Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Low Lights

As a year-end insult, film sites are eagerly reporting the VOD-destined horror movie Playback is the lowest grossing film of 2012, raking in a paltry $264.  There is no secret to its anemic performance, having only been released for one week on one screen, with no promotional fanfare.  It is not very good either, but there were far worse stink-bombs released in theaters this year, some of which were torturously defended by critics who should have known better.  Meriting a solid D, Michael A. Nickles’ Playback (trailer here) is considerably more entertaining and accomplished than Dustin Lance Black’s Virginia, Benjamin Dickinson’s First Winter, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, and Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, 2012’s absolute low points.

Arguably, Black’s Virginia is the single worst film of the year, but it seems almost unfair to single it out.  After all, Black recognized how bad it was when it screened at Toronto and tried to fix it.  It didn’t work, but at least he made the attempt.  Next time he ought to start with a real story rather than merely lashing out at the Mormon Church of his youth.

Filled with endless scenes of urination, defecation, and disturbingly rough sex, The Paperboy is just a lurid sweaty mess.  A showcase for horrendous overacting, it deserves a long life on the Rifftrax circuit.  Indeed, many of the cartoonish characters seem like they ought to have serious issues with wire hangers.

Red Hook would have been painfully predictable and clichéd had it been released in the early 1990’s.  A tiresome attack on the Church and gentrification, RHS might well slow down the latter since it makes the Brooklyn neighbor look profoundly un-neighborly.

First Winter is pointlessly meandering hipster melodrama.

Comparatively speaking, Playback is impressively middling fare.  It starts with a gory buzz-killing opening, apparently choreographed to defy all common sense.  For some reason, notorious family killer Harlan Diehl had a thing about video-taping his crimes.   Playback appears to follow in the V/H/S tradition, but instead of telling five creepy stories, it tells one crummy one.  It also mercifully ditches the camcorder POV in the present day, for the most part.

Filming re-enactments of the Diehl murders as part of an ill-conceived journalism class project, Julian Miller becomes obsessed with the case. Eventually, he learns Diehl was a descendant of pioneering French filmmaker Louis Le Prince, whom his video store boss tells us was rumored to be Satan himself (Louis Le Prince = Lucifer Prince of Darkness).  As half-baked premises go, that’s not bad, but Nickles just lets it wither on the vine.  Instead, we see scene after scene of Quinn, a loser working for the local TV station, maliciously loading gear, apparently under the sway of Le Prince’s possession.

As Quinn, Toby Hemingway seems determined to do the world’s worst Johnny Depp impression.  Speaking of shtickiness, Christian Slater is also on-hand (indeed, he is taking the brunt of the media coverage) as Officer Frank Lyons, a cop paying Quinn for flash-drives of video recorded in the high school girls’ shower room.  Yes, how the mediocre have fallen.  On the plus side, Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer in Animal House) has a few decent scenes as former reporter Chris Safford.

In truth, the rest of the cast is reasonably adequate as the dead horny teenagers.  However, there is absolutely no underlying logic to the supernatural goings on.  Essentially, Playback is a run-of-the-mill rip-off of The Ring, but it is relatively honest about that.  As a result, it stands taller than 2012’s more heralded quartet of shame.  It is now available on VOD and streams on Netflix.  There were plenty of films worth celebrating in 2012 as well.  To revisit some, check out my year’s best over at Criticwire.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Downton Abbey, Season 3

It is the moment viewers have been waiting for, but anyone who expects an easy trip down the altar for Cousin Matthew and Lady Mary has another thing coming.  With the war over, the Granthams have plenty of milestones ahead, including weddings, babies, and even a funeral.  Rest assured, there will also be plenty of scandal when season three of Downton Abbey kicks off the New Year in style next Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece (promo here).

Just as the future of Downton seems secure, the Earl receives dire financial news.  Yet, Matthew Crawley might be able to save Downton yet again, if his scruples will allow it.  His moral dilemma will cause his cause friction with Lady Mary on the eve of the ceremony—just like old times.  While the presence of Lady Sybil and her husband, the former chauffeur, is also slightly awkward, the family slowly warms to him over the course of season three.  Slowly, “Branson” becomes “Tom,” without terribly compromising his Irish Republican ideals.

This would seem to be the season for wallflower sister Lady Edith to come into her own, but her wretched luck continues unabated.  Yet, arguably it is the Earl who has the worst of it in the post-war years, spending the better part of this season apologizing.  At least, Thomas, the slimy acting valet, will get his comeuppance, perhaps once and for all.  Yet, it is the efforts of modest house-maid Anna Bates to clear that name of her wrongly convicted husband that appear most likely to bring some good news to Downton.  It will all culminate with a return to a tradition suspended during the war when the Crawleys once again spend Christmas in the Scottish highlands.

In the third season, some cast-members evidently began to tire of Downton or perhaps asked for more money, which means curtains for some apparently hale and hearty characters.  Of course, new characters will also be introduced, but the overly hyped arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Lady Mary’s fabulously wealthy American grandmother never delivers the anticipated sparks.  Still, Dame Maggie Smith remains the wonderfully tart force of nature, firmly maintaining decorum as the imperious Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess.

Julian Fellowes’ writing is a razor-sharp as ever, particularly the zingers he saves for Lady Violet.  However, fans might be surprised by the more tragic tone of season three, even compared to the WWI years of season two.  Nonetheless, all the elements that made the show a phenomenon are still present.  Jim Carter is still a deeply sympathetic bulwark of social conservatism as Mr. Carson, the Butler.  Michelle Dockery and Dan Evans nicely the develop Matthew and Mary’s stormy chemistry into a mature, believable marriage.  Even if her Lady Edith is stuck under a cloud of misfortune, Laura Carmichael has her best moments in the show this season, hardening and humanizing what has been one of the series’ least defined, most unpopular characters.

There is always hope for the future at Downton.  Indeed, a season four is already in the works, albeit without a familiar face here and there.  Still the best written show on television and the only one co-starring Maggie Smith, season three of Downton Abbey is enthusiastically recommended when it begins next Sunday (1/6) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Dro-oo-od on Broadway

They are not booing, they are chanting “Drood.”  Spectators are immediately asked to join in and hold that “o” whenever the title character is mentioned on-stage.  Incorporating audience participation in the tradition of Rand’s Night of January 16th, patrons will decide who the issue of guilt, but nobody is really innocent in the Roundabout Theater Company’s randy revival of Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, now running on Broadway (promo here).

Staged as the latest production of a Victorian theater company, the first act more or less follows Dickens’ unfinished novel and previous Masterpiece and Universal adaptations.  Dro-oo-od is the entitled orphan nephew of his guardian, John Jasper, a secretly drug-addicted provincial choirmaster.  Jasper is not so furtively obsessed with Rosa Bud, who was betrothed to Dro-oo-od in their childhoods.  To deal with his ghosts, Jasper frequents the London opium den operated by the Princess Puffer, a mere old crone in most renditions, elevated in stature on-stage to accommodate a Broadway diva like Chita Rivera, or in the case of the Roundabout’s revival, exactly like Rivera.

Before long, Dro-oo-od will disappear and suspicion will fall on his newly arrived rival, Neville Landless.  However, theater company chairman William Cartwright, serving as master of ceremonies and reluctantly stepping into the role of Mayor Sapsea, will give the audience a chance to “elect” the murderer for the evening, whether their choice makes sense or not.

With its meta-play-within-a-play concept, Drood the musical is not unlike the recently hyped Anna Karenina.  Yet, the device works better here, probably because nobody takes it very seriously.  Arguably, Holmes’ gimmick was also more original when it debuted on Broadway in 1985, the same year Oliveira’s Satin Slipper was released.

In truth, Drood the musical can never harbor many pretensions, aside from expressing a bit of Dickens love, which is jolly fair enough.  It is simply a chance for the cast to unleash their inner mustache-twisting villains and vamps.  Jim Norton, the distinguished co-star of many Conor McPherson Broadway productions and his exceptional film The Eclipse, combines ham with dry wit to excellent effect as the Chairman.  The Princess Puffer is not a natural fit for Rivera, but at least it is a chance to see the Broadway superstar in her element.  Nor can the pleasure of the unapologetically colorful turns from Will Chase as the dastardly Jasper and Jessie Mueller as Landless’s femme fatale twin be denied.

Ironically, the weak link of the musical Drood are Holmes not particularly memorable tunes.  Still, “Perfect Strangers” is an appealing enough love song.  However, the second act reprise became truly high farce last Saturday, due to eccentric choices made by the audience that would take too long to explain.  (Evidently, the Devil really gets into New Yorkers during the holidays.)

Appropriately returning to Broadway during the Dickens bicentennial, the hard-working, highly likable Drood represents a fresh holiday alternative to yet another Christmas Carol.  The audience outreach is clever without becoming intrusive (unless you’re asking for it in the front row) and the performances are uniformly energetic.  Recommended for those who enjoy broad musical comedy with a literary veneer, The Mystery of Edwin Drood runs on Broadway until March 10th at the Studio 54.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Miike Did It First: Sukiyaki Western Django

You would think from the critical response Tarantino practically invented both Spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation in Django Unchained.  Yet, he is hardly the first director to pay tribute to Corbucci’s Django.  Takeshi Miike staked out some pretty eccentric homage territory first with Sukiyaki Western Django (trailer here), a film Tarantino must be aware of, since he appears in it.  In fact, he stinks up the joint with an excruciatingly shticky too-big-to-be-a-cameo supporting turn.  Perhaps that is why his amen chorus has doggedly ignored such an obvious comparison film.  We don’t play favorites here, especially when Miike’s flawed SWD is so doggone interesting and readily available on DVD.

Throughout SWD, Miike cranks up the action somewhere between a cartoon and a video game, with stuff flying through the air and characters occasionally blowing holes through each other big enough to stick your arm through.  Hideaki Ito is the archetypal man with no name, who swaggers into town, finding his skills sought after by the rival Genji (white) and Heike (red) clans—essentially returning A Fistful of Dollars back to its Yojimbo roots.  Listening to offers but staying non-committal, the gunslinger cools his heels at the Soba house run by Ruriki.  For the record, a Gatling gun does indeed turn up.

Red and white briefly mixed to pink when Ruriki’s son married Shizuka.  However, when her husband was killed by his own clan, Shizuka took dubious refuge with the Genji, where she most definitely catches the lone gunslinger’s eye.  While SWD is mostly a testosterone driven action movie, its most interesting performances come from women.  Yoshino Kimura is both seductive and emotionally nuanced as “the temptress” Shizuka.  Kaori Momoi (previously seen it films like Memoirs of a Geisha and Kurosawa’s Kagemusha) steals the show as Ruriki, who turns out to be more of an action hero than the wooden gunslinger.

Some of the men do not fare so well, from an aesthetic perspective.  Shocking absolutely nobody, the worst performance comes from Quentin Tarantino, who seems convinced audiences want to see he camp it up and go completely over the top.  We don’t.  This is totally annoying Destiny Turns on the Radio Tarantino, not the somewhat sufferable Pulp Fiction Tarantino.  When he is on-screen, things come to a screeching halt—quite an achievement given the hyper-kinetic energy Miike infuses into the proceedings.

Miike goes for whacked-out gonzo action and largely succeeds, thanks to the ultra-cool Momoi and a dance number from Kimura that alone is worth the price of admission.  However, the film has a mean streak that somewhat dampens enthusiasm.  Cruelty and physical humor go hand-in-hand in SWD, and often makes an uneasy fit, just as in Unchained.  It has wild look (including some costumes that would not have been out of place in a Liberace stage show) and a bizarre vibe, partly due to the actors’ deliberately unnatural sounding phonetic English.  An occasional subtitle might have helped.

Takashi Miike is the ultimate cult director, so SWD should be red meat for his fans.  The rest of us mere mortals will likely to find it wildly uneven, but never dull.  It would be about on par with Django Unchained were it not for . . . Tarantino.  Recommended for Miike admirers and those who sorely in need of perspective on Unchained, Sukiyaki Western Django is available on DVD from most online retailers.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Call the Midwife: An East End Christmas

The nuns and medical professionals of Nonnatus House are used to surprise pregnancies, so you could say Christmas has special significance for them.  Yet, they are still taken aback by the package left on their doorstep.  The hit PBS-BBC series Call the Midwife delivers a special holiday helping of faith and sentiment in the Christmas special edition, screening this Sunday, just in time for Boxing Day, on most PBS outlets nationwide (promo here).

There is indeed a foundling left for the nuns of the East End convent-clinic.  He was not immaculately conceived.  Rather, he was secretly delivered by the plain but hard working daughter of a parish lay leader.  The infant will be fine in the nuns’ care.  The young girl is another story.

Of course, there is plenty of other drama afoot for the multi-character ensemble.  Fan favorite Nurse Chummy Browne has her hands full planning the neighborhood Christmas pageant, featuring an angel who looks suspiciously green around the gills.  Meanwhile, rookie-nurse Jenny Lee, the protagonist-narrator, is stuck paying house-calls on Mrs. Jenkins, an anti-social derelict with a bad case of the “work-house howl.”  In fact, this is the strongest subplot, giving the special an appropriately Dickensian vibe.  As usual, there will also be plenty of bike riding.

Midwife is sort of like Hallmark television for PBS viewers.  It depicts Christian virtues like faith and charity put into everyday practice in depressed 1950’s London, while promoting the welfare state expansion then underway.  The heavy-handed in-retrospect narration, courtesy of Vanessa Redgrave, is always a mistake, for multiple reasons.  However, the cast is convincingly earnest and committed.  Jessica Raine shows star quality as Lee and it is cool to see Brit TV and movie veteran Jenny Agutter light up the screen as the pious but pragmatic Sister Julienne.

Although it is no Chiller, the seventy-some minute Call the Midwife Christmas special represents safe and relatively pleasant family holiday viewing.  For dedicated series viewers, it is more of the same, except more so, given the Christmas setting.  Recommended accordingly, it airs this Sunday (12/30) on most PBS stations.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Mis: Storm the Barricades

Even viewers who have not read Victor Hugo’s novel or seen Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical know Jean Valjean spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  Such a fate is undeniably unjust, but it is important to keep in mind it was a very nice sourdough.  For years it defied cinematic adaptation, but now Tom Hooper brings the musical Les Misérables (trailer here) to the big screen, with all its bombast.  It opens today nationwide, so Merry Christmas everyone.

Distilled from Hugo’s cinderblock sized novel, Les Mis follows Valjean after he is released from prison.  He has been freed from the unyielding Javert’s lash, but the terms of his parole make him a desperate outcast.  He finds temporary refuge with the truly pious Monsignor, but he abuses the kindly cleric’s trust.  Yet much to his shock, his betrayal is met with forgiveness.

Thanks to the Monsignor, Valjean reinvents himself under an assumed identity.  He becomes a factory owner and the mayor of his hardscrabble community.  Then Javert is transferred to his jurisdiction.  For a while they circle each other warily, until Valjean confirms the copper’s suspicions to save an innocent man arrested in his place.  Thus begins his life on the run (albeit a relatively well-heeled one), with Cosette, the daughter of a tragic former employee, in tow.

Yes, this is Les Mis, a rather odd combination of Christian fellowship and proletarian solidarity.  Barricades will definitely be stormed, but at least the church is not part of the apparatus of oppression.  As the publicity campaign is quick to point out, Hooper returned to old school movie musical production techniques, recording the actors in performance live on the set, rather than have them lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks.  This allows them more in-the-moment interpretive freedom.  However, as your TV talent show judges might say: “it gets a little pitchy, dog.”  Frankly, it is hard to understand why they did not clean some of that up with Pro-Tools or a similar program.

Critical reaction to Hooper’s Les Mis is also something of spectacle, ranging from adulation to castigation.  Word that Russell Crowe was making a movie musical may have led some to fear the worst.  When Les Mis did not completely bite, many evidently concluded it must therefore be awesome.  In truth, it falls somewhere in the middle.

To be fair to Crowe, he has been unduly hammered as Javert (a small irony there), but in the story’s abbreviated stage form, his character’s actions during the third act are jarringly problematic.  Likely Oscar contender Anne Hathaway knocks “I Dreamed a Dream” out of the park, completely reclaiming the signature tune from Susan Boyle, and then promptly exits the narrative.  Hugh Jackman has the perfect presence for Valjean and his performances of “Who Am I” and “One Day More” are fairly stirring, but the show definitely peaks in the first act.  Frankly, all the third act barricade songs and revolutionary anthems just blend into a faux Internationale blur.

While Jackman, Crowe, and Hathaway meet or exceed expectations, the rest of the supporting cast is a dramatically mixed bag.  Eddie Redmayne sorely lacks romantic lead credibility as Marius, but his voice is not bad.  The real standout though is British fan favorite Samantha Barks. She is the real deal as lovesick Éponine, probably boasting the finest voice of the ensemble. 

In contrast, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen quickly become tiresome as the felonious innkeeper Thénardier and wife, the show’s ostensive comic relief.  A little of them goes a long, long, long way.  You know the Nile River?  That long.  They must have assumed they were in a Tim Burton movie when they saw the period sets and started hamming it up accordingly.  In fact, the Nineteen Century Paris recreated by the design team often looks like it was the work of the same Neo-gothic architect responsible for The Dark Knight’s Gotham, particularly when Javert compulsively paces about on high ledges.

Nonetheless, Les Mis its moments, like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “One Day More,” which might be Hooper’s best staging, utilizing the cross-cutting toolkit of music videos more than traditional movie musical production numbers.  Elements of the show, like the touching relationship between Valjean and Cosette, prove to be absolutely bullet-proof. 

Hooper and screen-adapter William Nicholson also deserve a lot of credit for not watering down the themes of faith and redemption.  Indeed, it is refreshing to see a senior man of the cloth depicted in an unambiguously virtuous manner. Oddly though, when everyone hits the barricades, it becomes something of a bore.  Recommended primarily for Les Mis devotees and diehard movie musical fans, Les Misérables opens today (12/25) across the country, including the AMC Empire in New York.  Merry Christmas and to all a good night.

Monday, December 24, 2012

When the Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Takes America

Niall Ferguson would say “I told you so.”  For centuries, Tibetan Buddhism was largely confined to the Himalayan region.  Then China invaded Tibet, precipitating an exodus of refugees.  A few decades later, Tibetan Buddhists have earned growing ranks of converts around the world.  Arguably, a bit of competition and westernization has been beneficial.  Victress Hitchcock explores the positive implications of their exile in When the Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Arrives in the West (trailer here), which appropriately screens before and after New Year’s at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

It is a rather eerie prophecy in retrospect.  In the Eighth Century, Guru Padmasambhava wrote: “When the iron bird flies and horse run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth.”  Communist China realized the prediction with the 1959 invasion.  In many ways, it was absolutely devastating to Tibetan culture, particularly during the madness of the Cultural Revolution.  Yet, Hitchcock suggests it forced one of the world’s most isolated religions into contact with entirely new nations and peoples, during the 1960’s, a period when popular western culture was widely receptive to Eastern thought.

In Iron, Hitchcock challenges our traditionally thinking on the Tibetan exile experience, suggesting it has invigorated, modernized, and spread their religious practice.  She has a real point.  If one took a survey of most American college dorms and neighborhoods, one would be far more likely to find books about Tibetan Buddhism than Mao’s Little Red Book, even in Berkeley.  That is a defendable standard of victory, but it has certainly been costly.

Iron revisits subjects of several documentaries that have played at the Rubin over the last two years, including the late E. Gene Smith’s game-changing campaign to preserve and digitize ancient Tibetan texts (fully documented in Dafna Yachin’s Digital Dharma) and Chogyam Trunpa, Rinpoche, a learned teacher who adopted a western business suit and lifestyle to popularize Tibetan Buddhism with the western counter-culture (profiled in Crazy Wisdom, directed by Johanna Demetrakas, who served as a consulting editor on Iron).

If the learned Rinpoches became evangelists out of necessity, Iron spreads the Tibetan Buddhist “gospel” with the zeal of a convert.  Hitchcock clearly hopes to convince western audiences this once exotic faith speaks directly to the times in which we live.  A little of that is all well and good, but she risks alienating the sympathetic by coming on too strong.

Still, Iron offers a fresh perspective on Tibetan Buddhism, capturing its efforts to shed centuries of male chauvinism.  It is very definitely the result of western contact, but also a reflection of the fundamental humanism of the Tibetan Buddhist establishment in exile.  Do not hold your breath waiting for similar soul searching from the Islamic world.  The wit, erudition, and humility of many exiled Tibetan leaders also help enrich Hitchcock’s portrait.  Educational and surprisingly optimistic, When the Iron Bird Flies is definitely worth checking out when visiting the Rubin, home to the world’s leading collection of Himalayan art.  It screens again this Wednesday (12/26), Saturday (12/29), and Sunday (12/30), as well as the 2nd and 23rd of January 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

In Contention: Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, largely self-financed his notorious 1960 classic, Psycho.  He picked the right film to literally bet his home on.  A spectacular success by any standard, the film that would introduce Norman Bates to the world looked like it might be his swan song during its rocky development and production stages.  Dramatizing the behind-the-scenes story of arguably his most iconic work, Sacha Gervasi’s sympathetic but bitingly witty Hitchcock (trailer here) is now in award contention for at least one and possibly two of its accomplished leads.

Hitchcock is not a story Hitch would have made.  Since we know Psycho was completed to his satisfaction and became a monster hit at the box office, there is not a lot of suspense to the tale.  However, the getting from point A to point B is quite fascinating.  As we meet Hitchcock and his patient wife Alma Reville, he is basking in the triumph of North by Northwest, which somewhat bores them both.  As a distraction, Reville starts doctoring a new spec script written by Strangers on a Train screenwriter Whitfield Cook, who is hoping she will convince Hitchcock to attach himself to it.  Of course, he has his mind set on very different property.

Based on Robert Bloch’s novel, which in turn was inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho is the sort of film no respectable studio director would think of touching.  That is exactly why Hitchcock is attracted to it.  As the closing titles remind viewers, Hitchcock never won an Academy Award (a fact that could either help or hinder the film’s own Oscar campaign).  Throughout Gervasi’s film, Hitchcock is clearly presented as a brilliant but ragingly insecure filmmaker.  Resenting his lack of recognition, Psycho is convincingly framed as an effort to make an exploitation horror movie that is vastly superior to the prestige pictures the studios released.  And so it was.

Yes, this Hitchcock is somewhat neurotic and there is no denying his eye for blondes.  Yet, John J. McLaughlin’s screen treatment is refreshingly forgiving of his foibles.  He was indeed a man of expensive tastes (taste being the most apt word), but the audience also sees Hitch and Alma puttering about the kitchen in slippers, like relatively down to earth people.

Both Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren are terrific as the first couple of suspense.  As the title auteur, Hopkins is Hitchy without getting kitschy or shticky.  Likewise, Mirren is the picture of mature sophistication as Reville.  Listening to them bantering like an old familiar couple is one of the film’s great pleasures. 

Yet, the supporting work of Toni Collette and Scarlett Johansson really fleshes out the film.  Collette’s smart, surprisingly attractive turn elevates what could easily have been the thankless role of the Hitchcock’s thankless assistant Peggy Robertson.  Beyond being a spooky dead-ringer for Janet Leigh, Johansson also has some wonderful scenes with both principles that really deepen their humanity.  While an Oscar campaign on her behalf might be pushing it, Hitchcock should definitely be on the bill for any future Johansson retrospective.

Gervasi commits a few missteps along the way, such as overplaying Hitchcock’s interior dialogues with the convicted and committed Ed Gein, perhaps hoping to throw genre diehards a bone.  Still, the film payoffs handsomely, especially for Hitchcock fans.  In fact, you could say it has a real Hollywood ending.  Deserving award consideration for the work of both Hopkins and Mirren, Hitchcock is recommended for the director’s admirers and those who enjoy films about the cinema.  It is now playing nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Django Unchained: Sorry, No Jazz Guitar Here

The real question is where’s the Gatling gun?  The nineteenth century machine gun certainly found its way into Sukiyaki Western Django, Takeshi Miike’s homage to Corbucci’s spaghetti western.  Considering the shtickiness of his supporting performance in Miike’s film, Quentin Tarantino has good reason to distinguish his Django pastiche from its predecessor.  This he surely does, re-conceiving the gritty western as a blaxploitation revenge beatdown.  Frontier justice gets a whole new look in Django Unchained (trailer here), which opens Christmas Day nationwide.

Dr. King Schultz is no ordinary dentist.  The German expat has taken up the more lucrative work of bounty hunting.  He also finds slavery appalling, so he has no qualms about liberating a slave to help him track down the Brittle Brothers, three of his former overseers who are now wanted by the law.  That slave is Django and when he teams up with Schultz, the Brittles do not stand a chance.

As everyone knows from Unchain’s media campaign, Django embraces bounty hunting because he gets paid for killing white people.  However, he and Schultz make good partners, even becoming friends.  After a profitable winter of killing outlaws, Schultz agrees to help the freeman liberate his wife, Broomhilda, who was taught German by her homesick former owner.  Unfortunately, she was recently purchased by Calvin Candie, the master of the notorious Candyland plantation.  A bit of subterfuge will be required to buy Broomhilda’s freedom, but Shultz has a suitably dubious plan. 

They will masquerade as a prospective slave fight promoter and his free “Mandingo” advisor looking to buy one of Candie’s brawlers.  Of course, the white racists of Candyland have trouble dealing with Django on civil terms, but the promise of Schultz’s cash keeps them temporarily in check.  Unfortunately, Stephen (as in Fetchit?), the head house slave is instantly suspicious of Django and his partner.

The weird racial undercurrents detectable in Tarantino’s previous films build into a tidal wave in Unchained.  On the surface, it is a scathing indictment of the antebellum era Deep South.  There will be retribution of Biblical proportions, carried out in some of the best choreographed shoot-outs since John Woo’s Hard Boiled.  However, before justice is served, Tarantino will thoroughly objectify African Americans, both men and women, and unleash a blizzard of racial epithets.  Yet, he will largely get away with it because of the film’s ostensibly politically correct sense of moral outrage.

When watching Unchained, one gets a sense Schultz and Candie represent two sides of the auteur’s persona.  Schultz is the white trickster he wants to be, finding acceptance from African Americans through social conscience and hipster sensibilities.  Yet, if you peaked into the dark recesses of his subconscious, one might find fantasies of the master, slinking off to the slave quarters late at night.

While he looks a bit like Christopher Guest, Christoph Waltz thoroughly dominates the film as Schultz.  Conveying a charismatic sense of danger, he is the only character who consistently surprises viewers, while serving as the film’s figure of tolerance.  Waltz also has the perfect flair for Tarantino’s dialogue, which is razor sharp as ever.  In fact, the period setting is something of a blessing, forcing him to avoid ironic pop culture references.

Jamie Foxx is appropriately flinty when going toe-to-toe with his racist antagonists, but lacks Waltz’s dynamic screen presence.  Cruel but disturbingly subservient, Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is one of the most distinctive villains of the year.  Yet, on some level, it is oddly problematic that Unchained invites the most scorn for an African American character.  Conversely, Leonardo DiCaprio and his pasted on mustache are simply ridiculous as Candie.  Completely lacking gravitas or menace, he looks like he should have a surf board under his arm rather than a whip.

Tarantino delivers some spectacular mayhem and some wickedly clever lines.  Still, there is a leering tone to the film that feels wrong when the bullets are not flying.  Regardless, there is enough attitude and inventive bloodshed to satisfy the filmmaker’s fans, as well as a cool cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero, but the running time of one hundred sixty-some minutes is just excessive. By comparison, Corbucci's Django kills just about as many people in nearly half the time. Recommended strictly for connoisseurs of more violent exploitation films and spaghetti westerns, Django Unchained opens wide this Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Original Django, Accept No Substitutes

Italian spaghetti western maestro Sergio Corbucci only helmed one official sequel to his classic 1966 western gundown Django, but scores of scruffy bootleg Django follow-ups were produced.  In fact, they keep on coming, don’t they?  None of them, including the recent homages from Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino cannot hold a cigarillo to Corbucci’s original Django (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at Film Forum.

A stone cold killer comes to town wearing Union Blue and dragging a coffin.  Much mayhem ensues.  Basically, that is what the film boils down to.  Like A Fistful of Dollars, there is an element of Yojimbo in Django, turning the title character loose in a town embroiled in a war between Maj. Jackson’s ex-Confederate white supremacists and a band of Mexican revolutionaries (who all look more or less the same), but attitude and action are more important than plot, per se.

Temporarily Django throws in his lot with his old associate, “General” Hugo Rodriguez, but that is only because he needs a few men to stage a daring gold heist from the Mexican army depot just across the border.  He also holds a mysterious grudge against Jackson, whom he saves killing for last.  Along the way, he rescues a fallen woman who duly falls for Django, but he is not really at a place in his life where he is looking for a serious relationship.

Notoriously violent in its day, Corbucci’s Django does not seem so shocking at a time when the Weinsteins will release Tarantino’s pseudo-reboot on Christmas Day (regardless of the unforeseeable national tragedy).  However, its body count is still impressive.  Django’s action scenes are not really shootouts, they are massacres.  After all, that casket holds a heck of an equalizer, courtesy of Mr. Richard Gatling.

In a career defining role, Franco Nero is all kinds of steely badness as Django.  There is something deeply existential about his presence, yet he is strictly business when it counts.  Eduardo Fajardo is also thoroughly despicable as Jackson, providing the anti-hero with a worthy antagonist. 

Frankly, some of the details do not make a lot of sense, like the racist Klansman Jackson being buddy-buddy with the Mexican army.  At times, extras literally walk into the line of Gatling gunfire, which is awfully convenient of them.  Yet, the metaphorically muddy environment and gritty action more than compensate for any pedantic grousing.  Plus, it is truly impossible to watch Django and not hum the iconic theme song in your head for several days afterward. 

Alex Cox suggests Django’s name is indeed a reference to the great Roma jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, in a way that would be spoilerish to explain.  If so, it adds another layer of cult weirdness to the film.  Regardless, Django delivers enough unrepentant action to satisfy any genre fan.  An essential Italian western, Corbucci’s 1966 original is the Django to see when it opens tomorrow (12/21) at Film Forum.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Memo to the Academy: Nina Hoss in Barbara

Intimacy is based on trust, so is it ever really possible in police state like the Soviet-era East Germany?  Obviously, that is not the Stasi’s problem.  They are out to do everything possible to isolate and demoralize a dissident doctor.  Yet, in spite of her better judgment, she will develop ambiguously complicated feelings for her minder in Christian Petzold’s Barbara (trailer here), Germany’s official best foreign language Academy Award submission, which opens this Friday in New York.

As soon as Dr. Barbara Wolff applied for an exit visa, her brilliant career was effectively over.  Transferred from a prestigious East Berlin hospital to a provincial backwater, Dr. Wolff is all too aware of the eyes on her.  The most obvious set belongs to Andre, Barbara’s ostensive supervisor, whose role as the designated Stasi snitch is an open secret.  He has a surprisingly convincing good guy act though and he genuinely seems to care about their patients, particularly Mario, a young man suffering from a mysterious head trauma that defies diagnosis.  Yet, the case that resonates deepest with Dr. Wolff is that of Stella, a recaptured prison camp escapee suffering from meningitis.

Wolff is not inclined to meekly submit to the Stasi’s mounting harassment.  Having hatched an escape plan with her West German lover, she believes her time in East Germany is limited, which is why she is so surprised by her growing attraction to Andre and her emotional investment in their patients.

Barbara has been described as Petzold’s response to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant The Lives of Others.  That is true to an extent, but not in a polemical sense.  There is no nostalgia here for the Honecker regime, let alone a defense.  Petzold’s parents made the flight to freedom Dr. Wolff is anticipating, so he is understandably sensitive to the everyday tribulations endured by East Germans.  Indeed, the film is best at conveying the guarded nature required for even the most prosaic of conversations and the jarring sound of that dreaded knock in the night.

Barbara Wolff easily represents Nina Hoss’s best performance to reach our shores.  Outwardly diffident but profoundly uneasy beneath her facade, the good doctor might be the best woman’s lead role of the year (and most years prior).  It is a tricky proposition to convey her character’s roiling inner turmoil as well as her concerted efforts masking it from the world, but Hoss pulls it off remarkably.  It demands a full scale Oscar campaign.  Former East German Ronald Zehrfield also helps complicate audiences’ emotional responses as the flawed but perhaps still idealistic Andre, who might also be a victim himself, in that manner unique to captive citizens of police states.

Exercising a masterful control of mood and ambient sound, Petzold vividly recreates a sense of life in the GDR, in all its oppressive austerity.  It is a lean, tense narrative, yet Petzold derives much of the suspense from within his characters rather than through external cloak-and-daggering.  A very accomplished film featuring Oscar-worthy work from Hoss, Barbara is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (12/21) in New York downtown at the Angelika Film Center and uptown at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Dickens at MoMA: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Ned is dead—apparently.  Unfortunately, his creator, Charles Dickens, also died before he could reveal both the location of young Drood’s body and the identity of his murderer.  It has become a literary guessing game performed on stage and screen, including the current Broadway revival and a BBC production recently seen on Masterpiece Mystery.  Somewhat underappreciated, Stuart Walker’s 1935 adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood kicks off MoMA’s Dickens on Film series tomorrow, in celebration of the Dickens centennial.

John Jasper seems to be a mild mannered provincial choirmaster, but he knows his way about London’s opium dens.  He is a profoundly flawed man, but his affection for his ward, Edwin (or Ned) Drood, is genuine.  He also harbors a darkly consuming love for Rosa Bud, the young man’s intended.  It was a Dickensian engagement negotiated by their late fathers and subsequently nurtured by their guardians, Jasper and solicitor Hiram Grewgious.  In addition to Jasper’s unwelcome attentions, fiery new arrival Neville Landless also falls for Bud, hard.  Pretty much the only one not hopelessly smitten with her is Drood, which leads to all kinds of hard feelings.  Then one dark and stormy night, Drood disappears under mysterious circumstances. 

Suspicion in the village naturally falls on Landless, the aptly named Christian orphan from Ceylon, but Dickens left plenty of evidence to incriminate Jasper with readers.  Of course, the whole question of habeas corpus is key to mystery.  Walker and a platoon of screenwriters provide a reasonably workable answer to that riddle. 

However, it is a bit surprising Walker and company do not play up the gothic elements more, especially considering the 1935 Drood came out during the golden age of Universal horror movies and features several of their franchise stars, including first and foremost Claude Rains, the original Invisible Man and Larry Talbot’s father in the first Wolfman.  Exceeding expectations, David Manners (the bland protagonist of Dracula and The Mummy) excels at the entitled attitude and drunken misbehavior of the ill-fated title character, while E.E. Clive (the Burgomaster in Bride of Frankenstein) plays another ineffectual local authority as Mayor Sapsea.

While there are many perfectly nice supporting turns in the 1935 Drood, it is unquestionably Rains’ picture.  His Jasper is definitely a brooder in the Invisible Man tradition rather than the continental smoothy of Casablanca.  Watching him leer at Bud and drug himself into oblivion is quite good fun.  Recommended for fans of Dickens and Rains, The Mystery of Edwin Drood screens tomorrow (12/20) and Saturday (12/22) as part of Dickens on Film at MoMA.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chiller: The Complete Yorkshire Horror Anthology

Yorkshire is known for its green hills and savory pudding.  However, the region is also rife with supernatural activity, if one can judge from a Yorkshire produced anthology series that aired in 1995.  While totaling only five episodes, it built up a cult following, so this should be a happy Christmas for fans now that Chiller—the Complete Television Series has just been released on DVD by Synapse.

ITV may not have done Chiller any scheduling favors, but the show maintained a surprisingly gritty, mature vibe.  Indeed, one of the striking consistencies throughout each installment is the rather grim, depressed look of the characters’ environment.  In fact, a bit of urban renewal kicks off a whole mess of trouble in the initial episode, Prophecy.

Francesca Monsanto’s family diner is about to face the wrecking ball, but not before some of her drunken hipster friends convince her to hold a séance in the basement.  It always creeped her out down there—with good reason. It was loads of laughs at the time, but one by one they suffer grisly accidents that were in some way foretold by the Ouija board.  Stranger still, the son of her fabulously wealthy new boyfriend seems to be involved somehow.  Featuring Chariots of Fire’s Nigel Havers as the well-heeled Oliver Halkin, Prophecy is one of the best of the series, cleverly blending all kinds of genre elements, including ancient evils and exorcisms.  It will also be of particular interest to teen horndogs for Sophie Ward’s fleeting nude scene as Monsanto.

In contrast, Toby, the second episode, is the weakest of the short-lived series.  Miscarrying after an auto accident, Louise Knight and her husband naturally move into a spooky old house with a macabre history, hoping to start over.  Before long, she appears to be pregnant again, but the ultrasound says otherwise.  Essentially, Toby recycles elements of Bradbury’s story “The Small Assassin” and scores of subsequent demonic baby films.

Here Comes the Mirror Man represents a return to atmospheric form for the series, capitalizing on the eeriness of the abandoned church where a young social services case is squatting with his homicidal imaginary friend, Michael.  Phyllis Logan (widely recognizable from Downton Abbey and Lovejoy) stars as Anna Spalinsky, the lucky caseworker who inherits Gary Kingston’s file when her predecessor dies an untimely death.

Beginning like the standard “skeptic learns the hard way” tale, The Man Who Didn’t Believe in Ghosts develops some interesting twists and ambiguities.  Richard Cramer is an Amazing Randy style writer whose books discredit paranormal humbug.  Suffering a stroke after a television appearance, he naturally relocates with his family to the big, spooky Windwhistle Hall, where the former owner’s wife died in a tragic “sleep-walking” accident.  Why doesn’t anyone ever want to recuperate in the city, with plenty of people around?  Nevertheless, the Cramers cannot resist the low asking price, only to be terrified by a series of mysterious accidents as soon as the move in.  Of course, Cramer is not going anywhere, lest he commit professional suicide.

Just as it began, Chiller ends with one of its strongest episodes.  Every full moon, a serial killer preys on the children of the aptly named burg of Helsby in Number Six, perhaps inspired by the ancient druid rituals once (and maybe still) practiced in the region.  Indeed, there may be both human and supernatural agencies involved.  Quite engaging as a police procedural, Number Six also boasts some of the series’ most sinister moments.

Arguably, Chiller makes perfect sense for Christmas viewing.   There is a big turkey dinner at the Cramers (which becomes magically infested with maggots), a mass is held (as part of an exorcism), and kids chant nursery rhymes (derived from old Druidic rites).  As a stocking stuffer for anyone who enjoys horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Hammer House of Horror, Chiller is a solid bet.  Recommended for fans of British genre television, the short but complete series is now available on DVD from Synapse Films.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Haneke’s Amour

Death is the ultimate leveler.  It comes for all and unless the pharaohs were right, you cannot take it with you.  For years, one French couple lived a life of privilege and refinement.  However, the diseases of old age will rob them of their dignity and comfort in Michael Haneke’s Amour (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Selected by Austria as their official foreign language Academy Award submission, the Palme d’Or winning Amour is a French language film, set almost entirely in a Parisian flat, featuring two of the most acclaimed French actors of their generation: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.  At least, Haneke is Austrian.  Nevertheless, it qualifies under the Academy’s stringent rules for best foreign language features.  In fact, it is an acknowledged frontrunner.

Indeed, Amour’s themes and big name cast are distinctly Oscar-friendly, but this is a Haneke film, not On Golden Pond.  The emotions are darker and the sentiment will be hard earned.  Viewers initially meet Anne and Georges during a moment of triumph.  They have returned from a high profile concert given by Anne’s last and greatest music student, Alexandre, which they attended as his guests.  Unfortunately, soon after they return, Anne’s health begins to fail in a dramatic but protracted manner.

The slightly forgetful Georges is rather stunned to find himself in the caregiver role, but he does his best.  It is difficult though, both for him and Anne, as Haneke illustrates in a series of small but punishing scenes.  Of course, the framing device forewarns the audience Amour will end in tragedy, but how the couple reaches that point is the whole point of the film.

They say a good film can never be a downer and that is true, but as accomplished as Amour’s performances are, it probably should be avoided by those prone to depression.  The human frailty displayed by Trintignant and Riva is rather shocking, especially given their indelible cinematic images from classics like A Man and a Woman and Hiroshima mon amour.  Riva’s work is particularly brave, revealing her character’s pain and degradation, both physically and emotionally. 

While it is a less showy a performance, the bitter honesty of Trintignant’s Georges arguably represents the film’s true essence.  Though it is a thankless supporting role, Isabelle Huppert is still perfectly cast as their icily detached grown child Eva.  Classical pianist Alexandre Tharaud also has some touching moments as his namesake, who might be a better son-like figure than Eva ever was as their legitimate daughter.

Compared to some of Haneke’s previous work, Amour is distinctly sympathetic to his characters, but considering the unflinching focus he trains on them, “sensitive” might not be the most apt descriptive term for the film.  Aesthetically, it is also quite distinctive.  Production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos’s flat is elegantly photogenic and cinematographer Darius Khondji gives it all a gauzy, sophisticated look.  Yet, forcing us to bear witness to Georges and Anne’s intimate misery seems to be the extent of Haneke’s agenda.  Recommended with respect (rather than affection) for emotionally robust Francophiles and those who appreciate dramatic showcases, Amour opens this Wednesday (12/19) at Film Forum.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Submitted By Japan: Our Homeland

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Korean-Japanese immigrated back to their homeland.  Unfortunately, they chose the wrong one.  With family at risk in the DPRK, active members of Japanese-North Korean friendship associations had no choice but to tow the party line.  Yet, the implications of the basic foodstuff care packages they sent to loved ones spoke volumes.  Granted a special three month visit for medical reasons, one such “repatriated” North Korean reconnects with his guilt-ridden family in Yang Yonghi’s devastating Our Homeland (trailer here), which has been selected by Japan as their official foreign language Academy Award submission.

Yun Sung-ho most likely has a brain tumor.  Given the woeful inadequacies of the North Korean medical system, he is allowed to briefly return to Japan—after a five year waiting period.  He is fortunate his father is the president of the North Korean society, but he will still be monitored the entire time by his minder, Mr. Yang.  Regardless, his family is grateful to see him again, especially his poor mother.  Likewise, Rie is delighted to see her beloved brother again, but she cannot ignore certain ironies, like her brother developing malnutrition in the “Workers’ Paradise.”  Yes, she is our kind of free-thinker and the unambiguous conscience of Our Homeland.

Based on writer-director Yang Yonghi’s own family experiences recorded in Dear Pyongyang and a subsequent documentary, Homeland is even more direct in addressing conditions in North Korea.  Perhaps liberated by the fictional context, the film explicitly blames the DPRK for the misery of its citizens.  There is no inclination towards moral equivalency.  In fact, there is a clear affection for the Ozu-like quiet serenity of Japan.

While Yang’s script is unusually honest and challenging, her leads really make it hit home.  Dynamic and vivacious but deep as a river, Sakura Andô is simply remarkable as Rie.  It is an award caliber performance.  Conversely, it takes a while for Iura Arata’s pitch-perfect portrayal to sink in, striking uncomfortable chords between bitterness and resignation.  Boasting a top flight ensemble from top to bottom, Homeland is also distinguished and humanized by memorable supporting turns from Kotomi Kyôno as Yun’s ex Suni and Tarô Suwa as his loving blacksheep capitalist uncle Tejo.

An assured narrative debut, Yang masterfully controls the mood and tone, despite the almost complete lack of soundtrack music.  Her approach is intimate and not surprisingly documentary-like, but Homeland never feels overly talky or draggy.  Indeed, the emotional drama never slacks.

Our Homeland is a deeply compassionate film, but it is also somewhat angry, plainly calling an older generation to account for sacrificing their children on ideological grounds.  Its unmistakable critique of North Korean Communism might not sound like Academy fodder, but the foreign language division can be surprising in a good way.  After all, The Lives of Others won the Oscar and Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn was nominated before it even had American distribution.  Regardless, Our Homeland would be a worthy nominee that deserves an international audience.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Submitted By Bulgaria: Sneakers

When the youth of Bulgaria feel alienated, evidently they head to the beach.  It makes more sense than moping about a housing project.  Six disaffected slackers enjoy an idyllic retreat, but it can only last so long in Ivan Vladimirov & Valeri Yordanov’s Sneakers (trailer here), which has been selected by Bulgaria as their official foreign language Academy Award submission.

No girly-girl, Emi beats the snot out of her mother’s abusive boyfriend.  Turkish immigrant Gray has no shot with her, but he loyally follows her anyway. Eventually, they hook-up with Blackbird, a too cool to care coffeehouse performer, and his dedicated ex-boxer pal, Wee.  Having pummeled some lowlifes in a bar brawl, they are also looking for a change of scenery.  With no general plans, the four crash at the beach, where half-aspiring filmmakers Ivo and Fatso soon turn up.

The combination of a lot of booze, angst, the cute but sexually ambiguous Emi, and five guys, two of whom are very definitely attracted to her, ought to spell trouble.  Yet, whenever the film perches on the brink of conflict, the six dropouts resolve it rather simply (up until co-director-co-star Yordanov’s screenplay takes a weird climatic turn into left field).  While that might be rather appealing in the abstract, it is dramatically self-defeating.  There are also several conversations you might have to be Bulgarian—and possibly drunk—to get.

While Sneakers’ narrative is not really anything to write home about, it offers some appealing scenes of fun in the Black Sea sun.  Cinematographer Rali Raltschev deserves a citation of honor from the Bulgarian tourism bureau.  Yordanov, who made a real meathead impression in Kristina Nikolova’s Faith Love + Whiskey, acquits himself quite well, at least in front of the camera.  In fact, the ensemble performances are easily the strongest aspect of the film, with Philip Avramov and Ina Nikolova doing particularly sensitive, well-calibrated work as Blackbird and Emi, respectively.

A bit awkward at times, Sneakers is still perfectly presentable on the festival circuit, but it is most likely not bound for Oscar glory.  For professionals, it is definitely worth checking out for a look at its talented young cast.  Sneakers has screened in New York at a Bulgarian festival, but it ought to have a bit more fest action ahead of it, thanks to its Oscar contention status.