Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NYAFF ’15: La La La at Rock Bottom

Prepare yourself for an alt-punk Oliver Sachs kind of story. There have indeed been documented cases of musicians who retained their musical skills while suffering from amnesia. It is a bit of a stretch to call Shigeo a musician, but he sure can belt out a power grunge ballad. He has also lost his memory, but he is probably better off without. A clean slate could be the fresh start he needs in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s La La La at Rock Bottom (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Upon his release from prison, Shigeo is beaten senseless by his former criminal associates, who want him to take the hint and disappear. Instead, he wakes up sans memory in an industrial section of Osaka. Somehow he staggers into the park where the hybrid-band Akainu is playing. Much to everyone’s surprise, including his own, he storms the stage and proceeds with a full-throated rendition of what will become his signature tune. Akainu is managed by the teenaged Kasumi, who inherited the motley crew along with her father’s recording studio. She recognizes Shigeo can sing, even though he looks a frightful mess, so she takes him in, appropriately dubbing him “Pooch.”

With Kasumi’s help, Pooch will start piecing together his identity. Of course, we know they will not necessarily like what they find out. There is a good chance it will all come to a head right before the big gig.

Shigeo/Pooch is played by real life Japanese rocker Subaru Shibutani of the band Kanjani Eight, whose distinctive voice would be perfect for Rush if they ever need to replace Geddy Lee. He also turns out to be a pretty good actor, playing the lost puppy and the low life creep equally convincingly. Pairing him up with the young, poised superstar-in-the-making Fumi Nikaido was also a shrewd strategy. She has a smart, charismatic presence, as well as a sense of naivety befitting her youth. The age difference also precludes any kind of manipulative romantic hogwash. They are definitely driving the film, but Sarina Suzuki adds some spicy flair as Makiko, Kasumi’s hard-drinking doctor friend.

There are no huge, huge, huge surprises in store for viewers over the course of Rock Bottom. Lessons will be learned and secrets will be revealed. Nonetheless, Yamashita plays his trump cards as close to his vest as he can. Ultimately the film is rather touching and the music is bizarrely catchy. Recommended for fans of films like Can a Song Save Your Life (or Begin Again as the distributor insisted on calling it), La La La at Rock Bottom (which probably should have been called Begin Again instead) screens this Thursday (7/2) at the Walter Reade and Saturday the 11th at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Jimmy’s Hall: How to Get Deported from Ireland

The Pearse-Connolly Hall was sort of like a cross between Hull House and Café Society in rural County Leitrim, but with way more ideology. It was founded by Irish Communist organizer James Gralton, who was not about to let a wee little thing like the Ukrainian Famine dampen his enthusiasm for an all-powerful state. He became the only Irishman deported from his homeland, but fortunately he still had his American citizenship from his previous stint in exile. Gralton’s final Irish residency gets hagiographic treatment in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Throughout his life, Gralton did a considerable amount of Atlantic-hopping, agitating and fighting in the 1920s uprising, only to periodically retreat to New York whenever things got too hot. In 1932, he thought he was returning for good, in order to help his mother run the family farm. Of course, it is only a matter of time before he reopens the torched Pearse-Connolly Hall, which he bills as a community center of sorts. Boxing lessons and art classes are indeed held there, as well as militant organizing sessions. It is enough to send Father Sheridan, the parish priest into full crisis management mode.

Frankly, instead of Jimmy’s Hall, Loach should have called the film The Passion of the Gralton. Like most heroes of propaganda films, Gralton is pretty darn dull, but it is not the fault of lead actor Barry Ward, who brings an earthy, unassuming charisma to the role. Unfortunately, Loach always makes him the calmest, most rational person in every conversation. “That’s an argument for another day” he says evasively, when Father Sheridan challenges him on the Soviet human rights record. Yes, isn’t that always the case? However, there is no time like the present to settle scores with those on Loach’s enemies list, starting with the Catholic Church and the British government.

Far and away, the best sequences in Jimmy’s Hall involve Gralton’s impossible love for his now married old flame Oonagh. Star-crossed romance is tough to beat. Unfortunately, the instructive drama is appallingly stilted. Yet, despite the lengths Loach goes to stack the deck against good Father Sheridan, he cannot overwhelm the twinkle in Jim Norton’s eye. By the second act, most of the audience will be rooting for wily Father and against the Socialist sob sisters. Even more strangely, the film completely wastes the compulsively watchable Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty in Sherlock and the voice of Tom Hardy’s high strung assistant in Locke) as the younger and hipper Father Seamus.

Loach has made some wonderfully humanistic films, like Looking for Eric and The Angels’ Share that reflect his proletarian sympathies without didactically bashing the audience over the head. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s Hall is not one of them. Aside from Gralton’s stolen moments with Oonagh, it is a rather slow and lecturey experience. Deeply disappointing, Jimmy’s Hall opens this Friday (7/3) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center, just in time for Independence Day.

NYAFF ’15: Cops vs. Thugs

In this Yakuza power struggle, Det. Tokumatsu Kuno is backing one faction, while the city politicians have aligned themselves with the opposing clan. Over the long run, the politicians hold the advantage, but Kuno can do plenty of damage in the short term. The ensuing war will produce no heroes. There are only survivors and corpses in Kinji Fukasaku ironically titled Cops vs. Thugs (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s sidebar tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara.

Arguably, it was something of a blessing for the Ohara clan when old man Ohara was sent up the river. The infinitely more competent Kenji Hirotani subsequently stepped up as acting boss. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, Kuno has taken an active interest in promoting his criminal career. However, the industrial city’s crooked assemblyman, the exceptionally slimy Masaichi Tomoyasu is rather openly affiliated with Boss Kawade.

For years, Kuno has made it his business to tip off Hirotani whenever the cops move against Ohara operations, whereas he takes great enjoyment in busting Kawade’s men. Now under the pretense of a general crackdown, Tomoyasu has unleashed a goody two-shoes prefecture cop to decisively close down the Ohara outfit. Not coincidentally, Kuno quickly discovers he has been frozen out of department investigations. However, he will still do his best to gum up the works.

To describe C vs. T as cynical would be an understatement. Corruption in this grimy town is deep as a river and wide as a mile. Frankly, it probably is not the greatest Yakuza movie ever. Character motivation is consistently a mysterious black box for Fukasaku and screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, but it has an impressive sense of history and scope. In many ways, it could be considered a stylistic forerunner to Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection, whether or not it directly influenced the French filmmaker.

As we would hope, Bunta Sugawara glowers and snarls like a wary junkyard dog as the morally compromised, but not completely amoral Kuno. Likewise, Hiroki Matsukata is nearly equally hardnosed as Hirotani. However, Nobuo Kaneko truly makes the film as the utterly detestable Tomoyasu. He is the sort of villain that makes you want to purge and shower under the Silkwood power-faucets.

It is kind of mind-blowing to think Fukasaku had previously helmed the sequences in Tora! Tora! Tora! set in Japan and would be best remembered for the Hunger Games precursor, Battle Royale, but his real specialty was caustic Yakuza dramas, as exemplified by C vs. T. It truly has the gritty, grungy look of classic 1970s New York cops and gangster movies. The anti-heroic Yakuza drama is also another Sugawara film that features a massively groovy soundtrack (in this case composed by Toshiaki Tsushima). Recommended for genre fans (but not with as much enthusiasm as The Man Who Stole the Sun or Abashiri Prison), Cops vs. Thugs screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

NYAFF ’15: Abashiri Prison

This fortress like turn-of-the-century prison is northern Hokkaido is so harsh, it inspires country-style ballads. You can hear one right over the opening credits. Of course, it is not too tough for a hardnosed Yakuza like Shin’ichi Tachibana. However, when it comes to his mother, he turns all soft. He would like to see her again before it is too late, but the brewing prison break might not be the best way of doing that. Regardless of Tachibana’s immediate fate, lead actor Ken Takakura would soon return to the remote Hokkaido setting when his 1965 hit spawned an immensely profitable franchise. Fittingly, Teruo Ishii’s Abashiri Prison (trailer here) screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s mini-tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara.

When Tachibana arrives in Abashiri, he represents the greatest challenge to the authority of Heizo Yoda, the boss of his nine-man cell. Tachibana is definitely a keeps-to-himself kind of guy, but he knows a phony blowhard when he sees one. Since he has more or less kept his nose clean, Tachibana might be eligible for parole, especially since his ailing mother is not expected to live much longer. Unfortunately, Yoda and his sociopathic running mate Gonda are plotting a cell-wide escape and they want Tachibana in on it. Naturally, they play the Yakuza loyalty card in a big way. Of course, this would irreparably cross up Tachibana’s situation. They also intend to sacrifice their elderly cellmate Torakichi Akuta in the process. Yes, you could definitely say Tachibana is facing a prisoner’s dilemma.

There is something very Cagney-esque about Tachibana, the sentimental Yakuza. Indeed, it is not hard to see why Abashiri launched Takakura’s career. You can see elements of plenty of previous prison genre films in it, especially when Tachibana finds himself chained to Gonda and reluctantly on the lam, as the result of some not so well thought out extemporizing. However, Ishii’s execution is lean and mean, while his cast is pitch-perfect, elevating each stock character to new tragic heights. Especially look out for Kunie Tanaka as old Akuta, because he nearly walks away with the picture in a key turning point scene.

Abashiri Prison is totally about manly men snarling at each other while freezing their manly business off. Despite a wild climax on the rail lines, it is grungy, intimate film that is relatively narrow in scope. Ishii makes it palpably clear just how small and chilly their world has become. It is a great prison movie that will give Yakuza genre fans all sorts of happy vibes. Highly recommended for mainstream audiences as well, Abashiri Prison screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Monday, June 29, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Taksu

Bali is renowned for its Gamelan music and—at least in animal rights circles—notorious for its cockfights. Yuri will watch both sorts of performances on her trip. The former is much more fun, but the latter will resonate more with her, given her husband Chihiro’s terminal illness. Death will never be far from their thoughts in Kiki Sugino’s Taksu (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Already the darling of the Pan-Asian indie scene, Taksu was technically Kiki Sugino’s second film as a director, but it hit the international festival circuit just before her first premiered—with a third soon to follow. Fortunately, she also still performs as a screen thesp. After all, she is Kiki Sugino. Shrewdly, she cast herself in a major supporting role in Taksu, but it is former sex symbol Yoko Mitsuya who is asked to do the film’s heaviest lifting and rises to the occasion quite admirably.

The details are sketchy, but the words “failed transplant” says enough. Frankly, Chihiro looks done in when he and Yuri arrive in Bali. This will probably be the last time he sees his extremely pregnant sister Kumi and her Dutch husband Luke. That is a distressing fact, but they obviously have pressing issues of their own to deal with.

It is not exactly clear which stage of grief Chihiro and Yuri are on, but they are not in synch. They are both pretty freaked out, but he frequently lashes out at his naturally reserved wife, accusing her of complacency. In contrast, Yuri is profoundly exhausted and feels guilt about everything. After one of their dust-ups, she walks away, falling in with a group of Japanese expats and their beach gigolo pal, who represents the sort of commitment free indulgence she has not experienced in some time.

There is no question Taksu will lead to more directing gigs for Sugino. It is a gorgeous looking movie, rich with sunsets and Balinese ceremonial color. It positions her as the logical successor to Cannes-favorite Naomi Kawase. That is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about Kawase’s contemplative films (for the record, Still the Water is considerably better than you may have heard). Sugino also takes an unhurried approach, but she burrows deeply into the psyches of Yuri and Chihiro.

Frankly, she leaves us hanging at the end, expecting a final profundity that never comes. However, for connoisseurs of slow cinema, that is a minor quibble. On the other hand, this is obviously a tough go for crass mainstream movie audiences. Still, it does have Sugino. At the risk of sounding totally fannish, she is wonderfully expressive and aptly radiant as the super-prego Kumi. The sex scenes are all Mitsuya’s though. They are erotically charged but not exploitative. In fact, they are part-and-parcel of her inner emotional struggle. It is a powerful performance, reminiscent of some of the mature milestones of 1970s cinema that may well shock her fans.

There is indeed a good deal of sex in Taksu, but it often goes together with death. The entire cycle of life is represented in the film, as well as a nice armchair tour of Balinese cultural attractions. Sugino knew exactly what she wanted and executed the film accordingly. Nevertheless, it would not betray her aesthetic sensibilities to give her narratives more muscular definition in the future. Still, it is achingly beautiful visually and the drama is quite sensitively rendered. Recommended for slow cineastes and Sugino fans, Taksu screens this Thursday (7/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Amy: The Winehouse Documentary

Amy Winehouse’s life was short but remarkably well documented. That would certainly help a filmmaker crafting a posthumous profile, but it was much less fortunate for her. Despite the somewhat dubious objections of her family, a sensitive yet cautionary portrait of gifted artist overwhelmed by fame emerges in Asif Kapadia’s Amy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Amy Winehouse loved jazz and had the chops to sing it. If she had made a career of interpreting standards in moderate sized jazz clubs for a small but devoted following, she probably would have lived a much longer and happier life. Unfortunately, her talent was so conspicuous, she became a world famous pop star, but she was profoundly uncomfortable with much of the attention that followed. It is Winehouse whom we see throughout the film, second by second, as her friends and associates speak over archival footage and still photos, including performances from the period before her tragic fame.

Much of the footage of the promising pre-celebrity Winehouse was supplied by her friend and original manager, Nick Shymansky. Despite original backing from the Winehouse family and estate, Kapadia’s film largely reflects the perspective of Shymansky and Winehouse’s lifelong friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. Winehouse’s father Mitchel has made no secret of his objections, but through his position at the Winehouse position, he can always tell his side of the story to a Guardian scribe whenever he wants. In contrast, the working class Ashby and Gilbert do not have the same access to media. Their only stake in this story was the loss of their dear friend. In fact, they had a deep distrust of the media, which Kapadia labored to overcome. Yet, that is precisely why their stories have such impact and credibility.

The general trajectory of Winehouse’s life is fairly well known: precocious talent gives rise to not-exactly overnight fame, which in turn leads to widely reported struggles with drugs and alcohol. By far, the most damning incident in the film involves Mitchel Winehouse undermining her friends’ early intervention, telling her she really had no need of rehab. While he has subsequently taken pains to argue his opinion eventually changed on that score, Shymansky points out this was a lost opportunity to get Winehouse treatment, before the entire world wanted a piece of her and the media hounded her every step. Mr. Winehouse can object all he likes, but the significance of the moment is inescapable.

As it happens, Mr. Winehouse is not the only member of her inner circle upset with their treatment in Kapadia’s film. Her second (and final) manager Raye Cosbert also takes issue with suggestions his was exploitative or at least insensitive to Amy Winehouse’s emotional turmoil. Whether that is fair or not, it seems clear from the film he could only relate to her as a pop act rather than the jazz artist she initially set out to be. Had he better understood her, he could have charted a career course that better appealed to her sensibilities.

Oddly, the sequence of Winehouse recording a duet of “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett has received disproportionate press attention. Its inclusion in Amy certainly makes sense, but it is actually old news, having previously appeared in Unjoo Moon’s The Zen of Bennett (maybe some of our colleagues do not screen as extensively as they should). Regardless, the overall effect of Kapadia’s Amy is utterly devastating. It is a heartbreakingly intimate film that makes viewers feel like they are peering into her damaged psyche.

Although it might be controversial in some quarters, Kapadia deserves credit for portraying some figures in villainous terms rather than playing it safe. Editor Chris King also does extraordinary work combining the voluminous images into a powerful narrative. As a result, Kapadia’s Amy is a moving document of a gifted performer whose life was far sadder and briefer that it should have been. Highly recommended, Amy opens this Friday (7/3) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.

Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person

This is the film they did not get to see at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. Les Blank’s Blankian documentary profile of Leon Russell had been accepted by the fest, but its subject refused to sanction its release. Inconveniently, it was a work-for-hire project for which Russell retained all rights, only allowing occasional screenings at Blank retrospectives, provided the filmmaker was in attendance. Finally, Harrod Blank has fulfilled the bucket-list item inherited from his late father, shepherding A Poem is a Naked Person (trailer here) to its long-awaited theatrical release, starting this Wednesday at Film Forum.

In the early 1970s, Russell was a highly regarded session musician poised to break out as a solo artist. He was touring regularly and had already released an album that went gold. Having shared in the critical heat generated by the Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentary when he was performing as Joe Cocker’s musical right-hand man, Russell and his producer Denny Cordell wanted their own doc to showcase the singer-songwriter-piano player as a leader. Blank was recommended and accepted the gig, setting up shop in the artist colony-like grounds surrounding Russell’s private studio.

Of course, Blank would not merely point the camera at Russell and ask some softball questions backstage. He became intrigued and inspired by Russell’s relationship with the neighboring Oklahoma community. When you watch Poem you understand all the influences that shaped Russell into a rocker, whose set lists were filled with songs by Hank Williams and Leadbelly. Blank also relished the eccentricities of the colorful locals, such as the old couple who attended building demolitions like rock groupies, as well as the other artists Russell had pulled into his orbit. Painter Jim Franklin is particularly notable. He had been recruited to paint murals on the studio walls, but his creative impulses found more stimulation at the bottom of Russell’s empty swimming pool. Decades later he would paint the film’s poster.

There is no shortage of Russell’s music in Poem. Blank also captures performances by George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. Yet, it is the seemingly eccentric, but actually quite telling interludes that must have thrown Russell and Cordell. Frankly, in terms of tone, Poem is not so very different from Bert Stern’s enduring classic Jazz on a Summer’s Day, but they just didn’t get it, until now. Although this caused Blank much frustration, it probably did more long term harm to Russell’s career.

Had it released in 1974, Poem may very well have been Blank’s biggest box office hit, but it is hard to believe he would have gone Hollywood rather than making classics like Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe, Burden of Dreams, and Always for Pleasure. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine Poem getting revived year after year, to screen alongside perennials like Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Frankly, Poem was perfect for its time, reflecting the youth culture’s increasingly ironic relationship with media. Had it been readily accessible, Blank’s film would have maintained awareness of Russell, regularly introducing him to new fans. Instead, he has become a cult figure in need of periodic rediscovery.

There is indeed some great music in Poem. Whether your tastes run towards rock, country, or blues, Russell’s sound is swampy enough for all to relate to. It is also an excellent example of Blank’s keen eye for regional culture and his gently humanistic sense of humor. According to the legends that have swirled around the long unseen film, a parachutist seen performing a glass eating trick on-camera is thought by some to be D.B. Cooper. Unfortunately, Mr. Cooper has not been available to confirm or deny his participation. Regardless, it is a whole lot of funky fun. Highly recommended for fans of Southern blues-roots-rock and Blank’s slyly insightful style of documentary filmmaking, A Poem is a Naked Person finally opens this Wednesday (7/1) in New York, at Film Forum.

NYAFF ’15: Ruined Heart

When you are a lowlife criminal type, you are likely to meet similar kinds of folk. That doesn’t mean love is impossible, but happily-ever-afters are highly unlikely. Filipino digital micro-cinema legend Khavn [de la Cruz] will graphically illustrate the perils of underworld romance in Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal & a Whore (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Neither “The Criminal” nor “The Whore” are what you might call Chatty Cathies, but when they get together they have better ways to spend time than with small talk. They met when he comes to whack one of her clients and they apparently just hit it off. Frankly, we never hear them exchange a single word, so we just have to infer from their actions. Of course, such employee fraternization is strongly discouraged by the “God Father,” a strange New Age evangelist who controls all the vice in the Metro Manila slums. Eventually, they will have to take their love on the lam, but not before they guide the audience through a tour of the back alleys and private sex clubs of their world.

If you know Khavn’s work you probably either love it or hate it. With Ruined Heart, he doubles down on his extreme aesthetic. It is a hard film to have mixed feelings about, unless you are taken with the soundtrack. Truly, it is like a monster party mix on MDMA. Many of the groove-friendly tracks are collaborations between Khavn and the Euro Electropop duo Stereo Total, but it also features steel guitarist Buddy Emmons’ rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon.

So yes, Ruined sounds awesome and it looks . . . distinctive. Frankly, Khavn is not shy about showing bodily fluids, in especially gross contexts. He also revels in the grunginess of the slum environment. Yet, he also has an eye for the beautifully surreal. Celebrated cinematographer Christopher Doyle (best known for his work with Wong Kar Wai) frames everything for maximum effect, whether it be grotesque or seductive.

Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and Mexican actress Nathalia Acevedo do rather remarkable work, considering they must rely solely on body language rather than dialogue. They are undeniably electric together. Someone will surely say the Manila slum also serves as a character in the film, but Khavn is really going for the immersive sensation of life in such desperate close quarters rather than a particular sense of place, per se.

Obviously, we know the general arc Khavn’s narrative will take right from the opening credits. So do the sub-title characters, yet they still make their inevitably tragic choices anyway, which is quite compelling. Recommended for the elite few, who look where grubby exploitation movies overlap with experimental art cinema to find their sort of films, Ruined Heart screens this Thursday (7/2) at the Walter Reade and next Saturday (7/11) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

NYAFF ’15: The Man Who Stole the Sun

Makoto Kido is the sort of teacher who is popular with his students. He is lax about discipline and often late to his own classes. The only drawback is he often lectures on subjects that will not be on their university entrance exams, like the procedure for making nuclear bombs. Unfortunately, it is a subject he knows cold. When he launches his campaign of nuclear blackmail, it will be up to hardnosed Inspector Yamashita to stop him in Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s classic The Man Who Stole the Sun (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, two late, great, manly icons of Japanese Cinema.

Kido is kind of a hippy, but he is not very political. Frankly, he will have a hard time coming up with demands for the government to meet. Instead, he is more of your basic bored sociopath. Ironically, when Yamashita first meets Kido, he assumes the science teacher is decent enough for a long-hair, even though we know he has already started laying the groundwork for his evil scheme.

As fate will dictate, Kido’s class is hijacked while on a field trip, by a deranged man seeking redress from the emperor. Yamashita draws the case, impressing Kido with his gruff dedication to duty. After boosting some plutonium from the Tōkai nuclear plant, proceeds to make two bombs—one to prove his skills with the authorities and one for him to dangle over the prime minister’s head. As part of the ground rules he establishes, Kido (employing a home-made voice modulator) will only speak with the confused Yamashita.

In many ways, Sun is a blast-from-the-past time-capsule of a film. Among other things, it reminds us of the time when most television stations signed off around midnight by playing the national anthem. Evidently, during the late 1970s in Japan, TV stations also used to stop baseball games promptly at ten o’clock to accommodate the evening news. It seems Kido put a stop to that practice. Running out of ideas, Kido reaches out to Zero Sawai, a DJ catering to the youth culture. She is cute as a button, but she also serves as a scathing critique of a myopic media that cannot see the dirty bomb for the trees.

Bunta Sugawara is stone cold awesome as Yamashita, an old school throwback, who would be perfectly at home in the films of Don Siegel and Sam Fuller. Yet, Takayuki Inoue’s massively groovy music might just be even cooler. It is strange the soundtrack album has not been more eagerly sought after by crate-diggers. Real life rock star Kenji Sawada is also frighteningly convincing as the coldly detached psychopath. Watching him play Kimiko Ikegami’s naïve Sawai is especially chilling.

Co-written by Hasegawa and Leonard Schrader (brother of Paul, who also co-wrote a Tora-san movie), Sun is an ambitious, large scale film, clocking in just shy of two and a half hours. Hasegawa stages some absolutely insane action sequences, yet he dedicates most of the first act to the quiet process of Kido’s bomb-building. Frankly, this is not a film ISIS needs to see, because it is darned instructive. However, if you enjoy potentially apocalyptic thrillers loaded with attitude and funky Me Decade period detail than this is your ticket. Highly recommended for fans of 1970s cinema and crew cut cops, The Man Who Stole the Sun screens this Wednesday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers

It has been a rough couple of years for cartoonists. Although young Kiyomi Wago does not have a fatwah hanging over her head, her family banned her from drawing horror manga, scapegoating her gory images for all their problems. Yet, they constantly provide fresh inspiration with their ghastly behavior. Frankly, they need another dose of manga humiliation as comeuppance for all their acting-out in Daihachi Yoshida’s Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Wago’s parents recently perished in a fatal car crash, involving an adorable kitten. Her spoiled older sister Sumika will not offer much consolation when she finally makes it home. The family had been supporting her dubious acting career, but she only has debts and burned bridges to show for her efforts. She expects to continue dominating their half-brother Shinji, because of the incestuous control she exerts over him, even though he is now married to his naïve internet bride, Machiko. Unfortunately, Sumika still blames Kiyomi for scandalizing the family when she won an amateur contest with the story of her irrational attempt to murder their now late father. Needless to say, Sumika is not ready to forgive and forget.

By the way, Funuke is a comedy, more or less. Yes, you could say it is a somewhat dark one in terms of tone. In fact, Yoshida maintains an almost unclassifiable vibe, like Ozu mixed with Sirk and a dash of John Waters and then launched on a grain alcohol bender.

You may not fully understand the term “hot mess” until you have seen Eriko Sato as Sumika Wago. She is a force, which makes it so rewarding to watch Aimi Satsukawa’s Kiyomi learn to assert her inner Daria. It is subtle, yet substantial arc of character development that she carries off quite well. However, Hiromi Nagasaku might actually be too good as earnest Machiko. She just makes you want to slap everyone around her. As a result, poor Masatoshi Nagase and his character Shinji never stand a chance. They just get buried by the stronger personas surrounding them.

In a way, Funuke is an ode to the cathartic power of artistic expression—specifically through manga in this case. Fortunately, it features a good deal of art by Noroi Michiru that is striking in its own right and absolutely perfect in the dramatic context of the film. At times, Yoshida’s adaptation of Yukiko Motoya’s novel feels excessively mean towards Machiko, but its edge is impressive. Recommended for manga fans who think the last good comedy to play at Sundance was The House of Yes, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! screens this coming Monday (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of NYAFF’s mini-focus on Yoshida.

Friday, June 26, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Pale Moon

Currently, the exchange rate is 120-some Yen to the Dollar. It was something similar in the mid-1990s. Although we know we should be adjusting in our heads, the sums Rika Umezawa embezzles from her private banking clients still look staggeringly high. It is hard to sustain such recklessness indefinitely, but Umezawa will have a heck of a run in Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Umezawa looks a far cry from John Dillinger. The former housewife has only recently returned to the workforce, responding to the bank’s recruitment program. She is attractive, but extremely shy and reserved. Her first inherited client, a lecherous old tight-wad might have been troublesome for her to deal with, if not for the intercession of his college age grandson, Kota Hirabayashi. Still, she manages to sell him on a few starter investments.

In the early days, Umezawa’s performance is quite promising. Yet, her husband continues to patronize and underestimate her. Of course, he just assumes she will accompany him when he is transferred to China, but she rather scandalously opts to stay in Japan. After all, she has secret affair with Hirabayashi to enjoy. She also redirected some of his Scrooge-like grandfather’s money to pay for his tuition. That turns out to be the sort of thing that is hard to stop once you start. Soon, Umezawa is falsifying documents and intercepting bank statements to maintain her lifestyle. Meanwhile, her senior colleague Yoriko Sumi starts investigating her suspicions, hoping to find something that would forestall her forced retirement.

Moon has the obvious feminist angle and the zeitgeisty financial crisis theme, but it is rather more than either sort of issue-driven drama. Thanks to Rie Miyazawa’s absolutely extraordinary lead performance, it is utterly impossible to pigeon hole Umezawa as some sort of Thelma or Louise in a business suit. Although she has good reasons to feel put-out, she is not a victim, but more of an existential heroine. Eventually she will even question the soundness of fiat currency and the legitimacy of Platonic reality. At that point, the third act takes a rather strange turn, but Yoshida lays enough groundwork so that it seems almost logical rather than jarring.

Miyazawa owns this film lock, stock, and barrel, but her greatest competition for the spotlight fittingly comes from Yuna Taira, who appears as the fourteen year old Umezawa in flashbacks. The young screen performer has no shortage of presence, yet still projects a sense of earnest vulnerability she shares with Miyazawa. Admittedly, it is tough being a guy in Moon, but Renji Ishibashi knocks us off-balance from time to time as the curmudgeonly old Kozo Hirabayashi. There is also something compellingly sad about Satomi Kobayashi’s performance as Sumi, a somewhat kindred spirit to Umezawa, who has adopted the diametrically opposite survival strategy.

Special NYAFF Guest Yoshida helms with great sensitivity and a subtly dark sense of humor, which distilled produce a truly distinctive vibe. This is a film that defies labels (is it a crime drama or a work of social criticism?) and up-ends expectations. Moon absolutely does not leave the audience in a “safe place,” but it is strangely satisfying spot to end. Throughout it all, Miyazawa is superhumanly engaging as Umezawa. Highly recommended for sophisticated audiences, Pale Moon screens this coming Monday (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of NYAFF’s mini-focus on Yoshida.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

NYAFF ’15: My Love, Don’t Cross that River

When Jo Byeong-man married Kang Kye-yeol, Korea was still occupied by Japan. For seventy-six years they were a happy couple, despite never having much money. Unfortunately, all mortal things must end. Jin Mo-young documented their final happy days together as well as their long goodbye in the surprise Korean box-office blockbuster, My Love, Don’t Cross that River (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

When Jin started filming them, Jo was ninety-eight years young and his wife Kang was a youthful eighty-nine (they were already used to cameras, as the prior subjects of a KBS special report, Gray-Haired Lovers). You will actually come up with some awkward numbers if you do the math, but Kang explains her beloved was quite shy during their early years together and willing to wait for her to mature at her own pace. Eventually, they had twelve children together, but only six survived to see them into their golden years.

Frankly, considering their respective ages, Jo and Kang are impressively spry and frisky in the film’s initial scenes. There is no question they had a heck of a run together. Even though their union was a semi-arranged business, they clearly fell deeply in love. Sadly, time will finally catch up with Jo as he nears the century point. At this point, River becomes difficult to watch. However, our hearts really take a pummeling when Kang, recognizing time is short, makes offerings of burnt children’s clothing to the son and daughters they lost so long ago—but never forgot.

Much to everyone’s surprise, River became a sleeper sensation in South Korea, knocking Interstellar out of the top spot at the box-office. In their happier days, they were certainly an adorable couple. Yet, in addition to their great romance, they represent a bridge to the past, frequently wearing colorful traditional garments and residing in a modest home with modern appliances, but no indoor plumbing. They have seen it all (occupation, war, regime change, and dramatic Tiger-era economic growth), yet they still live much as they always have.

At times, River is uncomfortably intimate. Arguably, Jo’s painful last days merited greater privacy. Nevertheless, the longevity of their wedded bliss is quite inspiring. Yet, it is consolation offered by traditional rituals that provides the film’s most quietly devastating moments. Honest and endearing, My Love, Don’t Cross that River is recommended for slice of life doc watchers when it screens this Sunday (6/28) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

NYAFF ’15: It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a wildly cinematic city, but it is not conducive to rom-coms. Johnnie To keeps trying, but it is his gangster-cop dramas that will be remembered. Still, two American ships passing in the night will take their best shot at talky flirtatiousness in Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (clip here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Ruby Lin is a Chinese American toy designer who does not speak a word of Cantonese. Josh Rosenberg is a fluent American expat working in finance. There paths cross on the one night she happens to be in Hong Kong for business. He helps her navigate the city, sparks fly, and then epic fail. One year later, they bump into each other on the Kowloon ferry. She is now temporarily working in HK, but she still does not feel comfortable there. Much to her surprise, Rosenberg has chucked in his high paying corporate gig and has adopted the lifestyle of a literary bohemian. It’s all her fault, by the way.

They start slower on their second go-round, but eventually they generate the same heat again. However, this time they are uncomfortably aware of the other’s respective romantic partners. Maybe it cannot lead anywhere, but the food looks delicious and the scenery is picture postcard perfect.

Yes, it is kind of like the Linklater trilogy. So what? Frankly, even Before Sunrise was not so earth-shatteringly original when it first released. There was a 1945 film called Brief Encounter that covered similar thematic terrain and it was based on a play from the 1930s. David Lean did it better than anyone, but Ting has a huge trump card in the city of Hong Kong. It is easy to imagine a lot of indulgent boyfriends and husbands getting dragged on a It’s Already Tomorrow pilgrimage tour (or maybe vice versa). Seriously, Ting and cinematographer Josh Silfen make the mega-city look ever so seductive (and also quite a bit overwhelming).

As Lin and Rosenberg, co-executive producers Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg exhibit real chemistry, as apparently they ought to. Even their idlest chatter is pretty hot, yet it almost always sounds believably grounded. Even though they riff on Seinfeld, Ting’s screenplay mercifully never sounds like it is trying to deliberately coin catch-phrases.

NYAFF’s screening of IATIHK is presented in conjunction with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York, who really should be at the theater selling HK tourism packages. They would probably get a lot of takers. In many ways, the film follows a predictable pattern, but its ambiguous romance and the perambulation through the streets of Hong Kong is an entirely pleasant and satisfying way to spend some fleeting time. Recommended for those who enjoy rom-coms and city symphonies, It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong screens this Sunday (6/28) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Cold War

Up until the crackdown on the Umbrella Protest Movement, the Hong Kong police had remained popular even when the government was not. Despite what we see in Johnnie To and John Woo movies, the police had always kept the city safe, while maintaining a reputation for integrity. That all might come to an explosive halt in Longman Leung & Sunny Luk’s Cold War (trailer here), which screens as part of the tribute to Star Asia Award winner Aaron Kwok at the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

The bad guys will be busy while the PR-sensitive police commissioner is attending a conference in Copenhagen. Soon after a bomb explodes in a Mongkok cinema, an emergency response police van is hijacked, along with the five cops assigned to it. “M.B.” Lee Man-bin, the grizzled deputy commish for operations swings into action, putting the force on a war footing and pulling manpower off everyday duties. Unfortunately, all he recovers during the first twenty-four hours are five mannequins wired with explosives.

Smooth-talking Deputy Commissioner for Administration Lau Kit-fai believes his colleague has over-reacted, perhaps because his son is one of the hostages. When Lee overplays his hand, Lau will move to replace him as acting commissioner. Of course, he might just regret taking ownership of the cluster-dustup codenamed “Cold War,” especially when Internal Affairs starts investigating the aftermath.

Cold War is a fine vehicle for Kwok, showcasing his steely, well-tailored lawman’s chops, much like the relentlessly by-the-book prosecutor in Silent Witness, selected for last year’s NYAFF. Yet not surprisingly, “Big” Tony Leung Ka-fai out hardnoses everyone as the from-the-hip Lee. He and Kwok generate sparks together, like a seat belt dragging down the highway. In fact, the best part of Cold War is the way their relationship evolves from rival into something different.

Cold War also boasts an all-star supporting ensemble, but it does not always fully capitalize, such as when Andy Lau briefly parachutes in, flashing his winning smile as Lau Kit-fai’s political patron. As the public information officer, Charlie Young holds her own with Leung in a key early scene, but she is mostly on exposition duty aside from that. However, Eddie Peng shows hitherto unseen grit as the kidnapped Joe Lee.

Co-director-screenwriters Leung and Luk try too hard to manufacture twists, but the way they merge office politics and urban warfare is definitely entertaining. Just watching Leung and Kwok go at it is seriously good fun. Recommended for fans large scale cop thrillers, Cold War screens this Saturday (6/27) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Elimination Game: Turkey Shoot Reconceived and Reloaded

It is the near future or maybe right now. The world is sick of the perennial world war engulfing Africa, but they are delighted to be distracted by bloodsport on television. It would sound almost like a call back to the Roman Empire, but it is surprisingly clothed and chaste for a film produced by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Nevertheless, the Ozploitation legend gave his blessing to a new remake-re-conception of his cult favorite Turkey Shoot, a.k.a. Escape 2000, a.k.a. Blood Camp Thatcher. With a rather prosaic title befitting a film striving for phony relevancy, Jon Hewitt’s Elimination Game (trailer here) opens this Friday in select theaters.

It sure seems like Navy SEAL Rick Tyler capped the Libyan dictator in the opening sequence. However, the next thing we know, World War Africa is raging and Tyler has been convicted of a heinous massacre of innocent civilians. It is pretty clear what’s going on to everyone but Tyler. He will not have much time to puzzle things out either, when the Monty Halls in power offer him a deal. If he survives as a contestant on the human hunting show Turkey Shoot (“it’s live . . . with death”) he will win his freedom.

Of course, the deck will be stacked against him, but Tyler has a very particular set of skills. He also finds an unlikely ally in Commander Jill Wilson, who goes rogue when General Thatcher lets it slip they framed Tyler because you know why.

Fans will probably be disappointed by just how far removed Hewitt’s film is from the Trenchard-Smith original, which was a lot like an ultra-violent Roger Corman tropical prison movie. Perhaps most problematic is the film’s anti-septic vibe. Sure, it is violent at times, but it is incapable of real sleaze—and that is a problem for a re-re of Turkey Shoot.

Prison Break’s Dominic Purcell is not the most expressive actor holding an Equity card, but he is not a runny-nosed boy either. Let’s face it, anyone who can survive multiple Uwe Boll films (and we use that word liberally) should be at home in a Trenchard-Smith remake. In fact, he is perfectly credible in the action scenes and is a more than adequate brooder.

Purcell is not the problem. Unfortunately, he is working with a lame-brain script. The excessively bright and sterile atmosphere does not help either. It all looks very down-market television. You have to wonder if Trenchard-Smith was constantly scrubbing the sets, so he wouldn’t have to pay a cleaning fee.

Still, fans of the original will be happy to see alumni like Roger Ward and Carmen Duncan turn up in minor roles, as the Libyan dictator and the president, respectively. It is also rather mind-blowing to see Nicholas Hammond, the late 1970s Spiderman, pop up as Gen. Thatcher. He also turns his scenes with Purcell rather well, so it kind of baffling the Marvel film juggernaut has not found a fan-servicing cameo-spot for him yet.

Instead of whipping up our vicarious bloodlust, Elimination just leaves us cold. It is too calculated, too conventional, and too tightly controlled. There are some nice fight sequences sprinkled in, but it still won’t satisfy exploitation connoisseurs. Not really recommended, Elimination Game opens this Friday (6/26) in limited markets and also launches on VOD.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

NYAFF ’15: A Fool

In a simple Chinese peasant’s world, no good deed goes unpunished. In the world of Chinese actor Chen Jianbin, a supporting cast-member’s drug bust can be used to cancel the release of his directorial debut. Arguably, their worlds are not as different as they might initially appear. However, one might well debate just who exactly is referred to in the title of Chen’s A Fool (trailer here), which screens as an opening day selection of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival, in advance of China Lion’s upcoming theatrical release.

Latiaozi is a salt-of-the-earth goat-herder, who is scrimping to get by after giving Li Datou, the village wheeler-dealer a sizable bribe to facilitate his grown son’s release from prison. So far, Li’s lack of results makes things rather chilly for Latiaozi at home. The last thing he needs is an adult half-wit following him home like a stray dog. However, Latiaozi and his Muslim wife Jinzhizi are reluctant to turn out into the cold, lest he freeze to death on their property.

As we might expect, the gruff couple warns to the idiot just about the time someone comes to claim him. For a while, Latiaozi takes satisfaction from his good deed until another group of self-proclaimed relations comes to claim the fool—and yet another. Each time the supposedly disappointed parties try to extort money from Latiaozi. It leaves the poor, unsophisticated rube in quite a state.

Chen’s A Fool arrives within the same festival season as Yuriy Bykov’s The Fool, exhibiting kinships beyond the similar title. While Bykov is more explicit in his criticism of Putin’s Russia, both films directly address the perils in being honest and guileless when living in the midst a corrupt system.

Pitiable Latiaozi does not stand a chance. Yet, his dogged earnestness exceeds all expectations. There is no question A Fool is a dark film, but it is not the proletarian passion play you might be expecting. Indeed, Chen is his own best asset. The standout from Doze Niu Chen-zer’s Paradise in Service and dozens of previous films, Chen plays Latiaozi as an achingly transparent everyman, incapable of deception and utterly overmatched by the wider world. Similarly earthy and direct, former television sex symbol Jiang Qinqin is shockingly glammed down and down-trodden looking as Jinzhizi. They completely feel like a husband and wife with a long shared history together (which, in fact, they are).

Unfortunately, Wang Xuebing’s drug-related incident was the pretext used to cancel A Fool’s Mainland theatrical distribution, but it is clear why Chen refused to re-shoot his scenes with a different actor. Wang’s serpent-like charm and sarcastic edge are the X-factor that constantly kicks the film up yet another notch. Any other Li Datou would merely be a pale shadow of Wang.

The narrative of A Fool, based on Hu Xuewen’s novella, shares superficial commonalities with any number of propaganda tales about exploited peasants. Nevertheless, this is not didactic agitprop or a self-serving wallowing in the misery of others. This is a pointed yet pacey film that happens to hold a mirror up to reality while focusing on its rustic but sharply drawn characters. Highly recommended, especially for Chinese visitors to our fair city who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see it, A Fool screens this Friday (6/26) at the Walter Reade, kicking off this year’s NYAFF.

Big Game: Snakes on Air Force One

How we depict the President of the United States in film and television says a lot about how we view the office. In Air Force One, Harrison Ford kicked a terrorist off his plane. In 24, David Palmer had one of his cabinet secretaries water-boarded without a second thought. Sadly, when Samuel L. Jackson assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief, he spends most of the time complaining he is cold and his feet hurt. Yet bad guys are still out to get him in Jalmari Helander’s Big Game (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

William Alan Moore is a particularly lame duck chief executive, in route to a G8 pre-summit pre-conference, as part of his presidency’s sad endgame, but his flight will get suspiciously bumpy thanks to an inside saboteur. We can tell by looking at him, Morris the senior Secret Service agent is obviously a traitor. He once took a bullet for this POTUS, but Morris has come to wonder why, especially with his mandatory retirement looming.

Still, it seems like a drastic step for Morris to cast his lot in with Hazar, a wealthy Mid East psychopath, who wants to hunt down the President, so he can stuff and mount him as his trophy. Unfortunately, when Moore is forced to eject from Air Force One, his only ally on the ground will be Oskari, an under-sized Finnish pre-teen trying to prove his mettle in a rite-of-passage survival excursion. He is young and annoying, but he is still more resourceful than Moore. Meanwhile, the White House crisis room is buzzing, but it is not clear all the senior staffers are on the same page.

Big Game is billed as a throwback action thriller, but it never throws-down hard enough. There are way too many cutesy scenes of the kid trying communicate with Moore through a couple of tin cans and a string and not nearly enough old school beatdowns. In fact, several of the signature action sequences are rather gimmicky looking.

Most disappointingly, Helander never lets Jackson cut loose. We want to see him get righteous on the villains, but instead he just whines and projects uncertainty. Man, if ever there is a time to cowboy up, this is it. Frankly, he is rather put to shame by all the colorful character actors underutilized in the DC scenes, particularly the grizzled Ted Levine, snarling along as best he can as General Underwood.

As was true of his prior film, Rare Exports, Helander again starts with a promising high concept, but his execution lacks edge. In this case, we are promised plenty of Die Hard-esque action, getting sentimental Odd Couple shtick in its place. Still, the remote Nordic scenery is quite impressive. Despite having plenty of elements in place, it just never clicks. For those looking for some PG-13 action that feels even younger, imperfect though it might be, Big Game opens this Friday (6/26) in select theaters.

Cross: Simon Yam Saves Souls

They say confession is good for the soul, but probably not in Lee Leung’s case. He has turned himself into the authorities after failing in his divinely inspired mission. His body count is carefully documented, but there might be more to his story than meets the eye in Daniel Chan’s Cross (trailer here), which releases today on regular DVD and digital platforms from Well Go USA.

The fact that co-directors Steve Woo, Lau Kin Ping, and Hui Shu Ning are all credited with helping to complete Cross over a two year period does not inspire a boatload of confidence. On the plus side, it stars Simon Yam as Lee Leung. In fact, it is not the dreary anti-Catholic diatribe we might expect, even though Yam’s serial killer is most definitely devout. Reeling from his terminally ill wife’s suicide, Lee Leung starts to kill off members who post on an online suicide forum, at their own invitation, thereby saving them from mortal sin. They are supposed to pass peacefully, so when he botches his latest assignment, he remorsefully turns surrenders to the police.

Professor Cheung, the police psychoanalyst, starts to investigate the case, at which point the film turns strangely sympathetic towards Lee Leung. It is clear his wife’s death deeply damaged his psyche. However, he may have been manipulated by an outside agency.

Unfortunately, just as the film builds up the mystery surrounding his murders, Chan (or whoever) blithely pulls out a Jenga block, making the entire tower collapse. There are also massive timeline issues with the ultimate truth, but at least there are some nice stylistic touches in how it is revealed.

Cross definitely feels edited-together, but as usual, Yam is rock solid as Lee Leung. It largely confirms our unspoken theorem that every Simon Yam film is worth seeing. Kenny Wong Tak-bun is also terrific as Prof. Cheung, an obsessively empathetic character worthy of his own franchise treatment (which stands no chance of happening). It is also amusing to see Nick Cheung appear in a small role just as his career was igniting.

You can readily see how if circumstances had been different, Cross might have worked quite well. It is still considerably exceeds the expectations established by its reputation. While it should not be anyone’s introduction to Hong Kong cinema, Yam fans will find its consistent moodiness strangely watchable. Consider this a bemused defense more than a recommendation now that it is available from Well Go USA.