Thursday, March 31, 2016

Mickey Keating’s Darling

No question about it, the most dangerous gig in genre cinema is house-sitting. Take for instance this tony brownstone townhouse in Lower Manhattan. The last caretaker committed suicide, plunging head first off the balcony. It has given the stately home a bit of a reputation. However, the new house-sitter might be carrying her on bad vibes as baggage in Mickey Keating’s Darling (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Do not worry about anything you might have heard, her lady-who-lunches boss tells her, before leaving for the season. “Madame” thinks she is lucky to get “Darling” at so short notice, but there might be a reason the skittish young woman was so super-available. At least, she is not likely to throw loud parties. We soon see she is much more inclined to go quietly crazy instead.

Like the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby (a clear touchstone for Keating), there seems to be something palpably off about this building. The mysterious appearance of an upside-down cross pendant and a heavy looking Latin invocation scratched near the head of Darling’s bed certainly raise our suspicions. The mysterious locked room would seem to be a clincher. However, we should question the validity of everything we see through her POV.

Darling wears its Repulsion influences on its sleeve, but the extra, added demonic elements, a la Rosemary, keep viewers completely off balance and thoroughly creeped out. We are keenly aware both the caretaker and the property have big, messy backstories, but we only get suggestive glimpses of either. Mac Fisken’s severely stylish black-and-white cinematography puts us in the right mind space, making the surroundings look beautiful in an icily hostile kind of way.

Lauren Ashley Carter must have the widest eyes in the business, eclipsing even Amanda Seyfried, but that is perfect for Darling. One minute we think we are looking into the doey eyes of an innocent naïf, but seconds later we are squirming under the piercing stare of a likely psychopath—except maybe not. Somehow, Carter and Keating manage to maintain the uncertainty nearly the entire film (an admittedly brief seventy-eight minutes). Likewise, Brian Morvant is ambiguously destabilizing but always eerily effective in context as either her tormentor or victim. Of course, as a Glass Eye Pix production, there is also a Larry Fessenden cameo to look forward to.

Although the protagonist rarely steps outside of the sinister building, Darling is still a very New York film, sharing a kinship with documentaries like The Wolf Pack. A lot of weird stuff goes on in close proximity to us here, but behind closed doors. Indeed, there is nothing really forcing her to stay, yet she does anyway. After unloading both barrels into Keating’s Carnage Park, it is nice to be able to call out Darling’s considerable merits. (Seriously, Pat Healy’s character is still deeply offensive.) Highly accomplished and deeply unsettling, in the right way, Darling is definitely recommended for discerning horror fans when it opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at the Village East.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

AFF ’16: Boniato (short)

If ever there was a cliché that annoyed both sides of a political debate, it would have to be the old one about “jobs Americans just won’t do.” One of those illegal-undocumented-here-in-contravention-of-current-immigration-laws migrant workers is about to find out some of those notorious jobs involve being fodder of some kind for a nefarious something in Andres Meza-Valdes, Diego Meza-Valdes & Eric Mainade’s short film Boniato (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Atlanta Film Festival.

Elisia is not just here to work. She is trying to find family that went north ahead of her. Therefore, she will necessarily keep moving, even when there is still work to be had. William, her current friendly exploitative employer does not understand this restlessness. He took a bit of a shine to her so he will be sorry to see her go. Unfortunately, since she is leaving anyway, he leads her into a very nasty trap. Evidently, he regularly leaves migrant aliens such as her for the nastiness lurking in the caverns below the fields they used to work. However, on this night, the mysterious Boniato will follow them down—and he means business.

Obviously, Boniato is the sort of genre film that also wants to make a statement, but it really makes undocumented work without legal protection look like a really bad idea. Regardless, you have to give Mainade and the Meza-Valdes Brothers credit for squeezing so much gore into a twenty-three minute short. They maintain a creepy vibe, but also seriously payoff our relatively brief investment.

As Elisia, Carmela Zumbado is refreshingly tough and earthy, in the Ellen Ripley tradition, while Felix Tuhon Cortes’ Boniato is all kinds of steely. You would think she would be the title character, given her greater screen time, yet one can easily envision a Boniato franchise that follows the flinty action figure as he intervenes in various episodes of border town supernatural goings-on.

Boniato works great as a genre film, but maybe not so well as advocacy cinema. Frankly, it makes you want to see more ICE intervention in off-the-books agriculture rather than less. Of course, its success as the former is far more important for potential viewers. Slickly produced and darkly sinister, Boniato is definitely worth checking out when it screens this Saturday (4/2) as part of the “Wool” short programming block at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival.

The Dark Horse: Cliff Curtis Becomes Genesis Potini

If you want to know the latest developments in competitive chess or the sorry state of human rights in Russia, Garry Kasparov’s twitter feed is required reading. The witty and erudite Kasparov might be one of the few grandmasters you would actually want to have dinner with. Remember how creepy Bobby Fischer turned out? Genesis Potini struggled with even greater mental and emotional issues, but his heart was always in the right place. Potini finds the best way to stabilize his chemically unbalanced mind is by coaching a chess team of underprivileged youths in James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There is no mistaking the extreme nature of Potini’s bipolar condition. We first meet him in the midst of a full blown episode. It is only the sight of an antique chess set that somewhat calms (or at least slows) down Potini to some extent. The rather generous reception the store offers to the furiously muttering Potini quickly demonstrates Robertson’s restraint. Marginalized even within his ethnic Maori community, Potini’s social and economic realities are crystal clear from the onset. They need no heavy-handed incidents to underscore them.

Reluctantly, Potini’s brother Ariki, a high-ranking member of a biker-gang, takes the troubled former competitive chess player into his home. However, Potini is uncomfortable with the gang’s vice and aggression. He seeks a sense of belonging in a chess club sponsored by a former mate, initially unaware it serves at-risk kids. Yet, when Noble Keelan gives him a chance, Potini shows an aptitude for coaching, particularly when he relates the game to Maori legends. He even starts to reach his standoffish nephew Mana. Unfortunately, Ariki is dead set on initiating Mana into the gang on the very same day Potini’s team, the Eastern Knights, will compete in their first tournament.

You probably think you know where this film is headed and it is true Robertson is fiercely determined to inspire viewers, no matter how cynical they are. Nevertheless, Dark Horse is light years removed from simplistic television movie terrain, nor does Robertson ever opt to take the easy way out. There is no “cure” in sight for Potini, only more effective management techniques.

What really distinguishes Dark Horse is Cliff Curtis’s remarkable portrayal of Potini. Despite his frequent descents into mania, it is not a flashy performance. Curtis pulls us into his hulking frame (for which he reportedly packed on sixty pounds), rather than engaging in cheap tics. Curtis has a background in Mau Rakau martial arts and constantly seems to be jogging as the lead in Fear the Walking Dead, but as Potini, he looks like a walking PSA for diabetes and heart disease. Yet, there is something soulful about his screen-presence, even when he is quietly careening out of control.

Wayne Hapi has a similarly powerful physical bearing, but his work as Akiri might even be more complex and subtly modulated. His parenting choices will strike viewers as tragically wrong, yet we understand exactly why he makes them. The young supporting cast is also loaded with raw, natural talent, but James Rolleston and Niwa Whatuira are standouts for their charisma and intensity, as Mana and Keelan’s promising recruit Michael Manihera.

Robertson never tries to reinvent the wheel during Dark Horse, but he tells Potini’s story with incredible honesty and sensitivity. He also guides his ensemble (of radically differing experience levels) to some highly compelling performances. Recommended for those who appreciate a little inspiration without sentimentality or beautification, The Dark Horse opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Chongqing Hot Pot: A Spicy Bank Heist

Hot Pot is generally considered comfort food, but not in the subterranean restaurant Liu Bo runs with his two school chums. Granted, they like it served spicy, a la proper Sichuan style in Chongqing, but apparently not the way “Four Eyes” simmers it up. Business is so bad, the three pals are desperate to sell-out. When they inadvertently borrow into a bank vault during an unlicensed expansion attempt, capers inevitably ensue in Yang Qing’s Chongqing Hot Pot (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Liu lives at home with his exasperated mother, his somewhat addled but still twinkling-eyed grandfather, and a mountain of gambling debts. Xu Dong is relentlessly hassled by his status-conscious wife, whereas Four Eyes is eager to try his luck in Beijing. Each could use some fast cash, but their cave-bound eatery is too small to attract a buyer. Hoping to fix that, they wind up poking their heads into the nearby bank’s vault, like Bugs Bunny.

As it just so happened, an old classmate now works at the soulless, cliquey bank. In fact, Yu Xiaohui once had a crush on Liu and vice versa, but her family relocated before either could act on their crushes. Fearing fines and citations, Liu and his pals conspire with Yu to sneak into the bank to fix the yet to be discovered hole. It is pretty safe to conclude these dudes are the decent sorts, since their big conspiracy revolves around structural repair work. However, things get drastically complicated when real gun-toting bank-robbers strike the bank at exactly the same time Liu’s Hot Pot gang were planning to run their operation.

Chongqing gives the caper movie template a clever, good-hearted twist. Yang does a lot to play with our expectations, but there is a massive third act all-hands-on-deck beatdown that is as good as any action movie released this year. Yet, the film is really all about friendship and camaraderie, becoming much like comfort food itself in its depiction of the four reunited classmates.

Having starred in Monster Hunt, the highest grossing Chinese film until the release of Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, Bai Baihe has clearly already arrived in her home territory. However, Chongqing could be the film that really breaks her out internationally. She is terrific as Yu, conveying her sweet vulnerability, but also giving her an edge. Chen Kun brings his usual fierceness as Liu, but also develops some rather appealing chemistry with Bai. Although Four Eyes is obviously a bit of a nebbish stock character, Yu Entai still manages to scratch out some rather touching moments for him, but Qin Hao hardly makes an impression as Xu Dong, the third guy.

There are real stakes involved in Chongqing, yet despite the ruthlessness of the bad guys and the chaos of the melee, it has a surprisingly gentle vibe. Yang pulls off some smooth reversals and choreographs the capery business quite adroitly. It is a lot of good clean fun and also endearingly nostalgic. Highly recommended, Chongqing Hot Pot opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Pandemic: Shoot the Infected Hordes

The line between zombie movies and Cabin Fever-style infection horror is becoming increasingly porous. Take for instance, this post-contagion Los Angeles, where infected victims at stage five exhibit distinctly zombie-like symptoms, including the bit where they eat people. However, there is a cure for level one, but it is strictly reserved for irreplaceable personnel like Dr. Lauren Chase, formerly of the CDC. You can bet a lot of her new colleagues will be needing it in John Suits’ Pandemic (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Somehow Dr. Chase slipped out of New York before the city collapsed. Of course, the whole premise that LA is more fit to survive than the Big Apple is absolutely ridiculous. Heck, we’ve probably already had several zombie apocalypses here in the City without even noticing them. Regardless, Chase made it out to LA and connected with the band of survivors led by Dr. Greer, a military doctor of some sort.

Chase is about to go out on her first reconnaissance and food foraging mission. It is her job to determine whether healthy-looking survivors are safe to bring back to shelter. It is a simple test. A red dot means take them and a black dot says leave them to their fate—or is it the other way around? Chase also seems to have trouble administering the test, but she is clearly distracted by a personal agenda.

Apparently, Pandemic’s style and narrative were directly inspired by first-person-shooter video games, which maybe the filmmakers shouldn’t be so up-front about. Regardless, Suits (who helmed the greatly underrated comic book adaptation, The Scribbler) keeps the energy level up and maintains enough of the human element so that Pandemic rarely feels like a POV gimmick.

Rachel Nichols does respectable work as Chase, getting solid support from Missi Pyle as Denise, the mission’s navigator and Mekhi Phifer as Gunner, whose job it is to like, shoot infected people. It is also cool to see CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle turn up as the gruff but high-handed Dr. Greer. Genre fans should also keep an eye and ear out for Pat Healy as Dr. Ward, whose transport met with a not so mysterious mishap.

Basically, Pandemic plays like a decent story arc in the Walking Dead universe or a superior new installment of the Contracted franchise. So far, it has been a disappointing year for both zombie and viral outbreak movies (that means you, Anger of the Dead), so Pandemic benefits from a generous curve. Not bad (but nowhere near as smart and stylish as Suits’ The Scribbler), Pandemic opens this Friday (4/1) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Girl in the Photographs: The Killing Eye

Some traditional cultures believe photography steals the soul. “O” in Beckett’s Film feared the camera’s eye precisely because it objectified him. Colleen is not too thrilled to have her picture taken either. That is because every photographer she knows is either a hipster jerkheel or a masked serial killer. The camera becomes an instrument of terror in Nick Simon’s The Girl in the Photographs (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Spearfish, South Dakota is a small, sleepy little town with an extraordinarily lazy sheriff’s department. For weeks, some perv has been leaving photos of what look like brutally murder women (which indeed they are) for Colleen to find. Since Sheriff Porter cannot verify they are indeed homicide victims, he treats it like an elaborate prank. Dude, seriously show a little initiative here.

Ultra-trendy fashion photographer Peter Hemmings (spelled just like David Hemmings, star of Antonioni’s Blowup) happens to be from Spearfish—far from it. However, he keeps up with the town news to make himself feel smugly superior. When he reads about the nasty photos, he believes a “fan” has been appropriating his lifeless looking aesthetic. Rather precipitously, he resolves to return to Spearfish to appropriate it right back with an uber-meta shoot, perhaps even featuring some locals. Colleen will be the obvious choice.

When Hemmings blows into town, thanks to the scrambling logistics of his long suffering assistant Chris, much hedonism ensues. Hemmings quickly develops an exploitative obsession with Colleen, while Chris’s romantic interest is much healthier. Frankly, she might as well leave with them for Los Angeles, since she just dumped her white trash boyfriend and her BFF has been violently murdered by her stalkers. Of course, you know those things that are guaranteed to get you killed in a horror movie? Hemmings and his models do a whole heck of a lot of them.

Photographs is billed as the final screen credit of the late, great Wes Craven, who served as co-executive producer. There are obvious echoes of the Scream franchise, obviously starting with the creepy masks donned by the two psycho-stalkers. However, the film drips with a caustically sarcastic attitude that really make the first two acts quite distinctive. Unfortunately, the balance of the film is pretty standard stalk-and-kill stuff, but that is often the case, even with the most ambitious genre outings.

Kal Penn is an acerbic stitch as the debauched prima donna Hemmings. Listening to his natural conviction riffing on drugs and exotic sex acts also probably gives us some insight into the Obama Administration. The world is much better off having him in films like Photographs. The way he masticates the scenery is a pleasure to behold. Unfortunately, only Miranda Raye Mayo really hangs with Penn as Hemmings’ contemptuous yet also jealous model-lover, Rose. She can deliver an acid-laced line with the best of them.

Still, there is something rather appealing about the chemistry Claudia Lee and Kenny Wormald develop as Colleen and Chris, even though we know from the start it will end in bloody tears. Even more frustratingly, Mitch Pileggi is almost totally wasted as Sheriff Porter, except to provide an apostolic link to Craven’s Shocker.

Dean Cudney, cinematographer on John Carpenter’s original Halloween, gives the film the right look and Simon wisely lets Penn and Mayo set their own pace. When they are sparking on screen together, it could be the slasher film Howard Hawks never made, but when the focus shifts to Colleen, the vibe becomes almost dreary. On balance though, there is plenty here for horror fans to work with. Recommended for the snarky parts, The Girl in the Photographs opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Notfilm and Film

Buster Keaton was one of the first visionary auteurs of American cinema, but sadly, most of his 1960s film appearances were essentially shticky cameos in fare like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. However, his collaboration with future Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett would make cinema history once again. Frankly, Keaton did not think much of the self-consciously experimental short film, but it earned him a five-minute standing ovation at the 1965 Venice Film Festival. Ross Lipman chronicles the chaotic production and studies the resulting Film element by element in the provocative docu-essay, Notfilm (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Anthology Film Archives.

It is pretty bold of Lipman to make a one-hundred twenty-eight-minute film about a twenty-four-minute short, especially when he immediately professes skepticism regarding art about art. Yet, icons such as Keaton and Beckett provide a bounty of grist for the analytic mill. In fact, Notfilm is immediately notable as the film in which “Beckett Speaks,” thanks to audio tapes furtively recorded by Barney Rosset, his American publisher and the producer of the simply titled Film.

Clearly, as the only screenplay penned by Beckett, the authorship of Film is undeniably his, even though the Irish playwright’s preferred stage director, Alan Schneider took the helm. It seems his American colleague approached the cinematic piece much as he did Beckett’s plays, marshaling cast and crew to faithfully carry out Beckett’s intentions. Yet, Beckett himself would flip the script when a disastrous first day’s shooting nearly scuttled the entire project.

Despite the relative shortness of both the film and its production schedule, the story of Film is rather epic. By all accounts, the two geniuses did not mesh well together. Both are long gone, but surviving co-star James Karen (a cult favorite for his work in Return of the Living Dead and Poltergeist) talks at length about the chaotic shoot and his friend Keaton. He definitely sways viewers over to Team Buster.

Lipman supplies a close reading of the film, Film, in which “E,” short for Eye, chases “O,” short for Object, through Fulton Street into an almost entirely empty single-room-occupancy. O will tear up images of God and his past before coming face to face with E, his doppelganger. Indeed, you do not need a masters in comparative lit to recognize Beckett’s familiar themes and motifs.

Regardless, the details and connections Lipman provides are often fascinating. There are also a fair number of weird coincidences and chance encounters (like Leonard Maltin visiting the set as an eager junior cineaste) that might not mean much, but give the film greater texture and dimension. Arguably, the more Lipman stretches, the more interesting it gets.

It is refreshing to have Karen’s less than awestruck commentary so prominent in Notfilm. Nevertheless, most viewers will leave with a greater appreciation of both Keaton and Beckett. Lipman has a relatively small cast of talking heads, but they are all significant, especially the late Billie Whitelaw, who also gets her due as the preeminent stage interpreter of Beckett’s work.

Watching Notfilm before Film might actually be preferable, giving viewers greater context to appreciate the work that inspired it, which makes it quite a rare case indeed. In all honesty, filmmaker-restorationist-author Kevin Brownlow is right on-target with his lukewarm assessment of Film. Once you have seen it, you recognize all the Beckettisms for what they are. There is nothing that will appreciably deepen with repeat viewings. Ironically, there is considerably more to engage with in Notfilm. It is the most successful work of docu-criticism since Richard Misek’s Rohmer in Paris. Highly recommended, Notfilm opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at Anthology Film Archives, alongside nightly free screenings of Film throughout the week.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

CIFF ’16: Gold Coast

There’s nothing like a little colonialism to put some hair on your chest. Arguably, a naïve botanist like Wulff Frederik Wulff could use a little seasoning, but instead of adventure, he confronts the Conradian heart of darkness in Daniel Dencik’s Gold Coast (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Cleveland International Film Festival.

The idealistic Wulff (an amalgam of historical Danish colonial adventurers and civil servants) has been chartered by the King of Denmark to establish coffee plantations in Danish Guinea. The Danish colonies are struggling economically in the wake of the Schimmelmann edict banning the Danish slave trade. However, there is still a plentiful labor supply, since ownership of slaves has not been abolished.

Of course, Wulff’s reasonably good intentions are quickly dashed upon the rocks of reality. Although the ailing Governor Mørch is a man of integrity, real power is wielded by the ruthless Councilor Dall and his thuggish ally, Herbst, who together embody the worst of Europe. Plagued with constant sabotage from the Ashanti, Wulff seeks the intercession of notorious trader Henrik Richter, who clearly has no reservations when it comes to keeping his fellow Africans in bondage. Although Richter is initially helpful, Wulff will remember the man and his brand when he encounters a band of illicitly trafficked slaves bearing the mark.

Dencik (formerly a documentarian known for Expeditionto the End of the World) could not possibly be any more outraged by colonial era exploitation. However, Gold Coast is somewhat (probably accidentally) politically incorrect, starting with Richter and the forthright depiction African participation in the slave trade. Most surprisingly, the film’s only truly sympathetic characters are the much maligned Christian missionaries, who came to save souls, but also want to break the slaves’ chains. Gold Coast is a woozy, steamy, sometimes hallucinatory exploration of human nature, but it has a more forceful narrative drive than Chantal Akerman’s adaptation of Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly. Still, if you like the earlier film, you will should appreciate Coast for its similarly mirage-like vibe.

Scruffy-headed Jakob Oftebro is convincingly earnest and guileless. Frankly, it is not so distressing to watch his lessons in how the world works in its wilder, more natural state. Anders Heinrichsen makes quite a sinister cold fish as Dall. In limited screen time, Wakefield Ackuaku projects a notably malevolent élan as Richter. Somewhat problematically, the rest of the native populace are basically extras in a story of Danes behaving badly.

Yet, Denmark deserves credit for its historical progressiveness. After all, they did indeed ban the slave trade in 1792, after the State of Vermont passed abolition but well before any other European power. It wasn’t a sweeping emancipation, but it was a crucial early step. Of course, enforcement was a trickier proposition back then.

Finding the right tone for a colonial-era historical drama is no easy feat either. Frankly, Gold Coast is probably too dream-like for its intended purposes, but Dencik clearly conveys a sense of how heat, humidity, isolation, and alienation combine to break down mind and spirit. It is a film that earns credit for its ambition even when it trips over its own feet. Messy and inconsistently effective from scene to scene, but weirdly lulling as a total viewing experience, Gold Coast is recommended for the hardest of hardcore cineastes when it screens this Thursday (3/31) and Friday (4/1) as part of this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Fixer: Peter Mullan Pulls the Strings

John Mercer has more buttons to push than an accordion. That makes him the perfect assassin for a shadowy, master manipulator on indefinite “leave” from the police force. Of course, he is also good at killing people. You could ask his aunt and uncle, but Mercer whacked them. Rest assured, he had good reason, or he couldn’t be the [anti-]hero of Ben Richards’ The Fixer, which premieres this Monday on KCET in Los Angeles.

Mercer was trained by the British Special Forces. Unlike the French, you would go feel comfortable going to war knowing they had your back. Unfortunately, while Mercer was away, his little sister was sexually abused by the orphans’ guardians, their now very late aunt and uncle. Clearly, Mercer was disappointed by their behavior. However, his hotheaded nature makes him an attractive recruit for Lenny Douglas. Apparently acting with the secret sanction of high ranking police authorities, Douglas runs a de facto hit squad for organized crime figures too powerful for traditional law enforcement to handle.

At least, that is how Douglas presents the gig to Mercer. The longer the suddenly rehabilitated ex-con works with his new puppet master, the more he comes to distrust him. Nevertheless, he sticks with it, so he can look after his troubled single-mother sister. He also is attracted to Rose Chamberlain, a former copper who now serves as Douglas’s designated seductress. Once again, Mercer finds himself rooming with his former cellmate, Calum McKenzie, who will provide “logistical” support, like breaking-and-entering and general scrounging. Their first targets will fall pretty easily in the first episode. The question will be whether Mercer can accept such a Faustian bargain.

The stakes will rise considerably in the second episode when Douglas tries to play kingmaker during a succession battle for control of London’s leading crime family. Things will get complicated when McKenzie accidentally kills Douglas’s preferred choice, a vile entitled little racist gangster brat. Matters are ostensibly more clear cut in the third episode (perhaps the best of series one) when Douglas turns the team loose on an Albanian gangster looking to expand into British territory, but his methods continue to trouble Mercer.

Mercer really starts to doubt Douglas in episodes four and five, when his targets reveal sensitive information that rock him back on his heels. It is particularly awkward learning Patrick Finch was his predecessor, because he is Mercer’s target and he has become a raging psychotic. Thus, it is rather inevitable things will come to a head between Mercer and Douglas in the conclusion of series one.

As Mercer, Andrew Buchan is refreshingly manly and pretty darned hardnosed. Mercer is worlds away from his best-known role, playing the father of the young murder victim in the original Broadchurch, but he carries it off well. Nevertheless, the real reason to watch The Fixer is to enjoy the great Peter Mullan sneering and scheming his way through each episode as Douglas. He is just a complete bastard, in the most entertaining way possible. Jody Latham arguably makes McKenzie, the goofball stoner, seem less annoying over time, which is certainly something, while Tamzin Outhwaite’s Chamberlain holds her own against Buchan and Mullan during some surprisingly harsh verbal sparring sessions.

The off-the-books morally-conflicted hitman is not a staggeringly new concept, but it is a durable one. In this case, the cast really kicks it up a notch, especially Mullan, who truly is one of the best in the business. His arrogant sarcasm is television gold. Recommended for fans of darker, attitude-heavy British crime dramas, The Fixer starts its broadcast run this coming Monday (3/28) on KCET.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Spirits’ Homecoming: Memorializing Korean Comfort Women

Does anyone seriously still deny the war crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese military against women of many nationalities forced into sexual slavery during World War II? Apparently so. In fact, they retained one of the nation’s largest law firms, Mayer Brown LLP, to remove a modest monument to the brutalized and murdered “Comfort Women” from a Glendale city park, until the massively bad press forced them drop out of the suit. Clearly, Mayer Brown’s shadowy clients would prefer to obscure the past, which makes a new, internationally crowd-funded Korean Comfort Woman drama timely and necessary. Heartbreak is inevitable in writer-producer-director Cho Jung-rae’s Spirits’ Homecoming (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Fifteen-year-old Jung-min was a bit of a bully growing up in the Korean countryside, but she will become as much of a protector as she can to the other abducted girls, particularly the shy Yeong-hee. Like the other enslaved Comfort Women, Jung-min is constantly raped and beaten by soldiers throughout each day. It is a Hellish existence, but she might be strong enough to endure.

Somehow, Yeong-ok survived the torture of that particular comfort station, but she remains haunted by her memories. Decades later, she lives a quiet life tailoring ceremonial garments until she meets, Eun-kyeong, the new apprentice of an old shaman friend. Somehow, Eun-kyeong is especially sensitive to the spirits from Yoeng-ok’s past, receiving regular visions of the horrors that transpired in her comfort station.

Cho cross-cuts the two temporal narrative threads, contrasting the wartime atrocities with contemporary apathy and skepticism. Although the film is not sexually explicit per se, Cho never waters down the reality of their situation. As a result, Homecoming is often a hard film to watch, especially because the victims are all so young—fourteen or fifteen being the norm.

Kang Ha-na and Seo Mi-ji are quite remarkable as the young and painfully vulnerable Jung-min and Yeong-hee. They are completely convincing in what can only be described as unimaginable situations. Yet, there is nothing forced or affected about their performances. Rather, they are distressingly in the moment. While the contemporary storyline lacks the emotional force and visceral outrage of the wartime sequences, Son Sook still lends the film some mature grace as the woman now calling herself Yeong-ok.

Granted, the climatic shamanic ceremony for which the film is titled is a bit manipulative, but Cho has to give us something after all we witness. Frankly, it is a surprisingly impressive period production, considering what a shoestring labor-of-love it was. There was not a lot of institutional support during Cho’s years of development, but he had the last laugh when Homecoming took the top spot at the Korean box office for two weeks in a row. No, it is not an easy film to watch, but the talent of its young ensemble is considerable. Recommended for general audiences, Spirits’ Homecoming opens today (3/25) in New York, at the AMC Empire (assuming Mayer Brown does not try to file a last minute injunction).

Thursday, March 24, 2016

ND/NF ’16: Happy Hour

People complain with some justification, there are not enough quality film roles for women in their thirties. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi will darn near solve the problem single-handedly with his three hundred seventeen-minute interpersonal character drama, showcasing four remarkable lead actresses and a host of distinctive supporting players. It is about friendship. It is about trust. It is about five hours, plus. Granted, that is a serious time investment, but the emotional realism never drags in Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Akari, Fumi, Sakurako, and Jun all look happy, especially when sharing each other company on picnics or similar outings. Yet, they are dealing with bitter disappointments in their personal lives. Akari the super-confident RN is a divorcee, but the other three appear to be satisfactorily married. However, it is soon revealed Jun has been engaged in a protracted legal battle to divorce her cold fish husband Kohei. Her decision to confide only in her childhood friend Sakurako temporarily causes dissension within the group, but they eventually rally behind Jun, even showing their support in court.

It turns out they might identify with Jun’s problems only too well. Both Fumi and Sakurako have become increasingly frustrated with their own spouses. Marriages and friendships will be put to the test when Ukai, a hipster self-help guru-gadfly performance artist enters their world. He lectures on balance and “finding one’s center,” but he is clearly a destabilizing influence.

Five hours and change might sound mighty long, but it gives Hamaguchi and screenwriter Hatano Koubou time to fully develop three extended centerpiece sequences that will dramatically change the characters’ trajectories. Through Ukai’s touchy-feely workshop, an overnight trip to the hot springs of Arima, and a public reading-Q&A featuring the young precocious writer Fumi’s editor husband is so suspiciously devoted to, we see the four women interact with each other in telling ways and witness their epiphanies.

Hamaguchi and his closely collaborating cast (alumni recruited from his own workshops presented in a Kobe arts collective) play it as straight as you ever can in life. For instance, there is a fair amount of Marin County Serial-style humor during Ukai’s workshop, but the quartet also get something out of their shared experience.

Sachie Tanaka, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara, and Rira Kawamura are all terrific as Akari, Sakurako, Fumi, and Jun, respectively. It is easy to see why they shared the best actress award at Locarno. They develop some richly complicated chemistry together, but they have several equally intriguing associations with supporting characters, such as Sakurako’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Akari’s mentorship-by-fire of a timid trainee nurse, and Jun’s auntie affection for Jun’s teen son, which truly deepen and enhance the film.

Hamaguchi and company capture the epicness of real life, while maintaining a grounded perspective. Yoshio Kitagawa’s cinematography favors naturalness over dazzle, but the four leads still absolutely light up the screen, while Umitaro Abe’s lovely chamber score gives it all a classy sheen. Yes, it is over five hours, but they are quality hours. Those who do not take the plunge will lose their standing to complain about women’s roles in cinema until the next five-hour film with four well developed leading parts for mature adult women comes around. Highly recommended for patrons of relationship dramas and Japanese cinema, Happy Hour screens in its entirety this Saturday (3/26) at MoMA and Sunday (3/27) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2016.

They’re Watching: Moldova’s Rustic Charm

The best thing about Moldova is its not Belarus. It is the only former Soviet Republic that remains dominated by the Communists. Naturally, the Party understands Moldovans are not interested in passing fads like human rights or economic development. Nobody wants to suggest the country is stuck in the past, but their last recorded witch burning was in the early 1900s—not so very long ago in Moldovan time. They might be gearing up for another thanks to a blundering reality television crew in Micah Wright & Jay Lender’s They’re Watching (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

In a previous episode of Home Hunters Global, expatriate American artist Becky Westlake and her reluctant Euro football star Goran Pitsnik bought the mother of all fixer-uppers in the picturesque Moldovan countryside. That was the “before” segment. Now the crew is back to do the “after” follow-up. Brand new production assistant Sarah Ellroy has come with cameraman Greg Abernathy and Alex Torini, the acerbic stoner sound guy to do the advance work before Kate Banks, their hostess-on-wheels arrives. Unfortunately, they quickly antagonize the locals through a series of misunderstandings, as when they are caught accidentally filming a funeral.

They try to patch things up with vodka, but when Ellroy cracks a witch joke it goes over like an editorial mildly critical of the government. Nobody is amused. By the time Banks and crew reach start shooting in Westlake’s spectacularly refurbished farm house, there is a group of pitchfork-wielding villagers ominously milling about outside.

They’re Watching is not so aptly titled, but it is still one of the funniest horror comedies in years. Clearly, Wright & Lender have spent plenty of time in production conferences and editorial meetings. Anyone who has worked in media of any kind will feel they know these characters already. Their dialogue is rude, caustic, and uproarious.

Obviously, it helps that Kris Lemche’s Torini is a riffing machine. However, Mia Faith also holds up her sarcastic end as Ellroy, the boss’s bombshell daughter. As Vladimir Filat, the realtor who keeps tagging along, Dimitri Diatchenko (a classical guitarist) creates a character that is one part Yakov Smirnoff and one part Sickboy from Trainspotting. Similarly eschewing subtly, Carrie Genzel is spectacularly shrewish as Banks, whereas Brigid Brannagh really gets to chew on some serious scenery down the stretch as Westlake.

So They’re Watching probably will not get the Criterion treatment anytime soon, but its relentlessly sardonic black humor and frenetic energy level are quite impressive. It is shamelessly entertaining, like all horror comedies ought to be. Recommended for genre fans without any embarrassment or self-consciousness, They’re Watching opens tomorrow (3/25) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

ND/NF ’16: Demon

In S. Ansky’s archetype-establishing stage play The Dybbuk, it is the bride who is possessed by the titular spirit on her wedding night. This time, it will happen to the groom. That is what happens when you ignore the past in the late Marcin Wrona’s Demon (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

His name was Peter, or “Python” to his old drinking buddies, but the Englishman now goes by Piotr. He is ready to become more Polish than a Pole for the sake of his fiancée, Zaneta. Her father has his reservations, but he will not stand in the way of their union. In fact, he is giving them the old family country home as a wedding present. It is there that the ceremony and reception will take place—and what a party it will be.

While impulsively excavating his proposed swimming pool, Peter-Piotr unearths an ancient skeleton. Not wanting to put a damper on the next day’s festivities, he reburies the remains, which will lead to some massively bad karma. Python is clearly a little jumpy before the ceremony, but everyone assumes it is just nerves. For a while his increasingly erratic behavior is blamed on the free-flowing vodka. When he breaks out in fits, the father of the bride assures everyone it must be epilepsy. However, when the clearly unwell groom starts speaking in Yiddish, the old-timers know something profoundly bad is afoot.

One of the cool things about Demon is its cultural specificity. It would be impossible to remake this film in an American setting without losing most of its meaning. Centuries of Polish history went into its making. However, it is absolutely never dry or didactic. In fact, Wrona managed to incorporate some wickedly caustic humor, while maintaining an atmosphere of ominous dread.

Sadly, the eerie vibe is further echoed by Wrona’s tragic fate. Despite Demon’s enthusiastic reception at Toronto, Wrona apparently took his own life days after the premiere. It is a terrible loss in many ways, including for movie lovers who will not have the chance to see further films from the filmmaker. Indeed, this is the sort of film that could only be hand-crafted by a massively talented artist. It is wonderfully bold and ambitious, yet is also succeeds smashingly on pure genre terms.

Fortunately, as Python, Israeli actor Itay Tiran brought the passion and commitment Wrona needed. It starts out as a rather grounded and street smart performance, but blossoms into a spectacle of convulsive madness. It is completely nuts, but in a good way, almost reaching the level of Isabelle Adjani in Possession. Agnieszka Zulewska is terrific counter-balance as the level-headed Zaneta. Adam Woronowicz, Wlodzimierz Press, and Cezary Kosinski also add salty seasoning as the doctor, teacher, and priest who are not nearly as helpful as they ought to be.

Wrona’s unfortunate end will probably add an additional layer of intrigue for some horror fans, but Demon needs no curse to be compelling. It ends like no horror film has ever ended, but goodness gracious, does it ever pack a punch. As a result, Demon is easily one of the most distinctive and unsettling genre films you will see all year. It is also a regrettable reminder how serious and potentially lethal depression can be. Judge not, just try not to ignore warning signs in your friends and associates. Very highly recommended, Demon screens this Saturday (3/26) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (3/27) at MoMA, as part of ND/NF 2016.

Miss India America: Smile and Wave Everybody

Lily Prasad is deeply concerned about child poverty, in a way that is only possible for a beauty pageant contestant. It is part of her preparation for Miss India Golden State, a contest that includes all the standard pageant fundamentals, but also incorporates elements of traditional Indian culture. The ambitious type A valedictorian will have trouble with both, but she is out to prove something in Ravi Kapoor’s Miss India America (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

Prasad’s valedictory speech basically boiled down to “so long slackers.” Unfortunately, that definitely included her football player boyfriend Karim, but Prasad has always prodded him to better himself. Unfortunately, her controlling nature will finally push Karim away from her and into the ditzy arms of an Indian American beauty queen. As part of her ill-conceived plan to win him back, Prasad enters the California pageant, intending to win her way to the national crown.

Despite her single-minded determination, the pre-med Prasad is definitely operating outside her comfort zone, so she recruits her BFF Seema as her coach and stylist. Even with her decidedly un-beauty queen-like manner, Prasad figures her bone structure will be enough to roll over most of the competition, but Sonia Nielson is a different matter entirely. She has the look and the grace. Prasad actually finds herself playing the underdog, which is not a familiar role for her. Of course, there are angles to work, like the aging Bollywood horndog serving as a judge and the equally randy but slightly less sleazy soap opera actor emcee.

Kapoor and co-writer (and co-star) Meerha Simhan nicely balance universal teen angst with specifics of the Indo-American cultural experience. Refreshingly, unlike many teen melodramas, the adults are mostly smarter and more mature than the kids. As exhausting as Prasad can be, Kapoor and Simhan clearly celebrate the success of families like the Prasads rather than apologize for it. Lily the golden daughter just needs to find a healthier balance.

Tiya Sircar is aptly manic and unfiltered as the hard-charging Prasad. Sustaining that kind of energy is just impressive. Hannah Simone offers some effective counterpoint as the cool and collected Nielsen, while nicely delivering a sly third act reversal. As her mother Divya Nielson, Anna George looks like her slightly older sister, but unfortunately does not get a lot of meaty dialogue to work with. Anushka Rani’s Nita Nanji is mostly played for broad laughs, but she pulls off the character’s moments of gravity. However, Simhan really gives the film heart and soul as Prasad’s misunderstood poet mother.

MIA is a spirited film about growing up and taking responsibility that has considerably more edge than you might expect. The ensemble is ridiculously attractive, but they are also poised and professional. Recommended as low-stress but not brainless cross-cultural comedy, Miss India American opens this Friday (3/25) at the AMC Mercado (San Jose market), AMC Rio 18 (Beltway area), and AMC Barrington (Chicagoland).

Spring Broke: Blame MTV

Novelist Glendon Swarthout sure knew his Americana. He is best known for The Shootist, the source novel for John Wayne’s final film, but he was also the first to put the Florida Spring Break tradition foursquare in the pop culture consciousness with his Where the Boys Are (also twice adapted for film). College kids had been going to Florida for some fun in the sun since at least the 1940s, but it really got messy and exhibitionist in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alison Elwood charts the evolution of the post-midterm ritual run amok in Spring Broke (trailer here), narrated by Robin Leach and executed produced by Alex Gibney, which premieres this Friday on Showtime.

When Swarthout’s novel released in 1960, Fort Lauderdale was already established as the college spring getaway spot. It was good business for the town, but their infrastructure could still more or less cope. Daytona Beach coveted that action, so they started to lure some of the breakers up the coach. Generally speaking, they got the rowdier, more cost-conscious partiers. Ostensibly less desirably customers, they still fit the upstart ethos of the Daytona Beach Spring Break masterminds.

Allan Cohen at the Plaza Hotel (the other Plaza) and Hawaiian Tropic founder Ron Rice had a knack for promotion, which caught the interest of corporate sponsors. However, MTV took things to a whole new level. While they kept the broadcasts relatively clean, it is not hard to connect the dots between the behavior captured and shared in-house by MTV cameras and the “Girls Gone Wild” videos hawked on late night television. Basically, revelers were invited to act like lunatics on TV and they obliged. Eventually, it just wasn’t fun anymore, especially for local residents.

Somehow, Broke manages to be both nostalgic for and disgusted by the madness of the MTV salad days, just like most viewers. Ellwood also has a remarkably keen grasp of local Florida politics as well as the particulars of hotel-resort management. It turns out the drunken college student business is far more complicated than you would have realized. Cohen emerges as sort of the mad genius of it all, while Rice is the intentionally Hefner-esque spiritual guru. You have to give them credit for their chutzpah and vision, as well as their willingness to dish for Ellwood. She gets further colorful commentary from Dave Barry, original MTV VJ Alan Hunter (how’s that for nostalgia) and her associate producer Ron Hurtibise, a Daytona Beach journalist.

Sure, there are a few bikini shots here and there in Broke, but the backroom wheeling-and-dealing it chronicles is straight-up fascinating. Anything involving this much money and sex cannot be boring. Still, Spring Break is nothing compared to Mardi Gras. Yes, that is a suggestion for Ellwood’s next doc and a vote of confidence that she could handle the madness. Regardless, Spring Broke is recommended as part 1980s blast-from-the-past and part expose, when it airs this Friday (3/25) on Showtime.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Born to Be Blue: Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

The best thing about those Mariachi Brass albums on Dick Bock’s World Pacific label were definitely the covers. They were transparently conceived as Tijuana Brass rip-offs, but they did indeed feature a recovering Chet Baker on trumpet to some extent. Essentially, they were yet another second chance for the king of second chances. Robert Budreau fictionalizes much, but he gets the little details spot-on in the Chet Baker bio-pic Born to Be Blue (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As the film opens, Baker has bottomed out in an Italian prison cell, but he will soon fall even lower. Bizarrely, it will be the movie industry that comes to his rescue, but Baker quickly fritters away his shot at leading man stardom. It is not a total loss. During his flirtation with Hollywood, he meets the aspiring actress who will become his lover and caretaker. Shortly thereafter, he gets his teeth bashed in as punishment for his mounting drug debts.

Budreau and his star Ethan Hawke convey just how challenging it is for a horn player to develop a radically new embouchure. There will be a lot of scuffling while Baker’s plugs away at his agonizing comeback, but there also seems to be real love shared by the somewhat mismatched couple. Yet, even though Baker cleans up in a methadone program, his demons are always lurking nearby.

To his credit, Hawke makes a dynamite doppelganger for Chet Baker. Frankly, his speaking voice sounds a bit like an affected impersonation, but he totals channels Baker’s vocals when performing standards like “My Funny Valentine” (of course) and a wonderfully eerie “Blue Room.” Yet, in the quiet moments, he perfectly captures Baker’s twitchy aloofness and mannerisms, subtly expressing the resentments and insecurities quietly raging within.

Carmen Ejogo hits all the necessary marks as “Jane the actress,” but her arc of infatuation and disillusionment is pretty standard stuff. However, Callum Keith Rennie is terrific as the eternally optimistic but increasingly exasperated Bock. Frankly, Bock is an underappreciated figure in jazz history, who produced some classic sessions and a fair number of number of eccentric oddities, like the Mariachi Brass (but that is why some of us obsessively collect the World Pacific label).

Both Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie appear as Baker’s rivals (collegially in Dizzy’s case, but not so much with respects to Davis). It is nice that Budreau could shoehorn in a few extra jazz legends, but it is strange Gerry Mulligan, the co-leader of Baker’s breakthrough quartet, never makes an appearance.

In fact, it is rather unfortunate Baker remains the face of West Coast Jazz, rather than Mulligan (even though the baritone saxophonist was still remarkably successful by jazz standards). Mulligan eventually settled down and evolved through several distinctly fertile periods of artistic development. For several years, he led the acclaimed Concert Jazz Band and even penned proggy fusion compositions. Yet, it is Baker who is most closely identified with West Coast Cool, despite his wildly problematic behavior. That dramatic fall from grace was just too compelling, like a train derailment.

While not really depicting Baker’s reported mental and occasionally physical abuse, Hawke gets at his tragically self-defeating essence. His Baker will break your heart over and over if you let him. The film also sounds great, thanks to the swinging and era-appropriate arrangements and original compositions of Canadian jazz musician David Braid. Kevin Turcotte convincingly doubles all three trumpeters, which is quite a statement, while Canadian Jazz statesman Terry Clarke adds real deal authenticity on the drums.

To quote another Mariachi Brass album, “hats off” to Budreau for not sugar-coating the broad strokes of Baker’s life. The ending is absolutely perfect, because it is so frustratingly accurate. It is a whip-smart film that might take liberties with biography, but gets the jazz right. Recommended with enthusiasm, Born to Be Blue opens this Friday (3/25) in New York, at the IFC Center, a week ahead of Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead.

Identicals: Meet Your Life Match, Again and Again

What if you were the evil twin? You would probably want to take over your doppelganger’s nicer life. If that were the case, you might be interested in the Brand New-U corporation’s services. They specialize in finding your “identical” and moving you into their “life-space.” Sometimes it gets a little messy, as when a dead identical is left in place of Slater’s girlfriend Nadia. Hoping to find her again, he will accept their offer of free life-matching in Simon Pummell’s Identicals (a.k.a. Brand New-U, trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

When Slater met Nadia to celebrate his birthday, she had the place decked out quite romantically, but there was still something foreboding that the tragically unintuitive stiff could not pick up on. The commando-style BN-U team expected to find her alone, but Slater’s presence led to awkward complications, like the Nadia’s dead-ringer lying dead at his feet.

Engaging in swift damage control, a BN-U manager offers Slater the opportunity to move up to an identical’s better life. Figuring it will give him a chance to search for Nadia—and avoid prosecution for her murder—he accepts the somewhat Faustian bargain.

Of course, he quickly violates both the letter and the spirit of the pact. Life-matchers are not supposed to take anything with them from their previous life-space. They are to look forwards, not backwards. However, Slater has other ideas. Unlike Nadia, whom he finds in rather short order, he maintains full awareness of his previous life. She seems to have no memory of him, but the spark is still there. Unfortunately, you do not break the rules of Brand New-U without attracting attention.

Identicals is a wildly stylish film that periodically unleashes its unabashedly surrealist impulses. As pure head-trip cinema, it is unusually extravagant and potent. However, its internal logic is slippery at best. Apparently, actors no longer ask “what is my motivation in this scene” or Pummell is not inclined to care, because characters are constantly following inexplicably perverse courses of action. It all starts with Brand New-U. Being an evil corporation is all well and good, but they have to be able to monetize their villainy. Rather bizarrely, they seem to target the rich at the behest of disadvantaged identicals. Its like Occupy Life Space over there.

Regardless, Reiner van Brummelen’s coolly elegant cinematography makes the dystopian future look beautiful and sinister in equal measure. Roger Goula Sarda’s electronic ambient soundtrack recalls the glory days of Tangerine Dream. As a crafter of imagery, Pummell can hang with Terry Gilliam, while maintaining a vibe of overwhelming paranoia. Apparently, he is just too big picture to bother connecting the micro-dots, but those mechanical hiccups take viewers out of his carefully constructed world to ask: “wait a minute, why are they doing this?”

Nora-Jane Noone gives a wonderfully rich and multi-faceted performance as the various personas of Nadia. She makes it clear she is sort of playing the same character, but maybe not, without beating us over the head. As Slater, Lachlan Nieboer (best known as the blind convalescing soldier in season two of Downton Abbey) is convincingly out of his depth and reasonably intense as he gets caught up in the bedlam.

Even with its ample plot-holes, Identicals is a refreshingly ambitious work of social-psychological science fiction, especially given its severe budget constraints. It looks great and keeps pulling us back down the rabbit-hole, regardless whether any of it makes proper sense. Recommended for genre fans who can put aside pedantry and enjoy the trip, The Identical opens this Friday (3/25) in targeted release.