Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Headshot: You Can’t Keep Iko Uwais Down

You have to respect a film that knows martial arts and Moby-Dick. Well, at least it knows the first page—and plenty of ways to administer a good beat-down. While he has amnesia, an attractive intern’s mysterious patient will be known as Ishmael, but his true self might not be so pleasant to meet. Nevertheless, he will do whatever it takes to rescue her from his former associates in the Mo Brothers (Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto)’s Headshot (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Mr. Lee, as he is simply known, is about to break out of prison—and the carnage will be breathtaking. Around the same time, a comatose body with a cranial bullet wound washes up in a fisherman’s net. During her residency in a provincial clinic, the Jakarta-based Ailin nurses him back to health. She dubs him Ishmael because she is reading Melville and takes a liking to him when he comes to. Ishmael remembers little, but periodically he gets violent flashbacks, featuring Mr. Lee and his loyal lieutenant Rika. Even though he suspects he is kind of a bad cat, Ishmael (or Abdi as Mr. Lee and his men knew him) is determined to protect Ailin. He is therefore somewhat bent out of shape when Mr. Lee’s thugs kidnap her to flush him out.

From here on out, it is essentially pedal-to-the-metal butt-kicking. Of course, the cops are no help. They even cuff him up, making him even more vulnerable to Mr. Lee’s hit squads, but it hardly matters. This is a man who could shake off a bullet to the head—and he wasn’t even that motivated at the time.

With action choreography credited to “Team Uwais,” Headshot is an adrenaline shot through the breastplate very much in the tradition of his breakout hit franchise The Raid. Although Yayan “Mad Dog” Ruhian is absent this time around, Julie “Hammer Girl” Estelle is on-board as Rika, one of the deadliest of Mr. Lee’s henchfolk.

The fight scenes offer no quarter, incorporating all sorts off back-breaking, skull crushing moves. It gets brutal, in a spectacularly cinematic way. Although it represents a departure from the Mo Brothers’ previous horror films (like the disturbingly vicious Killers), Headshot most likely boasts a higher body-count. In fact, they stage two flat-out massacre scenes (at least one of which is admittedly somewhat unsettling).

Still, there is no denying Uwais’s skills. He also builds some appealing chemistry with Chelsea Islan’s Ailin. She is quite a discovery, playing the prospective doctor with warmth and intelligence. As Rika, Estelle still keeps pace with Uwais, even showing some dramatic range this time around, while Sunny Pang chews the scenery with fierce conviction as Mr. Lee. Plus, several dozen supporting players and stunt performers sport some impressive chops of their own as they put themselves through the meat grinder for our entertainment.

Some might confuse the Mo Brothers’ Headshot with Pen-ek Ratanuang’s Thai crime drama Headshot, which is also a terrific film. Basically, our position is any Asian action film called Headshot is probably worth seeing. In the case of the Indonesian Headshot, nobody was taking half-measures. The Mo Brothers, Uwais, and Estelle throw it down with authority. Highly recommended for martial arts fans, Headshot opens this Friday (3/3) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Eyeless in Gaza: Exposing Systemic Media Bias Against Israel

It was undoubtedly unsettling when Hamas started launching rockets aimed at Israel next to the Associated Press’s Gaza headquarters, but it sure should have made it easy to report the news. Yet, the incident was never mentioned in any of their dispatches. They also spiked any reference to the Hamas gunmen who stormed their office in a blatant act of intimidation. Matt Friedman would know. He was present for both events. He is one of a handful of Western journalists who expose the media’s deliberately and knowingly biased reporting of the Gaza conflict, siding against Israel and with Hamas in Martin Himel’s Eyeless in Gaza (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

The Western media was right about one thing: war crimes were committed in Gaza. They just blamed the wrong combatants. By any standard of international law, the use of human shields constitutes a war crime. This was Hamas’s primary strategy in Gaza, but only a handful of media outlets, notably from India and Italy, reported on the practice. Callously and cynically, Hamas intentionally tried to maximize civilian casualties in Gaza, as part of their concerted propaganda campaign. In fact, the IDF did its best to warn the local populace of their impending counter-attacks, but Hamas pressured them to stay and become cannon fodder.

Meanwhile, the terrorist organization continued to rain down Qassam rockets on Israeli towns like Sderot. Those crude projectiles are essentially flying pipe bombs—too unpredictable for legitimate military applications, but perfect for inflicting pain on civilian populations. Given their nature, a high percentage of Qassam rockets fell short into Gaza, but who do you think got the blame for that?

In some footage, Western journalists literally ignore or mischaracterize Qassam rockets launched mere feet from their positions. They have also grossly under-reported the network of “terror tunnels” Hamas built under Gaza for the express purpose of attacking Israeli civilians (with Western “humanitarian” aid funds). Yet, perhaps most revealing is the radio silence on the plight of nearly 160,000 self-identifying Palestinians who have been dispossessed and in many cases killed by Assad and Daesh during the Syrian civil war. Contrast that with the chorus of protests for about 2,000 killed during the Gaza conflict. So much for the media’s sympathy for Syrian refugees.

Himel is a trenchant interviewer who has a knack for getting the cold hard facts out of his subjects—in many cases more so than they probably intended. He also assembles some pointedly telling footage from media reports that are almost Orwellian in their disconnection from reality. Although only running an economical fifty-one minutes, it is a damning indictment of media malpractice. It is truly impossible to watch Eyeless and not be convinced the Western media has betrayed all its principles, recklessly siding with an illiberal terrorist faction, for the sake of a preconceived victimization narrative. Highly recommended for anyone seeking clarity and insight on the Israeli-Hamas conflict, Eyeless in Gaza is now available via digital VOD platforms, including Vimeo.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Cinequest ’17: Real Artists (short)

Are all the screenplays slavishly written according to a pre-conceived “beat sheet” really so different from what the storied Semaphore animation studio practices? It certainly has produced hits, but it might be a bit much for aspiring animator Sophia Baker to take in when she interviews with the accomplished chief animator in Cameo Wood’s short film Real Artists (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Cinequest Film & VR Festival.

Baker has always wanted to make movies—preferably for Semaphore. Anne Palladon appears to be willing to give her that chance, but she will have to do it the Semaphore way. What is the secret of their success? You will have to sign a NDA before she can tell you about it. Apparently, Semaphore is more “security-conscious” than Amazon, Google, and the now bankrupt Solyndra combined. It is safe to say their techniques are speculative, but not to a very great extent.

Real Artists is the second short adapted from a story by science fiction writer and translator Ken Liu, following last year’s Beautiful Dreamer. It is also one of several recent shorts using genre premises to explore big picture ideas, starring Tamlyn Tomita (from The Joy Luck Club amongst numerous other credits), like Seppuku. Frankly, she makes Palladon look like a tough boss, but perhaps a corporate leader you can believe in.

Neither the near-future technology nor the final twist are hugely shocking, but Real Artists comes in a super slick package and it really invites us to question the nature of the films we see. Arguably, in the focus-grouped world we live in, film production is already not so far removed from the techniques of Semaphore. It is also rather refreshing to watch Tomita and Tiffany Hines verbally circle each other as the co-leads.

For a short film, Real Artists boasts an impressive cast, along with Liu’s Hugo-winning pedigree. It also represents a lot of encouraging trends, particularly the adaptation of literate science fiction short stories that require little or no special effects. Recommended for sf fans and those who recognize any of the personnel involved, Real Artists screens this Thursday (3/2), Saturday (3/4) next Monday (3/6), and the following Friday (3/10), as part of this year’s Cinequest in San Jose and Redwood City.

Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu

Most Japanese social critics agree Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame played a crucial role bringing about the legal criminalization of prostitution. It was an issue that held personal significance for the auteur, due to the fate of Suzuko, an older sister sold into a geisha house when their father’s business plan to capitalize on the shorter-than-expected Russo-Japanese War collapsed. Echoes of his family experience can also be heard throughout Mizoguchi’s 4K restored masterpiece, Ugetsu (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Ugetsu is based on two stories drawn from Akinari Ueda’s Ugetsu Monogatari, a collection of traditional Ming-era Chinese supernatural tales adapted to pre-Edo era Japan, but you would hardly know it from first thirty minutes or so. Instead of rushing into the ghostly encounters, Mizoguchi takes his time introducing his primary characters. Genjūro is a provincial potter, who recognizes the impending war brings an opportunity to sell all his stock at premium prices. Much to the chagrin of his faithful wife Miyagi, Genjūro’s success encourages him to press his luck. While most of the village is primed to evacuate, Genjūro maintains his kiln fires, hoping to finish enough stock for an even more profitable trading excursion.

He enlists the assistance of his neighbor, Tōbei, who has developed an almost Quixotic ambition to become a samurai. To do so, he will need to purchase armor and a spear, which he hopes to cover with his share of the pottery profits. His wife Ohama considers his plan tantamount to madness. Even when the soldiers overrun their village, the two neighbors cling to their vain obsessions. As a result, they will tragically leave their wives in precariously vulnerable positions. However, Genjūro will also jeopardize his very soul when he falls under the spell of a temptress ghost during his second attempt to sell his wares in the provincial capital at inflated wartime prices.

One look at the ethereal Machiko Kyō is enough for us to tell she is a ghost, but Genjūro is bewitched. In fact, Kyō’s eerie look, including long flowing garments and tresses, would influence nearly every Japanese ghost film that followed Ugetsu. Yet, Mizoguchi’s film is just as much a work of socially conscious cinema as it is a Kwaidan-esque yarn. The peasantry suffers terribly at the hands of warring samurai in Ugetsu, especially the women, but as is always the case in grand tragedy, their downfall is precipitated by the men’s overreaching ambitions.

Mizoguchi regular Kinuyo Tanaka is utterly heartbreaking as Miyagi. Her haunting performance (so to speak) will literally have you doubting things you have previously seen with your own eyes in a pivotal third act scene.  Yet, Mitsuko Mito arguably offers an even more forceful indictment of men’s follies, as the wronged Ohama. Despite the power of their work, it is Kyō who became the iconic face of the film. Masayuki Mori makes Genjūro a figure of acute pathos, but as was often the case with Mizoguchi films, it is the women who define Ugetsu.

Ugetsu is one of a handful of Japanese films, along with Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and Shindō’s Onibaba and Kuroneko that prove supernatural “horror” films can indeed reach the level of high art. It is one of the films everyone ought to catch up with, especially now that it has been so carefully restored. Very highly recommended for anyone who takes cinema seriously, Ugetsu opens this Friday (3/3) in New York, at Film Forum.

Cut to the Chase: Shreveport Noir

It is a really bad idea to run up gambling debts with a gangster simply known as “The Man.” It is a particularly bad idea to do so in Louisiana, where a lot of the rules do not apply so much. Of course, a lowlife like Max Chase specializes in really bad decisions. He assumed his sister, an assistant district attorney would protect him from consequences, but he will have to save her instead when she disappears under mysterious circumstances in Blayne Weaver’s Cut to the Chase (trailer here), which screens tomorrow in New York and next Monday in Los Angeles.

After an ill-advised double-or-nothing bet, Chase now has a week to pay The Man $3,000—or else. Yet, he is not even trying to raise the money or get out of town. He just carries on with his degenerate life style. Unfortunately, he misses the frantic calls from his frantic sister Isobel during his drunken debauchery.

It turns out Izzy Chase had an abusive ex-boyfriend in her private life and had just been assigned to lead the DA’s case against The Man in her professional life, so there is no shortage of people Chase can get mad at. Thanks to the spooked DA (who was also seeing Isobel on the side), Chase tracks down Nola Barnes, the star witness against The Man to forge an alliance of convenience. Unfortunately, Chase is getting played left and right, but he is still dangerous in a bull in a china shop kind of way.

The most important thing to take into consideration regarding Cut is Lance Henriksen, The Man himself, plays The Man. Knowing Henriksen is on-board guarantees the film a solid baseline of genre entertainment. As his own lead, Weaver is certainly willing to act sad and disreputable, perhaps succeeding too well. Lyndie Greenwood also shows some impressive fierceness as Barnes. Frankly, the entire film is well cast. The problem is the narrative often feels very small time.

When watching Cut, it is hard not to think of the recent tragic death of Bill Paxton, who made a specialty of playing colorfully flawed characters in Southern noirs like this. Weaver is no Paxton, but he is not bad, while Henriksen reliably does his thing, being The Man. Darkly diverting but not exactly essential, Cut to the Chase screens tomorrow (2/28) in New York, at the AMC Loews 19thStreet.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscars 1976: The Man Who Skied Down Everest

Win an Oscar, attain immortality. That is what media coverage of the Academy Awards generally suggests. However, without the headline above, could you have named the best documentary winner from 1976? Honestly, it is a decent film, but it is not exactly on the tip of a lot of tongues, like so many forgotten statuette winners. At least Bruce Nyznik & Lawrence Schiller’s The Man Who Skied Down Everest (trailer here) has been restored by the Academy and recently released on DVD and BluRay from the Film Detective.

Yuichiro Miura twice became the oldest man to summit Everest in 2003 and 2013, but in the mid-1970s he famous for, you know, skiing down it. His May 1970 expedition was eventful and duly documented by Nyznik, Schiller, and their intrepid cinematographer Mitsuji Kanau (who also shot the Sandakan 8, which was nominated for best foreign language film at the same Oscars). As those who have seen subsequent Everest documentaries understand, just getting to the mountain is a grueling trek. Unfortunately, their party met with tragedy when an ice shelf collapsed under six Sherpas.

Miura does in fact question whether his mad scheme can still be justified in light of their deaths. We hear much from him throughout the film, yet we rarely really truly hear from him. The voice-overs are entirely adapted from his expedition journals, but instead of relying on his voice and subtitles, we hear Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL 9000) narrate the English translations. This was probably considered a much more accessible strategy at the time, but it makes it far more difficult to forge an emotional connection with Miura. Rain’s rich English-sounding Canadian voice arguably is not so well suited to Miura’s Zen-like meditations, making them sound more self-serious than they probably should.

Still, there is no question the filmmakers captured some extreme alpinism. Frankly, it is a little surprisingly some distributor did not think to re-release the Oscar winning doc during the mini-boomlet for mountaineering films a few years ago. Man Who Skied is particularly notable because you can argue the 1970 skiing campaign was either a thrilling victory or an agonizing defeat based on the climatic event itself.

It is entirely possible the filmmakers would make different aesthetic decisions if they were making Man Who Skied today. Nevertheless, it remains a film with considerable merits (including its respect for the Sherpas). It might jolly well have been the best documentary released in 1975, for what that’s worth.

If you want to see how fleeting supposed “fame” can be, checkout the video of the producers receiving their Oscars from Beau Bridges and Marilyn Hassett. Bridges and who? Hassett co-starred with Bridges in The Other Side of the Mountain, which at that time was one of Universal’s top-grossing films ever. She won the best newcomer award at that year’s Golden Globes, without generating any controversy. The Academy declined to nominate her, but in retrospect it seems almost suspiciously apt they chose the stars of a skiing drama to give the documentary award in a year when a skiing doc won. Regardless, it is worth remembering as this year’s presenters make their tiresome political statements how short the shelf life for fame and Oscar glory can be.

In contrast, Miura did really went out and did something. It was probably crazy and ill-advised, but he ran the risks just as much as his unfortunate Sherpas—and he keeps going back out there. Recommended for extreme sports fans, The Man Who Skied Down Everest is now available on DVD and BluRay, from the Film Detective.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Reseeing Iran ’17: 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami

Somehow Abbas Kiarostami found a way to rise above the extreme manifestations of politics and ideology that have bedeviled Iran for decades. He never went into exile (voluntarily or otherwise), yet he openly collaborated with dissident filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rassoulof. He rarely directly addressed contentious issues, yet his focus on children characters is often considered a deliberate strategy to circumvent censorship. With his death, there is no equivalent filmmaker to step into his shoes. Kiarostami’s friend and photographic colleague Seyfolah Samadian splices together some of the fond moments he captured with the master in 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of Reseeing Iran: The 21st Annual Iranian Film Festival in DC.

It is easy to see why Samadian and Kiarostami were friends and collaborators. As fellow photographers, they both shared an appreciation for visual composition. Unfortunately, from a cinematic perspective, Samadian was apparently particularly involved in Kiarostami’s long-take video installation Five Dedicated to Ozu, an ostensive tribute to the Japanese master, which is easily one of the most challenging films in the Kiarostami oeuvre. However, it makes it clear those paddlings of ducks and gaggles of geese did not happen by accident.

If nothing else, 76 Minutes will present a clear picture of Kiarostami’s painstakingly deliberate process of crafting film. Yet, there is nothing neurotic or obsessive about it. Instead, he rather seems to enjoy it. As befits its purpose as a tribute film, Samadian includes many scenes of Kiarostami reciting poetry and laughing with friends. Both subject and toastmaster-documentarian also look like they get a kick out of the meta scenes, as when Samadian films Kiarostami “co-directing” a scene Massoud Kimiai, with Panahi serving as their handheld cinematographer.

There are some interesting insights tucked away in 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds (an accurate reflection of the films running time that also references Kiarostami’s age at the time of his death: 76 years and 15 days), but it is definitely a small, quiet film. Still, the man who helmed minimalist fare such as Five and Shirin would probably approve.

Samadian’s doc has often been paired-up with Kiarostami’s final short film on the festival circuit and such is the case again this weekend. Kiarostami’s Take Me Home is a Red Balloon-esque film that follows a rolling soccer-football through the infinite, Escher-like steps of a picturesque Southern Italian coastal village. The black-and-white cinematography is spectacular and Peter Soleimanipour’s melodic score is snappy and sophisticated, but the computer-enhanced bouncing ball is often distractingly fake looking. Still, it is another film that illustrates how Kiarostami’s photographic sensibilities influenced his films. 

Regardless, Certified Copy remains one of his most wry and rapturously best films. 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami is basically recommended for the auteur’s dedicated admirers when it screens tomorrow (2/26) at the National Gallery of Art, but Certified Copy is recommended for everyone when it screens today (2/25) and Monday (2/27) at the AFI Silver Theatre, as part of Reseeing Iran.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Get Out: Racial Politics, Blumhouse-Style

Rose Armitage’s parents are truly terrifying. They are rich white liberals who would have voted for Obama a third time if they had the chance. That alone sounds pretty creepy, but they go out of their way to be hospitable when Rose brings her African American boyfriend home for a visit. However, they have nefarious ulterior motives for their warm welcome in Jordan Peele’s Blumhouse-produced Get Out (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Armitage promises Chris Washington her parents will not freak out when they meet him and initially they live up to her assurances. Frankly, they might be trying to act a little too cool. Her jerkweed brother Jeremy is a different story, but everyone seems duly embarrassed by him. Washington is slightly put off by the constant offers from Rose’s hypnotherapist mom Missy to stop his smoking habit through post-hypnotic suggestion, but it is the eerily quiet live-in housekeeper and handyman (both African American) who first stir his suspicions.

Washington really starts to get freaked when a missing acquaintance of his TSA buddy Rod Williams turns up at the Armitages’ garden party on the arm of a late middle-aged white woman, acting thoroughly lobotomized. He will snap out of it long enough to provide the titular warning, but by this point the trap is set. Williams and his TSA-honed crime-fighting instincts possibly represent Washington’s best hope, so he should probably start saying his prayers.

Since there is really nothing to satirize in the Trump White House these days, Peele profitably turns his attention towards limousine (or at least McMansion) liberals. As part of the Key & Peele duo, he has relatively little comedy experience, but he makes the transition quite smoothly with Get Out. Of course, many of the laughs come from a dark “you’re in trouble now, dude” kind of place, just like most successful horror comedies. Granted, the actual evil plot afoot is beyond ludicrous, but Peele still gets us to buy in, thanks to the potent feeling of paranoia he so deftly keeps cranking up.

Daniel Kaluuya is serviceable enough as Washington, the not completely clueless but still insufficiently intuitive potential victim. Allison Williams perfectly plays with and off him as Rose Armitage, adding a meta element as the daughter of MSNBC news reader Brian Williams and a cast-member of HBO’s Girls. Similarly, West Wing’s Bradley Whitford (so wonderfully manic in the Broadway revival of Boeing-Boeing) is uncomfortably convincing as the predatory liberal, Dean Armitage. Lil Rel Howery is a bit shticky as Williams, but he still scores a good deal of laughs, often at his own expense. However, it is Betty Gabriel (in her third Blumhouse production) who really brings the weirdness as the disturbingly spaced-out domestic, Georgina.

One might argue Get Out is not nearly as didactic as it has been cracked up to be. Maybe it is an awkward viewing experience if you identify with the Armitages of the world, but if you are coming from a different perspective, it is easy to just laugh at their mayhem. Recommended for its paranoid nuttiness, Get Out opens today (2/24) in New York at multiple locations, including the AMC Empire.

Drifter: Giving Cannibalism a Bad Name

It is the post-apocalyptic near-future or maybe just California today. Cars are worth killing for and so is just about everything else. Yet the cannibals living in a nearly deserted trailer park village can apparently get by just by waiting for prospective food to blow into town. Two desperate brothers will become the special of the day in Chris von Hoffmann’s Drifter (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Miles and Dominic Pierce just got themselves some payback, so they are now on the run. Unfortunately, the more passive Miles had a hole literally blown through his hand. Deml does not look like they would have much medical help but they stop anyway—and they will stay stopped, thanks to the freaky old dude who punctures their tire. Vijah takes them in out of compassion, but she implores the hot-headed Dominic to sit tight and shut up. Unfortunately, that is not how he rolls. Thanks to his blundering, the Pierce Brothers will find themselves on the business end of some torture porn, before one off them gets served up rare.

Drifter is a horribly frustrating film, because the first act shows surprising promise, but it soon craters into a morass of clichéd sadism. The abandoned temp housing and mobile homes are an unsettling sight, perfectly underscored by Nao Sato’s John Carpenter-ish soundscape. Tobias Deml sun-drenched cinematography further heightens the sense of disorientation.

Bizarrely, it is all undone when von Hoffmann has the pack of flesh-eaters execute the more interesting brother, leaving the audience to endure nearly an hour of desensitizing carnage that does not even build up much appreciable suspense. Halfway through, you will just implore the film to end as soon as possible.

It is so obvious when Drifter runs off the rails, you have to wonder how von Hoffmann could let it happen. Oh well, better luck next time. There will indeed most likely be a next time, because you can see some impressive horror movie mise-en-scene work went into Drifter. It just lacks the character and narrative development to match. Not recommended (unless you only watch the first half hour of any given movie), Drifter opens today (2/24) at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood, USA.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lost Cat Corona: Truly Made in NY

A lot of those free “Made in NY” subway posters doled out by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment go to films that do not look so “made in NY,” but that certainly won’t be an issue here. People in the City tend to forget Queens is technically part of Long Island, but it has plenty of street smart neighborhoods and iconic New York sites. From the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park of World’s Fair fame to plenty of back alleys and backyards, a reluctant sad sack searches for his girlfriend’s missing feline in Anthony Tarsitano’s Lost Cat Corona (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Leonard the black cat is missing, probably to make poor Dominic’s life miserable. He had taken the day off to attend the wake for the father of his high school pal Sal, but the domineering Connie insists he find Leonard first. For a while, Dominic’s buddy Ponce offers his dubious help, but all he finds is a paper bad stuffed with cash and a severed ear. As Dominic scours the neighborhood, he crosses paths with some criminal elements. Disappointingly, it seems old Sal the cop is one of them. However, Dominic also re-connects with some decent folks, including his Uncle Sam and Jimmy Pipes, a Vietnam veteran whose Purple Heart was stolen by a local punk kid.

As movies go, LCC is light-weight and wafer-thin, but Ralph Macchio carries it quite well. The Karate Kid survivor was surprisingly funny in the unfairly maligned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead and he exudes an easy everyman charm as Dominic. On the other hand, Gina Gershon is like fingernails on the blackboard as Connie, a stereotypical big-haired hen-pecking Queens drama queen. The large ensemble of New York character actors largely do their shticky thing playing colorful members of the neighborhood, but Tom Wopat (the former Duke of Hazard turned Tony-nominated Broadway mainstay) is the clear standout for his sensitive turn as Pipes.

Let’s be honest, a film about a lost cat is by definition small stakes stuff, but Tarsitano helms with a light touch. Over the course of the day, he forces Dominic to dredge up some painful memories, but the film never feels maudlin or manipulative. In fact, it is rather pleasant in a low-calorie, low-stress kind of way. Recommended for natives of Queens and maybe parts of Brooklyn that can relate, Lost Cat Corona opens tomorrow (2/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

NYICFF ’17: Your Name.

It is the second highest grossing domestic film in Japan, second only to a Miyazaki film. In some ways, the teen body-switch Macguffin is comfortably nostalgic, evoking memories of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s I Are You, You Am Me, but it also displays a post-Fukushima sensibility. Perhaps it came along at the perfect zeitgeisty time for Japanese audiences, but it is still more than sufficiently universal to sweep up viewers of any nation in its tragic romance. Anime does not get much more emotionally sophisticated than Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. (trailer here), which screens as the opening spotlight selection of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Taki Tachibana is a bit of a mess, but the Tokyo high school student works hard at his part-time job waiting tables. Mitsuha Miyamizu is a very together student, but she would much prefer to live in Tokyo than the provincial Itomori, because she is embarrassed by her overbearing father, the most likely crooked mayor, and the Kuchikamizake rituals (sake brewed from chewed-up and spit-out rice) she is forced to participate in. Even though they are strangers separated by miles, Tachibana and Miyamizu start waking up in each other’s bodies. It happens regularly enough they develop a system leaving notes for each other on their smart phones of what transpired while they were swapped.

Initially, they bicker via voice memos and generally angst out over the ways they disrupt their respective lives, but naturally a strange attraction percolates between them, even though they never met face-to-face. As a result, Tachibana grows alarmed when the switching suddenly stops. In fact, he is so concerned, he sets off to find Miyamizu offline, or whatever the right term might be, only to learn her hometown was destroyed several years prior in a freak comet collision.

At this point, Name takes a turn into Il Mare territory, introducing unexpectedly fantastical, temporal, and spiritual themes. Frankly, Shinkai’s adaptation of his own novel is almost assuredly the most mature and potent movie romance you will see all year—and its anime. Seriously, if you are not carried along by its sweep and earnest pluckiness than you really must be old and mean.

Both Miyamizu and Tachibana are appealing but imperfect teenage characters, who are each surrounded by believably distinctive social circles. Anyone living in the first world, broadly defined, should be able to relate to the body-switchers and their friends. A perfect case in point is Tachibana’s rather endearing crush relationship with Miki Okudera, a college student also working at the restaurant, whom Miyamizu finally asks out, on his behalf.

Arguably, the first act body-switching business is like cinematic comfort food. We have seen it before, but it always seems to work. However, even reasonably committed anime fans are likely to be surprised how original Your Name gets and how deep it goes. The characters, especially the co-leads, are gracefully rendered and many of the visuals are quite striking. Very highly recommended, Your Name. screens this Saturday (2/25) at the SVA Theatre, as the opening spotlight of this year’s NYICFF.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reel South: An Enduring Legacy

If you have ever gone on an eating tour of New Orleans and Cajun country, there is a good chance you ate oysters supplied by Croatian-American oyster farmers. It really is more like farming than fishing, as the veteran oyster hands duly explain in James Catano’s An Enduring Legacy: Louisiana’s Croatian Americans (trailer here), which airs as part of the current season of Reel South on PBS’s World Channel (hosted by Darius Rucker).

It stands to reason the skills one learns living off the Dalmatian Coast translate fairly readily to the Gulf Coast. In fact, Croatian immigrants quickly identified the comparative advantage they held in oyster farming. Since the late 1800s, they have built a small but resilient community in Louisiana, largely centered on the oyster business. As one might expect, Hurricane Katrina did not do them any favors, but it was the BP oil spill and the clueless response that really threatened their livelihoods. Yet, they persevere and have started building more permanent community infrastructure.

Basically, Catano pitches it to viewers straight over the plate, but it is a story worth hearing, so why get overly complicated? These are hard-working, hard-playing folks who do not ask anything from anyone. All they want to do is work their oyster beds and keep their Croatian cultural traditions alive for the next generation (who seem to be showing interest, even though there is less oyster work to be had).

It just goes to show, when it comes to New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, the more you look, the more you find. Frankly, just the thought of oysters prepared any dozens of ways in the Crescent City should make you hungry, so it is nice to take twenty-some minutes to appreciate the oyster farmers who helped make so many great meals possible. Recommended for additional perspective on a fascinating state, An Enduring Legacy: Louisiana’s Croatian Americans airs this Sunday (2/26), as part of the current season of Reel South.

Bitter Harvest: Ukraine’s Tragic History, Finally on the Big Screen

On the spectrum of human enormity, the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal campaign to starve Ukraine to the brink of extinction, ranks somewhere near the Cambodian Killing Fields, just below the National Socialist Holocaust. Yet, many in the West never knew it was happening. The prime culprit of Stalin’s disinformation campaign was the compromised journalist Walter Duranty. The New York Times no longer stands by his reports but the Pulitzer organization refuses to rescind the prize they awarded for his denial of Stalin’s crimes against humanity. On one level, George Mendelok’s English language Bitter Harvest functions as a historical romance, but it is also a timely reminder of what happens when journalists chose to serve as propagandists. Truth is a victim along with upwards of 7.5 million Ukrainians in Mendeluk’s Harvest (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There was no love for the Czar amongst Ukraine’s sturdy peasantry, so they initially welcomed the revolution as an opportunity to finally declare independence. Unfortunately, Lenin soon reconquered the republic, expressly so its grain could fuel the Soviet regime. After his death, Stalin pursued a more exploitative and intentionally brutal policy. All land was nationalized and collectivized. Harvests were almost entirely exported back to Moscow, leaving insufficient stocks for even subsistence living and the borders were sealed, with full knowledge mass starvation would result.

Like so many Ukrainians, Yuri comes from Kulak stock, the so-called “rich land-owning” peasants, a term that only makes sense to a Marxist-Leninist theorist or a Bernie Sanders intern. His childhood sweetheart Natalka grew up in even meaner conditions, but her family will still suffer and starve at the hands of the brutal commissar quartered in their village.

When Yuri is awarded a scholarship to a Kiev art school, he assumes it will offer opportunities to help his family, but conditions in the city turn out to be worse than in the countryside. He also witnesses the Party’s attack on free expression first-hand when Socialist Realism is rigidly mandated throughout the school. He assumes his old village chum will protect him when he is elected Ukrainian Party Secretary, but poor Mykola fails to understand the caprices of Comrade Stalin until he finds himself on the business end of a purge. When Yuri is also imprisoned, his hopes of reuniting with Natalka look grim, but the grandson of a legendary Cossack warrior has more fight in him than the art school pedigree might suggest.

On-screen, Bitter Harvest has the epic tragedy of its obvious role model film, Doctor Zhivago. However, if you sniff underneath the celluloid, you might smell the burnt rubber and tear gas that permeated many crew members who participated in the Maidan Square demonstrations on their free days from shooting. The parallels between the Lenin and Stalin eras of exploitation and attempted annihilation and the Putin era neo-Soviet militarism hardly need explaining. Yet, lingering ignorance of the Holodomor helps embolden Putin’s military incursions.

Much like Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, Mendeluk and screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover clearly illustrate the acrid demoralization of the propaganda that so brazenly denied the victims of Communism’s abject suffering (Duranty does indeed make an appearance in the film, but there is no context to explain who he is). Yet, the Zhivago-esque storyline has plenty of sweep and even harbors a handful of surprises. Samantha Barks was probably the best part of the Les Mis movie, but she is even more convincing as an illegitimate Slavic peasant than a French street urchin. Max Irons is a little stiff portraying Yuri’s puppy love years, but he shows some surprising grit in the second and third acts. Terence Stamp does his hardnosed thing as old leathery Ivan, while Tamer Hassan chillingly projects the wanton cruelty of the empowered extremist.

Bitter Harvest is not a pitch-perfect film. Frankly, Mendeluk’s dream sequences are far too woo-woo for a film that ought to be all about cold hard realism. However, it vividly shines a light on a criminally under-reported and often deliberately misunderstood case of systematic mass murder, while the family saga picks up speed and power as it develops. Highly recommended for fans of big picture historical dramas, Bitter Harvest opens this Friday (2/24) at the AMC Empire in Midtown and the Village East downtown.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

WFA ’17: Beyond the Curtain (short)

Even though Chinese opera has a long tradition, all but eight so-called “model operas” were banned during the Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, comic books faced a similar, but possibly more stringent prohibition. Yet, a mysterious man will spark a young boy’s interest in both, despite the oppressive conditions mandated by the Gang of Four in Haixu Liu’s short film Beyond the Curtain (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Hai’s family has relocated to the provinces, but they have largely been spared the worst of the Cultural Revolution. They certainly seem to be sufficiently poor, since Hai lacks even the simple toys enjoyed by his classmates. One day, a mysterious homeless man starts to take an interest in the boy, giving him a few modest gifts, including a series of hand-drawn comic books that begins the narrative of a dark and stormy operatic tale of courtly intrigue.

With tragic inevitability, Hai’s comics and discovered. Consequently, his parents and local cadres force him to denounce the homeless man. Although the resulting guilt and shame will haunt Hai all his life, he will not understand the full significance of his forced betrayal until he visits that same provincial village decades later, returning as a successful opera director.

Curtain really is bittersweet in the fullest sense of the word. While the pain from the Cultural Revolution lingers, the inspiration stoked by the mysterious vagabond also has a lasting, edifying effect. Somehow, Liu tightly bundles up every conceivable emotional response in his potent happy-sad pay-off, getting key assists from his small but talented ensemble. As young Hai, Zhiwen Zhang is arrestingly open and earnest, while Xianli Meng is hauntingly dignified and sad as the homeless man.

Liu also has an impressive eye for visual composition. He dramatically contrasts the drabness of life during the Cultural Revolution with the lush, stylized sets of the opera unfolding in Hai’s comic books. Arguably, Curtain is more cinematic than most full length features. In fact, Liu fits plenty of character development into its twenty-seven-minute running time, telling quite a dramatic, era-spanning story with great economy. Very highly recommended, Beyond the Curtain screens this Sunday night (2/26) and the following Wednesday (3/1) as part of programming blocks of the 2017 Winter Film Awards.

The Girl with All the Gifts: R-Rated Zombie YA-Crossover Adaptation

Humanity ought to just give up the ghost and make way for zombies to rule the Earth in our place. It is what we deserve for being so rapacious and exploitative, whereas zombies are all about sensitivity and sustainable growth. Not according to any zombie film we’ve ever seen, yet those same films insist the shuffling hordes will be better stewards of the planet. That is even true of the zombie movies based on YA-crossover novels. In this case, it also happens to be rated R. Regardless, humanity is up the creek, but Melanie, a second-generation “hungry” probably has the right stuff to survive in Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In this case, Melanie really is a girl, a bright ten-year-old who carries the zombie-turning fungal infection. Since she was infected in-utero, she can still conduct herself in a rational manner, as long as she does not get a good whiff of human flesh. She and two or three dozen of her fellow hybrids are serving as research guinea pigs in a secret military base outside London. Helen Justineau is probably the only sympathetic adult figure the kids-with-the-gift know. Aside from her, nobody on staff really takes her daily lessons seriously, but it provides a bonding catalyst for Justineau and the children, especially Melanie. Therefore, when the hungries over run the base, it is Melanie who she will save.

Rather awkwardly, Justineau and Melanie fall in with the hardnosed hungry-hating Sgt. Eddie Parks and the icily self-assured Dr. Caroline Caldwell, who was one zombie attack away from vivisecting Melanie for the sake of a cure. Together, they will try to make it to the Beacon base, but all the hungries in their way make it hard going.

We have been down the humanized zombie road before, most notably with Sabu’s Miss Zombie, but also with Maggie, In the Flesh, and Wyrmwood, but at least Gifts starts promisingly. With the help of aerial drone photography of Chernobyl-decimated Pripyat, McCarthy creates an eerie vision of post-zombie apocalypse London. Melanie also seems to engage with her human captors in mature, interesting ways, particularly her intellectually curious exchanges with Dr. Caldwell. Unfortunately, nearly everyone becomes a zombie movie cliché is the third act, including Melanie herself. Events and decisions that are not well-founded by the preceding scenes just seem to happen in order to bring the film to a ridiculously unsatisfying conclusion.

Sennia Nanua is pretty impressive as Melanie, even when she is forced to wear that protective ski mask (lucky they made that model out of transparent plastic). Glenn Close chews the scenery like a pro and Paddy Considine broods like nobody’s business as crusty Sgt. Parks. Gemma Arterton looks uncomfortable playing Justineau, but she manages to get by. Unfortunately, the ragamuffin hungry-hybrids who shows up later are far more laughable than feral or fierce.

Despite some intense hungry-zombie action, most notably the scenes in which they are able to sneak around the zoned-out in-place packs of the fungal-infected, Gifts ends on a dubious note. It is like McCarthy and screenwriter Mike Carey (adapting his own novel) just give up on their narrative as well as the human race. Only recommended for zombie fans in dire want of a fix, The Girl with All the Gifts opens this Friday (2/24) in New York, at the Village East.

WFA ’17: Moon of a Sleepless Night (short)

Neil deGrasse Tyson might not approve of the astronomy, but so be it. This gentle quest fable is a charmer and probably good bedtime viewing for little ones, so hopefully some enterprising DVD distributor will pick it up, despite its twenty-seven-minute running time. When the moon gets stuck in the trees only a young boy and a lunar squirrel can save it in Takeshi Yashiro’s elegant stop-motion animated short Moon of a Sleepless Night (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Winter Film Awards.

The little boy is tossing and turning tonight, so his woodsman father takes him out for a stroll to tire him out. There is no moon to light their way, so the woodsman deduces it is hung up on the treetops somewhere to the east. Naturally, they set out to free it, unless the “Rabbit of the Moon” does so first. Apparently, that is exactly what happened, except he is a squirrel, not a rabbit (as he explains repeatedly to the boy and his mother)—and he has rather negligently let himself get left behind.

The following day refuses to give way to night, because the squirrel-less moon is presumably stuck beyond the horizon. That has rather real world implications for the boy’s family, because his father might not know when to come home from his fishing expedition, so the boy heads off with the squirrel to right the situation.

Moon is a wonderfully gentle and captivating tale, whose charms are equally endearing for viewers of all ages. It is certainly fantastical and furry, thanks to the talking squirrel, but it also functions as a thoughtful coming-of-age story. The deliberately woody, rough-hewn look of Yashiro’s people are still oddly expressive and well-serve the film’s rustic woodland vibe. Yet, the forest world they inhabit is rich in detail and lushly realized.

Frankly, Moon just leaves viewers with a contented glow. That combined with its nocturnal sleepytime themes could well make it staple evening viewing for families. Regardless, it is a lovely piece of filmmaking, very highly recommended when it screens this Friday (2/24) and next Monday (2/27), as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Monday, February 20, 2017

FCS ’17: Bitter Money

Even prior to the Ming Dynastic Era, Huzhou was known as a center of the silk trade and for the production of ink brushes. Somewhat logically, it is now a regional hub of the Chinese textile industry, but that does not necessarily make it a fun place to live and work—quite the contrary, in fact. Wang Bing documents the hardscrabble lives of a number of migrant workers laboring away in Huzhou’s sweatshop-like workshops in Bitter Money, which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

There is more “reality” in Wang Bing’s body of work than the entire reality television genre, in toto. Yet, Bitter Money could almost be considered his Real World, given how much of it is confined to the dilapidated dormitory provided by the workshop owner for his employees. Initially, we meet two teen cousins as they take the long rail passage from Yunnan to Huzhou in search of work, but Wang will only follow them for so long. Like Linklater’s Slacker, he will hop from one textile worker to another that might happen to cross their paths. It looks random, but he seems to have inside info telling him when to jump. As a result, he captures a nasty confrontation between twenty-five-year-old Ling Ling and her defiantly unsupportive (and physically violent) husband Erzi.

By far, Ling Ling and Erzi represents the most extreme case in Bitter Money. Most of the dormitory residents are reasonably healthy, undeniably hardworking, and in some instances maybe even somewhat happy. Two teenage sisters certainly look and sound like teens you might meet anywhere else in the world, but it is a shame they aren’t in high school, where they could better enjoy gossiping about boys. However, hard-drinking Huang Lei is another hard case. Whether the boss’s refusal to pay him until he sobers up is protective or exploitative is a highly debatable question.

Frankly, there is more such ambiguity in Bitter Money than most of Wang’s uncompromisingly soul-crushing documentaries. Nobody appears to be making much money out of textiles, unless it is the “big factories” that factor so prominently in rumors throughout the film. From what the audience can pick up on, the margins just sound punishing. Yet people keep coming and they keep finding work, albeit at wages not far above subsistence level.

Once again, Wang is fleet of foot and handy enough with the handheld to capture some telling moments. Arguably, this is the most engaging group of subjects he has filmed since Three Sisters. We feel sympathy for nearly all of them, but we only despair for a select few, which gives it a considerably less downcast tone than most of his films. There is a lot of life going on in Bitter Money, as everyone tries to get by as best they can. Recommended for admirers of Wang’s intense examination of the human condition in contemporary China, Bitter Money screens this Thursday (2/23), as part of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.

FCS ’17: Dogs

How do you keep 550 hectacres of strategically located land undeveloped for years, even during Romania’s Communist era? You have to be one bad cat, like Roman’s late grandfather, whom he hardly knew. Perhaps not surprisingly, the town’s terminally ill police chief and various low life thugs are less than welcoming when Roman takes possession of his property (with the intent to sell) in Bogdan Mirică’s Dogs (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

“Uncle Alecu’s” property comes with a cranky caretaker, a snarling guard dog ironically named “Police” and a drafty old farmhouse with a shotgun prominently displayed. Soon after his arrival Police the dog alerts him to two strange cars secretly meeting in the middle of Old Alecu’s barren scrub grass. A few days later, Roman and his sales agent Sebi Voicu interrupt another such nocturnal rendezvous. Rather ominously, Voicu’s car was discovered abandoned shortly thereafter.

Voicu’s disappearance is one of two cases Chief Hogas is trying to clear. The other involves a severed foot discovered floating in a nearby pond. Unfortunately, two serious complications have imposed artificial time constraints on Hogas. His precinct is imminently due to be replaced by a roving mobile unit and his body is fatally riddled with cancer. Before he goes, Hogas desperately hopes to take down his nemesis, Samir, the local drug trafficking kingpin.

Dogs could indeed be considered the Romanian No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. It definitely has a contemporary western vibe, but it is still a Romanian film, so it should come as no surprise Dogs is a bit of a slow-starting slow-builder. Yet, Mirică organically develops the tension out of the moody, frontier-like setting. While the title is somewhat metaphorical, Police the junkyard dog still gets plenty of screen time. If you liked A Dog’s Purpose, you would probably be utterly horrified by Mirică’s Dogs, but it is still features some impressive canine screen work.

Dragos Bucur is actually a rather big fellow, but he manages to make Roman convincingly gawky and passive. Gheorghe Visu is quite salty and wry, playing Hogas much like a Romanian Jeff Bridges, except more emaciated. Constantin Cojocaru adds plenty of sinister local color as the caretaker, Epure, but Police’s constantly barking presence really makes the film.

Dogs steadily works towards some legit genre mayhem, while still staying true to its Romanian New Wave heritage. Mirică shows tremendous patience and a careful command of mise-en-scene, but it is still one of the more easily watchable Romanian films you are likely to see on the festival circuit. It really is a thriller and not just a film that inherits the category label, because it includes cops and guns. Recommended with enthusiasm for discriminating viewers, Dogs screens this Thursday night (2/23), as the conclusion of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

FCS ’17: Harmonium

Japanese cinema has brought us gracefully humanistic masterworks of domestic drama from the like of Yasujiro Ozu, Yasujiro Shimazu, and Yoji Yamada. This is not one of them. The Toshio Suzuoka and his family are not exactly happy, but they are essentially in a state of equilibrium until the arrival of an associate from his past in Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

In all honesty, Suzuoka is not an especially loving husband or father, but he provides well enough with his garage-based metal-working shop. In fact, business is brisk enough, he can hallway justify bringing on Kusataro Yasaka as his assistant. Unbeknownst to his wife Akie, Suzuoka was the accomplice Yasaka never named for his role in the murder he has just finished serving a prison sentence for. Obviously, Suzuoka is acting out of guilt, but his wife and daughter Hotaru take a genuine liking to the new member of the household, even when Yasaka partially confides in Akie (diplomatically leaving out her husband involvement).

At first, Harmonium seems to follow the general trajectory of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with Akie fighting to deny her sexual attraction to Yasaka, and ten-year-ish Hotaru looking up to him as a supplemental parent-figure (especially when he starts giving her lessons on the titular pump organ). However, the film takes a shockingly disturbing turn late in the second act that frankly might be too much for many viewers.

Regardless, the effects of the now missing Yasaka’s actions will remain ever present for his former employers. Yet, fate takes an almost Biblical turn when the grown son Yasaka never knew is unknowingly hired by Suzuoka to succeed him.

Harmonium is a taut, claustrophobic film, but it never observes traditional thriller conventions. In fact, it has a pronounced habit of zagging whenever you expect it to zig. Although certainly not a genre film per se, it is still something of a domestic horror story. In many ways, it compares quite directly with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata.

All four starting principals give impressively assured, stringently restrained performances, but it is especially harrowing to see Mariko Tsutsui go slightly, but not completely nuts as Akie Suzuoka. It is also rather remarkable how Tadanobu Asano can shift Yasaka from quietly world weary to fiercely ominous with almost imperceptible alterations in body language and tone of voice. Yet it is Momone Shinokawa and Kana Mahiro who really tear up viewers as the younger and older incarnations of Hotaru.

Arguably, the ending is maybe a bit too indeterminate for such an otherwise uncompromising film. Regardless, it is definitely the work of an assured stylist of distinctly Japanese sensibilities. Highly recommended for the unsentimental, Harmonium screens this Tuesday (2/21) as part of the 2017 edition of Film Comment Selects.