Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SFIFF ’13: Recollections (short)

To the lazy news media, the sight of damaged photographs randomly scattered by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami merely functioned as convenient visual shorthand for the enormity of it all.  However, some Japanese photographers and volunteers recognized in them an opportunity to serve and comfort instead.  Nathanael Carton documents the efforts of Project Salvage Memory to find, restore, and return lost family photos in the short film Recollections (trailer here), which screens this Thursday at the San Francisco International Film Festival, following hard on the heels of its run at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

The images say it all.  The scarred remembrances of once vibrant family lives are heartbreaking to behold.  Carton nimbly walks a fine line, capturing their devastating emotional resonance without feeling ghoulishly exploitative.  Indeed, the real heart of the film involves the (primarily young) volunteers who set out to console those grieving loved ones.  It might have started as a simple gesture, but the Project has since recovered over 75,000 photos.

Clearly, the restitution process has tremendous significance for the survivors.  Obviously, the photographs facilitate closure, particularly as the focal point for funerals and subsequent memorial services. Yet not surprisingly, the Project founder Carton interviews is unflaggingly modest when speaking of his work. 

At just under thirteen minutes, Recollections is an informative but moving quietly film.  Highly recommended, Carton’s acutely sensitive documentary was one of the best shorts at this year’s Tribeca.  For those in the Bay Area, it also screens this Thursday (5/2) as part of the Shorts 1 programming block at the 2013 SFIFF.

Kiss of the Damned: Euro Undead Vamping it up in America

Vampires are Old World creatures.  They do not fit so easily in America, or at least a big crowded city like New York.  This is especially true of the reckless Mimi, who creates all sorts of complications for her sister Djuna and her undead sibling’s recently turned lover in Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Most vampires keep to themselves, making do with animal blood.  Of course, the human kind is the good stuff, but developing a taste for it is dangerous.  Mimi has done just that.  In contrast, Djuna is content living a quiet nocturnal existence in the isolated mansion owned by Xena, the grand dame of vampires.  Then one night, she catches Paolo’s eye in a throwback video store (a vestige of the old). 

Despite her concern for his well being, sparks fly between her and the slacking off screenwriter.  She soon brings him over to the undead, so they can un-live happily ever after.  Unfortunately, Xenia sends her blood-lusting sister Mimi to dry out with the blissful couple shortly thereafter.  Not surprisingly, having an unstable nymphomaniac with a taste for human blood in their midst puts a strain on pretty much everything.

Yes, Xan Cassavetes is the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.  As one might expect, she knows her art cinema.  While she is not afraid of a little blood, she patiently sets the scene and establishes her characters before getting down to the business end of vampirism.  The result is an uber-stylish, devilishly indulgent film.  Fittingly, cinematographer Tobias Datum renders it all with an evocative retro-Hammer color palette, luxuriating in shades of red.

As Djuna, Joséphine de la Baume is captivatingly elegant and sensual.  Milo Ventimiglia is a bit stiff as Paolo, but Roxanne Mesquida’s Mimi is quite the hot undead mess. She just radiates trouble whenever she is on screen.  Yet, the unlikely Michael Rapaport nearly steals the show in his brief but riotous appearances as Paolo’s crass agent.

Polished and seductive, Kiss of the Damned has a Euro art house sensibility, but it still delivers the goods for vampire fans.  Clearly inspired by the Italian masters, Cassavetes demonstrates an appreciation of the look and form of the genre.  Highly recommended for connoisseurs of continental horror and vampire films, Kiss of the Damned opens this Friday (5/3) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Something in the Air: Nostalgia for What?

Ah yes, to be young and free from consequences.  It is 1971, three years after the 1968 demonstrations.  For a group of young radicals, life is fantasy world of activism and sexual hedonism.  Nobody really worries about who pays the bills in Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Gilles and his New Left high school cronies are outraged when special French riot police break-up their riots, so they respond by rioting more.  When a Molotov cocktail seriously injures a campus security guard (who could’ve figured?), the radicals decided to lay low in Italy until things blow over.  They still debate the various merits of Trotskyism vs. anarchism, idling away their summer vacation in the Dolce Vita environment.

Everyone gets deeply worked up about injustice in general, but nobody seems to have many specifics.  Frankly, every teenager should have the opportunities Gilles’ TV producer father can provide.  Yet, Assayas presents these coddled middle class revolutionaries with no sense of irony.  Nor do they have strongly differentiated personalities.  They all just seem to drift through scenes, feeling things deeply.  Lola Créton is the notable exception portraying Gilles’s sometimes girlfriend Christine, as a sad, somewhat tragic figure, because she eventually grows up and tastes some of life’s disappointments.

Aside from Créton’s Christine, Something’s characters are a uniformly dull lot that leave no lasting impression.  However, the period details are great.  Production designer François-Renaud Labarthe’s team earns kudus for tracking down working mimeograph machine.  The soundtrack choices are also great, including songs that are era appropriate but far from overplayed, like Robin Williamson’s “Fare Thee Well, Sweet Mally” and the Incredible String Band’s “Air.”

Almost inadvertently, Something captures the shallow indulgence of the times.  Yet, it lacks both the drive and honesty of Assayas’s thematically related Carlos (which boldly depicts the realities of ideologically motivated terrorism).  The resulting net effect is a rather static viewing experience that just pokes along.  Again, it sounds cool, but never engages on an emotional or intellectual level.  A disappointment from a major filmmaker, Something in the Air opens this Friday (5/3) in New York at the IFC Center.

Tribeca ’13: Out of Print

How can folks get up every day and go to work in book publishing?  I ask myself that very question about five times a week.  Yet despite frequent doomsday forecasts, the industry lumbers on.  Perhaps e-books will be either the deliverance or the destruction of the business, but for now they are a mid-sized Schumpeterian disruption.  Vivienne Roumani takes stock of what it all means in her documentary Out of Print (trailer here), which screened as part of the Tribeca Talks post-screening discussion series at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

At the heart of OOP and Ben Lewis’s thematically related Google and the World Brain lies the question whether the digitization of knowledge is a democratizing or monopolistic endeavor.  The jury is still out, but in the case of the big G, you really have to wonder.  Roumani touches on the Google settlement, but if there is a corporate bogeyman in OOP, it is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, at least when she talks to Authors’ Guild president Scott Turow.

Is the giant e-tailer cheapening the value of e-books through its pricing and merchandizing?  Turow certainly has thoughts on the matter.  As an interview subject, Turow is an intelligent and authoritative figure.  For his part, Bezos seems to be trying to humanize his image, which is a shrewd long-term strategy, in marked contrast to the deafening silence from Google in Lewis’s doc.  Indeed, Roumani gained entrée to a number of highly influential market leaders and thinkers, even including the late great Ray Bradbury (appearing primarily as an expert on libraries, but adding unspoken significance to the discussion as the author of Fahrenheit 451).

There are a number of issues raised by the film that were largely glossed over by the post-screening experts, such as the fundamental issue of storage.  As Roumani points out, DVDs and hard drives have a life expectancy that can be measured in years, not decades.  Simply assuming someone will figure out something more lasting is not a great strategy.  Yet for the filmmaker and at least of her fellow panelists, the effect of the digital revolution on reading habits is even more significant.  Some seriously wonder whether the majority of kids today will have sufficient interest and attention to read a full book from the beginning to the end.

Roumani nicely balances prognostications of doom and gloom with optimism for the shape of things to come.  At fifty-five minutes, Out of Print is a well paced and organized overview of an industry in flux and the wider resulting social and cultural implications.  It is a handy primer, but Google and the World Brain remains a more in-depth and pointed examination of the same fundamental issues.  Given its timeliness, it should draw considerable interest on the festival circuit and merits public broadcast consideration.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tribeca ’13: Big Bad Wolves

An Israeli officer who survived the fog of war can go to some dark places if need be.  A rogue cop and the school teacher they both suspect of being a serial killer will learn this in graphic terms throughout the course of Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves, which screened during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

A sadistic murderer is preying on young girls.  A cop about to snap thinks he has caught his perp.  Unfortunately, his rough off-the-books interrogation is captured on video and posted on youtube.  Placed on wink-wink suspension, Micki intends to clean-up his mess by hook or by crook.  However, a grieving father beats him to the punch.

Gidi is a veteran of the war in Lebanon, whose daughter was one of the victims.  Although her body was recovered her head cruelly remains missing.  He hopes to recover it and thereby reach some closure.  Renting an isolated farmhouse near an Arab village, he intends to get down to business in the cellar, after coming to an agreement with the disgraced cop.  However, strange complications and interruptions keep coming up.

Keshales & Papushado, the duo behind Rabies, again demonstrate a mastery of one-gosh-darned-thing-after-another filmmaking.  Considering how unremittingly tragic the subject matter is, Big Bad is unthinkably and disturbingly funny.  Needless to say, it is humor of decidedly black variety.  They capitalize on the claustrophobic tension to build the tension and toss each successive curveball with sly dexterity.

Still, it would be nice to see the Israeli film industry occasionally produce an inspiring portrayal of Israeli society.  Yet, the fact that Israel exports films like Big Bad as well as ideologically charged documentaries critical of the government is a testament to the country’s openness.  One will not see authority figures depicted in a like manner anywhere in the popular culture of Israel’s neighbors, for fear of permanent reprisals.

Tzahi Grad is a hardnosed standout, portraying Gidi with steely gravitas, yet showing a flair for deadpan absurdist humor.  Rabies alumnus Lior Ashkenazi makes a suitable meathead foul-up as Micki.  Yet, it is the ambiguous clamminess of Rotem Keinan’s accused serial killer that makes the film so devilishly effective.

It seems appropriate Big Bad hits the festival circuit around the same time as the restoration of Fritz Lang’s M returns to revival theaters.  While there are considerable narrative differences, the two films seem to speak to each other in strange ways, particularly in terms of the social chaos wrought by such horrific crimes.  Recommended for fans of dark, subversive thrillers, Big Bad Wolves is sure to find extensive play in Israeli film showcases following its Spotlight screenings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’13: Eastwood Directs

Clint Eastwood often argues jazz and westerns are America’s two great indigenous art forms.  Inadvertently, he thereby makes a strong case that he is one of America’s most preeminent artists.  Tribute was paid to the actor-director composer at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival yesterday with the world premiere of film critic and biographer Richard Schickel’s Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story, followed by a special Tribeca Talks interview with Eastwood conducted by Darren Aronofsky.

Eastwood Directs will be included in Warner Brothers’ upcoming Clint Eastwood 40-Film Collection on DVD and the similarly titled 20-Film Collection on Bluray.  It will also air on TCM.  As one might expect, it combines talking head interviews with brief film snippets from Warner’s Eastwood library.  However, it is hard to begrudge the hagiographic treatment for an icon like Eastwood.  Clearly, he is a serious figure if he attracts commentary from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, and Meryl Streep.  It is especially nice to see Gene Hackman reminiscing about the film Unforgiven.  Someone like Eastwood ought to find a part interesting enough to get him back in the game.

Directs largely focuses on Eastwood’s special talent for directing his fellow actors, giving considerable attention to his big Oscar winners, for obvious reasons.  There are some nice stories and testimonials, especially from Streep, his co-star in Bridges of Madison County.  While Schickel does not spend much time on Bird, he still covers Eastwood’s longstanding passion and support for jazz in reasonable detail.  Though not exactly a jazz film per se, Play Misty for Me gets its due, even though it is not a Warner property (the picture of Eastwood with Erroll Garner is a nice touch).

In fact, Misty provided one of the more telling anecdotes during Eastwood’s post-screening conversation with Aronofsky.  When asked about technology, Eastwood (who still prefers film but is resigned to digital’s inevitability) spoke of his brief use of “instant replay” capabilities on his directorial debut, but quickly banished it from the set when he saw the cast and crew obsessing over it.

In Eastwood Directs, Scorsese identifies Eastwood as the living link between old school Hollywood and the modern age.  It is easy to see what he’s getting at.  Unfortunately, Aronofsky’s skills as an interviewer did not match the insights of Shickel’s interview subjects.  However, Eastwood did his best to fit anecdotes to the broad, open-ended questions and generally just offered up his gravelly-voiced Zen master-blues piano player persona to the appreciative audience.

There is something truly American about self-reinvention.  Again, this is something Eastwood exemplifies.  From Rawhide through the Leone westerns and critically underappreciated Dirty Harry films to his Cannes and Oscar celebrated films as a director, Eastwood has charted an independent course, while remaining within the studio system and maintaining his popular appeal.  Recommended for his fans, Eastwood Directs will be included on Warner Brothers’ collections releasing June 3rd and will run on TCM May 30th.  The Eastwood interview is also available for streaming for those unable to attend the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival in-person.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tribeca ’13: The Machine

There is a second Cold War on and China is winning.  Britain’s defense establishment is convinced their only hope lies in devising killer androids enhanced with artificial intelligence.  Oh, but perhaps they succeed too well in Caradog James’ The Machine (clip here), which screens as a Midnight selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Vincent McCarthy could make bank in the private sector, but he has personal reasons for laboring in a subterranean government facility somewhere in Wales.  When Ava’s AI program comes darn close to passing the Turing Test, he recruits her for his double-secret research.  However, on her very first day she cannot help noticing the dodginess of the place, particularly the guards, who double as guinea pigs.  There seems to be something weirdly unspoken going on with the twitchy veterans who accepted AI implants to counteract their brain trauma.

When Ava is murdered under suspiciously suspicious circumstances, her pre-mapped brain is imprinted on “The Machine.”  McCarthy coaches her/it to be human and humane, but Thompson, the ruthless project director, orders a battery of more lethal instructions.  This leads to conflict.

It would be nice to see a film that considered the British and American military and intelligence services to be the good guys for a change, especially compared to the oppressive and increasingly militaristic Communist regime in China.  Sadly, The Machine is not that film.  There really ought to be an epilogue showing how China enslaves the world because of the resulting setbacks to the Free World’s R&D.  Instead, we just get Messianic themes warmed over from the Universal Soldier franchise, which in turn were cribbed from Metropolis, R.U.R. and a host of apocalyptically promethean science fiction morality tales.

Nonetheless, Caity Lotz earns favorable notice for her dual role as Ava and The Machine.  She presents two distinct personas, yet still credibly hints at connections between the two.  Toby Stephens works well enough as the brilliant but short sighted McCarthy.  Sadly, Star Wars alumnus Denis “Wedge” Lawson is completely wasted as the dastardly Thompson, who seems to engage in unnecessary villainy solely to precipitate McCarthy’s crisis of conscience.

Very little of The Machine makes sense, starting with the moody Miami Vice ambiance.  One would think a research laboratory ought to be well lit, but evidently this is not the case.  Despite Lotz’s interesting performances, The Machine is predictable and heavy-handed.  A disappointment, it screens again tonight (4/27) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’13: Whitewash

Remember kids, don’t drink and plow.  We’re especially talking to you up north.  It causes plenty of grief for a sadsack countryman in Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s Whitewash (trailer here), winner of the Best New Narrative Director Award at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Bruce Landry had a pretty depressing life to begin with.  The alcoholic Canadian widower’s only source of income was the occasional freelance snowplowing gig.  One dark and snowy night, he jumps into his plow with his flask and proceeds runs down a man trudging along the side of the road.  In a drunken panic, Landry scoops up the body and drives into the woods, eventually crashing into a sturdy trunk of old growth.

While Landry stews over his predicament, we learn via flashbacks, Landry had some complicated history with the man on the business end of his plow.  After Landry convinces the soon to be late Paul Blackburn not to kill himself they sort of become friends—for a while.

One would think Landry could hole up in his plow for only so long, yet his self-imposed imprisonment never seems to end.  Whitewash vividly illustrates the old adages about how the mind can create its own Hell.  Unfortunately, the audience is condemned along with Landry.

Granted, Hoss-Desmarais masterfully sets the scene and maintains the mood of profound melancholy, but Whitewash is still agonizingly slow to watch.  The understated Thomas Haden Church nicely fits the tone of the picture and excels in the odd comic interludes without undermining the overall existential vibe.  Nevertheless, there is only so much he can do to punch-up the material while staying in character.

Whitewash bears comparison to trapped-men movies like Detour and Buried, but its claustrophobic setting makes much less dramatic sense.  THC admirably rises to the challenge of carrying the film almost single-handedly, but how long do you really want to watch him muttering to himself? 

Tribeca’s juried award winners are often head-scratchers and this year is no exception.  One can understand the recognition bestowed on Hoss-Desmarais for the atmosphere he creates, but not necessarily for his sense of pacing.  Mostly recommended for nationalistic Canadians, Whitewash screens today (4/27) and tomorrow (4/28), as an award winner at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Tribeca ’13: Byzantium

Evidently, vampirism is supposed to be an old boys’ club.  Eleanor and her sister Clara are certainly not boys.  At least they are old, though they hardly look it.  Immortality is a strange existence for them in Byzantium (trailer here), Neil Jordan’s return to the world of the undead, which screens as a Spotlight selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

For two hundred years, Eleanor has been a mixed up teenager.  She routinely writes the story she is forbidden from telling, casting her words to the wind.  Eleanor also drinks human blood to survive, but she only “takes” those who are ready and willing to go.  She was whisked away from her orphanage and turned eternal by her “guardian” Clara.  Ever since, they have not-lived on the run, eluding a cabal of vampires who never sanctioned either woman joining their ranks.

Clara does not have Eleanor’s scruples.  She is a survivor, typically falling back on her old profession—the oldest one.  At least she finds a decent enough chap to shack up with in Noel.  He happens to have a vacant hotel they can use as a base of operations—the Byzantium.  Despite Clara’s insistence on secrecy, Eleanor feels increasingly compelled to share her story, which is a dangerous proposition.

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her stage play A Vampire Story, Byzantium offer some intriguing twists on the familiar vampire mythos (the hat tips to Byron and Polidori are also nice touches).  Yet, it is driven by the telling of the tale, which establishes quite a compelling fairy tale vibe.  Jordan masterfully handles the flashbacks, while maintaining the eerie mood.  He also deftly incorporates music into key scenes.  There is an elegant lushness to Byzantium, much in the tradition of Jordan’s previous supernatural films and the better Hammer Horror productions.

Somehow, Saoirse Ronan projects both teen angst and world-weary resignation.  It is a rather soulful portrayal of the soulless.  A fully committed Gemma Arterton impressively vamps it up in every way possible as Clara.  Sam Riley adds a Twilishness as the mysterious vampire Darvell (revisiting the seaside locale of Brighton Rock) with Thure Lindhardt (from Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal) and Uri Gavriel (the blind prisoner of the pit in Dark Knight Rises) bringing some global genre cred in supporting roles.

By supernatural genre standards, Byzantium is unusually engaging on an emotional level.  It is a stylish production, bolstered by some evocative sets and locations.  Highly recommended for those who prefer their vampire films moody and brooding rather than gory, Byzantium screens again this afternoon (4/26) and tomorrow (4/27) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Hot Docs ’13 & SFIFF ’13: Chimeras

Considering China’s rapid economic expansion, is it any wonder its contemporary arts scene shares the same global ambitions of its manufacturing sector?  In fact, multi-millionaire artist Wang Guangyi is already an industry unto himself. For his part, Liu Gang has high hopes and heaps of potential.  Documentary filmmaker Mika Mattila follows the two artists and their shows over a three year period in Chimeras (trailer here), which screens during both this year’s Hot Docs and San Francisco International Film Festivals.

Wang Guangyi does not have Ai Weiwei’s name recognition outside China, but he sells like Gerhard Richter to his nouveau riche countrymen.  Yet, there are still opportunities for an unknown like Liu Gang to mount his first one-man show in a prestigious gallery space.  It seems the former art student is well on his to joining the elite, until his follow-up show is less enthusiastically received.

Not surprisingly, both artists wrestle with the baggage of China’s recent history and issues of globalization.  Wang Guangyi freely mixes Communist iconography with consumerist imagery for an ambiguously ironic effect.  When it comes to ideology, the senior artist seems deliberately cagey, aside from his explicit rejects of western aesthetic standards.  Frankly, he remembers the Cultural Revolution fondly, because school was canceled.  Still, it readily admits in retrospect great atrocities were also committed at the time (which to his credit, Mattila forthrightly illustrates with dramatic archival stills).

Young Liu Gang also clearly criticizes commercial impulses in his work, noting with some regret how China’s gallery system is almost entirely based on the Western model. Yet, it is when he proposes a series of work inspired by China’s One Child policy, the once welcoming establishment sort of freaks.

Mattila captures this dichotomy reflected in contemporary Chinese culture and commerce solely through direct observation.  There is a lot of messy reality in the film, as well as some intriguing art.  While ostensibly focused on the two artists and their oeuvre, the ghosts of history haunt the margins of the film in strange and unexpected ways. 

Intelligently assembled by Mattila and his editor Mikko Sippola, Chimeras (not a great title, but so be it) opens a fascinating window into an underreported sector of China.  Recommended for China watchers and those who follow the international art scene, Chimeras screens tonight (4/26), Sunday (4/28), and Thursday (5/2) up north at Hot Docs and next Saturday (5/4), Sunday (5/5), and the following Tuesday (5/7) out west at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Tribeca ’13: Mobius

In Russia, today’s captain of industry is tomorrow’s rogue oligarch.  Even sponsoring the next head of the FSB is not enough to protect one tycoon.  Instead, it makes him a liability.  An agent specializing in sensitive assignments will target the shadowy money man through an attractive employee, leading to all sorts of complications in Eric Rochant’s Möbius (trailer here), which screens at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Gregory Lioubov commands an FSB team pretending to be a Monaco police task force, attempting to turn Alice Redmund, a brilliant trader for with a scandalous past.  Redmund works for Ivan Rostovski’s multi-national firm, but she also secretly reports to an American handler.  Realizing the Russians are putting a play on Rostovski, the CIA instructs Redmund to play along with the task force she still assumes are local cops. 

When Lioubov accidentally picks up Redmund to protect his cover[s], it compromises them both.  Suddenly, Redmund is hiding their burgeoning affair from the jealous Rostovski while Moïse, as Lioubov calls himself, scrambles to keep his incompetent subordinates in the dark.  Then things really get tricky.

Möbius is pretty steamy stuff by espionage movie standards.  These spies definitely come in out of the cold.  As Lioubov (or whoever) and Redmund, co-leads Jean Dujardin and Cécile de France have real chemistry and are not afraid to go all in.  However, the rest of the cloak-and-daggering is not bad either.  While there seems to be a bit of an anti-American bias, at least it is rather muddled.  The FSB on the other hand is clearly portrayed as a nest of vipers indistinguishable from its previous incarnation as the dreaded KGB.

In a change-up from his Oscar winning turn in The Artist, Dujardin brings a dark, brooding physicality to Lioubov.  De France is a respectable femme fatale-anti-heroine, but Tim Roth nearly steals the show as the erratic British educated Rostovski.

Rochant nicely juggles all the feints and double-crosses as the film alternates between romanticism and cynicism.  Cinematographer Pierre Novion gives it all a stylish noir polish that should satisfy genre fans.  Recommended for patrons of French cinema and cerebral spy thrillers, Möbius screens again tomorrow (4/27) and Sunday as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Graceland: Last Year’s Tribeca Second Place Audience Award Winner

Yes, Tribeca really can be a launching pad.  Ron Morales’ dark thriller came in second in the voting for the Audience Award at last year’s festival—but probably should have won. Now it is back for its theatrical run, almost a year to the date. 

While the Filipino community came out to support the film last year, the country’s tourism bureau might not have been overly thrilled with its portrayal of a crooked congressman.  He is used to handing out the traditional sort of bribes, but when his daughter is kidnapped, he also has to give a little financial consideration to get the cops to do their job.  Unfortunately, they are determined to hassle his former driver, whose daughter was also abducted.  To save her, he will have to navigate Manila’s seediest back alleys without the help of the openly antagonistic police in Morales’ Graceland (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Though ostensibly a driver, one of Marlon Villar’s primary duties is to clean up after his boss Rep. Chango’s predatory indulgences with underage girls—or at least it was.  Given the soul-deadening acts Villar witnessed, he is shocked when the congressman summarily fires him. The timing is particularly bad, considering his hospitalized wife desperately needs a transplant.  That is also why suspicion immediately falls on him after the kidnapping.  In what was to be his final task for his former employer, he picks up his daughter Evie and her best friend Sophia Chango from school, only to be waylaid by armed thugs.

Unfortunately, complications arise during the kidnapping that put Villar in a particularly tight spot.  In a way, it is like a dark twist on the botched kidnapping in Kurosawa’s High and Low, but unlike Toshirō Mifune’s upstanding Kingo Gondo, Chango cannot be relied on to do the right thing.  In fact, it quickly becomes clear the case directly involves the politician’s bad karma.

Granted, Graceland is not at Kurosawa’s level, but it is an intense dark crime drama that totally pulls off some audacious hide-in-plain-sight twists.  However, it decidedly for mature audiences, depicting unhygienic slums, where shocking vice is carried on with near impunity, thanks to widespread police corruption.

Of course, for a desperation-in-the-city noir, such a setting works perfectly, as does Arnold Reyes, the terrific lead.  As Villar, he broods ferociously, but is no superman.  In the complex role, he keeps viewers on the edge of their seats and fully vested in his fate.  In memorable support, Menggie Cobarrubias radiates sleaze as the dishonorable congressman, while Dido de La Paz brings a feral cunning to the corrupt Det. Ramos.

Tightly helmed by Morales, Graceland works every step of the way and completely holds together in retrospect.  With its visceral sense of place and Reyes’ powerhouse performance, Graceland is highly recommended for fans of Vachss-esque dark crime dramas when it opens tomorrow (4/26) in New York at the Village East.

The Numbers Station: CIA Bingo

Forget about the jocks, the CIA prefers to recruit math geniuses.  If they happen to be drop-outs with socialization issues, so much the better.  Of course, they still need people who can kill, but any old losers can do that, even someone who looks like John Cusack.  Unexpectedly, one such field agent babysitting a remote code transmitter will have to do what he does best in Kasper Barfoed’s The Numbers Station (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Short wave radio is untraceable, making it the perfect format to convey messages to operatives in the field.  Periodically, conspiracy nuts and Democracy Now listeners get all worked up about mysterious “Number Station” broadcasts.  Typically, they are simply series of numbers that have no meaning to listeners without the code.  After a dirty job gets downright ugly, Emerson Kent is reassigned to a station somewhere in the English countryside.  He provides personal security to Katherine, who analyzes incoming code and reads out the resulting number sequences.  Neither he nor she has any idea what any of it means.

Typically, they alternate with the other team every three days.  However, when they arrive a few hours early in accordance with their new schedule, they find the station under siege.  Thanks to Kent’s skills they are able to hole-up in the station.  Ominously though, they discover fifteen unauthorized messages have been sent.

A film like Numbers Station would do so much more business if it actually celebrated CIA agents’ service and sacrifice for their country.  There are now 103 stars on the Memorial Wall in Langley commemorating officers who have fallen in the line of duty.  However, screenwriter F. Scott Frazier is unmoved by that, preferring to represent as the Agency in the person of Kent’s boss, the ruthless Michael Grey, who constantly growls euphemistically about tying up loose ends.  Those 103 stars deserve better than that Mr. Frazier.

It is a shame too, because Numbers Station is a pretty tightly executed cat-and-mouse-game thriller.  Barfoeld uses the claustrophobic constraints of the station bunker to build tension, shying away from conventional action sequences.  Both couples’ developing extracurricular attractions also ring true, given the intimacy of their working environment.

Frankly, John Cusack is pretty convincing as the guilt-ridden, clinically depressed black ops agent.  Perhaps Barfoed was reading a list of his recent direct-to-DVD credits to him off-camera.  Likewise, Malin Akerman proves she can credibly play smart and attractive simultaneously, which should put her on a short list for bigger and better roles.  Unfortunately, the usually super-cool Liam Cunningham is largely wasted as the generically villainous Grey.

Numbers Station features some better than average chemistry and respectable thriller mechanics.  However, the constant demonization of the intelligence service is clumsy, didactic, and clichéd. Frankly, it is so familiar it makes a film with a few new ideas still feel old hat.  The victim of its own self-sabotage, The Numbers Station opens tomorrow (4/26) in New York at the AMC Empire.

Tribeca ’13: The Diplomat

Once described as “the most beautiful face of socialism,” she would eventually pose for Playboy.  As a back-to-back Olympic gold medalist, Katarina Witt represented the greatest success of the East German athletic program.  Yet, in light of subsequent revelations, she might be the most deeply confused former East German about the Communist era.  At least, such seems to be the case judging from Jennifer Arnold & Senain Kheshgi’s documentary profile, The Diplomat, produced as part of ESPN Films’ Nine for IX series, several of which screen during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Witt clearly had the X factor at an early age, attracting East Germany’s preeminent figure skating coach and abundant state support.  She was duly grateful for both.  As she began winning championships, Witt became an important symbol for state propaganda.  She did her part willingly.  Yet, she was always aware her opportunities to travel outside the closed country were a rare blessing.

What Witt did not realize until after the fall of the Wall was the level of surveillance the state maintained on her, despite her dutiful service.  She was also shocked to learn several friends spied on her for the dreaded Stasi, including a remorseful fellow figure skater, whom Arnold & Kheshgi interview at length.

Although she remains an important international sports figure, Witt still seems unsure how to process everything that happened post-1989.  We see how staggered she was by the outpouring of East German resentment when the size and extent of GDR state subsidies to athletes was revealed.  She argues Olympics medalists like her did something extraordinary on the world stage, thereby earning their compensation.  That is a completely reasonable position, but a far cry from “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

While they are understandably reluctant to dig-in and challenge Witt, Arnold & Kheshgi thoroughly establish the oppressive nature of the GDR and the intrusive methods of the Stasi, much to their credit.  Some of their best talking head commentary comes from the post-Unification custodians of the Stasi Archives.  For further creepy context, they also scored a sit down with Moscow’s final GDR hardliner Egon Krenz, who once headed the captive nation’s athletic machine, but would eventually be convicted for crimes committed against the German people.

For many Americans watching the Olympics, Witt was always a kind of ice queen.  The Diplomat offers a fuller, more complicated picture.  It is hard to say how much she was and still is in a state of denial.  Yet, it is clear anyone born into such a system with any sort of talent would have to navigate some thorny situations.  An intriguing portrait of a gifted athlete representing a system rife with “internal contradictions,” The Diplomat screens again as part of a double bill with No Limits this Saturday (4/27) during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tribeca ’13: Cycling with Moliere

L’Île de Ré is sort of like the French Martha’s Vineyard.  It is pretty dead during the off-season, but if you wait long enough you are sure to spot someone famous.  Gauthier Valence is such a celebrity.  He hopes to recruit a retired colleague for a production of The Misanthrope in Philippe Le Guay’s Cycling with Molière (trailer here), which screens as a Spotlight selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

The success of his medical drama even embarrasses Valence.  Serge Tanneur’s career went in the opposite direction following a legal spat with a producer.  Retiring to his late uncle’s ramshackle house on the isle, Tanneur has given up all acting ambitions until Valence comes calling.  Of course, the TV doctor wants to play Alceste.  He is the star.  Yet, when Tanneur balks, Valence suggests they alternate between the lead role and Philinte.  Neither saying yes or no, Tanneur keeps him on the hook during a week of trial rehearsals.  Sometimes they click, just like the old days, but there will be complications.

The Misanthrope’s significance to Tanneur is so fitting, Le Guay barely gives it nodding acknowledgement.  Instead, he concentrates on the actors’ craft and the demands of the verse.  Frankly, even after watching the film it is hard to say whether Valence and Tanneur are friends, frienemies, or rivals, which is quite a rich ambiguity.  There are some exquisitely bittersweet scenes, as when the old thesps do a reading with Zoé, the island’s young aspiring porn star.  Yes, they even run lines while biking.  That is how island folk seem to roll, after all.

While Cycling is extremely accessible, it is about as French as films get.  Le Guay’s screenplay, based on an idea co-developed with co-lead Fabrice Luchini, has considerable wit, but it is defined by a sense of longing and regret.  It also rather tastefully avoids big pay-off learning moments, instead remaining true to its characters’ flaws and foibles.

Luchini (whose recent credits include Laurent Tirard’s Molière and Le Guay’s charming Women on the 6th Floor) is overdue for a major American retrospective, but Cycling would be the perfect film to build it around.  He is completely convincing as a frustrated actor doing a mostly convincing Alceste.  His facility with language and brittle insecurities all feel right.  Lambert Wilson is perfectly fine as Valence, playing off Luchini quite well in some key scenes.  Yet, Maya Sansa nearly steals the show as Francesca, the Italian divorcee who attracts the attention of both men.  Likewise, Laurie Bordesoules makes the most of her brief but charming appearances as Zoé.

Cycling never really reinvents the wheel, but it is a refreshingly elegant and literate film.  The scenery is quite pleasant, while Luchini’s work still has real bite.  Recommended for all regular patrons of French cinema, Cycling with Molière screens again tomorrow (4/25) and Sunday (4/28) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca ’13: Fresh Meat

Insert your own family dinner joke here.  Or don’t bother.  New Zealander Danny Mulheron’s fearless cannibal comedy will make them all for us.  Questions of good taste will entirely depend on the viewer’s palate when Fresh Meat (trailer here) screens as a Midnight selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Rina Crane is a very proper young Maori lady who has come home from boarding school.  She is thinking it is about time to drop the lesbian bomb with her family, but they beat her to the punch, revealing the new family diet.  In hopes of finally achieving tenure, her academic father Hemi Crane has revived an ancient mystical cannibal cult.  Eating will flesh will give them supernatural powers or so the theory goes.  His new faith is about to be put to the test when a reckless gang of fugitives invades the Crane home.

For the freaked out Rina, this sudden turn of events is not all bad, largely because of Gigi, the ringleader’s less than enthusiastic girlfriend.  She happens to bear a strong resemblance to the fetish superhero character Rina created as a focus for her fantasies.  Clearly, the two share an instant attraction, at a time when Rina’s family loyalties are somewhat fraying.

Basically, Fresh combines elements of Desperate Hours with We Are What We Are, adding all kinds of politically incorrect humor.  At one point Hemi Crane declares: “we are not Maori cannibals, we are cannibals who happen to be Maori.”  Whew, feel better everybody?  The treatment of Lesbian themes is about as sensitive, with scenes clearly included for maximum leer value.  Oh right, there’s plenty of gore too.

You have to give Briar Grace-Smith’s screenplay credit for jumping on every third rail it could find.  Likewise, Temuera Morrison embraces the gleeful mayhem wholeheartedly as Hemi Crane.  As Rina, Hanna Tevita keeps her head above water amid all the bedlam, even conveying a measure of sensitive teen alienation.

If you don’t know by now whether this blood-splattered teen lesbian cannibal comedy is your cup of tea or not, I really can’t help you.  For what it’s worth, Mulheron maintains a brisk pace, allowing little time for the wrongness of it all to sink in.  Recommended for anyone out for some good clean fun at the movies, Fresh Meat screens again this Friday (4/26) and Saturday (4/27) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tai Chi Hero: Stephen Fung Brings the Family Values

“Pushing Hands” style kung fu is an important Chen family tradition.  For complicated reasons, Chen village is forbidden to teach their kung fu to outsiders.  While they do not break this rule, they bend it considerably in Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Hero (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Yang Lu Chan, “the Freak,” sought to learn Chen-style kung fu to balance his karma and counteract the mutant berserker horn on his temple sapping his vital energy.  Of course, everyone said no, but the earnest plodder kept trying.  However, when Yang nearly dies defending Chen village from invaders, the Master’s daughter, Chen Yu Niang, takes pity on Yang, marrying him into the clan.

Initially, it is not much of a marriage, but he sure takes to Master Chen’s instructions.  Yang should most likely live and thrive, but the future of Chen village is soon threatened again.  Teaming up with a rogue British officer and the Chinese Imperial army, Yu Niang’s ex Fang Zijing (a Chen village outsider himself) means to capture Master Chen and his daughter and son-in-law.  They are willing to give themselves up for the sake of the village, but not without a fight, which is spectacular.

In his follow-up to Tai Chi Zero, Fung doubles down on the steampunk trappings, introducing Master Chen’s prodigal son Zai, who never properly paid his kung fu dues, but has these flying machine inventions, a la Da Vinci’s Demons.  While Hero lacks the breakneck lunacy of Zero, it is surprisingly warm and endearing.  This is the family values installment of the franchise, featuring reconcilements between fathers and sons and wives and husbands—and it all works somehow.  Of course, there is also the massive showdown with the Imperial Army.

Jayden Yuan comes into his own as the innocent Yang this time around, nicely portraying the maturation of the Freak’s character and his kung fu. Angelababy does not quite have as much screen time in Hero, which is a pity considering how charismatic she is as Yu Niang.  Still, she has some dynamic action sequences in the big battle and should become a truly international superstar on the basis of her work in the franchise. 

“Big” Tony Leung Ka Fai keeps doing his Zen thing as Master Chen and he’s as cool as ever.  Somewhat bizarrely though, as Duke Fleming, Swedish actor Peter Stormare (who has been reasonable comprehensible in English language features like Fargo and The Big Lebowski) seems to be channeling the sort of weird, affected sounding white-devil heavies of kung fu movie tradition.

Tai Chi Hero is nearly as much outrageous fun as Zero, but it has more heart.  With the final film of the trilogy in the pipeline, Fung’s Tai Chi series should become a fan favorite.  Enthusiastically recommended for martial arts fans, Tai Chi Hero opens this Friday (4/26) in New York at the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tribeca ’13: Taboor

It is the near future, but you will not see any flying cars.  Instead, it is a world of technological stagnation and social isolation.  For the unnamed Iranian protagonist, the future is now in Vahid Vakilifar’s Taboor (trailer here), which screens as a Viewpoints selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Forget the tinfoil hat.  Concerned by electromagnetic waves, the solitary man has tailored himself a tinfoil hazmat suit and lined his bedroom with aluminum.  By night he plies his trade.  He is an exterminator—not euphemistically, but in the Burroughs tradition.  At each stop, he hardly talks to his clients, despite the odd events that happen.  He seems to be a decent person, considering he always acts in a helpful manner.  However, good karma has yet to come back around to him.

Consisting of a long quiet takes with almost no dialogue, Taboor is driven more by image than plot or character.  In fact, it rather invites viewers to impose their own narrative on Vakilifar’s loose narrative structure.  Granted, that is not what most folks go to the movies for, but it can be a convenient strategy for a film produced under a rigid system of social controls.  Still, the weird developments at each stop almost echoes Léos Carax’s Holy Motors, but without the sense of playful gamesmanship.

This is definitely a film for self-selecting festival regulars.  However, they will be intrigued by Vakilifar’s visual sensibilities. The coolly detached way he films contemporary Iranian locations (tunnels, boiler rooms and the like) gives them an otherworldly vibe, not unlike some scenes in Godard’s Alphaville.

Taboor is a striking portrait of a man’s nearly absolute alienation in a dystopian world.  Hmm, one wonders where Valikifar gets his ideas.  This is unquestionably a demanding film, but there is a there there.  Recommended for the hardiest of cineastes, Taboor screens again tonight (4/23) and Saturday (4/27) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Midnight’s Children: Rushdie’s Novel Finally Comes to Big Screens

Today, any garden variety financial advisor will happily pitch you a BRIC fund.  However, the Indian economy was not always a magnet for foreign capital.  In fact, the years following independence were decidedly rocky.  Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize winner served as both an indictment of the corruption and human rights abuses India had endured and a challenge to the nation to do better.  Despite the best efforts of Iran, Rushdie’s novel finally comes to the big screen, adapted and narrated by the author himself. A significant cinematic event, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

As with any self-respecting epic, Midnight begins not with its protagonist, but with his grandparents’ generation. Saleem Sinai would certainly seem to have Dr. Aadam Aziz’s nose, but he does not have his grandfather’s blood.  A Muslim proponent of a unified India, Dr. Aziz harbors a fellow moderate political leader from separatist extremists. Unfortunately, Aziz’s allies wind up on the losing side of history, resulting in a family schism.  Saleem starts life as the son of Aziz’s daughter and an ambitious businessman, but he was actually the child of a destitute street performer, impulsively switched at birth by his nurse and future nanny, Mary Peirera.

Sinai and Shiva, the boy whose life he unknowingly usurped, were born at the stroke of midnight on Independence Day, August 15, 1947.  All “Midnight’s Children” have special powers, but Sinai serves as the glue holding them together, hosting telepathic conferences with the help of his uncanny nose.  Sinai quickly forms a bond with Parvati-the-Witch, a young girl with real magical powers. Shiva however, is openly resentful of Sinai’s privileged life and the sheepishness of his fellow Midnight Children.  Over the succeeding decades, their fates will become intertwined as they participate as bit players in the India-Pakistan Wars, the creation of Bangladesh, and Indira Gandhi’s oppressive State of Emergency.

The Iranian government did not want you to see this film.  It is not even about Iran, but anything by the author of The Satanic Verses is apparently enough to send the mad mullahs into apoplexy. Fortunately, after a 92 hour shut down precipitated by the Iranian ambassador’s protests, the Sri Lankan President decided to act civilized and allow production to continue.  The film resulting from the necessarily rushed shoot is quite a powerful work.

The very premise of the psychically linked Midnight’s Children personifying the newly independent India has deep resonance.  When Sinai acknowledges the failure of this special generation (and India by extension), it is a heavy moment.  As Rushdie’s surrogate, Sinai cuts through the propaganda, calling out India’s government and society for failing to live up to its professed democratic ideals.  Yet, the film is also inspiring, explicitly placing its hopes on the next generation to make due on the promise of the children of 1947. From the vantage point of 2013, one could argue that they have indeed.

Watching Midnight’s Children, it is clear Rushdie is not ready to forgive and forget the excesses of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency.  He is also highly critical of religious fundamentalism, clearly implying it is no accident of fate the relatively secular India routed the militantly Islamic Pakistan.  Indeed, the scenes in Islamabad are nearly as unsettling as those in Gandhi’s interrogation cells.

Satya Bhabha has some effective moments as the adult Sinai, but it is almost too much the allegorical everyman role for an actor to truly inhabit in a flesh and blood way.  In contrast, Siddharth (billed simply by his first name) is a genuinely malevolent presence as Shiva (named after the Hindu deity of destruction).  Likewise, Shriya Saran is wonderfully earthy and mysterious as Parvati-the-Witch. Jewel in the Crown veteran Charles Dance even lends his regal bearing as William Methwold, the dispossessed former owner of Sinai’s early family villa. Yet, it is the author’s warm, evocative voice that truly sets the tenor of the film.

For obvious reasons, Midnight’s Children will be a difficult film for many critics and commentators to get their heads around.  Yet, the magical realist trappings illuminate rather than obscure the country’s awkward Twentieth Century history.  Frankly, the Raj does not always look so bad, compared to some of what follows.  While the one hundred forty-six minute running feels just a tad long, Mehta wrangles decades of subtly fantastical material into a logical and accessible narrative.  Highly recommended, Midnight’s Children opens this Friday (4/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Beekman uptown.

Tribeca ’13: Reporting on the Times (short doc)

In the 1930’s, Walter Duranty, The New York Times man in Moscow, systemically misreported or ignored Stalin’s crimes, including the notorious show trials and the Ukrainian famine.  He is considered an unfortunate but isolated case.  Yet, throughout the war, the Times consistently buried stories about the Holocaust.  Emily Harrald examines the “Paper of Record’s” questionable coverage (again as a discrete phenomenon) in the documentary short Reporting on the Times, which screens as part of the History Lessons short film program at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Harrald’s opening graphics speak volumes.  From 1939 to 1945, the Times ran 23,000 front page stories—11,500 of which were about World War II.  26 were about the Holocaust.  What is most disturbing is the nature of the coverage that did run, typically relegated to the middle of the paper.  Midway through European round-up pieces, the Times would matter-of-factly report on the “liquidation” of the ghettoes, with no illusions regarding what that euphemism meant.

Rather bizarrely, Harrald spends a good portion of Reporting excusing the Times’ dubious Holocaust reportage.  Viewers will never forget publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was himself Jewish, but presented a fully Americanized and secularized image to readers and the press, partly out of concern over the rise of anti-Semitism.  Perhaps this explains why he would be personally reluctant to run front page stories on the plight of European Jewry.  However, he employed a full editorial staff to make sure the paper did not bury its lede.

Throughout Reporting, moral clarity is provided by a Holocaust survivor whose mother was convinced the world would come to their aid once they knew the magnitude of the National Socialists’ crimes.  For whatever reason, the Times obviously did not do its part.  Yet, when considered in light of Duranty’s Moscow dispatches, the under-reporting of the Holocaust appears more systemic than Reporting would like to consider.  Harrald’s film earns credit for beginning the conversation, but its interpretations of media history are far from definitive.  It screens again today (4/23), Friday (4/26), and Sunday (4/28) as part of the History Lessons short film block at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tribeca ’13: Honeymoon Suite (short)

The Opposite House probably did not pay a promotional allowance, but it will get a heck of a plug at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.  That is because one of the short films commissioned by the chic Beijing boutique hotel was selected for the festival.  It is not hard to see why.  Zao Wang’s Honeymoon Suite (trailer here) is a small delight screening as part of the Deadbolt program at this year’s Tribeca.

This will be the first time Ally, the Opposite’s new guest services manager, will be on-duty while the mysterious Mr. Hirschfeld stays in his regular titular room.  He visits like clockwork once a month, for one night only. Even though his secret is revealed early in the film, it should not be spoiled ahead of time for those who do not guess. It is safe to say he is kind of a handful, in genre sort of way.

The director certainly does his job, making the Opposite look like quite the hip, elegant space. He also cast a first-rate ensemble.  As Ally, Zou Han-hong comes across like a smart professional, but she also has some rather touching moments down the stretch.  She certainly makes you want to check into the Opposite. 

Poor Cary Woodworth is largely buried under surprisingly impressive make-up effects, so give him credit for being a good sport.  Nadia Hatta and Xi-tian also make an endearing mother-daughter tandem in the room beneath Hirschfeld’s, with the latter providing some very cute reaction shots.

Man, if only all commercials were this fun, then we would be getting somewhere. Regardless of its origins, genre fans will be charmed by Honeymoon Suite.  Recommended for general audiences, it screens as part of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival’s Deadbolt shorts block tonight (4/22), Saturday (4/27), and Sunday (4/28).