Monday, October 31, 2016

Dog Eat Dog: Paul Schrader Adapts Edward Bunker

Troy Cameron would not know what to make of the Indians in the World Series. He is used to Cleveland being a city of losers. Cameron knows full well he and his criminal cohorts are three of the city’s biggest bums, but they hope a big, obviously ill-conceived caper will finally put them on easy street in Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog (trailer here), which opens in Los Angeles this Friday.

You can expect things to get a little sketchy, since DED is based on a novel by real life ex-con Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs). If you doubt his street cred, keep in mind Danny Trejo was his son’s godfather. Cameron and his regular accomplices, Mad Dog and Diesel, each already have two strikes, so they are also pretty serious customers. Cameron is the last of the three to serve out his second term, but they have patiently awaited his arrival, because Cameron is the one who arranges their jobs through a shadowy underworld figure known as Grecco the Greek. Most of those gigs involve knocking over rogue criminal elements for scores in the ten-grand neighborhood. However, this one will be different.

A deadbeat gangster has fallen behind on his payments to a bigger gangster, so Cameron and company are supposed to bring back some leverage. That means kidnapping the debtor thug’s infant son. Everyone adamant agrees the baby is not to be hurt (and he isn’t), but this kind of crime involves a whole new level of risk. Of course, things go spectacularly wrong, but rest assured not with respect to the rug rat.

It is important to emphasize that point, because the film starts with Mad Dog in the throes of a drug-fueled psychotic episode that will end in bloodshed. It is sequence that would easily fit into Natural Born Killers, so it might be too much for sensitive viewers to get past. (For what its worth, that is the toughest stuff in the film.)

In fact, Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook develop some pretty terrific lowlife buddy chemistry. It is nice to know Cage is still on the comeback trail following a nice supporting turn in Snowden and better-than-you-heard work in the underrated The Trust and Pay the Ghost (I still stand by my positive review of that one). Dafoe gleefully chews on the scenery, enjoying his ironic status as the unrestrained loon in a Nic Cage movie. However, the real discovery is Cook, who brings real gravitas and subtlety to the hulking Diesel. He also has a show-reel-worthy scene with Louisa Krause playing a young but unusually assertive prostitute. Even Schrader gets in on the fun, playing the Greek with the attitude and authority he probably wishes he could have commanded during the making of The Canyons.

DED is definitely a low-budget affair, but it is the sort of dark, tight caper film that is bound to attract an audience over time. It is probably too idiosyncratic for a nationwide opening, but it is guaranteed to make money over time. Arguably, this is exactly the sort of film Schrader and Cage should be concentrating on, rather than moody three-hour-plus character study-slash-terrorism thrillers that just beg to be cut down by the money men. Quite entertaining but not for the faint of heart, Dog Eat Dog is highly recommended for fans of amoral noir mayhem, when it opens this Friday (11/4) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Francesca: Giallo Love for Halloween

Say what you will about the Italian giallo thriller-horror genre, but its characters sure knew how to accessorize. They always knew how to kill in style, rocking their patented leather gloves, wide-brimmed hats, leather belts, shiny rain coats, and fetish-friendly boots and pumps. Many of those things are also useful for concealing one’s identity, so the killer, who may or may not be a child abducted fifteen years ago, dons the classic giallo wardrobe in director-editor-cinematographer-composer Luciano Onetti’s Francesca, which is now available in a DVD/BluRay collector’s set, from Unearthed Films, just in time for Halloween.

Someone is killing the morally questionable citizens of Rome, leaving behind heavy passages from Dante’s Divine Comedy and antique coins on their eyes, presumably to pay their passage to Hell. Inspector Bruno Moretti and Det. Benito Succo are on the case, but their investigatory methods mainly seem to involve shooting pool and drinking J&B whiskey (a name brand staple of 1970s Giallos). Despite these efforts, the killer continues to elude them.

On the anniversary of Francesca Visconti’s abduction, Moretti visits her wheelchair-bound poet-dramatist father Visconti, ostensibly to glean some insights into Dante’s vision of justice, but really to ask about his long missing daughter. For reasons never really established (aside from this being a giallo), Moretti suspects the two cases might be linked.

In terms of cinematography and art direction, Francesca looks like it was pulled out of a giallo time capsule sealed in the seventies. Every visual detail is lovingly crafted. However, the picture’s incredible look cannot mask the shortcomings of the Italian-Argentine Onetti Brothers’ screenplay (helmer Luciano and producer Nicolás), which is thin even by the standards of the sub-genre. It also telegraphs the primary villain way in advance (although there are a few surprises regarding murky secondary figures in the third act).

Arguably, Francesca represents a weird acting challenge, since the cast presumably knew they would be awkwardly redubbed in Italian, deliberately on purpose. With that in mind, probably Gustavo Dalessanro displays the most intriguing screen presence as the slightly compromised Det. Succo.

As a feat of lurid cinematography, Francesca is quite a remarkable accomplishment. L. Onetti’s dark, proggy score (included as a CD in the 3-disk set) also suits the sub-genre to a tee. Yet, as a neo-retro-giallo narrative, the affectionate Astron-6 spoof The Editor is ironically more engaging. This is definitely a case of style favored over substance. Viewers should note there is a stinger, but it features some of the film’s most disturbing violent images, so watch according to your tastes. Recommended for hardcore giallo enthusiasts who will not object to its excesses, Francesca is now available for home viewing, from Unearthed Films and distributor MVD.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Tomu Uchida at MoMA: Swords in the Moonlight Parts 1, 2 & 3

Daibosatsu Pass is bloodier than the Khyber or Breakheart, thanks largely to the mean-spirited samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue. Years ago, a Buddhist monk tried to sanctify the picturesque mountain rest stop, but it clearly did not take. Instead, it is the sight of a senseless murder that will unleash a convoluted chain of bad karma in Swords in the Moonlight (a.k.a. Souls in the Moonlight) Tomu Uchida’s three-film adaptation of Kaizan Nakazato’s Great Bodhisattva Pass, all of which screen in succession during MoMA’s ongoing retrospective of the major Japanese auteur.

This is indeed the same Tsukue of Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom, but there is clearly more to his story. Part 1 follows roughly the same narrative. It starts with Tsukue killing the pilgrim at the pass out of simple wanton cruelty, but he is survived by his granddaughter Omatsu, who will have a significant role to play in later films. Once again, Tsukue is to face the inferior swordsman Bunnojo Utsuki in an exhibition match that carries great important for Tsukue’s opponent but virtually none for himself. Utsuki’s fiancée Ohama begs the notorious swordsman to have mercy on her intended, but her intervention stimulates his lust instead.

The recaps that start parts one and two first says Tsukue “abducts” and then “seduces” Ohama, but it is really something in between. Regardless, their time spent together is mutually miserable, despite the son they bring into the world. Ironically, some of Tsukue’s most peaceful times are spent with Otoyo, a spooky dead-ringer for Ohama (with the emphasis on dead), who nurses the now rogue ronin back to health. Meanwhile, the pilgrim’s granddaughter Omatsu and Utsuki’s young brother Hyomi are thrust together by their shared history with Tsukue. They are also falling in love, but the junior Utsuki gives precedence to his quest for vengeance.

Even if you have seen Sword of Doom, films 2 and 3 largely cover new territory. In yet another ironic twist of fate, part two climaxes with both Tsukue and Utsuki fighting the same crooked feudal lord’s attempt to confiscate a prosperous mining concern, unbeknown to each other. The scope of the epic continues to broaden in the third film when Tsukue and Utsuki align themselves with rival lords, albeit rather reluctantly in Tsukue’s case.

Frankly, Swords in the Moonlight is all good, but it gets even better with each installment. Tsukue also becomes an increasingly intriguing figure. Despite his sociopathic tendencies, we start to see something that resembles tenderness from him in the second and third films. His relationships with women defy easy categorization, especially his ambiguous involvement with a disfigured noble woman, who is another involuntary guest of Tsukue’s patron-lord. Part three also ends with some stone-cold Buddhist “fire and brimstone,” well above and beyond anything in Doom.

Indeed, the series goes from good to great, but Chiezô Kataoka is always an electric presence as the psychotic yet guilt-ridden Tsukue. He just radiates badassery, even and especially when Tsukue’s eyes start to fail, making him into an evil early ancestor of Zatoichi. Yumiko Hasegawa fully capitalizes on her opportunity to be exquisitely tragic under two very different circumstances as Ohama and Otoyo, while Satomi Oka and Yorozuya Kinnosuke are rather appealing as Omatsu and Hyomi Utsuki. As an added bonus, Muku (the wonder dog) manages to be as handy as Lassie without coming across as a gimmick.

That’s right, there is a ton of hardcore hacking and slashing in the Moonlight trilogy, plus a faithful canine saves the day several times over. Uchida even throws in some macabrely expressionistic dream sequences. Seriously, what more could a movie lover ask for? Very highly recommended for Jidaigeki fans, Swords in the Moonlight Parts 1, 2, and 3 screens again this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons (11/1-11/3) as part of MoMA’s revelatory Tomu Uchida retrospective.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Tomu Uchida at MoMA: Straits of Hunger

We’re not saying Tomu Uchida’s three-hour film noir masterpiece is dark, but it starts with a ferry disaster killing hundreds of innocent people. Those currents off the coast of Hokkaido are so treacherous, they even spit up two extra bodies. It turns out they were ex-cons, mostly likely responsible for a lethal home invasion. Det. Yumisaka will pursue the “third man” like Javert in Les Miserables. The cop from The Fugitive might be an even more apt comparison. Although Takichi Inukai (if that is his real name) is not a one-armed man, he has a crushed finger that definitely counts as an identifying characteristic in Uchida’s Straits of Hunger (a.k.a. A Fugitive from the Past), which screens as part of MoMA’s ongoing retrospective of the major Japanese auteur.

During the immediate post-war, black market years, it was not just those straits that were hungry. Nevertheless, Inukai seems genuinely distressed by the fate of his traveling companions and also their victims. With the cops out in full force, Inukai takes refuge with hostess-oiran-prostitute-borderline dominatrix Yae Sugito, who gives him a bit of hard time, but rather takes a shine to the rough but shy character. The feeling is somewhat mutual judging from the whopper of a tip the mystery man left behind.

As Yumiska spends years following-up false leads, Sugito uses Inukai’s money to pay off her family’s debts and start leading a relatively straight life in Tokyo. Ironically, she will return to her former profession, preferring the stability of life with her new paternalist mom-and-pop employers. Alas, the government eventually decides to be progressive and reformist by shuttering legal houses of prostitution. Forced to make yet another new start, Sugito happens to notice a provincial philanthropist’s picture in the newspaper. Mr. Kyôichirô Tarumi certainly bears a strong resemblance to the man responsible for her nest egg, who has taken on almost saintly status in her own head.

It is not hard to understand why Straits (or Fugitive) is regarded in Japan as one of the finest Japanese films of all time. It truly combines elements of the sympathetic (if not wholly innocent) fugitive thriller, in the tradition of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, with the sweeping scope and tragedy of Les Mis (which Uchida adapted straight-up in 1931). His use of gritty widescreen 16mm also gives it a 1960s docu-drama vibe. Yet, what makes the film so appealingly idiosyncratic is the delight Uchida takes in breaking all the rules. Inukai disappears for a long period of time, allowing the second movement to become an empathetic woman’s story, roughly akin to Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

Sachiko Hidari is remarkably sensitive and forceful as Yae, commanding the screen and keeping viewers tightly focused even when the noir skullduggery is at a low ebb. Rentarô Mikuni is indeed generous with the spotlight, but he brings some seriously hardnosed intensity in the first and third acts. Noir fans will also appreciate Junzaburô Ban’s wheezy Yamisaka, who projects world-weary fatalism worthy of Inspector Maigret.

Aside from the three-hour running time, it is hard to puzzle out Straits’ under-screened and unsung status outside of Japan. Perhaps Uchida’s lurid color washes used during times of extreme psychological stress have not aged so well, but the exquisite work of Hidari and Mikuni gives this ironic tale the ring and heft of classical tragedy. Very highly recommended, Straits of Hunger screens again next Sunday, November 6, as part of MoMA’s Tomu Uchida retrospective.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Tomu Uchida at MoMA: The Outsiders

The sprawling Hokkaido vistas demand the widescreen Toheiscope treatment, but the concerns of the local “Shamo” ethnic Japanese power brokers are strictly narrow-minded. There is a truly unhealthy obsession over blood and genes in Tomu Uchida’s American western-inspired The Outsiders, which screens as part of MoMA’s ongoing retrospective of the major Japanese auteur.

Ishitaro Kazamori, a.k.a. “Byakki the Phoenix,” is the Robin Hood of the northern Ainu villages. His sworn enemy is Takeshi Oiwa, the manager and heir apparent of his family’s fish-processing plant, who steadfastly refuses to hire Ainu workers. Kazamori knows his darkest secret—and possibly vice versa.

Eventually, tensions between the two men will boil over into violence, despite the best calming efforts of visiting artist Yoshiko Saeki, a landscape painter invited to Hokkaido by the sympathetic Shamo humanitarian, Dr. Ike. Initially, Kazamori resents her presumed dilettantism and cultural appropriation, but she is a fast learner. Soon, he starts to enjoy their random encounters. Saeki also forges a fast friendship with the fragile Ainu woman Mitsu, who was abandoned by her Shamo lover years ago. She seems to know everyone’s secrets, which partially explains her strange, platonic connection with Kazamori.

All you really need to know about Kazamori is he is played by legendary Japanese movie tough guy Ken Takakura. When he faces off against Rentarô Mikuni’s Oiwa, it is a lot like watching Lee Marvin mix it up with Robert Ryan. It is all square jaws and stone fists.

Even by revisionist western standards, Outsiders is one seriously moody Eastern Western. It makes Heaven’s Gate look like a James Garner cowboy comedy. To Allied ears, all the talk of race and blood in 1958 film rings like an indictment of Axis Powers racialist theories and war crimes. The ending also conspicuously echoes the conclusion of George Stevens’ Shane (which released in America five years prior).

Regardless, Takakura is brutally awesome as Kazamori, while Mayumi Fujisato’s sensitive portrayal of Mitsu provides the film its human center. Technically, Takakura hailed from Fukuoka in the south, but nobody questions him as the Ainu rabble-rouser. Frankly, most differences in accent and the like will be lost on western audiences, which arguably makes the racism it depicts look all the more arbitrary and absurd.

Hardnosed and existential, The Outsiders is a big picture by any standard, so its relative obscurity in the West, along with the rest of Uchida’s oeuvre is absolutely mystifying. Recommended for fans of contemporary westerns in the spirit of John Sayles’ Lone Star, The Outsiders screens again next Friday (11/4), as part of MoMA’s Tomu Uchida retrospective.

The Unspoken: A Creepy House for a Creepy Kid

If you think the spirit possession was scary, you should see the capital losses people take on this problematic property. Seventeen years ago, the Anderson family vanished under mysterious circumstances, only leaving behind a shell-shocked sheriff’s deputy as a witness. Unaware of the property’s history, a single mother and her emotionally stunted little boy have moved in, hoping the mountain air will be healing. Their young nanny knows better, but she keeps coming to work because the “recovery” was particularly soft in those parts. You largely know where things are going from here, but screenwriter-director Sheldon Wilson adds elements of the home invasion thriller for extra added menace in The Unspoken (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Poor Angela’s life kind of bites. Her mother also perished under dubious circumstances around the same time, leaving her with her structurally-unemployed father. She is pseudo-romantically involved with the closeted Pandy, who constantly spurns her to keep up appearances with her meth dealing friends. To help make ends meet, Angela takes a job minding the charmlessly sullen Adrian, who hasn’t talked since his father died.

Of course, things start going supernaturally haywire, but Adrian’s mother Jeanie is never around to see it. Perhaps even more ominously, Pandy’s townie pusher pals are rather put out by the prospect of losing the old Anderson place as a stash for their drugs, especially since they did not have the chance yet to retrieve their latest and biggest shipment. They intend to break in and settle things Wait Until Dark-style.

Oddly, Unspoken works better as home invasion horror rather than a haunted house movie. Yet, all the (admittedly limited) payoff relates to the uncanny storyline. Frankly, the big twist follows very much in the tradition of Alistair Legrand’s The Diabolical, but the Ali Larter vehicle was superior in every way.

Even though many of the conventions Wilson recycles feel stale, the performances are surprisingly fresh. Whether it was the plan or not, Jodelle Ferland (Twilight, Silent Hill, The Tall Man) is carving out quite a niche as a modest and reserved scream queen, which continues with her work as Angela. Frankly, it is impossible to resist taking a strong rooting interest in her. Once again Neal McDonough and his authority figure presence inspire plenty of confidence, but he just doesn’t get enough screen time as Sheriff Bower. Anthony Konechny, Jonathan Whitesell, and Jake Croker are suitably creepy and destabilizing as Pandy’s drug-pushing pals. However, the less said about the young boy, the better.

There is no question the scariest scene of Unspoken is the prologue. It is nice that it is so well executed, but it inevitably puts the rest of the film on a downward slope. A mixed bag really just recommended for horror genre diehards, Unspoken opens today (10/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ice Guardians: A Documentary Tribute to Hockey’s Enforcers

They are beloved by fans and despised by NHL league officials. Basically, their job is indeed to be loved and hated. They are (or rather were) hockey’s so-called “enforcers.” They had the backs of their all-star teammates and their efforts were definitely appreciated. Some of the greatest enforcers to ever mix it up on the ice take stock of their careers and the ways the sport has evolved in Brett Harvey’s documentary Ice Guardians (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Everything they used to say about fighting in hockey was true, but there was more to it than mere testosterone flare-ups. In the 1980s and 1990s, most of the fighting was done by enforcers, who were specifically recruited for their toughness. Sometimes they would pick a fight with their counterpart, in accordance with the unwritten rules, in hopes of sparking the team. However, if anyone targeted their team’s star player, the enforcer would bring down the hammer.

Of course, the League is totally against this sort of privatized justice, so they have changed the rules to effectively prohibit enforcers from enforcing. However, the results are a mixed bag. Wayne Gretzky famously had Dave Semenko and Mart McSorley during his long, healthy, record-breaking career. In contrast, Gretzky’s heir apparent Sidney Crosby has been sidelined for extended periods due to concussion-related issues during the post-enforcer era. Essentially, Harvey’s pro-enforcer analysts argue the McSorleys and Semenkos represent a self-regulating system, which discourages cheap shots. In contrast, the League assumes the refs have perfect knowledge of what transpires on the ice and the prospect of five or ten minutes in the penalty box will be sufficient to protect star players from dirty play.

Harvey somewhat stacks the deck in favor of enforcer, but he includes some frequently useful commentary from an official NHL doctor. Still, we definitely get the sense enforcers were scapegoated for every scandal and problem the game faced. Even Dr. Tator readily admits getting checked into the boards at thirty-five miles per hour has much greater concussion implications than the relatively brief fights.

Of course, Guardians isn’t all serious. In fact, the greater portion of the film is devoted to anecdotes and nostalgic war stories. There are some big hockey names reminiscing about how the game was played in their day, including “skills” players Bobby and Brett Hull and Chris Chelios, as well as enforcers like Semenko, Brian McGrattan, George Parros, Scott Parker, Kevin Westgarth, Todd Fedoruk, and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz. You’d better believe they all have some stories to tell, so you really ought to listen.

Ice Guardians is a ton of fun, but it also offers some genuine insights into sports psychology and human nature at its most elemental. Clearly, it loves the game, but not the NHL—and its biases are contagious. Very highly recommended for all sports fans, Ice Guardians opens this Friday (10/28) in New York at the AMC 34th Street and in Colorado at the AMC Westminster Promenade.

The Windmill: This is Holland

Wind power will never be a practical alternative to fossil fuels, because it is intermittent. That means it doesn’t always blow. However, an old Dutch miller named Hendryk came up with a solution. He sold his soul to the devil to keep his big wheel turning. It turned out he was grinding up more than grain in there. Centuries later, the old Miller keeps coming back for more victims in Nick Jongerius’s The Windmill (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

An Australian teen is on the run from the law, so logically she comes to Holland. An American businessman trying to keep his hemophiliac teenage son away from his embittered ex-wife also chooses Holland for a sudden getaway vacation. They all wind-up in a motley tour group making the rounds of windmill country. Naturally, the bus breaks down, forcing them to spend the night in a mysterious windmill that is not on any of the tourist maps.

It turns out this old Hendryk’s abode. According to legends, the devil decided to give him a permanent roster spot after the peasants gave him the torch and pitchfork treatment. Clearly, he is still out there, hacking and slashing away. He could also be behind the guilt trip hallucinations everyone is having. Takashi the Japanese tourist might just have the game figured out, but the only one he can talk to is an AbFab-ish former model, who used to have a lot of work in Japan. Alas, she is not as focused as she should be.

The Windmill easily carries the best tag line of the year: “This isn’t Hell. This is Holland.” Jongerius and screenwriters Chris W. Mitchell and Suzy Quid even have a character say the line, making it totally legit. The backstory is also totally creepy and the underlying Macguffin is pretty compelling in an Old Testament kind of way. However, there is too much conventional slasher movie business that keeps Windmill firmly ensconced in meathead movie terrain.

Charlotte Beaumont (the older sister in Broadchurch) is not terrible as Australian Jennifer and Tanroh Ishida is quite good as the Japanese Takashi. Unfortunately, Patrick Baladi and Adam Thomas Wright are strictly groansville as the father and son. However, Bart Klever upstages everyone as Abe, the world’s worst tour guide.

If Jongerius had been more ambitious, The Windmill might have been a real genre standout. Instead, it is just a serviceable Halloween programming choice. Recommended for hardcore fans of Dick Maas’s Dutch horror films (Saint, etc.), The Windmill opens tomorrow (10/28) in LA, at the Arena Cinelounge.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Surviving the Tsunami: Kyoko Miyake’s Atomic Aunt

Before the tsunami, Kuniko Asada had most of the milestone events in Namie, Fukushima covered. She ran a wedding chapel, a funeral parlor, and a patisserie, for coffee and pastries in between. She remains quite an entrepreneur, but the future of her beloved home town is very much in doubt. Expatriate filmmaker Kyoko Miyake returned home to document her indomitable aunt during a challenging time of transition and the fate of her beloved Namie in Surviving the Tsunami: My Atomic Aunt (trailer here), which premieres this Sunday on PBS's World Channel, as part of the current season of Doc World.

Namie was the sort of idyllic coastal village you might expect to see in a Kore-eda film. As a young girl, Miyake always enjoyed the sunny weather and relaxed rhythms during her summer visits. Only after 3/11 did she realize how whole-heartedly the community welcomed in the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) nuclear plant. Like so many provincial communities, Namie lacked the necessary opportunities to retain young residents. The Fukushima power plant seemed like exactly the sort of economic development the town needed.

Of course, things look very different now. Throughout most of the film, Asada anxiously awaits the government’s verdict whether Namie will ever be habitable again. She definitely turns against nuclear power—and to some extent Miyake does too, but as a Tokyo resident she realized all the electricity the city consumed must be generated somehow.

Indeed, Miyake and her aunt are fully aware of the contradictions and hypocrisies of post-Fukushima life. These often manifest in poignant ways, as when Miyake catches Asada watering her plants during her brief salvaging trips home, because how could she not? There are telling scenes like that throughout the film, as well as a few wince-inducing moments, such as an embarrassing TEPCO promotional video from what looks like early 1990s, assuring viewers the plant was built high enough to withstand a tsunami. (To be fair, that was sort of true, but tragically they did not take into account the buckling effect of the preceding earthquake).

Miyoko’s Aunt Kuniko is indeed a lovely and dignified woman, but ultimately it is her enterprising nature that gives us hope for a redemptive future. She represents the best of the Japanese national character, but ironically that stoic resiliency let the rest of the world basically forget the continuing struggles of the Fukushima region. Highly recommended as a dramatic personal story and a wider reality check, the Women Make Movies-supported Surviving the Tsunami: My Atomic Aunt premieres this Sunday (10/30) on PBS World.

Portrait of a Garden: Prune Hard with a Vengeance

You know the expression “like watching the grass grow?” In this case, it is fennel and Japanese wine berry, but it is still unfortunately apt. Admirers will call this Dutch doc meditative but the rest of us philistines will quickly grow restive watching the owner of an old restored fifteenth century “kitchen garden” and his master gardener methodically prune what seems like every blessed branch on the 3.7 acres. Presumably you have to be a dedicated gardener to appreciate the muted charms of Rosie Stapel’s Portrait of a Garden (trailer here), which opens today in New York at Film Forum.

Presumably Daan van der Have is going alright for himself, because maintaining his sprawling garden is quite an undertaking. Rather than flowers, he grows just about every consumable crop you can imagine. Fortunately, he hired Jan Freriks, one of the few remaining master gardeners fully versed in traditional techniques dating back to the gardens of Louis XIV, the Sun King. (No, he wasn’t there when they were first developed. Don’t be mean.) Together, they prune like nobody’s business and occasionally they discuss the weather or maybe pruning.

You could definitely call Portrait an observational documentary, but there really is not a lot to observe. We have been down this road many times with documentaries that quietly watch artists and craftsmen at work, but they usually give us more to engage with. For instance, photography publisher Gerhard Steidl emerges as a surprising passionate and rather witty figure in How to Make a Book with Steidl and Gottfried Helnwein has plenty to say about art and history in Lisa Kirk Colburn’s doc, but with Portrait, you’re largely on your own.

There are maybe some lessons to be learned about sustainable, locally grown produce or maybe just the value of working the soil and investing a little sweat equity in your property, but under Stapel’s approach, all take-aways will have to be absorbed through osmosis. A little context would definitely be helpful, especially with respect to who van der Have is and just how he can afford to put so much time and money into his garden.

Just so everyone understands, there is a lot of pruning in this film. Seriously, a lot. Maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn’t, but either way viewers should be forewarned. As cinema, it is just too slight and sparsely vegetated to recommend. For those who find PBS’s Victory Garden too fast-paced and hectic, Portrait of a Garden opens today (10/26) in New York, at Film Forum.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Schneider vs. Bax: Getting Bloody in the Dutch Wetlands

The Flemish Schneider and the Dutch Bax will fight a real Benelux grudge match, whether they want to or not. Instead of a steel cage, they will fight it out in the Dutch wetlands, using their weapon of choice: rifles with sniper-scopes. They are both hitman contracted by their agent to rub out each other in Alex van Warmerdam’s Schneider vs. Bax (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Film Movement.

Schneider is a family man, with two adoring young daughters and a lovely wife who thinks he works as a troubleshooting engineer for a filling station company. The crusty booze and narcotics soused Bax is also sort of a family man, but his semi-estranged grown daughter Francesca bitterly resents him for being a chaotic, ineffectual parent. The hung-over Bax forgot Francesca will be visiting his ultra-white Ikea-looking cottage, so he will have to evict his young gothy lover tout suite. It also slipped his fog-encrusted mind that the shadowy Mertens would be luring his target right to his doorstep this very same morning.

Although his head is clear, Schneider is also having a hard morning. Since Martens neglected to tell him the surrounding marshes were protected, the visiting team hitman got spotted by a nature warden. That forces Schneider to return to his storage facility to change his disguise and vehicle. Things get even more complicated when a prostitute breaks in, hoping to hide from her abusive pimp.

Schneider vs. Bax is sort of like the art-house theater version of Mad Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” but van Warmerdam’s conception of slapstick humor truly has existential bite. The Dutch marshland is also wildly cinematic, adding something to S v. B akin to what the East Texas scrubland did for Blood Simple.

Thesp-helmer van Warmerdam is wonderfully cynical and dissolute as the world-weary Bax. In contrast, Tom Dewispelaere is rather rigid and aloof as the detail-oriented Schneider. They clearly have very different approaches to their job. Of course, nobody is really in the right here, but the survivor survives. Frankly, we are not intended to take a rooting interest. Instead, we should really just relax and enjoy as van Warmerdam rains down one-darned-thing-after-another on his morally compromised characters.

As soon as you get into the spirit of it, S v. B really is jolly fun. Van Warmerdam pulls off quite a feat of traffic direction, maintaining the almost farcical skulking in and out of bogs, around and under the cottage. The vibe approaches the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, as reconceived by Quentin Tarantino. Highly recommended for fans of darkly comic capers, Schneider vs. Bax releases today (10/25) on DVD, from Film Movement.

A Better Place: Your Sins will be Transferred

Jeremy Rollins is like a Biblical Wolverine. He does not merely heal quickly. All the physical damage inflicted upon him will be mysteriously transferred to the person his attacker loves best. Naturally, his [over] protective mother kept him sequestered and home schooled for vague reasons of X-Men style anti-mutant fear and prejudice, but frankly that never really makes sense. Regardless, Rollins will have to face his corrupt small town on his own after her premature demise in Dennis Ho’s A Better Place (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD, from Monarch Home Entertainment.

As one might expect, Rollins is somewhat socially awkward, considering he has hardly had any interaction with anyone besides his mother. Yet somehow, Ned Bower, the boorish Sheriff’s son is just itching to bully him as soon as he steps out of the house. Fortunately, Jess the cute diner waitress intercedes on his behalf. She too has a rotten home life, which gives them something in common to bond over.

When Sheriff Bower is not reining in his son and intimidating Rollins, he does the dirty work of Sam Abram, the town’s banker, who is even more gleeful repossessing homes than Old Man Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, he enjoys it so much, he has Bower frame-up vulnerable home-owners to expedite the process. Perhaps they also helped Ms. Rollins along with her heart attack.

There are clear Christian themes sprinkled throughout Better Place, but it is considerably less in-your-face than most Evangelical films. Unfortunately, it all comes out in the off-key, highly unsatisfying climax. For the most part, the cast is also more professional grade, particularly William Knight (the English dub voice of Danzo Shimura in the Naruto franchise) as Abram (so it’s a pity his character is such a cliché).

It is also fun to watch Tonya Kay vamp it up as Abram’s gold-digging trophy fiancée. Cult horror star Maria Olsen lends the film further credibility, but unfortunately she is largely wasted as Jess’s belligerent drunken mother Rita. As for the kids, they are rather a mixed bag. Mary Ann Raemisch shows some poise and presence as Jess, but Stephen Todt’s Rollins mainly just gives us surface awkwardness, with no sense of anything going on inside.

Compared to the average Kirk Cameron movie, Better Place is quite subtle and accomplished, but that is grading on a generous curve. When it comes to the actual viewing experience, the sluggish pacing cannot be ignored. It earns some credit, but it is still hard to recommend A Better Place when it releases today on DVD from Monarch Home Entertainment.

Killbilles: Hicksploitation in Slovenia

Sure, NATO and EU membership were important milestones for Slovenia, but the production of its first homegrown hillbilly horror film is just as significant, if not more so. If there is one thing that inevitably comes with socio-economic development, it is an embarrassed discomfort at the sight of the country’s backwoods folk and a casual willingness to equate them with inbreeding, sadism, and hard liquor. So congratulations to Slovenia for becoming a fully-fledged member of the community of nations thanks to screenwriter-director Tomaz Gorkic’s Killbillies (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD, from Artsploitation.

Zina is getting too “old” and far too self-aware to continue her modeling career, but she always enjoyed working on aging hipster Blitcz’s shoots, so she takes another fateful assignment with him. They will be shooting in the countryside, so we pretty much know where this is going. Zina definitely looks and sounds like “Final Girl” material, whereas her younger, shallower colleague Mia should be an easy kill. As it happens, the deformed hill people who capture them brew the mysterious moonshine that has become so popular in trendy Ljubljana night clubs. What’s in their potent potable? Ever seen Soylent Green?

Gorkic largely plays the exploitative material straight, which is both a blessing and a curse. At least, the Julian Alps (or whatever mountainous tax-credit extending region it was filmed in) certainly look cinematic and Zina is an appealingly assertive hero. However, we have been down this lonesome country road before—and Gorkic never really adds any distinctly Slovenian flourishes.

Still, the novelty of Slovenia’s first native horror film speaks for itself. It also boasts a surprisingly recognizable cast, including Nina Ivanisin (probably best known for A Call Girl) going Ellen Ripley on the inbred freaks and Sebastian Cavazza (Halima’s Path) as the tall, dark, and intense Blitcz, both of whom acquit themselves quite well, all things considered.

It is strangely encouraging to know this exists, but whether you should spend any time with it is a question only you can answer for yourself. Recommended for fans of grisly cannibal exploitation, Killbillies is now available on DVD and VOD platforms (including Vimeo), from Artsploitation.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Living and the Dead: BBC America’s Halloween Binge

You don’t have to dig too dig to find the pagan roots in rural England. It might look like All Creatures Great and Small on the surface, but it’s The Wicker Man underneath. At least such is very definitely the case on Nathan Appleby’s ancestral estate. He has just moved back with his second wife Charlotte in hopes of starting a new family, but their plans will be jeopardized by a malevolent force in creator-screenwriter Ashley Pharoah’s six-episode limited series The Living and the Dead (trailer here), which premieres this Thursday on BBC America (who will release all six episodes on their app the following day, for Halloween binge-watching).

Nathan Appleby is a Victorian psychologist, who always believes there is a scientific explanation for all of life’s mysteries—or at least he used to. He has not spent much time on the estate since his son Gabriel’s drowning accident. Appleby never really got over it, nor has he ever pretended otherwise, yet the headstrong Charlotte Appleby married him anyway. Despite their lack of experience, she convinces him to maintain the estate as a working farm. However, this may very well be a costly decision.

As soon as the Appleby power couple takes charge of the farm’s management, a rash of mysterious accidents rocks the tight-knit community. Perhaps most disturbingly, Rev. Matthew Denning’s daughter Harriet starts presenting signs of spiritual possession. Trusting in his science, Appleby starts treating the young woman, but a session of hypnotism is less than reassuring.

There may or may not be several spirits haunting the villages, including that of a notorious unbaptized serial killer and a traditional healer unjustly drowned as a witch. Frankly, the village has no shortage of bad karma, going back to an especially bloody Roundhead atrocity during the English Civil War. The hauntings hit close to home, when Charlotte detects the presence of Gabriel’s own ghost, but his intentions are far from clear. Most maddeningly for her husband, his late son will not materialize in his presence, but he keeps seeing visions of what appears to be a woman from our era holding an iPad.

Despite some weird time-shifting business, L&D is definitely a supernatural drama, with pronounced Gothic inclinations. Thanks to the tight, tense helming of Dr. Who director Alice (no relation to Patrick) Troughton, each instalment delivers a high quotient of chills, with the penultimate fifth episode qualifying as pretty darned terrifying. We definitely get a visceral sense of an infernal power corrupting the land.

Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer are well matched as the Applebys. At first they share some rather endearing Thin Man-style chemistry, but it is even more impressive to watch their gradual falling-out, with Morgan rather spectacularly putting the “strange” in estrangement. Nicholas Woodeson and Malcolm Storry also add crusty color and gravitas, as the Rev. Denning and estate steward Gideon Langtree, respectively. Cult cinema fans will also appreciate seeing guest appearances from Steve Oram (Sightseers, The Canal) and Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Nina Forever) as the farm manager and village school teacher, both of whom will be caught up in the sinister business afoot.

L&D is a smart, literate period production (if you are wondering, it is indeed possible that Appleby might have had a “Ouija” branded spirit board, as early as 1894). The evocative atmosphere nicely fuels the suspense, which builds cumulatively both over the course of each episode and throughout the limited series. Highly recommended for fans of British supernatural horror, The Living and the Dead premieres this Thursday (10/27), with all six episodes streaming on the network’s digital platforms starting on Friday (10/28).

Finding Babel: His Grandson’s Search for the Truth

Isaac Babel was the most prominent Jewish Soviet writer of the 1920s and 1930s. That made him a logical choice to be the face of the Popular Front and a lead-pipe cinch to be subsequently swept up in the Stalinist Purges. Yet, decades later, questions still persist regarding his final years in an NKVD prison and the fate of his large archive of unpublished works. When the great writer’s grandson retraces his footsteps, he finds the new Russia has not changed so very much from Soviet times in David Novack’s Finding Babel (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

During his own lifetime, Babel was internationally acclaimed for Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry, but the latter’s often brutal depiction of the Red forces earned him suspicion within the Party’s upper echelon. However, he was “useful” for a while, which is why he was allowed to function as a sort of literary ambassador for the USSR in Paris. However, the radically honest criticisms of post-revolutionary Soviet society in his play Maria probably sealed his fate.

Andrei Malaev-Babel’s pilgrimage in search of his grandfather’s legacy stops in Paris, where the actor-drama teacher advises a new production of Maria. He also takes us to Ukraine, where the Odessa-born Babel is celebrated by average citizens and high ranking government officials alike as a national hero. This might be a good time to point out Putin’s propaganda machine is trying to make this nation synonymous with anti-Semitic nationalism. Eventually, Malaev-Babel visits the Russian artist colony where his grandfather was arrested. Although he has a pleasant visit with family friend Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the trip turns sour when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the site of his grandfather’s arrest. It seems that historic site now lies beyond the steel gates of a shadowy compound, the owner of which has no reluctance to unleash his thugs on Maleav-Babel and the film crew.

We very definitely get that sinking feeling of “the more things change . . .” throughout Finding Babel, especially when the grandson makes a formal request to see his grandfather’s KGB/NKVD files. Fortunately, investigative journalist Vitaly Shentalinsky gives him a good idea of what to expect and strategies to circumvent obstructions. Frankly, Shentalinsky could probably be a fascinating subject of his own documentary. The same is probably true of Brother Victor. Unlike so many in the Church hierarchy, the free-thinking monk openly equates the new regime with that of the Communist era. Of course, he has a unique vantage point at St. Catherine’s Monastery, the former site of Sukhanovo Prison, where Babel was tortured.

Throughout Finding Babel, Liev Schrieber reads excerpts of Babel’s writings in his best PBS voice. He brings out the poetry of Babel’s prose, which definitely helps put him in literary perspective. Novack adds further color with vintage black-and-white film clips of Yuri Shumsky playing Benya Krik, the Jewish gangster anti-hero of Odessa Tales in Vladimir Vilner’s 1926 Russian film.

Clearly, Novack (who also produced N.C. Heikin’s outstanding Kimjongilia) is aware how the evil legacy of Soviet Communism continues to reverberate in modern day Russia and Ukraine. He tries not to beat us over the head with parallels, but sometimes the Russians will do it for him. Yet, he never neglects Babel’s place in cultural, socio-political, and family history. It is a film of great sensitivity and rather unfortunately, significant modern relevancy. Highly recommended for anyone interested Ukrainian and Russian history and literature, Finding Babel opens this Friday (10/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tomu Uchida at MoMA: Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji

Class distinctions could be profoundly unfair during the Edo era, but sometimes they cut both ways. Cut is indeed the correct operative word in this socially conscious samurai film. A poor but honorable samurai and his faithful servants become increasingly aware of the injustices of the world as the make their way to the capitol in Tomu Uchida’s slightly misleadingly titled Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, which screens as part of MoMA’s revelatory retrospective of the major Japanese auteur, who remains bizarrely under-screened in the West.

Sakawa Kojūrō is a good man and a good samurai, but not when he drinks. Therefore, his servants, Genpachi the lancer and Genta the more conventional manservant are under strict orders to keep him away from the sake. As they travel to Edo to offer tribute to their lord, they fall in with an itinerant shamisen player and her young daughter. The orphaned Jirō also takes a shine to Genpachi. In fact, the first two acts have a vibe weirdly reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, as Kojūrō and his servants re-encounter many of the same fellow travelers (to use an unfortunate term) at every inn along their route.

In this case, familiarity largely breeds respect and affection, especially from the samurai, who will bitterly reproach himself for his inability to aid them in times of tribulation. However, his own egalitarian conduct with his servants will attract the wrong sort of attention from his fellow samurai.

Bloody Spear represented Uchida’s return to the Japanese studio system after spending over a decade making movies in Manchuria, so he had to call in favors with one-time contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu to act as production advisors. In fact, there is an intimacy and a sensitivity to Bloody Spear not unlike that of their domestic dramas. Of course, that spear will eventually get bloody—and when it does, the film gets massively heavy.

Resembling today’s Kôji Yakusho, Chiezō Kataoka is all kinds of hardnosed middle-aged steeliness as Genpachi. He has the gravitas and the hack-and-slash chops, but he also develops rather sweetly tender chemistry with Chizuru Kitagawa as the shamisen player and Motoharu Ueki’s Jirō. Daisuke Katō quite effectively counterbalances Kataoka as Genta, who initially seems to be the typical Falstaffian servant but slowly reveals himself to be a considerably deeper, more complex figure. Plus, Ryunsuke Tsukigata really kicks viewers’ legs out from under them as the mysterious Tōzaburō, whose secret really elevates Bloody Spear to the level of high tragedy.

Bloody Spear is just a terrific film that combines the sort of outrage at injustice that marked Reginald Rose’s early work with an affectionate needling of the common folks’ foibles, all within the Jidaigeki format. There is a lot of life happening on the road to Edo—and Uchida takes in quite a bit of it. Very highly recommended for fans of classic cinema of any variety, Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji screens again Thursday (11/3) as part of the Tomu Uchida retrospective now underway at MoMA.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

KAFFNY ’16: Retriever (short)

This year, the Federal government nearly reinstituted funding for horse beef inspections, but opponents prevailed in the eleventh hour. As a result, the lucrative Canadian and Mexican horse slaughtering concerns will carry on without American competition. Everyone likes Mr. Ed, but the horse beef for human consumption does not hit most Americans on the same visceral level as dog meat. Many Koreans feel the same way, but there is still a tradition of dog cuisine that some in the older generation still cling to. Obviously, opinion is mixed, but nobody is more conflicted on the issue than Lee Kwang, the homeless protagonist of Kim Joo-hwan’s short film Retriever, which screens during the 2016 Third Culture Korean American Film Festival New York (Brooklyn).

Lee is a despised and marginalized Chosonjok immigrant, an ethnic Korean from China. You could say he eats thanks to dog meat cuisine, but he does not partake himself. Every few months, Lee snatch-and-grabs a rescued stray from a provincial pound to sell to a back-alley dog butcher. He assumes a big golden retriever like Bori will fetch a nice price, but when his regular buyer lowballs him, Lee keeps him out of spite. Much to his surprise, Leee quickly bonds with Bori. He even works off the cost of vet bills when the dog gets sick through his own negligence. However, parents and dog lovers should be strongly cautioned—viewers should absolutely not get too attached to Bori.

Let’s just say Retriever is not The Lady and the Tramp or Lassie—think more along the lines of Old Yeller, but even darker. We will see how dodgy-borderline legal dog butchers go about their business and it is even more brutal than halal slaughter. This is definitely a film that stakes out a clear position in Korea’s ongoing dog meat debate. Yet, it has just as much or more to say about man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

Moon Sun-yong is pretty darn devastating as the desperate and degraded Lee, forcing the empathy out of even the most guarded viewers. Of course, it is really and truly Max and Joon, appearing in tandem as Bori, who lower the emotional boom, just like W.C. Fields could have told you. The melancholy vibe is even further enhanced by the classically moody cinematography of Nils Clauss and Jung Jin-ho’s pensive light-chamber music score.

Retriever wears its heart conspicuously on its sleeve without shame or reservations. However, it is also an undeniably accomplished film. The quality on-screen is plainly evident to see, but it is still apt to ruin a lot of viewers’ days. If you like your films bittersweet with an emphasis on bitter than you will love Retriever when it screens this afternoon (10/22) with the feature Empty Space, at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn—and remember you can get 15% off tickets with the “jbpins” promo code.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Zombies: The Title Says It All

Arguably, a prison cell is a worse place to find oneself than a hospital bed during the initial days of a zombie apocalypse. Fortunately, one of the surviving detectives realizes killings that landed Luke behind bars were not really killings. Yes, it all looks and sounds familiar, but at least the energy level is cranked up throughout Hamid Torabpour’s Zombies (trailer here), which opens today in select theaters.

Eventually, Luke and Det. Sommers fight their way out of the station, holing up in a shelter with a rag-tag band of survivors. Luke becomes their best scout and forager, regularly venturing out in search of more survivors. He is particularly keen to find his girlfriend Bena, since she is played by former America’s Next Top Model contestant Raina Hein. However, it will be Bena and her surly pal Tala who find Luke when he most needs help. This is quite a small town. He had just encountered Haley, another former girlfriend (or something), who has suffered a nasty psychotic break. Rather bizarrely, she seems to have some sort of symbiotic bond with the shuffling hordes, which allows her to lure unsuspecting survivors to their deaths.

Right, the rather generically titled Zombies could be described as three parts Walking Dead and one part Wyrmwood. Perhaps Torabpour recognized the Haley sub-plot does not make much sense, because he chokes it off relatively early in the second act. Regardless, he delivers some bounteous helpings of hack-and-blast zombie killing action. To give a feel for where the film is coming from, everyone basically admits the big climatic zombie battle involves a crazy plan and it’s probably avoidable in the first place, but they are going to do it anyway, because why not?

Why not indeed? Zombies are nowhere near as gripping or inventive as Train to Busan, the breakout zombie hit of the year. However, it delivers the raw meat. It is also cool to see horror legend Tony Todd playing a good guy, the world weary Det. Sommers. Steven Luke is respectably hardnosed as his namesake, while Hein shows some solid action chops as Bena.

This is basically a meat-and-potatoes zombie film that could become a sentimental fan favorite over time. There is nothing spectacularly original about it, but it aims to please. Recommended for zombie buffs, Zombies opens today in select markets.