Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Music of John Adams: I Am Love

It is an Italian movie with a Russian protagonist played by a British actress, yet the tone of the film is set by the music of John Adams, arguably the preeminent American classical composer of the day. Though often considered part of the “minimalist” or ‘post-minimalist” movements, his compositions aptly underscore the sweeping, operatic style of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. Though all of Adams’ music heard in the film was composed and recorded for previous commissions, it fits together seamlessly, sounding almost like a unified suite on the recently released IAL soundtrack CD.

Like the minimalists, Adams’ work is marked by frequent use of repeating figures, which is strikingly evident on the opening The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra). However, Adams uses these patterns to build into crescendos well befitting Guadagnino’s story of passion and tribulation. Written shortly after his opera Nixon in China, Adams has described it as an “outtake” from what is arguably his best known work, yet is has a big, full sound that kicks off the film and soundtrack quite effectively.

Very much an American composer, Adams’ work has been informed by composers like Charles Ives, as well as more colloquial forms, including rock & roll and jazz. Not especially pronounced on the IAL soundtrack, his jazz influences are probably best heard on Century Rolls: First Movement, a quiet, lilting piece derived from 1920’s piano rolls, composed for pianist Emanuel Ax, heard performing it with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Named for the ecstatic dancing of the nearly extinct Shaker religious movement, Shaker Loops II and III again nicely suits the on-screen drama, with its agitation resolving into a hypnotic trance. The centerpiece of the soundtrack is probably the selection from The Death of Klinghoffer. Unquestionably Adams’ most controversial work, it tells the story of the murder of wheel-chair bound Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer at the hands of Palestinian terrorists aboard the hijacked Achille Lauro. Klinghoffer’s family disavowed the opera, offended at the production’s apparent attempts to humanize the murderers and rationalize their motives. Regardless, when de-contextualized from its source production, it is powerful music, clearly portending tragedy through Adams’ choral arrangements and evocative use of synthesizers.

The concluding second two movements of Harmonielehre are at first elegiac than tumultuous, before segueing into the in-the-moment triumphalism that ultimately defines the spirit of the film. Indeed, Part III, Meister Eckhard and Quackie, inspired by a dream of his daughter (nick-named Quackie) with the German theologian who ran afoul of the inquisition, has a stirring emotional climax that frankly sounds cinematic.

Guadagnino married the music of John Adams to his dynamic visuals so perfectly, it is hard to imagine the film with a different soundtrack. Yet as a separate release, the IAL soundtrack holds up remarkably well, but also conjures visceral memories of the film for those who have seen it. Still, for those who have not caught up with the film (which is highly recommended), it serves as sort of a greatest hits compilation for the sort of contemporary classical composer who usually does not get such commercial packaging. A collection of some powerful music by an important voice in American music, the IAL soundtrack is now available at most major music retailers.

(Photo: Margaretta Mitchell)

NYAFF ’10 & Japan Cuts ‘10: Golden Slumber

Nostalgia—it’s a killer. Poor, hapless Aoyagi learns that the hard way. One minute he is listening to Beatles covers with an old college friend and before he knows it, he is the fall guy framed for the assassination of Japan’s Prime Minister. Freely remixing the familiar Oswald mythos for today’s celebrity culture, Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Golden Slumber (trailer here), screens in New York this week, as a joint presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film.

Aoyagi is one of the few average Joe deliverymen with his own fans. Several years ago he had twenty minutes of fame after coming to the rescue of a Japanese Pop Idol. Not particularly bright, that modicum of notoriety makes him a perversely fitting patsy for the evil scheme afoot. Thanks to his old (and now late) college chum, the noose has been fitted fairly well around Aoyagi’s neck, but he proves to be an unexpectedly elusive fugitive.

With its ever widening conspiracy and the frequent flashbacks to Aoyagi’s college years, Slumber is not unlike a more grounded version of 20th Century Boys for boomers. Similarly, there are some clever plot points that show how events from the past can influence the present. Still, it is a bit problematic that one of Aoyagi’s few allies is an apparent serial killer—and not of the Dexter variety either.

Reflecting the postmodern information age, nobody really seems to believe Aoyagi is guilty, despite the mountain of doctored evidence the authorities release to the public. Indeed, he is frequently compared to Oswald by name throughout the film. However, the compliancy of the news media in key moments frankly does not seem credible, given the current zeitgeist informing the film.

While we are mercifully spared most of the details of the meta-conspiracy itself, what we get is also predictably out of an Oliver Stone bag, with the anti-American firebrand eliminated in favor of an old political deal-maker (a tired cliché even in Japanese cinema.) Fortunately, the fugitive-on-the-run material works very well, celebrating the humanity of small acts of mercy Aoyagi experiences along the way. In fact, beneath the paranoia, there is a real heart to Slumber.

Earnestly likable, Masato Sakai heads a strong cast, bringing surprising depth to the film as Aoyagi. Yuko Takeuchi (seen on ABC’s Flashforward before the network sabotaged the show with annoying scheduling games) is an intelligent and charming presence as his old flame, Haruko. Akira Emoto seems born to play grouchy old men (as in All About Us), but again, he is also quite watchable as a prickly hospital patient who aids and abets Aoyagi.

There are a few head-scratching scenes in Slumber, but there are some genuinely endearing moments as well. One of the more sentimental conspiracy thrillers you are ever likely to see, it screens at the Japan Society on Friday (7/2) and Tuesday (7/6).

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

NYAFF ’10 & Japan Cuts ’10: Confessions

This is not a Japanese Sweet Valley High. However, it has murder, madness, revenge, peer pressure, and AIDS—all your basic middle school stuff. When a teacher’s four year old daughter is murdered by two of her seventh graders, Yuko Moriguchi uses a brutally effective tool to extract her retribution on the guilty students—social marginalization by their peers. It is all part of her stone cold plan in Tetsuya Nakashima’s jaw-dropping, hyper-realistic drama Confessions (trailer here), the centerpiece of the New York Asian Film Festival and the opening night selection of Japan Society’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film, presented jointly by the two fests.

Moriguchi has some surprising news for her homeroom class. She is resigning her teaching position, because her heart simply is not in it anymore. She still mourns her daughter Manami, who drowned in the school’s swimming pool under mysterious circumstances. Her grief is all the more acute because Manami’s biological father, whom Moriguchi was never able to marry, is rapidly deteriorating from full blown AIDS. However, she knows the identity of the culprits thanks to the confession of the arrogant mastermind. Coolly and methodically, she reveals their identity to her stunned class after injecting the young killers’ milk cartons with the infected blood of her former lover. Responding out of fear and ignorance, the class reacts to that bit of news as if Manami’s murders had the plague. So ends Moriguchi’s “confession” and the first twenty minutes of the film. From there, things start to get dark and twisted.

Indeed, Moriguchi’s confession, the first of four, is so riveting, one expects a major let down once Nakashima shifts narrative gears. Yet the intensity only momentarily flags, as we start to witness the disconcerting aftermath of Moriguchi’s j’accuse. It is not over anyone yet, but Moriguchi temporarily retreats from view, allowing the high school’s harsh social dynamics to do her bidding.

Nakashima’s razor sharp screenplay (based on a novel by Kanae Minato) slices through the human condition, down to the bone. Frankly, viewers may find themselves deeply disturbed by their own reactions to Confessions’ ultimate twists and turns. Perhaps lazy reviewers might compare it to a film like Heathers, but the similarities are only superficial. Nakashima’s morality play about amoral youth is absolutely uncompromising and holds several sit-up-in-your-seat shocks for the audience.

Takako Matsu, seen during last year’s NYAFF in the escapist K20: Legend of the Mask, delivers a powerful, perfectly pitched performance, expressing all the pain and rage no mother would want to experience, while maintaining an alarming sense of outer calm. Developed with Matsu specifically in mind, she vindicates Nakashima’s faith in spades.

Masterfully helmed, Nakashima maintains an eerily unsettling atmosphere while coaxing his young cast to some truly frightening performances. Smart and chilling, Confessions is a highlight of both NYAFF and Japan Cuts, as well as any other festival it might play. Highly recommended, it screens at the Japan Society on Thursday (7/1) and Sunday (the 4th).

Monday, June 28, 2010

NYAFF ’10 & Japan Cuts ’10: The Blood of Rebirth

In Fifteenth Century Japan, heroic masseurs roamed the land, living by their wits and hands. At least such is the case for Oguri, the protagonist of Japanese director Toshiaki Toyoda’s comeback vehicle. Derived from the legend of Oguri Hangan Daisukeshige (the hero of many great kabuki theater productions) and Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, Toyoda’s trippy The Blood of Rebirth (trailer here) screens in New York this week, as a joint presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film.

Oguri is a wandering masseur who treasures his freedom. When the syphilitic Lord Daizen requests his services, he knows it is a bad gig, but he cannot say no. When he politely declines an offer to become a permanent retainer, the cruel warlord murders the footloose Oguri. However, when the noble masseur reaches the after-world, he declines a place in paradise, preferring to return to the world he knew. Unfortunately, his reincarnated body comes back as a “hungry ghost” which must be submerged in a mythical spring of life for his spirit to be renewed. Feeling a strange connection to Oguri, Terute, Daizen’s only surviving disease-free concubine, escapes from the royal camp to drag the masseur’s husk to the rumored magical waters. Much death and rebirth ensues.

Blood is a lot like the psychedelic 1970’s films made by the likes of Dennis Hopper and Don Cammel with a bunch of their stoned friends up in the Hollywood Hills. Featuring an acidic prog-rocky soundtrack with some monster drum breaks performed by the band Twin Tail, a lush verdant backdrop, and strange metaphysical themes, it is definitely a druggie friendly film. (Ironically, it was an arrest for possession of “stimulants” that very nearly ended Toyoda’s career.) Yet, there is definitely a craftsmanship apparent in each and every scene.

Toyoda’s approach is often cool and maddening, simultaneously. Knowing when he has a striking shot, he holds some scenes seemingly forever. Still, there is no denying there are things in Blood audiences have never seen on film before. It even concludes with a genuinely uplifting crowd-pleaser of an ending that still remains faithful to the tenor of the film (if not the restrictions of logic). Though not necessarily a great showcase for the cast’s acting chops, Twin Tail drummer Tatsuya Nakamura is appropriately cool and world weary as Oguri, while the standout Mayuu Kusakari is surprisingly touching as Terute.

Indeed, Blood will not be to everyone’s tastes, not by a long shot. For the adventurous viewer though, it ultimately pays off rather well. For those who enjoy archetypal fantasy and power drumming, it screens this Friday (7/2) and Saturday (7/3) at the Japan Society as a joint selection of NYAFF and Japan Cuts.

Family Fun: The Love Ranch

Meanwhile back at the ranch, commerce was being conducted, but not a lot was reported to the IRS. Such were the business practices of Charlie and Grace Bontempo, not so loosely based on the Joe Conforte and Sally Burgess, the husband-and-wife owners of the notorious Mustang Ranch, Nevada’s first legal brothel. Business is brisk, but infidelity complicates matters in Taylor Hackford’s cinematic Roman á brothel, Love Ranch (trailer here), starring his wife Helen Mirren, which opens in New York this Wednesday.

Charlie Bontempo is what the newspapers like to call colorful. He greases the palms of the local cops and politicians, while his wife Grace keeps the books—both the real ones and those they show the government. Since she knows where all the bodies are buried, fooling around with the hired help is a very bad idea, but the high-flying Bontempo cannot resist.

In a play for big time Vegas street cred, Bontempo buys the contract of Armando Bruza, an Argentine boxer who was once a title contender. For publicity, he has the fighter train at the Ranch. However, since he has a criminal record, he must register his wife as Bruza’s manager, thereby guaranteeing the odd couple will spend time together. Yet, somehow he is shocked when they start up an affair, perhaps because of their rather obvious age difference.

Indeed, the scenes between Bruza and his reluctant manager are the strongest of the film. Always an interesting actress to watch, Helen Mirren brings depth to Grace Bontempo that the film probably does not deserve. Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta also humanizes the big Argentine lug quite effectively and has some nice chemistry with Mirren. Unfortunately, Joe Pesci is totally schticky as Charlie Bontempo and the lovely and talented Gina Gershon and Bai Ling are completely wasted as Ranch “employees.”

The true story of the Mustang Ranch and Oscar Bonavena, the Argentine fighter on whom Bruza is obviously based, is pretty crazy. Yet somehow, Ranch never really builds up much momentum. It seems like the film gets hung up on the shag carpet of its scrupulously ugly period details. Still, as always, Mirren turns in a compelling performance. Essentially, she is the movie, with an occasional assist from Peris-Mencheta. Occasionally diverting but mostly just forgettable, Ranch opens in New York this Wednesday (6/30) at the AMC Empire 25 and Sunshine Theaters.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

NYAFF ’10: Secret Reunion

South Korean attitudes towards the North are complex to say the least. Though they understand it is scary up there, the desire for unification leads to a lot of denial. It is a dynamic that can be seen clearly in Hun Jang’s contemporary espionage thriller, Secret Reunion (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Lee Han-kyu is an old school, turf conscious counter-espionage agent. Contemptuous of his agency’s bureaucratic CYA-ing, he is determined to bring in the Ghost, a legendary North Korean assassin, sans back-up. Unfortunately, when his operation goes spectacularly badly, his A is not C’ed. Witnessing the Ghost’s cold-blooded execution of a DPKR defector and his family, Song Ji-won, a mole being run by the Ghost, is deeply shaken. Slipping away in the chaos that follows, he must remain invisible to all, lest his Communist masters suspect he betrayed them. Standard operating procedure under such circumstances in the North would be to condemn his entire family to a prison camp—for all intents and purposes a sentence of death.

As the reunification movement gains traction in the South, the old spy-hunter finds himself out in the cold. Self-employed six years later, he takes scummy gigs, specializing in tracking down runaway mail order brides. Working incognito at a construction site, the fugitive Song helps Lee fend off a Vietnamese gang that got the drop on the freelancer. Recognizing each other right away but pretending not to, Song accepts Lee’s job offer, even moving into the disgraced agent’s crash pad. Of course, as the wary antagonists circle each other at close quarters, they start to become friends in spite of themselves.

As the representative of Southern anti-Communism, Lee is naturally portrayed as the more morally expedient of the two. Song only aided and abetted the execution of defectors and their families. Lee, the capitalist, essentially kidnaps marginalized women to return them to abusive relationships. When pressed by Song, he justifies himself claiming: “Capitalism is about finding happiness by taking another’s wealth.” In truth, that would be a near textbook definition of the Marxist redistributionist system championed by Song’s DPRK. Still, there are certain realities Reunion cannot escape, like the potential fate of Song’s family.

For two-fisted buddy action, Reunion is pretty satisfying. However, as spry as the Ghost might be, it stretches action movie credibility when a man of his advanced years so easily eludes Lee and his pursuing team. In geopolitical terms, the film seems somewhat naive and confused as well. Clearly suggesting we can all just get along, it became an enormous hit when it was released domestically in February. Less than two months later, the ROKS Cheonan was sunk by a DPRK torpedo. How’s that Kumbaya looking now?

Slickly produced, Reunion features Song Kang-ho, probably the recognizable Korean actor in America thanks to roles in films like Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and Bong Joon-ho The Host. Indeed, he is perfectly cast as the anti-Communist Oscar Madison. However, while Kang Dong-won is certainly a credible action figure during the fight sequences, he is a bit bland during the quieter moments of dramedy.

Hun Jang mostly keeps Reunion moving along briskly, despite occasionally getting hung-up on Song’s moralizing. Interesting as a Rorschach test of ROK attitudes towards the North, it screens during the 2010 NYAFF on Friday (7/2) and Saturday (7/3) at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

On-Stage: St. Nicholas

One could say that the blood-sucking parasite of Conor McPherson’s vampire play is actually a theater critic, but that would be too easy. Drama criticism, at least as practiced in Dublin, certainly gets a thorough skewering. In fact, the unnamed narrator’s lack of critical integrity is the one thing we can be sure of amidst the macabre blarney of McPherson’s one-man vampire play St. Nicholas, recently revived at the WorkShop Theater by the Theatre of the Expendable.

Through an extended monologue, Ireland’s hardest drinking drama critic explains to the audience how through an unfortunate series of events he became the indentured familiar of a den of vampires. It all started with a mediocre production of Salome. In a rare act of critical fairness, he gave it the so-so review it deserved. However, that was not what he told the cast and crew at the after party. Ordinarily, he would not worry about their dashed spirits when they discovered the true tenor of his review, but the middle-aged curmudgeon developed a fast fixation on a beautiful young actress in the production.

In a monumentally bad decision, our increasingly obsessed narrator followed the production to London after their Dublin run closes early (thanks in no small part to his own write-up). Much alcohol is consumed during a confrontation that leaves the skunk-drunk narrator vulnerable to the mental domination of an alpha male vampire. That is, if we chose to believe him. While his story is fantastic, in all fairness, he is hardly self-surviving in its telling, casting himself in a consistently unflattering light.

Even as a cautionary tale told in retrospect, St. Nicholas relies more on suggestion than accounts of actual blood. Yet, McPherson’s vampires are still described in highly sexualized terms, not unlike those currently dominating pre-teen novels and cinema multiplexes. It is also quite amusing at times, particularly during its scathing depiction of the state of theater criticism in Dublin.

Obviously, as a dramatic monologue, St. Nicholas largely depends on the ability of its lead to serve as a forceful raconteur. Fortunately, Darrell James brings the cynical critic (surely this is not a redundancy) to vivid life, showing a strong affinity for the cadences (both the comedic and the eerie) of McPherson’s language. A play well served by an intimate space like the WorkShop, director Jesse Edward Rosbrow trusts the simple elements of the play—just the strange narrator, a chair, and the audience. Yet, with the help of the subtly evocative lighting (designed by Ryan Metzler), James completely draws the audience into to this tale of worldly humiliation and supernatural mystery.

Coming relatively hard on the heels of the release of McPherson’s justly acclaimed supernatural film The Eclipse, the timing should be right for revivals of his work and St. Nicholas seems like an economical choice. Indeed, Expendable’s production is quite entertaining and should well satisfy theater patrons who enjoy highly literate supernatural fare. Now officially open, it runs at the WorkShop through July 3rd.

(Photo: Dorian Nisinson)

NYAFF ’10: Little Big Soldier

War is always hardest on the little guys, the men who fight not for glory, but the chance to return to their hardscrabble lives. Despite his apparent rubber-boned invincibility, Jackie Chan built an international career bringing such sympathetic underdogs to life. His fifty-six year-old body might have caught up with him, but Chan has developed the right vehicle for an aging action everyman in Ding Sheng’s Little Big Soldier (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Chan’s nameless soldier might not be much of a warfighter, but he is a survivor, thanks to his talent for playing possum on the battlefield. However, that does not mean he is not loyal to his native land. Indeed, his heart burns with love for the fertile soil of Liang. Serendipitously, the old soldier sees an opportunity to serve his homeland and earn a reward when, as the last Liang standing, he is able to capture the only other survivor of an epic battle, the gravely injured opposing Wei general.

To reap his potential recompense, the soldier will have to schlep his still dangerous captive hundreds of miles through warlord infested countryside. The forces loyal to the Wei general’s younger brother are also searching for them, but not with the intent to rescue his royal rival. To further complicate matters, there is also a mystery woman with an eerie singing voice, who might be the only appealing sight in an otherwise brutish environment.

There is definitely plenty of physical comedy in Little, mostly related to combat. However, it is not a slapsticky film. Chan’s stunt work is firmly grounded in the realities of a broken down middle-aged body. Yet, he still shows a flair for intricately choreographed fight scenes. Little’s tone is also radically different from most of Chan’s previous films, particularly his recent Hollywood forays. It might sound like a ludicrous stretch, but as the old soldier drags his prisoner through an inhospitable landscape, they almost look as if they could inhabit a Beckett play. Indeed, Sheng finds a nice balance between the gritty and the fable-like, while keeping the melee coming at a good clip.

Of course, it all rests on Chan’s big little shoulders. He has the same easy likability that made him a genuine movie star and shines in action sequences designed to showcase his guttiness rather than agility. A newcomer to Chinese and HK screens, Lin Peng also adds an intriguing presence as the singing woman. However, Wand Lee-hom is a bit cold and stiff as the Wei general.

NYAFF is billing Little as the redemption of Jackie Chan. While his prior outing in The Shinjuku Incident was at least serviceable, he definitely generated plenty of embarrassment for his fans with his Hollywood-produced supposed comedies (care for a Tuxedo with your Spy Next Door?). Fortunately, Little is a darker, tougher, and if truth be told, funnier return to form for Chan. A shrewd marriage of aging action icon to everyman character, it screens during the New York Asian Film Thursday (7/1) and Saturday (7/3) at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Friday, June 25, 2010

NYAFF ’10: Sophie’s Revenge

They are called “chick flicks,” because guys supposedly do not enjoy relationship comedies written from a woman’s perspective. The real reason for these films’ gender gap is that they always seem to star protagonists that are supposed to be attractive, but could not interest us any less (yes, this very definitely includes Sarah Jessica Parker). However, when Zhang Ziyi and Fan Bingbing make a rom-com, any man would take notice. Happily, such is the case with Eva Jin’s glittery Sophie’s Revenge (trailer here), which also features some ridiculously cartoonish revenge fantasies that probably explain its selection for the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival.

Sophie is a beautiful graphic novelist. It is hard to believe she was dumped by her milquetoast boyfriend Jeff, but she explains it all during a flashback. Jeff threw her over for Joanna, who, played by Fan, is also hot and happens to be a famous movie star who swept the impressionable doctor off his feet after he treated her. Rather than getting on with her life, Sophie obsesses, hatching a plan to win back Jeff, only to dump him shortly thereafter. Or so she says. Her friends Lily and Lucy are not so sure revenge is her ultimate goal (and yes, they are pretty cute too). Still, she is able to enlist the aid of Gordon, a Taiwanese photographer who has his own history with Joanna. Of course, he seems like Mr. Right for Sophie, but she has her revenge to worry about.

Granted, the notion of Zhang (who also served as producer) getting dumped stretches credibility right from the start, but she proves to be a good sport, gamely enduring all manner of humiliations. Indeed, she and Fan sparkle in the film and Ruby Lin and Chen Yao add charm and energy as Sophie’s cronies. The men though are a pretty dull and uncharismatic lot, even including Peter Ho as nice guy Gordon. Still, the rom-com proceedings never get too cloying thanks to some quirky animation, over-the-top violent flights-of-fancy, and a refreshingly scatological sense of humor.

While some of Sophie’s embarrassments are truly wince-inducing, Revenge moves along briskly and has a good heart. Thanks to Zhang’s winning presence as a surrogate Carrie Bradshaw, it all works fairly well as a light and frothy entertainment. Its selection is definitely something of a departure for the New York Asian Film Festival, but to recap, it does have Zhang Ziyi, Fan Bingbing, and cartoon violence, so any guy will be able to handle it just fine. It screens Tuesday (6/29) and Saturday (7/3) as NYAFF continues at the Walter Reade Theater, right in the heart of New York’s Lincoln Center.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

With the Second Platoon: Restrepo

It was the most dangerous duty station on Earth, but for the men of the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battallion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Army Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley was home. For just over a year, the Second Platoon served in harm’s way every day at the isolated Korengal Outpost (KOP) that was unofficially renamed in honor of the Platoon’s fallen medic, PFC. Juan Restrepo. For much of that time journalists (a term used without irony in this case) Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with Second Platoon, recording the realities of war without editorial comment for the documentary, Restrepo (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Over the course of ten trips to the Korengal Valley, sometimes together, sometime separately, Hetherington and Junger saw the fifteen men of Restrepo up close and under fire. The mountainous terrain surrounding the outpost could have been tailored made for guerilla insurgencies. The Platoon built it during the dead of night while simultaneously holding off Taliban attacks. Many soldiers described its mere completion as a turning point in their effects to stem the violence flowing from the Korengal region. However, in early 2009 a decision was made to close Restrepo because its presence was considered provocative.

The audience only meets PFC. Restrepo in crude video shot on a hand-held device just before their deployment to Korengal. In truth, the quality of the footage is hardly distinguishable from that shot by Hetherington and Junger, due to the chaotic combat situations they faced. Certainly, it gives viewers a strong impression of Restrepo’s personality and why he was so popular with his comrades. Indeed, despite his brief posthumous appearance, Restrepo emerges as the true protagonist of the film that bears his name.

Even with the greater screen time allotted them, the audience does not come to know the other soldiers particularly well as individuals during the course of Restrepo. However, they do get a keen sense of what day-to-day life was like for the Platoon. Soldiers are indeed wounded and even die in the film, but Hetherington and Junger were sensitive to the men and their families in what they chose to show from these fatal encounters, never letting the proceedings degenerate to the level of “anti-war” snuff films.

More context would probably help some viewers understand how the events documented in Restrepo fit into the overall scheme of the Afghanistan conflict. Yet, this was obviously a slippery slope the director-reporters scrupulously sought to avoid, at least for their film. (Based on the first few chapters, Junger’s companion book War seems similarly averse to editorializing, except perhaps some criticism of the inflexible absurdity of military bureaucracy.)

In War, Junger makes a point born out in Restrepo that the best warfighters are often the more ragged, messy-around-the-barracks kind of soldiers. Regardless if they kept the KOP strictly according to U.S. Army regs, there can be no doubt from watching Restrepo that they selflessly fought and died for their country there. We can only hope that sacrifice will not be for naught, especially at a time when we have learned our president had not been talking to the general he appointed to command operations there, before eventually sacking him (with cause).

While Hetherington and Junger largely have the field to themselves covering Afghanistan for the big screen, Restrepo matches up fairly well to several comparable Iraq documentaries. Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War is probably a somewhat deeper, more human film, but Restrepo is certainly more cohesive and compelling than Kristian Fraga’s Severe Clear (which is still not without its merits). Admirably unfiltered without added commentary, Restrepo is well worth seeing. It opens this Friday (6/25) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

NYAFF ’10: Development Hell

After much sacrifice, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary vision of a free democratic Mainland China remains unfulfilled. However, a long and sometimes tragic pre-production process eventually yielded Teddy Chen’s Bodyguards and Assassins, the story of an ad-hoc team recruited to protect Dr. Sun from an Imperial assassination plot in Hong Kong. Beset by all manner of misfortune, the ultimate fate of Chen’s film remained very much in doubt when Hiroshi Fukazawa completed Development Hell (trailer here), a documentary on what was then the Hong Kong movie industry’s most notorious unmade film, which screens at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival as part of a double bill with Chen’s Bodyguards.

Originally titled Victoria City in October, Bodyguards was known as Dark October during most of its prolonged pre-production. In a way, it was a case of history repeating itself. Chen’s prospective film was largely based on The Bodyguard, a project that had similarly bedeviled its director, Chan Tung Man, the father of October producer Peter Chan. Technically, the elder Chan had finished his troubled film, albeit in a problematically foreshortened form, but legal wrangling stymied its release.

It seems like all Chen was spared during the early 2000’s was a plague of locusts. Indeed, world events like 9-11 and the SARS outbreak, as well as personal tragedies, like his mother’s passing and the suicide of his business partner repeatedly conspired to halt the development of October and other projects he had in the works.

While Fukazawa employs standard documentary filmmaking techniques, including talking head interviews and voice-over narration, his use of animated storyboards adds an intriguing visual character to the doc, conveying what was then still a hypothetical sense of what the finished film would have been like. Fukazawa does not belabor his story either, economically wrapping up Development in just under an hour’s running time.

It is a pretty engaging behind-the-scenes story of what was once considered a cursed film, even if it does not include Chen’s ultimate triumph, when Bodyguards swept the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards. Still, audiences can see that missing third act in toto when Development screens with Bodyguards this Sunday (6/27) at the Walter Reade Theater, with special guest Fukazawa in attendance, but NYAFF formally disavows any responsibility for accidents suffered during the screening.

NYAFF ’10: Bodyguards and Assassins

Dr. Sun Yat-sen is one of the few figures in Chinese history to be equally esteemed by both Chinas. However, despite tremendous sacrifices, Dr. Sun’s vision of a unified democratic China has yet to come to fruition. The dream was very much alive and spreading rapidly in 1905, which is why agents of the Dowager Empress will stop at nothing to kill the revolutionary statesman in Teddy Chen’s historical action blockbuster, Bodyguards and Assassins (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

At tremendous personal risk, Dr. Sun is coming to Hong Kong to coordinate with revolutionary leaders from across China. The trip itself might be fictional, but the assassination of Sun’s colleague Yang Quyun that opens the film is rooted in history. Unfortunately, word of Dr. Sun’s visit has reached the Imperial court. A team of assassins aided by corrupt HK coppers have wiped out the group of exiled soldiers who were to serve as his protection. Faced with a crisis, Dr. Sun’s allies turn to Li Yutang.

A prosperous businessman, Li is a sunshine revolutionary, providing financial resources to the cause, but never getting directly involved. However, when he sees the agents of the Dowager running rampant as the police turn a blind eye, Li decides to make a stand. He spearheads the improvised protection campaign, recruiting a rag-tag group of bodyguards. His only condition is that his ardent son be left out of the line of fire.

In a way, Bodyguards structurally resembles The Dirty Dozen, showing us the recruitment of the volunteers, bringing them together as a team, and then inevitably watching as they sacrifice themselves to protect Dr. Sun and their hopes for a better China. Yet, that obvious idealism sets Yen’s film apart from most actioners. Indeed, there is an added poignancy to Bodyguards knowing the dream of a free and democratic China that seemed so close at the time would in fact prove so elusive.

Regardless of its historical and political backdrop, Bodyguards brings on some spectacular fight scenes. Donnie Yen definitely delivers the goods as Shen Chongyang, a compromised cop who turns against the assassins for his own personal reasons. Chinese pop star Li Yuchun also shows a real promise as an action star, kicking it nicely as Fang Hong, the daughter of the murdered general in hiding, Fang Tian. However, it is Liu Yubai, the mysterious beggar holding off the murderous hordes with his iron fan, that elevates Bodyguards to a John Woo level of operatic mayhem.

Literally years in the making, the filming of Bodyguards was canceled at last minute on numerous occasions, as is explained in detail in Development Hell, a documentary on its chaotic gestation which also plays during the fest. Yet somehow, Chen was still able to attract some of the biggest HK and mainland stars, like Yen, the unearthly beautiful Fan Bingbing as Li’s mistress Yueru, and special festival guest Simon Yam as General Fang. A veteran of several Chen Kaige art-house features, Wang Xueqi’s powerful gravitas holds it all together quite effectively as Li, “the tycoon.”

Bodyguards is the sort of film NYAFF programs best. It delivers high octane action in a grandly epic package, with plenty of serious historic subtext for us Mr. Smartypants reviewers to write about. Tragic in a satisfying way, Bodyguards is a thoroughly entertaining film. It screens Sunday (6/27) as part of a double bill with Development Hell introduced by NYAFF guest Simon Yam, and again as a single feature on Tuesday (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NYAFF ’10: Ip Man 2

Ip Man is a peaceful warrior, but for some reason, people keep making him kick their butts. Not a good idea. After all, the Wing Chun master knows what he is doing. Even if you have not heard of Ip Man, everyone recognizes his most famous disciple: Bruce Lee. Immediately following the events of the previous film, the second chapter of Master Ip’s story finds him in Hong Kong, where he would eventually meet his destined pupil. First though, he will have to battle the entrenched local martial arts guild as well as some thoroughly ugly Brits in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 2 (trailer here), with fight scenes directed by the legendary Sammo Hung who—hold the phone—will introduce the film in person when it opens the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival this Friday night.

Nobody enjoys sparring more than Master Ip, but he will do his best to avoid actual street brawling. Of course, he could deal with nearly any challenge, but with great power comes great responsibility. Indeed, he is as much attuned to the spiritual aspects of his discipline as its more awe-inspiring physical feats. Having successfully defending the honor of the Fushan martial arts community during the Japanese occupation, Master Ip and his family have relocated to Hong Kong. Times are tough though.

He tries to eke out a living teaching Wing Chun to disciples, but the local masters demand he respect their authority, which includes facing all challengers during an initiation rite. Master Ip hardly breaks a sweat on the first two comers, but then things get serious when Master Hung (played by Master Hung) steps into the ring. However, the rival masters will unite when a British boxer starts disrespecting their art in a series of supposed good will exhibition matches. A sneering monster, The Twister has no regard for tradition or human life. Obviously, Master Ip will have to teach him a good, hard lesson in Wing Chun.

Since his family scrupulously controls the use of Bruce Lee’s name and image, HK cinema green-lit competing Ip Man films as the next best thing to a Lee bio-pic. Yip’s Ip was first out of the gate and sets a high standard for future competitors (including a forthcoming take from art-house auteur Wong Kar-wai). While its period details are first-rate, it is Donnie Yen who really makes the series work as Master Ip. He is able to be charismatic and compelling, while faithfully maintaining the master’s quietly serene demeanor. He can certainly handle a fight scene too. Yet, his Master Ip is not a superman, showing signs of age and human fallibility in the second installment.

Yip’s Ips are essentially HK Rocky movies, each concluding with a climatic bout against a savage foreigner. However, Lynn Hung is way, way more attractive than Talia Shire as Ip’s wife, Zhang Yong Cheng. Unfortunately, she is not given much to do in 2 besides looking pregnant and concerned. Still, the addition of Sammo Hung really adds grit and verve to the proceedings.

Intended as an uplifting crowd-pleaser, Ip Man 2 delivers the goods, in large measure thanks to its winning cast, particularly including Yen and the two Hungs. Produced with a glossy sheen and featuring some very cool fight sequences choreographed by NYAFF’s distinguished guest, the second Ip Man should kick-off the festival on a high note. It screen’s at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, as the NYAFF kicks it uptown style, this Friday (6/25) and Sunday (6/27) nights.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Gamesmanship of Alain Resnais: Wild Grass

Georges Palet is a name of infamy. Or so he claims, but Palet is not a trustworthy narrator. Parsing fact from Palet’s fictions is a tricky business, as is establishing any sense of truth whatsoever in Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Palet might be a scandalous figure with a checkered, perhaps even criminal past. Yet nobody besides Palet seems to see him in that light, except maybe his twenty-something son. Of course, that might just be the surliness of youth. Still, for Palet it appears to be reality, which is why the chance discovery of a stolen wallet causes him great anxiety, lest suspicion fall on him.

While debating his next step, Palet studies the contents of the wallet, developing a strange fixation on the owner, Dr. Marguerite Muir, a dentist with her pilot’s license. With some trepidation, Palet turns the wallet over to the police, who do not appear particularly impressed that he is the Georges Palet (but to be fair, they are somewhat distracted at the time). Eventually, Muir calls Palet to thank him, but when she fails to live up to his expectations, Palet tells her so, plainly and repeatedly. Suddenly, Palet starts exhibiting stalker-like behavior, repeating what he calls his past mistakes. And then Resnais gives the film a series of dramatic twists.

In 2009, Grass was among the most talked about pictures at both Cannes and the New York Film Festival. It could well rank alongside Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad in terms of significance within his filmography and it will be impossible to ignore for anyone seriously studying his work. What begins as a meditation on the randomness of life becomes an object lesson in the slipperiness of truth. However, Resnais’s approach to the story (based on a novel by Christian Gailly) is largely linear and completely accessible, if thoroughly maddening.

Regardless of viewers’ response to Resnais’s sly gamesmanship, Grass is an absolutely masterful piece of filmmaking. Like a magician, Resnais essentially tells the audience what he will do, then through misdirection and sleight of hand, leaves us stunned when the film ends exactly where he hinted it would. With a jarringly eccentric conclusion sure to baffle most and annoy many, Resnais flat out tells the audience they just got served.

Unlike most postmodern films attempting to undermine narrative structures and problematize notions of reality, Grass is a richly crafted film. Resnais stylishly superimposes dramatically rendered fantasies and seamlessly integrates Palet’s wildly unreliable interior monologues. Eric Gautier’s cinematography is sumptuously moody, with the crime jazz-influenced soundtrack composed by Mark Snow (best known for his work on the X-Files) further heightening the noir atmosphere.

Like Resnais, André Dussollier also keeps the audience utterly off balance with his performance as the quite possibly unbalanced Palet. While maintaining complete consistency of character, Dussollier makes it impossible to judge if he is sympathetic, deluded, dangerous, or a bizarre combination of the three. Amongst the accomplished supporting cast, Mathieu Almaric shows a welcomed comedic flair as police officer Bernard de Bordeaux. Unfortunately, Resnais’s characters are a largely unsympathetic lot, which makes the strange time spent with them something less than a complete enchantment.

Those who get headaches when they hear terms like “playful postmodern subversion” will probably get exasperated with Grass. Those who enjoy coy cinematic puzzles will be thoroughly charmed. It is a very stylish film that enjoys its deceptions for their own sake. Worth seeing just to debate afterwards, it opens this Friday (6/25) at the Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas.

Online Cinema: Buried

The Chinese Independent Film Festival has something of an identity crisis. For the rest of the world, it is a small but scrappy film festival. However, in China, it bills itself as an “exhibition” because all proper “festivals” fall under the purview of the state film authority. It is a safe bet the government bureaucrats would not have been too keen to program the fest’s 2009 winner for best documentary. Fortunately, dGenerate Films, the leading international distributor of independent Chinese film, has made Wang Libo’s Buried available in its entirety on youtube, (with all twelve parts embedded on their website here).

Much like 1428 (also distributed by dGenerate), the tragic earthquake that shook the Sichuan region on May 12th, 2008 was also the impetus for Buried, but Wang takes a radically different tack, looking back to the even greater devastation of the 1976 Tangshan quake. As it turns out, the 2008 earthquake was neither unprecedented nor wholly unexpected.

Globally, the practice of predicting seismic activity with any real precision is highly controversial. The American scientific community remains dubious, which is why we have concentrated on earthquake-proof construction rather than prognostication. Given our resources, this is in fact a logical decision. Conversely, China had devoted considerable wherewithal to forecasting, even largely sparing their seismic researchers the pain of the Cultural Revolution, at least according to the film. Yet, in 1976, their seismologists’ warnings repeatedly fell on willfully deaf ears.

Buried might look like it was shot by a closed circuit security camera, only offering late middle aged scientists and government documents as its visuals, but Wang methodically assembles a damning indictment of the Chinese government. Time and time again, concerned seismologists approached their superiors and various state and party leaders with what they considered compelling signs of an imminent quake in the Tangshan-Beijing region, only to be told to go back and give the matter more study.

Regardless whether their methods had validity, if the Chinese government was supposedly in earthquake predicting business than one would think the authorities would listen to their scientists. Instead, in at least one case, a particularly outspoken seismologist was reassigned to cadre school shortly after pressing the matter with his supervisors.

Unless Wang fabricated Buried out of whole cloth, he presents an airtight case of government negligence and craven bureaucratic cya-ing. Of course, the kicker is that similar warnings were ignored leading up to the Sichuan quake, which is why the veteran seismologists interviewed on camera are so angry. An estimated 240,000 people died in the 1976 and another 80,000 to 100,000 died in 2008, but despite their warnings, they and their colleagues were blamed for not foretelling these disasters.

Buried is not particularly cinematic, but it is certainly convincing. It is also about as independent as cinema gets. To understand contemporary China, viewers should check out it, as well the other films like it that dGenerate specializes in.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ozu’s I Was Born But . . .

Though the talky era was well underway internationally, the Japanese film industry still produced silent films well into the 1930’s. Director Yasujiro Ozu was particularly slow to embrace synchronized sound, yet he would eventually be hailed as Japan’s great auteur. In fact, his reputation partly rests on his late silent films, including 1932’s I Was Born But . . ., which opens in New York at the IFC Center this Friday.

On the surface, life is good for the Yoshi family. Kennosuke has bought a home out in the Tokyo suburbs, where his two mischievous sons, Ryoichi and Keiji, will have more room to run wild. It will also be more convenient for sucking up to his boss, Iwasaki, who lives nearby. At first, the headstrong brothers have trouble adapting to their new school, landing themselves in big trouble when they play hooky one day.

Nevertheless, they quickly rise to their rightful place as top dogs of the neighborhood boys. Yet, all their social assumptions are challenged one night when they get an uncomfortably candid look at their father currying favor with his boss. Feeling publically humiliated, they rebel against Yoshi’s parental authority. While their father resents their resentment, he also partly shares their contempt, but such are the realities of life, as seen through Ozu’s gently subversive lens.

Pulling off a delicate balancing act, Ozu never lets the scenes with the boys get too slap-sticky, nor his social commentary become too pointed. Essentially, he presents an early step in the Yoshi brothers’ maturation, but not a shattering end to their innocence.

Indeed, Ozu brought a highly sensitive eye to bear on Born, coaxing charming performances his young actors. Often unfairly overlooked in discussions of the film, Tatsuo Saito and Mitsuko Yoshikawa also bring a genuine sense of humanity to the family drama as the boys’ ever-patient parents.

Even if his visuals are not exactly arresting, it is a very welcome event to have Ozu’s closely observed masterwork digitally restored. However, while the accompanying soundtrack may well be perfectly fine and respectable, it is not the best music available for Born. Eri Yamamoto’s latest release In Every Day Something Good includes her original alternate soundtrack to the silent classic that is far more expressive of the characters’ personalities and the film’s overall spirit. Happily, she will be playing her regular sets at Arthur’s, practically right around the corner from the IFC Center on Grove Street this Friday and Saturday, so theater patrons can hear the difference for themselves.

Wistful rather than cute, the subtly winning Born is one of the last classics of the silent era. A fitting introduction to Ozu’s canon, it opens this Friday (6/25) at IFC’s Waverly outpost.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

LAFF ’10: Vlast (Power)

Over 200 former employees and directors of Yukos, the Russian oil company, have been in some way persecuted by the Putin regime. If that sounds like a coincidence, Prime Minister Putin would like to thank you for your gullibility. Unquestionably, the biggest fish amongst his quarry was Yukos’s former CEO, the visionary Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At one time the sixteenth richest man in the world, Khodorkovsky now resides in a tiny prison cell. How he got there is a chilling story of the not-so-new Russia, compellingly recounted in Cathryn Collins’s Vlast (Power), which screens during the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival (trailer here).

Collins never confuses Khodorkovsky with a choirboy. She makes it very clear Khodorkovsky’s early years are still shrouded in mystery and unsettling rumors. However, she gives him credit for taking on the decrepit Yukos state enterprise at time when the price of oil was at an all time low, eventually turning around the company, and yes, making billions in the process.

Khodorkovsky was one of the original so-called oligarchs who largely reaped the benefits of Yeltsin’s privatization plan. Yet, he was a crony capitalist of a different color, becoming a prominent philanthropist and advocate of democracy in Russia. He also started championing corporate transparency, only to suddenly find himself behind bars shortly thereafter.

First-time documentarian Collins is admirably even-handed in her profile of Khodorkovsky, never overstating her case or simply appealing to emotion. While giving the incarcerated mogul credit for his business acumen, she is most impressed by his ability to identify and recruit smart, talented young people for his team. Of course, the implications of his story are clear. If a man with an estimated net worth over fifteen billion dollars is not safe in Putin’s Russia, nobody is.

Many of Vlast’s on-camera interview subjects participated at not inconsiderable risk to their well being. In doing so, they definitely convey an unvarnished sense of life in Russia today. Providing clear and concise historical background, Vlast provides the proper context for non-Russophiles and non-Russophobes to appreciate Khodorkovsky’s story. Still, given the long history of Russian and Soviet anti-Semitism, the question of whether Khodorkovsky’s Jewish heritage has contributed to his persecution is strangely never really explored.

Vlast joins the growing ranks of valuable documentaries doggedly raising alarms about the lawlessness of the Putin regime. Unfortunately, previous related films like Eric Bergkraut’s Letter to Anna and Andrei Nekrasov’s Poisoned by Polonium have largely fallen on deaf ears in the West. Given its reasoned tone and access to Khodorkovsky’s inner circle, Vlast should impress viewers concerned about the current state of the world. Highly recommended, it screens this Tuesday (6/22) and Wednesday (6/23) at the LAFF.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

All Cowboys Wear Black Hats: Reel Injun

If Hollywood produced a single film that portrayed Native peoples with insufficient sensitivity in the past thirty years, it would be a highly isolated exception. Granted, that has not always been the case. Indeed, it is the Hollywood images of over half a century ago that still pre-occupy Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond in Reel Injun (trailer here), his politicized survey of Native Americans in Hollywood films, now screening at MoMA.

Part doc and part road movie, Diamond jumps in his “rez car” to tour the important scenes of both real life Native American history and the locations from classic movie westerns. If there is one villain in Reel, it would be director John Ford, whose acknowledged classic Stagecoach is identified as the mother-source of all the unenlightened screen stereotypes of Native peoples that followed. However, Diamond seems to make the roundabout concession that most of the revisionist westerns in the 1970’s and after are just as guilty of trafficking in racial stereotypes, simply replacing the blood-thirsty savage with the noble victim.

As a result, for much of the film, Diamond seems to fighting a straw man, countering preconceptions that have not held any cultural currency for fifty-some years. In doing so, he results to plenty of oversimplifying himself, as when he attempts to reduce John Wayne to a mere swagger. Yet, Wayne was a more accomplished actor than revisionist critics (evidently including Diamond) care to admit, particularly in his late films, like his Oscar-winning turn in True Grit and his final film, The Shootist, which is itself somewhat revisionist.

Reel is most successful when telling the story of Native actors who were able to claw out a place for themselves in old Hollywood. Ironically, in the case of both silent star Buffalo Child Long Lance and Iron Eyes Cody (famous for the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA), consideration of their careers gets caught up in questions of racial authenticity. While the tragic Long Lance was legitimately tri-racial, Cody was in fact Sicilian, but is largely accepted by the film’s authority figures for his good intentions.

There are generous interview clips with leading Native actors and filmmakers, with the best lines and greatest insights probably coming from Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre. (Twin Peaks fans will be bitterly disappointed by the absence of Michael Horse, though.) Not shy about interjecting himself into the picture, Diamond would have been better served if he had de-emphasized his road trip meta-structure and simply let his subjects talk more. In fact, some his episodes are a bit strange, as when he shows the graphically violent massacre scene from Little Big Man to a class of awfully young looking Native elementary students.

Altogether, Reel offers an okay overview of Native Peoples in Hollywood (and a few Canadian) films. While it moves along relatively briskly, it has the net effect of whetting the audience’s appetite for the superior films it discusses, including Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner, Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, and yes absolutely Ford’s Stagecoach. It screens through Sunday (6/20) at MoMA.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Antonioni’s Le Amiche

For two-faced cattiness and cold-blooded sexual manipulation of the dumber sex, these women from Turin make the promiscuous characters of Sex and the City look pale and dull in comparison. Though this social drama of stylishly dressed and sharply tongued women among women has been largely overlooked amidst Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni’s celebrated oeuvre, cineastes have an opportunity to revisit it today with the start of a special one week engagement of Antonioni’s Le Amiche in a newly restored 35M print at New York’s Film Forum.

Love is for suckers, like the men of Le Amiche. The women find it a pleasant distraction, but not essential—except perhaps Rosetta. As the film opens, she has made an unsuccessful suicide attempt with sleeping pills. Momina, the de facto leader of her clique of frenemies suspects it had something to do with a man. She even has an idea who it might be: Lorenzo, the failed artist husband of their mutual ostensive friend Nene.

With Rosetta’s survival, a new-comer enters their group. Returning to her native Turin to open a fashion salon, Clelia happened to be in the hotel room next to Rosetta on that fateful day, intervening with Momina. Making fast friends with the glamorous woman, she gets a direct line into Turin’s smart set. Watch out for those claws though.

As for the men, they are not a particularly impressive lot—except perhaps Carlo, a contractor working for Clelia’s architect, Cesare Pedoni, with whom the fashionista develops a flirtatious relationship. Already showing Marxist tendencies, Antonioni infuses the film with an unmistakable class consciousness. Indeed, aside from the salt-of-the-earth workingman, Amiche’s men are mostly weak bourgeoisie twits, like the insecure Lorenzo and Momina’s easily played lover, Pedoni.

Compared to Antonioni’s later work and especially to the films he would inspire, Amiche is rather conventional in its narrative, structure, and pacing. However, it foreshadows the themes and milieu of his great masterworks. Still, the real satisfaction of the film is simply watching its talented cast dig into the cutting dialogue, energizing the distinctly continental melodrama.

A true movie star in Italy, Eleonora Rossi Drago is the picture of elegance as Clelia, compellingly evoking the emotional reality of a lifetime of trade-offs, while still serving as the conscience of the picture. In contrast, French actress Yvonne Furneaux (the long-suffering fiancé in La Dolce Vita) plays the biting Momina with relish. There is a word for her character and it rhymes with the American pronunciation of Amiche.

As a successful transitional work for Antonioni, Amiche is a film of significant importance. It is also a pleasure in its own right. A fine, dry wine well-worth tasting, the newly restored Amiche opens today (6/18) in New York at Film Forum.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Problematic Nature of Existence

No matter what your beliefs might be, Roger Nygard has questions for you—eighty-five of them to be precise. Seeking out spiritual leaders around the world, the director treats each with unflagging deference, regardless of the extreme or eccentric nature of the professed beliefs, unless they happen to be Evangelical Christians, in which case he sets them up as straw men to knock over in The Nature of Existence (trailer here), a new documentary opening this Friday in New York.

For most Americans, 9-11 was a gut-wrenching tragedy, but for Nygard, it was all about him and his own existential crisis. How could the terrorists be so absolutely certain of beliefs that were so radically different than his? Naturally, he started making a documentary to address this question, yet somehow he managed to completely ignore radical Islam in the process.

Frankly, Nygard’s standard opening question is a promising starting point for provocative debates: “Why do we exist?” However, the most insightful responses he received are mostly strewn throughout the film as mere transitional sound bites. Instead, while Nygard has some interesting cosmological discussions with legitimate scientists, he spends the bulk of his time with spiritual carnival acts, like Aha, a self-styled guru who resembles Pat from Saturday Night Live. He gives proselytizing atheist Richard Dawkins free reign for self-promotion and has no challenges to offer the representative of Satanism.

However, Nygard consistently cherry-picks Evangelical Christians who fit the most condescending blue state stereotypes, like Rob Adonis, the founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling. Indeed, the only spiritual figure in the entire film who is ever pushed to defend his beliefs is street preaching Brother Jed Smock. It is not as if Nygard could not find more learned representative of conservative Christianity.

In fact, Nygard interviews Mormon author Orson Scott Card whose writings on cultural issues are often compatible with those of Christian Conservatism. Yet, the filmmaker clearly could not deal with heard, using only snippets of what sounds like a fairly eloquent and insightful exchange. Instead, he devotes plenty of time to Julia Sweeney (whom we suspiciously never see in the same scene with Aha) and King Arthur Pendragon of the Druids (if that is his real name).

Nygard is best known to many as the director of Trekkies, so fans of that doc will probably appreciate the appearances from Card and fellow science fiction writer Larry Niven, as well as Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back. In truth, they supply some of the films more thoughtful moments. Existence might ask some deep questions, but it accepts some pretty shallow answers, playing it safe at every turn. Best described as underwhelming, it opens tomorrow (6/18) in New York at the Quad.

LAFF ’10: 1428

For China, the earthquake that devastated Sichuan province on May 12, 2008 has been like Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill combined. It has laid bare public corruption and put the local and national authorities on the defensive. Like Katrina, it has also been widely documented in films like the Oscar nominated short China’s Unnatural Disaster and Du Haibin’s feature 1428 (trailer here), the winner of the 66th Venice Film Festival’s Best Documentary Award, which screens this coming Sunday and Monday at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival.

At 14:28 hours (2:28 pm) China was hit with what is considered the nineteenth worst earthquake in history just three months before the Beijing Olympics were scheduled to open. The Communist government’s official response has been controversial to say the least. Despite the quake’s severity, many suspect it would not have been as deadly had government construction been less shoddy, particularly at schools. Promises have been made to Sichuan survivors, usually by politicians orchestrating media ops, but the delivery of relief has been slow and problematic.

Du focuses his lens on the haunted faces of Sichuan’s dispossessed. They live in shanty towns and temporary housing, enduring shortages of food and power. Many would like to return home, but following a truly perverse plan of action, the government has begun demolishing houses that withstood the quake. Such is the efficiency of China’s emergency management. For many survivors, it appears all the authorities have to offer is an opportunity to wave at the Premier’s tour bus as his motorcade blows through town.

Stylistically compatible with China’s so-called D-Generation (D for Digital), Du eschews conventional documentary techniques, like formal interviews and voiceover narration. Instead, he lets the camera roll capturing the unfiltered reality of the quake’s aftermath at intervals of ten and two hundred ten days after the disaster. It is not pretty.

There is clearly a lot of anger in Sichuan that survivors do not seem to know how to express. One frustrated old man offers perhaps the most direct censure of the government, complaining: “The policies of the Communist Party are good in essence but they have been carried out wrongly.” In fact, the survivors seen in 1428 are much more guarded in their grievances than the grieving parents featured in Unnatural. Of course, it is worth bearing in mind Du’s footage was shot a mere nineteen years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, so he might well have been more circumspect in what he choose to include, for his subjects’ sake.

Like many of the D-Generation films, 1428 obliquely criticizes the Chinese Communist government from a perspective that would be considered left of center in the west. One elderly Taoist mystic (with much prompting) links the earthquake to the lack of observance of the Earth-God (perhaps implying a corresponding paucity of respect for the Earth by extension). However, the most heartbreaking footage of 1428 involves bereaved parents searching for the remains of their missing children amid the wreckage of their schools.

1428 is an eye-opening dose of reality, straight-up without any external editorializing. It is not the popular image of contemporary China the government has worked to cultivate. In truth, it does require some patience (though not as much as Du’s previous film Umbrella) because it so scrupulously represents life as it is for the Sichuan survivors. Highly illuminating, it is definitely recommended to anyone in the City of Angels when it screens at the LA Film Fest Sunday (6/20) and Monday (6/21).

LAFF ’10: The Night Mayor (short)

The nights in Canada get awfully long and dark. That is why Canadians were fascinated by the images generated by a Bosnian immigrant inventor who developed an experimental broadcasting system powered by the Aurora Borealis. Nihad Ademi’s fantastical story forms another chapter in director Guy Maddin’s secret history of his hometown of Winnipeg in the short film The Night Mayor, which screens during the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival (and is also available for online viewing courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada).

A proud Canadian by choice, Ademi was captivated by the “music” of the Aurora Borealis. He invents the telemelodium, a machine that transformed the energy of the Northern Lights into sound and imagery. However, as more Canadians starting subscribing to his signals, the telemelodium started tapping into the countries subconscious, generating unexpected visuals, including that of Ademi’s daughter in her altogether. Despite Ademi’s patriotic motives, the national government is not happy to have this window opened into the Canadian soul.

Bearing the hallmarks of Maddin’s weirdly elegant style (glorious black-and-white, expressionist set pieces, unsettling music and audio effects), Mayor could easily be considered an addendum to his borderline brilliant feature My Winnipeg. However, where the full length film started with incidents in Maddin’s fictionalized and sensationalized history that seem eccentrically plausible, slowly but surely seducing viewers with its bizarre vision of the central Canadian city, Mayor’s improbability never convinces viewers to suspend their disbelief. Still, it is an undeniably original and more or less accessible bite of post-modern science fiction that should please Maddin’s loyal art-house fans.

Maddin is one of the few genuine auteurs working in film today. While his overall filmography is somewhat hit-or-miss, Mayor is an inventive and subversive short. Entertaining on its own, Mayor would probably be even more effective when viewed as a companion to Winnipeg. It screens at the LA Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 2 tomorrow (6/18) and Tuesday (6/22).

(Photo credit: Rebecca Sandulak)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Guadagnino’s I Am Love

For the opulently wealthy Recchi family, life in Milan truly is La Dolce Vita. However, it is also a life of quiet desperation for Emma Recchi, until a chance encounter awakens her deepest emotions in Luca Guadagnino’s exquisitely crafted I Am Love (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Emma Recchi married into her life of wealth and privilege. In the process, she has forsaken her Russian heritage, adopting a properly Italian identity as befitting a Recchi. She is a loving mother and a reasonably devoted wife, but as her grown children leave to pursue their lives, hers becomes increasingly empty. As Love opens, she is busy overseeing the caterers during the Recchis’ birthday celebration for their elderly patriarch, Edoardo Sr. To their collective shock, rather than naming his son (Emma’s husband) Tancredi as his sole successor, old man Edoardo stipulates a power-sharing arrangement between his long-time presumptive heir and grandson Edo Jr.

Obviously, this significantly changes their family dynamics, so when Emma Recchi meets Edo Jr’s friend Antonio in passing that night, she hardly suspects the important role he will play in her life. She certainly made an impression of him though. Planning to open his own restaurant with Edo Jr, the much younger chef happens to run into Emma in Sanremo, the picturesque town on the Italian Riviera. This time the attraction is mutual and overwhelming, but their affair will have consequences.

While Love consists of the thoroughly tangled intimate relationships one might expect from a Cassavetes film, stylistically it is the exact opposite. Visually it soars and sweeps, dazzling the audience with its grand panoramas and glossy sheen. It is bravura work from cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, but it has the effect of keeping the characters at arm’s length from the audience.

However, as a self-consciously operatic film, Guadagnino rather brilliantly uses the music of Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams to convey the tumultuous emotions buried beneath the Recchis’ icy reserve. Though often described as a minimalist, his excerpted themes have a pronounced romanticism that perfectly matches the film’s luxurious visual texture.

As the film’s emotional center, Tilda Swinton subtly expresses Emma’s longing and regrets, despite Guadagnino’s maelstrom of imagery. Indeed, she would well relate to The Bridges of Madison County, if it were not so tacky and middlebrow. It is a finely calibrated performance that holds the audience riveted, carrying the emotive load throughout the film.

Truly the work of a daring auteur, Love is the sort of film that needs time to sink in. Yet, the effect of Guadagnino’s artistry (with vital contributions from Le Saux and Adams) is so immediate and powerful, it inspires slack-jawed awe. A rich feast for the senses, the accomplished Love opens this Friday (6/18) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema.

Rooftop Films ’10: Sweet Mud

Someone once said something about a village. Dvir would disagree. He witnessed first-hand the pernicious influence of his Kibbutz’s petty social pressures on his mother’s already fragile psyche in Sweet Mud (trailer here), director Dror Shaul’s pointed assessment of the Kibbutz system, which screens for free this coming Sunday night as part of Rooftop Films’ summer 2010 season.

Prior to the 1980’s, child-rearing was a communal responsibility in Kibbutz communities, an arrangement Mud describes as indeed socialistic in its opening titles. Dvir would clearly prefer a more traditional family unit. He has a loving relationship with his widowed mother Miri, but is not able to give her the time and support she needs. Hope seems to be arriving from Switzerland when her lover-by-correspondence arrives for a visit. Stephan turns out to be a gentile much older than she, but he was the former Swiss judo champ, so at least he has that going for him.

Much to his surprise, not only does Dvir like Stephan, he even starts envisioning a future for them as a family. However, his hopes are crushed by an unfortunate set of events involving Avram, the Kibbutz’s cretinous bully. Indeed, with his older brother leaving for military service and his mother’s always tenuous mental health further deteriorating, Dvir finds the utopian community a cold, heartless environment.

Rare among Israeli films, Mud could be interpreted as a critique of Israeli society (or at least the pre-1980’s Kibbutz) from the right. Shaul definitely presents a system that rewards the worst among them, including Dvir’s severely judgmental grandmother, while sacrificing its most sensitive members and undermining family relationships.

Though Mud is often ideologically provocative, it still offers traditional coming-of-age story elements. In fact, some of the films strongest scenes involve Dvir and his first sort-of girlfriend Maya. Yet, it is the caustic depiction of the Kibbutz’s closed social circle, in which the annual distribution list for Dvir’s Grandmother’s preserves signals who is in or out of favor, truly defines the film.

Shaul handles the dramatic material with great sensitivity, but Tomer Steinhof does not prove himself to be a particularly expressive young actor as Dvir. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a talented supporting cast, especially including Henri Garcin as the sophisticated and humane Stephan. Nicely produced, Avishai Avivi design details all look perfectly period appropriate and cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid’s wide angle shots of the Kibbutz’s lush green fields should translate well to Rooftop’s outdoor screen.

An intriguing depiction of the downside of communal idealism, Mud is a somewhat daring programming choice for Rooftop Films and their co-sponsoring presenter, the Consulate General of Israel in New York. A bit uneven, but definitely worth seeing (particularly for free), it screens on the pier in Kip’s Bay this coming Sunday (6/20).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jaoui’s Let It Rain

It is a premise ripe for biting political commentary. Despite their paucity of credentials, two incompetent male documentary filmmakers are granted to access to a celebrity-feminist making her first run for public office. Complications very definitely ensue, but director Agnés Jaoui resists judging her characters too harshly in her latest film, Let It Rain (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Always the favorite sister, Agathe Villanova grew up to become a media darling. A famous feminist writer, she allows her sister Florence to live in the family home they co-own, for a reasonable monthly rent, of course. Florence and her husband have been experiencing a rough patch, which is why they will soon lay-off the family’s longtime domestic, Mimouna. The French-Algerian woman does not feel she has a right to complain though, because the famous sister is funding her divorce from her abusive husband. However, the situation makes candidate Villanova more inclined to agree when Mimouna’s son Karim, an aspiring filmmaker, asks permission to document her campaign in collaboration with his one-time mentor, Michel Ronsard, who also happens to be Florence’s lover.

Such complicated and furtive inter-relationships might sound like the stuff of soap opera, but in Jaoui’s hands it all logically seems like a function of the world these characters live in. There are a plethora of potentially distracting hot-button political dimensions to the drama she unfolds, such as issues of class-consciousness, feminism, spousal abuse within Muslim immigrant families, and the collusive cluelessness of the media. Yet, it is all simply adds background texture to Rain’s central story of the rival sisters and their problematic attempts at romantic love.

Talky in a good way, Jaoui and her co-writer and co-star Jean-Pierre Bacri scripted some crisp, mature dialogue that is refreshingly entertaining, even in subtitles. Jaoui is a smart and engaging presence, solidly anchoring the film as the celebrated Villanova sister. However, Bacri is a standout, often amusing but ultimately quite affecting as Ronsard, a man desperately trying not to be a failure altogether as a journalist, a lover, and a father. Jean Debbouze also makes quite a strong impression as his increasingly exasperated partner Karim. While he occasionally gives vent to the frustrations rising from his immigrant family’s circumstances, ideologically it is pretty mild stuff.

Rain is a wistfully gentle and forgiving film filled with shrewdly observed moments. Jaoui’s restraint is a marvel throughout, never overselling her drama and leaving the film at an unfinished place that feels perfectly fitting nonetheless. Recommended with enthusiasm, it opens this Friday (6/18) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center.