Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Terror Live: The Scoop that Kills

Yoon Young-hwa is sort of like the Korean Dan Rather.  The disgraced former television anchor has been demoted to a lowly radio call-in host.  However, when a domestic terrorist calls into his show, the “journalist” tries to leverage his scoop into a career comeback.  Alas, nothing goes according to plan in Kim Byung-woo’s The Terror Live (trailer here), now playing in New York.

At first, Yoon assumes the caller is pesky crank, but for some reason his producer is unable to dump his call.  When the mystery man threatens to blow-up the nearby bridge, Yoon dares him to follow through—and he does.  Capitalizing on his direct line to the terrorist, Yoon negotiates a return to the anchor’s chair with the sleazy SNC news director.  However, he quickly realizes he is playing a far more dangerous game than he realized. 

For starters, there is the explosive device the mad bomber somehow slipped into his earpiece.  While the initial explosions scrupulously avoided human casualty, the second round left an isolated section of the bridge precariously listing on its caisson.  Amongst the bystanders trapped there is Yoon’s ex-wife, Lee Ji-soo, a fellow reporter.  Yoon finds himself caught between the news director, who orders Yoon to provoke a spectacularly tragic finish and Park Jung-min, the national security official imploring him to stall for time.

It is hard to judge from Terror Live whether Koreans have more contempt for journalists or politicians.  Probably the former, but it is a close call.  Neither displays much integrity throughout the film, but Yoon will find himself on the business end of some cosmic comeuppance as a result of his past sins.

Korean mega-star Ha Jung-woo (who was all kinds of bad in The Berlin File and Nameless Gangster) once again is quite the intense anti-hero as the existentially torn Yoon.  He largely carries the confined space-pressure cooker film singlehandedly.  Unfortunately, only Jeon Hye-jin provides him any measurable support as the tough but seemingly decent Park.  In contrast, Lee Kyoung-young is eye-roll worthy as the ridiculously oily news boss.  Still, he makes more of an impression than the rest of the blandly anonymous cast.

To an extent, you have to give Kim credit for not backing down.  He steadily raises the stakes and never shies away from the enormity of the terrorist attacks.  Frankly, the sight of bomb damaged buildings slowly teetering over might be too much for New Yorkers with particularly vivid memories of September 11th.  Many more viewers will also find Kim’s third act nihilism—unsubtly implying a bombing spree is not such an unreasonable response to political opportunism—rather problematic as well.

Clearly, Kim understands how to stage a hold-the-line thriller.  His execution is strong, but his ethical implications and character motivations are questionable.  TV journalists might be pond scum, but the SNC network big wigs often just seem perversely villainous.  A frustrating example of a potentially taut terrorism drama that implodes on itself, The Terror Live is now showing in New York at the AMC Empire.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Wing Chun at BAM: Enter the Dragon

It is the first true martial arts film selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.  Bruce Lee’s first Hollywood star vehicle and his final fully completed film represents kung fu cinema at its most cross-overiest, yet it is still legit to the bone.  In honor of Ip Man and Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, Bruce Lee & director Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon (trailer here), begins a week of restored DCP screenings today, as part of BAM Cinematek’s Wing Chun classic film series.

Lee’s namesake is a Hong Kong Shaolin standard bearer knocking on the door of complete martial arts enlightenment.  While glory in the ring hardly interests him, he agrees to compete in the triannual martial arts tournament sponsored by Han, an international vice lord and general megalomaniac.  Sent in by British Intelligence sans back-up, Lee is to reconnoiter around Han’s pleasure palace and hopefully fight his way out of any trouble he might encounter.  It is not much of a plan, but it will suffice.

The stakes turn out to be unexpectedly personal for Lee.  Shortly before embarking, he learns Han’s thugs were responsible for the death of his sister, Su Lin.  As one might expect of Lee’s kin, she put up a heck of a fight.  Han’s chief enforcer O’Hara still bears his scars from the encounter.  He is due for some more pain. However, Lee will meet some friendly Americans en route, such as the well heeled Roper, who is looking to hustle some action to pay off his gambling debts, like a kung fu Fast Eddie Felson. In contrast, Roper’s former Army buddy Williams seems more interested in hedonistic pleasures supplied nightly to the fighters.

Enter might not sound earthshakingly original, but that is partly a function of how widely imitated it has been, especially the iconic hall of mirrors climax.  Scores of movies have copied its general template of the ostensibly upright kumite going on above ground, while armies of henchmen in color-coded gis labor towards nefarious ends below.  Without it, there is no way we would have guilty pleasures like the Steve Chase beatdown, Kill and Kill Again, which is a thoroughly depressing thought to contemplate.

All the elements come together, but there is still no question this is Lee’s show.  Almost supernaturally intense and charismatic, Lee was clearly at the peak of his powers throughout Enter.  It is a massively physical performance (featuring some impressive acrobatic feats), yet Lee still takes care to convey the philosophical side of Wing Chun.  The restored print includes more scenes of Lee as a spiritual teacher that work quite well. 

Even with Lee’s overpowering presence, Enter is the film that really put Jim “Black Belt Jones” Kelly on the map. As Williams, he contributes attitude and energy that further distinguished Enter from its genre predecessors.  In fact, the cast is loaded with notables, including John Saxon, hamming it up with relish as Roper.  Fans often wonder why so little was subsequently heard of Betty Chung, but she has some nice rapport with Lee as Mei Ling, a fellow undercover operative. 

There are also plenty of established and future action stars, most notably Angela Mao absolutely crushing Su Lin’s brief but pivotal flashback scene.  Bolo Yeung also appears in exactly the sort of role that would make him famous.  Sammo Hung has a briefer turn as a Shaolin martial artist who fairs poorly against Lee—but not as nearly as badly as blink-and-you-missed-him Jackie Chan, whose meat-for-the-grinder henchman gets his neck snapped by our hero.

But wait there’s more, including a classic funky eastern fusion soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin that opened up a lot of ears up to the Argentinean composer and former Dizzy Gillespie sideman.  Without question, this is a historically and culturally significant film, well worthy of being selected for the National Film Registry.  Logically, it anchors BAM’s Wing Chun series in honor of Lee’s revered master, Ip Man.  Highly recommended beyond martial arts enthusiasts, Enter the Dragon begins a week long run (8/30-9/5) today at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I Declare War: Kids Get Their War On

War—what is it good for?  At least it gets these brats out of the house.  That will be a blessing for their parents.  Unfortunately, the youngsters will have to endure the ridiculously simplistic tactics of allegorical cinema in Jason Lapeyre & Robert Wilson’s I Declare War (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at the Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers.

Completely free of adult supervision, a group of kids play regular capture the flag war games in the forest near their exurban homes.  PK is a young war movie junkie who has always commanded his troops to victory.  He finally thinks he has met a worthy opponent in Quinn, who clearly shares PK’s understanding of military strategy, until the promising general is fragged by his own troops.  Having captured PK’s best friend Kwon, the resentful Skinner was not about to squander an opportunity for some score-settling.

Initially, we see the kids trudging about with crude makeshift stick-and-twine guns, but soon they are replaced with very real looking assault weaponry.  They sound like the real deal too, but no actual blood is shed during their skirmishes, aside from their grenades (balloons filled with red paint).  However, there is nothing imaginary about the pain Skinner inflicts on Kwon.

Yes, it is jarring to watch young kids toting assault rifles and blasting away at each other, allowing fantasies to intrude on ostensive reality, but after half an hour or so, we just so get the point already.  Frustratingly, the film does not really have anything left in reserve after these initial shocks.  Arguably, it might have been a more engaging film if Lapeyre and Wilson had embraced the story of a truly epic capture the flag contest rather than tried to remake Lord of the Flies again.

To their credit, Declare’s young ensemble is completely credible and fully committed to their roles.  On the downside, their characters are never very well fleshed out.  Basically, we have PK, the slight of stature general with a Napoleon complex, Kwon, the loyal best friend, their resentful loser nemesis, as well as the scheming chick, the annoying kid, the other annoying kid, and the other other annoying kid.

Declare is a compelling example of detailed world building at the child’s eye level.  It sort of resembles what it might look like if Full Metal Jacket broke out in the middle of Moonrise Kingdom.  Despite the strength of its ground game, the film is still saddled by the clunkiness of its teaching moments and the blandness of most of its characters.  For those intrigued by the provocative imagery, I Declare War opens tomorrow (8/30) at select Alamo Drafthouses nationwide, including Yonkers in New York and Littleton in Colorado.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tokyo Waka: Crows and the Great Cycle of Life

They love their kaiju monster movies in Japan.  Perhaps that has prepared Tokyo to live with the aggressive, non-indigenous Jungle Crows that have made themselves at home there amongst the tall buildings in recent years.  Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto traditions also help residents find a balance with their winged neighbors.  The mega-city’s people and crows inspire John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson’s docu-essay Tokyo Waka (trailer here), which opens today at New York’s Film Forum.

Crows have long played a role in Japanese culture.  Evidently, loud speakers still broadcast a time-honored tune at 5:00, warning children at play it is time to go home with the crows.  A recurring figure in art and legend, a crow is even the mascot of the national football (soccer) team.  However, these transplants are a crow of a different order.  Known to whisk away small mammals, they have forced Tokyo zookeepers to erect protective barriers for their prairie dogs (seriously).  They have even been known to take a peck at humans whom they don’t like the looks of.

Although Waka is generally meditative in tone, some of the crow footage is kind of creepy.  Haptas and Samuelson speak to residents of all walks of life, who are forced to interact with the black birds.  Not surprisingly, some of the most insightful comments come from a Buddhist priest, whose temple goldfish fell victim to one of the brazen crows.  He never begrudges them for following their nature.  After all, it is all part of the great cycle of life. 

We also hear from zoologists, city bureaucrats charged with crow population control, and students who have survived crow attacks.  Together they piece together a mosaic of Tokyo.  Even with the risk of angry crows, it is an attractively cinematic picture (lovely shot by Haptas and Samuelson), incorporating Shinto shrines and the giant commercial neon signs.  The homeless woman representing tent dwellers in the park is a good case in point.  While surely there are unfortunate economic reasons for her situation, she seems to have partly embraced the Bohemian aspects of it.  Indeed, making the most of a difficult situation is arguably quite compatible with Buddhist and Japanese values.

Quiet and thoughtful, Tokyo Waka is still rather peppier than one might expect.  Co-directors-producers-cinematographers-editors Haptas and Samuelson capture some striking images of the city and its crows.  Stylistically, it is not unlike Jessica Oreck’s Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, though it does not have quite the same charm.  Running just a tad over an hour, it is certainly easy to digest.  Recommended for students of Japanese culture and bird watchers, Tokyo Waka opens today (8/28) at Film Forum, programmed with the bonus short film, Catcam.

Our Nixon: We’ll Always Have Him to Kick Around

These days, when the NSA knows what’s on your Netflix queue and the IRS might audit you if you have too many John Wayne movies on it, one cannot help feeling nostalgia for the Nixon years.  Indeed, it was a more innocent era, when the government was secretly taping itself.  As if there were not enough tapes already, it turns out three of Nixon’s top aides also happened to be keen amateur super8 videographers, who constantly documented the history unfolding around them.  The not very widely seen home movies of H.R. Haldeman, John Erhlichman, and Dwight Chapin are blended together with generous helpings of news footage and other kinds of tapes in Penny Lane’s docu-collage Our Nixon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is hard to get a handle on just what exactly Our Nixon is, starting with whether it is a feature film or a television special.  One of the first releases from CNN’s new theatrical arm, it has already aired on the second place cable news network.  Some have also taken issue with its subversive (some might say deceptive) editing style, in which the ellipses between events portrayed on screen are glossed over.  Strict historical chronology takes a backseat to sly, ironic humor.  That would be fine, provided the labeling was a bit more accurate and up-front.

Be that as it may, there are telling moments in Our Nixon, but rarely with respects to its ostensible subject.  Frankly, the film ought to be called Our Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin.  On good terms up until the bitter end, the three top aides apparently filmed each other as much as R.N., if not more so.  Haldeman in particular emerges as a rather decent sort, caught up in a whirlwind not of his own making.

With regards to the big question, Lane’s samplings essentially exonerate Nixon of any premeditated complicity in the original break-in.  Ironically, it was pretty clearly his compulsive need to micromanage the response (cover-up) that brought him down.  Still, Penny Lane (cue trumpet solo) did not set out to do any favors for Nixon’s image, choosing clips that accentuate his insecurities and craven craving for approval.  Poor Haldeman often sounds like Nixon’s shrink.

Our Nixon offers some decent material on the Nixon’s visit to China, but there is nothing particularly invaluable or newsworthy here.  The film has no surprising revelations, no smoking guns, and no secret Salinger novels, just some jokes regarding everyone’s squareness.  Almost as much a work of cultural history as political history, it is interesting to parse the film’s time capsule images.  Still, there is no escaping the slightness of the film (regardless of its authority or lack thereof).  Arguably, Our Nixon really is better suited for television viewing.  Nonetheless, it opens theatrically this Friday (8/30) in New York at the IFC Center, largely for Watergate junkies who missed it on CNN.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Company Man: Lifetime Employment

Contract killing is one of the few recession-proof industries.  Given the illusive nature of our economic recovery, it probably won’t be long before the administration starts doing photo ops with the Assassination Bureau.  At least, murder-for-hire is still illegal in Korea, but it is a tough racket to quit.  On the plus side, there will be a whole lot of openings at Ji Hyeong-do’s firm by the time he finishes resigning in Lim Sang-yun’s A Company Man (trailer here), which releases on digital, DVD, and BluRay today, from Well Go USA.

Ji is on the fast track.  His people skills are not great, but he has other talents the firm’s president values highly.  His upward career trajectory will hit a few speed bumps when two rather messy assignments start gnawing at his conscience.  First, Ji must dispose of Ra-hun, a young “temp” who thought he was in the management trainee program, after the kid caps a sensitive target.  To make matters worse, Ra-hun’s struggling single mother happens to be Yoo Mi-yeon, the one-hit wonder teen idol Ji always had warm fuzzy feelings for. 

As Ji starts looking after Yoo and her teen-aged daughter, the president tasks him with “taking care” of Jin Chae-hook, his former superior who has gone AWOL after the accidental death of his son.  Suddenly, Jin has a lot to say to Ji, which he does not want to hear, even though he more or less knows it all already.  Wanting to start a new life with Yoo, Ji decides to resign from the firm.  Right, good luck with that.

Yes, the corporate hitman-gangster thing has become a pretty shopworn movie cliché in the post-Sopranos era.  Lim adds little insight into either the world of the salaryman or the contract killer.  However, he racks up quite an impressive body count.  While the middle gets a little draggy as Ji slowly starts putting the moves on Yoo, the set-up is smooth and grabby and the third act delivers in spades.  Company was a monster hit at the Korean boxoffice, so you know you can take happily-ever-after off the table.  Popular Korean audiences just seem to dig a bit of tragedy.  Nevertheless, the big climax well exceeds viewer expectations with a massive dose of violent action.  It is not exactly John Woo’s Hard-Boiled, but it provides a good, stiff fix for genre fans.

As Ji, Rough Cut star So Ji-sub moves like a shark through his action scenes and broods like he really means business.  Lee Mi-yeon nicely counterbalances the regiment of jaded sociopaths as the effervescent, but not overly perky Yoo.  Amid all the dark suits, Kwak Do-won also makes an effectively loathsome villain as the firm’s petty micromanaging second in command.

Viewers in a hurry can probably get away with watching the first ten minutes of Company and then fast forwarding to the last half hour.  Indeed, when Lim fully unleashes the mayhem it is kind of awesome.  A safe bet recommendation for action fans, A Company Man is now available for home viewing options from Well Go USA.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Abigail Harm: A Shy, Quiet Brand of Urban Fantasy

Visitors come to New York from nearly everywhere, perhaps even including the fairy realm, or some such place.  One mousy New Yorker will open her home and perhaps her heart to a decidedly foreign visitor when the Korean fable of the Woodcutter and the Nymph (that shares common elements with the Swan Maiden and Selkie myths) get a quietly modern makeover in Lee Isaac Chung’s Abigail Harm (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Shy and retiring, Abigail Harm reads to the blind because she does not like to be seen.  Her garrulous father was also a storyteller, but her relationship to the old man was complicated in ways we will never understand.  One fateful night, she shelters a strange fugitive, who seems to believe he is a mystical being trapped in our world because someone stole his robe.  To thank Harm, he gives her directions on where to similarly entrap one of his fellow visitors, who will become her faithful lover as long as she keeps his stolen garment in her possession.

While Harm is ordinarily quite taciturn, she is rather talkative compared to the strange visitor she ensnares.  Yet, a romantic relationship duly develops between them.  Nonetheless, questions regarding the sustainability and legitimacy of it all seem to nag at Harm’s subconscious.

Born to play misfits, Amanda Plummer (who is currently appearing on the New York stage in an excellent staging of Tennessee Williams’ eerie Two Character Play) suggests a lifetime of angst and insecurity without revealing any of Harm’s secrets.  She stirs viewer empathy, but subtly suggests there is something damaged and maybe a little bit off about her.

As her visitor, Tetsuo Kuramochi expresses much without dialogue, but his character still largely remains a cipher during the course of the film.  However, Will Patton makes the most of his brief appearance as Harm’s agitated visitor, giving the film its most substantial jolt of energy, as well as performing the narration, which elegantly evokes a sense of once-upon-a-time.

There is no getting around the film’s deliberately paced artiness and its defiantly unsatisfying third act.  Nonetheless, it remains one of the smartest urban fantasies of the year.  It gracefully hints at cosmic goings on, lurking in plain sight on the streets and subways we use every day (the Union Square station, in this case), without cribbing the adolescent melodrama of the Buffy and Twilight franchises.  Adults will find it a welcome antidote to Mortal Instruments and similar copies of copies.

Although it is headed to a very different destination, Abigail Harm would be an appropriate companion film to John Sayles’ Secret of Roan Inish.  Strangely, it is also thematically compatible with The Two Character Play, a surreal two-hander about alienation and confinement.  Recommended for those who appreciate more demanding manifestations of the fantastic, Abigail Harm opens this Friday (8/30) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Better Late Than Never: The Wolverine vs. the Yakuza

China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest film market.  Yes, China is number two with a bullet, but Japan is hardly chopped liver.  As an extra added benefit, studios do not have to debase their product or sell their souls to export films into Japan.  Yet, they seem to take perverse pleasure in kowtowing to Chinese Communist Party censors.  However, the latest Japanese-centric installment of the X-Men franchise surely understood where its international bread would be buttered.  Better than initial reviews gave it credit for, James Mangold’s simply titled The Wolverine (trailer here) is worth a look-see in theaters now.

As most guys between the ages of thirteen and fifty know, Logan is a mutant, whose uncanny healing powers were augmented with an adamantium skeleton and retractable claws.  You cannot kill him, because he simply heals too fast, but you can definitely tick him off.  At least that used to be the case.  While visiting the deathbed of Yashida, the Japanese industrialist who knew Logan during dark days past, his healing powers are drastically impaired by Yashida’s strange physician, Dr. Green, who also happens to be a rather nasty mutant known as Viper.

At Yashida’s funeral, an attempt is made to kidnap Mariko Yashida, the granddaughter and surprise heir to the Yashida empire.  Suspecting the yakuza assassins are in league with her somewhat disappointed father, Logan and Mariko go underground.  However, the anti-hero mutant just isn’t shrugging off shotgun blasts to the gut like he used.  At least, he still has the claws and the temper, which are considerable.  Nevertheless, he will need a bit of help from Yukio, a mutant orphan adopted by the Yashida family to serve as Mariko’s friend and confidant.

Wolverine works surprisingly well, because most of the time it is not operating as a superhero movie, but as a blend of the yakuza and ninja genres.  No longer immortal, Logan follows the tradition of other noir gaijin hard-noses, like Robert Ryan in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo.  The claws versus swords fight sequences are well staged and have real stakes.  Unfortunately, the film makes a tactical mistake in the third act, veering into Iron Man territory not in keeping with up-close-and-personal hack-and-slashing tone it had so nicely established.

Regardless, The Wolverine has a real ace-in-the-hole in the person of supermodel turned thesp Rila Fukushima.  As the trusted Yukio, she shows gobs of screen presence and wicked action chops.  Frankly, many fans will want to see her and Logan walk the earth together, “like Caine in Kung Fu,” but the franchise seems to have different plans for the future (judging from the stinger-tease).

Tao Okamoto (another model) is also quite engaging as the dutiful Mariko, but probably Royal Shakespeare Company and Lost alumnus Hiroyuki Sanda is the most recognizable face after Hugh Jackman, bringing Shakespearean heaviness to the homicidal father, Shingen Yashida.  Although clearly comfortable with the character by now, Jackman admirably digs into this grittier detour into mortality.  On the other hand, Will Yun Lee (so good in Witchblade and the cool b-movie Four Assassins) is woefully under-utilized as ninja-protector Kenuichio Harada, while Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper is a bland standard issue super-villainess.

Just like leaving New York for Match Point helped reinvigorate Woody Allen, the Japanese setting ought to jump start the Wolverine sub-series.  It should also herald Rila Fukushima’s arrival as an international action star.  Had Mangold not been so tied to the big set pieces-go-boom superhero climax, The Wolverine could have really been an impressive fusion of Marvel mythology and Asian martial arts and action movie aesthetics.  Despite the late adherence to convention, it is still consistently entertaining.  Recommended for Marvel and yakuza genre fans, The Wolverine is still playing in theater nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Silk: It Goes Nicely with the Wigs

Rumpole never went for Queens Council.  He did not need the letters QC after his name to take on the clients that interested him.  However, for mere mortal barristers, it makes a world of difference for their careers.  The barristers of Shoe Lane Chambers are certainly human, at their best.  The pursuit of QC status and the silk robes that goes with it (hence the expression “taking silk”) will weigh heavily on Shoe Lane’s two leading barristers in Silk (promo here), which premieres on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery this Sunday.

Even Martha Costello’s name sounds trustworthy.  She really believes in all that “innocent until proven guilty” and “everyone is entitled to the best defense possible” rhetoric.  Clive Reader is a different story.  He is the John Edwards of chambers.  A smarmy charmer, his sexual escapes are already the stuff of Shoe Lane legend.  Both are going for silk.  A glad-hander like Reader would seem to have the inside track, but at least Costello has the advantage of being good at her job.  Inconveniently, not everyone sees it that way in the opening episode.

A small shingle like Shoe Lane depends on referrals from big time solicitors, like the ones representing a nasty piece of work named Gary Rush.  The ex-con stands accused of robbing and beating an aging war veteran.  The trial does not seem to be going well for Costello, which may have adverse silk implications for her.  She is also having a hard time with the accused drug mule she is simultaneously representing.  It seems Reader may have pulled a fast one on behalf of his own client, the co-defendant.

Both trials end on a rather ironic note, but there will be lasting repercussions from the Rush case.  Unfortunately, she made a rather strong impression on the thug, to a degree that will eventually become quite ominous.  For the time being, Costello will concentrate on more pressing matters, like her unplanned pregnancy and defending an accused rapist.  It is not the sort of case she would like to take, but Shoe Lane’s senior clerk Billy Lamb convinces her.

Viewers will pick up quite a bit of British legal lingo, but might remain baffled by the ins and outs of a system where private barristers can represent both the accused and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).  Colleagues from the same firm can even find themselves facing each other or representing co-defendants with conflicting interests.  Somehow it seems to work, but maybe not spectacularly well.

The second episode (or the third and fourth cobbled together for American television) introduce two more continuing side-plots.  This will be the first time Costello represents Mark Draper, a troubled youth accused of “cottaging” in a public men’s room.  Kate Brockman, Shoe Lane’s prosecution specialist, also starts conspiring to oust Lamb.  Not simply an employee, Lamb and his senior clerk brethren clearly exert considerable power behind the scenes, sort of like Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister.

In the final episode[s], Costello and Reader will sit for their silk interviews, their pupils will compete in a moot trial, and Draper will be back in court—this time on a murder trial.  Costello will also face off against one of Shoe Lane’s dullest and dumbest in a rare CPS appearance.  Arguably, her conflicted prosecution of Tony Paddick, a cyber-stalked teacher who finally snapped, is probably the best storyline of the entire first season.  It certainly raises the most issues regarding the nature of law and justice.  Frankly, Silk feels rather out of place in Masterpiece Mystery’s line-up.  Like its barrister characters, the show never shows any real interest in who actually committed each crime, but only whether they get a sufficiently robust defense.

There is also way too much time devoted to Reader’s grossly inappropriate (but still sadly clichéd) relationship with his pupil, Niamh Cranitch.  Indeed, so much personal angst clutters Silk, it feels much more closely akin to L.A. Law than Perry Mason or Rumpole of the Bailey.  As a result, there is a real been-there-done-that vibe to the show.

It is worth noting Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones and the already announced third Hunger Games movie co-stars as Cranitch, which may explain Masterpiece’s pick-up.  She has a screen presence, but her character acts far dumber than she sounds.  Maxine Peake is perfectly likable as Costello, but again her character could have been cribbed from Ally McBeel reruns.  Likewise, Rupert Penry-Jones more or less channels Corbin Bernsen’s Arnie Becker as Reader.  The only principle to really distinguish Silk is Neil Stuke as the intriguingly Machiavellian yet oddly paternalistic Lamb.

There is some decent courtroom drama in Silk as well as some passable backstabbing intrigue, but it never really sings or dances for viewers.  Despite some serviceable table-pounding, Silk does not make a compelling case for itself.  Just sort of whatever, it starts its three week run tomorrow night (8/25) as part of the current season of Masterpiece Mystery on most PBS outlets nationwide.

Friday, August 23, 2013

MWFF’13: Mai Ratima

They live by night, but it is far from romantic.  They are the marginalized human debris that washes up on Seoul’s mean streets. A runaway Thai mail order bride and a would-be street criminal will find temporary solace in each others’ arms, but the brief moments of respite never last in Yoo Ji-tae’s Mai Ratima (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2013 Montreal World Film Festival.

Mai Ratima Tanawat has not enjoyed her time in Korea.  Sponsored by her brother-in-law to marry his mentally challenged brother and to work in his factory, she has not received wages for the last six months.  Of course, his sexual harassment continues unabated.  Unable to send money home to her sister and Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Tanawat finally confronts her brutish brother-in-law, who quickly turns violent.

Happening by their altercation, aspiring thug Soo-young intercedes on her behalf.  Assuming her bridges are burned, Tanawat agrees to accompany him to Seoul, where he thinks he has an illicit deal in the works.  Unfortunately, Soo-young’s prospects quickly turn sour.  For a while, they share some comparative domestic bliss squatting together, but it is clearly not sustainable.  There is never the illusion a happily-ever-after might be possible for these two.  The real question is how bad will it get?

Right, so good times for everyone.  Old Boy actor Yoo (who started cutting his director’s teeth with shorts like Out of My Intention) really pulls out the stops guilt-tripping his country for its exploitative immigration policies and intolerant attitudes.  He blends street level grit with periodic flights of stylized fantasy, which do not always mesh well.

However, Park Ji-soo makes good on Yoo’s heart-and-mind changing program, almost single-handedly.  The Korean actress is completely convincing as the Thai guest worker, from her tentative, soft-spoken command of the language, to her heartrending fear and guilt.  This ought to be a career-making star turn.  Bae Soo-bin does not quite pull off Soo-young big, climatic emotional payoff, but he develops some touching chemistry with Park in their quiet scenes together.  While her subplot often feels like it was lifted from another film, television star So Yoo-jin still scorches up the screen as Young-jin, the manipulative party girl who recruits Soo-young for a sordid boy-toy club gig.

Essentially, Yoo’s mistake comes when he divides his two leads midway through the film.  As good as So Yoo-jin might be in a colorful supporting role, the time spent away from Park Ji-soo’s title character just cannot compete with her poignancy and sense of urgency.  It is worth seeing Mai Ratima solely for her work.  Recommended for those who with a taste for naturalistic cinema with a blistering point of view, Mai Ratima screens tonight (8/23), tomorrow (8/24), and Sunday (8/25) as part of the 2013 World Film Festival in Montreal.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Una Noche: Cuba, Unvarnished

There are two Cuba’s: one for well-heeled Euro tourists, and one for Cubans.  When the two worlds mix, it often means trouble for the locals.  One Cuban teen understands that only too well.  Indeed, he has all kinds of reasons to flee the police state on a ramshackle raft and a hurried prayer.  Shot on location in Cuba, yet somehow still reflecting the country’s tragic real life circumstances, Lucy Mulloy’s Una Noche (trailer here) will transport audiences to the island dictatorship when it opens tomorrow in New York.

Raul is more or less a delinquent, but it is hard to judge him harshly once you know his backstory.  After years of servicing the tourist trade, his aging prostitute mother has contracted AIDS.  Despite all that great free healthcare, Raul is still forced to buy her medicine on the black market.  Always skirting the law, he has finally attracted serious police attention.  He and his mate Elio had planned to try their luck with the Florida Straights in due time, but Raul’s wanted status compels him to move up the timetable.

It will be hard for them both to leave Lila.  Elio has always had an unusually close and supportive relationship with his younger sister.  In contrast, Raul hardly knows her, but he has carried a torch for the Tae Kwon Do student from afar.  Nevertheless, they are prepared to depart by themselves, until the intuitive teen crashes their party.

Una Noche could be considered a case of life imitating art imitating life.  The narrative was inspired by the story of a harrowing attempted crossing that would be spoilery to relate in detail.  Subsequently, two of Mulloy’s three diamond-in-the-rough principles eventually defected to the America while en route to participate in Una Noche’s Tribeca press junket.  It is not hard to see why from Mulloy’s documentary-like street scenes.

It is not just the generally decrepit and unsanitary conditions of life outside the tourist enclaves that is so oppressive in Una Noche.  Mulloy captures the secret police at work, conveying all the fear and anxiety they generate.  When asked at a special screening why the Cuban government would allow permits for such an honest and unflattering production, she speculated they were perversely pleased with the tragic ending, seeing it as a tool to promote submission to state authority.  It is hard to argue with her line of reasoning, especially given the extent of her first hand experience.

Mulloy, a legitimately independent filmmaker, guides her earnest young cast through some first rate performances.  Perhaps Dariel Arechaga (the one who showed up on time at Tribeca) makes the strongest, edgiest impression as Raul, the nervy live wire.  Although it is a more tightly controlled performance, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre is not far behind him as the slow burning Lila.  Convincingly repressed, Javier Núñez Florián’s Elio is perfectly solid in the more subservient, less showy role of the trio.

Do not be put off by the “Spike Lee Presents” business.  Mulloy admirably holds up a mirror the reality of Cuba today.  Unfortunately, she risks undermining the film with some creepy sexual matter that might come across like overkill to some viewers, whereas others might consider it a strange attempt to fetishize the characters’ desperate poverty.  As a result, Una Noche can only be recommended for mature adults.  However, those who can handle an occasional bit of grossness should definitely check it out.  Intense and forthright, Una Noche opens tomorrow (8/23) in New York at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster

Ip Man has become a transcendent hero.  All the films and stories about him are true, even when they contradict each other, because we need his example of heroic humility.  Ip was a master of the southern style of kung fu known as Wing Chun.  Settling in Hong Kong after the Communist takeover, he became the city’s most prominent martial arts teacher.  He often lived a hand-to-mouth existence, but he attained a measure of immortality through his celebrated student, Bruce Lee.  Posterity will not be so kind to the northern school, for classically tragic reasons revealed in The Grandmaster (trailer here), Wong Kar Wai’s eagerly anticipated take on Ip Man, the man and the legend, which opens this Friday in New York.

Born to a life of privilege, Ip Man has become the leading proponent of the Wing Chun school of kung fu.  For Grandmaster Gong Baosen of the northern 64 Hands school, Ip is a fitting sparring partner for his grand retirement tour.  In observance of custom, challenges are made and met with grace.  However, Gong’s intensely loyal daughter Gong Er is determined to take matters further.  When she and Ip spar, it makes a profound impression on them both.  No longer mere rivals, an ambiguous but palpable mutual attraction develops between them.  Ip plans to travel north to see Gong and her 64 Hands style again, but the Japanese invasion rudely intervenes.

The occupation years will be difficult for both non-lovers.  Ip and his wife Zhang Yongcheng will mourn their children who succumb to starvation, while Gong Er watches in horror as Ma San, her father’s last great pupil-turned Japanse collaborator, usurps the 64 Hands.  Years later, Ip Man and Gong Er will meet again in Hong Kong, but their wartime decisions will continue to keep them apart.

Considering how long fans have waited, it is almost impossible for Grandmaster to live up to expectations, but happily it comes pretty close.  Although separate and distinct from the Ip Man franchise distributed by Well Go USA, “Little” Tony Leung Chiu Wai has the perfect look and gravitas for the celebrated master, nicely finding his niche as the experienced leading man Ip Man, in between Donnie Yen’s young, confident Ip and Anthony Wong’s elder statesman Ip.  Pushed and prodded by Wong, Leung arguably does some of his best martial arts work yet, but he also conveys the essence of the acutely disciplined Ip.

As good as Leung is, Ziyi Zhang more or less takes over the picture and that’s totally cool.  She even gets the big pivotal fight scene, which delivers in spades. A haunting and seductive presence, she brings out genuinely Shakespearean dimensions in Gong.

As a martial arts film, Grandmaster offers plenty of show-stopping sequences, clearly and fluidly staged with only a hint of the extreme stylization that marked Wong’s Ashes of Time Redux.  Surprisingly though, the film is as much a lyrical epic of love and yearning.  Indeed, the snowy northern climes and train station settings call to mind Doctor Zhivago more than Enter the Dragon.  Of course, Wong fully understands the power of a passing glance and incidental touch, exquisitely conveying the perverse satisfaction of denial.

The Grandmaster is a very good film that should please genre fans and art house audiences in equal measure.  It is probably the Ziyi Zhang, Tony Leung, and Wong Kar Wai collaboration we have hoped for since 2046. A sensitive but muscular portrait of Bruce Lee’s great master, it is a worthy addition to the Ip Man canon.  Highly recommended, The Grandmaster opens this Friday (8/23) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Floating Island: From the Harbor to the Boardroom

Bo Wah Chuen’s chronicle is somewhat like the flipside of a James Clavell novel.   The adopted son of “Tanka” boat people, Bo would become the first Chinese Taipan of the British Imperial East India Company—sort of.  Issues of identity will hound the Horatio Alger character throughout Yim Ho’s “based on a true story” Floating City (trailer here), which releases on DVD and BluRay today from Well Go USA.

Images of Hong Kong’s hardscrabble harbor community have become iconic, but they always represented the bottom rung of the Crown Colony’s social ladder.  As a mixed race baby adopted by a Tanka family, Bo was the lowest of the low.  His mother was ethnic Chinese.  His father was not.  At the time, Bo’s adoptive parents projected the need for another son to work with his father.  However, his parents proved to be more fertile than the early 1960’s economy.  As a result, several of Bo’s younger siblings are sent to a Christian orphanage while the family struggles to right itself.

Bo’s path to success will not be a straight uphill climb.  He will drop out of elementary school several times, when already a young man of working age.  His fortunes will turn when the East India Company hires him as an office boy.  Yet, even then it will take years for his virtue to be rewarded, as he labors under Dick Callahan, a ridiculously caricatured lout, who oozes racism from every sweaty pore.  Nonetheless, Bo will eventually catch the eye of the last British Taipan and earn the confidence of Fion Hwang, a mover-and-shaker who will tutor him in the particulars of Hong Kong power politics.  It all leads to feelings of increasing inadequacy for his shy Tanka wife Tai, especially the part about the glamorous Hwang.

As the future Taipan, Aaron Kwok does not look the least little bit British, let alone a full half, despite the bizarre red tinting applied to his hair.  Regardless, this just might be the role of career.  Frankly, many who closely follow Asian cinema might be surprised the Cantopop star had it in him.  Even though he is stuck rhetorically asking “who am I?” far too often, he gives a slow burning, fully dimensional performance as the driven outsider of outsiders.  Kwok and Yim walk quite the fine line, never allowing Bo to sellout his self-respect, yet maintaining a distinctly flexible approach to his corporate superiors.

Beyond Kwok, Floating’s ensemble is a mixed bag, leaning more towards the positive side of the ledger.  Both Josie Ho and Nina Paw are quite touching as Bo’s younger and older adoptive mother, respectively.  Annie Liu is also a smart, luminous presence as Hwang, but you have to wonder what kind of expat dive bar they go to in order to recruit western actors like this.  Egads, can’t any of them pull off a simple line reading?

Over the course of the film, Floating anti-British biases get a bit tiresome, but its treatment of Christianity is considerably more nuanced.  In fact, Yim and co-writer Marco Pong clearly suggest it greatly contributes to the perseverance of Bo’s sainted mother. 

Ultimately, comparisons to Clavell are rather apt, considering Floating’s large cast of characters and decades-spanning narrative.  It has its flaws, but Kwok is a far more memorable Taipan than Bryan Brown or Pierce Brosnan (at least the former had Joan Chen’s support).  Many cineastes will forgive the clunky bits, taking satisfaction from HK New Wave veteran Yim’s return to ambitious, large scale filmmaking.  Worth checking out as a rags-to-riches tale with considerable local color, Floating City is now available for home viewing options from Well Go USA.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Savannah: The Sort of True Tall Tale of Ward Allen

Ward Allen was like a grown-up version of Huck Finn.  The heir to one of Savannah’s largest plantations, Allen willingly renounced a life of privilege for a wild and woolly existence supplying fresh game to the city’s markets.  Unfortunately, the march of progress will not heed the angry editorials penned by the “Buffalo Bill of the River” in Annette Haywood-Carter’s Savannah (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Oxford educated Allen had a talent for blasting duck out of the sky.  Christmas Moultrie was a close second.  Savannah’s last child born into bondage, Moultrie had a long history with Allen’s family that evolved into a close camaraderie with Ward.  While this rather puzzles some of Allen’s would-be peers, his open defiance of modern game regulations often leads to more pressing problems with the law.  Despite his roguish carousing, Allen catches the eye of Lucy Stubbs, the headstrong daughter of Savannah’s least amused old money family.

Sadly, Allen was not cut out for the modern world, as viewers can easily deduce from the flashback structure.  Still, he left behind some colorful stories that Moultrie never tires of retelling in his twilight years.  In fact, those anecdotes formed the basis of John “Jack” Eugene Cay Jr.’s Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter, the historical monograph on which Savannah is partly based.  Initially the Cay Family’s guide on river excursions, Moultrie forged a close relationship with the Cays that led to Savannah the film, co-produced and financed by Cay’s son, John.

Considering both Cays appear as characters in the wrap-around segments, it will be tempting for critics to dismiss Savannah as a vanity adaptation of a vanity publication, but there is more to it than that.  Frankly, it is an intriguing example of how tall tales and legends are passed down and codified in the digital age.  The relationship between Moultrie and both Allen and the Cays is also quite touching.  The near total lack of racial tension, aside from a flashback to Moultrie’s childhood, is obviously difficult to buy, but Savannah’s apolitical stance is frankly rather refreshing.

It is also easy to understand why Haywood-Carter was attracted to Allen as a historical and dramatic character.  Temperamentally too much of an anarchist to be considered a Southern Agrarian, Allen’s advocacy of a more natural, less mechanized lifestyle may well resonate with contemporary audiences (who do their hunting and gathering at Whole Foods).

Jim Caviezel is surprisingly charismatic as the reckless, larger than life Allen.  A bit of a departure for the Person of Interest star, he clearly seems to enjoy Allen’s boozing and bombastic Shakespeare quoting.  Hal Holbrooke also appears to be having a ball as Judge Harden, the acerbic jurist who passed the bar and was appointed to the bench only spend most of his career trying Allen for hunting season violations.

Evidently, the circumstances surrounding Allen’s marriage are the best sourced elements of the film, but they are also the dullest.  Nevertheless, Jaimie Alexander plays her with some welcome attitude and backbone.  However, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Moultrie mostly just stands about, looking vaguely pained by Allen’s self-destructive behavior.  On the other hand, he contributes the eerie blues rendition of “Wade in the Water” heard over the final credits.

The American south is often shortchanged by Hollywood films that too often reduce the cultural fertile region to a burning cross.  The reality was much more complicated than that.  At least Haywood-Carter and her co-screenwriter Kenneth F. Carter take a stab at a more balanced portrayal, but the results are certainly mixed.  Mainly recommended for those looking for the PBS Masterpiece Classic version of History Channel’s swamp people reality programming, Savannah opens this Friday (8/23) in New York at the AMC Empire, as well as theaters throughout the southeast.

Claude Miller’s Therese

Thérèse Desqueyroux is not much of a home-maker.  She has servants for that sort of thing.  She is hardly mother of the year either.  She keeps up appearances as a dutiful wife, but she has no love and little respect for her husband.  Yet, embracing the woman of privilege as a feminist icon or a victim of bourgeoisie society is a tricky business.  The infamous protagonist of François Mauriac’s most celebrated novel will confound audiences again in the late Claude Miller’s final film, Thérèse (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

At first, the marriage of Thérèse Larroque and Bernard Desqueyroux makes perfect sense, because of their pines.  It is a way to combine the wooded estates of the two land-holding families.  Despite his wealth, her father is something of a leftwinger, which may have contributed to her contrary nature.  You will not find any of that in the rigidly conventional Desqueyroux family.  Alas, Bernard is a better hunter than a husband, but his newlywed wife seems even less interested in their domestic life together.

It turns out Thérèse’s childhood best friend and now sister-in-law has a more idealistic and melodramatic approach to love.  She has fallen for Jean Azevedo, the son of a wealthy local Jewish merchant.  Obviously, he is quite unacceptable to a family concerned about upholding their social standing.  It falls to the new Madame Desqueyroux to deal with this unwanted to suitor, who turns out to be considerably less serious about her sister-in-law than she is about him.  However, he awakens yearnings in Thérèse that only intensify her resentment of her uncouth husband.

A former protégé of Truffaut, Miller was a master of cinematic ambiguity and Thérèse Desqueyroux is a fitting character to grace his cinematic au revoir.  When she attempts to murder Bernard by manipulating his prescribed arsenic drops, her motivations are not entirely clear.  More boorish than brutish in Miller’s adaptation, he is no longer the abusive savage of Mauriac’s novel, but a rather sympathetic fool.  Clearly, the constraints of polite society rankle Mme. Desqueyroux, but they will remain regardless of her husband’s fate.  We have a clear sense the imp of perverse initially spurred her rash behavior, yet she continues her course of action in a coldly calculated manner.

Audrey Tautou’s icy detachment perfectly suits this Desqueyroux.  She is a tragic enigma, jealously guarding her conflicting thoughts and emotions from everyone around her.  In a bizarre case of dramatic jujitsu, Gilles Lellouche nearly steals the picture as Bernard Desqueyroux, who does his duty and keeps a stiff upper lip, because that is what gentlemen do.  His final scenes with Tautou have a finely wrought air of melancholy that come to define the film overall.

Perhaps Mauriac might have taken issue with Miller’s choices, but his Thérèse is a very good film.  It might appear to be a conventional period piece on the surface (especially without the original flashback structure), but its razor sharp portrayal of the dark complexities of human nature distinguishes it from the field.  Recommended for fans of French cinema and literary adaptations, Thérèse opens this Friday (8/23) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cine-Simenon: The Last Train

Women, children, and the well-to-do sit up front.  Prostitutes, ruffians, and the socially marginalized hunker down in the cattle cars bringing up the rear.  Of course, they were Georges Simenon’s kind of people and they turn out to be more fun to travel with in Pierre Granier-Deferre’s The Last Train, an adaptation of Simenon’s tragic romance set amid WWII evacuation chaos, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ Cine-Simenon retrospective.

Julien Maroyeur is a shy radio repairman in a sleepy French village on the Belgian border. His out-of-his-league wife is probably the only notable thing about him. Given her very pregnant state, they are reluctant to leave home, but news of the advancing German army convinces them.  The nuns find a place for Madame Maroyeur and their young daughter in a respectable compartment, but he will be stuck in the back of the train.  However, along with the dregs of society, he will share his car with the mysterious Anna. 

Initially, the beautiful woman says very little.  The knuckleheads seem to think her accent sounds German, but she seems more anxious than anyone to avoid the National Socialists.  Effectively segregated from his family, Maroyeur takes a protective interest in the woman that quickly evolves into something far deeper.

Considering Simenon’s controversial wartime years, The Train is a bit of an oddity in his oeuvre.  Nonetheless, it is wholly fitting Granier-Deferre, the Simenon specialist, would be represented in Cine-Simenon.  Incorporating archival WWII newsreel footage into the film, he keeps viewers fully cognizant of the wider geopolitical horrors throughout what is admittedly at times a rather melodramatic story.

Indeed, Granier-Deferre vividly captures the strange nature of the flight.  With everyone losing sight of previous responsibilities, it becomes almost a madcap vacation, punctuated by moments of abject terror.  Tellingly Maroyeur himself admits they have all “lost perspective.”

Last Train might have an odd tonal shift here or there, but it is hard to go too far wrong with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider as the not-so secret lovers.  Their chemistry is quite convincing, because it is clearly rooted in their respective characters’ personalities.  The quiet moments shared by the screen legends have affectionate warmth beyond mere erotic heat.

Much like Man on the Eiffel Tower, there are some less than optimal dubbed prints of Last Train in circulation, so it is worth noting AFA will screen it in its original French with English subtitles.  Despite the often jarring editing, it is a good, solid film, offering a unique perspective on the French civilian war experience.  Anchored by the haunting Schneider, The Last Train is recommended for French film connoisseurs when it screens this Tuesday (8/20) and Wednesday (8/21) at Anthology Film Archives.