Wednesday, August 31, 2016

PDXFF ’16: On the Farm

Victorian Londoners might have their faults, but they cared enough about their prostitutes to create a firestorm of alarm over the Ripper murders. Unfortunately, late 1990s/early millennial Vancouver was apathetic enough to allow Robert Pickton to murder forty-nine marginalized women before he was finally acknowledged and caught. Bizarrely, the historical record is even worse than the dramatized survivors’ stories in Rachel (Tank Girl) Talalay’s On the Farm (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Portland Film Festival.

Initially, only Constable Sindead McLeod, whose beat includes the Red Light district, recognizes the obvious signs of a serial killer at work. The prostitutes themselves try to take protective measures, but drug addiction and general desperation keep leading them into bad decisions, like getting into the pick-up truck of millionaire hog farmer Robert Pickton (known simply as “the Farmer” in OTF). He already had a bad reputation among the sex-workers, but he had a knack for finding street walkers jonesing for a hit.

Nikki Taylor is a First Nations prostitute based on a real life escapee from Pickton’s farm of horrors, but her timeline is radically different. In real life, Pickton was briefly tried for her attempted murder, but the prosecution was dropped for reasons of incompetence well before the grisly discoveries on his now infamous hog farm.

Pickton appears only briefly in OTF (but Ben Cotton’s wild eyes and tangled David Koresh hair are eerily spot-on). Instead, Talalay and screenwriter Dennis Foon (adapting Stevie Cameron’s expose) focus on Taylor’s harrowing ordeal and the career-threatening risks McLeod and a handful of RCMP task force colleagues willingly run to stop the killings.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is frighteningly convincing as Taylor, never whitewashing any of her infuriating junkie realities. She truly could be her own worst enemy. Probably the most recognizable cast member, Tantoo Cardinal delivers the film’s teaching moments with welcome understatement as Taylor’s mother. Patrick Gallagher (Attila the Hun in the Night at the Museum franchise) nicely anchors the film with hardnosed grit as RCMP Jeff Keeley. Sara Canning is competent enough as McLeod, but she lacks similar presence.

OTF had a special community premiere before it aired on Canadian television, but the CBC production’s small screen origins are always pretty evident. Viewers can see the spaces where the commercials would be plugged in. Still, Talalay steadily cranks up the tension and the outrage, reducing viewers to a near state of apoplexy. It is a safe bet Judge James Williams is not a fan, but it is undeniably effective as a procedural with a social conscience. Recommended for Law & Order and Da Vinci’s Inquest fans, On the Farm screens this Saturday (9/3) as part of this year’s Portland Film Festival.

Skiptrace: Harlin Directs Chan, Knoxville, and Fan

This film was made possible by the global economy. It was directed by a Finn famous for blowing things up and stars a Hong Konger beloved for giving up his body and a Tennessean who made a name for himself getting racked in the jewels on MTV. As an added bonus, it also features probably the world’s most popular actress in a supporting role. Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville bring the buddy movie action-comedy in Renny Harlin’s Skiptrace (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Connor Watts is a conman who has no problem with the “ugly American” label. Unfortunately, he scams the wrong hotel casino in Macau. The business manager happens to be Samantha, the goddaughter of Hong Kong’s most obsessive cop, Benny Chan. Chan will not rest until he brings Watts to justice, but the Yank has good reason to keep his distance. As fate would have it, he happened to witness a murder committed by shadowy businessman Victor Wong, whom Chan has long suspected of being the drug lord who murdered Samantha’s father, his former partner Yung.

Watts even has potential evidence locked in the cell phone the murdered woman lifted from the so-called “Matador.” Of course, the cop and the robber have diametrically opposed goals and motivations, but Watts will eventually get with the crime-stopping program after a few close shaves. He would also like to impress the lovely Samantha, assuming he can avoid a Russian mobster’s shotgun wedding plans.

The pairing of Chan and Knoxville might not inspire much confidence, but they play off each other quite well. There is no shortage of bickering and bantering in Skiptrace, but fortunately there is just as much fighting. You could say both co-leads are unusually experienced when it comes to physical comedy—and have the scars to prove it. That flexibility and high tolerance for pain serves them well in some vintage Jackie Chan fight scenes. One sequence in particular choreographed around an assembly line clearly evokes Chaplinesque echoes.

Chan finds a terrific sparring partner in WWE veteran Eve Torres, playing Dasha, the Russian enforcer, whom his character ironically resists fighting because she is a woman (right, good luck with that). Eventually, Torres also quite entertainingly takes on Zhang Lanxin cast as the Matador’s chief henchperson. The luminous Fan Bingbing manages to elevate the underwritten role of Samantha through her sheer start presence. She didn’t get to be the biggest name in the business by sheer accident. Serious HK action fans will also enjoy seeing Eric Tsang and Michael Wong appear as Chan’s late partner and his crooked police captain (of course, he is corrupt, he is played by Michael Wong—no spoiler alert necessary).

We have been down this road of beatdowns and gags with Jackie Chan before, but it all works pretty well this time around. Harlin shows wise restraint in some scenes, like the Mongolian Adele sing-along, just going for a fun vibe rather than yuckety-yuck laughs. Fun really is the apt word to describe Skiptrace. It never transcends genre (would we even want it to?), but it just clicks. Recommended for martial arts and Jackass fans, Skiptrace opens this Friday (9/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Kickboxer: Vengeance—Van Damme Reboots His Own Franchise

Evidently, underground cage fighting is the national sport of Thailand. That makes Tong Po, the reigning cage champion a national hero. Kurt Sloane cannot let it stand when the brutal wall of muscle kills his Olympic Champion brother Eric in the [illegal] ring, but the corrupt cops will never bring Tong Po to justice. Sloane will have to take it to him instead in John Stockwell’s Kickboxer: Vengeance (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If this set-up sounds familiar, you most likely remember the original fan-favorite Kickboxer from 1989. However, Jean-Claude Van Damme no longer plays the vengeance seeking Kurt Sloane. He is now Durand, the expat Muay Thai master, who trained Eric for his tragic bout. Admittedly, that should not inspire a heck of a lot of confidence, but the surviving Sloane sibling still turns to Durand as he prepares to take on Tong Po. Sloane also develops a romantic relationship with Liu, the only honest cop in Bangkok, who saves his bacon on a number of occasions.

Based on previous Kickboxer films, we would expect everything will eventually be settled in a climatic cage match. Stockwell runs true to form in that respect, but he still keeps things snappy. The big fight is a dozy, but there are also winking hat-tips for fans of the original to pick up on sprinkled throughout.

Fifty-five-year-old JCVD still looks massively cut, but he sort of acts his age this time around. In fact, Durand the snarky Zen master is a perfect fit for his quirky persona. Canadian stunt performer Alain Moussi has the appropriate physicality for Sloane, but his screen presence is somewhat pedestrian. In contrast, Dave Bautista has the presence of King Kong as Tong Po.

Among the who’s-who-of-MMA supporting cast, Georges St-Pierre scores the biggest laughs and flashes his chops in a few appealingly energetic fight scenes. Bafflingly, Gina Carano is completely wasted as Eric Sloane’s crooked fight promoter. However, the Thai-fluent Sara Malakul Lane continues to show tremendous poise and movie star potential as Liu. Yet, many martial arts fans will most remember the late Darren Shahlavi’s appearances as the ill-fated Eric Sloane. Probably best known as Twister in Ip Man 2, he had the skills and the intensity to be the next Scott Adkins, but sadly fate would not allow it.

It is not called Kickboxer: Vengeance for nothing. Even if you are unfamiliar with the previous films, the title really ought to tell you everything you need to know. Stockwell’s unfussy, adrenaline and testosterone-charged approach delivers some highly cinematic beatdowns. Highly recommended for martial arts fans (but somewhat less so for discerning cineastes), Kickboxer: Vengeance opens this Friday (9/2) in select theaters and on VOD platforms.

Mechanic: Resurrection—Jason Statham Won’t Stay Dead

Ever wondered about the cost of replacing dead henchmen? Presumably, some sort of settlement must be provided to the next of kin. Plus, it would be awkward interviewing replacements: “Can you tell me why my predecessor wanted to leave your shadowy organization?” “He didn’t want to. He was impaled with a harpoon and pulled through shark-infested waters.” “Well, that’s fine then.” There are many, many occasions for such speculation when Jason Statham cuts down minor accomplices like Judge Judy slicing through weak excuses in Dennis Gansel’s Mechanic: Resurrection (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

The ninety-three minutes of Mechanic 1 basically boil down to Arthur Bishop was a mob assassin, specializing in hits that look like natural causes, who faked his own death. He is now living the good incognito life in Rio, until he is tracked down by representatives of Riah Crain, an international arms dealer. Bishop knows Crain only too well, so he wants no part of the three hit jobs he is offered. Not to be deterred, Crain’s people force the innocent Gina Thorne to act as bait in the honey trap they intend to set for Bishop. Of course, he sees through their clumsy scheme, but he still falls for Thorne, so they just kidnap her back to force Bishop to do their bidding.

As we would expect, each target is ridiculously inaccessible, forcing Bishop to take extreme measures (as seen on the one-sheet). However, his third target, Max Adams the Bulgarian-based arms dealer to underdogs and lost causes might be a sleaze ball he can forge an alliance with.

So yeah, you basically know what you are getting here. It is more or less on par with most Jason Statham action movies (better than some, not as good as others). The only real disappointment is Michelle Yeoh does not have a fighting role. Instead, she just glides in periodically as Mae, Bishop’s old pal and the hostess with the mostess of his favorite Thai scuba resort.

Frankly, the real weak link here is Jessica Alba, who as Thorne, mostly just bites her lip and acts passive. In contrast, Thai star Yayaying Rhatha Phongam (recognizable from Only God Forgives) shines in her action scene as Crain’s courier (her role definitely should have been expanded). Sam Hazeldine is just okay as Crain, but Tommy Lee Jones absolutely devours the scenery as crafty old Adams.

It is hard to get why Resurrection was hidden away from critics. It would not have received rave reviews by any stretch, but it is pleasantly presentable. Gansel (who previously helmed The Wave and We Are the Night), keeps things moving along and soaks up the exotic backdrops as much as he can. Action fans should find it an enjoyable trifle, but they can safely wait for DVD or Netflix streaming. For now, it is screening nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Kieslowski’s Dekalog—All Ten, Digitally Restored

It predates Netflix binging, appointment television, and “TV too good for TV.” Arguably, the nearest precedent for Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part mini-series broadly inspired by the Ten Commandments would be Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic Berlin Alexanderplatz—auteur filmmaking applied to the television serial format—but the thematic and narrative similarities are few and far between. Using the residents of a grim Panelak-style Communist housing complex, Kieslwoski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz pose many thorny moral questions, but offer few answers in the digitally restored Dekalog (trailer here), which screens theatrically in two-hour, two-episode installments, starting this Friday in New York.

Do not try to apply one-to-one symmetry between the Commandments and the Dekalogs. Neither were written for the sake of such comparisons. You could argue the Commandments are all present in each Dekalog, but some are always more pronounced. Nobody understood better than Piesiewicz the damage Communism inflicted on the Polish soul, but neither free-thinking Krzysztof was really interested in making political statements by the late 1980s. Instead, Dekalog is an examination of the national conscience. Yet, it is hard to overlook the rationing and Spartan living standards produced by Socialism.

Although the computer technology depicted in Dekalog: One now looks prehistoric, it is arguably as timely today as it was in 1988. Widely thought to directly address the First Commandments (no false gods), a professor who venerates science employs mathematical formulas and computer models to determine when the lake will be sufficiently frozen for his son to use his new ice-skates. Like many Dekalogs, it is a tragedy. While it is unusually explicit in its religious symbolism, Dekalog: One establishes the dark look and ambiguous tone that hold relatively consistent throughout the series/film. It also introduces Artur Barciś playing an unnamed watcher-bystander, who briefly appears in seven more Dekalogs (he was also supposed to have a walk-on in Dekalog: Seven, but production snafus conspired against it).

All Dekalogs are created equal, but Dekalog: Two is more equal than others. For one thing, it will be referenced in detail several times during Dekalog: Eight. It is also distinguished by the presence of Krystyna Janda (arguably the most important screen actor of the late 1970s and early 1980s, known for Wajda masterworks, like Man of Marble, Man of Iron, and Without Anesthesia) as Dorota Geller, an orchestra musician with a dilemma. She is still devoted to her comatose husband, but she is pregnant with another man’s baby. As fate dictates, the chief attending physician is also a resident of the complex. She will repeatedly press the doctor for a hard and fast prognosis, so she can determine whether she can keep the baby or have an abortion for her husband’s sake. Critics try to force Dekalog: Two into the Second Commandment, regarding taking the Lord’s name in vain, you can find plenty to apply to the Commandments prohibiting adultery and murder.

Dekalog: Three might be the most self-contained, chronicling a family man’s chaotic Christmas Eve, as a former married lover drags him across the city, ostensibly in search of her suicidal husband. Arguably, it represents Kieslowski’s only traditional car chase, yet it is still completely in keeping with the rest of the Dekalog. Believe it or not, this is thought to relate to Sabbath-keeping, but again, the adultery Commandment seems more apt—not that it really matters.

In contrast, Dekalog: Four is probably as edgy as the series gets, focusing on a father-daughter relationship that inevitably takes on provocative overtones when she discovers he is not her biological parent. Similarly, Dekalog: Five is easily the most violent installment, revolving around the senseless impulse-murder of a cab driver. Kielsowski and Pieslowski would return to its heavy themes of crime, punishment, and remorse, expanding the story into the full feature, A Short Film About Killing.

Dekalog: Six was similarly expanded into A Short Film About Love. It could well be the most divisive Dekalog, but reaction to the tale of a woman who turns the tables on her Peeping Tom more severely than she intended should not simply cleave along gender lines. Be that as it may, as the alluring, somewhat older Magda and the socially stunted Tomek, Grazyna Szapolowska and Olaf Lubaszenko give two of Dekalog’s most indelible performances.

Dekalog: Seven might be the weakest link, not merely due to Barciś’s absence, but also as a result of some problematic motivations. The clearly unstable Majka has kidnapped her young sister, Ania, who is really the daughter she was forced to relinquish to her disdainful mother to avoid the stigma of scandal. She now intends to reclaim her maternal role in Canada, but of course it will not be so simple.

Fittingly, Dekalog: Eight ranks alongside Dekalog: Two as series high points. Dorota Geller’s story is duly related in the ethics class of Zofia, a spry philosophy professor and a widely respected veteran of the Polish Resistance. Elżbieta, a visiting American academic is also sitting in today. Unbeknownst to Zofia, her guest is a Holocaust survivor, whom she once encountered under very complicated circumstances.

Ironically, the narrative of Dekalog: Nine feels familiar, but it is actually a tangential supporting character that inspired yet another film (in this case, the flat-out masterpiece, The Double Life of Veronique). Granted, this tale of a man freshly diagnosed with impotency who becomes obsessively jealous of his attractive wife has its analogs, but the execution is remarkably powerful.

Happily, Dekalog: Ten maintains the project’s high standards. Appropriately, it also calls back to Dekalog: Eight. Kieslowski regular Jerzy Stuhr (The Scar, Camera Buff, Blind Chance) and Zbigniew Zamachowski play the staid middle aged and younger punk rocker sons of a recently deceased absentee father. In addition to his debts, they also inherit a shockingly valuable stamp collection. Inevitably, this leads to paranoia, which might not be so unfounded.

Familiar faces will reappear, but unlike subsequent braided narratives, Kieslwoski and Piesiewicz are not obsessively concerned with the interrelatedness of their major and minor characters. Still, there is an awful lot to observe and absorb in Dekalog. In all honesty, it represents quite a challenge for programmers. It is too heavy to binge-watch. Indeed, each Dekalog really demands time to decompress. Yet, all ten should ideally be seen in close succession. The IFC strategy of screening two-Dekalog blocks over five weeks is probably as good as any and better than most. Regardless, it is a towering achievement and a deeply challenging moral and aesthetic statement. Very highly recommended, Kieslowski’s Dekalog commences this Friday (9/2) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Max Rose: Jerry Lewis Plays a Jazz Musician without Jazz

Max Rose only recorded one trio session back in the day, apparently for the esteemed Riverside Records, making him a contemporary of legends like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Randy Weston, Dr. Billy Taylor, Kenny Drew, and Wynton Kelly. Unfortunately, Rose went one-and-done for the label, putting him in the solitary company of overlooked talents like Roosevelt Wardell. Yet, Rose still led a rewarding life, mainly thanks to his wife and great love Eva. Unfortunately, the grieving Rose will start to question the truth of their relationship after her death in Daniel Noah’s Max Rose (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Eva was the love of Max Rose’s life. After her passing, Rose clearly starts deteriorating mentally and physically, despite the efforts of his beloved granddaughter Annie. Already struggling with depression, Rose suffers a further blow when he discovers Eva’s favorite compact was a gift from a man who was not himself. A bit more digging amongst her effects yields a devastating revelation: Eva had agreed to meet the mysterious Ben Tracey while the musician was in New York for his fateful recording session.

Frustratingly, Max Rose is yet another film about a jazz musician made by a filmmaker who has zero confidence in the music the title character would have played. Instead of logically giving us a jazz soundtrack, we get saccharine background music instead. Occasionally, we hear hints of Rose’s recording, but never enough to understand his musical personality. Perhaps must baffling, Max Rose boasts a brand new song from Michel Legrand and lyricists Alan & Marilyn Bergman (they collaborated on a little tune called “The Windmills of Your Mind”) performed by Melissa Errico, but it is buried in the closing credits. It is nice, but not their best work. (Online reports suggest Legrand had in fact composed a full score for the film, much more befitting the central character, but it was perversely replaced with its current dull mushy themes. If that is true, it was a horrendous, unforgivable decision.)

Look, film music does matter. Jerry Lewis is a legend and his performance as Rose is considerably better than you might have heard, but without the right music, viewers will never understand why Rose is so clearly defined by his one recording session. That elevator music actually puts Lewis at a distinct disadvantage. Nevertheless, he is rather soulful as Rose and he develops some genuinely touching chemistry with Kerry Bishé as the loyal granddaughter. Yet, it is his nuanced work with Kevin Pollak as Rose’s semi-estranged son that really helps save the film.

Arguably, Lewis, Bishé, and Pollak all contribute awards caliber work, but it comes in such a bland package. Frankly, watching the film is a maddening experience because it is so blatantly obvious how it could have been dramatically improved. In recent years, we have mourned the loss of a number of great musicians from Rose’s generation (or later). Sadly, the amazing Bobby Hutcherson is probably the latest. Max Rose could have been a zeitgeisty film about the passing of the Blue Note-Riverside-Prestige era, but instead it just wants to be a geriatric melodrama. Recommended only for Jerry Lewis fans, Max Rose opens this Friday (9/2) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Time Raiders: Another Tomb Raiding Franchise Gets the Feature Treatment

This excursion into the haunted tombs of western China ought to scare the willies out of Hollywood. It grossed $70 million in its opening weekend, but for added international attraction it looked to Bollywood rather than Tinseltown. For the record, it is not also based on the Ghost Blows Out the Light franchise. Instead, it is adapted from Xu Lei’s Daomu Biji novels, which has also spawned the competing television series The Lost Tomb. Officially, the supernatural does not exist in China, but it sure makes a lot of noise anyway in Daniel Lee’s Time Raiders (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

In China, being in the “antiquities” business can be dangerous, especially the way Wu Xie’s family practices it. His Uncle Three desperately wants him to excel in a straighter line of work, but tomb raiding is in his blood. The title refers to them as “Time Raiders,” but all their raiding takes place in tombs. Of course, it would be a gifted scholar like Wu who unearths clues to the location of the fabled Snake Empress’s tomb.

Unfortunately, they have unwanted company on this expedition. They will be relentlessly pursued by a rival team of mercenaries led by Captain Ning A, retained by Hendrix, a shadowy western jillionaire. Zhang Kylin, a strong silent member of Wu’s party has some bitter history with Hendrix dating back fifty years, when the Himalayan martial artist last foiled the super-villain’s plans. Despite all his efforts, Hendrix has not aged well since that day, whereas Zhang has apparently not aged at all, so don’t scoff at the benefits of virtuous living.

Of course, when everyone gets where they are going, there will be a lot of shooting, crashing through crumbling floors, evading swarms of flesh-eating insects, and dodging the arrows of a marionette army. That is the good news. The bad news is the connective narrative is definitely on the ragged side. The third act is basically a logic-free zone, punctuated by some remarkably awkward dialogue exchanges. Frankly, Time Raiders makes Mojin look like Citizen Kane and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe look like The Magnificent Ambersons, but if you dig huge set pieces and over the top spectacle, it is still good clean fun.

In fact, it is a minor triumph for the set design team (in collaboration with the SFX team). For the most part, the 3D is unnecessary, but it does gives viewers an eerie sense of the vastness of the underground caverns. We are talking big here.

For Chinese audiences, former EXO boy band member is also a huge marquee name, but not so much here. Jing Boran is better known in the West (probably for Monster Hunt, but Lost and Love is a far better showcase for his talents). He is actually pretty credible as the hardnosed, severely-tempered Zhang, sort of resembling a younger Chen Kun. However, Luhan is so delicate looking, their bromance scenes take on sexually ambiguous overtones that are assuredly completely unintentional, given the state’s frequent censorship of homoerotic subject matter.

However, Ma Sichun makes a convincing bid for international breakout superstardom as the steely Ning A. Her action chops are first-rate and her attitude is appealingly barbed. She is the one viewers will remember, not Bollywood star Mallika Sherawat, who basically just serves as an anchor for a swirling mass of CG effects as the Snake Empress.

It is strange that books and films about tomb plundering are so popular in China, given the government’s hardline against the practice. You could almost call it cultural appropriation, since American filmmakers essentially invented the genre with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. Yet, Hollywood rarely makes such cliffhanger adventures anymore, so it is up to China to fill the vacuum. Mojin is still the best (probably since The Last Crusade), but at least Time Raiders is eager to please, putting it all up there on the screen. Recommended as slightly nutty, popcorn entertainment, Time Raiders is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire, via distributor Magnum Films.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

PDXFF ’16: Wizard Mode

You might think pinball machines are veritable museum pieces, but they are still cranking out new machines, often licensing hit films and TV series, like Avatar, 24, and Game of Thrones (you know that one must have a special place in GRRM’s hacienda). It would be fascinating to learn the economics of this apparently still viable industry, but sorry, you are in for some feel-good moral uplift instead. Jeff Petry & Nathan Drillot follow Robert E. Gagno, a high-functioning, highly ranked autistic competitive pinball player in Wizard Mode (trailer here), the opening film of the 2016 Portland Film Festival.

If the only thing you can think of right now is The Who’s Tommy, you are not alone. Petry & Drillot will duly play a cover of “Pinball Wizard” over the closing credits, but they scrupulously avoid all references until then. As fr they are concerned, this is strictly Gagno’s show. Fortunately, for the filmmakers and everyone watching their finished product, Gagno is rather sociable and sympathetic. Granted, he is somewhat socially awkward, but keep in mind, he is Canadian. You know, they have long winters up there and few people. One could argue he is doing rather well, all things considered.

For that, Gagno and his supportive parents credit pinball. It was one of the few things Gagno could lock-in on during his childhood years and he now considers it the key to his socialization. However, viewers might have a more ambiguous judgment on pinball as they watch him struggle under the pressure of championship match play.

Gagno is a nice young man working to find his place in the world, but we get the essence of his story early on. Frankly, most viewers will be more seduced by the flashing lights and old school gaming terms, like “multi-ball,” “wizard mode,” and the dreaded “tilt.” The history and scrappy survival of pinball machine development could well be the stuff of a terrific feature-length documentary—and many will wish this had been that.

However, if first and foremost you are looking for niceness than Petry & Drillot have you covered multiple times over. We really could have done without the long conversations regarding hugging. Still, once you get past those, most viewers will agree, the Gagnos truly look like super-parents and REG (as they call him) deserves credit for becoming a gainfully employed, productive member of society. That is more than three-quarters of the residents of our nation’s capital could say for themselves. Earning a mild recommendation (perhaps partly to avoid looking mean), Wizard Mode screens this coming Tuesday (8/30) and Friday (9/2) during this year’s Portland Film Festival.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Sea of Trees: Gus Van Sant Stumbles Around Aokigahara

Yet again, another film dramatizes the dangers posed to humanity by forests, yet refuses to take up the cause of deforestation. In this case, those woods are truly lethal. We are talking about the Aokigahara forest below Mount Fuji, considered the world’s top suicide destination site (previously seen in the horror movie, The Forest). An American has come to do what depressed people do here, but a New Agey woo-woo encounter might change his mind in Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

If you are in this movie, you probably don’t have much to live for. Arthur Brennan certainly feels that way, at least initially. As we learn during an interminable series of flashbacks, Brennan is wracked with guilt over the death of his wife Joan, even though she was a real pill up until she was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Frankly, his suicidal despair just doesn’t follow from the long agonizing scenes of marital discord Van Sant mercilessly inflicts on his viewers.

However, just as Brennan is about to put the audience out of its misery, he stumbles across the badly wounded Takumi Nakamura, a laid-off salaryman, who entered the forest with similar intentions. With their survival instincts kicking in, Brennan and Nakamura will work together to weather the harsh elements and hopefully find their way out of the supernaturally dense woods.

Actually, the film sort of perks up during the survivalist second act, but it eventually descends into a maudlin orgy of on-the-nose symbolism and eye-rolling sentimentality. Is there really a Nakamura with Brennan or is he a psychological projection or maybe even a helpful spirit? Oh, but it is so ambiguous.

So basically, Sea of Trees is Swiss Army Man without the fart jokes. No question about it, the best thing about the film are the trees, which cinematographer Kasper Tuxen’s wide angles manage to make look both serene and sinister. Matthew McConaughey struggles valiantly, wisely taking an understated approach to the overwrought material on his plate, but it is a losing effort. As Nakamura, Ken Watanabe looks like he is counting the seconds until he can leave the dank, muddy forest. In her not so brief scenes as Joan Brennan, Naomi Watts seems to be auditioning for a revival August: Osage County, but she is still a thousand times more subtle and reserved than Meryl Streep. Yet perhaps most baffling, emerging Japanese star Hyunri (who was absolutely revelatory in The Voice of Water) has a throwaway walk-on-cameo as a flight attendant.

Sea is one of those films whose unforgiving reception at Cannes has given it a notorious vibe. All the ruckus tomato-throwing often creates a perversely sympathetic climate among domestic critics for such films (like Only God Forgives), until we get a chance to see them. Granted, Sea is not wildly offensive, but the Cannes press corps still wasn’t far wrong. Not recommended, The Sea of Trees opens today (8/26) in New York, at the Village East.

Don’t Breathe: One Way or Another, Detroit Will Kill You

Detroit has slashed it police force by forty percent over the last ten years. Ordinarily, that makes things awfully convenient for Rocky and her burglar pals, because it means there just are not a lot of cops to respond to calls. However, their perspective will change drastically when they pick the profoundly wrong house to invade in Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (trailer here), which opens nationwide today.

Detroit’s population has fallen below 700,000 yet its murder rate is eleven times what we have here in sprawling, unruly New York City. It is not uncommon to see one lone house standing amongst the razed ruins of formerly residential neighborhood. Rocky, her slimy boyfriend Money, and the torch-carrying Alex think they will find a big score inside one of them. Supposedly, the owner is a blind veteran, who received a large cash settlement when a well-heeled Grosse Pointe teenager killed his daughter in a hit-and-run.

Alex is sort of the inside man. His father works for a security company, so he has access to their alarm codes. Ordinarily, he insists on strict ground rules. The total haul should be under ten grand and include no cash. That way they can avoid grand larceny charges. This job will violate all his terms, but he agrees anyway for Rocky’s sake. In retrospect, that will be a profound mistake.

Needless to say, the old man is spryer than they anticipated. In fact, he is pretty chiseled. He also has rather sinister reasons for not wanting any visitors. When the lights are out, he clearly holds home field advantage.

Admittedly, making the terrifying old man a veteran is a real buzz kill, but at least Alvarez and co-screenwriter Rodo Sayagues try not to belabor the point (unlike the aggressively disrespectful Dementia). Arguably, it is the quickest credible explanation for why an old blind cat would have a commando’s physique (being a cop wounded on the job could add unnecessary narrative complications).

In any event, there is a ton of sneaking around on tippy-toe in Breathe, which Alvarez executes quite adroitly. Ironically, some of the most intense sequences spell out of the inhospitable house, in part because they underscore just how on your own you are in some Detroit neighborhoods.

As always, Stephen Lang is massively hardnosed as the old man, whom he plays with extra crustiness and erratic twitchiness this time around. Jane Levy chokes back screams and holds her breath pretty effectively, but it is hard to get how she got involved with Money, Daniel Zovatto’s white trash caricature or Alex, the big nothing blandly portrayed by Dylan Minnette.

Alvarez keeps raising the stakes nicely, maintaining a tight, tense one-darned-thing-after-another pace. It is maybe not staggeringly original (one could argue it shares surface similarities with Viet Nguyen’s Crush the Skull and Adam Schindler’s Intruders, both of which are even better), but it gets the genre job done. Recommended for horror fans, Don’t Breathe opens in theaters across the country today (8/26), including the AMC Empire in New York.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Level Up: Same Old Gamer Same-Same

Shamelessly under-achieving Matt plays too many video games and it will cost him. If he had watched any of the dozens of thematically similar films released in the last few years, he would recognize all the clichés that are about to bum-rush his boring life. Violent gaming goes offline yet again in Adam Randall’s Level Up (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Anna is the one with the job, but entitled Matt still can’t man-up to give his meal ticket a proper date night. The next day, she is kidnapped by balaclava wearing thugs on her way to work (something he wouldn’t know anything about). The same faceless villains outfit Matt with what looks like a suicide vest, but really contains a dummy package he must deliver to a certain place at a certain time, if he ever wants to see Anna alive again. Of course, there will be those trying to stop him, with lethal force if necessary. It is all part of some twisted game, but you would think they could have picked more interesting players.

How is Level Up derivative? Let us count the ways. It clearly follows in the tradition of video games gone all too real, recently exemplified by Beta Test and The Call Up, but it lacks the grittily cinematic lead of the former and the snazzy wardrobe of the latter. It also borrows from the infinitely superior Big Match and Rob Zombie’s even worse 31, in which well-heeled meanies place wagers on involuntary blood sport contestants. The loved ones in jeopardy aspect also recalls Raze, which really does not need to be recalled. So yes, we have seen this all before and we’ve seen it much better and far worse. If anything distinguishes Level Up, it is the utter blandness of its approach.

Josh Bowman must be the dullest leading man in the history of ticking clock thrillers. His supposedly desperate gamer constantly looks like he is woozy from a Nyquil jag. Since all the bad guys remain masked throughout, the film has no colorful villains to fall back on. The biggest name in the cast is probably Ben Wheatley regular Neil Maskell, who plays Dmitri, the chief henchman, but of course he too remains scrupulously under wraps. It is not like he has one of the resonant, immediately recognizable voices that makes you say: “dude, that’s Neil Maskell, buckle-up because we’re in for a wild ride,” so that doesn’t leave us with much.

It is one thing for a B-movie to rip-off its predecessors. There is a long, eccentric history of that kind of thing. What makes Level Up so problematic is its lack of energy and notable characters. Its really just a big nothing. Not recommended, Level Up opens tomorrow (8/26) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Space Dogs Adventure to the Moon

It was tough being a hero of the Soviet Motherland. Poor Laika, the first dog placed in orbit, died from hyperthermia, but the Soviets covered-up the details of her painful demise for decades. In contrast, Ham the chimpanzee, the first hominid in space, lived another seventeen peaceful years in DC’s National Zoo following his mission into space. Have no fear, these cute canine cosmonauts will fare better than their inspiration in Mike Disa’s Space Dogs Adventure to the Moon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in regional markets.

If you missed the original Space Dogs, you should still be able to pick up on the subtleties of the relationships. Scrappy young Pushok still dreams of following in the footsteps of his German Shepherd cosmonaut father Kazbek—and he probably will, since family connections trump merit in the 1960s-era USSR. His mother Belka, a former space dog, has returned to the vaudeville circuit with her old partner Strelka, while Pushok is on a good will tour at the Kennedy White House. However, when Kazbek disappears while investigating suspicious activity on the Moon (including the theft of the Eifel Tower via tractor beam), Pushok and Belka will hitch rides on respective American and Soviet rockets to find him.

The Moon edition of Space Dogs is pleasantly safe family fare, but it is sometimes interesting to see how they deal with the historical details. JFK is never seen, but his presence in the White House is clearly implied. However, poor Nikita Khrushchev remains persona non grata. Disa and co-screenwriter Rolfe Kanefsky generally tip-toe around the harsh realities of Soviet life, but Freud the hairless cat is obviously a representative of the KGB or GRU attached to the Soviet space program, which makes him decidedly sinister. On the other hand, Chip the chimpanzee embodies a lot of American materialist stereotypes, but his Texan-ness is a clever touch.

Younger viewers who dig dogs and space are going to flip for Moon, because two plus two just equals four. However, it is historically savvy enough to keep parents from totally zoning out and wondering who will be brutally murdered next on Game of Thrones. Nice enough as a diversion for the kids, Space Dogs Adventure opens this Friday (8/26) throughout Texas and Arizona, the Aurora Plaza 8 in Colorado, and other cities (see complete list here).

Moretti’s Mia Madre

Film directors are usually control freaks. It just goes with the territory. That’s great for their auteurist visions, but not so hot for personal relationships. Margherita’s mother still loves her anyway, even in periods of ill health and maybe not quite 100% sound mind. The headstrong daughter should probably start preparing for the inevitable, but she has a didactic art film to finish first in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Vittorio was the closest thing Margherita had to a muse, but that did not stop her from dumping him midway through their latest shoot. Barry Huggins, a famous American character actor supposedly fluent in Italian will soon be joining the production, but he most definitely will not be taking Vittorio’s place. Frankly, she is far too preoccupied with her mother Ada’s health, but so far she has left most of the hard work to her older brother Giovanni. She is also trying to be a reasonably responsible mother to her Latin-flunking, Vespa-yearning daughter Livia, but it does not come natural to her.

Unfortunately, developments on the set push Margherita to the verge of a nervous breakdown. The high maintenance Huggins might understand Italian, but his fluency is iffy and his memorization of lines is even more suspect. Plus, just about every technical problem imaginable threatens to rob the world of another overwrought melodrama about unionized strikers.

Mia Madre’s acute attention to personal crises definitely makes it feel like a Nanni Moretti film, but it is hard not to hear Georges Delerue’s soaring themes from Truffaut’s Day for Night welling up in the back of your head. Considering the ways the two films parallel each other (socially awkward, semi-autobiographical filmmakers whose sanity and latest productions are nearly undermined by untimely tragedy), it is hard to imagine Moretti wasn’t engaging with the Oscar winner on some level.

Be that as it may, Mia Madre is a fine work with an unusually high quotient of emotional truth. Margherita Buy takes another slyly subtle star turn as Margherita the namesake director, proving she is one of the best in the business. John Turturro is quite a good sport hamming it up as Huggins (who else could he be lampooning, but himself?), yet when we least expect it, he and Moretti will irreversibly humanize the Yankee prima donna. Moretti the helmer-thesp (who has not infrequently been cast in other people’s movies) oozes dignity as the wise, soul-weary Giovanni. He just can’t help being charismatic on-screen. However, Giulia Lazzarini is doing standard TV movie-central casting stuff as the spirited but slowly fading Ada.

Mia Madre is a very nice film, but Day for Night is a masterwork. That is an unfair comparison, but Moretti seems to invite it. Nevertheless, Buy follows up her wonderfully understated turn in the grossly underappreciated A Five Star Life with another notably smart and mature performance. Recommended for patrons of Italian cinema and fans of Turturro, Mia Madre opens this Friday (8/26) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tunnel: Surviving on Two Bottles of Water and a Birthday Cake

Politically connected J. Lloyd Haigh notoriously supplied rotten cables for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, but its design was so sound, it held up nonetheless. Unfortunately, that will not be the case for the shoddily constructed mountain underpass Lee Jung-soo is driving through. He is about to become the focus of a media feeding frenzy when his car in trapped beneath a cave-in. Current events clearly inform Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lee, a rental-car wholesale dealer is headed home with his daughter’s birthday cake when the unthinkable happens. This is not a matter of a few tiles falling from the roof. It is a complete collapse. Of course, the authorities are caught flat-footed, but at least Dae-kyung, the on-the-ground operations guy is a strong improviser. He will do his best to rescue Lee, but he will have constant distractions from the swarming press and preening politicians. Naturally, the latter are all in for photo ops in the early days of the rescue (we hope), but they bail when it turns into a protracted campaign. Unfortunately, that puts Lee’s wife Se-hyun under tremendous pressure to give up on him.

Tunnel is not merely a claustrophobic survival story in the mold of Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried or the mudslide movie Detour. Kim opens the film up into a caustic indictment of the drive-by media and the negligent political establishment (the echoes of the Sewol Ferry sinking are hard to miss). Yet, it also happens to be a tightly executed ticking clock drama. We are keenly aware of the passage of time and Lee’s dwindling supplies of food and water, especially when he discovers Mi-na, a second survivor painfully pinned behind the wheel of her car.

As our lead, Ha Jung-woo is an effectively grounded, completely identifiable everyman. Like always, Oh Dal-su inspires instant confidence as Dae-kyung, like a Korean Tommy Lee Jones. Frankly, it is hard to say who is more emotionally affecting, Bae Doo-na as the maligned and harassed Se-hyun or Nam Ji-hyun as the slowly expiring Mi-na, but they both elevate Tunnel far beyond workaday disaster movies.

Ironically, there are some decent catastrophic special effects in Tunnel, but viewers are likely to lose sight of them, focusing on the human element instead. Still, as a follow-up to the rip-roaring corrupt cop thriller, A Hard Day, Lee proves he is a massive talent to be reckoned with in multiple genres. Tense, bracing, and sometimes infuriating (because it is so spot-on depicting the cravenness of the media and politicians), Tunnel is highly recommended for those who appreciate social commentary and the drama of extreme circumstances when it opens this Friday (8/26) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Hell Town: Soap and Gore

Kids grow up fast in Old Town Hell Town. They have to, given the psycho slasher stalking the halls of their high school. It seems to be working, since they all look way too old to be teens. Presumably, that is all part of the joke in Steve Balderson & Elizabeth Spear’s Hell Town (trailer here), presented Elvira-style by Debbie Rochon, which releases today on VOD.

According to Rochon’s vampy intro, we are about to see the only three surviving episodes of the notorious television show, Hell Town. Think of it as Halloween’s Michael Myers comes to Peyton Place. Butch Manley has just returned home from a stretch in Juvy to find his catatonic mother on death’s door, so from a census-taking perspective, it is essentially a wash.

His wannabe debutante sister Chanel bitterly resents all the adulation heaped on her wealthy rival, Trish Gamble, whose virginity their dumb jock brother Blaze is scheduled to take (for the second time) at the upcoming prom. Their other dumb jock brother Jesse is busy pretending he isn’t gay, especially when Trish’s out-of-the-closet younger brother Bobby is around. He doesn’t really mind Trish’s diva behavior, but Laura Gable, the attention-starved middle sister with daddy issues is a different story. She is the Darren Stephens of Hell Town, played by BeckiJo Neill in the first episode (supposedly S2 E7) and by Jennifer Grace in the subsequent two. Confused? Probably not sufficiently so.

Reportedly inspired by the big Moldovan gun-down episode of Dynasty, Hell Town has an amusing premise, but Balderson, Spear, and their co-screenwriters never take it beyond the level of blood-splattered farce. It has the ring and vibe of a tragically polite John Waters movie. Frankly, the stakes have risen drastically for horror comedy in the wake of legitimately funny and macabre genre productions like The Final Girls, They’re Watching, Ava’s Possessions, Witching & Bitching, You’re Killing Me, and to a lesser extent, The Girl in the Photographs, all of which are much funnier and most are considerably scarier.

Still, you cannot fault Balderson for not getting his at-bats in. Hell Town is one of four films he has in varying states of release over a three or four-week period in late August and early September, including the AXS original film, Elvis Lives. In some ways, H-Town has the feel of a stage farce (albeit one with gallons of stage blood), employing many of his regular repertory players, such as burlesque dancer Pleasant Gehman as Mother Manly and her nurse. Maybe that comfort level is a drawback in this case. On a basic level, Balderson & Spear do what they need to do to satisfy undemanding fans of gore and broad comedy, but that is as far as it goes. Mildly diverting but not nearly as clever as it should have been, Hell Town releases today (8/23) on VOD.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Single by 30: His Best Friend is Back, on YouTube Red

It is too bad torch carrying is only an exhibition event at the Olympics, because Peter Ma would be a cinch to medal. Twelve years after high school graduation, he still pines for his platonic best friend Joanna. Just as he turns the big three-oh, she moves back home to Los Angeles. It turns out, she even remembers their My Best Friend’s Wedding pact from senior year. In five months, she too will turn thirty, the age when they agreed to get hitched as a last resort. She revives their compact, as a motivational device to get them both back out there on the dating scene. At least, that is what they tell each other in Single by 30 (trailer here), the new web-series from Wong Fu Productions, which premieres on YouTube Red this Wednesday.

Supposedly, knowing Peter and Joanna are each other’s back-up plan will give them the confidence to take chances, like a safety net for a trapeze artist. When they similarly motivated each other to ask out homecoming dates, it worked out much better for her than for him. Yet, he is still down to try. Of course, viewers can immediately tell they are perfect for each other (and maybe they can too).

Nevertheless, to Peter’s great surprise, he has far greater success with the internet dater Joanna selects for him, than she does with his (deliberately flawed) pick. At least that is the case in the second and third episodes (out of the initial three made available to the media). However, she might not be as available as she lets on. It is clear from the start, she carries her own torch for the ex now engaged to her former college friend.

If this sounds familiar, you might have seen the earlier spec pilot that generated plenty of views online. They started fresh with the series proper, so Ma’s new irresponsible best pal from college is now Mark, played by “YouTube star” Eric Ochoa. In fact, most of the young, attractive cast are ‘net famous through YouTube or Vine, which should make you feel old, even if you can look past thirty as a ridiculously ominous deadline.

Regardless, the cast is admittedly attractive and often pleasantly amusing. Harry Shrum, Jr is appealingly down-to-earth as Peter M. and musician Kina Grannis is undeniably charming as Joanna (evidently, she will have to get married if she ever wants to have a surname). So far, their Moonlighting will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry is quite effective. Ochoa and Hillary Anne Matthews (two “t’s”) generate a lot of Tinder-Generation laughs as Mark, the self-styled player and Chloe, Joanna’s game-playing roommate. Manon Mathews (one “t”) probably contributes the wryest humor as Lisa, Joanna’s married college bestie and Chloe’s older sister. Anna Akana adds plenty of attitude as Ma’s DJ sister Grace, but Alexandra Metz’s Sarah just seems too cool to be interested in a luckless loser like Ma (presumably that will not last).

SB30 might not be enough to justify a YouTube Red account, but it is an enjoyable way to spend time online. Although Grannis is a talent in her own right, SB30 clearly suggests she and her social media-promoted co-stars have some real potential in front of the camera. Generally speaking, creators Wesley Chan & Philip Wang stay within safe rom com territory, but their dialogue is surprisingly sharp and it is well served by the principle cast’s crisp timing. Recommended for those looking for some of-the-moment relationship comedy, Single by 30 releases this Wednesday (8/24) on YouTube Red.

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life—The Disney Legend Speaks His Mind

You know someone is important when the Disney mouse licenses clips and likenesses for their documentary produced outside and completely independent of the Magic Kingdom. Animator-storyman Floyd Norman has that kind of stature in the business. Although he is an officially recognized “Disney Legend,” Norman has had a complicated relationship with the Disney company, but that never diminishes his pride in the work he did there. The beloved animator takes stock of his career and speaks his mind throughout Michael Fiore & Erik Sharkey’s Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Apparently, Santa Barbara was a tucked away corner of utopia in the 1930s and 1940s, which is why the extended Norman family flocked there. According to Norman, he had a happy, well-adjusted childhood there, availing himself of the museum’s art classes, just like any other resident. As a teen, he even had the opportunity to assist local Archie Comics veteran Bill Woggon on his Katy Keene fashion model comic book. Eventually, Norman’s talent and experience landed him his dream job at the Disney studio, working under the master himself on classics like Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, Jungle Book, and 101 Dalmatians.

Walt Disney was a no-nonsense boss, but always fair in his blunt-spoken way. Years later, Norman would be incensed by Meryl Streep’s unhinged attacks on his former boss’s character, so he fired off a decidedly pointed rejoinder. Sign us up for Team Norman. After all, nobody understands the history and evolution of Disney’s corporate culture better than Norman. Frankly, he is always reluctant to make a big deal out of his status as the first African American in the animation department. As far as he seems to be concerned, race was never an issue in his career. Granted, that sentiment might come with a few caveats, but it is the ageism that forced him into early retirement that really rankled Norman, as he makes crystal clear.

It is easy to see why Norman is considered a legend among his peers and savvy ComicCon attendees. During his various Disney stints, he periodically penned satiric cartoons at the managements expense, much like vintage David Letterman needling the pinheads at G.E. He also had a tenure at Hanna-Barbara and was part of the team at Pixar that made Toy Story 2 too good to be released straight to DVD.

Norman pretty much is animation history, but he never comes across as a museum relic. Animated Life basically captures the two sides of Norman: the enthusiastic fanboy and the plain-speaking truth-teller. Both are completely engaging. As it happens, Norman’s story continued to develop as Fiore & Sharkey were documenting it.

Arguably, the extent of Disney imagery allowed throughout Animated Life says what you need to know about Norman’s place in the studio’s history. Fiore & Sharkey recognize his winning screen presence and have the good sense to run with it. The co-directors are clearly down with Team Norman as well, but Animated Life is too opinionated to be considered mere hagiography. It has an edge, but there is still plenty of nostalgia for Disney (and Hanna-Barbara and Fat Albert) fans. Highly recommended for those who value the art and craft of animation, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life opens this Friday (8/26) in New York, at the Village East and in Orlando at the AMC Disney Springs.