Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whistler ’16: Le Cyclotron

It is like Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, but with more National Socialists. Life had never been as uncertain as it was at the climax of WWII, during the post-Heisenberg Principle, post-Schrödinger’s Cat era. For theoretical physicists engaged in espionage, the more they know, the scarier and less predictable the world looks. Quantum mechanics becomes a deadly game in Quebecois filmmaker Olivier Asselin’s The Cyclotron (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Whistler Film Festival.

The Franco-German Simone Ziegler was once a colleague of Emil Scherrer and very nearly his lover, but now she works for the resistance. She is to make contact with the physicist on a train bound for Paris to assess how close he is to realizing an atomic weapon—and most likely liquidate him based on his response. However, she unilaterally changes her mission parameters when she learns the rogue Scherrer wants to defect. He has indeed completed an atomic weapon—a cyclotron—but on a much smaller scale than the Manhattan Project’s A-bomb.

Unfortunately, the Gestapo has the drop on Scherrer and they are also pretty sure Ziegler’s cover story is bogus. The Germans will interrogate them both with the help of collaborating scientist Helmut König, but Scherrer is not talking and Ziegler says just enough to create a sense of uncertainty, so to speak.

Le Cyclotron easily represents the cleverest cinematic use of Schrödinger’s Cat since Ward Byrkit’s Coherence. It is hard to explain outside of the film, but it is completely convincing in the cinematic moment, which sounds aptly Heisenbergian. There are also wickedly smart nods towards relativity and time travel, yet it still functions as an effective espionage thriller, which happens to be primarily set on a train, for extra genre bonus points.

Mathieu Laverdière’s mostly black-and-white cinematography (with select passages rendered in color for effect) is strikingly stylish, in an appropriately noir kind of way. As a result, in terms of its tone and visual vocabulary, Cyclotron is more closely akin to films like Kawalerowicz’s Night Train and the rotoscoped Alois Nebel.

As Scherrer and Ziegler, Mark Antony Krupa and co-screenwriter Lucille Fluet do not look like typical blow-dried romantic co-leads, but that is rather refreshing. It also means they more convincingly pass for nuclear physicists. Most importantly, they forge some compellingly tragic, ambiguously romantic chemistry together.

Admittedly, Asselin has trouble with the ending, but it is always tricky to stick the dismount when a film has this degree of difficulty. Regardless, he earns enough credit for his ambition and inventiveness to compensate. Highly recommended for fans of film noir, science fiction, and post-modern cinema, Le Cyclotron screens this Saturday (12/3) and Sunday (12/4) as part of the Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia.

Culver City ’16: Women of Maidan

Their ranks included Ruslana Lyzhychko, the first Ukrainian Eurovision song contest winner, and babushkas from the provinces. Women disproportionately answered the call during Ukraine’s Maidan Square protests, because they found the Russian-backed regime’s use of force against peacefully demonstrating students simply unacceptable. According to Putin and the gullible media, they were also largely neo-Nazi nationalists. Of course, that was a libelous lie, as viewers can easily discern when watching Olha Onyshko’s Women of Maidan (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Culver City Film Festival.

In retrospect, unleashing the paramilitary Berkut forces on orderly protesting students in November of 2013 was the Yanukovych Gang’s biggest mistake. It unleashed a sleeping giant: Ukraine’s mothers and grandmothers, who quickly filled the square to protect the nation’s “children.” Like many of the demonstrators, Onyshko arrived soon after the first brutal attack and quickly settled in for a long siege.

It is amazing how thoroughly the Euromaidan protests have been covered by documentarians, yet Putin’s disinformation campaign has still been so insidiously successful. If it were really an expression of anti-Semitic nationalism, one would think there would be signs peeking through Onyshko’s footage or that of Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire, or Andrew Tkach’s Generation Maidan, or Sergei Loznitsa’s observationally immersive Maidan, but that just was not the case. However, probably no previous doc (except perhaps Dmitriy Khavin’s post-Maidan Quiet in Odessa) so thoroughly discredits such slander as Women of Maidan.

Onyshko talks to a wide cross-section of the women at the Square, none of whom come across as ideologues of any stripe. In case after case, they are simply moved by a desire to see a better future for younger generations. They are fed up with Yanukovych’s corruption and deeply skeptical of his chumminess with Putin—especially those who lost family members during the Holomodor, Stalin’s deliberate terror famine.

Women of Maidan is a necessary corrective to lingering Russian propaganda and an inspiring chronicle of a concerted grassroots campaign to protect Ukrainians’ constitutional rights. Unfortunately, Onyshko probably overstates her case when she heralds the Revolution of Dignity as a victory for humanistic matriarchal values over patriarchal oppression. Alas, Putin remains firmly committed to patriarchy and nobody seems to have a plan to deal with him. Regardless, it remains a film of great merit and journalistic integrity. Running an easily manageable sixty-six-minutes, Women of Maidan is very highly recommended for general viewers as well as feminists and foreign policy hawks alike, when it screens this Saturday (12/3), at the Culver City Film Festival.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

ADIFF ’16: Gang of the French Caribbean

In the 1970s, there was a demand for postal money orders. That meant post offices often carried considerable sums of cash on-hand, yet they did not have the same level of armed protection common to banks. Being a symbol of the French government made them even more desirable targets for the disillusioned Jimmy Larivière and his gang. For a while they live high and feel empowered, but internal divisions and external pressures will inevitably lead to bloodshed in Jean-Claude Flamand-Barny’s Gang of the French Caribbean (trailer here), which screens as the centerpiece of the 2016 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Like many colonial immigrants from the French Antilles, Larivière feels like the victim of a bait-and-switch, falsely promised serious job-training by the Bureau for the Development of Migration in the Overseas Departments, but only offered menial employment on arrival. Unlike many disillusioned French Caribbean migrants, Larivière channels his frustration, falling in with a team of armed robbers led by the aptly named Politik.

Politik talks a good radical game and he has connections to radical separatist organizations back in the French Antilles. Unfortunately, he is also loyal to a fault with respects to the gang’s weakest link: Molokoy, a heroin addict would-be pimp deeply in debt to Algerian white slavers. Molokoy’s erratic behavior, simmering resentment, and cowardly violence make him a ticking time-bomb. Larivière also has his own long-term problems, including Nicole, a progressive former resident of Martinique, who recognized him during his first hold-up.

Gang follows a familiar gangster rise-and-fall trajectory, but the 1970s period details are spot-on. Indeed, it captures all the chaos and confusion of the era with a good deal of subtlety. Larivière’s semi-protective relationship with Molokoy’s Algerian prostitute and the French Algerian military veteran (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), who in turn protects him from the Algerian gangsters seeking to reclaim her are particularly intriguing. Of course, there is plenty of anti-colonial messaging, but Flamand-Barny wraps those bitter pills in easy to digest action.

As Larivière, Djedje Apali broods like nobody’s business, while Adama Niane just radiates bad vibes as Molokoy. Eriq Ebouaney also sets off plenty of alarm bells as the slick and vaguely sinister Politik. Whenever those three circle each other, we expect fireworks to follow shortly. Kassovitz makes the most of his all too brief experience as the shotgun-wielding café proprietor Romane Bohringer brings dignity and dimension to Nicole, one of the few female characters who is not largely stereotyped.

Although Gang is just ninety easily-manageable minutes, it feels pretty epic. Fittingly, Larivière and company namecheck the self-styled revolutionary gangster Jacques Mesrine, because the film would make an apt triple-feature with the Vincent Cassel Mesrine duology. Recommended for fans of historical gangster films, Gang of the French Caribbean has its red carpet gala screening this Saturday (12/3) during the 2016 ADIFF.

SiREN: Lily the Demon Returns

Seriously, the last time a movie bachelor party ended with everyone happy, it probably starred Tom Hanks and Tawny Kitaen. This will be no exception. A demon like Lily (a.k.a. Lilith) is uniquely suited to punish the kind of boorish horndog behavior often witnessed during stag nights. You will remember her and her eerily wide eyes from the “Amateur Night” story arc in the original V/H/S film. Lily is back, so no lecherous men are safe in Gregg Bishop’s SiREN (note the capitalization, trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jonah felt duty-bound to make his ragingly irresponsible brother Mac his best friend rather than his real best friend Rand. That is how they wound up in a divey strip club on the Redneck Riviera. On a tip from a suspicious fellow patron, Mac drags the stag party to an Eyes Wide Shut-style sex club way out in the sticks. This seems to be more what he had in mind, except maybe too much so. Still, the four dudes probably could have made it out unscathed if Jonah had not decided to play hero.

He is convinced Lily, the peepshow girl, whose song can literally you-know-what with your mind is being held there against her will, as is indeed the case. However, he does not realize she is a demon. Much like the “Howling Man” episode of The Twilight Zone, Jonah and his friends will have to deal with the implications of his actions, but for them it will be far more personal. Mr. Nyx, the flamboyant club proprietor well-versed in the occult is much less forgiving than John Carradine’s Brother Jerome. On the other hand, Lily rather takes a shine to Jonah, in a demons-mate-for-life kind of way.

Frankly, the non-found footage SiREN is not nearly as intense as the constituent anthology film that spawned it. While it lacks the Poe-like concentration of mood and building intensity, the feature is more about attitude and grungy southern-fried exploitation elements. There is also some very strange business having to do with the transference of memories (both as a method of payment at the club and a means of sending Jonah a message he will never forget) that distinguishes SiREN from other seductive succubus films.

SiREN is fortunate to have Hannah Fierman reprising the role of Lily. She is massively fierce, but also weirdly vulnerable. Justin Welborn (Southbound and V/H/S Viral) also has a creepy Paul Williams-from-Hell thing going on as Mr. Nyx that fits right in with the film’s dramatic tone. Brittany S. Hall is sufficiently intriguing and genre-friendly as Ash, the Medusa-haired memory-extracting bartender Ash, she could conceivably takeover the pseudo-franchise. Plus, Chase Williamson (John Dies at the End) and Hayes Mercure make surprisingly compelling average Joes in over their heads.

Fierman is just an electric presence, who powers the film through a swampy mid-section. We have seen most of these elements before, but she is something else. Recommended for fans of Fierman and her V/H/S character, SiREN opens this Friday (12/2) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire

There is a great deal of deliberate confusion regarding non-controversial adult, amniotic, umbilical, and pluripotent stem cell treatments and the hot-button issue of embryonic stem cells. Ringo Lam is about to muddy the waters even further. “Ex-stem cells” (or super-stem cells, depending on the translation) are the Macguffin of his latest action film. What are Ex-stem cells? They are extra-special and can apparently cure cancer just by looking at it. Where do they come from? Essentially from the late Prof. Poon’s missing research journal. The private Sky One clinic is carrying on his work, but his protégés have very different goals in Lam’s Sky on Fire (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After losing his wife to cancer, Chong Tin-po considers his work as chief of security for the Sky One clinic a personal calling. It is a big job protecting the Mainland skyscraper facility, but he is a hardnosed kind of guy. However, the events that follow the theft of a shipment of Ex-stem cells shakes his faith in the clinic director, Tong Wing-cheung, who sends along some suspiciously thuggish back-up for the recovery operation. Chong also cannot help feeling for Chia-chia and his step-sister Jen. They came from Taiwan seeking treatment at Sky One for her late-stage cancer, but threw their lot in with the hijackers when the clinic gave them the run around. At least Chong still trusts Gao Yu, Tong’s estranged wife and partner, who also studied under the murdered Prof. Poon.

Arguably, Sky is over-stuffed with supporting characters and the ending is supposed to be cathartic, but it is highly problematic from a moral-ethical perspective, if you think about it for more than two seconds. On the plus side, Daniel Wu pretty much puts the world on notice he can take all the steely cool-as-Elvis action protagonist gigs Andy Lau is aging out of, ever so disgustingly gracefully. As Chong, Wu broods, runs, and fights convincingly and looks good doing it.

Zhang Jingchu also adds some tragic grace as Gao Yu, even developing some tantalizingly ambiguous chemistry with Wu. Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan and Amber Kuo are enormously likable as the Taiwanese step-siblings, but she really ought to look for a good action role (like fellow Tiny Times co-star Mi Yang throwing down in Wu Dang), or risk getting type-cast as a cute but passive victim.

Call me a hand-wringer, but it really seems like the conclusion holds massively conspicuous implications Lam just ignores. Yet he can get away with it, because deftly turned action sequences always trump pedantry—and Lam still proves he has the master’s touch. Recommended despite the nagging issues for fans of Lam and the popular cast, Sky on Fire opens this Friday (12/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

ADIFF ’16: Hogtown

When writing about the disappearances of Toronto theater magnate Ambrose Small and author Ambrose Bierce, Charles Fort (as in “Fortean”) wondered if someone was “collecting Ambroses.” Maybe they should have looked in Chicago. That is where Daniel Nearing relocates Small (now Greenaway), using his case in much the same way Doctorow employed the Henry K. Thaw-Stanford White murder in Ragtime. In 1919, Prohibition was not yet the law of the land, but Chicago was already a dangerous place. African American police detective DeAndre Son Carter has a unique vantage point on the city’s vice and violence in Daniel Nearing’s Hogtown (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Soon after making racist complaints about Chicago’s demographic trends, the missing-presumed dead Greenaway was last seen trudging to points unknown in the snow. Suspicion will logically fall on his wife and the company account, who seem to be surprisingly close. However, the mystery remains unsolved. It would be quite a coup if Carter could deliver the killer. Consequently, he devotes quite a bit of time to the case, but the direction it takes will become awkward for him. Meanwhile, he pursues a romance with a woman who might even be more damaged than himself.

Like Ragtime, the presently and future famous walk in and out of Hogtown, especially the somewhat PTSD-rattled Ernest Hemingway and his soon to be estranged mentor, Sherwood Anderson. The privileged and the marginalized both have their roles to play. In the case of Herman Wilkins, it is the dual role of Carter and homeless Marquis Coleman, an unusual casting strategy that is not exploited in an Adrian Messenger way for novelty’s sake. In both cases, Wilkins is a raw and seething presence, who commands the screen.

Arguably, he is the only one who really has a chance to shine, because most of the supporting women get most of their screen time during stilted sex scenes, while the rest of the men are either decidedly minor players or somewhat caricatured, like Alexander Sharon’s gawky Hemingway.

Frankly, Nearing’s style would overwhelm all but the most forceful thesps, which clearly does not include Wilkins. Somewhat akin to the visions of Guy Maddin, Nearing’s black-and-white fantasia freely blends history with fiction, but it lacks the postmodern playfulness of the Canadian auteur. Nearing also has a tendency towards static tableaux, relying on voiceovers and intertitles to handle much of the heavy lifting exposition and storytelling chores.

Nearing and producer Sanghoon Lee earn high marks for some absolutely arresting cinematography, but the hollowness of their visuals sometimes tries our patience. There are only so many interior monologues a film can offer up, before risking charges of pretentiousness. Hogtown goes well past that point.

Look, at least Nearing is trying for something. He goes for broke and face-plants several times. Yet, some of the shortfalls could have been softened during the editing process. Stylish to an extreme fault, Hogtown might interest patrons who appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the micro-budget scene when it screens this Friday through Tuesday (12/2-12/6), as part of this year’s ADIFF.

Old Stone: China’s Hit-and-Run Mentality

China’s legal system is not concerned with right and wrong. It is about winning and losing. Currently, everyman cab-driver Lao Shi (“Old Stone”) is losing—badly. Thanks to a drunken passenger, Lao Shi accidentally hits a motorcyclist. Instead of killing him, he merely renders the victim comatose. Due to cruelly ironic laws, Lao Shi would have been better off striking him dead, as many people will callously and condescendingly explain to him. Doing what seems like the right thing has dire consequences in Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Johnny Ma’s feature-length debut, Old Stone (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Of course, Lao Shi’s unruly fare bails at the first sign of trouble, leaving the cabbie holding the bag. He attracts a large circle of bystanders, but the cops are troublingly slow to arrive. Fearing the man will die without treatment, Lao Shi drives him to the hospital himself. Unfortunately, he was probably correct. To make matters worse, by leaving the scene of the accident, Lao Shi violated established procedure, giving his insurance company and employer an excuse for abandoning him.

Now Lao Shi is likely on the hook for the man’s lifelong rehabilitation. The cabbie’s calls to his victim’s wife (representing himself as a hospital employee) only stoke his sense of guilt and responsibility. However, as his boss and former army comrade, the “Captain,” makes clear, Lao Shi is on his own—and if he cannot come to an arrangement with the victim’s family, his financial obligation will be transferred to his family after his death. He probably is not so worried about his domineering wife Mao Mao, but his beloved daughter is another matter.

Truly, no good deed goes unpunished in Old Stone. What starts out as a gritty social issue drama evolves into a coal-black noir thriller, sort of like Blood Simple as reconceived by Jia Zhangke. Yet, the evolution is imperceptibly smooth, because the life-and-death stakes are always readily apparent. Ma’s execution is tight, taut, and tense, but Chen Gang (better known for his TV work) is remarkably compelling as Lao Shi. His haunting face serves as a barometer, registering all the pressure and humiliation bearing down on him.

In starkly contrasting support, Chinese indie producer Nai An is all kinds of fierce as Mao Mao, while Jia regular Wang Hongwei is a coolly sinister presence as the Captain. Together, they are everything Chen’s Lao Shi is not.

It is amazing how each successive narrative development manages to be simultaneously shocking yet also scrupulously logical. Clearly, Ma’s film is deeply informed by the well-publicized hit-and-run deaths of two-year-old Wang Yue and five-year-old Yan Zhe (often compared to the Kitty Genovese case, except their shocking circumstances are demonstrably true), but with the victim raised to adult age. Obviously, such a revision is less off-putting, but it also ultimately allows Ma more opportunities to critique societal attitudes. Tough, smart, and altogether riveting, Old Stone is highly recommended for anyone who appreciates independent film when it opens this Wednesday (11/30) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

ADIFF ’16: Gurumbe. Afro-Andalusian Memories

Spain had slaves. This is not exactly front page news to anyone who knows a thimble full of Cuba’s colonial history. However, it has been conveniently forgotten on the Iberian Peninsula, where there was also plenty of slave-holding on European soil. In that context, amateur musicologists will not be surprised to learn African music forms helped shape the development of flamenco. Academics and musicians examine the legacy of Spain’s deliberately forgotten slave trade and its resulting cultural impact in M. Angel Rosales’ Gurumbé. Afro-Andalusian Memories (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 African Diaspora International Film Festival.

When historian Aurelia Martín Casares started researching slavery in Spain, she was told it never existed, but she unearthed over 2,500 slave deeds of sale just during the time she was working on her thesis. It turns out there was an extensive slave trade conducted within Spain proper, largely localized within the port cities of Seville and Cadiz, which of course, were major centers of Andalusian society. According to one on-screen expert, Spanish slavery even pre-dates the African trade, trafficking slaves from Caucasia (as in Southeast Europe into Eurasia)—a provocative historical episode that remains under-examined in culture and academia.

Of course, it is easy to hear the influence of African poly-rhythms in flamenco, if you listen for it. Viol da gamba virtuoso Fahmi Alqhai takes the discussion a step further, illustrating how traditional African musical forms also inspired the syncopation of baroque music through his catchy arrangement of Gaspar Sanz’s “Canarios.”

There are a number of musical performances in Gurumbé, but the tone of the film is surprisingly measured, authoritative, and at times something close to academic. As a result, it is highly credible and convincing. Rosales and his experts certainly make the case Spain remains in denial with respect to its national history as a slave owning and trading country. Indeed, some commentators parenthetically note with irony how Spain is only too willing to revisit the crimes of the Franco era, yet it refuses to face up to earlier national controversies.

There is some lovely singing and dancing in Gurumbé and a whole lot of awkward truth. Frankly, Rosales is pitching the material at a higher level than causal viewers might expect, but it is a good thing that he refuses to under-estimate his audience. Recommended for those with a serious interest in Andalusian culture and music, Gurumbé. Afro-Andalusian Memories screens this Thursday (12/1) and Sunday (12/11), as part of this year’s African Diaspora Film Festival.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Vanishing Time—A Boy Who Returned: Kids Grow Up Fast in Korean

He is like an inverse Rip Van Winkle for K-Pop kids. For fifteen years, Sung-min grew older while everyone else stood still. Tragedy will be inevitable when he finally rejoins the world around him—especially since this is a Korean film. Think of it as Stand By Me crossed with Il Mare. That probably sounds terrible, but the elements come together surprisingly nicely in director-screenwriter Uhm Tae-hwa’s Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (trailer here), now playing in New York.

Oh Su-rin (she prefers Park Su-rin) has had a hard go of it lately. Mere months after remarrying, her mother was killed in a car wreck. Still, processing her grief, she has moved to a remote provincial island with the step-father she hardly knows. Despite her trouble making friends, she attracts the attention of Sung-min, a spirited classmate who lives in the local orphanage. Their friendship steadily evolves into puppy love, until destiny intervenes.

One fateful day, Su-rin accompanies Sung-min and two of his bratty friends on an ill-advised excursion into the woods. There they find a glowing egg-shaped object, which stops time for Sung-min and his two pals when they break it. Having returned to the cave to retrieve a dropped hair pin, Su-rin is exempt from the egg’s effects. Initially, the time-stoppage is fun for the kids, but it gets awkward when they realize some items do not work outside of normal time—like asthma inhalers. After aging fifteen years, normal time restarts for Sung-min, but as a strange sad-eyed adult claiming to be one of the three missing children, he becomes the chief suspect in their disappearance. The still twelve-year-old Su-rin also faces ostracism and possibly worse danger for helping him.

This really is the sort of eat-your-heart-out, done-over-by-unjust-karma movie the Korean film industry truly excels at. You also have to give Uhm ample credit for side-stepping the potential creepiness of their sudden age differential. Basically, they go from handholding crushes to big brother-little sister, more or less. There are no red flag scenes, but there are generous helpings of angst and regret.

Young teen Shin Eun-soo (reportedly now a K-Pop star in training) is just terrific as Su-rin. Her range and subtle expressiveness are absolutely remarkable. Lee Hyo-je is also unusually charismatic as young Sung-min, making his eventual disappearance from Su-rin’s life so dashed heart-breaking. Those kids make a ridiculously cute couple, but Shin still develops some poignant chemistry with model-turned-romantic-lead Kang Dong-won (doing some of his best work). However, what really makes the film are veteran character actors Kim Hee-won and Kwon Hae-hyo as the flawed but very human step-father and lead police investigator, respectively.

Vanishing is well-served by its verdant but foreboding island locations, which probably have a vibe much like the Hudson Valley in Washington Irving’s day. It is all very bittersweet, yet ultimately quite satisfying. Recommended with a good deal of affection, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Miss Sloane to You

Traditionally, the knock on lobbyists as a professional class is their lack of principles. They are the worst sort of mercenaries, who will rep any cause if the price is right. However, when Miss Elizabeth Sloane decides to turn her back on the corporate work fighting government regulation that she genuinely believes in, just to prove her mettle passing a Brady-style gun control bill, it is presented as an act of heroism. Frankly, if you are inclined to pedantry you won’t get past the first act of John Madden’s smugly self-righteous Miss Sloane (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Miss Elizabeth Sloane is supposed to be a throwback to the sort of professional characters Joan Crawford played back in the day. She is a sharp-dressed, salty-talking, emasculating woman who thrives in a male-dominated sphere. She will crusade against a bill she sinisterly dubs the “Nutella tax,” but much to her boss’s surprise, she actually believes in more firearm regulation, more or less. After belittling her firm’s new gun rights client, Miss Elizabeth Sloane up and leaves, taking most of the junior staff with her to the “boutique” lobbying firm (code for liberal) founded by earnest do-gooder Rodolfo Schmidt (even she makes fun of that name).

To pass their bill, Miss Elizabeth Sloane’s team will need sixty votes to overcome a possible filibuster. Of course, they have a fraction of that. However, Miss Elizabeth Sloane will use her former firm’s tactics against them. Her ethics are atrocious, but Schmidt is impressed with her results. Yet, he will draw the line when she coolly and calculatingly exploits the personal history of Esme Manucharian, a junior associate at the firm, who survived a school shooting in her teen years.

If you want an example of the “bubble” Saturday Night Live suggested American liberals live in, Miss Sloane would be exhibit A. It is highly doubtful Madden and screenwriter Jonathan Perera has ever talked to a gun owner or Second Amendment activist. (If they are just a gaggle of stupid jowly men, why do they keep winning?) Indeed, the film is just rife with awkward ironies after the recent election. Why, oh why the filmmakers must wonder are those Red State denizens not convinced when liberals like Sloane and Schmidt talk down to them, as they pat themselves on the back? None of this dialogue rings true. Rather, it reflects the prejudices Perera projects on those he does not agree with and gives Chastain the sort of zingy one-liners he wishes he heard more often on MSNBC.

Ironically, the one place Miss Sloane works are the scenes the lobbyist shares with her gigolo, Forde. Actually, he is the new guy the agency keeps sending over, which she is not thrilled about, because it slightly alters the tightly structured life she has arranged for herself. In these very adult sequences, Jessica Chastain shows intriguing flashes of vulnerability as Miss Elizabeth Sloane, nicely playing off and with Jake Lacy as the not-as-dumb-as-he-looks Forde.

As the campaign progresses, we watch one phony twist after another, each of which proves just how much smarter and morally superior Miss Elizabeth Sloane is compared to her competition. This is exactly the sort of blatantly obvious manipulation that left the old media’s reputation in tatters. Chastain does not help matters either, playing her congressional hearings as if Nicole Kidman’s climatic speech in Grace of Monaco was just too blasted subtle (and logical). So much for that unshakable professional exterior.

In a better alternate universe, there is a superior Miss Sloane made in the late 1950s. It stars Jerry Lewis as the mailroom boy who carries a torch for Miss Elizabeth Sloane (Oh, Miss Sloane!), played by Phyllis Kirk. However, he is also a secret NRA member. When he saves Miss Sloane by blowing a stalker to Kingdom Come, she changes her mind on guns, but it is still bittersweet for Lewis, because she falls in love with Schmidt instead (played by Martin Milner), with whom she marries and moves to Idaho, starting a business selling refurbished vintage firearms at gun shows. Sadly, that rather silly Miss Sloane is not nearly as ridiculous as the version we have in our universe. The one we are stuck with is just an eye-rolling, face-palming viewing experience. Not recommended, not even for its unintentional giggles, Miss Sloane opens today (11/25) in New York, at the AMC Lincoln Square.

Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution

Even though Nicolas has probably never seen Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, he can tell there is something wrong with his island village. It is just too picturesque. The demographics are also wrong. There are no men and no girls—just single mothers and their pale young sons. He will start to suspect something is seriously wrong in Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

It rather disturbs Nicolas when he spies what looks like the corpse of a dead little boy with a bloody starfish on his chest while diving, but his mother dismisses it as a trick of the light. Naturally, the other kids are quick to mock him, but it awakens inklings of suppressed memories and a growing sense of paranoia within the sensitive lad. When he follows his mother one night, he gets an eyeful of some very cult-like behavior. Not long after, he is admitted to hospital, ostensibly to treat the chronic condition he was supposedly born with, but by this time Nicolas doubts everything he is told.

Evolution represents the most demanding, high end of the genre movie spectrum. Superficially, it might sound like it shares a kinship with movies like Village of the Damned, but films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and the work of Jodorowsky are closer cousins. It is all about visuals and atmosphere, rather than thrills and chills. At this point, it might also be helpful to point out Hadžihalilović has collaborated with New French Extremity filmmaker Gaspar Noé. Neither is excessively prolific, but when they do make films, they get somebody’s money’s worth.

There is no question Evolution looks terrific. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse (whose work includes Alleluia and The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun) definitely got the memo regarding Hadžihalilović’s inspiration from surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. He just soaks up the black volcanic sand and stark white stucco buildings. The Lanzarote locales are just stunning, but the darkly sinister film is not likely to inspire a sudden crush of tourism.

With narrative and character development already taking a backseat to the unsettling vibe, the ultra-reserved cast are largely overwhelmed by Hadžihalilović’s auteurist filmmaking. Despite being the focal point, Max Brebant’s Nicolas practically evaporates into the scenery, just like the rest of the young supporting players. Julie-Marie Parmentier makes a somewhat stronger impression as the creepily oedipal mother (but just whose mother, we cannot say for sure).

At just over eighty-minutes, Evolution is a relative shorty, but it is such a mood piece, it probably would have been more effective if it were even more concise and compact. It is a dramatic departure from the films typically released under the IFC Midnight banner, but Hadžihalilović’s aesthetic is apparently too tripped out for the general IFC and Sundance Selects imprimaturs. The careful craft that went into the film is impressive, but it will make traditional midnight movie audiences antsy. Respectfully recommended for cineastes with a taste for body horror, Evolution opens today (11/25) in New York, at the IFC Center (with screenings throughout the day).

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Patria o Muerte: The Fatherland, as it is

If there is one country that has less faith in the Communist Party than China, it would have to be Cuba. They have all of the social inequities associated with China’s extreme income disparity, but the exploitation is seemingly reserved exclusively for foreign tourists. Of course, it is not like Cubans haven’t had revolutionary theory explained to them. For decades, they have endured Fidel Castro’s interminable speeches. Those diatribes produced the hollow slogan adopted as the ironic title of Olatz López Garmendia’s revealing documentary Patria o Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death (trailer here), executive produced by Julian Schnabel, which premieres this coming Monday on HBO.

Strictly speaking, Garmendia (second wife of Schnabel, who directed her in Before Night Falls) takes the observational approach, observing many average Havanans in their homes and listening to their complaints. However, her desperately poor subjects have so much to say and their situations are so precarious, the film never feels like a Wisemanesque fly-on-the-wall experience. Very few of them even bothers talking about freedom anymore. That is long gone. Their thoughts are solely concerned with day-to-day, hour-to-hour survival.

We meet Mercedes, whose family risks their lives every day just by living in their (literally) crumbling building. They know it is only a matter of time before it collapses (her son was already hospitalized by a floor cave-in), but they have no other place to go. A thirty-eight-year-old street vendor would understand. He says he feels like a teenager because he still lives with his parents, but there is no chance he could find or afford his own apartment given his circumstances.

Occasionally, some Havanans express frustration with the lack of intellectual and artistic freedom, such as Yoani Sanchez and Renaldo Escobar, dissident bloggers in a country that forbids the internet. However, for average Cubans, it is more a matter of being denied one of the most convenient tools of the Twenty-First Century.

Anyone who stills thinks Obama’s overtures to the Castro regime will materially improve their lot should be quickly disabused by the work of Garmendia and her crew, particularly cinematographer Claudio Fuentes Madan, who is seen getting arrested (violently) for protesting on the day of Obama’s state visit. He also does nice work behind the camera, evocatively framing each interviewee and their [barely]-living spaces. Through his lens, we get a visceral sense of just how oppressive life in Cuba really is—for all but the Party pinnacle of privilege.

Patria o Muerte does not white-wash or sugar coat any of its subjects’ reality. Yet, it is not a spirit-crushing viewing experience, in part due to its eclectic but very upbeat Cuban soundtrack (even including old school Benny More). It just serves up one harsh dose of truth after another, but it washes it down with some rich Afro-Cuban derived or inspired rhythms. In fact, there is an elusive, haunted and decrepit beauty to the city and its people that comes out clearly in every frame of the one-hour film. Very highly recommended, Patria o Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death debuts this coming Monday (11/28) and hits HBO On Demand the next day.

Behind “The Cove”—A Rebuttal of Sorts

Taiji in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture is a picturesque coastal village, filled with shrines and nautical museums. It is hard to imagine going there with the express intention of acting belligerent and aggressive, but people do. Their motivations are simple: money and self-righteousness. Ever since the release of Louie Psihoyos’ Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove (the one about the dolphin drive hunt), the village of approximately 3,500 people has been over-run with environmental activists looking to make a name for themselves and keep their donors’ funding flowing. It has become an ugly scene that ought to be exposed for the world to judge. Unfortunately, something apparently gets lost in the translation for Keiko Yagi’s scattershot rebuttal documentary, Behind “The Cove:” The Quiet Japanese Speak Out (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The word “disorganized” does not even begin to describe the case Yagi haphazardly lays out. By far, the most compelling revelations concern the behavior of the throngs of environmental protesters, particularly that of the explicitly confrontational Sea Shephard. Yagi captures footage of them clearly trying to intimidate villagers, but their casual disrespect for holy shrines is perhaps even more problematic. This is the sort of material that would really make their supporters squirm, if it were presented in a more structured manner.

Fortunately, she strikes pay dirt with her interview of Simon Wearne of Wakayama University, who happened to be a cameraman on Animal Planet’s Whale Wars I. Wearne cautions viewers not to take the show as gospel, because he knows what footage did not survive the editing war. He also puts the Japanese whaling industry in perspective, explaining how it was always sustainable. It was just wasteful western whaling that ruined it for the rest of the world.

It is frustrating to see legitimate insights get buried under mountains of baffling non-sequiturs. Frankly, Yagi’s lack of political sophistication is downright face-palm worthy. She constantly levels charges of hypocrisy against western environmental groups, using policies of the American government as ammunition, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more virulently anti-American subset than eco-terrorists. Clearly, the Sea Shepherd protester’s “Thanks, but no Yanks” t-shirt was lost on her.

Yagi’s strategy of highlighting American historical outrages reaches the level of self-parody when she lets a crank protesting outside the White House rage against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pearl Harbor was no big deal he argues, because America was already actively working to undermine Japan’s dominance in the Pacific. Yes, but if he wants to play that game, most historians would argue we should have been even more proactive countering Imperial Japan, given the war crimes that were perpetrated during “The Rape of Nanking” and the incendiary bombing of Chongqing (three years before Pearl Harbor).

How ludicrous is it that a documentary intended to fisk The Cove ends up re-litigating the War in the Pacific? There is a fair amount of material in Behind that could embarrass the anti-whaling syndicate if it were effectively marshaled, but Yagi lets it die on the vine. It is almost tragic, because the beleaguered good people of Taiji deserve a better defense. For now, this is what they have. Good luck to it when Behind “The Cove” opens tomorrow (11/25) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Tank 432: War is Hell, Like Really

The M41 Walker Bulldog tank was considered a big step up from its M24 Chaffee predecessor. Its armoring was much more protective and its weaponry was more effective. The only drawback was its especially cramped quarters, even by armored tank standard. You would not want to hole up in one for long with an enemy combatant and a civilian, but nothing will go according to plan for this military unit—or perhaps this was the plan all along, for at least one of them. One thing is certain. They are being played by something or someone, but it is not clear just how earthly their woes are in Nick Gillespie’s Tank 432 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The film opens with the unit in full panic. They have already lost a number of men, plus the moaning and groaning Capper does not look long for the world. We do not get a good look at the forces they are retreating from, but they obviously have the grizzled combat vets badly spooked. As if they needed another cause for concern, a weaponized powdered substance also appears to be in use. It is a chaotic scene, but Smith, their commander persists in leading about two hooded prisoners, who apparently were the objective all along.

As Reeves (the closest they have to level-headed) and Gantz (the snarling hard-charger) reconnoiter, they discover a civilian hostage (or whatever) stashed in a storage locker. She is a bit of a basket case, but their medic Karlsson has plenty of zonk-out injections. They make quite a motley crew when the enemy forces them to take shelter in an immobilized Bulldog. A malfunctioning door trapping them inside makes the situation even more awkward.

In this hyper-paranoid age, the big twist ending comes as no great surprise, at least as far as Gillespie can be bothered to reveal it. Having frequently served as a cameraman on Ben Wheatley’s films (who returns the favor executive producing Tank 432), Gillespie shows a similar affinity for slyly implied narrative revelations, except he is probably even more coy about it.

Fortunately, he also has Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, who absolutely crushes it as the not-quite-as-done-for-as-he-looks Capper. He basically revives the film with a nail-spitting bravura display of hostile attitude. Similarly, Steve Garry’s Gantz almost single-handedly powers along the first two acts with his hardnosed barking. These are exactly the kind of performances that make genre films. Gordon Kennedy also practically chews his way out of the bulldog as the highly suspicious Smith, while Deirdre Mullins helps ground the film as the gritty but charismatic Karlsson.

Gillespie earns credit for helming a tense, unsettling viewing experience. Nobody’s attention will wander during the film, but it ends on a rather unsatisfying note and it does not add up to very much when you take stock of it after the fact. Genre fans should still appreciate his command of the vaguely dystopian near future mise en scene and the vibe of mounting dread. Recommended for Wheatley fans, Tank 432 opens this Friday (11/25) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Seasons: The Winged Migration Team on Dry Land

There was a time when Europe was covered in verdant forests. Apparently, they have not pursued nature conservancy as proactively as we have in America, but at least they gave us the Renaissance and the Enlightenment while converting vast areas of land to agricultural and urban uses. Fortunately, Jacques Perrin & Jacques Cluzaud, the filmmaking team behind Winged Migration and Oceans, could still find enough surviving forest habitats for their latest nature documentary, Seasons (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Among nature documentarians, Perrin & Cluzaud have probably crafted the most inventive strategies for filming wild animals in their natural habitats. Shooting on land should be easier than the sea and air, but they continue to capture some arrestingly up-close moments. However, their ambition also extended to the film’s narrative structure this time around. With their regular co-screenwriter, Stéphane Durand, they use the changing of the four seasons to represent the passing of 80,000 years in the forest. They also let the film evolve into an environmental morality play, with the wasteful folly of man represented in impersonal dramatic recreation scenes.

As one would expect, Seasons works best when it focuses on the animals. There are a number of scenes involving newborn wolf and fox pups, who are just as cute as wild beasts can ever get. There are also extended sequences with bears, which are always cinematic. Perrin & Cluzaud cannot resist filming some of the birds that make the forest home, but for the most part, the film centers on highly relatable furry mammals.

However, the scenes involving mankind are (not so surprisingly) often didactic and awkward. At one point, they suggest the mustard gas employed during World War I wreaked havoc on the local bird populations. From what I understand, the soldiers getting gassed weren’t so crazy about it either.

Wisely, the distributor opted to subtitle the solemn narration, because it most likely comes off less unintentionally funny via the printed word than through overly dramatic proclamations. Frankly, there are also one or two man-as-the-most-dangerous-predator scenes that make us doubt the film’s ASPCA disclaimer: “no animals were hurt …”

Regardless, when Perrin & Cluzaud stick to what they do best, Seasons is quite impressive. The large battery of cinematographers (including Winged Migration and Oceans alumni Michel Benjamin and Laurent Fleutot) all deserve awards consideration. However, its allegorical layer is just too pretentious and clunky. Yet, most viewers will still argue the wolf pups make it worth seeing. For fans of dazzlingly produced true nature films, Seasons opens this Friday (11/25) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Landmark Sunshine downtown.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The 24 Hour War: Ford vs. Ferrari

Paul Newman’s team took second place (first in their class) at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans. Steve McQueen wanted to drive the 1970 race for his docu-like drama Le Mans, but he was not allowed for insurance reasons. However, for fans in the 1960s, the real stars of the endurance motor race were Ford and Ferrari. Nate Adams & Adam Carolla (the actor-comedian playing it straight and staying off-camera) chronicle the rivalry blow-by-blow in The 24 Hour War (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

It makes the head spin in the context of today’s world, but Ford very nearly acquired Ferrari in the early 1960s. The deal was motivated by racing—Ford wanted to catch up with Chevy fast—and it fell apart due to racing—Old Man Enzo simply would not allow for any interference with his management of Ferrari racing. Once the deal was off, Henry Ford II rolled up his sleeves and built up the Ford racing operation the old-fashioned way—with buckets of cash.

Sometimes HF2 got what he paid for with some truly innovative designs and sometimes he was frustrated by simple engineering flaws. Those were the breaks in motor sports. Of course, some of those breaks were fatal. Like Frank Simon’s Weekend of a Champion (featuring racing fan Roman Polanski), 24H War takes us back to a time when deaths behind the wheel were a regular, weekly occurrence.

Adams & Carolla observe several intriguing historical ironies surrounding the rivalry and take stock of the larger than life figures leading their respective companies. They also have sit-downs with a host of Ford and Ferrari drivers, who are not exactly shrinking violets either. However, it is rather baffling that Carolla of all people would give Ralph Nader some camera time to tsk-tsk the Big Three for marketing horse power.

Regardless, Adams and Carolla keep the film motoring along at a good clip and they obviously have good rapport with the motor sports community, having previously collaborated on the even more entertaining Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. Even if you are not a motor sports fan, you should appreciate the recent bumper crop of surprisingly engaging racing docs, also including Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans. It is still kind of dull to watch cars race around and around a track, but the behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating stuff—at least those recorded by Adams and Carolla. Recommended for sports fans and those interested in the history of the American automotive industry, The 24 Hour War is now available on iTunes.

Girls und Panzer der Film: The GirlPan Franchise, Feature-Length

Ōarai Girls High School is basically a charter school with tanks. As is often the case for charters, the Ministry of Education would like to shut them down, but it is politically difficult for them to do so, as long as Ōarai keeps winning their sensha-dō armored warfare matches. Once again, the plucky Oarai tank crews will have to win to save their beloved academy, but this time they will have to face off against a seasoned college team in Tsutomu Mizishima’s (dubbed) anime feature, Girls und Panzer der Film (trailer here), which is currently screening across the country, including tonight in Los Angeles.

The Ōarai team commanded by Miho Nishizumi will experience a rare defeat in an exhibition match. Allied with the more impulsive Chihatan Academy, they lost to the joint forces of St. Glorianna and Pravda, who sound like they should be bitter enemies, but this is anime, so whatever. To add insult to injury, the oily Department of Ed bureaucrat suddenly explains an oral contract is not worth the paper it is printed on, so he is closing Ōarai despite their agreement.

However, thanks to the intercession of a rival’s benefactor desiring a re-match, Ōarai gets one more chance to save their school, but they will have to face the university champions, commanded the child genius, Alice Shimada. Ōarai is vastly outnumbered and outgunned, but they get surprise reinforcements from the other high school teams, who arrange temporary transfers to even the odds.

Basically, der Film is two massive tanks battles separated by a mild bit of fan service. As blueprints for anime features go, it is certainly a workable plan that takes into account what the franchise’s fans want and delivers accordingly. The tank action is undeniably supercharged and over-the-top explosive, but chief animation director Isao Sugimoto and his team make the battlefield action clear and easy to follow.

Granted, der Film does not waste a lot of time on character development, but it is probably assumed most of the audience will be familiar with the GirlPan crew from the manga and television anime series. Besides, what’s not to get? They are high school girls who blast the heck out of each other in vintage WWII tanks, periodically stopping for a cup of tea.

It is easy to imagine Newton Minowesque critics of TV and film violence blowing a gasket over GirlPan’s war games, in which tanks take direct hits from artillery shells, resulting in a little white flag dispatched, while the big-eyed crews pile out, safe as houses. It is not very realistic, but this is a fantastical anime world—and it is a lot of fun.

There is no question, der Film has more screeching metal armored battles than any film since Fury. Frankly, if you enjoyed the Brad Pitt WWII movie, you will probably dig the GirlPan anime feature equally well, even though it is much “cuter.” Recommended for anyone who enjoys watching tanks shoot at each other, Girls und Panzer der Film screens tonight (11/22) in LA at the Laemmle Royale and next Friday (12/2) in Orlando, at the AMC Disney Springs. Check the Eleven Arts website for further cities and dates.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mifune: The Last Samurai

It is a story of a film role that got away that rivals Tom Selleck’s nearly appearing as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. While the regretful Selleck was forced out by contractual obligations beyond his control, Toshiro Mifune could only blame his agent’s bad advice for turning down what would be the iconic role of Obi-won Kenobi. Yet, even without the Star Wars franchise, Mifune has attained legendary status, in great part due to his acclaimed collaborations with Akira Kurosawa. Steven Okazaki surveys the towering actor’s life and work in Mifune: The Last Samurai (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Obviously, Okazaki had a wealth of historically significant films to draw from, including arguably the greatest death scene ever in Kurosawa’s loose Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. He also found some tremendously illustrative photos, such as the montage of sports cars Mifune wrecked during hard-drinking benders. The working class Mifune essentially fell in acting almost accidentally, but he became the top Japanese box-office draw of his era and one of its most exportable movie stars.

Unfortunately, Mifune acted on a lot of dubious advice during his post-Kurosawa career, particularly a studio boss’s counsel to start his own production company. When times got tough, Mifune was forced into television work to keep his company afloat. None of the footage Okazaki shows from this period will look familiar to most American Mifune fans. It might be a huge step down from his Kurosawa classics, but it is Mifune we haven’t seen—and evidently there is a great deal of it.

Steven Spielberg would probably only talk about 1941 to pay tribute to Mifune, but he does indeed discuss directing the actor in one of his least regarded films. We also hear from Mr. Movie Documentary himself, Martin Scorsese, as well as Mifune’s son Shirô, and Haruo Nakajima, a contemporary now most closely associated with the Godzilla franchise. Kôji Yakusho, perhaps the closest contemporary heir to Mifune’s gruff leading man mantle also provides some context. However, the most endearing moments are spent with the great-in-her-own-right Kyôko Kagawa, who regrets not having the opportunity to play a late-in-life Marigold Hotel-style romance with her co-star from High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, and Red Beard.

Last Samurai is a classy film that is so unflaggingly respectful, its interview subjects often speak in the hushed tones typically used in church pews and the like. Keanu Reeves’ narration is crystal clear, but sometimes borders on the reverent. Yet, Okazaki and his interview subjects deal forthrightly with Mifune’s conspicuous but readily forgivable character flaws. Most tellingly, the doc puts viewers in the mood to binge watch several dozen Mifune films, which suggests it is ultimately quite effective. Highly recommended for all fans of classic cinema, Mifune: The Last Samurai opens this Friday (11/25) in New York, at the IFC Center.