Saturday, November 30, 2019

Submitted by Singapore: A Land Imagined

The sand is from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodian. The workers are from Bangladesh and China. However, the crime and the film are definitely Singaporean. This season, all Netflix awards buzz focuses on The Irishman, but they are also carrying all of Singapore’s Oscar hopes and dreams. The local construction industry might not have been overly thrilled about it, but Singapore opted for Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined as its official international feature film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Lok is a massively jaded cop, who is almost as surprised by his efforts to find missing Chinese migrant worker Wang Bi-cheng, as the dodgy land reclamation company that employed him. Frankly, they think they did well by Wang when they kept him on as a driver at half-pay when his arm was injured in an industrial accident. It was during that time Wang befriended Ajit, one of the Bangladeshi workers, who also mysteriously disappeared.

As we see in flashbacks, Lok’s investigation of Wang’s disappearance retraces the steps the Chinese worker’s efforts to find his Bangladeshi friend. In fact, Lok starts to feel an affinity for Wang, due to their mutual insomnia. Clearly, the company is up to its neck in shading dealings, but Mindy, the goth femme fatale managing the neighboring internet parlor is decidedly no angel either.

Eventually, the film takes a rather Robbe-Grillet-like turn, as the personas of the cop and the subject of his investigation start to blend together. Yet, in many ways Land Imagined is a noir in the B. Traven tradition. The only thing more dangerous than the crooked system for the trapped laborers are their own character failings.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Stay Home: Ai Weiwei Document’s Ximei’s Life & Activism

Recent revelations of toxic tear gas dispersed throughout Hong Kong and the network of concentration camps imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs from East Turkistan prove the Chinese Communist Party is dangerous to human health. AIDS activist Liu Ximei knew that years ago. She was one of the thousands of Henan peasants who contracted the disease through tainted transfusion blood. However, she was not willing to meekly accept the substandard treatment grudgingly provided by state clinics. She organized patients, but that consequently made her a target, as viewers can see in Ai Weiwei’s Stay Home (written, lensed, and edited by Chen Shuo), which predates Andy Cohen & Gaylen Ross’s more complete documentary Ximei, but it still nicely compliments their film, which opens today in New York.

Hip New Yorkers may have already seen Stay Home, because the 2013 film played on a loop during Teacher Ai’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. It is also readily available on YouTube and Vimeo, if you do not live on the Chinese side of the CCP’s Great Firewall.

Stay Home is somewhat less structured and more fly-on-the-wall in the manner it documents the day-to-day health challenges Liu must endure. It also covers a shorter time-span, ending before she becomes a legit couple with her roommate, a fellow AIDS patient. We also witness worse acts of harassment in the newer documentary, because the Henan cadres had the good sense to be on their best behavior when Ai Weiwei showed up with a camera crew. In contrast, Cohen and company do their best to stay undercover. Nevertheless, the apparatchiks’ hostility and resentment for Liu still comes through clearly.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Ximei: Profile in Courage

Liu Ximei is continuing proof of one of Mainland China’s dirtiest secrets (and the Communist Party certainly has a lot to choose from). In the 1990s, peasants in hardscrabble Henan province were encouraged to supplement their subsistence income selling blood. Tragically, unsafe sanitary practices led to widespread AIDS infection among both donors and recipients. Naturally, the Party tried to sweep it under the rug, because that is what they do. However, one brave young woman emerged as a leader for the rural AIDS patients, after she contracted the disease through a transfusion. Viewers will meet her and witness the powerful opposition she faces in Andy Cohen & Gaylen Ross’s Ximei, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Liu might be familiar to some viewers, because she was the subject of Ai Weiwei’s documentary, Stay Home. Those who have seen it will be reassured by Teacher Ai’s involvement as an executive producer of Cohen & Ross’s doc. We get to know her better as a flesh-and-blood person through their lens—and to know Liu is to admire her.

Many of Liu’s experiences are somewhat universal, with respect to her search for companionship and her eventual romance with a fellow Henan patient. However, her activism and humanitarianism often put her at odds with the police and health services bureaucracy. Believing in the efficacy of patient solidarity and support, Liu opened “Ximei’s Home for Mutual Help,” a shelter and resource for patients who cannot afford to regularly commute from their rural homes to the urban clinics. Of course, even when they show up, the doctors and nurses often refuse to see them in a timely manner, prompting Liu to lodge rather pointed complaints on their behalf. Frustratingly, but not so surprisingly, the police have regularly forced Liu to relocate her shelter.

Although Ximei is a more personal profile than Ai Weiwei’s film, it still covers sufficiently sensitive topics to get Cohen and his crew rousted by the police at least once. This is definitely gutsy, truth-to-power filmmaking, but the subject and star is truly courageous.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Knives Out: Daniel Craig Investigates Famous Suspects

If a suspicious character is not played by someone famous, chances are that person is not the murderer. That is why Agatha Christie movies used to have little pictures of the cast running along the bottom of their lobby posters. It showed off how many suspects there were. Winking homage is paid to those films in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which opens today nationwide.

Johnson’s screenplay is all about its twists, so some caginess is in order, to prevent spoilers. It is safe to say Harlan Thrombey, a celebrated mystery novelist and patriarch of a wildly dysfunctional and elitist family is about to die a premature death. Marta Cabrera, his private nurse is probably the only one who truly mourns him. The cops assume it is an open-and-shut case, but Benoit Blanc, an eccentric Southern gentleman private detective has reason to suspect otherwise. An unknown client hired his services to investigate, which is rather suspicious in itself.

Much to her surprise, Cabrera finds herself pressed into service as Blanc’s Watson. Of course, it becomes increasingly awkward for her, because she harbors her own secrets. Needless to say, everything is not as it seems.

There is quite a bit of clever misdirection going on throughout the film. It would be no fair telling, but rest assured the big reveals are all quite satisfying. The knowing humor is also mostly rather sly, but there are times when the scoldy class warfare messaging should have been throttled down. This is supposed to be larky fun, not a Theodore Dreiser adaptation.

Fortunately, Daniel Craig always keeps things snappy when he is on-screen, delighting viewers with Blanc’s impossibly lazy drawl. Honestly, that accent deserves some kind of award. It is also great fun watching him effortless shift from genteel charm to gleeful cunning.

Frankly, it is rather impressive that Ana de Armas can keep up Craig and the rest of the colorful ensemble as the almost fatally nice Cabrera. Of course, only Blanc can withstand the withering attitude Jamie Lee Curtis projects as the tartly cynical eldest daughter, Linda Drysdale. She is a totally believable chip off the block that is Christopher Plummer’s uber-yankee Thrombey (and really ought to have more screen time, but she makes the most of what she gets). Likewise, Plummer has the appropriate lordly presence, but he has some surprisingly engaging humanizing moments with De Armas.

Yet, Don Johnson might just score the biggest laughs as the venal and pretentious son-in-law, Richard Drysdale. Honestly, Johnson has yet to get the credit he deserves for his comedic chops (check out his razor-sharp cornpone turn in Cold in July, if you doubt it).

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Mark Dacascos is the Driver

Maybe you think electric cars are more environmentally friendly, but fossil fuels have one big advantage. They still burn after the zombie apocalypse wipes out human civilization. Driving is our protag’s’ job for his rag-tag community of survivors—and you will not find him behind the wheel of a Prius. Try BMW. He will have to do what he does best when human and zombie attacks threaten his daughter’s safety in Wych Kaosayananda’s The Driver, which releases today on DVD.

The community is a little peeved at the Driver, because he and his dirtbag partner Joe followed orders and drove a popular but larcenous thief to his death. Thanks to Joe, it was an ugly case of execution by zombie. Unfortunately, Joe has more jerkheel behavior in store from the Driver, when he sells out the community to a violent gang of marauders. Naturally, all the commotion attracts the zombies, who quickly overrun both sides of the fight. The Driver barely escapes with his car and his daughter Bree, but sadly, he is not unscathed.

With the clock ticking, The Driver gives Bree a crash course on survival skills. They desperately speed towards “Haven,” a rumored strong-post of civilization up north, even though he is not sure it truly exists. Along the way, they will have to deal with plenty of zombies and human scum.

Dacascos will always be known to many as “The Chairman” on Iron Chef, but after his recent high-profile turns in Wu Assassins and John Wick 3, he is primed for a career renaissance as an action star. Alas, it won’t start with The Driver, but it is not a total dead-loss. As the titular Driver, Dacascos shows much more range most critics and viewers probably expect from him, especially in his tender parental scenes with Bree, played by his likable real-life daughter Noelani. Plus, his action chops remain undiminished. Like his fellow 1990’s action star, Gary Daniels, Dacascos always had screen charisma and is still in terrific shape. Frankly, both of them should have been bigger stars during their peaks.

Mary: Gary Oldman Skippers Her as Best He Can

On paper, this evil boat should be way scarier than Christine, because her passengers will be stranded by the open water. They can’t try to dive out a window and run for a narrow alleyway. They must remain on the high seas until they reach port. Unfortunately, that does not seem likely to happen for everyone, judging from the if-I-had-but-known in media res prologue to Michael Goi’s Mary, which releases today on DVD.

David is tired of sailing other people’s charter boats. He longs to be his own skipper, but he cannot afford a tourist-worthy boat—or so he thought until he spied the Mary, an old but seaworthy German sail boat, with a rather evil looking masthead, now up for auction after the Coast Guard found her abandoned. With the help of his sidekick-first mate Mike, they will refurbish her and go into business for themselves. David’s wife Sarah is a bit skeptical, but she does not have much standing to argue since her husband forgave her infidelity.

The restoration is quick and uneventful in movie time, so David and family logical decide to celebrate with a maiden voyage through the Bermuda Triangle. Good call. Of course, as soon as they are far enough out in international waters, Mary starts messing with their heads, especially that of their youngest, ominously also named Mary.

Goi has a terrific cast at his disposal, but he uses them just enough to keep diehard horror fans from walking out, switching the channel, or falling asleep. Weirdly, it is rather interesting to watch Gary Oldman play an average, everyday guy. He and Emily Mortimer are pretty believable as the loving couple under extraordinary stress. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo also goes crazy pretty convincingly as Mike. However, Jennifer Esposito is just hopelessly wasted as Det. Clarkson, who conducts the framing interrogation with a complete lack of intuition.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Agatha and the Truth of Murder: Christie’s 11-Day Mystery

Agatha Christie remains so beloved by her public, we still can’t help wondering where she got off to during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance. It served as the inspiration for the 1979 film Agatha that suggested Dame Agatha was researching methods to kill her unfaithful husband’s other woman. That was not so satisfying for fans, especially since she was played by Vanessa Redgrave, an outspoken supporter of the anti-Semitic PLO terrorist syndicate. This is take #2. This time around, Ms. Christie slips away from her personal drama to solve a murder mystery in Terry Loane’s Agatha and the Truth of Murder, which is scheduled to release on iTunes today.

It is relatively early on in Agatha Christie’s celebrated career, but she is already feeling pressure to keep surprising her readers. She even seeks out the advice from her crusty old colleague, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, their professional careers really did overlap). However, the old blowhard isn’t much help. Frankly, her creative problems are really rooted in her marital problems, which Col. Christie wants to solve with a divorce. Of course, the wronged writer has no intention of giving him such an easy out. She also still thinks she loves him.

The future Dame is not very gracious when retired nurse Mabel Rogers comes seeking her assistance to solve the six-years-cold murder of her best friend, Florence Nightingale Shore, who really was the god daughter of Florence Nightingale and was very definitely bludgeoned to death on a train bound from London to Brighton. Despite her own domestic turmoil, Christie becomes fascinated with the crime and eventually agrees to apply her deductive talents to it.

Fittingly, she hatches a risky scheme, in which the five leading suspects will be summoned to a remote country estate on the pretext of a potential inheritance, allowing the great mystery writer to examine them while pretending to be an agent of the estate solicitor. Alas, her plan starts to implode when one of the suspects turns into a victim.

Screenwriter Tom Dalton cleverly fuses together the two historical mysteries of Christie’s disappearance and the murder of Nightingale Shore. The problem is the first act is downright pokey, wasting a lot of time on awkward character development that is already established for most mystery fans. On the other hand, the country manor business stays pretty true to the spirit of Christie’s books.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Romanians: The Earth’s Most Beloved Son

By and large, agents of the Securitate, Communist Romania’s secret police, had no sense of humor. Nobody understands this better than Victor Petrini. The philosophy professor will be sentenced to ten years in a political prison camp thanks to the deliberate and willful misinterpretation of a joke. His story was first told in Marin Preda’s novel, but it was withdrawn from circulation shortly after publication. Preda’s own death soon followed, stoking the suspicions of many. The release of the film adaptation was therefore quite a significant milestone, after the fall of Ceausescu. Serban Marinescu never sugar-coats any of the pain or humiliations of life under the Communist regime in The Earth’s Most Beloved Son, which screens as part of Film Forum’s The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

For about ten seconds, Petrini has it all: a comfortable flat, the respect of his peers, and young trophy-ish wife. Then there comes a knock at the door—and poof, all gone. Naturally, his arrest involves violent manhandling, but the first interrogator takes a “good cop” approach. The surveillance apparatus intercepted a letter to Petrini from a colleague abroad and out of favor with the regime, which includes a reference to the catch-phrase from their old collegiate comedy act. Needless to say, the Securitate does not get it. Petrini refuses to confess and he has no names to name, so the interrogator’s superior unceremoniously condemns him to a gulag.

Survival there is a rough business. In fact, Marinescu depicts the realities of Socialist prison life in such a brutal, in-your-face manner, Beloved Son created a mini-firestorm of controversy in Romania when it was first released. Let’s just say Petrini’s experiences are akin to the roughest stuff in Oz and Sleepers, but he eventually fights back. The philosophy professor gets tough because he must be to survive, even after he is released.

Probably over half the film is dedicated to Petrini’s post-prison life. As a former political prisoner, he is at the mercy of hostile apparatchiks and plagued by venomous informers. His family and now ex-wife Matilda are definitely not there for him, but he will still try to find some grace in life.

Beloved Son would make an excellent pairing with Lucian Pintille’s The Oak. Both were produced in the early 1990s and present an emotionally devastating critique of the Communist system, but where The Oak is a hallucinatory Grand Guignol, Beloved is painfully grounded. Yet, it also has epic sweep, spanning decades of oppression.

Friday, November 22, 2019

21 Bridges: Boseman Protects and Serves

In this street-smart New York manhunt thriller, the cops deeply resent the grandstanding mayor, who has often thrown them under the bus. Yes, you can definitely say it is “ripped from the headlines”—recent headlines. We soon suspect a cabal of dirty cops could be the ultimate cause of all the trouble, so it is also ripped from 1970’s Serpico era headlines as well. Det. Andre Davis has a reputation for unholstering his firearm, making him the perfect point-man to track down two desperate cop-killers, but he turns out to be more of a loose cannon than anyone bargained for in Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges, which opens today nationwide.

Ray Jackson and Michael Trujillo thought they had been recruited to steal 30 kilos of cocaine, but they find 300 kilos instead. For them, that is way too much of a “good thing.” Almost immediately thereafter, a firefight ensues with four Brooklyn cops, who did not arrive responding to any calls, before getting blown away by the better armed criminals. Subsequently, they fatally shoot four more officers legitimately dispatched to the scene, fleeing into Manhattan, in search of a buyer and a money-launderer. It is a mess that the local precinct captain and the deputy chief want Davis to clean up—permanently.

Given the considerable quantity of uncut coke recovered, local drug squad detective Frankie Burns will ride shotgun with Davis, whether he likes it or not. She seems tough enough, but many of her trigger-happy colleagues keep getting in his way. Nevertheless, Davis steadily closes in on his targets, thanks to his strategy the useless mayor agrees to implement. Every tunnel, train, ferry, and bridge (yes, all 21 of them) providing access out of Manhattan will be locked-down from 1:00 to 5:00 (so as not to interrupt the financial markets).

Basically, screenwriters Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan want the audience to hate cops. However, their propaganda campaign is sabotaged by the steely but charismatic performance of their star, Chadwick Boseman. His intense screen presence is still acutely human, winning over viewer’s sympathy and largely carrying the film. Boseman and Sienna Miller, as Burns, nicely play good cop-bad cop together, but it is debatable which is which.

Kamler at Anthology: Chronopolis

One of the ironies of science fiction is the braininess of the genre’s most speculative work is often difficult to translate on screen, so we get cheesy laser battles instead. Imagine trying to write a screenplay based on Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Man. Piotr Kamler might have been the man to do it. The Parisian-based Polish animator specialized in abstract animation, but his only feature film was a work of science fiction—sort of. Focus on the visuals and try not to worry about imposing narrative order on Kamler’s Chronopolis, which screens during the Kamler retrospective now underway at Anthology Film Archives.

In some ways, Chronopolis shares a kinship with that other “polis,” Metropolis. This is definitely an imposing futuristic city, but the power dynamics are a little different. The ancient immortals lounge around their luxury palaces in the sky, creating living forms out of clay and pining for some drama to shake up their omnipotent existences. A pair of intrepid humans scaling their ivory towers just might do that. Or something like that.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

BiTS ’19: Dead D*cks

Richie is not a vampire, but he is the sort of real-life monster who can suck the life out of the people around him. His little sister Becca has been his primary victim and enabler. She has put her life on hold to deal with his mental health and substance abuse issues. Just when she thinks her brother can’t shock her anymore, she finds herself face-to-face with two versions of Richie—one naked and alive, the other dead and clothed. She is in for an even more chaotic night than usual in Chris Bavota & Lee Paula Springer’s Dead D*cks, which screens during this year’s Blood in the Snow Film Festival.

Becca had been thrilled by her acceptance into a graduate nursing program, but she was unsure how to break the news to Richie. Then she walked into this mess. As Richie semi-coherently explains, he kind-of, sort-of died by misadventure, but returned via the awkwardly shaped portal that mysteriously appeared in his bedroom. In fact, he quite irresponsibly repeated the process a few times—just to see. That leaves several dead bodies for Becca to clean up before Matt, the irate downstairs neighbor, calls the cops and the landlord.

Dead D*cks is a thoroughly original genre film, but the terrible title is totally misleading. This is not some kind of beer-swilling lad comedy with clones. There is a fair amount of black humor, but it is deadly serious in the way it presents the impact of mental illness and addiction on close family members. Yet, there is no suggestion any of this is the product of symbolism-heavy delusion. The fantastical stuff is very real in-world and it becomes steadily more real as the full truth is revealed.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

BiTS ’19: She Never Died

Unless you are a vampire, immortality usually isn’t much fun in movies. Lacey is a case in point. Initially, she appears to lead a feral, animal-like existence, but she applies a strict moral code to determine who she will kill and feed off. Lacey will find plenty of evil-doers who deserve to have their marrow consumed in Audrey Cummings’ She Never Died, the companion-sequel to Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died, scripted by Krawczyk himself, which screens at this year’s Blood in the Snow Film Festival.

Blessed with immortality and Wolverine-like healing powers, “Lacey” subsists on bone marrow rather than blood. That is why she often removes the fingers of her prey (you could call it finger-food). Of course, such distinctive corpses are likely to draw attention, but in this mid-sized post-industrial Midwest burg, only Charlie Godfrey, a disillusioned but fundamentally decent detective on the verge of retirement, does any serious police work. 

Lacey’s bodies definitely catch his interest, but he is even more concerned about the Remender Siblings’ human trafficking and sicko dark web video enterprise. Lacey has been staking out the Remenders too, so when she crosses paths with Godfrey, he suggests an unlikely alliance.

She Never Died is brutally violent, but enormously effective. There is nothing left to the imagination regarding what goes on inside these warehouse dungeons, so shrinking violets should consider themselves warned. However, the film has a real sense of morality and offers up some serious cathartic payback. Weirdly, it also opens a huge window into the wider mythology of the world in the final minutes, teasing some cosmic cataclysms to come in potential future films.

Regardless, Olunike Adeliyi is not mucking about as Lacey. If you want to see a female-led genre film, She Never Died puts Charlie’s Angels (any of them) to ignoble, humiliated shame. In fact, Meredith Remender is a much more formidable villain than her knuckle-headed brother Terrance. Yet, the irony is most of Lacey’s audience are likely to be red meat-gnawing men.

The Divine Move 2: The Wrathful

Go might look like a board game, but it can be a full-contact sport in Korea. It has a lot to do with the wagering. Sometimes the stakes are even life and death. That suits a mysterious young Go prodigy just fine. He intends to serve up some revenge as cold and hard as Go stones in Lee Khan’s “spin-off” sequel, The Divine Move 2: The Wrathful, which opens this Friday in New York.

Young Gui-su showed an early aptitude for Go and an early thirst for vengeance after Go master Hwang Duk-yong takes advantage of his naïve older sister, driving her to suicide. All alone in the world, Gui-su has the mostly good fortune to fall in with Hur Il-do, a Go teacher and hustler, somewhat like Fast Eddie Felsen in The Color of Money. They start making the rounds, but the thuggish Busan Weed turns out to be a very poor loser. That leads to more grievances for Gui-su to settle later.

After several years of secluded study, the twentysomething Gui-su emerges for his payback. The main event will be Hwang, but Gui-su will warm up on everyone who ever wronged Hur. He will also make a little money in the process with the help of “Mr. Turd,” his bankroller and comic relief. Meanwhile, the mysterious “Loner” stalks Gui-su, hoping to extract his own vengeance for sins Gui-su committed with Hur.

In a way, The Divine Move franchise is like the Tazza series for the game of Go, right down to the supposedly-in-the-same-world-but-really-only-thematically-related sequels. The Wrathful is also like the latest Tazza film in that it is surprisingly violent and hard-bitten, especially for a film revolving around such a cerebral game. Regardless, it is as gripping as a shark bite and nearly as lethal.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Romanians: The Way I Spent the End of the World

Lalalilu “Lali” Matei is only seven years-old, but he still figures out Ceausescu is an evil dictator and his socialist system is corrupt. Obviously, he is not a millennial. Despite the steady propaganda diet he receives at school, the young boy recognizes how much trouble the regime causes for his beloved older sister Eva. However, the year is 1989, so if they can just hold on long enough, life will eventually change (for the better) in Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (executive-produced by non-Romanians, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders), which screens as part of Film Forum’s current retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

After December 1989, breaking busts of Ceausescu would become a form of national therapy, but it could lead to no end of woe earlier in the year. Unfortunately, Eva and her boyfriend Alex accidentally do exactly that while sneaking off for a bit of necking during class. Vomica is protected by his father, a Party member-police officer, but that leaves Matei to take the fall. Much to Vomica’s surprise (and only his surprise), Matei dumps him soon after. He wants to pick up where they left off, but she will not forgive and forget the way he turned his back on her.

Of course, carrying on the relationship would be problematic after Matei is expelled from the Communist Youth academy. She must now attend the technical school, but there she meets Christian Vararu, the brooding son of a disgraced political prisoner. Meanwhile, little Lali picks up on all her stress, so he tries to organize his bratty friends into a gang that will take direct action against Ceausescu.

Admittedly, Lali and his pals can be a bit too cute, but there is something genuinely touching about his stormy but affectionate relationship with Eva. Even though the narrative is largely told through his eyes, there is no question Dorotheea Petre is the breakout star of TWISTEOTW. She develops richly complex chemistry with all her principle co-stars, whether it be young Lali, privileged Vomica, or morose Vararu (all of whom are less mature than her). She is a teenaged character, but she must deal with some very adult issues, as well as the usual stuff for a 17-year-old.

The Fare: Love and Time Loops

This must be a Twilight Zone kind of story, because the characters call for taxis rather than Ubers. This particular yellow cab will not get very far. The cabbie’s customer keeps disappearing after he takes her down a lonesome stretch for twenty minutes or so. Then everything resets. Time sure seems to be looping in D.C. Hamilton’s The Fare, which releases today on VOD.

Harris (don’t call him “Harry”) and Penny (like the coin) keep having the same chit-chat over and over—until he starts to remember. It turns out she always did. Finally, their conversation can advance into deeper territory. Unfortunately, they are unable to find a way to break the cycle, but they are clearly developing serious feelings for each other. Regardless, she still disappears and as soon as Harris resets his meter, they are back to where they started.

Obviously, we can’t say too much about a film like this, because it would be spoilery. However, we can almost guarantee you won’t see the twist coming, even though hints are deviously dropped in the early going. Hamilton and screenwriter-co-lead Brinna Kelly engage in some truly masterful misdirection. On the surface, this is a shrewdly simple-to-stage two-person science fiction film that requires virtually no special effects, but the real story is much more complex.

The Fare also happens to be the best genre romance since maybe Benson & Moorhead’s Spring. Kelly and Gino Anthony Pesi are absolutely terrific together. Their chemistry is truly the key. We really care about them as a couple, which is an even greater trick to pull off in this case, because the film must be so cagey about their back-stories. Yet, their mutual affection deepens organically and never feels forced.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Romanians: The Great Communist Bank Robbery

They knowingly risked their lives and reputation to steal money that was practically worthless. Even today their motives remain shrouded in mystery. Sadly, we cannot simply ask them, because the Communist regime executed nearly all of the accused bank robbers. Alexandru Solomon investigates the unlikely caper and the state’s sinister response in The Great Communist Bank Robbery, which screens, which screens as part of Film Forum’s current retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

If the circumstances of the 1959 Romanian bank heist sound familiar, perhaps you saw Nae Caranfil’s excellent narrative film, Closer to the Moon, starring Mark Strong and Vera Fermiga. Although there is a lot we do not know about the incident, due to the regime’s secrecy, the British drama sticks fairly close to the facts as Solomon establishes them.

At that time, Romanian leu were officially unconvertible, due to Romania’s self-imposed isolation. Even in Romanian, leu were practically worthless, because there was practically nothing available in stores, under socialism. Not surprisingly, everyone was desperate for Western hard currency. That is why security was relatively lax for cash transports from the central bank.

There is little debate on the how’s of the robbery, in large part because the robbers re-enacted the caper for a Party-produced propaganda film titled Reconstruction. Solomon uses the film as a lens through which he refracts the Great Bank Robbery case as well as the fundamental realities of life under Communism. He incorporates extensive excerpts, sometimes screening them against the imposing architectural facades left behind like relics of the old regime.

Where Reconstruction most notably departs from the truth is in its depiction of the bank robbers themselves. According to the propaganda film, they were essentially adventurers and anti-social criminals of one sort or another. However, the truth is they were all former Communist Party members in good-standing. They also happened to be Jewish, caught up in the Party’s anti-Semitic purges.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Friedkin Uncut: The Exorcist, The French Connection, Etc.

William Friedkin directed the scariest film of all time and he also survived some of the scariest flops in Hollywood history. Two of the latter, Sorcerer and Cruising have enjoyed an appreciative critical reappraisal in the years since their release (but Jade, not so much). All in all, it is quite a career for the filmmaker and his colleagues to reflect on throughout Francesco Zippel’s Friedkin Uncut, which is currently playing in Los Angeles.

When Friedkin first sits down with Zippel and a cup of black coffee, he offers up an extended riff on how Jesus and Hitler are such intriguing characters because of the extremes they represent. This is the sort of material we would expect from a pretentious English major, but once he settles down, Friedkin has plenty of entertaining anecdotes to relate. Wisely, Zippel devotes the most time to The Exorcist and The French Connection, for obvious reasons. Both films were blockbuster hits in the early 1970s, whose power remains utterly undiminished with the passage of years.

Sorcerer and Cruising probably get the next most screen time after his Oscar-winning classics, partly because of the colorfully chaotic stories making-of stories and partly because so many critics and colleagues have come to respect them, especially the former. Again, this totally makes historical and aesthetic sense. To Live and Die in L.A. also gets its due, since it is a good film and introduced most movie-goers to Willem Dafoe and William Peterson. Plus, we see a fair amount of Friedkin promoting his latest, the real-life exorcism documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, but that gives the film an opportunity to revisit his 1973 masterwork again.

Strangely, Rampage and the financial misadventures that kept in shelved for years go unmentioned. Likewise, the roundly reviled Jade is scrupulously ignored, even though Friedkin himself has defended in the past. Frankly, it is always disappointing when these filmmaker profile-docs do not have its subject dish on the dogs in their filmography (seriously, Friedkin probably has some interesting things to say about Deal of the Century).

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Romanians: Luxury Hotel

For filmmakers, the advantages of living through a real-life dystopia include the highly cinematic locations the regimes leave behind. Of course, for Dan Pita, there was no up-side when he was banned from filmmaking, because his 1983 film Sand Cliffs sufficiently perturbed Ceausescu. About a decade later, he filmed this weird surreal dystopian parable in the dictator’s former palace (now the parliament building). Once again, a sinister and capricious “boss” rules over the exploited workers in Pita’s Luxury Hotel, which screens during Film Forum’s new retrospective, The Romanians:30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

Alex is an earnest plugger, who thinks he has arrived when he is appointed manager of the Hotel’s flagship restaurant, but as soon as he tries to make improvements, the “boss” slaps him down. Of course, that suits his chief rival and most of the wait staff just fine. Even though he is popular with the patrons (who could well be the surviving ruling class in this ambiguous dystopia), Alex is soon transferred to the Hotel’s warehouse. However, Alex is a restaurant manager at heart. He will petition the Boss and generally drive his former employees to distraction in his efforts to regain his position.

Meanwhile, there are hints of a civil war going on outside and perhaps even inside the hotel. There could very well be a power struggle going on. We never get a good look at the Boss, but he might be a succession of figureheads, somewhat like Number 2 in The Prisoner. Yet, nobody seems to be aware of any of these wider conflicts, except Marta, the privileged femme fatale who makes no secret of her interest in Alex.

The world of Luxury Hotel shares common elements with Late August at the Hotel Ozone and Snowpiercer, but it is superior to both of those films. Frankly, its vision of class conflict within the paranoid surveillance state is not particularly ground-breaking, but the visuals are quite striking. The decaying but still ostentatious palace is indeed quite a sight to behold, which Pita and his cinematographer, Calin Ghibu, fully capitalize on. You truly couldn’t create sets like this.

The Romanians: The Oak

According to this depiction of the dark, waning days of Ceausescu’s regime, a sort of double-negative principle applied in Romanian. The system was insane, so those who were mad were actually sane. This would describe Nela and Mitica to a “T.” They both have a knack for speaking embarrassing truths and making people around them feel awkward. It is hard to hide behind lies nobody believes when they are around in Lucian Pintilie’s classic The Oak, which screens during Film Forum’s new retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

As the film opens, Nela is not dealing well with the death of her beloved father, a member of the secret police with a rather questionable record as a member of the WWII underground. She has been operating in a state of denial, while his days-old body molders in her bed. She even sets fire to the flat to chase off her estranged sister.

Eventually, she will have to move along, but she carries his ashes in a coffee can (that’s a family tradition for some of us). Her father wanted to donate his body to science, but Romania in the lack 1980s had a paucity of refrigeration and a surplus of corpses. Sort of starting over, she relocates to a provincial city, where she is roughed up by a gang of laborer on her first day. Fortunately, the brawling doctor Mitica saves her from the worst of it. She rather digs his two-fisted approach to bureaucracy, his commitment to medicine, and his rude sense of humor. A day or two later, they start acting like a couple, even though neither is really the affectionate sort. Nevertheless, they will stand side-by-side and face some pretty ugly harassment together.

The Oak is definitely an anarchic film, but its free-wheeling style will not trouble viewers who have drunk deeply from the wells of auteurs like Buñuel and Fellini. This is the sort of work that requires a bit of time to settle in. Initially, the shabbiness of the environment and Nela’s ragingly self-destructive behavior seem to work in concert to repel viewers, but she and Mitica evolve into grandly tragic heroes over the time.

Maia Morgenstern and Razvan Vasilescu are terrific as the unmoored but perfectly matched pair. They play off each other well (even for those of us relying on subtitles), while developing some effectively ambiguous chemistry. They run about and act out, but their quiet moments together really reverberate. On the other hand, the supporting cast, a colorful rogue’s gallery worthy of Daumier caricatures, provides no end of noise and chaos.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Line of Duty

There is nothing the media enjoys more than tearing down police officers. An internet wannabe like Ava Brooks hardly qualifies as media, but she certainly shares all their biases. However, she will learn just how dangerous it can be to serve as a uniformed officer in Steven C. Miller’s Line of Duty, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Officer Frank Penny was officially cleared of wrong-doing in a prior shooting incident, but his career has still suffered. He really was blameless, but he remains wracked with guilt, due to the acutely agonizing circumstances. He walks a beat these days, fatefully putting him in the perfect place to intercept a fleeing kidnaping suspect.

Unfortunately, Penny is forced to shoot the perp before he can disclose any information on the victim’s whereabouts. Awkwardly, she happens to be the daughter of the police chief. As a further complication, Brooks captures the entire shooting on her live-cast, as well as Penny’s subsequent dressing down. Of course, he goes rogue to rescue the young girl and she does her best to keep up with him, until things start getting violently real. Soon, the odd couple realizes they will have to work together to save the victim and stay alive.

If Line of Duty had been released during the peak of premium cable movie channels, it would have been a mainstay that we would have frequently re-watched. It is no classic, but it is slick, professional, generally reassuring, and highly watchable. Frankly, it is enormously refreshing just to see such a positive portrayal of a police office on-screen. Penny is no superhero, but Aaron Eckhart’s lead performance and Jeremy Drysdale’s screenplay cast him in an acutely human light that actually makes him more sympathetic than an unrealistically perfect action hero.

DOC NYC ’19: Mai Khoi and the Dissidents

If the New Left anti-war protestors ever really took stock of their legacy, they would have to confront their inadvertent contribution to the abysmal human rights record of modern-day Vietnam, a one-party Communist surveillance state that regularly ranks down at the bottom of press freedom indexes, alongside China and Iran. Recently, the regime has also moved aggressively to curtail the flow of information over the internet. That is the environment the free-thinking recording artist Mai Khoi was forced to operate in. Filmmaker Joe Piscatella follows Khoi during a pivotal period of her career as an artist and an activist in Mai Khoi and the Dissidents, which premiered at this year’s DOC NYC.

Khoi has frequently been dubbed Vietnam’s Lady Gaga, but she is also intelligent and capable of thinking for herself. However, her first big hit was something like the Vietnamese equivalent of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” The government certainly promoted it that way, but she continued to grow as an artist. Even more inconveniently, she also developed a social conscience, especially with respects to free speech and women’s rights.

Inevitably, the Party cooled on the once favored Khoi and it became downright hostile when she launched an independent campaign for parliament. In a weird kink of the nation’s electoral laws, rival political parties are expressly prohibited, but independent candidacies are ostensibly legal. Of course, the Party still kept her off the ballot. As the pressure on Khoi mounts, she forms a new band that reflects her concerns and frustrations: “Mai Khoi and the Dissidents.” You know they do not reflect the Party approved aesthetics, because it includes a jazz saxophonist.

Although Dissidents is not quite as intense as Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, the stakes are high throughout the film and Khoi faces genuine peril. Despite its atrocious human rights record, Vietnam has enjoyed a fair amount of sympathetic press in recent years. Dissidents should serve as a sharp rebuke and a bitter antidote to such white-washed coverage.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: Buster Williams Bass to Infinity

The bass is really quite a fitting instrument for a Buddhist jazz musician. It can create a drone-like effect, especially if played arco. Yet, more importantly, the bass provides the selfless foundation that the rest of the ensemble plays over. Bassists frequently comp under soloists and generally “keep the band together,” to quote the words of Buster Williams. He ought to know. Williams played with everyone and has become a popular bandleader in his own right. Viewers get to hang with the virtuoso bassist in Adam Kahan’s Buster Williams Bass to Infinity, which premiered at this year’s DOC NYC.

Williams played with undeniable legends, like Miles Davis, Nancy Wilson, and Sarah Vaughan. However, his first professional stint came in the ruckus band co-led by “Boss Tenors” Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. It was quite an education for the young Williams, as viewers learn from his colorful anecdotes and the lively animated sequences that accompany them.

Most of the film is more conventional and laidback, but it slyly builds to a significant point, appropriately delivered by NEA Jazz Master Herbie Hancock, whose Buster Williams story perfectly represents and encapsulates the film. Disappointingly, we do not get to hear Hancock play with Williams (oh well), but we do hear the bassist perform with famous friends, such as tenor-player Benny Golson, vocalist Carmen Lundy, pianists Kenny Barron and Larry Willis, fellow bassist Rufus Reid, as well as his own ensemble featuring Steve Wilson and George Colligan, so that’s definitely something.

Buster Williams is a likable screen presence throughout the film. Oddly enough, Infinity could be the best opportunity to hear Williams on his own, because he never hogs the solo spotlight, even at his own gigs. He really takes the business of “keeping the band together” seriously. But of course, his musicianship is undeniably accomplished.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

SDAFF ’19: The 12th Suspect

The coffee is bitter and the conversation is depressing. That makes this post-war Seoul tea house the perfect haunt for moopy artists and poets. Unfortunately, their brooding will be interrupted by murder and intrigue in director-screenwriter Ko Myoung-sung’s The 12th Suspect, which screens during the 2019 San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Most of the artists and literary types patronizing the Oriental Café assume this is just another day, but they are about learn one of their colleagues, poet Baek Doo-hwan, has been murdered. Kim Ki-chae, the investigating officer, makes it clear they are all suspects. However, it is rather odd that he is working the case, because he is with the counter-intelligence service, not the civil police. He also has more revelations to drop, including the involvement of feminist student-activist Choi Yoo-jung, whom many of the patrons carried a torch for.

12th Suspect
starts out as an appealing throwback to old fashioned multi-suspect Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries, but it takes a rather ugly and stilted detour into anti-anti-Communist politics during the goodwill-killing second act. However, the third act revelations dig deep into Korea’s tragic history and largely salvage the film with their power and surprise.

Arguably, Kim Sang-kyung comes on too strong and too sinister right from the start as Kim, prematurely tipping us to his villainous nature. On the other hand, Heo Sung-tae and Park Sun-young are acutely human and complex as the café proprietors, prickly No Suk-hyun and his no-nonsense wife, Jang Sun-hwa.

Philophobia: or the Fear of Falling in Love

For some people, relationships are more frightening than ghosts and monsters. Guys like Damien Booster are a major reason why. However, it is Booster who must face a long night of chills and nightmares in Tyler Cole’s Philophobia: or the Fear of Falling in Love, which releases today on VOD.

Booster has been gaining traction as a podcaster, but that hardly makes him famous in a town like Los Angeles. Nevertheless, he manages to impress Danielle Scott, who starts to develop feelings for him. She even invites Booster to meet her mother at brunch. Unfortunately, he reacts poorly, even by his standards. In fact, he butchers the moment so badly, she flatly breaks up with him.

Of course, Booster is pained by this, but his commitment-phobia is so ingrained, he unable to respond in any halfway appropriate manner. The visit of his old high school buddy Alan should distract him, but instead he acts like a self-absorbed killjoy, which he is. Granted, he has an excuse. Immediately after the break-up, Booster starts experiencing macabre visions or hallucinations revolving around relationship themes. There might even be some kind of spectral energy haunting him.

Philophobia is sort of like a Christmas Carol for bad break-up, but Booster is not explicitly visited by the Ghosts of Relationships Past, Present, and Future. Regardless, it is stakes out some surprisingly fresh genre ground. Old School horror fans might be disappointed the genre elements are not more prominent and graphic, but it could well be a function of Cole’s severely limited budget constraints (like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Philophobia was largely financed with maxed out credit cards).

What might really surprise many viewers is the sharpness of the dialogue, written by screenwriter Aaron Burt, who also plays Booster. Sometimes this film is painful to watch, not due to ghoulish visuals, but because what the characters have to say cuts so deeply.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Scandalous: The National Enquirer Documentary

Mention of its name might stir nostalgia among those who used to hold it in contempt, just because of it represents a bygone analog distribution model. However, the tabloid journalism it used to practice has practically become the current industry standard. We do not need to feel nostalgic for The National Enquirer, because all of reputable competition have joined it at its scandal-mongering level. With the recent revelations regarding ABC News and the spiking Amy Robach’s Jeffrey Epstein story, it is now clear even the worst practices ascribed to Enquirer happen at entrenched media operations. Current headlines provide quite an ironic context to watch Mark Landsman’s Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer, which opens this Friday in New York.

Generoso Pope Jr. was the son of Pope Sr., the publisher of Il Progresso and a major figure in the New York Italian American community. He was also reputedly mobbed up. According to Scandalous, that is where Pope Jr. went to get money to buy The New York Evening Enquirer, a sleepy New York weekly that mostly covered horse racing at that point. Pope quickly changed the name to reflect his national ambitions and started shifting the editorial focus. Initially, it specialized in an especially grisly brand of crime journalism, but it truly found its identity and its market with celebrity scandals.

The former employees (including Judith Regan) heard throughout Scandalous essentially confirm all our assumptions regarding the tabloid. They very definitely paid for tips and maintained somewhat looser standards for what newsworthy and “true.” Their coverage of Gary Hart and O.J. Simpson get called out as the highpoints in the paper’s history, with justification. However, the Enquirer’s greatest victory could very well be the photo taken surreptitiously of the deceased Elvis Presley on view in his casket.

Of course, Landsman does his best to exploit Trump’s ties to the Enquirer, using various talking heads to allege the paper spiked stories exposing his infidelities and personal misadventures in return for consideration of various sorts. Ironically, there was allegedly a similar arrangement in place for Trump’s sworn enemy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. At one point, Carl Bernstein looks straight into the camera and tells viewers with all due seriousness that there is no greater journalistic sin than deliberately spiking legitimate news stories. So, who wants to ask Bernstein for a comment on the Amy Robach tape?

Saturday, November 09, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship

Obama became first U.S. president to visit Myanmar (or Burma as most Burmese still call it), even returning a second time. Everything was sunshine and rainbows until things suddenly got awkward again. Aung San Suu Kyi’s stock has plummeted in recent years, but Karen Stokkendal Poulsen takes a necessary step back to put current controversies in a fuller historical context. Viewers get a sense of how Burma’s tragic past has shaped its frustrating present in On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, which screens tonight during this year’s DOC NYC.

Aung San Suu Kyi might have fallen from grace, but we still love Michelle Yeoh’s portrayal in The Lady. Poulsen briefly covers her celebrated years of house arrest, but she dives deeply into the transitional period following her release. Burma was sort of democratizing, but the ruling generals had devised enough loopholes to ensure their continuing hold on power. The military was guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament and article 59 (f) expressly prohibited Aung San Suu Kyi from serving as the nation’s president.

However, she was elected to parliament, but that meant serving alongside former leaders of the not-so old regime. The guts of Poulsen’s doc really examine the implications of this situation, which are fascinating. Frankly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation would be secure today if she just voted no on everything and told the general to stick it in their ears. Instead, she tried to reach out and form alliances to get things done. Of course, making the repeal of 59 (f) a priority doesn’t exactly burnish her image in retrospect.

Poulsen does not let Aung San Suu Kyi off the hook for her response (or lack of a response) to the systematic attacks on Rohingya Muslims, but she also makes it clear how precarious her current position is. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the chilling consequences of the assassination of her legal advisor, who also happened to be Muslim. Frankly, it could well be that the film stops just as Aung San Suu Kyi’s third act might start (as time will perhaps tell).

Friday, November 08, 2019

Danger Close: Anzacs in Vietnam

Many people no longer understand America fought the Vietnam War alongside many coalition partners, notably including the South Koreans, who contributed the second most troops after the U.S. Even our Brazilian friends joined to the war effort, albeit on a much smaller scale. Australian and New Zealand were also very much present and accounted for. In fact, they fought like absolute Hell during the Battle of Long Tan. A mere 108 ANZAC soldiers held off over two thousand North Vietnamese. Long Tan comes life in bloody but enormously cinematic fashion in Kriv Stenders’ Danger Close, which opens today in New York.

It is 1966 and at first blush, the Anzacs look like the sort of good-natured mates and blokes we expect from Aus and NZ. However, it is quickly apparent that does not describe Maj. Harry Smith. The former commando drives his men hard—maybe too hard—but the discipline he instills gives them the best chance of surviving the war. At least that is what his lieutenants thought until they were dispatched to the overgrown Long Tan rubber plantation.

Intelligence suggested there was maybe a platoon or two in the area. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent Smith’s divided forces have been flanked by at least a battalion and perhaps a full regiment. Yet, instead of retreating (as per orders), Smith regroups and reunites his men and digs in to hold off the North Vietnamese. It will be rough for everyone.