Monday, June 30, 2014

Bertolucci’s Me and You

Kids can smell money better than anyone, so when they shun a well-heeled classmate, there must be something off about him. Lorenzo is one such social outcast. His analyst is clueless, but the audience immediately recognizes a host of family issues. Perhaps it represents progress when his oedipal issues evolve into an interest in his half-sister. It promises to be an awkward week for the lad in Me and You (trailer here), the eagerly awaited new film from Bernardo Bertolucci, which finally opens this Friday in New York.

Bertolucci never exactly spells it out, but we can deduce from early conversations, Lorenzo’s mother is his father’s trophy wife. The unseen old man only puts up with the surly kid to indulge his still attractive mother. As part of his divorce settlement, he shunted off Lorenzo’s half-sister Olivia, but this was probably no great loss, considering her behavioral problems. Lorenzo is quite difficult as well, but his mother is practically giddy anticipating the week he will be away from home on a school sponsored skiing trip. Just imagine Lorenzo being sociable—except he really won’t.

Instead, Lorenzo plans to spend the week holed up in the basement of their apartment building, indulging in junk food and teen angst. However, his week of brooding is interrupted by Olivia’s intrusion into his makeshift lair. She also intends to crash for the week, in hopes of kicking her habit cold turkey. Initially, they are rather standoffish towards each other, but they start to bond as Lorenzo nurses her through the worst of her detoxification. Can they maybe learn a few lessons from each other?

Granted, Me and You is a minor film compared to Bertolucci’s sweeping masterpieces, like The Last Emperor and The Conformist, but it is an earnest story, well served by the master’s restrained approach. It is rather subtle hinting at Lorenzo’s hang-ups, but it still compares quite easily with Bertolucci’s more overtly and provocatively sexual films, such as La Luna, Stealing Beauty, and The Dreamers (with Last Tango in Paris being in a class by itself).

Given his snide features and pimply complexion, it is doubtful any teenage Italian girls have posters of lead actor Jacopo Olmo Antinori on their walls. Bertolucci’s gawky presentation of his character hardly does his any favors either, but he is certainly credible as petulant, anti-social boy. For her part, Tea Falco vividly expresses the youthful world weariness of a teen junkie. Their chemistry is appropriately ambiguous, but undeniably potent.

Frankly, it is just nice to have Betolucci back in action. As much as we might like to have another huge canvass from him, we will settle for an artfully composed miniature like this. Recommended for connoisseurs of Italian cinema, Me and You opens this Friday (7/4) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Beyond the Edge: Himalayan Heroics in 3D

The conquest of Mt. Everest is considered the final crowning achievement of the British Empire, but it was successfully completed by a New Zealander and a Nepali (or possibly Tibetan) Sherpa. It was a nearly impossible climb with early 1950s gear that was further complicated by the odd logistical error here and there. However, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were part of a generation that refused to substitute excuses for success. The story of their summiting is recounted and recreated in Leanne Pooley’s 3D documentary Beyond the Edge (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Before Hillary joined Colonel John Hunt’s 1953 expedition, the Everest statistics told a grim tale: “thirteen deaths and no summits.” Hillary, an unassuming bee-keeper was one of only two New Zealanders in Hunt’s party, but he truly looked like a mountaineer. He also had the skills and the drive to for the final push. Unlike most of his Sherpa colleagues, Tenzing Norgay also had a climber’s ambition to summit—and summit first. Like good Survivor contestants, they sized each other up, recognized their compatibilities, and formed an alliance. Soon they were a team, hustling to establish a path through the dreaded icefall to impress Hunt.

Yes, there will be setbacks and complications. One of the strangest aspects of Beyond is the way its vocabulary more often evokes horror films than National Geographic specials. There are references to the “Death Zone” immediately below the summit and the “stench of death” asserting itself even before that stage. Nevertheless, Beyond is visually awe-inspiring. The 3D adds depth, but is not absolutely necessary—the spectacle of the Himalayas does not need punching-up. For her hybrid approach, Pooley seamlessly integrated restored 16mm color footage shot by the Hunt expedition with dramatic recreations mostly filmed in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Just watching the immersive visuals will make viewers feel chilly and light-headed.

There is also plenty of expert commentary in Beyond, but Pooley eschews the traditional talking head approach, opting instead for disembodied voice-overs, sort of like Room 237, except her professionals are insightful and experienced Everest veterans rather than cracked eccentrics. The enthusiastic participation of Hillary’s mountaineering son Peter and Tenzing Norgay’s son Norbu Tenzing also adds apostolic credibility.

Mountain climbing sequences used to be where movies went to die (MST3K’s “rock climbing” riffs for Lost Continent pretty much said it all), but documentaries somehow managed to crack that nut. Like Nick Ryan’s K2 doc The Summit before it, Beyond is tight, tense, and very cinematic. Yet, instead of a tragic cautionary tale of reckless overreach, Pooley’s film celebrates courage, ambition, and sheer will power. No mere Discovery Channel special, it is much more dramatic and entertaining than you would expect. Highly recommended for sporty audiences, Beyond the Edge opens this Friday (7/4) in New York at the IFC Center.

NYAFF ’14: No Man’s Land

Dennis Weaver only had one psycho-semi to deal with in Duel. There are multiple parties of angry rustics-on-wheels out to drive Pan Xiao off the road—permanently. Of course, he sort of has it coming. He’s an attorney. Only the law of the jungle applies on this lonely stretch of Gobi Desert highway, but at least there is a socially redeeming coda tacked on to satisfy Chinese censors. Nevertheless, audiences can see most of the dark beast that is Ning Hao’s long delayed No Man’s Land (trailer here) when it screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

The hot shot big city attorney has come to represent Lao Da, a falcon poacher accused of murder. Of course, we know he is guilty, because we have seen the prologue. Nevertheless, Pan Xiao gets him off with a little Billy Flynn razzle dazzle. This was no mere charity case. Pan Xiao expects to get paid, so when Lao Da balks at ponying up cash on the barrelhead, the lawyer takes possession of his client’s shiny new Mustang instead. He really should have just used his return ticket on the train.

In fact, the counselor has been played by the poacher, who stashed a cache of falcons in the car and has a henchman waiting to waylay Pan Xiao. It is a good plan, but it did not anticipate the long-haul truckers the mouthpiece tangles with on his way out of town. Posing as a broken down motorist, Lao Da’s accomplice Lao Er is supposed to ambush the attorney once he has pulled over, but due to a cracked windshield, he plows over the his would-be assailant. Not knowing Lao Er’s intentions, Pan Xiao now believes he has a body to dispose of. However, stopping by a remote price-gauging gas station only makes matters worse, particularly when their trafficked lap dancer, Li Yuxin looks to Pan Xiao to be her rescuer.

That takes us about twenty minutes into the film. From there, things get very brutish, violent, and complicated. Nearly everyone wants to kill Pan Xiao and the cops are ready to assume the worst about him, after their embarrassment in court. Nonetheless, it is hard to see what activated the state censors’ schoolmarm reflexes, except maybe the pervasive nihilistic violence. Could they really be so concerned about the image of the legal profession or are they reluctant to admit the lurid truth regarding of falcon poaching?

After it was liberated from the vault, No Man’s Land set the Chinese box-office on fire, largely thanks to the presence of two stars from Lost in Thailand. Xu Zheng’s characters just do not travel well, but he plumbs hitherto unseen dark places as Pan Xiao. He is not a standard issue victim, by any stretch, but he cannot out-fierce steely Tibetan actor Duobujie’s Lao Da. Yu Nan (the only under-40 cast member of The Expendables 2) also adds some heat and a human touch as Li.

Even the approved-happy-happy cut of No Man’s Land is totally in-yer-face stuff, but we can only wait and hope for a straight no chaser director’s cut to trickle out. Regardless, it is hard to beat action director’s Bruce Law’s car-crashing survivalist mayhem. Highly recommended for genre fans who take their coffee black, No Man’s Land screens tomorrow (7/1) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

A Hard Day’s Night: Meet the Beatles, There are Four of Them

Oddly, nobody actually says the word “Beatles” in their first movie. It’s not like anyone needed to. It was clearly emblazoned across Ringo’s bass drum. Of course, just about everyone knew who they were. Beatlemania was already a full-fledged phenomenon that would be even further stoked with the initial release of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (trailer here). Digitally restored by Janus Films in time for its fiftieth anniversary, Lester’s iconic introduction to the band re-releases this Friday at New York’s Film Forum.

If you are still trying to figure out if the four lads from Liverpool were mods or rockers, you will not get a straight answer in AHDN, but that is all part of its charm. Instead, the Beatles just sort of be themselves as they gracefully deal with the challenges of superstardom, while trying to keep Paul’s grandfather out of trouble (his other grandfather). They run from hordes of screaming fans, play sound-checks, accidentally get arrested, and generally riff off each other. It is all still breezy fun fifty years later thanks to the wit and easy charm of Alun Owens’ screenplay and the Beatles themselves.

Looking back at AHDN, it is remarkable how profoundly it shaped our perceptions of the Beatles’ personas: George is the cerebral one, John is the snarky one, Paul is a bit of a pushover, and Ringo is a goof. It also established a deceptively formula format that has proved exceedingly difficult to emulate, as a host of meet the band box-office duds proved (Spice World, anyone?). To be fair, it is hard to compete with enduring original songs like the title smash hit, “All My Loving,” “And I Love Her,” “I Should Have Known Better,” and “She Loves You.”

Lester and the Fab Four also had a not-so-secret weapon in veteran comedic character actor Wilfrid Brambell, who was then nearly as recognizable as the Beatles from his leading role in the hit sitcom Steptoe and Son (remade in America as Sanford and Son). He has a way of mugging that seems rather dryly amusing. He also demonstrates perfect timing playing off the Lads. Likewise, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans do a Mutt-and-Jeff routine as characters based on the Beatles’ personal assistant and road manager that nicely balances broad rubber-faced comedy with a kind of hyper-real sense of what it must have been like to ride the Beatles whirlwind.

AHDN provides a time-capsule of mid-1960s London, where you could buy milk from vending machines and television broadcasts involves transistors and dials. Yet, it still feels fresh and unspoiled. It is rather mind-boggling to suggest this, but AHDN would be a fine way for parents to introduce their children to the Beatles, because despite their mischievous inclinations, they essentially come across as good kids. More importantly, it is just funny in a good-hearted way and rocks (innocently and politely). It is a true classic that looks and sounds great after Janus’s careful 4K restoration. Highly recommended for any serious film lover, A Hard Day’s Night opens this Friday (7/4) at Film Forum.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Han Gong-ju

If ever there was a film one would not want to be based on a true story, it would Lee Su-jin’s emotionally bracing feature debut. Yet, even if viewers do not know it is inspired by a notorious 2004 case viewers will immediately sense there is something terribly real behind it. Sadly, the crime is only the start of a process of victimization in Lee’s Han Gong-ju (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Han Gong-ju is smart and musically talented. She is the sort of student any school should be delighted to have, but her principal is pulling strings to transfer her out. She is effectively being expelled despite, as she rightly insists, having done nothing wrong. A former teacher accompanies her to Incheon, arranging for her to live temporarily with his mother. He keeps everyone in the dark regarding her recent past and Han is not about to talk about it.

Slowly, Han recommences with life, but she fiercely guards her privacy. Occasionally, she hears from her alcoholic single father, but his calls usually portend trouble. Nevertheless, she slowly develops a friendship with a classmate, Eun-hee, who is in awe of her singer-songwriter talents. Unfortunately, as Lee slowly reveals the ugly details of the initial crime (which is never very difficult to deduce), ominous signs suggest the dark past will intrude on the imperfect present.

Without question, the film serves as a blistering indictment of Korea’s less than progressive attitudes towards victims of sex crimes and the decidedly unjust legal mechanisms that allow the wealthy to literally buy their way out of convictions. However, it never feels like an issue paper or a Lifetime original movie, largely due to Chun Woo-hee’s subtle yet agonizingly devastating lead performance. Ironically, she is a twenty-something established movie star, playing a teenager (but Michael J. Fox did the same thing for nearly a decade as Alex Keaton and Marty McFly). Regardless, it is a harrowing portrayal of resiliency under extreme emotional distress.

Chun dominates and defines Han Gong-ju, but she has some nice support from Lee Young-ran as her host, Ms. Lee. It is a tricky role that suggests some parallels with Han, while emphasizing the extent of deep-seated societal prejudices. Jung In-sun’s relentlessly upbeat Eun-hee also has some effective moments serving a somewhat similar function for Han’s teenage generation. The rest of the ensemble is stuck with mostly anonymous and usually decidedly sinister character-types, but their screen time is limited and the audience will not really want to meet them anyway.

Han Gong-ju is a challenging film from start to finish, especially including a massively ambiguous ending that lets nobody off the hook. This is not popcorn entertainment, but Chun’s work is powerful stuff that puts recent tear-jerking YA novel adaptations to shame for their naked manipulation. In contrast, the honesty Lee and Chun bring to bear stings. Recommended for those who appreciate intimately personal dramas with a wider social significance, Han Gong-ju screens tomorrow (6/30) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF, in advance of a week long run at MoMA starting the following day.

NYAFF ’14: Blind Massage

Real massage therapists have anatomical and physiological training to rival doctors, but it remains a widely misunderstood profession. Perhaps in hopes of separating the therapeutic and sensual connotations, it has been one of the few avenues of employment traditionally open to the blind in China. The so-called “doctors” of such a Nanjing clinic are highly skilled, but also deeply human. Their lives will connect and conflict in Lou Ye’s ensemble drama Blind Massage (clip here), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

The staff is blind, but the patients are entirely sighted, at least as far as we know. That itself is a role reversal. The Sha Zongqi Massage Centre is run by the gregarious Sha Fuming and his reserved partner, Zhang Zongqi, who always try to place new therapists in need of work. Their latest two recruits come with issues. Sullen Xiao Ma gradually lost his sight during his early teen years and has yet to come to terms with his blindness. In contrast, Dr. Wang had once amassed a sizable nest egg, but he lost it all during the financial crisis, forcing him to ask his old friend Sha for a job.

The relationships between staff members will become complicated, like a Chinese massage version of ER. Xiao Ma will be recklessly attracted to Dr. Wang’s partial sighted fiancée Kong, before developing a full-on obsession for local (fully sighted) prostitute Xiao Man. Despite Xiao Ma’s frequent brothel patronage, his beautiful colleague Du Hong nurses an attraction to him, while rebuffing the advances of the desperately lonely Sha.

About a dozen other characters factor into the mix somehow. Frankly, Blind Massage is a bit unwieldy with subplots, but it is hard to say where to cut, because they each work on their own terms. The film was adapted by Lou’s documentary filmmaker wife Ma Yingli from Bei Feiyu’s novel that has already been produced as a multi-part television drama—and it is easy to imagine these characters working in a telenovela format.

However, Lou’s approach is distinctly cinematic, approaching the experimental. His past films have directly raised issues of perception (particularly last year’s NYAFF selection, Mystery), but he takes it in a different direction during Blind Massage, visibly reducing the light and softening the focus during scenes driven by blind characters and reverting to standard levels for sequences involving sighted characters or expository housekeeping. He also employs a narrator to read the unseen credits and provide background information on characters, evoking the experience of enhanced visual descriptions.

Blind Massage captures the arbitrary unfairness of life in vivid terms, but that also offers an opportunity for unlikely cast-members to shine. As a case in point, Guo Xiaodong’s Dr. Wang seems rather unassuming, until blowing the doors off the joint in a confrontation with loan sharks dogging his irresponsible sighted younger brother. It is a scene and a performance worthy of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Mei Ting also pulls the emotional rug out from under us, as the ostensibly standoffish, Du Hong. She resents the fuss made by her colleagues (especially Sha) over the beauty they can never see, yet experiences some of the film’s greatest heartsickness.

On its face, Blind Massage is totally apolitical, but You is still pushing boundaries with its uncomfortable intimacy and matter-of-fact description of contemporary Chinese life for any sort of underdog population. It seems downright tame by our standards, but considering the Puritanism of Communist censors, many scenes represent no small risk to You’s standing. Yet, they are never gratuitous, well serving the characters’ emotional development at crucial junctures. Despite a bit of narrative messiness, it is an engrossing film that pulls viewers into the lives on screen in a vivid, ambitiously experiential way. Recommended for mature audiences, Blind Massage screens tomorrow (6/30) and Wednesday (7/2) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

NYAFF ’14: The White Storm

Eight-Faced Buddha is the Al Sharpton of Thai drug lords. That ridiculous coif should be sufficient grounds to throw his butt in jail. However, he also has an extensive body count to his credit and a massive wave of heroin headed towards Hong Kong. The only thing standing in its way is an extremely tired undercover cop, his handler, and their boss and mutual boyhood chum. Their friendship will be severely strained in Benny Chan’s action conflagration The White Storm (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

So Kin-chau is due for some R&R with his very pregnant wife, but Chief Inspector Ma Ho-tin keeps sending him out for one more sting. They were supposed to finally bust his longtime target Black Chai, but when Ma learns the trafficker has a deal in the works with Eight-Faced, So must engineer a last minute escape for the both of them. So reluctantly goes deep undercover with Black Chai with only Ma, their third Musketeer Cheung Chi-wai, and another honest HK colleague for back-up.

Frankly, the boundary between cops and criminals in Thailand is rather porous. Ma and his colleagues have to go rogue just to foil the crooked cops trying to rat out So. Unfortunately, when Ma’s game-changing operation goes wrong, it goes massively, cinematically wrong. It will fatally sabotage his career and plague his conscience for years, until a big twist suggests his guilt might be a tad misplaced.

There is nothing subtle about White Storm. It is all about projectile explosions and brooding, but it truly delivers some awesome over-the-top action spectacle. Nothing is off the table including a romance with Eight-Faced’s transgendered daughter, Mina Wei. Arguably, that is the most sensitively rendered element of this delirious gun-down. Evidently, Nick Cheung’s steamy publicity photo shoot with the transgender beauty queen Treechada “Poyd” Malayaporn raised quite a few eyebrows in HK, so mission accomplished.

In fact, all three big name leads are in fine form throughout. Louis Koo’s So slow burns like nobody’s business, while Sean Lau Ching-wan compellingly portrays Ma’s rapid descent from hot shot to a self-loathing shell of a man. However, Cheung takes viewers on the wildest character arc as his rapidly evolving namesake. Vithaya Pansringarm, who stole just about every scene in Only God Forgives, also turns up, playing a far more ethically ambiguous cop, but he is criminally under-employed.

While White Storm indulges in quite a bit of exotic Thai exoticism, Chan never strays too far from an old school hail of bullets. Its super-charged energy level and tragic sensibilities follow in the tradition of some of the best HK action films. Highly recommended for fans of Hong Kong Cinema and the big name cast, The White Storm screens tomorrow (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

NYAFF ’14: Kano

Sure, a three hour baseball movie might sound like bizarre overkill, but it is still considerably brisker than many of Al Leiter’s outings for the Mets (we’re all fans here, by the way). It is long, but this scrappy underdog story of tolerance and resilience generally makes good use of its time. Taiwanese and Japanese players will indeed come together on the diamond in Umin Boya’s Kano (trailer here), the centerpiece selection of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which screens tomorrow, so forget that World Cup noise.

Despite the spectacular revolt dramatized in co-writer-producer Wei Te-sheng’s Warriors of the Rainbow: Sediq Bale, Japan has consolidated its imperialist hold on Taiwan. Despite the increasing (but unequal) economic ties between the two countries, Taiwan is not where the Japanese go when their careers are on the way up. However, for tightly wound account Hyotaro Kondo, it represents a chance to start over following a vaguely defined public humiliation. Yet, against his better judgment, Kondo soon volunteers to coach the Kagi Agriculture and Forestry Public School’s high school baseball team (called Kano for short).

It was Kondo’s intense coaching style that led to so much grief in Japan, but he has never had a team like this. For one thing, it is an ethnically mixed squad, consisting not just of Japanese and Taiwanese players, but aboriginal and Chinese students as well. They also receive next to no material support from their school. Still, Akira Go, the kid on the mound, has a monster arm. Everyone scoffs when Kondo vows to take the team to Koshien, Japan’s national high school tournament, especially given their ‘O-fer record, but guess what happens next year.

Despite its incontrovertible status as a sports movie, Kano neatly sidesteps a number of the genre clichés. The big game will duly choke you up, but in a far more satisfying way than you expect. Coach Kondo even says there is no crying in baseball, but good luck with that.

Masatoshi Nagase is truly the coach of all movie coaches as the strict but fiercely loyal Kondo. He commands the screen just like Kondo commands his players, but when he lets his softy paternal side peak through, it is always heavy. Oddly, perhaps the most distinctive supporting turn amongst the players is actually Ken Aoki as rival pitcher Hiromi Joshiya, whose trip to see Kano’s dirt playing field for himself while on leave from the Imperial Army supplies the film’s framing device. British based Japanese actor Togo Igawa also adds a note of gruff dignity as Kondo’s former mentor, Coach Sato.

Production designer Makoto Asano’s recreation of 1931 provincial Taiwan looks so real you can practically taste the mud and thatch. It is a high quality period production and probably the most epic baseball movie ever thanks to cinematographer Chin Ting-chang’s sweeping, wide screen visuals. Yet, the on-field camaraderie is not simply a good lesson in sportsmanship. It looks like a conscious attempt at Taiwanese-Japanese rapprochement , strategically coming at a time of high Mainland saber rattling (and frankly that is probably not a bad impulse to act on).

Happily, Kano does not feel like it runs anywhere near its three hours, but there is no getting the generous helpings of baseball. As great as Nagase is, Kano’s appeal will probably be limited to fans of the game (which includes just about everyone in Taiwan judging from its domestic box-office). Earnest, entertaining, and appealingly old fashioned, Kano is recommended for lovers of baseball and those who follow Japanese and Taiwanese cinema when it screens tomorrow evening (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as the centerpiece of this year’s NYAFF.

Friday, June 27, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Top Star

It is the bromantic version of A Star is Born. Kim Tae-sik was once Jang Won-joon’s manager—the term manager in this context meaning the gopher assigned to Jang by his management agency. Kim harbors his own dreams of stardom that Jang will help fulfill in exchange for help cleaning up yet another scandal. There will be drama when the overnight success story threatens to eclipse his former boss in actor-turned director Park Joong-hoon’s Top Star (trailer here), which during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

In exchange for taking the fall for Jang’s non-fatal hit-and-run, Kim lands a part on the star’s latest television crime drama. Despite his questionable chops, Kim catches on with viewers. Soon he is nearly as big a star as Jang, but many of their colleagues still refuse to accept the tacky bounder. Nevertheless, Jang’s agent-lover Mi-na recognizes his commercial potential. He quickly falls for her, but she never returns his interest with enough enthusiasm for the trio to be considered a love triangle.

For about ten seconds, when Kim is big enough to be considered a social equal but not big enough to constitute a threat, the two stars become friends. Then it all falls about. The voluminous skeletons lurking in their closets do not help matters either.

There is indeed a rise and fall dramatic arc to Top Star, but it not nearly as predictable as it probably sounds. Frankly, Mi-na is considerably smarter and Kim is significantly more sociopathic than one would expect, while Jang is just too slippery to ever get an easy handle on. Still, it is safe to say the entertainment business is a wee bit corrupting, as Park (the recipient of NYAFF’s Celebrity Award) should know.

There are some knowing winks throughout the film, such as veteran thesp Ahn Sung-ki playing a fictionalized version of himself and an art-house director, who brings to mind Hong Sang-soo. Without question though, the guts of Top Star are devoted to a gleefully reckless morality tale.

As Kim, Uhm Tae-woong totally nails the everyman gone bad. He is creepy, yet we can still see the shy, insecure dreamer in there, somewhere. So E-hyun and her withering stare make Mi-na refreshingly strong and sexy. Similarly, Kim Min-jun’s portrait of erratic, less-than-self-aware privilege keeps the audience rather off balance.

Yes, it really is like what Chris Rock says: “here today, gone today.” It might sound like a dark downer, but the sure-footed Park maintains a brisk trot-like pace, while bringing out some surprisingly understated work from the fine ensemble. Solidly entertaining (but only slightly voyeuristic), Top Star is recommended for fans of upscale melodrama and those who closely follow the Korean film scene. It screens tomorrow (6/28) and Monday (6/30) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Golden Chickensss

A lot has changed in Hong Kong over the last twenty years or so, but it remains a high-flying city. There is still plenty of exclusive partying going on and that is good for Kam’s business—the oldest business. HK’s Happy Hooker turned Madam adjusts with the times, but it is harder for the ambiguous love of her life in Matt Chow’s Golden Chickensss (a.k.a. Golden Chicken 3, trailer here), which screens tomorrow on the first day of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Kam has gone from labor to management, but she still not too snobby to do her share of field work. After all, she still has her conspicuous assets. There are younger madams out there, but she can work the phones and stroke a client’s ego like the best of them. She will even take her girls on a field trip to Japan to pick up some tips the world’s preeminent hummer expert. However, things start to get serious when Brother Gordon is finally released from jail.

While they were never a couple, per se, Brother Gordon had her back and there was always a certain something between them. There is still a spark of something between them. Unfortunately, the gangster does not understand how much Hong Kong has changed. Kam tries to gently guide him towards a quieter life, but she is afraid too stiff a shot of reality will hobble his spirit.

Evidently there are a lot of puns in Chickensss that kill with Cantonese speakers, but are mostly lost on the rest of the world. On the other hand, Sandra Ng’s chest prosthetics require absolutely no translation. Would that be the costume designer’s responsibility or a special effects artist? Regardless, they look impressively genuine (and you will be looking).

In fact, there is something relentlessly appealing about our indomitable heroine. Ng is one of the few comedy specialists, who can effortlessly segue from physical comedy to sultry naughtiness and then back to straight-up melodrama without ever looking awkward or embarrassed. Not for nothing will she be the recipient of this year’s NYAFF Star Asia Award (the Queen of Comedy edition). However, most of her co-stars have trouble looking so classy when acting so goofy.

Speaking of looking uncomfortable, Brother Gordon is not exactly Nick Cheung’s best role this year or even his greatest performance at this year’s NYAFF, but he sure seems to be working a lot these days—and you have to respect that. There are a host of in-joke cameos, including Ip Man’s Donnie Yen spoofing his Grandmaster competition (okay, that really was funny) and Louis Koo playing the lookalike gigolo version of himself. As you would expect, there is a gorgeous ensemble cast playing Kam’s employees (including Michelle Wai and Cantopop singers Fiona Sitt and Ivana Wong), but they are not given much to do except look decorative.

Even if you do not get the jokes—or if you get them only too well—it is impossible to dislike such an irrepressible, fabulously dressed film. After watching it, you will have confidence the sun will definitely come out tomorrow in Hong Kong. Upbeat and unapologetically horny, is largely recommended for Ng’s fans looking for some broad comedy and a dash of nostalgia. It screens tomorrow (6/27) and Tuesday (7/1) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of this year’s NYAFF celebration of Sandra Ng.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

They Came Together—But Can They Stay Together for a Sequel

Last night the Tribeca Film Festival hosted free screenings of When Harry Met Sally in all five boroughs (except Brooklyn, where winds were just too windy). For some reason, New Yorkers collectively chose the rom-com for Tribeca’s Film For All promotion, even though we could all more easily relate to New York films like Death Wish and The Exterminator. If you haven’t seen it by now, you’re probably never going to. However, those who remember when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan were movie stars will appreciate most of the gags in David Wain’s They Came Together (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York, which is practically like another character in the film.

Should you doubt it, Joel and Molly will assert the New Yorkiness of their romance right from the start, as they recount their story for another couple with the profound misfortune to be having dinner with them. As the flashback narrative commences, Joel is about to break up with Tiffany, his hot on the outside, icy on the inside girlfriend. Since Molly is still smarting from her last break-up, their mutual friends want to fix them up (at a Halloween party).

Instead, they bicker like cats and dogs. It hardly helps matter when Molly learns Joel works for the candy store conglomerate trying to force her cutesy corner store out of business. Of course they will still fall for it, but they will take turns sabotaging their budding relationship.

Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter are so busy skewering romantic comedy clichés they do not even bother wasting time on boring stuff like characterization. Their humor whipsaws back and forth between droll satire and unrepentantly naughty slapstick. It is often quite funny, but after a while viewers will realize there is nothing for them to invest in emotionally. Even Mel Brooks classics (the gold standard of movie spoofs) had a bit of heart anchoring them. TC Together is really more like a serial skit or a web series than a movie. Still, you have to respect Wain and Showalter’s willingness to tip over sacred cows and subvert viewers expectations by twisting the very rom-com conventions they are sending up.

As Molly and Joel, Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd are game for just about any joke in questionable taste, but they are still rather low wattage when it comes to screen charisma. On the other hand, Cobie Smulders’ Tiffany is appropriately cold and decorative, while audiences may never look at SVU’s Christopher Meloni in the same way after his outrageous turn as Joel’s boss, Roland. Nora Jones also has an amusing cameo as herself, but if you do not remember when MTV and VH-1 played music videos in the 1980s, you probably won’t get it.

TC Together is consistently entertaining, but defiantly shallow. It is like having ice cream for dinner. It is sweet and gives you a rush, but a steak would be more satisfying. Recommended for those who miss movie spoofs that do not require turning off nine tenths of your brain to endure (hello, Wayanses), They Came Together opens this Friday (6/27) in New York (which is very much like another character in the film) at the Cinema Village.

The Angela Mao Ying Collection: The Himalayan

It is sort of like Shaolin’s Tibetan Buddhist cousin, but it is not called Esoteric Kung Fu for nothing. Practitioners are few and far between, but it might be just the discipline to take on the savage tiger claw. Regardless, vengeance will not be denied in Feng Huang’s The Himalayan (trailer here), which is included in The Angela Mao Ying Collection now available from Shout Factory.

In the high Himalayas, a martial arts competition is a fine place for a courtship. As it happens, when Ceng Ching-lan faces Gao I Fan, they make more of an impression on her father, Lord Ceng and his older brother, Gao Zhen, than on each other. An arrangement is quickly struck, but when I Fan expresses reservations, the devious Gao Zhen permanently dispatches his brother, replacing him with a more compliant look-a-like. He was adopted anyway.

It quickly becomes apparent Gao has designs to take over the power and wealth of the Ceng house. Through his dreaded tiger claw kung fu, Gao incapacitates Lan, framing her for the murder of the latest I Fan. Fortunately, her boyhood chum Xu saves her from the ritual cast-off-into-the-river form of execution. Together they will regroup in the Eagle Lama’s monastery, hoping to be deemed worthy of learning his rare Esoteric Kung Fu.

With its wide mountain vistas and Tibetan-Nepalese locations, The Himalayan is an unusually visually striking martial arts film, much in the King Hu tradition. Similarly, it also has some highly cinematic fight scenes choreographed by Sammo Hung (sharing duties with Han Ying-chieh). However, since it was produced by Golden Harvest in the 1970s there are also the requisite nude scenes featuring Angela Wang En-chi as Gao’s vixen accomplice, Man. Genre fans will also want to keep their eyes peeled for Hung, Jackie Chan, and Corey Yuen, who pop up briefly as fight extras.

While Mao is not always front and center, she still takes a strong and steely star turn as the wronged Lan. She meets one of her best antagonists in the form of Chan Sing, who truly looks like he enjoys evil scheming more than any Bond villain. His tiger claw moves are also suitably fierce. Yet, it is Han, the co-action director, who nearly steals the show as Uncle Qu, Lord Ceng’s wise but surprisingly spry old advisor.

Altogether, The Himalayan is a winning blend of Buddhist wisdom and exploitation goodies. It is a great showcase for Mao, while getting the most from a talented supporting ensemble. Enthusiastically recommended, The Himalayan is now available on DVD as part of Shout Factory’s Angela Mao Ying Collection.

Radio Free Albemuth: Revolt of the Eggheads

Transrealism is a sub-genre of science fiction in which the author frequently appears as a character in their own work, freely melding the fantastical and the autobiographical. The style has several proponents, but they are all largely swimming in Philip K. Dick’s wake. Amongst his most transreal works were his VALIS trilogy and a related posthumous novel. While many Dick novels have been loosely adapted for the screen, the courageous John Alan Simon took a shot at a comparatively faithful take on the more self-contained latter novel. Things will get all kinds of transreal in Simon’s Radio Free Albemuth (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In this alternate world, America is crypto-fascist state, but ironically there is less intrusive surveillance afoot than under the Obama Administration. President (for life) Ferris F. Fremont (FFF = 666) continues to be re-elected despite his bizarre campaign against “Aramcheck,” a supposed shadowy cabal of Soviet sleeper agents still conspiring against the country, years after the fall of Communism. Science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick will chronicle his pal Nicholas Brady’s ill-fated attempt to foment an uprising against Fremont. We know it will be ill-fated because of the decidedly dystopian framing device.

Frankly, the Orwellian state was working quite well for Brady, at least for a while. Thanks to subliminal messaging sent to him by a hive-mind alien entity he dubs VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), Brady leaves his Berkley record store gig in favor of a position at a record label, where he quickly advances. Due to his previous visions, he is convinced he should sign the mysterious Sylvia to a recording contract when she applies for a receptionist position. She has no idea what he is talking about, but appreciates any opportunity because of her unfortunate surname: Aramcheck.

Eventually, we learn those who commune with VALIS have an egg implanted in their heads, the Roman Empire never really fell, but continues to be the power behind the curtain, and perhaps Fremont was a Manchurian Candidate-style Soviet plant. Strangely, it all mostly makes sense in context.

Simon goes for a trippy, hallucinatory vibe, but unfortunately he succeeds too well. There is indeed a far-out atmosphere to the proceedings, but that consequently slows the pacing down to a somnambulist shuffle. This also gives viewers more than enough time to fully acknowledge the MST3K-worthy special effects. Frankly, it would be better not to show VALIS’s Satellite of Love than to green screen something that looks cruder than Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.

Clearly, Dick was not holding back the weirdness in Albemuth, yet it now seems somewhat dated, not just in terms of the escalated surveillance. There are weird L. Ronian echoes to the VALIS egg-implants, while Dick’s Cold War disdain seems rather naïve in light of Eastern Europe’s independence movements and Putin’s subsequent  Neo-Soviet imperialism. Frankly, the best thing about Simon’s film is the self-reflexively ironic Dick character and the understated but intense performance of Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham.

Albemuth also boasts Alanis Morissette in her first substantial dramatic role, but it is nothing to write home about. Yet, Jonathan Scarfe is even more dour and dull as Brady. At least Hanna Hall seems to enjoy playing the fascist vixen toying with Dick (that doesn’t sound right, but so be it).

As if it needed any stranger credentials, Albemuth also boasts Robyn Hitchcock’s original song “Let’s Party,” which is bizarrely effective playing a critical role within the narrative. In fact, Simon’s ambition is admirable, but there are just too many disparate parts in conflict with each other. It is easy to see why his Hollywood predecessors opted to crank up the action instead. A noble car crash of a film that “Dickheads” will have to see regardless of mere mortal criticism, Radio Free Albemuth opens this Friday (6/27) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

BAM Cinema Fest ’14: Stations of the Elevated

Never one to mince words, former Mayor Ed Koch called it “vile.” Criminologist James Q. Wilson and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani took a more considered and proactive response to graffiti with the “broken windows” theory of policing and quality of life policies. Fortunately, their approach took, at least up to now. It was a different story in 1981 when Manfred Kirchheimer’s forty five minute docu-tone poem-MTA travelogue Stations of the Elevated debuted at the New York Film Festival. Nearly thirty-three years and a more livable city later, Kirchheimer’s freshly restored ode to late 1970s graffiti screens at the this year’s BAM Cinema Fest (trailer here).

While Kirchheimer produced Elevated with the cooperation of some of the City’s top graffiti practitioners, they never get a talking head segment. Instead, the filmmaker simply documents the sites and ambient sounds of the thoroughly tagged trains and outdoor stations throughout the outer boroughs. For Manhattan elites, it would have been a convenient way to ground themselves in the graffiti scene without having to be there.

To give Kirchheimer all due credit, he certainly has a keen eye for visual composition. However, there is not a lot of charm to the images he captures. Frankly, he largely vindicates Mayor Koch’s withering assessment—this is blight we are looking at.

Fortunately, Kirchheimer also had a fine ear and ripping good taste in music. Most of the soundtrack consists of cleverly edited selections from Charles Mingus at the absolute peak of his powers. Most of the tunes are drawn from his truly classic Atlantic albums, including Oh Yeah and The Clown, including probably his “greatest hit,” “Haitian Fight Song.” The way Kirchheimer segues from Mingus’ “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me” to a gospel track from Aretha Franklin is particularly sly. Granted, you really ought to already have this music on your iWidget, but if it doesn’t get your toe tapping and your head nodding anyway, you’re probably either mostly dead or totally square.

In many ways, Stations functions as a time capsule, giving us a quick fix of a New York many still appreciate on an aesthetic level, but they still would not want to live here then. With little real substance beyond its gritty alternative to the Circle Line Tour, it gets a bit repetitive, even at its three quarters of an hour running time. Some New Yorkers may still share its nostalgia, but for everyone else it merely proves Mingus + 1970s graffiti = Mingus. For those aging hipsters, it screens this Friday (6/27) following a special performance by Mingus Dynasty, as part of the 2014 BAM Cinema Fest.

The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel: Chinese Opera in the Time of Cholera

The Imperial Japanese Army’s notorious Unit 731 has been the subject of several highly controversial docudramas that were sharply criticized for their exploitative use of horrific archival footage. This is not one of them. Instead, two members of the biological warfare research center will find themselves on the business end of an unorthodox interrogation in Hu Gaun’s comedic-tragic action mash-up The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay from Well Go USA.

A particularly nasty strain of Cholera is raging through China, courtesy of Unit 731. However, their leading biochemist Col. Ogasawara Goro and his aide de camp have been waylaid by a highwayman, who has more or less commandeered an inn to serve as his temporary hideout. However, the chef and his mute wife are not thrilled to have them there, but their Chinese opera singer sort of sides with the Scoundrel (and against his employers), for patriotic reasons. With varying degrees of reluctance, they proceed to grill the officer in hopes of exploiting his valuable formula.

Frankly, you just have to get through the first twenty minutes of buffoonery before Guan tips his hand. It turns out the four bickering captors are much smarter, disciplined, and unified than they would have the Japanese believe. In fact, we are witnessing an elaborate ruse inspired by Chinese opera, designed to lull Ogasawara into accidentally revealing the formula. The set-up works like a charm, but time is not on their side, especially when the Japanese military finally comes knocking.

Really, you want to stick with this film, because it reinvents itself several times. In a way, it rather shows up the kind of rubber-faced slapstick of co-star Huang Bo’s Lost in Thailand. There are indeed a number of twisty plot reversals and some ripping good action spectacle in the third act. In fact, it wins over viewer affections in surprising (but spoilery) ways.

Huang and Zhang Hanyu are rather amazing dialing it up and then cranking it down as the Scoundrel and the Actor, respectively. Liu Ye cannot quite turn on a dime as quickly as his two comrades, but he shows off the strongest action chops as the Chef. Yet, it is Liang Jing who probably undertakes the greatest upstairs-downstairs transformation as the goonish wife. One should also keep their eyes on Taiwan-based Japanese actress-model Chie Tanaka, for dramatic reasons, because she nicely turns her own subtle surprises, as well.

Somehow, the misleadingly Greenaway-esque titled Chef manages to be both a traditional homage and an ironic riff on the King Hu-inspired inn period drama. Guan throws just about everything into the mix, except maybe space aliens and cynicism. Highly recommended (but seriously, don’t bail on it early), The Chef, the Actor, and the Scoundrel is now available on DVD, BluRay, and digital platforms from Well Go USA.

Whitey: The United States vs. Public Enemy #2

Between James J. “Whitey” Bulger, the leader of the Winter Hill Gang and his brother, former Massachusetts Senate President William M. Bulger, the Brothers Bulger long ruled Boston from both ends of the law. Bulger the politician was never implicated in his brothers crimes, but his refusal to reveal communications received from the fugitive James J. effectively ended his public career. However, it now seems Whitey Bulger had such highly placed protectors in the FBI he would not have needed much help from his brother. Joe Berlinger documents the revelations and controversies that emerged during Bulger’s highly anticipated trial in WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

You will not hear the name William Bulger much in Berlinger’s WHITEY, nor hear from probably the brothers’ greatest media critic, the defiant radio talk show host, Howie Carr. However, viewers will hear an awful lot from the titular Bulger. Indeed, Berlinger features extensive telephone interviews with the convicted murderer, presented sans rebuttal. Frankly, it is rather strange the extent to which Berlinger adopts Bulger’s narrative as the film’s own—so much so, one almost expect him to receive a writing credit.

Of course, Bulger’s guilt is never in question. Instead, Bulger’s general defense strategy is to cloud the issue as much as possible, while causing maximum discomfort for the Feds. The central issue is whether Bulger really served as a government informant, dropping dimes on the competition, or if the late U.S. Attorney granted him immunity in exchange for protection from the Italian mafia instead.

While Berlinger’s editorial tone almost slides into Bulger apologetics, he is always scrupulously sensitive when dealing with victims and their family members. Tragically, the filmmakers faced a shocking challenge when Stephen Rakes, one of the potential witnesses they were following through the trial, was dramatically murdered. Supposedly, it turned out to be an unrelated case, but there is a note of skepticism detectable in the doc—for good reason.

Berlinger and his assembled talking heads leave no doubt in viewers’ mind that a corrupt echelon in the FBI protected Bulger for no legitimate law enforcement reason. They are morally complicit in several murders—and perhaps legally complicit too. They also helped ruin the sport of Jai Alai for the rest of us, which is one of the film’s most intriguing episodes that could have  been explored further (and perhaps was in the longer Sundance cut). In fact, Berlinger’s WHITEY somewhat rights itself when it becomes a conscious and deliberate vindication of Special Agent Robert Fitzpatrick, who tried to sever agency ties to the mobster. (Full disclosure, my house published Fitzpatrick’s book, but we have never met.)

WHITEY will once more shake viewers’ depleted faith in the Federal government, while chronicling some morbidly fascinating criminal history. However, it has a tendency to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The actions of Bulger’s handlers were badly misguided and downright criminal, but he remains the worst of the lot. The resulting doc holds one’s rapt attention, but leaves you feeling a little queasy, as if you have been getting an earful from Bulger himself (which is sort of the case). Recommended mainly for true crime fans, WHITEY opens this Friday (6/27) in New York at the IFC Center.

Monday, June 23, 2014

To Breathe as One: Singing Freely in Estonia

Every five years, Estonia mounts a massive chorale festival called Laulupidu. Do not expect to hear “The Internationale” on the program anytime soon. Traditionally more than a concert, Laulipidu provided a venue for several extraordinary spontaneous acts of defiance during the Soviet years. Today, it continues as a symbol of Estonian freedom and a celebration of its culture. It is a big deal for the small number of international choirs that are invited to participate. For the Piedmont Children’s Choir, it will also be a world-expanding learning experience. With co-directors Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros, Singing Revolution filmmakers James and Maureen Castle Tusty return to Laulupido to follow the Piedmont choir’s journey in To Breathe as One (trailer here), which premieres on PBS World Channel this Friday.

As the Tustys documented in their previous film, even a heavily armed police state cannot silence thirty thousand voices singing in harmony. Frankly, the Estonians never fully submitted to their Communist occupiers. When cracks started appearing in the Iron Curtain, Estonia’s chorale tradition played a critical role unifying the renewed resistance. It is an inspiring story chronicled with sensitivity and authority in the Tustys’ The Singing Revolution, but they also provide a fine abridgment in Breathe.

The members of the Piedmont performance ensemble (predominantly high school and perhaps some middle school students) will come to appreciate that history as they learn their Estonian repertoire. The conscientious efforts of their director Robert Geary to connect the difficult pronunciations to their deeper cultural and historic meanings clearly bear fruit. In fact, they probably understand Baltic history better than most of our current foreign policy decision-makers (sadly, a pathetically low bar to clear).

A great deal of Breathe captures the Piedmont Choir’s person-to-person diplomacy, as they befriend and perform with their Estonian counterparts rather easily. It might sound pleasant but rather precious, in a “human interest” kind of way. However, the striking scale of the Laulupidu backdrop is not just photogenic. It provides a constant reminder of the wider significance of the festival.

Even if you do not think chorale music is your bag, the performances at Laulupidu will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. You can literally hear one hundred fifty years of tumultuous history crescendoing in triumph over their Czarist and Communist oppressors. It is also a timely reminder of the precariousness of liberty, particularly in light of Putin’s expansionist ambitions. Does anyone seriously think the Obama administration has a plan of response should the Russians move against our Baltic NATO allies?

While they stand alone, the macro Singing Revolution and micro Breathe would be even better viewed in tandem. Both films are highly recommended for students, but Breathe will likely be somewhat more accessible for young viewers. A must-see for lovers of freedom and chorale music, To Breathe as One airs this Friday (6/27) on PBS World Channel.