Saturday, February 28, 2015

NYICFF ’15: When Marnie Was There

For young Anna Sasaki, coming of age is a particularly dramatic process, in a dark psychological kind of way. She is like a character out of Daphne du Maurier or Mary Roberts Rinehart novels, who has been sent to spend the summer in a bucolic marshland that could have been painted by the Impressionists. Nobody would be better suited to realize her new environment than the Studio Ghibli team, but alas, this will be their final release for the foreseeable future. While it lacks the tragic sweep of its immediate predecessors (Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises), Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There (trailer here) is an appropriately intimate goodbye that packed the house for the opening night of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Sasaki is far too sensitive to make friends easily with her classmates. Her stress-aggravated asthma does not help either. After a particularly severe attack, Sasaki’s mother Yoriko sends her to stay with her extended relatives, kindly old Kiyomasa and Setsu Oiwa. However, as a foster child, Sasaki has difficulty accepting any of them as family, including Yoriko, despite their genuine concern.

To humor Setsu, she makes a few half-hearted to befriend with some of the village girls her age, but Sasaki prefers to make sketches on her own. One of her favorite subjects, is Marsh House, an abandoned mansion, only intermittently accessible during low tides. Strangely though, a young girl named Marnie seems to live there with her ominously gothic servants. Sasaki and Marnie are drawn to each other like lonely kindred spirits. At last, each feels they have finally found a true friend. Yet, Marnie’s penchant for vanishing without a trace confuses and sometimes hurts Sasaki.

It does not take much deduction or intuition to figure WMWT is some sort of supernatural story, but it still holds some profoundly resonant secrets. It certainly looks like a Studio Ghibli film, which means it is lushly gorgeous. As with The Secret World of Arrietty, his previous film as a director (also based on a British YA novel), Yonebayashi fully captures the beauty and malevolent power of the natural world. Frankly, it is rather impressive how quickly and yet how smoothly he can change the vibe from sunny pastoral to psychological suspense. There is even a scene in a supposedly haunted grain silo that evokes the mission tower staircase in Vertigo, fittingly enough in a film featuring a titular character named Marnie.

WMWT is a deeply humanist film, brimming with forgiveness and empathy. Through her POV, we will acutely understand how coming to terms with the past will allow Sasaki to carry on and embrace life. As a potential sign-off from Studio Ghibli, that’s not bad. Amongst their storied output, it probably ranks somewhere in the middle, but had it come from just about any other animation house, it would represent their crowning achievement. Granted, the opening act is a little slow getting it in gear, but overall, it is remarkably astute emotionally and refreshingly life-affirming. Highly recommended, When Marnie Was There screens again next Saturday (3/7) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYICFF.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Big News from Grand Rock: Journalism Up North

Leonard Crane is like the Jayson Blair of provincial Canada, except he meant well. Desperate to keep his small town newspaper in business, Crane starts cribbing human interest stories from the movies. Unfortunately, things get a little out of hand when he raises the stakes with an expose. There might just be a big story out there in Daniel Perlmutter’s Big News from Grand Rock (trailer here), which opens today in Canada.

You can pretty much tell from the staff meeting why readership is woefully down at the Weekly Ledger when the deep voiced Ted Baxter-ish Bill pitches a story about a local woman who bought a lottery ticket. No, it hasn’t won—yet. It is a pretty sleepy hamlet, so it might be a pleasant place to live (aside from the potholes), but it sure is hard to drum up news copy. When the longtime owner announces his intention to sell, Crane does his best to woo back advertisers. Out of desperation, he rewrites the Bill Murray elephant movie Larger than Life as local interest story. It is a safe film to start with, because who would admit to watching it?

The keep the flow of reader-friendly stories coming, Crane seeks out recommendations from a willingly complicit video store clerk. However, when he pushes Barbet Schroeder’s medical thriller Desperate Measures on Crane, the resulting expose proves too sensational, attracting a reporter from a relatively big city to confirm his allegations of secret cloning experiments conducted by a shadowy cult. Yet, just when he faces exposure and ostracism as a fraud, mysterious events start to suggest he might have accidentally stumbled onto something after all.

Big News is a low key comedy, but the humor is considerable and admirably consistent. There are a lot of very clever lines, but the way Perlmutter and his leads master the rhythm of their dialogue for laughs is particularly effective. For some of their exchanges, you can almost imagine Perlmutter was drilling them with a stopwatch, Howard Hawks-style.

As Crane, Ennis Esmer deftly walks a comedic tightrope, often serving as a straight man during most of his scenes, but then perfectly delivering the understated kicker that pays off all the set-up. Aaron Ashmore and Peter Keleghan are terrific wild cards playing off Esmer as his video co-conspirator and the clueless reporter (to use the job title generously). The awkward chemistry between him and Meredith MacNeill as out of town journalist also works quite effectively in the context of the film.

Granted, Perlmutter started with a promising premise, but the intangibles of the well-turned phrases and the natural, unforced feel of the riffing really distinguishes it from the field. Frankly, Big News from Grand Rock is too good not to find some sort of distribution here in America, but if you happen to be in Toronto, by all means, drop by the Carlton Cinema, where it opens today (2/27).

Ejecta: Assume the Probing Position

If aliens ever arrive on earth, all those broadcasts we have been beaming into space could be a problem for us. They will either expect we will jump to all sorts of awkward assumptions about probing or will worry we might start vivisecting them in an underground bunker. This film certainly will not help. William Cassidy has lived with a painful implant for years. It has turned him into a half-mad shell of a man, but that will not stop the military from torturing him anyway in Chad Archibald & Matt Wiele’s Ejecta (trailer here), which opens late night tonight in New York at the IFC Center.

Among UFO geeks, Cassidy is a near legendary figure. He is not exactly a reliable witness, but he creeps out everyone who meets him. The long term pain and side effects from his prolonged alien contact, dating back forty years, has completely chopped and diced his psyche. Although he no longer remembers doing so, he granted UFO-chasing filmmaker Joe Sullivan (sadly not the Chicago piano player who gigged with Eddie Condon) access to his spectacularly miserable life.

Sullivan picked a fine time to start documenting Cassidy. In addition to the aliens, Dr. Tobin, a civilian scientist working with the military also wants a piece of him. She thinks he can tell her when the invasion or whatever will start. For some strange reason, Cassidy is not inclined to be helpful, so she goes medieval on him, using some special confiscated alien technology. Yet, that implant might help keep his brain from totally liquefying.

Julian Richings racked up the awards on the genre festival circuit for playing the tortured (literally and figuratively) Cassidy—and not without reason. He goes all in, freaking out one minute, gaunt and withdrawn the next, without lurching ridiculously over the top, like an alien-abducted Meryl Streep. However, he is about the only thing going for this film.

Frankly, Ejecta is littered with plot holes that are only made more conspicuous by the film’s fractured chronology. There is really no logic to the confrontations between Cassidy and Tobin, beyond a desire to make heavy-handed commentaries about “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Lisa House’s Tobin is a ridiculous caricature of sadist villainy, who just becomes embarrassing as the film wears on. It is even difficult to follow the on-screen action when the film combines the worst of shaky campaign and 1980s-style gauzy, neon cinematography, in the dubious tradition of Alien from L.A.

Throughout Ejecta, Richings truly looks like his head might explode, which is not nothing. Nevertheless, the alien invasion-conspiracy business is nothing you haven’t seen done better any number of times. Not recommended, Ejecta screens just before midnights tonight and tomorrow (2/27 & 2/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Out of the Dark: a Colombian Grudge

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, so who’s to say there really was a spill at the “old paper mill?” Or maybe those grudge-holding supernatural hellions are actually the restless spirits of children killed by conquistadors instead of mercury-riddled kids. Either way, they want some payback against exploitative westerners in Lluís Quílez’s Out of the Dark (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Sarah Harriman has come to Colombia from the UK to take over the old man’s paper mill. Not the “old mill,” mind you. Nobody goes there anymore. She will be managing the shiny new mercury-free mill. Her husband Paul is able to stay at home with their daughter Hannah, because he is a children’s book illustrator. Is that job really cool enough though? Maybe he should have been a rock & roll children’s book illustrator.

As we know from the prologue, there are some very hacked off whatevers haunting the Harrimans’ palatial new digs. Poor Dr. Contreras Sr. will sacrifice his life for the sake of our exposition. Before long, they start tormenting young Hannah, who subsequently starts exhibiting signs of a bizarre malady. Of course, the Harrimans are concerned, but they keep shutting her door tight and nipping off to the opposite side of the oligarchical estate. Hey guys, maybe keep the door open a crack or buy a baby monitor or just quietly check on her every so often? Before long, the malevolent beings make off with Hannah, driving each Harriman out looking for a trail to follow.

It seems like an awful lot of Out consists of the Harrimans standing around, saying things like “oh, don’t disturb her, I’m sure she’s fine.” Still, the house is terrifically creepy. Also, Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman come across like a believable couple (but not too bright). As Grandpa Jordan, Stephen Rea is a dependably intriguing screen presence, especially when he skulking around, greasing the palms of corrupt Colombian politicians. However, young Pixie Davis is the only member of the family who sounds legitimately British (somehow she has an Irish grandfather, a Canadian father, and an American mother).

Frankly, Stiles has been criminally under-rated. She was terrific in Twelfth Night at the Delacorte (Shakespeare in the Park), but this is probably not the film that will win over hearts and minds. While Out looks suitably atmospheric, it is simply too slow and clunky. Colombia should have gotten more for their new tax incentives. Beyond the impressive real estate, it is just another tepid, logic-challenged genre outing. Not recommended, Out of the Dark opens tomorrow (2/27) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ana Maria in Novela Land: A Telenovela Pulls a Body Switch

The only thing Ana Maria Soto is industrious about is tweeting telenovelas. She has a fair number of followers, but none them are her quickly exasperated work colleagues. Those gigs never last long anyway. Frankly, even her long suffering family hardly notices the difference when she pulls a 1980s style body-switcheroo with the heroine of the telenovela she currently tweets. Fish will be out of water and lessons will be learned in Georgina Garcia Riedel’s Ana Maria in Novela Land (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Soto just got pink-slipped from another job and flaked out on her older sister’s bridal dress fitting. Her family is pretty bummed out with her, but everything seems to make sense when tonight’s episode of Passion Without Limits starts. However, a freak electricity surge exchanges her consciousness with the lead character, Ariana Tomosa, who is engaged to a wealthy older man, while carrying on an affair with his brooding son.

Of course, Soto knows all this, so she adapts to life in the telenovela relatively easily. On the other hand, Tomosa is out to sea in the real world, but Tony, the young neighborhood internist who always carried a torch for Soto, will help the presumed amnesiac start to act like a real person. In fact, she soon becomes easier to live with than the real Ana Maria, despite her dramatic nature. Meanwhile, Soto enjoys vamping it up in the telenovela, but she knows full well its limited run will soon conclude—and then what?

Initially, Novela Land is kind of amusing and it features fan favorite Luis Guzmán playing Schmidt, Tomosa’s scheming attorney nemesis. Sadly, it is also the final film of Elizabeth Peña (Lone Star, La Bamba, Down and Out in Beverly Hills), who has some nice moments giving uncooperative bridal staff what-for. Still, there is not much heft to the film, even before starts recycling its body switch jokes.

Everyone hams it up, because obviously. Still, Edy Ganem effectively differentiates Soto from Tomosa. There are a few inventive gags, such as when Soto happens to wander into a Korean soap opera. Pepe Serna deadpans nicely as Father Miguel, but the forthcoming Man from Reno is a much more compelling (and infinitely darker) showcase for his under-appreciated chops.

Unfortunately, Soto’s K-drama interlude is as surreal as the film gets. Given the premise (essentially an updated riff on the John Candy movie Delirious), Riedel and co-screen-writer Jose Nestor Marquez could have played more mischievous games with on-screen reality, but they mostly just keep it safe and sentimental. Too sitcom-my and not nearly out there enough for mainstream genre audiences, Ana Maria in Novela Land is mostly just for fans like Soto when it opens this Friday (2/27) at the Burbank and Orange AMC theaters in California.

Triumph in the Skies: Hong Kong’s Favorite Way to Fly

Where American networks failed with shows like Pan Am and LAX, Hong Kong found tremendous success with a prime time airliner drama. While it had the benefit of some star power from Francis Ng and Michelle Ye, it was really the multi-character romances that were powering the show. How big was it? Big enough to snag a New Year’s theatrical release for the big screen edition. Hearts will be broken on multiple continents in Wilson Yip & Matt Chow’s Triumph in the Skies (trailer here), which is now playing in New York and select markets.

By-the-book Captain “Sam” Tong and his not-so-by-the-book co-pilot Jayden Koo used to be a regular flight crew, but they have split up. Tong is still the senior officer with Skylette, but the new boss’s son and heir apparent, Branson Cheung, has assigned him to serve as the technical advisor for their new commercial starring rock-star diva TM Tam. Nobody on-set wants to hear his quibbles, except maybe Tam. There are such polar opposites, they naturally start to attract.

Cheung, who also serves as a Skylette flight captain, is rather surprised to find his old flame Cassie Poon Ka-sze is part of the crew on his newly assigned plane. She is still disappointed he put their relationship on hold to please his father, but the sparks are still there. Meanwhile, Koo or “Captain Cool,” has landed a cushy job as the private pilot of a party plane, where he meets the seemingly ambitionless Kika Sit. However, he realizes almost too late there is far more to her story.

If you have seen a few Chinese romantic comedies you will basically know what to expect here, but Yip & Chow’s execution is wildly slick and lethally effective. You are not likely to see a sparklier movie anytime soon. Triumph has so much jet-setting, it makes Sex in the City look like EastEnders.

Sure, it is tons of manipulative, yet each of the three primary story arcs works surprising well, with the best being Tong’s halting flirtation with Tam. It is also the best written braided-storyline, featuring some wry, understated dialogue and terrific chemistry between series veteran Francis Ng and Sammi Cheng. You can almost think of it as an HK version of a James L. Brooks late middle-age relationship film. She also performs a catchy punk version of “Over the Rainbow” that will make you think that was what Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg really had in mind the whole time.

In contrast, Triumph totally goes for the tears with Captain Cool’s possibly tragic romance, but Amber Kuo just lights up the screen as Kika Sit. Of course, Julian Cheung is not exactly is not exactly a jowly sourpuss either—and they both know how to crank up the cute in their big feature spots.

The third romance starring Louis Koo is a lot like an HK rom-com starring Louis Koo, but it is still one of the better ones. Again, he and Charmaine Sheh have surprisingly strong chemistry. However, the notion of an attractive working woman sitting around waiting for the man who walked out of her life to saunter back might not sit too well with American audiences.

Despite the vaguely Leni Riefenstahl-ish title, Triumph in the Skies is a pleasingly upbeat and colorful film. These days, it is just no fun whatsoever to fly on a commercial airliner or schlep through an airport, but it would be worth taking off your belt and shoes to fly with the ridiculously good looking crews of Skylette. Maybe it is a guilty pleasure, but it is fun. Recommended for those looking for an entertaining movie romance that pretty much covers all the bases, Triumph is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Everly: Salma Hayek vs. the Yakuza

Even if you believe “violence is never the answer and what the world really needs is more love and understanding,” just keep it to yourself. Everly does not have time for warm and fuzzy liberal new age platitudes and we do not want to hear them. She is simply too busy worrying about escape and payback. For several years, she was enslaved as a prostitute by the Yakuza, but now she will try to shoot her way out of their fortified brothel. It is not a well thought out  plan, but at least she will be able to take a lot of bad guys with her in Joe Lynch’s Everly (trailer here), which opens this Friday in targeted markets.

Everly used to be the favorite of the kingpin, Taiko, but not anymore. An honest cop also lost his head over her. Taiko had it boxed up and presented to her. She had agreed to testify for the late detective, but obviously that will not be happening. Taiko’s men were supposed to do their worst to her, but she was able to stash a gun in the toilet bowl. Bullets will fly—and they will keep flying, but Everly is not immune to them. In fact, she starts the film pretty dinged up, but she is able to patch herself up and keep going.

Unfortunately for him, one of Taiko’s bean-counters gets gut-shot in the first volley. There is clearly no way he will make it. Much to her surprise, the dying paper-pushing gangster offers her some helpful strategic consultation as he slowly expires. Acting on his advice, she makes a risky play, arranging a pretext for her mother and the daughter she never knew to pick up a bag of traveling money from Taiko’s high-rise of hedonism-turned war zone.

To their credit, Lynch and screenwriter Yale Hannon understand the point of a film like this and therefore never cheapen it with a disingenuous take-away about the supposed dangers of firearm possession or the folly of vengeance taking. Taiko and his associates need to die—period. Frankly, some bits are rather disturbingly explicit, particularly those involving the “Sadist” played by the classy Togo Igawa (the first Japanese member of the Royal Shakespeare Company), but that makes it extra satisfying when they get theirs.

It should also be noted the forty-eight year old Salma Hayek looks all kinds of dangerous as Everly. She is in tremendous shape and shows real action chops, but in a grittier, less cartoony way. She conveys the well-armed rage of a desperate mother, which makes each showdown deeply primal. There are real stakes in Everly—and plenty of blood, but her relatively quiet scenes with Akie Kotabe as the dying suit are some of the film’s best.

We have often lamented the dearth of legitimate female action stars in Hollywood and mainstream indie movies. It is so bad, Meryl Streep has laughably been suggested for the female Expendables film in development. With Everly, Hayek blasts herself into contention to lead the whole darned shooting match. Despite its obvious debt of inspiration to Gareth Huw Evans’ The Raid, it is an old school, deliciously sleazy revenge thriller that always delivers the goods right to your doorstep and never expects a tip. Highly recommended for fans of exploitation action, Everly is now available on VOD via iTunes and opens this Friday (2/27) in selected cities.

Serangoon Road: Singaporean Intrigue with Joan Chen

If the boy from Empire of the Sun, grew up to be a hardboiled private detective, he would be a lot like Sam Callaghan. The Aussie expat is still haunted by his childhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp, but he toughened up considerably through his Malaya military service. He used to lend a hand to the late Winston Cheng on a freelance basis, but he reluctantly agrees to a more regular arrangement when his widow Patricia decides to keep the agency open. Thanks to the Secret Societies, terrorist bombings, and all sorts of garden variety smuggling, they will find no shortage of business in Serangoon Road (promo here), HBO Asia’s first original series production, which releases today on DVD from Acorn.

Callaghan sort of blames himself for Cheng’s death, but the elegant Mrs. Cheng plays the guilt card with restraint. Although she is from a “mainline” establishment Peranakan Chinese family, the childless widow still needs the agency as a means of support. With the help of Sam and her progressive niece Su Ling, she also hopes to catch her husband’s murderer.

Their first case seems to be a one-off with little long term implications, but it will introduce the large cast of characters. Fresh-faced CIA recruit Conrad Harrison and his shadowy boss “Wild Bill” need the Cheng Agency to track down an African American sailor accused of murdering his best mate. It is probably the series’ least flattering depiction of American spooks and servicemen, but at least Harrison, one of those “best and brightest,” seems to care about right and wrong. He is also very interested in Su Ling, but she initially wants nothing to do with a Yankee government employee.

The past will directly haunt the present in subsequent episodes, as when the Cheng Agency takes on an illegal refugee’s case in the second episode. Forced to take flight during the Japanese invasion, Ms. Feng has returned (undocumented) in search of the husband she left behind. The case looks pretty cold until Ms. Feng is mysteriously poisoned. As she clings to life, Callaghan scrambles to trace her beloved husband, empathizing with her deep sense of loss. He will become even more personally involved with a case later in the season, when the Aboriginal soldier who watched over him during the darkest hour of the war is accused of murdering an aspiring journalist.

Many of the Cheng Agency cases lead back to Kay Song, the heir apparent of Singapore’s most feared secret society (a gang primarily involved in crimes of sin). For some reason, the sinister gangster has it in for Kang, Callaghan’s compulsive gambling partner in a barely legal shipping operation. It is hard to see why he bothers, given Kang’s multitude of self-destructive flaws. Frankly, Kang subplots will become a tiresome distraction as the series progresses.

As befits a good period noir, everyone in Serangoon is compromised to some extent, particularly Callaghan, who is rather openly carrying on an affair with Claire Simpson, the wife of a junior executive assigned to a powerful western trading company’s Singapore office. Conveniently, Frank Simpson is often required to travel throughout Southeast Asia. Rather awkwardly, Callaghan is even hired to investigate his rival when Simpson is anonymously sullied with rumors of corruption.

During the course of the first season, the Cheng Agency will also deal with a mysterious foundling, a suspicious business leader with political aspirations, his nearly as suspicious trade unionist brother, two kidnapped Australian tourists, and a massive race riot that the bad guys will opportunistically exploit to the fullest. Structurally, each episode is reasonably self-contained, but they fit together to form a wider overall narrative arc.

Although many of the mid-sixties Singaporean details are quite intriguing, it is the strong ensemble cast that really distinguishes Serangoon. Even though he sometimes overdoes the heartsick brooding, Don Hany’s Callaghan still has an appropriately manly yet world weary screen presence. Of course Joan Chen adds plenty of class and sophistication as Patricia Cheng. It is easy to see why western bureaucrats would have confidence hiring her.

Frankly, the real discovery is Pamelyn Chee (who maybe a handful of people saw in Wayne Wang’s Princess of Nebraska), stealing scene after scene with Su Ling’s wry sarcasm and slightly deceptive elegance. Chin Han chews the scenery like he enjoys the taste as the villainous Kay Song (just as he did in Marco Polo). Somewhat frustratingly, Indonesian superstar Ario Bayu does not get a lot of fun things to do this time around, but there is room for his character, Inspector Amran, to grow. However, Maeve Dermody’s hopelessly vanilla Simpson falls somewhat short in the scandalous femme fatale department. It is hard to get why Callaghan is so hung up on her. Maybe you just have to be there—in Singapore—circa 1964.

Regardless, there is more than enough mystery, betrayal, and colorful supporting characters to keep viewers engaged and increasingly invested. Frankly, it seems strange the American HBO did not pick it up to fill a slow spot in their calendar. In terms of production quality, it holds its own with most limited-event cable series and should equally satisfy Joan Chen fans who know her either from Twin Peaks or Xiao Hua (The Little Flower). Recommended for anyone who enjoys humid noir in serial form, Serangoon Road is now available on DVD from Acorn.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Anita Ho: Meeting the Parents

What kid wouldn’t want to date a Power Ranger? What guy wouldn’t be interested in a woman like Anita Lee? Maybe one who has met her parents. Harry Ho is about to have the dubious pleasure, but since he is Korean rather than Chinese, it will be a difficult getting-to-know-you process in Steve Myung’s Anita Ho (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Harry is really a Korean Oh, but when his family came through immigration, it was changed to a Chinese-sounding (and more easily mocked) Ho. After a while, they got tired of fighting it. Unfortunately, this leads to some initial awkwardness when he first meets his girlfriend Anita’s parents, the Lees—and it only goes downhill from there. Needless to say, they want their daughter to marry a good Chinese boy. That means a doctor or a lawyer. An employed writer just does not cut it.

Technically, Ho is a freelancer, who quit his gig on Lee’s “Power Raiders” kiddie action show to write his screenplay. That has not been working out so well. At least, his relationship with Lee has been fulfilling. In fact, he intends to pop the question while they are visiting for her special thirtieth birthday banquet, but her parents will do everything they can to belittle and undermine him.

Just about anyone who was ever raked over the coals by their date’s dad on prom night should be able to relate to Anita Ho on some level. Of course, they never had to face George Cheung (the notorious Lt. Tay in Rambo: First Blood II and senior member of the Awesome Asian Bad Guys). Unimpressed with the mild-mannered Ho, Mr. Lee will actually try to fix his daughter up with a former classmate. Yes, he happens to be a doctor.

So maybe we have all been there, but director-co-writer Myung just cranks up the cringe factor when appearing as Ho. By the time the film is over that poor cat’s back is covered in “kick me” signs. He has some pleasant romantic chemistry with co-writer Lina So Myung, but it eventually becomes difficult to buy into them as a couple, while he wallows in humiliation and she essentially lets it happen. The Myungs also apparently dig romantic montages, because they are not stingy with them (though they really probably should have been).

Lina So Myung truly lights up the screen as Lee, while Cheung and Elizabeth Sung have their moments as the demanding parents. However, it is Kenny Waymack, Jr. who gives us something to latch onto as Lee’s Filipino brother-in-law and tough talking audience surrogate, Tyson Bautista. It is nice to see a film advocate inclusiveness, but some of the broad humor falls a bit flat. Frankly, the film would have been better served by a little more romantic courtship and a little less shtick. It is also cool to see the telegenic Myungs making their own opportunities. Nevertheless, Anita Ho is strictly a date-night kind of movie when it opens this Friday (2/27) at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn: When the Behind-the-Scenes are Better than the Movie

It was not a total lost when Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s much anticipated follow-up to Drive, bombed with the Cannes press corps. At least it should have shown Ryan Gosling how to deal with the Lido drubbing dealt to his directorial debut, Lost River. Maybe Winding Refn’s film is not looking as bad to them, by comparison. Maybe. Nevertheless, his family did not return from six months in Thailand without bringing home one highly watchable film. Alas for Winding Refn, that would be his wife Liv Corfixen’s up-close-and-personal behind-the-scenes documentary, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When watching Corfixen’s film, you immediately realize there was no way OGF was going to work. Winding Refn essentially admits his script makes no sense, which is never a good sign. Yet, his own contradictory impulses imply an even deeper identity crisis for the film. On one hand, he is clearly preoccupied with the pressure to repeat the success of Drive, yet he is perversely determined to produce a something utterly dissimilar. Mission accomplished on that score.

Much to her frustration, Winding Refn strictly limited Corfixen’s access to the set. It is evident from their often testy exchanges that she missed a lot of “making of” drama as a result. Still, it is blindingly obvious from the get-go this is a “troubled” production. In some shockingly revealing scenes, she captures all of her husband’s unvarnished self-doubt and self-pity, as OGF irreparably runs off the rails. Winding Refn’s references to compatriot Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier sounds especially telling. They seem like they should be two neurotic peas in a pod, but Winding Refn clearly nurses an inferiority complex.

Life should really not be dismissed as a DVD-extra, because it is hard to see anyone packaging it with OGF. After all, the shorter film basically explains why the longer feature attraction is such a chaotic mess. Short is also the right term. The actual movie substance of Life clocks in just under sixty minutes. However, Life has one thing few films can boast: their legendary family friend, director Alejandro Jodorowsky reading tarot and providing marriage counseling.

In all honesty, OGF has its moments, but they all come courtesy of the wonderfully fierce Kristin Scott Thomas and stone cold Thai movie star Vithaya Pansringarm, both of whom are seen in Life, planning their climatic scene together. In contrast, Gosling is utterly underwhelming, but to be fair, he comes across like a good sport in Corfixen’s doc, often seen playing with the couple’s young daughters. Perhaps he and Winding Refn should just leave the making of David Lynchian films to David Lynch.

Regardless, Life is a brutally honest look at the personal and emotional repercussions of a film that never worked, in any step of its production. It is also frequently very funny, in decidedly uncomfortable ways. Frankly, it is a shame we do not have similarly intimate records of the notorious production processes for films like Heaven’s Gate, but Life will be there as a cautionary example for all future filmmakers battling their expectations and egos. Highly recommended for fans of cult cinema, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn opens this Friday (2/27) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Also Like Life: The Sandwich Man

Look in your pocket and you might find a smart phone made in Taiwan. They were the only one of the four Asian Tiger economies that largely dodged the regional financial crisis of the late 1990s. However, the Republic of China remains very aware of the extreme poverty it rose out of. The memories of its hardscrabble past were even fresher in the early 1980s, when Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien introduced the world to Taiwanese auteurist cinema. One of those watershed films was an anthology production Hou contributed to. Fittingly, Hou, Zeng Zhuangxiang, and Wan Jen’s The Sandwich Man screens this week as part of the traveling Hou retrospective Also Like Life, now playing in Vancouver.

Jin Shu is definitely a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown, but he doesn’t look very cheerful on the outside either. He tramps through his provincial small town wearing his shabby home-made clown costume and sandwich boards advertising the local theater. He has not even been paid yet for his humiliations. This gig was his idea and he is still working on-spec during the trial period. He badly needs work to support his infant son and increasingly impatient wife, but he does not have the right sort of personality for anything involving promotions to the public. Adding further anxiety to his wounded ego, Jin Shu’s little boy no longer recognizes him when he is out of make-up.

In some ways, His Son’s Big Doll (as the story’s title directly translates) also critiqued restrictive Taiwanese laws against contraception that were abolished a few years after the film’s release. It is a relentlessly naturalistic tale about economic desperation, but the surprisingly upbeat conclusion makes it feel like a sort of before-the-fact allegory of Taiwan’s rapid development—just hang on and everything will get better.

Since it is Hou Hisao-hsien and the titular story, The Sandwich Man would seem to be the main event, but the subsequent constituent films are just as good or better. In Zeng’s Vicky’s Hat, two new recruits try to sell Japanese pressure cookers throughout their provincial territory, but they soon start to suspect their product is categorically unsafe. It is a story that has a bit of Glengarry Glen Ross to it, but it is even more concerned with the younger salesman’s halting friendship with Vicky, a mysterious school girl in their neighborhood. There are some fine lines Zeng and his cast must walk—such as establishing his willingness to chastely wait for her to grow old enough for a relationship, but they turn the multiple tragic twists to devastating effect.

Wan’s concluding Taste of Apples is a bit O. Henry-ish—in fact, its irony now seems ironic. A migrant worker is hit by the American military attaché’s car, but this might not be the worst thing that could happen to his struggling family. He will have the best of medical care at the American military hospital, his wife and family will be financially taken care of, and his children will have educational opportunities that never would have otherwise been available to them. Plus, the American Colonel seems genuinely sorry about it all.

Reportedly, the Taiwanese government sought to suppress Sandwich Man because of its portrayal of American government personnel, but considering the anti-American propaganda out there, we should settle for Sandwich Man every chance we get. Sure, we try to fix problems by throwing a bunch of cash around, but that just might work for the family of Apples.

It is also rather fascinating to see how each narrative arc (all adapted from short stories by Huang Chunming, by screenwriter Wu Nien-jen, and shot by cinematographer Chen Kun-hou) speak in dialogue with each other. Those who survived the painful past and make it through the difficult present just might see a better tomorrow, but it will not be easy. A modern classic of Taiwanese cinema, The Sandwich Man could be even more significant when seen in the light of the subsequent thirty-some years of growth and liberalization. Highly recommended, it screens this Thursday (2/26) at The Cinematheque in Vancouver, as part of Also Like Life.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

American Songbook at NJ PAC: Shaiman & Wittman

If you want to transfer a hit movie to Broadway, they’re your songwriting team. Hairspray was a huge hit for them. Catch Me If You Can maybe not so much, but it wasn’t a total Lestat level disaster—and now they have Willy Wonka chugging right along in London. Years from now, they could very well be considered part of the Songbook canon, so NJPAC brought them in when they happened to have a free evening. Marc Shaiman sings and accompanies guest performers, while Scott Wittman provides the reminiscences in this season’s final installment of American Songbook at NJPAC, which premieres this Wednesday on NJTV.

Knowing how to construct a show, they kick off their set with “Good Morning Baltimore,” the rousing opener to Hairspray, featuring vocalist Annie Golden, who recorded their original demos for the musical stage transfer. Appropriately enough, Shaiman then performs two of his Oscar nominated songs (penned without Wittman). Frankly, both “A Wink and a Smile” from Sleepless in Seattle and “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie are considerable superior to all of this year’s nominated songs, except the poignantly on-the-nose “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me. For reasons that hardly need belaboring, Shaiman had to abridge his South Park anthem for PBS, updating the lyrics with Justin Bieber and Rob Ford references in the process.

To their credit, Shaiman & Wittman do a good deal of master-classing and mentoring, which is how they found the young but poised Alex Stone and Micailah Lockhart, who both show remarkable range on their selections from the aforementioned Catch Me if You Can and the Broadway themed television show Smash, which apparently started out all well and good, but got progressively less fun and rewarding as it went along. “Goodbye,” from their Tony nominated but underperforming Broadway show particularly lends itself to dramatic interpretations, suggesting it deserves a songbook life outside the book musical.

Frankly, the same is true of the Marilyn Monroe-inspired “Second Hand White Baby Grand,” also written for Smash, featuring Golden again. However, the highlight of the set has to be Marilyn Maye’s old school cabaret rendition of “Butter Outta Cream,” a quirky novelty-esque number from Catch Me. She totally takes charge of the songwriting partners, but they love it, even though she is obviously winging it.

There is more talking during Wittman & Shaiman’s set than in prior NJPAC Songbook concerts, but their anecdotes and needling are all part of the act. It is also a timely reminder: sometimes the best nominated song wins the Oscar (“The Theme from Shaft” in 1971), but more often than not, it doesn’t (like “Blame Canada” losing to Phil Collins’ Tarzan tune). Some of Wittman & Shaiman’s selected songs are far more likely to become time-tested standards than others, but they fit together into a rather entertaining program, nicely varying the tone and tempo. Recommended for Broadway and movie music fans, the Wittman and Shaiman concerts concludes the current season of American Songbook at NJPAC this Wednesday (2/25) on NJTV, with a later broadcast scheduled for April 18th on WNET Thirteen.

(Photo: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)

Friday, February 20, 2015

FCS ’15: Fires on the Plain

Joseph Heller’s Yossarian has nothing on Private Tamura. He is caught in miserable catch-22 and the only thing that will dislodge him from his vicious cycle will be a further downturn in Japan’s fortunes of war. There is absolutely nothing heroic about combat throughout intense auteur Shinya Tsukamoto’s faithful but bloody remake of Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (clip here), which screens during Film Comment Selects 2015.

Tamura is suffering from a nasty case of tuberculosis and maybe some mild shell shock. Deemed too sick to serve effectively by his arrogant commanding officer, Tamura is ordered to check into the nearest field hospital on Leyte. However, the medical staff refuses to admit him, considering him too healthy to merit a spot on their diseased floor.

Back and forth he trudges between the camp and the hospital, repeatedly turning away by each, until Allied attacks essentially eliminate either option. Receiving word the Imperial forces have been belatedly ordered them all to regroup at Palompon, Tamura falls in and out of small ragtag bands of retreating Imperial soldiers, but his increasingly desperate countrymen might represent a more immediate danger than the Yanks he is supposedly fighting.

The 1959 Plain has to be Ichikawa’s darkest, bleakest film. Tsukamoto does not exactly match its dour existentialism, but he certainly never whitewashes its atmosphere or implications. In terms of tone, the recent Plain could be described as one part Samuel Beckett and two parts Apocalypse Now, but with liberal helpings of severed body parts. Tsukamoto’s Plain is definitely not for the faint of heart, but it is considerably more accessible than the full-on assault to the senses delivered by his Tetsuo series.

It is safe to say vanity had nothing to do with Tsukamoto’s decision to direct himself as Tamura. He is never flashy, but it is grimly compelling to watch the soul steadily seep out of him. You absolutely believe his is just a shell of a person, which is certainly some kind of performance.

Plain is truly serious stuff, intended for discerning audiences, but there might be enough gore to placate his loyal cult-following. It covers all the bases Ichikawa did, nearly beat for beat, yet it is unquestionably and readily identifiably a Tsukamoto film. Together with his co-cinematographer Satoshi Hayashi, Tsukamoto gives his slow descent into tropical madness a distinctively sweaty, feverish, and slightly surreal look that is equally transfixing and disconcerting. One of the better remakes of a genuine classic you will see in sometime, Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain is recommended for those who appreciate uncompromising anti-war cinematic statements when it screens tomorrow (2/21) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

Legend of Lead Belly: It’s All True

Eventually, Alan Lomax’s defenders and detractors have to deal with Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Yes, it was Lomax who plucked Ledbetter from the harsh obscurity of the Angola Prison Farm’s chain gang, but Ledbetter ultimately made his name and his career on his own. Ledbetter’s almost mythical life and continuing influence are chronicled in Legend of Lead Belly (promo here), which premieres this Monday on the Smithsonian Channel.

He was the son of a share-cropper, who picked his share of cotton in his early years. Preferring the more independent but uncertain life of a roving musician, he became a protégé of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Unfortunately, their work took Ledbetter into places where booze and trouble mixed freely, with the latter frequently ensnaring him. Angola was not his first prison stint. Famously, Ledbetter had earlier convinced lame duck Texas governor Pat Neff to pardon him with a song written in his honor.

As the expert commentators make clear, Lead Belly was just as much of a song-hunter as Lomax, but he did not merely collect and record them. He always gave them a twist to make them his own. Thanks to his influential recordings and documented performances, tunes like “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Rock Island Line,” and “House of the Rising Sun” entered into our collective songbook and would become huge hits for various artists in the 1960s.

Although just an hour in length, Legend covers the cream of his greatest hits and the major milestones of his iconic life (but sadly they leave out the campaign song he wrote for liberal Republican Wendell Wilkie). We also get a sense of his dedication to his second wife and his graciousness towards the up-and-coming folkies. Perhaps what is most striking are the scenes of his justly proud family today, who have clearly come a long way from his hardscrabble roots. While Ledbetter enjoyed a taste of success, he served as the catalyst for his family’s eventual upward mobility. In gratitude, they keep his name and music alive through the educational Lead Belly Foundation.

Written, directed, and produced by Alan Ravenscroft, Legend moves along at a good pace and features some big name talking heads, including Van Morrison, the not-as-out-of-place-as-you-might-think Judy Collins, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, and The Doors’ Robby Krieger, as well as several descendants. It is a tasteful sampling of a towering figure of Americana that ought to help sell a few copies of the Smithsonian Folkways’ upcoming five-CD career-surveying box set. There is always a need for more programming about blues artists (or blues, etc. in Lead Belly’s case), so Legend of Lead Belly is quite welcome indeed when it airs this coming Monday (2/23) on Smithsonian Channel.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Treehouse: Halloween in the Woods, What Could Go Wrong?

It was a bummer when Hurricane Sandy ruined Halloween for City kids, but the rash of child kidnappings are an even bigger downer for this jittery Midwestern burg. When the big celebration is canceled, Killian’s punky big brother logically drags him into the woods to set off their own fireworks. Of course, he is also hoping to hook up with a girl from school, but the brothers will have a different sort of encounter in Michael Bartlett’s Treehouse (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Crawford always protected the sullen Killian from their abusive father. They now live with an aunt who seems nice enough, but they do not feel secure in their new home. With the Halloween hoedown called off due to a series of home invasion-abductions, such as the one we witness during the prologue, Crawford and his friends arrange to meet out in the woods, where there is no cell reception, unbeknownst to any adults. Sounds good. Thinking they have been stood up, the brothers amble through the forest chancing upon a treehouse. Inside they find the very frightened Elizabeth, who we last saw running after her brother Little Bob at the top of the film.

Of course, they are not alone. The responsible parties are also out there, watching and waiting. Badly injured, Elizabeth refuses to leave the treehouse, so Crawford agrees to go for help while Killian stays with the slightly older teen. That’s right, they split up, during the dark of night, when they know they are being hunted.

Although Treehouse follows a pretty standard narrative arc, it must be said that Bartlett sure knew how to end it. So many horror-exploitation films think they are being clever when they serve up a bitterly nihilistic kick-‘em-back-down-again ending that are always a total letdown if we have made any sort of emotional investment. Instead, Bartlett promises us exactly what we want.

In truth, Treehouse is nowhere near as inventive as Adam Green’s Digging Up the Marrow (also opening this week), but J. Michael Trautmann and Dana Melanie develop some rather spirited chemistry as Killian and Elizabeth, respectively. Daniel Fredrick also exhibits such a strong screen presence it is a shame he makes his did-he-get-away-clean-or-not exit comparatively early on.

By genre standards, Treehouse looks quite impressive. The treehouse set is definitely creepy and Bartlett has the good sense not to show too much of the tormentors too soon. The timing is probably not doing it any critical favors. You have sure seen worse than Treehouse, but it is hard to get overly excited about its workmanlike approach when it opens against the smartly hip Marrow and the massively eerie It Follows is waiting in the wings. Serviceable with a few really nicely turned moments, Treehouse will satisfy genre fans in major need of a fix, but they are the only ones who should show up when it opens tomorrow (2/20) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.

The Last: Naruto the Movie—Its Canonical and Apocalyptic

Love hurts, especially for a ninja. Getting your chakra ripped out also kind of stings. Poor Naruto Uzumaki will just have to go through these things as a rite of passage (although he maybe could have skipped the latter). In fact, he is a bit older and perhaps fractionally wiser in the canonical capstone anime feature The Last: Naruto the Movie (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in select cities.

For fans of the Naruto franchise, The Last pays off in a major way. This is no mere one-off shoehorned between the 72 volumes (or 700 chapters of manga), six hundred some television episodes, and ten feature films. It explains the manga’s final epilogue that was generally well received by fans, but came as a bit of a surprise nonetheless. What transpires in The Last will have a direct bearing on the course of Uzumaki’s life, but if that were not enough, the stakes are also apocalyptically high.

As the film opens, Uzumaki basks in his newfound popularity resulting from his heroic war service. Girls are finally talking to him—they are even getting pushy competing for his attention. This rather distresses the shy Hirata Hyuga, who has long carried a torch for the oblivious Uzumaki. Yet, when Hyuga’s younger sister Hanabi is kidnapped, she and Uzumaki are thrown together in the rescue party.

It seems her abduction is related to a doomsday plot launched by Toneri Otsutsuki the last descendent of one of the great ancient clan leaders of the series’ intricate mythology. He intends to crash the moon into the Earth with the help of the Hyuga clan’s superhumanly enhanced eyes. Obviously, Uzumaki is super-motivated to stop Otsutsuki, especially when he realizes he is falling for his former classmate, Hyuga.

Unlike the previous Naruto film, The Road to Ninja, there is no jetting off to an alternate reality and back before anyone is the wiser. Everything counts this time around in a big way. It fills a major remaining gap in Naruto’s saga, wrapping it up in a way that keeps faith with the characters and their fans. For longtime readers and viewers, The Last is more closely akin to the MASH’s emotional sign-off than the wimpering final episode of Seinfeld.

There is considerable character development in The Last (especially by series shōnen anime standards) and a good deal of action. However, the old school hand-to-hand combat always looks far better on screen than the big fiery cosmic clashes, which all sort of blend together after a while. Nonetheless, the focus in The Last is particularly personal, freezing out many long-term supporting players in favor of Uzumaki and Hyuga.

Surely, the Naruto team can go back to the well for plenty more canonical adventures, but The Last would be a very satisfying place to definitively end it. It is a relatively self-contained story arc, so new arrivals should be able to follow and enjoy it well enough, but it really pays dividends to those who have invested in the series—and that’s actually pretty cool to see. A must-see for Naruto loyalists and a strong feature for shōnen enthusiasts in general, The Last: Naruto the Movie opens in select markets beginning this Friday (2/20), with a number of screenings scheduled in New York at the Village East starting this Saturday (2/21).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

FCS ’15: Tales

Evidently, former Iranian megalomaniac Ahmadinejad did not think much of shorts. That was a good thing. Rather than compromising her artistic integrity to receive official state sanction for a feature, Rakshan Bani-Etemad embarked on a series of short films that were comparatively less regulated by the authorities. With his successor projecting a more conciliatory face, she has since joined them together into a braided narrative. You would hardly know it from watching the finished product, which flows together in an intricate Short Cuts kind of way. She presents a bracing vision of an Iran beset by all manner of social pathologies, but it is always most difficult for the women in Bani-Etemad’s Tales (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of Film Comment Selects.

In recent years, Bani-Etemad has largely worked as a documentarian for reasons explains above, but those who know her previous narratives will find even deeper meaning when her old characters return for call-backs in Tales, criss-crossing each other as they deal with life’s challenges. Fittingly, the two best segments, by far, are the first and the last, but there is still plenty of interesting material in between.

We will sort of see events unfold from the POV of an intrepid but much censored documentary filmmaker, who kinds of acts as Bani-Etemad’s surrogate. As some might know from Under the Skin of the City, the cabbie driving him into the city is deeply in debt from an ill-advised foray into crime. However, it will be his second fare, his sister’s childhood friend who has since been tarnished by scandal that delivers the first real jolt of stinging, naturalistic drama.

From there, we will witness the cabbie’s mother try to navigate the red tape of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, eavesdrop on two grown children jokingly (we assume) planning to fake an abduction, and witness an abusive husband confront his acid-scarred wife (the eponymous character from Nargess) in her women’s shelter. Eventually, Bani-Etemad brings it home with an intimate but biting verbal sparring match conducted by one of the shelter’s reformed drug addict counselors and the organization’s mini-van driving, who is shuttling her and a new client back to their home bass. In some ways, their exchanges are peculiarly Iranian, yet there is a universality to their increasingly heavy conversation that hits you on a deep level.

In a strange way, the secondary tone of Tales constantly shifts between late night existentialism, free-wheeling absurdity, futile romanticism, and outright tragedy. Yet, the bedrock feeling of helplessness is always present. It features a consistently strong ensemble, especially Mohammadreza Forootan and Mehraveh Sharifinia as the cabbie and the fallen woman of the first tale and Baran Kosari and Peiman Moadi as the mismatched couple in the closer.

We like to think Iran has its own special problems rooted in its oppressive system of governance, which it clearly does, judging from the travails of Bani-Etemad’s characters. However, we generally presuppose they are immune to more worldly issues, like drugs, street crime, illiteracy, economic inequities, and AIDS as a result. Tales acts as a corrective to that assumption. They actually have both kinds of societal ills. It is also an engrossing film that really takes us into its characters’ long dark nights of the soul. Highly recommended, Tales screens this Friday (2/20) and Sunday (2/22) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects.

66th & Broadway: Jennifer Sheehan on the Upper Westside

Happily, there are a number of artists keeping the Great American Songbook alive, but parts of those standards are falling into disuse. We still get to hear those hummable, catchy choruses, but many verses have all but disappeared from regular performance. Molly Lyons tried to reverse the trend with her 1964 debut LP, Verses Only that was exactly what it sounds like. It was quite pleasant, but not surprisingly, she is mostly remembered today as the wife of guitarist Joe Puma. Jennifer Sheehan does not go that far, but she includes many verses you might not be familiar with in her Songbook concert launching the premiere season of 66th & Broadway this Friday night on New York’s Thirteen, recorded live overlooking Lincoln Center traffic on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper Westside.

Sheehan’s set opener “All the Things You Are” is a perfect example of how the initial verses can help a performer make a tune their own. This is a tune many of us know so well from Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie, but initially we can’t place “Time and again I’ve longed for adventure.” Sheehan takes it at a slower tempo, but it is a lovely interpretation.

Tracing the development of the American Songbook, Sheehan proceeds to rewind back to what many scholars consider the first canonical American popular song, the Sophie Tucker hit, “Some of These Days.” Again, the opening verses might throw some listeners, but Sheehan attacks the chorus with appealing sassiness.

In appropriate cabaret-style, Sheehan often incorporates her life story into the show, explaining each standard’s personal meaning to her. “How Long has This Been Going On?” made quite an impression on her when she heard Andrea Marcovicci perform it at an early age. Similarly, she first encountered Cole Porter when performed with a youth ensemble. After a somewhat perfunctory melody, she segues into the serious Porter business with an achingly slow and sensitive rendition of “In the Still of the Night.”

She sings “I’ll be Seeing You” as a showstopper in a similar vein, explaining its transformative effect when she performed it for the Alzheimer’s ward of a nursing home. Indeed, Sheehan shows a remarkable grasp of each tune’s dramatic possibilities. Although nearly half her set was penned about one hundred years ago, she widens her focus to include contemporary songwriter Susan Werner’s jazzy “I Can’t Be New,” which is a nice change-up in her program.

While Sheehan regularly plays rooms like the Metropolitan and Feinstein’s, she was classically trained at Julliard—and you can hear a bit of those opera chops come out in her closer “Our Love is Here to Stay.” She has a strong voice, a charismatic stage presence, and a solid grounding in the American Songbook, so she was a shrewd choice to kick-off 66th & Broadway, the newest Tri-State PBS performance series. There’s always room for more Songbook programming. Ably and tastefully supported by pianist-musical director James Followell and bassist Jered Egan, Sheehan puts on a stylish show. Cabaret and American Songbook fans are sure to enjoy it when 66th & Broadway premieres this Friday (2/20) on WNET Thirteen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Digging Up the Marrow: Don’t Call It Found Footage

Thanks to the found footage sub-genre, the horror movie community hardly knows what to do when the real thing comes along. At least that it sort of the premise of the new meta-meta mock-and-shock doc from the team behind the Holliston television series. Director Adam Green, playing himself and riffing off his Holliston persona, starts to suspect monsters are real, so naturally he sets out to film them in Digging Up the Marrow (trailer here), which launches on VOD and opens in select theaters this Friday.

Green really does get a great deal of intricately constructed fan fiction sent to him, in some cases much like the incredibly detailed but presumably barking mad missive that starts his on-camera excursion down the rabbit hole. A retired Boston cop named William Decker claims a secret band of the freakishly deformed live in a subterranean world he calls the Marrow. The entrances are closely guarded, but he has discovered one, logically located in an out of the way cemetery. Thus begins a series of futile stakeouts, with his reluctant cinematographer Will Barratt (played by cinematographer Will Barratt) in tow.

Of course, just when Green decides Decker is a complete nut leading them on a wild goose chase, they finally see something that changes everything. However, they still have to convince their colleagues to take their footage seriously. Green’s real life editor Josh Ethier (who also played the killer lumberjack-alien in Joe Begos’ Almost Human) is particularly skeptical, but he is perfectly willing to cut Green’s stolen shots. “It’s not found footage, it’s . . . footage” he insists.

Frankly, this is one of the best postmodern self-referential genre films since Wes Craven turned his signature franchise on its head with New Nightmare. It is light-years better than the Vicious Brothers’ knowing but disappointingly flat Grave Encounters 2. While there are plenty of creepy moments, the film is more about exploring how the horror industry and sub-culture would respond when confronted with possible evidence that maybe some of this stuff might just be real.

In a pleasant turn of events, Ethier and Hatchet star Kane Hodder (best known for his stint as Jason in the old school Friday the 13th films) are totally hilarious playing off each other and Green. They give the film a major energy boost during their scenes. Green himself is a good sport as the straight man for their quips and all of Decker’s macabre madness, whereas Ray Wise, the only cast member assuming a fictional personal, is reliably looney as the unreliable Decker.

Inspired by the Alex Pardee’s monster art, Marrow is a strong creature feature that might even be more interesting when it operates in the ostensibly real world. Sadly, the film also marks the last screen appearance of Green’s late series co-star Dave Brockie. Green also was disciplined enough as a director to keep the scenes of actress Rileah Vanderbilt playing his actress-wife Rileah, even though she would now have to play his ex-wife should there ever be a sequel.

Given all that seems to transpire, fans will not be expecting a third season of Holliston anytime soon after watching it, but they should enjoy appearances from leading genre filmmakers like Don Coscarelli, Mick Garris, and Tom Holland. Highly recommended as a clever, fully developed, ironically meta genre film, Digging Up the Marrow hits iTunes this Friday (2/20).