Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hot Docs ’17: Still Tomorrow

Yu Xiuhua has experienced both extremes of contemporary Chinese life. She endured cerebral palsy, grinding rural, and a loveless arranged marriage to a man twenty years her senior, before finding her unlikely literary fame and fortune as an internet poet. Yu became the toast of Beijing, but she is still the same person she always was. Fan Jian documents Yu as she deals with her overnight success and lingering family resentments in Still Tomorrow (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hoc Docs.

Yin Shiping always thought Yu was lucky he agreed to the marriage her grandmother Zhou Jinxiang arranged. For nearly twenty years it deceptively appeared to work on a practical level, largely because Yin was often absent, working seasonally in Beijing. They managed to have a son together (whom Yu keeps entirely off-camera), but they were not exactly a lovey-dovey couple. Then, like a bolt of lightning out of the clear blue sky, Yu’s poetry goes viral, especially the verse that would become the title of her bestselling debut collection: “Cross half of China to sleep with you.”

The obvious sexual connotations are rather bold for today’s Mainland China, but the themes of separation, alienation, and yearning speak directly to both hardscrabble migrant workers and frequent flying wage slaves. However, it was her triumph of adversity story that the Chinese media really embraced—and it is that image which Yu herself tries so very hard to subvert.

To his estimable credit, Fan (who brought the excellent My Land to Hot Docs last year) understands Yu is a woman with the same complicated emotions and desires of any other ordinary individual and not just some sort of reductive feel-good symbol. Frankly, Yu can be a bit of a pill in many of the private moments Fan captured, but let’s be honest, she’s earned the right.

Clearly, she is also a genuine talent. Even in the stilted syntax of the on-screen translations, Yu’s imagery is absolutely arresting. Several scholars at a Yu Xiuhua liken her to Emily Dickinson, which seems rather lazy, because it is so apt.

Fan is there for some difficult family confrontations, but he never white-washes anything. Yet, Yu emerges as a more relatable and forgivably human figure as a result. It does not have the power or defiance of My Land, but it might just set the gold standard for documentary profiles of zeitgeisty figures, whom it would be all too easy to present in cliched terms. Highly recommended, Still Tomorrow screens again this morning (4/30) and next Sunday (5/7), as part of Hot Docs in Toronto.

Tribeca ‘17: Bombshell the Hedy Lamarr Story

Composer George Antheil was influenced by Igor Stravinsky, jazz, and industrial rhythms. He might sound like an unlikely collaborator for Hedy Lamarr, but instead of a movie musical, they worked together on some of the most disruptive technology of the last two centuries. Yes, that Hedy Lamarr. She was not merely an actress and sex symbol. She was also a patriot and an inventor. Alexandra Dean chronicles her remarkable life and work in Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (clip here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Okay, so she was married and divorced six times. You can definitely say the Austrian immigrant adapted to life in Hollywood. Her first husband, Friedrich Mandl was an Austrofascist rather than a National Socialist, but they still had very different political ideas. His embarrassment over her notorious nude scenes in 1933’s Ecstasy probably did not help their marriage much either. Regardless, as soon as Lamarr reached Hollywood, she ardently embraced anti-Nazi causes. However, when America, her beloved adopted nation, entered the war, Lamarr believed she had better ways to support the war effort than selling war bonds.

Lamarr always had an inventor’s mind and thanks to Mandl she knew a little something about torpedoes. Decades ahead of her time, Lamarr developed a “frequency-hopping” method of guiding torpedoes through submerged waters and signal-jamming interference that Antheil would help her refine into a deployable technology. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy just didn’t get it. As a result, they mothballed technology that would eventually become they cornerstone of wi-fi and Blue Tooth communications systems. For real.

Dean’s approach is straight forward all the way, but that is how Lamarr’s fans would want it. Indeed, Bombshell is exactly the sort of classy package we expect from American Masters productions. For her one eccentric touch, she elicits occasional commentary from Lamarr-super-fan Mel Brooks.

In all honesty, Lamarr’s story is so fascinating, there is no need to dress it up. However, it leaves us wanting to know more about Antheil, who is arguably even more unsung than Lamarr, the box office icon. His compositions are richly, idiosyncratically intriguing, but not exactly the stuff of weekend pops concerts (check out his Jazz Symphony in particular). Indeed, it would be intriguing to examine the frequency-hopping invention at greater length from his perspective.

Regardless, it is not often you have so much science and Hollywood glamor in one film, so Dean makes the most of it. She does Lamarr and frequency-hopping justice. Enthusiastically recommended, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story screens again tonight (4/30) as one of the final screenings of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Retouch (short)

If you have seen Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, you have some idea how torturous divorce proceedings get in Iran. Ordinarily, that would be to the advantage of a crummy, lay-about husband like Siyavash, but he would have been better off with an easy no-fault California-style split. Instead, he will wind up dead in Kaveh Mazaheri’s short film Retouch, the winner of the Best Narrative Short Award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Maryam does all the housework and is the primary bread winner in her family, while Siyavash basically leaches off her. Her work involves digitally airbrushing the cleavage, slightly bare shoulders, and infinitesimally visible hairlines from celebrity magazine photos. You see, she understands how to make inconvenient details disappear. One day before work, Siyavash decides to start bench pressing free weights again, but he is way too ambitious. Rather than help lift the barbell crushing his windpipe, Maryam lets gravity have its way. However, on her return from work, she will have to properly re-set the scene.

Although only twenty minutes in duration, Retouch is a powerful film about acute relationship dysfunction, much in the tradition of many of the excellent recent Iranian film imports, like Farhadi’s latest Oscar winner, The Salesman and Nima Javidi’s Melbourne. Although not expressly political, the sort of censorship Maryam must do as part of her daily routine is definitely problematic. It also implies much about the inequality between the sexes in Iran that Maryam must capitalize on such an extreme opportunity to regain her freedom.

Sonia Sanjari is excellent Maryam, projecting both fierceness and vulnerability. Mazaheri maintains a level of tension commensurate with that of the aforementioned Farhadi and Javidi films. However, it is rather troubling Tribeca and Mazaheri went out of their way to complain about the travel ban preventing the filmmaker from accepting his award in person, without mentioning Iran’s travel ban on Israel, which will prevent the Israeli subjects of Tribeca’s Best Documentary winner, Bobbi Jene from presenting their film in the Persian nation. Beyond and apart from politics, Retouch is an accomplished film, highly recommended when it screens again today (4/29) as part of the Shorts: Last Exit program at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

One Week and a Day: Never Too Old

Pot is like old age. They both cause memory loss, so Eyal Spivak might as well light up. He has never smoked before, but some medical marijuana happens to come his way, so it would be a shame to let it go to waste. It sounds nauseatingly quirky but the mood is scrupulously mournful throughout Asaph Polonsky’s One Week and a Day (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Eyal and Vicky Spivak have just finished sitting shiva for Ronnie, their son of blessed memory when their estranged friends the Zoolers finally show up. Basically, Eyal shows them to the door and their cucumber salad to the garbage. Clearly, they both surviving parents are still struggling with their grief. Returning to the hospice on a dubious mission to reclaim a blanket, old man Spivak is given a bag of you know what by the failing new occupant of Ronnie’s room.

Spivak seeks solace from its medicinal benefits, but his lack of rolling skills forces him to bury the hatchet with the Zoolers’ slacker son, known simply as Zooler. The old grouch and the sushi deliveryman will sort of renew Zooler’s lapsed friendship with Ronnie, by proxy, but Vicky is a different story.

One Week is being marketed as a pot-friendly film, but old Spivak spaces out some pretty important business thanks to his partaking. Granted, this indirectly leads to a humanistic epiphany of sorts, but he would still probably be better off if he had just said no (yes, it turns out Nancy Reagan was right all along).

This is a small film, but it has some rather touching things to say about grief, parental love, and friendship. Shai Avivi (who is described as the “Larry David of Israel, but don’t let that dissuade you) is perfectly cast as the grieving grump and Tomer Kapon is appropriately scruffy but not excessively sticky as Zooler. However, Alon Shauloff is absolutely winning as the young hospice girl the two mismatched stoners take under their wings, while Uri Gavriel completely steals the film with a devastating third act eulogy.

One Week has a great deal of human decency, but it is just desperate for the audience’s love. It is nice, but not essential. Earning a modest recommendation, One Week and a Day is now playing in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Tribeca ’17: Intent to Destroy

The Armenian Genocide did not suddenly happen. The Ottoman Empire orchestrated the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Hamidian Massacres of 1894-1896. Carried out without the obscuring benefit of the fog of war, it was essentially an early rehearsal for the genocide conducted by the Young Turks government in 1915. For years, the Turkish government pressured Hollywood to conform to their redacted view of history, but thanks to the financial support of Kirk Kerkorian, Terry George’s The Promise was produced and recently released nationwide. Joe Berlinger documents the behind-the-scenes making of The Promise as well as the ugly business of genocide denial in Intent to Destroy, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

You will hear Spanish on the set, because Spain was one of the locations selected as a good architectural and topographical double for Turkey, which was automatically considered off limits for shooting, for obvious reasons. George was a logical choice to helm The Promise, because he had previously addressed genocide in the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda. He finally succeeded where others caved-in. Pointedly, Berlinger gives viewers a detailed blow-by-blow of the campaign launched against MGM’s canceled adaptation of Franz Werfel’s Fort Days of Musa Dagh, one of the bestselling novels in translation of the 1930s.

Intent has been uncharitably likened to a making-of DVD extra for The Promise, but that is not entirely fair. Berlinger does indeed chronicle the production of the film, starting with an early public table read, featuring Eric Bogosian and Anna George. However, the doc also incorporates a great deal of historical and cultural context. Indeed, context is exactly what Turkish nationalists and other genocide deniers do not want viewers to have.

Perhaps most enlightening are the sequences that expose the assassination of Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist who directly addressed the Genocide, as well as the lackadaisical prosecution of his murderer. In rather eye-opening segments, Berlinger also lets prominent Genocide Obfuscators (since the object to the term “denier”) a chance to make their case. Arguably, M. Hakan Yavuz takes the cake for most risible argument, suggesting it was Turkish Muslims who suffered most from WWI and its aftermath, because they were so demoralized by the loss of the empire.

Although neither is a masterpiece, The Promise is a pretty good film and Intent to Destroy is a pretty good documentary. While Terry George was the perfect director to helm Promise, Berlinger’s aversion to transparency and his legal battle to keep outtakes from Crude out of the public eye will make him an easy target for deniers looking to discredit Intent. That is a shame, because there could be a narrow window of opportunity for the U.S. government to finally officially recognize the Armenian Genocide after decades of deferring Ankara for geopolitical reasons. Given Erdogan’s continued tilt towards Iran and his recent blatant power grab, would it really be so bad if American reversed course? It would certainly cost him serious face.

Regardless, Intent is definitely more than EPK stuff for The Promise. There is quite a bit of fascinating history and timely exposures of human rights violations. Recommended for general audiences, Intent to Destroy screens again this afternoon (4/29) at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival—and also today and this coming Friday (5/5) at Hot Docs up north.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Year of the Scab

The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys are a lot like the NFL’s version of Yankees and Red Sox. Their games always have divisional standing implications on top of the decades of bad blood players seem to immediately inherit. During the 1987 football strike, the match-up between a Washington team made up entirely of free agent replacement players (scabs) and nearly the entire regular season Dallas squad would seem to favor the latter. However, the scrappy team that won over Washington fans always played to win. Their underappreciated underdog story is chronicled in John Dorsey’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Year of the Scab, which premiered last night at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Both Washington and Dallas were proactive planning for the strike, but the approaches differed drastically. While the Redskins cast a wide net for replacement players, Dallas sought to game the system, by using the loss of potentially millions of dollars in future contractual annuity payments to force their star players to cross the picket lines. Yet, thanks to their drive and the leadership of Coach Joe Gibbs, the Redskin replacement players excelled in their first two games (both of which were also in their division). That set the stage for a showdown worthy of Rocky when the Redskins blew into Dallas for their first grudge match of the season.

The Replacement Redskins are widely credited with starting the winning momentum that carried the team all the way to a Super Bowl victory, but they have been largely ignored by sports media, most likely for ideological reasons. That is a shame, because each player’s story has so much to say about the nature of sportsmanship, particularly that of disgraced former Tennessee Vols star quarterback Tony Robinson, who is now a respected small businessman and peewee football coach.

Dorsey introduces viewers to at least half a dozen replacement players, on a very personal level. Some are struggling with the long-term physical effects of their football years, just like drafted full-season players. He scored sit-downs with many of the Redskins players and staff, including Gibbs, Robinson, strike game starting QB Ed Rubbert, and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams. However, Dorsey is explicitly (and justifiably) critical of the Redskins’ treatment of their replacement players after the strike games, especially considering how much they contributed to the championship season and the extent to which the fans embraced them.

Year of the Scab is the sort of film that invites you to revisit memorable events of your lifetime from a completely different perspective. It boasts a number of very funny anecdotes, but the tone is always deeply bittersweet. These players took the longest of long shots for gridiron glory, not for money or fame, but simply out of a love for the game. It is a terrific sports doc and another fine example of the 30 for 30 program. Highly recommended, Year of the Scab screens again tonight (4/28), Saturday (4/29), and Sunday (4/30), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The King’s Case Note: King Yejong Investigates

Even during the Joseon Dynasty, trouble came from the north. A conspiracy of court officials eager to protect their power and privilege will foment and exploit northern unrest, but the king is unusually learned and assertive. Of course, that is exactly why they started plotting against him in the first place. It will be king versus court in Moon Hyun-sung’s The King’s Case Note (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

This will be pie-faced Yoon Yi-seo’s first day as a court historian chronicling King Yejong’s wise rule. After passing the civil service exam with the highest score, Yoon assumed such a position would be an honor, until he meets the King. His Majesty likes to keep officials on their toes, Yoon most definitely included. However, Yoon comes to respect the loose cannon precisely because of the enemies he has earned.

Northern official Nam Gun-hee is definitely one of them. Following a keep-your-enemies-close strategy, the King has just appointed him defense minister. Unfortunately, Nam’s men will still cause all sorts of chaos through rumors, especially after they kidnap the King’s popular adolescent nephew and inevitable rival for the throne, Prince Jaseong. There are also reports of a mysterious “ghost fish” sea monster wreaking havoc in northern rivers. However, the coup-plotters misunderestimate the King’s deductive skills and early forensic investigational techniques.

Although billed as a comedy, it is really the intrigue that drives Case Note. Granted, the King constantly hits poor sad sack Yoon over the head with whatever might be handy, but it is far less shticky and slapstick than a lot of Korean comedy imports (that generally play awkwardly for American audiences). Instead, Case Note is a fast-paced, action-packed tale of Joseon skullduggery.

Slightly playing against type, Lee Sun-kyun (the roguishly corrupt cop in A Hard Day) is electrically charismatic as the stubbornly virtuous king. As his Watson and Boswell, Ahn Jae-hong provides the comic relief without going excessively over the top. Jung Hae-in shows off some impressive action chops as the King’s nick-of-time bodyguard, Black Cloud. However, Kim Hee-won might be too understated as devious Nam.

Shrewdly, Moon plays down the Scooby Doo elements in favor of courtly machinations and betrayals. The result is just a lot of fun. The film also comes at a time when it will resonate with a lot Americans, due to its portrayal of a maverick head of state sabotaged by featherbedding civil service bureaucrats. Highly recommended for fans of historical mysteries and thrillers, The King’s Case Note opens today (4/28) in the O.C. at the Buena Park CGV Cinemas.

Tribeca ’17: The Circle

It is an online service that offers one-stop shopping for all the creepier aspects of online life, such as invasive social media, massive personal data collection, and obscenely smug TED Talks. Imagine a time when your privacy is constantly compromised by a tech giant that uses its liberal hippy-dippy corporate ethos to justify a terrifying not-so hidden agenda. Yes, it is the world of today presented as if it is the near future in James Ponsoldt’s The Circle (trailer here), which opens today in theaters following its premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mae Holland is starting in whatever touchy-feely euphemism The Circle uses for customer service, but she has cause for optimism, because many in the Maoist-sounding “Gang of 40” started there as well. However, she will have to maintain her user feedback score and get better about integrating her social life into the company’s cult-like extracurricular lifestyle. Unfortunately, a post about her childhood friend Mercer inspires a rash of cyber-stalkings from coworkers labeling him a “deer-killer.”

Although somewhat unnerved by his woes, Holland has already drunk deeply from the Kool Aid at this point, especially when she becomes the poster child for the company’s “transparent” world view. Like a dystopian Big Brother contestant, Holland agrees to broadcast her life on The Circle around the clock, with only limited work-arounds for nature calls. This inevitably leads to fissures with her family and ultimately leads to tragedy.

It is all scary as heck, but none of what we see in the film seems speculative in a science fiction kind of way. The genie is already out of the bottle. Watching the privacy issues play out in The Circle is like revisiting the warnings of media manipulation in Sidney Lumet’s Network. We’re already there and beyond, but we can still appreciate the caustic wit of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay.

Ponsoldt and David Eggars’ adaptation of the latter’s novel lacks a similar edge, but it does offer insight into why we collectively so often knowingly and willingly facilitate the erosion of our own privacy, against our better judgement. Yet, Holland’s ultimate rebellion is not on behalf of privacy, but for its complete eradication on scrupulously equal terms. Arguably, what is most terrifying about The Circle is that it will not be seen as terrifying by millions of government-trusting, privacy and free speech-sacrificing millennials. This is especially true of the scheme Holland and charismatic company founder Eamon Bailey hatch to integrate elections into The Circle and make voting mandatory.

Casting Tom Hanks as Bailey, the Zennish overlord of The Circle, masterly subverts his Speilberg-and-apple pie image. Relative unknown Emma Watson is believably malleable as Holland, but she conspicuously struggles to carry the film as the on-screen-99%-of-the-time lead. On the other hand, John Boyega brings a nervy intelligence to the picture as morally-troubled Circle inventor Ty Laffite, but it is hard to understand why his character would collaborate with Holland’s ultimate plans. Still, Glenne Headley and the late, great Bill Paxton are quite touching as Holland’s confused mother and MS-stricken father. However, the breakthrough turn comes from scene-stealing Karen Gillan as Holland’s college friend Annie, a disillusioned and displaced Gang of 40 member.

There are moments in The Circle that will set your teeth on edge because they are so spot-on. The Circle “campus” is a hotbed of Orwellian doublespeak, embracing slogans like “privacy is theft” and “secrets are lies.” Unfortunately, it is not even clear whether The Circle shares our alarm. This is a provocative film that should not be summarily dismissed, but it suffers from a weak lead and a lack of clarity of purpose. Rather a hodgepodge of mismatched near-future dystopian tropes, The Circle opens today (4/28) in New York at the AMC Empire, following its premiere screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Tribeca ’17: I Am Heath Ledger

To date, Heath Ledger is the only posthumous best supporting actor Oscar winner. That is not exactly the sort of honor an actor aspires to, but there is no getting around it. The actor’s meteoric rise and tragically early demise are chronicled in Adrian Buitenhuis & Derik Murray’s I Am Heath Ledger (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Even apart from his youthful twenty-eight years, Ledger’s death was especially sad. He was a proud new parent, whose already red-hot career was poised to go stratospheric with the opening of The Dark Knight, featuring his Oscar-winning turn as the Joker. In compiling I Am Heath Ledger, the latest installment in Spike’s “I Am” series, Buitenhuis & Murray were blessed in the bounteous video footage Ledger compulsively shot of himself and his mates and cursed with the reticence of those closest to him. Do not hold your breath waiting for Michelle Williams to appear.

Presumably, they also made do with whatever ground rules were offered to them. For instance, Naomi Watts only talks about Ledger as someone who always supported fellow Australians who came to Hollywood, never mentioning their relationship. At least, his parents and siblings were willing to reflect on Ledger’s early years.

Frankly, IAHL is rather disappointing when compared to its predecessor, IA Chris Farley, because it is dramatically less forthcoming. While Farley’s friends and family directly address his addiction issues and the role they played in his ultimate death, Ledger’s demons and the circumstances surrounding his death are completely whitewashed from his Spike profile. Anyone watching the film completely cold will be baffled as the how a healthy actor who played a surfer on more than one occasion could suddenly pass away.

On the other hand, it is striking how Ledger built such an accomplished reputation on a comparatively small body of work. Most of the doc’s cinematic focus is reserved for hits like The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale, his breakout in 10 Things I Hate About You, and critically acclaimed awards-winners, like The Dark Knight (the Neocon War-on-Terror allegory) and Brokeback Mountain, with passing mention given to a handful of other releases. Somehow, his Vatican-set horror film The Order gets short-shrift (so maybe we’ll shoehorn in a review sometime for the sake of fairness, at absolutely no extra charge to you the reader).

Ledger was indeed a restlessly creative soul, but Buitenhuis & Murray risk driving the point into the ground. One could also argue by sanitizing Ledger’s life they forego the chance to dramatically illustrate the perils of prescription drug interaction to the actor’s presumably young fans. The resulting documentary is easy to watch, but conspicuously safe. Recommended mainly for the devoted, I Am Heath Ledger screens again tonight (4/27) and Sunday (4/30), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in advance of its special nation-wide one-night-only Fathom Events screening on May 3rd.

Displacement: Time Travel and Family Issues

Time might be relative, but family is a cold, hard absolute for Cassie Sinclair. She is wracked with guilt for not fulfilling her mother’s dying wish, while bitterly resenting her father’s disappearing act. She might be able to partly rectify her past with the breakthrough time-travel equation she developed, but first she will have to extricate herself from the time loop someone created through their arrogant incompetence in Kenneth Mader’s Displacement (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

It was Sinclair who developed the equation, not her theoretical physicist father or her kindly faculty advisor, Peter Deckard. However, both men now want it, so they can find a negation point for the loop they are stuck in—or so they say. However, Sinclair does not want to end the repeating cycle until she can prevent her boyfriend Brian Chance’s fatal gunshot. Further complicating matters, she is periodically captured and interrogated by a shadowy cabal (yes, another one) that also wants the secret of time-travel for vaguely sketchy military applications.

Displacement is a bit slow out of the blocks, but once it starts looping back on itself, the energy and tension pick up considerably. Mader slyly choreographs the crisscrossing paths of the various Sinclairs from various times and he creates some highly credible sounding physics mumbo-jumbo. Displacement has few special effects of any sort, because it is driven by ideas, which is cool. However, it is still a bit pedestrian looking.

Courtney Hope convincingly portrays Sinclair as both wickedly smart and emotionally damaged. Sarah Douglas (the super-villainess Ursa in Superman II) is almost too good as the Dr. Miles, the mysterious co-conspirator trying to extract the equation from Sinclair. She is so poised and polished, she almost makes viewers switch their allegiance to the quasi-governmental faction. Veteran character actor Bruce Davison also inspires confidence as Prof. Deckard, but Hope’s chemistry with Christopher Backus’s Chance always feels forced and flat.

Displacement still can’t lay a glove on Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, but its cerebral concern for molecular physics helps distinguish it from other recent time-travel movies. It is smart and ambitiously complicated in the right way. Recommended without reservation for time-travel fans, Displacement opens tomorrow (4/28) in LA, at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.

Shainberg’s Rupture

If Martyrs was torture porn as informed by millennial theology, this would be the equivalent for the secular faith so many place in UFOs and fringe conspiracy theories. When a shadowy cabal abducts and tortures a single mother, they do so for the sake of what they consider the greater good. Isn’t that always the case? However, their latest victim will be surprisingly resourceful in Steven Shainberg’s Rupture (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Renee Morgan is pretty cool for a mom, but her ex is a big jerkweed, so their son is a bit confused. She had planned to go skydiving with friends as an exercise in empowerment, but winds up in a life and death struggle instead. As the victim of a highly-organized kidnapping, Morgan finds herself captive in a grungy, dungeon-like laboratory, where the evil people in lab coats and business suits try to get her to “rupture” through drug treatments and scare tactics, a la the rats in 1984 (its spiders for Morgan).

Just what it means to rupture is sort of a secret, but it is safe to say it would profoundly alter Morgan’s nature and identity. Regardless, she would prefer not to stick around to find out. Her mothering instincts override everything, as we can easily believe. However, we would also expect her drive to reunite with her son to bring out more of a killer instinct as well, but Morgan is strangely well-behaved during her escapes into the ventilation ducts.

In other hands, Rupture could have been far more torture-focused, so Shainberg’s restraint, so to speak, is appreciated. The top shelf cast also helps immensely. Noomi Rapace does some of her best work since the Lisbeth Salander trilogy as the resilient Morgan, making her both resolute and vulnerable. Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishé, Lesley Manville, and Peter Stormare bring more color and variation to her tormentors than you would expect. Even if it is not spectacularly original, the lab-lair is still a creepily effective setting.

The real problem is it simply isn’t much fun to watch a narrative like this unless it evolves into a shameless payback movie. The fundamental premise, incorporating elements of Martyrs, X-Files, and any number of abduction horror movies, is not exactly unprecedented either. In this case, Shainberg makes us go through all that for an awkwardly flat payoff. The tension is considerable and the performances are more than competent, but it is still hard to justify the trip they take us on. Earning deeply mixed emotions, Rupture opens tomorrow (4/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Tribeca ’17: Blurred Lines

In his pithy book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe explained how the art world became preoccupied with “concept” at the expense of the object itself during the 1970s. Those were the days. For our current era of Hirst and Koons, price is everything. What exactly that means for art as something meaningful and enduring is definitely a question that is asked in director Barry Avrich & art insider-producer Jonas Prince’s Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

It is hard to imagine a Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassing a collection of pivotal contemporary artists before they became famous in the current collecting climate. Instead, the representative collector in Blurred Lines is Michael Ovitz, as in the founder of the CAA agency. It seems you must be not merely rich but considerably wealthy to collect any artist getting serious press consideration, because of the practices of galleries and auction houses.

Although Blurred Lines is not an expose per se, the auction houses in particular will have some PR work to do, thanks to the film’s explanation of “chandelier bidding.” Essentially, it is the questionable but apparently relatively commonplace practice of auctioneers taking ghost bids to elevate the going auction price closer to the reserve—and presumably to fool online and phone bidders.

Along the way, Blurred Lines gives us a jaded dealer’s perspective on the burgeoning business of art fares and the continuing importance of museums, even though they can rarely afford to acquire pieces from these speculation-driven star artists. Perhaps most troubling is the notion that many artists are producing work to meet their dealers’ demands rather than to fulfill an artistic vision.

Avrich’s approach is maybe too slick and breezy for its own good, but there is a lot of fascinating details in there. Sometimes, the film’s soundbites are even more significant because of who they are coming from than because of what is said. Seriously, can you get any more real-deal than Glenn Lowry of MoMA? However, Larry Gagosian, the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of gallerists is conspicuously absent, as per everyone’s expectations.

Several commentators in Blurred suggest galleries and dealers engage in business practices that would trigger anti-trust prosecutions in any other industry. However, since it is ostensibly only obscenely rich collectors who get taken for a ride, nobody seems to care. Yet, Avrich and Prince clearly suggest the artificial manipulations of the art market are not healthy for promising artists’ long-term development.

Indeed, when watching Blurred, one wonders whether Hirst and Koons will be remembered in three hundred years for their body work or just for the commercial phenomenon they represent. Recommended for viewers who take art and culture seriously, Blurred Lines screens again this afternoon (4/27) and Saturday night (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (as well as this Friday, the following Saturday, and Sunday the 7th at Hot Docs in Canada).

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Take Me

Frankly, in today’s neurotic world, the concept behind Ray Moody’s Kidnap Solutions, LLC has commercial potential. His simulated kidnappings offer aversion therapy (in the tradition of the Tales from the Darkside episode, “Bigalow’s Last Smoke”) and fetishistic escapism. He just isn’t the right person to realize its potential. Anna St. Blair would be the perfect client to spread word-of-mouth, but it is unclear whether she really is a willing customer. The kidnapper and kidnappee may have been set-up in Pat Healy’s Take Me (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

There was a time when Kidnap Solutions was growing in leaps and bounds. Sadly, when Moody’s ex-wife walked out on him, she left him holding the bag for a kidnapping that went awry. Personally and professionally, he still has not recovered from her betrayal. However, the lucrative gig St. Blair is offering will give him a bit of the seed capital he has been seeking. The only catch is her request for more rough stuff than he is ordinarily comfortable with.

When the abduction starts, St. Blair seems genuinely terrified. When she is subsequently reported missing, Moody realizes he might be in serious legal trouble. Rather awkwardly, St. Blair does not seem inclined to forgive and forget, so he will have to hold onto her until he can convince her to see reason.

As lead actor and debut director, Healy has crafted a spritely farce seasoned with tar-black humor. This is a comedy that draws blood (all of it his own). Arguably, he is his own best asset, playing Moody as a likably nebbish striver in the tradition of Willy Loman (wearing a balaclava). Even when we laugh at his humiliation, we sort of want to see him overcome. As the second half of the more-or-less two-hander, Taylor Schilling is a smart, forceful, and altogether worthy foil.

Granted, the predictable predictableness of the final twist is maybe not so surprising, but the film is more about the verbal sparring and gamesmanship of the two leads than the actual power reversals. It is just good fun to watch and listen to Healy and Schilling verbally spar. It is a relatively modest production, but if Take Me becomes a hit, Healy and Schilling could perform it on stage as a nostalgia act for years to come. Recommended for viewers who enjoy a bit of shaggy dog mayhem, Take Me screens again tomorrow (4/27), Friday (4/28), and Saturday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The Black Room: Natasha Henstridge Faces Temptation

How sad is it when people get possessed in Ouija movies just because they were playing a commercially produced board game? At least victims of the “us” demons (succubus and incubus) get a little gratification before damnation. That is the sort of entity that lurks in the basement of the Hemdales’ new home. They are in for a scorching hot time and it not just because of their overheating boiler in Rolfe Kanefsky’s ridiculously silly, shamelessly horny The Black Room (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

As soon as Paul and Jennifer Hemdale move into their amazingly affordable new house, strange things start happening. You might ask what “strange” means in this context. Let’s just say when you see Natasha Henstridge orgasming from the vibrations of a demonically possessed washing machine, you know you haven’t walked into a long-lost Val Lewton film.

Apparently, the previous owner sacrificed herself to save her granddaughter from the demon lurking within the hidden room in the basement. Of course, why she would let the nubile teen sleep over knowing there was a sex demon barely contained downstairs is such a blindingly obvious question, we keep asking it throughout the film.

Before long, the entity is making the Hemdales all hot and bothered, while sowing dissension through their resulting misunderstandings. Soon, it flat out possesses Paul, just in time for the arrival of Jennifer’s obnoxious gothy, occulty little sister. She ought to realize something is off about Paul’s outrageously sexualized behavior. Unfortunately, Jennifer will have to face it on her own, with only the counsel of the still defiant grandmother’s spirit for help.

Every time you assume this film can’t possibly go any further over the top, it goes and does something even more nuts. Its spectacles of infernal orgies are neither erotic or scary, but they are a sight that must be seen to be believed. Forget logic, forget modesty, and just hang on and try to enjoy the ride as this train wreck of a film careens off the bridge.

Henstridge from Species still looks like a scream queen sex symbol, which is obviously why Kanefsky cast her. Somehow, she manages to stay relatively grounded and maintain the shreds of her dignity, washing machines notwithstanding. In contrast, Lukas Hassel understandably figures the only way out is to fight fire with fire. “Scenery chewing” doesn’t even begin to describe his outrageously flamboyant turn as Paul Hemdale. Apparently, the mania was contagious, because even the typically reliable horror film stalwart Lin Shaye sounds wacky and forced as Grandma Black. Oh and by the way, Tiffany Shepis plays Monica the realtor in what might be the film’s most restrained performance.

It is impossible to recommend a film like The Black Room, but if you see it now, you will reference it for years to come. It is just so weird and smarmy, it is hard to believe it actually exists—and yet it does. Words fail when The Black Room opens this Friday (4/28) at the Laemmle Music Hall in La La Land.

Small Crimes: E.L. Katz’s New Film on Netflix

Joe Denton is not the slightest bit remorseful, but he sure is sorry. Formerly a corrupt cop, the recently released ex-con has caused a lot of trouble for people close to him. However, the truth of the incident he did time for is even worse than people think. Unfortunately for Denton and his prospects for a straight life, the gangster who ordered it all might be considering turning deathbed stool pigeon in E.L. Katz’s Small Crimes (trailer here), which debuts on Netflix this Friday.

Denton might have conned the parole board, but his long-suffering parents doubt whether he has truly reformed—not that they will see much of him after his release. Having survived a random, small-time set-up (awkwardly orchestrated by the wayward daughter of Phil Coakley, a prosecutor literally scarred by Denton’s misadventures), the ex-cop gets a good talking-to from his ex-partner, Lt. Pleasant, who isn’t. Vassey, the gangster who ordered the disastrous hit-job Denton claimed was self-defense, has been having long conversations with Coakley. Pleasant insists Denton must kill Vassey or potentially suffer the consequences.

However, getting close enough to Vassey will be difficult, thanks to the interference of his psychotic son Junior and the diligent care of his nurse, Charlotte Boyd. Denton starts romancing her for strategic reasons, but finds himself genuinely attracted to Boyd, which complicates matters even further.

Small Crimes is an insidiously clever one-darned-thing-after-another crime thriller, featuring a veritable who’s who of genre cult favorites in its supporting cast. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (from Game of Thrones) is absolutely terrific as Denton. He has such disheveled sad sack charm, you lose track of how truly degenerate he is, until the totality of his jerkweedness comes back to roost down the stretch. He also develops some surprisingly subtle and mature chemistry with Molly Parker’s Boyd.

Co-screenwriter Macon Blair (screenwriter and star of Blue Ruin) adds color and poignancy as Scotty, the oblivious brother of the best friend Denton kind of, sort of killed, while Pat Healy does his thing as the sadistic Junior. Larry Fessenden adds further genre cred in a small but appropriately sleazy role. However, nobody upstages or in any way steps in the light of Gary Cole’s entertainingly evil Lt. Pleasant.

Small Crimes is old school all the way. Its characters exist in a world where evil prospers because it is more fun. Katz keeps the noir badness lean and mean, with credit also due to the tight work of frequent horror movie editor (and sometimes actor) Josh Ethier. If you want to enjoy some skullduggery without any tiresome teaching moments, this is your cup of spiked tea. Enthusiastically recommended for hardboiled fans, Small Crimes starts streaming this Friday (4/28) on Netflix.

Tribeca ’17: The Endless

Maybe the hippie commune Justin Smith rescued his younger brother Aaron from was not quite the “castrating doomsday UFO cult” he thought it was, but you still would not call it a New Religious Movement. Regardless, the brothers are probably not being unduly alarmist when they assume the worst from a “goodbye” video they receive from a former friend. Against the older brother’s better judgement, they will visit their former “family” before they “ascend” in Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Frankly, one look at the smiling tool standing at the gate of Camp Arcadia would have made us do an immediate one-eighty. The anti-social fellow who keeps brusquely walking in straight lines is also rather off-putting. However, Anna, their big sister figure is as lovely and welcoming as ever—and she hardly seems to have aged at all.

In contrast, life has been hard for the brothers in the years that followed their Camp Arcadia escape. In fact, Aaron remembers the plentiful food and kumbaya gatherings rather fondly. Justin was hoping their visit would serve as an antidote to his nostalgia, but it might have the opposite effect. However, after the older brother gets the heave-ho from Arcadia, he stumbles into the truth. The real secret of Camp Arcadia is truly Hellish in a Sisyphean sense, but the camper cultists have embraced it out of their warped hippy spirituality.

There is no question the big reveal and its implications takes a while to unpack. However, it mostly all tallies, once you account for the varying severity of the x-factor in question. In any event, the cosmic scope and ambition of Endless are quite impressive, especially considering the intimate scale of the drama. Filmmaking partners Benson and Moorhead are terrific as the Smith Brothers. They really demonstrate the fine line between love and resentment, constantly crossing over and back. Perhaps drawing on their experience making Resolution, Spring, and the “Bonestorm” segment of V/H/S Viral, B&M really project a sense of the brothers’ long, chaotic shared history together.

In all honesty, The Endless is one of the more intelligent and emotionally sophisticated genre films you will see all year, but it has received unfairly middling notices thus far at Tribeca. This may well be due to the cult-themed subject matter. At a time when the advocacy-media is promoting large-scale demonstrations, any film that problematizes acquiescence to the moral judgement of the collective unit is likely to face instinctive resistance, so to speak.

That will be a real shame if it successfully dampens the enthusiasm of fans of Benson & Moorhead’s prior films. Smart, tense, and psychologically realistic, The Endless is highly recommended for fans of cult movies (in both senses) when it screens again tonight (4/26) and Saturday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tribeca ’17: November

Culturally, the Baltic States are considered more closely akin to Scandinavia than the Slavic countries, but the gothic goings on in this 19th Century Estonian village are downright Carpathian. Even the Devil himself has a role to play in Rainer Sarnet’s November (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Fundamentally, November is a story of mismatched and thwarted love. Pretty peasant girl Liina has fallen for Hans, the dashing Brom Bones of the village, but he has hopelessly and futilely fallen for the sleepwalking ward of the local lord. Much to her horror, Liina has been promised to a much older rustic by her severe grandfather. Liina’s mother does not approve of the match, but she remains estranged from her crotchety father, even though she is now a ghost.

Despite their Medieval-style Orthodox faith, the villagers are in constant commerce with the sulfuric one. To maintain their subsistence living, they build “kratts,” eerie looking robotic creatures constructed out of farm implements, but to animate them, they must purchase a soul from the Devil, at the cost of their own. They will also have to contend with the shape-shifting plague, which comes to town in the guise of a beautiful woman, but fittingly assumes the form of a goat.

November is the sort of film that is greater in the sum of its parts than as a whole. There are some wonderfully macabre and inventive scenes distributed throughout the film, but the parallel stories of Liina and Hans’ unrequited love really start to drag. Still, the kratt effects are wonderfully weird and eccentric, while Mart Taniel’s black-and-white cinematography is absolutely arresting.

Pacing might be an issue for Sarnet, but he creates a consistently otherworldly tone. It is an unsettling vibe, not entirely dissimilar from Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels. November is stuffed with creepiness, including hints there might be something lycanthropic going on with Liina. Yet, it is a cold, impersonal film that always keeps viewers at arm’s length.

Frankly, November is so ambitious and richly crafted, it is worth seeing just for its visuals. It is an auteurist film through and through that is guaranteed to attract a cult following among Tarkovsky and Zuławski fans. Recommended for bold cineastes, November screens again this afternoon (4/25), tomorrow (4/26), and Thursday (4/27), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Black Rose: Red Heat Redux for the Putin Era

Sadly, the constant abuse of the media, activists, and politicians has so thoroughly demoralized the LAPD, they will have to import a hard-charging shoot-from-the-hip cop from Russia to stop a serial killer. Since all the victims have been Russian-speaking women, they will have a legitimate excuse to recruit the help of Vladimir Kazatov. Unfortunately, the killer will soon turn his attention towards Kazatov’s pretty American partner in Black Rose (trailer here), directed by Alexander Nevsky (because Ivan the Terrible wasn’t available), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Despite the mounting death toll, the Russian community refuses to talk to the LAPD. Of course, the expats are sure to trust Kazatov, because it’s not like the Russian legal system has a reputation for corruption and oppression. Regardless, he and LAPD profiler Emily Smith quickly establish all the murdered women worked as “hostesses” in an exclusive Russian gentleman’s club.

That ought to be a significant break in the case, but Kazatov still has to sneak around, kicking down doors, sans warrant. Further complicating the investigation, the killer somehow got a hold of Smith’s number and frequently calls to do deep breathing exercises.

Black Rose is the sort of film where the police think the most effective course of action they can take is standing around, having expositional conversations. Aside from the initial Moscow bank robbery sequence, featuring Euro cult favorite Matthias Hues, there just isn’t a lot of action in this action movie. Instead, it relies on the Tracy-and-Hepburn chemistry shared by Nevsky (a bodybuilder-turned-actor, born Alexander Kuritsyn) and Kristanna Loken (from Terminator 3 and BloodRayne). The fact that their endless bantering doesn’t completely collapse into a train wreck is a near miracle.

About the only thing going for Black Rose is a supporting cast chocked full of reliable character actors, including the great Robert Davi, chewing the scenery for all its worth as Captain Frank Dalano. However, it is rather depressing to see the post-Highlander Adrian Paul mope through the film as Matt Robinson, the ineffectual detective yanked off the case.

Nevsky has decent action chops, but with a name like that, he’d darn well better. Loken also deserves credit for gamely soldiering through, but their simplistic investigation holds little interest. We just can’t recommend Black Rose, but we’d be willing to give Nevsky another shot if his subsequent Showdown in Manila (directed by Mark Dacascos) follows it into theaters. That’s the long and the short of it when Black Rose opens this Friday (4/28) in LA at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.

A Dark Song: The Truth about Angels and Demons

Forget Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Bells never ring when these Holy Guardian Angels get their wings, but they are very real and they really do accompany humans through life. However, demons are also very real—and they are easier to interact with through supernatural means. A grieving mother hopes to call her Guardian Angel to request a final conversation with her murdered son, but the risks are fantastically high in Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If you know anything about Aleister Crowley and the occultist movement, you might be familiar with the Abramelin Ritual. Reportedly, Crowley started one, but left it unfinished, with disastrous consequences. According to esoterica, anyone who completes the long, grueling procedure will finally see their Holy Guardian Angel, who will them be compelled to grant whatever wish the supplicant asks for. Of course, whatever unseen demons might be in the area will do their best to disrupt the ritual and doom the practitioner, body and soul.

To complete the ritual, Sophia Howard will need a wingman. The alcoholic Joseph Solomon is not perfect, but he has extensive experience in the occult. He conducted a prior Abramelin Ritual. Though unsuccessful, he lived to tell the tale. Once the ritual starts, occult things start going bump in the night, but the situation really turns dire when Solomon begins to doubt her motives.

There is no need to mince words—A Dark Song is absolutely terrifying. You have to go back to the original Exorcist to find a horror film that is equally serious when addressing themes of good and evil. It is the kind of movie that feels like it is pulling back the curtain surrounding our materialistic existences, giving us a peak at the deeper, darker truth beyond.

Gavin’s execution is unremittingly tense and eerily evocative of occultist archetypes. He adroitly capitalizes on the claustrophobic location and sinister trappings. Once the circle of salt is circumscribed around the house, we can just feel bad things will happen inside. He also gets invaluable assists from Catherine Walker and Steve Oram, who are absolutely electric playing off each other.

This is one of the scariest films of the year. Yet, it is also a deeply moral film, again much like The Exorcist. In fact, it will not leave viewers bereft of hope, unlike so many nihilistic horror films. One of the best genre releases of the year, A Dark Song opens after midnight this Friday (4/28), at the IFC Center in New York.

Tribeca ’17: Mr. Long

Movie gangsters have been taking a shine to neighborhood kids since Angels with Dirty Faces, but few have been domesticated as quickly as this Taiwanese hitman. His latest assignment takes him to Tokyo, but it will not turn out well. While laying low, he falls in with the son of a heroin-addicted former prostitute. It is unclear how serious his intentions are, but it will hardly matter much if his enemies find him in Sabu’s Mr. Long, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mr. Long only wields a short stiletto, but it is sufficiently lethal in his hands. We get a sample of his handiwork in the opening scene, but unfortunately, his yakuza prey gets the drop on him in a nightclub. Barely escaping with his life, Mr. Long crashes in a squat in the distressed outer boroughs, where he quickly befriends Jun, a young boy forced to care for his drug-addled mother Lily. As we learn in flashbacks, she was once relatively happy working as a high-class yakuza prostitute, but when she fell for her driver Kenji, Jun’s father, it launched them both on a steep downward spiral.

Bereft of passport and money, Mr. Long must while away a week or so before he can catch a mobbed-up freighter back to Kaohsiung. In that time, he will start assuming a surrogate father role with respects to Jun and help Lily quit cold turkey. With the encouragement of the nosy, but well-intentioned neighbors (they can be a bit too cute), he starts selling Taiwanese beef noodles from a street cart. Of course, it is inevitable the villains from his past or Lily’s will interrupt this peaceful interlude.

Viewers should be warned, they could very well feel like they were stabbed in the heart with a stiletto after watching Mr. Long. Much like Sabu’s shockingly moving Miss Zombie, Mr. Long takes familiar genre elements and recombines them into an emotionally devastating tragedy. As a case in point, viewers will hope a key figure will appear at an opportune time to save the day, but Sabu is too honest for that.

As Mr. Long, quietly brooding Chang Chen burns up the screen. It is one of his darkest, most powerful turns since his teen debut in Edward Yang’s classic A Brighter Summer Day. However, Yao Yiti is arguably an even great revelation as the heartbreaking Lily. She just rips the audience’s guts out and stomps on them. Likewise, Bai Runyin’s performance as Jun is mature beyond his years.

To maximize their impact, Sabu is stingy with the action scenes, but when he uncorks one, the fight choreography is spectacularly down-and-dirty. In fact, the long period of household tranquility makes the third act showdown exponentially more powerful. Mr. Long will knock the wind out of you and stay with you. Very highly recommended for fans of yakuza movies and Sabu’s work, Mr. Long screens again tonight (4/25), tomorrow (4/26), and Saturday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.