Thursday, February 28, 2013

Welcome to Pine Hill: Last Call in Brooklyn

Abu has all the irony he can take.  He works as a claims adjuster, but he is uninsured.  The former drug dealer has just recently straightened out his life, only to learn it will all soon end.  Resolutely, he settles unfinished business as best he can in Keith Miller’s Welcome to Pine Hill (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

In the opening scene, lead actor Shannon Harper and writer-director Miller re-enact the real life incident that brought them together.  Their dispute over and lost-and-found pit bull puppy first became Miller’s short film Prince/William, expanded here into a full length feature.  It is a telling exchange between the gentrifier and the encroached.  However Harper’s Abu has more pressing concerns when his persistent stomach pains are diagnosed as a rare form of cancer.  With no real options available, Abu aims for some closure, or at least the settling of debts.

Pine might sound depressing because it is.  There is just no getting around it.  Yet, it is also completely hypnotic.  Harper holds viewers absolutely riveted with his quiet intensity, suggesting the crushing weight of all the remorse, regret, fear, and pain bearing down on him.  Recognizing the power and immediacy of his work, Miller focuses in on Harper, letting him carry the picture on his shoulders.

In fact, the film’s spell is only broken when Miller forces the action into what are clearly intended to be teaching moments.  We watch Abu moonlighting at a bar, where the white customers are nauseatingly condescending, only to witness the protagonist act similarly with immigrant cab drivers.  Okay, we get it.

Although certainly looking DIY-ish and improvisational, Pine should not be lumped in the rest of the aimless mumblecore field.  It is definitely headed someplace in particular (Upstate New York), while addressing some profoundly heavy themes—sort of like an Amour for Brooklyn hipsters.  Recommended largely on the strength of Harper’s breakout performance for those who follow the indie scene, Welcome to Pine Hill opens tomorrow (3/1) at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cinequest ’13: The Playback Singer

His job is to make others sound great, but he specializes in making himself look bad.  He dubs musical numbers for Bollywood actors who cannot carry a tune in a bucket.  He does it well.  He is also a father, but not such a hot one.  Nonetheless, he will be staying for a while with his daughter in Suju Vijayan’s The Playback Singer (trailer here), which screens as a selection of the 2013 Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose.

Ashok Rao has been married several times, but he only has one daughter: Priya.  Of course, he was never around much.  Still, she readily agrees to put up her prodigal father when he comes to California for a concert.  She is a bit apprehensive about seeing the old man, while her freelance designer husband Ray Tomassi is a bit resentful, knowing full well their limited history together.  At first things are tense, especially when an unscrupulous promoter leaves Rao high and dry.  Yet, Rao and Tomassi eventually warm towards each other.  Wine helps.  Before long, she is fast losing patience with both of them.

Bollywood fans might be disappointed to find Playback adheres more closely to an American indie template.  Still, Vijayan has the taste and discipline to resist overplaying the fish-out-of-water culture clash card.  Instead, it is much more preoccupied with early midlife crises, the fear of failure, and the nasty realization you might have married someone more like your father than you would like to admit.

Tomassi is a dreamer and procrastinator, pathologically incapable of finishing his one commission, a hipster jungle gym.  Somehow though, Ross Partridge lets us emphasize with his fears and self-indulgences.  His unlikely buddy chemistry with Piyush Mishra’s Rao evolves subtly and naturally.  A prominent actor in Bollywood/alternate cinema (including Gangs of Wasseypur), Mishra invests the titular character with the right mix of dignity and regret.  Despite her efforts, Navi Rawat’s responsible daughter gets the shaft from the film, coming across rather uptight and judgmental, even though she’s the only one working a steady job.

Playback never breaks any new ground, but it has some nice moments of honesty.  There is a messiness to the characters that rings true.  Avoiding quirk for quirk’s sake, The Playback Singer is a small but earnest film that exceeds expectations.  Recommended for Mishra’s fans and regular viewers of smarter relationship dramas, The Playback Singer screens this Friday (3/1), Sunday (3/3), and Tuesday (3/5) as part of this year’s Cinequest in San Jose.

IBFF Showcase ’13 (SF Bay Area): Mindfulness and Murder

Father Ananda is sort of like a Buddhist Father Brown, except he has more first-hand knowledge of the criminal element.  The former police detective intended to lead a peaceful existence as a monk, but homicide has followed him into the monastery in Tom Waller’s Thai mystery Mindfulness and Murder (trailer here), which screens this Saturday night as part of the 2013 International Buddhist Film FestivalShowcase in the Bay Area.

Father Ananda is a man to be reckoned with, but he had his reasons for leaving the job, as viewers learn over the course of the film.  When one of the boys in his monastery’s youth shelter program is murdered, the Abbott asks Ananda to investigate.  He will not be getting in the way of the cynical Inspector Somchai, who closes the case half an hour after responding to the call.  It turns out the late Noi was a hard kid to love, who was reportedly involved in the narcotics trade.  Perhaps he was not the only one.  Father Ananda soon uncovers rumors of drug-dealing monks and undercover narcs.  Suddenly, a person or persons unknown have taken an unwelcome interest in Father Ananda and his temple boy assistant Jak.

Mindfulness is one of the most picturesque murder mysteries you are likely to see anytime soon.  Cinematographer Wade Muller exploits the exotic backdrop for all its worth.  Similarly, the monastic setting adds unusual wrinkles to whodunit.  Solving the case is not merely a matter of earthly justice for Ananda. There are implied karmic implications for the monastery.

Arguably, Mindfulness is rather a bold selection for the IBFF showcase.  There is the clear suggestion it is not unheard of for less savory individuals to adopt monks’ robes as a means of gaming the system.  Its portrayal of the Thai justice system is also far from flattering.  Yet, there is no denying the virtuous nature of Father Ananda or the appeal of Vithaya Pansringarm’s quietly engaging performance.  They are an actor-character tandem worthy of a franchise.

The supporting cast is a somewhat mixed bag, but Ahbijati “Meuk” Jusakul is nicely hardboiled as Somchai, while American-born Prinya Intachai has his moments as Brother Satchapalo, the instant prime suspect.  For a random bit of celebrity, former Miss Universe Natalie Glebova (currently based in Thailand) also briefly appears as herself.

Waller’s tempo is hardly break-neck, which has its pros and cons.  Although it might be limiting for genre fans, the meditative tone perfectly suits the hero and setting.  Indeed, watching Father Ananda struggle with the demands of the spiritual and worldly is fascinating (more than even the crime story itself).  Recommended for those who enjoy cerebral mysteries, Mindfulness and Murder screens Saturday night (3/2) at the Smith Rafael Film Center, as part of this year’s IBFF Showcase in the Bay Area. 

During the Showcase, patrons will also be inspired by Dafna Yachin’s Digital Dharma, documenting the efforts of American academic E. Gene Smith to digitize and preserve the sacred and secular texts of Tibet.  Further noteworthy selections include Victress Hitchcock’s When the Iron Bird Flies, a provocative exploration of the Tibetan Buddhism’s surprising international growth during its unfortunate period of exile, and Naomi Kawase’s visually dazzling yet deeply humane Mourning Forest.  Check their website for times and venues here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hava Nagila: the Story of a Song

Like Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” “Hava Nagila” is a song worthy of its own biographical treatment.  It started in Ukraine and became a staple of Jewish American celebrations, but the identity of its composer remains a controversy.  Documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman tells the story of the song and those who sing it in Hava Nagila: the Movie (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It was based on a nigun, a wordless prayer chant incorporated into the services of the Nineteenth Century Ukrainian Hasidic community.  To commemorate the Balfour Declaration, it was adapted into the song now commonly heard at weddings and bat/bar mitzvahs.  Just who adapted it depends on whether you talk to the Idelson or Nathanson families.  Likewise, it means different things to different musicians.  To a serious Klezmer artist like Frank London, it is rather a cliché.  Yet to old school entertainers like Glen Campbell and Irving Fields, it is a rhythmic crowd-pleaser.  Yes, that Glen Campbell.  He recorded “Hava” as the B-side to his “True Grit” single and shares some pleasant reflections with Grossman during an interview recorded at his synagogue a few years back.

Indeed, Hava will certainly change many viewers perception of Campbell, but it is the ageless Irving Fields who truly demands his own documentary.  Known for fusing traditional Jewish music with Latin dance music, the ninety-four year-old Fields still gigs as a leader six nights a week in Manhattan—and could easily pass for a man at least twenty-five years his junior.  The music must keep him young, naturally including “Hava.”

Hava boasts some impressive musician-commentators, including Harry Belafonte (interviewed in the Village Vanguard, where he once performed when Max Gordon also booked folkies), Johnny “They Call Me Bruce” Yune, and Russian indie singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, who relates “Hava” to the Russian Refusenik experience. 

Less successful is the rather muddled 1960’s section, in which we are told the Jewish children of the suburbs embraced the song as some kind of folky communal something or other.  The film’s chatty tone also becomes somewhat problematic over time.  Co-produced by Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman, Hava’s shticky title cards and comedy sketch interludes often feel like a sitcom trying too hard to be irreverent.

Although plenty of talking heads consider “Hava” corny, it is hard to dislike a song so deeply associated with celebration and the early founding of the State of Israel.  It is also hard to argue with the likes of Campbell, Elvis Presley, and longtime Israel booster Lionel Hampton, all of whom covered “Hava.”  Despite its weirdly inconsistent tone, Hava puts “Hava” in the proper historical context.  Recommended for those interested in the intersection of Jewish history and musical tradition, Hava Nagila: the Movie opens this Friday (3/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza.

Monday, February 25, 2013

SFFS’s Artist-in-Residence Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely

Technically, it is illegal to exhibit films that are not certified by India’s so-called censorship board.  Of course, it happens anyway.  For so-called “C-Grade” filmmakers and performers, going legit is a tricky proposition, but Bollywood dreams die hard in San Francisco Film Society Artist-in-Residence Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (trailer here).  In addition to the Society’s educational outreach programs for local schools and aspiring filmmakers, Ahluwalia will attend a screening of Miss Lovely and participate in a special artist talk, both of which should be fascinating, because this is a film guaranteed to inspire questions, starting with just how much of his misadventures in underground filmmaking are based on truth.

The Duggal Brothers specialize in grinding out horror-themed sex features for the seamy C-Grade circuit.  Vicky is a born user who calls the shots, while Sonu is sensitive and passive by nature.  They specialize in production, leaving distribution to their dodgy associates.  When Vicky gets ideas about vertical integration, it causes considerable difficulties.  However, personal problems will be the brothers’ ultimate undoing.

Sonu is completely enamored with Pinky, a girl from a strictly traditional family, who harbors aspirations of Bollywood stardom.  The quiet Duggal Brother is determined to finance and direct a mainstream star vehicle for her, to be titled Miss Lovely.  He is even willing to use his brother’s money to do so.  Fraternal ties are frayed and secrets are revealed, as the illicit combination of sex and money inevitably leads to tragedy.

Originally Ahluwalia intended to make a documentary about the scandalous C-Grade film industry, but reconceived Miss Lovely as a narrative feature out of necessity.  He definitely immerses viewers in the sleazy, dangerous vice world.  For the most part, he deliberately eschews the hallmarks Bollywood filmmaking.  Nonetheless, the frequently funky soundtrack goes down smooth.

Hardly a glamorization of C-Grade films, Ahluwalia portrays the Duggal’s enterprise as grubby, exploitative, and thoroughly dominated by underworld types.  It is far more a cautionary tale than a Hindi Boogie Nights.  Things definitely come to grief pretty darn fast.  Yet, somehow the faux cheesy scenes of the Duggals’ naughty horror movies will appeal to a lot of cult viewers’ inner Tarantinos.  Indeed, production and costume designer Tabasheer Zutshi’s team does spot-on work fully recreating this lurid environment on-screen.

Most importantly, this is clearly a milieu Ahluwalia fully understands.  Straddling genres, he toys with crime story elements, but essentially tells a Cain and Abel tale, skewering India’s celebrity-obsessed culture and sexual hypocrisy along the way.  Stylistically, he spans the gamut from trippily disorienting to in-your-face naturalism.  This is kitchen-sink filmmaking at its most relentlessly indie.

Anil George’s Vicky Duggal is a compulsively watchable, almost mesmeric pseudo-villain.  Nearly unrecognizable from Gangs of Wasseypur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui revels in cringy pathos as poor Sonu. Frankly, much of the supporting cast-members are essentially hanging on for dear life, but that sort of works given the circumstances.

Big, bold, and fearless, Miss Lovely approximates the sweep and scale of the Bollywood it rejects.  Part expose and part fall-from-grace epic, Miss Lovely is highly recommended for connoisseurs of Indian art cinema and those who simply love films about filmmaking (in all its ragged forms).  It screens at the New Peoples Cinema in San Francisco this Thursday (2/28), with Ahluwalia’s Artist Talk to follow next Tuesday (3/5) at FilmHouse, as part of his residency now underway with the San Francisco Film Society.

Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: Ghost Cat of Otama Pond

If you have read your Poe you know a cat without an outraged sense justice can be a real handful.  However, this spectral feline’s thirst for vengeance transcends generations, ensnaring an innocent couple in Ishikawa Yoshiro’s Ghost Cat of Otama Pond, which also has its official New York premiere as part of the Japan Society’s 2013 Globus Film Series, Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts.

It is getting late, but no matter which path they take, Tadahiko and Keiko always end up back at the same ominous pond.  Spying a black cat, Tadahiko insists on following it to presumed shelter.  Unfortunately, it takes them to a deserted (and in fact haunted) house that renders Keiko catatonic.  Seeking help, Tadahiko stumbles across the home of a priest, who attempts an exorcism, while explaining the sinister history of the area.

During the feudal era, Yachimaru, the son of the village headman, was in love with Kozasa, the daughter of his father’s bitter rival, Gensai.  Unfortunately, after Yachimaru leaves to start a career in the capital, Gensai and his ally the Magistrate kill Yachimaru’s father and withered granny, capturing his sister.  Shortly thereafter, she manages to take her own life rather than submit to the Magistrate’s foul desires.  The family cat Tama saw it all and is profoundly offended.  Before the long, the supernaturally empowered cat stalks the killers, with the help of Kozasa, in a partly willing state of possession.  Payback ensues.

When Tama assumes a crazy cat woman form, Otama approaches Corman-esque territory.  However, when it is simply the stealthy feline or the vacant eyed Kozasa directing the uncanny torments, the film is all kinds of creepy and atmospheric.  Yoshiro makes particularly effective use of his evocative settings, the spooky houses and deep dark well that eerily reappear in the later time frame.

In dual roles as the star-crossed lovers of both eras, Shôzaburô Date is sufficiently uptight or tightly wound as Tadahiko/Yachimaru, whereas Noriko Kitazawa is kind of spectacular as the vengeful Kozasa (while spending most her time as Keiko either whining or in a paranormal coma).

Yoshiro was a protégé of Nobou Nakagawa, whose influence can be seen in Otama’s bone-deep themes of honor and betrayal, macabre use of traditional folkloric elements, Hammer-like color cinematography, and aptly moody soundtrack.  A little overstuffed up top with witchy apparitions, a little less would have been more in Otama, which is always the case for this sort of film.  Yet, its third act is a site to behold for genre fans.  Where have these Shintohos been all our lives?  Highly recommended for fans of both 1960’s horror movies and Japanese cinema in general, Ghost Cat of Otama Pond screens this Friday (3/1) at the Japan Society as part of the can’t miss Shintoho Mind Warp series (that will continue on to Philadelphia, San Francisco and Vancouver later in the year).

The Condemned: The House of the Spirits

The worst crimes are always committed by altruists, but Ana Puttnam knows her oncologist father is different.  She has returned to his home town in hopes of restoring his reputation while he is still alive.  However, something or someone in their ancestral home begs to differ in Roberto Busó-García’s supernatural drama The Condemned (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Largely incapacitated, Dr. Puttnam (with two t’s) is not long for this earth.  His daughter has brought him back to their stately manor house in Rosales, Puerto Rico, where it all began, to establish a museum dedicated to his philanthropic work.  It was here that he established his first free cancer clinic for the poor.  However, he has also been dogged by scandalous rumors regarding his early career.  She was hoping the villagers would rally to his defense, but nobody seems to want to get involved.  As she presses on, strange things start happening in the house.  The planned exhibitions are a particular focus of the mysterious venting.

Only two people in Rosales are happy to see the Puttnams return.  One is the loyal family retainer Cipriano.  The other is the new chauffeur, the one villager willing to present himself for prospective employment.  Each has their reasons for their interest in the Puttnam family.  Likewise, they are both uneasy with Ana’s plans to revive the family’s big Christmas soiree for the townsfolk.  At least she will get some use out of her mother’s old crystal chandelier tree.

It is hard to decide whether The Condemned is really intended as horror film or more of an uncanny morality tale.  There is one gruesome death, but it is rather out of place, leading one to wonder if it was a cast-member request Busó-García obliged.  Aside from a handful of shocking moments, it is more about creeping dread and the corrupting influence of the past on the present—almost more Tennessee Williams than H.P. Lovecraft.

Still, Busó-García and production designer Suzanne Krim’s team crafted quite a gothic setting.  That chandelier tree becomes the indelible image of the film, but the rest of the house is quite atmospheric too.  Frankly, Busó-García’s deliberate genre coyness deftly keeps viewers off-balance and unlikely to anticipate the third act revelation.

Poised and photogenic, Cristina Rodlo is surprisingly engaging as Ana Puttnam, completely avoiding any scream queen theatrics or manipulations.  Her work holds up, even as the audience’s perspective shifts.  Popular Puerto Rican comic actor René Monclova is also suitably earnest yet appropriately mysterious as Cipriano.

Visually, one can see the influence of the Spanish horror movie renaissance on The Condemned, but Busó-García tells his tale with restraint.  While it is certainly slow by the genre standards that may or may not apply, it all more or less comes together at the end.  Recommended for those who enjoy their paranormal fare on the cerebral side, The Condemned opens this Friday (3/1) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: The Ghost Story of Yotsuya

When revenge is promised, revenge must be delivered.  One villainous samurai learns this the hard way in Tsuruya Nanboku’s classic Kabuki drama.  It was a lesson that would be repeated in thirty screen adaptations.  This one is considered the best, but it has not been widely screened in America, as is true for most of the upstart genre studio Shintoho’s late 1940s to early 1960’s releases.  In its New York premiere, Nobou Nakagawa’s The Ghost Story of Yotsuya launches the Japan Society’s 2013 Globus Film Series, Intothe Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts.

Iwa’s father is not about to let his daughter marry Iemon.  It is not just because he is a position-less samurai.  He can tell the man is a bit of a cad.  Unfortunately, the proud ronin reacts badly when rebuffed yet again.  Killing the man and a well heeled associate, Iemon finds himself beholden to the crafty servant Naosuke to back up his story.  Swearing to Iwa he will avenge her father, he instead dispatches her sister Sode’s intended, again with the help of the insidious Naosuke.

As the years pass, Iemon claims to be pursuing retribution in much the same way O.J. was searching for the “real killer.”  By now, the sociopathic ronin has tired of Iwa and the constant hassling to make due on his promises.  Instead, he covets Ume, the daughter of a wealthy clan leader and the position she would bring.  Of course, good old Naosuke has the answer: a poison that first disfigures and then kills.  Inviting over Takuetsu, her torch-carrying admirer, to complete the frame-up, Iemon completes the evil deed and embarks on a new life with Ume.  However, when Iwa pledged revenge from beyond the grave, she was not kidding.

Yotsuya probably should be classified as a horror film, but by the time Iwa and Takuetsu rise from the dead, viewers are ready to through in their lot in with the angry spirits.  In the tradition of E.C. Comics, Yotsuya is a case of bad things happening to bad people.  Nonetheless, it is all kinds of creepy and atmospheric.

Frankly, it is rather flummoxing that Nakagawa is not more renowned amongst genre cineastes.  It really ought to rank with Shindo’s Kuroneko and Onibaba.  While many focus on Iwa’s grisly transformation, Nakagawa’s patience introducing the supernatural elements, effectively cranks up the tension before the cathartic release.  Arguably, it is also a comparatively feminist genre outing, with Iwa’s sister Sode facing their nemesis in the climatic fight sequence, sword in hand, along with an ally making a surprise reappearance.

As Iwa, Katsuko Wakasugi has one of the all time great and gruesome death scenes.  She would also be quite scary as an angry ghost, were we not so primed for Iemon’s comeuppance.  In a way, the final third of Yotsuya is like a Grudge film in which viewers root for the supernatural force.  Likewise, Noriko Kitazawa is appealingly earnest and swings a credible sword as sister Sode.  Shuntarô Emi is hissable loathsome as Naosuke, in an enjoyable genre bad guy kind of way.  Oddly, Shigeru Amachi (whom Nakagawa would send to Hell as the protagonist of Jigoku) is a bit of a cold fish as Iemon.  It is hard to understand why Iwa or Ume would be charmed by him, but his karmic beatdown is certainly satisfying.

Filmed by cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto (a future Bruce Lee alumnus) in queasy hues of red and yellow, and accompanied by Michiaki Watanabe’s eerie kabuki-esque score, Ghost Story of Yotsuya is a quality production that holds up spectacularly decades later.  Recommended for fans of the supernatural who also appreciate psychological depth and archetypal resonance, it screens this Wednesday (2/27) at the Japan Society, with a party to follow featuring the music of Neo Blues Maki. The drool-worthy Shintoho Mind Warp retrospective continues with more screenings over the weekend.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A History of Israeli Cinema: The Birth of the Bourekas and Beyond

Ten Israeli films have been nominated for the best foreign language Academy Award, which is not bad for a small, relatively young country, living with the constant threat of terrorism.  While Israeli filmmakers have yet to take home the Oscar, they have become the toast of international festival circuit.  The development of their national cinema is chronicled and analyzed in Raphaël Nadjari’s two hundred nine minute documentary undertaking, A History of Israeli Cinema (trailer here), now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

Premiering during the final days of 1932, Chanukah in fact, Chaim Halachmi’s Oded the Wanderer is considered the first Israeli feature, well predating UN recognition.  Focusing on the ruggedness of nature and the even more rugged protagonist, it became a model for the Zionist-minded cinema that would follow.  Ironically, one of the films the most effectively swaying world opinion Israel’s way was the product of Hollywood liberals: Otto Preminger’s Exodus, starring Paul Newman.  In contrast, the subsequent wave of Israeli films would challenge notions of Zionism to varying degrees.

Arguably, the most popular new movement were the so-called Bourekas films, ethnic melting pot comedies named after the savory Eastern European pastry (which you can find in New York at Café Noi).  At times, the humor ranged towards the broader end of the spectrum, but they presented more diverse, less severely stoic characters for audiences to identify with.

Of course, Israeli filmmaking continued to evolve, largely reflecting the same cultural shifts apparent in Western cinema.  The “New Sensitivity” school incorporated Cassavetes like intimacy with the avant-garde sensibilities of European art cinema.  As the 1960’s became the 1970’s, films became more overtly political, directly questioning the traditional Zionism of the 1930’s and championing the indigenous and former Arab populations’ claims for exceptional victim status.

It is a frustrating fact of life for Israel’s international supporters that the democratic state’s home grown films are often as critical as those coming from Hollywood and its hostile neighbors, which is indeed reflected in Nadjari’s History.  Nonetheless, the lack of love for Menahem Golan’s zeitgeist-bucking Operation Thunderbolt is an unfortunate omission.  Golan appears quite frequently as an interview subject, mostly in reference to the early Bourekas films he produced.  Nadjari never explores his American interlude as half of the Golan-Globus running Cannon Films, bringing to the world the American Ninja franchise amongst other meathead classics.  Technically speaking, they are not Israeli films, but who wouldn’t want to show clips of Steve James and Michael Dudikoff slicing through hordes of ninjas like straw men?

Arguably, Nadjari has a bias towards art films, but so will most of the viewers seeking it out.  He has a shrewd eye for selecting illustrative clips and shows the patience to let them play out sufficiently.  Even though he shows the very end of Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, considered the first feature film officially produced in the new state of Israel, it will definitely make war movie buffs want to see the whole thing from the beginning.  He talks to just about every filmmaker of stature, including Joseph Cedar (helmer of Footnote), Amos Gitai, Ronit Elkaetz (who also co-starred in Eran Kolirin’s Oscar disqualified The Band’s Visit), and Dover Kosahvili.  Being good marketers, Kino also includes trailers for their other Israeli films, which feels more like a DVD extra in this case than merely an attempt to plus-sell.  Recommended for patrons of Israeli culture and armchair film historians, A History of Israeli Cinema is now available as a two-disk set from Kino Lorber.

Friday, February 22, 2013

11 Flowers: A Difficult Era to Come of Age

Wang Han should not be growing up in the countryside.  Whether they like it or not, his parents were forced to relocate to Guizhou province as part of the Cultural Revolution’s Third Front campaign.  For an active eleven year old boy, it is not such a bad environment.  However, he has an unusual vantage point to observe the struggles of another “intellectual” family in Wang Xiaoshuai’s 11 Flowers (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Frankly, Wang Han’s father is fortunate to have a job with an out-of-town opera company, but it requires spending extensive time away from home.  Each time he commutes to work, he accompanies Wang Han part of the way to school.  It is an important ritual that cements their bond.  Wang Han does not share a similar bond with his stern factory worker mother.  When chosen to be the leader of his school’s morning calisthenics (part of their daily Maoist regimen), Wang Han’s principal rather insensitively tells the boy to ask for a new shirt for the occasion.  Of course, this would be a considerable investment in money and cloth ration vouchers for the family.  Nonetheless, his mother eventually relents.

For a brief period, life is good for Wang Han, but the discovery of a dead body is an ill omen, as is the conspicuous distress experienced by Jue Hong, his frequently absent crush.  While his family has largely avoided trouble, her “intellectual” father, Xie Fulai, has not.  Nor has she.  Evidently, the dead man raped the young girl, as her brother the killer explains to Wang Han, when circumstances bring them together in the forest.  It is a frightening meeting for the eleven year old, made considerably worse when the fugitive forcibly takes his new shirt.

It might be overstating matters to describe the semi-autobiographical 11 Flowers as the late Cultural Revolution era version of To Kill a Mockingbird, but it gives a general sense of what to expect from the coming of age story.  Wang focuses on the personal, but the political periodically intrudes in rudely menacing ways.  Through Wang Han’s eyes, the Cultural Revolution is not so much an exercise in ideological excess, but the periodic explosion of street thuggery, as when his father is caught in a Red Guard rampage.

Liu Wenqing is a remarkably expressive young actor, who perfectly anchors the film.  He makes Wang Han’s slow evolution from innocence to awakened conscience quite riveting and moving.  Likewise, the young supporting cast-members are spot-on as his classmates.  Yet, the subtle power of Wang Jingchun’s work as his father really sneaks up on audiences.  When he encourages Wang Han’s painting as a means of artistic freedom, it feels light and natural at the time, but it is hugely significant in retrospect.

11 Flowers is unusually sensitive and accomplished.  It is probably the best film to focus on a youthful cast since Tom Shu-yu Lin’s Starry Starry Night, which was probably the best since who knows what?  Beautifully lensed by Dong Jinsong, it is quality cinema on every level.  Highly recommended, 11 Flowers opens today (2/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema downtown and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center uptown.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

FCS ’13: Nights with Theodore

The Buttes Chaumont is a bit like the French version of Prospect Park.  Both are popular with recreationists precisely because of their wildness.  However, some heavy karma surrounds the Parisian park.  Whether it is good or bad is rather a matter of interpretation in Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights with Theodore (trailer here), which screens as a selection of Film Comment Selects 2013.

Buttes Chaumont is such an integral part of Nights, it gets its own documentary preamble.  Not exactly hallowed ground, it was once the site of the Royal gallows and a slaughter yard for horses.  Napoleon III grandly reclaimed the land for public consumption when he commissioned the park in 1860.  Yet, it has always been the subjects of rumors regarding secret subterranean rooms and mystical rituals. 

When Theodore meets Anna at a party, he impulsively sneaks into the park with her.  They spend the night together and exchange numbers in the morning.  The next evening he convinces her to return.  Soon this becomes their regular nocturnal routine.  We learn the park often exerts a strange influence on people.  Clearly, its effect on Theodore is stronger than on Anna, who eventually starts to wonder if their unusual courtship is sustainable.

Betbeder creates an evocative late night atmosphere that hints at the mysterious without ever committing to the supernatural.  The history he presents of the Buttes Chaumont is also truly fascinating.  Frankly, it would be cool to see it as the setting of a straight-up genre picture, featuring New Age cultists chasing maidens through the underground passages.

That is hardly what Betbeder set out to do.  Rather, Nights often feels like the Facebook generation reboot of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, which is an ambitious vibe to go for.  At times Nights with Theodore definitely veers into the hipsterish (especially the soundtrack), but the extent to which fate is a palpable presence is quite memorable.

While Theodore initially comes across as too old and too scruffy for the collegiate looking Anna, Pio Marmaï and Agathe Bonitzer are fairly convincing selling their initial attraction and their developing whatever it is.  They are both decidedly reserved screen presences, but that sort of works in this context.

Clocking in just over an hour, Nights is a film that exceeds expectations.  Betbeder definitely privileges mood over plot, but this is not at all French mumblecore.  There is definitely something going on, even if its exact nature remains somewhat obscure.  Recommended for connoisseurs of French cinema, Nights with Theodore screens Friday (2/22), Wednesday (2/27), and next Thursday (2/28) at the Howard Gilman Theater as part of Film Comment Selects 2013.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

FCS ’13: Dormant Beauty

Don’t call Eluana Englaro the Italian Terri Schiavo.  The latter case was scandalously misreported by the drive-by media, as civil libertarian Nat Hentoff passionately decried at the time.  At least Englaro’s medical decisions were made by a loved one with no conflicts of interest.  That certainly did not stop Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from getting involved, thereby guaranteeing considerable drama.  Director-co-writer Marco Bellocchio portrays the resulting media feeding frenzy through the eyes of three sets of fictional characters in Dormant Beauty (trailer here), which screens as a selection of Film Comment Selects 2013.

After a prolonged legal battle, Englaro’s father has transferred her to a private clinic in Udine, where her feeding will be discontinued.  She really is in a persistent vegetative state.  Berlusconi is not taking this lying down.  Legislation has been introduced to save Englaro.  Senator Uliano Beffardi intends to buck his party and vote against it.  His reasons are personal.  He once had to make a similar choice for his late wife, but his relationship with his pro-life daughter Maria has been strained ever since.

The Englaro case also hits close to home for the retired actress known simply as “Divine Mother.”  She has preserved her beloved comatose daughter for years in hopes she will eventually wake-up.  Meanwhile, Dr. Padillo is not following the case nearly as closely as his colleagues, but he is determined to prevent a recently admitted drug addict from killing herself.

Bellocchio applies a dramatic fairness doctrine to partisans on both sides, except the former PM.  Did he really say Englaro looks healthy enough to “give birth to a son?”  Afraid so.  Look, say what you will about Berlusconi, but the man is never dull.  Frankly, if Bellocchio had anything nice to say about him, he would probably be drummed out of every directors’ guild.  In contrast, his depiction of the senator and his daughter is far from simplistic.

In fact, Maria is a wholly sympathetic character, who strikes up an unlikely romance with Roberto, the long-suffering brother of a wildly unstable pro-euthanasia demonstrator.  Their bipartisan connection is one of the most appealing courtships seen on film in years.  Likewise, her relationship with her father evolves in ways that are mature, believable, and satisfying.

Unfortunately, the other two story arcs are not nearly as rewarding.  Divine Mother mainly seems to be in the film to compensate for Roberto’s creepy brother.  Granted, she is played by the film’s biggest star, Isabelle Huppert, and valid reasons are established for cartoonish Catholicism.  Nonetheless, the deck is clearly stacked against her.  While her sequences are a tonal mishmash, they still most closely approach the operatic sweep of Bellocchio’s kind of awesome Vincere.

Considerably more engaging, the scenes shared by the doctor and his suicidal patient are well acted (by Bellocchio’s brother Pier Gregorio and Maya Sansa) and ring with honesty.  They just feel like they were spliced in to further obscure Bellocchio’s personal position.  That is a worthy impulse, but it would be unnecessary had he just focused on the Beffardis, whom most viewers will consider the primary subjects anyway.

Toni Servillo is absolutely fantastic as Beffardi, a decent man totally befuddled by the modest importance bestowed on him late in life.  He never plays the part as a mouthpiece for a certain position, but as a world weary widower father.  By the same token, Alba Rohrwacher demonstrates perfect pitch as the rebelliously devout Maria.  She develops some palpable opposites-attract chemistry with Michele Riondino’s Roberto and gives the audience hope we can all grow and develop.

Dormant Beauty is sometimes a great film.  There is some wickedly funny satire of the Italian senators that does not necessarily skew left or right, simply skewering the political class instead.  Arguably, this is a case where less would have been more.  Recommended for Servillo, Rohrwacher, and the compelling vibe of the Udine protests, Dormant Beauty is recommended for fans of Italian cinema and political drama when it screens today (2/20), Friday (2/22), and Sunday (2/24) at the Howard Gilman Theater as part of Film Comment Selects 2013.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FCS ’13: Call Girl

The 1970’s really were swinging for Sweden, especially the government.  At the time, Olof Palme’s Minister of Justice, Lennart Geijer, was pushing a measure to largely emasculate laws against pedophilia, until he was caught up in the prostitution scandal that would subsequently carry his name.  As it happens, under-aged girls were involved.  It was a sordid but bipartisan national scandal that makes great fodder for Mikael Marcimain’s real life political thriller Call Girl (trailer here), which screens as a selection of Film Comment Selects 2013.

Mere days before what is expected to be a close election, an American actress suspiciously resembling Jane Fonda sings the praises of the progressive PM never specifically identified as Palme on television.  Meanwhile, crusading vice cop John Sandberg types his report with a purpose.  At every step, the state security service has interfered with his investigation, as viewers soon learn via flashback.

Iris Dahl is too much for her mother to handle, assuming she ever tried.  Fortunately, in liberal Sweden she can simply deposit her problem child in a juvenile home that looks more like a hippy commune.  Sneaking out is a snap, especially when her cousin Sonja Hansson arrives to mutually reinforce their delinquency.  Unfortunately, in the course of their partying, they encounter Dagmar Glans.  A madam with a powerful clientele, Glans recruits the fourteen year-old girls for her stable.

At first, the cousins are seduced by the easy money and flashy lifestyle Glans provides.  Inevitably though, the work takes a toll on them, physically and emotionally.  Any ideas they might have about quitting are quickly dispelled by the procurer and her enforcer, Glenn.  After all, the girls could recognize some rather powerful politicians.  Initially, Sandberg is oblivious to Glans’ young working girls and the notoriety of her clients.  He is simply trying to bust a vice queen with apparent connections.  However, when his wiretaps come in with conspicuous gaps, Sandberg and his hours-from-retirement partner start to suspect the scope of the conspiracy afoot.

Call Girl resembles a 1970’s film in more ways than just soundtrack and décor.  In an icily detached manner, it presents a deeply cynical view of the Swedish government, definitely including St. Olof’s administration.  Nor does it take leering pleasure from Glans’ dirty business.  Marcimain leaves little doubt Dahl and Hansson are grossly exploited by just about everyone and the state social welfare establishment simply looked the other way, for fear of “stigmatizing” them.  We even witness a strategy session for Geijer’s proposal to effectively normalize sexual relations with minors.

With credits including television miniseries and second unit work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Marcimain was well prepared to tell an intricate plotted, richly detailed, multi-character tale of intrigue.  Despite the very specifically Swedish circumstances, it is always easy to follow.  Somehow he also clearly conveys the unsavory acts the cousins are forced to participate in, without reveling in the luridness.

Frighteningly seductive in a weird, matronly way, Pernilla August’s Glans vividly shows how the devious exploit others and insinuate themselves with the powerful.  It is a big, bravura portrayal of a user.  As the used, Sofia Karemyr is shockingly powerful portraying Dahl’s wilted innocence.  Risking type-casting (having appeared as Machiavellian game-players in A Royal Affair and Tinker Tailor), Danish-Swedish actor David Dencik again turns up as government fixer, Aspen Thorin.

Call Girl is a great period production that never romanticizes its era.  Smart, tense, and unexpectedly pointed in its critique of the Swedish justice system, Call Girl is highly recommended for fans of complex political drama.  It screens this Wednesday (2/20) and Thursday (2/21) at the Howard Gilman Theater as part of Film Comment Selects 2013.

Inescapable: Syrian Hospitality

Assad’s Syria is not exactly a family friendly tourist spot.  Unfortunately, a former secret policeman’s reticence only intrigued his grown daughter.  When she disappears in Damascus under mysterious circumstances, he must temporarily return to his former homeland and life of deception in Ruba Nadda’s Inescapable (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

While the Assads are never mentioned by name, their portraits are everywhere in Inescapable’s Damascus.  The current civil war never intrudes into the narrative, but the oppressive atmosphere is unmistakable.  Once a promising young operative Adib Abdel Kareem had to leave Syria in a hurry, for reasons he and his ex-comrade Sayid Abd Al-Aziz understand only too well.  That is why the senior intelligence officer is slightly surprised when Kareem shows up in his office, demanding he help the convicted traitor find his daughter.

Kareem already has the reluctant help of Fatima, the former teammate and lover Kareem was forced to abandon, for whom Al-Aziz has long carried a torch.  While the desperate father checks in with the Canadian embassy simply so his presence in Syria will be officially recorded, he soon discovers the smarmy consular officer Paul Ridge is actually well acquainted with his daughter.  It will become a rather tricky affair, involving a high ranking pedophile in the Syrian government and Kareem’s old Soviet spymaster colleague.

Born in Canada, the half-Syrian Nadda obviously has an affinity for the country’s culture and people, but no affection for the current government.  As in the unusually elegant Cairo Time, she sets the mood well.  Unfortunately, she is not a master of grabby thriller pacing.  As much as viewers will want to embrace Inescapable as an art-house Taken, there is simply too much back-tracking and narrative down time.  Frankly, Nadda’s screenplay probably would have benefited from some input from a genre hack.  The power struggles going on in the upper echelons of power are potentially juicy stuff, but the film tends to lose momentum in rather workaday sequences.

Alexander Siddig is a charismatic screen presence, who does a credible slow burn as Kareem.  In contrast, Marisa Tomei’s Fatima just does not have the right edginess for a femme fatale or the purposefulness of woman conspiring against a despotic regime.  In truth, it is not really clear what she is there for, besides picking up Kareem at the border.  However, Israeli Oded Fehr (a veteran of the Israeli Navy, El-Al security, and The Mummy franchise) brings some roguish style points to the film as Al-Aziz.

Largely shot in South African instead of Syria and its neighbors, for obvious reasons, Nadda and cinematographer Luc Montpellier still make it feels like it was filmed in the bazaars and back alleys of Damascus.  Indeed, the look and vibe of the picture are right on target, but the tension is sometimes lacking.  Still, Inescapable is certainly topical, earning Nadda credit for essentially scooping Hollywood.  For those hungry for Middle East intrigue, Inescapable opens this Friday (2/22) in New York at the IFC Center.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lightning from Heaven: The Love Story Behind Zhivago

Boris Pasternak’s epic novel Doctor Zhivago was banned, denounced, and a major factor leading to the Nobel Prize for Literature he was forced to decline.  It was also a love story.  Unfortunately, the woman who inspired Pasternak faced the full force of the Communist Party’s wrath, to an even greater extent her more famous lover.  Their romance and its legacy also inspired Scott C. Sickles’ play Lightning from Heaven (trailer here), which officially opened this weekend at the Main Stage Theater in New York.

Set in various cells in the Lubyanka, Lightning is told in flashbacks during Olga Ivinskaya’s many KGB interrogation (torture) sessions.  Sadly, she is no stranger to the place.  A literary editor by profession, Ivinskaya had more in common with Pasternak than his wife Zinaida.  However, as the daughter of a moderately high ranking military officer, Madame Pasternak was able to protect her husband when he publicly spoke out against Stalin. 

Of course, the publication of Zhivago was another matter entirely.  Zinaida is quite certain she is not Lara.  After all, the two fictional lovers never married.  Nor is the Party pleased with Pasternak’s portrayal of the Revolution and the subsequent purges, so they target his greatest vulnerability: his mistress-muse Ivinskaya.  In order to discredit the late Pasternak and his masterpiece, Vladilen Alexanochkin, the “good cop” KGB agent, engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the sleep-deprived Ivinskaya.  Either she will renounce Pasternak and Zhivago, or she will proclaim herself the illicit inspiration for Lara.

In a way, Lightning is like the historical forebear of the dystopian television show The Prisoner, with the question “are you Lara” replacing “why did you resign,” except it is very definitely based on fact.  Sickles alters a detail here and there for dramatic purposes, but he is more faithful to history than David Lean’s great film was to Pasternak’s source novel.  It is a smart, deeply literate play, driven by the conflict between individual artistic integrity and the collectivist state.  Perhaps most touching are the scenes deliberately echoing Zhivago in which Pasternak and Ivinskaya find beauty in the increasingly drab, dehumanized Soviet world about them.

Jed Dickson resembles the Robert Frost-ish Pasternak that appeared on Time Magazine enough to look credible in the part.  More importantly, he really expresses Pasternak’s poetic sensibilities.  As a private citizen, Pasternak made some problematic choices, but Dickson makes them understandable, beyond the self-centeredness of the creative class (though there is that as well). 

Likewise, Kari Swenson Riely is more than a mere victim of the Communist thought police, although she certainly convincing enduring the KGB’s physical and emotional torments.  She develops a comfortable romantic chemistry with Dickson’s Pasternak that is quite moving in an almost chaste way.  Yet, when her character stands on principles, she makes it feel genuine and profound, rather than didactic (like say a character from Soviet propaganda).  It is also important to note the work of Mick Bleyer as Alexanochkin, who keeps the audience consistently off-balance in satisfyingly ambiguous ways.

Perhaps the only historical figure getting short-changed in Lightning is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who ruptured his relationship with the Italian Communist Party by publishing Zhivago.  He comes across a bit caricatured here, but that is trifling complaint.  Lightning is big idea production, rendered in intimately personal terms.  It also boasts an admirably professional cast that continued on like troopers even when a freak accident in the audience forced an unusually long intermission Friday night.  Highly recommended for fans of historical drama or Zhivago in any of its incarnations, the Workshop Theater Company’s production of Lightning from Heaven runs through March 9th at the Main Stage Theater on 36th Street.

DF ’13: Tzvetanka

Tzvetanka Gosheva was an oncology specialist forbidden to tell her patients they had cancer.  This is how medicine was practiced in Bulgaria during the Soviet era.  It wasn’t pretty.  Gosheva endured the horrors of war and subsequent absurdities of Communist oppression, living to tell the tale to her filmmaker grandson Youlian Tabakov in Tzvetanka (trailer here), which screens again today as a selection of MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight.

Born in 1926 to a prosperous shop-owner, Gosheva’s family would carry the “Bourgeoisie” label like an albatross during the Communist years.  While she recalls vivid memories of the bombings, her real experiences with terror began post-war when her father was picked up for a “brief interrogation.”  Despite eventually having both parents branded class enemies and sentenced to labor camps, Gosheva somehow was admitted to university.  She wanted medical studies but was initially accepted as an English student, which seems doubly ironic given her suspect background, but that was how the Socialist system worked.

Gosheva passed away in the late 2000’s, but she obviously left behind an extensive oral history and some surprisingly playful footage (sometime bordering on the surreal).  Tabakov does not take a traditional talking head approach.  Instead, he creates impressionistic imagery to accompany his grandmother’s recollections.  Sometimes they are rather whimsical, but probably the most striking visual is the blood droplets turning into a crimson rain (not unlike the original Shining trailer) that perfectly fit her discussion of the post-war purges and show trials her parents were caught up in.

At times, Tabakov really pushes the hipster envelope with his post-modern visual style.  However, he always gives Gosheva her full say, which ultimately keeps the film grounded in reality.  Viewers quickly learn to appreciate her resiliency and keen powers of observation.  She makes no secret of her contempt for the so-called “former Communists,” whom she calls out for deliberately undermining Bulgarian democracy.  Bulgaria will miss her, even if most of her countrymen do not realize it. 

At least Tabakov has preserved her memory and her spirit.  His Tzvetanka might be a bit eccentric as eulogies go, but avoiding the maudlin seems perfectly in keeping with its subject.  Recommended for students of the Soviet era as well as those fascinated by intensely personal family histories, Tzvetanka screens again this afternoon (2/18) as part of MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

DF ’13: China Concerto

Something as profoundly traumatic as the Cultural Revolution cannot simply be papered over.  It hangs over the national psyche, like a malevolent ghost.  As much as it embraces globalism and crony capitalism, the excesses of the Mao years still have a bearing on the present day China.  Indeed, it is part of the internal contradictions Bo Wang analyzes in his documentary-essay China Concerto (trailer here), which screens as part of MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight.

A film of observation and rumination, Concerto has a pseudo-epistolary structure, featuring a woman’s disembodied voice reading a man’s dispatches from China.  The writer is not a passive viewer, having trained himself to dissect imagery and look for the telling details nobody is supposed to notice.  He is in the right place for it.  Aside from the movie clips and newscast excerpts incorporated for illustrative purposes, Concerto was almost entirely shot in Chongqing, the China’s version of Chicago.  While Bo Wang was shooting, Bo Xilai’s neo-Maoist “Red Culture” campaign was in full swing, but the Chongqing party secretary would soon be removed after the Wang Lijun scandal brought international media attention to rumors of extensive corruption.

 He certainly captured images that are both striking and ironic.  Perhaps his richest vein of material is the park where viewers witness couples dancing under a model of Mount Rushmore and an elderly man reclining near a Statue of Liberty.  Yet, tucked away, there is also a cemetery dedicated exclusively to Red Guards that remains padlocked and shunned.  According to the woman’s tantalizingly vague narration, it seems many of those interned were involved in an incident of cannibalism, which has since been consigned to the memory hole.  One suspects this park could easily be the subject of an entire documentary feature.

It is absolutely fascinating to watch Concerto apply the techniques of deconstruction to official state propaganda.  The stand-in for the filmmaker’s stand-in explicitly argues China’s obsession with spectacle is intended to mask and empower it Communist rulers.  It also offers trenchant analysis of the capitalism promoted by the state, a mutation described as “collective capitalism,” in contrast to the western individualistic variety.  The implications for the individual in Chinese society are obvious.  That is one reason the correspondent always focuses on a single individual when watching sprawling propaganda pageants.

Indeed, Concerto’s concern for the overwhelmed individual is rather noble, in a genuinely subversive way.  As if its indie bona fides needed more burnishing, China Concerto holds the distinction of being a selection of the 2012 Beijing Independent Film Festival, which was shutdown not once, but three times by the government.  This is a film that simply encourages audiences to think, but some might find that threatening.  Highly recommended for sophisticated viewers, China Concerto screens during MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight this Wednesday (2/20) and Thursday (2/21), with the director present for Q&A both nights.  For Georgians, it also screens March 27th at Kennesaw State and March 28th at Emory, as part of the well curated Independent Chinese Film Series.