Friday, September 30, 2016

Masterminds: The Loomis-Fargo Heist Played for Laughs

In retrospect, Loomis, Fargo & Company were wise to rebrand themselves as simply “Loomis.” The armored car service was indeed formed by the merger of Loomis Armored and Wells Fargo Armored Service, the last vestige of the storied Wells Fargo express shipping company. Although they shared the same roots, they had been divorced from the currently embattled banking firm since 1905. As Loomis-Fargo, the company experienced some equally awkward image problems, but in their case it was as the victim of a crime. The bizarre 1997 heist gets played for laughs in Jared Hess’s Masterminds (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Believe it or not, this goofy caper fully stocked with SNL alumni is pretty darned faithful to the North Carolina armored car robbery (not to be confused with the Florida Loomis Fargo robbery seven months prior—it was a tough year for the company). David Scott Ghantt really was a shaggy dog with puppy eyes for his former co-worker Kelly Campbell. Working in cohort with her friends Steve and Michelle Chambers, Campbell seduces the pliable Ghantt, convincing him to empty the Loomis Fargo vault one night. The plan is for the Chamberses to hold the money, periodically wiring sums to Ghantt in Mexico as he waits for the heat to blow over.

Unfortunately, the FBI immediately zeroes in on the absent Ghantt as their prime suspect. Realizing their fall guy knew more about him than he had bargained for, the extravagantly spending Chambers dispatches contract killer Mike McKinney to permanently silence Ghantt. Up to this point, Masterminds is way more faithful to the historical record than your average Oliver Stone movie. It starts to take liberties in the increasingly farcical third act, but it is still close enough for government work.

Equally surprising, the chemistry developed by Zach Galifianakis’s earnest Ghantt and Kristen Wiig’s instantly remorseful Campbell is rather sweet and appealing. In contrast, the bromance he shares with Jason Sudeikis as the would be hitman is neither believable or funny. Owen Wilson delivers a few nicely barbed lines as Chambers, but he is mostly stuck doing thankless heavy work. Fortunately, Hess understands a little of Leslie Jones’ tough talking shtick goes a long way, so he uses her sparingly as the lead FBI agent.

Although not exactly a new classic, Masterminds is an amusing film that ambles along at a pleasant pace. Frankly, it is rather mind-blowing how little the battery of screenwriters (Emily Spivey, Chris Bowman & Hubbel Palmer) embellished from the documented record. Recommended as a low-stress, low-impact comedy caper, Masterminds opens nationwide today (9/30), including the AMC Empire in New York.

NYFF ’16: My Journey Through French Cinema

Bertrand Tavernier might be the best director in the world at taking audience Q&A. Based on his good humored appearance for Princess of Montpensier during the 2011 French Rendezvous, he displayed a genuine knack for extracting a salient point from even the most rambling, off-topic questions. While this talent for inspired free association comes across as keenly focused during a Q&A session, it might strike some viewers as eccentrically eclectic when applied to a three-hour-plus documentary. However, the audience still gets to hear a lot of interesting stuff as a result throughout Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema (trailer here), which screens during the 54th New York Film Festival.

Yes, this is indeed all about Tavernier discussing the films he has seen and the filmmakers he has known. Of course, he had early gigs as the publicist for Godard’s Breathless and as an assistant to Jean-Pierre Melville, so he definitely has an insider’s perspective. Who knew former Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson sideman Rex Stewart appeared in Jacques Becker’s Rendezvous in July? Tavernier, that’s who—and being a jazz fan as well, he shows a long tantalizing clip of Stewart blowing his horn in a hip French nightclub.

In fact, Becker is the unlikely first-among-equals under discussion in Journey. Once Tavernier finishes with the Casque d’Or helmer, he then gives the themes and films of Melville and Claude Sautet similarly in-depth treatment. Although he mostly focuses on auteurist directors, Tavernier also champions the film scores of Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma. These sequences are especially valuable, since even major French film composers like Georges Delerue and Philippe Sarde are not exactly household names anymore.

Those who require a rigid structure to appreciate a film are simply out of luck here. Tavernier can hardly pause in mid-air as he jumps from topic to topic, in order to give viewers time to carefully scrawl out their notes, even if he were so inclined. Essentially, this film is designed to approximate the experience of chewing the fat with Tavernier on the subject of movies. If that sounds like fun to you (and it should), the good news is there is obviously a planned second installment in the works. Logically recommended for Francophile patrons, My Journey Through French Cinema screens tomorrow (10/1) and Sunday (10/2) during the 2016 New York Film Festival.

ClownTown: Getting Psycho in Ohio

They are like the Drayton family in the Texas Chainsaw films, but they have floppier feet and they can all fit in the same compact car. This pack of psychos likes to don clown makeup and kill unsuspecting motorists. Granted, the nights are pretty quiet in southern Ohio, but can’t they just get drunk like everyone else? The killer clowns rule the roost in Tom Nagel’s ClownTown (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

This used to be a nice, quiet town to settle down in, until Little Ricky started hacking up his babysitters. Jamie will be the next victim, but at least he will give her time for a brief nude scene first. Her death will coincide with an infamous train derailment that will precipitate a profound economic downturn for the town (sort of like what that highway bypass did to the Bates Motel). As slasher backstories go, that’s a decent start, but Nagel never really takes it anywhere.

Flashing forward two decades, two fun loving couples are driving through what sure looks like Clark County to get to a concert in Columbus. Brad is even planning to propose to Sarah, which really annoys his best bud Mike, because it will make him look bad in front his less serious girlfriend Jill. Unfortunately, they will have more pressing concerns when an ill-advised detour takes them to a nearly abandoned town terrorized by a feral gang of clowns.

So yeah, that is pretty much the long and the short of it. Everything follows strictly according to the numbers from this point forward—just one running and cowering scene followed by another. Frankly, Brad and Sarah seem unusually bad at hiding when the clowns start stalking them. Perhaps most disappointing, the villainous clowns are all rather bland, despite their flamboyant makeup. Instead, all the flair, such as it is, comes from Andrew Staton and Katie Keene as the comparatively attitudinal Mike and Jill.

How sad is it that a grisly no-budget film like ClownTown is more fun than 31, Rob Zombie’s forthcoming film? That doesn’t mean it is necessarily passable, but it doesn’t leave viewers feeling so unclean. Yet, it must be said, the fearful, mind-your-own-business southern Ohio of the film does not match the Clark Country of my experience. Not really recommended, but whatever—ClownTown opens today (9/30) in LA at the Arena Cinema.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

NYFF ’16: I Called Him Morgan

Since the early days of New Orleans until the early 1950s of Hard Bop, trumpeters were the Gabriels of jazz. Just think of Louis Armstrong’s golden tone or the supernaturally fleet articulation of Dizzy Gillespie. Lee Morgan was cut from a different cloth. You could hear plenty of grease and snarling attitude in his horn. His devilish sound also scored him some unprecedented crossover success. Yet, his tragically public demise will always define his all too brief life story. Swedish documentarian Kasper Collin revisits the music and the man through the memories of the woman who shot him and the rival who stoked her jealousy in I Called Him Morgan (trailer here), which screens during the 54th New York Film Festival.

Evidently, Morgan’s common law wife Helen never cared for the name Lee. Hence the title. We hear this directly from the source herself in the spectral-sounding audio tapes of an interview Ms. Morgan granted jazz radio host Larry Reni Thomas mere weeks before her death. Offering no excuses and seeking no sympathy, she tells her story matter-of-factly, but her overwhelming feelings of regret are immediately evident.

Collin (who also helmed the equally sensitive My Name is Albert Ayler) gives viewers the broad strokes of Morgan’s career, starting with his discovery in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, his rise to prominence with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and his glory years as a vintage Blue Note Records recording artist. Along the way, label co-founders Albert Lion and Francis Wolff get their just due for producing the classic sessions that would largely define the Hard Bop style.

However, the film is really centered around a forensic reconstruction of Lee and Helen Morgan’s imploding relationship. Initially, all his musician friends thought they were a good match, giving her credit for helping Morgan get clean and supporting him while he rebuilt his reputation. Yet, the film takes a heavy turn when she starts to describe how their romance turned to resentment. Like a Hard Bop Rashomon, Collin presents the events of that fateful night both from her perspective and that of Judith Johnson, the third side of Morgan’s love triangle (albeit a rather chaste one, according to her testimony).

Indeed, Collin relates the events of that ill-fated blizzard-battered night with eerie inevitability. Frankly, ICHM is an unusually impressionistic film, featuring dreamy noir cityscapes that aptly match Collin’s musical selections. Clearly, he has a preference for Morgan’s modal period (tunes with gently explorative harmonies) over his boogaloos (in this context meaning up-tempo Hard Bop tunes constructed over a strong rhythmic vamp). In fact, Morgan’s greatest hit, “The Sidewinder” is never heard during the film. (In this case, “greatest hit” is no exaggeration for a tune featured in a Chrysler commercial.)

Shrewdly, Collin also incorporates quite a bit of Wolff’s celebrated session photography. In addition to many striking black-and-white images familiar to fans from classic Blue Note album covers, Collin includes some surprisingly light-hearted candid shots that should only further burnish Wolff’s photographic reputation.

Collin scored sit-downs with a number of Morgan’s contemporaries, including Wayne Shorter, his legendary bandmate in the Messengers, as well as his own prominent sidemen, including Billy Harper, Jymie Merritt, Larry Ridley, and Bennie Maupin. However, the great Harold Mabern, a born raconteur if ever there was one, is conspicuously but perhaps not surprisingly absent. Reportedly, he still found it difficult to discuss Morgan’s death four decades after the fact, so presumably his feelings have not changed (which we should respect).

Regardless, ICHM is a starkly stylish and deeply humane film. It is that rare bird among music documentaries that has such considerable merit as a film in its own right, it should assure continuing awareness for Morgan’s music. Very highly recommended, I Called Him Morgan is far and away the top priority film at this year’s NYFF, which will screen it this Sunday (10/2) at the Walter Reade and Monday (10/3) at the Francesca Beale.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Operation Mekong: Fighting the Drug War in the Golden Triangle

Perhaps it is the lingering legacy of the Opium Wars, but China is definitely not onboard the drug de-criminalization bandwagon. The Mekong River massacre of Chinese merchant sailors only strengthened their national resolve. The real life murders of Chinese nationals and (more to the point) the subsequent hunt for drug lord Naw Kham inspired Dante Lam’s latest action spectacle Operation Mekong (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Most of Gao Gang’s elite squad go by their Greek god code-names, but they just call him Captain, because that is what he is. In contrast, Fang Xinwu is a bit of a method actor-wild card. The intelligence officer has a highly placed informant in Naw Kham’s operation, but his troubled history makes him highly unpredictable. He also happens to be a master of disguise—a talent he will put to good use. Despite their personality clashes, they will work together to apprehend the drug trafficker and his top deputies, so they can stand trial in China.

In addition to demolitions and surveillance experts, Gao Gang’s team also includes Bingo, a remarkably well trained German Shepard. She is definitely handy to have around, but don’t think this is a Benji movie, because it isn’t. Anyone on this team could go at any time, but at least Lam, the action master, will send them off with spectacular deaths. Lam also gives his current leading man of choice Eddie Peng a truly memorable entrance, in the Third Man tradition.

As Fang, Peng again proves he has matured into an action star with serious chops. Of course, few can ever hope to match the grizzled hard-nosedness of Zhang Hanyu, who does his thing with the deadpan panache. Lam puts them both through their paces in a number of cinematic yet believably grounded action sequences. Plus, Bingo upstages everyone in her action scenes, just like W.C. Fields warned. However, the villains never inspire much of an audience response, which is a drawback. Pawarith Monkolpisit is far too bland as the drugged out Naw Kham and Vithaya Pansringarm never gets to establish much character as the cartel rep looking to cut ties with their wildly unstable Golden Triangle sub-boss.

Still, Lam unleashes some impressive chaos when Gao Gang’s team finally raids Naw Kham’s hideout. Operation does not have quite the heft and ironic gravitas of Johnnie To’s Drug War, but it definitely gets the job done for action fans. Recommended for those who dig Special Ops movies, Operation Mekong opens this Friday (9/30) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Submitted by Korea: The Age of Shadows

It was something like a Korean Operation Anthropoid. In 1923, the demoralized resistance pulled off a spectacular bombing of Japanese police headquarters. It turns out, it was an inside job. Hwang Ok, a Korean officer on the despised Japanese constabulary turned yet again. Frankly, even his thinly fictionalized analog is precisely sure where his loyalties lay in Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows (trailer here), Korea’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which is now playing in New York.

As a Korean on the Japanese force, it is Lee Jung-chool’s job to be a rat. His former friend, the high-ranking resistance agent Kim Jan-ok makes that explicitly clear when he opts for death rather than capture. The incident so rattles Lee, it leaves him receptive to the overtures of Kim Woo-jin, a rising star in the Righteous Brotherhood—or so Kim thinks.

Despite having Hashimoto, a ruthless counter-insurgency copper, constantly looking over his shoulder, Lee manages to play both sides and keep his options open throughout the first two acts. However, the longer he goes without busting his new pal Kim Woo-jin, the closer he comes to switching sides, like Captain Renault in Casablanca. This becomes uncomfortably clear to Lee when all parties end up on a Hitchcockian train bound from Shanghai to Seoul, with a huge shipment of explosives stashed in the cargo car.

Although Age does not exhibit the exquisite lunacy of I Saw the Devil or The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Jee-woon still clearly delights in tweaking and amping up the conventions of the historical espionage thriller. His convoluted plot makes a John le Carré novel look simplistic and he certainly hasn’t gotten shy about staging a shootout. It is not quite the all-out action Nirvana of Choi Dong-hoon’s Assassination, but it still delivers plenty of bang for your buck. The titular echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows are probably not accidental either. There are so many double and triple crosses, Lee essentially loses track of whose side he is on.

Korean superstar Song Kang-ho (looking pretty trim) is terrific as the conflicted Lee. He really humanizes the dilemma between pragmatic but dishonorable survival and the patriotic idealism that would most likely get him martyred. Gong Yoo (recognizable from the monster hit Train to Busan) also gives flesh-and-blood dimension to the earnest Kim Woo-jin. Han Ji-min further boosts the glamour and the tragedy as Yun Gye-soon, the secretary to charismatic resistance leader Jung Chae-san (Lee Byung-hun in a memorable cameo) and Kim’s secret love interest.

If viewers are okay with the deaths of dozens of characters we come to know and root for, then Age of Shadows is tons of fun. Most likely it will be way too much fun for that stick-in-the-mud Oscar, but there is no reason we can’t enjoy it. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of period action and espionage films, The Age of Shadows is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Scare-a-Con ’16: Blood of the Tribades

Even a village named Bathory is not safe from the evil Puritanism of patriarchy. If this is the world of the blood-bathing Countess, how did it come to be so perverted by male privilege? An underground network of lesbian vampires remembers only too well. They live (so to speak) in anticipation of a profound reckoning in co-screenwriter-directors Sophia Cacciola & Michael J. Epstein’s Blood of the Tribades (trailer here), which screens this Saturday during the Scare-a-Con Film Festival.

Clearly, Cacciola & Epstein know their Jean Rollin. You can see his influence in the film’s erotic and exotic flavors—not to mention the two protagonists who start speaking French once they get a taste of their long suppressed collective lesbian vampire memories. Once, matriarchal power was respected in Bathory, but at some point, the men hijacked their worship of the deity Bathor, forcing the women to make a choice: either stay in the village by relinquishing their powers or go into exile.

Of course, the men made a hash of things, but they conveniently scapegoated the “impure” women for every misfortune, most definitely including the plague. To “purify” the village in Bathor’s name, the unhinged Grando sends his crossbow toting minions out to dispense inquisition-style justice. Innocent lovers Élizabeth and Fantine will soon find themselves in the inquisitors’ crosshairs.

Aside from maybe Rollin and Jess Franco, it is hard to liken the tone of Blood to anyone or anything else. Cacciola & Epstein have richly realized a dark fantasy world with its own sinister internal logic. Evidently shot in Massachusetts, the filmmakers found and fully capitalized on some amazing locations worthy of vintage Hammer films.

This is not your father’s lesbian vampire skin flick. In fact, it is much less explicit than the title probably suggests. Blood is first and foremost a mood and atmosphere piece. Nonetheless, the cast (including several burlesque and fetish performers) understands the traditions to be upheld, especially Chloé Cunha and Mary Widow. As the lovers, they ethereally waft through the film, like Jeanne in Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness (which could well be another source of inspiration). Sindy Katrotic also gives the proceedings periodic energy boosts as Giltine, the leader of the vampire hunters (as in vampires who hunt, rather than those who hunt vampires).

It is hard to describe the strange vibe of Blood, but that certainly distinguishes it from the garden variety found footage and retro slasher films getting dumped on VOD these days (despite some rough production edges here and there). In a way, it brings to mind the otherworldly sexuality of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” which is somewhat fitting, given its Massachusetts roots. Recommended for adventurous genre fans, Blood of the Tribades screens this Saturday morning (10/1) during Scare-a-Con at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York.

NYFF ’16: The Hedonists (short)

These working class guys are not so different than from the characters you know and love from The Full Monty. They are okay with working hard, but even better at playing hard. Unfortunately, the entire work force of their Shanxi coal mine is about to be laid off. That means they will be forced into job-searching mode in Jia Zhangke’s The Hedonists, which screens as part of Shorts Program 2: International Auteurs at the 54th New York Film Festival.

Some of the three pals worked more diligently than others, so the manager (who should be feeling more embarrassed than he appears) takes varying degrees of satisfaction pink-slipping them. In between boozy hands of mahjong, they duly scroll through job listings on their smart phones. Even though they are middle-aged and out of shape they apply for a bodyguard position, protecting a nouveau riche “Big Boss,” played by Jia himself. When that misadventure fails to pan out, they apply for costumed performer jobs at a Ming Dynasty theme park, harkening back to Jia’s masterful The World.

Co-written by Jia and his muse/life partner Zhao Tao, The Hedonists is a slyly amusing, deeply humane examination of structurally unemployment in contemporary China. Jia proves he still has the masterful touch for short subjects he displayed throughout the elegant Cry Me a River, but in this case, the ending is so abrupt, it makes one wonder if there is a feature-length third act missing. Still, Hedonists is ironically notable as one of Jia’s most visually cinematic films, with more sprawling crane-shots stuffed into its twenty-five minutes than you will find in most of his features.

Conceived as part of the Beautiful 2016 anthology film project, The Hedonists is obviously also screening as a discrete short in its own right. It will not disappoint Jia’s admirers (although they will probably miss Zhao’s luminous screen presence), but it seems odd NYFF chose not to bring the entire anthology, considering it also boasts a brand spanking new Stanley Kwan film. Nonetheless, Jia certainly fits the International Auteur rubric (perhaps better than any of his program mates). Highly recommended in any screening format, Jia’s The Hedonists screens this Saturday (10/1) and Sunday (10/2) as part of Shorts Program 2, at this year’s New York Film Festival.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Man Called Ove: The Grouch Submitted to the Oscars

Even by Swedish standards, Ove Lindahl is a rigid cold fish. Of course, anyone who has seen A Christmas Carol knows there must be a big, sensitive lug inside him someplace. Instead of ghosts, we will come to understand Lindahl’s past through flashbacks launched by his unsuccessful attempts to end it all. Suicide might be painless, but it is surprisingly difficult in Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Frederik Backman’s hit Swedish novel, A Man Called Ove (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lindahl is the dreaded enforcer of his townhouse association’s rules and regulations. He used to be the association’s president, until he was ousted in a coup led by his former best friend, Rune. Tragically, his usurper has been incapacitated by a stroke, but the imperious Ove was not asked back. When he is officially downsized by his longtime factory employer, Lindahl decides it is time to join  his late wife Sonja, which might be the most considerate thing he has done in years. However, he is interrupted time and again by his endearingly clueless new neighbors. Against his will, Lindahl starts to bond with the Persian émigré Parvaneh and her two young daughters (but her klutzy Swedish husband Patrick remains a bit of a lost cause).

Old Ove is exactly the sort of Grouchy Gus just waiting to blossom into a butterfly that we have seen time and again. Yet, the flashback scenes that explain the making of Ove pack a real punch. It is surprisingly moving to watch Filip Berg as the earnest young Lindahl, struggling to release the pent-up feelings he is so ill-equipped to express. He also forges some poignant chemistry with Ida Engvoll as his beloved Sonja. Ove’s recurring run-ins with bureaucratic authorities (the “whiteshirts”) further distinguish the film with unexpected Kafkaesque dimensions. Still, there is no getting around the cloying sentimentality of the present day narrative.

Considering Rolf Lassgård was the first actor Henning Mankell’s angst-ridden detective Kurt Wallander, we know he can brood with the best of them. He does indeed wring every drop of dignity out of the manipulative script. Lassgård’s big, commanding presence is impressive, no doubt about it.

The fifth biggest domestic Swedish box office performer ever, A Man Called Ove was a shrewd choice for Sweden’s foreign language Oscar submission. After all, a good percentage of the Academy will instantly relate to the crotchety old goat. It is generally a competent piece of feel-goodism, but there are flashes of inspiration in Lindahl’s troubled past. Recommended for Tuesdays with Morrie-reading fans of accessible cross-over foreign films, A Man Called Ove opens this Friday (9/30) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Paris Theatre uptown.

The Two Horses of Genghis Khan: Urna’s Odyssey of Song

Under Communism, the jealous Communist regimes (Soviet and Chinese) vilified Mongolia’s national hero, Genghis Khan (who was in fact quite progressive, even by contemporary standards). During the Cultural Revolution, all traditional music was banned, so a tune extolling the virtues of the great Khan’s steeds would be doubly anathema. However, the song held tremendous meaning for Mongolian vocalist Urna Chachar Tugchi’s family, so she set out to reclaim their cultural heritage, verse by verse. Byambasuren Davaa chronicled her song-hunting odyssey in The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Corinth Films.

Urna (as she is often simply billed, like Adele) grew up in a musical family, haunted by the Cultural Revolution. At the height of the horrors, her grandmother’s prized horse-head violin was destroyed. Only the carved neck remained, on which some of the lyrics to the song “The Two Horses of Genghis Khan” were still legible. The symbolic significance for the divided Mongolian homeland is hard to miss.

Having gained international prominence in what might be termed “world music” circles, the Inner Mongolian Urna arranges a concert with an Outer Mongolian classical ensemble to premiere the rediscovered song. At that point, she sets off into grasslands in search of elderly Mongolians who might still remember the lyrics.

Unfortunately, during the early stages of her journey, she only finds the lingering effects of deliberate cultural and environmental devastation. As in Tibet, the old regime was not a wise steward of Mongolia ecology and the current government had other fish to fry, such as the 2008 riots, which broke out just after filming wrapped. Frankly, viewers will suspect some of the old timers Urna meets might remember the song better than they let on, but simply do not feel comfortable admitting otherwise, given the past efforts devoted to suppressing traditional culture.

Fortunately, Urna has a stirring voice and a warm, engaging presence, which give her immediate credibility with the Outer Mongolians she encounters and the viewers watching from the comfort of home. The wide open vistas are also quite a sight to take in, making THoGK an unusually visual documentary. Indeed, cinematographer Martijn van Broekhuizen (currently shooting the reboot of The Crow) frames some pretty incredible images.

The climatic performance would seem to end the journey on a satisfyingly uplifting note, but the final post-credits captions offer a chilling parting dose of reality. They also underscore why Urna’s mission of cultural restoration is so important and necessary in a world of ideological strife. Highly recommended, especially for fans of Urna, Shen Yun, and similar efforts to reclaim the cultural diversity lost under the successive mass movements of the Chinese Communist regime, Two Horses of Genghis Khan releases today (9/27) on DVD, from Corinth Films.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Last Film Festival: Dennis Hopper’s Final Bow

It is hard to root against roguish independent producers like Roger Corman, William Castle, and Robert Evans. Nick Twain is definitely cut from similar cloth, but he has fallen on hard times late in his career. Nevertheless, he carries on. In his case, that means flogging a dog’s turkey titled Barium Enigma. Only one film festival has standards low enough to accept it, but a pro like Twain can still spin it into PR gold, if the so-bad-its-baffling film sweeps the awards. Twain intends to make sure of that in Linda Yellen’s The Last Film Festival (trailer here), the late, great Dennis Hopper’s final film, which opens this Friday in LA.

It should be busy festival for Twain. He thinks he has cut a deal with the politically ambitious mayor of O’hi, Ohio to deliver a clean sweep of the O’hi Film Festival’s Golden Spindles (yarn is a big deal in this burg). However, since his ex, the gracefully aging Italian sex symbol Claudia Benvenuti, who largely financed the picture is up for best actress against her co-star, Twain’s current unfaithful starlet lover, somebody is bound to be disappointed.

Further complicating matters, Twain’s Tom Cruise-ish star is missing and a trench coat wearing woman keeps stalking him, claiming she is his love child. That last part is a little embarrassing for Twain, but it will not prevent him from receiving the festival’s humanitarian of the year award—and justly so.

Sadly, Dennis Hopper passed away seven years ago while still filming LFF, unintentionally leaving Yellen in a bit of a bind. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the final cut. Hopper (who reportedly thought he was in remission until he suddenly and precipitously fell ill), looks reasonably hale and hearty and just oozes devilish charm. He seems to understand all of Twain’s lines are funnier because he is Dennis Hopper (director and star of The Last Movie)—and he’s okay with that. It is just jolly good fun to watch him chuckle his through the film.

Hopper also forges some deliciously arch chemistry with Jacqueline Bisset, a good sport perfectly cast as Benvenuti. In a way, LFF would make a weirdly appropriate double feature with Truffaut’s Day for Night, in which she played the scandalous British starlet. On the other hand, the charismatic Leelee Sobieski is woefully under-utilized as Twain’s possible illegitimate daughter, but it is entirely possible she had more involving scenes with Hopper that were sadly not to be. Unfortunately, Chris Kattan is as annoying as ever as Harvey Weinstein, O’hi’s namesake undertaker and camera-phone snooping film festival president.

The humor of Yellen & Michael Leeds’ screenplay is definitely hit or miss, but again, it is possible many of Kattan’s gags had to stay, due to Hopper’s untimely demise. Frankly, it is rather remarkable how Yellen and the editors, Bib Jorissen and Steve Kraftsow cobbled together such a smooth narrative flow. Ironically but perhaps fittingly, Hopper’s Twain explains to his youthful agent how King Vidor solved a similar problem when Tyrone Power died midway through Solomon and Sheba.

It is nice to finally have LFF gracing screens. It is not perfect, but the overly broad comedic excesses never stick to Hopper (or Bisset). Frankly, it further burnishes his reputation, allowing us to see a sly, slightly screwball side of Hopper we rarely saw in his largely dark filmography. Recommended for Hopper fans and those of us who have been around a few oddball fests, The Last Film Festival opens this Friday (9/30) in Southern California, at the Laemmle’s Royal and Playhouse 7 theaters.

Scare-a-Con ’16: The Dark Tapes

The original Blair Witch ushered in the found footage phenomenon in 1999 and just when it looked like the sequel-reboot would finally kill off the sub-genre in 2016, an inventive anthology comes along to give it a new lease on life. Of course, the unspoken question surrounding found footage is how it was found. That will definitely be a cause for concern in the wrap-around segments of Michael McQuown’s The Dark Tapes (trailer here)—note the “To Catch a Demon” segment is directed by SFX artist Vincent J. Guastini, to make billing more complicated—which screens this Friday during the Scare-a-Con Film Festival.

In fact, Guastini’s “Demon” and McQuown’s framing sequences are actually part of the same overall narrative. As the film opens, some hipsters find some pretty darned dark tapes, or rather a video camera, outside a theater of some kind. It seems a physicist, his graduate advisee, and a camera guy were conducting sleep experiments hoping to document the existence of the demonic figures seen by those who experience so-called sleep paralysis. Needless to say, they are too successful. However, before their study collapses into bedlam, McQuown and Guastini give viewers some eerily convincing pseudo-science to explain the horrors we are about to see.

Despite its connection to the connective sequences, “Demon” is the second full segment that unspools in DT. The first is arguably the creepiest. In “The Hunters & the Hunted” an attractive young couple finds their new luxurious house in the Hollywood Hills is haunted by a malevolent entity. The distressed Karen and David duly enlist the help of a gung-ho ghost hunting team, but McQuown has a sinister surprise in store for them that will catch all but the most suspicious viewers completely flat-footed. As the new tenants, Shawn Lockie and Stephen Zimpel really make it work.

The third discrete narrative, “Cam Girls” is by far the weakest. Recorded entirely as skype and webcam sessions, much like the Swanberg installment of the original V/H/S, it shows us what a new web chat recruit and her lesbian lover do with and to their customers during her blackouts.

Happily, DT rebounds in a big way with the closer, “Amanda’s Revenge.” Much to her platonic best friend’s distress, the titular Amanda is rufied at their graduation party, but for her, it is not so unlike her regular experiences as an alien abductee. For some reason, she has taken her mother’s place a victim of choice. However, she intends to fight back in ways that circumvent their control over electronic devices. There have been too many poor to middling alien abduction films (looking at you Ejecta and Hanger 10), but Amanda’s cleverness and resiliency are enormously refreshing. Arguably, that makes two sub-genres redeemed by DT.

As a screenwriter, McQuown throws some wicked twists at viewers, while Guastini’s practical effects give them the old school, tactile feeling fans will appreciate. Evidently, there was some gold left to be mined from the found footage vein after all. Highly recommended for horror fans, The Dark Tapes screens this Friday (9/30), during Scare-a-Con at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York.

Passage to Mars: It Starts in the Arctic

It is reassuring to know the spirit of exploration is still alive and well at NASA, but it is frustrating to see the agency’s procurement problems also continue unabated. A gutsy expedition will attempt to make a punishing 2,000-mile journey across Arctic ice that simulates conditions on Mars, but their vehicle does not inspire confidence in Jean-Christophe Jeauffre’s documentary Passage to Mars (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For the HMP Okarian Martian Rover Humvee, the trek over frozen and thawing ice to the NASA station on Devon Island is the closest thing to a dress rehearsal for a manned mission to Mars. For the crew led by NASA scientist Pascal Lee, this might be the closest they get to Mars. Unfortunately, malfunctions will repeatedly jeopardize their terrestrial journey.

By combining his fly-on-the-wall footage with extracts from Lee’s journals narrated by rebooted Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto, Jeauffre vividly conveys the desolation and extreme climate of the Arctic Journey. The film also clearly establishes its applicability to the wider Mars project. However, it does not explain why the project is so wedded to the Okarian Rover, especially considering the frequency with which crew members have to set off for civilization in search of spare parts. Presumably, that would not be an option on Mars. It makes you wonder in whose congressional district was it built?

It is not an idle question. Aside from our interest as taxpayers, the Okarian’s performance also raises safety issues for a prospective crew. Yet, rather bizarrely, Passage does not even acknowledge this as an issue. Perhaps Jeauffre and his subjects were understandably more preoccupied with matters of survival, which were very real concerns.

Indeed, Jeauffre captures some amazing images and compellingly documents the courage and commitment of the Okarian crew. Frankly, the real stuff is more impressive than the planetarium show-style Mars recreations (but don’t worry, it is not in exploitative 3D). For extra added authenticity, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin also lends his voice to the proceedings.

Arguably, Passage is a needed corrective to the tiresome conspiracy theories recycled yet again in Operation Avalanche. Like the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury astronauts before them, the Okarian crew are both idealists and adventurers who inspire by example. Recommended for those who will appreciate its science and optimism, Passage to Mars opens this Friday (9/30) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Denial: The Lipstadt-Irving Libel Trial

Thanks to New York State’s wise libel tourism laws, reviewers of this film can refer to “historian” David Irving as a holocaust denier secure in the knowledge New York courts will not honor any foreign libel judgments against them deemed inconsistent with our own First Amendment rights. One would think the ugly spectacle of Irving suing American historian Deborah Lipstadt, forcing her to prove the Holocaust happened would have created a groundswell for libel law reform, but alas, it did not. The high stakes court case gets the big screen treatment in Mick Jackson’s Denial (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Irving was once a semi-credible historian, who garnered some favorable blurbs before crossing over to the dark side. By the time Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust was published, he was a fringe figure, but he still had a knack for garnering media attention. In a potentially devastating act of libel tourism, Irving sued Lipstadt’s British publisher, Penguin UK, in British courts.

In an American court, Irving would have to prove Lipstadt’s words were both defamatory and the product of demonstrable malice, but in Britain Lipstadt would have to prove they were justifiable. As a result, Penguin’s legal team, notably including barrister Richard Rampton QC and solicitor Anthony Julius (in/famous for representing Princess Diana), had the responsibility of proving the Holocaust really happened and Irving knowingly and deliberately twisted the historical evidence to the contrary.

Mindful of the David-and-Goliath symbolism, Irving opted to represent himself in court. Again, due to the perversities of the British system, this also gave him some advantages over as Lipstadt as one of the opposing counsel. Still, the old “fool for a client” adage hasn’t remained in this long circulation for no reason.

Denial is at its best when it really digs into the blow-by-blow details of the trial. Rather logically, all of the litigious Irving’s dialogue in these scenes is adapted verbatim from the transcript. Watching the crafty Rampton lure the over-confident Irving into various logical-historical traps is gripping stuff. Unfortunately, Lipstadt’s overwrought outrage almost becomes insufferable. She is an accomplished academic, but Rachel Weiss plays her like a shticky Queens caricature incapable of controlling her emotions or her mouth.

When Weiss shuts up, Tom Wilkinson carries the day, portraying Rampton with all his customary panache and gravitas—and then some. He exudes the intelligence and charisma of a barrister you would want to be represented by. Similarly, as the Holocaust denier, Timothy Spall is aptly wily and sinister, in a tweedy British sort of way. Frustratingly, the terrific Irish character actor Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty in the Cumberbatch Sherlock) does not have much to do as Julius except trying to rein in Lipstadt.

When it is smart, Denial is an intense and insightful film. When it is emotional, it gets a bit dumb, which goes to show the principles for success are not that much different on film than they are in the courtroom. Fortunately, old pros like Wilkinson and Spall keep things crackling. Recommended overall, Denial opens this Friday (9/30) at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the AMC Lincoln Square uptown.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pema Tseden’s Tharlo

For centuries, the sight of a shepherd with a pony tail has been common place in Tibet. However, things have changed in the nation, just as the occupying power intended. Filmmaker Pema Tseden often pointed out such truths—getting arrested and badly battered for his efforts—or so international observers suspect. Again, details are sketchy, just as the Communist authorities want them. The circumstances surrounding Tseden’s incarceration and hospitalization makes the piteous fate of his latest cinematic protagonist all the more poignant. In addition to the cultural oppression, the CP occupation also has a corrosive moral influence in Tseden’s Tharlo (trailer here), which opens a week-long run this Wednesday at MoMA.

Tharlo has come to the nearest provincial administrative center to receive his I.D. card, but has no context for the errand. Frankly, he is not even used to being addressed by name. Never before has he had to prove his identity. Of course, the local police chief finds Tharlo’s bemusement amusing. He is also condescendingly impressed by the Tibetan shepherd’s ability to recite a long Chairman Mao speech, even though mostly of the ideological meaning is lost on him.

Of course, an I.D. card needs a photo, so Tharlo will have to visit the local photographer catering to such business. She in turn sends him across the street to get his hair washed by the hairdresser, Yangtso. She makes quite an impression on the traditional herder with her short hair and modern attitudes. She also happens to be young and attractive. The flirtatious time they share together leads Tharlo to question his pastoral life, but his growing doubts will distract him at inopportune times.

Adapting his own novella, Tseden creates a parable of modernist temptation and subsequent downfall that eclipses Dreiser in its tragic significance. Although the local authorities are not Tharlo’s direct antagonists, Tseden makes it clear they created the climate that made his victimization possible.  The film is also visually stunning thanks to the vastly cinematic vistas of Tharlo’s Tibetan plains and Lu Songye’s stark black-and-white photography.

Despite the rugged locales, Tharlo is a relentlessly intimate film filled with uncomfortable silences and telling moments. As the title character, Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima looks like his picture should be in the dictionary next to the term “world-weary.” His haggardness is plain to see, but his innocence is just as palpable. He and Tibetan actress-vocalist Yangshik Tso develop some highly ambiguous but undeniably potent romantic chemistry together. Rather than just playing the femme fatale, she gives the worldly Yangtso subtle flesh and blood dimension.

Initially, Tharlo’s ability to rattle off Mao’s secular sermon seems rather surreal, but the third act reprise is so bitterly ironic it might leave an aftertaste of bile behind. Yet, Tseden is primarily a stroryteller, who only lets political implications seep in through osmosis. Nevertheless, there is clearly more truth in his films (such as Old Dog) than the Party is comfortable with. Highly recommended for viewers with adult attention spans, Tharlo opens this Wednesday (9/28) at MoMA.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

AFI Latin American ’16: Clever

If Clever lived in the American Southeast rather than South America, he would probably be called white trash. The socially awkward martial arts instructor has a fondness for Bruce Lee, video games, booze, drugs, and custom flaming paint jobs on muscle cars. His 1976 Chevette Shark doesn’t really qualify, but he still intends to get it pimped out accordingly in co-director-screenwriters Federico Borgia & Guillermo Madeiro’s Clever (trailer here), which screens during this year’s AFI Latin American Film Festival.

Clever does not have much going on. His ex-wife Jacqueline has moved onto to a more responsible Fiat driver after divorcing him, but he still wallows in denial. His husky son Bruce (named after you know who) has not taken after the old man, despite all the time he has spent in his father’s dojo. Hoping to bond with his son and maybe finally taste a bit of glory, Clever intends to get his Chevy decked out for the upcoming car show. However, the mysterious artist whose work he covets has relocated to a provincial burg.

After chasing down several false leads, Clever finally tracks down Sebastian, a Momma’s Boy bodybuilder who might just be the Rembrandt of muscle cars. He has an artistic temperament but his ambiguous sexuality makes Clever uneasy, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as the manipulative mother’s come-ons.

With its garish title design, Clever tips its hat towards exploitation films, but then delivers a critical meditation on masculinity that is clearly skeptical regarding its merits. It is a quiet film, but it still metes out quite a bit of humiliation. Tonally, Borgia & Guillermo try to be half-pregnant, splitting the difference between quirky and contemptuous. It is a fraught line they walk.

Still, they could hardly ask any more of their lead, Hugo Piccinini, who has the perfect muscular nebbishness for the alienated martial arts sensei. Frankly, it is compelling to watch him try a navigate his way through a world too complex for his fists, but in a decidedly sad sort of way.

Despite the strange sensitivity of Piccinini’s performance, Clever is a rather unsatisfying meal. Borgia & Guillermo are too content to coast on their presumed eccentricity, leaving the film mired in its wet noodle pacing. It is hardly an affront to anyone or anything, but there are better films to invest your time in. Just a mediocrity, Clever screens tomorrow (9/25) and next Thursday (9/29) as part of AFI’s annual Latin American Film Festival, just off the Beltway in Montgomery County.

Friday, September 23, 2016

HK Cinema at SFFS ‘16: Murmur of the Hearts

If Stephen Chow made you want to stop believing in mermaids, Sylvia Chang might give you reason to reconsider. A mermaid always figured prominently in the bedtime stories Yu-mei and Yu-nan’s mother told them. Actually, it was the same ever-evolving story. Divided by circumstances, the grown siblings will struggle with their difficult legacy in Chang’s Murmur of the Hearts (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society.

Note the plural of the hearts to distinguish Chang’s latest directorial effort from Louis Malle’s 1971 film. The settings in Taipei and Taiwan’s Green Island (Lyudao) are also quite distinctive. It was once primarily known as a penal colony, but the latter has starting doing a brisk tourist business in recent years. Yu-nan currently works there as a tour guide, because he stayed with their stern father, while Yu-mei is now a promising artist in the capitol, because she left with their more supportive mother. Inevitably, their separation led to resentments against the parent and sibling each felt rejected by.

Arguably, Yu-mei’s boyfriend Hsiang fits right in. He is a terrible boxer, but he keeps plugging away, driven by his own parental issues. However, a series of crises—Yu-mei’s pregnancy, the loss of Hsiang’s license, the declining health of the father Yu-nan still cares for, and a massive monsoon might provide a catalyst for healing.

Disappointingly, the eternally amazing Chang always stays behind the camera, but that largely leaves the spotlight to Macanese superstar Isabella Leong (last seen with Jet Li in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), who clearly hasn’t lost a step in seven years. She is just quietly and profoundly devastating as Yu-mei. Lawrence Ko is also rigorously understated as Yu-nan, managing to hold his own quite well. He also forges some exquisitely delicate chemistry with Angelica Lee Sin-je, playing their mother in the film’s several fantastical reveries.

At times, Chang pushes the dreamy New Age vibe a bit too far, but she distills so much raw emotion and truth into key sequences they will really knock viewers for a loop. She is clearly a thesp’s director, coaxing the charismatic but sometimes not so expressive Joseph Chang to one of his best performances as Hsiang. She and co-screenwriter Yukihiko Kageyama give him his moment, which he delivers on.

Keep in mind, Murmur starts slow, but it pays off massively, so it is well worth sticking with it. The three stars really disappear into the characters, all of whom the audience will come to care about, as if they were long lost family. Very highly recommended, Murmur of the Hearts screens this Sunday (9/25) as part of the SFFS’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

The Dressmaker: Kate Winslet Sews

Never before has a stone-cold vengeance-taker been so passive and mild mannered. We really ought to fix up this supposedly scandalous seamstress with Adam Sandler’s Cobbler, so they could go be cloying together. However, the well of quirkiness will eventually run dry in the tonal train wreck that is Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

To paraphrase the tag-line of The Hateful Eight, nobody leaves Paris for the outback backwater of Dungatar without a damn good reason. Of course, that reason would be revenge. The town done Tilly “Don’t Call Me Myrtle” Dunnage wrong when they wrongfully blamed her for the death of entitled bully Stewart Pettyman and sent her away to boarding schools (looks to us like they did her a favor, but whatever). Dunnage still holds a grudge for the physical and emotional abuse she and her vinegary-tongued old mum Molly endured, but she gets sidetracked from her pay-back mission when her original couture designs prove popular with the women in town.

In between fittings and measurements, Dunnage will try to uncover the truth of what happened to Pettyman (surnames are truly destiny in The Dressmaker) that fateful day. Of course, it is blindingly obvious to viewers what went down, but I can’t blame Dunnage for suppressing her memories. I had to go to hypnosis therapy to recover my repressed memory of this film.

Lest you think Dressmaker is all about empowerment through frocks and sashes, be warned. The film takes a ridiculously dark turn down the stretch. Frankly, it is almost worth recommending Dressmaker just to watch it go perversely out of its way to alienate its core audience. However, you still have to sit through the nauseatingly saccharine first two acts to get there.

Honest to Betsy, Moorhouse and co-screenwriter P.J. Hogan throw in just about every awkwardly dated cliché you could think of adapting Rosalie Ham’s novel. There is the senile-like-a-fox mother, the cross-dressing town constable oohing and awing over Dunnage’s latest fabric swatches, and the hunky shirtless neighbor looking out for his developmentally disabled brother (and maybe Dunnage too, if she will let him). Dressmaker would have been derivative in the early 1990s. In 2016, it is such an off-key spectacle of shtick, Meryl Streep will probably get nominated for it, even though she isn’t even in the picture.

Kate Winslet’s judgment is usually rather sound, so it is surprising to find her in this chick flick from Hell. It is even more disappointing to see Hugo Weaving recycling such dated stereotypes as the fashion-conscious Sergeant Farrat. You were Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy, try to show some dignity, for crying out loud.

It is downright painful watching The Dressmaker, but at least the movie will wreak vengeance upon itself, on viewers’ behalf. It is hard to imagine this is really what Moorhouse, Hogan, and company had in mind originally, but the film was a decent hit in Australia, so presumably six or eight Foster’s helps the audience swallow it down. Not recommended, The Dressmaker opens today (9/23) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fantastic Fest ’16: Original Copy

The Alfred Talkies in Mumbai might just be the closest thing left to the old school grindhouse experience left in the world. However, the genteel owner Najma Loynmoon would not want to hear that. She insists on running a clean and orderly establishment, for the sake of the friendly spirits haunting the building. Under her protective stewardship, the Alfred operates much the same as it did when her stern grandfather was in charge. Most notably, that means they still employ Sheikh Rehman to hand paint banners for each week’s feature. Frankly, his grandly lurid murals are much more visibly pleasing than the scratchy prints the theater screens. Rehman reflects on his supposedly obsolete profession in Florian Heinzen-Ziob & Georg Heinzen’s Original Copy (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Fantastic Fest.

Ironically, Mumbai’s construction boom has altered traffic patterns in ways that are not beneficial to the Alfred Talkies. Their dwindling clientele now comes more for the air-conditioning than a second run Salman Khan film (or more likely an explosion-heavy chestnut from the 1970s or 1980s). Yet, Rehman still hand crafts his poster art, just like his father did before him. He carefully signs each weekly masterpiece of sneering, gun-toting Bollywood idols, even though he knows he will paint over it in seven days’ time.

Although Bollywood fans might expect something flashier than the Heinzens’ meditative approach, there is something about the Alfred Talkies that old fashioned cineastes will find seductively compelling. It is a real deal movie palace, with a large balcony in everyday use (not that they need the extra seating). Any Fantastic Fest patron who happens to be in Mumbai will want to take in a screening there, just the faded glory experience. In a world of cookie-cutter multiplexes, you just don’t see theaters like that anymore.

Of course, Rehman is crusty in a manner befitting an underappreciated master. You could say he can be a little curt with his apprentices, but at least he livens up the studio scenes. His paintings are also works of exquisitely sensationalistic beauty. Arguably, he is the world’s greatest oil painter of hand guns and crashing helicopters.

You might have to be in the right mood to appreciate Copy, but its vivid sense of place makes it far more compelling than the average observational documentary, largely because the Alfred Talkies is just the sort of place most cineastes would love to wander around. Recommended for Bollywood fans with grown-up attention spans, Original Copy screens tomorrow morning (9/23) and Tuesday afternoon (9/27), as part of this year’s Fantastic Fest.