Sunday, November 30, 2014

ADIFF ’14: Tango Negro

Anyone with a little bit of jazz, blues, and Afro-Cuban music under their belts, should be ready to accept the notion that most music with a real rhythmic kick has the “Same Mother,” to quote the title of Jason Moran’s deep blues influenced 2004 release. Yet, they seem to have trouble with the idea in Argentina and Uruguay. Parisian expatriate tango-jazz pianist Juan Carlos Cáceres returns to his native Argentina to promote awareness of the music’s African origins in Dom Pedro’s Tango Negro: the African Roots of Tango (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Blessed with incredible technique, Cáceres has become a leading expert on tango, especially its earliest manifestations. As in Brazil and many other Latin American countries, great numbers of African slaves were brought to Argentina against their will. Retaining elements of their pre-bondage culture, they developed musical forms not so very different from Cuban rumba. However, subsequent waves of overwhelmingly white immigration from Europe would radically change the country’s demographics. Just as the composition of Argentina changes, so too did the character of tango.

Frankly, it is hard to fathom how this could be controversial because it seems so self-evident. By the same token, one could argue the film does not give European immigrants proper credit for making tango what it is today. It is an elegant form of music and dance wholly distinct from traditional Afro-Cuban forms. Arguably, the description of tango quoted in the film as the synthesis of three sadnesses, as experienced by the immigrant, the gaucho, and the disenfranchised African gets at the essence in a fully inclusive way.

There are some enjoyable performances in TN, including features spots for Cáceres and various neo-traditional ensembles. It makes a logical cinematic pairing with Arístides Falcón Paradí’s Rumba Clave Blen Blen Blen, but it is more self-consciously pursuing a mission, whereas RCBBB is more interested in celebrating musical camaraderie. (If you only see one of the music docs at the festival, chose the rumba, because camaraderie is more fun.)

TN offers some nice music and solid scholarship, but it sees more opposition to its case than the audience does. Regardless, if you want to hear tango performed with uncharacteristic percussion, it is the film for you. Recommended for tango enthusiasts, Tango Negro screens this Friday (12/5) and the following Tuesday (12/9) as part of this year’s ADIFF New York.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bing Crosby: The Road to a Critical Re-Evaluation

Jazz fans have mixed feelings about Bing Crosby. He first came to prominence as part of the Paul Whiteman organization—a fact that pretty much explains our ambivalence right there. However, he was also an admirer of Louis Armstrong, who helped secure some of the icon’s highest profile motion picture appearances. Regardless how the jazz community felt about the crooner, he had fifty million loyal listeners at the height of his popularity. Crosby’s music and film career, as well as his posthumous controversies get a critical re-examination in Robert Trachtenberg’s Bing Crosby: Rediscovered (promo here), which airs this Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS's American Masters.

Harry Lillis Crosby was a law school drop-out at loose ends when he hooked up with Al Rinker, the brother of Mildred Bailey, to form a five-piece dance band awkwardly known as the Musicaladers. Eventually, the attracted the notice of Paul Whiteman, but the bandleader-impresario had a difficult time figuring out how to showcase them. When they finally hit, they hit big. Suddenly, Crosby was learning how to drink like a serious musician from experts such as Bix Beiderbecke. So much for marriage number one, but Crosby’s star would only continue to rise.

Those fifty million loyal listeners arguably made Crosby the biggest radio star of all time. With more number one singles than anyone from Memphis or Liverpool, a case could also be made his was the greatest recording star as well, but it is tricky to compare the pre and post LP eras. Admittedly not quite as huge on the big screen, Crosby still had plenty of success with the Road movies and his Oscar for Going My Way. However, six years after his death, Crosby’s son Gary published a family memoir very much in the tradition of Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest. Although not as harrowing, similar damage was done to Crosby’s reputation.

To its credit, Trachtenberg’s profile addresses the book and its charges of abusive physical discipline and emotionally aloof parenting head-on. To a large extent, Crosby’s daughter Mary serves as the family point person on the issue, even claiming her half-brother later expressed remorse during a private lunch together.

So maybe Crosby was a crummy dad, but even if the tell-all is mostly true, it pales in comparison to Bill Cosby’s image implosion currently underway. Frankly, we are now more willing to separate a performer’s private life and personal failings from their public personas. Plus, his sons kind of come off sounding like mess-ups, making it harder to absolutely condemn him. On the hand, Mary Crosby (she shot J.R.) is quite a persuasive presence on-screen.

Using jazz critic Gary Giddins’ recent biography as a roadmap, Crosby: Rediscovered is at its best putting the singer’s music in context, comparing and contrasting his style of vocal interpretation with jazz performance conventions. Strangely though, his brother Bob is only mentioned in passing, despite his legit success as a Dixieland-ish bandleader. Even if you still do not want to like Bing Crosby, Trachtenberg presents his life in an entertaining fashion, dropping plenty of cool names, like Armstrong and Peggy Lee. Recommended for fans of 1940s film and popular music, Bing Crosby: Rediscovered premieres on most PBS outlets this Tuesday (12/2), but many stations also plan to replay it on the 26th, because Holiday Inn, White Christmas and the “Little Drummer Boy” duet with David Bowie are all duly discussed in detail.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Discovering Georgian Cinema: April Chill (short)

April 9th is now Georgia’s official Day of National Unity. This film shows why. Everybody always assumed good old Gorby would never send in the tanks to crush dissent, but he did in Tbilisi. Hundreds were severely injured and twenty people died that fateful day, seventeen of whom were women. While many were beaten beyond recognition, CN and CS gas inhalation was the primary cause of death. One of the Soviet invaders gets a glimpse of the true warrior’s spirit in Tornike Bziava’s Clermont-Ferrand award winning short film, April Chill, which screens during MoMA’s ongoing Discovering Georgian Cinema series.

As several of the Soviet “soldiers” note, it was quite a nice day for their ruthless business. The enlisted men duly follow their orders, chasing democracy demonstrators into barricades, rounding up and beating anyone who looks suspicious. Like good Communists, most of the Soviets seem to enjoy the crackdown, including the focal character. However, the sound of a hand drum and rhythmic counting sparks his curiosity. Within a battle-scarred Soviet Brutalist building, he encounters a young boy learning to perform the traditional military-inspired Georgian Khorumi Dance.

He will learn something about dignity and determination from that boy, but it probably will not be enough to make a difference for his soul or the Georgian people’s immediate well-being. Chill is a brilliantly shot short film that viscerally captures the panic and abject terror caused by the Soviet shock troops. Giorgi Devdariani’s black-and-white cinematography is starkly arresting. He and Bziava frame the action in inventive ways that create jarring perceptual effects. Bziava also uses the imposing Soviet-era architecture to convey a vivid sense of place.

Although Chill is more of a director’s film than an actor’s showcase, there is no denying the fierceness of the young boy. He has the dance chops too. It only runs for a mere fifteen minutes, but it manages to say quite a bit with great eloquence. Sadly, it is also terribly timely. In 1989, nobody thought Soviet tanks would roll into Georgia, yet they certainly did. Afterward, nobody thought they would ever return, but they already have. Now it’s Ukraine’s turn. April Chill shows viewers just what that entails, in bracingly up-close-and-personal terms. Very highly recommended, April Chill screens with The Other Bank this Wednesday (12/3) and next Wednesday (12/10) as part of MoMA’s continuing survey of Georgian cinema.

ADIFF ’14: Rumba Clave Blen Blen Blen

Forget Arthur Murray’s bastardization of the bolero-son. This is the real rumba. Think “The Peanut Vendor,” pre-Stan Kenton. It is a dance and a rhythm and maybe even a philosophy of life. Arístides Falcón Paradí surveys all manifestations of rumba, tracing its journey from Africa to Cuba and on to New York in Rumba Clave Blen Blen Blen (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

You had better believe rhythm and percussion are important to Afro-Cuban music. Those who have not had at least a beginner’s introduction to Afro-Latin jazz (Trueba’s Calle 54 being a nice place to start) might not realize how sophisticated the music really is. It can also be wonderfully earthy, even though it has distant roots in sacred music.

Falcón Paradí explores rumba from both perspectives, celebrating the virtuosity of rumba musicians and its enduring popularity, particularly within the Cuban-American community. In fact, if there is one defining event for RCBBB, it would arguably be Mariel. Without it, Falcón Paradí would not have had nearly as many interview participants.

The doc features some big name musicians, most notably including the revered Candido Camero, considered by many the preeminent jazz conguero, still going strong in his nineties. With at least 2,000 recording credits, Camero (or just plain Candido, as many know him) is clearly the dean of RCBBB, but it is still tough to beat the effortless cool radiated by Jerry González, probably still best known for his work with the Fort Apache Brass Band. However, the late, great Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos largely serves as the film’s Obi-wan, carrying a disproportionate share of the on-screen commentary with authority and charm.

From time to time, RCBBB looks backward at rumba history, especially Chano Pozo’s legendary collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie that more or less constitute Latin Jazz’s creation story. Yet, despite his background as a CCNY faculty member, Falcón Paradí is more interested in putting the music in an everyday listener’s context. We get a sense of where the music is played and the lack of a rigid hierarchy demarcating artist from audience. Still, he recognizes interesting material when it arises. Several times he asks about the role played by the Abakua, the secret Cuban fraternal mutual aid society in the development of the music, getting evasive responses like “hmm, maybe for the next documentary.” At least he asked.

In fact, the extent to which Falcón Paradí is welcomed into the Rumba scene really tells you what you need to know about the communal nature of the music. Granted, in a politically focused documentary, a lack of editorial distance is highly problematic, but in this case, it just means he is invited to the party along with everyone else. Striking a good balance between scholarship and a jam session hang, Rumba Clave Blen Blen Blen is recommended for all fans of danceable music when it screens this Monday (12/1) as part of this year’s ADIFF New York.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

ADIFF ’14: The Ugandan

Thirty five years after his ouster and eleven years after his death, military dictator and self-proclaimed “uncrowned King of Scotland” Idi Amin Dada still exerts a cancerous influence on his country. In 1972, Amin forcibly expelled 80,000 Asians (mostly of Indian origin) from Uganda. Several thousand Indo-Ugandans have since returned, filing claims for the property appropriated by the regime. Demagogues invoking Amin’s name are only too willing to capitalize on the resulting tensions. Two families are caught up in the racial and economic tensions escalating throughout Patrick Sekyaya’s ironically titled The Ugandan (trailer here), which screens as part of the Indian Cinema sidebar at the 2014 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Simon’s little brother was nearly suspended for protecting Sonia’s little sister from a bully. They met during the disciplinary aftermath and eventually fall in love. However, joining their two families will be a tricky proposition. Their home was once the property of Sonia’s father, Raman, who has instituted legal proceedings to retake possession. In fact, he is playing a nasty game of hardball, even though Simon’s sister Becky happens to be his secret mistress. Oh, but it gets even more complicated than that, especially when Becky’s other lover Tony takes advantage of a race riot to waylay her third brother Ralph and his ill-gotten loot. Naturally, the hot-headed Ralph will not take that lying down.

In many respects, The Ugandan is not so far removed from some of the more professional Nollywood films. The execution is a little rough and some of the performances are slightly awkward, but Sekyaya’s ambition is impressive. He tackles some big themes here, openly inviting an honest historical reckoning with the Amin legacy. Even with his budget constraints, Sekyaya also stages a pretty convincing riot, giving the film further ironic resonance in light of current events.

To be fair, Sekyaya’s cast plugs away rather gamely, including the director himself, who is suitably intense as Ralph. Peter Mayanja and Dora Mwima demonstrate the greatest screen presence, by far, as Simon and Becky, respectively. On the other hand, Arfaan Ahmed has a bit of a rough go of it as Raman, but Sekyaya gets him through it.

Frankly, Ugawood is still developing a talent pool, so Sekyaya makes do in some cases. Nevertheless, the film’s not so thinly veiled social and historical critiques are quite fascinating. His narrative also takes some odd turns, but the seemingly abrupt ending actually makes sense in retrospect. If you were one of his characters, you’d try to end things there as well. Hopefully, it will mark the beginning of a fruitful career, but anyone interested in contemporary Ugandan culture should see it now, because its subject matter will probably be too challenging for most festivals. Recommended for its plucky potential, The Ugandan screens tomorrow (11/28) and Tuesday (12/2) as part of this year’s ADIFF New York.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Aftermath: Contractors Doing What They Do

Tom Fiorini deals with contractors all day, so he can’t be a shrinking violet. The housing magnate has done very well for himself, but he is about to lose everything. We know, because he tells us in media res. It all started with a bit of workplace trash talking. Labor relations hit an all-time low in Thomas Farone’s gritty thriller Aftermath (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Fiorini is a cold and unreasonably demanding boss. We know, because his foreman tells us so. Still, everyone on his construction site stays, because work is heard to find in upstate New York, especially for an ex-con like Tony Bricker.  Bricker is a sub-contracting framer, not a mason. Initially, he up-manages Fiorini fairly well. It is the foreman he has issues with—so much so, he takes a swing at him right in front of Fiorini. When said foreman mysteriously disappears shortly thereafter, suspicion naturally falls on Bricker.

Assuming the worst, Fiorini sacks Bricker. Words get heated, threats are made, and circumstances quickly escalate. The two detective working the missing person case are not much help, but at least the sheriff is on Fiorini’s side. In fact, the old lawman is much more effective than the dodgy muscle Fiorini hires to intimidate Bricker. Frankly, they only make matters worse.

Clearly, this film has been kicking around for a while, since it is billed as the final film of Chris Penn, who died in early 2006. Penn was always a reliable character actor and his work as Bricker is consistently forceful. However, one cannot help wondering if his unfortunate passing partly explains why the third act is considerably patchier than the hour or so that comes before it.

Aftermath is also notable as part of Anthony Michael Hall’s more successful-than-you-realize career reinvention. The kid best known for wearing panties on his head in John Hughes movies is now a rather credible hardnose. Roles like Fiorini and Jack, Du Pont’s troubleshooter in the disappointing Oscar contender Foxcatcher should solidify his professional evolution. Hey, this is America, anything can happen here.

In a case of stunt-casting gone bizarrely right, Tony Danza chews the scenery quite entertainingly as King, an off-the-books gun dealer and freelance fixer. However, Leo Burmester upstages everyone as the cantankerous sheriff. On the other hand, Law & Order alumnus Elisabeth Röhm is wastefully underutilized as Fiorini’s largely disinterested and uninteresting wife, Rebecca.

Aftermath is definitely aiming for a dark, Blood Simple-A Simple Plan vibe, but it ends on a note so pitch black, it is a real buzz kill. Again, you have to wonder if that was the original plan or a salvageable solution. Still, for those who enjoy indie thrillers inspired by the likes of the Cohen Brothers and Tarantino, it is worth checking out just to watch Penn, Burmester, Hall, and Danza playing off each other. Recommended accordingly for jaded viewers, Aftermath opens this Friday (11/28) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Women Who Flirt: Just Friends with Zhou Xun?

Considering she looks like Zhou Xun, Angie really shouldn’t have to resort to a lot of game-playing. Unfortunately, she has carried a torch for Marco, her colleague and former classmate so long, he now takes her for granted. When a flirty game-player stakes a claim to the oblivious platonic friend, Angie will have to learn how to fight fire with fire. The battle will be joined in Pang Ho-cheung’s Women Who Flirt (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Shocked to learn her longtime best friend is suddenly serious about a woman who is not herself, Angie calls on her eye-lash batting chum May to form a kitchen cabinet of proud Shanghai flirters to advise her. However, she finds their recommended baby talk and helpless damsel-in-distress routines absolutely vapid. She is just not equipped for this fight and her rival Hailey knows it. Still, if she can get dumb old Marco alone for a romantic getaway in Taiwan, she just might have a puncher’s chance.

Yes, there are similarities between Flirt and My Best Friend’s Wedding and its tragically romantic Chinese-Korean reconfiguration, A Wedding Invitation, but Zhou’s Angie is a protagonist we can really get behind. Her withering stares and palpable disgust at the Sex in the City antics going on around her are often quite funny and highly sympathetic. Frankly, she is just too cool for everyone else in the film.

Of course, Flirt will eventually settle into a sentimental rom-com, but at least it takes a rainy day trip to the Ju Ming Museum, which looks incredible (so good tourist tip there). In fact, Zhou and Ju are just about enough to carry the film across the finish line. Sonia Sui certainly looks like a deceptively cute femme fatale and shows some convincing claws when the time comes. Still, it is hard to see why they would fight over a blockhead like Marco, played rather woodenly by Huang Xiaoming. In contrast, Xie Yilin constantly kicks up the energy while inhaling scenery as May, the Obiwan of flirters.
Pang’s films certainly come in a variety of flavors. Instead of a naughty screwball comedy like Vulgaria, a gory satire like Dream Home, or a sensitive family drama like Aberdeen, Flirt is most closely akin to his reasonably mature rom-coms, such as Love in the Buff. It is too bad this one does not depart further from genre conventions, because Zhou and her character deserve something more outside-the-box. Regardless, she still commands the screen. Recommended for fans of Zhou and romantic comedy in general, Women Who Flirt opens this Wednesday (11/26) in New York at the AMC Empire, from China Lion Entertainment.

Mercy: The Lovecraftian Grandma

Stephen King’s cool “Dollar Baby” policy grants accredited student filmmakers permission to adapt any of his short stories for one dollar, provided they are only screened in classrooms and film festivals. Naturally, the quality varies widely. As a result, commercial filmmakers really need to bring their A-games when adapting King’s short fiction for an anticipated commercial release, lest they be unfavorably compared to the Dollar Babies. Unfortunately, that did not happen with Peter Cornwell’s Mercy (trailer here), a generically mediocre reworking of King’s “Gramma,” now available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

While Mercy seems to be losing her faculties, her family is so boring, you might forget them too. The only one she was ever really close to was her sensitive grandson George. Much to the disgust of his older brother Buddy, they have moved back to their old hill country home so their mother can care for the increasingly erratic Mercy in what are presumed to be her final days. Unfortunately, Rebecca, the military vet and single mom, is the only surviving family member up to the task. Sadly, their degenerate Uncle Lanning is constitutionally incapable of responsible behavior. However, Mercy may not be ready to give up the ghost just yet, particularly when George is around. Whether Mercy is good for George is a different question entirely.

Mercy is one of several Blumhouse titles finally getting a DVD release after spending considerable time consigned to the shelf. It’s nothing special, but you would think the combination of King and Blumhouse would have guaranteed a decent theatrical opening. Nevertheless, anyone expecting something seriously Lovecraftian will be disappointed. Granted, it is usually a mistake to show too much in horror movies, but if you are going to invoke the name of Hastur and hint at a Cthulhu-like mythos lurking out there in the hills, folks are going to want to see tentacles at some point. In fact, Mercy arguably has too many woo-woo effects, but they all revolve around George’s bed-ridden granny.

Two time Oscar nominee Shirley Knight is pretty credible playing both Mercy’s dementia and her supernatural malevolence, but this is not going to be the film to get her back into awards contention. As the brothers, Chandler Riggs and Joel Courtney are instantly forgettable. Dylan McDermott also checks in from time to time, as Jim Swann, a friend of the family whose subplot is so underdeveloped we never really know why he is in the film until a supposedly big third act reveal. Only Mark Duplass manages to give the film any appreciable energy as drunken Uncle Lanning.

There are a lot of familiar horror movie tropes uneasily shoehorned into Mercy, giving it a cobbled-together vibe. Still, one rarely finds sympathetic Christian clergy in genre films, or King’s fiction, so the kindly Pastor Gregory Luke, played with dignified gravity by Eddie Jones, helps distinguish Mercy in a good way—but it’s not nearly enough. There are just too many annoying kids and not enough Lovecraftian dread in Mercy. For King and Blumhouse completists only, Mercy is now available on DVD from Universal.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Whale: Revenge from the Deep—Animal Planet Gets Scripted

The development of electricity and fossil fuels greatly improved the western standard of living, but it was even better news for whales. Demand for whale oil largely evaporated, but considerable damage to the whale population had already been done. By 1820, the Essex whaling ship had to venture far out into the Pacific Ocean to find their quarry, leaving them in a highly vulnerable position when disaster struck. Based on the misadventure that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick, the Essex’s last voyage is now the subject of Animal Planet’s first scripted dramatic special, The Whale: Revenge from the Deep (promo here), which premieres on the network this Wednesday.

Old man Thomas Nickerson was a green cabin boy on the Essex and lived to tell the tale in flashbacks to his interlocutor and the audience. Although he lived on Nantucket, he was still considered an outsider by most of the crew. Initially, he finds more acceptance from the freed African American laborers than the crusty old “deckers.” However, first-time Captain George Pollard, Jr. takes a shine to the lad, perhaps out of solidarity. The demanding first mate Owen Chase grudgingly admits the boy rises to each challenge he gives him, but remains cold and aloof.

Still, things seem to be looking up when the Essex finally lands its first kill of their frustrating cruise. Ominously though, the hunters soon become the prey, when the freshly harpooned whale’s companion starts pursuing the Essex. Nobody aboard fully understands how serious the situation is, until it is too late. With the Essex crushed into kindling, a rag tag group of survivors, including Nickerson, Pollard, and Chase, will try to navigate three of the Essex’s twenty-foot whaleboats to civilization.

Although whales play a critical role in Revenge, they largely exit the stage at the midway point, leaving the desperate humans to their own folly devices. While Animal Planet viewers might expect something like the early beta version of Moby-Dick, it is actually a rather harrowing shipwreck story.

Tightly helmed by Alrick Riley within his British television budget constraints, The Whale gives viewers a vivid sense of the life-and-death struggle to survive on the high seas in open boats without provisions or any means of communication. While the whale attack effects pale in comparison to films like Life of Pi, the makeup team does first rate work representing the ravages of sun and elements. Frankly, it hurts just to look at their massively chapped lips and blistered faces.

Martin Sheen does his ancient mariner thing well enough, narrating as the old haunted Nickerson, while Charles Furness is convincingly earnest and over-awed playing his younger self. Nonetheless, John Boyega will likely get top-billing in future re-packagings, once viewers see him in the forthcoming Star Wars film. As Bond the cook, he exhibits the strong presence that made him a breakout star in Attack the Block, but it is still very definitely a supporting part. Frankly, Jonas Armstrong and Adam Rayner really carry the film as the complicated rivals, Chase and Pollard, respectively.

One thing comes through loud and clear in Revenge. If you ever see a whale bum-rushing your masted sailing ship, it means trouble. Although Animal Planet is presenting it in conjunction with their R.O.A.R. wildlife conservation campaign, the film itself wisely avoids an overly preachy tone. Pretty good for a television historical, The Whale: Revenge from the Deep airs this Wednesday (11/26) on Animal Planet.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice—They Do the Jobs Penguins Just Won’t Do

With about 1,200 residents at peak capacity, McMurdo Station is the New York City of Antarctica. It is by far the largest of the small research facilities scattered throughout the frozen continent. A satellite communications engineer by trade, New Zealander Anthony Powell became an accomplished photographer and budding filmmaker during his ten years stationed in Antarctica. He had to do something to pass the time, besides marrying an American co-worker. He documents both its vast unspoiled natural beauty as well as the hardy but diverse people who make some kind of a home there in Antarctica: a Year on Ice (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Yes, it gets cold down there. In fact, Year would not be possible were it not for the inventive new techniques Powell developed and his general talent for jury-rigging cameras. Nature lovers will oh-and-awe at his time lapse photography, but the film is even more interested in Powell’s colleagues and neighbors, making it a close cinematic cousin of Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Yet, Powell is more egalitarian, focusing on the accountants, firemen, and shopkeepers who perform “conventional” jobs in one of the most remote corners of the world.

Through his footage and their anecdotes, Powell gives viewers a vivid sense of life in the extreme southern latitudes. Again, it sure gets cold, but it is the wind that really gets to you. Stir craziness is a fact of life, but everyone seems to pull together into an easygoing community. Tellingly, it is things like rain and avocadoes that people really look forward to during their visits home.

Frankly, Powell’s film is much more impressive visually than Herzog’s tourist look-see. However, there are no grand themes to Year, just a bemused fascination with the everyday adventurism of his colleagues. There is a sense they all belong to a gender-neutral fraternal order of ice dwellers, whose shared experiences brings them back season after season. Fear not, Powell also films plenty of penguins, which just about anyone going to an Antarctica documentary will want to see.

Even though the elements added a significant degree of chance into the equation, Powell still captures some amazing images. Arguably, he should win best cinematographer awards across the board, because who else can claim shots like these? Technically, it is far superior to an average installment of PBS’s Nature, but it has the same general niceness and similar tacked-on messages regarding conservation and climate variance. Recommended for fans of nature docs and History Channel extreme jobs reality programming, Antarctica: a Year on Ice opens this Friday (11/28) in New York at the Village East.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Restored: The Cave of the Silken Web

Is it too early to nominate persecuted human rights attorney Pu Zhiqiang for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize? Ai Weiwei’s former lawyer certainly would be a deserving recipient, but the Norwegian parliament might be a little gun shy about acknowledging another Chinese human rights activist given Beijing’s hyperventilating response to Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel honor. However, a 1927 silent “ghost-spirit” film previously considered lost might have rebuilt some diplomatic bridges (so why not burn them up again?). An incomplete but highly watchable print discovered in the National Library of Norway has since been restored and restituted to China, where hopefully they will keep better track of it this time. Fortunately, the entire world will now have opportunities to see Dan Duyu’s The Cave of the Silken Web, which screened during MoMA’s annual To Save and Project festival of film preservation.

Dan’s Web was one of the first partial adaptations of the mammoth epic The Journey to the West and a leading early example of the mystical ghost-spirit genre. Obviously, it was a hit. After all, the Shaw Brothers did not remake flops. It also encompasses a section of the novel that arguably parallels elements of Homer’s Odyssey, such as Calypso and the Sirens.

The legendary monk Xuanzang had commenced his pilgrimage to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts but he was waylaid by the Spider Queen and her six Spider Hotties in her titular cave. Ordinarily, they would just eat forlorn travelers, but since Xuanzang has the cachet of a monk, the queen intends to marry him. It will be up to his baffled companions, the Monkey King, Pigsty, and Friar Sand to save him from such an un-horrifying fate.

It is easy to laugh at Web’s effects in the post-Avatar era, but at the time it was probably really something to show a woman transforming into a spider. Reportedly, Web also featured nude scenes (that do not survive in the Norwegian print), so it must have been quite a spectacle indeed. Frankly, it is rather charming to see a major silent era filmmaker testing the limits of what film can do. It is also great to have another example of Chinese silent superstar Yin Mingzhu vamping it up as the Spider Queen. Eighty-seven years later, in a print that still carries the scars of time, we can still see her “It-Girl” presence.

Someone ought to program a sequential festival of films based on Wu Cheng’en’s Journey, encompassing the radical stylistic diversity of the animated Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven and Luo Li’s arthouse modernization, Emperor Visits the Hell. It would be great to add Web’s silent eccentricity into the mix. Yet, its vibe is not so very different from Stephen Chow & Derek Kwok’s gleeful cosmic beatdown, Journey to the West.

Web has enormous cultural significance, but it has the extra added bonus of being great popcorn fun. At MoMA, it was paired with China and the Chinese, Part 2, an eighteen minute Benjamin Brodsky newsreel from 1917. It is more of a historical curio, but the footage of the eight year-old acrobat-contortionist still draws an enthusiastic audience response. Highly recommended for fans of arachnid femme fatales and Journey to the West movies, The Web of the Silken Cave should hopefully have many more public screenings in the future at silent movie and Asian themed festivals.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

SAIFF ’14: Dukhtar

Zainab is supposed to be the child-bride daughter of a child-bride mother. At just fifteen years old (frankly, not so very young by Islamist standards), Allah Rakhi (meaning “God protects”) was married off to a much older tribal chieftain. Now her ten year old daughter is to be a peace-offering to any even older rival clan leader. Refusing to consign her daughter to a fate worse than her own, the mother flees with her child into the mountains in Afia Serena Nathaniel’s Dukhtar (trailer here), Pakistan’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Allah Rakhi’s initial escape is rather clever, but she does not have much a plan after that. She really has nobody to turn to, since her “husband” has prohibited any contact with her family since their marriage. Since Zainab is now considered the property of creepy old Tor Gul, both clans are out to capture her and kill her mother. That would be their idea of “honor.” Into this misogynist tribalism drives trucker and former mujahidin veteran Sohail. At first, he is reluctant to shelter the fugitive women, but he soon becomes their ardent protector. They will need him.

Let us be clear, nobody is terrorizing Allah Rakhi and their daughter because they are upset about drone strikes or resent America’s friendship with a democratic state like Israel. No, it is simply the thing to do for its own sake. This is a harrowing depiction of institutionalized misogyny and the pain and desperation it causes. Yet, as bracing as Dukhtar is, Nathaniel’s symbolic imagery often has a poetic beauty. She and her cinematographer tandem of Armughan Hassan and Najaf Bilgrami also vividly capture the vast splendor of the mountain vistas, so the film isn’t just a slap in the face.

Nathaniel gets a critical assist from her leads, who are surprisingly subtle, but still deeply expressive. It is particularly powerful to watch Samiya Mumtaz convey all the fear, confusion, and anger Allah Rakhi has been forced to guardedly bottle up. She also forges some ambiguous but genuinely touching chemistry with Mohib Mirza’s Sohail, who handles his own significant character development arc rather sure-footedly. Even young Saleha Aref is quite grounded and believably restrained as Zainab.

Watching Dukhtar leads one to abandon all hope for Pakistan, but the mere fact they submitted it for Academy Award consideration (and the likely attention that comes as a result) could be considered a hopeful sign. Despite a rough patch here or there, Dukhtar is a compelling narrative, featuring several mature, well-balanced performances. It is an important film for multiple reasons that demands a wider audience. Enthusiastically recommended, Dukhtar screens tonight (11/22), as part of this year’s SAIFF.

Friday, November 21, 2014

NYKFF ’14: Man on High Heels

Detective Yoon Ji-wook is definitely a cop on the edge. In fact, he is overdue to be re-assigned. Hey there, gender-bender pun. Just when Seoul’s most feared gang-busting cop is about to walk away from his life of butt-kicking, the bad guys pull him back in. Genres will also be bent and blurred in Jang Jin’s Man on High Heels (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Korean Film Festival (in Brooklyn).

Yoon regularly faces down large packs of gangsters singlehandedly. Nobody knows that better than Heo Bool. The mob boss is currently facing a raft of charges while recovering from Yoon’s thorough thrashing. Charges have been filed against the cop, but they are nothing the hotshot prosecutor can’t handle. This might be the perfect time for Yoon to go out on a high note, allowing him to finally resolve his identity issues with reassignment surgery.

However, there are a couple of loose ends Yoon is still not sure how to tie-up. One is Jang-mi, an aspiring singer and bartender, who often provides freelance undercover support for Yoon. Their ambiguously platonic relationship is even more ambiguous than she realizes. The other loose end is Kim Jin-woo, Yoon’s hero-worshipping protégé. Unfortunately, Heo Bool’s son Heo Gon might solve his interpersonal problems the hard way when he declares war on the Seoul organized crime task force and all of Yoon’s closest associates.

Heels is the strangest mishmash of genres. It is a complicated tale of unrequited love, rooted in a tragically sentimental schoolboy crush story, periodically punctuated with no holds barred action beatdowns. The first and the latter are often rather effective, but the heavy handed flashbacks are really pushing it.

Frankly, Yoon’s scenes with Jang-mi are surprisingly touching, perhaps even more so before their secret connection is revealed. They just seem to be two lost souls who manage to connect in a hard to define way. In contrast, the detective’s scenes with his new life coaches just seem to drag on. After a while, we just so get the subverting masculinity thing.

As Yoon and Jang-mi, Cha Seung-won and Esom develop some quiet but powerful chemistry. Cha’s performance is particularly versatile, encompassing action cred and the sensitive deconstruction of his macho image. In a small but notable supporting turn, Park Sung-woong gives the film two healthy shots of attitude and energy as Prosecutor Hong. Unfortunately, none of the villains have the same verve.

Jang’s script is all over the place, but at least cinematographer Lee Sung-je gives it an appropriately noir sheen. The ambivalent conclusion might even be problematic for American LGBT festivals, but it is quite daring by local Korean standards. While it earns credit on that score, the midsection is still a little draggy. Recommended for fans of Korean thrillers open to gay and transgender themes, but not an essential artistic statement on either front, Man on High Heels screens tomorrow night (11/22) at the BAM Rose Cinema, as part of this year’s NYKFF.

SAIFF ’14: Jigarthanda

At least he’s not making another indie navel gazer. When an aspiring hipster filmmaker gets an offer to make a violent gangster movie, he decides to do it the hard way. Traveling to Madurai to research a local gangster, Karthik inadvertently attracts the attention of his intended subject. Things will get a bit sticky, but the film must go on in Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda (trailer here), which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Karthik should have just remade a Hong Kong gangster movie like Scorsese. Bringing the true story of “Assault” Sethu to the screen is a dangerous proposition. Just ask the muckraking journalist he burns to death. Crashing with his local school chum Oorani, Karthik takes the indirect approach, trying to befriend key henchmen. He also starts romancing Kayal, the daughter of Sethu’s housekeeper. Of course his mercenary motives will eventually cause trouble for Karthik, especially if he ever realizes he might have squandered something good. However, Sethu will be a more pressing problem when he busts the clumsy snoops.

Fortunately, a prospective big screen treatment appeals to Sethu’s vanity. He is more than happy to talk and talk about one horrific crime after another. Inconveniently for Karthik, Sethu soon develops Get Shorty ideas, but he is no Chili Palmer. This is where his filmmaking mettle will really be tested.

Comedy often travels poorly, but Jigarthanda’s dark satire (particularly as manifested in the third act) translates unusually well, sort of like Tarantino adapting O.Henry, but with more restraint. Still, there is enough violence to make it tricky to definitively categorize, while compensating for most of Karthik and Oorani’s early rubber-faced slapstick.

As Karthik, Siddharth is plenty earnest, but rather bland in that comedic leading man sort of way. Conversely, Bobby Simha gives a big, physical performance in just about every way imaginable. His colorful associates also have their moments, especially Sangili Murugan as Petti Kadai, the shopkeeper who knew Sethu back in the day.

Jigarthanda is that rare film that actually becomes more stylish as it progresses, so it is worth sticking with it. At times, it critiques the media glamorization of gangsters quite pointedly, but it is first and foremost a valentine to movies and the artists who are forced to compromise in order to make them. Recommended for fans of Tamil cinema, Jigarthanda screens tonight (11/21) as part of this year’s SAIFF.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Late Phases: There’s a Wolf at the Door

The security around Ambrose McKinley’s new gated retirement community is not very effective, considering there is at least one fatal animal attack every month, like clockwork. It takes him all of one night in his new home to figure out it corresponds to the full moon. Putting two and two together, the blind Vietnam veteran will count down the days until the next fateful moon in Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It is debatable who has a keener sense of smell, McKinley or the werewolf stalking Crescent Bay. McKinley would seem to be at a disadvantage. Soon after moving into a new environment, his service dog Shadow is killed by the lycanthrope. Since McKinley never owned a cane, he prowls around the neighborhood with the help of a shovel. However, he is still handy with firearms and his bad attitude is a heck of an equalizer. Just ask his put-upon son Will. His new neighbors are even less charmed by McKinley, especially the one he is hunting and being hunted by.

Phases is being billed as veteran character actor Nick Damici’s breakthrough performance and they’re not kidding around. He finds new ways to be awesome as the spectacularly surly McKinley. He is often funny, genuinely touching in key dramatic scenes, but one hundred percent hardnose, through and through.

Damici rules the roost, but Phases is also brimming with a cult-friendly supporting cast, most notably including Tom (Manhunter, House of the Devil) Noonan as Father Roger. Somehow he simultaneously makes the good Father a refreshingly sympathetic man of the cloth, as well as a compelling suspect. The Last Starfighter’s Lance Guest sure looks a lot older as Griffin, Crescent Lake’s resident community organizer, whereas Glass Eye Pix founder Larry Fessenden always looks like someone you might buy a headstone from. Add in Tina Louise from Gilligan’s Island as one of McKinley’s catty neighbors and Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook as an ammo salesman and you have yourself an ensemble.

For his first English language production, Bogliano went 1980s old school. He takes plenty of time for character development, showcasing screenwriter Eric Stolze’s sly dialogue and Damici’s grizzled presence. While the slow build is moody and suggestive, the werewolf effects are a little cheesy, but in an appealing retro gross-out kind of way. Frankly, it all comes together in a satisfyingly nostalgic package. Highly recommended for werewolf fans, Late Phases opens tomorrow (11/21) in New York at the IFC Center.

V/H/S: Viral—Maintaining the Gold Standard of Found Footage Horror

If some form of uncanny mass hysteria broke out in Los Angeles, would anyone notice? At least, there would be no shortage of handheld devices to record the phenomenon. The reigning champion of found footage horror franchises gets a spruced up framing device, taking it to the streets for its third installment, V/H/S: Viral (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

“Viral” is definitely the key word for Kev, the amateur videographer dreaming of youtube glory in Marcel Sarmiento’s interstitial Vicious Circles. However, it takes on multiple meanings when outbreaks of mob violence follow the wake of the evil clown ice-cream truck pursued by nearly all of LA's Finest. Somehow, the clown-mobile also managed to abduct his long-suffering girlfriend, making the hot pursuit distinctly personal for Kev. The early segments of Circles really capture a vivid sense of the city’s mean streets, where the everyday is just as scary as the horror movie elements. Unfortunately, the conclusion makes little sense and is even less satisfying.

Overall, the discrete constituent films are much stronger and scarier. While Gregg Bishop’s Dante the Great largely plays like a well-executed Twilight Zone episode, it has some nice flashes of macabre humor. The titular Dante was a poor aspiring illusionist with little prospects until he got his hands on a mysterious cape. Reportedly, it was once owned by Houdini, but he was so freaked out by it, he deliberately shed it somehow. Right, you’re already getting the picture and his new assistant Scarlett soon will too. Frankly, Dante often seems to “cheat” on the found footage format, but since it has some pretty cool scenes of magical mayhem, so be it.

Arguably, the most inventive segment of Viral is Nacho Vigalondo’s Parallel Monsters. Alfonso is an eccentric inventor who has created a portal to an alternate dimension, as has his counterpart on the other side of the hatch. They switch places to briefly explore each other’s worlds, but our Alfonso soon discovers he is in the one parallel universe they never explored in Star Trek. Let’s just say it belongs in a horror anthology like this. The way Vigalondo slowly reveals details on this other dark world is quite clever and massively creepy.

Frankly, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s Bonestorm is not much for character development, but it is tough to beat for sheer adrenaline charged lunacy. Basically, a group of knuckleheaded thrill-seekers head down to Tijuana to film a skateboarding video, but they inadvertently crash some sort of demonic zombie party. Madness ensues—spectacularly. When it comes to energy and attitude, Bonestorm is a gory three-ring circus, while remaining fully found footage-compliant. You just need to pop a few Dramamine and see it for yourself.

Few horror franchises still perform as consistently the third time around as the V/H/S series. While the first film maintained a more uniform atmosphere of dread and the second hits higher peaks with Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto’s Safe Haven and Jason Eisener’s Alien Abduction Slumber Party, Viral has fewer weak links overall. Diabolically fun, V/H/S Viral is enthusiastically recommended for the full spectrum of horror fans when it opens tomorrow (11/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Sleepwalker: Family Drama and Home Renovations

Obviously, something problematic must have happened during Christine’s childhood. The somnambulism is not such a big deal, but her penchant for awkward comments and compulsively irresponsible behavior can be a real drag. Not surprisingly, she will be a destabilizing influence when she pays a sudden visit to her half-sister in Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Growing up with Christine was often difficult—and Kaia still has the scars to prove it. Technically, they are burns, which are probably worse. As the model daughter, Kaia has become an outward model of stability. Despite the remembrances of her half-sister she carries in intimate places, Kaia has commenced a romantic relationship with Andrew, a local construction worker. Together, they are renovating her expatriate father’s modernist country house. They prefer to maintain their quiet privacy, but that will not be happening this weekend.

As she often does, Christine has recklessly bolted from her long-suffering fiancé, Ira, who will catch up to her in the morning. A wealthy blue-blood, he currently works as a UN Inspector. Considering how perceptive he is, it is easy to see how the Iranian nuclear program advanced so far. For reasons that remain baffling, he deduces a little sisterly togetherness will be good for Christine, so they invite themselves to stay for the weekend. None of this sits well with Andrew, the proletarian class warrior. It turns out the salt-of-the-earth worker also did time for hitting his previous girlfriend. So it should be an awesome weekend, especially when Christine starts doing highly inappropriate things in front of Kaia and Andrew while in a somnambulist state.

Norwegian actress-screenwriter Fastvold’s feature directorial debut is an English language production in its entirety, but stylistically it feels very European. The influence of Dogme 95 is inescapable, but while the film desperately wants to be Festen, it misses quite wide of the mark.

Frankly, the performances and execution are all pretty solid. As Kaia, Gitte Witt silently stews like crockpot, while Stephanie Ellis’s Christine is a suitably hot mess. Perhaps the biggest surprise is co-writer Brady Corbet, finding rewarding depth and nuance in the ever-patient Ira. Unfortunately, Christopher Abbott’s Andrew is largely a one-note resentful townie cliché. Still, the fundamental problem is all their efforts are expended on behalf of a script that only delivers a weak shrug for a payoff. We have seen this all before and we have seen it much more sharply written, so during most of the film, we have to wait for the characters to catch up with us.

Even with all the fictional renovations under way, it still looks like a cool house, so at least Sleepwalker has good architecture. Fastvold’s vibe is strong, but her narrative is weak. The cast tries hard, but their road map just won’t get them very far. A misfire but not a complete dead loss, The Sleepwalker opens this Friday (11/21) in New York at the IFC Center.

SAIFF ’14: 1,000 Rupee Note

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” Jesse Unruh famously said. Uttamrao Jadhav certainly agrees. He even has a cow for a campaign symbol. When on the campaign trail, he spreads around plenty of “walking around money.” However, when he gives the grieving mother of a widely reported farm-suicide several large bills (for appearance’s sake) it leads to no end of trouble in Shrihari Sathe’s 1,000 Rupee Note (trailer here), which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Budhi is a notoriously thrifty hard bargainer, but her fellow villagers never object. They are only too aware of the widow’s tragic history. At least she is not alone in the world. Her neighbor Sudama frequently checks up on her. His wife pretends to resent the attention he gives Budhi, but it is really just an act. Naturally, when Jadhav schedules a political rally, which necessarily comes with the promise of a free dinner, they make sure Budhi attends. They also prod her to get into the walking around money line. However, when Jadhav learns of her significance he drops several 1,000 Rupee notes on her.

Finally, Budhi should be able to have her glasses fixed and her son’s portrait reframed, with plenty left over to buy gifts for Sudama and his wife. However, when she and her surrogate son arrive at the big city market, they simply cannot break the bills. Eventually accused of passing counterfeit notes, the will cool their heels in the local police station, perhaps indefinitely.

If you are expecting a somewhat quirky braided story following those bills, in the tradition of Twenty Bucks, you had better think again. Rupee is a dark, caustic indictment of political corruption that opts for naturalism over satire at every juncture. Let’s not mince words, this film is depressing.

While the execution is competent but rather straight forward, there is no denying the effectiveness of Sathe’s leads. As Budhi, Usha Naik gives the film real depth and soul, while her maternal chemistry with Sandeep Pathak’s Sudama is genuinely touching. Pooja Nayak also has some nice moments as his wife. However, the assorted crooked cops and politicians are too clichéd to be fully credible characters, but not flamboyant enough to be engaging villains.

Wearing its class consciousness on its sleeve, the Marathi Rupee shares a thematic kinship with the Hindi Peepli Live, but it lacks the magnetic charm of a Naseeruddin Shah. Still, its skepticism of government and politics is hard to argue with. It just doesn’t really leave us anyplace to go but down. For those looking for something highly respectable and polemical, 1,000 Rupee Note is all that, but it isn’t so much fun when it screens tonight (11/19) as part of this year’s SAIFF.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

As the Light Goes Out: HK’s Bravest

They love their firefighters in Hong Kong. It is easy to understand why when you do the math. Hong Kong has the world’s fourth highest population density, concentrated in a mere 426 square miles, built straight up into the sky. In such an environment, fire equals bad. Ordinarily, no conflagration could withstand the collective manliness of the HKFD, but all bets are off when one of their family members is trapped within the mother of all electrical fires in Derek Kwok’s As the Light Goes Out (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and digital platforms from Well Go USA.

This is supposed to Ho Wing-sam’s last duty day before transferring out of the Lung Kwu Tan station. Frankly, he has just been marking time since he was passed over for promotion, in favor of his more political astute former pal, Yip Chi-fai. His crusty old mentor Lee Pui-to is also due to retire imminently. Factor in the fact that it is Christmas Eve and you know it will not be long before a four-alarm fire breaks out.

Frustratingly, things would not have been so bad if it weren’t for careerist CYAing and denial. When Sam’s team gets the call for a winery fire in the New Territories, they initially extinguish it relatively swiftly. The responsible Ho starts taking a few additional preventative measures until Yip pressures him to return to the station, to help spit-polish everything for the chief-of-chief’s visit. Unfortunately, the winery is a little too close to the septic tank, which is a little too close to Hong Kong’s natural gas pipeline, which runs directly into the main power station. By the time Ho figures this out, the winery has reignited and the die is cast.

At least he has some good men to face down the colossal inferno, including old Lee, whose withering stare is usually sufficient to make most fires fizzle out. Despite his attempted hazing, the veteran fireman also quickly warms to Ocean, a forty-two year old immigrant rookie and former Mainland firefighter, who is still able to pass his physical training with perfect marks. He is assigned to help power plant engineer Ying Lan close the main pipeline, but her short-sighted boss over-rules their efforts at the plant level, making everything go boom. As if the stakes were not high enough already, the son of “Chill” Yau Bong-chiu, the firefighter who took the fall for Ho and Yip during an administrative inquiry, walked away from his school tour group and is now lost in the burning power plant.

ATLGO makes Backdraft look like an Oscar Wilde drawing room comedy. This is the ultimate one-darned-thing-after-another disaster film, featuring almost as many big name stars as The Towering Inferno. The fire truly rages and when particulate matter gets in the air, it become a massively combustive spectacle. Yet for sheer lunacy, nothing tops Jackie Chan’s early cameo (you’ll know it when you see it).

There will be no metrosexual whininess in ATLGO. Even though his mustache is kind of wimpy, Nicholas Tse is all man as “Sam” Ho, whereas Hu Jun is simply all Hulk as Ocean. Yet, nothing is stronger than Simon Yam’s attitude as the crafty old Lee. Fire-fighting is clearly still a man’s business in HK, but Michelle Bai Bing’s Ying convincingly supplies the brains of the film. Add the likes of Andy On, Shawn Yue, and Michelle Wai and you have no shortage of romantic leads playing supporting roles.

ATLGO is a rousingly old-fashioned film about heroism and sacrifice, but it also has a healthy contemporary contempt for bureaucracy and authority. It is sort of the best of both eras. Highly recommended for fans of fire-fighting action, As the Lights Go Out is now available on DVD, BluRay, and digital VOD from Well Go USA.

The Mule: It’s a Dirty Business

Working in customs can be a dirty business. Rubber gloves just don’t come thick enough to make it alright. Of course, it is even worse to be a suspected smuggler on the receiving end. For obvious reasons, time is presumably on the law’s side, but one poor dupe will do his best to put his bodily functions on hold in Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson’s “based on a true story” crime drama The Mule (trailer here), which releases in select markets and on VOD this Friday.

Unbeknownst to sad sack footballer Ray Jenkins, the vice-captain of his team and their dodgy patron have a regular heroin smuggling operation going. This year, Jenkins really ought to attend the annual season-ending trip to Thailand, since he has been awarded their player of the year honor. It would also be a fine opportunity for Jenkins to stuff his stomach with condoms filled with heroin. He would prefer to decline, but his parents’ gambling debts have him in a tight spot. He nearly gets away clean, but some last minute suspicious behavior gives him away to Australian customs.

Not quite as dumb as he looks, Jenkins will not agree to any x-rays or cop to anything. Under Aussie law, he will be held without charge for seven days or two number twos, at which point the evidence should speak for itself. However, Jenkins refuses to go, fortified by his strange willpower and a heavy dose of constipating codeine. It will get ugly, as Detectives Croft and Paris become increasingly impatient holed up in their airport hotel room with its jury-rigged porcelain throne, especially the hot-headed Croft.

If any film could scare a prospective drug mule straight, this would be it. Let’s just say it goes there and skip the graphic descriptions. Frankly, Sampson and co-writers Leigh Whannell (from the Saw franchise) and Jaime Browne largely turn poor Jenkins into a moaning ball of constipation wrangled over by the various cops, gangsters, and his legal aide attorney. However, he will somehow rouse himself for some clever third act twists.

Hugo Weaving is a constant source of entertainment, snarling his way through the film as Croft. Co-writer-co-director Sampson is also appropriately nebbish, in a doughy way, as the unspeakably miserable Jenkins. While Georgina Haig’s public defender is not much of a presence, the film rather slyly implies she is far more interested in Jenkins as a potential cause than concerned with his physical well-being. Regardless, Whannell and John Noble hold up their ends as totally slimy villains.

Contrasting pitiful Jenkins’ cautionary tale with the wall-to-wall coverage of Australia’s America’s Cup Victory makes The Mule a rather idiosyncratic early 1980s period piece. Still, this is not Miami Vice. No doubt about it, the premise is a bit off-putting, to put it tactfully. However, the execution is quite strong, buoyed by its considerable attitude and gumption. Recommended for fans of dark, somewhat scatological thrillers, The Mule launches on iTunes and opens in limited release this Friday (11/21).