Friday, October 31, 2014

30 for 30: Brothers in Exile

New Yorkers would recognize Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez’s high leg kick anywhere. His half-brother Livan did not do so badly for the Florida Marlins either. For the Cuban pitchers, winning World Series championships was the easy part. Escaping Castro’s police state was much more difficult. Their journeys to freedom and a better life are chronicled in Mario Diaz’s Brothers in Exile (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series.

As half-brothers, Orlando and Livan Hernandez did not grow up together, but baseball clearly ran in their mutual father’s side of the family. Orlando quickly made a name for himself, first as the ace of the Havana Industriales and then with the Cuban national team. That name would be “El Duque.” From time to time, he would visit his younger half-brother, giving him tips. They clearly panned out. Unfortunately, when the state athletic commissars and minders finally pushed Livan past his breaking point with their controls and humiliations, his defection caused profound problems for El Duque. The Party security apparatus and their plain clothes thugs just automatically assumed El Duque was in on his plans.

Banned from baseball, shunned by society, and frequently harassed on the streets, El Duque feared for his safety and his family’s future. Unfortunately, thanks to the Clinton Administration’s changes in immigration policy (never addressed in Exile), it had become much harder for Cuban refugees to be granted asylum status, while it was still just as treacherous navigating the Straits of Florida.

The truly perilous circumstances of El Duque’s flight for freedom are perhaps not a scoop per se, but they are certainly not well understood by the general baseball public. Frankly, he is lucky to be alive. Likewise, the role John Cardinal O’Connor and the New York Catholic diocese played facilitating El Duque’s eventual reunion with his family will be eye-opening stuff for many viewers.

To his credit, Garcia is pretty forthright documenting the persecution directed at El Duque and his family by the Party and its enforcers. However, he essentially lets Castro and his fanatical devotion to a command-and-control ideology off the hook for the mass suffering experienced during the so-called “special period.” Regardless, some of the best sequences explore the significance of the Hernandezes’ successes for the Cuban-American community.

Exile has a strong emotional kick, but it also brings back many fond memories for Yankees and Marlins fans. In fact, some of the best stories come from their respective glory year catchers, Jorge Posada and Charles Johnson. Ultimately, it expresses the value of baseball and freedom, two things that have a prized place within the Cuban-American experience. Recommended as a solid installment in the first-rate 30 for 30 series, Brothers in Exile premieres this Tuesday (11/4) on ESPN.

Eurocrime!: the Cool Part of the 1970s You Probably Missed

Do you want a congressman who can wage a one-man war against the mob? If so, Chris Mitchum is definitely your candidate in California’s 24th district. While not as famous as his father, Mitchum still had quite a career overseas that included the Italian cops-and-mobsters genre known as “poliziotteschi.” Originally inspired by American films like The Godfather, they were popular domestically, throughout Europe, and even in Asia, but never found a fraction of the spaghetti westerns’ success in the American market. Yet, the genre has developed a cult following among hip cineastes in recent years, which gratifies and/or amuses the poliziotteschi veterans in Mike Malloy’s documentary Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films that Ruled the ‘70s (trailer here), now available on DVD from Cinema Epoch.

The poliziotteschi were actually meant to be dubbed. It was faster and cheaper to drop the sound in later than to record it live. As a result, the average poliziotteschi shoot was considerably louder and more chaotic than American actors were accustomed to. The dubbing was obviously not a hindrance for Italian audiences, who ate up poliziotteschi on a weekly basis, but it never worked over here. Of course, the spaghettis had been dubbed as well, but they used dialogue rather sparingly. Not so the poliziotteschi.

Nonetheless, they sure cranked out a lot of them. It all started with Franco Nero in Enzo Castellari’s High Crime, but when he passed on the follow-up, the similar looking Maurizio Merli was hired—and a star was born. Quite a few Americans found  regularly work in poliziotteschi, including Mitchum, John Saxon, Henry Silva, Fred Williamson, and Joe Dallesandro, all of whom remember the chaos quite fondly for Malloy. Except for Mitchum, whose heart belongs to the 24th District, they all say they would love to go back and start doing them again.

Their stories are about as crazy as you would expect, involving real life mafia encounters, dodgy safety precautions, and general run-and-gun filmmaking madness, sans permits. However, Malloy also explores the ironic cultural and political context of these films, largely focused on cops and vigilantes, but often produced by avowed Communists, during a period of violent leftwing terrorism conducted by the Red Brigades.

Throughout the film, Malloy hits the right notes, celebrating the good things about poliziotteschi (cars driving on stairs), while admitting their faults (frequent scenes of violence against women). Although Eurocrime! is considerably longer than you would expect, clocking in just over two hours, it moves along at breakneck speed. Malloy channels the poliziotteschi spirit quite cleverly, reusing an exploding car to introduce each segment, much like the waste-not-want-not films with their well-earned reputation for recycling action scenes.

Who knew Henry Silva was this funny? It’s true, Malloy has the proof in his interview segments. The DVD also features two deleted scenes that have great material, but maybe do not exactly match the tone of the rest of the film. The whole package is thoroughly entertaining, especially for cult film fans who will see the poliziotteschi as the forefathers of the 1980s Cannon action B-movies. Highly recommended, Eurocrime! is now available on DVD from Cinema Epoch, right in time for holiday shopping.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Quiet in Odessa: To Be Jewish and Ukrainian, Post-Maidan

It has been frustrating to hear western media unquestioningly parrot the Putin propaganda line on Ukraine. Of course, that is much easier to do than actually reporting on-scene and talking to everyday Ukrainians up-close-and-personal. Fortunately, Dmitriy Khavin does things the hard way. As part of his continuing efforts to document Ukrainian cultural life and the Jewish Ukrainian experience, Khavin interviewed a diverse cross-section of Odessa’s Jewish community. Their first-hand accounts and unfiltered responses make Khavin’s Quiet in Odessa (trailer here) absolutely must-see viewing when it screens this Sunday at the JCC in Manhattan.

For historically painful reasons, Jews around the world have traditionally been leery of nationalism. However, the recent crisis has brought out new found feelings of patriotism in Khavin’s interview subjects, who now more readily self-identify as Ukrainians and Odessans, as well as Jews. In one case, a young Jewish Odessan has indefinitely postponed making Aliyah out of solidarity with her fellow Ukrainians.

Khavin also talks to older Jewish Odessans who, much to their own surprise, volunteered for the civilian Self-Defense Brigade. Despite their age, they are still not to be trifled with. They also represent the country’s inclusiveness, serving shoulder to shoulder with Catholic and Orthodox comrades, as well as at least one Georgian. (In fact, Ukrainian-Georgian diplomatic bonds have grown stronger at all levels, due to their unfortunate shared experiences with Putinist Russia.)

Probably the greatest revelation though, will be the surprising ties many Jewish Ukrainian have forged with Right Sector, Putin and the American media’s favorite bogeyman. In a particularly telling episode, Odessa’s senior rabbi relates how the leader of Right Sector came to him to apologize for a rash of anti-Semitic graffiti, disavowing any involvement, but pledging his group’s support painting over the provocations the following weekend. It is exactly the sort of story that should be reported, but isn’t.

There is also a good deal of humor in Quiet, much of it coming from the old timers at the city’s venerable bathhouse, who joke about their Jewishness in terms that would raise the eyebrows of old school borsch belt comics. Just as importantly, Khavin also conveys a vivid sense of Odessa’s old world charm and sophistication. It seems like a very livable city to call home—and a place worth fighting for.

You really have to respect Khavin’s go-and-report approach to filmmaking. He puts a very personal face on people the news media prefers to cover with broad stereotypical strokes. Yet, his micro focus yields macro insights. Frankly, this is a film that needs to reach a mass audience rather urgently. It is timely and informative, but also consistently engaging, supported by a subtle but elegant soundtrack, featuring Uri Cane and vocalist Sofiya Leavsie. Very highly recommended, Quiet in Odessa screens this Sunday (11/2) at the JCC in Manhattan. It also screens at Brooklyn’s Central Library on November 20th as part of a double bill with Khavin’s eye-opening The Territory.

Crime Wave: He Came from the North, with a Color Crime Dream

In Winnipeg, they don’t care for black-and-white film noir. They prefer “color crime movies.” It is a strange city, as viewers should know from Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. Although Maddin is much better known today, John Paizs provided the Winnipeg auteur his early inspiration. One can see a kinship in their films, but Paizs’ magnum opus is truly singular unto itself. Color crime dreams turn into nightmares in Paizs’ Crime Wave (clip here), which has a special revival screening this Sunday at Anthology Film Archives.

Steven Penny is a shy loner, who rents a room from Kim’s parents above their garage. For some strange reason, the pre-teen becomes fascinated with their lodger and his ambition to write a great color crime screenplay. Each draft of Crime Wave he writes starts and ends the same way. Some eccentric field of employment (like celebrity tribute performers or self-help gurus) is dominated by a small clique that pretty much “has the racket sewn up,” until a brash upstart “from the north” blows into town “with a dream.” Apparently, they commence some sort of crime spree to usurp the competition, but just when they are poised on the brink of success, they are brought down by a violently confrontation.

How does Penny get from the beginning to the end? Unfortunately, he does not know either. Try as he might, he just can’t write middles. The frustration takes a toll on his psyche, even though Kim tries her best to be encouraging. In fact, he seems increasingly uncomfortable with her obsessive attention. However, when she finds him a potential screenwriting mentor in Kansas, the film really veers out into strange, dark territory.

With characters eventually interacting with their failed author, Crime Wave is more in the tradition of Borges or Pirandello than the early color melodramas it ostensibly spoofs. It is often quite funny, especially the successive takes of Penny’s middle-less screenplay we watch play out. Yet, there is something rather sad and slightly unsettling about Paizs’ taciturn performance as Penny. It is hard to describe the eccentric chord he strikes, but it is certainly distinctive.

The look of the film is also perfect in a perfectly idiosyncratic way. Whatever cameras and filmstock Paizs used aptly evoke the look of 1960s educational films as well as the contemporaneous color work of Douglas Sirk and Roger Corman. It is easily one of the most self-referential, postmodern films of the 1980s, but its sensibility not so far removed from a sketch comedy show like The Kids in the Hall, where Paizs did some segment directorial gigging.

It is really amazing how completely insane yet tightly controlled Crime Wave really is. It is clearly the work of a mad auteur that must be experienced from start to finish to truly get its scope and vibe. For obvious reasons, it has become cult favorite amongst Canadian cineastes. It is well worth seeing under any conditions, but especially when Paizs answers post-screening questions this Sunday (11/2) at Anthology Film Archives, because there are sure to be many and the answers will likely be a little odd. Indeed, Crime Wave is definitely recommended for color crime fanatics as a memorable way to wrap-up the weekend.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hollows Grove: More Found Footage for Halloween

Reality TV show crews make convenient grist for found footage horror films, because nobody will be terribly distraught when they are dispatched in supernatural fashion. That is particularly true of the on-air “talent” comprising S.P.I.T., the Spirit Paranormal Investigation Team. They will pick the wrong haunted orphanage for their ghost chasing in Craig Efros’ Hollows Grove (trailer here), now available on VOD.

Grove starts out with a canned introduction from an FBI Agent thanking us for cooperating with their investigation by reviewing the footage to follow, which doesn’t make sense. Clearly, it is an attempt to shake up the found footage format, so whatever. What we will see is supposedly edited from the cameras of a S.P.I.T. crewmember and Harold Maxwell, a down-on-his-luck would-be filmmaker trying to produce a documentary on his old college buddies who made good in “reality” TV. Of course, Maxwell is quickly disillusioned when he meets retired Hollywood special effects artist Bill O’Neal, who stages all the spooky mayhem seen on the show.

To maintain spontaneity, they never know what surprises O’Neal has in store for them. This will be important to keep in mind when they start taping in Hollows Grove, an orphanage that became a dumping ground for special needs children. Residents were routinely abused, physically and sexually. At least two nurse committed suicide, in the same room, naturally enough. All that’s missing is a Nazi staff director performing black masses in the basement, but for all we know that happened too.

If the studio could successfully sue the distributors of Abby for infringing on The Exorcist, the Vicious Brothers ought to have a cast iron case to make against Grove for “paying homage” to Grave Encounters. However, Efros has a nice wrinkle with O’Neal’s presumed trickery. Since the lads assume all the weird stuff in the early stages is his handiwork, they mug for the cameras, while viewers realize they are majorly in for it. The crusty veteran FX hand also happens to be played by Lance Henriksen, who is as cool as ever in what is essentially a long cameo appearance.

So yes, we have seen this before—and seen it better in the recent Taking of Deborah Logan and the original Encounters. Nonetheless, the bickering and bantering of Matt Doherty and Sunkrish Bala as the show’s co-hosts helps keep it fresh. Bresha Webb also adds some style and attitude as their somewhat bemused segment producer, Julie Mercade.

Frankly, the entire ensemble sells the madness relatively well, but the stakes have definitely been raised in the found footage game. There are several creepy sequences in Grove, but the aforementioned films are more consistently scary. It is a passably diverting haunted institution movie, but fans should have better options during Halloween. Those who order it up anyway should be warned there is a stinger, so don’t log off when the credits start to roll. For diehard Henriksen fans (and we know you’re out there), Hollows Grove is now available via VOD platforms.

Horns: Supernatural Growths

Ig Perrish is in for some Kafkaesque body horror, but at least there will be productive side effects. Those horns he finds growing from his temples are like paranormal sodium pentothal when it comes to getting people to reveal their hidden secrets—the darker and more shocking the better. Sadly, he will employ his grim new talent to find the murder of his lifelong girlfriend in Alexandre Aja’s Horns (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Perrish was a pariah in his Twin Peaks-ish Pacific Northwest town, even before the horns. Nearly everyone assumes he murdered Merrin Williams, the love of his life, who had just thrown him over. Unfortunately, he does not have one of those alibi thingamajigs, but there is no direct evidence tying him to the murder. The situation just continues fester until his wakes up with the mother of all scarlet letters sprouting from his head.

Strangely, most people hardly notice the horns and promptly forget them shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, when talking to Perrish in-the-moment, everyone develops a wicked case of TMI, answering his questions with brutally revealing honesty. Weaker characters can also be somewhat susceptible to suggestion. Only a handful of people appear immune to Perrish’s power, including Merrin Williams’ utterly bereft father and their mutual childhood friend, Lee Tourneau, who now represents Perrish as the local public defender.

Based on a novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), Horns is definitely a genre film, featuring plenty of macabre and outlandish scenes. However, it is surprisingly engaging on an emotional level, especially for a horror film, but even by the standards of conventionally square drama. Viewers will really care what happens to Perrish and mourn the pure-hearted romance that was violently cut short.

Given the horns and all, it is not surprising to find so much religious symbolism and subtext, but the film’s deep moral center comes as another pleasant surprise. While Perrish’s uncanny growths erupt after he spurns God (following an encounter with a highly judgmental clergyman) his salvation will come (if indeed it does) through the honest fate of Williams and her father Dale.

That’s all great, but Horns genre mechanics are also quite strong. Perrish’s supernaturally enhanced interrogations are quite cleverly written and often darkly comic. Yet, Aja still takes care of horror movie business, steadily building the sense of foreboding and genuine suspense.

Daniel Radcliffe, who used to make kiddie movies, is terrific as Perrish, convincingly getting at his deep-as-the-marrow pain and angst, rather than hiding behind hipster bravado. David Morse manages to be even rawer, providing the film’s moral touchstone as Dale Williams. Juno Temple is almost too spritely for Merrin Williams, but Max Minghella’s Tourneau has some memorable moments too complicated to explain here.

It is debatable whether Horns is really a horror film or a dark urban fantasy, but it should thoroughly satisfy fans of both. It is a strangely powerful film that hits a heck of a lot of bases. Highly recommended, Horns opens Halloween Friday (10/31) in New York at the Village East.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Taking of Deborah Logan: Dementia Gets Demented

There are three attics in Deborah Logan’s spooky old house, where evil ought to have more than enough room to supernaturally lurk about. However, the best corner for a demonic force to wreak havoc might be within her age addled soul. A research team shooting a video study of life with Alzheimer’s will end up filming a found footage horror movie in Adam Robitel’s The Taking of Deborah Logan (trailer here), which is now available on early EST (electronic sell-through), just in time for Halloween, but duly in advance of its DVD release next Tuesday.

Mia Medina’s research thesis postulates those who care for family members with Alzheimer’s will also face long term health issues of their own, as a result. Sarah Logan appears to be an excellent case study. Dealing with her increasingly erratic mother has her at the end of her tether. Deborah Logan’s tendency to make cracks about her sexuality during lucid moments does not help much either. As a further complication, Mrs. Logan is still proud enough to resent the presence of Medina’s camera crew, but they need the fees provided by her research grant.

Initially, Medina and crew think they are merely documenting Logan’s precipitous decline, but really messed up things start happening. Eventually, Logan is hospitalized when she exhibits violent symptoms not associated with Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, the madness only gets worse at this point. Oh by the way, you don’t suppose the ritualistic killer who once preyed on children in the neighboring towns could somehow be involved?

Yes, we have been down this dark corridor before, but Taking is shockingly scary nonetheless. Partly, it is because Robitel starts the sinister uncanniness slowly, cranking up the intensity subtly and deliberately throughout the first two acts. Frankly, one sly “what the heck” moment is better than a barrage of special effects. Plus, Robitel and co-screenwriter Gavin Heffernan tap into some deeply rooted anxieties regarding the vulnerabilities of age and the resulting deterioration of the faculties. They also play on those traditional horror movie fears of getting done over by a strange unseen force.

Further aiding the cause is a far superior cast of TV veterans than ordinarily found in more-or-less straight to DVD releases. Sometimes funny and sometimes profoundly sad, Anne Ramsay (recognizable from Dexter and Mad About You) is terrific as the exasperated Sarah Logan. Likewise Michelle Ang (who co-starred in several long-running Australian shows) brings attitude and edginess as Medina, while it is truly frightening to watch All My Children’s Jill Larsen portray Deborah Logan’s disintegrating body and soul.

Taking is a way more effective film than skeptical horror fans will expect. It is worth noting it was produced by Bryan Singer, which gives it further genre cred (and some extra added meta awkwardness). Highly recommended for Halloween-inspired viewing, The Taking of Deborah Logan is now available via EST (not a New Age cult in Marin County) and releases on DVD next Tuesday (11/4) from Millennium Entertainment.

Kim Ki-Duk’s Moebius

There are more castrations than spoken words in Kim Ki-duk’s latest dark cinematic night of the soul. That might come across like a conversation ender, but Kim is only getting started. It might sound like a remake of Caligula, but Kim has actually crafted the most dysfunctional family drama perhaps ever. It is also an art film. Truly, there are no words for the dialogue-free Moebius (trailer here), available today on DVD from RAM Releasing.

There are no names in Moebius either, making it all extra archetypal. Increasingly unhinged by her husband’s open philandering with the corner store lady, the mother takes a knife to the father, hoping to give him the Bobbitt treatment. After he successfully fights her off, she storms into their sleeping son’s room, venting her wrath on his manhood instead. When she flees into the night, the father is left to pick up the pieces as best he can—emotionally speaking.

Out of solidarity, he will undergo surgery to match his son’s condition. Logically, he loses all interest in his former mistress, but the mercilessly bullied son is irresistibly drawn to her corner store. At one point, when a gang of thugs saves him from a pack of school bullies, he is subsequently forced to be complicit in their rape of the shopkeeper. However, even greater transgressions await the audience in the third act.

If there is a taboo Kim misses in Moebius, it must be getting relatively normalized in Korea. Here he calls and raises the incestuous themes of Pieta with castration, erotic self-mutilation, and sexual violence, while completely eschewing spoken dialogue. Frankly, it probably works better that way, because once characters start using certain terminology, it necessarily creates a lurid or clinical atmosphere, whereas Moebius is genuinely distinguished by its vibe of overpowering madness.

Obviously, it is a challenge to play such tortured characters without the benefit of words. For Lee Eun-u, it is doubly tricky, because she plays the dual role of the mother and the mistress. Looking and veritably becoming two entirely different people, she gives two very distinct but equally harrowing performances. Likewise, Seo Yeong-ju is a quiet cauldron of resentment and neuroses as the son. Stuck in the passive role, Jo Jae-hyeon’s is largely overwhelmed on-screen, by design. As a fictional family unit, they could not be any sicker, but as an ensemble they remarkably compatible, adroitly turning each new jaw-dropping outrage.

It is hard to imagine anyone anywhere ever sitting down for a repeat viewing of Moebius. However, it is a serious film that every film critic and scholar will eventually have to deal with. Arguably, it never feels remotely as excessive in-the-screening-moment as it sounds on paper, but it is most certainly not for mainstream audiences.

Moebius was already notorious before its first international festival screenings, because of the many rounds of cuts it went through before passing muster with the Korean film rating authority (have no fear, we have the real deal here). Although we abhor censorship of any kind, in this case one has to wonder not what bits were they forced to cut, but what exactly were the parts they were willing to keep.

By now, you should know good and well whether Moebius is for you. It is an awfully well made film that will have you shaking your head in utter disbelief in where it is willing to go. That is certainly a memorable cinematic experience, but it is only recommended for the most daring and defiant cineastes out there. For those adventurous souls, the uncut (so to speak) Moebius is now available on DVD from RAM Releasing.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Private Peaceful: Brothers in Arms

When two movie brothers go off to war, it is a lead pipe cinch one of them is not coming back. The questions will be which one and under what circumstances. The answers will be revealed in a series of flashbacks throughout Pat O’Connor’s WWI drama, Private Peaceful (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Adapted from the novel by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, Private will incorporate the themes of Paths of Glory and Saving Private Ryan within trenches of Flanders, but Simon Reade’s screenplay scrupulously takes its time establishing the Peaceful family dynamics before reaching that point. Charlie Peaceful is the older, brasher brother, who always looked out for the shier, more sensitive Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful. Poor Tommo will become increasingly withdrawn, first blaming himself for the death of their gamekeeper father and then watching Charlie marry Molly Monks, the childhood friend they both love, after getting her in a family way.

Initially, Tommo Peaceful volunteers as a way of escaping his broken heart, but he quickly learns the bitter realities of trench fighting and chemical warfare. Soon his brother enlists, despite his parental obligations, in order to keep Tommo alive. Naturally, Charlie Peaceful clashes badly with the gung ho Sgt. Hanley, ultimately leading to the court martial seen in deliberately cagey snippets throughout the film.

The notion that the officers and war boosters were blithely anticipating previous wars is hardly a new insight, but Private adds a clumsy element of class warfare in the person of the corpulent Colonel, who owns the estate employing the Peacefuls’ father and subsequently exploiting the Peaceful mother and brothers. “Guns and horses, that’s how we beat the Boers,” he blusters. As great as the late Richard Griffiths was (we prefer to remember him in Withnail & I rather than Harry Potter), his turn as the Colonel is total caricature.

On the other hand, the fraternal drama is rather honest stuff, quite nicely turned by two of the UK’s fastest rising stars. Private technically predates ’71 and For Those in Peril, clearly showing why Yann Demange picked Jack O’Connell as the young face of war’s chaos in the former, while George MacKay demonstrates an affinity for guilt-tormented brothers that would also manifest in the latter.

In fact, O’Connell is considerably more dynamic here than he is convincingly portraying Demange’s overwhelmed fresh recruit. Indeed, it is the young cast members who carry Private, including the smaller supporting players, such as Eline Powell, who is terrific as Anna, Tommo’s potential French love interest.

While it lacks the tragic sweep of Galipoli, Private is an effectively micro-focused period anti-war film that should be considered a cut or two above standard PBS Masterpiece programming. O’Connor balances the familial drama with the horrors of war well enough in the third act, but tarries somewhat in the mid-section devoted to the difficult days following the senior Peaceful’s death. Earnest and respectable, Peaceful Private is recommended on balance for fans of British literary adaptations when it opens this Friday (10/31) in New York at the AMC Empire.

Goodbye to Language: Same Old Godard Agenda, Now in 3D

Jean-Luc Godard might be using the latest in 3D technology, but it is in the service of his decades old ideological and aesthetic program. He will strip away bourgeoisie affectations, like plot and characterization, in favor of wordplay and collage. However, all viewers are left with is Godard’s dog Miéville (playing Roxy) in Goodbye to Language (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

A single man and a married woman commence an affair. It is passionate at first, but eventually turns violent. It is a familiar story, but still promising dramatic grist in the right hands. Of course, Godard cannot be bothered to develop it. Instead, he will simply dole out fragments of the mercurial relationship, in between episodes of linguistic gamesmanship.

As is usually the case with recent Godard films, viewers had better come prepared to read, because the auteur will explicitly tell them just what and how they should think. That might sound problematic in a 3D film like Language, but Godard uses the effect to privilege certain words above others. It might be the only clever aspect of the film.

Much has been made of the superimposition of 3D images in one sequence, in which different scenes can be seen out of either eye. Unfortunately, neither is particularly interesting. Indeed, the film’s drably pedestrian visuals are arguably its greatest sin. For all of its gamesmanship, it looks stylistically similar to early 1980s experimental films, like Joan Jonas’s Volcano Saga or Double Lunar Dogs, but without similar hooks for the audience to grab onto.

Arguably, we are not supposed to luxuriate in lush imagery, because that too would be bourgeoisie. Godard would rather goad us with dashed off would-be profundities, such as the observation Hitler fulfilled all his promises (except, presumably that 1,000 year Reich thing), which only a Parisian Maoist could find provocative. There is so little in Godard’s kit bag this time around, he frequently resorts to the oldest, cheapest trick in the book: sudden deafening blasts of noise.

Frankly, this film has no reason for being, because Godard and his fellow traveling poststructuralists won the philosophic day decades ago. Language represents the state of critical and aesthetic thinking in today’s academia, chapter and verse. They just never had a plan for winning the peace, so the old discredited forms still hold sway over the popular culture. As if on cue, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley (she wrote Frankenstein, get it?) pop up as representatives of the old order to be swept away. Yet, each has more currency to the lives of ordinary proletarians than any of Godard’s films have, since at least the 1980s.

3D aside, there is nothing in Language that has not been done before and done better. It is possible to jettison narrative and still produce something intriguing. Whether they speak to readers or not, the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet are impressive, because he removes narrative and character, yet they still retain the form of mystery novels. In effect, he pulls the tablecloth out from under the place settings, without upsetting a glass. In contrast, with Language, Godard simply kicks over the table and then takes an ostentatious bow.

As a work of cinema, Language is dreadfully slight, but that is not really how it should be judged. It is really part of a wider piece of performance art, in which Godard keeps testing the limits of how little he can give the film festival intelligentsia while still maintaining their adulation. You’re being punked, so stop encouraging him. Not recommended, Goodbye to Language opens this Wednesday (10/29) at the IFC Center.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Restored in All Its Expressionist Glory

Never ask a sideshow somnambulist when you will die. It is simply too easy for him to make his prophecies come true, especially when he is commanded by a psychotic Svengali with advanced psychiatric training. It is a mistake people still repeat in horror movies. There are a great many such genre motifs that can be traced back to this silent German classic, but the inferiority of public domain prints made it difficult to fully appreciate its feverish vision. Happily, Robert Weine’s ground-breaking The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been digitally restored to its original German expressionist glory, or as close as humanly possible. After playing to a packed house as part of MoMA’s annual To Save and Project film series, Weine’s restored Caligari (trailer here) opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Like the Ancient Mariner, Francis has a story that will disturb his elderly listener, but it needs to be told. It involves his rather distraught-looking fiancée Jane Olsen, and his best friend Alan. Like the German equivalent of Jules and Jim, both men openly courted Olsen, but resolved to remain friends regardless whom she chooses. Unfortunately, the choice will be made for her when the two friends attend the annual fair.

This year, Dr. Caligari has been granted a permit to exhibit his somnambulist, Cesare, by the soon to be deceased city clerk. According to Caligari, Cesare exists in a state of uncanny slumber, but can be temporarily roused to predict the future. “When will I die,” asks Alan. “At first dawn,” replies the zombie-like Cesare. Late that evening, a hulking figure roughly Cesare’s shape makes the prediction come true. Distraught over the death of his friend, Francis starts pursuing his killer, quickly focusing his suspicions on Caligari and Cesare.

Hans Janowitz & Carl Mayer’s screenplay is considerably more sophisticated than most silent era potboilers, but the ironic framing device was not their idea. In fact, it is largely thought to subvert their ideological intentions. Nevertheless, it is hard to feel comfortable with the authority Caligari’s represents, despite the eleventh hour twist. Indeed, Cabinet can be seen as an early example of subjective reality achieving equal standing with objective reality.

Regardless, Cabinet is a thoroughly otherworldly environment that only vaguely approximates the forms of our world. Aside from that titular box, you will hardly find any right angles in this town out of time. Instead, everything is made out of jagged lines and slanting diagonals. Janowitz and Mayer’s screenplay was conceived out of aesthetic notions of film as a truly collaborative, inter-disciplinary endeavor, where set designers would be as creatively engaged as actors, writers, and directors. Cabinet might the greatest realization of their egalitarian ideal.

Visually, it is an absolute wonder—and a disorienting horror show. The 4K restoration went back to the incomplete camera negative and the best extant prints available, adding footage typically not seen in PD cuts. The original inter-titles have been reinserted and the seemingly abrupt cuts have been augmented with previously missing frames. Gone are the hiss and scratches, replaced by a close approximation of the 1920 color tints and washes. It all looks great on the big screen—and the bigger the better.

Rather inconveniently, it is Werner Krause’s performance as Caligari that holds up best for contemporary viewers. He chews the scenery with villainous relish, shifting gears on a dime when necessary. Despite Cabinet’s lineage, Krause would become an outspoken supporter of the National Socialists and star in Veit Harlan’s notoriously anti-Semitic Jew Süss. On the other hand, Conrad Veidt would play Major Strasser in Casablanca, but he sleepwalks (in a literal sense) through the picture as Cesare. Still, the physicality and theatricality of his work have helped make Cabinet so iconic.

This is a true classic film that has lost none of its power to mesmerize, but the restoration makes it a much smoother and more lucid viewing experience. Almost a century later it remains vastly influential, even though for years it has not been shown in its true glory. Very highly recommended, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens Halloween Friday (10/31) in New York at Film Forum.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

CICFF ’14: The Singing Pond

It follows in the tradition of the Bollywood smash Taare Zameen Par, but it has a much more manageable running time. There is still has an intermission for exhibitors who chose to observe it. You can also be sure plenty of lessons will be learned by children and adults alike in Indika Ferdinando’s The Singing Pond (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2014 Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.

Uma is a well-to-do radical, who has had enough of revolution. Taking a more grassroots, trickle-up approach to social change, she accepts a teaching position in a remote Sri Lankan village. The strict principal is sure she will transfer out as soon as possible, just like her predecessors. However, Uma is surprisingly persistent. Soon she moderates his disciplinary tendencies, while instituting some new school policies, like the morning assembly.

Each day starts with a distinctly personal speech from one of the students, through which Uma gains dramatic insights of their daily lives. However, blind Upuli’s speech moves the school beyond insight into action. Lamenting she will never see the ocean, yet still dreams of experiencing it, Upuli strikes a chord with her classmates. They have never seen the ocean either and have little prospects of ever leaving their village to do so. It is only a day’s drive away, but it might as well be on a different planet, until Uma starts organizing a class trip.

Of course, it will take the entire village’s support to overcome all the unforeseen obstacles. Many of those will come from the village officer, who does not like anything that could loosen his control over the community. He will become a problem, but fortunately his wife is Uma’s secret ally.

Pond is all very earnest and gentle. There are not a lot of surprises in store for viewers, but its messages regarding the value of education and teamwork should meet with parental approval. Ferdinando has a good eye for Sri Lankan locales, framing some lovely scenes. However, it is the catchy tunes composed by classical and alt-rock composer Dinesh Subasinghe that really make the film. His score is light years better than Staare’s annoying whistle theme.

Frankly, Uma is way too much of a little Miss Perfect, but Anasuya Subasinghe’s warm screen presence serves the role quite well. She can also carry a tune and looks comfortable behind a piano. Still, the film’s standout work comes from playwright-actor Lucien Bulathsinhala, who has some subtly turned moments as the not-as-gruff-as-he-first-seems principal.

Yes, it is all very nice, which is not a bad thing. Pond is the sort of film that should expand children’s horizons without overwhelming them in the enormity of global poverty, but it might be too sweet for hipper parents, guardians, and fans of movie musicals. Recommended for family viewing, The Singing Pond screens this Tuesday morning (10/28) at the Logan Center for the Arts, as part of this year’s CICFF.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley: the Darcys, the Wickhams, and a Corpse

Just loosening up a little represented quite a character development arc for Mr. Darcy, whereas Wickham remained just a cad. Still, he would not seem to be the sort of chap to commit murder, but the circumstantial evidence says otherwise. Ironically, Wickham’s only hope to avoid the gallows lies with the Darcys who loathe him so well in Death Comes to Pemberley (promo here), P.D. James’ whodunit sequel to Pride and Prejudice, which airs the next two Sundays as part of the current season of PBS’s Masterpiece.

After six years, the Darcys are still reasonably happily married. Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett) is a kind and understanding mistress of Pemberley, counterbalancing her sometimes gruff husband. Her sister Lydia is not to be received at Pemberley, especially not with her mercenary husband, George Wickham. However, they are determined to crash the Darcys’ formal ball, in the company of Wickham’s former army buddy, Captain Martin Denny.

Unfortunately, there will be no dancing for anyone. During the coach ride to Pemberley, Wickham and Denny have a nasty row that spills over into the ominous woods. Shots are fired, with Wickham subsequently discovered with the body, babbling “it’s all my fault.” To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Darcy must hand over the investigation to Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, an old family rival. Hardcastle has no sympathy for uppity commoners like Wickham. Darcy does not suffer them gladly either, but he is tied to Wickham by marriage. Should Wickham’s sensational motives for murder be exposed, it would shame the family and possibly even jeopardize the continued health of Pemberley.

Frankly, there are equal parts Downton Abbey and Nick & Nora Charles in DCTP, which makes sense considering how much PBS viewers love drama based on estate management and scandal suppression. Penelope Keith even parachutes in for a scene as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, very much in the tradition of Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.

Neither Darcy really sets out to crack the case either, they just respond as events develop. If not the most intricately plotted Brit mystery, DCTP is still quite winning thanks to the perfect casting and elegant chemistry of its Darcys. Matthew Rhys plays Mr. Darcy with a mercurial temper and sly wit that are great fun to watch, while Anna Maxwell Martin’s Elizabeth Darcy is sensitive but down to earth in a manner that should pass muster with Austen-philes. They are terrific together, elevating the romance and strained marriage melodrama well above our expectations.

Matthew Goode’s rakish shtick certainly suits Wickham and Jenna Colman is convincingly annoying as Lydia Wickham, but the X-factor in the large supporting cast is unquestionably Trevor Eve, who turns a few surprises and rather humanizes the curmudgeonly Hardcastle over the course of DCTP. In contrast, even by British standards, Eleanor Tomlinson and James Norton are tragically vanilla as Darcy’s slightly scandal-tinged sister Georgiana and her progressive would be suitor, respectively.

Veteran Brit TV director Daniel Percival frames some picturesque scenes and the period production values are all up to BBC/PBS Masterpiece code. It is also a veritable cavalcade of familiar British mystery veterans, such as Rhys (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Scapegoat), Martin (The Bletchley Circle), Goode (Dancing on the Edge), Eve (In the Heat of the Sun), and Rebecca Front (Chief Supt. Innocent in Lewis), which should further please fans. A pretty sturdy costume drama with a corpse, Death Comes to Pemberley should satisfy both the regular mystery viewers and the Austen cos-players when it airs tomorrow night (10/26) and next Sunday (11/2) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Industrial Terror: Abby

The film collection at the J.B. Speed Art Museum is named in honor of scrappy Louisville exploitation filmmaker William Girdler, but it does not include any of his films. Arguably, a good print of his “Blaxploitation Exorcist” would be a rarity worth curating. Caught up in a studio copyright infringement case, it has only circulated in rather distressed formats. Nevertheless, Anthology Film Archives will make the best of what is available when they screen Girdler’s Abby as part of the Industrial Terror film series.

Since someone must necessarily get possessed, it makes sense that it would be Abby Williams, a sunny, upbeat marriage counselor, who happens to be the wife and daughter-in-law of ministers. Bishop Garnet Williams is a man of the cloth to be reckoned with, but he inadvertently causes all the trouble when he accidentally frees a spirit claiming to be Eshu, the demigod of lust, during a research trip to Nigeria. Eshu wastes no time possessing Abby Williams, turning her into a wanton harlot who constantly belittles her husband’s masculinity. Fortunately, her brother Cass Potter is a cop who can cover for the Williamses when she gets violent, but they will need the Bishop to perform the E word.

Rather than try to match the profound dread of Friedkin’s classic, Abby picks up on the sucking-you-know-what-you-know-where demonic dirty talk and runs with it. There is no question Eshu is evil and corrupting, but it saves on the special effects and gets Williams into swinging after hours clubs.

Actually, the mumbo jumbo backstory is not bad, particularly when the commanding William Marshall tells it. Cult famous as Blackula, Dr. Richard Daystrom in “The Ultimate Computer” episode of the original Star Trek, and at least half a dozen stage and television productions of Othello, Marshall has the authority and presence we need in a modern day Van Helsing.

Much like the film it admittedly ripped off, Abby finds its salvation in Christian faith. In a way, the Bishop sort of fortifies his Christianity with a little West African spirituality, but when you are going into an exorcism, you had better be loaded for bear. The enterprising Girdler (who tragically died at the youthful age of thirty while scouting what would have been his tenth feature) keeps it zipping along quite energetically, emphasizing funky attitude over gore. It is a lot of fun, even with beater prints, so it should be a real blast with an appreciatively rowdy audience. Recommended for fans of Blaxploitation, exploitation, and horror films, Abby screens tomorrow (10/25), Wednesday (10/29), and Halloween Friday (10/31) at Anthology Film Archives, as part of the Industrial Terror series.

Citizenfour: Softballs for Snowden

Ironically, the outrage generated by Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations comes at a time when many people are increasingly relinquishing their privacy. Of course, voluntarily “sharing” is quite a different matter than finding the government has secretly rummaged through your email and social networks. Advocacy filmmaker Laura Poitras does not have time for such cultural observations. Unfortunately, she is not inclined to ask her subject any challenging questions either. As a result, she does Edward Snowden and her audience a disservice in Citizenfour, which opens today in New York.

Using the alias Citizenfour, Edward Snowden reached out to Poitras through a series of encrypted emails before he ever went public. She was in Snowden’s fateful Hong Kong hotel room with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from day one, documenting each bombshell revelation, practically in real time—except not really. William Binney, whom Citizenfour also celebrates as a whistle-blowing hero, once flat-out suggested (and subsequently walked back) Snowden “is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor” by leaking detailed information regarding American cyber espionage in China to the South China Morning Post. Obviously, that is an inconvenient episode for Poitras’s narrative, so she makes it un-happen.

Frankly, that is exactly the sort of thing she should have called out Snowden on. Many Americans have conflicted feelings on Snowden. They are concerned about the scope and pervasiveness of NSA snooping, but are also alarmed by Snowden’s document dumps, such as the SCMP affair. It would help his personal standing and engender confidence in his and Poitras’s cause if he would address such concerns head on and perhaps admit some mistakes were made.

The missing episode further underscores a fundamental disconnect from reality in Citizenfour, given how much of it is set within that HK hotel room. Granted, in 2013, one could maybe get away with assuming Hong Kong’s capitalists really did not care if their democracy was a sham orchestrated by the Mainland government, but the subsequent demonstrations and violent crackdowns make Snowden’s short residency look somewhat problematic for a self-appointed champion of civil liberties. However, the charge of hypocrisy becomes blazing obvious when Snowden accepts asylum in Russia, a state that assassinated investigative journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and imprisoned critics of the Putin regime, including Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khordorkovsky, on dubious charges.

[Subsequent edit: From outside sources, it is now understood Snowden never intended to settle in Russia. He happened to land there (literally) due to events beyond his control, so it weird Poitras glossed over that context.] Again, this is an elephant in the room that Poitras willfully ignores. It is a real shame, because Snowden’s earnestness is compelling and convincing. Just listening to him explain the operational structure of the NSA is bizarrely fascinating. Had she pushed him to admit his own discomfort with his new hosts and challenged some of his assumptions, viewers could judge how well withstood some tough questioning and his overall credibility by extension.

Clearly, there is no ideological or journalistic daylight between Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden. From day one, they present a united front. Yet, that does not serve the audience’s interest and it might not be in Poitras’s best interests either, considering recent court decisions have not recognized the confidentiality of sources for filmmakers judged to be operating in an advocacy capacity rather than as independent journalists.

Yes, we should be concerned about what our government is up to, but we should also be skeptical of Citizenfour. The big finale wherein Poitras and Greenwald tease further revelations from an even bigger source demonstrates why. Greenwald scribbles a series of bombshells on notepaper for an increasingly amazed Snowden to behold. Some he also shows to the camera, but some he does not. Poitras always knows when to zoom in and when to back off, clearly indicating they have choreographed this scene to some extent beforehand. It makes you wonder how much else they have stage-managed for the audience’s presumed benefit.

Probably nobody with a camera will ever have the same level of intimate access to Snowden that Poitras had in Hong Kong. Yet, she never has him look into the lens and give a straight-up defense of his actions and motivations to the American people. That was a missed opportunity that might come to haunt Poitras in the days to come. Instead, Citizenfour becomes almost fannish, just assuming that everyone is following along in lockstep with Snowden, Greenwald, and company. What isn’t there in Citizenfour is definitely missed. In fact, it makes it impossible to recommend when it opens today (10/24) in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Revenge of the Green Dragons: Infernal Flushing

The 1980s were glory days for Queens, especially 1986, unless you were working in virtual slavery to pay off the human trafficker who brought you into the borough illegally. Sonny and his adopted brother Steven will be two of the ostensibly lucky ones who are recruited by the Green Dragon street gang, but their life expectancy will be limited. Survival of the fittest comes with a code of silence in Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo’s Revenge of the Green Dragons (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Nobody has to tell Sonny life is not fair. When his mother died during the harsh passage over, the traffickers forced Steven’s mother to take him in. They never warmed to each other, but the boys became fast friends and sworn brothers. For years, they were relentlessly bullied, until a Green Dragon leader intercedes. Soon they are rising through the ranks, especially the even-keeled Sonny.

There are many Asian gangs in 1980s Queens, but the Green Dragons are the most sophisticated and badassedest. Paul Wong, their benefactor, represents the Dragons in the board room, but in the backroom, they are led by Snakehead (who is presented like she is Fu Manchu’s daughter). Wong has engineered a grand scheme that will give them a stranglehold on the Queens Heroin trade, but Steven jeopardizes the established order when he kills a white guy by mistake.

Sadly, Andrew Lau does not replicate the magic of Infernal Affairs in Queens. There is a fair amount of violence, but the film is caught betwixt and between an issue-driven immigration morality tale and a gangster thriller. Frankly, it is spectacularly tone-deaf, constantly interrupting the action with loaded video snippets of Presidents Reagan and Bush I. It is not just heavy-handed. It also confuses the narrative thread by cutting away to a Reagan speech on immigration during the early 1990s.

The FBI agent Michael Bloom is another case in point. Presumably, he represents the racist Federal government, constantly issuing dire warnings about the Asian mobs, but since he is played by Ray Liotta with his usual energy and attitude, he comes to be an audience favorite, since he at least relieves the boredom. Indeed, even though the film wears its immigration heart on its sleeve, it is hard to envision many viewers walking out of a screening convinced we need a “pathway to citizenship” after watching the Green Dragons racketeering, raping, and murdering with abandon.

It is a shame Green Dragons wastes a likable lead like Justin Chon. Some will know him from the Twilight franchise, but AAIFF patrons will recognize him from festival fare like Innocent Blood and the excellent short Jin. He develops some finely wrought chemistry with Shuya Chang’s Tina, the daughter of a former HK celebrity now beholden to Wong’s patronage. Unfortunately, the film cuts them off just as they are getting started. It also completely wastes Eugenia Yuan (Cheng Pei-pei’s daughter) as Snakehead.

Admittedly, Lau and Loo turn a heck of a twist down the stretch, but it feels like it takes much longer than the film’s ninety-some minutes to get there. Despite some nice performances, it is an awkward mishmash that is too heavy on message and too light on fun. Disappointingly not recommended, The Revenge of the Green Dragons opens tomorrow (10/24) in New York at the Village East.

Margaret Mead ’14: The Return

There are those who use the term “right of return” as a holy mantra, but if it were ever granted to the Jewish diaspora in every country that ever dispossessed their Jewish citizenry, nearly all of Europe and the Middle East would face serious legal implications. However, at least one nation would readily welcome them back. That would be Poland, which has embraced its Jewish history in recent years, even though its Jewish population remains small. Nevertheless, there are a significant number of Poles who belatedly learned of their families’ secret Jewish heritage in the post-Communist era. In very different ways, four such women will chose to embrace their Jewish roots in Adam Zucker’s The Return (trailer here), which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

During the National Socialist occupation, anyone whose family was the smallest part Jewish had every reason to keep it secret. The circumstances were somewhat less dire under Communism, but it is important to remember the atheistic Party periodically launched its own anti-Semitic campaigns. However, in a modern Poland shaped by Walesa and Wajda, attitudes are dramatically different. In one scene, we see a long abandoned provincial synagogue with the words “Jews, we miss you” scrawled across it, in a weird but affecting graffiti tribute.

Tusia and her boyfriend are scouting that building, hoping they can repurpose it into some sort nonprofit that will serve both the local town and pay tribute to those who once worshipped there. However, their future is uncertain, because they both feel the lure of Bushwick, Brooklyn (there’s no accounting for taste). In fact, all four women profiled share a common dilemma. Do they stay in Poland to rebuild the Jewish community or do they go abroad for the sake of their families and careers? Both Kasia, a leftwing activist, and Maria (who alone among Zucker’s subjects was born and bred Orthodox) find the grass is greener in Israel, either for academic research or raising children. Similarly, Katka, a Slovakian Orthodox convert, will debate where she should pursue her studies.

One of the great ironies of Return is the sort of ambiguous state Kasia and those whose mothers were not Jewish find themselves in. While not technically considered Jewish, they would have been more than Jewish enough to be persecuted under the previous regimes. It is a thorny question that the Kasia and Katka resolve in their own ways.

Together with films like 100 Voices: a Journey Home, Return presents a more complete portrait of the tolerant, modern day Poland that deeply mourns its Jewry lost to National Socialism and further repressed by Soviet Socialism. It even has some celebrity cachet, thanks to Matisyahu, whose performance at the Krakow JCC clearly held a great deal of personal significance for the performer. However, the film’s POV figures are maybe not as consistently riveting as one might hope. Nonetheless, it is a laudably optimistic film that offers a lot of helpful context and food for thought. Respectfully recommended, The Return screens this Saturday (10/25), as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.