Thursday, February 28, 2019

Furie: Veronica Ngo is Furious

In the movies, human traffickers are woefully inept at cost-benefit analyses. In Taken, someone should have decided to quietly return Liam Neeson’s daughter on the condition of no questions asked. That is even more true of Hai Phuong. The former gangster has a pretty lethal skill set of her own, but it is her mama bear protectiveness that makes her so formidable in Le Van Kiet’s Furie, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Hai was once a gangster, which is why she is still estranged from her family. All she really needs is her daughter Mai, who is unwisely snatcher away from her one day in the country market. They had been fighting before her abduction, so Hai is especially distraught. She will doggedly follow their trail all the way to Saigon, where she used to haunt the streets during her earlier criminal years.

Yep, that is about the size of Furie. This is not exactly what you would call a complex narrative structure, but it finds virtue in its simplicity. This is the sort of old school beat-down that defined Hong Kong action movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Kiet sets up the pins and Ngo knocks them down. Why complicate something so brutally effective?

Ngo’s action chops are already well-established, but she performs some of her grittiest, most cinematic fight scenes yet as Hai. She really takes it to the level of Villainess, but the mother-daughter relationship is also quite touching, thanks to the rapport she shares with young Mai Cat Vi, playing her namesake. Viewers will really, really root for Hai to rescue Mai and to dish out the payback the traffickers so richly deserve.

Phan Thanh Nhien is appropriately steely as Luong, the honest copper, but he is a distant second fiddle compared to the ferocious Ngo (and Hai). However, Hoa Tran’s scenery chewing presence and ferocious physicality makes trafficking gang leader Thanh Soi a more than worthy nemesis. Frankly, her character exits too soon—and with too much finality.

Kiet and Ngo deliver some juicy red meat for action fans. This is a lithe, street smart movie that only has one speed: full throttle. So, it’s a simple, straight forward review for an unfussy, gleefully violent film. Highly recommended for patrons of marital arts films and Vietnamese cinema, Furie opens tomorrow (3/1) in New York, at the AMC Empire.


Nori is a lot like a young anime heroine forced to come into her own by sudden adversity. She is also being stalked by a Japanese pop-star (the actor, not the character). Yet, this film looks and feels more like low budget American indie quickie, because that is what it is. There are a lot of intriguing elements, but the energy level is lacking when Joe Sill’s Stray opens tomorrow in New York.

Fresh off her own, personal, shorthand-character-establishing tragedy, Det. Murphy draws the darnedest case. Kyoko was not merely murdered. She was “petrified,” aged thousands of years in a CGI flash. She was Nori’s mother, so that means the young woman will be left alone when her grandmother is subsequently killed, under similarly bizarre circumstances. However, she finds an ally in Murphy, who is still mourning her baby’s crib death, which motivates her to go above and beyond protecting Nori, despite the stern warnings of her ex-husband boss.

It is a bit surprising Sleight’s J.D. Dillard is credited as a screenwriter on Stray, because there is a lot of flab in this script. If you like scenes of people standing around talking, then brother, Sill has a movie for you. Yet, perversely, they never really establish the nature of the super-powers in question. That might be understandable if Stray were a two-part series premiere, which is really what it feels like, but not so satisfying in a stand-alone feature. It is also left a little vague as to why the relentless bad guy has it in for Nori’s family, beyond claims that her mother and grandma were mean to him (honestly, that is about how they position it).

Probably most problematically, the mystery antagonist spends the better part of the film concealed by a motorcycle helmet. That is not just a boring style choice. It is absolutely baffling considering how much of the film’s publicity campaign is designed to capitalize on the casting of J-pop star Miyavi as the ominous Jin.

All of that is rather a shame, because Karen Fukuhara (Katana in Suicide Squad) is quite engaging and poignant as Nori. She also develops some compelling chemistry with Christine Woods, who as Murphy, develops some decent chemistry with Ross Partridge, her supervisor-ex.

It is easy to imagine what everyone must have hoped Stray could be. It just isn’t. The trio of Fukuhara, Woods, and Partridge form a solid core group, but the rest of the elements never come together, leaving all kinds of loose ends and rough patches. Likely to disappoint most genre fans, Stray opens tomorrow (3/1) in New York, at the Village East.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

This Magnificent Cake—Animated Imperialism

If you could choose to live under a European colonial power, it would have been the United Kingdom, hands down (a well-educated domestic civil service, public works programs, membership in the British Commonwealth, which even countries that were not British colonies want to join). Belgium was the polar opposite. King Leopold II was determined to have his “slice of this magnificent cake” and exploit the heck out of it too. 19th Century Belgian colonialism serves as the backdrop for Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels’ weirdly surreal forty-four-minute stop-motion animated mini-feature, This Magnificent Cake, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

In its five loosely interconnected chapters, De Swaef and Roels follow five very different characters, whose fates are intertwined with the Belgian colonial experiment, starting with Leo 2, himself. The King is plagued by insomnia, even though his long cherished imperial ambitions are finally being realized. He is also quite the philistine, silencing a humiliated clarinet player during what was supposed to be his command duet with piano accompaniment. Poor, abused licorice stick.

The experience is enough to drive the poor musician out to the newly opened colony, but he still can’t find respect at the luxury hotel for boozy expats. The same is true for its first pygmy employee, who is forced to stand at attention for hours at a time, with an ashtray strapped to his head. Things fare badly for him, as they also do for the porters accompanying Van Molle, an embezzler who left his family patisserie high and dry. Of course, Van Molle is no worse for the wear, but he will have his own subsequent drunken misadventures. He really is a cad, which is why his deserter nephew intends to confront him, in hopes of restoring the family fortune, if not its honor.

Cake certainly has no love for Leopold II or colonialism in general, but the more strident critics might feel like the film’s surreal visuals and left field plot turns rather soften the blow. De Swaef and Roels unambiguously connect the colonists’ personal corruption and vice with the larger Imperial enterprise, but we also witness as Van Molle befriends a large, trippy snail.

On the other hand, it all makes Cake quite distinctive, in all its felt and fibers. Think of it as a darker version of Adam Elliot or a fuzzier version of Jan Svankmajer. There is also a smidge of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s scatological impulses, especially in De Swaef & Roels’ Oh Willy…, their 17-minute wordless short from 2012, which screens with Cake during its LA run (along with Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s The Burden, which screened as part of the 2017 Animation Show of Shows). Initially, it take time to warm to this sometime cruel tale of a schlubby everyman who visits his dying mother at her nudist colony (a different kind of colony living), just in the nick of time. However, the weird third act will redeem its mean-spiritedness for most cult cinema fans.

Cake and Willy are being distributed by GKIDS, but they are definitely meant for adult audiences. There are some grotesque moments (particularly in Willy), but the themes and subject matter will definitely be far beyond the scope of most youngsters. It is cool to see GKIDS continue to support challenging animation and reach beyond the implied limits of their name (frankly, they might want to launch a new line for films like this, but that’s a matter for their own internal debates). Recommended just because it is so different in terms of tone and style, This Magnificent Cake opens Friday (3/1) at the Glendale Laemmle.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Petzold’s Modernized Transit

Anna Seghers’ later years were rather sad, because it was glaringly obvious the Soviet Communist system she had so loyally served failed quite miserably to live up to the ideals it professed. At least she had post-war years. Herr Weidel is not so fortunate. The fictional novelist was supposed to travel the same route that Seghers did, from (still just barely unoccupied) Marseilles to Mexico, by way of the USA, but the morose man of letters chose to end his life instead in Christian Petzold’s Transit which opens this Friday in New York.

Seghers’ novel was important beyond its literary merits, because it documented the Holocaust-era roundups as they were happening. It is about as particular to a specific time and place as a novel can be. However, Petzold ventures way, way out on a limb by recasting his screen adaptation in a Marseilles very much like that of today. Eventually, viewers start to suspend disbelief, but it is unnecessarily distracting in the early going.

Georg is a refugee, which makes Transit feel very contemporary, except not exactly. The rather sullen gentleman is at loose end, trying to avoid prison cells and policemen in the final days leading up to the occupation. Georg was supposed to hand-deliver letters to Weidel letters from his considerably younger wife, Marie, and the Mexican consulate in Marseilles, which has guaranteed Weidel legal asylum. Instead, Georg found the remains of his suicide in the small, sad motel room.

The initial idea was to turn over Weidel’s papers and correspondence to the Mexican mission, in hopes of receiving a finder’s fee, but when he is mistaken for Weidel, Georg does not correct them. Georg assumes he fell into a highly fortuitous deliverance, but things get rather complicated when he meets the distraught Marie. Thus, begins a strange kabuki dance involving identity, love, guilt, and culpability.

Even with Petzold’s temporal gamesmanship, the combination of classic last-boat-out, letters-of-transit intrigue and the more postmodern unraveling of Georg’s sense of reality and identity are quite compelling. Despite the Mediterranean sun, Petzold maintains a murky, disconcerting atmosphere. Yet, he keeps breaking his own spell with the modern trappings that so clearly contradict the 1942 setting.

Admirers of Petzold’s absolutely brilliant previous films, Barbara and Phoenix might be alarmed to discover the great Nina Hoss is not on board this time around, but Paula Beer continues a similar streak of excellence, which includes her standout work in Frantz, Bad Banks, and Never Look Away. As Marie, she creates a portrait of a usually sensitive and brittlely flawed femme fatale. She forges some ambiguous but rather poignant chemist with Franz Rogowski, who radiates existential angst and plodding sad sackery as Georg. Yet, it is Godehard Giese who really drives home the film’s messy humanism, as Richard’s Marie’s loyal friend-lover-protector.

Clearly, Petzold wants to use Transit to make a statement on the continuing waves of refugee arriving on European shores, but it quickly becomes conspicuous how awkward and forced the one-to-one comparisons are. Nevertheless, the central trio of players are all terrific, so just imagine how good they would have been in a legit period production. Recommended despite Petzold’s excesses, Transit opens this Friday (3/1) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Life After Flash: Sam J. Jones is Still Flash Gordon

Sure, Sunday was a big night for the band Queen when Bohemian Rhapsody won several Oscars, including Best Actor, but there is no question their finest cinematic moment came when they composed and performed the soundtrack to the 1980 fan favorite Flash Gordon (but their songs for Highlander would also be an acceptable answer). It released after Star Wars and reaped a disappointing box-office take, but it has a special place in the hearts of genre fans who grew up in the 1980s. For those of us, Sam J. Jones will always be Flash Gordon. That typecasting has been a curse and a blessing for Jones, who takes stock of his life and career in Lisa Downs’ Life After Flash, which releases today on VOD platforms.

It is only vaguely alluded to in the film (most likely out of respect to Jones’ Evangelical faith), but his first claim to fame was a pictorial in Playgirl. Somehow, this brought him to the attention of larger-than-life producer Dino De Laurentiis, who eventually cast him as the lead in his ambitious Flash Gordon reboot. Their relationship would be . . . rocky. Jones still had plenty of career ahead of him, so it would be unfair to compare Klinton Spilsbury who crashed and burned in The Legend of the Lone Ranger from 1981, but some parallels could be drawn between Jones and George “One-and-Done-James-Bond” Lazenby, except Jones very definitely wanted to continue playing Flash.

As you would hope, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film, with extended reminiscences from Melody Anderson, Brian Blessed (who really came to play), Topol, Peter Wyngarde, Richard “Rocky Horror” O’Brien, and Brian May from Queen. Not surprisingly, Timothy Dalton and Max von Sydow are missing in action, but that was a real mistake on their part, because nobody likes a snob. In fact, the participating cast-members and other assorted talking heads make a compelling case for the film, especially Blessed, who argues: “its not camp, its cartoon strip.”

However, the real surprise is how interesting Jones’ life after Flash Gordon has been. He has done plenty of low budget movies and guest appearances on episodic television, but viewers will really want to hear more about his second career as a personal security specialist (bodyguard), specializing in escorting VIPs across the Mexican border.

Jones also talks quite a bit about his family and his Christian faith. He always sounds sincere, largely because he so readily admits his past shortcomings and transgressions. Frankly, given his military background, Jones definitely sounds like he is out of step with most of his Hollywood colleagues (or at least everyone of them not named Gary Sinise or Clint Eastwood).

All things considered, Jones’ post-Flash survival story is downright inspiring. It isn’t just him. Anderson and Topol have also gone on to contribute to society in ways beyond their acting careers. Yet, there is no question Life After Flash serves up generous helpings of nostalgia for fans of late 1970s and early 1980s science fiction. Revisiting Flash Gordon puts us in the mood for retrospectives of Jones, Topol, and director Mike Hodges. It all makes for unexpectedly engaging viewing. Highly recommended for the Eighties generation, Life After Flash releases today (2/26) on VOD.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Doc Fortnight ’19: Chinese Portrait

Americans like to think our strength lies in our diversity. Chinese propaganda prefers to extoll unity, despite the breadth of its varied ethnicities. As a filmmaker accustomed to going his own way, Wang Xiaoshuai paints a more diverse picture of contemporary Mainland China in Chinese Portrait, which screens during this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Comprised of often-posed, narration-free snippets of everyday people Wang shot on the fly since 2009, Portrait is a series of just that—which come together to form a somewhat Whitman-esque mosaic of contemporary China. There are miners, nomads, students, rural laborers, commuters, and even journalists, most of whom clearly bear signs of the weathering of a hardscrabble life. It is not an overtly political film, but Wang’s inclinations are far more inclusive than anything you will see in popular Chinese cinema. Hence, we see multiple portraits of the Muslim Uyghurs, as well as a Buddhist monk (presumably a Tibetan on a pilgrimage).

Wang has a long history of struggling with Communist state censorship in its various manifestations, most notably with his debut, The Days, but his loose thematic Cultural Revolution Trilogy was not exactly welcomed with open arms either. There is not a lot to explicitly antagonize the censors this time around, but Wang’s self-portraits standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square or beclouded by the thick smog of Beijing offer up some slyly coded commentary nonetheless.

Portrait is definitely a minor work for Wang, but it always counts as a victory when he can get a film produced and released. There are some striking images, but that is really the extent of the film. In the case of the newsroom tableaux, the journalists hold their poses so well, viewers might think the playback is frozen, until the fellow in the foreground moves his head. 

Arguably, this is a case where the more viewers know about Wang, the more interesting the film will be, because of what they might read into it. Narrowly recommended for Wang’s admirers and patrons of installation-style filmmaking, Chinese Portrait screens this Wednesday (2/27) as part of the 2019 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

NYICFF ’19: Zog (short)

In Julia Donaldson’s fantasy world, it isn’t the damsel who is in distress. It’s the dragon. “Distress” might be too strong a word, but the trainee dragon has an awkward habit of getting himself dinged up. Fortunately, Princess Pearl is always happy to practice her bandaging and care-giving skills in Max Lang & Daniel Snaddon’s Zog, the latest animated short film adaptation of Donaldson’s children’s books from Magic Lantern and the BBC, which screens as part of the Shorts for Tots program at the 2019 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Zog is the keenest of his class of dragons, but he is also the clumsiest. He yearns for recognition from the dragon head mistress, but he often gets carried away by his own enthusiasm. Through the machinations of fairy tale fate, the progressive Princess Pearl happens to be near whenever he has an owie. She doesn’t care that he’s a dragon and she’s a princess. If truth be told, she would much prefer to give up her sheltered royal life to become a doctor. In fact, they might be able to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.

All of the Donaldson short films are cute and wholesome (The Gruffalos, Room on the Broom, The Highway Rat), but Zog is probably the most entertaining for genre fans, because of the way it gently subverts epic fantasy tropes. They will also appreciate the voiceover work of Kit Harrington (who clearly knows his dragons, from his work on Game of Thrones and in the recording booth for the How to Train Your Dragon franchise) as an equally klutzy knight who comes to “rescue” Princess Pearl.

Patsy Ferran’s warm and clear voice makes Pearl sound appealingly smart, confident, and upbeat, while Sir Lenny Henry serves as the hip narrator. Tracey Ullman supplies the voices of authority as Madame Dragon and Pearl’s governess, with Rob Brydon providing other miscellaneous voices, as he has in previous Donaldson shorts.

Zog is completely appropriate for youngsters, but some adults might honestly prefer it over the Shrek films (the obvious comparisons), because it is not constantly compelled to prove how cool and ironic it is. The Donaldson films are all quite nice, but this is one of the nicest (yet there is some rather subtle black humor peeking out here and there). Recommended without reservations for family viewing, Zog screens as part of Short for Tots, each Saturday and Sunday of this year’s NYICFF (2/23, 2/24, 3/2, 3/3, 3/9, 3/10, 3/16, and 3/17).

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Changeover

Laura Chant is a “sensitive.” That sort of means she has the “Shine.” It also means she could possibly transition into a full-fledged witch, but there is no guarantee the process will be safely completed, just like there is no guarantee obnoxious teenagers can successfully evolve into mature adults. Chant has very personal and pressing motivation for fulfilling her witchly promise, which raises the stakes considerably in Stuart McKenzie & Miranda Harcourt’s The Changeover, opening today in Brooklyn.

From time to time, Chant gets premonitions, but her over-worked, working-class mum does not want to hear about that. Instead, she just wants Chant to shut-up and take care of her little brother, Jacko. You could say she has not done so well on that score, but it is hard to be prepared for the danger represented by Carmody Braque. He happens to be a larva, a supernatural parasite that sucks the life-force out of their victims. Tragically, Braque managed to sink his hooks into Jacko, after he tricked the lad into “letting him in.”

Channt is definitely out of her depth, but she finds an ally in her brooding classmate, Sorenson Carlisle, a witch (not a warlock), from a long line of witches. His mother and grandmother could have some helpful advice for Chant, whereas her mother just nags and nags.

Based on New Zealand YA author Margaret Mahy’s 1984 Carnegie Medal-winner of the same name, The Changeover is one of the better films based on YA novels, but admittedly, its only competition is the greatly underappreciated Before I Fall. It is not saying much to argue it is much better than I Still See You, November Criminals, and Fallen, which it most definitely is. A lion’s share of the credit is due to Timothy Spall, who is jolly fun to watch chewing the scenery as Braque.

Th crafty Spall is indeed fun to watch, but Erana Janes is quite compelling as Laura Chant. Nicolas Galitzine is rather dull as Carlisle, brooding teen witch, while Lucy Lawless is frustratingly underemployed as his mother, Miryam. Still, the ensemble definitely exceeds the low expectations viewers might have for another YA movie adaptation. In this case, Changeover’s deep roots, stretching all the way back to ’84 arguably suggest this story has some staying power. In fact, there are some rather intriguing elements to Chant’s psychological and paranormal battle with Braque. Frankly, it probably deserves better than its excuse-me-once-a-day run at the Kent Theater in Brooklyn, but that’s what it has. Recommended for fans of supernatural teen fiction, Th Changeover is now playing in select cities.

NYICFF ’19: Gordon & Paddy

Paddy is a mouse of mystery. She has no home, no profession, and no history. However, she has a keen sense of smell, so Gordon taps her to be his successor as police superintendent of the forest. The mouse and the toad will do some good police work together, but the shadow of the feared fox looms over every case in Linda Hambäck’s Gordon & Paddy, which screens during the 2019 New York International Children's Film Festival.

Paddy didn’t even have a name of her own until she met Gordon. It was not an auspicious first meeting. Technically, he collared her boosting a stray nut from a crime scene, but Gordon is no Javert. He is not about to bust someone for being hungry. He is also grateful to Paddy for digging him out of a snowdrift. Once he discovers how keen her sense of smell is, he recruits her to assist his investigation of the squirrel’s purloined winter cache of nuts.

Soon, he also starts to groom her to take over as the forest superintendent. Unfortunately, Paddy’s first solo case in her new position will be even more serious—and all signs ominously point towards the formidable fox.

G&P is an absolutely charming little (at 65 minutes, it is indeed little) film that will leave even the most cynical curmudgeons smiling from ear to ear. Hambäck’s animated film, based on a Swedish children’s book by Ulf Nilsson & Gitte Spee, is fully stocked with cute forest critters, but there are surprisingly high stakes to Paddy’s cases. Nevertheless, G&P has a pleasant, easy-going vibe that makes the film appropriate for kids of all ages.

Seasoned Gordon is also quite an old soul. Frankly, he is a more distinctive character than three-fourths of the stock figures we get in mainstream live-action movies. Stellan Skarsgård’s gruff but warm voice-over performance is absolutely pitch-perfect. Frankly, it is probably the best we have heard since Dominic West lent his silkily sinister voice to the Big Bad Wolf in Revolting Rhymes.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking or daring about G&P, but every frame is a cheerfully winning viewing experience. Ironically, one of the most humanistic films you will see on the festival circuit this year is entirely about forest critters. Very highly recommended for families and animation fans, Gordon & Paddy screens tomorrow (2/23) at Scandinavia House, the following Sunday (3/3) at the Cinepolis Chelsea, and the Saturday after that (3/9) at the IFC Center, as part of this year’s NYICFF.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Neighboring Scenes ‘19: The Wolf House

If the animators, the Brothers Quay had made Colonia instead of Florian Gallenberger, Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl, it would have been a much better film. It might have looked a little bit like this film, but not exactly so, because nothing else looks exactly like the remarkable debut animated feature of artists Joaquin Cocina & Cristobal Leon. They plunge viewers into a nightmarish world of fairy tales and Chilean history in The Wolf House, which screens during this year’s Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema.

Maria Wehrle was punished severely for allowing three little pigs to escape from her German crypto-Christian commune clearly modeled after the Pinochet-supporting Colonia Dignidad, so she follows their example. However, the pastor, a.k.a. the Big Bad Wolf, kept a close eye on her, as his narration explains. After finding refuge a mega-archetypal cottage in the woods, Wehle is reunited with two of her fugitive pigs, whom her fevered mind morphs into children for her to look after. Alas, things take a rather dark turn when they run out of food.

That is sort of the narrative gist of Wolf House, but not really. Story is definitely secondary to Cocina and Leon. They are more concerned with creating a nightmarish world, which they hand-crafted from raw materials as part of gallery installations throughout several countries. This is an extraordinarily macabre manifestation of stop-motion animation that bears comparison to the Quays and Jan Svankmaker. In some ways, it could considered the stop-motion equivalent of some of Terry Gilliam and Bill Plympton’s trippier work.

It is not just the frequently disturbing sight of characters being built up from the inside-out and then broken down again that will unnerve viewers. The Lobo Casa is a decidedly creepy place that would not be out of place in Calvin Reeder’s The Oregonian, which basically gives the audience an all too vivid idea of what Hell looks like (if you haven’t seen it, don’t). The art direction, credited to Cocina, Leon, and Natalia Geisse is impressive, but punishing.

Yes, it is dark and grotesque, but The Wolf House represents some extraordinarily detailed and immersive world-building. Cocina and Leon slyly evoke Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, without getting slavishly bogged down in analogies. They also might jolly well be onto something when they suggest there is something sinister about a way of life that values security over freedom. Absolutely not for children, The Wolf House is recommended for adventurous animation connoisseurs when it screens this Saturday (2/23) at the Walter Reade, as part of Neighboring Scenes.

Neighboring Scenes ‘19: Buy Me a Gun

Gaze into the near future of Mexico, when drug cartels will control every aspect of life. Call it ninety minutes from now. Most average people have fled, leaving a depopulated economic wasteland in their wake. The country is unlikely to rejuvenate itself, because the cartels make it their business to search out and abduct young girls. “Huck,” as she calls herself, has eluded their grasp by passing for a boy, but her luck is about to run out in Julio Hernandez Cordon’s Buy Me a Gun, which screens during this year’s Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema.

Life is surreal for Huck, mostly in a bad way. Her junkie father Rogelio ekes out a living as the caretaker of a decrepit baseball field in the middle of the desert that caters to the cartel game-nights. What little he earns, he mostly turns back over to the cartel for drugs. However, he is acutely responsible when it comes to Huck, whose hair he cuts short to appear boyish. He also keeps her ankle shackled to a lead to prevent any grab-and-go attempts.

Unfortunately, Huck does not seem to fully appreciate the gravity of her situation, even though she should. She has heard no end of horror stories from the gang of orphans living rough in the brush surrounding the baseball field. Although Rogelio is cagey on the details, Huck still understands to some extent the cartel is responsible for the disappearance of her mother and her older sister. Nevertheless, her carelessness will bring down a lot of trouble on Huck and Rogelio.

Watching Buy Me a Gun leads to even greater respect for Issa Lopez’s Tigers are not Afraid, because she so effortless created a fable-like vibe, whereas Cordon’s flights into fantastical symbolism are exhaustingly laborious. In fact, the awkward attempts at Huck Finn allegorical parallels becomes altogether baffling late in the third act (there is indeed a raft, but Huck’s companion is a far cry from Jim, the escaped slave in Twain’s novel.

Admittedly, there are some tense moments in Gun, but any film that honestly depicts pervasive and arbitrary nature of cartel violence in Mexico will be unsettling. Huck is a realistically flawed character and young Matilde Hernandez Guinea shows both sensitivity and disciplined reserve beyond her years as Huck, but the character can be her own worse enemy, which becomes ever-more frustrating over time.

Cordon offers up no shortage of cartel violence and half-baked literary allusions, including the nearly feral pack of children, who are like the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, by way of Lord of the Flies. Yet, it mostly feels derivative coming after Tigers and the original Miss Bala, just to name a few examples. Painfully earnest but ultimately rather flat, Buy Me a Gun screens this Saturday (2/23) at the Walter Reade, as part of Neighboring Scenes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Neighboring Scenes ‘19: Belmonte

Javier Belmonte is no Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. This artist has no aptitude for self-promotion, so if he is going to make it in the art world, it be solely due to talent. Unfortunately, he is not much better at navigating his own personal relationships in Federico Veiroj’s Belmonte, the opening night film of this year’s Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema.

Frankly, Belmonte really should not complain about his career, because he has a retrospective opening soon at a prominent Montevideo museum. However, Belmonte does not do success well. He is more comfortable with disappointment, such as his failed marriage to Jeanne, whom he clearly still carries a torch for. At least Belmonte tries to pull himself together when his bright but highly sensitive daughter Celeste visits. The end, more or less.

To say that Belmonte has a loose, unhurried narrative would be a whopper of an understatement. Basically, this is seventy-five minutes of watching a man with more advantages in life than many “first worlders” have—commercial and critical credibility in the art world, a loving daughter—mope and brood his way through sunny Montevideo. However, there is something oddly compelling about his social awkwardness. In fact, we can see a kinship between him and Jorge, the shy yet hopeful art-house cinema programmer in Veiroj’s mature but life-affirming A Useful Life.

In fact, real-life painter Gonzalo Delgado’s breakout performance as Belmonte is quite impressive. Delgado contributed some design work to two of Veiroj’s prior films, so he must have picked up something through osmosis. Young Olivia Molinaro Eijo is also quite a remarkable discovery as Celeste. She is completely natural and unaffected on-screen, while also forging some warmly affectionate chemistry with Delgado.

In addition to portraying Belmonte, Delgado also supplied his paintings, which are quite striking, even if they seem to beg for a full battery of psycho-sexual Freudian analysis. Regardless, viewers will completely believe that Delgado is an artist, as he indeed is, and that his paintings are worthy of collectors’ attention.

The problem is it just doesn’t amount to very much, so there no way it could have the staying power of Useful Life. It is like a salad with a tasteful dressing, but no protein. Recommended to a limited extent, based on the quite endearing father-daughter relationship, Belmonte screens this Friday (2/22) at the Walter Reade Theater, as the opening selection of Neighboring Scenes 2019.

Who Killed Cock Robin?—Taiwanese Noir

Surveys show journalists consistently rank near the bottom of society’s pecking order of respect, right down there with politicians and used car dealers. Bottom-feeding reporter Wang Yi-chi and his colleagues are about to set an all new low for their profession. Yet, somehow, the bad guy manages to be even worse—much, much worse in Cheng Wei-hao’s Who Killed Cock Robin?, which opens this Friday in San Francisco.

Wang thought he scored a scoop when he landed frontpage pictures of a prominent politician caught in a traffic accident with his swimsuit model mistress. The problem is that was no lady, that was his wife. Suddenly, Wang is unemployed. However, he rather stumbles onto a major story from his past. Back when he was a cub scandal-monger, Wang grabbed some pictures of a another, even more horrific traffic accident. That brought him to the attention of the newsroom director and the editor-in-chief, but when he reexamines his old photo-drive, he discovers someone deleted some of his pictures.

To get some answers, Wang and Maggie, his prospective lover and now former colleague track down Hsu Ai-ting, the sole survivor of the crash, who subsequently disappeared from the hospital. Unfortunately, Wang’s investigation will bring Hsu to the attention of the one person she wanted to avoid. Presumably abducted, Hsu is now in grave peril—and it is all Wang’s fault.

Cheng has already enjoyed a good deal of success with the Tag-Along horror franchise, but he takes a big step up in terms of quality with Cock Robin. Arguably, the main antagonist is so sinister and psychotic, the film should still appeal to a lot of horror fans. However, the screenplay (surprisingly credited to the small army of Cheng, Yuli Chen, and Chen Yen-chi, with Cheng Ze-qing and Dorothy Chen acknowledged for the original story) has some really twisted twists and a witheringly cynical depiction of the revolving door between government and journalism.

At times, the game Kaiser Chuang almost makes viewers believe Wang is not such a bad guy—almost. As Maggie, Hsu Wing-nei manages to be equal parts Lois Lane and femme fatale. Mason Lee (Ang Lee’s son) is massively creepy as the psycho-villain, while Christopher Ming-shun Lee (the Malaysian Christopher Lee) oozes sleaze as Wang’s dubious mentor, Chiu Ching-kai. Yet, it is Ko Chia-yen who truly takes ownership of the film with her achingly intense, profoundly vulnerable performance as Hsu Ai-ting.

Chen Chi-wen’s “noir visible” cinematography about as dark as film can get and still be easily viewable by human eyes, which perfectly suits the milieu of murky morality. This film just radiates cynicism, but it is hard to argue it is too hard on journalists who cover-up for the powerful rather than exposing them. Highly recommended for fans of dark and stormy thrillers, Who Killed Cock Robin opens this Friday (2/22) in San Francisco at the Lee Neighborhood 4-Star Theatre.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Mazinger Z: Infinity—Because the World is Never Sufficiently Saved

Let’s get a new perspective on Mt. Fuji, unlike anything Hokusai ever envisioned. It is time to go underneath, where remnants of the ancient Mycene civilization were discovered. It turns out there was even more to be unearthed down there, including technology that could save (again) or destroy (again) the world in Junji Shimizu’s Mazinger Z: Infinity, which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Using remnants of the Mycene technology, humanity was able to create the Mazinger mecha ‘bots to defeat Dr. Hell. He sounds like a bad guy, right? Of course, they were not able to ultimately kill or capture him, so he remains at large. Nevertheless, humanity has rebuilt itself using the photon energy cultivated at the Mt. Fuji power station, under the direction of Sayaka Yumi. As further exposition, Koji Kabuto was a hero of the Mazinger battles, but he has retired to a life of scientific research. He has also rather abruptly broken off with Yumi.

Despite the awkwardness between them, Kabuto has come to Mt. Fuji to analyze the massive Mycene Mazinger discovered in the far geologic depths. During his initial inspection, he launches LISA, a biological-AI hybrid that is supposed to act as the Mazinger’s key. She remains faithful to Kabuto as her activating “master”-controller but nefarious old Dr. Hell has found a way to hotwire the so-called “Mazinger: Infinity.” The Galactus-like behemoth does not merely smash things. It can destroy our entire universe, replacing it with another from the nexus of multi-verses. So, we’re dealing with some serious cosmic peril here.

Basically, the Mazinger franchise is a lot like Evangelion without the angst. Frankly, the most interesting character in Infinity, at least for newcomers who have not invested in the prior anime and manga series, is LISA, who struggles with her partially human state, much like DATA in Star Trek: Next Gen.

Still, the Mycene backstory is intriguing and it is cool to see Mt. Fuji employed so prominently as a backdrop and a plot element. There is also plenty of action, including a prologue that effectively catalogues the Mazingers’ arsenal of weapons for new arrivals to the franchise.

There is no shortage of destruction in Infinity and the stakes are undeniably high. Nevertheless, it mostly feels like another episode of the original series, rather something really feature-worthy, despite being largely self-contained. Regardless, mecha viewers who want to see more robots shooting at each other will find a quick fix here. Just recommended for the pre-existing fanbase, Mazinger Z: Infinity releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Monday, February 18, 2019

WFA ’19: To Tokyo

Her name is Alice, which might be significant. Instead of Wonderland, she will be plunging a netherworld ruled by a sinister yōkai. However, the gravest forms of peril are the human kind in Caspar Seale-Jones’s To Tokyo, which screens today during this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Alice is not making the most of her time in Japan. Clearly suffering from deep, compounded trauma, she has effectively barricaded herself inside her small provincial hotel room. Yet, somehow, she manages to roust herself to briefly meet her half-sister Zoe at the station. Unfortunately, the half-sibling has come to implore Alice to return home before her ailing mother’s imminent death. The freshly prompted memories of home, particularly of her abusive step-father, will trigger Alice’s descent into a strange fantasy world.

Whether it is real (in a supernatural sense) or merely the projection of her fevered mind is a matter for each viewer’s interpretation. Regardless, this fantasyscape does not appear very Japanese, despite being ruled over by a yōkai lord. In fact, the yurts and steppe backdrops look Himalayan or Central Asian. It is a harsh environment, with little sustenance, but it might ironically be safer than Tokyo, where a suspicious westerner is eager to get reacquainted with Alice, after their chance encounter in the village.

To Tokyo might well be the sort of film that works better as a short than an extended feature. Even at seventy-five minutes, it often feels like it is belaboring the point. This is definitely supposed to be a deliberate mood piece, but it often feels slower than it should. Nevertheless, the technical craftsmanship is quite impressive. Cinematographer Ralph Messer lenses some striking images, dramatically utilizing the full frame. Editors Ashley Smith and Joseph Tims also cut his visuals together in quite a striking way.

Admittedly, Alice’s mental and physical health are supposed to be in a rather anemic state, but Florence Kosky is such a wispy, passive leading lady, she looks like she could blow away in a moderately strong wind. Likewise, Seale-Jones’s narrative is similarly thin and under-nourished. Frankly, this film will make viewers want to buy it a bowl of chicken soup.

In this case, a little more could have been a lot more. We can see what Seale-Jones is getting at. Clearly, the Japanese setting is not a mistake. Seale-Jones is definitely channeling traditional Kwaidan-esque supernatural folklore, as well as the overwhelming (and dehumanizing) ambiance of Shinjuku. This could have been something like a cross between Lost in Translation and Black Orpheus (without the soundtrack), but it should have had greater discipline. An intriguing first attempt at something, but not for general audiences, To Tokyo screens today (2/18) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

WFA ’19: Winter Ridge

This serial murderer could be called the “Slippery Slope” Killer. The unknown perp has been bumping off victims in the late stages of dementia, who probably wouldn’t mind going. Ralph Northam would probably call that keeping them comfortable. The case hits close to home for the detective investigating the case in Dom Lenoir’s Winter Ridge, which screens during this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Ryan Barnes stayed to file just one more report on the night of his anniversary, leaving his wife to drive home alone. Tragically, she was rendered comatose in an accident with Mike Evans, the town drunk and all-around belligerent jerk. Of course, Barnes had just kicked him loose a few hours before, because he was feeling generous.

Barnes keeps working to numb the guilt and pain, drawing a case involving suspicious heart-attacks suffered by age-addled victims. It seems they were all part of a support group led by Dr. Joanne Hill, whose members included the very same Evans. He was there because of his ailing granddaughter’s grim prognosis, but was not very popular with the other members.

That all sounds too convenient, doesn’t it? Frankly, Ridge could have used a few more characters, because there just aren’t any other suspects left by the time we get to the big supposed reveal. Indeed, Ridge is a rather workmanlike affair that might have been okay as an episode of a British procedural, but is hard pressed to justify its feature film status.

The one thing it really has going for it is an ensemble of first-rate British character actors. Perhaps the most recognizable face in Ridge is Alan Ford (whom we all surely know from Cockneys vs. Zombies) as Dale Jacobs, an artist and member of Hill’s group, who could very well be the next victim. Hannah Waddingham (who similarly elevated The Gatehouse) chews the scenery quite nicely as Dr. Hill, while Michael McKell barks orders and issues stern warnings like a champ as John Faulkner, Barnes’ commanding officer.

If you had to take the thumbnail above and sketch out a full narrative in less than thirty minutes, there is a good chance you would produce an outline that parallels Ross Owen Williams’ screenplay, beat for beat. That makes it a bit of a disappointment, but Anglophiles will still enjoy watching pros like Ford and McKell do their thing. Better suited for streaming, Winter Ridge screens this afternoon (2/17) at Cinema Village, as part of the 2019 Winter Film Awards.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

WFA ’19: Baby Won’t You Please Come Home (short)

You know the title standard must be a bluesy torch-song, because it was first popularized by Bessie Smith and subsequently covered by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Julie London. Pearl Simmons also recorded it, but the homecoming part probably had more personal resonance for her than the wayward man. Sadly, she no longer performs, presumably in part because her faculties are slowly slipping away in Christopher Piazza’s short film Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, which screens during the 2019 Winter Film Awards.

Simmons and her contractor husband always took pride and pleasure in the elegant home they purchased and fully restored in an affluent neighborhood. Over the years, it was their source of security. Unfortunately, he passed three years ago. She misses him during her moments of lucidity, but Simmons is getting increasingly lost in her memories. She is also losing time, growing ever more forgetful, and confusing past and present. Her grown daughter Cynthia fully recognizes the problem, but her determination to protect and manage her mother might no longer be realistic.

Viewers can be confident the music in Baby is legit, because young Simmons is played by rising star jazz vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, who is backed by real deal jazz musicians like Andrew Gutauskas on baritone saxophone (a somewhat unusual choice for a singer’s combo, but it sounds great) and Steve Einerson or Adam Birnbaum on piano. Simmons’ choice of repertoire also rather surprisingly leans towards the traditional. In addition to “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” she also performs a powerful “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and a very nice “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (an Isham Jones tune).

Piazza nicely uses scenes of the younger singer at the peak of her performance powers as a counterpart to the older, somewhat impaired Simmons. Horn really does not have much to do from a dramatic standpoint, but she undeniably commands the stage. On the other hand, Michelle Hurst is quite poignant, in a heartbreakingly realistic way as the contemporary Simmons.

Baby would pair up quite nicely with Richie Adams’ feature film, Of Mind and Music, both in terms of their respective themes and musical content. The music swings, but Piazza also portrays the challenges of dementia and care-giving with sensitivity and empathy. Recommended for jazz patrons and fans of senior-focused dramas like Iris and On Gold Pond, Baby Won’t You Please Come Home screens tonight (2/16) and Tuesday afternoon (2/19), as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River

This quiet hotel on the banks of the Han River ought to be a perfect spot for a secret assignation, but its guests are working through the bitter aftermaths of their affairs instead. It has been a long process for aging poet Ko Younghwan. He might never fully repair his relationships with the grown sons he walked out on decades ago, because he is convinced he will soon die in Hong Sang-soo’s Hotel by the River (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Ko is weirdly famous for a poet (quick, name a living poet—any living poet), but apparently he is sufficiently respected for the owner of the hotel to offer him a free room. It seems the freeloading Ko has overstayed his welcome, but he really does not expect to be around much longer. Having had premonitions of his imminent death, Ko summoned his semi-estranged sons, Kyung-soo and Byung-soo, but he immediately regretted it. He fears their reunion will be too awkward, even by the low standards of a character in a Hong Sang-soo film.

On the other hand, Ko is quite taken with Sang-hee and her friend Yeon-ju. The former has checked into the hotel to recover from the heartbreak of a recent affair cut short by her married lover, as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque burn she subsequently suffered on her hand. This relationship clearly echoes that of lead actress Kim Min-hee’s scandalous involvement with Hong himself, as well as the uncomfortably meta affair that collapses around her character in On the Beach at Night Alone. However, in this case, the focus falls on Ko, who was rather ironically dumped by the woman he left his family for, decades ago. Yet, he regrets nothing.

One of the knocks on Hong is the alleged “slightness” of his films, but in Hotel, he is dealing with some serious themes of mortality and redemption. However, some consistencies remain, such as the ultra-neurotic nature of his characters and their capacity to guzzle down alcohol.

As Ko, Ki Joo-bong creates a marvelous humanistic portrait of a flawed man in the twilight of his life. He is simultaneously guilt-ridden and defiant, in a way that is quite compelling. This time around, Kim takes a backseat to Ko, but also largely defers to Song Seon-mi, who really gets most of the film’s laughs as Yeon-ju. The consoling friend ruthlessly roasts the immaturity of the man-children who populate Hong’s world, but she can’t dismissed as anti-male, because her husband is different. In fact, the unseen, unnamed fellow is apparently too healthy to appear in a Hong Sang-soo film.

Obviously, that cannot be said for Kyung-soo and Byung-soo, who are classic Hong archetypes, especially the latter, who is a conspicuously Hong-like uncommercial indie film director. Yet, Yu Jun-sang’s coolly reserved performance is consistently upstaged by Kwon Hae-hyo’s more angsty work as the messily human Kyung-soo, who inherited most of his father’s physical shortcomings and personality hang-ups, but none of his talent.

Hotel is very much in keeping with recent Hong films, particularly The Day After and On the Beach, in terms of their common themes and lack of the narrative playfulness that marked his earlier films. This is arguably his most mature work to date, but films like Hill of Freedom were a lot more fun. Regardless, it is rewarding to watch Ko, Kwon, Kim, and Song in a stripped down chamber-piece. Kim Hyung-koo’s stark black-and-white cinematography, perfectly suited to the snowy backdrop, also makes this the best-looking Hong film since The Day He Arrives. Respectfully recommended for Hong’s admirers and fans of talky relationship dramas, Hotel by the River opens today (2/15) in New York.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mega Time Squad: Kiwi Time Travel

Time travel can be dangerous, especially if you have low self-worth, because you might meet yourself—and it would be super-awkward knowing what you thought of you. Lug-headed John likes most people, even including himself, so he shouldn’t have any trouble working with his other selves. Yet, somehow he still quarrels and backstabs with himself in Tim van Dammen’s Mega Time Squad (trailer here), which opens this Friday in limited release.

John is decent bloke, even though he harbors serious gangster ambitions clearly beyond his reach. Currently, he is an unglorified errand boy for Shelton, a suburban Kiwi kingpin. That certainly should not impress Shelton’s younger sister, Kelly, who has recently moved in with him, but she takes an inexplicable shine to the lad. To impress her, John uses some inside intel to try to swipe a bag full of illicit cash, but that puts him in the middle of a power struggle between Shelton’s outfit and a Chinese gang moving in of their territory.

Fortunately, along with the cash, John also makes off with an ancient Chinese bracelet that allows the wearer to jump back in time. Van Dammen never gets very Doctor Who-ish regarding the details of how this works. Instead, he is more interested in the stage-managing the growing clique of Johns, who dub themselves: “The Mega Time Squad.” We do not get any lectures on the dangers of monkeying around with the space-time continuum, because John really doesn’t need one. The ancient Chinese demon stalking him makes the point well enough on its own.

Without question, the visual effects and physical traffic-directing of the various Johns is downright inspired. Unfortunately, the characterization is not as strong. Alas, poor John lacks the charm of either Bill or Ted and has nothing that can compare to the screen presence of Mi Yang’s various doppelgangers in Reset. As played by Anton Tennet, the dude is just a dude.

Still, his earnest (if clueless) courtship of Kelly is genuinely endearing. Hetty Gaskell-Hahn strikes just the right balance between sweetness and sarcasm as the object of his affections. To be fair, Tennet also does a nice job distinguishing each John by emphasizing the quirks that surface in each iteration.

“Nice” really is the word for Mega Time Squad. It is an amusing film that over-achieves quite resourcefully when it comes to special effects, but the vibe is a little too laidback for its own good. Pleasant but not essential, Mega Time Squad opens tomorrow (2/15) in select cities, including the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio.