her movie stars looks, but the audience is immediately given reason to believe she is not quite right in the head. Regardless, she will gamely agree to do a favor for Michel Caravaille, the boss she has long carried a torch for, despite his marriage to her former business school classmate, Anita. While they attend a party, Dorémus types up his urgent report and will then drive them to the airport next morning for their weekend of business and pleasure.

She was supposed to take Caravaille’s Ford Thunderbird straight home, but instead the devil on her should tempts her into taking a joyride down south to see the sea. However, Dorémus is baffled when everyone along her impulsive route insists they saw her drive through that way the day before. A black-clad Giallo man even seems to assault her in a service station restroom in order to give her a wrist injury to match her doppelganger. At least that is how it appears from Dorémus’s POV, but her grasp on reality could be somewhat problematic.

Sfar, the graphic novelist and director of the animated The Rabbi’s Cat embraces the foreboding visual élan of the Giallo genre and the groovy 1970s period trappings. It is always great fun to watch, even when the film appears to be barreling off the rails. At times, it feels like a marginally more grounded Mortem or a dramatically more grounded Lost Highway, but Sfar brings it all together down the stretch. Along the way, he does his best to dazzle with split screens, flashbacks, and noir mood lighting.

The Scottish Freya Mavor is terrific as Dorémus, the sexually charged naïf-waif. Similarly, Benjamin Biolay has the appropriate upper-class swagger for Caravaille. Frankly, Mavor and Biolay could easily pass for the daughter and son of Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed, who first played the roles in Anatole Litvak’s1970 adaptation of Japrisot’s novel. As Anita the entitled trophy wife, Stacy Martin more or less picks up where she left off in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Frankly, Sfar’s cast looks almost as good as the beautifully sinister cinematography of Manuel Dacosse (who also lensed Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s neo-retro Giallos, Amer and The Strange Color of Your Bodies Tears). Costume designer Pascaline Chavanne's chic threads also directly contribute to the dangerously seductive vibe.

There are definitely shades of Hitchcock in Car, but it is steamier than anything Hitch could ever get away with, except maybe the first act of Psycho. Clearly, Sfar is definitely riffing on the masters, which makes it quite a lot of fun to watch. Highly recommended for fans of psychological thrillers, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun opens in a handful of theaters this Friday (12/18), including the Gateway Film Center in Toronto, releasing simultaneously on VOD platforms, like iTunes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

An Enchantress: Merlin Meets His Match (Maybe)

It is a system of magic economists will appreciate. When a sorcerer magically gives in one place, the mystical checks and balances will take from someplace else. It is hard to predict how the accounts will be evened, even for an experienced magician like Merlin. No, he is most likely not that Merlin. However, he has professional reasons for keeping people wondering in director-screenwriter Ian Lewis’s An Enchantress (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from MVD.

If the Arthurian Merlin were alive and well, living in provincial England, he might also make ends meet by staging magic shows at the local theater. This Merlin is [probably] not that Merlin, but his magic is real. He supplements his income by performing real magic for paying customers, but he tries to limit the impact of his spells and ensure they are cast for a worthy cause. Helping the venal Strumble ascend to the local planning council was a mistake in retrospect.

The resulting corruption will have ripple effects that will ensnare Merlin and his wife Gail. However, in the short-term they will be distracted grieving for his step-son Gary. The circumstances of his backpacking death remain murky, despite the return of his committed girlfriend Viviane. She makes Merlin a bit nervous. In addition to her unhealthy obsession with magic and her uncomfortable flirtatiousness, there is the matter of her name. After all, it was Nimueh (a.k.a. Viviane) who seduced Merlin and entrapped him in the Crystal Cave.

If you can get past the low budget aesthetic, An Enchantress is a super little British genre sleeper. Lewis uses magic in intriguing ways, while playing clever games with the Arthurian source material. He also sets a weirdly ambiguous tone for the village, where belief and skepticism for Merlin’s powers go hand-in-hand. Nevertheless, magic is very real in this world, as is government corruption.

Veteran British television character actor Nicholas Ball is terrific as Merlin. He has both the old school presence and the mischievousness you would expect from a powerful sorcerer. He also develops some attractively realistic chemistry with Johanne Murdock’s very down-to-earth Gail. Olivia Llewelyn projects a sense of danger and sexual unease while guarding Viviane’s secrets. Abigail McKern (Rumpole’s daughter) also leads the film some classical gravitas as Merlin’s mystical counselor.

There is considerably more scope to An Enchantress than you initially expect, but Lewis peels back the onion so smoothly, it all makes narrative sense. Granted, you have to just accept the quality of the special effects, but if you grew up with shows like the original Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, then they will have nostalgic appeal. Frankly, it feels like a cult favorite 1970s BBC television film that has only now been discovered, in the best way imaginable. Highly recommended for dark fantasy fans, An Enchantress is now available on DVD from MVD.