Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Final Master: Trying to Keep Wing Chun Down

In martial arts, masters and apprentices should keep faith with each other, but they absolutely, positively must always stay true to their discipline. For a Wing Chun master from the south, this means he must assure the great school of martial arts lives on after him, but Tianjin’s martial arts syndicate intends to freeze him out. Vested interests will face the elegant smack-downs delivered by the master and his disciple in Xu Haofeng’s The Final Master (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There are nineteen fully approved Kung Fu schools in Tianjin. If Chen Shi wants to open the twentieth, as per his late master’s dying wish, he must best eight of the establishment masters. Of course, that would be a piece of cake for Master Chen, but it is not as simple as that. Were he to show up the syndicate like that, he would be summarily banished from town. Fortunately, semi-retired Grandmaster Zheng Shanao has some sage advice. Groom an expendable disciple to fight his battles and get banished in his place. Geng Liangechen should be perfect for the job, because the street laborer has natural talent and an instinctive resentment of authority.

Everything seems to be going according to plan when Geng starts mowing down rival schools. However, Master Chen rather inconveniently finds himself caring about his fall guy disciple. Strangely enough, he is also developing real feelings for Zhao Guo Hui, a waitress with a checkered past, whom Master Chen married for her legit roots in Tianjin. Unfortunately, this also implies unforeseen weaknesses when the Tianjin masters start fighting dirty—and nobody fights dirtier than Madame Zou, the calculating chair of the syndicate.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, you might be remembering Xu’s earlier film, The Sword Identity, in which parochial martial arts authorities try to suppress an innovative sword designed by the nameless hero’s deceased master. In this case, the martial arts syndicate is acting in an even more cravenly protectionist, guild-like manner. However, we all should know Wing Chun will endure, thanks to the illustrious master Ip Man and his famous student, you-know-who, who blended it into his Jeet Kune Do concept.

Regardless, Liao Fan and Song Yang (from Sword Identity) are all kinds of fierce in their fight scenes as Master Chen and Geng, respectively. Although she forgoes any fighting, Jiang Wenli is still spectacularly villainous as Madame Zou. Her cold-blooded manner gives us the impression she really enjoys all the Machiavellian machinations. Song Jia’s Zhao develops some terrific hot-and-cold chemistry with Liao’s Master Chen, while Maidina adds even more poignancy as Geng’s potential love interest, the bookseller.

It is strange how muddled Xu’s narrative is, considering how assiduously he has been working and re-working these themes, having previously written the screenplay for Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster, as well as Sword Identity and the short story on which Final Master is based. Still, everything seems to make perfect sense whenever the characters are fighting, thanks to Xu’s gritty but undeniably cinematic action choreography.

Song has thus far only appeared in one film not helmed by Xu, but he seems primed to breakout big, while the surprising range displayed by Chinese television star (and Tianjin native) Jiang will most impress many fans. Thanks to them, the film is consistently entertaining, even when character motivations are somewhat obscure. Recommended for martial arts fans, The Final Master opens this Friday (6/3) in New York, at the AMC Empire and the Village East.

The Wailing: Na Hong-jin Gets Demonic

Let’s be frank, we all had a lot more confidence in the Catholic Church’s double-secret exorcism department under the old school Benedict than the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” Francis, but if you live in a tony Georgetown townhouse, the Church is still your best bet. However, in rural Korea, a cop with possessed daughter can opt for a shaman’s services instead. Unfortunately, the hotshot shaman is about to encounter an evil entity more powerful than any he previously vanquished. The battle between light and dark will be joined in Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ordinarily, Gokseoung is a peaceful beat for officer Jong-goo, but a rash of family members inexplicably killing family members has profoundly disturbed the small mountain community. Jong-goo’s constant nightmares also clearly seem to be a portent of something evil. Most of Gokseoung and some of his colleagues blame the apparent outbreak of insanity on the arrival of a mysterious Japanese drifter (and rumored sorcerer) living in a creepy cabin in the woods. Therefore, when his young daughter Hyo-jin starts exhibiting behavioral changes similar to Jong-goo’s recent suspects, he agrees to hire the hotshot shaman recommended to his mother-in-law.

Il-Gwang certainly has no lack of self-confidence, but the malevolent power radiating from the evil Japanese mystery man is of a much higher magnitude than he has ever faced. Despite the well-placed alarm of Yang Yi-sam, the deacon cousin of Jong-goo’s police mate, the local Catholic Church remains skeptical on the sidelines. However, the mysterious Moo-myeung, a literal woman in white, very much in the tradition of Wilkie Collins and Japanese yūrei, becomes the wild card in the uncanny struggle.

Na established an international reputation for gritty, pedal-to-the-metal action in The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. Six years later, he proves he can do eerie atmosphere and mounting dread as good or better than anyone. On the other hand, consistent narrative logic is clearly not a priority. There is a huge twist that just make no sense whatsoever, considering what came before. You will know it when you see it. You can roll with it and retcon the revelation in your head as best you can or obsess over it and miss out on the soul-searing angst that comes with it (and wouldn’t it be a shame to miss out on fun like that?).

Regardless, anyone who has seen a fair sampling of Korean films knows Na is in business when they see Hwang Jung-min swagger on screen as Il-Gwang. Hwang has played his share of nice guys in films like The Himalayas, but this is the shark-like Hwang that electrifies The Wailing, just like he did in New World and The Veteran. It is a deliciously multifaceted performance, in ways that only become clear down the stretch.

Kwak Do-won, who has done some excellent big screen villainy in A Company Man and Tazza: the Hidden Card, effectively plays against type as the schlubby, out of his depth Jong-goo. Chun Woo-hee keeps us intrigued and off-balance as Moo-myeung, while young Kim Hwan-hee is terrific as the young possessed girl. However, nobody gets the better of Japanese character actor Jun Kunimura, who gives the film a feral, pagan edge that defies comparison.

Most horror films reflect the dark corners of the collective cultural psyche that produced them, but The Wailing is in a class by itself. It is so riddled with contradictory attitudes towards Shamanism, animism, and Catholicism, as well as old school anti-Japanese prejudices, the film practically represents national primal scream therapy. Fans already knew Na was a talented filmmaker, but they will still be surprised how deeply he gets under their skin. Highly recommended with all its inconsistent hobgoblins, The Wailing opens this Friday (6/3) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Witness: Media Malpractice at Its Most Painful

When it comes to armchair sociology, the significance of the Catherine “Kitty” Genovese case ranks alongside the Stanley Milgram experiments. However, much of what we know of the brutal 1964 murder might have been exaggerated to such an extent, it became materially misleading. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, before Jayson Blair and the exposure of Walter Duranty’s knowingly falsified reports from Soviet Russia, the New York Times was actually considered a reputable paper—and its power and influence were undeniable. With contemporary journalism and scholarship starting to question the notorious story of thirty-eight witnesses who callously stood by without intervening, Genovese’s youngest brother William set out to determine the truth, with James Solomon documenting the process in The Witness (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In retrospect, those thirty-eight witnesses ought to sound like a suspiciously precise number. It turns out the police conducted thirty-eight “witness” interviews, but that hardly means all thirty-eight indifferently watched Winston Moseley murder Kitty Genovese from their windows. As William Genovese tracks down surviving residents from his sister’s apartment complex, their statements start to contradict the official NYT story. Evidently, some residents actually called 9-11 and shouted down trying to stop Moseley. Yet, there will be even more consequential revelations casting doubt on the Times.

In a way, the exposure of the Times’ embellishment is good news, making a tragic incident somewhat less horrific, but it is important to remember the implications of their dubious journalism. The Times’ narrative has caused immeasurable pain for the Genovese family and indelibly tarred the reputation of the working class Kew Gardens, Queens neighborhood with shame. His resulting compulsion to accept responsibility also led William Genovese to volunteer for service in Vietnam, where he lost his legs during an ambush.

Perhaps most problematically, Kitty Genovese had been reduced to a misunderstood soundbite, like Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Fortunately, Solomon and Genovese devote as much time to reclaiming her individuality and humanity as they do to correcting the false narratives surrounding her. In fact, she sounds like the sort of person who was just great fun to be around, which deepens and broadens the poignancy of her story.

Frustratingly, there are not a lot of opportunities left for the culpable to accept some responsibility. For instance, it appears former editor A.M. Rosenthal may very well have been beyond the point such mea culpas might be possible in an uncomfortably awkward interview recorded before his death in 2006 (it is Catch-22 footage that really has to be in the film, even though it feels almost exploitative).

More infuriating is the self-serving, passive aggressive letter Moseley sent Genovese, declining his interview request, while claiming his sister was actually killed by a mafia hitman. Clearly, Moseley remained an evil, cowardly monster to his dying day, but unfortunately his son, Rev. Stephen Moseley absorbed some of his father’s ridiculous mafia fantasies, even asking William Genovese if he was part of the Genovese Crime Family.

Rarely, has “true crime” ever been as emotionally devastating as it is in The Witness. Absolute truth remains elusive, but Genovese and Solomon meticulously build a case that will convince viewers of good conscience the murder of his sister was nothing like what it was reported to be. Now that a more accurate narrative is taking shape, how will the media respond? Even the Times seemed to acknowledge the deficiencies of the original 1964 story and immediate follow-ups in its obituary for Moseley, but does that fulfill their obligation to the truth? Can the paper ignore a stinging J’accuse and a heartfelt eulogy like The Witness as it gains traction in the public consciousness? Probably, but anyone who appreciates documentaries and legit investigative journalism should absolutely not miss it when the very highly recommended film opens this Friday (6/3) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

China Now: The River of Life

Many traditional customs and practices have fallen out of favor or even been actively discouraged in contemporary China, but it seems to artist and filmmaker Yang Pingdao like all the really annoying ones still apply in full force. After his father’s tragically premature demise, many family responsibilities were inherited by Yang as the oldest son. As a result, he witnessed his grandmother’s final days from an uncomfortably close vantage point. Her death and the birth of his daughter are the two poles that define Yang’s The River of Life (trailer here), which screens as the opening film of the China Now: Independent Visions film series, presented at Vancouver’s Cinematheque in conjunction with Cinema on the Edge.

In accordance with tradition, Yang and his uncles shuttled his grandmother back to her grandfather’s house in her hometown as the inevitable approached. It was a painful trip Yang wishes he could undo. Unfortunately, pain and regret are part of his family’s reality. For the last thirteen years, she has mourned and tormented herself over his father’s early death. Their timing has also been terrible. Due to another grandparent’s passing, Yang was not able to marry his wife, Wang Wenjing before the birth of their daughter, lest they offend the spirits.

Stylistically, River seems to be three parts fly-on-the-wall documentary and one part performance art. Yang captures some dramatic family history in the making, including death, divorce, weddings, geriatric health issues, and grandparents who have had it up-to-here with their grandkids’ generally brattiness. Yet, there are also absurdist intervals, including Wang’s constant accusations he is carrying on an affair with an old class mate. From what we can see, these seem completely unfounded, but Yang is the one directing, shooting, and editing this affair.

Even if the husband-and-wife sequences are knowingly improvised (as we so hope), Yang’s family portrait is still quite compelling, both for their uniquely neurotic specifics and the macro challenges they face in today’s unsentimental go-go China. At one point, Yang and Wang explicitly compare the archetypal bogeyman child-snatcher from her nightmare to the government stooges who used to enforce the One Child policy with perverse zeal. It’s a strong image, but also perhaps something of a metaphor for the menace lurking below the nation’s modern façade.

Despite their very human failings, viewers will wish for the best for Yang’s family, especially his infant toddler and young nieces and nephews. They deserve real opportunities, even the bratty one. It is therefore somewhat concerning that Yang’s planned appearance has been canceled “due to unforeseen circumstances.” In all honesty, River is a largely unpolitical, intensely personal film, but you never know how the Party will take a straight dose of unvarnished realism. Regardless, The River of Life is recommended rather enthusiastically when it screens this Thursday (6/2), the opening night of China Now at the Cinemtheque in Vancouver.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

BHFFNYC ’16: Tigers

In Ukraine, opponents of forced Russification organized a boycott of Nestlé when it was reported the Swiss company black-balled a Ukrainian-speaking presenter from a cooking show its Nesquik brand sponsored. Syed Aamir Raza, a former Nestlé salesman in Pakistan would recommend they start with the baby formula. Oscar winning Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanović tells his whistleblower story Tigers (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Arguably, Tigers is a bit of a ringer for the Bosnian-Herzegovinian festival, but Tanović (an Oscar winner for No Man’s Land in 2001) is arguably the most prominent director in Bosnia-Herzegovina and perhaps even the entire region of Southeast Europe. He has always been a supporter of the New York festival, which is quite cool. Any festival that has a chance to program his latest film should take advantage of the opportunity. In any event, it screened last night, so here we are.

Ayan is the thinly fictionalized analog of Raza. After scuffling as a rep for a Pakistani generic drug company, Ayan thinks he has finally made it when he talks his way into a job with Nestlé. Make that Lasta. In a twist of the meta framing device, the filmmakers developing a movie treatment of Ayan’s life quickly decide they had better use a fictional company name if they want to get the project green-lighted.

Of course, Ayan proceeds to sell the heck out of Lasta’s baby formula. However, when Dr. Faiz, one of his first Lasta conquests, returns from a course of advanced study in Karachi, he brings first-hand experience linking Lasta formula with fatal diarrhea and dehydration. To be scrupulously honest, the formula is technically safe in and of itself. However, it is a different story when the formula is mixed with impure water, which is highly likely to happen in infrastructure-challenged provincial Pakistan. Needless to say, Ayan’s supervisors are not exactly proactive when it comes to explaining the risk. Yet, much to Dr. Faiz’s surprise, Ayan decides to act on his information, seeking allies in the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European media.

Tigers has all the grit of Tanović’s previous films, but it has the flavor of South Asian/Indian Parallel cinema, holding the distinction of being Bollywood idol Emran Hashmi’s first non-Bollywood role. He is indeed quite intense and un-movie star-like as Ayan. His character is certainly a whistle-blower, but he is not a saint, which leads to some very realistic complications.

Former model Geetanjali Thapa continues to specialize in issue-oriented indie dramas (like I.D. and the even more depressing Liar’s Dice) as his ever faithful and inspiring wife Zainab. Frankly, it is rather strange to find Danny Huston not playing a villain, but he supplies periodic energy boosts as Alex, the prospective producer. It is similarly mind-blowing to see former “Bond Girl” Maryam d’Abo (the cellist in The Living Daylights) playing a sanctimonious NGO bureaucrat, but she is indeed appropriately scoldy as Maggi from WHO.

Perhaps it is not so surprising Tanović, a Bosnian Muslim, apparently collaborated so easily with the largely Indian cast and crew, notably including director Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur, Bombay Velvet) in a producing role. It is still a bit of an outlier for BHFFNYC, but the concern for ethical dilemmas falls squarely in Tanović’s wheelhouse. Recommended for the auteur’s admirers and patrons of Indian parallel cinema, Tigers is sure to have more festival life ahead of it, following its screening at this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Friday, May 27, 2016

MLFF ’16: Helmut Berger, Actor

It is sort like Luchino Visconti’s version of Grey Gardens, especially because it stars his “muse,” Helmut Berger. Dear, oh dear, has the Oscar nominee for The Damned seen better days. You may think you have seen revealing documentaries, but you are still not prepared for the train wreck that is Andreas Horvath’s Helmut Berger, Actor (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.

At his prime, Berger was a ferocious “bad boy” of international art cinema, known for films like The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Ludwig, and The Romantic English Woman. By 2013, he was appearing on the German edition of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. He made a quick exit for health reasons, but it was still a good payday, according to Viola Techt, his long-suffering housemaid and general caretaker, who sadly passed away after Horvath’s chaotic filming sessions.

Frankly, Berger’s flat is even more of a disaster area than the Beales’ raccoon-infested mansion. The squalor would be disturbing enough, but Berger’s behavior takes it to a whole new level of voyeuristic wackness. Throughout the film, Horvath incorporates samples from the voluminous voice messages the actor left for him, which range from delusional and grandiose to downright hostile.

It is hard to understand why Berger let loose these verbal torrents or why Horvath include them, until they make an incredibly awkward trip to the actor’s old stomping ground, St. Tropez (just how that was paid for is never adequately explained). However, we hear Berger repeatedly proposition Horvath in no uncertain terms. Likewise, it is crystal clear how unwelcome Berger’ advances were. That leads to more tantrums from the actor, but Horvath got his revenge in the editing bay. If Berger can still get any work after HB, Actor, it will most likely be of a freak show variety.

Okay, normally the term “trigger warning” makes us cringe, but viewers should be forewarned, Horvath shows Berger self-satisfying himself, right down to the concluding secretions. It is disgusting and pathetic and disturbing. This is a film that somewhat took John Waters aback—but he could still roll with it.

Separate and apart from the doc’s already notorious sequences, HB, Actor is a bizarre, unsettling spectacle of a not so cold war fought between the subject and director. The most comparably fraught documentary would have to be Kung Fu Elliot (as it is now known), but the bargain basement action star is no match for Beger’s dissipation and self-absorbed bubble -perspective. Yet, like Weiner, it is perversely compelling to watch him keep digging at rock-bottom. Recommended for documentary patrons with a tabloid taste for the extreme, Helmut Berger, Actor will generate visceral responses when it screens this Sunday (5/29) as part of this year’s Mammoth Lakes Film Festival (along with the first-rate Last Summer, boasting a heart-breaking performance from the luminous Rinko Kikuchi).

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Sanford ’16: They Will All Die in Space (short)

Working on a Generation Starship is nothing like being a Pullman Car porter. It is about as dead end as you can get. By its nature, it implies expendability. While the future of humanity slumbers in suspended animation, someone has to keep the maintenance up, but it probably won’t be mankind’s best and brightest. Facing a crisis, the Tantalus’s two-man skeleton crew choses to revive a technical specialist to manage the repairs. At least that’s their story, but it is not necessarily the truth, as Alex Talabot soon suspects in Javier Chillon’s Spanish-produced, English language short film They Will All Die in Space (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sanford International Film Festival.

Apparently, the Tantalus has been damaged by a freak interstellar collision and is now drifting helplessly in space. Atenas and Eberhart wake Talabot, hoping he can repair the navigation and power systems. Such work would be even better suited to his wife’s skill set, but Talabot heeds their cautions against awakening her—and he will be glad he did.

As he proceeds to mend the damaged ship to the best of his abilities, Talabot discovers an alarming number of weirdly kit-bashed quick fixes to the system. They are not the sort of cheap patches he would expect in a ship meant to last for generations. He also grows increasingly alarmed by the suspicious behavior of Atenas and Eberhart.

TWADIS is very impressive on a technical level, combining production designer Idoia Esteban’s gritty, lived-in, Millennium Falcon-esque sets and trappings with Luis Fuentes’ super-stylish black-and-white cinematography. However, as a narrative, it feels more like a condensed episode of a greater narrative than a discrete and self-contained arc. Still, if it is a proof-of-concept short, it should be jolly darned persuasive.

Julio Perillán is also quite convincing as the angst-ridden Talabot. Francesc Garrido and Ben Temple look very much like dodgy astronaut thugs, as well. The suggested implications for human nature are rather pessimistic, but it is still cool to see such a well put-together independent genre short. Highly recommended for science fiction and thriller fans, They Will All Die in Space screens this Saturday (5/28) in Springvale, Maine, as part of this year’s Sanford International Film Festival.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

BHFFNYC ’16: Our Everyday Life

There are things you never get accustomed to. Sasha Susic is a Balkan War veteran still struggling with relatively mild PTSD. He has witnessed death, but he is still not prepared when potentially fatal illness strikes within his nuclear family. His father is even less so. However, everyone is used to carrying on in the face of whatever chance and circumstance throws their way in Ines Tanović’s Our Everyday Life (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Apparently, Susic got a close look at the dark side of humanity, but a marriage to a foreign journalist saved him and his mates from the worst of it. He now lives with his sixty-something parents in Sarajevo, mostly just brooding around the flat. His father Muhamed makes no secret of his contempt for Sasha’s lack of ambition or his frustration with the Bohemian lifestyle of his very pregnant sister, Senada, who is currently living abroad with her Slovenian lover. Their mother Marija tries to play peacemaker, but a not-so cold war still rages between father and son. Nevertheless, they will come together when they have to, because they are not tacky people.

You could think of OEL as something very much like a Bosnian Ozu film, which is very high praise indeed. Some might say very little happens in it, but frankly we see all the stuff of life therein. It is also rather fascinating to watch how Tanović’s screenplay addresses the Balkan War and its ramifications. At most, they are secondary issues, albeit important ones. Frankly, it is not so very different than the treatment you might find of 9/11 in major American films that cannot pretend it didn’t happen, but are circumspect in their references. The War is still a bit more prominent in Tanović’s mix, but it is put on equal footing with economic challenges and generational conflicts.

Emir Hadzihafizbegovic and Uliks Fehmiu are terrific as the mildly semi-estranged father and son. Whether it is a scene of spiteful bickering or tender rapprochement, there is not a false moment shared between them. Vedrana Seksan is massively charismatic in her brief but pivotal scenes as Senada, while Jasna Ornela Beri is all very well and good as Marija, but her sainted mother material feels predictably familiar.

Frankly, it was not crazy strategy on the part of Bosnia and Herzegovina choosing OEL as the nation’s official foreign language Oscar submission. It is a very fine film that will impress viewers who take the time to engage with it. However, it is so understated it was unable to cut through the pomp and noise of awards season. It is nice to be able to catch up with it now. Highly recommended for those who appreciate smart, realistic drama, Our Everyday Life screens this Friday (5/27) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s BHNYC.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

BHFFNYC ’16: One Day in Sarajevo

At least in one respect, life in Sarajevo has changed for the better since the 100th anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 2014. After three years in mothballs, the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina has re-opened, in part thanks to a donation from the U.S. Embassy. The Archduke came to Sarajevo to preside over an opening ceremony at the museum, but as you might have heard, he never made it. Jasmila Žbanić samples the wide spectrum of Bosnian opinion on Franz Ferdinand and the trigger-man Gavrilo Princip, while documenting the commemorative festivities through crowd-sourced footage in the docu-essay One Day in Sarajevo, which screens during the eagerly anticipated 2016 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

To some Sarajevans, Princip was a righteous anti-Imperialist resistance fighter, while others are understandably put off by his Greater Serbian ideology. The latter often recognize the Archduke’s sadly unrealized policies for decentralizing and liberalizing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Frankly, it is hard to understand the affection for Princip, given how his attack directly led to WWI, which in turn sowed the seeds of WWII, which subsequently led into the Cold War, and eventually the Balkan War, but maybe you have to give him some credit for punching above his weight class.

Naturally, there are a number of festivities underway that Žbanić frames to maximize the irony. However, she also captures the “you can’t go home again” emotions of a Canadian émigré’s return visit with his preteen daughters. Perhaps the most poignant moments are the nearly empty museum, where unpaid staffers still show up for work daily to keep up basic maintenance and prevent theft. Although Žbanić’s cameras document it as its loneliest and shabbiest, the museum is still a lovely building with great potential (so it is nice to know it is now serving its proper function).

In between the crowd scenes, cab rides, and general life happening, Žbanić inter-splices scenes from various cinematic portrayals of Franz Ferdinand’s fateful motorcade. Spoiler alert: it always ends badly for the Archduke. Sometimes One Day in Sarajevo feels like Žbanić is just hitting the random button, but there are enough interesting moments to make it worthwhile, especially when seen with a knowing audience, like Bosnian-Herzegovinian Festival’s patrons. Recommended for those in the mood for some provocative sight-seeing, One Day in Sarajevo screens this Thursday (5/26) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s BHNYC. (The brutally powerful No One’s Son is even more forcefully recommended when it also screens earlier in the evening.)

Dusk: A Dark Night of the Soul Keeps Getting Darker

John Whitmore might just lose his wife and his sanity in the same terrible night. Anne Whitmore has been abducted by a kidnapper who somehow knows exactly how much cash is in their safe and always stays one step ahead. To further complicate matters, Whitmore starts experiencing sinister hallucinations and temporary blackouts. It is like Along Came a Spider occasionally punctuated by outbursts of Mulholland Drive, which is a highly uncomfortable place for Whitmore. The distraught husband will have a miserable night, but at least you could say he has a hard-stop at midnight in Michael Maney’s Dusk (trailer here), now available on DVD from Monarch Home Entertainment.

After a rather alarming nightmare, Whitmore wakes up to find Anne missing and a cassette tape telling him to bring the exact amount of cash in his safe to his cabin way-the-heck-and-gone in the woods by midnight precisely. At least the shadowy mastermind arranged a ride for him. David is gruff and erratic, but he knows nothing of the abduction. He is also inexplicably devoted to the kidnapper, so Whitmore is advised not to provoke him.

David is definitely what you might call terse, but he does not object when Whitmore calls on his best friend Sam Rigsby to watch his back. However, while riding in the back of David’s crummy old camper, Whitmore starts to suspect his pal might be in on it from the fragments of memory and macabre visions that keep up-ending his consciousness.

Dusk’s ultimate twist is not exactly unprecedented, but it is rather surprising to find it jumping out at us in such a darkly ominous film. Yet, Maney pulls it off, employing misdirection worthy of a master magician. It seems to hold together after the big shoe drops, tempting viewers to re-watch everything in light of the game-changing reveal (which they can easily do, now that the film is on DVD).

As Whitmore, John McGlothlin is convincingly desperate and clueless. If anything, he seems more in the dark than the audience when it comes to the murky business afoot, which is maybe slightly problematic. However, Ford D’Aprix slow burns with charismatic surliness. He is definitely the film’s wild card, in a good way. Todd Litzinger is also weirdly effective as good old Rigsby. In contrast, Juliana Harkavy does not have a lot of fun stuff to do as Anne Whitmore, but nobody ever said playing a kidnapping victim was a bed of roses.

For a horror film, the human element is unusually pronounced in Dusk. Frankly, genre labels are rather slippery when applied to Maney’s film, but it is certainly packaged like horror and often feels that way too. It is very dark, but it is not nihilistic—and that definitely sets it apart from the field. Recommended for horror/psycho-thriller/Lynchian mind-trip fans, Dusk releases today on DVD and iTunes.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Ones Below: David Morrissey Moves In

Don’t call it post-partum depression. Frankly, Kate Griezmann has always been moody and she long had her doubts regarding parenthood (as has her husband, Justin). Her motherly instincts might have developed late, but they kick in with full force when she suspects their rather odd neighbors represent danger for her newborn son in British theater director-screenwriter David Farr’s feature directorial debut, The Ones Below (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Griezmann is very pregnant during the first act, as is her new neighbor in the duplex flat below. The Nordic Theresa is over-joyed (and perhaps somewhat relieved) by her pregnancy, whereas Griezmann is still maybe convincing herself she is okay with it. The two women form a bond through their shared experiences, even though Theresa’s blunt-spoken husband Jon makes little secret of his contempt for her attitude. Evidently they have been trying for years, which makes it especially painful when a freak accident leads to Theresa’s miscarriage.

As if matters were not awkward enough, Jon directly blames them for the accident. Frankly, there is more than enough blame to go around for Theresa’s tumble down the stairs, but that is not what the severe control freak wants to hear. Fortunately, their overwrought neighbors temporarily depart from London, allowing Kate and Justin space to adjust to parenthood and themselves time to grieve. Everything seems all better when they return. Jon is still Jon, but Theresa becomes a regular sitter Griezmann’s little gurgler. In fact, she might even have better rapport with the infant, whereas mothering just seems to take a lot out of Griezmann. Of course, there might be a nefarious reason for the physical exhaustion and mental haze enveloping her.

Ones Below is a slickly sinister film, but its biggest problem is the lack of narrative maneuvering room Farr leaves himself. As a result, we basically expect all the big twists after the first half hour. Still, there is something insidiously telling about the film’s social-generational conflicts, with early 30’s Griezmann’s ambivalent attitudes towards home and hearth contrasting with the yearning of the fifty-ish Jon.

As Jon, David Morrissey is one cool, menacing customer. However, Laura Birn (excellent in the Finnish Oscar submission Purge) is the film’s lynchpin and showstopper. As Theresa, she shows a multitude of dimensions, constantly keeping us off balance. Unfortunately, Clémence Poésy never adequately humanizes Griezmann before her wheels start coming off, while Stephen Moore Campbell is utterly inconsequential as her ineffectual hubby.

Although One Below is nowhere near as tricky as it thinks it is, the film will definitely inspire fresh waves of paranoia, especially among expectant urban parents. Basically, Farr will convince viewers they should worry about everything and everyone—and maybe that’s not so far wrong. Recommended on balance as an unsettling domestic thriller, The Ones Below opens this Friday (5/27) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

SIFF ’16: The Wounded Angel

As part of an austerity measure, electricity is promptly cut at 9:00 each evening. No, its not California today. This was Kazakhstan in the early 1990s, but the political leadership is roughly comparable. Of course, as far as four teens growing up on the hardscrabble steppe are concerned, the Nazarbayev regime might as well be on Mars. Yet, the country’s stifling lack of economic development will inevitably contribute to their grief in Emir Baigazin’s The Wounded Angel (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival.

There is a sort of logical fatalism to Baigazin’s thematically related stories. That which the lads most value will be taken from them, whereas those that have nothing will lose their last shreds of humanity, all before graduating from high school. Zharas is shamed by his lay-about ex-convict father, but he will make his own poor decisions as the family’s only bread winner. Chick has an angelic voice that could carry him out of the provincial backwater, until an untimely cold (perhaps with an assist from puberty) brings him crashing down to earth. The shockingly young looking Toad is already borderline sociopathic, but an encounter with a trio of shunned glue-sniffers will push the scrap metal salvager beyond redemption.

Perhaps most tragically, Aslan could very well have earned admittance to a pre-med program. Unfortunately, when his girlfriend gets pregnant he figures he can fix the problem himself, with predictably disastrous results. Indeed, environment is truly destiny for Baigazin, who will not allow talent or virtue to rescue his ill-fated boys.

Baigazin has an eye for imagery, especially the otherworldly Mad Max-ish landscape Toad navigates in search of scrap, but he gives viewers precious little relief. Time and again, we watch youthful innocence get crushed by their bleak circumstances. It is a powerful indictment of a callous regime, but it is a grueling viewing experience that gets repetitive over time.

Still, there are a number of effective bits, such as the dramatic contrast between Chick’s ecstatic performances of “Ave Maria” and the near silence of the rest of the picture. The glue-sniffers’ inadvertent recreation of Hugo Simberg’s titular touchstone fresco is also rather eerie. Still, after a while, we just so get where Baigazin is going.

Without question, the strongest segment is Toad’s misadventure. Despite our previous conditioning, it still manages to shock. Regrettably, the other three story arcs feel more like punishment. Admirers of Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons may want to sign up for another ride, but most of the rest of festival circuit patrons will find it a rough go. We can appreciate its aesthetic purity, but it is hard to recommend The Wounded Angel when it screens this Wednesday (5/25), May 31st, and June 8th, during this year’s SIFF.

Presenting Princess Shaw: from New Orleans to Israel, via the Internet

As one would expect from a Kibbutz resident, Ophir Kutiel (a.k.a. Kutiman) definitely considers music a collective endeavor. He is not such a believer in rights and clearances, but since he is sampling little-seen, self-posted youtube videos, most of the samplees are delighted to have the exposure and track-back links. Such was certainly the case for Samantha Montgomery (a.k.a. Princess Shaw) when Kutiman’s mashed together accompaniment for her a Capella song went viral. Former San Francisco Film Society Artist-in-Residence Ido Haar was there to document her sudden internet fame and her subsequent trip to Israel in Presenting Princess Shaw (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It started as a project on nearly anonymous artists using youtube as a public workshop and confessional, but Princess Shaw (her preferred professional billing) quickly took over. She has an earthy voice, but her idiosyncratic style is hard to package in a neatly defined soul or R&B boxes. Evidently, NBC’s The Voice didn’t get it, because they gave her the unceremonious brush-off (quick, name a previous winner without checking google). Shaw was scuffling harder than the average jazz trombonist when Haar started documenting her life. She was not making ends meet as an elder care nurse, but she kept plugging away at open mic nights to empty rooms. Unbeknownst to her (but as Haar very well knew), Kutiman was crafting his newest assemblage featuring Shaw as his diva.

When Kutiman drops it online, Shaw becomes an internet sensation. Unlike his other mash-ups, such as the infectious “Mother of All Funk Chords,” Kutiman composed music to best showcase her emotional delivery and revealing lyrics. The tone is not so different from late Billie Holiday, yet we can still hear Kutiel’s Israeli and Mediterranean influences. Soon, Shaw is traveling to Israel to properly record with Kutiman and his ensemble, even though her car is still up on blocks, thanks to the punks who stole her tires.

Presenting is a film McLuhan scholars and Warhol devotees will have a field day with, but it will outlive such in-the-now analysis because of the resonance of Shaw’s life experiences. A survivor of abuse, the nature of which is clearly implied but never explicitly detailed, Shaw tenaciously, almost quixotically pursues her dreams, despite her desperate circumstances.

It is also aesthetically pleasing to see the ease with which the scruffy Israeli hipsters and the resilient New Orleanian mix. You have to smile when one of Kutiman’s sidemen ducks out for a beer run as soon as she arrives at their Tel Aviv studio. Yes, it is nice to know musicians are the same around the world. In fact, an unlikely but significant personal friendship and professional relationship blossoms between Shaw the diva and Kutiman the mad genius at the control board.

Of course, this story is still developing. Shaw has not “made it” yet, but since Kutiman is producing her debut album, possible questions of exploitation really do not apply here. Shaw’s appearances on behalf of the film should confirm as much and why wouldn’t she want Presenting high on the public radar? Haar displays great sensitivity, even when chronicling her lowest ebbs, emphasizing her generosity of spirit during the lows and the highs. Recommended for fans of soul and experimental electronica, Presenting Princess Shaw opens this Friday (5/27) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

China Institute Film Course: Foliage

They were like the Sharks and the Jets of the Cultural Revolution (but without song). Two competing PLA work teams have been sent down to the Yunnan countryside. They come from different backgrounds, but both are very interested in Ye Xing-yu. When she falls for the rebellious leader of the rival team, it inevitably leads to heartbreak in Lü Yue’s Foliage, which is the subject of this week’s Chinese Film Short Course lecture at the China Institute in New York.

Ye never felt like she belonged in the Yunnan camp—and who could blame her for that? However, it is not such a bad fit for her childhood pal and de facto boyfriend Yuan Ding-guo, who generally prefers to lower his head and plug away. Ye desperately hopes for a discharge to care for her widower father after his stroke, but her status as an “intellectual” will make that difficult. At least she will not be late returning from a visit home, thanks to the intercession of Liu Si-mong.

Naturally, Liu is quite taken with Ye. After years of Yuan’s quiet bashfulness, she is also rather impressed with his forthright interest. Unfortunately, a pickpocketing incident in Red Post Town (masterminded by Liu) will irreparably poison relations between the two work groups. Ye will try to act as a peacemaker, but her platoon will not have it. Instead, they intend to use her as bait for Yuan, whether she cooperates or not.

Foliage gives viewers a different perspective on the Cultural Revolution, but it is still not what you would describe as positive. Ye’s platoon are frequently derided as the “intellectuals” and “class enemies” due to their education and families’ professional backgrounds. In contrast, Liu’s platoon are more rustic types. They might very well have volunteered just to have a job, whereas Yuan’s colleagues frequently profess to believe in their mission (which seems to entail senselessly despoiling the land, from what we see). It is the same old class warfare, but turned inside-out, standing on its head. Frankly, it makes you wonder which team Bernie Sanders would throw his lot in with, if he were there (but he would surely expect to be part of the Gang of Four).

Still, the extent to which everyone loses their heads over Ye at a time so fraught with irrational ideological violence somewhat stretches credibility, even if she is played by Shu Qi, who it must be admitted, absolutely lights up the screen. She effectively develops some radically different screen chemistry with her two competing leading men. You can feel her comfort with Fan Bing’s Yuan, like an old shoe, and the passion that percolates with Liu Ye’s Liu Si-mong. However, Qi Huan steals scene after scene as Ye’s cute but sadly tragic best friend Wei Hung.

Fortunately, the platoon factions are not productive enough at raping the environment to deny Lü his lovely natural backdrops. Best known as a cinematography, he has shot several Zhang Yimou films, Joan Chen’s Cultural Revolution drama, Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl, and Feng Xiaogang’s explicitly jingoistic Assembly and Back to 1942, so he has range and flexibility. He helms the love triangle with great sensitivity, conveying all the angst and yearning, without descending into melodrama. As a result, Foliage is a wonderfully sad and sweeping story of love sabotaged by the macro forces of history, highly recommended, if you can find it. Indeed, there should be no shortage of historical and political context to explore when Foliage is the lecture topic this Wednesday (5/25) at the China Institute.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

SIFF ’16: Island Funeral

Muslims make up less than five percent of Thailand’s population, but an Islamist insurgency still decided it deserved to run the (nearly 95% Buddhist) country. Laila was raised in the Islamic faith, but as a hip, well-educated Bangkokian, she is psychologically and geographically removed from the southern insurgency. A road trip to Pattani potentially holds cultural and political revelations for her, as well as the hint of supernatural mysteries afoot in Pimpaka Towira’s Island Funeral (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival.

Laila seems to be the only member of her family that remembers her Aunt Zainub and even that is a distant memory. Nevertheless, for some reason the young woman had an urge to reconnect with her distant kin, who seemed to be expecting her call. Although she is a modern independent woman, Laila’s father insists she travel with her brother Zugood (whose college buddy Toy tags along for reasons that soon escape him).

Frankly, the old man had reasonable cause for concern, given the rising insurgency activity and the national government’s corresponding military deployments. However, none of those big picture conflicts penetrate past Laila’s windshield. They have more pressing concerns. The trio is as lost in Thailand as Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang, but the atmosphere is definitely eerier, especially when Laila insists she saw a naked woman in chains run across the highway. Zugood and Toy try to convince her it was nothing, but everything means something in a film like this.

There are times in the first two acts we are keenly aware we are watching Laila drive around in circles. Yet, the third act is something radically different, marked by a strange vibe that suggests some sort of paranormal business is happening just outside our field of vision. Zainub’s ancestral home and island village are also quite a distinctive setting, like a tropical Shangri-La inhabited by elder Muslim women.

It is hard to formulate a clinical reaction to Funeral, because it is an immersive kind of film that insists viewers acclimate to its rhythms. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to just surrender and go with it, thanks to Heen Sasithorn charismatic performance as Laila. Without question, she is far brighter and much more proactive than her brother and his ambiguous roommate. In contrast to Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk and Yossawat’s almost intentionally meek performances as Zugood and Toy, Pattanapong Sriboonrueang is silently fierce and steely as Surin, the mysterious loner who guides Laila to her aunt. Kiatsuda Piromya also has a grand presence befitting Zainub. She makes quite an entrance, amply paying off all Towira’s build-up.

Funeral is a meditative film that doggedly maintains its ambiguities, yet we also get a sense of Towira playfully riffing on gender stereotypes of both East and West. The bits involving Laila constantly getting lost and Zugood compulsively asking for directions at rest stops could have almost been lifted from a Honeymooners episode, but the scenery sure is different. You can just feel the tropical humidity throughout the film. Again, Funeral is a tricky beast to render critical judgment on, because it will feel highly accessible and motivated to those who see a fair amount of slow cinema at festivals, but it will still frustrate viewers who don’t know “Joe” Weerasethakul from Joe Sarno. Recommended for admirers of the former, Island Funeral screens tomorrow (5/22) and Friday (5/27) as part of this year’s SIFF.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Phantom Detective: Korean Noir Cults and Vengeance-Seeking Gumshoes

You do not simply leave a cult like the GU Group, even if you are the modern day reboot of the Joseon Korea’s celebrated literary Robin Hood character. However, Hong Gil-dong’s mother sacrificed her life so that her young son could escape to freedom. Instead of wealth redistribution, the adult Hong is more concerned with stone cold revenge in screenwriter-director Jo Sung-hee’s Phantom Detective (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Ever since the night Hong fled the cult village his capacity to feel fear and empathy were short-circuited. Of course that is not such a bad thing for a sworn vengeance seeker. His steeliness also serves him well in his chosen profession. Technically, the glamorous President Hwang’s father chose him to work for the powerful family’s detective agency, but Hong immediately took to the work. Most cases he can close in an eerily short span of time. The only exception is his own. Finally, Hong beats a lead out of some unsavory elements as to the whereabouts of Kim Byung-duk, the man who killed his mother, but following it up will take him down quite a rabbit hole.

Oddly enough, Hong discovers GU Squirrel Busters have already abducted the apostate Kim before his arrival. Not to be denied his vengeance, Hong enlists young Dong-yi and Mal-soon under false pretenses to help find their guardian grandpa. His initial intentions are questionable, but he reluctantly broadens his focus after uncovering evidence the GU Group is planning mass murder.

Viewers should be duly warned: Dong-yi and Mal-soon will have to be aggressively cute to melt Hong’s frozen heart. They will definitely give the heartstrings a workout. As a short term consequence, Hong comes across as a thoroughly despicable jerkweed. At least they are surrounded by engaging and endearing villagers, like the former mob muscle turned likable lug innkeeper (not overplayed by the surprisingly effective Jung Sung-hwa).

Jo maintains the weird tone throughout the film, cranking up the paranoia while depicting Hong as almost supernaturally hardboiled. Frankly, the tone is not so very different from the 20th Century Boys franchise, which is a good thing. To that end, Byun Bong-sun’s film noir cinematography is just stylized enough to be unsettling but not enough to distract from the action at hand.

In his first film since completing his mandatory military service, Lee Je-hoon fully commits to Hong’s iceman persona, while Roh Jung-Eui and Kim Ha-na are duly heart-rending as Kim’s granddaughters. For extra, added fun, Go Ara entertainingly vamps it up in her too brief scenes as President Hwang. Yet, it is Kim Sung-kyun who really delivers the genre goods as Kang Sung-il, the ruthless son of the GU Group’s corrupt guru. He has played heavies before, but he takes it to the next level up in Phantom.

Even if you are expecting Jo’s big twist, you will be impressed by how far he is willing to take it. He is not playing any games in the third act, that’s for sure. There is also a good balance between payoff and tragedy that should satisfy both Korean and American audiences. Recommended for fans of dark, visually distinctive cultist thrillers, Phantom Detective opens today (5/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema ’16: Avalanche

Even though it is in the Middle East, Iran gets much colder than oblivious infidels realize. However, the cliché about traffic in Tehran is for real. Constant snow and bumper-to-bumper congestion will further exhaust a senior nurse working ten back-to-back night shifts in Morteza Farshbaf’s Avalanche (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.

Homa is ever so fortunate the chief surgeon Dr. Shams trusts her to care for his dying mother in his absence. That means she gets to work ten consecutive graveyard shifts. (Frankly, the shrewish terror cannot die soon enough, as far as the hospital staff is concerned.) Homa will earn good credit with her influential supervisor, but it will wear her out. Unfortunately, it comes at a personally inopportune time for the dutiful RN.

Ostensibly, things appear to be on an upswing. Her husband Ahmad is downright chipper, having started writing again after a decades-long hiatus. They also were able to sell the large quantity of olive oil they bought as a form of small stakes commodity speculation. However, she is worried about their expat son, particularly that he might be gay, which would mean he might never return home from Europe, at least until there’s some serious regime change.

Homa would be an Iranian woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, if her life were not so serious. Over time, Fatemah Motamed-Aria drops hints regarding just what exactly is eating Homa, all of which are completely believable. It is a big, multilayered role for Motamed-Aria, one of Iran’s most prominent screen thesps (she is so respected, she can be seen as an audience member in Kiarostami’s Shirin).

Homa’s wayward son, wayward boss, and an insufficiently wayward husband are issues all viewers can relate to, but the Tehran setting gives it an extra kick (although not to the extent seen in Risk of Acid Rain). Viewers familiar with Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain will understand taking in their son’s often barking dog carries its own risks, beyond the issue of the prodigal’s sexuality. In fact, the unceasing blizzard takes on almost Biblical dimensions, as if it were sent as a form of national punishment, like the Genesis flood.

Regardless, it is a meaty drama and a prime showcase for Motamed-Aria that Farshbaf instills with a lean, evocatively austere vibe. Recommended for those who will appreciate fine work from a mature cast, Avalanche screens this Sunday (5/22) at the Billy Wilder Theater, as part of UCLA’s annual Iranian film showcase.