Sunday, June 30, 2013

NYAFF ’13: Ip Man—the Final Fight

Ip Man was such a powerful kung fu master, he could actually warp time.  Fans can only assume as much if they wish to justify the conflicting timelines of the various Ip Man films released in recent years.  The dates and places might change, but Ip Man remains the grandmaster of masters.  Herman Yau dramatizes his twilight years in Ip Man—the Final Flight (trailer here), which is sure to be a hot ticket tonight at the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Hong Kong’s go-go economy had yet to blast off.  Master Ip earns little more than a subsistence living teaching his Wing Chun style of kung fu to students.  Well known throughout the city, Master Ip could probably do a brisker business were it not for his own self-imposed restrictions.  Kung fu is a way of life for him—not a commodity to be commercialized.

In a way, The Final Flight is a bit Gumpish, casting Master Ip as an observer of two decades of Hong Kong’s growing pains, including the rise of trade unionism and rampant gangsterism within the Walled City.  However, when it finally gets down to fighting, Final delivers some spectacular street melees.

While produced independently of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man films, Anthony Wong is not a bad likeness for Donnie Yen in his AARP years.  Wong might not look particularly spry, but he is a steely old cat, so it is easy to buy into him as the veteran martial artist.  After all, the genre has a long history of butt-kicking greybeards.

Indeed, Wong’s Zen-like gravitas is perfect for the venerable Ip.  He also develops some appealingly ambiguous chemistry with Zhou Chu Chu, playing a scandalous nightclub singer attracted to his old bad self.  However, the film is overstuffed with Ip’s disciples.  You would think half the city was studying under him. Regardless, Jordan Chan adds real hardboiled heft to the film as Tang Shing, a not completely corrupt copper and former student of Ip’s.  He creates a spinoff-worthy character should the filmmakers wish to further complicate the Ip Man universe.

Festival special guest Yau should satisfy fans with his gritty street action and humanistic portrayal of the Ip family.  In fact, Ip’s son, Ip Chun served as a technical advisor and appears in a small supporting role.  Final Fight is also bolder than its predecessor films depicting Ip’s most famous student, Bruce Lee.  Although never named as such, it is hard to miss the implication when Master Ip meets with a former student turned famous actor, whom the audience only sees from behind, sporting conspicuous sunglasses.

It was the apostolic connection to Bruce Lee that launched the Ip Man filmmaking craze to begin with, but the Master has since taken on a media life of his own. Nicely choreographed with a wistful vibe that sets it apart from the pack, Yau’s latest Ip Man is a worthy addition to the Ip canon.  Recommended for martial arts fans with a strong appreciation of tradition, Ip Man—the Final Fight screens tonight (6/30) as part of the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

NYAFF ’13: Rigodon

If fame is an aphrodisiac, this married former reality show contestant has made the most of his third place finish.  He has had much less success monetizing his fifteen minutes, but to be fair, he has been rather busy juggling all his action on the side.  Karma will do as it does in Erik Matti’s very adult drama Rigodon (trailer here), which screens tonight during the eagerly awaited 2013 edition of the New York Asian Film Festival.

Clearly, the American-born Riki Torres appreciates voluptuous women.  He is married to the wildly insecure Regina (Reg) and picks up the rebounding professional Sarah Dilag in a club.  Torres plays it cool though, manipulating Dilag into making all the first moves.  Their illicit affair quickly gets hot and heavy, but his acting career remains as cool as Vanilla Ice.  Deeply in debt to loan sharks, Torres promises his wife a big break is just around the corner.  Yet, despite his love for their young daughter Pammy, he allows his domestic life to crater. Meanwhile, his secret life with Dilag becomes more demanding.

In the Philippines, Rigodon was hailed as the return of the erotic drama. You might be surprised to hear they ever went away, even in the predominantly Catholic country (which brought the world Hubad a few years ago).  Regardless, Rigodon holds up its end with some of the frankest sex scenes viewers will see while still feeling confident they are in a festival-worthy film. 

Matti’s vibe of detached foreboding and Ricardo Buhay III’s sensitively framed cinematography largely offset the film’s potential sensationalism.  The primary cast also manages to make the characters convincingly flawed but messily human.  Obviously the camera loves one-time rock drummer Yan Concepcion, but she is also quite impressive portraying Dilag’s evolution from innocence to obsession.  Likewise, Max Eigenmann’s work as the wronged wife is quite powerful.  Even John James Uy taps into something tragically human and almost sympathetic in the caddish Torres.

Taking its title from a traditional dance, Rigodon is a stylish but mostly restrained examination of infidelity that saves all the melodrama for the final ten minutes.  If Michael Mann were to remake an Adrian Lynne film in Manila it might look a lot like this.  There is a great deal of honesty in the film and also quite a bit of nudity.  Recommended for adult adults, Rigodon screens with Matti’s creepy little short, Vesusius (which kind of-sort of suggests you had better pay attention to what the Church has to say about apparitions), later tonight (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2013 NYAFF’s special focus, Manila Chronicles: The New Filipino Cinema.

NYAFF ’13: Eungyo (A Muse)

Lee Juk-yo is a poet, so he probably never had much common sense.  As a former engineering student, Seo Ji-woo has no excuse.  Their lives will be drastically complicated by a seventeen year-old high school student in Jung Ji-woo’s Eungyo (a.k.a. A Muse, trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

Lee is a revered poet of national stature, somewhat in the Robert Frost mold.  After taking one class with him, Seo chucked in his STEM coursework to pursue a literary career.  Initially dismissed as Lee’s flunky, he has become an unlikely national bestseller with a rather sentimental romance novel.  He still fancies himself Lee’s gatekeeper, so it annoys him no end when his mentor starts showing a preference for Han Eun-gyo’s company. 

Having turned an odd encounter into a part-time housekeeping gig, Han clearly craves the attention of the man she calls “Grandpa” or “Grumpa.” In turn, Lee is intoxicated by her youthful enthusiasm.  If they were only surrogate father and daughter figures to each other, the film would not have raised nearly so many eyebrows in Korea.  However, Lee has thoughts about Han that he expresses in a fateful lyric poem.

Lee Juk-yo is not Humbert Humbert, but his moral judgments are considerably more problematic than the old platonic confidant of Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (oddly enough, two roles both played by Jeremy Irons).  It is clear that Lee gets ideas—the extent to which he acts on them will be the open question driving the film’s dramatic tension.

Jung’s sensitive execution minimizes the leering factor, but it is hard to get around the unsettling nature of the various forms of attraction at play.  Viewers are clearly not supposed to.  Yet, the film’s moral ambiguity remains troubling.

Be that as it may or may not be, Jung’s cast is quite accomplished.  In her first performance as a professional, Kim Go-eun’s Han is no mere Lolita.  She really taps into the young’s girl deep insecurities.  Flirtatious but not necessarily flighty, she yearns for love and approval.  It is easy to understand why she is this year’s recipient of NYAFF’s Rising Star Award.

Playing a character twice his age, Park Hae-il is almost painfully reserved as Lee, scrupulously avoiding the clichés of bug-eyed lechery.  Unfortunately, Kim Moo-yul makes the weak link character of Seo impossibly supercilious and boorish.

At about the halfway point, the film throws viewers a razor sharp literary twist that significantly raises the stakes.  However, it then shotguns a huge can of melodrama late in the third act, nearly derailing the whole procession.  Still, there is something messily human about the film that largely compensates for the inevitable “yuck” factor.  Anchored by two very strong performances, Eungyo is recommended for patrons of provocative drama, who might not have many chances to see it later, given the subject matter. It screens tonight (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theatre as this year’s eagerly anticipated NYAFF gets underway.

Friday, June 28, 2013

100 Bloody Acres: What “Organic” Really Means

The Morgan Brothers’ Organic Blood and Bone Fertilizer is a case of truth in advertising.  It is a tough business, but sometimes the raw materials are free.  However, their cottage industry implodes into grisly mayhem in Colin & Cameron Cairnes’ Australian horror mash-up 100 Bloody Acres (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Think of it as roadkill.  In the past, Reg and his domineering older brother Lindsay have scavenged victims of highway accidents, “recycling” them back into their customers’ fields.  While returning from a solo run, Reg chances upon a fresh one.  He makes a rather messy job of it though.  Against all better judgment, he also picks up three hitchhiking made-to-order slasher movie teens on their way to a music festival.  By the time they discover the hastily concealed body they have practically been sitting on, Reg is back at the Morgan Farm, where Lindsay takes charge.  From this point on, things will not be pretty for anyone.

Although a bit slow out of the gate, 100 picks up speed nicely.  In fact, there are a number of big oh-no-they-didn’t-oh-yes-they-did laughs in the latter half of the picture.  The Cairnes Brothers definitely deliver enough comedic gore to satisfy genre fans, but they frankly could have gotten away with far less developed characters, so that is nice bonus as well.

As Reg, Damon Herriman is quite the game sad sack, but it is Angus Sampson who really takes the film by the horns as the hulking and increasingly harried Lindsay.  Their three reluctant guests are basically generic carbon copies of Scream franchise prototypes, but Chrissie Page has some unforgettable moments as Nancy, an old friend of the Morgan family.

The Cairnes clearly have a gleeful affection for over-the-top cinematic carnage.  It becomes rather infectious thanks to their energetic execution.  There is a bit of “Australianess” to the film that will stand out distractingly for American audiences, but on the plus side, they will gain a deeper appreciation for cheesy Australian pop music.  For those who do not mind severed body parts, 100 Blood Acres is just good, clean fun.  Recommended for horror fans with a taste for black humor, it opens today (6/28) at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

MFF ’13: Baikonur

Just like their Soviet counterparts used to do, Russian cosmonauts watch the Central Asian caper movie White Sun of the Desert before each lift-off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  Not the surprisingly, the locals have an ambiguously symbiotic relationship to the Russian space program.  One young Kazakh misfit harbors ambitions regarding love and space travel in Veit Helmer’s Baikonur (trailer here), which has its Texas premiere this Saturday at the 2013 Marfa Film Festival.

The men of Iskander “Gagarin” Orinbekov’s village have only one source of employment—salvaging metal cast-off from rocket launches.  A self taught engineer, Orinbekov usually gives them an edge over their competition.  They have a saying: “what drops from the sky is a gift from God.”  Tragically, falling space debris also killed Gargarin’s parents when he was young.  Yet, he still dreams of joining the cosmonauts.  Then one day, Orinbekov discovers French space tourist Julie Mahé’s missing space capsule with her strapped inside.  When she finally comes to, she has a tempting case of amnesia.  Since she fell from the sky, Orinbekov wonders if he can really keep her.

Filmed on location at Baikonur and Star City outside Moscow, Baikonur captures the grand scale of the Russian space facilities.  Helmer really instills a real sense of place in the film and evokes the idealism many people still feel for the daring pursuit of space exploration.  He and cinematographer Kolya Kano frame some striking images throughout the film, juxtaposing the traditional trappings of Orinbekov’s village with the hulking rocket scraps.  Unfortunately, Baikonur eventually runs out of steam, slumping into a rather standard issue star-crossed love tale down the stretch.

Central Asia has been a region of fertile inspiration for Helmer, the German helmer, whose previous film was the likable fable Absurdistan.  However, he loses perspective occasionally in Baikonur.  It is hard to imagine most women in the audience will find the offers to buy Orinbekov’s “fiancée” a funny ha-ha turn of events.

Nonetheless, Alexander Asochakov is engagingly earnest as Orinbekov, despite his limited dialogue.  Conversely, Marie de Villepin (daughter of Sarkozy’s nemesis, Dominique de Villepin) is somewhat vanilla as Mahé.  However, Erbulat Toguzakov has some nicely wry moments as Orinbekov’s grandfather, Rustam.  At one point he tartly laments: “the young are so clever and the world is so dumb.”

When celebrating stargazers and space travelers, Baikonur’s innocent spirit of wonder is genuinely charming.  The question of whether Orinbekov will win back Mahé or possibly start to notice his old childhood friendemy Nazira is considerably harder to get caught up in.  At least the look and the feel of the film are rather special.  Recommended for space program enthusiasts and boosters, Baikonur screens this Saturday (6/29) during the 2013 Marfa Film Festival.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Double Secret Disco Revolution

For about ten seconds in 1998, Whit Stillman had the world loving disco again with his wry The Last Days of Disco, but then Mike Meyers had everyone hating it again when Studio 54 came out two months later.  Jamie Kastner tries to make the music cool once more, but he wildly overstates his case in The Secret Disco Revolution (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Essentially, Kastner argues discos were a unique melting pot in American cultural history, becoming the first place where people of all races and sexual orientations danced the nights away in a hedonistic orgy of tolerance.  There might be a kernel of something to that, but he inflates it into a bizarre mock-secret history, in which the disco kids battled the forces of the reactionary, rock & roll loving, racist establishment.  That’s right rockers, you’re just the tools of the man.  In doing so, Kastner draws heavily from the work of former deejay turned professor Alice Echolls, who often sounds like a caricature of publish-or-perish academia in her many talking head segments.

Still, there are some sharply telling interviews with the artists and producers who defined the disco era, including Harry Wayne “KC” Casey, Robert “Kool” Bell, Maxine Nightingale, and super-producer Tom Moulton.  However, original Village People band-member Felipe Rose really steals the show, responding to Kastner’s questions with increasingly animated incredulity.

Rather than merely looking back on disco with nostalgia and affection, Kastner is clearly trying to use it as a salvo in the culture war, even though reality often does not fit his theories.  It was an inclusive time we hear, except for that velvet rope at Studio 54, which became the epitome of class division.  Time and again, the performers and hangers-on deny there was any political subtext to the music.  Often, they explicitly contradict Kastner’s narrative, asserting disco was a non-political sphere to get away from the stagflation, malaise, and urban decay of 1970’s New York.

To an extent, Village People co-founder and co-producer Henri Belolo plays ball, likening the spontaneous “disco sucks” movement to National Socialist book-burning, but such hyperbole is not persuasive.  After all, Casablanca Records’ Larry Harris slyly confesses the label rather enjoyed the Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, because they had to buy records for it.

Kastner’s gimmicky dramatization of the “mysterious masterminds” supposedly behind the disco revolution hardly bolsters the film’s credibility.  Nor does the wildly over-the-top narration help much either.  The simple truth is musical tastes changed in the 1980’s.  Tiring of records released by studio creations rather than bands, people began to prefer authenticity in music.  Ironically, Punk would outlive disco, eventually going relatively mainstream.  Wynton Marsalis launched a neo-classical return to jazz’s bop-based acoustic roots, while old school rockers like Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen would release the biggest hits of their career in the 1980’s.  There was nothing racist or homophobic about such developments.  In fact, for musicians who rely on live gigs to pay the bills, this was all jolly good news.

Despite its strange excesses, Secret has its entertaining moments.  It is nice to see the performers finally get the music documentary treatment.  Unfortunately, it comes with Kastner’s baggage-heavy polemics.  Knowingly eccentric and erratic, The Secret Disco Revolution is recommended only for die-hard disco fans when it opens this Friday (6/28) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Redemption: Statham Hits London’s Mean Streets

It is not exactly “Garbo Talks,” but as hooks go, “Statham Cries” is pretty good.  The action star’s big close-up comes in the right vehicle.  In a throwback to the angry young anti-hero films Michael Caine cut his teeth on, Statham prowls the mean streets of London in screenwriter-director Steven Knight’s Redemption (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Haunted by his war crimes, a shell-shocked former Special Forces soldier lives a homeless existence to evade a certain court martial.  Deeply traumatized by his experiences, he often suffers from flashbacks and hallucinations.  Terrorized by local thugs, “Joey” finds unlikely refuge in an exclusive hipster flat.  Unfortunately, his companion Isabel is captured and consigned to a low-end brothel. 

Using the resources of his unwitting host (conveniently abroad for the season), Joey cleans himself up and takes work as an enforcer for a Chinese crime syndicate.  With the reluctant help of inner-city mission nun Sister Cristina, Joey Jones (as he now calls himself) tries to track down Isabel.  Yet, despite his erratic behavior, a strange relationship develops between them.

Granted, the “troubled” vet is always a problematic device.  However, the film is rather sensitive in its depiction of Joey Jones, while never absolving him of his sins.  There are definitely beatdowns in Redemption, but the film is more concerned with mood and character development.  Knight demonstrates a keen understanding of tension-and-release, so when the violence flares up, it never feels gratuitous.

Clearly, Oscar winning cinematographer Chris Menges loves the neon lights and shadows of Redemption’s nocturnal world, getting all the Miami Vice he ever had in him out of his system.  The film looks great, aside from a few awkward scenes of Jones’ delirium.  Statham is also surprisingly good as Jones, convincingly portraying his violent unpredictability.  Viewers are never quite sure how he will react in a given situation, which is a major reason why Redemption works so well.

Statham also shares some richly intriguing chemistry with Agata Buzek (the daughter of former Polish Prime Minister and Solidarity activist Jerzy Buzek), whose intelligent but tightly wound performance adds significant depth to the film.  The notion that Jones and Sister Agata are sharing a mutual “wild patch” in their lives may not exactly ring true, but it still works within the film’s dramatic context.

Knight nicely maintains the tragic logic throughout Redemption, but the NSA-ish surveillance motif book-ending the proper narrative feels wholly out of place in his street level tale.  Nonetheless, Redemption is a stylishly executed over-achiever that is only really missing the Roy Budd-inspired soundtrack.  Recommended for fans of Statham and old school payback movies, Redemption opens this Friday in New York at the Village 7.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Byzantium: Neil Jordan Takes on the Undead Again

Evidently, vampirism is supposed to be an old boys’ club.  Eleanor and her sister Clara are certainly not boys.  At least they are old, but they hardly look it.  Immortality is a strange existence for them in Byzantium (trailer here), Neil Jordan’s worthy return to the world of the undead, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

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 male 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.  Even though she haunts the sleazier spots in town, 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 dash of Twilightness 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 opens this Friday (6/28) at the IFC Center.

Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours

The Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna is one of those grand institutions where visitors can get happily lost for hours.  Filmmaker Jem Cohen will play a game of hide and seek with his narrative there during the course of Museum Hours (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Anne is not a traveler by nature, but her estranged cousin picks an opportune time to fall into a coma.  Leaving the mess of her life in Canada, she flies off to Austria, to do all the helpless waiting around one does in such a situation.  Fortunately, Johann, a late middle-aged museum guard takes her under his wing.  He acts as her translator and arranges a comp membership for her, giving her a place to while away the hours of pleasant alienation.

Most Seinfeld episodes are about more than Museum Hours, but the docudrama-cinematic essay definitely has its moments nonetheless.  Probably the best of which happens in the Bruegel room, where a visiting scholar gives a lecture that would serve as a nifty little companion piece to Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross.

Johann is also an intriguing character with a wonderfully soothing voice for narration.  Played by the non-professional actor Bobby Sommer, who shares a similarly colorful background, Johann is a former rock band manager and high school shop teacher, for whom the novelty of working amongst some of the world’s finest art has not yet worn off.

However, the drama is rather thin stuff, mostly involving Anne’s daily visits to her expiring cousin and the slow evolution of her ambiguous relationship with Johann.  Do not think of this as the adult analog of E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, because Cohen’s approach is ruminative and deliberately fragmentary.  He also includes plenty of his signature observational tracking shots of the surrounding streets, which are likely to sharply divide Hours’ critics and partisans.  In small doses, they nicely establish a real sense of place, but a little goes a long way.

Arguably, Museum Hours is a film whose whole is less than the sum of its parts.  There are some fascinating individual scenes, but a tighter, shorter film would have better served the overall effect.  Still, if you enjoy cerebral cinema, it is probably your best bet this week, whereas those requiring robust narratives are likely to be frustrated by its hybrid nature.  For those looking for a cheap way to tour the Kunsthistorisches, Museum Hours opens this Friday (6/28) at the IFC Center.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

KCS Korean Movie Night: A Werewolf Boy

Chul-soo is either Korea’s Kaspar Hauser or its Teen Wolf.  He is old enough to be a war-era orphan, but even for a wild child he seems a little odd.  Yet, a sickly teen-aged girl forms a deep connection with him in Jo Sung-hee’s A Werewolf Boy (trailer here), which screens this Tuesday night as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s ongoing free Korean Movie Nights in New York.

Soon-yi, her mother, and her younger sister Soon-ja have moved to the countryside in hopes the clean air will improve her health.  Unfortunately, the big move was facilitated by Ji-tae, the entitled son of her late father’s business partner, who now feels at liberty to pop over whenever he feels like it.  He assumes Soon-yi will eventually marry him for the sake of his wealth and social status.  However, Soon-yi is not impressed.

She does not think much of the feral Chul-soo either when she and her mother first find him snarling in the garden.  With the relevant social welfare agencies passing the buck, Soon-yi’s mother reluctantly takes him in.  Slowly, he starts to grow on the family, once they clean him up and curtail his rougher instincts.  Soon-yi even starts teaching him to read with the help of a dog training manual.  However, a rich jerk like Ji-tae cannot help making trouble, especially when his ego is bruised.

Chul-soo’s true nature is quite strange and uncanny, but Jo de-emphasizes the genre aspects of his story to focus on his young tragic love for Soon-yi.  Told in media res as the decades older woman returns to the fateful country house, Werewolf Boy has all the elements of a good weeper, so it is not surprising it was a monster hit at the Korean box office.

In truth, the film is at its strongest when portraying the innocent ardor of Chul-soo’s relationship with Soon-yi.  In contrast, the ridiculously vile Ji-tae is little more than a clumsy class warfare tool that quickly grows tiresome.  When the shoot-first military finally arrives on the scene, they at least have the virtue of being considerably less cartoony and more fully dimensional than the silver spoon villain.

Still, Song Joong-ki and Park Bo-young develop rather touching chemistry as Chul-soo and Soon-yi, respectively.  The former shows both tremendous physicality and sensitivity as the young wolf-man, in an almost entirely nonverbal performance.  Likewise, Park is radiantly expressive as Soon-yi.  Jang Yeong-nam is also memorably charismatic yet down-to-earth as her mother.  Unfortunately, as Ji-tae, Yoo Yeon-seok is stuck with a flimsy character and takes it embarrassingly over the top in every scene.

Werewolf Boy demonstrates how genre elements can be shrewdly repurposed to tell a highly relatable story rooted in human emotions.  Frankly, Soon-yi and Chul-soo’s impossible love would resonate without Jo Sung-hee so conspicuously stacking the deck against them.  Nonetheless, A Werewolf Boy is recommended for those who enjoy a shaggy-haired teen-aged romance, especially when it screens for free this Tuesday (6/25) at the Tribeca Cinemas, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Annie: Reviving the Hard Knock Life

If you believe the W.C. Fields theory of kids and animals, Daddy Warbucks must be a terrible part.  Plus, there’s the whole baldness thing going on.  Of course, a working stage actor would be delighted to land the role just the same, but viewers will never know who that might in the recent Broadway revival from watching the behind-the-scenes special Annie: It’s the Hard Knock Life, From Script to Stage (promo here), which airs on PBS this Friday.

For producer-director Josh Seftel, the book musical Annie means only one thing: “It’s the Hard Knock Life.”  Those hoping the sun will come out tomorrow might be a tad disappointed.  Nevertheless, Seftel’s narrower focus allows him to document in-depth how the anticipated showstopper takes shape in the new production. 

“Hard Knock” will always be a challenge because it features Annie and all her fellow orphans, who will necessarily be played by young, relatively inexperienced performers.  Indeed, the revival’s charismatic nine to eleven year old cast-members (Lilla Crawford, Junah Jang, Georgi James, Madi Rae DiPietro, Taylor Richardson, Tyra Skye Odoms, and Emily Rosenfeld) come across like good kids, but they often have choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler pulling his hair out.  Adding a further challenge, he is inclined to ditch the iconic mops and buckets from the number, but remains unsure whether the audience will accept such boldness.

Crisply but sensitively lensed by Stephen T. Maing (the director-cinematographer of the fascinating and alarming High Tech, Low Life), Script to Stage was produced with fans of the musical in mind, but students of stagecraft should also be fascinated by the inside look at the revival’s creative development.  In addition to Blankenbuehler putting the young girls through their paces, Seftel also captures the work of costume designer Susan Hilferty and set designer David Korins.  It rather turns into a family affair when the latter’s theater savvy young daughter becomes production’s key demographic advisor.

Frankly, it is always easy to get caught up in behind-the-scenes Broadway documentaries, because the clock is always ticking down towards opening night while bedlam reigns backstage.  Yet, viewers looking to really get caught up in an emotional story will probably find Step By Step (the Chorus Line doc) more rewarding because of the way the cast personally relates to the show’s themes and characters.  Step is a great movie, whereas Script to Stage is a very nice television special, which should still be a good fix for theater patrons.  Nicely put together, Annie: It’s the Hard Knock Life, From Script to Stage is worth catching when it premieres on New York’s Thirteen this coming Friday night (6/28).

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Rushlights: Hot, Dry, and Noir

In the Lone Star State, estate law is a big deal.  Smelling the money, crack-heads and secret progeny will come out of the woodwork for a Texas-sized inheritance in Antoni Stutz’s sweaty small town noir, Rushlights (trailer here), which opens today at the Picture House in Pelham, New York.

Not long after Billy Brody finally puts the moves on Sarah, the greasy spoon waitress he has been swooning for, she calls him in a state of panic.  Ellen Niles, her crack-addict roommate has overdosed.  Normal people would simply call the police, but not Billy and Sarah.  They are heading out of town as fast as his beater can take them, but not without a dubious plan.

Sarah bears an uncanny resemblance to her dearly departed roommate, who just received a letter informing her she is the sole heir of the rich uncle she hardly knew.  Billy and Sarah are off to Texas to collect in her place.  However, problems will follow them from the big city.  It turns out there is a reason Sarah was rooming with a hardcore druggie.  It also seems there might be an unacknowledged son looking to claim the estate for himself—and he’s a real bastard.

It is kind of amusing to watch Rushlights string along one highly improbable scene after another, with a perfectly straight face.  Right from the first ridiculously convenient accidental gun discharge, viewers should realize what they are in for.  However, veteran character actors Beau Bridges and Aidan Quinn are actually a lot of fun to watch doing their suspicious Jim Thompson thing as good old boy Sheriff Robert Brogden, Jr. and his glad-handing lawyer brother, Cameron Brogden, respectively.  Both are in fine form strutting about and chewing the scenery.

In contrast, the young leads are decidedly lightweight, particularly the underwhelming Josh Henderson and his high school freshman starter moustache as Brody.  Haley Webb has a bit more presence as Sarah, Ellen, or whoever she is, but she does not project the femme fatale sense of danger the genre demands.

At least cinematographer Gregg Easterbrook gives it the right hot-in-the-shade inflamed passions noir look, in the tradition of Red Rock West and Blood Simple.  As a director, Stutz also maintains a respectable pace, but as a co-writer, with Ashley Scott Meyers, he overindulges in contrivance while avoiding logic like the plague.  Frankly, Rushlights would be perfect viewing for a lazy somewhat hung-over weekend afternoon, but its probably not worth commuting from the City to Westchester when it opens today (6/21) at the Picture House, as well the Chinese 6 in LA and the Premiere Renaissance in Houston.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Unfinished Song: Lift Every Cranky Voice

It is hard to blame a working class misanthrope for being such a sourpuss.  He is surrounded by quirky old-timers.  Still, performing with his late wife’s swing choir might help the grouchy old widower.  Surely everyone will learn and grow from the empowering experience in Paul Andrew Williams’ Unfinished Song (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Besides his granddaughter, the only person Arthur Harris ever got along with was his beloved wife Marion.  Unfortunately, the ailing woman is not long for this world.  Harris does his best to make her comfortable, including schlepping her to and from her chorale practice.  Of course, he never joins in.  He just stalks about outside, chain-smoking and scowling at the world.

When Marion finally succumbs, Harris cuts ties to his resentful son James, essentially resolving to give up on living.  However, Elizabeth, the perky-on-the-outside volunteer choir director keeps popping round, slowly but surely luring him out of his shell.  It turns out grumpy old Arthur can do a bit of crooning himself.

At the screening I attended, several colleagues were openly mocking Song’s mawkishness (but yours truly scrupulously observed decorum).  They might have been a bit harsh, but there is no denying the film is loaded with enough saccharine to give lab rats cancer.

Frankly, Song is like two mismatched halves imperfectly squished together.  Terence Stamp’s work as Harris is uncompromising honest and admirably understated.  Viewers will really wonder what he is doing in a maudlin film like this, instead of something with a bit more edge, like Harry Brown. Likewise, former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston gives an unusually sensitive yet down-to-earth performance as the estranged grown son.  However, every scene featuring Vanessa Redgrave’s impossibly chipper Marion Harris and her plucky choirmates becomes a goey bacchanal of sentimental indulgence.

If you could not get enough of the Young@Heart chorus getting down with a decidedly contemporary repertoire in their eponymously titled documentary than Unfinished Song is surely your cup of tea.  However, general audiences will face a potential risk of sugar shock.  Only for Terence Stamp’s die-hard admirers, Unfinished Song opens tomorrow (6/21) in New York at the Paris Theatre.

The Attack: A Bit of Sorrow, but No Pity

Much like the bereaved husbands of The Descendants and Random Hearts, Dr. Amin Jafaari is quite upset to learn his late wife had been unfaithful.  However, rather than taking a lover, she had betrayed him with violent anti-Semitic extremism.  It is hard for the Arab Israeli doctor to accept his wife was a suicidal terrorist, but he will come to partial share her radicalism in Zaid Doueiri’s The Attack (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Successful and respected, Dr. Jafaari is about to receive Israel’s highest medical award.  His wife Siham is not with him.  She is visiting family in Nazareth, or so she says.  The next day a cruel suicide bombing cuts through a young girl’s birthday party.  Dr. Jafaari works alongside his colleagues trying to save the victims.  When he returns home that night his wife is still not there.  In the early morning hours, he is summoned to identify her body.  It seems she was at that fateful café.  In fact, she is suspected of being the mass murderer.

Dr. Jafaari remains in denial throughout his rather strenuous interrogation.  However, he finally starts facing facts when a letter arrives from his now notorious wife.  Resigned to her guilt, he sets out for the anarchy zone to find the person or persons who convinced her to commit such a cruel act.

At its best, The Attack offers a chilling Hoffer-esque examination of the fanatical true believer’s mindset.  The images of Siham Jafaari’s “martyrdom” poster widely embraced by the “Palestinian” street are truly a disturbing sight to behold.  Unfortunately, just like its overwhelmed protagonist, Doueiri’s film soon loses sight of those tiny broken bodies that died on his operating table, forfeiting its soul as a result.  Yet even still, The Attack evidently is not sufficiently anti-Israel to pass muster with Hezbollah, whose servants have obediently banned the film in Lebanon, despite Doueiri’s attempts to reassure the terrorist organization.

Ali Suliman is a decent brooder as Dr. Jafaari, but he just does not convey the complex maelstrom of contradictions that are supposedly churning away in his psyche (but maybe really aren’t).  While Doueiri’s flashbacks and dream sequences of the Jafaaris as a couple are quite evocative, the homicidal Siham is a wafer thin character that Reymond Amsalem never fleshes out beyond her obvious symbolic value.  At least Uri Gavriel is interesting to look at, even if his Captain Moshe is a complete caricature.  God forbid, but if one of your loved ones is hurt in terrorist attack, you would want a cop like him on the case.

While Jafaari might be inclined to find his separate peace, the film clearly wants viewers to become true believers.  That is highly problematic.  Indeed, The Attack is undone by its clumsy didacticism.  Still, it is a wake-up call for Christians of good conscience, who perhaps ought to more closely examine what our co-religionist clerics are involved with in the West Bank.  Interesting at times, but not recommended, The Attack opens tomorrow (6/21) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

AFI Docs ’13: Not Anymore (short)

Filmmaker Matthew VanDyke has unusual but highly pertinent qualifications to document the Syrian revolution.  The self-described freedom fighter escaped from Gaddafi’s Abu Salim prison, where he was held in solitary during the Libyan civil war.  Like a Twenty-First Century throwback to partisan press corps that covered the Spanish Civil War, VanDyke both documents and advocates on behalf of the everyday Syrians rebelling against Assad’s dictatorship in his short documentary, Not Anymore: a Story of Revolution (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 AFI Docs presented by Audi (as it is now officially, if awkwardly known).

VanDyke’s fixer is also his producer and subject.  Nour Kelze sounds like she was once the sort of modern, educated woman so desperately needed in the Middle East.  A former school teacher, she explains she once wore fashionable clothes and high heels, but “not anymore.”  With the onset of the Ba’ath regime’s crackdown, she became a war photographer, adopting the profession’s Kevlar helmet and vest.

Kelze guides viewers through the chaos that once was the thriving city of Aleppo.  Although still populated, the neighborhoods strafed by Assad’s forces now look like a ghost town.  Free Syrian Army commander “Mowya” wryly observes Assad certainly made good on his promise to clear out the panhandlers from the desolate, bombed out streets.

While Not Anymore clocks-in just under fifteen minutes, VanDyke captured more action in that time-frame than he probably would have liked.  Unlike some documentary filmmakers, he is clearly willing to put himself on the front line, just like his producer.  That gives the doc real immediacy and authenticity.

Throughout the film, VanDyke’s interview subjects pointedly ask why America has not forcefully interceded on their behalf.  He is understandably diplomatic in his responses, but the hard truth is for the last four years or so, American foreign policy has been more interested in cultivating relations with regimes like Assad’s than changing them.  Perhaps his film will open some eyes.  Granted, it has a decided point of view, but it still is a powerful example of cinematic journalism.  Recommended for all viewers concerned about conditions in Syria, Not Anymore screens tomorrow afternoon (6/20) and Sunday morning (6/23) as part of the Truth Be Told programming block at this year’s AFI Docs presented by Audi.

Maniac: Bad Hair Day

In its 1980’s heyday, Times Square was the place to find hipsters and lowlifes in close proximity.  Today, if you need a similar ambiance for a remake of William Lustig’s grindhouse fan favorite Maniac, there is only one place to go: Los Angeles.  You might well ask why someone would want to remake Lustig’s schlocker, but Franck Khalfoun has, so here it is, opening this Friday in New York at the IFC Center (trailer here).

In Khalfoun’s reboot, Frank Zitto still has a thing for mannequins and mother issues that give Norman Bates pause.  No longer a schlubby apartment super, he is now the nebbish proprietor of his family’s mannequin supply company.  Business is about as brisk as it is at the Bates Motel, allowing Zitto plenty of time to prey on women.  For Zitto, it is all about the hair.  When a coif strikes his fancy, he stalks the owner, killing and scalping her.  He brings his trophies home to adorn his personal stash of mannequins.

Despite all logic, Zitto develops an ambiguous friendship with a woman.  Anna, a French expat and experimental photographer, shares his fascination with mannequins.  Instead of killing her, he starts to have relationship notions.  However, his homicidal urges continue unabated.

While Elijah Wood receives top billing, he is mostly heard rather than seen throughout Khalfoun’s Maniac.  In a dubious attempt to be provocative, Khalfoun shows the grisly events unfold through Zitto’s eyes.  Initially, this gimmick is only moderately annoying, but it becomes progressively more so as the film slogs along.

Casting Wood as the psycho killer is a bit problematic, because most of his victims could keep him at bay simply by palming his forehead.  Regardless, the film’s misogynistic impulses are far more troubling.  It is not content to dispatch Megan Duffy’s inked-up Lucie in typically gruesome fashion.  It first forces her to voluntarily relinquish her dignity.  Frankly, the cheap thrills in this Maniac are better described as cheap rather than thrilling.  Yet, somehow Khalfoun’s Maniac has arthouse pretensions, even bringing the classy Nora Arnezeder aboard as Anna.  Unfortunately, her winning screen presence is undermined by the character’s profoundly poor judgment.

One could raise a host of issues with the film, but the bottom line is it just isn’t any fun.  Still, in their way, both Maniacs 1.0 and 2.0 are a tribute to the Giuliani transformation of 42nd Street.  The fact that such grubby exploitation is now at odds with the City is a good thing for those of us who live here.  Not recommended, Khalfoun’s Maniac opens Friday (6/21) at the IFC Center for its built-in grindhouse fan base.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Touch: Hand-Crafted Indie

If a craftsman works with their hands and an artist works with their hands and heart, than Tam is a manicure artist.  Brendan is a mechanic and a regular customer.  Their business relationship will evolve into the realm of the ambiguously personal in Minh Duc Nguyen’s Touch (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Cinema Libre.

Tam is quiet but she has considerable talent for her work.  Despite her reserve, she is reasonably popular with her co-workers and clients at V.I.P. Nails.  Brendan is a special case.  One day the sheepish chap walks into the salon for a deep cleaning of his grease stained hands.  Evidently, his increasingly distant white collar wife has used his grubby paws as an excuse to keep him at arm’s length.  Tam gets the grime out, but that is just the start of it.  Each time Brendan returns for his regular cleansing, she coaches him on ways to win back his wife’s affections.

Of course, the close contact between Tam and Brendan leads to more intense yearnings, confusing them both.  On paper, they would seem a much better match.  Both work with their hands and are relatively shy, but quietly harbor deep feelings.  Unfortunately, Tam’s efforts to care for her difficult father monopolizes much of her personal time.

Touch is too realistically messy to be called a romance, but it taps into some pretty intimate territory.  Yet, it should resonate with particular force for first and second generation Vietnamese immigrants, who understand the hardships endured by the older characters during their flight from the Communist oppression.

John Ruby’s work as Brendan is refreshingly mature and down-to-earth, but the film is truly defined by Porter Lynn’s star-making turn as Tam.  She powerfully but sensitively portrays the young woman’s vulnerability and hidden pain, as well as her sensual side.  There is no question this is her film, but Journey from the Fall star Long Nguyen’s brave performance as her father also has real impact.

Small in scope, it would not take much cutting to adapt Touch for the legit stage.  Nonetheless, it expresses some very real emotions, with honesty rather than false sentiment.  If only more slice-of-life indies were like this.  An impressive, unassumingly humanistic film, Touch is recommended for those who appreciate adult drama.  It is now available on DVD and digital/VOD platforms from Cinema Libre.

Breakup at the Wedding: Toast Those Nuptials

Everyone has been to a head-scratchingly wacky wedding.  Usually, this has something to do with your friends’ soon-to-be in-laws’ massive collection of quirks.  If you cannot think of a good example from personal experience, than chances are we’re talking about your wedding here.  It is a pretty bullet-proof comedic premise that Victor Quinaz mines with workmanlike diligence in Breakup at a Wedding (clip here), which launches today on VOD.

Wedding videographer Vic James thought he had seen it all, but then he accepted the Jones-Havemeyer wedding gig.  This one is going to get messy, but he will keep the camera rolling, getting every embarrassingly private moment out of perverse sense of perfectionism.  He prides himself on capturing moments his competitors overlook, such as the signing of the marriage license. 

Unfortunately, that might not happen this time.  Alison Jones has a wicked case of cold feet, but the whole dog-and-pony show is already paid for, so she convinces her more-or-less dumped fiancé Phil Havemeyer to go through the motions with her.  However, Havemeyer is not going down without a fight, especially on his wedding day.

Okay, so Victor Quinaz and his co-writers, co-lead-brother Philip and co-star-wife Anna Martemucci, do not exactly create a cinematic milestone with Breakup, but their jokes are funny, more often than not.  Appearing as the mostly unseen wedding cameraman, Victor Quinaz is an effectively acerbic guide to the mayhem, who keeps the proceedings snappy.

Hardy comedy troupe performers Alison Fyhrie and the other Quinaz also nicely balance earnest likability and full-throated mania as Jones and Havemeyer, respectively.  The rest of the ensemble careens all over the map with wild abandon, but Mary Grill delivers some memorably tart-tongued laughs as Maid of Honor on the prowl, Mary Kowalchik.

Frankly, there is not a lot of gross-out Hangover-style material in Breakup.  Instead, the Quinazes and Martemuccis (several of whom appear in smaller supporting roles) derive the comedy from the situation and their characters, which is a much cleverer approach.  It is a family affair after all (co-produced by Zachary “Mr. Spock” Quinto, so take note neo-Trekkers).

This is the perfect film for VOD impulse viewing, because it will makes viewers laugh quite a bit, but it does not leave them with much to carry around afterward.  Oscilloscope Laboratories has also scheduled a series of buzz building brick-and-mortar screenings (including the 4-Star Theatre in San Francisco tonight, 6/18), so check out their website for details.  Recommended for those looking for a number of guilt-free laughs, Breakup at a Wedding is now available through Oscilloscope’s VOD and digital platforms.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Hijacking: The Human Cost of Piracy

They do not teach you how to negotiate with pirates in MBA courses, but perhaps they soon might.  After all, this film is inspired by two real life incidences of Danish cargo ships taken hostage by Somali pirates.  The negotiation process will be an ordeal both for the captive crew of the MV Rozen and their CEO in Tobias Lindholm’s edge-of-your-seat thriller, A Hijacking (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at Film Forum.

Mikkel Hartmann is retiring from seafaring to spend more time with his family.  Ordinarily, he serves as the ship’s cook, but when hijackers commandeer the vessel, they use him to communicate with the corporate office.  He will be talking to Peter C. Ludvigsen, a media darling CEO with a knack for negotiating hard terms.  However, bringing back his crew will be the greatest challenge of his career.

The company would willingly pay the ransom demanded, but according to their consultant (played by real life hostage negotiator Gary Skjoldmose Porter) it is not that simple.  If they immediately pay-up, the pirates are likely to thank them for the “down  payment” and promise to get back to them regarding the full balance.  Instead, Ludvigsen must convince them they are getting every last cent they can possible extract from the company.  Counter-intuitively, protracted negotiations are in the best interests of the men and the firm.  Of course, it will not be a pleasant experience for any of the Danes.

Scrupulously realistic, Hijacking acts as a bracing corrective to the cathartic satisfaction of action movies.  It is simply not realistic to expect Roger Moore’s ffolkes to launch a high seas rescue mission.  The logistics are too complicated and life is too cheap for hostage takers.  The film is also likely to run afoul of the professionally offended, because it portrays the Somali pirates as a callous, violently erratic lot. Nor does it whitewash their Muslim faith.  Of course, that is precisely the reality sailors such as the Rozen crew must live with every day.

Cranking up the tension like a vice, Lindholm puts so much pressure on his characters they almost turn into diamonds.  This is an exhausting nail-biter of a film, but somehow it seems far quicker than its ninety-nine minutes, despite the agonizing nature of the drawn out months-long negotiation.  That is just great filmmaking.

There is also a truly award worthy performance from Søren Malling as Ludvigsen.  It is a brilliant depiction of the mighty humbled, precisely because of his genuine humanity.  Never clichéd, Malling’s work is easily the most compelling big screen portrayal of a business leader in years (if not decades).  In fact, Hijacking features strong ensemble work all around, most definitely including Abdihakin Asgar as Omar, the pirates’ devilishly manipulative negotiator.  He is an unforgettable villain (though “villain” might not be a strong enough term).

The pirates might come from mean circumstances, but Lindholm never apologizes for their crimes.  Instead, the victims of A Hijacking are Hartmann and his crewmates.  Clear headed and relentlessly gripping, it is easily the pick of the week and might be the best theatrical release of the year, so far. Highly recommended, A Hijacking opens this Friday (6/21) in New York at Film Forum.