Wednesday, December 31, 2014

PSIFF ’15: Today

Youness is the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, but since Iran is still a man’s world, he could get away clean, nonetheless. However, the grouchy old cab-driver is too compassionate for that. A fateful fare could have serious long-term implications in Reza Mirkarimi’s Today (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Youness is the type a cabbie who will just toss out customers if they rub him the wrong way. Yet, he takes pity on the extremely pregnant and considerably panicked Sedigheh. He will even schlep her into the hospital, despite suspecting she has no money for the fare. At this point, he could safely bolt according to Iranian law (as we are later told), but he stays nonetheless.

It is quickly apparent Sedigheh has been physically abused and has neglected her pre-natal care as a result. Naturally, the hospital staff silently accuses Youness. Despite the awkwardness and potential legal ramifications, he accepts their contempt, for Sedigheh’s sake, because as an unaccompanied pregnant woman, she would be even further marginalized by the Iranian medical system.

On its face, Today is a deceptively simple issue-oriented drama, but it makes a deeply eloquent statement on contemporary Iranian society. It is a lot like A Separation with a more fully developed social conscience. It is a bit surprising Iran selected it as their foreign language Oscar submission and utterly baffling how it could miss the shortlist cut. You would had to have seen a heck of a lot of films this year to find nine better than Today.

Perhaps it is too subtle. You really have to pay attention to what is said and what is left unsaid to fully appreciate the positions Youness and Sedigheh are in. It is also fascinating how ghosts from the past loom over the film in strange and unlikely ways. For instance, the hospital in question lacks the latest medical equipment, because it was once part of a larger triage center during the Iran-Iraq War, but has yet to be retrofitted after the adjoining building was closed.

Eschewing cheap theatrics, Parviz Parastui puts on a clinic in how to say more with less as the taciturn Youness. It is a quiet performance, but he has the audience hanging on his every word and gesture. In contrast, Soheila Golestani’s guileless directness and vulnerability are quite arresting. Watching them feels like being there in that slightly shabby hospital in Tehran. That might not sound like a lot of fun, but the net effect is hard to shake off.

While Today is about as character-driven as films get, it is still quite an impressive feat of direction. Mirkarimi has quite a lot of traffic to manage, sort of like a stage farce, except it is deadly serious. It is too bad he will not be getting any Academy love this time around, especially since his previous film A Cube of Sugar had been selected as Iran’s Oscar submission two years ago, until the Islamist government decided to boycott in protest of a low rated youtube video. This is a potent film that directly advocates breaking the pernicious cycle of abuse, but it is probably too complicated for daytime talk show hosts to understand. Highly recommended for everyone else, Today screens this Friday (1/2) and Tuesday (1/6) as part of this year’s PSIFF.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Search for General Tso: the Story of American Chinese Food and Its Crispy Chicken

He never lost a battle, but he has been immortalized with a dish that would probably not appeal to his palate. Reportedly, Zuo Zongtang, a.k.a. General Tso, really did like chicken, but the Americanized sauce of the recipe bearing his name would be far too sweet for the ardent Chinese nationalist. While nobody recognizes the American Chinese take-out staple in his home province of Hunan, it is a different story in Taipei. Ian Cheney chronicles the recipe’s journey and the Chinese-American restaurants that serve it in The Search for General Tso (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

Frankly, the real General Tso was a counter-revolutionary, who successfully put down the crypto-Christian millennial Taiping Rebellion that would later be invoked by both Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Mao. He was also dead-set against western influence in China. So how did his namesake chicken conquer the American takeout market? It is a complicated story, but Cheney conclusively follows a trail running directly through New York back to Taiwan. As a bonus, he also reveals the origins of cashew chicken in the unlikely city of Springfield, Missouri.

Ostensibly, Search is about the Qing Dynasty General and the crispy chicken he never knew, but it is really more about the Chinese-American immigrant experience and the entrepreneurial drive that has produced thousands of restaurants throughout America. It was never easy, especially when Nativist laws were still in force during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Yet, with the support of their families and cooperative neighborhood associations, new arrivals were able to scratch out a living in the restaurant sector, often relocating to towns with nearly no Chinese-American communities to speak of (and therefore no competition). Indeed, Americanized dishes like Chop Suey and General Tso’s Chicken reflect an impulse to assimilate and cater to their regional customers.

The big picture is rather inspiring, despite plenty of ugly episodes in places like Springfield, before the locals were won over by cashew chicken. In fact, much of the film could be considered a celebration of hard work and family, especially when it interviews people like Philip Chiang, founder of P.F. Chang’s, who started in the business working in his mother’s ambitiously upscale restaurant.

Visually, Search is also unusually stylish for a documentary, incorporating Sharon Shattuck’s lively animated transitions and plenty of glorious food shots. If you are looking for foodie indulgence, Cheney delivers. The Szechuan Alligator at Trey Yuen’s in Louisiana looks and sounds particularly tempting. There is just no way viewers will not have Chinese for dinner after watching the film.

You sort of expect the search for General Tso to be Quixotic, but Cheney answers all his questions, establishing a definitive history of the crispy chicken menu item. Yet, the film covers much more cultural history, without getting hopelessly bogged down in identity politics. Smart, well balanced, and briskly paced, The Search for General Tso is highly recommended for culinary minded audiences when it opens this Friday (1/2) in New York at the IFC Center.

App: This is Why Flip Phones are Coming Back

If you work for Sony, you probably don’t need a Dutch genre filmmaker to tell you how scary the internet can be just now. However, if you are a selfie taking, social network junkie who can hardly put down their smart phones, perhaps you could use another cautionary tale. Arriving at a zeitgeisty moment, while Sony and JLaw are still reeling from their respective hackings, a college student will indeed struggle with digital technology at it most pernicious in Bobby Boermans’ App (trailer here) which launches today on DVD from RAM Releasing.

Initially, technology is not all bad for Anna Rijnders. After all, an experimental implant is keeping her extreme sports dunderhead of a brother alive (hello, foreshadowing). Then the morning after a party at her ex-boyfriend’s Rijnders wakes up with a hangover and a nasty piece of scumware installed on her phone. It is called IRIS and it has an attitude. While it feeds her a few answers during philosophy class, it also has a wicked sense of initiative. For instance, recording and posting naked videos is one of its favorite tricks. It also makes calls at inopportune moments. As we can tell from the prelude, it has already driven victims to suicide.

Just buy a new phone, right? Rijnders tries that. It only makes IRIS angry. Frankly, much of the app’s reign of terror defies logical explanations, but at least it convincingly shores up Rijnders’ actions and motivations. It is sort of like the old cult favorite Electric Dreams, depicting the technology of the day running impossibly amok, but if you buy into it, the films chug along pretty smoothly.

In the case of App, Boermans and screenwriter Robert Arthur Jansen tap into a real and growing paranoia over handheld gadgets and accidental over-shares. Much has been made of its “second screen” component, allowing viewers to simultaneously see supplemental scenes and stills via the real life IRIS app.  Fortunately, the film holds up just fine on one screen, because voluntarily downloading IRIS just seems like bad karma.

Without question, App benefits from its lead performance. Hannah Hoekstra (recently seen in the pretty good Irish horror film The Canal) is no stupid teenager or mindless scream queen. She has a smart, dynamic presence that never taxes the audience’s patience. Obviously, she is not making movies because she is plain, but she feels relatively real and down-to-earth as Rijnders. While she interacts with dozens of supporting cast members, Hoekstra is the only one getting appreciable character development time, but she carries the film rather well.

When was the last time digital and wireless technology were a force for good in a film? Maybe You’ve Got Mail? While there seems to be something problematic about that, this is probably not the right time to argue the point, given the recent cyber-terror attacks. As a result, this should be App’s time to shine. In fact, it is a good film to catch up with on DVD. It is occasionally preposterous, but always solidly entertaining. Recommended for international thriller fans, App is now available for one and two screen home viewing, from Film Movement’s RAM Releasing.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Taking of Tiger Mountain: Tsui Hark Does it with Strategy

Qu Bo’s war novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest was adapted as the revolutionary opera Taking of Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the so-called “Eight Model Plays” allowed to be staged during the Cultural Revolution. After years of frustration, Tsui Hark has finally realized his big shiny capitalistic adaptation of Qu Bo’s source novel, but the good guys are still PLA soldiers and the bad guys are not. The powerful outlaw Lord Hawk is about to learn he is on the wrong side of history in Tsui’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

It is the bitter cold winter of 1946 and warlordism plagues northern China. PLA Captain 203 and his troops have been dispatched to restore order, but they are outmanned and outgunned. For reinforcements, the Party sends him Little Dove, a cute medical officer, and Yang Zirong, a political and intelligence officer, whose exact brief is rather vague. After helping the Captain shore up the most vulnerable village lying in the foothills of Hawk’s mountain stronghold, Yang announces his plan to infiltrate the band of brigands posing as a notorious but seldom seen member of a rival gang. Capt. 203 is not exactly crazy about the plan, but he signs on anyway, since there is no stopping Yang. Of course, he will need Yang’s intelligence when Hawk finally decides to attack the village.

Wisely, Tsui never lets any of his characters jabber on about historical dialectics. Aside from a few snarky comments about the Nationalists, there are not a lot of ideological identifiers in Tiger Mountain beyond the obvious uniforms. However, a contemporary descendant of one of the survivors often watches Xie Tieli’s 1970 film treatment of the Revolutionary opera, giving us several quick tastes of its didacticism.

Frankly, if you are going to tackle any of the Eight Model Plays, it might as well be Tiger Mountain, because nobody is in favor of banditry. Tsui stages some suitably big action spectacles, including the big mountain plane crash that factors so prominently in the trailer and one-sheet, but he puts it in the darnedest place, thereby sacrificing much of its suspense. It really feels like it was tacked on at the last minute to justify the expense of 3D.

Given its propaganda roots, it is not so very surprising most of the Tiger Mountain characters or more like symbolic types than fully developed individuals. Still, Zhang Hanyu (terrific in both the under-appreciated Equation of Love and Death and the otherwise problematic Back to 1942) plays Yang with grit and roguish panache. Tong Liya’s turn as Little Dove is also both sensitive and energetic. “Big’ Tony Leung Ka Fai chews on plenty of scenery as Lord Hawk, but unfortunately, Yu Nan never seems to quite unlock Qinglian, his involuntary mistress. However, her presumably orphaned son Knotti is like a human emergency brake, bringing the narrative to a screeching halt whenever he is on screen.

It is not often you can see a film with apostolic links to Madam Mao and the Gang of Four that features an animatronic tiger developed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, but here it is. One could perhaps debate who has done the coopting in Tiger Mountain, but the real point is the action, which is decent but never approaches the level of Tsui’s spectacular Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. If action fans can tune out the political implications, it is an okay as a quick snack, but it will not be a crossover breakout, like The Raid franchise, by any means. For loyal Tsui fans, The Taking of Tiger Mountain opens this Friday (1/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Love on the Cloud: Angelababy and Mo Chou the Shar Pei

Screenwriter Sha Guo will write treatments for just about every sort of contemporary Chinese film a doofus character such as himself might appear in. There will be romantic comedy, tragedy, compulsive social networking, and a surprisingly credible haunting. Still, the big question will be whether he gets the girl or the dog, or both, or neither in director-screenwriter Gu Chang-wei’s Love on the Cloud (trailer here) which is now playing in New York.

Sha Guo and his buddies, aspiring cinematographer Ma Dai and would be matinee idol-producer Huang Xaigang, the so-called “Three Dreamers” have just reeled in an investor for their first film, Living with the Werewolf. Ms. Ma the beef magnate just wants a couple script revisions: product placement for her Little Bull company. No problem, they can do that. In this case, “they” means Sha Guo. After a hard session of rewriting, he hits the social media apps looking for a hook-up. Instead, up-and-coming auto-show model Chen Xi exploits his “Sad Shar Pei” handle, suckering him into dog-sitting her furrowed browed Mo Chou. Of course, he agrees, hoping it will lead to bigger and hotter things. However, both Chen Xi’s dog-sitting and Ms. Ma’s rewrites will become a constant in his increasingly frustrated life.

Given its title and genre, HK film fans might assume Love on the Cloud is the next installment in Pang Ho-cheung’s Love in a Puff-Love in the Buff series, but Cherie Yu and Jimmy Cheung will not be breaking up and getting back together again, at least not right now. Cloud is actually Beijing-set and Mainland produced, featuring a star turn from Angelababy. About a billion people already knew the model-turned-actress was a star, but with Cloud she successfully transitions from perky teen roles (Love in Space, All’s Well Ends Well 2010 and 2011) to a legit romantic lead. She smokes up the screen and leaves poor Michael Chen and his hapless Sha Guo looking small and deflated on-screen.

Still, when he is satirizing the Chinese film business with the other two Dreamers, Chen is a good sport, keeping the material remarkably grounded, all things considered, by minimizing the shtick and the mugging. In fact, the entire cast earns props because Gu throws the kitchen sink at them, but never wastes much time on dry, boring transitions. Frankly, it is hard to believe how much of the film works. Even the horror movie segments, necessitated by another batch of rewrites for Ms. Ma, are actually sort of creepy and very true to genre conventions.

Angelababy is radiant throughout Cloud and Chen keeps plugging away, but good old Mo Chou just sort of steals the picture rather effortlessly. The camera loves the Shar Pei, but he never resorts to cheap tricks to look cute. So yes, give the dog credit for subtlety of his performance (would it be going too far to compare him favorably with Meryl Streep’s excessive theatrics in Ossage County? It’d be true.) Regardless, there are enough laughs mixed with Angelababy’s glamour and Mo Chou’s furry charm to keep Cloud chugging along at a good clip. Recommended for those who like a good doggie rom-com with a little bit of an edge, Love on the Cloud is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Juche Strong: How the Kim Dynasty Maintains Absolute Power

Assuming the North Korean regime is really responsible for the Sony hack, the scariest thing about the whole fiasco is that it proves conclusively they understand us far better than we understand them. Kim Jong-un’s hackers (and their over-the-top moralizing and awkward google-translate syntax sound pretty DPRK) knew precisely what e-mails to leak in order to isolate Sony from the rest of Hollywood. They were the victims in all this, but a few stupid Obama jokes had Amy Pascal re-cast as the villain. Sony was played perfectly by someone who totally anticipated the western media’s Pavlovian responses. In contrast, we have no idea why such a silly film so enraged the Kim regime or how it continues to maintain an iron-fisted hold on the beleaguered country. Rob Montz’s short documentary Juche Strong helps explain why. After screening at a number of festivals, including the Korean American Film Festival in New York, Juche Strong is now available for online viewing.

Juche Strong essentially starts with the assumption everyone understands the human rights situation in North Korean is an appalling horror show. For those who need back-up on that, check out Andrzej Fidyk’s Yodok Stories on Snagfilms, Red Chapel streaming on Netflix, Kimjongilia on DVD, and Frontline’s The Secret State of North Korea on the PBS website. Yes, according to Frontline, one out of every one hundred North Koreans is a political prisoner. However, widespread famines have been an even more pressing issue for most of the Kims’ long suffering subjects. Montz and his expert commentators directly challenge the notion that eventually things will get so bad within the pariah state the people will rise up and topple the regime, arguing if they haven’t by now, they simply aren’t going to.

To explain their longevity, Montz and company analyze the regime’s somewhat deliberately vague Juche ideology. Unlike Soviet and Maoist forms of Communism, the Kim dynasty never tried to remake North Koreans into a new Marxist man. Instead, they coopted traditional notions of family, nationalism, and Korean monarchy, grafting them onto a Socialist framework. There are no succession battles, because the Kim’s are literally the royal family. No matter how bad conditions get, the Orwellian propaganda constantly blames America and South Korea.

Juche Strong is massively depressing and profoundly scary, but anyone concerned about North Korea (which should be just about every American in the wake of the Sony debacle) should watch it. It is only eighteen minutes and change, but it is unusually rigorous and illuminating. However, it does not explain why Kim Jong-un let loose the Grinches on The Interview, whereas his father let the Team America World Police run its course without incident (of course, Kim Jong-il liked to look at things).

Frontline’s North Korea report might have some answers. Despite Juche Strong’s unremittingly grim appraisal, Secret State writer-director-producer James Jones suggests small but significant currents of dissent are growing in corners of the DPRK. There is also reason to suspect the notion Kim Jong-un may not have earned his dictatorial spurs has some currency within the military and apparatchiks’ ranks. Perhaps most telling have been his frequent purges, including his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, the former “regent” (again a term associated with royalty). According to North Korean legal practice, entire biological families are purged for two generations in both directions. Were the rules to be consistently applied, Kim Jong-un should have purged himself as well. Hypocrisy tends to stick out.

The real shame of The Interview is it probably self-censored itself to such a degree, it never paints a remotely accurate portrait of North Korea’s overwhelming oppression. Considering what happened, what did watering down reality gain them? Granted, it might have put a damper on the comedy, but it would have earned them points for edginess and truth-telling. Regardless, Juche Strong, Yodok Stories, Kimjongilia, Red Chapel, and The Secret State of North Korea are all strongly recommended. Together, they provide a deeper, more insightful understanding of perhaps the world’s most repressive totalitarian state.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken: Louis Zamperini, Sportsman, Survivor, Hero

Despite his death this July, Louis Zamperini will still be honored as the posthumous grand marshal of the upcoming Rose Parade. His honors were often unconventional. Although he did not medal at the 1936 Olympics, he captured the world’s attention with his record-setting final lap of the 5,000-meter. He intended to build on his performance at 1940 Olympics, scheduled to be hosted by Tokyo. Unfortunately, he would come to Japan under radically different circumstances. Angelina Jolie brings Zamperini’s harrowing true story to the big screen with a respect and conviction that make Unbroken (trailer here) one of the more refreshingly old fashioned Christmas releases.

Zamperini was always a bit of an unruly kid, but at least it helped him develop his natural speed. With his brother’s encouragement, Zamperini channeled his raw talent, becoming a local track star and a surprisingly exciting Olympic longshot. Then WWII erupted. The Olympics would be canceled until 1948. Commissioned in the army, Zamperini had a string of good luck as a bombardier, but fortune turns when he is dispatched on a so-called rescue mission in a malfunctioning replacement plane.

For forty-seven grueling days, Zamperini and two comrades were adrift on open waters with no supplies to speak of. Frankly, he and fellow survivor Russell Phillips were not rescued, per se. They were taken into custody by the Imperial Japanese military. Unfortunately, he attracts the attention of Corporal Matsuhiro Watanabe (a.k.a. “The Bird”) in the worst way possible. Recognizing Zamperini’s inner fortitude, Watanabe sets out to break his spirit and his body.

Arguably, Jolie and a battery of screenwriters (including William Nicholson and the Coen Brothers) let the Bird off easy. According to published accounts, he was unrepentantly brutal, well earning his place on MacArthur’s list of forty most wanted war criminals (#23, grimly impressive for a non-commissioned officer). They really could have easily waved the bloody shirt to a greater extent, but instead they chose to focus on Zamperini’s remarkable resiliency. In this respect, the film it quite true to history, depicting the Olympian’s refusal to make propaganda broadcasts in exchange for easier living conditions and many of the resulting punishments Watanabe meted out upon him.

To her credit, Jolie also forthrightly incorporates the role faith played in fortifying Zamperini, but the film never mentions his long post-war association with the Billy Graham Crusade. Regardless, she is not intimidated by a little bit of prayer, a decent serving of American exceptionalism, and a whole lot of guts and testosterone. She is still quite glamorous, but she’s also more man than most studio-establishment filmmakers. Of course, that probably explains why Unbroken has met with mixed reviews so far.

Following up ’71 and Private Peaceful, Jack O’Connell gives a career best performance, concluding his personal war-is-Hell trilogy as the resolute Zamperini. He is just as baby-faced as in prior films, but he conveys a sense Zamperini has grown up in a hurry, as was typically the case for his generation. It is a tough but believably human performance. It is harder to get one’s head around Japanese glam-rocker Miyavi (Takamasa Ishihara) as the sadistic, vaguely effeminate Watanabe, but at least he suggests some sort of psychological dysfunction going on, without excusing or even humanizing the camp guard to any extent.

Strangely, Unbroken features several British actors in supporting (and lead) roles, which seems to be a mistake, if only because it inadvertently invites comparison to films like Bridge on the River Kwai and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Nevertheless, it justly celebrates the courage of Zamperini and his fellow prisoners. Some of the historical set pieces work better than others (the 1932 Olympic sequences feel comparatively small), but it never drags during its one hundred thirty seven minute running time. Recommended for general audiences, Unbroken is now playing nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Gambler: Goodman Trumps Wahlberg’s Chump

They say gambling is a victimless crime, but not in Jim Bennett’s case. Anyone too closely linked to the degenerate literature professor could find themselves in a world of collateral hurt. The same goes without saying for Bennett, but that seems to be part of his wildly self-destructive plans. Several very large debts will inevitably come due in Rupert Wyatt’s Christmas Day release, The Gambler (trailer here), a loose remake of the moody 1970s James Caan vehicle considered to be partially inspired by the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name.

Bennett’s beloved grandfather has just passed away, leaving him nothing, because he is a total mess. He shouldn’t an inheritance, as a gainfully employed academic with one reasonably well received novel under his belt. Unfortunately, Bennett can rack up debt quicker than a president with no private sector experience. We will see him do it during the first of many trips to an underground casino.

Bennett has amassed $240,000 in gambling debts to the Korean mob, led by the severe Mr. Lee. You really do not want to owe him money. To keep playing and keep losing, Bennett borrows fifty K from loanshark Neville Baraka. You really, really do not want to owe him money. He is up briefly, but eventually he blows through that as well. After being rebuffed by his wealthy mother, Bennett explores the possibility of yet another loan from Russian mobster “Frank,” who is a real character. You really, really, really do not want to owe him money. In fact, Frank is so hardcore, he even gives Bennett pause. Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time before they do business together.

Wyatt’s Gambler is way better than you would expect, but it is almost entirely due to the villains. John Goodman’s Frank gets a good number of laughs throughout the film, but he is still scary as all get-out. Given his record of memorable supporting turns in award-contending films (Argo, The Artist, Inside Llewyn Davis), Goodman arguably deserves an honorary Oscar by now. As usual, he makes the film. Likewise, Michael Kenneth Williams regularly upstages his more famous co-star as the flamboyantly ruthless Baraka, while Alvin Ing also makes quite an impression as the icily intense Mr. Lee. Even Anthony Kelley earns some notice as Lamar Allen, Bennett’s star basketball player student, who may or may not shave some points for his prof.

To an extent, Mark Wahlberg convincingly falls apart as Bennett. However, he conspicuously overplays screenwriter William Monahan’s vastly overwritten bombastic, self-loathing classroom lectures. You’d think he was trying to be Meryl Streep in Osage County, but at least he is not half as embarrassing. On the other hand, the role of Amy Phillips, Bennett’s student-slash-potential love interest-slash-witness to his implosion is not exactly what you would might similarly describe as overwritten. Frankly, Brie Larsen, last year’s indie sensation in Short Term 12, looks like she regrets every minute playing her.

Regardless, Wyatt keeps the pace brisk and cinematographer Greig Fraser gives it all a hazy City of Angels noir sheen. It is often quite visually dynamic and whenever he needs help, Wyatt can count on Goodman for an injection of adrenaline through the film’s breastplate. Recommended for those who enjoy distinctive heavies, The Gambler opens nationwide today (12/25), including the Regal Union Square in New York.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tim Burton’s Big Eyes

Depending on who you ask, Margaret Keane’s big-eyed children paintings are either a precursor to George Rodrigue’s gallery-accepted Blue Dog paintings or a spiritual forerunner of Thomas Kinkade’s kitsch. Either way, the key point for her new bio-film treatment is that they really were her paintings and not the work of her credit stealing husband. It is a strange story, but it is told in a disappointingly conventional manner in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (trailer here), which opens this Christmas in New York.

Margaret Ulbrich packed up her daughter and walked out on her first husband at a time when such drama was scandalous. She relocated to San Francisco to pursue her dream of making it as an artist, but the only eye her work catches is that of Walter Keane. He too fancies himself an artist, but the real estate broker only has a talent for salesmanship. Convinced she needs taking care of, Ulbrich soon marries the brash Keane, believing their mutual interest in art will be a good thing.

One fateful night at Enrico Banducci’s hungry i club, Keane manages to sell one of his wife’s big eye paintings, but he kind of, sort of allows the purchaser to believe he is the artist. One thing leads to another and soon Walter Keane is a media sensation. Although she is troubled by the arrangement, Ms. Keane keeps churning out big eyes to feed her husband’s growing pop culture empire. However, despite his secret fraud, Walter Keane is bizarrely vexed by the proper art world’s snobbish appraisal of his (meaning her) work, leading to some odd confrontations with the profoundly unimpressed art critic John Canaday, who really ought to be considered the hero of this picture.

Of course, MDH Keane (as she starts to sign paintings) will eventually have enough of her husband’s manipulations and deceit. Running off to Hawaii, Keane re-starts her life after joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When she is finally ready, she will assert her claim to the Big Eyes body of work, precipitating a court battle for rights to the Keane brand.

There are many aspects of Big Eyes that will make people want to like it. After all, how often do films feature Cal Tjader jamming in Banducci’s club or portray Jehovah’s Witnesses in favorable, empowering light? Unfortunately, Burton’s uninspired made-for-cable vibe and Christoph Waltz’s overly manic performance always feel at odds with each other. The climatic courtroom scenes are particularly problematic, coming across excessively jokey, without ever delivering a good punch line.

At least Waltz is trying. As Margaret Keane, Amy Adams and her woe-is-me victim routine simply fade into the background. Their teenaged daughter also periodically wanders in and out of the film, but good luck remembering anything she says or does. Still, Burton and a fine supporting cast make the pre-hippy San Francisco scene come alive on-screen. Jon Polito flat out steals the film as the charismatic Banducci, while Terence Stamp’s Canaday is a tart-tongued joy. Danny Huston also adds some desperately needed acerbic flair as journalist Dick Nolan, who narrates the film as if it were a newspaper column.

Given Burton’s name in the credits, viewers will be waiting for Big Eyes to get good and crazy. Unfortunately, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay is the cinematic equivalent of a Reader’s Digest condensed book. You can pick up the general outline, but the distinctive idiosyncrasies are largely glossed over. The results are disappointing, especially for Burton fans. Mostly just okay, Big Eyes will probably only satisfy Keane collectors when it opens nationwide tomorrow (12/25), including the Angelika Film Center in New York.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Traffickers: Organs to Go

Where can you go for a no-questions-asked organ transplant? If you said China, you win a free kidney, symbolically speaking of course. However, the dodgy McHospital Yu-ri’s father has been referred to has a strict bring-your-own-organs (BYOO) policy. Young-gyu’s gang is supposed to take care of all the messy parts during the passage over, but things kind of get out of hand in Kim Hong-sun’s Traffickers (trailer here), which Well Go USA released today on DVD and BluRay.

Young-gyu used to be Korea’s top trafficker in human organs until an incident led to the very public death of his intended victim and his young protégé. From then on, he scraped by as a conventional contraband smuggler. Unfortunately, when his latest shipment is served up to the police, Young-gyu has no choice but get the old gang back together for another score.

Unbeknownst to her, Yu-ri is Young-gyu’s new client. Having arranged through a broker to have a brand-spanking new heart meet her father at the Chinese hospital, Yu-ri only knows Young-gyu as the strange man who sometimes initiates awkward, vaguely threatening conversations. The truth is the smuggler has fallen in love with the ticket agent during the considerable time he spends in the port, but being a smooth talking seducer is not one of his many faults.

While onboard the slow boat to China, Yu-ri helps the newlywed Sang-ho search for his missing wheelchair-bound wife Chae-hee. Obviously, she has not given much thought to where her father’s new heart will come from, but desperation can lead to short-sightedness. There will also be further coincidences linking the fateful circle of passengers.

Frankly, the premise of Traffickers is a little forced, especially given the substantiated allegations of state-sponsored organ harvesting in prison camps (why risk attracting outside attention when you can simply order up a heart from a prisoner of conscience?). Kim and co-screenwriter Kim Sang-myung go with it nonetheless, focusing on humanity at its most distressed, building to (yeah, yeah, yeah, mild spoilerish alert) a real downer of an ending. Yet, somehow the film is still quite entertaining to watch.

Functioning as sort of a riff on The Lady Vanishes, Traffickers features several tense near misses and a great action show down. A supporting player who shall remain nameless also pulls off a massively effective character swerve, earning unrestrained audience loathing. For his part, Im Chang-jung broods solidly as the world weary Young-gyu. As usual, Oh Dal-su adds plenty of vinegary grit as Young-gyu’s soused saw-bones. Although deliberately stiff at first, Yo Joon-hee turns it up down stretch as Yu-ri.

So yes, organ trafficking is a bad business, no matter how you might get involved with it. Kim capitalizes on the claustrophobic ship’s setting rather adroitly and keeps the pace distractingly brisk. Just about the entire narrative fails the logic test in retrospect, but viewers really won’t notice in the moment. Recommended for those who enjoy dark thrillers, Traffickers is now available on DVD, BluRay, and digital platforms from Well Go USA. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Leviathan: To be Ruled by the Nasty, Brutish, and Short

It is worth noting Andrey Zvyagintsev originally hails from Siberia, the traditional banishing ground of Russian dissidents. Perhaps then it is not surprising dissent is in his DNA. Up to now, his films have shown an affinity for the marginalized and the compromised in Russian society. However, his latest, Cannes award winning film boldly critiques the two greatest power centers in modern Russia, Putin’s government and the Orthodox Church. Rather shockingly, Russia selected Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan as their official foreign language Oscar submission (one can imagine several film authority bureaucrats were transferred to Siberian radio for that one), but it stands a fair chance of being nominated, having just made the shortlist cut. Already a recognizable contemporary classic, Leviathan (trailer here) opens Christmas Day at Film Forum.

Kolya is not a sophisticated man, but he knows injustice for what it is. He lives next to his hardscrabble automotive garage with his somewhat younger second wife Lilya and Roma, his son from his first marriage. His house and surrounding land are all he owns, but the town’s corpulently corrupt Mayor Vadim Shelevyat covets it for his dodgy development scheme. Naturally, he is not inclined to pay Kolya a fair price, preferring instead to use the Russian equivalent of imminent domain.

Shelevyat expects that will be that, as it usually is when the machinery of the state is unleashed, but Kolya is made of unusually stern stuff. His old army buddy Dmitri also happens to be a hotshot attorney from Moscow, who owes Kolya a favor. Dmitri fully understands the law in such cases, but Shelevyat and his underlings refuse to acknowledge it. The advocate also has a dossier of embarrassing dirt on the Mayor, but getting into a hardball contest with Shelevyat is a dangerous proposition. As the provincial dictator turns up the heat, with the implied support of the local Orthodox bishop, tensions within Kolya’s family and Dmitri’s mixed motives threaten to fatally undermine the embattled mechanic.

There is no mistaking Leviathan’s political implications, especially when Putin’s ominous portrait stares down from Shelevyat’s wall as plans each successive abuse of power. However, the extent to which he calls out the Orthodox Church for abetting the current regime is jaw-droppingly gutsy (should you doubt it, simply review the fate of the Pussy Riot band-members after protesting the Church’s support for Putin). Yet, it would be wrong to mislabel Zvyagintsev as anti-Church, because there is at least one pious Orthodox clergyman in Leviathan, who appears uncomfortable with his leadership.

Zvyagintsev briefly unleashes Russia’s anarchic sensibilities when Kolya’s off-duty highway patrol officer buddies take him target-shooting using the portraits of the old Soviet masters. Not so coincidentally, they might be the healthiest characters in the film, but despite their unruliness, they are largely disenfranchised cogs in a state apparatus dominated by the likes of Shelevyat.

Clearly, Leviathan offers a withering assessment of the current state of Russian affairs, but Zvyagintsev’s critiques are fully integrated into the wider narrative whole. In fact, the former serve the latter, rather than vice versa. As a result, Leviathan has the form of a parable, the soul of a Russian tragedy, and the moral outrage of a J’accuse. Critically, it is also remarkably forceful when judged on purely cinematic terms. As Kolya, Aleksey Serebryakov is no mere symbolic everyman. His pain and rage hit the audience on a level that is honest and true. Likewise, Vladimir Vdovichenkov plays Dmitri and all his human failings with mature subtlety. Yet perhaps appropriately, Roman Madianov largely defines and personifies Leviathan as the buffoonish but ruthless Shelevyat.

Without question, Leviathan is an important cinematic statement that will reverberate beyond the short term awards season. It is like hydrogen peroxide in film form. It stings and it disinfects. Stylistically, it is somewhat uncompromising, but it still demands a wide audience. Highly recommended, it opens Thursday the 25th (ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas) at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza in New York. Patrons in other cities should waste no time seeing it when it opens, in case the national exhibitors start pulling it for fear it will offend an oppressive foreign regime, since that’s what they apparently do these days, especially when they are released by a division of Sony.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night

So much for labor solidarity. The workers of Sondra’s local have voted to allow management to lay her off so they can keep their bonuses. It will be a devastating blow to her and her family, but that’s her problem, not theirs. However, she has been granted a second vote, due to the foreman’s improper attempt to influence the outcome. With the encouragement of her husband Manu and a supportive workmate, Sondra will fight for her job, practicing retail politics at its most personal in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Sondra was already grappling with the debilitating clinical depression that contributed to her extended sick leave. Obviously, this will not help. Unfortunately, her time away convinced management they could make do with one less person and the unseen, barely referenced union agreed. Reportedly, the foreman told her co-workers management was determined to lay off somebody regardless of the vote, so they might as well get their bonuses out of the deal. The truth of that contention is a bit murky.

Armed with this new information, Sondra tries to buck-up and lobby her colleagues to allow her to stay, despite the very real financial cost they would have to bear. Thus proceeds a series of incredibly awkward conversations. Some react with bitter resentment, while others overflow with guilt. Each becomes an intense one-on-one encounter, but they all essentially start the same way. Unfortunately, the Dardennes’ naturalist ethos precludes them from fast-forwarding through Sondra’s familiar expository intros, but at least they always go someplace uncomfortably honest. In fact, she even learns some of her co-workers are in an even worse position, due to their abusive home lives and dicey legal standings.

Two Days is being billed as the Dardenne Brothers’ first collaboration with a major movie star, which must be news to Cécile de France, who starred in the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike, as well as Eastwood’s Hereafter and scores of high profile French films. Regardless, it is easy to see why the New York Film Critics Circle named Marion Cotillard best actress for her work as Sondra. It is a raw, earthy performance that eschews superficial flash for a deeper, darker means of expression. Sometimes it is painful to watch her (of course that was true of the ludicrously twitchy Meryl Streep in Ossage County, but for the opposite, less edifying reason).

Clearly, this is Cotillard’s show, but Fabrizio Rongione’s turn as the more stable Manu also makes quite a quiet impact. In fact, the entire ensemble is remarkably assured and uncompromisingly convincing, despite their radically differing levels of professional experience (as per usual in the Dardennes’ films). Arguably, each confrontation between Sondra and a co-worker could stand alone as a self-contained film, given the strength of the supporting cast.

Although Belgium selected Two Days as their official Foreign Language Academy Award submission, it did not make the shortlist. There is always critical favorite that gets snubbed and ironically this year it is Two Days, a film driven by the process of vote-counting. Although it is a bit repetitive as a whole, the individual performances and in-the-moment flashes of truth more than carry the film. Recommended for those who appreciate social drama and Francophone cinema, Two Days, One Night opens Christmas Eve (12/24) at the IFC Center in New York.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hou Hsiao-hsien at the Freer: Millennium Mambo

What’s the point of slouching through Fin de siècle Taipei if you do not indulge in a little hedonism? Unfortunately, that seems to be the best life can offer one lost beauty. She will find far more consolation in artificial stimulants and pounding club music than from her spectacularly unhealthy lover in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (trailer here), which screens tomorrow at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery in Washington, DC.

Vicky is a stunning beauty, but she has made some terrible choices, such as getting involved with Hao-hao, an emotional abusive deadbeat. She would like to make a clean break from him, but every time she tries, he keeps coming back, worming into her life and living space once again. However, when Vicky lets Jack, a mid-level gangster, serve as her sugar-daddy she might finally be well rid of Hao-hao. Nevertheless, do not expect a happy ending for their apparently platonic whatever-it-is.

Mambo’s opening shot of Vicky walking through a somewhat sketchy looking pedestrian bridge is a visual tour-de-force with all the iconic sexuality of Marilyn Monroe’s subway vent encounter, but infused with a potent sense of menace. Unfortunately, the rest of the film lacks the same level of pop. While Hou’s anesthetized vibe is a deliberate strategy that sort of works, his temporal shifts are not clearly delineated. Still, Vicky’s dispassionate narration, told from the vantage point of ten years in the future, is eerily disconcerting. It almost sounds as if she were whispering from the graveyard, even though there is no reason to believe she will not bounce back from her setbacks, landing on her feet or what-have-you.

Few films give viewers such intimate knowledge of its characters, yet somehow we never really feel we understand who they truly are. Of course, that is the whole point. Despite her inscrutability, Shu Qi holds viewers’ attention in a vice-lock. It is not just her ethereal beauty. We can see there is something dramatic brewing in her eyes, we just can’t tell what. As Hao-hao, Tuan Chun-hao makes a contemptible character strangely forgettable, but the steely gravitas of Jack Kao’s namesake at least gives Shu Qi some memorable support during the third act.

Arguably, Mambo is very definitely a product of its hipster millennial time. By now, the combination of its dreamy neon visuals and driving electronica already feels a little dated. Still, the film’s evocative nocturnal look is a prime example why Mark Lee Ping-bin is considered one of the world’s foremost cinematographers. It is hardly perfect, but it is still quite worth seeing, if only for Shu Qi’s seductively raw performance. It should also help tide over fans as we wait and hope for The Assassin, Hou’s first wuxia film, naturally starring Shu Qi. Recommended for those who appreciate Hou’s more rarified art-house releases, Millennium Mambo screens (for free) tomorrow (12/21), at the Freer Gallery in DC.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Submitted by Serbia: See You in Montevideo

Uruguay hosted the first FIFA World Cup in 1930. It was a full sixty-five years before Sepp Blatter joined the international sports organization, but the fix was still in, nonetheless. The Yugoslavian National Team will bear the brunt of the tournament’s dubious officiating, but they will make history just the same in Dragan Bjelogrlić’s See You in Montevideo (trailer here), which Serbia has selected as their official foreign language submission for the upcoming Academy Awards.

It was not easy getting to Uruguay. It took an entire film (Bjelogrlić’s Montevideo: Taste of a Dream, submitted in 2011) for poor earnest Aleksandar “Tirke” Tirnanić and roguish Blagoje “Moša” Marjanović to unite their team and win the honor of representing Yugoslavia at the World Cup. The transatlantic passage was no picnic either, entailing much seasickness. Even when they arrive, the Yugoslavian team still can’t get any respect. Expected to go one-and-out, they are booked in a divey hotel, while the rest of the field will stay at palatial resort. Nobody gives them a puncher’s chance when they draw Brazil in the first round, but since they face-off halfway through the film, it might be safe to assume they have an upset in them. However, impartial officiating goes out the window when Yugoslavia is matched up with the host nation in the semis.

The National Team’s 1930 run is still the best international showing for both Yugoslavian and Serbian football-soccer to date and it is a pretty good sports story. However, two films both clocking in with a running length of about two and a half hours hardly seems economical. Frankly, each could have easily come in under ninety minutes, but they love the all Serbian 1930 Yugoslavian team in Serbia, so Bjelogrlić takes his time.

This time around, Bjelogrlić and his co-writers Ranko Božić and Dimitrije Vojnov prospect for more laughs and pile on the subplots. Sometimes they do not make much sense, like that featuring the game Armand Assante as Hotchkins, an American looking to sign players for some sort of American soccer tour, which would have gone over like a lead balloon in depression-era America. However, Tirnanić’s romance with Dolores, a Uruguayan beauty, is rather sweet and appealing, even if her lunatic brother’s subplot to the subplot is way too over-the-top.

Regardless, Petar Strugar convincingly transitions Marjanović from dashing cad to world-weary sportsman. Assante chews scenery like he hasn’t eaten since American Gangster. It is a head-shakingly odd performance, but strangely enjoyable. Elena Martínez generates plenty of heat as Dolores and forges some respectable screen chemistry with Miloš Biković’s otherwise plodding Tirnanić. However, Branko Đurić is defiantly shticky and manipulative as Paco, a Croatian expat who befriends Mali Stanjoe, the team’s young Dickensian mascot.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the second Montevideo installment is the nostalgia for Yugoslavian identity. While the previous film often expressed pride in the team’s Serbianess, the players explicitly demand respect for Yugoslavia this time around. Despite the weirdness of Assante’s Hotchkins, the film also portrays the American team in a consistently favorable light, suggesting they were good sports, much like Jackson Scholtz in Chariots of Fire. In fact, the conclusion serves as a cool example of sportsmanship and old fashioned love of the game.

Evidently, there is even more to the team’s story that was chronicled in a companion television series. One of the smaller sports networks ought to pick-up the entire Montevideo franchise, because the sport is growing in popularity here, but 1930 still represents America’s peak World Cup performance, so far (just as it does for Yugoslavia and Serbia). It certainly deserves a wider international audience than the FIFA-bankrolled United Passions. Easily one of the most accessible films of this year’s foreign language submissions, See You in Montevideo had a special screening in Los Angeles this Monday, hosted by Deadline’s AwardsLine. Recommended for sports fans who do not mind a little sentimentality, it will screen again soon at the 2015 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

AFI’s EU Showcase ’14: Falling Star

In 1870 the Duke of Aosta was elected King of Spain. If the very concept of electing a monarch sounds weird, just wait till you get a load of the surreal treatment he gets in Lluis Miñarro’s anti-bio-picture. His reign was short and there would not be a King Amadeo II succeeding him. Frankly, he never had a chance to govern in any meaningful way, as Miñarro makes crystal clear in the otherwise subjectively hallucinatory Falling Star (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2014 EU Film Showcase.

Shortly after his parliamentary election, King Amadeo’s most influential supporter is assassinated. Essentially, he becomes a lame duck before he is even sworn in, without any pomp or circumstance. Arguably, the self-described “Republican King” could have been a reformist force. He even advocated the separation of church and state. However, the Republicans, Basques, and Catalans simply were not having any further king business. Without a constituency, King Amadeo becomes a veritable prisoner in his palace.

With only a handful of servants and a few duplicitous ministers for company, the King’s mind starts to wander a bit. He is plagued with bizarre nightmares and shares some odd moments with the lusty serving wench who wanders in and out of the picture. He perks up a little when his wife María Vittoria finally joins him, but the die is cast.

In terms of effectiveness, Amadeo is right down there with Pu Yi, but the Spanish monarchy would rebound following his abdication and a brief Republican interregnum. In fact, he seems ripe for critical reappraisal given his relative progressiveness, but that is not really Miñarro’s program. Instead, he engages in the sort of playful postmodern historical anachronisms that everyone hated in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

He also indulges in plenty of sexually charged flights of fantasy that emphasize bizarre imagery over explicit titillation (if you want to see a man having rough sex with a melon than you’re in business). In terms of visual composition and Mise en scène, Falling is not so very far removed from Albert Serra’s The Story of My Death, but Miñarro maintains a far punchier vibe (even though not a whole heck of a lot happens in an objective sense).

Resembling Franco Nero at the peak of his popularity, Àlex Brendemühl (chilling in The German Doctor) is terrific as King Amadeo, visibly choking down the anger and resentment of each new indignity. As María Vittoria, Bárbara Lennie’s regal screen presence and intriguing allure add a needed kick to the film, but none of the pervy servants are ever fleshed out (so to speak) into compelling characters.

Potential viewers should take note: Falling has a short but naughty stinger, so if you go, you might as well stay for the very end. On paper, it sounds like a wild romp, but the disparate elements never congeal into a satisfying whole. The one hundred eleven minute running time also feels all that and maybe more. Interesting as an opportunity to pop-psychoanalyze contemporary Spanish cultural currents, but a radically mixed bag as a movie-going experience, Falling Stars is only for self-selecting audiences when it screens tomorrow (12/19) and Sunday (12/21) as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase, outside of Washington, DC.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Song of the Sea: A Selkie Story

W.B. Yeats is not often quoted in animated features, but his poem “The Stolen Child” is very definitely a source of inspiration for Tomm Moore’s latest film. If that sounds too serious for your viewing pleasure, take comfort from the presence of a big lovable fur ball of a dog named Cú—that being the Gaelic word for dog. There will also be selkies and assorted faery folk. Yes indeed, you can expect a generous helping of Celtic lore in Moore’s truly lovely Song of the Sea (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Presumably, Ben’s mother Bronagh died in child birth with his little sister Saoirse, but there is more to the story than he realizes. The truth is Bronagh was a selkie, a mythical shape-shifting seal woman, who can live on dry land for years, must eventually return to the sea. Saoirse is her mother’s daughter, who was born with a selkie coat to wear as she transforms, but her lighthouse keeper father keeps it hidden under lock-and-key for fear of losing her too.

Ben is supposed to look after his sister, but he often loses patience with the young girl. She has yet to speak a word, but she can make music worthy of Steve Turre with the shell Ben keeps as a remembrance of their mother. For the most part, the outdoorsy island life suits both children, but their bossy grandmother insists on relocating them to Dublin. Unfortunately, taking Saoirse that far from the water is not a good idea, but the faithful Cú will help guide them home. Along the way, they will meet several Fae beings who have a personal stake in restoring the young selkie’s powers.

Song of the Sea pretty much has it all when it comes to animated movies. Moore taps into some deep Celtic legend to tell a mature, psychologically complex coming-of-age story. Plus, Cú is just huggably adorable. The hand drawn animation is also a thing of beauty. While Moore’s figures are deliberately simple and anime-esque (in a big-eyed kind of way), his landscapes and fantasyscapes are breathtakingly lush. He also integrates music into the film in a culturally organic manner that powerfully underscores the on-screen mood and sometimes helps drive the narrative.

Granted, Saoirse hardly makes a peep in Song, but her character development arc packs quite an emotional wallop. Viewers older than your correspondent (by decades) were fighting off the sniffles at the conclusion of the screening we attended. Even if you have a heart of stone, you will completely invest in her story, in spite of yourself. Older boys will also readily identify with Ben, who has navigated much of life’s confusions largely on his own. Together, they will negotiate several highly fantastical turn of events, but it is their sibling relationship that anchors the film.

This year, GKIDS has two legitimate Oscar contenders in Song and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, both of which conclusively demonstrate animation can be a legit form of art. Each is also rather tragic, but in a wholly satisfying sort of way. Yet, Song is still safely kid-friendly (thanks again to Cú). Frankly, they ought to be in contention for best picture overall, but GKIDS will probably have to settle for an animation nomination for one or the other. Highly recommended, Song of the Sea opens this Friday (12/19) in New York at the IFC Center.