Friday, July 31, 2015

Fantasia ’15: Golden Cane Warrior

The best martial arts film often approach the level of classical tragedy with their tales of cruel fate and deep seated grudges. An entirely home-grown, domestically-produced Indonesian action historical is a definitely down with that program. When the leader of a revered martial arts house takes on the children of her vanquished rivals as protégés, it ends rather badly. However, her rightful heir survives to fight another day in Ifa Isfansyah’s Golden Cane Warrior (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

As the holder of the Golden Cane, Cempaka is above the sort of tournaments the rest of the warrior houses compete in. Her oldest students, Biru and Gerhana have learned much from her and enjoy the status they have as students of the Golden Cane. They assume she will chose Biru as her successor, but Cempaka anoints the young Dara instead. Slightly disappointed, the dastardly pair murder Cempaka, framing Dara and the ten year old-ish Angin, whom Cempaka took in to remind her of sins to be revealed during the third act.

Much to their former fellow apprentices’ frustration, Dara and Angin escape with the Golden Cane. Worming their way into the next most prestigious house, Biru and Gerhana quickly complete their evil scheme to dominate the world of warriors. Soon they start terrorizing the idyllic village that offered Dara and Angin sanctuary. The good news is the villagers have Elang, a protector who is even better versed in the Golden Cane style than any of Cempaka’s students. The bad news is he has taken an oath that makes it hard for him to do anything useful.

Utilizing a lot of staff-fighting techniques, the martial arts of Cane is fantastically cinematic. Fight scene for fight scene, it can hang with any big budget wuxia film produced in the Chinese-speaking sphere. Unfortunately, it has a bit of a draggy mid-section and never really explains what the full deal is with Elang. Nevertheless, when the feet are flying and the staffs are swinging, it is quite a spectacle.

As Biru and Gerhana, Reza Rahadian and Tara Basro have terrific romantically villainous chemistry together. They are so dramatically more charismatic than the good guys, the likable but bland Eva Celia and Nicholas Saputra as Dara and Elang, it nearly unbalances the film. However, young but scrappy Aria Kusumah more than carries his weight as Angin.

By Indonesian standards, Cane had a princely budget, but you can see it all up there on the screen. It really looks like it was shot in ancient villages that exist somewhere outside time, while Isfansyah and cinematographer Gunnar Nimpuno give it an appropriately sweeping look and vibe. Recommended for fans of martial arts seasoned with tragic mysticism, Golden Cane Warrior screens today (7/31), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Five Star: Keeping it Sort of Real on the Streets of Brooklyn

A famous rapper or two might have pointed out to the rest of the naïve square world, you do not stop being a gang member just because you are suddenly famous. James “Primo” Grant certainly understands how that works. He is not famous yet, but he takes a big step in that direction with his film debut, playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself in Keith Miller’s Five Star (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Primo is a Five Star, a senior member of the Bloods gang who can cut through the initiation rigmarole should he chose. That is indeed what he is offering John, the skinny, not-as-slick-as-he-thinks-he-is son of Melvin, the recently deceased elder statesmen among street gangs. John is eager to start making money, but it is not immediately clear whether he has the necessary discipline to survive the life. His mother suspects he is continuing down his father’s path and she is not happy about. However, it is difficult for her to object, given how much she ignored regarding the absentee husband she still loved.

In terms of narrative, Five Star is pretty simple, telegraphing what turns it takes quite far in advance. As a character piece though, it is pretty compelling. Without question, the death of John’s father is significant to many people in many ways. Naturally, it is especially so for John, yet it also reverberates for Primo, who already has four children, with a fifth on the way. He would like to get out of the gang for their sake, yet he fears he will not find another source for the respect and camaraderie he gets as a Five Star.

Grant is a quietly electric presence, who just seems to simmer on screen. There is no question he is a natural, delivering stone cold dialogue with a come-to-Jesus heaviness that would give Tarantino chills. Unfortunately, John Diaz lacks his power and depth, coming across as merely churlish and immature as his namesake. On the other hand, Wanda Nobles Colon is wonderfully forceful and earthy as John’s mother.

Miller is a talented filmmaker, who has a knack for narrative-documentary hybrids. Like his debut, Welcome to Pine Hill, Five Star is considerably more interesting and emotionally involving than a thumb nail description would suggest. He has clear affinities for Brooklyn neighborhoods and those marginalized by society, as well as a keen ear for dialogue.

Five Star
is a small film, but it is uncomfortably intimate. Yet, even though it clocks in just under ninety minutes, Miller displays a bit of a tendency to meander now and then. Still, there is a real kick to the film when it connects. Recommended for those who admire DIY Brooklyn independent filmmaking, Five Star opens today (7/31) in LA at the Arena Cinema.

Paulo Coelho’s Best Story, Not Including the Alchemist

According to press materials, Paulo Coelho’s New Agey fables have racked up 165 million net copy sales around the world. Clearly people are reading him, but there is no need to buy his books, considering he grants his fans permission to download his work through file-sharing sites. Regardless, he remains a record-holding bestseller, but the Brazilian publishing industry did not always recognize his commercial potential. Coelho’s portrait-of-the-author-as-a-sad-young-man story is incorporated into his supposedly autobiographical first book, The Pilgrimage in Daniel Augusto’s Paulo Coelho’s Best Story (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The sage-like modern day Coelho has just had major surgery, but he is not one to sit around a hospital room idly recovering. Much to his indulgent wife’s surprise, he decides to attend the party celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his biggest hit, The Alchemist. Normally, Coelho does not go in for these crass publicity events, so it is a lead pipe cinch that mysterious signs will lead him on a spiritual detour.

Meanwhile, fifty years ago, Coelho is a suicidal kid growing up during the days of the military regime. He desperately wants to be a writer, but his establishment father keeps asking unsupportive questions, like how are you going to makes a living that way. Ten years and a few shock therapy sessions later, Coelho is hedonistic hippy, building a reputation as counter-cultural polemicist. Eventually, the military government picks him up, alarmed by the openly Satanic Aleister Crowley-inspired lyrics he penned for Raul Seixas, thereby causing suspicions the entire film is a bizarre scheme to build sympathy for the old junta.

Eventually, scruffy Coelho has a spiritual awakening, finds his master in Spain, and joins the crypto-Catholic secret society RAM (Rigor, Amor, Misericordia) by completing a pilgrimage on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Forty some years later, with fresh surgical scars, Coelho realizes he must retrace his steps to prove some kind of point.

Honestly, the whole concept of Best Story does not make much sense. It is constantly acknowledging The Alchemist is the book his fans really love, but it insists on giving them The Pilgrimage instead. The constant flashing forward and backward creates an unsightly rest’s nest of a narrative. Arguably, the cast is fine, but their dialogue is laughable and if you can keep track of Coelho’s girlfriends you are doing better than he is. Frankly, the three Coelhos hardly seem like the same person. The mopey teen victim, debauched pseudo-intellectual, and nauseatingly pompous New Age icon really have absolutely nothing in common, except they are all completely insufferable.

Carolina Kotscho’s platitudinous screenplay frequently calls back Coelho’s oft-repeated quote: “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” That might look nice taped to the fridge, but there are a lot of people in desperate want out there hoping the universe will start conspiring a little harder. Nevertheless, if this is your cup of tea, you’re not likely to heed the warnings of a materialist, so enjoy as best you can. Not at all recommended for grounded viewers, Paulo Coelho’s Best Story opens today (7/31) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sound + Vision ’15: The Sound of Redemption

What was someone as young and talented as jazz musician Grace Kelly doing in San Quentin? She was playing in a unique tribute concert for Frank Morgan, her late, great mentor. Morgan himself was always the first to admit he spent far too much time incarcerated there, due to drugs and flawed decision-making. However, Morgan finally left prison for good in 1985 just in time for a mini-renaissance of interest in the old school bop tradition. N.C. Heiken’s chronicles his tumultuous life and beautiful music in The Sound of Redemption: the Frank Morgan Story (trailer here), which screens this Sunday as part of Sound + Vision 2015.

In a way, music was in Morgan’s blood. He was the son of Ink Spots member Stanley Morgan, but that was a decidedly mixed blessing. Frank Morgan heard Charlie Parker at a young age and was profoundly influenced by his music. Unfortunately, he also developed a Bird-like heroin habit. Like most junkies, Morgan resorted to crime to pay for his habit, but he was especially industrious and/or reckless.

There was indeed a time when people considered the sixteen piece San Quentin Warden’s Band the best big band in California without any intended irony. For years, it was his only gig. Despite all his promise, Morgan was nearly unknown beyond the circle of musicians who played with him when he was literally just a kid, or had had their own stint in the San Quentin Band.

Man, the 1980s were a good decade, especially for real deal jazz greats like Morgan. However, Morgan’s third act not one of absolutely unalloyed triumphalism. In fact, Heikin nicely tempers the inspirational with the darker backsliding realities of life. Things were as they were, but the music remains.

At the heart of the film is the rather remarkable concert featuring Morgan’s friends and colleagues, performing the standards he was most associated with. Even though we do not hear the man himself in these sequences, they have the right spirit nonetheless. They are also very shrewdly edited. In one memorable scene, we clearly see one resident audience member nodding along knowingly as trombonist and master-of-ceremonies Delfeayo Marsalis explains just how much Morgan lost as a result of his habit.

Heikin is also wise enough to show Kelly’s absolutely devastating performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in its uninterrupted entirety. Frankly, seeing her in front of that rough-looking crowd will alarm a lot of us jazz fans who remember her as the twelve year-old prodigy who exploded onto the scene (with Morgan’s encouragement), but she is in her early twenties now. Regardless, her rendition is exquisitely fitting. Morgan was inspired by Bird, but he had a tender way with ballads that was more like an alto version of Dexter Gordon (a former Central Avenue comrade).

By following up the chilling yet strangely elegant North Korean expose Kimjongilia with her sensitive and swinging portrait of Morgan, Heikin might just become our new favorite filmmaker. Her instincts are sharp and reliable, while her aesthetic sensibilities are unerringly sophisticated. Executive produced by hipper-than-you-knew mystery novelist Michael Connelly, Sound of Redemption does right by its subject, as well as his fellow musicians (especially including Kelly, Marsalis, pianist George Cables, legendary bassist Ron Carter, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and alto player Mark Gross, who all gigged on the central prison concert, sounding fantastic). A bittersweet treat, Sound of Redemption is very highly recommended when it screens this Sunday (8/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Sound + Vision.

Northmen: Vikings in Scotland

Whatever place you name, chances are the Vikings made it there. They were quite the navigators, but not the renegade band led by the young warrior Asbjörn. Their ship has foundered on the rocks along the Scottish shore. Fortunately, they can still fight like berserkers, because they will have to in Claudio Fäh’s Northmen: a Viking Saga (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Asbjörn’s father was one of the final holdouts, who sacked and pillaged the old fashioned way, unlike the current crop of sell-out Vikings. After his death, Asbjörn has struggled to hold the last remnant together. Getting shipwrecked in Alba (a.k.a. Scotland) will not help his cause. The locals’ initial reception was quite hostile, but it provided them an opportunity to take a nobleman’s daughter hostage. Her ransom should be enough to buy their way into the Norse settlements towards the south. However, it turns out that was no lady, it is Princess Inghean, the Scottish king’s daughter.

Naturally, the king mobilizes his entire forces, but his sleazy mercenary commanders will lead the hunt and they have an incentive to prevent her arranged marriage—permanently. To stay alive long enough to make it to the Danish territories, Asbjörn will forge unlikely alliances with Inghean and Brother Conall, a Christian monk who can handle a staff in a manner that would make Friar Tuck proud.

Whenever Asbjörn’s men are fighting, the film is on pretty solid ground. Fortunately, that is pretty much always the case. Occasionally they stop to lick their wounds, but there is absolutely no hanky-panky going on. The upright Asbjörn sees to that.

While the South African landscape doubles for Scotland throughout Northmen, cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore’s big sweeping vistas make it look like Tolkienesque New Zealand. Technically, there are no fantasy elements in the film (notwithstanding their increasingly incredible exploits), but it certainly looks like a land beyond contemporary reason.

This is not exactly the sort of film that will generate a lot of acceptance speeches on the part of its cast. Nevertheless, Ryan Kwanten does some of his best work outside of the True Blood series as Conall. He kicks butt rather nicely, while brooding over his dark past. The film just clicks together better when he is on-screen. In contrast, Tom Hopper’s Asbjörn is a rather bland hero, coming across like Chris Hemsworth’s even more wooden brother. Although hardly the next Angela Mao, Charlie Murphy handles her action scenes well enough and shows a bit of fire as Inghean. Fortunately, a classically trained cat like Darrell D’Silva understands how to chew the scenery as the crusty old veteran Viking plunderer, Gunnar.

When it sticks when it sticks to hack-and-slash action, Northmen is a lot of fun. Indeed, it rarely gets more ambitious than that, but it is a wise film that recognizes its limitations and adjusts accordingly. Considerably more entertaining than the Norse-themed monster movie Ragnarok, Northmen: a Viking Saga is recommended for action fans when it opens tomorrow (7/31) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fantasia ’15: Boy 7

Sure, the idea of delinquent youths becoming guinea pigs in mind control experiments is hardly unprecedented, but there is something decidedly unsettling about it when done with a German accent—if you know what I mean. Instead of juvenile hall, Sam is sentenced a well-funded private school and research facility. He probably had a hard time fitting in, considering he groggily awakens in a subway tunnel with a nasty case of amnesia during the opening moments of Özgür Yildirim’s Boy 7 (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

His name is Sam, not that he knows that. However, he quickly figures out the cops want him for murder. Retracing his step from the clues in his pocket, Sam discovers a notebook stashed in a diner men’s room. It seems to be a journal he kept in the apparently likely event of his complete memory loss.

For some unfortunate bit of hacking, Sam was to serve a term at the institute, where the gray military uniforms really give off bad vibes. He will be the new Number 7, because the old Number 7 died from a stroke. It was unfortunate, but these sorts of things seem to happen there. His hard-partying roommate Louis (#6) knows something is wrong about the place, but he tries to live in denial. Lara (#8) is more openly rebellious, but the punky girl initially has no interest in Sam’s attempts to form an alliance, or anything else for that matter. Nevertheless, they grow closer as things get weirder around them. In fact, it is Lara that comes to the clean-slated Sam’s rescue.

Yildirim’s Boy 7 was adapted from the Dutch YA novel by Marco van Geffen and Philip Delmaar, as was the Dutch film version that released a mere six months earlier. German efficiency is certainly impressive, but in this case Yildirim marries it up with an ultra-slick Twyker-esque style. Although it is doomed to be compared to the Divergent and Maze Runner franchises, Boy 7 is much more closely akin Baran bo Odar’s Who Am I—No System is Safe, for reasons beyond language.

Lead actor David Kross is best known for his work in The Reader, but in this case, try not to hold it against him. He has clearly grown in his craft. While he is still a convincing nebbish outsider, he also conveys some grit and a bit of a dark side as Sam. As Lara, Emilia Schüle has a weird, hard to define screen presence, but it sort of works in context. Unfortunately, the villains are not nearly as distinctive as they ought to be.

Nevertheless, Yildirim keeps it all hurtling along at full throttle, while cinematographer Matthias Bolliger gives it an eerie nocturnal noir glow. It is a quality production that far surpasses the low expectations its young adult credentials would suggest. Recommended for paranoid youths, the German Boy 7 screens today (7/29), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’15: Big Match

Looking for a film that will give you sympathetic bruises and body aches? Sure, we all are, so here it is. Poor Choi Iko will go from one massive beatdown to another. Technically, that is his job as the top MMA contender, but he never signed up for this so-called “game.” Gameplay definitely leaves a mark in Choi Ho’s Big Match (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Choi was briefly a promising soccer prospect, but after one notorious game and a pile of red cards, he found his true calling in the MMA ring. His older brother Young-ho is his coach, manager, and the closest thing to a voice of reason in his life. Therefore, when the shadowy Ace kidnaps Young-ho and frames the brothers for murder, Choi will reluctantly play his game.

For the wagering amusement of Ace’s select clientele, Choi will have to navigate the successive levels of the very real life game, starting with his escape from police custody. Things quickly escalate when he is forced to attack an underground mob casino single-handedly. Choi is undeniably a cement-head, but he is determined to take the fight to Ace, as soon as he saves his brother. He might also find an unlikely ally in Soo-kyung, his reluctant in-game minder.

If you thought the day would never come when K-pop superstar BoA would go to work on a pack of gangsters with a set of brass knuckles, then brace yourself for some good news. Granted, she never really taps into the inner recesses of her soul as Soo-kyung, “the woman of mystery,” but she is kind of awesome in her action scenes. Likewise, Lee Jung-jae plays Choi with all kinds of fierce guts. He almost looks to lean to be a top-ranked MMA fighter, but he turns out to be pretty credible dishing it out and taking it.

The pedestrianly titled Big Match might sound like a workaday recycling of elements from films like 13 Sins and Man of Tai Chi, but the sheer spectacle and intensity of the fight sequences are something else entirely. There are a few stunts that just border on the ludicrous, but they always result in conspicuous scarring, which sort of keeps it real. To put things in perspective, Choi is tased on multiple occasions, but each time he just takes a beat to center his chi and then gets back at ‘em.

This is the sort of film that converts the stiff and staid into fanboys. Usually, kidnapping plots are not a lot of fun, but in this case, all the mayhem and promised payback more than compensate. For action fans, Big Match is the real deal, raw egg-swilling goods. Highly recommended, it screens tonight (7/29), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

6 Ways to Die: Vinnie Jones Explains Them All

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder knew there were eight million ways to die, but Vinnie Jones only gets six. At least he will make full use of each of them. He will not merely kill his nemesis, Sonny “Sundown” Garcia, he will target the drug lord’s reputation, money, loved ones, sentimental attachments, and his very liberty. However, narrative logic will be the first casualty of Nadeem Soumah’s 6 Ways to Die (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

“John Doe” has it in for Garcia. He has his reasons, but he is very Picard about it all, never setting foot from his old school Oldsmobuick. Somehow, he gets some of the Los Angeles underworld’s most talented to come to him. He needs their skills to torment Garcia and his valuable inside knowledge will make it worth their while. It would seem that they will succeed spectacularly, since it is all told in a bizarre flashback structure. Oh sure, there is a big reveal that changes everything, but it makes absolutely no sense.

Still, 6 Ways offers an opportunity to watch a veritable B–movie all-star team at work. For the starting line-up we have Jones, Bai Ling, Dominique Swain, Vivica A. Fox, and Tom Sizemore. Most of them have real roles to play, but Sizemore appears in a completely tangential prologue. It looks like Soumah had only one day of shooting with him, so he just improvised something on the fly. In reserve, 6 Ways also features Chris Jai Alex and Kinga Philipps, who maybe aren’t so familiar, but have volumes of imdb credits already.

There are times you have to ask just what does this movie think its doing, but not in a resentful way. You sort of have to give it credit for being a grubby striver. It is determined to impress us by riding its bike with no hands, no matter how many times it wipes out on the pavement.

With no action scenes whatsoever, Jones is completely wasted as the mystery man and his role in the big twist defies the evidence of our senses. However, Alex shows real B-movie star power as Frank Casper, the hitman. Bai Ling also adds some serious cool as high class con artist June Lee. Unfortunately, Michael Rene Walton is way too reserved and colorless for a ruthless heavy like Garcia. Fortunately, chewing the scenery is not a problem for Fox, who vamps it up something fierce as the corrupt cop, Veronica Smith.

Soumah has seen way too much Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez for his own good. The resulting product is overly clever and then some. That said, if you enjoy watching B-movie veterans doing B-movie things, 6 Ways will be a satisfying guilty pleasure when it streams on Netflix (which should be imminently). In the short term, it opens this Friday (7/31) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal

Ostensibly, they both came to debate, but they had very different agendas. William F. Buckley, Jr. was there to present a cogent world view, while Gore Vidal came to engage in character assassination. Nearly as many sparks flew on the makeshift ABC News set as on the streets of Chicago when the conservative and leftist commentators occasionally discussed the 1968 party conventions. Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon chronicle the blow-by-blow in Best of Enemies (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The media loves to remind us Buckley lost his cool with Vidal, calling him a “queer” and offering him a punch in the face. They usually neglect to mention Vidal was goading him, calling him a “crypto-nazi,” as if Buckley would have anything to do with National Socialism. To their credit, Neville & Gordon give viewers the full context, including the fact that Vidal agreed to his ten debates with Buckley with the explicit intention of getting personal, in the nastiest, most destructive way possible. It is also rather eye-opening to hear how Vidal pre-tested his “ad libs” with a sympathetic press corps.

Logically, a good deal of Enemies is devoted to the verbal blood sport of their convention debates. However, there is a fair degree of media analysis, arguing Buckley v. Vidal was the watershed moment that unleashed a tidal wave of full throated punditry. Perhaps, but what is most striking is how cut-rate the ABC News operation was in 1968, a time when the networks did not have a heck of a lot of competition. The ABC convention operation was so cheap, their prefab convention soundstage literally collapsed, forcing them to use a makeshift replacement many considered an improvement.

In addition to generous archival clips of the combatants, Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow also read from the assorted writings of Buckley and Vidal, respectively, with all the appropriate feeling and attitude they demand. Neville, Gordon, and their editor Aaron Wickenden keep it snappy and never get bogged down with talking head analysis. Most importantly, they do not play favorites in the way they present the controversies.

Sadly, Buckley passed away in 2008, but it is nice to hear him again, even under what were frustrating circumstances for him. Evidently, the filmmakers were able to interview Vidal before his death, but according to the directors’ notes in the media kit, he was so bitter and off-putting they declined to use the footage. That says plenty. Recommended as a time capsule of late 1960s politics loaded with sarcasm, Best of Enemies opens this Friday (7/31) in New York, at the IFC Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.

AAIFF ’15: La Salada

For a Peronista, Carlos Menem’s economic policies were far better than anyone expected. Thanks to his reasonably free market reform program, the La Salada free-for-all shopping district became quite a dynamo of industriousness. Decried by the U.S.T.R. for its plentiful and inexpensive knock-off’s, the expansive market is still a recently arrived migrant worker’s best bet for employment. It is there that immigrants from Korea, Taiwan, and Bolivia cross paths as they go about their business in Juán Martín Hsu’s La Salada (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

La Salada works just fine for old Kim and his daughter Yun-jin. After ten years in Argentina, he leases one stall in the marketplace and will soon buy a second outright. Her arranged marriage to the son of his business associate is fast-approaching, but she is ambivalent enough to half-entertain the flirtations of Luciano, an Argentinean La Salada manager-in-training.

In contrast, La Salada is not such a good time for Huang, a painfully shy Taiwanese man selling DVDs that look suspiciously boot-ish. He does decent business, but despite his best efforts, he cannot make a simple human connection. He carries a torch for Angeles, the single mother police officer who collects the monthly pay-offs (welcome to the Kirchners’ Argentina), but it is not reciprocal.

Bruno and his uncle face a highly uncertain future in La Salada when they first arrive. They left the stagnation of the Morales regime, only to find their contact has disappeared. Nonetheless, they both find work in a Korean restaurant. Bruno is not much of a waiter, but he eventually finds more suitable employment with Kim.

To his credit, Hsu really cuts to the heart of the immigrant experience in La Salada. We get a sense Kim would be successful almost anywhere and Huang would adequately scrape by under nearly any conditions. Family is important for all three, but in some cases, it is rather messy and debilitating. However, the film has precious little arc. It just sort of ends at a convenient point.

Chang Sun Kim’s performance as Kim is remarkable nuanced and completely grounded. He makes it clear Kim has more going on inside than he cares to acknowledge. Although she does not have history’s most empowering role, Yunseon Kim exhibits a strong screen presence that well serves Yun-jin’s issues of generational disconnect. Ignacio Huang revels in pathos as his namesake, but Limbert Ticona’s Sean Astin thing is hit-or-miss for Bruno.

Although we intellectually understand there has been considerable Asian immigration to Latin America—that’s what made Fujimori possible—it often seems strange to see it in films like Vincete Amorim’s Dirty Hearts. Hsu drains away any remaining exoticism and casts the immigrant experience in terms that most Americans can easily understand. It is all quite earnest and well-intentioned, but it would be nice if the cast had more to sink their teeth into. As films go, La Salada is very slice-of-lifey. Modest but hard-working (just like its characters), La Salada screens this Thursday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Chicago French Film Festival ’15: SK1

In two recent film versions of high profile French criminal investigations, justice is eventually served, but at a terrible cost of human life. In both cases, the guilty parties were apprehended, but the French police and legal system still take an embarrassing PR hit. Political correctness and anti-Jewish biases caused the police to tragically misjudge the kidnapping of Ilan Halimi dramatized in 24 Days, whereas turf consciousness and bureaucracy needlessly slowed down the hunt “Serial Killer 1 (SK1),” France’s first serial killer of the DNA era. Catching him is the hardest part, but trying him also presents challenges in Frédéric Tellier’s SK1 (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Chicago French Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre.

Charlie Magne thinks he has made it when he is transferred to the anti-crime task force at the storied 36 Quai des Orfèvres, but he immediately inherits a brutal rape-and-murder case that has haunted his teammates. He immediately proves his mettle by discovering a possible link to a similar cold case in Lyon, but all the subsequent lines of inquiry fizzle out. Frustratingly, a sex murderer with a not dissimilar M.O. starts stalking Paris a few years later, but they happened during the watch of the glory-hungry, turf-conscious rival team leader, who effectively freezes Magne’s squad out of the picture.

Much to Magne’s frustration, the parallels continue to mount, until the sheer volume of murders forces the commissioner to mobilize the entire 36th Precinct. In between the killings and bureaucratic skirmishes, SK1 flashes forward from the early 1990s to 2001, when Guy Georges, the alleged “Beast of the Bastille” faces numerous murder charges. Ordinarily, the split narrative would rather kill the suspense, but Tellier and editor Mickael Dumontier cut to and fro at places that strategically raise doubts and suspicions.

The result is a pretty tight and realistic procedural that will have you pulling your hair out in frustration over the kind of intelligence firewalls and rigid day-to-day regulations that hampered the capture of their suspect. This is particularly true with regards to DNA sample testing, because there were nearly no laws telling the CYA-ers how to handle it before the SK1 Affair.

Sort of like an epic Parisian Law & Order episode, SK1 gives scant attention to the private lives of its characters, aside from a bit of fretting from Magne’s wife. It is just as well. Tellier and screenwriter David Oelhoffen (director of the loose Camus adaptation, Far from Men) recreate the decade spanning investigation with tick-tock precision. It is the sort of film that resists showcasing anyone, but the often underwhelming Raphaël Personnaz does career-best work as Magne. Oliver Gourmet also adds some rumpled world-weary flavor as his early mentor, Bougon, while Adama Niane is suitably fierce as the sociopathic Georges.

The sort of legalistic roadblocks that hindered Magne’s efforts may be peculiarly French, but they are not exclusively so. Regardless, they give the film a distinctive edge. Tense and gritty, SK1 is recommended for fans of true crime and policers, when it screens Friday (7/31) and Saturday (8/1), as part of this year’s Chicago French Film Festival.

I Am Chris Farley: Everyone’s Favorite Motivational Speaker

For reasons of girth, Chris Farley was often compared to his hero John Belushi when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. Perhaps for the same reason, we too readily accepted his tragic early demise. As iconic as Belushi might be, Farley had a good-hearted Chaplinesque appeal that none of his contemporaries can match. Viewers get a sense of how genuine his aw-shucks persona really was in Brent Hodge & Derik Murray’s documentary, I Am Chris Farley (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Farley grew up in a loud, loving family in Wisconsin, with a garrulous father much like Brian Dennehy’s character in Tommy Boy (a much more autobiographical film than causal fans may have realized). For a while, Farley was a reasonably successful salesman for his dad’s company, but a chance encounter with semi-professional theater changed the trajectory of his life. His stints in regional theater led to a residency with Chicago’s famous Second City Theatre improvisational comedy troupe, which at the time was practically the farm team for Saturday Night Live (a sketch comedy show that once aired on NBC after the Saturday night local news—and who knows, maybe it still does, but nobody has seen it since 2004).

Logically, Hodge, Murray, and screenwriter Steve Burgess devote the lion’s share of the film to his SNL period (1990-1995). That is what people will be most interested in—and sadly, Farley would tragically die soon after in late 1997. Arguably, Matt Foley, the motivational speaker with unfortunate living arrangements, represents the last truly classic SNL skit. As written, the humor of the situation is quite funny, but Farley’s efforts to break-up his buddy David Spade and guest host Christina Applegate made it legendary. Yet, the best part of the story comes when IACF identifies who the real Matt Foley is, because it reveals so much about Farley.

Indeed, Hodge & Murray paint a comprehensive portrait of Farley as a devout Catholic and a devoted friend and brother. Fortunately, they secured the Farley family’s participation, because his brothers’ reminiscences really help fill out the picture of someone so easy to caricature. They also scored sit-down on-cameras with many of Farley’s famous friends and colleagues, including Spade, Adam Sandler, Jon Lovitz, Jay Mohr, Bo Derek (who still looks fantastic), and Dan Aykroyd.

IACF hits theaters shortly after the release of Bao Nguyen’s SNL doc Saturday Night, but it is by far the superior film. One could say the Farley profile is one hundred times better than the shallow, smugly self-congratulatory, slavishly PC bore that quickly exited theaters, but that would still unfairly imply it is a bad film. In fact, IACF is quite a good film, because it is so surprisingly endearing. Basically, it gets right everything that Saturday Night gets wrong. Ultimately, IACF will increase viewers’ appreciation for Farley as an individual and the value of his work. Recommended for fans of Farley and Second City, I Am Chris Farley opens this Friday (7/31) in New York at the AMC Empire, in advance of its August 10th premiere on Spike TV.

AAIFF ’15: Jasmine

You have never seen the streets and business plazas of Hong Kong so empty. Fortunately, thanks to cell phones, loitering does not look nearly as suspicious as it used to. Despite his awkwardness, Leonard To will indeed be able to closely shadow the man he believes might be responsible for his wife’s murder in Dax Phelan’s English language HK production, Jasmine (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

To is very definitely not over his wife’s death yet, but the Hong Kong police have apparently moved on. As a result of his debilitating grief, he lost his job and his waterfront apartment. However, just when he starts looking to restart his career, he observes a mysterious figure placing flowers on his wife’s grave. When he subsequently follows the strange man to the site of his wife’s murder, he assumes this must be the guilt-ridden killer.

Having plenty of time on his hands, To manages to find a way to snoop through his suspect’s luxury flat. He also starts tailing the unnamed man’s girlfriend, Anna, a model struggling to jumpstart her acting career. Only Grace, an understanding family friend, still finds time to see him, but even she is alarmed by his increasingly erratic behavior.

Jasmine is definitely what you would call a slow-burner. It is also a “big twist” kind of film, springing a third act revelation that will radically alter the audience’s perception of everything that preceded it. You can never re-watch Jasmine with the same mindset, but it would be interesting to revisit each scene in a different light.

Jason Tobin is pretty darned extraordinary as To, personifying twitchy, clammy pathos. He keeps us deeply unsettled, while closely guarding the film’s secrets. It is almost a one-man show, but Sarah Lian and Eugenia Yuan (daughter of the great Cheng Pei-pei and former U.S. Olympian) add considerable human depth and emotional heft to the film as Anna and Grace, respectively. Byron Mann has little to do except obliviously lead To through Hong Kong, but he has the perfect presence for the role, honed by a number prior villainous big screen turns. Grace Huang (star of producer Jennifer Thym’s dynamite short film Bloodtraffick) also briefly appears as Jasmine To, but you might miss it if you blink at an inopportune moment.

Jasmine is a dark, tightly disciplined thriller, occupying the space where film noir and existential angst overlap. Phelan pulls off some impressive misdirection, while cinematographer Guy Livneh gives the proceedings an eerily cool sheen. Recommended for fans of psychological suspense, Jasmine screens this Thursday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Fantasia ’15: Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen

It its prime, the yakuza life may have had its benefits, but they did not include a pension, 401K, or long-term disability. As a result, those who manage to live into their golden years become an embarrassing burden to their families. Out of boredom and contempt for the new brand of organized crime, a notorious retired yakuza decides to get the old gang back together in Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Ryuzo still has his massive yakuza tattoos and he is not shy about showing them off, much to his salaryman son’s chagrin. One day, Ryuzo nearly falls for a confidence scam, but the arrival of his old crony Masa limits the damage. Evidently, this is one of the many predatory operations run by Keihin Industries, the ostensibly legit financial outfit that took over territory once run by Ryuzo’s now defunct clan.

Assembling his surviving associates (in some cases just barely), Ryuzo forms a new inter-clan “league” to teach the Keihin creeps how crime should be done. They even have the wink-and-a-nod blessing of crusty Det. Murakami, who was just a kid in their day, but is one of the few remaining coppers who still remember the old yakuza. Of course, Ryuzo and his gang (including Mokichi the dreaded “Toilet Assassin”) are over-matched and out of shape, but they do not have much to lose.

Henchmen is about as cute as Kitano gets. There is usually a pronounced element of black humor in his gangster films, particularly the Outrage duology, but now he brings the comedy front-and-center. Of course, when the gags involve finger chopping and commode killings, it helps to have an appreciation for the yakuza tradition.

As Ryuchi, the quietly simmering Tatsuya Fuji looks like he could explode at any time. The former Stray Cat Rock star still has plenty of fierce in him, making him a perfectly suited to anchor the film. However, it is amazing how much pop the film gets from Kitano’s brief appearances as Murakami. Happily, the power of his deceptively placid presence remains undiminished. It just would be nicer to have more of it in Henchmen.

There is a tendency in the film towards goofiness, but the game supporting cast (starting with Masaomi Kondo as the loyal but slightly psychotic Masa) strives more for a nostalgic Tough Guys tone than a shticky Grumpy Old Men kind of thing. It mostly works. Overall, Henchmen is an enjoyable exercise in senior empowerment and old school payback, while also suggesting it is high time someone mounted a comprehensive Kitano career retrospective. It is a lot of fun, but not as much fun as another resurrection of Kitano’s Otomo for an Outrage 3 would be. Recommended for yakuza fans, Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen screens tonight (7/27), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

AAIFF ’15: A Young Patriot

Zhao Changtong can relate the events of student protests in 1919, blow for blow, but he has no idea what happened during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. He is the perfect product of China’s educational system. The teenager is so wound up with nationalist fervor, he frequently parades through the streets of Pingyao chanting Maoist anthems, but his indoctrination will be profoundly tested by life after graduation. Du Haibin follows Zhao for five eventful years, charting his painful maturation in A Young Patriot (trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Hailing from a working class urban family, Zhao is the sort of student who is a prime target for the state’s unceasing propaganda campaign. When we first meet him through Du’s lens, he gives the Communist government credit for so conscientiously providing for him and his classmates. However, Du and editor Mary Stephens quickly cut to his parents, who explain all the economic sacrifices they made to pay for his school fees over the years. Reality is not what he thinks it is, as he learns when he is finally admitted to university and forced to take out considerable student loans in his own name.

While Zhao tries to maintain his patriotic zeal by volunteering for the campus propaganda association (they really do use the term “propaganda”), he cannot help noticing how greater opportunities are afforded to his better connected classmates. However, nothing will bring home the realities of China’s extreme social stratification like service as a volunteer teacher in the grindingly poor Sichuan mountainside. For a mere fifteen days, Zhao and his colleagues will provide Dialiangshan’s children the only education they will get until another such fifteen day excursion can be mounted.

Clearly, the Sichuan trip essentially completes Zhao’s intellectual and emotional divorce from the Communist worldview. To his credit, he also develops heretofore unseen empathy, maintaining a connection to the village after their brief term of service. Alas, contemporary China has one more curve ball to throw him, when the corrupt local authorities nationalize both the new house his parents are constructing and the longtime home of his grandparents for their latest dodgy development scheme.

In its way, Patriot is an epic film, but Du and Stephens (who deserves major award consideration) pare it down to a tightly compelling, keenly telling narrative. Clocking in under two hours, it is far more manageable than Hoop Dreams—and its stakes are far greater. Frankly, few documentaries force the audience to so fundamental revise their attitudes towards it subject. When we first meet the rather obnoxious young man, we instinctively tip him for someone due for a rude awakening, but we eventually feel for him quite deeply as he and his family face Job-like misfortunes.

Du has an extraordinarily shrewd eye for relevant little details, such as damning snippets of the historically inaccurate indoctrination that passes for instruction at Zhao’s university. Yet, that carefully constructed misinformation campaign turns to dust when Zhao and his fellow students looking into the neglected eyes of their Sichuan students. Shrewdly, Du also uses the concurrent rise and fall of “Red Revival” Party leader Bo Xilai to echo and punctuate Zhao’s bitter loss of faith.

This is a hugely important film on a macro level, but it is completely gripping on a micro level. Without question, it is Du’s best work to date, eclipsing the admirably brave and immersive 1428. Very highly recommended for anyone seeking an intimate understanding of China’s “Post-1990’s Generation,” A Young Patriot screens this afternoon (7/26) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

AAIFF ’15: A Girl at My Door

Lee Young-nam is a high functioning alcoholic. That alone would not derail her police career. After all, most big city forces have plenty of the low functioning variety. However, a scandal in her personal life had to be swept under the rug. As part of her rehabilitation, she must serve as a coastal fishing village’s station chief for one year. The last thing she needs is trouble, but when she gets personally involved with an abused school girl, conflict becomes inevitable in July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Lee is painfully reserved and socially awkward. The way she secretly stashes gin or vodka in water bottles does not look particularly healthy either. As soon as she sees the scrawny, conspicuously bruised Do-hee, she recognizes a fellow underdog. Lee proactively intervenes when Do-hee is bullied by classmates, but it is harder to protect her from her “guardians,” her resentful stepfather Park Yong-ha and his cruel, half-senile mother.

Park the wheeler-dealer is considered one of the few viable employers in the economically depressed township, so moving against him would be a tricky proposition, even for a copper with a spotless record. Nevertheless, after interrupting an especially vioent beating and seeing the marks left by subsequent assaults, Lee reluctantly shelters the emotionally broken girl in her own home. Obviously, this will be a problematic arrangement.

Even though Do-Hee quickly bonds with Lee, both carry extensive baggage that will complicate and hinder their relationship. The loathsome Park is also constantly turning up the pressure on Lee. Many times, she decides to wash her hands of Do-hee and Park, until a fresh outrage revives her indignation. Unfortunately, when a face from her scandalous past briefly visits, it gives him plenty of ammunition.

Door is light-years removed from a simplistic celebrations of innocent victims triumphing over adversity. In this story, there is darkness in everyone’s heart. It is also unusually nerve-wracking for a message-driven family abuse drama. Frankly, it is the sort of film that would make Oprah what’s-her-name’s head explode, which is a perfectly good reason to support its screenings.

It is also an enormously compelling film. Produced by art-house stalwart Lee Chang-dong, Door is just as much a gritty thriller as it is a work of social criticism. It is quite notable how many hot button issues Jung addresses, including child abuse, alcoholism, homosexuality, crony corruption, the exploitation of illegal migrant workers, and the shortcomings of the Korean justice system. Yet, each potentially controversial plot point flows seamlessly from the central narrative, rather than feeling tacked on for the sake of statement-making.

Wachowski regular Bae Doo-na takes her craft to a whole new level, basically ripping our souls out in the process with her quietly harrowing depiction of Lee. Watching her face, you can plainly see how much it hurts to be that repressed and alienated. Likewise, young Kim Sae-ron (who is amassing quite a resume, including the Lee Chang-dong produced A Brand New Life and the breakout action hit, The Man from Nowhere) viscerally conveys the physical and psychological trauma of abuse.

In an impressive debut, Jung takes the audience on a dark, twisty ride, while never watering down the narrative’s implications or taking any easy outs. It is tough stuff, but it latches onto viewers like a vice. Very highly recommended, A Girl at My Door screens tomorrow (7/26) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Fantasia ’15: The Ninja War of Torakage

Ever found yourself wondering if you might enjoy a film more if a Portuguese ninja scholar was available to explain the cultural significance of the action on-screen? Well, a kitchen sink filmmaker like Yoshihiro Nishimura understands exactly where you’re coming from. By his lunatic standards, this foray into ninja skullduggery is pretty grounded, whereas for the rest of us mere mortals, it is total madness. Ninja clans will clash while Francisco the talking head elucidates the finer points in Nishimura’s The Ninja War of Torakage (trailer here), which screens today during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Torakage and his wife Tsukikage were ninjas serving their ruthless mistress, Gensai, but they fell in love and quit to raise a family. Of course, you do not resign from Gensai’s service so easily—not that they considered the torture they endured so very easy. She had temporarily allowed them a false sense of security, but that is over now that she needs them again. Kidnapping their young son Kogetsu, she demands they steal a certain Silver Scroll from the despised Rikuri clan. Once they deliver it to her, she will marry it up with the Golden Scroll that just came into her possession, to determine the location of an ancient treasure.

Inconveniently, Torakage and Tsukikage find themselves out of the frying pan and into the fire when they are captured by the human-sacrificing Rikuri clan. Somehow, the competing clan fell under the sway of a charismatic cult leader, who offers Torakage a similar deal. If he steals the Golden Scroll from Gensai, he can exchange it for Tsukikage.

That all might not sound so far removed from the Jidaigeki mainstream, but Nishimura tosses in a bamboo Iron Man-like battle suit, dizzying “human shuriken” action, drug addiction, a mercenary angel with a death’s head, Francisco’s color commentary, a bunch of conversations about going poo, and Eihi Shiina from Takashi Miike’s Audition doing her thing. However, even amid all the lunacy, Torakage’s chief rival still scrupulously observes his code of honor.

Together with Tokyo Tribe and Nowhere Girl, Nana Seino scores a heck of a one-two-three punch in a trio of films beyond category. Each one is an overpowering ecosystem unto itself, but she never wilts in any of the three. Once again, she also shows some convincing action chops. As Torakage and his nemesis, Takumi Saitô and Kanji Tsuda also flash plenty of moves and manage to maintain a stiff-as-a-board sense of dignity while navigating the all-encompassing bedlam. Of course, Eihi Shiina is creepy well past the point of comfort as the sadistic Gensai.

Overly sensitive viewers should be warned—Ninja War is a fantastically bloody, unabashedly subversive, and mildly scatological film. In short, it has everything growing kids need for their healthy development. Recommended for those who enjoy boldly over-the-top cult cinema, The Ninja War of Torakage screens tonight (7/24), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Big Significant Things: Road Angst

Craig Harrison is looking for enlightenment on the Stuckey’s circuit, hoping to hash out his man-child hang-ups one pecan roll at a time. No, it is not likely to work. His retreat from reality might even make matters worse. Harrison finds himself a long way down Holiday Road in Bryan Reisberg’s Big Significant Things (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In about a week, give or take, Harrison will marry his longstanding girlfriend. She is currently house-hunting on their behalf in San Francisco, whereas he is taking a driving tour of the eccentric roadside attractions of the Gulf Coast, taking in wonders like the world’s biggest cedar bucket. What does she think of this division of labor? Actually, she believes Harrison is still on a fact-finding trip with his business colleagues, but she is still not thrilled with the arrangement.

So what’s wrong with Craig Harrison (not the British sniper or the New Zealander speculative novelist)? Aside from his galloping immaturity, it is hard to say. It is probably safe to assume he is feeling pressure from all the wedding business and the cold hard financial realities of house hunting, but the film never really gets at what his deal is.

Frankly, a little bit of him moping in motel rooms goes a long way. However, BST gets a much needed energy boost from Finnish actress Krista Kosonen, playing Ella, an unlikely Finnish expat. She exudes an unconventional sultriness and sings a distinctive, haltingly hushed singer-songwriter tune at an open mic night. The way she captures Ella’s insecurities in this scene is quite sensitively rendered and surprisingly compelling.

Indeed, there are several exquisitely crafted moments, but most of the film feels like slow, dry connective tissue. As Harrison, Harry Lloyd does his best to charm his way past the character’s inherent self-indulgent jerkiness, but it is a laborious task. However, Kosonen exhibits tons of breakout potential with her quiet but intense work as Ella. Sylvia Grace Crim also helps liven up the overly dour proceedings as Ella’s hard-partying crony.

No matter how you parse it, spending a lot of time with Craig Harrison in a car is not a joyous proposition. Still, the Route 66-ish nostalgia of his road trip is sort of appealing. It is neither big nor significant, but at least BST is a thing. It features some promising performances, but the film itself is hardly essential. It opens today (7/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.