Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Hallow

Blame the Euro. Since Ireland no longer controls its own monetary policy, it has been forced to sell off its national forest to pay down its budget deficit. To facilitate the sale to a lumber concern, a young forester has temporarily relocated his wife and infant son to remote cabin in the woods. The fae people are none too happy about it, but they would probably be after their baby anyway, because that’s what they do. Dread runs like thick goey sap in Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

The forest is deep, dark, and verdant. Adam Hitchens thinks he is in his element, so he has no qualms about tromping about with his rug rat strapped to his back. Gee, that dropped pacifier sure looks ominous though. Seriously, why doesn’t he just put in ad in the Faery Times that says: “plump baby available for abduction.”

Hitchens hardly has time to toke up at home before things start going bump in the night. Initially, he and his wife Claire assume it is the work of angry farmer Colm Donnelly, who bitterly resents Hitchens’ reason for being there. However, things escalate to a level that is difficult to ascribe to a human agency. Of course, by this point, Claire has already pried the iron bars off the windows. You might wonder why the previous tenant of Victim Cottage felt compelled to put them up in the first place, but not these Londoners. Similarly, he does not think twice about bringing some cool “zombie” tree fungus into hearth and home.

Hardy and cinematographer Martijn van Broekhuizen are strong on atmosphere, so it is a bit of shame the film rushes so quickly into supernatural bedlam. A slower build would have yielded stronger results. He and co-screenwriter Felipe Marino promise a lot of ancient archetypal folklore, but aside from some changeling business, they keep the night terrors relatively conventional. Hardy is also a bit too frugal with Michael Smiley, whose craggy badassery livens up his one scene as Davey, the local Garda (“I’m from Belfast, we had a different sort of bogeyman there”).

Still, the locations and set design are massively creepy and the ectoplasmic body horror is suitably grotesque. As the Hitchens, Game of Thrones alumnus Joseph Mawle comes across as a bit of a pathetically underwhelming environmental hipster (is there any other kind?), while Bojana Novakovic flashes some welcome assertiveness. Much like Smiley, Michael McElhatton also adds some memorably cranky local color as the sour Donnelly.

For genre fans, The Hallow gets the job done, but it raises expectations early on that it will be somewhat more than it is. Ticket holders should note, rather than a stinger per se, a long parting sequence runs throughout the closing credits, building to a final, quiet gotcha shot. An okay excursion into the evil woods, The Hallow is recommended for those who want to maximize the “Park City at Midnight” experience when it screens tonight (1/31) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’15: Meru

You could call it the extremely scenic route. In the alpinist world, the forbidding Shark’s Fin route up Mount Meru was one of the last great conquests. Three climbers came maddeningly close in 2008, but fell short. Filmmaker-alpinist Jimmy Chin and his producer-co-director wife E. Chai Vasarhelyi document the 2008 expedition, their 2011 return, and the dramatic intervening events in Meru (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Located in the Northern Indian Himalayas, Meru had been summited before, but never via the Shark’s Fin. It is an arduous field of ice obstacles, frozen sheer, offering precious few footholds or crevices. So why climb it? Presumably, because it is there. As one of the most respected alpinists climbing today, Conrad Anker was an obvious candidate to finally lick the Shark’s Fin. Chin also had extensive experience as a climber and photographer. Renan Ozturk was the junior man on the team, but the trio meshed well together. They just didn’t quite make it on their first attempt.

Frankly, Chin and Vasarhelyi do not spend must time establishing the significance of Mount Meru or the Shark’s Fin, pretty much launching into the climbing right away. Similarly, we do not get much sense of the three climbers’ personalities, until about halfway through. However, when two of the three are sidelined by misfortune, we start to get a better sense of who they are and what Meru means to them.

Anker had previously lost one regular team-member (ultimately marrying his widow), so he already knew tragedy first hand. Nevertheless, the time between Meru expeditions was comparatively less eventful for him. In contrast, after Ozturk barely survives a spectacular accident, it is unclear how much basic mobile function he will regain. Initially, the notion of mountain climbing in general seems awfully ambitious, let alone attacking the Shark’s Fin. Somehow, Chin also survived a freak avalanche. He is relatively unscathed physically, but clearly quite shaken, emotionally and spiritually.

By the time the three men launch their second campaign against the Shark’s Fin, the audience is thoroughly primed for a feast of redemption. Frankly, everything about the 2011 just sort of boggles the mind, especially some of the jury-rigging we see them do with faulty equipment. Co-cinematographers Chin and Ozturk capture some absolutely awesome shots, particularly given the circumstances they were working under. Indeed, the film looks incredible and it eventually delivers the comeback satisfaction it promises.

The stakes have increased for subsequent mountaineering documentaries following the release of the very good to great The Summit, Beyond the Edge, and K2: Siren of the Himalayas, but Meru finds something new to say (and ends on a considerably different note than the first and third films). It seems like a particularly fitting Sundance film, incorporating elements of previous selections, like The Summit and The Crash Reel, but ending with considerably more uplift. Highly recommended for fans of outdoorsy cinema, Meru screens again today (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’15: Turbo Kid

We might as well keep plundering the Earth and maybe the current administration is right, we can just relax and stop worrying about the Iranian nuclear program. After all, the late 1990s apocalypse our 1980s exploitation films warned us about never came to fruition. Take a sentimental journey back to those more innocent, alarmist times in Anouk Whissel, François Simard & Yoann-Karl Whissel’s Turbo Kid (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

In the not too distant future, 1997 A.D. to be precise, a handful of BMX bikers roam the wasteland, clashing with the mutant lackeys of the overlord Zeus. The Kid tries to keep to himself, scavenging comic books and Viewmaster slides. At first, he is a bit annoyed when a girl named Apple starts tagging along with him. However, he soon finds he enjoys her sweetly looney company, even when he learns she is a robot. He duly fashions her a garden gnome club as a weapon, but it cannot compare to the turbo powered gauntlet he salvaged from a crashed government transport. Unfortunately, just as they become an effective dynamic duo, Apple is damaged in a dust-up with Zeus’s goons, forcing them on a perilous detour in search of spare parts.

Basically, there are just a few really big laughs in Turbo, unless you dig on ridiculously gory slapstick violence in the Troma tradition, in which case it is fully loaded. You’ll lose track of how many bodies are cleaved apart in bizarre and unlikely ways. It is so over the top, you have to just buy into it on its own terms. As a result, it is almost impossible to envision Turbo playing in a normal neighborhood theater on a sleepy Wednesday afternoon.

Basically, you know Whissel, Simard & Whissel came to play when cult superstar Michael Ironside shows up as the eye-patch wearing Zeus. MacLeod’s Daughters star Aaron Jeffery is also acceptably grizzled as the Kid’s ally, Frederic the Arm-Wrestler (but don’t get too attached to his paws, so to speak). However, you really have to give credit to Laurence Leboeuf for going all in as the super chipper Apple.

If you have a problem with severed limbs and spurting blood than you are way too sheltered for Turbo Kid. However, if you appreciate retro cheesy nostalgia than you will dig the clever details sprinkled throughout the madness. By now, you should know full well whether it is your cup of tea or not (if you’re still unsure, the answer is probably no). For those who enjoy campy gore, it is a lot of good clean fun. Recommended for serious cult film fans, Turbo Kid screens again tonight (1/31) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’15: The Visit

It is depressing to think we might be better prepared for first contact with extraterrestrial life than the next terrorist attack. Still, if the aliens ever do come, we will be glad these academics and bureaucrats put some thought into our response. Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen puts them through a dress rehearsal of sorts in his documentary-essay The Visit, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

So here is the hypothetical: aliens have finally arrived and announced themselves. Madsen has his various expert commentators talk into the camera as if they were greeting and/or negotiating with the extra-worldly beings. Some of them make a lot of sense, such as the biologist maintaining quarantine until each species can determine the threat levels of the opposite race’s bacteria. Of course, this is just as important for the Visitors, considering what happened when they landed at Grover’s Mill in 1938.

The philosophers want to know whether they understand the concepts of good and evil as we know them, which might be practical information, particularly if they do not. Meanwhile, the British press and security officers are not so subtly trying to determine their intentions and agree on some sort of joint statement that will not cause panic. Finally, the former director of the UN’s Office of Outer Space Affairs is delighted to finally have something to justify the agency’s budgets.

Despite the subject matter, there are not a lot of call backs to science fiction in The Visit. However, you can hear echoes of 2001: a Space Odyssey when one commentator gives an imaginative description of his journey inside the alien capsule, somehow decked out to resemble the great entry hall of a European Museum. It is a striking sequence, veering close to outright speculative fiction.

Viewers should be warned, The Visitor shares the same austere aesthetic sensibility of Madsen’s previous documentary, Into Eternity, a tour of the state-of-the-art, subterranean Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility, before it was sealed off from all human contact for the rest of infinity. It should also be rather telling that auterist documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter served as a co-producer. Madsen stages some grand set pieces and cinematography Heikki Färm give them all a glossy sheen, but the net effect is often as lulling as it is transfixing.

There is a weird ambition to The Visitor that is quite impressive and it offers some provocative points of discussion. Nevertheless, the languid pace and defiantly ambiguous takeaways seem perversely designed to frustrate all but the most cerebral audiences. It is conceptually fascinating, but most viewers would get what they need from it in a few short excerpts and a handful of insightful reviews. Recommended mostly just for those with a taste for contemplative hybrid documentaries, The Visit screens again this morning (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Nightmare

It is not a good idea to nod off during this film. You might encounter one of the subjects. Fortunately, it will be very difficult to drift off during one of the scariest documentaries you will ever see that isn’t about Scientology. Shaking it off at bed time will be a different matter. Filmmaker Rodney Ascher documents the very real phenomenon of sleep paralysis and the terrifying figures often seen by those who suffer from it in The Nightmare, which screens tonight during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Like his interview subjects who agreed to appear on camera, Ascher (the co-director of Room 237) has personally experienced sleep paralysis. Medical professionals generally acknowledge it involves the conscious sensation of rigid immobility, until the afflicted sleeper manages to rouse themselves out of it. Of course, there is more to the story. Those who have endured persistent sleep paralysis often report seeing and sometimes hearing dark, menacing figures. Typically, these are the “Shadow Men,” often observed acting under the direction of the “Hat Man.”

This might sound fantastical, but Ascher has multiple sources attesting to these demonic dream stalkers. Indeed, there is something deeply archetypal about them, especially Hat Man, who can be seen as a forerunner to Freddy Kruger buried deep within our collective subconscious.

While Nightmare adheres to the standard accepted form of documentary films, Ascher’s dramatic recreations of participants’ nightmare encounters are genuinely frightening. Everything about them represents superior horror film mechanics, from the eerie lighting to the evocative set design. This film will scare you in the moment, but it will also challenge your safe assumptions regarding the nature of reality. Clearly, Hat Man is real enough for a considerable number of people out there, so what does that mean for our world view?

Yet, Ascher does not leave us bereft of hope and deprived of sleep. Surprisingly, Nightmare will hold considerable interest for Evangelical audiences, who are not likely to be amongst the film’s target demographic. Nonetheless, one subsequently empowered Christian discovered she could vanquish her sleep demons by invoking a name. No spoilers, but his initials are “J.C.”

This is the rare sort of film that really gets under your skin and stays there. Ascher takes familiar New Age tropes and transforms them into something profoundly dark and threatening. The suggestion that sleep paralysis can be transmitted from person to person, essentially through the telling, is particularly disturbing for obvious reasons. Conveniently, nobody has time to sleep at Sundance. Presumably, Nightmare harbors no long-term ill effects, but it is exceptionally creepy. Very highly recommended for brave genre fans, The Nightmare screens again tonight (1/30) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

2015 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

There are ways that parents burden their children, such as decorating their home with hipster Scandinavian furniture. It does not quite work as a unifying theme, but generational debts and inheritances play an important role in at least some of this year’s Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films, which open collectively today in New York.

The first simply will not fit into our artificial framework no matter how hard we try to force it, but it is also the shortest and the slightest of the four nominees provided to the media (again, Disney decided to do their own thing with Patrick Osbourne’s Feast). Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins & Job Roggeveen’s A Single Life is sort of a riff on the concept of Adam Sandler’s Click, with a 45 rpm record taking the place of the remote control. It is amusing, but it is hardly a major work.

Daisy Jacobs’ The Bigger Picture certainly deals with serious issues, depicting the struggles of a faithful grown son to care for his ailing mother, even while she persists in favoring his irresponsible brother. Jacobs’ life-size, paper animated figures are undeniably distinctive, but if this were a live action film, we would probably consider the drama manipulative.

Torill Kove’s Me and My Mouton is also a bit sentimental, but in a sweetly nostalgic kind of way. The middle daughter of tragically trendy but well-meaning architect parents must deal with their rather unorthodox aesthetics, which seem strange to her more conventional friends. In fact, Mouton is a rather sly satire of hipster sensibilities as well as an endearing coming of age story. Kevin Dean’s soul jazz trio soundtrack also makes it swing and groove.

Yet, without question, the class of the field is Robert Kondo & Dice Tsutsumi’s The Dam Keeper (trailer here). When his father passed away, young Pig assumed his position as the dam keeper, maintaining the windmill that prevents as mass of toxic clouds from overrunning the village. Yet, he is still just a boy, who continues to attend school, where he is often mocked and bullied. One day, a young Fox transfers to his class and the rest of the animal students are quite taken with her (she is a fox, after all). However, she has an artist’s sensitivity, so she soon befriends Pig. Nevertheless, she presumably remains subject to the same peer pressures of other students. When it appears Fox betrays Pig’s trust for the sake of acceptance, the heartbroken dam keeper might just give up entirely, which would have ominous implications for the ungrateful village.

Dam Keeper is a beautiful fable, perfectly served by the stunning painted and hand-drawn animation, but it also resonates on a very personal level. In both visual and narrative terms, it is an extraordinary film. It is worth seeing the entire program just for it, especially since it is the longest of the nominated films. Frankly, if it does not win, the Academy will have some explaining to do.

This year’s nominated short film animated package is augmented with several other films of notable merit, including one selection of the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival. While it is not as graceful and sophisticated as Plympton’s previous Slamdance selection, the feature length Cheatin’, Footprints is a rather clever, postmodern channeling of Peter and the Wolf, rendered in a suitably surreal style.

Without question, The Dam Keeper is the main event here—and hopefully the Oscar favorite. Between it and the addition of the next strongest nominee, Me and My Mouton and the Slamdance alumnus, Footsteps, this year’s presentation of the Academy Award nominated short films is definitely worth seeing. Recommended for animation fans, it opens today (1/30) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Sundance ’15: Mississippi Grind

Apparently, Gerry never heard the old Kenny Rogers song. He is the sort of gambler you bet against and feel fine about doing so. He might win for a while, because he spends every spare moment studying various games of chance, but he reeks of losing. However, he believes his fortunes have turned when he teams up with a younger, luckier gambler in Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Curtis is just passing through. That’s what he does. Gerry really ought to be leaving soon. He owes a lot of people a lot of money, but just keeps digging a bigger hole for himself. Strangely enough, he wins when playing at Curtis’s table, but he promptly blows all his takings on an ill-advised bet shortly thereafter. When fate subsequently brings them together again, Gerry recognizes a good thing. Determined to keep it going, Gerry convinces Curtis to join forces to play regional games and hole-in-the-wall casinos as they work their way down the Mississippi towards a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.

It sounds like a winning proposition, but the “sign”-obsessed Gerry cannot change his spots. He is still a crummy person and when Curtis is not around, he keeps finding ways to lose. In contrast, Curtis might be slightly commitment-phobic, but he is dramatically healthier than Gerry, often preferring to visit the local blues club over a tacky gambling den. It is really quite considerate of him, since it justifies Grind’s savory blues soundtrack (and some original themes scored by Scott Bomar).

Although Gerry, the aggressive screw-up, is the flashier role, Grind still might prove to be a career pivot for Ryan Reynolds. As Curtis, he plays with and against his pretty-boy type-casting, showing surprising grit down the stretch. Although Ben Mendelsohn is relatively restrained compared to some of his scenery-chomping villainous turns, he fully embraces Gerry’s pathetic, self-deluding, self-centered nature. Frankly, sometimes it is painful to watch his debasement.

Granted, anyone who has seen a gambling road movie will have a general idea where Grind is headed, but Fleck & Boden give the material a few nice twists, including the ironic but wholly fitting third act source of the title. They exhibit a strong sense of place, grounding the film in picturesque Southern-border state locales. It is also certainly safe to say they never glamorize gambling. In fact, the film could almost be a PSA for Gamblers Anonymous and a seedier, more naturalistic corrective to noir-ish The Gambler and Chow Yun-fat’s heroic God of Gamblers franchise. Recommended for fans of gambling films with local flavor, Mississippi Grind screens again tomorrow (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Witch

If you want to psychoanalyze a culture, look at the horror movies it produces, because that will show you what really scares them. Consider this the exception that proves the rule. In writer-director Robert Eggers’ period chiller, early 1600s Puritan New Englanders feared the Devil could have designs on their souls. Worse still, they might be tempted to deal it away. These are not baseless anxieties in Eggers’ The Witch, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Thanks to their father’s zealous pride, Thomasin’s family has been expelled from their Puritan community to an isolated hardscrabble farm, where they must fend for themselves entirely. It has not been going well. Their crop failure is bad news in strictly economic and sustenance terms, but it is even more ominous as a sign or portent. Poor teenage Thomasin becomes the family scapegoat after her infant brother uncannily vanishes while she is minding him. Her father is relatively forgiving, but her mother is witheringly judgmental.

Of course, the grieving parents are understandably disturbed, since they believe their unbaptized baby is now surely damned. Unfortunately, Thomasin’s bratty young sister and (now) youngest brother mischievously or perhaps maliciously seem to do everything possible to cast supernatural suspicion on Thomasin, yet they seem to be the ones who are inexplicably drawn to the family goat, Black Phillip.

Who would have thought a moody, suggestive period horror film would be the hot ticket at Sundance, but it clearly pays to have a p&i screening on the first full day of the festival. Regardless, it is an unusually effective and historically accurate film. Those are wooden trunnels holding the farmhouse together, not nails. Throughout the film, you can feel a palpable sense of physical and spiritual isolation that malevolent powers may or may not be exploiting. There is indeed a fair degree of ambiguity in The Witch, but it is still safe to say evil is afoot.

The cast also looks and sounds perfectly in keeping with the times. There is no hamming it up or hinting at contemporary ironies. As Thomasin, Anya Taylor-Joy comes across as a genuinely tormented soul, while Ralph Ineson and his rich, commanding voice seem to carry the historical weight of Puritanism and all its collected hypocrisies. These are haunted people in more ways than one.

In the movies, good things rarely happen in the deep, dark woods. The Witch is no exception. It is a visually arresting film, sensitively lensed by Jarin Blaschke with a suitably Puritanical, washed-out color palette, but in a way that pulls viewers into the world and intensifies the mounting dread. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of high end genre films, The Witch screens again today (1/29) and Saturday (1/31) in Park City and tomorrow (1/30) in Salt Lake, as a U.S. Dramatic Competition title at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’15: The Forbidden Room

It is like Guy Maddin put his collection of vintage silent and early talky prints through a blender and then screened the puree, except none of these films ever existed before. Unlike his Séances project inspired by lost films, these odd (odd is indeed the right term) film fragments are entirely the product of Maddin, his co-writers: co-director Evan Johnson, poet John Ashbery, and co-conspirators Robert Kotyk and Kim Morgan. Yet, as is often true with Maddin’s work, they feel like they must be real on some alternate plane of existence. Prepare for a trip when Maddin’s The Forbidden Room screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

It is a tall order to summarize Room and it would be impossible to do the many plot strands justice. Just so you know you you’re in the right film (not that you couldn’t tell immediately), Room starts with a lesson on how to take a bath. It then segues into a submarine disaster film, which is interrupted by a woodsman, who has come to tell the suffocating crew his tale, as if he were the Ancient Mariner. Like Thomas Pynchon on speed, Room thus proceeds on tangents to tangents, as each flashback and incidental anecdote begets more of the same.

Eventually, we will meet Mathieu Amalric playing a collector who lives in a swanky elevator and the train psychiatrist working on the Berlin-Bogota Express. In one story arc, a man meets his doppelganger, while Udo Keir continually pops up as different characters in various sub-films, because he’s Udo Keir.

Trying to track the film from point A to point B is a losing proposition. It could almost play in a continual loop as an installation piece, except viewers would miss the realization of the moment Maddin opens up the final “Russian doll” (to use an apt term from the press notes) and begins to re-pack them again.

The real point of Room is the mind-blowing artistry of it all. Each constituent film begins with its own credits sequences, which are graphically striking and perfectly representative of their respective eras and genres. Likewise the work of cinematographers Stephanie Weber-Biron and Ben Kasulke is never less than stunning, flawlessly evoking the look of noir black-and-white as well as that early nitrate color. It really is like walking through a cinematic dreamscape.

Granted, Room will baffle less adventurous viewers, even though it has an excess of narrative coming out of its ears. This is truly Guy Maddin raised to the power of Guy Maddin. Without question, it is the work of a genuine auteur who has no close comparison. Highly recommended for fans of the unusual and the aesthetically daring, The Forbidden Room screens again tonight (10/29) and Saturday (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Russian Woodpecker

If anyone has a right to be obsessed with Chernobyl, it would be filmmaker-set designer Fedor Alexandrovich. As a four year old child, he was evacuated from what is now the Exclusion Zone—and he has the radioactive material in his bones to prove it. Through his research, Alexandrovich pieced together a theory hypothesizing Chernobyl was not an accident, but a deliberate act of Soviet sabotage. At a time when the Russian military and their proxies are once again committing crimes against the Ukrainian people, Chad Gracia documents Alexandrovich’s deductions as well as the increasingly precarious state of Ukrainian national security in The Russian Woodpecker, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

The titular woodpecker was a rhythmically regular radio signal that was thought to emanate from the old Soviet over-the-horizon radar station Duga-3, known to locals simply as the Duga. The Duga was massive and expensive, but it did not work very well. According to Alexandrovich, it would have failed a planned inspection, thereby causing great inconvenience for its high ranking sponsors, had events at Chernobyl not intervened. Can you see where he is going with this?

The Woodpecker ceased with the fall of Communism in 1989, but Ukrainians have recently started picking up an eerily similar signal. Like a prophet in the wilderness, the wild eyed and unruly coifed Alexandrovich had warned anyone willing to listen about the dangers of a resurgent neo-Soviet Russia. Unfortunately, his prophecies have been more vindicated than he would ever wish.

For obvious reasons, it is nearly impossible to untangle the tragic past from the perilous present in Woodpecker. While originally conceived as a short doc on the Duga and its annoying signal, the project expanded in scope due to the magnitude of Alexandrovich’s contentions and the relevance of current events. Those in Park City associated with the film are particularly worried about cinematographer Artem Ryzhkov, a war correspondent by trade, who was embedded with the unit hardest hit by the latest Russian orchestrated attacks.

The heavy significance that looms over Woodpecker makes it difficult to really enjoy Alexandrovich’s undeniable eccentricity, even before the multi-hyphenate artist starts to feel the heat as a high profile critic of Putin’s Russia. Essentially, Woodpecker begins as an idiosyncratic character study, evolves into a visually stunning tour of the Duga and the surrounding off-limits environs, and whipsaws into a real life chronicle of paranoia and defiance.

There are precious few documentaries that can compare to Woodpecker’s unclassifiable tone or its sense of urgency. Even if you do not fully buy into Alexandrovich’s theories, he and Gracia provide a great deal of Chernobyl background and context that will be new to most viewers. Highly compelling in an absolutely chilling kind of way, The Russian Woodpecker is definitely recommended for anyone interested in a fresh look at Ukrainian current events and recent history, The Russian Woodpecker screens again tomorrow (1/29) and Friday (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’15: Advantageous

Technology can make a dystopia look like a utopia. As the spokesperson for a major cosmetic engineering firm, it is Gwen Koh’s job to convince consumers to buy into this brave new world, but she is not getting any younger. This fact of life has serious economic and social repercussions in Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

In the near future, Koh has already beat the odds finding high profile employment as a single mother. Inconveniently, her luck is about to run out at the worst possible time. Her thirteen year old daughter Jules has been turned down by her preferred prep school, but she was accepted by her nearly as prestigious but twice as expensive second choice. She should also attend a pricey summer camp for incoming students or risk losing ground before classes even start. However, Koh’s employers have just declined to renew her contract, opting to replace her with someone younger.

Koh will try reaching out to estranged family members, but her best hope might entail returning to her former employers as the guinea pig-public face for their newest, most radical procedure. Unfortunately, the process might not be exactly what they report it to be. Koh is clearly willing to sacrifice for her daughter, but it might cost her far more than will be immediately apparent.

Expanding her ITVS Futurestates short to feature length, Phang and lead actress-co-writer Jacqueline Kim create a compellingly personal vision of a futuristic dystopia. Frankly, some of their contentions fly in the face of recent trends, such as disproportionately high unemployment for women, when middle age men have been hit the hardest in recent years. Nevertheless, they evoke a compelling sense of economic vulnerability.

Regardless, Advantageous is truly relationship-driven science fiction, especially Koh’s overriding love for her daughter. As Gwen and Jules Koh, Jacqueline and Samantha Kim will pretty much break your heart as their drama plays out. Frankly, once circumstances remove the former Kim from the picture, Advantageous loses some of its bite. Indeed, the third act largely feels like an overlong epilogue, except for a key scene with James Urbaniak (Simon Grim in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool and its sequel). While he initially comes across like just another corporate suit, his relationship with Gwen Koh evolves in an intriguing way, further deepening the film.

Although Advantageous scrupulously maintains its micro focus, it still presents an impressive looking vision of the future. It is a lot like our world, but one or two steps closer to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Its anti-corporate, feminist biases can get a little clunky, but the performances of Kim, Kim, and Urbaniak (helmed with remarkable sensitivity by Phang) more than compensate. Recommended for those who appreciate science fiction with psychological complexity, Advantageous screens again this morning (1/28), tomorrow (1/29), and Friday (1/30) in Park City, as well as this Saturday (1/31) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance ’15: The Chinese Mayor

Mayor Geng Yanbo’s re-election is guaranteed, but that does not mean his position is secure. Such is the nature of power in the Chinese Communist Party. His vision for the northern Shanxi city Datong is grandly ambitious, but his intraparty people skills are a little iffy. That is a combination that leads to conflict in Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

When we first meet “Demolition” Geng, he has already resettled tens of thousands of families to make way for his large-scale construction plans. To restore the city’s centuries old glory, Geng has been razing the old, economically depressed neighborhoods to build a brand spanking new “ancient” quarter, including an imposing city wall. It is a development program that drips with irony. There was a time the CCP tore down cultural landmarks out of ideological zeal, but now they are building up replicas of imperial glory.

Geng’s scheme to convert Datong’s stalling industrial sector into a hub of culture and tourism might be debatable, but his constituents seem to appreciate the fact that he has a plan. Likewise, much can be said for and against his leadership style. He can be high-handed and severe, demonstrating a true Communist’s regard for property rights, but he is also unusually accessible for petitioners with a grievance against the city government. When he dresses down subordinates, they mostly have it coming. In fact, one sequence in which he chastises a contractor for sub-standard cement work brings to mind the shoddy construction techniques revealed in producer Zhao Qi’s Sichuan earthquake documentary, Fallen City.

Arguably, Zhou’s strictly observational approach leaves viewers somewhat unprepared for the third act surprises, even though Geng clearly comes across as the kind of politician who makes enemies. It is hard to fully take stock of his administration, but it is probably safe to assume he is preferable to the alternatives. Yet, some of the film’s most revealing scenes document his sham re-election at a local Party conference. It was certainly an economical process: one single candidate for each office. Of course, that is exactly the sort of meaningless democracy the Hong Kong Umbrella movement was protesting against, making Zhou’s Chinese Mayor a fitting feature to screen with Flora Lau’s short film, I Am Hong Kong.

Geng does not exactly have JFK levels of charisma, but he is probably the only Chinese government official willing to let a documentary film crew follow him for months at a time. In the process of documenting Geng’s tenure, Zhou captures some revealing behind-the-scenes glimpse at CCP political sausage-making. Recommended for those fascinated by the corruption and dysfunction of the secretive Mainland government, The Chinese Mayor screens again this morning (1/28), Friday (1/30), and Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Thursday (1/29) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Wild Card: Statham Happens in Vegas

It is not exactly a critic’s dream come true, but it rises to one of our frequent challenges. We often lament studios remake classic movies, making them considerably worse, rather than redoing and hopefully improving less than great films. That sort of happens here when Jason Statham steps into a role originated by Burt Reynolds. It’s already sounding better, isn’t it? In fact, Statham is much more convincing as the lethal bodyguard with a gambling problem in Simon West’s Wild Card (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Like the somewhat notorious 1986 film Heat, Wild Card was adapted by screenwriter William Goldman from his own novel. On the screen, it follows much the same structure, but off-screen, hopefully there will be far less litigation. Nick Wild has an uneasy truce with the mafia. He stays on good terms with the mega-connected Baby, but for the most part, he does not bother them and they do not bother him. Most of his jobs are a little demeaning, like babysitting nickel-and-dime gambler Cyrus Kinnick, but he keeps hoping to hit it big at the tables and run off to Corsica (it was Venice before).

This equilibrium is disrupted when a visiting gangster brutalizes Holly, a prostitute Wild was formerly involved with. She wants him to get the creep’s name, so she can pursue legal action. However, Wild wants no part of anything connected to the Golden Nugget, which must be thrilled to be so explicitly identified as a mobster resort. Of course, as a good guy, Wild can’t help himself. Despite his hesitation, he lays quite a beating on the entitled Danny DeMarco and his henchmen and facilitates their further humiliation at Holly’s hands. From there, one thing leads to another.

Wild Card has a handful of spectacular fights (choreographed by Cory Yuen), sprinkled throughout long stretches of compulsive gambling and macho brooding. The gimmick for Wild (or Nick “Mex” Escalante as he was once known) is his facility for using commonplace items, such as credit cards and poker chips, as deadly weapons. Needless to say, this works so much better with Statham than Reynolds. Dominik García-Lorido (Andy Garcia’s daughter in the excellent Lost City and in real life) and Stanley Tucci also represent considerable upgrades as Holly and Baby, respectively. Indeed, the casting is nearly perfect this time around. Unfortunately, the Kinnick character still gums up the works with his unnecessary subplot.

Unlike the previous film’s revolving door-battery of directors, West keeps Wild Card moving along at a decent clip, even though it is more about gambling and gangster power games than action, per se. He also maintains a relatively upbeat mood, nicely underscored by some classic licensed blues and R&B tunes from artists like Magic Slim, Albert King, and Charles Brown. It still isn’t perfect but it is better, which is something. You could even say it’s not bad—but nowhere near Statham’s best work in The Bank Job and Redemption. For fans of old school Vegas, Wild Card opens this Friday (1/30) in New York.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sundance ’15: True Story

Who is the bigger user, the disgraced journalist or the alleged family murderer? It is a close call, but the “journalist” has no competition when it comes to willful self-deception. Mike Finkel’s strange and problematic relationship with Christian Longo provides the dramatic grist for British theater Rupert Goold’s ripped-from-the-tell-alls feature debut, True Story (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

For a while, Finkel was the golden boy at the New York Times, scoring numerous Sunday magazine covers. Then he was busted for “compositing” victims somewhat haphazardly in a human trafficking story. At least Longo was still a fan. While on the lam, he used Finkel’s name as an alias. Intrigued by the connection, the real Finkel pays a jail house visit to the man accused of killing his wife and three children. Recognizing a story that could salvage his career, Finkel agrees to co-author a book with Longo. Of course, he assumes it will be exculpatory, but early trial developments leave him feeling confused and betrayed.

Clearly, this is not a film looking to rehabilitate the NYT’s scandal-plagued image. Gretchen Mol plays Finkel’s editor as an ice cold CYAing Machiavellian, which might be the truest aspect of True Story. The ironic postscript also serves as a final middle finger to the Gray Lady. However, Goold and co-screenwriter David Kajganich are not trying to do any favors for Finkel or Longo either. In all honesty, everyone comes out of it looking badly, but that makes it fascinating to watch.

Christian Longo, the media savvy sociopath, just might be the role James Franco was born to play. He is so frighteningly convincing turning on the charm and manipulating everyone around him, it makes you wonder. Although, it is a far less showy role, Jonah Hill’s Finkel is also believably slow on the uptake (so much so, it also makes you wonder). Mol is suitably severe, but True Story is not a great vehicle for actresses, completely wasting Felicity Jones as Finkel’s more guarded but nearly personality-less girlfriend.

Franco and Hill’s scenes together have fair degree of crackle, but the suspense never really rises above room temperature. Frankly, there are no miscarriages of justice in True Story, unless you count the Times getting off easy after yet another journalistic scandal. Yet, it is strangely refreshing to see a film that is not out to gin up cheap outrage. Recommended for those who appreciate adult drama, True Story screens again this Thursday (1/29) and Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Sunday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’15: Going Clear

It is a documentary, but it could have played in the Park City at Midnight section, because it is a little scary at times. Alex Gibney’s Scientology documentary is pretty much everything you think it is, except it maintains a considerably higher standard of proof than his silly Eliot Spitzer conspiracy theory film. In fact, a considerable number of former high-ranking Scientologists go on-the-record and on-camera to explain how the IRS-designated church stifles dissent in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Fortunately, Gibney had producer and lead talking head Lawrence Wright’s nearly identically titled book to serve as a blueprint. Although Wright claims he never intended to write an expose that is essentially what he ended up with once he started digging. Gibney and Wright chronicle the Scientology creation story, going back to L. Ron Hubbard’s early years as an incompetent military officer and prolific science fiction writer, shining a light on his increasingly abusive relationship with second wife Sara Northrup Hollister. However, the biggest news in Clear may very well be the extent to which Oscar winning filmmaker Paul Haggis assumes the role of the leading public critic of his former “religion.”

Those who have read Wright’s book (or the excerpts that were released at the time of publication) will be generally familiar with the “alleged” harassment tactics unleashed against critics, but the totality of Gibney’s presentation is quite damning. Wright scores one of the film’s best lines marveling at the chutzpah it takes to launch a “war” against the IRS. Of course, the war is now over. Scientology won, gaining official tax-exemption and wriggling off the hook for a potential billion (with a “b”) dollar tax bill.

It is important to emphasize every allegation in Clear comes from a former member, speaking of what they witnessed firsthand and directly participated in. Yes, they could all be lying, but their consistency and Occam’s Razor finds that unlikely. In contrast, no loyalists agreed to participate in the film, most notably including the best known celebrity adherents. Frankly, it will probably be Tom Cruise’s reputation that takes the biggest hit from the film, but Gibney and his assorted experts leave open the possibility that John Travolta might be something of a victim of various controlling tactics himself.

It is extremely disturbing to see anti-Semitic rhetoric about Jews controlling Hollywood seep into the mainstream media, while the Scientology organization’s deliberate strategy to target the entertainment industry has been largely ignored. Surely, there are many well-meaning Scientologists (although the film estimates the ranks of active members have fallen to approximately 50,000), but they are not served by the leadership’s best-defense-is-a-good-offense policy. Gibney’s bracing documentary should be a wake-up call for them. Going Clear might be “controversial” (with air quotes), but it is authoritative and fully sourced. Highly recommended, it screens again this Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Sunday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Slamdance ’15: Darkness on the Edge of Town

Young Cleo Callahan might not look like a vigilante, but she has the right skills. She is crack sharpshooter, particularly with a rifle-scope. Arguably, her investigative talents are somewhat subpar, but in such a small provincial village she is bound to find her sister’s killer sooner or later. However, the guilty party is closer than she could imagine in Patrick Ryan’s moody revenge drama Darkness on the Edge of Town (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival.

Since the death of their parents, Callahan’s relationship with her older sister Aishling has been strained. She now lives with Foster parents, while Aishling lives the wild life—or at least she was. Although we see full well who the killer is, it feels like the sort of thing that should be held close to the vest. Regardless, Cleo Callahan soon sets out to even the score, presuming the murderer is one of the dodgy characters in her sister’s social circle.

Technically, they are innocent, but it is clearly implied they did sister Aishling wrong in more conventional ways, so there is no need to feel sympathy for their sorry hides. However, it is a different story when suspicion falls on Virgil O’Riley, the brother of her profoundly troubled best friend Robin.

The tone of Darkness is so dark, it is like Milton’s darkness visible. You do not want to know what goes on behind closed doors because it is sure to be awful. This is not a wish fulfillment vigilante movie like the later Death Wish films. It is scrupulously serious, even though there is a good deal of blood down the stretch. At times, Ryan plays with the themes and visual language of the western genre, but it is really more closely akin to a film like Heavenly Creatures, but executed in a drastically more naturalistic style.

Be that as it may, Darkness heralds the arrival of Emma Willis as a major new screen talent to watch. Her performance as Robin O’Riley is truly harrowing, riveting, and downright scary. It is bad luck for Emma Eliza Regan, whose intense slow-burning work as Callahan is likely to be overlooked, even though it is excellent as well.

It is hard to classify Darkness as a thriller, because of its deliberate pacing and thoroughly realized sense of hardscrabble place. Still, this film has grit in abundance. Definitely recommended for patrons of Irish cinema and violent contemporary tragedies in general, Darkness on the Edge of Town screens again tomorrow (1/28) at Treasure Mountain Inn, as part of this year’s Slamdance.

Slamdance ’15: Female Pervert

Some things sound sexier in theory than they frequently turn out to be in practice, like Murakami book clubs and dirty talk. Phoebe will learn both these things first hand. She would really like to make a connection, but she is her own worst enemy in Jiyoung Lee’s Female Pervert, which screens during the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival.

Phoebe works for a boutique PR agency and develops video games on the side. She is cute and hip, so you would think she would have no trouble attracting guys, until she starts talking. Frankly, the term pervert might be a bit harsh. It is like she has a form of sexual Tourette’s that compels her to make creepy, mood-killing comments.

Clocking in just over an hour, FP is relatively brief and a tad repetitive, as Phoebe falls into a predictable pattern of initially attracting guys with her idiosyncrasies and then repelling them with her inappropriate weirdness. However, there is a lot of sly satire directed at Nabokov reading pseudo-intellectual hipsters, the shallow feel-good liberal activism of millennials, conspiracy theorists with a religious like faith in cheaply produced documentaries, and organic food eating environmental paranoids. None of them can withstand Phoebe’s caustic attitude.

That necessarily means Jennifer Kim is the key to whether it all works and to what extent. Fortunately, she is absolutely terrific as the exquisitely problematic Phoebe. Her comic timing is pitch perfect and she radiates an eccentric charisma that truly lights up the screen. You cannot help falling for her, despite all the whacked out things she says and does. She somehow conveys a real heart underneath all the acting out, which comes through clearly in Lee’s sweetly subtle closing sequence.

Even knowing full well how much trouble she is, you’d be tempted to try to make something work with Phoebe, which is sort of the acid test for a character like this. While a lot of critics have bought into Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, because it tries to milk some rather gross sexual situations for laughs, it utterly lacks the warmth and vulnerability of the imperfectly titled Female Pervert. Recommended for fans of edgy but still kind of sweet relationship comedies, Female Pervert screens again tomorrow (1/28) at Treasure Mountain Inn, as part of this year’s Slamdance.

The Devil’s Violinist: Paginini at the Crossroads

Niccolò Paginini was the Robert Johnson of classical music. His ferocious technique and unparalleled popular success were seriously considered the fruits of a Faustian bargain. The talent was always there. Getting people to listen was the hard part. In fact, it was such a tricky proposition, the materialist maestro gladly makes that deal in Bernard Rose’s The Devil’s Violinist (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sulfur has not numbed the Mephistophelean Urbani’s nose for talent. He immediately recognizes the gifts of an aspiring Don Juan violinist scuffling in grubby music halls. He pledges to guarantee Paginini’s career and serve as his personal servant in this world, if Paginini agrees to do the same for him in the next. Shortly after signing a contract he probably should have read more closely, Paginini’s career ignites. He becomes a figure of dark romance and veiled controversy, like an early Nineteenth Century Heavy Metal rock star.

Eventually, Paginini gets bored with it all, spending long hours brooding in the tub, doing his best to resemble The Death of Marat. Fortunately, Paginini somewhat snaps out of his lethargy when he accepts upstart promoter John Watson’s offer to produce and conduct his London debuts concerts. However, Paginini’s demands will stretch the limits of Watson’s resources. Met by a mob of moralizing progressive protestors, Watson and his diva mistress Elisabeth Wells are forced to quarter Paginini and Urbani in their home. Of course, Watson’s daughter Charlotte immediately catches Paginini’s eye, but she is not inclined to swoon over the maestro, at least not yet.

We always thought Jared Harris just might be the Devil, so Violinist practically feels like a confirmation. He is delightfully sinister chewing on the scenery. Yet ironically, Urbani (who seems to be more of a minion than Old Scratch himself) is not infrequently portrayed as a more empathetic fellow than Paginini. Regardless, it is great fun watching him lurk and glower.

Violin prodigy and classical crossover artist David Garrett can certainly play. Acting is a little iffier. Perhaps the many scenes of his Paginini huddling in bed sheets in a state of near catatonia was a shrewd strategic decision on Rose’s part. Fortunately, Harris has some terrific supporting players to engage with, including Christian McKay, unflaggingly earnest as Watson, as well as Joely Richardson suggesting Eliza Doolittle’s morally flexible cousin as tabloid music critic Ethel Langham.

In a way, Devil’s Violinist reconciles the classy Jekyll films Rose has helmed, such as the Beethoven bio-pic Immortal Beloved and the superior Sophie Marceau version of Anna Karenina, with his Hydish scare fare, like Candyman and SXTape. For obvious reasons, he leans towards the former, depicting Urbani more as a Svengali than a figure of satanic horror. It works relatively well, despite Garrett’s awkwardness, which sometimes even feels fitting in context. Harris certainly does his thing and Garrett’s musical chops are also quite cinematic. Recommended for classical connoisseurs who appreciate a bit of uncanny garnish, The Devil’s Violinist opens this Friday (1/30) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Sundance ’15: I Am Hong Kong (short)

It is eerily fitting that Hong Kong’s democracy activists chose the umbrella as their symbol. After all, they are now most definitely facing that proverbial rainy day. Aside from our colleagues at the Epoch Times, the largely AWOL American media did a terrible job of covering the Umbrella Protests. In contrast, HK filmmaker Flora Lau was there, capturing the images of a movement that deserved better in the brief but potent short, I Am Hong Kong, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Based on her unusually subtle and nuanced narrative feature debut Bends, Lau will be a filmmaker to be reckoned with, assuming I Am Hong Kong does not cause her bureaucratic trouble down the line. Her approach for the short is elegantly simple, matching striking black-and-white stills with voiceovers from diverse protestors explaining what contemporary Hong Kong means to them, in either practical or metaphorical terms.

These are the faces we have not seen—the mothers with young children, the senior citizens, and the attractive young college students, who surely would have had plenty of other requests for their time, were they not demonstrating for meaningful democratic reforms. Indeed, their signs are quite telling, proclaiming “No party, no karaoke, fight for democracy,” and “Keep calm and carry an umbrella.”

While Lau was there more to observe and report than to make a statement, just being there and recording it all faithfully is significant. Clocking in shy of the five minute mark, it is definitely a shorty, but visually it is powerful, almost overwhelming stuff. Very highly recommended, I Am Hong Kong is a work of journalistic art that screens again with the documentary feature The Chinese Mayor tomorrow (1/28), Friday (1/30), and Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Thursday (1/29) and Friday (1/30) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.