Thursday, October 31, 2013

Taiwan Film Days ’13: Forever Love

It was known as Hollywood Taiwan and it sure was fun while it lasted. From the mid 1950’s to early 1970’s Taipei’s Beitou District was home to a scrappy Taiwanese Hokkien dialect film industry, until the big Mandarin change-over was mandated from above.  The Beitou Roger Cormans cooked up about a thousand films give or take, but only two hundred have been properly preserved for posterity.  The golden age of Hollywood Taiwan is fondly remembered in Aozaru Shiao & Kitamura Toyoharu’s nostalgic screwball rom-com Forever Love (trailer here), which screens during this year’s edition of the San Francisco Film Society’s Taiwan Film Days.

Liu Chi-sheng was once the busiest screenwriter in Hollywood Taiwan, because scripts needed to be turned out fast. Volume was more important than nuance. Hardly anyone remembers his films anymore, but his granddaughter Hsiao-jin used to have her own private screenings at his now shuttered revival house.  She has come to visit him in the hospital where he is recuperating from an athletic misadventure.  In the mood to reminisce, Liu reveals to her how he came to marry her now Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother, Chiang Mei-yeuh.

It all started with a characteristically goofy James Bond rip-off called Spy No. 7.  When it opens to packed houses in Taipei, Liu’s boss, “Mr. Pig” orders him to write the sequel, Spy No. 7 on Monster Island, once again featuring the lovely but cold Chin Yueh-feng and the arrogant heel, Wan Pao-lung, Hollywood Taiwan’s superstars of the moment.  Like so many young women of her age, Chiang has a massive crush on Wan.  Despite a bad case of stage fright, she has a few advantages over her competition at the poverty row studio’s open casting call.  She has genuine charisma and the right surname.  Liu also takes an interest in her career, even though they start out on awkward terms, as is always the case with rom-coms.

It will be a great romance, culminating in a big tear-jerking finale, because anything else would not be true to Hollywood Taiwan.  Along the way, there are plenty of double takes, miscommunications, and flat out pratfalls in Forever, but the film has a romantic soul. Indeed, Shiao and Kitamura (who also appears as Liu’s hard partying art director crony) make no secret of their affection the old Taiwanese cinema, reveling in its gleeful energy and love for love.

With gloriously silly black-and-white sequences and kiss-me-you-fool fireworks, Forever Love proudly empties its kit-bag for the sake of audience satisfaction. It is a rather endearing antidote for cineaste cynicism, steadfastly avoiding irony in favor of unrepentant romanticism.  Granted, characters rattle all over the film like pinballs, but there are surprisingly touching low key moments too, such as those exploring young Liu’s relationship to the studio’s boozy veteran director and old Liu’s scenes with his granddaughter, a well cast Li Yi-jie, who looks and sounds like the spitting image of her grandmother Chiang in the 1960’s.

Lung Shao-hua brings Herculean dignity to the grumpy old Liu, enlivening the contemporary framing scenes.  Blue Lan is a bit bland as his younger analog, but former pin-up model Amber An is sweetly innocent yet undeniably Betty Boop-ish as the younger Chiang.  As Wan, Edison Wang hams it up like a champ, while Tien Hsin brings a bit of subtly to Chin, the ice queen.

Coincidentally but fittingly, Forever screens as part of Taiwan Film Days just as the former San Francisco International Film Fest selection Golden Slumbers opens in New York at the Anthology Film Archives.  Davy Chou’s documentary is a moving elegy to a lost cultural legacy: the Cambodian cinema almost completely destroyed by Khmer Rouge.  While Forever Love is far more upbeat and sparkly (thanks to Patrick Chou’s bold, candy-colored cinematography), it still wistfully honors the spirit and enterprise of Hollywood Taiwan.  Recommended for those who love old school movie romances and the wonderfully idiosyncratic craftsmen who made them, Forever Love screens Saturday night (11/2) at the Vogue Theatre during the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Aftermath: A Small Hamlet in Poland

It is a fact there were more righteous gentiles from Poland than any other country.  It is also a fact many Polish survivors refused to return to homeland after the war.  There is a certain defensiveness that manifests itself when the Polish Holocaust experience is discussed.  Using the term “Polish concentration camps” is sure to bring objections that these were German death camps they just happened to build in occupied Poland for reasons of logistics.  This is a fair point.  Nonetheless, it was a complicated period of history that Polish cinema has rarely addressed so defiantly forthrightly as writer-director Władysław Pasikowski has with Aftermath (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The fate of Jewish Poles simply was not acknowledged during old regime, so there was no cause to worry about potential consequences for past injustices.  However, this was no longer necessarily the case after the fall of Communism.  Such issues could not be further from Franek Kalina’s thought when he finally returned to the ostensibly sleepy hamlet of his birth.  The elder Kalina brother immigrated on the eve of Martial Law and never looked back, until his sister-in-law unexpectedly arrived in Chicago.  Evidently, something was wrong on the homefront, but her silence forced him to back his long deferred homecoming journey.

It is an awkward reunion to say the least.  His brother Jozek is not especially talkative either, but Kalina eventually discovers why they have been shunned by the town.  His brother has systematically collected the Jewish grave markers the National Socialists had used to pave a local thoroughfare and patch up certain municipal works, erecting a makeshift cemetery in a corner of the family field.  This is not appreciated by their neighbors.  Initially, the Kalinas assume they merely resent the unpleasant memories.  However, the slowly discover the town’s damning hidden history.

For the well educated, Aftermath’s revelations probably do not sound so stunning on paper, but Pasikowski’s slow drip-by-drip revelations are brutally effective.  This is the sort of film where viewers will find themselves surprised to be surprised.  It is a bracing film that pulls no punches, yet there is redemption amid the denial and intolerance it depicts.  In fact, there is something particularly moving about the rough hewn Jozek Kalina, compelled to seek out and restore the headstones out of a humanist impulse he is incapable of verbalizing.

Ireneusz Czop and Maciej Stuhr (the son of actor-director Jerzy Stuhr, renowned for his work with Krzysztof Kieślowski) convincingly look and act like brothers.  Their fraternal rivalry takes on Biblical proportions, yet they clearly convey that instinctive bond.  Aftermath is their shared dominion, but they receive some distinctive support, particularly from Danuta Szaflarska and Maria Garbowska, as elderly villagers who perhaps partly know the dark truths the Kalina Brothers seek.

Considering the great Andrzej Wajda (who co-wrote Katyn with Pasikowski) has heartily endorsed Aftermath, it should not be considered anti-Polish by any stretch. It is a tough, uncompromising film, but a little bit of soul-searching is a healthy exercise.  In America, agonizing over our past sins is practically a national pastime.  In contrast, European nations seem far more inclined to consign less than edifying historical episodes to the collective memory hole. There probably ought to be a happier medium.  Aftermath absolutely does its part in that regard. Despite a ragged dramatic edge here or there, it is viscerally powerful as a whole.  Recommended for those who appreciate outspoken contemporary dramas with a keen sense of history, Aftermath opens this Friday (11/1) in New York at the Cinema Village.

Running from Crazy: The Hemingways

If when asked who is the most interesting member of the Hemingway family you automatically reply “Mariel” then you must be either Barbara Kopple or Oprah Winfrey. Granted, she was terrific in Manhattan and has dealt with more family heartbreak than anyone should ever have to face.  However, Kopple proves her larger than life grandfather Ernest and tragic sister Margaux are far more compelling figures in the self-helpy documentary Running from Crazy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York, via the OWN documentary distribution arm.

Seven members of Hemingway’s family committed suicide.  Mariel Hemingway never knew her grandfather, but she always had an extremely complicated relationship with Margaux, the middle sister.  Probably the film’s strongest sequences chart Margaux Hemingway’s spectacular rise to fame as a supermodel and her frustrations with an acting career that never really took off.  Her big break was supposed to be Lipstick, in which she had Mariel fittingly cast as her as her younger sister.  When the film came out, all the good notices went to one sister and the bad notices went to the other.

Frankly, if you were not old enough to remember the Studio 54 era, most of the footage of Margaux as a media sensation will come as a revelation.  In contrast, all we get of Papa is the same old stock footage.  There is plenty of Mariel though.  Kopple follows her to benefits and awareness marches, as part of her ongoing efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and support those who have also lost loved ones to suicide.  Such dedication is admirable, but it does not make great cinema.

Beyond her well intentioned outreach, Running includes far too much self-actualizing mumbo jumbo.  In fact, Hemingway and her partner Bobby Williams seem to have some sort of New Age lifestyle joint venture, but it is impossible to tell what exactly they are selling, even though we hear plenty of his pitch.

If nothing else, Running will convince viewers under no circumstances would they want to take a rock-climbing road trip with Hemingway and Williams. It would be better to be the dude in 127 Hours.  There is absolutely no reason to force viewers to sit through all their bickering and bantering, but Kopple does so anyway.

Still, the archival scenes of Margaux Hemingway, including footage she shot for a prospective documentary on her grandfather, are truly compelling.  Especially haunting are the interviews she granted ostensibly to trumpet her successful rehab efforts, but look so clearly like cries for help in retrospect.  Mariel Hemingway kind of admits she missed the warning signs, but Kopple never pushes her on this or any other issue.  As a result, the film often has the vibe of an infomercial for group hugs. 

There are moments to Kopple’s starry-eyed film, but it is a disappointment by most cinematic and journalistic standards.  Not recommended in theaters, interested readers should note Running from Crazy will air on OWN next year, which is where it belongs.  Regardless, it opens this Friday (11/1) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Taiwan Film Days ’13: Apolitical Romance

She takes her cue from government propaganda, whereas he takes inspiration from Gundam.  Advantage: his.  They will bicker constantly as a mutual attraction slowly but steadily develops in Hsieh Chun-yi’s cross-border rom-com Apolitcal Romance (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Taiwan Film Days.

Like any self-respecting slacker, Chen Yu-zheng (a.k.a. A-Zheng) took a government job.  Normally, it is not terribly demanding, but his boss is on his case over a report on various differences of etiquette for the mainland and Taiwan.  He has a week to fix it, but he has no clue when it comes to the PRC.  As fate would dictate, Qin Lang is in Taipei for a week, hoping to track down Chen Guang, her grandmother Li Huan’s fondly remembered lover from sixty years back.  They will sort of come to an arrangement.

Loud and argumentative, Qin Lang will not get very far on her own, but Chen was born to navigate Taiwan’s bureaucracy.  Before you can say “red tape” he has a list of Nationalist veterans born in Li Huan’s home province.  As they follow-up each lead, the sparks start to fly, but never past a certain point.  Apolitical is all about possibilities rather than consummations.  By rom-com standards, Hsieh’s film is wildly ambiguous, but that is its real charm.  We cannot even say definitely whether they ever will be a proper couple, but they clearly are in each other’s heads.

Apolitical also offers a fascinating look into the perceived differences between the Republic and mainland China, presenting the Beijinger as reflexively jingoistic and the Taiwanese Chen as a meek geek.  However, Hsieh never really delves into specific ideological differences.  Instead, he aims for nostalgic romanticism with every story of separated love Chen and Qin Ling hear in their quest for Chen Guang.

Bryan Chang and Huang Lu are ridiculously attractive would-be maybe lovers, but they never get too cute or cloying.  They get some rather sensitive support from many of the Chen Guangs, particularly Chien Te-men as number four.  Not surprisingly, there is an episodic quality to the film that mostly works quite well, but Hsieh pushes his luck with a flawed subplot involving Qin Ling’s former lover.  In contrast, Chen’s visit to his disgraced father packs some quiet power precisely because it is not over written or over played.

Apolitical is never as achingly emotional as Hsieh’s exquisitely poignant short Braid, but its restraint is a virtue.  It is a rom-com, more or less, but it is also a wistful commentary on the absurdly arbitrary things that separate people, like borders, ideologies, and health exchanges.  Recommended for those who prefer curve ball movie romances rather than a happily-ever-after fastball over the plate, Apolitical Romance screens this Sunday (11/3) at the Vogue Theatre as part of this year’s installment of the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

These Birds Walk: Edhi’s Kids

A man from humble roots, Abdul Sattar Edhi is not just Pakistan’s greatest philanthropist and humanitarian, he is pretty much the only one.  He is also ninety years old and deeply concerned about the future of those who rely on his network of orphanages, shelters, and hospitals.  We meet one of his young wards up-close-and-personal and come to know one of his employees to a lesser extent in Omar Mullick & Bassam Tariq’s ruminative documentary These Birds Walk (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Omar is ten-ish and a frightful handful, but he has never experienced the support that comes from a loving home.  The closest thing he knows is the relative safe haven of his Edhi orphanage.  Frankly, adult supervision appears rather lacking here as well, but it beats the streets.  Omar asserts himself through bullying, because it is the only defense mechanism he has. 

Asad sort of understands this.  He was once in Omar’s place.  Now he is one of the many drivers working for the Edhi Foundation.  It is his job to return children to their parents when the Foundation finally has enough of them.  He usually does not see tears of joy from anyone during these runs.  Nonetheless, he often risks his life, venturing into Taliban-controlled territory.

Birds is a short film, but it is dominated by long, slow, impressionistic sequences, punctuated by jarring depictions of abject neglect and disregard for Pakistan’s cast-off children, so pick your poison. What viewers witness is often shocking, but Mullick & Tariq never ask how things got this way.  

More to the point, why is it Edhi has so little competition—or so the audience is clearly led to believe. In terms of religion, Pakistan is a remarkably homogenous country and it is not without its privileged class, but Mullick & Tariq avoid the obvious question like the third rail.  Frankly, their strictly observational approach seems to be a deliberate strategy to evade such awkward issues.  Still, the fact their documentary starts and ends with Edhi and his concerns regarding impending mortality speaks volumes.  After all, he was pushing thirty by the time of the Partition.

Mullick & Tariq capture some striking images, but more often than not, they serve to fetishize the extreme poverty of its subjects.  Birds convinces us Pakistani children face a grim reality, but then what?  Well intentioned perhaps, but hollow inside, These Birds Walk opens this Friday (11/1) in New York at Village East.

Taiwan Film Days ’13: Soul

Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas all labored to define the soul.  Unfortunately, their scholarship will be of little practical use to Old Wang.  Rather instinctively, he protects his son A-chuan’s body, so it will be available for his soul to re-enter.  Just who or what is currently inhabiting that vessel is one of the great mysteries of Chung Mong-hong’s Soul (trailer here), which screens during this year’s edition of the San Francisco Film Society’s Taiwan Film Days.

A-chuan works as an assistant cook in a Taipei sushi restaurant—or at least he did until he passed out at work.  With the help of two co-workers, his sister Hsiao Yun shuttles him back to their father’s rustic mountain home, where the old man raises orchids and apples.  Beyond mere sickness, A-chuan does not seem to be himself.  Suspecting something is profoundly wrong, Hsiao Yun starts to raise her reservations to Old Wang, only to be murdered by A-chuan (or rather A-chuan’s body) shortly thereafter.

At this point, Old Wang springs into full cover-up mood, locking A-chuan (or whoever) into his utility shed.  Soon he and the whatever are speaking openly of the situation.  Supposedly he/it moved in when A-chuan temporarily vacated his body. He cannot really say why A-chuan left, but Old Wang eventually concludes it all has something to do with some painful family history.  Regardless, he is willing to dispatch whomever he must to keep this incident under wraps.

Is he protecting A-chuan’s bodily interests or the new soul, whom he comes to know rather well? That is one of the rich ambiguities of Soul.  It features a good deal of traditional genre trappings and a massively atmospheric setting, but it is hard to define it in pat terms. However, all cult film fans need to know is Jimmy Wong of One-Armed Swordsman fame stars as the conflicted Old Wang.

Wong perfectly matches the film’s subtly and understatement, keeping the audience completely off-balance yet totally invested in the domestic horrors his character is caught up in. Likewise, Joseph Chang’s quiet turn as A-chuan (and his possessor) stealthily sneaks up on you.  Vincent Liang also thoroughly subverts and surpasses expectations as Little Wu, A-chuan’s former schoolmate now working as put-upon patrolman.

Soul is an unflaggingly naturalistic yet unusually philosophical film.  Taut rather than terrifying, Chung maintains a pace that is patient but never pokey.  Serving as his own cinematographer under the open pseudonym of Nakashima Nagao, he captures some striking images of the dark, verdant woods, creating a vivid sense of place.

It is an accomplished film and a timely selection, given the fact Taiwan has officially chosen it as its Foreign Language Oscar submission.  On paper it does not sound like a good fit for the Academy’s tastes and preferences, but who knows?  Frankly, Soul could be thought as the sort of film Uncle Boonmee was supposed to be but fell short of.  Eerie and engrossing, Soul is recommended for fans of headier genre fare when it screens this Saturday (11/2) at the Vogue Theatre as part of the SFFS’s Taiwan Film Days.

Antigone 34: Anne Le Nen Takes Care of Business

Hard charging police captain Léa Hippolyte is not inclined to talk to the department’s resident psychologist, but she might be one of the few colleagues she can trust. Dr. Victor Carlier is a different story.  Hippolyte opens distrusts the ex-con, but she cannot ignore the suspicious circumstances surrounding his daughter’s murder.  It is a case Hippolyte will indirectly pursue throughout the French television series Antigone 34 (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from MHz networks.

Dr. Hélène de Soyère has just cleared Hippolyte to return to work following the suicide of her former partner.  It was an inexplicable tragedy her rival, the reptilian Perez, uses to undermine her standing among their colleagues.  Teaming up with the youthful Ravel, Hippolyte is called to the city’s medical college, where an attractive student has been killed in a hazing incident.  During the course of the official investigation, it is determined Mademoiselle Carlier was actually an inadvertent victim of a drug-related misadventure.  However, her recently released father turns up evidence of a wider conspiracy, involving the very same people who framed him for his wife’s murder.  Hippolyte is receptive to his claims, up to a point.

During the subsequent five episodes, Hippolyte works cases that are not directly related to the Carlier murders, but precipitate developments in the series-driving investigation.  Antigone 34 (sort of Montepellier’s equivalent of One Police Plaza) favors procedural grit over cleverly constructed mystery puzzles, but it is a well written show, deftly teasing out character development and revelations in the wider plot through the course of each episode’s casework.

The three cast members featured in the opening credits are all quite strong, but Anne Le Nen is truly the star.  A real life, fully certified Krav Maga instructor, she brings genuine street cred to her action scenes. Frankly, Antigone does not capitalize on her chops enough.  In the future, they ought to allow her to choreograph a few extended hand-to-hand sequences.  Regardless, her mature but sultry presence further distinguishes Antigone’s straight dramatic moments.

As the tightly wound Carlier, Bruno Todeschini (recognizable to some as Audrey Tatou’s inappropriate boss in Delicacy) broods quite nicely.  Of the primary trio, Claire Borotra probably gets the least to do episode-by-episode, but at least her de Soyère is convincingly smart and sensitive.  However, it is Bruno López who makes the strongest impression, following Le Nen.  If ever anyone just looked like a corrupt cop, it would be him.  As Perez, he serves as an effectively slimy foil to Hippolyte.

Although the DVD box says it is the “complete series,” mystery viewers will hope there is more Antigone 34 to come.  Episode six delivers some satisfaction for those who have invested in the Carlier case, but it is clear there is plenty of work left for Hippolyte.  It is a stylish series that capitalizes on the picturesque Montepellier locations, which are hardly over-exposed for American audiences. An entertaining showcase for the city and Le Nen, Antigone 34 is enthusiastically recommended for cop show fans when it releases today on DVD from MHz Networks, the international crime drama specialists.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Blood and Ties: Her Father’s Voice

The so-called “Hwaseong Murders” were South Korea’s first recorded serial killings, but the statute of limitations expired before the murderer was uncovered.  The case’s impact can still be discerned in Korean cinema’s fascination with serial killers and the ticking prosecutorial clock.  Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder was transparently based on the Hwaseong killings and it is easy to see its influence on Jung Byoung-gil's Confession of Murder.  The notorious crimes also directly inspired Kook Dong-seok’s Blood and Ties (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Jung Da-eun’s working class father Soon-man never had much, but he made sure she never lacked for anything. Now a grown adult, she still lives at home with the ever dedicated single parent. All her grad school friends adore dear old dad too, but after watching a lurid new documentary, they cannot help noticing how similar his voice sounds to that of a notorious child abductor.  The unknown perpetrator was only recorded during a brief ransom call, but he even uses one the senior Jung’s favorite catch phrases.

Thoroughly confused and suspicious, Jung’s daughter starts poking around. The sudden appearance of Shim Yoon-young further amplifies her anxiety.  He is obviously an unsavory character, but seems to share some murky history with her father.  As the media trumpets the imminent expiration of the statute of limitations, Jung Da-eun struggles with her doubts and loyalties.

B&T is a wicked high concept thriller with ample opportunity for high tragedy, but it does not guard its secret closely enough.  The set-up is downright sinister and the top-shelf primary cast maintains the intensity, but viewers will always have a pretty good idea where it is all headed.

Son Ye-jin comes apart at the emotional seams quite convincingly as Da-eun, but it is Kim Kap-soo who commands the film as her father.  Somehow he projects steely malevolence and pained sensitivity simultaneously, thereby providing both sides of his character’s Rorschach.  Without Kim’s perfectly modulated performance, B&T would not work to any extent.  While the supporting cast is mostly adequate, Lim Hyung-joon is also distinctly slimy as the all kinds of bad news Shim.

Based on a story by Kook’s mentor, filmmaker Park Jin-pyo, B&T taps into some deep-seated anxieties, but it is driven by the work of Kim, Son, and Li.  Recommended for thriller fans looking for a blend of Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson, Blood and Ties opens this Friday (11/1) at the CGV Theater in Los Angeles and next Friday (11/8) at AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing, Queens.

Man of Tai Chi: Keanu Reeves and Tiger Chen Show Their Chops

It was Tiger Chen who really knew kung fu.  He was the stuntman responsible for Keanu Reeves’ martial arts training during the production of the Matrix trilogy and he made quite an impression.  For his directorial debut, Reeves introduces Chen to the world with his old school beatdown, Man of Tai Chi (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

“Tiger” Chen Lin-hu is the last student of Master Yang, a great Ling Kong Tai Chi teacher.  In contemporary Beijing, Tai Chi is mostly associated with old men doing their “soft” qigong in the park.  However, Chen is starting to get noticed in the above board MMA world for his traditional “hard” practice of the ancient discipline.  He also catches the eye of the shadowy Donaka Mark.  When shady developers conveniently threaten to condemn his master’s temple, the lowly deliveryman becomes easy prey for Mark’s overtures. 

Initially, Chen truly does not understand what he is getting involved in.  However, as he notches victories in Mark’s underground fight circuit, Chen starts to enjoy the money and adrenaline.  Unfortunately, the matches make him more aggressive, jeopardizing his relationships with his master and Qingsha, the cute-as-a-button paralegal helping him save the temple. Nonetheless, he cannot help noticing the stakes escalate with each bout. 

Hong Kong police captain Sun Jing-si knows where it all leads: fights to the death broadcast over secure online connections for Mark’s exclusive clientele.  Always a step behind the malevolent mastermind, she needs an informant to take the place of the one Mark just killed, someone like Chen, if she can find him.

With Tai Chi, Reeves had the good sense to make a film he would enjoy for his maiden directorial outing.  Frankly, he shows serious action helmer chops, staging fight sequences that are crystal clear and easy to follow.  There are no barrages of close-ups here.  Reeves gives us the full Fred Astaire body shots, precisely so we can appreciate the technique of his main man, Chen.

The results are convincing.  While Tai Chi is not the most original narrative under the sun, it deliberately harkens back to the gritty low budgets classics that launched the careers of legends.  Chen maybe is not the most expressive actor you will ever see (after all, Reeves is his thesp-mentor), but his earnest gee-whiz persona works well in the context of the film.  Oddly enough, Reeves is a bit of a surprise here, making a dynamite villain with his piercing stare and apparently insatiable appetite for the scenery around him.

Karen Mok is also seriously hardnosed as Sun, bringing real supporting heft to the film.  Simon Yam adds further HK action cred as Superintendent Wong, her suspiciously unhelpful superior.  Qing Ye is not exactly a natural on-screen either, but she still represents Chen’s lost innocence rather effectively.  Yet for genre fans, nobody tops Shaolin veteran Yu Hai, doing his thing with stately gravitas as Master Yang.  Bizarrely though, The Raid’s Iko Uwais is completely wasted in a mere tease of a cameo.

Reeves might not be Clint Eastwood’s successor as the next great actor-director, but Tai Chi is a pretty slick calling card.  If need be, he should easily find a second career as a straight-to-DVD action director, which is considerably higher praise than it sounds (those cats actually have to be good).  Likewise, Chen might not be the next Daniel Day-Lewis, but watching him kicking butt is hugely entertaining.  Way better than you think, Man of Tai Chi is recommended for martial arts fans and Karen Mok admirers when it opens this Friday (11/1) in New York.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Skinwalker Ranch: Strange Things Happen in Utah

It is an area notorious for weird happenings, but this is northern Utah, so they can’t be blamed on drunken misperceptions.  In fact, a private paranormal research team could probably use a stiff shot when things start going bump in the night in Devin McGinn’s Skinwalker Ranch (trailer here), which launches on VOD and screens in select cities this Wednesday.

Some locals believe the home video purportedly showing a young boy whisked away by supernatural forces is legitimate, while some suspect it is a hoax concocted by his father. Desperate to find his son, distraught rancher Hoyt Miller welcomes a team of scientists from Modern Defense Enterprises and a journalist recruited to serve as a neutral observer, hoping they can supply some answers.  They wire the house and surrounding property with motion sensor cameras and settle in, but they will not have long to wait.  An unearthly high pitched tone rudely awakens them their first night in the field, with subsequent uncanny events preventing them from getting much sleep thereafter.

Although not entirely found footage, a great deal of Skinwalker unfolds from the perspective of the surveillance cameras.  By genre standards, McGinn shows admirable patience in the early going, nicely setting the scene and establishing the ranch’s atmospheric nooks and crannies.  For a while, it is surprisingly creepy, thanks to his skillful use of suggestion and mystery to build the tension.  Unfortunately, the conclusion seems rather rushed, but with horror movies, a good set-up often compensates for a weak ending.

Although the helmer directing himself is usually a red flag, McGinn is actually quite respectable as Cameron Murphy, the semi-skeptical journalist.  Jon Gries is also better than average as the poor, suffering Miller. Frankly, Skinwalker earns a recommendation just for casting the eternally cool Michael Horse (a cult favorite from Twin Peaks) as Ahote, a vaguely shaman-esque figure who offers the helpful advice to get the good golly out of there.

Skinwalker’s fusion of the horror and alien abduction genres is hardly original, but the execution exceeds expectations.  After all, for a low budget programmer, not bad is pretty good.  Recommended for a Halloween outing with like-minded viewers, Skinwalker Ranch screens this Wednesday (10/30), Devil’s Night, in theaters throughout Texas, Florida, and Alabama.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Seduced and Abandoned: James Toback and Alec Baldwin Want Money

Alec Baldwin loves making movies so much, he is now a boring talk show host.  Perhaps this was the last hurrah for the star of Rock of Ages. He and director James Toback hit the Cannes Film Market hard in search of financing for a prospective indie production, simultaneously filming a documentary of their cold calling, at least guaranteeing they would not leave empty-handed.  There is plenty of pitching but not a lot of closing in Toback’s Seduced and Abandoned (trailer here), which airs on HBO this coming Monday.

The idea is to remake Last Tango in Paris in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam.  Baldwin will play the Brando role, re-conceived as a rightwing military advisor and Neve Campbell will step into the Maria Schneider part, transformed into a leftwing journalist.  Campbell cannot make the trip to Cannes, but Baldwin and Toback assure her they would never make the film without her.  However, they do not make it past their second pitch session before they start throwing her under the bus.  They still love Neve, but maybe she can play the maid who comes to change their sheets.

Before long, they are also pitching actresses like Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, and Bérénice Bejo along with prominent sales agents and the assorted eccentric millionaires.  Of course, Last Tango in Tikrit sounds so gob-smackingly un-commercial we almost have to wonder if it is all an extended Borat gag, except Baldwin and Toback take themselves so seriously.  On behalf of the nation’s film critics, I would like to thank the Cannes financiers for not stampeding to fund what sounds like a Frankenstein combination of The Canyons and The Green Zone.

Of course, in addition to the market, there is also a film festival going in Cannes, allowing the fundraising duo an opportunity to talk to some world cinema’s leading lights.  Since S & A is a documentary about the movies, Martin Scorsese duly sits for an interview.  Perhaps the best sequence involves a sit-down with Bernardo Bertolucci in a hotel suite named in his honor, at which time the Tango auteur gives them his blessing for their pseudo-remake.  Among the many other big name participants, James Caan has some particularly colorful things to say about the industry. 

If you want to hear Toback and Baldwin kvetch than brother, this is the film is for you.  If only they were as funny as they think they are.  Toback captures some amusing inside baseball moments at Cannes and he incorporates some cleverly selected film clips, but Todd McCarthy’s Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema delivers far more behind the scenes details. Harmless but conspicuously self-absorbed, Seduced and Abandoned airs this coming Monday (10/28) on HBO.

Friday, October 25, 2013

War of the Worlds: The Night Orson Welles Scared the Attitude Out of New Jersey

Prior to October 30, 1938, Orson Welles was considered a talent to watch, but his Mercury Theater on the Air did not have a proper sponsor and it regularly got beat by a variety show featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummy Charlie McCarthy (it was a great act for radio, because you truly couldn’t see his lips move).  Then Welles staged an innovative adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic and suddenly everything changed.  American Experience marks the 75th anniversary of Welles’ controversial broadcast with War of the Worlds (promo here), which airs this coming Tuesday on most PBS stations.

Welles was already a cottage industry before he transplanted War of the Worlds to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.  Best known as a stage director, he frequently performed on radio, often without credit. The media and the smart set closely followed his career, but he had yet to breakthrough with Middle America.  For his weekly radio showcase, Welles had a notion to adapt the Martian invasion novel.  Producer-adult supervisor John Houseman thought it was a terrible idea, but Welles had his way as usual.  However, the script just didn’t come together until they decided to stage it as a series of breaking news bulletins.  This was not a completely original strategy.  It was inspired by Archibald MacLeish’s radio play Air Raid, which had just aired with much less fanfare.

According to American Experience’s historical experts, most listeners missed Welles’ introduction, dial-twisting over to the Mercury Theater once Bergen had finished his shtick.  As most everyone knows, a mild panic then ensued.  All the talking heads try their best to excuse away the mass hysteria, arguing the stress of the Depression and the constant news flashes trumpeting European war left the general public primed to believe Welles’ Americanized War of the Worlds.  Maybe there is a kernel truth to that, but that would have been one heck of an exclusive for CBS to score.

Just about everyone now recognizes Welles as one of the most important film directors of the Twentieth Century, but AE’s WOTW reminds us he was also probably one of the greatest radio directors as well.  Director Cathleen O’Connell and tele-writer Michelle Ferrari include some fascinating behind-the-scenes details of the in/famous broadcast, but the black-and-white dramatic recreations of angry listeners’ letters of complaint are rather corny and just generally unnecessary.

Arguably, Welles’ fictionalized news flashes represent an early forerunner to found footage genre films, in which a carefully produced narrative deliberately approximates some form of on-the-fly documentation.  O’Connell and her battery of experts, including Welles’ daughter Chris Welles Feder, nicely put the episode in the context of Welles’ career and the development of mass media.  Easily recommended for fans of Welles and Wells despite the over-stylized recreation interludes, American Experience’s War of the Worlds premieres on PBS Tuesday the 29th (10/29), seventy-five years after the fateful broadcast, nearly to the day.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Toad Road: Hell Tripping

It seems like there are so many gateways to Hell, people must be accidentally dropping in all the time.  There is that stairway in Stull, Kansas, the portal in Amityville, and a Hellmouth in Cleveland (according to Buffy).  Supposedly, the Seven Gates of Hell are also located in York County, Pennsylvania, outside Hellam Township, logically enough.  A slacker and his formerly together girlfriend will get really high and head out in search of the urban legend in Jason Banker’s Toad Road (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It is hard to understand why Sara, the studious college student, is attracted to the seriously under-achieving James, especially when the audience first spies him.  When he passes out dead drunk, his so-called friends commence with the sort of fun and games we really do not need to see. Nonetheless, James somehow seduces her into his world of hardcore drug use and chronic irresponsibility.  One pleasant summer day, they set out to find their kicks on Toad Road, the mythical forest byway that reportedly leads to the Seven Gates.  That sounds like a great idea, provided they drop acid first.

Naturally, things get a bit confused as they stagger about the woods.  Eventually, James comes to, shivering in snow.  While it only seems like a few hours have passed, James learns he and Sara have been missing for six months and he is now the primary suspect in her disappearance.

Although Toad is billed as a horror movie, the most terrifying aspect of the film is the state of the current twenty-nothing generation.  In all honesty, Banker really is not going for traditional genre scares.  He is more interested in the druggy, mind-trip he tries to approximate on-screen.  Indeed, watching Toad gives the sensation of some rather nasty chemical side-effects.  Still, his use of the Seven Gates mythos is metaphysically unsettling and frankly quite smart.  Toad actually becomes scarier as the memory unpacks it over time.  Unfortunately, many of the interpersonal scenes of James and his cronies serve as a vivid reminder of how annoying mumblecore can get.

Toad is almost guaranteed to inspire a strange cult following, especially in light of the tragic loss of lead actress Sara Anne Jones at the terribly young age of twenty-four.  Banker’s aesthetic choices are so hallucinatory it makes it difficult to thoroughly judge the film’s performances, but Jones had a real presence and never wilted amid his surreal excesses.

Banker and his co-cinematographers, Jack McVey and Jorge Torres-Torres give the picture a distinctive look that is eerily otherworldly yet still bleak and depressing.  This is the work of a zero-budget auteur, but it does not add up to very much fun.  Intriguing and maddening in equal measure, Toad Road is recommended for the most adventurous ten percent of cult film fandom’s bell curve.  It opens tomorrow (10/25) in New York at the Cinema Village.

KAFFNY ’13: The Girl from the South

It was mostly guys with a whole lot of facial hair.  In frat house parlance, the final Soviet-funded World Youth and Students Festival was a real sausage party.  For obvious reasons, the South Korean delegate made quite an impression on José Luis García.  Since the 1989 Communist youth confab was held in Pyongyang, Lim Sukyung became a minor media sensation.  Decades later, García tracked down the so-called “Flower of Re-Unification” for the documentary profile, The Girl from the South (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Korean American Film Festival in New York.

García happened to be in Pyongyang by chance, taking his brother’s place in the Argentine delegation at the last minute.  To his credit, García was quite curious how the Communist youth congress would address the still fresh massacre in Tiananmen Square.  The answer—stony silence, aside from an impromptu punk rock protest from the Scandinavians—was rather unsatisfying.  Then Lim blew into town, ready to decry South Korea’s restrictions on contact with the North at every public gathering.  Fascinated by her, García recorded as many of her appearances as he could with his consumer video camera.  After all, she was one of the few delegates not trying to look like Che.

Loaded with irony, García’s home movies of the Pyongyang get-down are easily the best part of the film.  Frankly, it isn’t even close.  Although García suggests he was more-or-less apolitical in his youth, he captures all the absurdity and pretension of international Communism’s last gasp before crashing into the dustbin of history.  One can easily see how this material could be reworked into a wickedly satirical narrative feature.

Unfortunately, the Lim he meets some twenty years later is not particularly interesting to spend time with and decidedly uncooperative.  Evidently, Lim served a short prison term after returning to the Republic of Korea and would subsequently suffer a terrible family tragedy, but she never opens up to García about anything.  As a result, the film’s second two acts are about as illuminating as a wiki entry.

Granted, GFTS presents a sharp contrast between idealized memories and the disappointments of reality, but that does not exactly make gripping viewing.  García never pushes Lim with obvious questions regarding North Korea famines and labor camps, but he never really succeeded in getting her to sit for a proper interview.  Thanks to her overt manipulations, his climatic one-on-one quickly descends into an exercise in futility.  García practically bangs his head on the table out of frustration and most viewers will be tempted to do the same.

Of course, there is no corresponding “Girl from the North,” because anyone returning to the DPRK after publically criticizing the country’s militarism would be consigned to a death, along with their entire family.  García probably gets that, but he was too hung up on getting something—anything—from Lim.  Girl from the South has some fascinating moments, but they are largely front-loaded.  Mainly recommended for hard-core North Korea watchers, it screens this Saturday (10/26) at the Village East as part of this year’s KAFFNY.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

KAFFNY ’13: Pluto

Forget about secret society rituals.  These elite prep school kids are too busy keeping their classmates down.  They are the top ten in their class and they will kill to keep it that way throughout Shin Su-won’s Pluto (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Korean American Film Festival in New York.

Kim June was the top student in his public high school, but that does not impress anyone in his new school, particularly not his American roommate, Yu-jin Taylor, the top man in their class.  Supposedly, this is his big opportunity.  He was only admitted because a suicide opened up space for him.  That was Yung Su-jin’s roommate.  Now the slacker computer major is out to settle the score with the ruling elite.  Kim sort of likes her, but the working class transfer student opts to curry favor with the privileged ten instead. 

As part of their “rabbit hunting” initiations, Kim does their dirty work in exchange for inside information on approaching exams.  Naturally, Taylor and his cronies clearly have no intention of letting him into the club.  However, as viewers can readily glean from the film’s complicated flashback structure, it is a very bad idea to play mind games with someone as tightly wound as Kim.

While Pluto’s class warfare themes are obvious and inescapable, Shin’s uncompromising screenplay surpasses mere polemics, portraying the sociopathic will-to-power at its rawest.  This is not the sort of film that will have anyone saying “so there” when it ends.  Kim might be our protagonist, but he is not an exactly a downtrodden POV character audiences would like to identify with.  Surprisingly, his nemesis Taylor turns out to be the most nuanced of the lot.  Of course, his cronies do not much care for his sudden subtle dimensions of character.

Pluto boasts some considerable star-power, thanks to Kim Kkobbi appearing as Yung, a relatively modest but intriguing supporting role.  Lee Da-wit is eerily soulless and desperate as the hollow-looking Kim.  Yet, it is June Sung who really keeps viewers off-balance as the not exactly remorseful Taylor.

Many of the sins of prep school dramas past repeat again in Pluto.  As if required by an unwritten law, all the adults are ridiculously dense and the cops are problematically passive.  Still, Shin raises the stakes for all future prep students behaving badly, making a film like Tanner Hall look tame and pale in comparison.  Despite some clumsy excesses, it is mesmerizing in-your-face filmmaking. Recommended for the reasonably jaded, Pluto screens this Friday (10/25) at the Village East as part of this year’s KAFFNY.

KAFFNY ’13: End of the World (short)

The universe should be a mysterious place for kids, but in a rewarding way.  One middle school-ish boy is encouraged to analyze it through science, while the girl he is fast developing a crush on relates to the cosmos through her family’s apocalyptic Christianity.  They are both charming youngsters, so it is a pity they are stuck in such a too-cool-for-school slam on Evangelicals.  It is exactly what you think, but the co-leads bring energy and credibility to Willem Lee’s short film, End of the World, which screens during the 2013 Korean American Film Festival in New York.

Sokmok Lee wears a suit to school every day, even though it isn’t required.  Science has always been his thing.  Relating to his parents is always difficult, but he had a special relationship with his recently deceased grandmother.  When Eunyi Suk distributes her hand-made religious tracts in school, he most definitely notices.  She would be a cool kid with a rebellious streak, were she not caught up in her parents’ Harold Camping brand of end-of-the-world religion.

Lee gets rather attached to Suk in their brief time together, but she makes it clear they have no future together because the world has no future.  While she maintains outward appearances at school, she informs him her family will soon be leaving, in anticipation of the rapture.

End perfectly captures the crummy feelings of helplessness we all had when our childhood friends were forced to move away due to the arbitrary circumstances of their parents’ lives.  Of course, it was considerably worse when it was a kind of sort of girlfriend.  The performances of Ryan Kim and Stephanie Shen are beyond winning as Lee and Suk, respectively.  Never precious, they are serious young people who command our respect and attention as they develop some genuinely touching screen chemistry together.  Unfortunately, it all comes wrapped in a cheap shot directed at Evangelicals.

End is definitely worth seeing for the assured work of its young co-leads.  Viewers should tune-out the biases and concentrate on them.  Recommended with the given reservations, End of the World screens tomorrow (10/24) as part of KAFFNY’s shorts competition at the Village East Cinemas.

Blue is the Warmest Color: the Palme D’Or Winner Revealed

If nothing else, this graphic novel adaptation shows how far the comic medium has matured. As most festival followers already know, this French coming of age story is strictly for adults.  There will be no cut-aways to drapes billowing in the wind during Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Fifteen year-old Adèle dreams of romantic fulfillment, but cannot find it with her high school classmates.  The big man on campus just does not do it for her.  A lesbian fling is more promising, but the lack of emotional reciprocity turns somemwhat embarrassing for her.  Nursing feelings of alienation, she resolves to find the punky blue-haired college art student who turned her head.  At first, Emma approaches her with caution, but they soon embark on a torrid sexual relationship that the audience witnesses in vivid detail.

Presumably there is an element of mutual support to their time spent together, but Kechiche focuses on the sex and the betrayal.  At one point we are told Adèle means “justice” in Arabic as if that held earth-shaking significance, but it would be just as relevant to learn it meant “do the locomotion” in Inuit.  This is essentially an apolitical film, because the only opposition to their relationship comes from their own efforts to sabotage it.

Blue has its biting moments, especially when it asks whether infidelity is more or less hurtful when committed with a straight man.  Likewise, it offers a provocative portrait of the borderline exploitive artist, with a constant need for newer and more stimulating lovers.  Yet, Kechiche’s editorial choices guarantee the film will be defined by its sexual content.

Reportedly, Kechiche refused to choreograph to sex scenes, but everyone seems to know what they are doing and where to put the camera to get the best angle on it.  If everyone is improvising then they are doing it on a jazz musician’s level.  There is an awful lot of it, regardless.  That is not prudery speaking.  It is only natural to look for someplace to cut a three hour movie.  Any film clocking it at one hundred seventy nine minutes should burn Atlanta and storm the Czar’s Winter Palace.  Yet, Blue simply follows the rise and fall of relationship, with a third act denouement dedicated to regrets.

Blue’s two co-leads are certainly bold, exposing everything for Kechiche’s camera.  Léa Seydoux is hugely charismatic and seductive as Emma, even when sporting a ridiculous blue hair color that would be more appropriate to a Florida retirement home.  However, Adèle Exarchopoulos is so young and immature looking as her namesake, it adds an additional level of creepiness to the film.

Many were disappointed Blue did not meet the qualifications to be submitted as France’s foreign language Oscar contender, but they probably had not seen it yet. Instead of a film to ride the crest of the gay marriage court victories, Blue presents an under-aged girl left emotionally damaged with an affair with an older woman—not exactly an empowering statement.

To recap: three hours.  There are some honest moments in Blue, but for better or worse, the sex trumps everything.  Ultimately, it becomes rather repetitive once the eye-popping shock wears off.  Frankly, Blue is a perfect example of the on-screen substance not warranting the off-screen controversy.  Overlong and self-indulgent, Blue is the Warmest Color is only really recommended for the ogglers when it opens this Friday (10/25) in New York at the IFC Center.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Our Day Will Come: Gingers See Red

They are the most unstable redheads since Ginger Baker, but they have no conspicuous talents.  One poorly socialized youth and perhaps the world’s worst psychologist express their anger with the world through an extemporaneous crime spree in Romain Gavras’s Our Day Will Come (trailer here), which releases on VOD today.

Rémy does not have a happy home life.  When not violently arguing with his mother and sister, he fights with the members of his unsportsmanlike football club and unknowingly flirts with his fake catfish girlfriend online. He also sees Patrick in some sort of professional capacity, but that turns out to be rather counter-productive. When a particularly ugly family quarrel ends in a call to the cops, Patrick whisks the boy off a criminal road trip.

There is no plan per se, but the older man is generally inclined to pursue extreme sexual encounters.  Confused about his own orientation, Rémy latches onto the fantasy of seeking red-headed sanctuary in Ireland.  However, as their violent behavior escalates, tragedy becomes inevitable.  The real question is whether we should care.

Viewers will be hard pressed to find two less appealing co-leads than Rémy and his shrink.  Their Ginger victimization grievances in no way justify their crude and thuggish conduct.  Frankly, it is rather unclear whether Gavras (the music video director son of Costa-Gavras) is endorsing or subverting their persecution complex.

As Patrick, Vincent Cassel is a convincingly malevolent brooder.  Even though the film fails to fully click, he is always an interesting looking presence, given that Ian Anderson thing he has going on.  Olivier Barthelemy is also appropriately petulant and erratic.  However, it is hard to buy into any of the situations their characters put themselves in.

Gavras nicely capitalizes on the bleak post-industrial landscape near Calais, but his attempt to blend gritty naturalism with the feverishly surreal never really comes together.  At least it is a distinctive failure.  For red-headed Francophiles, it is now available for home viewing via Oscilloscope Laboratories VOD platforms.