Monday, February 28, 2011

Frigid ’11: My Pal, Izzy

Though his roots were humble, young Russian-Jewish immigrant Israel Baline would eventually represent the American experience through music better than nearly any other songwriter, present, past, or future. Of course, the man now remembered as Irving Berlin for his enduring classics like “God Bless America,” “Blue Skies,” and “White Christmas” had to start somewhere. In the persona of Rebecca Rosenstein, a not-quite star of Vaudeville and supposed neighborhood acquaintance of the prodigious popular composer, Melanie Gall fashions a cabaret-style memory play out of Berlin’s rarely performed early Tin Pan Alley songbook in My Pal, Izzy: the Early Life and Music of Irving Berlin, which is currently running as part of the 2011 Frigid Festival, featuring thirty independents productions, each no longer than an hour.

Of course, there is a reason why Berlin’s pre-“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” songs are so rarely performed. Primarily, it is a function of changing tastes. Berlin started out trying to give the people what they wanted, succeeding more than most. However, even Gall in the guise of Rosenstein apologizes to an extent for his first published work of juvenilia, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” Still, you have certainly heard worse.

True to the era, many of Gall’s selections are more or less novelty songs, but that does not mean they are not interesting as musical ornaments of an era gone by. Gall seems to understand this, performing them straight, but adding considerable dramatic flair where she can. She channels her inner Mae West for “If You Don’t Want These Peaches” (you know about “peaches,” right?) and enjoys the political incorrectness (circa 1909) of “My Wife’s Gone to the Country.”

Though Gall’s renditions are often somewhat operatic (not surprisingly, given her background), it is frankly in keeping with the expectations of early 1900’s music hall audiences. In fact, she finds real depth in “When I Lost You” and delivers quite a rousing closer in “That Dying Rag,” suggesting at least two of Berlin’s earliest might potentially deserve a revival apart from the context of a tribute show like Izzy. She is ably accompanied by John Murphy, who is unfortunately stuck with a keyboard (it obviously clashes with the 1916 vibe, but the Kraine is a small space, so there’s probably no way around it).

Izzy is a well-conceived exploration of the Great American Songbook, staking out some unclaimed musical territory that works far better than one might expect. Indeed, it would be fascinating to hear her recast some of these tunes with contemporary arrangements sometime in the future. Recommended for lovers and students of American song, Izzy runs again this coming Wednesday (3/2), Thursday (3/3), and Saturday (3/5) at the Kraine Theater in New York’s East Village, not too far from Berlin’s boyhood Lower Eastside neighborhood.

(Photo: Karen Young)

Frigid ’11: Scarlet Woman

If you can explain the plot of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, you’re way ahead of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe. Frankly, he should have won an Oscar just for the conviction of his fast-talking non-explanation at the film’s climax that makes absolutely no sense, but is all kinds of awesome. As if the noir saga of the Sternwood family were not convoluted enough, Matthew Wells adds generous helpings of Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, and The Brasher Doubloon in his two-femme fatale film noir mash-up Scarlet Woman, which is currently running as part of the 2011 Frigid Festival of easily manageable stage productions clocking in at about an hour’s running time.

A young woman is out to find her father’s killer. Good luck keeping her name straight. It will change many times over the course of an hour. Naturally, it turns out the old man had a secret past and she might not even be who she thinks she is. Role reversals are the order of the day, as Megan Hill and Candy Simmons tackle about a dozen or so parts interchangeably (including a couple of guys), all with familiar names for classic noir cineastes.

Defying coherent plot summary, Scarlet affectionately purees the hardboiled genre with some wickedly clever dialogue. Despite throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, Wells makes the pieces fit together surprisingly well. Effectively staged by Rob O’Neill, the production makes the most of its simple sets and shadowy backlit backdrop to create the appropriate atmosphere of perpetual twilight.

Hill and Simmons are a blast to watch as whoever they might be at a given moment: Carmen Sternwood, Kathie Moffat, take your pick. In fact, it is hard to imagine sustaining the energy they bring past the Frigid-mandated one hour mark. It is also hard to think up any further crazy plot points they could possibly throw at the audience.

Scarlet has much the same appeal as the recently closed Broadway hit The 39 Steps, but at fraction of the ticket cost and about half the investment of time. A thoroughly entertaining stage romp, Scarlet is a clear highlight of this year’s Frigid Fest. It runs again this Tuesday (3/1), Wednesday (3/2), and Saturday (3/5) at the Kraine Theater.

(Photo: Anna Dvorak)

NYICFF ’11: A Cat in Paris

Paris is a playground for an adventurous cat like Dino. By day, he is the loyal tabby of the police superintendent’s daughter. By night, he joins the nocturnal adventures of an actual cat burglar, climbing the city’s ornate masonry and gothic gargoyles. The City of Lights rarely looked as beautiful on the big screen as it does in Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Feliciolli’s animated feature A Cat in Paris (trailer here), which has its American premiere at the 2011 New York International Film Festival.

Young Zoe has not spoken a word since her father was murdered by gangster Victor Costa. Her copper mother is too busy working the case to help her adequately work through her grief. She spends most her time with Dino, who enjoys bringing her little presents, like small dead animals and the occasional diamond bracelet. One night Zoe follows on Dino as he slinks off to join the Rafflesesque Nico, only to stumble across the Costa gang. The chase is on, across the stylishly rendered Parisian cityscape.

The hand-drawn Cat is a wonderful antidote for the mass-produced computer animation constantly dumped into multiplexes. These figures have an idiosyncratic look that deliberately evokes a sophisticated Parisian sensibility. If Toulouse Lautrec was resurrected to craft an animated film, he would probably look up Gagnol and Feliciolli.

Indeed, the city is an integral part of film, right down to its fitting conclusion at Notre Dame. Though clearly produced with young viewers in mind, the romantic urban backdrops, the hat-tips to film noir, and the jazz-influenced soundtrack (including a vintage Billie Holiday rendition of “I Wished on the Moon”) will keep parents and other ostensive adults quite engaged. A well constructed feature, Gagnol and Feliciolli maintain a brisk pace, while showing the action from dramatic angles that further heightens the noir appeal.

Cat is a thoroughly charming film with genuine heart and just enough attitude to avoid cloyingness. Though admittedly brief at sixty-five minutes, it packs a lot into that time, including some very cool closing credits. NYICFF and gKids have a good eye for animated features, having previously selected intelligent and artfully crafted features like Sita Sings the Blues and In the Attic for previous festivals. The tradition continues this year with Cat and some first-rate anime imports. Highly recommended, Cat screens at NYICFF on March 5th, 6th, 12th, 13, and 19th, but it appears tickets are only still available for Saturday the 12th, so act fast.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Of Magic Fish and Glowing-Eyed Monkeys: Uncle Boonmee

An old commie hunter, Uncle Boonmee is haunted by spirits. However, his ghosts are largely benevolent, seeking to comfort Boonmee during his final days. Rife with magical realism but deliberately toying with narrative structure, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cannes Palme D’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall Past Lives (trailer here), opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Boonmee is slowly dying from a humiliating kidney dysfunction. He is faithfully attended by his Laotian servant Jai and the ghost of his deceased wife Huay, among others. Even his long lost son Boonsong pays his final respects, despite having transformed into a red glowing-eyed monkey spirit, lurking the dark heart of the jungle with his beastly cohorts.

It has been an eventful life, but it is nothing compared to Boonmee’s visions of his previous incarnations, particularly an episode in which a mystical catfish ravishes a self-esteem-challenged princess. Consistently obscure throughout Recall, Weerasethakul never explicitly spells out Boonmee’s role in this Leda-like tale, but since the lagoon is described as the place where Boonmee’s lives began, it seems safe to assume there is some fishy DNA in his karma.

Though Boonmee ruefully suggests his current bad karma stems from his past anti-Communist military activities, perhaps he should ask the Cambodians about what he helped spare his countrymen (“you did it for your country,” his sister-in-law Jen reminds him). Regardless, Weerasethakul’s somewhat veiled commentary is so deeply buried under multiple layers of symbolic meanings and narrative gamesmanship, it is doubtful Recall will inspire many viewers to spontaneously erupt in a rendition of “The Internationale.” Instead, those so inclined will probably break the film down into the parts they can deal with, whether that might be the animatronic catfish or Buddhist reincarnation themes.

Of course, there is something problematic about a film’s whole, if it is less than its constituent parts. Between its double-secret allegories, nonlinear forms, and deliberate stylistic shifts, Recall is so busy displaying a self-conscious artiness, the rain forest gets lost for the trees. In fact, Recall along with the experimental companion short Letter to Uncle Boonmee were conceived as part of Weerasethakul’s multi-media, multi-platform project Primitive. Indeed, there are times when the static nature of Recall and particularly the narrative-free Letter seem more closely akin to installation videos than stand-alone films.

Though the late reappearance of characters from Weerasethakul’s past films might be enriching for those in the know, bringing things full circle, it further limits the film’s ability to connect with average well-meaning audiences. Still, Thanapat Saisaymar manages to express something fundamentally and universally human as the dying Boonmee, while Jenjira Pongpas also adds a bit of grace to the proceedings as Jen.

Obviously, Recall is a film for hardcore art-house and festival audiences. It boasts some fine performances, but it thoroughly confuses the distinction between avant-garde provocation and portentous pretention. A film that does not live up to its festival acclaim, Recall opens this Wednesday (3/2) at New York’s Film Forum.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Documentary Fortnight ’11: Countryside 35x45 & Almost Married

Their rhetoric might be slightly different, but the practices of the Soviet Union and Putin’s successor regime are eerily similar, chief among them being a preoccupation with paperwork. At least this generates some work for a middle-aged photographer in Evgeny Solomin’s Countryside 35x45, which screens as part of a short doc double-bill during MoMA’s 2011 Documentary Fortnight.

The government has decreed all remaining Communist era passports must be exchanged for new ID cards. For many Russians, particularly older citizens living in remote villages, this is a meaningless hassle. However, they have to do it, if they want to keep getting their pension checks. Enter Lyutikov, an enterprising photographer who barnstorms Siberia, setting up shop in village meeting halls to snap the needed 35x45 passport photos.

Though Siberians do not look particularly chatty, the bald photographer operates much like a barber or hairdresser, getting his subjects to open up awfully quickly, while he gets down to business. As one might expect, life was bleak and continues to be hard for the hardscrabble Siberians. Though Lyutikov’s reactions to stories of husbands swept up by the authorities and assorted WWII privations appear rather cold and superficial, his photographs capture something touching in their weathered faces, even if they were produced in assembly line fashion. Perhaps the real credit should go to Vladimir Ponomaryov, whose elegant, crystal clear black-and-white cinematography gives Countryside the look of a high art film, despite its TV-ish aspect ratio.

In contrast to Lyutikov’s cool remove, Fatma Bucak takes viewers on an emotional (nearly angst-ridden) homecoming to her native Turkey in Almost Married, co-written and co-directed by her and Sergio Fergnachino. Stifling under her Kurdish family’s traditionalism, Bucak essentially ran away from home, settling in Italy where she pursued her photography. She also fell in love with an Italian. Complications ensue.

Bucak has finally returned in hopes of securing her father’s blessing for their marriage, but she is quite apprehensive about broaching the subject. Dad is a hard cat to talk to. An old school leftist rabble-rouser in the 1980’s, he still holds fast to traditional practices, like arranged marriages.

In the technically well-staged opening sequence, the audience sees a deceptively dramatic example of Bucak’s work, supposedly inspired by her family history. Frankly, it sets viewers up for a medieval horror show that mercifully never materializes. Though a bit difficult perhaps, overall her father seems more-or-less reasonable. For her part, Bucak diligently avoids even the mention of Islam, let alone honor killings and other such manifestations of fundamentalist misogyny. She even presents a half-hearted justification of arranged marriage, despite the less-than-thrilled look of the bride at an arranged wedding she attends.

Understandably, Bucak opts to work out her own issues rather than adopt the cause of women’s rights in the Islamic world. Yet that determination to narrow Married’s focus also limits its relevancy. Artfully rendered, Countryside is a small but intriguing film, while Married conversely starts with a big important premise, but proceeds to bury it, most likely for the sake of familial peace. A mixed bag, the double-bill screens again this afternoon (2/27), as Documentary Fortnight continues at MoMA.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story

Sixteen year-old Cyntoia Brown killed a man. The term “troubled youth” does not adequately describe her tragic life experiences. In many ways her own worst enemy, Brown finds several passionate advocates as she stands trial, including filmmaker Daniel Birman, who unambiguously sides with his subject in Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story (promo here), which airs on most PBS outlets this Tuesday as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Both in terms of nature and nurture, Brown was dealt a tough hand. The history of her substance-abusing birth mother’s family is rife with mental illness and suicide. In and out of foster homes during her formative years, Brown endured physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Not surprisingly, it left lasting scars on her psyche, which her defense team’s psychiatrist argues directly contributed to her crime. Picked up by a gun nut for illicit sex, it sounds like Brown over-reacted to his squirrely behavior by shooting him (while he was sleeping) with one of his own firearms. It is hard to fully judge the events in question though, because Birman never allots adequate time to hear the prosecution lay out their side of the case. Indeed, this oversight makes several key turning points seem inexplicably unfair and random.

Granted remarkable access by the Tennessee criminal justice system, Birman captures a number of legitimately dramatic moments throughout Brown’s trial. Though defense witness Dr. William Bernet might not be the showiest character, it is particularly fascinating to watch him draw out Cyntoia (and his lack of grandstanding is certainly refreshing). While Brown might be a hard kid to love, it is even more difficult not to sympathize for her, considering the pain and exploitation she survived. Yet, there is a consistent sense all through Facing (at least in the broadcast cut) that only part of the story is being presented. You can just feel the void.

The message of Facing is hard to miss. Regardless of the relative justness of her verdict, one cannot help but share Birman’s compassion for the still young Brown. Ironically though, the lack of substantive prosecutorial voices or testimony from the victim’s family somewhat hampers the film’s efficacy, becoming conspicuous by their absence. Heartbreaking, but also more than bit manipulative, Independent Lens’ Facing airs this coming Tuesday (3/1) in most PBS markets.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Prisoner of Conscience: Oscar’s Cuba

It is not hard to see why the Castro brothers fear Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet. A medical doctor with commanding leading man looks, Dr. Biscet has been a selfless and tireless champion of human rights in Cuba. In short, he is everything they are not, which would make him a formidable political rival if Cuba were a free democracy. Of course, this is not the case. Imprisoned for years, usually in solitary confinement, Dr. Biscet has become a unifying symbol of hope and non-violent resistance throughout the island gulag as director Jordan Allott documents in Oscar’s Cuba (trailer here), a selection of the 2011 John Paul II Film Festival, which has a special screening this coming Wednesday in Las Vegas at the Clark County Library Theatre.

When allowed her brief bi-monthly visit, Dr. Biscet’s wife Elsa Morejon always brings him toilet paper, because his Communist captors refuse to supply such everyday staples necessary for basic human dignity. This ritual encapsulates the essence of the Cuban regime. However, it has not broken Dr. Biscet’s spirit according to those who have met him in prison. No stranger to Castro’s dungeons, thirty-six days after serving a three year prison sentence, Biscet was swept up again in the notorious 2003 Black Spring round-up of seventy-five Cuban dissidents. To this day, he remains in a dark, confined, unsanitary cell.

Born shortly after the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, Biscet has lived his entire life under the Castro police state. Yet, the dissident doctor has always maintained a profound Christian faith. In fact, much of the pro-life Biscet’s activism began in protest of the Communist government’s policies of forced abortions and even infanticide of premature newborns to bolster their internationally vaunted infant mortality statistics. He would become Cuba’s leading advocate of democratic reform and a proponent of non-violence, often referencing the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau.

Though not able to talk to the man himself (for obvious reasons), Allott interviews many of Biscet’s former prison-mates and fellow human rights activists without the sanction or supervision of the Cuban regime. We also hear from former Cuban political prisoner and U.S. Ambassador (to the UN Commission on Human Rights) Armando Valladares, a figure well worthy of his own documentary.

While clearly produced to spur grassroots activism, Allott still earns props for his on-the-spot undercover reporting, capturing first-hand the unsavory realities of Cuban life, like Castro’s thuggish flash-mobs sent to intimidate dissidents and their families. Jazz and Afro-Cuban music lovers will also appreciate the original score composed by bandleader-defector Arturo Sandoval, Dizzy Gillespie’s close collaborator and heir as the king of the trumpet’s uppermost registers.

Far too much of Oscar’s Cuba will come as a revelation to general audiences who rely on the absentee media for international news. Highly informative, but also an inspiring portrait of one man’s faith, courage, and dignity in the face of oppression, Oscar’s Cuba was a truly fitting selection for the JP2FF. Recommended along with a prayer for Dr. Biscet and his colleagues, Oscar’s Cuba screens this coming Wednesday (3/2) in Vegas (details here).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Documentary Fortnight ’11: Tape

Li Ning has quite possibly been naked in public more often than anyone else in China. Somehow, the avant-garde dancer-performance artist has eluded the police after each of his public happenings, yet he has still paid a high price for his art as he personally documents in his post-modern docu-memoir Tape (video intro here), which screens today as part of the 2011 Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art.

Li Ning would probably be more comfortable living in the East Village than the relatively quiet, industrial city of Jinan. However, his troupe of merry prankster dancers has given him a creative outlet. Recruited mostly from his dance classes at the local university, they have been up for just about anything. Usually, Li is the only naked one though. Unfortunately, it is difficult for Li to hold the company together, as the demands of life pull them apart. Indeed, Li has his own obligations as a father and husband. By his own admission, his performance as the former has been only so-so, while largely failing at the latter.

Far from a sufficient provider, Li is in fact a financial burden on his wife. Yet, that is not even the half of it. Throughout the five years of Tape, Li implies or outright confesses secrets that violate any notion of marital trust. To give the filmmaker due credit, Li never panders for audience approval. However, the entire project is rife with psychological neediness and sundry other emotional issues.

Sharing a kinship with Bansky and other underground artists, Li unambiguously toys with the conventions of documentary filmmaking. Many sequences are clearly staged, but such is the nature of his art. At times though, his self-indulgence pushes the boundaries of taste and appropriateness, as when he simulates auto-eroticism lying next to his sleeping son. As a result of Li’s determination to hold himself up for loathing, each time the filmmaker endures a not-so infrequent beating it is rather hard to care.

At 168 minutes, Tape is a long, hard march. While one periodically gleans moments of insight into the repressive and arbitrary nature of authority in China, particularly for the creative community, the film is far more intimate in focus. Yes, the filmmaker sticks his neck out to document some abuses in his neighborhood, like a woman who is evicted and beaten by thugs simply because they seem to have a work order to do so. Yet, ultimately it is all about Li. Certainly bold, but truly grueling, Tape (also distributed by dGenerate Films, the Chinese indie specialists) screens again this afternoon (2/23) as part of the Chinese Independent Cinema section of this year’s Documentary Fortnight.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Faith Means: Of Gods and Men

They lived in perfect harmony with their Muslim neighbors. Their mission was one of charity, conducted with tolerance, yet seven of their ranks were executed in 1996, either by Islamist guerillas (who claimed responsibility) or the Algerian army in an attempt to cover up a botched rescue attempt—opinions vary. Though a small group of French Trappist monks knew they were in harm’s way, they went about their final days just as they always did. Xavier Beauvois captures their faith and fellowship with genuine sensitivity while trying to finesse the worldly hatreds that ensnared them in his thinly fictionalized Of Gods and Men (trailer here), the 2010 Cannes Grand Prix winner, which opens in New York this Friday.

They do not reside in seclusion, but are actively engaged in their adopted community. The eight Trappists of Tibhirine do many good works, yet their daily existence is still comparatively quiet and meditative, filled with prayer and liturgical singing. Brother Luc runs the free clinic and distributes clothes to the needy. Brother Christian is a learned scholar of Islamic theology. Brother Christophe struggles with his faith, yet their provincial corner of Algeria is the only place he feels a sense of belonging.

Unfortunately, the world around them is far from peaceful. As French Christians, they are prime targets for the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. Fearing their presence will attract trouble, the Algerian government wants them to evacuate. However, many of their neighbors want them to stay, believing only the monks’ presence has protected them from the atrocities reported throughout the countryside. The dilemma for the monks is obvious, what course of action is most consistent with their mission and the tenets of their faith?

Working closely with monastic advisor Henry Quinson and choirmaster François Polgar, Beauvois renders their not-so cloistered life with respect and scrupulous attention to accuracy. The issues of faith the monks grapple with are serious, not just because of their obvious life-and-death implications. Indeed, Beauvois and co-screenwriter Etienne Comar offer the most insightful and compelling depiction of Christian monasticism seen on-screen since Into Great Silence, a film Men somewhat resembles in tone, despite the former being a documentary about Carthusians.

As befitting men of God, the monks forgive their captors (and likely executioners). It is their final act of Christian charity, explicitly elucidated in the concluding narration of Brother Christian’s journal. However, Beauvois’ constant pleas to distinguish Islam from Islamists run the risk of protesting too much. Frankly, he somewhat undercuts the feelings humanist empathy and solidarity inspired by his graceful portrayal of the Trappists by fetishizing their murder as an act of martyrdom on behalf of their Muslim murderers. As not just men of the cloth, but as those trespassed against, it is their place and perhaps their highest calling to forgive. That right is not ours to exercise.

Despite the agenda ultimately appended to Men, it is a finely crafted film. Caroline Champetier’s warm lens finds the weathered beauty in the Algerian land and its people. Beauvois’ use of both silence and Polgar’s arresting chorale music is equally adept. Yet, it is the dignity and intelligence the cast invests in the monks that are redemptive above and beyond any pat message tacked onto their tragic story. Truly, the eight principles give career performances, but veteran French character actor Michael Lonsdale is a geunine standout as Brother Luc, while Lambert Wilson effectively centers the film as wise Brother Christian.

These are men, albeit of God, but men none-the-less, rather than symbols. The greatest aspect of Men is its success delineating the monks as characters and conveying the distinct ways Christian faith manifests through their callings. Though it requires time to contemplate and digest, in the final analysis Men is a quietly moving film of considerable substance. It opens this Friday (2/25) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ido Haar In-Residence at SFFS: Melting Siberia

Ido Haar’s road to San Francisco ran from Israel through Novosibirsk. Chosen as the inaugural filmmaker to launch the San Francisco Film Society’s Artist in Residence program, the still youthful looking Haar has already established an international reputation. At one point an editor for BeTipul, the Israeli series on which the HBO series In-Treatment is based (often word-for-word), Haar is probably best known on the festival circuit for the naturalistic, issue-driven documentary 9 Star Hotel. In contrast, his first non-fiction feature was the distinctly personal Melting Siberia (trailer here), which screens next Wednesday as part of two weeks of programming related to his residency.

Given its uniquely tragic history, many grieving spouses and children immigrated to Israel without parents and loved ones. Such was the case with Haar’s mother and grandmother, but his grandfather was very much alive. A Soviet Red Army officer stationed in Latvia, Marina’s father abandoned her and her mother shortly after the war. Always understandably resentful, Haar’s mother never sought out the father she never knew. However, when Haar tracks down his grandfather in frozen Novosibirsk, Marina reluctantly but resolutely follows-up in a series of phone calls, letters, and finally a fateful visit, all faithfully documented by Haar.

Deliberately modest and intimate, Melting is true to life, capturing the messy conflicting emotions and social awkwardness of Haar’s family reunion, finding closure where it can. Clearly a strong woman, Haar’s mother emerges as the star, tough but vulnerable all the way through. Yet, even on his supposed best behavior, his grandfather remains a deeply problematic figure. Before their eventual meeting, Marina muses whether deserting one’s family was conduct becoming a Soviet officer. It is a fair question, perhaps even more so following a devastating confrontation between a father and daughter still strangers to each other.

Unlike Haar’s other works, he frequently appears in Melting, good naturedly taking his family ribbing. It augurs well for his stint in-residence at SFFS (2/21-3/5), especially his classroom visits and master class scheduled for this Saturday (2/26). Haar will also be in-attendance for a special screening of Melting next Wednesday (3/2) at New People Cinema in San Francisco. Unblinkingly honest, it is quietly moving film, well worth seeing at any time.

Panahi (Not) At Asia Society: Offside

Only the current Iranian regime could make patriotism subversive. Supposedly to protect women from harsh language and rampant testosterone, the paternalistic Iranian regime will not allow women to attend men's sporting events. It may not be the most pressing human rights abuse in Iran, but it emblematic of the Islamic Republic’s institutionalized misogyny. Produced under difficult circumstances without official sanction, Jafar Panhi’s Offside depicts the unfortunate drama surrounding several young Iranian girls’ coordinated attempt to sneak into a crucial World Cup qualifying match. Like several of his characters, Panahi would soon find himself behind bars. Currently facing a six year prison term on trumped-up charges, Panahi is not likely to attend when Offside (trailer here), screens this Saturday at the Asia Society as part of their important retrospective-tribute to the persecuted filmmaker.

Disguising themselves as boys, with varying degrees of success, a group of teen-aged girls successfully bluff their way into the forbidden stadium. Eventually though, they rounded up by the equally young military conscripts working the security detail, to be turned over to the morals police at the end of the match. As the young women cool their heels in a holding pen, they try to engage their captors, who have difficulty defending the policy they reluctantly enforce. In fact, several of the female fans seem much more knowledgeable about the game than the soldiers guarding them.

Since Panahi was (not surprisingly) denied permission to film Offside, he shot rebel-style on digital video, which gives the film a definite cinema vérité look. Panahi’s brave cast of non-professionals duly avoids any sense of affectation. Although some young actors are perhaps a tad uncomfortable in their roles, many, like Shayesteh Irani as the tomboyish “Smoking girl,” are consistently quite good.

As a film Offside is certainly engaging, as a sort of the dystopian version of Bend it Like Backham, but only too real. Yet, it is particularly valuable as an intimate unfiltered snapshot of Iranian life. Far from a full scale indictment of the Iranian regime, Offside is a small, but telling, slice of everyday absurdism. To borrow an American cliché, one cannot use the film to question Panahi’s patriotism. In fact, the film is suffused with a love of country, as the young fans want nothing more than to chant and cheer for their beloved national team.

Reportedly, even though Offside had only been screened once in Iran at the time of its initial American release, word of the film helped temporarily overturn the ban on women at sporting events, until the religious authorities vetoed the policy change. Offside might seem slight—a group of women simply trying to watch a sporting event—but it signifies the act of questioning authority, even ending with a very minor rebellion of sorts, foreshadowing the Green almost-Revolution.

In addition to his six year sentence, the Iranian government has also imposed a twenty year filmmaking ban on Panahi. This punishes not just the filmmaker, but all Iranian citizens and world cineastes. Winner of the Silver Bear at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), Offside is an excellent example of what the world is losing through the mullahs’ oppression. It screens this Saturday (2/26) at the Asia Society and tickets are free.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Panahi (Not) At Asia Society: The White Meadows

It is so tragically appropriate that the latest film from unjustly persecuted Iranian film directors Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi uses tears as a major plot device, it is almost embarrassing to point out the aptness. However, it is the repressive Iranian government that should be ashamed. It has sentenced both filmmakers to six year prison terms, on the flimsiest of pretexts. To its credit, the recently wrapped Berlin International Film Festival went out of its way to protest their plight, holding Panahi’s invited place on the Berlinale jury vacant, while screening five of his films in various festival sections. Now the Asia Society follows suit with an equally timely retrospective Panahi’s work, starting this Friday with Rasoulof’s The White Meadows, a strange and unsettling cinematic fable edited by Panahi.

The water has never been saltier and the people living on Lake Urmia’s sandy white isles have never been so miserable. A karmic hand seems to be at work. Seeking relief from their sorrow, they turn to Rahmat, a tear collector, who gathers his watery harvest during their funerals, confessions, and inquisitions. However, after leaving one grieving family, Rahmat is surprised to find a stowaway on his small boat, the young Nissim, who has set out on the truly archetypal quest to find his prodigal father.

As Rahmat and his unexpected apprentice travel from one island to another, Meadows subtly grows ever more fantastical and sad. Indeed, its episodic nature seems like a conscious attempt to evoke the spirit of ancient epics like The Odyssey, while keeping its exact time-frame deliberately vague.

Though he functions as an enigmatic journeyman, Hasan Pourshirazi’s Rahmat is still fascinating to watch as he slowly yields up his mysteries. As young Nissim, Younes Ghazali shows talent beyond his years, effectively serving as the audience’s proxy, viscerally and believably expressing horror at the various injustices he witnesses.

Totally absorbing despite its unhurried pace, Meadows is a testament to the filmmaking talents of director Rasoulof and editor Panahi. As lensed by cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafouri, it is a visually stunning film, often utilizing arresting wide angle shots of its black-clad figures, standing out as contrasting specks against the blinding sunlight and Urmia’s eerie white sand and saltwater vistas.

Given the prevalence of tears and suffering in Meadows, it is hard not to read additional meaning into its story. Rasoulof wisely keeps the political allegory largely shrouded (though evidently not obscure enough). Still, there seem to be clear parallels between the bad karma the islanders are suffering and the sins of the Islamic Revolutionary government. Certain critiques of Iranian society are also inescapable, especially its rampant misogyny. Indeed, when a beautiful woman dies terribly young, one Islander tells Rahmat it is for the best, lest she should inspire unfulfilled lust in the men. Also worth noting, Meadows scrupulously adheres to Iran’s stringent regulations forbidding all forms of physical contact between men and women on-screen.

The standout film at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival (worth revisiting for a third time), Meadows is a masterfully crafted work that resists lazy categorization (such as “political allegory” or “Arabian fantasy”). Filmed under difficult circumstances, it is also recommended beyond reasons of its considerable cinematic merits. Clearly, the current Iranian regime would like the outside world to forget Rasoulof, Panahi, and their films. Instead, make a point of attending White Meadows at Asia Society this Friday (2/25) and return for Panahi’s films in the coming days and weeks to enjoy their art, but also remain mindful of their perilous situation.

Obayashi’s House

There is no need for drugs in a world with this film. Frankly, watching it under the influence sounds like a mind-shredding experience, but viewers will have another chance to find out for themselves this coming Friday and Saturday when Nobuhiko Ȏbayashi’s indescribable 1977 “horror” film House (trailer here) returns yet again to the IFC Center, where it melted the screens and blew the doors off the joint last year when it finally had a legit American theatrical release.

Based on the story and concepts of Ȏbayashi’s daughter Chigumi, it is hard to believe the young girl had this is mind exactly. Straight from the first frame, House is a trippy, stylized kaleidoscope of otherworldly imagery. Only the mild yuri-style Japanese schoolgirl fetishism has recognizable antecedents from more conventional sources. Gorgeous (as her friends call her) is rather put out by the notion that her widower father plans to remarry. Bailing on their longstanding vacation plans, she invites herself, her BFF Fantasy, and five of their mutual friends to spend their school break at her old spinster aunt’s remote mansion. Sounds lovely, right?

Dear old Auntie has changed since Gorgeous last saw her. Though she is all sweetness and light when receiving the girls, her crack about wanting to eat up Mac, Gorgeous’ gluttonous friend, has a real ominous ring. Things get bat-smack crazy fast, leaving the girls to cling to the hope that Mr. Tôgô, Fantasy’s school girl crush, will finally find his way there in his lowrider, fulfilling his promise to join them in a way Auntie’s intended never did. Unfortunately, he is kind of an idiot.

House is conclusive proof anything could be realized on film, even in the pre-CGI era. Previously known as an established commercial director, Ȏbayashi used every trick in the book, including in-camera distortions, jump cuts, animation, matte paintings, and probably witchcraft. Although some of the animated effects are not much more sophisticated than the campy 1960’s Batman series’ onomatopoeic fight scenes, many of Ȏbayashi’s visuals are decidedly eerie, like the film’s crimson skies, reminiscent of the traditional cover art for vintage western paperbacks. Indeed, House is a Grand Guignol-inspired production, set in a spooky old mansion, with plenty of bright red blood flowing freely.

Through Ȏbayashi’s bizarre mash-up of styles and shameless exploitation of horror movie tropes, House inspires a schizophrenic response. One is constantly aware of the over-the-top visual techniques, but on some level we still respond to its girls in jeopardy story. Kumiko Ȏba is appropriately sweet and sympathetic as Fantasy, while Miki Jinbo adds an element of female empowerment (and charisma) as Kung Fu, the butt-kicking member of the Fab Seven.

Though it might be tempting to describe House as Hello Kitty meets The Evil Dead, words truly fail to describe this film. There is a reason why it keeps coming back for midnight screenings. Weird in nearly every possible way, Ȏbayashi’s feature debut is one of a kind, well worth seeing on the blood spattered big screen this Friday and Saturday (2/25 & 2/26) at the IFC Center.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Documentary Fortnight ’11: Disorder

Word to the wise, take care crossing the streets of Guangzhou and the surrounding suburbs. If you are hit by a car, the driver might just try to stuff some cash in your pocket and toss you out of the way. For their part, the police appear woefully inadequate at managing accidents. It is all rather messy and unfortunate, but it is easy to understand how such episodes caught the attention of scores of Chinese digital video enthusiasts, whose most “youtube-able” footage has been edited together in Huang Weikai’s collage-like Disorder (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Documentary Fortnight now underway at MoMA.

China has a reputation for being a tightly regulated society, perhaps tragically so. However, the amateur video assembled by editor-director (emphasis on editor) Huang paints a more anarchic picture. At times, it is somewhat amusing. The face of a restaurant customer finding a roach in his ramen is pure movie gold. Indeed, there are plenty of “you-don’t-see-that-everyday” moments, as when a group of men try to corral a pack of panicky pigs on the highway, while the cops watch disinterestedly. They do that quite frequently in Disorder.

However, Disorder is not all light-hearted corruption and incompetence. There is real tragedy as well. Frankly, Huang somewhat downplays the most shocking incident, most likely a by-product of China’s strict one-child policy. Still, his concluding sequences logically have the most political bite, capturing full-scale police brutality in an incident that teeters on the brink of a legitimate riot.

They might be so-called amateurs, but the videographers who recorded these scenes deserve considerable credit for standing their ground and getting their shots. In his editorial judgment, Huang demonstrates a shrewd eye for visuals and a subversive sensibility. Whether he intended to or not, he conveys a sense of the anger and frustration bubbling beneath the surface of many average citizens. Yet, they never seem to release it in a coordinated, efficacious manner, as the audience witnesses in graphic terms.

At just about an hour’s running time, Disorder is a particularly manageable dose of the Digital Generation style of independent Chinese filmmaking, appropriately distributed by dGenerate Films, the Chinese indie specialists. Short but sometimes shocking, it is strong selection for this year’s Documentary Fortnight. It screens again tomorrow (2/20) as the annual doc festival continues at MoMA, but it might be a ticket in high demand. There were a few technical glitches at last night’s screening (ultimately resolved well enough), so some of the near capacity audience might be back for the second go-round.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Hindi Black Widow: 7 Khoon Maaf

Okay, so maybe Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes killed a few husbands. At least she had good reasons, most of the time. Frankly, she is not a bad person really, she just has bad moments—six or seven of them. Falling somewhere in the spectrum between Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go and Theresa Russell in Black Widow, Johannes is profoundly unlucky in love throughout Vishal Bhardwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Her mother died in child birth and her beloved father tragically passed during her early formative years. Johannes will never have to worry about money, but love is a different story. Of course, the courtships always start out great, yet once hitched, her hubbies’ bad sides quickly reveal themselves. #1 was a military hero, but his war wounds made him bitter and cruel. Though he vents is frustration on Johannes loyal retainers, they will have the last laugh. This process will repeat.

Naturally, each husband is awful in his own unique way. It is not for a lack of effort on her part either. A devout Christian, Johannes even converts to Islam for Wasiullah Khan. Though his lyric poetry suggested a romantic soul, his violent sexual abuse turns her life into a nightmare. Truly, it will be the death of him. Over the decades, Johannes luck never improves. Even her sixth husband, a holistic doctor played by the great Naseeruddin Shah, turns out to be highly problematic. Eventually, the compounding tragedy of her serial mariticide threatens to engulf her very soul, a descent viewers witness in a series of Noir-style flashbacks.

Sort of a Hindi Anthony Hopkins, Shah is perfectly cast as the sophisticated and mysterious #6. However, Maaf is unquestionably a star vehicle for Priyanka Chopra as Johannes. Convincingly aging forty years, she also preserves a sense of Johannes’ vulnerability and fundamental Christian decency, despite her constant resorts to homicide. Indeed, the latter will take on renewed significance in the third act.

Bhardwaj has a reputation for straddling the boundary of Bollywood and India’s Parallel Cinema. Arguably, Maaf leans sixty-forty to the latter. While there are musical interludes, they usually happen in relatively realistic contexts, like Johannes’ wedding celebrations (of which there are plenty). Of course, there is also a lot of melodramatic messiness to satisfy Bollywood fans. While the tone can be a bit erratic, Bhardwaj keeps the pace brisk. In fact, his sly black humor and a surprisingly substantial emotional payoff give the film a distinctive character. As ambitious Bollywood or accessible Parallel Cinema, Maaf is a good introduction to Hindi films. Considerably better than many recent imports from the subcontinent, it opens today (2/18) in New York at the Big Cinemas Manhattan.

Upscale HK Horror: Dream Home

Maybe slasher pictures are not the best source for economic stats, but according tonight’s midnight movie at the IFC Center, Hong Kong’s cost of living has gone up fifteen percent since the Chinese handover, but income has only increased by a miserly one percent. That makes Hong Kong’s housing market even more prohibitively expensive than that of rent-control distorted Manhattan. It also leads to a series of spectacularly grisly murders in Pang Ho-Cheung’s Dream Home (trailer here), which begins its run tonight in the West Village.

Cheng Lai-sheung would kill for an apartment with a waterfront view—for real. She makes decent money as a telemarketer for a “predatory lender,” but not enough for the flat of her dreams. In a series of flashbacks, we come to understand how the traumatic events of her childhood created this obsessive need for her just-so home. After a great deal of heartache and a bit of cold-blooded sacrifice, Cheng finally has her dream apartment within her reach, only to have the sellers back out at the last minute, intending to hold out for a better office. Of course, there is nothing like a rash of killings in the building to drive down the asking price of units.

Dream’s frequent flashbacks and time-shifts can be quite confusing. However, the centerpiece of the film is a big, gory, extraordinarily messy sequence of killings that should have something to offend everyone. There is voluminous blood, nudity, and people slip-sliding through entrails. However, by genre standards, it is all quite impressively choreographed.

A far more ambitious production than its spatter patterns would suggest, Dream is visually striking thanks to the stylish work of cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, a frequent collaborator with Chinese art-house auteur Jia Zhangke. A popular Hong Kong actress, Josie Ho’s portrayal of Cheng’s descent into madness is also chillingly impressive. Indeed, Pang’s patience establishing character and the setting the scene for the inevitable horror show also sets it apart from inferior genre hack-work. Yet, there is no denying the blood and guts. Dream most definitely is what it is.

As a high-end gore-fest, Dream definitely delivers the goods for its intended hardcore cult audience. You know who you are. It screens at midnight tonight (2/18) and at odd times throughout the coming week.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

He was the world’s most dapper junkie. William S. Burroughs raised self-destructive living to a form of high performance art, yet somehow lived to the ripe old age of eighty-three. Many things to many people, documentary profiler Yony Leyser attempts to delve beneath the surface of the writer’s well-established public image in William S. Burroughs A Man Within (trailer here), which airs next Tuesday on most PBS stations as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

At one point in Within, Burroughs’ biographer argues the Harvard-educated Beat icon might have been the most important novelist of the late Twentieth Century. This seems like quite the overstatement (Nabokov springs more readily to mind here), but there is no denying his influence on hipster subcultures. Rock & roll for instance, is strewn with Burroughs references, like “heavy metal,” “Steely Dan,” and “Soft Machine.”

In his attempts to find Burroughs’ elusive true self, Leyser revisits the notorious episodes from the novelist’s life, including the “William Tell” incident that “accidently” cut short his wife’s time on Earth. He was not much of a parent either, indirectly contributing to his son’s fatal drug habit through neglect and by example. However, the rather problematic aspects of Burroughs’ final romantic relationship with a then seventeen year-old boy are entirely glossed over.

Frankly, Leyser tries too hard to find that redemptive Rosebud moment, ultimately only delivering a bit of off-hand sentimentalism notable only for being so out of character for the lifelong cynic. In contrast, the film is much more successful when reveling in the extreme manifestations of the Burroughs persona. Perhaps most enlightening is the segment on Burroughs, the Second Amendment defender, who even incorporated guns into his abstract painting.

Throughout Within, there are a number of telling anecdotes coming from a diverse cast of talking heads, including Peter Weller (the star of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch), who also does double duty as the film’s narrator. Even if viewers never really meet sensitive soul presumably buried beneath Burroughs’ acerbic exterior, at least Leyser captures his wit and provocative spirit. An entertaining and somewhat revealing work of cultural history, Within airs this coming Tuesday (2/22) on most PBS outlets (check local listings).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

JP2IFF ’11: The Labyrinth

Marian Kołodziej’s art is not merely art, but testimony of the unimaginable. It is displayed not in a gallery, but a labyrinth nestled beneath a small Polish church near Kołodziej’s former residence, Auschwitz. Through his darkly distinctive art, Kołodziej bears witness to the Holocaust in Jason A. Schmidt’s documentary The Labyrinth (trailer here), which screens this Saturday as part of the shorts program at the 2011 John Paul II International Film Festival in Miami (as well as the Boulder International Film Fest on the same day).

A youthful member of the Polish resistance, Kołodziej, number 432, was one of the first prisoners at Auschwitz, who were forced to build its architecture of death. Surviving the ordeal, he established a successful career as a set designer, but almost never discussed his horrific experiences. However, when Kołodziej began drawing as part of his therapy for a considerable stroke, the ominous images of the concentration camp came bursting forth.

Explaining the real life sources of his work, Kołodziej’s stories are mostly harrowing, but in rare instances also inspiring. The artist movingly pays tribute to Father Maximilian Kolbe, the Catholic priest who was canonized as a “martyr of charity” for taking the place of another man condemned to die in a starvation chamber. In drawings that are particularly powerful but just as gruesome, Kołodziej often depicts Kolbe comforting his fellow prisoners.

Almost Boschian in their nightmarish detail, Kołodziej’s work conveys the true nature of the Holocaust more compellingly and directly than any narrative feature could ever hope to. No matter how well intentioned or painstakingly produced, audiences are always conscious of a film’s artifice on some level. After two hours screen time, everyone goes back to life as usual. In contrast, each of Kołodziej’s pieces is a moment of agony frozen for all eternity. One can avert their eyes, but it will always be there, as a silent indictment of National Socialists’ crimes against humanity.

Respectfully crafted, Schmidt lets Kołodziej’s drawings and words (heard in translation) speak for themselves. Elegant in the simplicity of its approach, the thirty-eight minute Labyrinth is a hauntingly poetic documentary. It is also a perfectly fitting selection for the John Paul II Festival, considering it was the Polish pontiff who canonized Kolbe and strived to improve the Catholic-Jewish relations throughout his tenure. Highly recommended, it screens this Saturday (2/19) at the FIU Marc Pavilion as part of the JP2FF’s shorts program.

Feel the Pride: The Last Lions

Over the last half century, the lion population has declined from roughly 450,000 to something in the 20,000 range. Mankind might be a reckless predator, but the greatest threats posed to young lion cubs are often other lions on the hunt. Nature can indeed be cruel, as viewers see in no uncertain terms throughout Dereck & Beverly Joubert’s true wildlife documentary The Last Lions (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

While a film’s distributor is usually immaterial to its merits, the imprimatur of National Geographic Entertainment establishes instant credibility for a nature film like Last Lions. Unlike the old Disney True Life Adventures (at least as most of us probably remember them), the Jouberts are not afraid to show the brutality of life in the wild. There will be blood, from both predator and prey alike.

Single motherhood is a difficult proposition in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Ma di Tau (or “Mother of Lions” as the Jouberts refer to her) will tenaciously fight to protect her cubs—the last of her pride. Avoiding human settlements, their biggest concern is a rival pride led by “Silver Eye,” an aggressive, battle-scarred lioness. Of course, food is also a pressing issue. Unfortunately, the neighboring buffalo herd constitutes decidedly dangerous game.

While the law of the jungle is clearly brutish and unforgiving, the filmmakers also capture its rough beauty. It is amazing what director-cinematographer Dereck Joubert was able to capture on film, with up-close-and-personal intimacy. Through his lens, viewers also witness atypical behavior for lions born of desperation, as Ma di Tau and her cubs reluctantly swim out to Duba Island to escape Silver Eye and her fellow huntresses.

Though the Jouberts convey a vivid sense of the animals’ personalities and emotions, actor Jeremy Irons’ narration is a tad overblown, approaching the hyped-up tenor of NFL Films’ voice-overs: “but for Ma di Tau, there would come another day.” Even if it is corny at times, it all works together rather effectively as Joubert’s striking visuals and Irons’ silky tones rally viewer sympathy for Ma di Tau and her cubs.

This is the natural world. Not to drop any spoilers, but parents should be aware, getting emotionally attached during the PG-rated Last Lions might lead to some disappointment for younger viewers. Adults however, should appreciate the Jouberts’ editorial integrity. Yet, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film is watching the lions locked in mortal combat, even though it does not serve the overall interests of their dwindling species. Tragically, the territorial imperative is simply too deeply ingrained.

Of course, the filmmakers hasten to add viewers can help, including a pitch for the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative just as the concluding credits role. While not exactly subtle, it hardly detracts from an impressive work of nature filmmaking. Far surpassing PBS programming, Last Lions is engaging look at a powerful but endangered species, recommended for animal watchers when it opens in New York this Friday (2/18) at the Angelika Film Center.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Detroit Story: Vanishing on 7th Street

Having driven out all local industry, perhaps Detroit has finally found its place in the world economy. Evidently, the depressed city is suitably creepy locale to film a horror movie. While the city is disappearing in real life, supernatural forces hasten the process in Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a film projectionist, Paul is used to working in the dark. An avid reader of the occult and unexplained, he happened to be skimming the story of the lost Roanoke Colony when nearly every living soul in his multiplex disappears. We quickly surmise his miner’s light saved his life. The darkness is rising, consuming any living being not protected by a light source. Somehow, Paul and a handful of survivors make their way to Sonny’s, a local dive with its own generator and a jukebox stocked with some hip soul jazz and old school R&B.

Even if Vanishing did not establish Luke had just left his wife for a shallow TV anchor, we would know he is a morally flexible punk, because he is played by Hayden Christensen. Not exactly an altruist, there is considerable friction between him and James, a sensitive adolescent nervously awaiting a mother who clearly is not coming back. Instinctively drawn to the young boy, Rosemary is a doctor with a host of emotional issues further acerbated by the current crisis. Together, they must keep the darkness at bay, even though, in a bit of a cheat on the film’s part, the laws of nature seem to be bending to the otherworldly force.

While good villains are really essential to genre pictures, Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz effectively compensate with the malevolent creeping darkness, masterfully setting the eerie mood and tone. Vanishing features a number of smart touches, including the Roanoke references and the appearance of cult horror actor-director Larry Fessenden as an ill fated bike messenger. Wisely, Anderson never reveals too much, maintaining a sense mystery regarding the evil forces at work. However, genre purists will be frustrated by the film’s refusal to play by a consistent set of rules, as well as the rather ridiculous ending.

Perfectly cast as Paul, John Leguizamo nicely conveys both earnest geekiness and desperate fear. Though he has played this part before, Christensen once again makes a convincing jerk. Saddled with a rather melodramatic character whose lack of assertiveness might be problematic to some, Thandie Newton does what she can as Rosemary.

A disciplined, mostly cool excursion into apocalyptic horror, Vanishing smartly works within its constraints. If not another Night of the Comet, it should certainly hold considerable cult appeal when it opens this Friday (2/18) at the Village East.

Spanish Guilt: Even the Rain

Whether from Hollywood or Spain, movie people can be counted on for hypocrisy and pretension. The indigenous population of Bolivia immediately learns this when a Spanish crew arrives to film a historical epic on the cheap in Iciar Bollain’s didactic yet strangely engaging Even the Rain (trailer here), Spain’s shortlisted official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Friday in New York.

Envisioning a searing indictment of colonial exploitation, Sebastián’s politicized biopic will basically be like every other Christopher Columbus film, except it will be produced on a shoestring budget. To stretch their funds, his producer Costa arranged to shoot in Bolivia, where the indigenous extras will earn only two dollars a day. The obvious irony is largely, but not entirely lost on the cast and crew.

Contrary to Costa’s better judgment, the director casts Daniel, a local leader of the restive indigenous proletariat in a critical supporting role in the film. Much to the producer’s alarm, the uprising of Sebastián’s film-in-progress increasingly parallels the burgeoning 2000 Cochabamba protests against the foreign-owned water utility, which charges exorbitant rates while supposedly even prohibiting locals from collecting rain water.

Never subtle, Rain tips its hand right away with a dedication to leftist pop “historian” Howard Zinn. Greed is bad we are told in no uncertain terms. (The fact that Cochabamba’s access to water is arguably worse under the Morales regime than before the 2000 demonstrations is a mere detail not worth mentioning.) Yet, the film’s fervor and sprawling messiness turn out to be considerable virtues.

In fact, the heroes of Sebastián’s prospective film are Bartolome de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos, early critics of Spanish brutality, who also happened to be Catholic priests. Screenwriter Paul Laverty (a frequent collaborator with Ken Loach, which also says quite a bit) captures the radical impulse to savage well-intentioned liberalism for lack of ideological purity, personified unlikely enough by the production’s embittered (and often drunk) star Antón. Yet, perhaps Rain’s greatest irony is that it is not Sebastian, the passionate artist, who has an awakening of conscience, but Costa, the money man (a rare display of screen love for producers).

Bollain has talent for staging big scenes, like riots and the arresting sight of Sebastián’s massive cross winging its way through the Andes via chopper. She also allows the film-within-the-film to intrude on the action in intriguing ways. However, it is Luis Tosar who truly powers Rain as Costa. Viscerally intense and realistically contradictory, he blows his more internationally renowned co-star off the screen.

Though perfectly fine, Gael García Bernal’s Sebastián is not unlike the driven directors seen in other movie-making dramas. However, Karra Elejalde steals nearly each of his scenes as the profoundly cynical Antón. Just like his character, he demonstrates a flair for barbed dialogue. Bollain also elicits some rather remarkable performances from her nonprofessional Bolivian cast, including memorable turns from Juan Carlos Aduviri and Milena Soliz, as Daniel and his daughter Belén, respectively.

Rain is the best in-your-face leftist film since Paolo Sorrentino’s bravura Il Divo. Though shortlisted, Oscar somehow passed over Bollain’s film when the nominations were announced. Frankly, it is a better film, political warts-and-all, than several of the final nominees. Absolutely worth seeing as film (but not necessarily as civics), Rain opens this Friday (2/18) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Kashmiri Indie: Zero Bridge

For now, Zero Bridge still stands in Srinagar, Kashmir. Such infrastructure if often targeted during times of war. If not exactly a battle zone, Indian-controlled Kashmir is hardly a peaceful region, but the constant din of terrorism is merely background noise for two young dissatisfied Kashmiris in American-born Tariq Tapa’s Zero Bridge (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the Film Forum.

As a central landmark and the main artery out of town, Zero Bridge is a natural meeting point. It is also a security concern, which is why an undercover copper rousts the teenaged Dilawar as he waits there for his dodgy associate. Rather than terrorism, Dilawar tries apprenticing himself to a small time thief, but quickly gets pinched after their first job. Following a brief stretch behind bars, karma throws him another surprise when he comes face to face with his oblivious first victim.

Somewhat older but very attractive, Bani Sheikh works at the shipping office where Dilawar must pick-up his Uncle Ali’s construction contracts. Though he is far from charming, the American-educated Sheikh takes Dilawar under her wing, at least to an extent. He is a hard kid to love, but he seems to have his reasons. Essentially banished by his ostensive parents, Zero never fully explains the dynamics of his family, but implies enough to forgive much of Dilawar’s petulance. Perhaps Sheikh sees something of a kindred spirit in him. Unlike both their dysfunctional families, neither wishes to settle for things as they are. Of course, as a Muslim society, Kashmir does not offer her much say in the matter.

Zero is a film that intentionally de-emphasizes the violent climate of Kashmir, yet it remains inescapable nonetheless, directly contributing to the paucity of opportunities for younger generations. Reportedly the first feature film in forty years to be shot entirely in Kashmir, Zero evokes a sense of place, but it is far from flattering. Dingy, depressed, and even a little kitschy, it hardly looks like it is worth fighting for.

While Tapa’s story is small in scope and his cast consists entirely of nonprofessional actors, it should not be dismissed as Kashmiri mumblecore. Things really do happen in the film, with Tapa very deliberately leading viewers to a certain point. Yet, the modest nature of the film becomes almost frustrating, as Tapa takes viewers all the way to one of the touchiest flashpoints in the world, just to show them an uncle and nephew arguing.

Mohamad Emran Tapa expresses teen-aged angst nearly as well as anyone on film since Katie Jarvis blew the doors off Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Yet, it is Taniya Khan, smart and vulnerable as Sheikh, who shows real star power in Zero. If not precisely charismatic, Ali Muhammed Dar (a mason by trade, just like his character) looks like the real salt of Kashmir’s earth, coming across completely natural and unaffected as he struggles with his difficult nephew.

Although Zero’s up-close intimate focus might tire some viewers, it is ultimately quite an accomplished debut from Tapa and his principle cast. Indeed, one can only be intrigued at the prospect of future projects from Tapa addressing Kashmir’s culture and politics more directly. Small but worthy of notice, Zero opens this Wednesday (2/16) at Film Forum, with Tapa appearing in person for select evening screenings through Saturday (2/19).

Family Dinner: We Are What We Are

Call them sullen and sullener. It is not surprising brothers Alfredo and Julián have issues, considering their extreme family environment. Their father has a taste for prostitutes. As a result, they have no doubt eaten quite a few themselves in Jorge Michel Grau’s grisly social commentary We Are What We Are (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The sensitive Alfredo is the eldest son of a family of Mexico City cannibals. His father is a reprobate who wastes whatever money he earns fixing watches on prostitutes. At least he has always brought home fresh victims for their cannibalistic “rituals.” Unfortunately, that reckless lifestyle catches up to dear old dad, as he fatally coughs up his guts in the film’s disconcerting early scenes. This leaves a power vacuum within the family. However, they have a more pressing need: fresh meat for the next ritual. (Evidently, simply buying some raw hamburger at the store is out of the question.)

In truth, the warped family dynamics of WAWWA are nearly as harrowing as the cannibalism. The shrewish mother has made everyone miserable with her jealousy and resentments. Brother Julián has major anger management issues. By contrast, Alfredo is a classic case of an under-developed personality, who may or may not be a closeted homosexual. Keep your eye on sister Sabina, though. She is a master manipulator.

Grau viscerally conveys the abject meanness of the family’s circumstances as well as the predatory corruption of contemporary Mexico, without ameliorating the horror of what the family does. Indeed, Grau’s angry depiction of lazy, venal cops feels a bit tacked on compared to the deeply disturbed and disturbing family drama. In fact, the class consciousness is rather clumsy at times, but the macabre and claustrophobic atmosphere of the family home, brimming with ticking clocks perfect for getting under one’s skin (courtesy of design team Aleajandro García and Sandra Flores), keeps the film on its genre track.

Paulina Gaitán is scary good as Sabina. As Alfredo, Francisco Barreiro’s slow burn is quite slow indeed, but he still has some effective moments, whereas Alan Chávez brings a real “angry young cannibal” presence to the screen as Julián.

While Grau starts WAWWA at a deliberate art-house pace, he subtly cranks up the tension, steadily pulling viewers into this dark and remorseless world. Grungy and twisted, is one of the creepier indie genre films of the year. Most definitely not to all tastes, it never shies away from its subject matter. Recommended for the bold, it opens this Friday (1/18) in New York at the IFC Center.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Zen and Its Opposite: The Sword of Doom

Swords do not kill people, ronin (masterless samurai) do—a whole lot of people, in fact. Yet, some believe it is the inherent qualities of the sword (or the fighting style) that makes the swordsman, for good or for bad, in Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, which screens this Friday as the conclusion of the Japan Society’s Zen & Its Opposite film series exploring the darker side of Zen Buddhism.

Stopping at a Buddhist shrine, an elderly pilgrim prays for death in a general “deliver me home” sort of way. Much to his surprise a stealthy ronin, answers his call, from behind and without mercy. Hardly compatible with the bushido code, it will lead to some bad karma for the killer, Ryunosuke Tsukue. While the old man’s murder has no apparent motive beyond Tsukue’s sociopathic tendencies, there will plenty of reason for his next killing. Tsukue has an exhibition bout, relatively meaningless for him but critical for his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki, an aspiring master. However, Tsukue uses the circumstances to corrupt Utsuki’s wife, Ohama. In a fit of jealousy, Tsukue’s opponent turns their contest into a death match, giving Tsukue a perfectly valid excuse to kill.

Of course, Utsuki has many friends, whose bodies quickly litter the road out of town. Somehow though, Ohama becomes his common law wife, an arrangement that makes them both miserable. It is just an inkling of what fate has in store for Tsukue and those around him. Indeed, Tsukue is troubled by the matter of Utsuki’s younger brother, a student of Shimada, a master fencer so heavy he could only be played by Toshirō Mifune.

Doom might be considered high art cinema, but there is enough hack-and-slash action to make a fanboy swoon. Even for more upscale Jidaigeki (Edo era costume drama) enthusiasts, watching Mifune (in a relatively small part) and Tatsuya Nakadai lining up on opposites sides of some grand conflict is a pretty foolproof premise (coming after Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, but before Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion). Intended as the first (and ultimately only) installment in a projected series of films adapting Kaizan Nakazato’s serial novel, Doom is somewhat notorious for its inconclusive freeze-frame ending. Still, what it lacks in closure it makes up for in manic bloodlust. Hinting at the supernatural, Okamoto’s visually stylish climax bears comparison with that of Welles’ Lady from Shanghai.

Nakadai plays Tsukue so stone-cold, he is practically the anti-Christ. Likewise, Mifune is all business as Shimada. In a welcome contrast, Yôko Naitô is believably sweet and endearing as Omatsu, the orphaned granddaughter of the ill-fated pilgrim. Adding memorable color and ambiguity, Kô Nishimura keeps viewers consistently off-balance as Omatsu’s mysterious “Uncle” Shichibei.

Frankly, Doom offers the best of both movie worlds, carrying the Janus Films/Criterion Collection seal of approval, while delivering several scenes of lone swordsmen standing amid mountains of their vanquished foes. What’s not to like? Thoroughly entertaining, Doom screens in all its black-and-white glory this Friday (2/18) at the Japan Society.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Brainwave 2011: The Edge of Dreaming

It sounds like a good premise for a horror movie, but it is actually the basis for a very personal documentary. After dreaming of the death of her family’s beloved horse George, Amy Hardie awoke to discover he really had passed away in such manner. Shortly thereafter, she had a prophetic dream warning her she would die when she was forty-eight, mere days before her forty-eighth birthday. Major bummer. Understandably, this spurred an intense interest in the nature of dreams that precipitated Hardie’s impressionistic documentary The Edge of Dreaming (trailer here), which launches its New York theatrical run this coming Wednesday as part of the Rubin Museum of Art’s new Brainwave 2011 programming series.

At nearly forty-eight, the Scottish Hardie has much to live for. Happily married with three children (one from a previous marriage), Hardie had a successful (or at least busy) career making scientific films. She was not exactly the woo-woo type. Yet, when her late ex-husband appeared in a dream to warn of her impending mortality, it disconcerted Hardie, especially since she had already witnessed poor George’s passing in a similar nocturnal vision. Naturally, as a filmmaker, she set about documenting what might be her final year on Earth. Despite the spookiness of it all, the Hardie and her family go on with their lives, until she is stricken with a degenerative lung condition, seemingly on-cue.

While there is a certain amount of New Aginess (a Brazilian shaman turns up for the third act), Edge’s Jungian underpinnings take the film in some interesting directions. Hardie’s husband and children are also smarter and more engaging than the documentary-industry standard. Frankly, considering how much of their private lives Hardie filmed (or later recreated), one wonders if their patience had no limits.

Nicely constructed, primary editor Ling Lee poetically assembled Hardie’s disparate visuals, while Jim Sutherland’s underscoring themes are evocative, yet soothing. Though the director-DIY cinematographer has a keen sense of imagery, there are far too many scenes of pens scribbling deep thoughts on the pages of Hardie’s journal and the like, adding extraneous padding to the film.

If Edge sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps you are a regular viewer of PBS’s POV, which recently broadcasted Hardie’s film during its 2010 season. While the timing of its New York theatrical run is a bit unconventional, it certainly fits the Rubin’s Brainwave programming theme. In fact, the Learning Access style dreaming workshops Hardie will lead at the Rubin in conjunction with the screenings will probably be of greater interest to Edge’s target audience. (However, the mere fact that they are happening constitutes a rather obvious spoiler for the film.) Sharper and more artful than typical documentary excursions into the mystical, Edge will still be best appreciated by viewers who own at least one dream dictionary. It screens at the Rubin on February 16th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, and 26th.