Friday, August 31, 2012

Pascal Laugier’s The Tall Man

It is the town even country music forgot.  It has the grim name of Cold Rock, Washington, but it might as well be called “Stimulus Village.”  When the mine closed, the jobs disappeared, but that was just the start of their problems.  A prolonged epidemic of child abductions continues to plague the town.  Sketchy sightings of a shadowy figure have given rise to a new urban legend, but one desperate woman will confront the truth behind the bogeyman in Pascal Laugier’s The Tall Man (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Julia Denning is registered nurse and the only remaining medical care-provider left in Cold Rock.  While her late husband was a beloved pillar of the community, many of the locals never really warmed to her.  Yet, she stays out of a sense of duty.  Then one fateful night, she wakes to find little David has been spirited away.  More resourceful than her neighbors, Denning gives chase, nearly reclaiming David from his abductor.  However, when Lieutenant Dodd, the big city copper on loan to overwhelmed small town, deposits the battered and distraught Denning at the local diner for safekeeping, she finds her fellow townspeople are acting suspiciously squirrely.

There is a huge game-changing twist in Tall Man, but Laugier drops it comparatively early in the game.  Instead of a M. Night Shyamalan ending intended to make viewers feel stupid for buying into his films’ ostensive premises, Laugier allows at least a good third of the picture to explore the implications of his revelation.  While the big surprise eventually leads to credibility questions that would be spoilery to explain, it is executed quite smoothly.

As Denning, Jessica Biel plays a critical role selling the gotcha, rather decisively subverting the woman-in-jeopardy archetype.  Stephen McHattie (star of Pontypool, probably the best zombie film since the original Night of the Living Dead) brings genre cred and a cool, steely presence to Lt. Dodd.  Unfortunately, the rest of the ensemble is largely underwhelming as underwritten stock characters.  Still, it is somewhat amusing to see William B. Davis, the cigarette smoking man in The X-Files, as the ineffectual Sheriff Chestnut.  You wonder why they keep re-electing him, given the circumstances.

Tricky to categorize, Tall Man largely inhabits the zone where horror movies and dark thrillers overlap.  Laugier is quite effective establishing the dark, eerie vibe, but his third act-denouement suffers from a lack of tension.  Still, The Tall Man is far more distinctive than other disposable horror-ish films that stumbled into theaters this year, such as ATM and Beneath the Darkness.  Soon to be an interesting VOD or rental choice, The Tall Man just does not quite have enough thrills or scares for current New York City movie ticket prices.  Maybe worth keeping in mind for later, it opens today (8/31) at the AMC Village 7.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Bullet Vanishes: CSI in 1930’s Shanghai

In the 1930’s, forensic science had not really caught on yet with the Shanghai police force.  However, Song Donglu is no ordinary copper.  As an assistant prison warden, his interest in criminal psychology spurred him to challenge many convictions.  To be proactive, or to spare themselves further embarrassment, his superiors have transferred him into the field to help the Shanghai police get it right the first time.  He will be initiated with a particularly sinister case in Lo Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There has been a shooting at the local bullet factory—several actually.  It might be a testament to their craftsmanship, except the bullets in question seem to disappear upon entry.  Many of the workers believe it is really the curse of a worker unjustly accused of stealing product.  The autonomous factory owner dealt with the case per their traditional method: a friendly game of Russian roulette.  When those who wronged the woman start turning up dead, the other workers get a bit spooked, setting production even further behind.

Song does not believe in ghosts.  He is a man of science.  Still, he has some rather mysterious circumstances on his hands, like corpses with gunshot wounds but no discernible bullets to analyze.  Before long, he will also have to wrap his head around a classic locked room murder.  At least his new partner Guo Zhui has his back.  They can’t say the same for their superior officers.

Though there are a lot of familiar Holmsian elements in Bullet, Lo and co-writer Yeung Sin-ling consistently give them with a fresh spin.  Perhaps most intriguing is Song’s ambiguous relationship with a convicted black widow murderess (played by a glammed down but terrific Jiang Yiyan), who could either be his Irene Adler or Hannibal Lecter.  Determining which could be fertile ground for a sequel.

In fact, Bullet is pretty unusual for a big screen murder mystery, because it values atmosphere and procedural process (as antiquated as it might be by our standards) over formulaic chases and phony suspense.  Viewers might have a general sense where it is headed, but at least the film makes an effort to hold onto its secrets.  There are still several well mounted period action sequences sprinkled throughout the film, but the overall vibe of Bullet is refreshingly cerebral.

With Song, Lau Ching-wan brings to life a great character.  Yes, he is a bit socially awkward at times, but the detective is his own man, far more compassionate than Holmes ever was, particularly in his scenes with the mariticidal inmate.  As the more action-oriented Gui, Nicholas Tse is in his element, also developing some nice romantic chemistry with Mi Yang’s Little Lark, the fortune teller.  Together as cops with contrasting styles, Lau and Tse have an appealing give-and-take rapport going on.  As for Boss Ding, the primary villain and focus of viewer scorn, Liu Kai-chi certainly is not shy chewing the scenery, vaguely suggesting elements of both the psycho and comedic Joe Pesci.  That is not a bad thing.

From Chan Chi-ying’s stylish noir cinematography to Stanly Cheung’s natty 1930’s-era costumes, Bullet is a great looking film. It is also smart and old-fashioned in a good way.  Recommended with enthusiasm for mainstream mystery fans, The Bullet Vanishes opens tomorrow (8/31) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7, as well as in San Francisco at the AMC Cupertino and Metreon, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate: Tsui Hark Does the 3D Thing

It was a time when eunuchs terrorized the land.  However, a handful of wandering knights are willing to challenge them, even at the cost of their lives.  Good multi-taskers, they will still find time for a bit of treasure-hunting in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (trailer here),Tsui Hark’s monster 3D return to the legendary Dragon Gate Inn world, which opens a special two-week IMAX-coming-straight-at-your-head limited engagement this Friday in New York.

Sort of but not really a sequel to Raymond Lee’s 1992 Dragon Gate Inn (produced and co-written by Tsui), Flying 3D picks up three years later in movie time.  Dragon Inn burned to the ground and the femme fatale proprietress disappeared under murky circumstances, but since there was a demand for a sketchy flophouse right smack in the middle of sandstorm alley, the inn has been rebuilt by a gang of outlaws.  While they might roll the occasional guest, they are really more interested in the legend of the fabulous gold buried beneath the sands.

Two mysterious swordsmen calling themselves Zhou Huai’an will find themselves at the remote outpost after tangling with the corrupt eunuch bureaucracy.  One Zhou has just rescued Su Huirong, a potentially embarrassing pregnant concubine from the forces of the East Bureau.  This Zhou also happens to be a she and she has some heavy history with the man she is impersonating.  For his part, the real Zhou Huai’an has just barely survived a nasty encounter with the East’s top agent, Yu Huatian. 

The doubling continues when fortune hunter Gu Shaotang shows up at the inn with her partner Wind Blade, a dead-ringer for the evil Yu.  Add to the mix a group of rowdy, hard-drinking Tartar warriors, led by their princess Buludu and you have a rather unstable situation.  Before long, sides have been chosen and a massive gravity-defying battle is underway, as the mother of all sandstorms bears down on Dragon Gate Inn.

Frankly, the 3D in Flying is so good, the initial scenes are a bit disorienting.  Tsui probably has a better handle on how to use this technology than just about any other big picture filmmaker, dizzyingly rendering the massive scale of the Ming-era wuxia world.  Flying is also quite progressive by genre standards, featuring not one but three first-class women action figures.  When the headlining Jet Li disappears from time to time, he really is not missed.  Of course, when it is time to go Mano-a-mano in the middle of a raging twister, he is the first to step up to the plate.

All kinds of fierce yet genuinely vulnerable, Zhou Xun is fantastic as Ling Yanquiu, the Twelfth Night-ish Zhou Huai’an.  Likewise, Li Yuchun is a totally convincing action co-star as the roguish Gu, nicely following-up on the promise she showed in Bodyguards and Assassins.  Yet, Gwei Lun Mei upstages everyone as the exotically tattooed, alluringly lethal barbarian princess.  Her Buludu is both more woman and more man than Xena will ever be.  In contrast, Chen Kun is a bit of a cold fish in his dual role, which suits the serpentine Yu just fine, but does not work so well for Wind Blade.

Throughout Flying, Tsui throws realism into the whirlwind and never looks back.  If you are distracted by scenes that look “fake,” many of the CGI fight scenes will have you beside yourself.  On the other hand, if you enjoy spectacle, you really have to see it.  Surpassing its predecessor in nearly every way, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is a whole lot of illogical fun.  Highly recommended for everyone still reading this review, it opens for two weeks only this Friday (8/31) at the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Shirley Clarke’s Ornette

Ornette Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition and performed live on Saturday Night Live.  Although neither event is covered in Shirley Clarke’s classically idiosyncratic documentary-profile, viewers still get a memorable sense of the artist and his music Ornette: Made in America (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday at the IFC Center, as part of Milestone Films’ Project Shirley restoration and rerelease program.

Explaining Coleman’s place in the jazz world would take some doing, especially in 1985, before his late career Grammy and Pulitzer accolades finally came cascading in.  Coleman was one of the pioneers of the Free Jazz movement, whose legendary engagement at New York’s Five Spot club sharply divided the jazz world.  However, you will not find his creation story here.  Instead, Clarke’s approach to Coleman the man and the musician is deeply rooted in the then current moment, yet also rather timeless.

In the mid 80’s, the establishment (broadly defined) was just starting to understand Coleman was a force to be reckoned with.  As the film opens, the mayor of Fort Worth presents Coleman with a copy of the key to the city (the original he explains had been sent up into space or something), in the hours before the alto saxophonist-multi-instrumentalist will debut Skies of America, a major new composition integrating a symphony orchestra with his avant-garde electric combo Prime Time.  Hizzoner’s speech might strike New York hipsters as a bit corny, but his drummer-manager-son Denardo is quite pleased his father is finally being recognized. 

In fact, there is something all-encompassing and Whitmanesque about Coleman’s deeply blues-influenced music that is perfectly represented by a title like Skies of America, as well as the mayor’s patriotically Texan remarks.  Shrewdly, Clarke uses this fairly accessible work as the musical centerpiece for the film, much like Sonny Rollins’ concert premiere of Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra dominates Robert Mugge’s Saxophone Colossus.

There was probably no documentarian better suited to Coleman’s personality and aesthetic than Shirley Clarke.  Her style of filmmaking perfectly reflects his music—fragmentary and baffling to the willfully uninitiated, but there strong compositional conception underlying it all.  Her visual sensibility might be far from infallible (a kid with an iPad could put her space age special effects to shame these days), but she demonstrates a rock solid command of Coleman’s acutely syncopated rhythms and had a keen insight into his creative milieu.

Indeed, except for perhaps Clint Eastwood, no filmmaker can equal Clarke’s position as a filmmaker whose work promotes and is informed by America’s great original art form.  The Connection, which launched Project Shirley, is a milestone (if you will) of independent filmmaking, in large measure due to Freddie Redd’s absolutely classic tunes.  Likewise, her viscerally naturalistic social issue drama, The Cool World, derives considerable power from Mal Waldron’s soundtrack (which in turn was rerecorded by Dizzy Gillespie’s combo for the official OST LP version).  There was even the non-narrative short, Bridges-Go-Round, featuring the music of Teo Macero.  Ornette is sort of a summing up of her jazz evangelism, shining a spotlight on one of the most controversial yet at the time underappreciated artists to ever set foot on the bandstand.

Time and again, Clarke alternately emphasizes Coleman’s blues roots and hardscrabble early life (even filming young actors portraying the alto saxophonist in dramatized vignettes of his formative years) and his compulsively forward looking (almost futuristic) orientation.  The fact that most of Coleman’s philosophizing makes little to no sense is hardly important.  No, he never really explains his theory of harmolodics in Ornette and she wisely never pushes him. 

The Coleman seen in Ornette matches the accounts I have personally heard from musician-friends who have had conversations with him and say it was the coolest thing ever, even though they have no idea what he said.  Any film conveying that experience is worth seeing, but Ornette has considerably more to offer.  A highly entertaining time-capsule of a jazz documentary, Ornette: Made in America is recommended for anyone who wants their ears stretched a bit when it opens this Friday (8/31) at the IFC Center.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Lawless: The Moonshine Stills of Franklin County

Scarcity drives up prices.  Just ask bootleggers like the Bondurant Brothers.  The folk hero moonshiners had an intuitive grasp of economic principles sorely lacking in Washington today.  They also produced good home brew.  However, they were not the types to knuckle under when a corrupt lawman from Chicago tries to muscle in on their operation.  Since it is war he wants, the Bondurant Boys will give him one in John Hillcoat’s Lawless (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Based on Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized novel about his prohibition defying forebears (colorfully titled The Wettest County in the World, as Hillcoat’s film was also known prior to its current bland moniker), Lawless transports viewers back to a time when nearly everyone in Franklin County, Virginia was involved in the illicit booze trade, one way or another.  That is western Virginia, not West Virginia, but you get the idea.  Liquor runs freely around these parts and nobody dares to bother to Bondurant Boys, until now.

Frankly, the eldest brother Forrest and middle brother Howard should have been dead long before the film opened.  Their knack for cheating death gave rise to the myth of Bondurant invincibility—a legend they start to believe.  As a result, when the highly connected Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (from Chicago, the nation’s leading producer of crooked, power-hungry government officials) announces the terms of his protection racket, the Bondurants will not play ball.  Conflict is inevitable, but the expansionist schemes of the youngest Bondurant Brother Jack only escalate the situation.  To make matters worse, the Bondurant whippersnapper’s attention is divided between business and wooing the skeptical daughter of the local Mennonite clergyman.

Not surprisingly, Tom Hardy is kind of awesome as the hardnosed Forrest Bondurant and Shia LaBeouf is kind of not as the immature Jack.  Though probably every groupthinking critic will dub the former “Bane the Bootlegger” there is something electrically charismatic about Hardy’s gruff, grunting Bondurant.  He hardly speaks in complete sentences, except when passing Biblical judgment on a rival, like Jules in Pulp Fiction, but he makes every guttural word count.  LaBeouf’s Bondurant is a different matter, truly looking like a boy among men.  It is hard to believe his brothers would let him drive the car to the store, let alone acquiesce to his reckless wheeler-dealing.

Lawless works best when focusing on its larger than life characters, like Brother Forest.  While Guy Pearce has played a fair number of workaday villains in recent years, he finally gets it right here, oozing clammy evil as well coifed sadist, Rakes.  Making the most of a near cameo role, Gary Oldman also brings a blast of energy to the film as big city gangster Floyd Banner.  While it is not nearly as showy a part, Jessica Chastain still takes a solid turn as Maggie Beauford, Forrest’s potential love interest with a scandalous past.  In fact, the rich, cinematic ensemble easily carries Lawless, overcoming its weak lead.

Like a conclusive laboratory experiment, Lawless proves Hardy, Pearce, and Oldman are movie stars, but LaBeouf is not.  Hillcoat also demonstrates a firm command of period shootouts and nicely suggests but never overplays the tall tale flavor of the Bondurant legend.  Consistently vigorous and entertaining, Lawless is ultimately a very good Prohibition action-drama, easily recommended for Bane fans and those intrigued by the era when it opens this Wednesday (8/29) in New York at the Regal Union Square and AMC Kips Bay.

The Ambassador: Our Man in the Central African Republic

Ambassadors are generally addressed as “Your Excellency,” which is nice.  They can also carry briefcases loaded with diamonds through customs, no questions asked.  That is even cooler.  It is definitely what mad Mads Brügger had in mind when he set out to buy a diplomatic post.  His resulting misadventures are documented in The Ambassador (trailer here), Brügger’s latest gutsy cinematic provocation, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

If you have seen Brügger’s Red Chapel (and I really hope you have), you will be familiar with his fearless brand of documentary filmmaking.  The plan this time is to buy an ambassadorship representing Liberia in the Central African Republic (CAR) through a “diplomatic broker.”  (He seeks the services of two such dodgy individuals, one of whom periodically sends me head-scratchingly bizarre e-mails ever since I covered The Ambassador at Sundance.)  Once credentialed, Brügger will establish a match factory as a cover for his unquestionably illegal diamond smuggling operation.  The shocking thing is he pretty much goes about doing exactly that (for expose purposes), but there are complications.

For the record, these are very definitely blood diamonds he is talking about—there just isn’t any other kind in the CAR.  That means the politically connected mine owner Brügger starts negotiating with is a pretty scary character.  Indeed, there are considerable risks for Brügger in this masquerade, including to life and limb.

Frankly, Ambassador would be hilarious if it was a feature narrative, but as a documentary, it is rather staggering.  The wholesale government corruption Brügger captures on film is obviously widespread and pervasive.  While some blame for the country’s lawlessness and desperate poverty is laid at the feet of their former colonial power, the good old French, there is truly no excuse for such dire conditions to exist in a country so richly blessed with mineral resources.  Clearly, something is rotten in the failed state of CAR, and Liberia is hardly any better.

Looking like a character from a Graham Greene novel, Brügger plays his part to the hilt.  Unlike Red Chapel, where the director was in a constant on-screen dialogue with the viewers and his co-conspirators in his attempt to punk the North Korean regime, Brügger largely stays in character throughout Ambassador.  His neck is also on the line when things get dodgy, in a very real way.

Had a conventional Michael Moore-inspired doc-grinder tackled this subject, they simply would have ambushed the receptionist at Liberia’s UN mission and claimed a great moral victim when the low level employee could not discuss their country’s diplomatic personnel in the CAR chapter and verse.  Brügger puts those play-it-safers to shame.  (This specifically includes the cowardly Yes Men.)  Until they start challenging the kind of people who can make their critics disappear, on their home turf, they are not worthy of carrying Brügger’s cigarette holder.  Another have-to-see-it-to-believe-it film from the muckraking provocateur, The Ambassador is very highly and earnestly recommended when it opens this Wednesday (8/29) in New York at the IFC Center.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

WFF Montreal ’12: Calm at Sea

It is just about unifying Europe—or at least a handful of refined National Socialist officers would like to believe.  Of course, it is hard for them to kid themselves when Berlin is ordering mass reprisal executions.  Based in part of the diaries of the old line German war hero-novelist Ernst Jünger’s diaries, Volker Schlöndorff dramatizes a notorious episode of Vichy-era French history in Calm at Sea, which screens as part of the 2012 World Film Festival of Montreal.

On the orders of the Communist French resistance faction, two high-ranking German officers are to be assassinated.  They realize the occupying Germans will likely retaliate.  In fact, that is part of the point.  It will help radicalize the general populace.  Unfortunately, one of the shoddy guns supplied to the triggermen jams, leaving a target alive.  While the actual gunmen escape, the occupying power intends to set an example.  If the partisans in question are not turned over to the authorities, one hundred “hostages” will be executed.

The figure of one hundred was the result of a bit of diplomatic negotiating on the part of Jünger and his superior officer, cutting down the literal death list from one hundred fifty.  These are not randomly selected names—they are political prisoners, roughly divided between Gaullists and Communists, like the seventeen year-old Guy Môquet, who would become a martyr figure for French leftists.

Surely, that should not be a spoiler to anyone.  Indeed, Sea becomes something like the Môquet passion play in its slow, overwrought third act.  That is a bit of a shame, because the second act offers a surprisingly insightful and intriguing perspective on some pretty familiar cinematic terrain.  In addition to clearly suggesting the mass executions were exactly what the Communist leadership had in mind (except more so), several of their imprisoned partisan openly question whether allying themselves with the National Socialists during the Hitler-Stalin alliance was possibly a mistake in retrospect.  You think maybe?  Likewise, Jünger pointedly asks if mass executions will prove to be counter-effective as they try to win French hearts and mind.  Hmm, perhaps.  Yet, the disdainful Jünger’s reluctance to stick his neck out is in turn challenged by the sophisticated French woman he is pursuing—the only sort of conquest that interests him.

A French-German television co-production, Sea is still relatively cinematic and boasts a big screen cast.  As the reluctant Nazi Jünger (officially rehabilitated in the 1950’s), Ulrich Matthes is smart, cool, and riveting in every second of his screen time.  Veteran French character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the hardware merchant in The Well-Digger’s Daughter) also elevates the otherwise disappointing endgame, appearing as an anti-Vichy Catholic priest, who compassionately ministers to the doomed men, by not ministering, per se.  Indeed, his work is welcome and notable as a sympathetic depiction of a man of the cloth.  Unfortunately, the prison ensemble is stuck portraying symbols rather than characters.

At its best, Sea is a fascinating film, critically exploring the murky psyches of conflicted Germans like Jünger and the collaborating gendarmerie France is still apologizing for.  However, it can also be as blatantly manipulative as a made-for-TV movie, which in fact, it is.  Though not nearly as powerful as Schlöndorff’s underappreciated Polish Solidarity docudrama Strike, Calm at Sea is an interesting little film with somewhat more on the merit side.  Worth considering, it screens Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (8/28-8/30) during this year’s World Film Festival in Montreal.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

WFF Montreal ’12: Where Once We Walked

Finland is a small country, with some big history.  During WWII, they forcibly ejected both the Soviets and the National Socialists from their territory, only give birth to the term Finlandization in the post-war years.  An interconnected circle of friends and rivals will witness the tumultuous decades leading up to the Winter War in Peter Lindholm’s Where Once We Walked (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 World Film Festival of Montreal.

The Lilliehjelms have money.  The Kajanders have not—and they will never let the Lilliehjelms forget it.  Eventually red diaper baby Allu Kajander will embark on an ambiguously passionate relationship with Lucie Lilliehjelm, the rebellious daughter of the imperious patriarch who once summarily dismissed his mother.  However, in the years of the Russian Revolutions and the Finnish Civil War, Ms. Lucie has several suitors more befitting her class, even including her brother Cedi’s morose best friend Eric “Eccu” Winding.

Always a bit of an outsider, Winding willing enlists with the White faction after witnessing the destruction wrought by the empowered Reds.  Yet, it is the score-settling he soon watches first-hand after the White victory that sends him into a psychological tailspin.  While his pained conscience poisons his friendship with Cedi, his continuing attraction to his flapper sister (and their periodic assignations) undermines his marriage.  Of course, all Finns will have much more pressing concerns arriving from the east in 1939.

Edited from a six part Finnish mini-series (which in turn adapted Kjell Westö’s door-stopper novel), the feature-length WOWW (handled internationally by The Yellow Affair) dispenses with entire narrative tributaries for the sake of compactness.  As a result, some periods, like the Red interregnum, are given short shrift, whereas the White purges become the film version’s dramatic hinge.  Perhaps most disappointingly for admirers of Finland, the movie version of WOWW practically concludes just as the Winter War (the country’s darkest yet arguably finest hour) begins.  In fact, it might as well end with “to be continued” spelled out in ten feet tall letters.

WOWW is not even remotely in Doctor Zhivago’s league, but it is intriguing to see roughly the same period of history from the Finnish perspective.  The weather is certainly similar.  In fact, it is pretty cinematic to see resolute Finns cross-country skiing off to join the White resistance.  WOWW is also a nicely crafted period production, but still there are times when it looks very TV in a TV kind of way.  (The opening credit sequence showing leaves falling into a river really needed sprucing up.)  The racially integrated American jazz band is also something of an anachronism for 1928, but to be fair, if you are assembling a New Orleans style hot jazz band in Finland, you probably have to take who you can get.

Though not exactly a classic beauty, Jessica Grabowsky plays sister Lilliehjelm with flirtatious verve.  Stiff and dour in comparison, Jakob Öhrman and Oskar Pöysti at least prove they can either brood or seethe on cue, as lover Winding and Brother Cedi, respectively.  Charles Salter also has a nifty near cameo as bandleader Robert W. “Jonesy” Jones, leading viewers to hope and suspect there is more of him either to come or available for Finish television viewing.

WOWW covers some fascinating history while treating viewers to some lovely sets and costumes.  It just feels so incomplete and unbalanced, though.  Nonetheless, Montreal residents and visitors interested in these oft overlooked historical episodes may not have a lot of other opportunities to see early Twentieth Century Finnish history dramatized on-screen and might therefore consider catching the imperfect Where Once We Walked anyway when it screens this coming Wednesday (8/28) and Saturday (9/1) during this year’s World Film Festival up north.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Revenant: the Slacker Undead

If a stoner rises from the dead as a zombie, would anyone notice the difference?  Two slackers try to carry on as usual when one suddenly finds himself undead and rather parched, but the constant proximity with death has serious repercussions in D. Kerry Prior’s meathead buddy horror mash-up, The Revenant (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Bart Gregory would like to think he shipped off to Iraq for idealistic reasons, but the truth is he was trying to avoid making a commitment to his longtime girlfriend Janet.  Thanks to a rather murky ambush, he won’t have to.  It would seem Gregory is dead as a doornail, but he is actually undead.  Staggering out of his grave and into his loser best friend Joey Leubner’s crash pad, Gregory struggles to come to terms with his new existence as a “revenant.”  He can no longer keep down solid food, but it seems vast quantities of pot and booze are A-OK.  For sustenance though, he will need human blood. 

No problem—this is Los Angeles.  There is an unlimited supply of violent low lives in need of killing.  Suddenly, the boys are vigilante media sensations.  Unfortunately, Gregory and Leubner are really sloppy about their hunting practices, leading to all kinds of bad karma—and of course, gore.

Though it opens in Iraq, Prior largely resists the urge to pontificate on current events.  These are not allegorical zombies.  That’s the good news.  However, The Revenant really does not have any ideas to take the place of didactic soap-boxing.  Prior offers several scenes of truly inspired gross-out humor, but the in-between periods are rather slack and dreary.

Still, David Anders plugs away admirably as the nice guy walking dead, keeping viewers somewhat invested in the grisly story.  On the other hand, before it is over, the audience will be ready to rise up collectively, like pitchfork wielding peasants, to put a stake through the heart of Chris Wylde’s annoying as all get-out Leubner.

The Revenant built up quite a rep with cult movie fans through a series of well received midnight festival screenings.  Frankly, that is the best venue for the film, catering to lubricated crowds primed to laugh and holler.  It simply will not hold up as well for comparatively staid regular theatrical audiences.  The Revenant has its moments, but not nearly enough for a ringing endorsement when it opens today (8/24) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

WFF Montreal ’12: Manhunt

Corporal Wydra is the designated executioner in his Polish resistance unit.  He is a sensitive soul, yet very good at his job.  This is the contradictory nature of war and it will only get more treacherous for the soldier in Marcin Krzyształowicz’s Manhunt, which screens tomorrow as part of the 2012 World Film Festival of Montreal.

Captured National Socialists are lucky if Wydra is the man taking them out.  He is not a sadist or a vengeance taker.  He is a freedom fighter with a grim task to complete.  We get a good feel for the complicated man at work as the film opens.  His next assignment though, will be considerably thornier.  He is to go into town and bring back a prominent businessman turned informant, the hard way or the easy way, for trial and presumed execution.  However, Wydra has some decidedly personal history with the thoroughly compromised Henryk Kondolewicz.

Meanwhile, a member of the unit has betrayed Wydra’s comrades, funneling information through the very snitch he has been dispatched to deal with.  The Corporal will be too late to help his fallen brothers-in-arms, but he will be able to put together the pieces and possibly dispense some retribution.

In fact, Manhunt is a bit of a narrative jigsaw puzzle, constantly flashing backwards and forwards, providing more context with each successive time shift.  Actually the crosses and double-crosses are relatively straight forward, but the existential depth of Wydra’s character really distinguishes Manhunt from thematically related WWII dramas.

While not completely dissimilar to the grizzled Home Army veteran he played in Wojtek Smarzowski’s Rose, Marcin Dorociński is riveting nonetheless as the massively brooding Wydra.  Chillingly convincing when getting down to business, he also quite compellingly hints at the pain eating his Wydra’s soul.  He dominates the film and that’s fine.

In the tradition of Melville’s Army of Shadows, Krzyształowicz’s screenplay explores the moral ambiguity and constant uncertainty of the resistance milieu.  Like Melville, he understands and even pardons his characters’ betrayals.  Aptly suiting the tense vibe, cinematographer Arkadiusz Tomiak’s dark, musty look vividly suggests the sense of trooping through a dank forest.  This is definitely war cinema, gritty and unromanticized.  It is also a very good film, well worth seeing when it screens tomorrow (8/24) and Saturday (8/25) during the World Film Festival in Montreal.

Samsara: the Wheel of Life Looks Amazing

Shooting footage in twenty-five countries around the world, documentarian-visual essayists Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson must have met thousands of fascinating people.  Yet, you will not meet any of them on a personal level in their latest 70mm spectacle.  Their aesthetic favors the people en mass and dehumanized over messily unpredictable individuals.  As their follow-up to 1992’s Baraka, director-cinematographer-co-writer-co-editor Fricke & producer-co-writer-co-editor-co-musical director Magidson’s Samara takes viewers to some awe-inspiring sites all over the globe, intending it all to signify the great cosmic wheel of life, as the title translates from Sanskrit.  Those who want to see it, should see in a theater, the way it was meant to be seen, when Samsara (trailer here) opens tomorrow in New York.

Think of this as
The Wall for politically correct Volvo-driving health nuts.  Deeply steeped in Eastern religious traditions, Samsara captures some amazing images, such as the opening Balinese dancers, the archaeological wonderland of Petra, and the Tibetan Buddhist monks of Thikse creating impermanent sand mandalas.  It would probably deepen any viewers’ appreciations to hear the dancers discuss their incredibly disciplined collective choreography or to have the monks explain what the mandalas symbolize according to their faith, but Fricke and Magidson are not going there.   There will be no talking and no text in the film.

Samsara brings to mind an old airline commercial from years ago, in which a charming old Southwestern artist tells viewers the young painters who move to New Mexico and are blown away by the landscape are missing the point—it is the people who that are really interesting.  Fricke & Magidson are like those landscape painters, duly filming the sweeping awesomeness of nature.  Yet, in a way, this makes things so much neater and tidier.  When images of the disfigured are contrasted with scenes of armament factories, we cannot help but get the unsubtle message.  Yet, the more we knew about individual cases might make it far harder to indulge in sweeping generalizations.

Some of the sequences in Samsara are absolutely arresting, like the shots of the Bagan temples in Burma, which did indeed grant the filmmakers access, after quite a bit of diplomatic and bureaucratic hoop-jumping.  Sadly, when North Korea said no, Kim really meant no, so Fricke and Magidson were unable to film one of the giant choreographed stadium airangs.  That’s too bad, because it would have fit right in with the rest of Samsara.

Without question, Samsara is lovely to look at (except when it is being deliberately ugly).  There was obviously a conscious intent guiding the assemblage of the images, but they are still just images.  Ultimately, the film is all surface and precious little substance.  Any deeper meditations it might spur are solely due to viewer’s highly individualistic responses to the natural, sacred, and profane visuals it presents.  Recommended just for those who enjoyed previous wide-screen picture books, like Baraka and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (on which Fricke served as cinematographer), Samsara opens tomorrow (8/24) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Canet’s Little White Lies

Imagine the characters from the Friends sitcom were French and approaching middle age.  That would give you a pretty accurate picture of Ludo’s circle.  It also means their banter and sexual hang-ups are becoming less comedic and increasingly sad.  However, they will have to do without his company as they struggle with their latest resentments and insecurities while spending an unusually awkward holiday together in Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ludo was the glue that held his friends together.  The reckless bachelor was the one everyone always loved best.  Unfortunately, he does not see that semi coming as he makes his woozy way home after an all night bender.  He is in bad shape, but the prognosis is vaguely encouraging, so his friends agree to an abbreviated vacation, thereby tempting fate rather wantonly.

The summer house belongs to hardnosed hotelier Max Cantara—and no one is allowed to forget it.  Vincent Ribaud certainly won’t.  The married father has recently confessed feelings of ambiguous attraction to his longtime friend.  In retrospect, this is a mistake.  With Cantara and Ribaud acting conspicuously aloof around each other, the bachelors Eric and Antoine agonize over relationships they recently sabotaged.  The latter is a raging neurotic who alienated his girlfriend with his obsessive behavior.  The former is just a self-centered jerk.  Yet, he still carries a small torch for platonic pal Marie, who is also in the process of driving away a perfectly good lover, but is not particularly interested in filling the void.

Though Ludo is on life support for most of the film, just about every word written about Lies has invoked The Big Chill.  The 1960’s era soundtrack really accentuates the parallels, but the lack of any further 60’s cultural baggage allows the story to breathe and veritably breeze along, even though tragedy always lurks around the corner.  Ludo was never any kind of activist that’s for sure (though Marie sort of is, but her African field work is largely considered a joke by her friends).

At one hundred fifty-four minutes Lies is a long film, chocked full of melodramatic situations, but somehow Canet never lets it get too heavy, at least until the big emotional climax.  Frankly, he keeps it quite snappy, which is always a virtue.  He has a fine cast to call upon, including two Oscar winners: Jean Dujardin, only briefly seen as Ludo (but nice work all the same), and Marion Cotillard, doing her best hipster Mae West thing as Marie.  Yet, it is Francois Cluzet (who will forever be Françis Paudras in Round Midnight for many of us) who really makes the picture crackle and hum as the angry but fundamentally decent Cantara.  He brings a shot of vigor to each of his scenes.  Conversely, Laurent Lafitte’s mopey Antoine is like an energy-suck.

Even though everyone knows where Lies is headed, it still comes together rather well.  Yes, we all need to grow-up at some point, but we should never forget to tell our friends what they mean to us.  Indeed, you can stick the film’s messages up there on the fridge next to the Robert Frost poems.  Yet when you get right down to it, any film that ends with a Nina Simone song can’t be all bad.  Combining several fine performances with a nimble directorial touch, Little White Lies somehow breaks down viewer resistance to its ensemble angst.  Recommended for Francophiles and fans of the big name French cast, Little White Lies opens this Friday (8/24) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Michael Biehn Goes Grindhouse: The Victim

People say they love the environment, but do you know who actually lives out in the wilderness?  Freaks, that’s who.  Nonetheless, a woman running for her life in the middle of nowhere can hardly be choosey about where she finds refuge.  Proudly self-identifying as a retro grindhouse movie, Michael Biehn’s The Victim (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

In Victim’s world, women like Annie and her friend Mary can only be one thing: strippers.  They are not bad people.  They just enjoy the fast life.  Unfortunately, when they start “partying” with two crooked cops, Mary is killed in a Very Bad Things style mishap.  Of course, Cooger the narc and the super-connected Henderson now have to shut up Annie, permanently. 

Tearing through the woods, she ends up at the cabin belonging to Kyle, a smart, but seriously twitchy middle-aged anti-social loner.  As you might guess, this dude seems to be hiding something.  Yet, against his better judgment, he becomes Annie’s protector.  At least she is nice enough to throw herself at him during quiet moments.

The truth is The Victim’s big twist is so deliberately obvious, it almost forgets to reveal it.  Perhaps even more surprisingly, the film is not nearly as violent as one might expect.  Kids still have no business watching it though.  Not a slasher film nor torture porn, The Victim is basically a coke and moonshine fueled cat-and-mouse thriller with a rather sinister shoe constantly poised to drop.  Yet, it sort of works on its own sleazy terms.

Kyle the misanthrope is basically the kind of role writer-director Biehn now specializes in and indeed he does his thing with plenty of grizzled attitude.  He certainly looks like a cat to avoid, whereas Jennifer Blanc and Danielle Harris certainly look like strippers, for what that’s worth.  However, their frequent flashback scenes ring with the thudding sound of unintentional comedy.  Yet, that is nothing compared to some of the cheesy over-produced pop songs inappropriately strewn throughout the soundtrack.

The Victim openly invites bad karma by liberally quoting from Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven—not a comparison they should invite.  To be fair though, there are a few cleverly written bits of dialogue.  Basically, it is for everyone who wants to see Michael Biehn and two other scumbags go at like old school hill people.  Entertaining in a way, but impossible to recommend to anyone accept hardcore fans of hermitsploitation, The Victim opens this Friday (8/24) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Teddy Bear: the Big Hearted Sundance Award Winner

Why do single men visit Thailand?  Right, but not Dennis Petersen.  He is there looking for true love.  It ought to be able to find him.  The Danish bodybuilder is certainly conspicuous enough in Mads Matthiesen’s Teddy Bear (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at New York’s Film Forum.

It takes about ten seconds to figure out why the gentle giant is so socially awkward.  His controlling mother Ingrid is something else alright.  However, when his bachelor uncle Bent returns from Thailand with a surprise bride, Petersen is persuaded to give it a try himself.  Of course, as far as Mother Ingrid knows, he is in Dusseldorf for a competition—and even that cover story didn’t go over so well.

Connecting with Uncle Bent’s more or less procurer, Petersen is profoundly put off by the realities of Thailand’s sex tourism trade.  He prefers the friendly environment of a local gym.  It happens to be run by Toi, the relatively young widow of the original proprietor.  Once the two meet, things should run their course, but Petersen remains painfully shy and he still has mother dearest waiting back in Denmark.

Expanding on his well received short film, simply titled Dennis, Matthiesen snagged the directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  He certainly shows rare patience and restraint in his feature debut.  Foreswearing big dramatic showiness, he is true to his protagonist’s introversion (as well as the general Scandinavian reserve).  Instead, he focuses on small but telling moments that ultimately add up quite nicely.

Probably nobody else in the world could have played Petersen quite as credibly Kim Kold, reprising his role in the precursor short.  He certainly has the hulking physique, but he also projects a very real sense there is a deeply sensitive soul buried beneath that muscle mass.  Likewise, Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard is quite endearing as the woman who can see Petersen for the man he is and also perhaps the man he can still be.  Yet, nobody makes a greater impression than Elsebeth Steentoft, fiercely steely as the brazenly manipulative mother.

Matthiesen has a nice visual sense, often making the oversized Petersen look small amid the teeming vice-filled streets of Pattaya.  Though definitely unhurried, his pacing is never slack or labored.  Rather, he takes viewers exactly where he intends to, in his own good time.  Recommended for mature viewers, meaning those who have seen a bit of life and can appreciate Petersen’s halting efforts to find his place in the world, Teddy Bear opens tomorrow (8/22) in New York at Film Forum.

Sleepwalk with Me: A Comedian Sleepwalks into a Bar

A stand-up comic is having relationship trouble.  Of course, this is a good thing, because he can use it in his act and brother, he could use the material.  Yet, he will get even more mileage out of his little somnambulism habit.  Adapted from his one-man stage show for the kind of big art-house screen, Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Mike Pandamiglio, as Birbiglia’s character is transparently known, only has one thing going for him.  Abbey, his college girlfriend, still has not lost patience with his sorry excuse for a life.  He tends bar at a comedy club and is occasionally allowed to stick up the stage for a few minutes.  Everyone assumes they will eventually get married, more or less including themselves.  Yet, when a dotty old agent in the Broadway Danny Rose tradition starts booking him on a string low rent one-nighters, Pandamiglio begins to rethink his career, in a good way, and more ambiguously, his longtime relationship.  That leads to stress, which in turn stimulates his latent sleepwalking tendency.  The upside is this gives him some good stories.

Indeed, Sleepwalk is consistently funny, rather skillfully mixing smart and dumb humor.  Birbiglia’s likable loser persona translates quite well to the flat screen.  Not since Carson’s heyday has anyone gotten as many laughs out of jokes that bomb (from us, not his on-screen audiences).  He also opens up the story very effectively, with the collaborative help of his brother Joe, Ira Glass of the retractable This American Life (where Birbiglia is a regular contributor), and his stage director Seth Barrish.  Even his periodic breaking of the fourth wall works in context, rather than feeling like an artifact of its theatrical roots.

Birbiglia also has some hilarious support from Wittenberg University alumnus James Rebhorn as his domineering father Frank, as well as comedian Marc Maron, who is probably funnier here in little more than a cameo than he has been since maybe the Clinton administration.  Even the voice of pioneering sleep researcher (and onetime jazz musician) Dr. William C. Dement gets laughs, at his own expense.  The only real weak spot is Lauren Ambrose, who is a rather pedestrian presence as the ever indulgent Abby.

While the dream sequences are a bit derivative, Sleepwalk really works so well because of the ways it subverts rom-com conventions.  It is not headed towards the neatly prepackaged conclusion one might anticipate, which is cool.  Indeed, the messiness is definitely part of its charm.  One of the best straight forward, non-genre domestic indie comedies in years, Sleepwalk with Me is recommended for general audiences, well beyond its stage and NPR fanbase, when it opens this Friday (8/24) in New York at the IFC Center.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Somewhere Between: Chinese Adoptees Come to Terms with Their Identity

In recent years, China’s greatest export has been the best and brightest of the next generation.  They call them girls.  China’s One Child Policy, cultural preferences, and dire rural poverty created a perfect storm of little orphaned girls.  Over 100,000 have been adopted worldwide, out of which over 80,000 are now Americans.  Four such teenaged adoptees are profiled in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s Somewhere Between (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Few adoptees really expect to find their birth parents.  It is a matter of simple math: over a billion people and scant documentation.  Nonetheless, many will try to trace their roots, not necessarily to reconnect with the parents that let them go, but to help come to terms with who they really are.  Jenna, Haley, Ann, and Fang (or “Jenni”), the primary POV figures in Somewhere, are indeed high achievers.  Some admit part of their drive stems from the lingering feeling of abandonment—that is a loaded word in the film, but it is hard to get around it.  However, it may come to pass China will regret losing out on their talents and those of scores of young women just like them.  While the flow of adoption has slowed, the impact on upcoming Chinese generations will be felt in years to come.

Perhaps the greatest revelation in Somewhere is the continuing engagement of not just the girls but their entire families on the issue of Chinese orphans.  One Evangelical family has formed a nonprofit to deliver much needed supplies to the ill-equipped provincial orphanages.  Yet, the film’s most moving subplot by far involves Fang and her family’s efforts first to fund physical therapy for a little disabled girl and then help facilitate her placement with an American family ready and willing to provide the care she needs.

Unlike in most documentaries, the Evangelical community is presented on balance quite positively in Somewhere.  They are the adopting demographic, after all.  The kids at school can still be insensitive jerks though.  Hopefully, Knowlton’s film will lead to greater understanding.  Indeed, viewers should realize girls like the Somewhere quartet will be their children’s future classmates or maybe even their own daughters.

Smart and uncommonly together, each of the featured young women is worth meeting on-screen.  Clearly, they were comfortable opening up to Knowlton, who set out to make the film to provide her own adopted Chinese daughter some points of reference for when she is old enough to start grappling with these issues.  Well intentioned, emotionally engaging, and never polemical, Somewhere Between is recommended rather strongly when it opens this Friday (8/24) in New York at the IFC Center, with Knowlton and several participants appearing at select screenings throughout the weekend.

DocuWeeks ’12: Digital Dharma

The holy texts of Tibetan Buddhism are not very portable.  That is not necessarily a problem if you are studying peacefully in a monastery, but it is a serious drawback if your country is invaded by an imperial power.  Such was indeed the fate of Tibet.  Following the 1950 Communist invasion, centuries of Tibetan culture were at of risk of being lost forever.  However, one American scholar successfully spearheaded a drive to digitize, translate, and disseminate thousands of sacred and secular Tibetan texts.  His campaign is documented in Dafna Yachin’s Digital Dharma (trailer here), which is currently screening during DocuWeeks New York 2012.

The late E. Gene Smith was a perennial student who specialized in East Asian languages with little commercial application.  Tibetan was perfect for his purposes.  Yet, as he immersed himself in the culture, he became increasingly alarmed about its chances for survival.  After the initial invasion and again during the Cultural Revolution, monasteries were ruthlessly razed and books were systematically burned.  As a result, many critical texts were completely unavailable to the Tibetan Buddhist Diaspora.

Fortunately, most of the books still survived, hidden away to avoid the Communist rampages.  In the 1960’s, as a Library of Congress field worker in non-aligned India, Smith catalogued and facilitated the publication of hundreds of volumes smuggled out of Tibet.  Retiring from the Federal government, Smith eventually cofounded the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which would pursue the mission of digitization and translation, insuring the wisdom of Tibet will survive and spread across the world.

Clearly, Yachin nearly venerates the Tibetologist as if he had been a lama himself. While Smith surely did invaluable work preserving the endangered Tibet culture, he was not infallible.  In fact, the 1960’s era pacifist seems to have carried some residual ideological baggage, leading to the somewhat debatable decision to leave his collection to the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu, Sichuan.  Smith was determined to return the ancient documents to the Tibetans, laudably considering himself only a temporary caretaker.  Yet, just how trustworthy a caretaker a Chinese chartered institution will be surely remains to be seen, particularly considering earlier efforts to transfer his collection were forestalled by the 2008 riots that swept across Tibet.  At least the contents of his collection are now preserved for posterity.

Often fascinating, Digital offers viewers some helpful context for understanding Tibetan Buddhism as well as the captive nation’s thorny history over the past seventy years or so.  It is also one of the more polished productions seen during this year’s DocuWeeks, featuring some stylish but informative graphics.  Despite prompting some unanswered questions, Digital Dharma tells a great story.  In fact, it is the rather rare film that presents both religion and technology in a positive light.  Respectfully recommended for amateur Tibetologists and China watchers, Digital Dharma screens through Thursday (8/23) at the IFC Center in New York, as DocuWeeks 2012 comes to a close.

Death By China: Trading with a Hostile Power

Is Bart Simpson an agent of oppression?  He is to the legions of Chinese slave laborers, forced to churn out cheap licensed merchandise in work camps.  Such involuntary servitude is one of China’s greatest competitive advantages in the global marketplace.  Peter Navarro ominously warns America about the dangers of Chinese economic hegemony in the alarmist yet still highly alarming documentary, Death by China (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

To Navarro’s credit, DBC repeatedly distinguishes between the decent hardworking Chinese people and their oppressive Communistic government, often reminding viewers the former is the greatest victim of the latter.  To this end, they enlist no less an authority than former dissident and Chinese Gulag inmate Harry Wu.  Any film featuring Wu is worth our attention.

While DBC raises some salient human rights issues, its primary message is one of economic protectionism.  Adapting his book of the same title for the screen, Navarro blames China’s predatory export subsidies for the drastic outsourcing of the American manufacturing base.  We hear this echoed by several union leaders, whose rigid contracts and outright featherbedding have spurred the very outsourcing they bemoan. 

Nonetheless, the film is on solid ground when it discusses the lack of environmental protection and consumer product safety regulation in China.  Indeed, many innocent Chinese citizens are living with the toxic pollution released from the production of export-goods toxic to American end-consumers.  It also makes a strong national security argument when it points out how much of our technologically advanced weaponry is assembled with parts made in China.  In fact, given what we know or suspect about the Stuxnet virus, the film might actually underplay this line of inquiry.

You know DBC is well researched when it sites an article published in The Epoch TimesShrewdly, it also maintains a legitimately bipartisan spirit, equally blaming Clinton and a Republican congress for supporting China’s entry into the WTO (the original sin in Navarro’s judgment) and featuring interview segments with members of both parties, including longtime human rights champion Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). 

Given his ideological baggage though, the choice of Martin Sheen as narrator might drive away some that might otherwise be receptive to its message.  However, the greatest problem with the film is the wildly over the top interstitial animation.  The bleeding American flags will just make it too easy for my snooty colleagues to dismiss the film wholesale.

In fact, DBC is not nearly as simplistic as those transitional graphics might suggest.  Whether or not you accept the pseudo-protectionist premise, the sheer volume of American debt held by China is a problem the current administration has done its best to ignore.  Recommended for its human rights content and for simply challenging our national policy of China denial during an election year, the earnest but sometime overheated Death By China opens this Friday (8/24) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

DocuWeeks: Garden in the Sea

The island of Espíritu Santo is wild land, off limits to humanity.  It sounds like an awful, forbidding place, but Mexican environmentalists consider it one of their greatest triumphs.  To commemorate this feat of preservation, Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias created a special installation, not on the new no man’s zone, but off the coast, on the floor of the Sea of Cortez, bringing new meaning to the term “site specific.”  Thomas Reidelsheimer documents the creation and dedication of the Espiritu Santo architectural sculpture in Garden in the Sea (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DocuWeeks.

There is a tiny irony that a film taking us to task for all we collectively dump into the ocean would also celebrate plunging a series of concrete gates into said waters.  Yes, it’s hardly the same thing, but it is still rather odd.  Still, there is a good chance the fish will like having it down there, like a giant aquarium ornament.  Potentially, Garden could have been one of those documentaries that take viewers someplace they will most likely never have the opportunity to visit, like Into Eternity, Michael Madsen’s tour of Finland’s subterranean nuclear waste depository Onkalo or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s 3D journey into the Chauvet cavern.

Unfortunately, despite the striking vistas of Espíritu Santo and the liberal helpings of underwater photography, Garden simply is not very cinematic.  Frankly, it feels more like a cable special than a theatrical documentary feature, particularly given the relatively brief sixty-nine minute running time.  However, it includes some soothing but distinctive Stephan Micus music licensed from the ECM label, perfectly suited to the aquatic theme.

Perhaps you have to be there.  Swimming through Iglesias’s Atlantis gates is probably a pretty cool experience for scuba divers, but at about ten feet tall, they are not imposing enough to command the big screen.  There are also only three of them too, so the project cannot really be thought of as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates underwater.

Granted, Espíritu Santo is a nice story about engaged citizens taking direct action.  However, most viewers will have nagging doubts whether turning the preserve over to the Mexican government is the wisest course of action.  One has the uneasy feeling that if the environmental consortium is not constantly monitoring it, the beautiful island might be turned to more nefarious purposes.  Of course, Garden is not about to address any concerns regarding systemic government corruption in Mexico. (Instead, look out for Bernardo Ruiz’s Reportero on the festival circuit for that kind of reality check.)

Aside from the occasional stern environmental talking-to, Garden is a slight but moderately pleasant travelogue.  Marine enthusiasts might enjoy it, but its brevity makes it difficult to justify New York City ticket prices.  Be that as it may, Garden in the Sea screens through Thursday (8/23) at the IFC Center, as part of the final week of DocuWeeks New York.