Thursday, January 31, 2013

John Dies at the End—but Don’t Let that Get You Down

It starts with a wickedly macabre riddle.  Where it finishes is not so clear.  One would assume the title offers an obvious clue, but not necessarily.  Those who require a rigorously logical approach to the space-time continuum might be out to sea, but genre fans looking for a wild trip will find in Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Based on the novel by Jason Pargin published under the pen-name David Wong, JDATE (as it is cheekily abbreviated) follows the story character David Wong has to tell reporter Arnie Blondestone, in a series of rapid-fire flashbacks.  He really does not look like a Wong, but looks are frequently deceiving in this reality.

“Wong” and his partner John are amateur exorcists approaching professional status.  Two years ago, they were exposed to a drug known as Soy Sauce.  This stuff really opens up the doors of perception.  Now they can see beings from other dimensions and tell you what you dreamed last night.  Unfortunately, just as Wong adjusts to the sauce, he learns his best friend has died.  Shortly thereafter, John starts calling him, first to apologize for all the drama and then to guide him through a series of predicaments.  Eventually, they reunite to confront an imminent threat from another universe, on what appears to be the Eyes Wide Shut world, with the help of their powerful ally, Dr. Albert Marconi, who masquerades as a television psychic.  Or something like that.  Then it becomes a bit complicated.

What Bill & Ted were to stoner science fiction, JDATE is to psychotropic genre fare. 
Like the original source novel, the film is episodic in structure, madly hop-scotching back and forth across time and planes of existence.  The audience just has to live in the moment of each segment, which are almost always outrageously clever.  Frankly, viewers really do not care if the lads save the universe.  They will just want to see what comes next.

As Wong and John, Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are likable lugs, who treat the bedlam with admirable seriousness, never winking at the camera.  However, it is the supporting characters that really enrich JDATE.  Executive producer Paul Giamatti is kind of awesome as Blondestone—a rather more complex role than it first appears.  Likewise, Clancy Brown delivers pure genre gold as Dr. Marconi.  There’s also a dog, Bark Lee, as himself, who deserves consideration for next year’s Golden Collar Award, if they can keep it going that long.  There is even a brief appearance from Angus Scrimm, the cult favorite from Coscarelli’s Phantasm.

JDATE’s energy and inventiveness are impressive.  As eccentric as things get, the film never feels forced or self-consciously hip.  That is the real trick.  As a result, the rough edges, apparently the result of budgetary limitations, can easily be forgiven.  In fact, they become part of the charm.  Highly recommended for fans of over-the-top sci-fi-horror hybrids, John Dies at the End opens tomorrow (2/1) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine, with Coscarelli attending the Friday and Saturday night screenings.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Slamdance ’13: Ghost Team One

When two slackers discover the house they share is haunted, they try to use this novelty to score with a ghost-crazy chick.  If this seems like an inappropriate response, than you are probably not a dude in his 20’s.  Or 30’s.  Or maybe even 40’s.  Intellectually and emotionally, Brad and Sergio are barely adolescents, decidedly out of their depth in Scott Rutherford & Ben Peyser’s found footage horror spoof Ghost Team One (trailer with all kinds of profanity here), which screened during the 2013 SlamdanceFilm Festival in Park City.

When Sergio has a strange, unexplained experience during a kegger, Brad assumes he was just drunk—because he was.  However, the two decide to become amateur ghost chasers when they learn Fernanda, their very attractive party guest, is obsessed with the paranormal.  It turns out their house was once a notorious brothel, whose madam disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

As recorded by Billy Chen, their unseen Craigslist videographer, the lads go about documenting their ghost, a la Paranormal Activity.  However, they are far more interested in putting the moves on Fernanda.  It is not exactly Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but there are plenty of laughs to be mined from this basic premise, with Brad and Sergio essentially serving as the horndog versions of Scooby and Shaggy.

As Brad and Sergio, Carlos Santos and J.R. Villarreal play off each other quite nicely and have a real flair for raunchy stoner humor.  Fernanda Romero is a charismatic screen presence, who credibly portrays her namesake’s willing obliviousness the all the lust focused at her.  However, Tony Cavalero frequently upstages everyone as Chuck, the aggressively uptight third housemate.

It probably cost Rutherford and Peyser more to travel to Park City than to make Ghost Team One.  Nonetheless, there are moments of genuinely inspired gross-out humor, including a climax so demented viewers have to see it for themselves because words fail.  Those who enjoy taste-defying humor with supernatural trappings should keep an eye out for Ghost Team One.  It is bound to find an appreciative audience after its world premiere at this year’s Slamdance.

As Luck Would Have It—Need It Like a Hole in the Head

Roberto Gómez never demonstrated much talent for the advertising business, having only had one notable success with a slogan for Coca Cola.  He is also rather awkward socially.  Not surprisingly, when times got lean, his firm let him go.  With Europe mired in economic doldrums, his long-term unemployment is undermining his finances and self-esteem.  In desperation, he seeks to capitalize on a freak accident in Álex de la Iglesia’s roundly disappointing As Luck Would Have It (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Gómez has one thing going for him: his wife, Luisa.  She duly tries to buck up his confidence before a rare interview, even though they both know it is futile.  Depressed by his inevitable failure, Gómez makes his way to Cartagena, where they spent their honeymoon back in the day.  Through a forced sequence of events, Gómez falls off a scaffold, impaling the back of his head on an iron spike.

With the EMS uncertain how to move Gómez without causing a fatal loss of blood, he finds himself trapped in the construction zone, resembling a crucifix.  As the media swarms around him, Gómez senses an opportunity.  Acquiring a bottom-feeding agent, he tries to sell exclusive rights to his story.  For the sake of his dignity and well-being, Luisa tries to dissuade him, but Gómez is content to trade both for his family’s financial security.

Smart, sophisticated, and tragic, Luck’s Luisa is a great role for Salma Hayek.  It is hard to understand what she is doing with a schlub like Gómez though.  Still, she is about all the film has going for it.  Subtlety certainly is not one of its virtues.  Randy Feldman’s screenplay is so eager to deemed au courant, it is frankly rather pathetic.  Dramatically, Luck is also quite flat.  Never throwing in any twists, turns, or reversals of fortune, it is always blindingly obvious where it will all end.  As a result, the film is about twenty percent set-up and eighty percent endgame.  That is just punishing, regardless of subject matter.

Spanish TV actor José Mota is pretty darn cringy as Gómez, which was clearly the intention.  The interchangeable battery of reporters, lawyers, and politicians are all indistinguishably sleazy.  Aside from Hayek, only Eduardo Casanova makes any sort of impression as Gómez’s rebellious punker son, Lorenzo.

Unlike the operatic madness of Iglesia’s The Last Circus, his latest effort to reach our shores is predictable and laborious.  Far too self-important and heavy handed, the entire enterprise falls flat.  Have a Coke and smile and skip As Luck Would Have It when it opens Friday (2/1) at the IFC Center.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Koch: The Man, the Mayor, the Maverick

In 1981, the New York Republican Party supported lifelong Democrat Ed Koch’s re-election bid.  He has since returned the favor, periodically endorsing Republicans like Pres. George W. Bush, Sen. Al D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki, and Andrew Eristoff.  Throughout his public life, Mayor Koch has been something of a maverick and he is always good for a lively quote.  Neil Barsky documents the triumphs and controversies of the iconic mayor in the simply but aptly titled Koch (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If one thing comes through loud and clear in Koch it is the animosity between him and Mario Cuomo.  It all harks back to 1977, when the Cuomo mayoral campaign allegedly gave winking approval to the guerrilla campaign urging New Yorkers: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”  Shrewdly capturing the center and the right of the electorate, Koch ultimately vanquished his Cuomo running as the Liberal Party candidate.  However, questions about Koch’s private life would persist.  In fact, Barsky’s only real misstep is the inordinate about of time spent on this is-he-or-isn’t-he question.

For those New York transplants arriving during the Giuliani or Bloomberg eras, Koch is a briskly entertaining primer on the City’s 1970’s and 1980’s history.  Recognizable names like Bess Myerson and Donald Manes, the late Queens Borough President, whose corruption scandal also tarnished the Koch administration, are put into full context.  There are also plenty of his “how’m I doing?” greatest hits and the frequent media appearances that established a new template for New York mayors.

Barsky scored top-shelf access to Hizzoner, but the Koch of today comes across a bit sad, clearly uncomfortable with his status as a New York political graybeard-gadfly.  Viewers can tell he misses the action.

While Barsky examines his legacy warts-and-all, his documentary will easily convince viewers Koch was the right no-nonsense man for the job, like a pre-Giuliani Giuliani.  Koch is funnier though.  Shrewdly, Barsky emphasizes his humor whenever possible.  The results, gently prodded along by Mark Degli Antoni’s peppy underscore, are compulsively watchable.  One of the most entertaining documentaries of the young year, so far, for both political and pop culture junkies, Koch the movie opens this Friday (2/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

Sundance ’13: Magic Magic

And now Sebastián Silva presents the second part of Michael Cera’s Chilean vacation.  This was the film they intended to make all along, but when the financing temporarily bogged down, they whipped up Crystal Fairy to pass the time.  While Silva’s Magic Magic is a darker, more intriguing work, it was probably too art-house for genre patrons when it screened as part of the Park City at Midnight section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Alicia has come to Chile so she can visit her cousin Sarah, who is just so gosh-darned thrilled to have her there.  Alicia seems a bit high maintenance, which is not what Sarah needs right now.  Having some private business to tend to, Sarah pushes Alicia off on her boyfriend Agustín and some friends leaving on a coastal vacation.  Something about Alicia brings out the absolute worst in the sexually confused expat Brink, but the shy and clumsy (perhaps deliberately so) Alicia gets on everyone’s last nerve.  It is mutual.  As Agustín’s friends mock and complain about Alicia behind her back, her mental state begins (or continues) to deteriorate.

Minor spoiler alert: By far the biggest disappointment of MM is the lack of a violent death for Cera’s Brink.  Considering how unpleasant he is (just as annoying as his character in Crystal Fairy, if not more so), he really has it coming.  In fact, Silva disregards most of the principles of EC Comics, avoiding genre scares in favor of slow brooding atmosphere.  Something is definitely off in MM, but Silva lets it all emerge slowly.

In a weird way, MM closely parallels Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, right down to its ambiguous third act.  However, the climatic event makes logical sense in the Romanian film, whereas in MM it rather comes out of left field.

As Brink, Cera is bilingually irritating, which is sort of impressive, really.  As Alicia, Juno Temple is a perfect portrait of arrested development (if you will) and emotional neediness.  She is just all kinds of trouble.  She also takes the Sundance honors over Cera and Silva, having appeared in three films at this year’s festival (also including Lovelace and Afternoon Delight).  To her credit, Emily Browning brings some presence to the underdeveloped role of Sarah, whereas the Chilean characters are even more undistinguished, seemingly on hand just to rub Alicia the wrong way.

Silva masterfully creates a mood of profound unease, but it never really pays off.  Magic Magic is the sort of film that is more interesting to look back on than to watch in the moment.  Given the big name talent involved, it is a cinch to play fairly far and wide after its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Monday, January 28, 2013

KCS Film Night: Padak

Even in a restaurant aquarium, the law of the jungle still holds.  However, one mackerel has different ideas, preferring the hope of freedom to a life playing dead.  Obviously riffing on Pixar’s fish story, Lee Dae-hee’s Padak is surprisingly serious stuff that might be better suited to older animation fans when it screens tomorrow as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s regular free movie night (trailer here).

Even before she reached the restaurant (more of a coastal greasy spoon), the young mackerel did her best to flip and flop back to the ocean.  In the tank, she compulsively darts and dives, trying to break through the invisible walls.  Somewhat amused at the futility of her efforts, the other fish dub her Padak (meaning “flappy”).  They have adopted the survival tactics of the old flatfish, playing dead whenever humans approach the tank and cannibalizing their sickly neighbors.

Padak refuses to follow his strategy.  She would rather take her chances with a desperate escape attempt than the cringy existence proscribed by the flatfish.  In fact, Padak rather powerfully suggests the ultimate price of freedom is still favorable to an undignified security.  That is a laudable message, but it might be a bit much for some youngsters to handle.  Parents should note, there is also a fair amount of filleting and gutting in the film.  Clearly, those tanks are not in front of the restaurant for decorative purposes.

Padak’s animation is very strong, approaching the level of recent Dreamworks Animation releases.  The fish are quite expressive and the scenes with humans have a dark, almost expressionistic flavor.  However, the strongest, most complicated character is the hard-bitten old flatfish rather than the plucky but not particularly well fleshed out Padak.

Given its anthropomorphic fish, viewers will probably come into Padak with a certain set of expectations.  However, film works towards a bittersweet and somewhat tragic ending that is quite mature and thoughtful.  For grown-ups, it pays off handsomely.  While there is absolutely nothing in Padak that could be considered objectionable, it is still recommended as an adult fable for older animation fans.  It screens—for free—tomorrow (1/29) at the Tribeca Cinemas, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

Slamdance ’13: Hank and Asha

Is technology stronger than social tradition and family expectations?  That question will be put to the test when two aspiring filmmakers fall head-over-heels in “like” via online video messages in James E. Duff’s Hank and Asha (trailer here), an Audience Award winner at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival.

Hank had a short film accepted at a Czech film festival.  Asha saw it there.  She is studying at a Prague film school for a year, before returning to her regular life in India.  Something about Hank’s film prompted her to send him a video message.  Something about her question convinces Hank to respond in kind—and so on and so on.  Soon their long distance flirtation becomes surprisingly serious.  However, the inconvenient realities back in India drastically complicate any future they might have together.

The scenes filmed in Prague nicely capture its beauty and vibe, making viewers want to visit the city again.  The New York scenes did not seem to have the same effect (but to be fair, I was only in Park City for a week, hardly enough time to get homesick).  Regardless, the sense of place and displacement are a big part of what distinguishes H & A.

H & A is sort of like a hipster updating of sentimental favorites like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters.  Dramatically, it works relatively well because of its realistically appealing leads.  Andrew Pastides is not afraid to look silly as the somewhat nebbish Hank.  He also forcefully depicts the heartsick desperation of a smitten party with no leverage to make their sort of relationship work.  Mahira Kakkar has a pixie-like charm as Asha.  However, Duff and co-screenwriter Julia Morrison have her doing things that do not really make sense in light of her full situation.  Still, both co-leads definitely convince viewers each has a deep emotional attraction to the other, despite never appearing in the same scene together.

It is easy to see why Slamdance audiences responded to H & A.  It offers some unabashed sentiment for the Facebook generation without feeling out of synch with the times.  Small but nice, Hank and Asha is recommended for Williamsburg scenesters as a counter-intuitive date movie.  Following its success at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, it should have a long, fruitful festival life ahead of it.

Sundance ’13: Virtually Heroes

There was one film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival 100% guaranteed to turn a profit.  We can tell this by the fact Roger Corman serves as its executive producer.  Although Corman was the subject of Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel which was a selection the 2011 edition of the festival, director G.J. Echternkamp’s Virtually Heroes marked Corman’s Sundance debut as a filmmaker this year in Park City.

Sgt. Books is a fully aware character in a Rambo style video game, who is getting increasingly frustrated with the futility of his existence.  His sidekick Sgt. Nova is far less so.  The impulsive Nova still enjoys the in-game killing as well as the post-fight preening. Books is only interested in Jennifer, the “sexy lady reporter” who has been captured by the Viet Cong, or whoever.  Unfortunately, she is always plunged back into jeopardy right after each time she and Books finally start to share a moment.

VH largely repeats the same one-joke premise over and over, as Books and Nova work their way through successive levels of the video game.  Still, it is rather clever to have Mark Hamill, Mr. Videogame Voice-Over, appear as the mysterious Buddhist Monk.  However, from Corman’s perspective, it was a brilliant opportunity to re-use his old jungle exploitation action footage, with no need to worry about that pesky continuity.

Obviously, Corman was not about to fritter away good money on name actors either.  At least, Robert Baker looks the part of the brooding, square jawed Books.  For his part, Brent Chase earns a lot of points as the over-the-top testosterone-charged Nova, understanding full well his role in the mayhem.  Katie Savoy’s reporter is about as down-to-earth as is possible in a film like this, while Kiana Kim, the future Mrs. Pete Rose, adds further cult-camp appeal as a sleazy stripper (believe it or not).

This is definitely a meathead movie, but it tries hard.  Screenwriter Matt Yamashita clearly gets the gaming mentality, but too often VH resembles the first-person shooters it is lampooning.  While the film maintains it energy, the wit and originality flag over time.  A so-so midnight offering, Virtually Heroes still holds the distinction of bringing the Corman brand to Sundance.  Expect to find it coming soon to a Syfy Channel near you.

Ilan Ramon’s Mission: Space Shuttle Columbia

Ilan Ramon was the Yoni Netanyahu of his generation.  A charismatic military officer, he planned and led the daring 1981 bombing raid on Iraq’s nearly complete nuclear reactor.  The son of Holocaust survivors, when chosen to be the first Israeli astronaut, he hoped to use the mission to bring a remarkable true story to the world’s attention.  Unfortunately though, he was assigned to Columbia’s tragic final 2003 flight.  Daniel Cohen documents the man and the history that inspired him in Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope (promo here), which airs this Thursday on PBS stations nationwide.

Ramon was an ace F-16 pilot.  He half expected not to survive the then controversial Operation Opera.  Yet, all planes came back unscathed in what quickly came to be considered the most successful Israeli military operation ever.  At the time, it was duly, if reluctantly, condemned by the U.S. government.  Twenty-two years later, he became the only non-American citizen to win the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

As if the Columbia disaster was not heavy enough, Mission of Hope is also profoundly concerned with the Holocaust.  While Ramon was just one generation removed, Joachim “Yoja” Joseph, the senior scientist supervising Israel’s Columbia experiments, had survived Bergen-Belsen as young boy.  Thanks to a courageous Rabbi, Joseph had his bar mitzvah in the camp with the aid of a tiny Torah.  Knowing his time was short, the Rabbi gave the boy that Torah for safe keeping.  Decades later Ramon carried it into space, along with several other surviving concentration camp artifacts.

Although Ramon’s story would seem to be one of bitter irony, Cohen wisely emphasizes the inspirational aspects of his life and mission.  Featuring interviews with his widow and commanding officers, as well as candid video footage shot by his Columbia mission comrade Dave Brown, Hope conveys a strong personal sense of Ramon as an individual.  To his credit, Cohen is not afraid of idealism or patriotism.  Hope reminds viewers of the pride and optimism inspired by the early days of the space program.  Appropriately, Cohen does not delve into the causes of the disaster.  There are better venues to explore such issues.  Instead, he focuses on Ramon and his crewmates.

It is hard to imagine anyone watching Hope without getting a catch in their throats.  Frankly, it is rather baffling the film has not screened extensively on the festival circuit before its PBS debut, especially considering Hollywood space booster Tom Hanks’ role as executive producer.  Educational and unexpectedly uplifting, Mission of Hope is enthusiastically recommended for general audiences when its screens this Thursday (1/31) on most PBS outlets, with a rebroadcast of Nova’s Space Shuttle Disaster scheduled to follow.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sundance ’13: Google and the World Brain

If you were to list corporations arrogant enough to initiate the Terminator franchise’s Skynet apocalypse, Google would have to rank at the top.  In fact, they might be the entire extent of the roll.  Ben Lewis documents enough characteristic weirdness and secrecy surrounding the company’s controversial book-scanning initiative to provoke all sorts of paranoia with Google and the World Brain (trailer here) which screened as part of the World Documentary Cinema Competition during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

It sounded innocent enough during the early stages.  Google approached some of the greatest academic libraries, offering to scan their collections.  For librarians, it offered the opportunity of digital preservation, without taxing their institutional budgets.  However, many were surprised to find Google selling the resulting e-books online, including a considerable number of titles that were out-of-print, but not out of copyright.

To the considerable number of authors affected, this constituted theft of intellectual property.  Yet, many techy tea leaf readers were even more concerned about the big G’s ultimate aim.  Although not confirmed by the company, the book-scanning project is largely considered to be part of a larger undertaking to create a “World Brain” artificial intelligence.

Foster employs the words of World Brain proponent H.G. Wells to introduce the concept, but you do not have to wear a tin foil hat to be uneasy with his “paternalistic” rationalizations.  Likewise, given the big G’s history collaborating with the Chinese government (briefly addressed in the doc), one does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to be uneasy with the company potentially keeping tabs on what books people read in the future.

Of course, it is hard to say just what the big G’s intentions are because they are not particular talkative about that.  Despite his efforts, Foster only gets a bit of corporate flakery from an official spokesman and some less than illuminating comments from the rather confused sounding head of Google Books in Spain (who evidently did not get the memo).  One thing comes through loud and clear in G & WB.  If you want to talk to the big G about a cup of coffee, you will quickly find yourself signing non-disclosure forms.

While not exclusively about the court challenge to the big G’s settlement agreement with the Authors Guild, this is unquestionably Lewis’s strongest material, becoming the dramatic backbone of the film.  Plenty of those objecting to the arrangement talk on-camera about the complex court case and their wider reservations.  We also hear from the usual futurist suspects, essentially picking up where they left off in Welcome to the Machine

Further distinguishing it from other tech docs, G & WB sports some surprisingly cool graphics that nicely serve the narrative clarity.  In a minor quibble, the film commits a fallacy of composition when it lumps together several ongoing court cases related to e-books that are really more about commercial practices than control information.

It takes guts to question a company with the resources and self-righteous image of the big G.  In doing so Lewis tells a great David vs. Goliath story and raises some pertinent ethical issues for the information age.  Well thought out and lucidly presented Google and the World Brain is recommended for the Wired set and book publishing dinosaurs as it makes the festival rounds following its world premiere at this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’13: Hell Baby

To this day, French is still more widely spoken in New Orleans than people realize.  Unfortunately, an expecting married couple is not fluent.  If they were, they might have picked up on the neighborhood’s macabre names for the fixer-upper they just purchased.  They soon learn just how grossly they overpaid in Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon’s Hell Baby, which was a Park City at Midnight selection during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Vanessa is pregnant, so we know what that means.  As soon as she and Jack move into the House of Blood, she starts to act like Signourney Weaver in Ghostbusters.  Not yet panicking, Jack takes her to see her psychiatrist, who is brutally murdered and crucified shortly thereafter.  This is certainly a suspicious turn of events, but Jack is preoccupied by the house’s supernatural box stacking, a desiccated old lady who will not stay dead, and F’Resnel, the friendly derelict crashing in their crawlspace.  Help, dubious as it might be, is on the way.  Vanessa’s Wiccan sister Marjorie is determined to perform a cleansing ritual and the Vatican has dispatched two investigators.

Veterans of MTV’s The State, Garant & Lennon recently exposed a bit of the Hollywood system’s sausage-making in their bestseller How to Write Movies for Fun & Profit, so they might be doing some short-term indie-genre penance.  While Hell Baby primarily goes for dumb gory laughs and is hardly shy about returning to the gag-well over and over again, it is safe to assume it is funnier, smarter, and more aesthetically rewarding than the latest Wayans’ horror “spoof,” sight unseen.

Indeed, Hell Baby’s comedy scatter gun is loaded with blood, vomit, nudity (both the hot and gross varieties) and the violent deaths of a fair number of major characters.  Still, Garant & Lennon find clever ways to poke fun at genre conventions, such as the practice of compulsively startling the protagonists.

As hapless Jack, Rob Corddry is very funny venting and whining.  He was also a joy to work with, according to Hell Baby’s impish Sundance junket send-up.  Garant & Lennon are strictly shticky as the Italian priests, but Keegan Michael Key has some amusing moments as the ever present F’Resnel.  However, Riki Lindhome probably deserves the most credit for being a good sport during her scenes as Marjorie, which must have been chilly, even in New Orleans.

Almost entirely shot in NOLA, Hell Baby’s demonic story might not sound like the best advertisement for the city, but Garant & Lennon compensate with some big time Po’ Boy love.  Hearing a bit more from the local music scene would have been even better, but so be it.  Its broad comedy hits the target more often than it falls flat and the wild exorcism scene should satisfy horror fans.  Sure to find a theatrical afterlife given the names attached, Hell Baby delivered what midnight patrons expect at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sundance ’13: Cutie and the Boxer

Ushio Shinohara knows how to show a canvas who’s the boss.  His wife Noriko knows how to do the same with Shinohara.  However, it was not always thus.  Their relationship has evolved over the years.   Zachary Heinzerling documents the artists as they prepare for their first joint show in Cutie and the Boxer, which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Ushio Shinohara’s unique brand of abstract expressionism involves paint soaked boxing gloves.  One of the more cinematic artists to watch at work, Shinohara created several of his boxing paintings live in Park City for suitably impressed festivalers.  He also has a considerable body of sculpture, but it is the painting for which he is best known.  Alas, “known” is a relative term.  Despite a burst of media attention when he arrived in 1969, lasting success has eluded the boxer.

Meeting Shinohara in New York as a naïve art student, Noriko put her career on hold to raise their son and to serve as her husband’s assistant.  However, she is poised to eclipse his limited renown with her autobiographical comic art depicting the tempestuous relationship of the often naked “Cutie” and her alcoholic husband “Bullie.”  “Ushi” is the Japanese word for “bull,” but the name perhaps holds a double meaning here.

Life with the Shinoharas sounds much quieter now that he has sworn off drinking.  Unfortunately, their adult son seems to have picked up his father’s bad habits—a not uncommon phenomenon for children of alcoholics.  Their interfamily dynamics are definitely complicated, but Heinzerling gives viewers enough contextualization to pick up on most of it.

Ushio Shinohara’s working process is interesting to watch.  Noriko Shinohara’s work is interesting to read and absorb.  That gives Heinzerling quite a bit material to shape into a film, particularly by the standards of most quietly contemplative art docs.  Just Ushio Shinohara’s status as an eighty year old struggling artist lends the film ample dramatic tension.

Serving as his own cinematographer, Heinzerling gives C & B the straight forward observational doc treatment.  However, the music of experimental/jazz/classical composer and Bach interpreter Yasuaki Shimizu adds a layer of aesthetic richness to the film, while sensitively accompanying the on-screen action.  Whether or not the film will make Ushio Shinohara’s art more collectible, it should move quite a few Shimizu CDs (or downloads).

C & B examines the downside of hipsterdom, but it has a strong element of hope that will surely resonate with audiences.  The Shinoharas keep doggedly plugging away, remaining faithful to their artistic visions.  Hopefully, Heinzerling’s film will help spur wider recognition for them.  Recommended for patrons of art documentaries and contemporary Japanese art, Cutie and the Boxer screens again this afternoon (1/26) in Park City as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’13: Lovelace

She was paid $1,250 for a film that reportedly grossed $600,000,000 and that paltry sum was entirely pocketed by her husband-manager.  That might sound like the deals musicians usually get, but she was the original porn star, whose cautionary tale is told in Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace (clip here), screening today as part of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Linda Boreman had the profound misfortune of marrying Chuck Traynor, an aspiring pornographer who could turn on the disingenuous charm when he wanted to.  Submissive by nature, Boreman, under the stage-name Linda Lovelace, was forced to perform in explicit films, including Deep Throat, which surely everyone reading this only knows as the inspiration for the code name of Woodward & Bernstein’s Watergate source.  However, at the time it was quite zeitgeisty, becoming a major pop culture phenomenon of the 1970’s.

Initially, Epstein & Friedman portray the dirty movie business relatively benignly, but in the second half of the film they reveal the physical and emotional abuse Traynor employed to bend her to his will.  Much has been made of the decision to cut Sarah Jessica Parker’s appearance as Gloria Steinem, implying the film ignores Lovelace’s later anti-porn activism (like say ending Schindler’s List when the German industrialist decided to open a factory exploiting camp labor), but this really is not the case. 

Frankly, cutting SJP as Steinem, sounds like a perfectly defensible call from multiple standpoints.  Regardless, the film clearly casts Lovelace as the victim of Traynor and culminates with a cathartic media appearance in which she tells all.  Hardly another Boogie Nights, porn is bad in this film, plain and simple.

It is hard to tell from her Wikipedia page, but the brunetted Amanda Seyfried looks like an okay but not uncanny likeness for the tragic Lovelace.  She radiates vulnerability, almost suggesting Lovelace was mired in a state of arrested development.  Peter Sarsgaard’s Traynor might just the most unsettling white trash figure seen on film in years.  With his mullet and tank tops going on, he might be the least pleasant to look at too. 

However, much of the ensemble seems to think they are in some groovy period piece, such as James Franco’s blink-and-you-miss-him appearance as Hugh Hefner.  Hard on the heels of About Cherry, Franco also produced two other Sundance selections this year: kink and Interior. Leather Bar.  Hmm, don’t you wonder what he collects?  Still, T2’s Robert Patrick has some fine moments as Lovelace’s confused ex-cop father.  Conversely, though quite unrecognizable, Sharon Stone is still way over the top as her shrewish caricature of a mother.

Despite its tonal inconsistencies, Lovelace mostly feels earnest and well intentioned.  It does not make viewers curious to check out Deep Throat, which is a real test of such a potentially sensationalistic film.  Former documentarians Epstein and Friedman keep it all moving along relatively briskly enough.  The end product is highly watchable with little resulting guilt, but hardly essential.  For those with a deep personal interest in the subject, Lovelace screens again today (1/26) in Park City as a 2013 Sundance Premiere.

Sundance ’13: Linsanity

The post-Ewing era has been tough for Knicks fans.  Time and again they have watched the organization bring in over-priced under-performing free agents, assembling a mismatched Frankenstein team with no room to maneuver under the salary cap.  The only hope was for an unheralded bench player to explode out of nowhere.  In February 2012, Jeremy Lin answered Knick fans’ prayers.  Evan Jackson Leong follows his long hard road to overnight success in Linsanity (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

There are not a lot of undrafted Harvard alumni playing in the NBA.  Lin is one.  He is also obviously Asian American—a fact many in the professional basketball establishment have trouble getting a handle on (to put it generously).  In fact, Lin faced adversity at every stage of the game.  Casual fans might be surprised to learn Lin’s prep career ended with a Hoosiers like upset state championship, largely powered by his playmaking.  Yet, despite his stats, Lin was never recruited by a NCAA program.

Leong probably should win this year’s right-place-at-the-right-time award at Sundance, having begun to document Lin well before he became a Garden sensation in that fateful February.  Clearly, he won over the trust of Lin as well as the player’s parents and brothers.  As a result, viewers get an intimate look at the central roles Lin’s close relationships with his family and his Christian faith play in his day-to-day life.  In a sport filled with show-boaters, Lin emerges as one of the good guys.

However, Leong seems a little too diplomatic in his coverage of the many problematic responses to the sudden outbreak of “Linsanity,” as it was soon dubbed.  While the filmmaker lumps it all together, there seemed to be a peculiar resentment from some commentators, reflecting an attitude of racial proprietorship over the game of basketball that allowed for goofy looking Euro players like Dirk Nowitzki but not homegrown Taiwanese-American talent like Lin.  Those are indeed torturous waters to navigate, so Leong understandably takes the better part of valor.  Still, he forthrightly addresses the overtly racist taunting directed at Lin from supposedly tolerant Ivy Leaguers during his Harvard away games.

Linsanity pulls off the near impossible, getting viewers to root for a Harvard grad.  He captures the electric excitement that swept through New York, re-awakening the City’s passion for basketball.  It was short, but intense and we still appreciate Lin for it.  Even those who do not follow the NBA will understand why after watching Leong’s doc.  Recommended for basketball fans and those who enjoy Horatio Alger stories, Linsanity screens again today (1/26) in Park City and tomorrow (1/27) in Salt Lake as a Documentary Premiere selection at this year’s Sundance.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sundance ’13: Bug Sur

Big Sur has a long history of inspiring artists, from Henry Miller to Charles Lloyd.  Jack Keouac was also one of them, sort of.  Adapting Kerouac’s autobiographical novel of his time spent along California’s scenic central coast, Michael Polish conveys an impressionistic sense of Kerouac’s language and the lonesome unspoiled environment in Big Sur (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

To protect the guilty (most definitely including himself), Kerouac changed the names of the Beat elite who appear in Big Sur.  Polish changes them back, perhaps to make the film more commercial, but frankly there is no mistaking Kerouac or the Cassadys (or Ferlinghetti for that matter).  Only a few years have passed since the publication of On the Road, but Kerouac is not dealing with success well.  The literary rock star has come to California with the intention of holing up in Ferlinghetti’s Big Sur cabin to purge his soul.  However, a typical Kerouac bender delays his arrival at City Lights.

Eventually, Ferlinghetti ensconces Kerouac in Big Sur, hoping his time spent in isolation will recharge his creative drive.  For a few days, Kerouac enjoys communing with nature, but he gets antsy quickly.  Before long, he is reconnecting with Neal Cassady, launching into a doomed relationship with his friend’s soon to be former mistress, and generally carousing with the usual suspects.

As plot goes, Big Sur leans to the sparse end of the spectrum, making it a real cinematic challenge.  However, Polish arguably captures the rhythm and vibe of Kerouac’s language better than any other filmmaker, directly incorporating generous excerpts from Kerouac’s novel, read by Jean-Marc Barr in the persona of the author.  Accompanied by images of natural beauty and underscored by a subtle but stylistically diverse score, Big Sur is not unlike a cinematic tone poem at times. 

Yet, the film is surprisingly peppy.  Rather than hold one striking image for an interminable length of time, Polish shows the audience one after another, after yet another, in rapid succession.  As result, Big Sur always feels like it is getting somewhere, even when it has little narrative business to show for itself.

A rich visual feast, Big Sur functions as a heck of a show-reel for cinematographer M. David Cullen (whose extensive credits include Jennifer’s Body).  Barr also sounds great reciting Kerouac, but dramatically his work is something of a mixed bag.  He lacks Kerouac’s considerable physicality and charm, but he certainly expresses the restlessness that defined the author, as well as his aura of danger and dissolute inclinations.  Cullen’s lens also loves Kate Bosworth.  Nonetheless, she is largely wasted as Kerouac’s increasingly exasperated lover Billie, but Anthony Edwards adds an appealing human dimension to the proceedings as Ferlinghetti.

If you see one Beat Generation related film at Sundance, it should be Big Sur rather than the over-hyped Kill Your Darlings.  Granted, it might not completely pull it off, but Polish’s film comes far closer to translating Kerouac to the big screen than other recent attempts.  There are even surprisingly playful moments that suggest the Pull My Daisy spirit.  Recommended for Beat fans, Big Sur screens today (1/25) in Ogden and tomorrow (1/26) in Salt Lake as a Premiere selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’13: Stoker

India Stoker is sort of a female Hamlet.  After her father died under mysterious circumstances, her mother is all eyes for her uncle.  However, Uncle Charlie is more interested in replacing his brother as a pseudo-father-figure for India in Park Chan-wook’s first English language film, Stoker (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

India Stoker and her father were always very close, having bonded during their regular hunting trips.  Yes, she is a gothic protagonist who can handle a firearm.  Her relationship with her mother is another matter.  Evelyn “Evie” Stoker is a woman so chilly and severe, by law she has to be played by Nicole Kidman.  When Uncle Charlie shows up after the funeral, the widow turns to him for “comfort.”  India is not impressed, rebuffing all her Uncle’s overtures of friendship.  Kindly Aunt Gin appears quite alarmed by Charlie Stoker’s presence, but she disappears before she can explain why.  People seem to do that around the Stoker family.

Stoker is exactly the sort of film Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows should have been, but totally wasn’t.  Park’s mastery of mood is reflected in every scene, particularly some visually arresting transitions.  While the lurid nature of the material often approaches camp, Park emphasizes the repressed brooding and eerie atmospherics.  It also helps that Wentworth Miller’s screenplay tells a fully fledged story that mostly comes together down the stretch (rather than stringing together a series of gags).

It would be spoilery to explain why, but it is safe to say audiences have never seen Mia Wasikowska like this before.  Yet, in a way, India Stoker is something of a psychologically troubled cousin to Jane Eyre.  Matthew Goode holds up his end, bringing all kinds of creepiness as Uncle Charlie.  Although Kidman is often relegated to the sidelines, she perfectly delivers some scathing Mommie Dearest lines in the pivotal third act confrontation that audience members were quoting immediately after the screening.

Park’s accomplished hands have transformed a V.C. Andrews-ish yarn into an unusually stylish dark fable.  The Oldboy auteur’s admirers should be well pleased with his English debut and it also ought to earn Wasikowska a whole new level of fanboy appreciation.  Elegantly sinister, Stoker is recommended for sophisticated genre patrons when it screens again today (1/25) in Salt Lake and tomorrow (1/26) in Ogden as a Premiere selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’13: Metro Manila

The blue Kevlar helmets issued by a Filipino armored car company identify their drivers as targets just as much as they provide protection.  It is dangerous work, but it is the best opportunity for one desperate economic migrant.  However, he finds himself in the midst of a risky game in British filmmaker Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Exploited as rice farmers in the rural north, Oscar Ramirez and his family pull up stakes to seek work in Manila.  Unfortunately, they fall victim to a series of cruel scams as soon as they get off the bus.  With no other options, his wife reluctantly takes “hostess” work at a sex bar.  Just as things look truly hopeless, Ramirez lands a job with an armored car company, thanks to his military background and some timely coaching from his prospective partner, Ong.

The veteran Ong definitely knows how to game the system, but he also seems to take an interest in Ramirez.  After a few days on the job though, it becomes clear the senior driver has a suspicious agenda, involving the recent hold-up that claimed the life of his previous partner.

Metro’s first act is unremittingly grim and naturalistic.  Watching the Ramirez family’s suffer one indignity after another is tough going.  Frankly, Ellis maintains the grim tone throughout, but really cranks up the tension as the crime drama takes shape.  This is a smart, taut story, but like Ron Morales’ Graceland, Metro portrays Manila as a relentlessly corrupt and predatory metropolis (which some might raise some eyebrows coming from a Brit like Ellis).  In a pointed case in point, the armored car company is just as likely to make deliveries for drug dealers and legitimate banks.  That is where the money is.

Jake Macapagal is very good as Ramirez, the Filipino Job, completely guileless but stretched to his breaking point.  Nonetheless, John Arcilla constantly upstages him as Ong with his charismatically garrulous villainy.  While completely convincing as a middle-aged ex-cop, he has an electric screen presence that largely pulls viewers through all the teeming misery and inequity miring the characters.

Metro fits a whole lot of plot into about a week’s worth of time.  In fact, all the events transpire before Ramirez’s first payday—an important fact to keep in mind, given certain decisions he make.  Dark and gritty as anything screening this week in Utah, Metro will not be to all tastes, but it is a surprisingly powerful combination of class conscious social drama and the caper movie.  Highly recommended for fans of Filipino cinema and verite-ish crime-in-the-streets films, Metro Manila screens again tonight (1/25) and tomorrow (1/26) in Park City as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sundance ’13: Pandora’s Promise

Nuclear energy does not burn fossil fuels, nor is it intermittent.  Appreciation of these obvious, incontrovertible facts led documentarian Robert Stone and five well known environmental activists to reverse their longstanding opposition to nuclear power.  Stone convincingly lays out their green case for nuclear in Pandora’s Promise (clip here), which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Stone made his name with the anti-nuclear doc Radio Bikini and would further burnish his green credentials with Earth Days.  Very concerned about global warming, Stone could no longer accept the environmental movement’s unrealistic claims about solar and wind power.  As his primary POV experts argue, any power plan with a significant wind or solar component will by necessity be heavily dependent on big dirty fossil fuel plants as a back-up.  The simple truth is the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, but coal burns 24-7.

To his credit, Stone tackles the Fukushima disaster right up front, rather than let it fester in the minds of skeptical audience members.  While the devastation of the area gives pause to noted British environmental author and nuclear convert Mark Lynas, the background radiation levels they record are considerably less than what anyone flying on a transatlantic commercial flight would be exposed to.

Stone’s battery of experts cogently explains the safety benefits and relative cleanliness of nuclear.  Yes, radioactive waste is a potentially inconvenient by-product, but the volume is a fraction of what the public widely assumes.  Furthermore, next generation reactors will be increasingly able to recycle the existing nuclear waste, as is already happening in France.  Of course, there have been disasters, but Chernobyl was the worst by far.  A sterling example of Soviet safety engineering, the Pripyat plant completely lacked any basic containment dome, whereas western reactors have multiple domes with elaborate built in contingency systems.

Surely some will try, but it is impossible to dismiss Stone as a right-of-center partisan.  Clearly, the Pandora contributors are entirely satisfied global warming is a very real and alarming phenomenon.  Indeed, that is largely the impetus for their nuclear apostasy.  Considering how many cold shoulders Stone, Lynas, and company are likely to get from former comrades at cocktail parties, their conviction cannot be questioned.  Their logic is also sound and consistent.  Highly recommended for anyone with an open mind self-identifying with the environmental cause (broadly defined), Pandora’s Promise screens again tonight (1/24) in Park City and Saturday (1/26) in Salt Lake as a Doc Premiere at this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’13: Charlie Victor Romeo

This is a rather bold programming choice, considering how many attending Sundance have flown in from New York and Los Angeles.  Originally, it started as an Off-Broadway theater production, based on the real life transcripts of black boxes recovered from plane crashes.  Though it retains the potentially stagey single cockpit set and the revolving ensemble, Robert Berger & Karlyn Michelson’s Charlie Victor Romeo holds the distinction of being Sundance’s first 3D film, screening as part of the 2013 New Frontiers track.

For a film entirely depicting systems failures, it is ironically fitting CVR’s Monday night screening had to be presented in 2D due to technical difficulties.  While some of the schematics incorporated into the film might look cool in 3D, it is hard to see how the film lends itself to the process.  The real story is the impressively realistic sound, designed by Jamies Mereness, recorded and edited by Kevin Reilly, and mixed by Joel Hamilton.  The theatrical nature of the solitary set also becomes quite cinematic, thanks to the eerie lighting.

The constituent stories of CVR are a bit bracing, since in each case a plane is going down.  The only question is how bad will it be?  In general, the short ones are more disturbing.  However, the clear dramatic highpoint of the film recreates efforts to save a Peruvian flight that lost all instrumentation, including velocity and altitude, soon after take-off.

The cast-members are all quite strong in their various roles, particularly Patrick Daniels (the director and co-writer of the original stage version) in the Lima installment.  They quickly create convincing working relationships amongst the flight crews, which are almost immediately tested in crisis situations.

CVR is kind of like the parts of Zemeckis’s Flight audiences really want to see, played repeatedly with key variations each time.  An intriguing application of technology to film (which is why it is a New Frontiers selection), but also an unusually faithful adaptation of a stage piece for the big screen, Charlie Victor Romeo is recommended for fearless flyers when it screens again today (1/24) and Monday (1/28) at Park City’s Prospector Square Theatre (the designated 3D venue) as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Travel safe everyone.