Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sound + Vision ’14: The Winding Stream

They are the first family of American Roots music and they represent royalty at its most hardscrabble. While many of their songs dated back generations, country music as a thing to market and identify with pretty much started with the Carter Family and a handful of other artists signed to Victor Records during the recording industry’s infancy. Beth Harrington chronicles the family history behind the music in The Winding Stream: the Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music (trailer here), which screens free of charge during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision Film Series.

The Carters lived most of their lives in the Poor Valley region of southern Virginia. It was not named with irony. The land is hard and unforgiving, but most work still revolves around agriculture. However, A.P. Carter had an ambition notion the family’s musical talent could earn them a better life. With his somewhat reluctant wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle, Carter formed a trio that would be known professionally as the Carter Family. At great inconvenience, A.P. dragged the women out to perform for Victor producer Ralph Peer, who was scouring the region like a commercial Alan Lomax for songs that would appeal to a “traditional” market.

Of course, the Carter Family perfectly fit the bill, but they nearly forgot about their legendary sessions during the lag between the informal recordings and the release of their 78s. Nevertheless, they sold well enough to vindicate A.P. Carter’s lofty ambitions. Unfortunately, the original ensemble would eventually fracture along with A.P.’s marriage to Sara. For years, Maybelle Carter performed with her daughters as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters before reclaiming the official Carter Family mantle. As most fans know, one of the Carter Sisters was June, who turned the head of a talented but troubled young performer named Johnny Cash.

While telling the Carter story, Harrington also addresses some largely forgotten early Twentieth Century cultural history, such as the phenomenon of ultra-high wattage Border Radio and the ethically problematic attribution of traditional songs assumed by the likes of A.P. Carter. For obvious reasons, Johnny Cash plays an essential role in the film, but Harrington never lets him outshine the Carters. Her musical instincts are also quite shrewd, including plenty of archival clips, a stirring rendition of the title song by Rosanne Cash, and a bizarrely good musical flash mob performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” attesting to the song’s lasting resonance.

Harrington does indeed touch all the necessary documentary bases, but arguably what is most refreshing about Stream is her sensitive treatment of the largely white God-fearing, under-advantaged population of Poor Valley. There is no sneering at their “Jesus talk” or condescending commentary on their un-cosmopolitan style. Instead, she respects them on their terms.

Winding is often entertaining, featuring original performances from the likes of John Prine and Cheryl Crow, but it also submerges viewers in the ancient spirit of their artifice-free music. One commentator says the Carters’ music exposes us as the “fakers” we are—and it is easy to get what he means. Recommended for fans of “roots” music and those who appreciate old school Americana, The Winding Stream screens for free this coming Monday (8/4) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Sound + Vision.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fantasia ’14: The Desert

If zombies have not completely jumped the shark for you after the spectacle of the unruly San Diego zombie walk, than this might be the right film to regroup with. Yes, the zombie apocalypse has fallen, but three survivors largely tune out the shuffling hordes for long stretches of time in Christoph Behl’s The Desert (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Axel, Ana, and Jonathan have banded together, sharing a strangely intimate post-zombie rising in a reinforced ranch-style house. Axel yearns for Ana, but she has romantically paired-off with the better looking but far less sensitive Jonathan. To serve as an emotional outlet, Ana set up a confession cam in their backroom, where she often records her innermost thoughts. That is not really Jonathan’s scene, but Axel often visits to secretly view the videos Ana deposits in the supposedly sealed trunk. As Axel’s jealousy mounts, Ana increasingly misinterprets his moodiness as hostility, deliberately antagonizing him in turn.

Into this awkward mix, Jonathan brings Pythagoras, a feral zombie he chains up in the workroom to help facilitate some unfinished business from an extremely uncomfortable game of Truth or Dare. Even during Armageddon, three is a crowd. However, four is particularly unstable when the fourth is a zombie.

Without question, Sabu’s Miss Zombie is the new modern zombie classic of the last ten years or so. Desert never reaches its heights of pathos, but there is something distinctly unsettling about its fatalistic portrayal of humanity. If ever there was a time to rise up personal resentments, this would be it. Yet, the stress of the apparently world-shattering crisis only amplifies their angst and recriminations. Behl never shows us the anarchy unfolding outside their house-that-is-not-a-home, but the confusing sounds are often more alarming than the half-baked visual effects of z-grade zombie grind-em-outs.

As the compulsively tattooed Axel, Lautaro Delgado puts on an acting clinic. It is eerie how eloquently his body language reflects his inner emotional turmoil. In contrast, Ana’s erratic character is much harder to get a handle on, but Victoria Almeida valiantly labors to sell each shift of her psyche. However, William Prociuk bears watching as Jonathan, the ostensibly boorish engineer.

At times, The Desert is too existential for its own good. Nevertheless, Behl successfully reinvents the zombie film as a four character-one set (for all intents and purposes) relationship drama, which is a neat trick. An ambitiously subtle zombie outing that works rather well on balance, The Desert is recommended for adventurous genre fans when it screens again next Tuesday (8/5) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AAIFF ’14: Song of the Phoenix

Dewey Redman often played the suona, but he was amazing. Sadly, Chinese musicians who have mastered the traditional trumpet-like reed instrument are becoming rather scarce. Yet, an aging master’s chosen successor will try to carry on as best he can in Wu Tianming’s final film, Song of the Phoenix (trailer here) , which screens during the 2014 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Young You Tianming’s underwhelming lung power is a distinct drawback for the unforgiving suona. On the other hand, he has the heart and sensitivity of an artist. During his years of youthful study, You often thought he was playing second fiddle to his fellow apprentice, Lanyu. Yet their master Jiao Sanye chooses You to learn the “Song of the Phoenix.” Considered the apex of suona repertoire, the song is a requiem that masters will only play for the worthiest deceased.

Unfortunately, just as Tianming assumes the leadership of Jiao’s ensemble, demand for suona musicians plummets. Instead, the villagers of his region increasingly opt for western-style bands. With his health failing, Master Jiao has trouble understanding the macro dynamics threatening the suona tradition.

It is almost eerie how apt Phoenix is as a summing up film for the late Wu. Perhaps best known for King of Masks, the “Fourth Generation” filmmaker is arguably even more renowned for incubating “Fifth Generation” talent (notably including Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou) when tapped to lead the Xi’an Film Studios. He also spent several years in America as an informal exile following the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Clearly, he had a keen understanding of time’s passage and the need to mentor successive generations.

Tao Zeru is quite extraordinary as Master Jiao, evolving from the coldly manipulative Prof. Kingsford of the suona into an ailing former legend, struggling to make sense of the world that has passed him by. Li Mingcheng is almost painfully earnest as the adult You. They are surrounded by a talented supporting ensemble and some first-rate suona players.

Suona music might be an acquired taste, but it nicely accents Phoenix’s incredible backdrops, which often look like scenes from ancient watercolors. Frankly, the film does not hold many surprises in terms of narrative arc or character development, but it still gracefully critiques the ultra-modern go-go prejudices that have lost sight of long-esteemed Chinese musical and cultural practices. Truly lovely to look at, Song of the Phoenix is worth seeing (particularly by those who appreciate Wu’s position in the Chinese cinema pantheon) when it screens tonight (7/29) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Monday, July 28, 2014

AAIFF ’14: The Cotabato Sessions (short doc)

Experimental percussionist Susie Ibarra is as comfortable playing with downtown stalwarts like John Zorn and Dave Douglas as she is with the indigenous Maguindanaon musicians of Cotabato City in Mindanao. However, she plays the role of an Alan Lomax field recorder, documenting the music of Danongan Kalanduyan and his friends and family in Ibarra & Joel Quizon’s short documentary The Cotabato Sessions (trailer here), which screens before a special concert collaboration between Ibarra and her subjects during this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

The heart of the Maguindanaon music Ibarra records is the kulintang, a series of eight tuned gongs, but it also incorporates the lute-like kutiyapi. It rather follows that percussion is a critical component to this form of music, predating Christianity and Islam in the Philippines, given Ibarra’s interest. Somewhat surprisingly though, it has been integrated into Maguindanaon Islamic social customs, despite its traditional association with women musicians.

Ibarra and Quizon capture some passionate performances, but the pulse of percussion-driven ensembles is always best experienced live. Still, it is quite a cinematic presentation, particularly the performances filmed in the open courtyard of a local mosque (but not technically inside, because that would be forbidden).

Ibarra’s commitment to musical preservation is laudable and Quizon and cinematographer Maya Santos make it all look great on-screen. Yet, we cannot help wondering what it sounds like when she jams with her Maguindanaon colleagues, which is why Cotabato is probably best screened in conjunction with a live performance, much like its upcoming AAIFF presentation. Recommended for fans of so-called “World Music” and percussion ensembles beyond category, the Cotabato Sessions screening, performance, and Q&A session will commence this Wednesday night (7/30) at the Asia Society, as a programming highlight of this year’s festival.

Jimmy Van Heusen: Swingin’ with Frank & Bing

What sort of a tune does a test pilot write? Well, there was the Sinatra staple “Come Fly with Me.” Sinatra fans might already know the vocalist recorded more tunes by Jimmy Van Heusen than anyone else, but the extent to which the composer served as Old Blue Eye’s Obi-wan could still come as a surprise. Van Heusen’s life and body of work are surveyed in Jim Burn’s Jimmy Van Heusen: Swingin’ with Frank & Bing (promo here), which airs on participating PBS stations at various times throughout the month of August.

In a sense, Van Heusen is an apostolic link from Tin Pan Alley and the original Great American Songwriters, like Irving Berlin, to the Swinging Madmen 1960s. As a man who felt instinctively at home in a nightclub or tavern, Van Heusen was ideally suited to be a song-plugger. Tunes like “Darn that Dream” quickly caught on, but it was his association with Bing Crosby that took Van Heusen’s career to a higher level. Following the crooner to Hollywood, Van Heusen wrote scores of hits with lyricist Johnny Burke, including the Oscar winning “Swinging on a Star,” for Going My Way. Shrewdly, the accomplished aviator volunteered as a test pilot for Lockheed during World War II, as a way to maintain his high-flying Hollywood lifestyle while serving the war effort.

When Crosby cooled off, Van Heusen found himself at loose ends, along with his old pal from New York, Frank Sinatra. Rumor has it, Van Heusen interceded during the baritone’s darkest hours and he would pen tunes with his new regularly lyricist partner Sammy Cahn that defined the Sinatra comeback. Swingin’s best segments trace the surprising origins of some of their most popular songs, such as “Love & Marriage” written for a television musical production of Our Town, featuring Sinatra as the Stage Manager and Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint as the teenaged lovers, which frustratingly is not likely to be released on home video anytime soon.

Burns also talks to all the right people, including Frank Sinatra, Jr., Woody Allen, jazz musicians Dr. Billy Taylor and John Pizzarelli, jazz-cabaret crossover performers Jane Monheit and Eric Comstock, and Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine to vouch for Van Heusen’s charm. There are also generous helpings of performance clips, largely focusing on Sinatra and Crosby, for obvious reasons.

Swingin’ will make viewers nostalgic for the glory days of the hard partying yet patriotic Rat Pack. In fact, writer-director Burns makes a persuasive case for Van Heusen as Rat Packer Zero, the one who started it all. Clocking in around the hour mark, the special could have run fifty percent longer without overstaying its welcome. The entertaining and informative Jimmy Van Heusen: Swingin’ with Frank & Bing airs on various PBS outlets throughout the month of August, so check local listings.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fantasia ’14: Uzumasa Limelight

Westerns were once a staple of American television, but now the genre has practically disappeared. Presumably, this was bad news for stunt horse-back riders. Though not quite to the same extent, production of Chanbara swordplay films has also steeply declined in Japan, greatly reducing work for kirare-yaku, the extras specially trained to be “cut-up.” It is the end of an era for Seiichi Kamiyama, but he always stays true to his art in Ken Ochiai’s Uzumasa Limelight (trailer here), which screened during this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Much to his surprise, Seizô Fukumoto has become the world’s most famous extra. Already the focus of several media reports on the kirare-yaku, he now appears in his first leading role, playing a character not so very different from himself. The Uzumasa establishment long recognized the beauty of Kamiyama’s death scenes. In fact, he was once given a carved rehearsal sword from the hero of a perennially popular samurai TV show (perhaps inspired by the long-running Mito Kōmon). Like a Japanese Gunsmoke, it continued for forty-years, providing Kamiyama regular employment, even when the star’s son took over for his late father. Unfortunately, it has just been canceled by the younger generation of executives.

Suddenly, Kamiyama and his colleagues are scuffling for work, making do appearing as corpses in yakuza dramas and performing in the suburban Kyoto studio’s live action show for tourists. Even though his stock is falling, young extra Satsuki Iga comes to Kamiyama for mentoring in his traditional skills. Thanks to his training and conditioning, she lands a stunt role on a new hipster Chanbara series, where she catches the eye of the obnoxious leading man. Suddenly, she is a star in her own right, but the Uzumasa old guard just keep getting older.

Yes, Uzumasa Limelight is a lot like A Star is Born crossed with Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, with jidaigeki costuming and the occasional nods to Ozu, but it is profoundly moving and highly satisfying for genre fans. Fukumoto might be one of the great kirare-yaku (he was recruited for the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai), but his touching performance as Kamiyama suggests he could easily move into more conventionally dramatic roles. With unusual economy, his deeply lined face and subtly communicative body language eloquent express his pride in his craft and his pupil, as well as the weight of all his life disappointments. He proves the film’s axiom—if you can act convincingly during a sword fight than you are a good actor.

While Fukumoto has been practicing his art for fifty years or so, Limelight represents the straight up film debut of 2012 World Junior Wushu champ Chihiro Yamamoto, portraying Iga with a maturity beyond her years. Their teacher-protégé chemistry feels very real, but complex in a true-to-life way. Frankly, Fukumoto seems to bring out the best in everyone, because Limelight is stuffed with additional lovely little supporting turns.

The production design team headed by Takashi Yoshida creates a vivid sense of the old Kyoto studio world through their richly detailed work. However, one of the most important contributions comes from swordplay choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike, whose big film-within-the-film action-spectacle delivers the goods with style to spare. 

Although Limelight shares a certain nostalgic kinship with Ochiai’s previous film, The Tiger Mask, it is more closely akin to his very personal docu-essay short Frog in the Well. It is an absolutely super film that should be a breakout vehicle for Fukumoto, Yamamoto, and Ochiai. With a future American theatrical release to come, it was one of the high points of this year’s Fantasia, which continues through August 6th. Those in Montreal should definitely also check out the honest and touching anime historical epic Giovanni’sIsland and consider the highly entertaining but slightly ragged around the edges White Storm and Seventh Code, as well as the generally amusing Premature.

Fantasia ’14: Gun Woman

If revenge is a dish best served cold, this is a blood Popsicle. It is one blisteringly chilly, gory film. If the work of uni-named actress Asami means anything to you, then you already expect something extreme. The star of Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead and The Machine Girl (as well as scores of crazier sounding titles) will become a weapon of vengeance in Kurando Mitsutake’s Gun Woman (not safe for anywhere trailer here), which had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Fair warning, if you are squeamish or have an average sensitivity to violence, Gun Woman is not for you. Frankly, the first half hour is almost prohibitively brutal, but it will have you down with the mastermind’s general desire for payback. His target is the sadist heir to a multinational conglomerate fortune. “Hamazaki’s Son,” as he is known, uses his wealth to fund a life incredibly foul sex crimes. One of his victims was the wife of the “Mastermind,” a brilliant surgeon, who is not without means either.

It is impossible to out-gun the bodyguards retained by Hamazaki’s Son, but there is one place where he is relatively unprotected: an exclusive necrophilia club. He has a plan to place Mayumi there, with a gun and thirteen bullets. She is a meth addict he flat out bought expressly for the job. He trains her to become a killing machine, but for reasons that will be only too clear, she will only have twenty-two minutes to complete the hit.

Again, it is important to emphasize this could be one of the roughest films at Fantasia, or anywhere not regularly screening A Serbian Film. However, Asami earns all kinds of credit for her bold, frequently naked and blood-splattered performance. Although she has virtually no dialogue, she vividly portrays Mayumi’s evolution from drugged out zombie to freaked out victim on the way to becoming a lethal killing machine.

It all looks and sounds very Drafthousy, thanks to Mitsutake’s conscious efforts to evoke a 1980s straight to-VHS vibe. This too requires a specialized taste. However, his narrative structure serves the material surprisingly well. He also elicits the perfect performances from his cast. Asami and Kairi Narita are both totally hardcore as Mayumi and the Mastermind. Noriaki R. Kamata is off-the-charts clammy and maniacal as Hamazaki’s Son, while Matthew Miller is appropriately detached as the American assassin narrator.

Action does not get any sleazier than Gun Woman. One could easily object to it on multiple moral and aesthetic grounds, but it stays true to Mitsutake’s vision. If you have any doubts whether it is for you, then it most certainly is not. Not advised for civilian consumption, it is best saved for fans of Asami and the comparable work of Indonesian exploitation auteur Arizal. There are probably intense debates still raging in Montreal following its Fantasia premiere, but given the cult reputation of those involved, Gun Woman is likely to have legs, so consider yourself warned.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

AAIFF ’14: A Time in Quchi

There is a different rhythm to life in the Quchi countryside. Chang Tso-chi acclimates viewers to it far quicker than his ten year old protagonist. Kuan Hsiao-pao is used to Taipei’s high speed internet, but a summer spent with his traditional grandfather will have lasting significance in Chang’s A Time in Quchi (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

At this point, Kuan is used to his parents’ chaos, so their likely divorce is not exactly shocking. He will spend his summer vacation with his paternal grandfather, so his folks will have more time to quarrel, but he is rather put off by the old man’s highly structured lifestyle. He is also less than thrilled when his chop-busting younger sister “Seaweed” arrives sometime later.

Since this is Taiwan, kids still go to school even during summer vacation, so Kuan is duly enrolled at the village primary school. Not surprisingly, he is initially rather standoffish, but Kuan soon forms his first real friendship with Huang Ming-chuan, an aboriginal classmate. Unfortunately, just as Kuan embraces Quchi, tragedy strikes.

Quchi is a subtle and wistful coming of age story that showcases some extraordinarily natural young actors. However, it must be completely compartmentalized from Chang, who is essentially the Taiwanese Polanski, except he is not being sheltered from justice by the French government. Frankly, it is a little creepy to realize the incident he was convicted for occurred at a party for Quchi, but that is not the fault of Yang Liang-yu and his co-stars.

While Yang’s work might be too understated for those who like to bring their Fault in Our Stars branded hanky to the movies, he keeps what could have been a saccharine melodrama feel mature and grounded. He also rather graciously allows Lin Ya-jo to steal all of Seaweed’s scenes. Nonetheless, it is veteran actor-screenwriter Kuan Yun-lung (a.k.a. Kuan Kuan) who really gives the film its heart and integrity as the gruff but wise grandfather.

Even at the height of young Kuan’s city slicker culture shock, he can appreciate the natural beauty of Quchi’s rivers and foothills. Cinematographer Yuan Ching-kuo certainly did as well. Visually, it is a much more arresting, big canvas film than you would expect from the coming-of-age genre. It represents nice work from a large cast and creative crew that should not be tarnished by Chang’s subsequent scandal. Recommended for those who appreciate quiet but telling family dramas, A Time in Quchi screens this coming Monday (7/28) at the Village East, as part of the 2014 AAIFF.

Fantasia ’14: Goal of the Dead

During a zombie apocalypse, population density is considered a bad thing. That makes a sports stadium a very bad place to be, even in a simple country village like Caplongue. Everyone in town will be there for the grudge match with the Parisian professionals, including a zombie. One infection logically leads to another in Benjamin Rocher & Thierry Poiraud’s two-part zombie soccer epic Goal of the Dead (trailer here), which screened in its entirety at the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The last time the Olympique de Paris squad played Caplongue, they hired away the highly ranked amateur team’s star player. Seventeen years later, Sam Lorit is at the end of his career. Expecting to be received like a returning hero, the over-the-hill center is quite taken aback by Caplongue’s hostility. It seems they never forgave him for abandoning the team and the town. In fact, the local doctor is so set on revenge he has his son, Lorit’s former teammate Jeannot, on an aggressive doping regimen. Unfortunately, the latest batch has some nasty zombie side effects.

Forget about zombie bites. Jeannot spreads the contagion through projectile vomiting to the face. Most of the two teams are quickly dispatched on the field, but Lorit is ironically saved by a meritless red card. Suddenly, he finds himself fighting to survive with Cléo, the daughter he never knew he had.

Finally, someone has combined soccer with zombie vomit. That is basically the kind of film or films the Goal duology is. Released as two separate installments in France, Rocher’s first half has far more exposition and scene-setting than your average zombie film. You will practically know Lorit’s career stats by heart when it is done. At least in the process, he very considerately sets up the pins for Poiraud to knock down in his rock ‘em sock ‘em second period, bringing more laughs with his elevated mayhem.

Rather unexpectedly, Alban Lenoir decides to do some acting as Lorit, taking him through a full range of emotions as best he can, given the carnage. Tiphanie Daviot’s Cléo also brings more energy and attitude than the typical horror movie teenager, but her fellow townsfolk are largely standard issue provincials.

Goal is a lot of gory, messy fun, but it never stands the zombie genre on its ear like Tommy Wirkola way-better-than-the-original Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, which also screens at this year’s Fantasia. Still, Rocher, Poiraud, and their battery of screenwriters do not let a good concept go to waste. Delivering the promised madness, Goal of the Dead is recommended for zombie fans, fresh from its screening at this year’s Fantasia.

Friday, July 25, 2014

AAIFF ’14: The Rice Bomber

He represented the dark side of agrarianism in a way the Unabomber could relate to, but at least Yang Rumen took precautions to avoid injuries. The fully pardoned bomb-maker turned organic food activist’s creation story is chronicled in Cho Li’s The Rice Bomber (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

By working class standards, Yang’s father did okay selling chickens in the city, but the young man always identified with his rice farming grandparents. He spent his formative years on their farm and it is there he returns after his military discharge. Yang almost went Full Metal Jacket on the NCOs who persistently bullied him, suggesting he is wound rather tightly.

With Taiwan’s rural economy stagnating, Yang migrates back to the city, becoming a street hawker. That is where he meets a preteen aboriginal competitor and reconnects with his childhood sweetheart, “Troublemaker.” She lives off her gangster-politician father, but fancies herself a revolutionary. Yet, she balks whenever Yang asks her to assist his new friend’s three younger siblings. Slowly, Yang’s environmental and class consciousness grows, but his engagement takes a quantum leap when tragedy strikes. At least, he carefully labels his bombs and judiciously minimizes their potency.

For a film that starts with a bomb disposal scene, Rice is surprisingly talky and cerebral. Clearly, it would rather discuss agricultural policy than indulge in a car chase, but its analysis basically boils down to “they are out to get the farmers.” Arguably though, most of the leftist demonstrators come across just as kneejerk and clueless as the government bureaucrats. The intermittent time shifts do not exactly do any favors for clarity either. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about Yang’s slow descent into mad-ish-ness, even when the hardscrabble realities depicted on-screen clash with Peyman Yazdanian’s sentimental score.

Indeed, Cho’s dispassionate approach is likely to leave many viewers cold, but the lack of cheap grandstanding is rather refreshing. There are the odd moments here and there, such as Yang marveling at the cache of guns Troublemaker has scrounged, for no practical purpose. Yet, it mostly feels docu-real.

As Yang, Huang Chien-wei slow burns like a champion, convincingly showing his evolution from victim to self-styled avenger. Nikki Hsieh’s Troublemaker also consistently keeps viewers off-balance, while Michael Chang is admirably earnest and understated as Yang’s mildly underdeveloped younger brother, Tung-tsai.

Having previously helmed the underappreciated adultery thriller Zoom Hunting (a 2010 AAIFF selection), Cho once again shows a knack for subverting genre expectations. While Rice probably will not radicalize any viewers who were not already teetering on the brink, it definitely captures the messy bedlam of contemporary history. Consistently interesting (but not for those looking for simple stories and simplistic take-aways), The Rice Bomber screens tomorrow (7/26) at the Village East and Sunday (7/27) at the Made in NY Media Center, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

AAIFF ’14: Iranian Shorts Program

If the cast and crew of an Iranian film chose to work under conditions of anonymity, it usually a good sign you are about to watch something bold and challenging. While that is not the case for these filmmakers, based in either Iran or America, most of their assembled films reveal much about the state of Iranian society. Alienation and uncertainty are themes cropping up throughout the Iranian Shorts Program, which screens during the 2014 Asian American International Film Festival.

The short block gets off to a bracing start with Tara Atashgah’s For the Birds. It is not just a film—it is an indictment of Iran’s Sharia laws against adultery and those who enforce them. The title might sound comedic, but it is really a tribute. The “birds” are women like Atefeh Rajab Sahaleh, a sixteen year old girl executed for adultery in 2006, to whom the film is dedicated.

For artistic reasons, Birds is not subtitled, but it is painfully easy to follow the story nonetheless. Nazli K. Lou vividly expresses Sahaleh’s fear and bewilderment, while Chervine Namani powerfully captures the horror and impotence of a decent bystander. This is a film that will knock the wind out of people, yet visually it is quite polished and striking. Without question, it is the class of the field.

Since it is just an excerpt from a larger documentary, the sampling of Nahid Rezai’s Dream of Silk is sort of an apple among oranges. Still, the fatalism and lack of confidence in the future expressed by the high school girls she interviews at her Iranian alma mater is undeniably telling. The whole thing is probably worth seeing.

Clearly, Hamed Rajabi’s Turnabout and To Ride a Bicycle are intended to be seen in dialogue with each other. Both address the exile experience following the 2009 election protests and subsequent crackdown from different perspectives. Arguably, Bicycle is the stronger of the pair, following Mahsa as she struggles to dispose of the bike her former boyfriend precipitously left behind. Of course, she cannot ride it. That would be immodest. Turnabout does not quite have the same pop, but Rajabi conveys a strong sense of place, observing a soon to be exile fruitlessly searching for friends at his former university to say goodbye to.

Given it brevity, Mohammad Farahani’s The Theft is difficult to discuss without giving the whole game away. Regardless of the O.Henry-esque development, it depicts the grim realities of poverty, particularly those endured by women, in no uncertain terms.

After For the Birds, Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s When the Kid was a Kid is likely to generate the most heated response. It is probably safe to say Taha has sexual identity issues, perhaps stemming from a problematic relationship with his often absent divorced mother. When the other kids in his apartment building play dress-up, Taha dons his mother’s dresses and make-up. Just what he gets out of the process remains ambiguous, but it is striking how readily the other children accept him as “Shohreh.” It is brave lead performance, but the entire youthful ensemble is quite engaging and unaffected.

The Iranian Short Block ends with another ringer. Frankly, Assal Ghawami’s A Day in Eden is respectably earnest and boasts a very fine performance from Briana Marin, but the American-set story of an Iranian cellist encountering an extremely difficult nursing home patient does not really speak to realities of contemporary Iranian life.

There is a lot viewers can glean and digest from the Iranian Shorts Program, especially the eye-opening For the Birds and the patient but forceful To Ride a Bike. Recommended for connoisseurs of short films and Iranian cinema, it screens this Saturday (7/26) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

AAIFF ’14: Awesome Asian Bad Guys

You will definitely recognize Al Leong. He was the henchman Sgt. Riggs strangled with his legs while he was administering electroshock torture in the original Lethal Weapon. That is a typical day at the office for Leong. PBS’s National Film Society set out to pay tribute to Leong and his fellow character actors with a web-series that turned into a festival film. Prepare to show all due respect when Stephen Dypiangco & Patrick Epino’s Awesome Asian Bad Guys (trailer here) screens during the 2014 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Internet video producers Dypiangco and Epino are on a mission to assemble an Expendables-like team of Asian action movie heavies, who will finally have the chance to be the good guys. They have two good reasons: they must protect Tamlyn Tomita (from the Karate Kid 2) and prevent commercial actor Aaron Takahasi from trying to permanently eliminate all his casting call competition.

The cool thing about AABG is how it deftly satirizes Hollywood’s Asian stereotyping while still lovingly honoring actors like Leong and George Cheung (Rambo II, Rush Hour) for making the best of a less than optimal job market. It is also mind-blowing to hear Tomita plays somebody’s mom on Glee (is that show still on?). Naturally, she makes a great damsel-in-distress and/or femme fatale. 

However, there is just too much of Dypiangco and Epino shticking it up as themselves. Frankly, there probably ought to be more action and less comedy, because that is what an Al Leong fan would want to see. Nevertheless, it is entertaining to watch the Awesome Asian Bad Guys finally get a curtain call.

Since AABG clocks in just under an hour, the AAIFF has paired it with a short featuring two fairly awesome bad guys. A pair of Yakuza are driving deep into the Mojave Desert to bury a body in Robbie Ikegami’s Pull Over to Kill. This will be the final errand for Watanabe, the soon to be retired strawberry farmer, but hot-headed Yasumoto is just starting out as a retainer. Needless to say complications ensue.

Viewers might predict the general trajectory of this two-hander, but Ikegami and cinematographer Alan Vidali make it look awfully stylish. Nor can anyone argue with Tatsuya Ito’s world weary steeliness, as Watanabe. The use of Michiko Hamamura’s “Tabu” and Saori Yuki’s “Yoaki No Scat” also vividly evoke the 1960’s vibe of many classic Yakuza pictures. In fact, POTK could even serve as an effective music video for them, inspiring post-screening downloads. It is a satisfying short that nicely fits with AABG. Recommended as a good festival package, Awesome Asian Bad Guys and Pull Over to Kill screen together tomorrow (7/25) at the Village East and Saturday at the Made in NY Media Center, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Come Back to Me: There Goes the Neighborhood

The message is clear: get a dog. They are protective and sensitive to the supernatural. Sarah and Josh’s neighbor simply cannot abide them, but unfortunately, they do not have one. Things will get decidedly creepy for her as a result in Paul Leyden’s Come Back to Me (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is pretty clear from the opening prelude Dale is a little off. He seems to be one of life’s victims, but there is something wrong about his responses. Not surprisingly, he grows up to be a weird, twitchy adult, who moves in right across the street from Sarah. Clearly, she is just his type, while she would prefer to avoid him altogether. However, she soon realizes his arrival coincides with the vivid night terrors suddenly plaguing her.

Her M.D. friend can relate. She too had similar experiences, but they subsided with a little medication. She also got her dog Buster around the same time. In a funny coincidence, Dale used to deliver her groceries, until he switched assignment due to his canine aversion. Even Sarah realizes Dale is a profoundly bad guy. She just cannot figure out how he is tormenting her. It is kind of a big revelation, but the title of former kick-boxer Wrath James White’s source novel pretty much gives it away, so do not watch the credits too closely.

Frankly, Leyden deserves credit for not going the found footage route, even though some digital video footage plays a pivotal role. He actually set out to make a real movie instead. It is still a rather mixed bag, but there are a couple of nasty surprises in store for viewers and he nicely maintains a consistent atmosphere of dread.

Nevertheless, he never really capitalizes on the potentially disorienting Vegas setting, aside from occasionally showing Josh at work dealing at his casino table. In fact, Josh is often problematic, disappearing to sulk over his sterility at the worst possible times. The fact that they own smart phones but never check their voicemail is annoyingly convenient. Katie Walder furrows her brow well enough for us to buy into Sarah’s ordeal and Nathan Keyes is appropriately unsettling as Dale, suggesting a restrained Crispin Glover. Even so, good old Buster often steals the show.

Maybe it is the over-exposed looking flashback scenes, but CBTM never truly takes flight, despite some promising elements. The ending is also likely to be divisive, but it earns points for avoiding the clichéd horror movie finale. Mainly for dark thriller-horror movie addicts, Come Back to Me opens this Friday (7/25) in New York at the AMC Empire and also launches on VOD platforms.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beneath: Where’s that Canary When They Need It?

As a soon-to-be retired coalminer, George Marsh’s way of life is slowing dying. So is he, but maybe not as slowly as he assumes. Naturally, there is an epic cave-in on his last day in the mine, but there might be more pressing concerns for his stranded party than their dwindling oxygen supply in Ben Ketai’s Beneath (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

To celebrate his retirement, Marsh’s daughter Samantha has returned from New York to attend his send-off. Perhaps she shouldn’t have. True, her father’s lungs are as black as, well coal, but he resents being pressured into retirement. After all, he never missed a day’s work in the thirty-one years since the mine opened. He also takes her environmental law practice as a not so subtle rebuke. Despite her new life, she can still relate to the guys relatively well, particularly her former high school sweetheart. She tries to convince them, she is really in their corner. It is the corporations she is against. However, they seem to think they wouldn’t have jobs without the mining company. As the discussion gets heated, she accepts a dare to come down with them the next morning.

That would be her father’s last day on the job, which pretty much guarantees some sort of movie disaster. Add in his fish-out-of-water daughter and a rookie with only a few weeks experience into the mix and you have the makings of a perfect subterranean storm. Indeed, something duly goes drastically wrong. As Ketai’s primary characters hunker down in the shelter awaiting rescue, strange things start to happening, risking their survival.

When it comes to genre films set within mine shafts, Beneath leaves Abandoned Mine in the dust. Ketai certainly creates a claustrophobic mood, but the real strength of the film is his sympathetic grasp of the working class environment. Never condescending, Beneath conveys the pride of the miners, derived in no small measure from the dangerous conditions they face each day. Yet, the film is almost too subtle presenting the question whether supernatural forces are plaguing the survivors or it is a case of rampant oxygen-deprived psychosis.

Unfortunately, the film also focuses on the wrong Marsh, following Samantha’s POV and largely sidelining the perennially under-rated Jeff Fahey, as the grizzled George. Kelly Noonan is perfectly fine as the rebellious daughter, but her perspective is pretty standard issue woman-in-horror-movie-jeopardy stuff. Amongst the supporting miners, Brent Briscoe definitely stands out as Marsh’s jovial buddy, Mundy. Witchblade’s Eric Etebari also glowers memorably as the uptight, chauvinistic Masek.

Without question, Beneath is one of the moodiest films acquired by IFC Midnight. While it is certainly a genre film, it never comes across as exploitative. Nevertheless, it leaves an intriguing side-plot regarding a similar 1920’s disaster frustratingly under-developed and closes with the clichéd eye-roller of a denouement. Better than the gruesome poster would lead you to expect, Beneath is recommended for those who horror films that cross-over category labels. It opens this Friday night (7/25) in New York at the IFC Center.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Master Builder: Ibsen Re-Staged by Shawn & Gregory

Critics generally rank The Master Builder not far below Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House in Henrik Ibsen’s oeuvre, but it is revived far less frequently. Notable past productions include a 2008 Malayalam film adaptation, a 1992 Broadway revival featuring Lynne Redgrave, and a 1960 television special starring E.G. Marshall. That did not leave a lot of iconic baggage for André Gregory to contend with when he staged a modern translation penned by his frequent collaborator and dinner companion Wallace Shawn. Their take on Ibsen’s somewhat autobiographical play now hits the big screen, but the original’s Scandinavian angst remains unmistakable in the Jonathan Demme helmed A Master Builder (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Halvard Solness is probably dying and his former mentor Knut Brovik most certainly is. Before his imminent demise, Brovik would like to see Solness make some sort of affirmation of his son Ragnar’s talents. However, the celebrated architect refuses to do so, preferring to keep the junior Brovik under his thumb as his draftsman. Frankly, he is afraid the son might usurp his position, just as he unseated his father. It also suits Solness to maintain a high degree of control over Ragnar, considering he has taken the young man’s fiancée Kaya Fosli as his mistress.

Solness’s relationship to his wife Aline is even more complicated than his dealings with the Brovik family. It seems he feels profound guilt over a shared tragedy from their past that will be revealed over time. The catalyst for his subsequent revelations and soul searching will be the arrival of Hilde Wangel, a free-spirited young woman, who was quite taken with Solness as a teenager. Evidently, he made some rather inappropriate advances at the time. Yet, it was the vision of Solness laying a wreath atop her village’s newly erected church steeple that really made an impression on her.

It will be Builder’s curse to be inevitably compared to Louis Malle’s classic career coda Vanya on 42nd Street, but that is a ridiculously high standard to be measured against. It is impossible replicate the evocative vibe of the gutted New Amsterdam Theatre in which it was mounted and Joshua Redman’s smoky harbop musical interludes are also sorely missed. Instead, Demme doubles down on intimacy, focusing on his actors and their human frailties.

As an acting showcase, Builder is still considerable, particularly Shawn, who gives full voice to Solness’s guilt and arrogance. He is a complex but manipulative character, who must be one of the great late-career challenges a stage actor can tackle. While it is a smaller role, Gregory cuts an acutely tragic figure as the physically and emotionally ailing Brovik. It is also good to see Broadway and Vanya veteran Larry Pine return as Dr. Elert Herdal. While it is smaller part, he has a very nice scene drawing out Solness’s initial first act confession.

Although Aline Solness’s preoccupation with obligation is difficult to re-contextualize in a modern production, Julie Hagerty still manages to flesh out a multidimensional portrayal. However, Lisa Joyce never successful integrates Wanger’s contradictory aspects. As a result, she largely remains a destabilizing cycher, periodically stirring matters up, apparently because that is what she does.

Builder is a serious and sensitive interpretation of Ibsen, but it does not have the timeless élan of Malle’s Vanya. At times, it is almost too respectful, allowing the string ensemble soundtrack to underscore the pathos of it all rather than injecting a little energy. Recommended for those who appreciate highly literate stage drama, A Master Builder opens this Wednesday (7/23) at New York’s Film Forum.

A Most Wanted Man: When Hoffman Met le Carre

Yes, intelligence gathering sometimes involves cloak-and-dagger work, but there is also a lot of bureaucracy. That has always been a side of the secretive business novelist John le Carré has been closely in touch with. For better or worse, all the hallmarks of a le Carré bestseller are to be found in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of his A Most Wanted Man (trailer here), which opens this Thursday in New York.

Hamburg was the city where the September 11th terrorist attacks were planned—a fact German intelligence is keenly aware of. It was not Gunther Bachmman’s territory at the time, but the spymaster is still in need of redemption. He was transferred to port city after his Beirut network was exposed. The who’s, how’s, and why’s remain murky, but there is no question regarding damage done to his career. However, the world weary scotch drinker has big game in his sights: Dr. Faisal Abdullah, an ostensive philanthropist and advocate of Muslim tolerance, whom Bachmann has reason to suspect is furtively funneling funds to terrorist organizations.

Being old school to his bones, Bachmann eschews interrogations or anything physical. He prefers to trap his prey and then turn them into assets. That is the plan with Abdullah, using the poor hapless Issa Karpov as bait. The son of a Chechen woman and a high ranking (and therefore corrupt) Soviet military officer, Karpov understandably identifies with his mother’s side of the family. Escaping his Russian torturers, Karpov has been branded an Islamist terrorist, but Bachmann is skeptical. Dieter Mohr, a more politically sensitive rival from an overlapping agency, would prefer to arrest the Chechen with great fanfare, but Bachmann sees the newly arrived asylum-seeker as an opportunity.

As it turns out, Karpov’s despised old man had an account in Hamburg—an account large enough to be a chip in Bachmann’s game. However, to play it, he will have to handle Karpov’s immigration attorney, Annabel Richter, and Tommy Brue, the banker holding his funds. Unfortunately, Bachmann is a le Carré protagonist, which means he must spend a great deal of time in boardrooms convincing dim-witted ministers to go along with his plan. For now, Martha Sullivan, the regional CIA string-puller, will give him time, but her patience and Bachmann’s trust are limited.

If you like your thrillers talky, you are already a le Carré reader and therefore thoroughly primed for Wanted. On the plus side, Corbijn’s is fully stocked with intelligent characters and meaty dialogue heavy with meaning. Conversely, le Carré’s moral equivalency between all parties is present in full force, as well as an aversion to cinematic action. Although its running time clocks in just over two hours, the ending still feels unsatisfyingly unfinished, leaving viewers to wonder if everyone would really leave things as they are.

Of course, the primary, if not only reason to see Wanted is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who fits into the role of Bachmann like a comfortably rumpled suit. Le Carré has said Hoffman is the only American who could play his iconic George Smiley—and it is easy to see what he means. Bachmann and Smiley are clearly cut from same cloth, while Hoffman, Gary Oldman, and Alec Guinness were/are some of the smartest, most engaging actors in the business.

Hoffman’s mushy German accent also works rather well in context, but Rachel McAdams is not nearly as convincing as Richter, the slumming daughter of privilege human rights attorney. At least Willem Dafoe certainly looks at home as Brue, the self-loathing banker. Sadly, Nina Hoss does not have much to do as Bachmann’s lieutenant, Irna Frey, but she classes up the joint, nonetheless. Most of the German cast-members largely serve as window dressing, especially Rush’s Daniel Brühl, who is about as easy to spot as Tony Curtis in The List of Adrian Messenger playing one of Bachmann’s surveillance specialists. Arguably, it is Robin Wright who best hangs with Hoffman, warily sparring with his Bachmann as the suspiciously smooth Sullivan.

Wisely, Andrew Bouvell’s adapted screenplay somewhat waters down the criticism of post-9-11 American foreign policy, but anti-Americanism is baked into the fiber of le Carré’s source novel. Yet, it is the film’s brief but explicit criticisms of Putin’s Russia that feel timelier now. Corbijn has a good eye for the project, capturing the cold, cerebral world of intrigue and modernist architecture. There is much to admire about it, but aside from Hoffman’s haggard everyman performance, the film does it best to keep viewers at arm’s length, like a film that does not want to be wanted. Recommended for knowing fans of le Carré and Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man opens this Thursday night (7/24) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gangster Night: Al Capone—Icon

Al Capone did not leave a lot of evidence lying around—particularly not in his vault, right Geraldo? Elliott Ness could also confirm the scarcity of Capone’s paper trail. Almost overnight, he became the original archetype of the sharp dressed gangster, but his glory days were relatively short-lived. Chicago’s most famous resident gets the biographical and sociological treatment in Al Capone: Icon (promo here), which airs this Tuesday during PBS’s “Gangster Night.”

He was Brooklyn’s native son, but he found his fame and fortune in the Windy City. It was a precipitous rise from a street barker hustling speakeasy customers to the boss of the Chicago Outfit. Prohibition made all the difference. As you might have heard, it never really took. In fact, it led to widespread acceptance of criminal behavior. Capone had a good run riding that wave. Unlike his gangster contemporaries, Scarface Al cultivated the media, who gave him rockstar coverage for a while. However, the carnage of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre turned opinion against Capone, even though he was never directly implicated in the killings.

Of course, most everyone should know Capone was never convicted for his gangster business (aside from a relatively minor weapons charge). Nevertheless, Capone sought to embody the gangster age, so he took the brunt of the public’s Valentine’s Day outrage. Frankly, most of Icon’s expert commentary is more concerned with Capone as a media figure and a model for countless gangster movie protagonists.

Many viewers will probably want to hear more about Capone’s operations, but frankly the Feds probably still do too. Regardless, there is an interesting cast assembled to discuss Capone as a cultural phenomenon, including a veteran Chicago Commander of Detectives Thomas Reppetto, Capone’s grand niece Deirdre, very former mobster Frank Calabrese, Jr., and several academics. Rather surprisingly, the great vocalist Cassandra Wilson also appears (quite stylishly), discussing Capone’s role as an early patron of jazz as the king of the Chicago’s nightlife.

While the talking heads are a bit uneven, Icon is still consistently informative in an entertaining, non-taxing sort of way. Arguably, there is better quality control for PBS’s lower profile one-off specials like this than some of their bigger marquee events. Recommended for those who enjoy gangster-watching, Al Capone: Icon premieres this Tuesday (7/22) as part of “Gangster Night,” along with the History Detectives’ investigation of the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance (which presumably fails since no indictments have been issued).