Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sundance ’17: Kaputt/Broken—The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck (short)

Exploiting vulnerable labor for profit is everything socialist propaganda crusades against. Yet, the exploitation of the inmates at Hoheneck Prison helped keep the financially ailing East Germany from completely imploding. Of course, in reality there was nothing democratic or republican about the GDR/DDR. Survivors of the abuse and exploitation tell their tales in Alexander Lahl & Volker Schlecht’s black-and-white animated short documentary, Kaputt/Broken—The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck (trailer here), which screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

The Brutalist architecture of Hoheneck screamed East German oppression—and the insides lived up to the outside. It was perennially overcrowded, because at least politically-motivated arrests in the DDR consistently ran above quota. Daily life was a mixture of routine humiliation and grinding toil to make their production quotas in the prison’s bed linen sweat shop.

Kaputt/Broken is a powerful seven-minute indictment of the socialist system, executed in an evocatively severe style that could be described as a cross between Honoré Daumier and a Stasi dossier. Yet, perhaps what is most striking is the grimly poetic language taken directly from original oral histories of Hoheneck survivors.

Conditions at Hoheneck were simply barbaric, but the bitterest pill for the former political prisoners to swallow is the fact the West helped underwrite their torture by buying Hoheneck’s garments. The Wall has fallen, but the victims of the socialist East clearly remain traumatized. That lingering pain comes through clearly in the haunting short. Schlecht’s animation is almost perversely elegant, while the minimalist sound design heightens the eerily tragic vibe. Very highly recommended, Kaputt/Broken won the Short Film Jury Award for Animation at this year’s Sundance. It next screens February 17th and 19th during MoMA’s Doc Fortnight.

Sundance ’17: Machines

Who know how many fingers and limbs have gotten caught in the gears of this Gujarat textile factory, but it is doubtful they ever stopped the machinery. Shifts are long and the pay is low, but the workers still travel miles to keep their jobs there. Rahul Jain captures and contemplates their exhausting labor in Machines (trailer here), which screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

If you want to see the behind-the-scenes “sausage-making” that goes on in the Indian textile industry than this is the film for you. Safety precautions appear minimal and sanitation is dubious. Yet, many of the workers (a number of them dispossessed farmers) cling to their jobs and dignity, claiming they are not exploited because they willingly work there. Still, others readily admit they would be delighted if management reduced shifts from twelve to eight hours, pointedly asking Jain if he has any ideas how to achieve such a goal. Right, he’ll gave to get back to you on that one.

Frankly, there is not much talking in Machines. It is mostly just take-it-all-in observation. Granted, the net effect is pretty much poverty porn, but the visuals are sharp and clearly very deliberately framed by cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villaneuva. The environment is overwhelmingly oppressive, much like Chaplin’s Modern Times except dingier, but the film itself looks crisp and striking.

If you are keeping score with Sundance documentaries, the plastic recycling plant in Plastic China looks like a much more pleasant work environment than the Gujarat factory, but Machines is the more stylish film. Despite the challenges issued late in the film, Jain clearly built up a level of comfort with his subjects. Reportedly, he lived amongst the factory workers for months before he even started shooting, so if the documentary police still consider him exploitative than probably nobody can make this film.

Machines is an impressive downer that just corralled Villaneuva the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Best Cinematography at Sundance. It certainly puts a human face on all the obsessive BRIC economic chatter. Recommended for admirers of films like Powaqqatsi, Machines will be the opening night selection of MoMA’s annual Doc Fortnight on February 16th, following its North American premiere at this year’s Sundance.

Eloise: Crazy in Michigan

It was yet another large employer in the Detroit-area that closed in the late 1970s. Technically, a few administrative support jobs remain to this day, but most of the 78 buildings are vacant or demolished. Yet, unlike the factories forced out of business, not so many locals mourned the passing of the Eloise Mental Hospital. Of course, the bad vibes generated by all that shock treatment of whatever will not simply evaporate. It still lingers, waiting to ensnare a group foolish enough to venture into the spooky abandoned section in Robert Legato’s Eloise (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jacob Martin is rather surprised to hear he potentially stands to inherit his estranged father’s fortune and even more confused to learn the only complication is the Aunt Genevieve he never knew he had. Presumably, she died while committed to Eloise, but the remaining skeleton staff is in no hurry to retrieve her file from “the annex.” Being proactive but misguided, Martin’s childhood pal suggests they break in and find it themselves, with the help of Eloise internet historian Scott Carter.

It turns out, Carter is the special needs brother of tough-talking doe-eyed bartender Pia Carter. As one would hope and expect, she is against the misadventure, but the dudes already have him fired up, so she figures it will be easier for her to just go with it. Of course, that turns out to be a profoundly bad call. The Carter brother holds up his end, leading the group to the annex rather directly, but nobody is prepared to deal with the ghosts of Eloise past, particularly the sadistic director, Dr. H.H. Greiss. That old cat just doesn’t know when to give up the ghost.

Screenwriter Christopher Borrelli arguably takes the road less traveled in the third act, opting for a Twilight Zone sort of complication rather than a standard issue gore fest. In fact, the big twist is pretty clever, yet it is sufficiently supported by the groundwork already laid.

Frankly, Eliza Dushku doesn’t seem to be trying very hard as sister Pia (a name that is probably considered bad karma in Hollywood). Conversely, Chace Crawford is a better-than-average stubbly-faced horror movie protag. P.J. Byrne goes all-in as the slightly problematic brother Scott, which is both good and bad. However, it is always fun to watch Robert “Terminator Cop” Patrick glower and do his thing as Dr. Greiss.

Admittedly, Eloise will not transcend its genre and become a crossover breakout hit, but it is considerably more ambitious than it needed to be and features a cast that should hold considerable appeal to fans. When judiciously considered, the verdict comes back: pretty good. Recommended for horror movie regulars, Elois opens this Friday (2/3) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Sundance ’17: Kaiju Bunraku (short)

How can Japan be some stoic in the face of rampaging kaiju monsters? They are just used to it. If you have seen the Daimajin movies, you know this sort of thing has gone on for centuries. You need not explain the kaiju phenomenon to this particular weary married couple of traditional bunraku marionettes. They will weather yet another attack in Lucas Leyva & Jillian Mayer’s short film Kaiju Bunraku, which screened during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

As per custom dating back to the early 1800s, the puppeteers bringing life to K-B’s characters appear all in black, with their faces hooded. They are performing on an actual stage, apparently before a live audience, but the sets and costumes are so richly crafted, viewers will immediately be transported into the bickering couple’s world. The man and woman live in an unspecified time, presumably pre-Twentieth Century, except they understand only too well the poisonous effects of the radiation released on their environment from the constant kaiju assaults. Like Sisyphus, they ordinarily just pick up the pieces of their lives and carry-on until the next kaiju barges through. However, the man might finally reach his breaking point this time around.

Although fans will say it is not canonical, K-B arguably represents the first Mothra film to make it to Sundance. Regardless, the film is wickedly cool in conception and execution, staying true to the spirit of both bunraku theater and Japanese kaiju cinema. The artistry of the Bunraku Bay Puppet Theater is wonderfully refined and hugely entertaining. They really bring out the emotional poignancy of the two characters.

K-B will absolutely leave viewers wanting more bunraku and more kaiju, but the film itself feels entirely self-contained. It is a terrific short that should be a cinch to get programmed at the genre festivals coming later in the year, much like Do No Harm. Enthusiastically recommended for those who appreciate Japanese culture and cult cinema, Kaiju Bunraku premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’17: Bushwick

In New York City, Manhattan does all the work and Staten Island and Queens pay all the property taxes, but Brooklyn always thinks it’s all about them. This time they are right. Red Dawn is about to break out amid the partially gentrified neighborhood in Cary Murnion & Jonathan Milott’s Bushwick, which screened during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Lucy and her boyfriend have ventured into Brooklyn for dinner at her grandmother’s apartment, but you don’t need to know his name, because he ain’t gonna make it very far. While they were in the subway, urban warfare broke out on the streets of Bushwick, but this time it is particularly bad. Suddenly single, Lucy makes a wrong turn into potential rape and murder, but fortunately Stupe the building super is there to save her. Right, he’s a super like Casey Ryback is cook.

Stupe is indeed Marine Corps trained, so he reluctantly agrees to help get Lucy to Grandma’s, before dashing off to Hoboken to check on his wife and son. However, the level of tactical coordination and armaments exhibited by the assailants makes him suspect this is no ordinary day of Brooklyn rioting. After a little “enhanced interrogation,” (remember, that never works, right?), Stupe discovers the truth: a coalition of Southern and border states has invaded Bushwick hoping to force the president to approve their succession demands (of course, that would be Pres. Trump, but whatever).

The first act of Bushwick is actually not bad, notwithstanding the Rope-like faux-single-take gimmick. Dave Bautista Dave Bautista has a big, credible action movie presence and the fact that he is not a superman, but a mortal who is injured quite early in the going could have really distinguished Bushwick. Unfortunately, the film just craters once it elevates ideology over action. Of course, the idea of holding Bushwick hostage is just ridiculous. Frankly, most New Yorkers would say: “that’s all very well, but couldn’t you destroy Williamsburg instead? Or maybe Greenpoint?”

It probably should come as no surprise the second half of Bushwick crashes and burns. Milott & Murnion’s last Sundance selection, Cooties was recut before its eventual theatrical release. Brittany Snow is inoffensive as Lucy, but her hippy-stoner sister Belinda (played by Angelic Zambrana) is like fingernails on the blackboard.

Bushwick is the sort of film that uses the decision of who lives and who dies as stick to beat the audience over the head. It is all an unruly mess, especially since most of the supporting characters are ugly criminal stereotypes, who undercut our sympathy. Not recommended, Bushwick premiered at this year’s Sundance.

Slamdance ’17: Commodity City (short)

Buying wholesale sure seems like the thing to do in China these days and the Yiwu International Trade City is the place to do it. Jessica Kingdon takes viewers inside the sprawling wholesale mall to see tomorrow’s dollar store merchandise today, as well as the people who sell it in the short documentary Commodity City (trailer here), which premiered at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival.

Commodity is definitely the sort of film that could be programmed by the FSLC’s Art of the Real series. However, unlike most non-narrative docu-essays, it is surprisingly bright and colorful. It is slightly surreal to see the various merchants surrounded by cascading plastic flowers and the like, but nobody can fault their merchandising.

Nor can Commodity be casually dismissed as poverty porn. There is a lot of life going on in the mall—and a number of sales are made. Some of the sales staff are pretty attractive and many have their children in tow. Who knows what their margins are, but the Yiwu market is exactly the sort of place where they can make it up in volume, as they say.

Regardless, Yiwu certainly looks like a more pleasant place to work than a Shandong plastic recycling plant. Kingdon, serving as her own cinematographer and co-editor, shows a keen eye for visuals. As a result, general audiences who might otherwise be scared off by its observational aesthetic will actually find it quite accessible. Recommended as a strong festival programming selection, Commodity City screens today (1/30) and Wednesday (2/1) during this year’s IFFRotterdam, following its world premiere at Slamdance ’17, in Park City.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sundance ’17: Deidra & Laney Rob a Train

Cinema practically began with the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train, but ever since 1903’s Great Train Robbery, most train movies involve some sort of larceny. The Tanner sisters will be the next sort-of-great train-robbers. They ought to know better, but desperate times call for desperate measures in Sydney Freeland’s Netflix-produced Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (trailer here), which screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

In the real world, Deidra Tanner would be showered with scholarships as the economically-disadvantaged, African American likely valedictorian of her high school. In Freeland and screenwriter Shelby Farrell’s world, she will have to rob trains to pay her first year’s tuition. Granted, she and sister Laney have the added expense of their mother’s bail. Apparently, mother Marigold just snapped one day at work, taking out her frustrations on a flat-screen TV. Of course, their absconded father is no help financially, but at least old Chet moves back in, to provide some low-stress adult supervision.

Taking matters into their own hands, the sisters start boosting high-end electronic goods from cargo trains laying over in the nearby railyard. Finally, being on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks pays off. However, the rail line’s over-zealous investigator soon starts suspecting the Tanners, based on their proximity and need. Ordinarily, Deidra would be the cautious one and Laney, a Teen Miss Idaho contestant, is the starry-eyed one, but the older sibling has been rather recklessly skimming off their takings to build her college nest egg, unbeknownst to Laney, risking their unity when they will need it most.

D&L often feels like a throwback to 1970s Disney live-action movies, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Granted, the pothead ex-boyfriend who eBays their loot isn’t exactly a classic juvenile Kurt Russell character, but whatever. Generally, there is the same level of characterization and a largely comparable breeziness.

Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow are adequately likable and upbeat as the Tanner Sisters. Missi Pyle probably gets the biggest laughs as Mrs. Fowler, Laney’s pageant coach. Yet, David Sullivan adds the greatest dimension to the film as Chet, the deadbeat dad who finally starts to step up. Unfortunately, the normally reliable Tim Blake Nelson perpetrates the worst kind of Barney Fife shtick as Truman, the railroad flatfoot.

Okay, so D&L is mostly harmless, aside from teaching kids sometimes stealing is okay. Plus, the title will rankle the pedantically inclined—obviously “train” should be plural. Still, it definitely celebrates the family unit—and a relatively traditional one at that. Mildly recommended, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train premiered (strangely enough in the NEXT section) at this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Do No Harm (short)

The Hippocratic Oath is about to get a serious workout and the surgical scalpel will become a lethal martial arts weapon. She is truly a doctor who fights for her patients, but there is a special reason for her ferocity in Roseanne Liang’s Do No Harm (trailer here), by far the best film in the Midnight Shorts Program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

In a private Hongjing hospital, the unnamed doctor is quietly stitching up a gangster, until a rival gang rudely interrupts. They nearly massacre the entire surgical team, but the doctor is tough to kill. Her patient is probably just a bad a thug or maybe even worse, but she will protect him no matter what, racking up a gosh darned impressive body count of her own.

Harm is a super-charged, ultra-gritty action movie in the tradition of hospital shoot ‘em ups like John Woo’s Hard Boiled and Johnnie To’s Three, but Liang averages considerably more mayhem per minute. As the doctor, Marsha Yuen instantly establishes herself as an action figure, but also has sufficient gravitas to be a trusted medical profession. If you were going under the knife, you would want her to be the one in charge of the operation.

The large supporting ensemble of gangsters also have impressive stage-fighting skills and project the appropriate malevolence. Young Emily Tam is also quite effective in her third act appearance. In fact, she and Yuen are so good, the ambiguous ending is rather frustrating. Hopefully, Liang will fix that in the feature version—because this is exactly the sort of short that seems ripe for a longer treatment. Regardless, the butt-kicking is highly entertaining and the credible performances duly reflect the dire stakes. Enthusiastically recommended, Do No Harm should be a cinch to turn up at genre festivals like Fantasia after rocking the Midnight Shorts at this year’s Sundance.

Slamdance ’17: Strad Style

Danny Houck is sort of the Mark Bourchardt or Henry Darger of violin-making, but this outsider luthier might just have a truly great instrument in him. The question is, will the lifelong Ohio resident finish it in time for its expected European premiere. Luthiering looks grungier than you’ve ever seen it before, but the passion is still worthy of old world Cremona in Stefan Avalos’s Strad Style (trailer here), which won both the audience and jury awards for best documentary at the 2017 Slamdance FilmFestival.

Houck never really spells it out, but from what we glean he has struggled with bi-polar disorder throughout his life. Aside from luthiering (which is mostly speculative at this point), he has no discernable source of income. Generally, he lives frugally, but he will not hesitate to purchase tools he deems necessary.

For some reason, Houck is convinced he can replicate the sound of vintage Stradivari and de Gesù violins. Admittedly, he clearly has natural talent, but he doesn’t seem to have any customers yet. However, when he makes the acquaintance of emerging Romanian superstar soloist Razvan Stoica online, Houck convinces the violinist he can deliver a “Strad” quality instrument in time for a high-profile concert in Amsterdam. Yet, it is highly uncertain whether Houck has sufficient resources and can stay in the proper head-space long enough to meet the deadline.

Regardless whether Strad Style launches Houck’s lutherie career or not, it should provide an additional boost to Stoica’s steady climb to international prominence. It might be slightly spoilery to say, but he definitely makes Houck’s work sound great. He also deserves credit for giving an unheralded self-described “nobody” such an opportunity. (Presumably, there are a lot of luthiers out there who would love to say Stoica plays their custom instruments.) In fact, he even used Houck’s violin to record the Strad Style digital EP.

Avalos certainly never whitewashes Houck’s mean living conditions, but he still manages to bring a bit of stylish flair to the proceedings. He pulls off a few wide angle pull-back shots that dramatically illustrate his subject’s rural isolation and the animated recreation of a mouse stealing Houck’s last sound-post is rather amusing. As a result, Strad Style feels like a real film and not just some edited together footage of Houck puttering about his workshop.

Frankly, Strad Style is a rather encouraging film, because we see the eccentric Houck’s devotion to music start to pay-off. Where it leads next remains uncertain, but at least it brought him and Stoica to Park City after their meeting in Amsterdam. Recommended for broad-minded classical music connoisseurs, Strad Style should have many festival screenings ahead of it, after sweeping the doc awards at this year’s Slamdance.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Sundance ’17: Their Finest

Michael Powell and Charles Frend were great filmmakers, but they couldn’t win the war on their own. Catrin Cole will also do her part as a “Rosie the Riveter” of screenwriting. Initially, she is recruited to boost a prospective propaganda film’s appeal to women, but her talent will lead to more substantial contributions in Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Cole thought she was applying for another clerical job, but it was in fact a position writing “slop,” Bechdel Test-passing dialogue, for wartime propaganda films. Evidently, her bosses were impressed by her uncredited newspaper work. Of course, she will remain uncredited on the film and she will necessarily be paid less than her male counterparts. Yet, it is still quite an opportunity.

At first, veteran screenwriter and committed cynic Tom Buckley is less than thrilled to share an office and duties with Cole, but he recognizes her talent relatively quickly. Their mutual attraction will develop more slowly, but in an assuredly steady fashion. Cole will also win over hammy past-his-prime leading man, Ambrose Hilliard, as she helps morph his comically bumbling character into a figure of tragic heroism, while still serving the best interests of the film.

Frankly, the film-within-the-film Cole and company labor to complete actually looks like it would be pretty good, or at least easily watchable if Scherfig and her ensemble made it for reals, which is definitely saying something. Conceived as a chronicle of the Dunkirk evacuation designed to boost British moral and sway still neutral American public opinion, it definitely seems to be in keeping with the tone and aesthetics of the classic Powell, Frend, and Cavalcanti films of the era.

The primary film itself is also quite stirring and genuinely touching. Gemma Arterton takes a completely charming and engaging star-turn as Cole that could potentially raise her profile in America to the level she has reached in the UK. She is like a more vulnerable Rosalind Russell, which we do not say lightly. The romantic chemistry she forges with Sam Claflin’s Buckley always feels like it develops organically. Likewise, her scenes with Hilliard (played with wry zest by Bill Nighy, the acting guy) have the wit and charm of vintage Ealing comedy. Yet, perhaps the biggest laughs come from Jake Lacy, portrayying an American RAF volunteer, cast in Cole’s film for his jawline and real life heroic exploits rather than his painfully awkward line-readings.

To its credit, Their Finest is not the predictable feel good film you might expect. Overall, it will do wonders for viewers’ morale too, but Scherfog and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe stay true to the desperate realities of London during the Blitz. Regardless, it is a pleasure to watch the accomplished ensemble do what they do best, including Jeremy Irons and Richard E. Grant making the most of cameo appearances. It would make a fitting pairing with The King’s Speech with its rousing portrait of the British home front, but with a pinch of feminist commentary unobtrusively sprinkled into the mix. Enthusiastically recommended, Their Finest screens again today (1/28), as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Rumble—Indians Who Rocked the World

Rock & roll definitely appropriated from African Americans, so why not from Native Americans too? In this case, it is more of a case of not getting their proper due. A number of key Native rockers really made rock rock the way it did. Their stories are told in Catherine Bainbridge & Alfonso Maiorana’s Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

From the title and the poster, it should be clear rock guitarist Link Wray holds a special place of significance in Rumble. Bainbridge, Maiorana, and dozens of musicians across genres convincingly make a case that his driving instrumental “Rumble” influenced just about every hard rocker who came after him. It also holds the distinction of being the only instrumental to be banned in the late 1950s rock & roll panic, which perversely warms our jazz hearts (it just goes to show, you don’t need lyrics to move people).

Frankly, Bainbridge & Maiorana tell half a dozen such stories, giving overdue ovations to influential rockers, anyone of which could (and possibly should) be expanded to feature length. However, that gives the film a somewhat patchwork feel. There really is not much of a through-line, except for the periodic guilt trips. At least nobody can say Rumble fails to deliver what it promises.

In fact, one could argue it is rather contemporary, given the section featuring Pat Vegas from
Redbone, whose hit single “Come and Get Your Love” is heard during the opening sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy, which is about as mainstream-crossover as you can get. There is also some good material on bluesy Taj Mahal sideman Jesse Ed Davis and late, great Ozzy drummer Randy Castillo. (In general, one of the most refreshing aspects of the film is its respect for sidemen and an understanding of their contributions.)

Of course, nobody would call Robbie Robertson from The Band unheralded, but here he happens to give some insights into the early days of electric Dylan that fans should appreciate. Likewise, the Native heritage of three towering icons Mildred Bailey, Charley Patton, and Jimi Hendrix are also explored (though the latter gets considerably more screen time).

Rumble tries to shoehorn as much as it can into its 100-some-minute running time, which really isn’t such a terrible documentary filmmaking strategy. It is certainly much more informative and compelling than Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun (co-directed by Bainbridge). If you want to hear Native rockers (and you probably do, whether you realize it or not), Rumble is a good place to start. Recommended for old school rock fans, Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World screens again this afternoon (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Bad Day for the Cut

It is sort of like a Northern Irish western, but instead of looking for the man who shot his pa, Donal is out to kill the chick who had his mum’s head bashed in. It turns out it is part of an IRA feud dating back to the 1970s. Who knew they could hold a grudge so long in those parts? Yet, they most decidedly do in Chris Baugh’s Bad Day for the Cut (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Donal is resigned to be a quiet middle-aged farmer, who lives with his mother and fixes cars on the side, until dear old Florence is murdered in an apparent burglary gone wrong. Shortly thereafter, two thugs try to dispatch Donal in a phony suicide, but the crusty cat is harder to kill than they anticipated. It also helps that Bartosz’s heart really wasn’t in it. His was forced to assist in the hit job by human traffickers holding his sister Kaja. Forging an alliance of convenience that will blossom into trust, Donal and Bartosz follow the chain of gangsters up the ladder to Frankie Pierce, who built a trafficking and prostitution empire out of her father’s old IRA terrorism network.

Baugh and co-screenwriter Brendan Mullin repeatedly emphasize the tragic nature of the unending cycle of revenge-taking. Yet, there sure seems to be a lot of people in Bad Day who need killing. So maybe the real message is you better just finish the job completely, because that last bad guy left alive is ever so likely to come back to haunt you later.

Regardless, Nigel O’Neill is all kinds of awesome as salt-of-the-earth Donal. He broods like a monster, yet still remains believably unassuming. He is the kind of dude who will convince you Nixon was right about riling up the quiet majority. It is definitely a bad idea in Donal’s case. This is not a buddy movie by any stretch, but the co-conspirator chemistry he forges with Józef Pawlowski’s Bartosz evolves in credibly engaging ways.

Bad Day is also blessed with several great villains starting with Susan Lynch, who plays Pierce with wonderfully foul-mouthed Cruella De Vil flamboyance. She is ably assisted by Stuart Graham as her natty right-hand man. Plus, David Pearse (Grabbers, Zonad) gets to do his weaselly thing as Gavigan, Pierce’s first lieutenant unlucky enough to fall into Donal’s hands.

According to Bad Day, revenge is like money and good looks—you can never have too much. Nevertheless, Baugh certainly isn’t mucking around with this hard-nosed morality play. He stages some brutally intense action scenes, often exploiting whatever common household items might be at hand. It is a lean, mean killing machine, but it definitely has a moral center. Highly recommended for fans of payback movies, Bad Day for the Cut screens again today (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sundance ’17: Rememory

Without our memories, we wouldn’t have our guilt, jealousy, and resentments—all the stuff that makes us human. It would seem the messy combination above also contributed to the death of noted memory specialist Dr. Gordon Dunn. Unfortunately, Dunn’s new game-changing invention is also missing, prompting the mysterious Sam Bloom to conduct his own investigation in Mark Palansky’s Rememory (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

It is not clear whether Bloom really was a friend of Dunn’s or if he simply hoping the Macguffin device would help him process his emotional issues. Clearly, Bloom blames himself for the death of his rock-star brother, because he was behind the wheel at the time of the fatal accident. This looks like a perfect case for Dunn’s treatment. His invention records and plays back memory with flawless accuracy, stripping away the distortions we layer on over the years. According to Dunn, viewing painful memories in this fashion is cathartic, but at least one disgruntled patient vehemently begs to differ. As a further complication, Dunn had begun tweaking his device after documenting a number of unfortunate side effects.

Of course, the agitated Todd is seen furtively leaving Dunn’s office on the fateful night in question. So is his spurned lover Wendy, who is also rather disappointed Dunn used a number of her emotionally charged memories in his Steve Jobs-style product launch, without prior permission. Tracking down the memory VCR would certainly help Bloom crack the case, but it might not necessarily cure what ails him.

It is hard to explain why, but Rememory does not feel like a Sundance film. It is built around an intriguing premise, but Palansky never delves too deeply into issues of memory and identity. Nevertheless, the noir style is quite appealing. Game of Thrones fans will also be happy to hear Peter Dinklage is terrific as Bloom. It is a moody but understated turn that proves he can carry a film. His scenes with Julia Ormond playing Dunn’s slightly estranged widow are especially rich and laden with complicated chemistry. The late Anton Yelchin (who had two films at Sundance this year) is also twitchy and jangly, like a raw nerve ending, as poor desperate Todd. Plus, Martin Donovan is perfectly cast as the smooth-talking Dunn, but unfortunately there is no opportunity for a proper scene with him and Dinklage together.

Rememory is a reasonably entertaining film, but it is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Regardless, it is a pleasure to watch pros like Dinklage and Ormond do their thing. Sadly, it also takes on additional irony as one of Yelchin’s final films that happens to be all about memory and grief. Recommended overall for fans of social-psychological science fiction, Rememory screens again tomorrow (1/28) at Sundance Mountain Resort and Sunday (1/29) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Pop Aye

Thana is definitely experiencing a mid-life crisis, but he buys an elephant instead of a sports car. It’s a guilt thing rather than a Thai thing per se. Parking him in Bangkok will be a challenge, so the architect and his pachyderm light out on a road trip in Singaporean Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

These are not happy days for Thana. His marriage to the haughty Bo is on the rocks and his most famous commission is about to fall under the wrecking ball. However, he comes alive when he spies a shabby huckster mistreating a former circus elephant. In fact, Thana is convinced this is his provincial family’s former elephant, Pop Aye (think “the sailor man,” but without any potential copyright infringement). To do right by the beast he apparently once wronged, Thana commences a road trip to his Uncle Peak’s country home. Along the way, they encounter scheming exploiters, Zenned out tricksters, and transgendered performers. This is indeed Thailand.

Right, so basically Pop Aye is like The Protector films starring Tony Jaa, but without the martial arts. It also left out most of the cutesy quirk you might expect in an elephant road movie. Frankly, the tone of the film really is closer to the Protector franchise than the embarrassingly Bill Murray vehicle, Larger than Life. Many of the backwater byways Thana and Pop Aye travel are undeniably dark and gritty. Tan’s visuals, focusing on a man and his elephant even get a little trippy at times, at least for non-Thais.

Sad-eyed former musician Thaneth Warakulnukroh is scrupulously reserved but deeply compelling as the architect in crisis. Penpak Sirikul also brings unusual dimension to the henpecking Bo. However, Bong inevitably steals the show as Pop Aye, just like W.C. Fields would have predicted.

Pop Aye is a quiet film, but you would not describe it as happy-go-lucky. To the contrary, Tan quite assuredly maintains a distinctive note of sadness all the way through. She also briefly evokes 1980s nostalgia with a video tribute to Thana’s soon to be demolished shopping center. Altogether, it is a deceptive simple film of considerable maturity. Recommended for discerning viewers, Pop Aye screens again tonight (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Kung Fu Yoga: Jackie Chan Goes Bollywood

It is a martial arts film deliberately crafted to support Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” neo-Silk Road-sphere of influence policy. It is also a tomb-raiding film without tomb-raiding, Instead, world famous archaeologist “Jack Chan” risks life and limb to recover lost artifacts for the greater glory of China. In addition to physical danger and extreme elements, he must also deal with deceptions and double-crosses in Stanley Tong’s Kung Fu Yoga (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

When a highly regarded and impressively limber Indian archaeologist requests Chan’s help tracking down a treasure lost during the Journey to the West era, he can hardly say no. Along with his teaching assistants and Jianguo an old crony who specializes in remote petroleum drilling, Chan globe-trots off the China-India border, to follow the clues on an ancient map. Unbeknownst to them, the well-heeled descendant of the rebel Magadha army lies in wait to ambush Chan’s team. It was his ancestor who lost the fabulous treasure, so he intends to steal it back to restore the family honor.

However, the real treasure remains buried somewhere deeper within India. To find it, both parties will have to acquire the artifact stolen by Jones, the son of Chan’s late friend and colleague. Unfortunately, Jones has put it up for auction in Dubai, the conspicuous consumption capitol of the world.

Granted, KFY is a little wacky, but it is not a full-on goofball spectacle in the mode of Chuen Chan’s 1979 Kung Fu vs. Yoga. Arguably, the sequence in which Jack[ie] Chan pursues a car chase with a not so tame lion in the back seat of his appropriated SUV harkens back to the madcap spirit of vintage Chan movies. Tong also makes Dubai look like an absolutely horrible, nauseatingly shallow place to visit and an even worse place to live.

Chan mostly acts two-thirds his age in KFY, even checking into the hospital at one point. Aarif Rahman’s Jones displays some solid chops, carrying a disproportionate share of the martial arts load, while Eric Tsang is about as shticky as you would expect as Jianguo. Disha Patani is certainly a good sport flirting with Chan as the secret Indian princes Ashmita. However, Mu Qimiya matches and maybe exceeds her yoga flexibility and screen appeal as Chan’s assistant Nuomin.

There is a good deal of corn in KFY, but there are also a handful of gleefully outlandish action scenes, including one set in a cage full of hyenas (beasts are definitely beastly in this Chan outing). It closes with a Bollywood number which is a cliché, but it is still good, clean fun. It can get silly, but never in the way that makes loyal fans gag. Recommended as a fluffy, harmless romp, Kung Fu Yoga opens today (1/27) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sundance ’17: The Discovery

Science is still essentially agnostic. It makes no promises of harps and angels. However, Dr. Thomas Harber claims to have proof that after death, human consciousness leaves for a different plane of existence, the details of which remain unknown. As a result, tens of millions of people have committed suicide in anticipation of a fresh start. Yet, karma is still karma in Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Forty million plus have already taken their lives after “The Discovery,” but Harber is not inclined to take responsibility or show remorse. After all, they will go on somewhere, right? Perhaps he is also somewhat desensitized to suicide after his wife took her own life, pre-Discovery. Of course, that is why he is so driven to establish the specifics of the afterlife or whatever.

Harber’s semi-estranged son Will has come to his cult-like research institute hoping to convince the scientist to recant his claims. On the ferry to chilly, off-season Newport, Will encounters the mysterious Isla. Having sensed something dark hanging over her, Will manages to intervene during her suicide attempt. His father rather takes a liking to her too, so he agrees to take her on as a research subject/associate/cult member. Meanwhile, the junior Harber makes a discovery of his own that not necessarily contradicts his father’s, but radically alters its implications.

In terms of its metaphysical aesthetics, Discovery is not wildly incompatible with Matheson’s What Dreams May Come. It is safe to say karma plays a role, but it would be spoilery to spell it out. Still, it is probably safe to say McDowell and Justin Lader’s screenplay takes a radically unexpected turn, but it will not leave viewers dispirited. Quite the contrary.

Frankly, Jason Segel and Rooney Mara do some of their best work to date as Will and Isla. They are both convincingly smart and damaged, so it really feels like their relationship develops organically. Although it almost goes without saying, Robert “Sundance Kid” Redford’s Dr. Harber has all kinds of gravitas and presence. Yet, maybe the biggest surprise is Jesse Plemons’ humanistic, sneaks-up-on-you turn as Will Harber’s deceptively slacker-ish brother Toby.

The Discovery is an unusually smart film that features some provocative speculation but never skimps on character development. It is a worthy follow-up to McDowell’s crackerjack debut, The One I Love. Highly recommended, The Discovery screens again tomorrow (1/27) and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Icarus

Unlike most subjects of documentaries premiering at Sundance this year, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov was not available for post-screening Q&A’s. That is because he is in Witness Protection. Dr. Rodchenkov and the Federal government believed he was targeted by the Putin regime for assassination, perhaps much like several of his colleagues who suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. Before he went underground, Dr. Rodchenkov told his story to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and filmmaker Bryan Fogel. As a result, Fogel radically reshaped his proposed doping documentary into the riveting expose, Icarus, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

As a high-performing amateur cyclist, Fogel originally conceived the film as a guerilla chronicle of his undercover attempt to conduct his own doping regimen in the mode of Lance Armstrong. He was referred to Dr. Rodchenkov, because the director of the Russian Anti-Doping Center was considered sufficiently maverick to serve as Fogel’s advisor. As Fogel and Rodchenkov develop trust and rapport, rumors start to swirl regarding the legitimacy of Russia’s record medal haul at the Sochi games. Soon, Dr. Rodchenkov is directly implicated in those allegations. At that point, the doctor levels with Fogel: he oversaw a systemic doping campaign across all sports on the direct orders of Putin’s trusted deputies. He now fears for his own life.

In the scenes that follow, Icarus becomes the film CitizenFour was hyped to be, but can’t hold a candle to. After assisting Dr. Rodchenkov’s escape to America, Fogel engineers the release of his story to the press and WADA. Dr. Rodchenkov packed light, but he wisely brought along hard drives and cell phones loaded with proof.

Icarus is shocking in many ways, starting with how poorly Dr. Rodchenkov’s story was reported in the West. We mostly just accepted news of the Russian doping scandal as par for the course, following in the alleged tradition of the old school Communist Olympic training machines. However, the “smoking gun” conclusiveness of Dr. Rodchenkov’s evidence is stunning. Yet, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to ignore it, presumably out of deference to Putin’s vodka and caviar. Aside from Putin and his FSB enforcers, the biggest villain in Icarus is undoubtedly Thomas Bach, the cravenly hypocritical IOC president.

Unlike Snowden (with whom Dr. Rodchenkov is directly compared with), viewers can feel the Russian whistleblower’s life is constantly in palpable danger during the doc’s second and third acts. Yet, there are even graver stakes involved. Fogel trenchantly points out Putin invaded Ukraine while riding a wave a nationalist popularity largely based on Russia’s Sochi triumphs.

Granted, there is a little too much of Fogel doing prep work for his original conception of the documentary, with him in the center. However, once the focus shifts to Dr. Rodchenkov, the film becomes taut, tense, suspenseful, and downright revelatory. This is truly gutsy documentary filmmaking. Icarus could very well be the motivation for the hacking of this year’s Sundance, if it was not the Chinese Communist Party in retribution for the screenings of the outstanding Joshua: Teenager vs.Superpower. (Such scenarios might sound petty, but that is how dictatorships roll.) Very highly recommended, Icarus screens today (1/26) at the Sundance Mountain Resort and this Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sophie and the Rising Sun: Mixed Romance in 1941

Ralph Carr was not FDR’s favorite governor. The Colorado chief executive was adamantly opposed to the New Deal. He was also the only political leader of any consequence who criticized the Japanese internment policy. Gov. Carr did his best to welcome Japanese-Americans relocated to his state. Perhaps things might have been easier for Sophie Willis and Grover Ohta if they had met in Colorado. Instead, fate brings them together in segregated, true blue democrat Salty Creek, South Carolina, in the Fall of 1941. Interracial romance is strictly taboo in the small town, but the wounded lovers will take their chances in Maggie Greenwald’s Sophie and the Rising Sun (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

During a misadventure in New York, Ohta was badly beaten and deposited in a southbound bus that unceremoniously dumps him out in Salty Creek. Anne Morrison reluctantly agrees to host the mystery man everyone assumes is Chinese during his convalescence, but is delighted to find they share a passion for gardening. It turns out, Ohta also shares a love of painting with Morrison’s socially awkward friend, Sophie Willis. She is still too young to be a proper spinster, but after her fiancé was killed in WWI, her prospects in the narrow-minded and narrow-streeted burg are decidedly limited.

They are probably meant to be together, but Pearl Harbor really throws a spanner in the works. It also inspires another severe beating. Even the tough-talking Morrison wavers in her broad-mindedness, but not Willis. Morrison’s no-nonsense new housekeeper Salome also keeps things in perspective, but Ruth Jeffers, the town’s wildly judgmental busybody is a different story entirely.

Greenwald has such a fine feeling for the era and the setting, you can practically smell palmetto trees and hear crickets chirping. However, the narrative (adapted from Augusta Trobaugh’s novel) is so predictable, beat-by-beat, nothing comes remotely close to surprising even the most distraction-prone viewer. It is a shame Greenwald plays it so agonizingly safe, because the performances of Julianne Nicholson (a survivor of the Osage County horror show) and Takashi Yamaguchi are really quite lovely. Their chemistry is potent yet delicate—and absolutely never forced.

Margo Martindale also gives awards caliber work as Morrison, deftly balancing her down-home flamboyance and gutsy defiance. Lorraine Toussaint nicely handles some pivotal reveals as Salome. Unfortunately, Diane Ladd and the rest of the supporting cast seem to be engaged in a contest to see who can play the most unpalatable, over-the-top Southern stereotype.

Rising looks and sounds great, thanks to Wolfgang Held’s nostalgically evocative cinematography and David Mansfield’s distinctive score. For extra added authenticity (and a rare bit of fun), there is also a swingingly period-appropriate contribution from Vince Giordano. Frustratingly, scene after scene come like totally on-the-nose teachable moments. There is no subtlety, no irony, and no ambiguity. A little bit of one or all three would have greatly deepened its impact. Good looking and well-intentioned, Sophie and the Rising Sun earns a mixed recommendation, primarily for audiences that will respond to its unmistakable message, when it opens tomorrow (1/27) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sundance ’17: 78/52

Marli Renfro is a former Playboy Bunny and cover model who participated in truly groundbreaking cinematic history. She was Janet Leigh’s body in Psycho and there was quite a bit of doubling for her to do—78 set-ups and 52 cuts in total—and what cuts they were. The construction and legacy of the iconic/notorious shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are lovingly analyzed in Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sure, there are knowing homages (like the prologue to Scream), but no film has really come close to the shock of presumptive star Janet Leigh’s first act death in Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece. Of course, she was dispatched while taking a shower. If you haven’t seen Psycho several times already than shame on you, but keep in mind Philippe will “spoil” Norman Bates’ big secret almost immediately. This is a film for film lovers that presupposes intimate familiarity with Psycho, the Hitchcock canon in general, and the slasher and Giallo films it inspired.

Technically, Philippe shoehorns in some wider discussions of Psycho, such as the rainy driving sequence that in many ways foreshadows the shower scene in question. He also gives some solid “making of” background. Sadly, neither Hitch nor Leigh is still with us, but Renfro stills looks great and is happy to discuss her role in the film. Without question, her recollections will be the most newsworthy for fans. In addition, Philippe also incorporates commentary from a host of genre superstars, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Karyn Kusama, Richard Stanley, Leigh Wannell, Mick Garris, and Elijah Wood.

Frankly, there are not a lot of groundbreaking revelations in 78/52, but Philippe’s deep dive provides a useful methodology for taking stock of the film’s artistry and cultural influence. Some diehards might complain that composer Bernard Herrmann’s instantly recognizable themes get somewhat short shrift. He also mercifully spares Gus Van Sant an awkward discussion of his ill-conceived 1998 shot-by-shot remake.

Without question, Psycho is one of the most important genre films ever made and the shower murder is clearly its defining scene (although some of us will argue the epilogue in which Simon Oakland explains it all is a close second). Philippe’s feature-length analysis easily sustains itself and the decision to render the film in black-and-white was rather inspired. Recommended with affection for fans of Hitchcock and nearly every subsequent psycho-stalker film, 78/52 screens again tomorrow (1/26) in Park City and Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Slamdance ’17: Future ’38

There were no flying cars in the future, nor did we enter a Star Trekian age of peace. We should know, we’re living in it, or at least we soon will be. It is an exercise in retro-futurism, imagining the year 2018 as seen from 1938. Our point-of-view comes from Essex, an intrepid time-traveler who hopes to avert the messy world war brewing in Europe. However, the Germans might not be a defanged as everyone assumes during the years Essex skips over in Jamie Greenberg’s Future ‘38, which premiered at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Thanks to Essex, there was/will not be a war. Instead, we entered era of Pax Formica, ushered in by a demonstration of our secret weapon. It is/was much like the atom bomb, but it was fueled by Formica instead of plutonium or uranium. The tricky thing is it takes eighty years for the Formica core to build up enough power. The solution is obvious. Stash the super-Formica in a secure vault and send Essex eighty years into the future to retrieve it.

Essex arrives in the lobby of a flop-house run by Banky, a glamorous tough cookie, who finds herself strangely attracted to Essex, in a Tracy-Hepburn kind of way. Although she does not believe his time travel mumbo jumbo, she humors him anyway. Thanks to the ticker-tape version of the internet, they learn the old War Department building has been converted into the new German embassy, so naturally they will crash their reception. However, the Germans have some ideas about rewriting history of their own.

Future ’38 is presented as an ostensibly rediscovered lost film, introduced by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Frankly, its retro-futurism is much more informed by contemporary attitudes than those of the 1930s. However, some of technical mash-ups are amusing (smart phones still placing calls through operators and the like). The look of the picture is also terrific, thanks to the way it so perfectly approximates the look of early Technicolor film stock.

Frankly, the first half of the film feels rather precious and gimmicky, but viewers should stick with it, because Greenberg ties everything together surprisingly cleverly in the third act. It legitimately pays off down the stretch, after the game co-leads win us over. Nick Westrate and Betty Gilpin have a good handle on the dialogue’s necessary rat-a-tat-tat tempo, playing off each other quite nicely. Gilpin is particularly charismatic, channeling her inner Rosalind Russell.

It starts slow, but it steadily builds steam. One might argue it also reminds us of the dangers of complacency when it comes to protecting our freedoms, but that is probably a stretch. It is really just a goofy and ultimately quite sweet film. Without question, it has more heart and substance than Space Station 76 (an obvious comp movie). Recommended for fans of time travel films and Golden Age science fiction, Future ’38 screens again tomorrow (1/26), during this year’s Slamdance.