Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cockneys vs. Zombies: Walking Dead on the East End

Finally, someone has made the EastEnders episode you always wanted to see.  The title pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Matthias Hoene’s Cockneys vs. Zombies (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The zombie apocalypse comes at a rather opportune time for the McGuire brothers.  Their plan to hold up a bank to save their crotchety grandfather’s old folks home has deteriorated into a hostage crisis.  Against her better judgment, their cousin Katy came along to keep them out of trouble.  Unfortunately, there is no way to compensate for the wildly unstable Mental Mickey.  However, the zombie hordes quite obligingly clear out all the coppers dug-in outside.  Of course, this leads to other problems.  Now the McGuires and a handful of hostages and accomplices must race to the Bow Bells Care Home to save Grandpa and his cronies.

To briefly recap, you have your zombies and you have your cockneys scrambling about, shooting them in the head.  All clear?  C vs. Z is the sort of film that probably started with the high concept title, perhaps the result of a particularly inspiring pub crawl.  However, unlike other horror movie mash-ups, Hoene maintains a consistently high energy level and James Moran’s screenplay delivers the right mix of gory laughs and meathead action.

But wait there’s more, including Honor Blackman, a.k.a. Pussy Galore, blasting zombies back to the Stone Age.  In fact, it’s an unusually accomplished cast, including the late, great Richard Briers (recognizable from the Britcom The Good Life and Branagh’s Shakespearean films) with a machine gun strapped to his walker.  Lovejoy’s Dudley Sutton also gets in on the act, but Alan Ford (a Guy Ritchie regular) really steals the biscuit as ornery old Ray “Don’t Call Me Grandpa” McGuire.

In all fairness, Rasmus Hardiker and Harry Treadaway (the other Treadaway twin) are solid enough as the bickering McGuire brothers, but they are somewhat overshadowed by the colorful supporting cast and all the gleeful mayhem.  Yet, Michelle Ryan (a former EastEnders cast member) makes a considerably stronger impression, earning action props as sharp-shooting cousin Katy.

Somehow the C vs. Z team will probably find themselves sitting at home during the Oscar and BAFTA award ceremonies.  Nonetheless, those attracted to Hoene’s premise will not be disappointed by his execution.  Recommended for horror fans with a sense of humor, Cockneys vs. Zombies opens this Friday (8/2) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Fantasia ’13: The Dead Experiment

For too long, only mad scientists in the Dr. Frankenstein tradition have been bold enough to challenge death.  Finally, two respectably under-achieving grad students will strive to cure mortality.  The initial signs are promising in Anthony Dixon’s moody Canadian indie, The Dead Experiment (clip here), which screens tomorrow during the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Woozily staggering home, Chris looks like death warmed over—and well he should.  According to his hysterical fiancée, Maddie, he has been dead for two weeks. This is difficult news to accept.  Yet, his reincarnated presence makes a certain amount of sense.  After being cut from his post-grad program for general dodginess, he and his childhood friend Jacob started developing a radical procedure to rejuvenate cells.  It seems to have worked.  However, as Chris and Jacob start documenting his cure, complications arise.

By genre standards, Experiment is unusually idea-driven.  There is some really smart stuff in Dixon’s script’s and he blindsides viewers with one massive game-changing twist.  Unfortunately, his cast really doesn’t do his concepts justice.  At best, they are kind of-sort of okay.  Jamie Abrams is the class of the field as the ethically “pragmatic” Jacob.  (That leaves an obvious implication regarding the rest of the small ensemble.)

Indeed, independent filmmaking is always an adventure.  Nonetheless, Experiment earns points for its fresh take on the reanimation motif.  What is typically grist for horror and gore, Dixon essentially re-purposes into chamber science fiction.  He and cinematographer Fraser Brown also maintain the nocturnal atmosphere and mounting claustrophobia quite effectively.

While Experiment’s shortcomings are what they are, it is exactly the sort of inventive Canadian genre production Fantasia takes pride in supporting.  Based on its merits, Dixon ought to have a shot at bigger budgeted projects.  An intriguing indie, The Dead Experiment screens tomorrow (8/1) at the J.A. De Seve Theatre as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Europa Report: Found Footage, First Contact

This will either be private space exploration’s finest moment or its greatest tragedy.  For the six intrepid astronauts in question, it will either be first contact or bust in Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is in fact theoretically possible Europa’s subterranean oceans could sustain microscopic life. With that fact in mind, a private foundation sends forth a manned expedition to survey and report.  Unfortunately, communications were lost en route to Jupiter, until a sudden transmission was received out of the blue.  Of course, that will be our movie.

Initially, it seems the Europa mission is merely beset by a series of technical problems and human mistakes.  Clearly, there is no margin for error in the cold vacuum of space.  Yet, Cordero manages to subtly suggest there might be some other factor at play.  Despite damage to the ship and fatalities to the crew, the survivors resolve to continue on, because mankind may never get this far again.

Arguably, most of Report is much more closely akin to Apollo 13 than Ridley Scott’s Alien and its subsequent imitators. However, Philip Gelatt’s screenplay pushes in all its genre chips in the jaw-dropping closing seconds that will resonate profoundly with readers of a certain American author of the weird and fantastic.

Essentially, Report operates on the premise that all scientific pursuit is heroic, even when it is also strange and scary.  Cordero and Gelatt seriously address themes of courage and sacrifice, which adds surprising substance to the film, like a Roddenberry script written amid a bout of depression.  Cordero also nicely exploits the austere, claustrophobic setting for maximum audience unease.

As is frequently the case with found footage films, there is not a lot of opportunity for old fashioned character development in Report.  Nonetheless, the Europa crew look and act like convincing astronauts.  HK movie-star Daniel Wu has a suitably authoritative presence as the mission commander William Xu, while accomplished Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca (probably best known for 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days) projects a natural sensitivity and perceptiveness as Rosa Dasque, the co-pilot and archivist.  However, Dragon Tattoo’s Michael Nyqvist lays on the Slavic accent with conspicuous thickness as engineer Andrei Blok.

To its credit, Europa Report is visually far more impressive than one would expect, given its budget constraints and found footage conceit.  In fact, it is a surprisingly effective hybrid of science fiction sub-genres.  Recommended for fans of hard science based SF and Wu, Europa Report opens this Friday (8/2) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Robert Williams Does His Thing: Mr. Bitchin’

How do you go from Hot Rod magazines and underground comix to the 2010 Whitney Biennial? Essentially, Robert Williams just let the rest of the world catch up with him.  Frankly, his psychedelic cars and naked ladies are probably more aesthetically conservative than the rest of the Whitney event.  Of course, Williams was not there to see it.  He had his own show at Cal State Northridge, drawing a more Williams-esque crowd.  Mary C. Reese surveys the artist’s life and work in Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD platforms.

Williams did not look like much of a car guy when Ed “Big Daddy” Roth hired as the art director for his magazine and t-shirt business, but he had a naturally affinity for the company’s Rat Fink character.  Eventually, Williams’ work became too out there for Roth, but it was perfect for ZAP Comix.  Yet, Williams always considered himself a painter first and foremost.

Williams work has an almost baroque level of detail that is quite impressive.  Nonetheless, his choice of subject matter often generates controversy.  In the past, feminists have objected to his depictions of scantily clad (or outright naked) women lounging on giant enchiladas.  Guns N’ Roses got an earful of such sentiments when they used his painting Appetite for Destruction on what became their CD of the same name.  While their label initially moved Williams’ love-it-or-hate painting to the inside flap, the band has since moved it back, without anyone seeming to notice.

While Williams largely defined the look of the 1960’s (especially for those who held to the notion that reading naughty comics was a political act in and of itself), neither he nor Reese (and her battery of co-directors) get terribly sidetracked by political discussions in Bitchin.’  Instead, we watch the artist’s old school canvas-stretching, which is a rather telling moment.  He also is clearly devoted to his longtime wife Suzanne, who also happens to be both an artist and a hotrod enthusiast, as well.

Who would have thought the late, great Artie Shaw of “Begin the Beguine” fame was a Williams collector, but he indeed turns up here, perfectly willing to discuss the painter’s work in an extended interview segment.  Reese also talks to other colleagues and fans, such as Slash, Axel Rose, Deborah Harry, Don Ed Hardy, and Williams’ gallerist, Tony Shafrazi.

Even if the not-so-counter-culture-anymore is not your cup of tea, it is fascinating to hear Williams dissect his large scale work, such as his portrait of the high-living King Farouk, A Life of Delusion.  Reese never really challenges the artist to take stock of the unintended consequences of the era that made his reputation, which is hardly unexpected, but still leaves a conspicuous hole in the film.  Still, Reese gives the audience a good sense of Williams’ personality and oeuvre.  Recommended for the artists’ fans, Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin’ is now available on Cinema Libre’s home viewing platforms and screens tonight (7/30) at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Trueba’s The Artist and the Model

While it is not exactly Casablanca, plenty of war refugees will find their way to this French Pyrenees village.  Some are fleeing the German occupiers, but Mercè has escaped from one of Franco’s prison camps on the other side of the border.  However, she has the perfect look for sculptor Marc Cros.  His creative inspiration will flow once again as they share a mutual respite from war and the other messy concerns of life in Fernando Trueba’s The Artist and the Model (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Despite her bedraggled condition, Cros’s indulgent wife Léa recognizes Mercè as her husband classic model-type. He too comes to agree after Madame Cros cleans and feeds the young woman.  Soon they are off to his remote mountain studio, where she will earn her keep modeling for the man who considers Matisse a close friend and colleague.  He had essentially withdrawn from life, so any spark she might kindle will be all to the good.  After all, Cros is eighty years old and decidedly world weary.  Yet, as they while away the hours in amid the natural beauty of his rustic lodge, she re-awakens his passions as an artist and a man.

The lulling effect of their temporary oasis is so seductive, viewers are apt to lose sight of Trueba’s wartime setting.  Occasionally, events intrude on their idyllic interlude, such as Werner, an upper class German officer and art historian, who has been writing the definitive book on Cros.  He is an intriguing character Götz Otto never really has adequate time to explore.

Aside from Claudia Cardinale’s wonderfully wise and mature appearance as Léa Cros, A & M is essentially a two-hander, featuring two enormously photogenic co-leads.  It is impossible to stifle a sigh when gazing at Jean Rochfort’s deeply creased face and profoundly sad eyes.  Conversely, Aida Folch’s Mercè looks as if she might have stepped out of a Renoir painting.  Yet, she has a darker, more mature presence than the coquettish Christa Théret in Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir, an obvious comparison film.

For Trueba, A & M represents a triumph of mise-en-scène, worthy of an artist like Cros.  Indeed, Daniel Vilar’s black-and-white cinematography is truly exquisite and every richly detailed corner of Cros’s studio sets could be the subject of a rewarding still life.  Clearly, Trueba privileges on-screen composition over narrative in his hothouse fable.  It is definitely a slow burner, with the emphasis on slow, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Lovely to look at, The Artist and the Model is recommended for mature viewers who appreciate the manner Trueba intertwines the melancholy and the erotic.  It opens this Friday (8/2) in New York at the Paris Theatre.

Smash & Grab: On the Trail of the Pink Panthers

This international ring of jewel thieves was brought to you by the bureaucrats at the EU.  It is a complicated story, but Havana Marking has her sources.  Using animation to protect their anonymity, a handful of former members explain the inner workings of their loosely structured organization in Marking’s Smash & Grab: the Story of the Pink Panthers (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Marking is careful not to unduly glamorize the high-end jewelry thieves that came to be known as the Pink Panthers, in honor of the Blake Edwards franchise.  Yes, they always avoided bloodshed on their jobs, at least so far.  Yet, they have always been armed robbers, rushing into each score loaded for bear.  They have never exactly been Robin Hoods either, simply divvying up the proceeds from each job amongst themselves.

These were professionals, who invested significant time and money to meticulously plan each heist.  Of course, they were not just men.  Every caper started with a woman—a striking femme fatale, who would not look out of place trying on expensive jewelry as she cased the joint.  Marking talks at length with one such scout.  She goes by the name “Lela” for the purposes of the film and like many Panthers, she hails from the former Yugoslavia.

The shadowy group’s roots lie in the Balkans’ tragic war years.  With Serb Socialist Party boss Slobodan Milosevic stoking the fires of ethnic hatred, the EU responded by imposing a punitive economic embargo on the entire Yugoslavia.  Apparently, Brussels hoped the widespread suffering would appeal to Milosevic’s heretofore unseen compassion, compelling him to behave better.  Instead, it gave rise to an extensive black market, where future Pink Panthers learned the essentials of illicit commerce.

Reportedly, the Panthers largely consist (or consisted) of Serbians and Montenegrins, like “Mike,” Marking’s star witness.  However, she presents of conscientiously balanced portrait of the various Balkan nationalities involved.  In fact, Milena Miletic, a Serbian journalist and veteran of the anti-Milosevic protests, is clearly one of Marking’s most sympathetic and authoritative talking heads.

Even though Marking’s animated interviews with Mike and Lela look somewhat similar to those roto-scoped Charles Schwab commercials, they still serve as an effective counterpoint to the very real surveillance footage of the Panthers getting down to business.  Unlike most true crime programming, there is nothing lurid or exploitative about Smash.  Nevertheless, Marking’s eye for ironic imagery adds a bit of dash to the proceedings.

Leanly constructed and briskly paced, Marking’s film gives viewers a vivid sense of the scope and tick-tock professionalism of the Panthers’ operations. Fascinating and often darkly comic, Smash is a good documentary for viewers who do not ordinarily enjoy documentaries.  Recommended for popular audiences, Smash opens this Wednesday (7/31) at New York’s Film Forum.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

MITF ’13: The Past is Still Ahead

It remains unclear whether the suicide of poet Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was staged by the Soviet NKVD or merely the result of their constant threats and intimidation.  Frankly, it hardly matters—Stalin and his obedient secret police are morally culpable, either way.  Playwright Sophia Romma squarely faces the truths and tragedies of Tsvetaeva’s life with a new production of The Past is Still Ahead, mounted as part of the 2013 Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York.

As a small girl, Tsvetaeva met the Tsar at the opening of what would become the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, founded by her father.  Obviously, none of that would stand her in good stead with the Soviet regime.  Tsvetaeva married Sergey Yakovlevich Efron, who became a prominent White Russian Officer.  He was also half-Jewish.  Those were probably more than enough strikes against Tsvetaeva to brand her a class enemy, but her epic verse honoring the White resistance essentially closed the book on her.  Yet, at Efron’s insistence, Tsvetaeva returned to Russia, predictably enduring a dire existence of internal exile.

As the play opens, Tsvetaeva has little illusions regarding her limited future. Increasingly resigned to her fate, she is visited by visions from her past, including Efron, her domineering mother Maria Meryn, and her lovers, the guileless Osip Mandelstam and the scandalous lesbian poet Sophia Parnoc. Yet, it is the memory of Rainer Maria Rilke, the soul mate she only knew through their correspondence, that offers her the greatest comfort.

Although Past portrays Tsvetaeva’s life in impressionistic fragments, it incorporates decades of Soviet history, accurately reflecting the chaos and oppression of the era.  The unequivocal depiction of the Party’s anti-Semitism is particularly eye-opening.  Likewise, Tsvetaeva’s anguished memories of Moscow’s post-Revolutionary famine dramatically illustrate the human costs of ideology.

While little of Tsvetaeva’s actual verse is heard throughout Past, it nonetheless celebrates the power of language.  This is most certainly true of her scenes with Rilke, which tantalizingly imply how their shared literary sensibilities might have led to greater fulfillment.  However, given the relatively short running time, it seems like Past devotes more than enough time to Maria Meryn and her severe piano lessons.  In contrast, it seems strange her friend and champion Boris Pasternak never enters her reveries, especially given his continuing literary prominence.

Regardless, Alice Bahlke gives a remarkable performance as Tsvetaeva.  A smart, sophisticated portrayal that also conveys how brittle and profoundly damaged Tsvetaeva became, Bahlke makes it impossible to hang any pat label on Tsvetaeva, like “victim” or “counter-revolutionary,” which is clearly the whole point.  Tosh Marks is also quite engaging as Rilke, Mandelstam, and Efron, developing some real stage chemistry with Bahlke in each role.

Having debuted at Mayakovsky Academic Theater in Moscow with subsequent stagings produced in New York, Geneva, and Montreal, Past is now being presenting with its first all-American cast.  They do well by Tsvetaeva’s story.  An intelligent piece of theater, featuring stand-out work from Bahlke and Marks, The Past is Still Ahead concludes its MITF run tonight (7/28) at the Jewel Box Theatre.

(Photos: Jonathan Slaff)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

AAIFF ’13: Harana

It was a more innocent time, before texting and “Carlos Danger.”  To woo fair ladies, young Filipino men would sing harana love songs outside their homes, waking up most of the household in the process. Sadly, the practice fell out of favor, but a young guitarist and three old masters recreate the romantic sounds and spirit of old school serenading in Benito Bautista’s Harana (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

Returning for his father’s funeral after a long American sojourn, Florante Aguilar suddenly found himself powerfully drawn to traditional forms of Filipino music, especially the harana.  Do not use the word Latin to describe harana—it is a pure product of the Philippines.  Nonetheless, it might sound somewhat akin to the bossa or other Lartin-influenced styles to uncouth ears.  Harana performance might not be quite as rare these days as the documentary suggests.  After all, Filipino jazz singer Charmaine Clamor recorded a lovely set of harana ballads just a few years ago.  Still, like a harana Alan Lomax, Aguilar starts off on a quest for real deal, old school haranistas.

Eventually, he found them in Felipe Alonzo, Celestino Aniel, and Romeo Bergunio.  What begins as a series of informal jams, blossoms Buena Vista Social Club style into more formal performances, a proper tour, a recording session, and this very same documentary.  It was an opportunity none of three gentlemen expected—that came just in time.

Viewers will eventually pick-up a sense time might be short for at least one haranista, but Bautista bends over backwards to avoid exploiting that fact for dramatic impact.  As a result, Harana has a rather slack narrative structure, basically covering the “let’s get a band together” and “let’s put on a show” bases.

Still, the music is obviously the thing for Harana and the ballads they sing are wonderfully lyrical and evocative.  There is something especially touching about the sight and sound of the three men of advanced years signing songs of young love and eternal fidelity.  By the way, Aguilar certainly holds up his end.  He has loads of technique, but more importantly he has the perfect sensitivity to accompany the haranistas.

Haranas are meant to be sung at night, so all the resulting moonlit performances only enhance the film’s nostalgic vibe.  It is all quite a pleasant trip, gently propelled by the delicate but catchy rhythms of the harana.  Recommended for those who appreciate a good love song, Harana screens this coming Wednesday (7/31) at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of the 2013 AAIFF in New York.

AAIFF ’13: The Trail from Xinjiang (short)

The combination of an authoritarian government and a strict religion ought to make Musa a scrupulously law-abiding citizen. Unfortunately, he is one of many disenfranchised Uyghurs impressed into pickpocket gangs.  Filmmaker Chen Dongnan captures the tragic human stories of those derisively referred to as “Xinjiang thieves” in the documentary short The Trail from Xinjiang (trailer here), which screens during the Enduring Encounters programming block at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Like many youths from Xinjiang, Musa was lured to the big city with false promises.  Instead, he quickly found himself involuntarily immersed in a world of petty thievery and drug dealing (by fellow Xinjiangnese).  His friends Ali and Little Musa seem to have a more natural aptitude for crime, but that is not exactly a blessing.  Between the three of them, they will experience the worst of nearly every imaginable urban pathology, including drug addiction, AIDS, and violent crime—everything that does not exist in China according to government propaganda.

Chen set out to humanize the marginalized Uyghurs, so she largely maintains her focus on Musa and his friends.  Yet, Jiaquan, the founder of the Anyang Anti-Pickpocket League, emerges as the film’s most intriguing figure.  Viewers might initially see him as Anyang’s answer to George Zimmerman, patrolling the streets with his twenty League volunteers.  However, as Jiaquan came to recognize Musa and his accomplices, he started to sympathize with their exploitative circumstances.  It is obviously a heavy commentary on Chinese social services when the Xinjiang thieves’ vigilante-nemesis becomes the closest thing they have to a social worker-advocate, but such is the state of things.  Frankly, his story seems ripe for a full documentary follow-up, particularly in light of the film’s concluding “where are they now” recap.

At thirty-six minutes, Trail has more tragedy and raw, cautionary depictions of vice than scores of full length exposes.  It is a decidedly humane exercise in muckraking, but it is still not for the squeamish.  An unflinching film that puts viewers squarely in Musa’s shoes, The Trail from Xinjiang is highly recommended for China watchers when it screens this coming Thursday (8/1) at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of the 2013 AAIFF’s Enduring Encounters short film program.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fantasia ’13: Bushido Man

Toramaru is like the Anthony Bourdain of martial arts.  Before challenging a rival, he first eats what they eat.  There is some wisdom to that approach, but there is considerably more mayhem to be found in Takanori Tsujimoto’s Bushido Man (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Gensai, the sensei of the Cosmic Way school of holistic martial arts, has sent his number one student forth into the world to challenge seven specialized masters and hopefully claim their ancient scrolls of secret wisdom.  Things must have gone relatively well, since Toramaru has returned to tell his tales to his appreciative teacher.  Based on the details of his prep meal, Gensai is able to guess the identity of the master to be challenged.

While Bushido probably cost less to produce than dinner for one at Nobu, action director Kensuke Sonomura stages some epic mano-a-mano showdowns.  Sonomura himself starts things off briskly as Yuan Jian, the Chinese kung fu master and Kazuki Tsujimoto makes quite a memorable Zatōichi surrogate as the blind swordsman Muso.  Yet, the honor-stoked adrenaline reaches its purest, highest point when Masanori Mimoto appears as Eiji Mimoto, the Yakuza dagger master.  To his credit, Tsujimoto also has a good sense of fair play, allowing Miki Mizuno to rack up an impressive body count as the pragmatic arms-dealing femme fatale, M.

Bushido is all about fighting, periodically taking timeout for some goofball humor.  If you’re looking for narrative logic here, just don’t.  In one scene, Toramaru strolls through the sunny streets of contemporary Tokyo, yet the next moment he is trudging through the scarred wasteland of a post-apocalyptic Yokohama.  It does really matter though.  Everything in Bushido is there to facilitate the food and fighting.

Held together by Mitsuki Koga’s action cred and straight man persona, Bushido Man delivers the goods for martial arts-samurai-yakuza movie fans.  It nicely demonstrates how a scrappy low budget action production can overcome its budget constraints with energy and a clever concept.  Recommended for established genre fans, it screens tomorrow (7/27) at the Imperial Theatre as part of this year’s Fantasia Festival in Montreal.

Fantasia ’13: After School Midnighters

The Scooby gang has nothing on these three little girls.  They will absolutely terrorize the supernatural beings haunting St. Claire’s Academy.  Sugar & Spice massively trumps the things that go bump in the night throughout Hitoshi Takekiyo’s animated feature After School Midnighters (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

While touring their prospective new elementary school, Mako, Miko, and Mitsuko take a detour into the soon to be dismantled science room, where they basically have at the poor visible anatomy dummy.  However, after night falls, the uncanny dummy stalks the halls of St. Claire’s as the fearsome Louis Thomas Jerome Kunstlijk. Rather put out by the treatment he received from the terrible trio, Kunstlijk sends out a pack of gun-toting Mafioso rabbits to lure the girls back to St. Claire’s.  Of course, both he and the bunnies will get more than they bargained for.

Despite Kunstlijk’s efforts to scare the willies out of them, the innocent motor-mouthed Mako and the entitled elitist Miko are too absorbed in their own little worlds to fully appreciate the situation, whereas Mitsuko, the goth girl, is basically down with it all.  The girls are so unfazed, Kunstlijk’s skeleton crony, “Goth,” tries to recruit them for a supernatural scheme to save the science lab, sending them careening about St. Claire’s like pinballs.  Nevertheless, Kunstlijk still has a hard time letting things go.

Midnighters is so off the charts frenetic, it must be the product of a creative team consuming nothing but Red Bulls and Pixie Stix.  Sure, there is plenty of “girl power” in Midnighters, like the Power Puff Girls hopped up on amphetamines.  Frankly, by computer animation standards, Takekiyo’s characters have quite a bit of personality.  Yet, it is hard to judge how appropriate the film is for younger viewers.  Many of the supernatural elements are surprisingly sinister looking, but they only make the three girls giggle with glee.

Chocked full of goofy humor and strange little macabre details, there is never a quiet moment in Midnighters.  You really have to admire the sheer manic inspiration of Takekiyo and screenwriter Yōichi Komori.  Beyond breakneck, their hyper pacing allows no time for logic to ever kick in. Recommended for anyone up for a cheerful descent into bedlam, After School Midnighters screens this Saturday (7/27) at the Imperial Theatre as the 2013 Fantasia Festival continues in Montreal.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

AAIFF ’13: Together

The teenaged Xiao Yang is not exactly Cyrano de Bergerac.  Nevertheless, he will do his best to recycle both love letters and lovers.  The course of true love never runs smooth, but he will sometimes help it along in Hsu Chao-jen’s multi-character rom-com, Together (trailer here), which screens this Saturday during the 2013 Asian American International Film Festival.

Scooping up his classmate’s discarded love letter, Xiao Yang is determined to put it to good use.  Perhaps his buddy Ma Chih-hao can re-purpose it.  Having just dumped his girlfriend, Ma pines for the cute cashier working at their favorite bakery, whose manager in turn nurses a crush on Xiao Yang’s older sister.  Of course, she is already involved with a rich jerk, who does not think much of Xiao Yang.

Yes, this is the sort of film where viewers could use a flowchart to keep track of who like whom.  However, his parents’ relationship is easy to pick-up on. The magic has left the easy going Bin’s marriage to more assertive Min-min.  Ironically, the print shop proprietor soon finds himself producing wedding invitations as his own marriage takes a chilly turn.  The free-spirited Lily has recently returned to their Taipei neighborhood to marry Haru, the staid owner of the local Japanese bookstore.  Yet, the strangely ambiguous chemistry between her and Bin is still there.

Despite all the romantic confusion, the tone of Together is much more bittersweet than cutesy.  In fact, for domestic audiences, it is downright nostalgic, given the casting of Kenny Bee and Lee Lieh as Xiao Yang’s parents, who were amongst the break-out co-stars of the classic melodrama The Story of a Small Town. Of course, it is all headed towards a happy place, but there are more surprises and less sentimentality in the third act than one might expect.

Happily, Huang Shao-yang’s Xiao Yang grows on viewers over time, as his character starts using his brattiness for good rather than ill.  His presence somewhat suggests a young Taiwanese Leonardo DiCaprio, except he is already considerably more manly (as is everyone else in the cast).  Bee remains charismatic in middle age, nicely crooning the film’s signature love song. Supermodel-actress Sonia Sui lights up the screen as Lily, while developing some reasonably believable chemistry with the significantly older Bee.  Lee Lieh also does her best to punch-up Min-min, despite her somewhat problematic scoldiness.

Indeed, Hsu definitely favors Bee’s Bin over the rest of the large ensemble. Still, he invests the film with a forgiving vibe that is rather endearing.  His unhurried pace might be a bit too languid for slavishly conventional viewers, but Hsu has a good eye for composition and Blaire Ko’s slightly latin-ish score helps it all go down quite smoothly.  Recommended with a fair degree of affection for those who enjoy slightly offbeat love stories and family dramas, Together screens this Saturday (7/27) at the New York Institute of Technology, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

The Time Being: A Portrait of the Artist Struggling

It is quite a coup for the de Young Museum to lend its walls to a film production, but it was not to display the work of our POV struggling artist.  Instead, the put-upon Daniel is merely running another strange errand there for his potential benefactor in Nenad Cicin-Sain’s The Time Being (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

For Daniel, the bad news is he only sold one piece during his last show.  The good news is it was bought by wealthy collector Warner Dax, who could become the source of many lucrative commissions.  At least, that is how his gallerist spins it.  Unfortunately, meeting Dax proves to be a deflating experience.

Instead of his patronage, Dax only offers a series of odd jobs requiring minimal artistic talent, such as video-taping sunsets.  Daniel proceeds to upend his life catering to the strange collector, severely fraying his relationship with his wife Olivia.  Yet, he perseveres in the hope it will lead to something on the back-end.

Frankly, Time Being is the sort of film that might have been better realized as a short rather than a feature. Cicin-Sain clearly has a good feel for the rarified gallery world and he stages some nifty sequences of his artists at work on large scale canvases.  In contrast, the scenes of domestic strife quickly grow tiresome.  Time and again, Daniel seems to reassure his wife: “I promise things will get better—um, it was Olivia, right?”  The film’s big pivot also feels like it comes prematurely, giving most of the third act an extended endgame vibe.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Time Being is the manner in which Cicin-Sain prominently incorporates the work of contemporary artists into the film.  Eric Zener provides Daniel’s work and the exhibit he reluctantly visits at the de Young, while Stephen Wright provides the dramatic paintings in Dax’s mansion, whose significance will be revealed down the stretch.

Frank Langella has the right imposing presence for Dax and he duly delivers in his big climatic scene (of a spoilery nature).  Arguably, Wes Bentley keeps up with him relatively well as Daniel, considering the flatness of his character.  Essentially a two-hander, Sarah Paulson makes the most of her small but consequential supporting role.

There are intriguing moments in The Time Being, but the actual on-screen drama is pretty middling stuff.  Aspiring artists and collectors will probably find a visit to the museum or gallery of their choice appreciably more rewarding.  For committed Langella admirers, it opens tomorrow (7/26) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

AAIFF ’13: Innocent Blood

James Park ought to know [in]famous undercover detectives never just retire, especially when their biggest case holds some decidedly ugly secrets.  The cop-turned-professor will have to revert to his old ways when his young son is kidnapped by a mystery man with revenge on his unhinged mind in DJ Holloway & Sun W. Kim’s Innocent Blood (trailer here), which screens this Saturday during the 2013 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Park knows crime, but with his limited academic credentials he can only land a community college teaching gig.  He plans to go back for the right degrees, once his wife Susan finishes law school.  It has been hard on their son Cody, who does not see his mother nearly as much as they both would like.  As a result, when her husband’s nemesis abducts the young boy, she suffers from an acute attack of guilt.

Prohibited from contacting the authorities, Park will have to figure out just what the kidnapper wants on his own.  It all seems to revolve around Brad Lee, a human trafficker framed for a crime he technically did not exactly commit.  Park’s first clue will be the trail of dead bodies he cannot explain to Carl Grierr and Jim Collins, the odd couple detectives doggedly tailing him.

While the harsh realities of human trafficking remain off-camera throughout Blood, it is an issue the filmmakers feel strongly about.  Like the T.O.M. Film Festival co-founded by screenwriter-co-director Kim, Blood was envisioned as a vehicle to raise funds and awareness.  It is well intentioned, but the on-screen business does not always withstand the common sense test.  (Park really drops his son off on the very urban looking street around the corner from his school, without watching to see if he makes it inside okay?)

Still, Jun-seong Kim’s not quite retired James Kim is a genuinely compellingly angst-ridden everyman.  Alexandra Chun is also entirely believable and sympathetic as the distraught mother.  Although still a relatively young thesp, Lance Lim makes a strong return appearance at AAIFF, following up his solid turn in Il Cho’s accomplished short Jin with his engaging work as Cody Park. 

However, for most genre fans, the main attraction in Blood will be Doug Jones (the Silver Surfer, etc), somewhat playing against type as Grierr, the acerbic but honest copper. He earns a fair number of sarcastic chuckles, which are truly appreciated, considering the film’s grim and gritty tone.  In contrast, C.S. Lee’s villain is rather problematically bland.

Blood tackles some big themes, like sacrifice and redemption, while exhibiting a wider social conscience.  However, Sun W. Kim’s screenplay is not good about sharing information, while keeping its cast of characters severely blinkered.  Yet, it effectively taps into some very real emotions that will keep most viewers fully vested in the outcome. 

Recommended for fans of Jones and dark crime dramas, Innocent Blood screens Saturday afternoon (7/26) at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of this year’s AAIFF (The festival officially starts tonight with Linsanity, Evan Jackson Leong’s entertaining documentary record of Jeremy Lin’s dramatic rise to NBA stardom and concludes Saturday, August 3rd, with Yang Yonghi’s Our Homeland, a deeply compassionate portrait of a Japanese-North Korean family divided by ideology.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Stranded: Christian Slater Maintains Protocol

In space, no one can hear you getting chewed out. Frankly, this crew has it coming. You might think scientists would be careful about contagions, but evidently not. Perhaps the semi-competency of their military commander will keep some of them alive in Roger Christian’s Stranded (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A small four-person moon-base is a terrible place to be surprised by a meteor shower.  That much we can buy.  Suffering damage to their power generators and life support systems, Col. Gerard Brauchman’s crew hastens to make repairs.  While outside the station, Eva Cameron notices strange glowing spores covering the meteors, so naturally she carries one back inside, in gross violation of station protocol and basic common sense.  While she and Dr. Lance Krause analyze it, one of the test tubes breaks in their centrifuge, so naturally she starts digging around in there with her finger.  Before you know it, she is spectacularly pregnant with the alien demon spawn—and then just as suddenly she is not.

Cameron and Bruce Johns, the station engineer and resident drunk, know her alien offspring is out there, wreaking havoc.  Yet, Brauchman and Krause dismiss their warnings, assuming they are just suffering from CO² induced hallucinations.  Indeed, Stranded repeatedly explains the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning with impressive thoroughness, so at least it fulfills its public service mandate.  Despite all the flak Brauchman takes for sticking by the book, the film also suggests breaking protocol is a really bad idea.

If Stranded sounds like an Alien wannabe, take into consideration the fact that Christian was nominated for an Academy Award for his art direction on Ridley Scott’s beloved sci-fi horror classic, so maybe he has the right to rip himself off.  Christian had previously won an Oscar as an art director on Star Wars (before it was known as A New Hope).  His short film The Dollar bottom also won an Oscar and his previous fantasy short Black Angel screened before The Empire Strikes Back during its initial run in the UK and Australia.  To temper your growing optimism, bear in mind Christian also directed the notorious Battlefield Earth.

That is some career, but with Stranded, he lights out into clear-cut b-movie territory.  Christian makes a virtue of necessity, emphasizing the claustrophobia of his limited set and the mounting tension within his small ensemble.  To an extent, the quartet’s constant bickering and back-biting gives the film a bit of character.  Still, there is no getting around the conspicuous carelessness of their actions and the cardboard dimensions of their characterizations.

Frankly, Christian Slater is not bad as Col. Brauchman, largely avoiding his typical tics and shtick.  Brendan Fehr comes across reasonably credibly as Dr. Krause.  However, it is hard to believe a basket case like Michael Therriault’s Johns could ever pass muster for a mission like this. As Cameron, Amy Matysio is similarly stuck with a problematically character, solely distinguished by head-scratching acts of stupidity.

If Stranded were playing at an old school drive-in, it would be easy to recommend.  On some level, dumb mayhem is always diverting, but Manhattan movie ticket prices demand considerably more than that. Those who might be interested solely because of Christian’s past work should note his long presumably lost Black Angel has been found and some sort of online distribution is expected in the near future. That is probably the film to wait for. Basically a time killer for woozy weekend viewing, Stranded opens this Friday (7/26) in New York at the AMC Empire and will also be available on itunes.

Moon Man: An Animated Fable that Shines

This has to be the most endearing dystopia you will ever see. One can understand why the Man in the Moon came down for a visit, but he will need a little getting home in Stephan Schesch’s animated feature, Moon Man (trailer here), which launches today on Tribeca Film’s VOD platforms.

The President (presumably for life) has finally conquered the last little island on Earth free of his control. Yet, it hardly seems to matter to one little girl and her father.  They are following their regular routine—a drive-in movie, followed by burgers from a 1950’s style drive-through.  Then her father cruises home with the top down while she curls up in the back seat with a blanket and the loyal family pooch.

Tonight though, something is amiss.  The Moon Man is not looking down at her as he should be.  Like other children around the world, she is usually reassured by the sight of him up there.  (However, grown-ups somehow grow oblivious to him.)  Getting a bit bored, the Moon Man hitched a ride on a comet, but it was a one-way ticket.  To get back, he seeks the help of Bunsen van der Dunkel, a Rip Van Winkle scientist who has slept through the President’s rise to glory.  As it happens, the President also seeks the legendary inventor’s help developing a rocket to facilitate his conquest of the moon. You get the idea.

First of all, Moon Man is basically right in line with what would be my approach to parenting, if only there were more drive-in movie theaters.  Based on Tomi Ungerer’s children’s book, Schesch’s adaptation is unflaggingly sweet and gentle, but one can pick up on the author’s sly sensibilities.  Indeed, the constant lampooning of the pompous President definitely follows in the tradition of Chaplin’s Great Dictator and subsequent satires.

Happily, he has not really gotten down to oppressive business yet.  This is a bright, vibrant world, filled with flowers and vintage convertibles.  In fact, the hand-drawn animation is like a breath of fresh air compared to the computer-generated-focus-grouped tent-poles released by the studios.  It looks great and it perfectly suits the secondary theme of adults learning to see the world as kids again.

Frankly, the weakest link in Moon Man is the Moon Man.  The innocent Ziggy-looking fellow does not have much personality, but the world around him compensates for him. There are some clever bits involving the President and van der Dunkel and the soundtrack is inspired, including Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “Moon River.”

Moon Man has a healthy supply of idealism with the right subversive garnish. Schesch keeps the mood light and airy, even when the chips are down, maintaining a pleasant medium-up-tempo pace. Good fun recommended for eyes and ears of all ages, Moon Man is now available on VOD from Tribeca Films.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wasteland: a Working Class Caper

These scruffy lads are nothing like Raffles the gentleman thief, but their intended target is the real knuckle-dragger.  A recently released ex-con and his mates put a working class spin on the movie caper in Rowan Athale’s crackerjack Wasteland (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Given the film starts in media res with our protagonist in a police interrogation room, it would seem the caper is not very successful.  However, there will be several twists to the tale the black-and-blue Harvey tells Detective Inspector West.  Six weeks ago, he was released on parole.  Framed on drug charges by Steve Roper, poor Harvey was a bone the local gang lord threw to the coppers to distract them from his own narcotics business.  None too happy about it, Harvey plans to use information he overheard in prison to get some payback and seed money for a new life abroad.

Ostensibly, Roper has no connections to neighborhood social club, making the basement office safe the ideal place to stash his illicit cash. Of course, Harvey cannot take it alone.  He will recruit three friends: Dempsey the fast talker, Dodd the hard drinking goon, and Charlie the momma’s boy welder.  He makes a point of not involving his ex-girl friend Nicola, but he still rekindles their relationship in spite of his better judgment.

Although Timothy Spall only appears as DI West in the wrap-around narrative device, his rumpled gravitas lends the film instant credibility right from the start.  In fact, Athale has assembled quite an accomplished cast of recognizable but not necessarily famous faces.  Despite his unprepossessing screen presence, Luke Treadaway is suitably world weary as Harvey, whereas Iwan Rheon’s Dempsey is a slyly roguish standout (even if some of his dialogue is hard for American viewers to catch without subtitles).  Again projecting a sense of banal menace, Kill List’s Neil Maskell makes another beefy but intense villain as Roper, looking quite at home in this gritty milieu.

As caper movies go, Wasteland is decidedly moody, but it is never slack.  For a first time helmer, Athale ushers in each reversal and revelation with an assured touch.  Frankly, it turns into an out-and-out crowd-pleaser, while staying true to its working class roots.  Thoroughly satisfying, Wasteland is highly recommended for caper fans and viewers of Ken Loach’s more accessible films (like Angels’ Share).  It opens this Friday (7/26) in New York at the Cinema Village.

AAIFF ’13: Keye Luke & More Than Face in the Crowd (shorts)

Joe Dante’s Gremlins has a strange significance at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.  Two docu-shorts profile actors who worked on the film.  In a way, Keye Luke and Jane Chung represent opposite sides of the same coin.  Both did their best to navigate the studio system at a time when Hollywood was not particularly hospitable to Asian American talent.  While Chung worked steadily but anonymously in small roles, Luke became famous as Kato and Charlie Chan’s Number One Son.  Timothy Tau allows Luke to speak for himself in his short docudrama, Keye Luke (trailer here), which screens as part of the Into the Penumbra short film program at the 2013 AAIFF.

Reflecting on his life, Luke addresses the audience in a manner akin to a stage play.  As he reminisces, we see episodes of his life, starting with his early home life, progressing through the double-edged Charlie Chan films, his continuing sidekick gigging as Kato to the Green Hornet, finally reaching his first starring role in the final Mr. Wong film.  Mixing irony and realism, distinctly Anglo actors portray Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, the Swede and the Scot who portrayed Charlie Chan.  However, Tau does not hate on the Honolulu detective, acknowledging the franchise represented an opportunity for Asian actors like Luke and his older brother Edwin, albeit a flawed one.

Essentially, Tau argues Luke did what he could with what the system would give him, eventually becoming a widely respected and recognized character actor, whose credits include quality films like Woody Allen’s Alice.  It is quite a reasonable, pragmatic perspective, under-pinning a film that revels in the goofy idiosyncrasies of 1940’s b-movies and serials (the Secret Agent X-9 scene is particularly inspired).  Keye Luke also boasts a surprisingly big name cast by short film standards, including ER’s Archie Kao and Bang Bang’s Jessika Van, who all clearly enjoy the retro tribute to the late great Luke.

Fame always eluded filmmaker Sami Chan’s great aunt Jane Chung, but she still enjoyed the business according to those who speak fondly of her in More Than a Face in the Crowd, also screening as part of the Penumbra block.  Chung had walk-on or small speaking parts on probably more films and television shows than Michael Caine, but finding her in the frame is usually a challenge.  Supposedly, she had a shouting match with Ricky Ricardo, but her family can never find it during their I Love Lucy marathons.

Again, Chan describes how Chung made lemonade out of lemons, finding extra work much more entertaining and rewarding than the sort of part time jobs available to most homemakers in the 1960’s.  With credits that include Chinatown, Funny Girl, Flower Drum Song, and When Harry Met Sally, she was a small part of many cinematic milestones.

Although still alive during the production of
Crowd, the circumstances of old age prevented her from participating.  It is too bad she could not enjoy a taste of wider recognition during her lifetime, but Chan’s short doc is a fitting tribute that also covers some under-examined cinema history with economy and authority.  Clocking in just under half an hour, Crowd would be an appropriate programming choice for PBS sometime down the road.  For now, it is quite a shrewd selection for AAIFF, especially considering the way it speaks in dialogue with Tau’s Keye Luke.  Recommended for movie lovers, More Than a Face in the Crowd and Keye Luke screen this Thursday (7/25) at the Anthology Film Archives during the 2013 AAIFF.