Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Open Roads ’17: Deliver Us

By now, the world has witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Holodomor, the Armenian Genocide, the Cultural Revolution, the Rwandan Genocide, 9/11, and the Castro Brothers’ oppression of Cuba. The notion that evil exists in our world hardly seems debatable anymore. If only we could exorcise it like a satanic force. Against this backdrop, perhaps it is not so surprising reports of demonic possession have spiked dramatically. Federica Di Giacomo follows one of Italy’s busiest exorcists in Deliver Us (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2017.

People travel from throughout the country seeking salvation from Father Cataldo Migliazzo. As Twenty-First Century materialists, we assume these are misguided souls suffering from schizophrenia, manic depression, and perhaps Tourette Syndrome. However, it must be admitted their fits of demonic convulsions are highly unsettling. On the other hand, the exorcisms he performs over the phone sound brazenly bogus.

We quickly learn Father Cataldo is the most hawkish priest of the Palermo diocese when it comes to possession. Some of his colleagues hold slightly more nuanced possessions. However, the practice of Church-sponsored exorcisms is reportedly booming throughout Western Europe and America.

Throughout Deliver, Di Giacomo maintains a silent fly-on-the-wall perspective, which is the worst possible approach for a film like this. If ever documentary subjects merited the question: “dude, WTF?” it would be Father Cataldo and his afflicted flock. Frustratingly, nobody is called to explain themselves or provide any further context. We really want to hear what they have to say about the things we see, but Di Giacomo never breaks format.

Nonetheless, there is no denying Deliver is one Hell of a spectacle, so to speak. If you wish to stop and gawk at the strangeness of the world, it offers opportunities aplenty. Even if there is widespread mental illness left untreated in favor of Father Cataldo’s methods, it seems safe to say Di Giacomo documents a profound and growing sickness in the Western soul. Recommended for fans of extreme “reality” documentaries, Deliver Us screens this Sunday evening (6/4), after church, at the Walter Reade, as part of Open Roads 2017.

Tatara Samurai: Blood and Steel in 16th Century Japan

Gosuke wants something very American: upward social mobility. Sadly, he is born of peasant stock in 16th Century Japan. Frankly, as the heir to the village’s prestigious steel smithy, Gosuke is in a better position than most of his fellow commoners, but he will give it all up to join Oda Nobunaga’s forces in hopes of becoming a full-fledged bushido warrior in director-screenwriter Yoshinari Nishikôri’s Tatara Samurai (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Only the Murage knows the secrets that give Tatara steel such strength. Gosuke’s father has just assumed the mantle, so it is time for Gosuke’s training to begin in earnest. However, the young man wants more than a quiet life in Tatara. He is also haunted by childhood memories of the ronin who attacked his village before Lord Shinnosuke and his samurai arrived like the cavalry. Since then, the peasant’s constant state of vulnerability has unnerved him.

Hearing Oda will reward bravery within his ranks with samurai titles, Gosuke sets out to enlist. Unfortunately, he accepts the help of an unscrupulous merchant to help facilitate his military service. Not so surprisingly, the only thing battle-worthy about Gosuke is the sword he had forged from Tatara steel. Despite washing out, Gosuke is still in debt to the cunning Yohei, who will try to collect in a most Faustian manner.

Tatara is a terrific old school, pre-Edo Jidaigeki that nicely balances swordplay action with a thoughtful meditation on the Bushido code. It is a sweeping story that seamlessly incorporates actual events surrounding Oda’s unification campaign and eventual betrayal. Frankly, Shô Aoyagi’s Gosuke is a somewhat unsympathetic character (at least until he learns better), but he is surrounded by a rich cast of complex characters. Naoki Kobayashi broods like a champion as Gosuke’s shrewder boyhood friend Shimpei, who is also considerably handier with a sword. Anna Ishii is quite poignant as Okuni, the fiancée he leaves behind, while Masahiro Komoto radiates tragic dignity as Gosuke’s father. Akira lends stately steeliness to the proceedings as Lord Shinnosuke and Tomoko Tabata adds plenty of energy and verve as his chief spy.

In many ways, Tatara Samurai serves as the anti-Seven Samurai. Yet, there is still plenty of virtue and heroism to be found in the film, as well as a healthy respect for tradition. Arguably, it could almost be considered Burkean for its acceptance and defense of class distinctions. Perhaps most importantly, Nishikôri’s characterizations are multifaceted and acutely human, while action director Yoshio Iizuka’s fight scenes are stirringly cinematic. Highly recommended for fans of both action movies and historical dramas, Tatara Samurai opens for a full week this Friday (6/2) in Los Angeles at the Regal L.A. Live and screens Monday (6/5) in New York, at the Village East. Check Eleven Arts’ website for more cities and dates.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

DWF ’17: Central Park

Seriously, why couldn’t these prep school kids have just gone to a coke-fueled dance club. It’s not like they don’t have money. Then again, a few of them are scholarship students. That makes it even more unfair when a maniac with a grudge against a Madoff-like Ponzi-schemer hunts his sons’ friends through that big park over there in Justin Reinsilber’s Central Park, which screens during this year’s Dances with Films.

These are strange days for Harold Smith. His father Charles Lincoln Smith Jr. is in jail for the biggest investment con game of the millennium and a gaggle of reporters are permanently parked outside his fashionable Upper Eastside townhouse. The media frenzy is particularly intense, because Smith’s biggest victim was the NAACP. At least his friends are standing by him—while they’re still alive.

Really, for no compelling reason, they are going to drink and get stoned in the park. Look, it’s just a really bad idea to go in their late at night. Mikey the scholarship student will start to have second thoughts when the weed brings out his paranoia. Unfortunately, he will call their cool teacher, Daniel Shaw, for help, even before they know they are being stalked. That means the faithful husband and father of a newborn will get dragged into their madness. It also means his wife Melissa will call in a favor with her ambiguous NYPD detective “friend,” when he goes off the grid.

Central Park is mostly standard issue stuff, but Reinsilber cleverly incorporates some of the Park’s lore, including “Barry,” the “Central Park Bigfoot.” The details he sketches out on Smith’s father and his crimes are also sound highly plausible, in a way that is very much analogous to the Madoff case.
Unfortunately, the teen characters are mostly rather boring. In contrast, the most intriguing figures in the film are Melissa Shaw and Max, the detective who lost his surname. The fact that their relationship and the circumstances that gave rise to it are never precisely spelled out, gives a bit of an edge to their scenes together. Marina Squerciati and Charles Borland portray them with mature, grounded credibility. Michael Lombardi is also quite strong as the diverted Daniel Shaw. The kids? Eh, whatever.

Central Park actually looks like Central Park, not Stanley Park in Vancouver. Reinsilber makes it feel rather creepy and not the least bit inviting. It’s not spectacular, but there are a heck of a lot worse films out there. Arguably, as a first film, Central Park shows some signs of promise. We’re definitely willing to check out his next film, for what that’s worth. Basically recommended for horror fans in the mood for some competent slasher business, Central Park screens this Saturday (6/3), as part of this year’s Dances with Films, in Hollywood, USA.

DWF ’17: Cassidy Red

During frontier days, they never wrote songs about women who stayed home and darned socks. Of course, women were the subject of plenty of songs, but they were usually falling in love and/or seeking revenge. Josephine Cassidy is one of them. She intends to shoot down the man who killed her beloved Jakob like the rabid dog that he is. Rather awkwardly, that villain happens to be Jakob’s brother and the corrupt sheriff of their ailing territorial town of Ruby in Matt Knudsen’s Cassidy Red (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Dances with Films.

The piano player’s name is Cricket, just like Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not. He will be regaling Quinn, a much-abused working lady, as well as the audience with the bloody ballad of Josephine Cassidy. She was the product of the weekly unions shared by her brothel-bound mother and Cort Cassidey, a hard-drinking but still very lethal hired gun. Since she grew up on old man Cort’s ranch, Ms. Cassidy learned to handle firearms at an early age. In fact, her steady aim would save her future lover, Jakob Yazzie from the sadistic neighbor boy Tom Hayes.

Much to the peevish Hayes’s surprise, his guilt-ridden father decides to adopt the hungry Yazzie. In an even more perverse twist of fate, the restless Cassidy later agrees to marry the grown Tom, on the condition they will move somewhere with greater opportunities in life. Yet, as soon as Cassidy is thrown together with Jakob, the old sparks fly. Much to everyone’s embarrassment, Hayes arrives home in time to witness her unfaithfulness—and immediately starts planning his grand revenge. Of course, revenge will lead to more revenge. However, to get the job done right, she will need some special tutoring from her dear father.

In fact, the complicated relationship between the Cassidy father and daughter is one of the best aspects of Red. Rick Cramer is just terrific as the world weary but still cocky Cort. He sort of has the look and demeanor of a vintage William Sadler, which is definitely a good thing. Abby Eiland is also all kinds of fierce as the titular Cassidy. David Thomas Jenkins is maybe somewhat more reserved as Hayes than genre fans would prefer, but we still buy into the acrid villainy in his heart. Jason Grasl is basically disposable as Yazzie, but Gregory Zaragoza adds the right jaded seasoning as Cricket.

Hollywood’s virtual abandonment of the western genre leaves a void more independent filmmakers ought to be rushing to fill, so cheers to Knudsen for staking an early claim. Red is a solid western that is traditional enough to entertain the genre stalwarts and just revisionist enough to feel contemporary in its attitudes. No matter what happens theatrically, it ought to clean up on VOD, because there is an under-served market of considerable size for precisely this kind of film. Recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm, Cassidy Red screens this Friday (6/2), as part of this year’s Dances with Films, in Hollywood, USA.

Contemporary Philippine Cinema at MoMA: Gemini

If Tennessee Williams had the opportunity to write a Philippine horror movie, it might have gone something like this. Julia and Judith were always like the Corsican Brothers. If one suffered from some sort of pain, so did the other. Unfortunately, Judith is bold and curious about the world, whereas Julia is sickly and allergic to nearly everything. Due to her frail health, both sisters must live sequestered lives. As a result, Judith harbors a great deal of resentment for her sister. That bitterness and sexual repression leads to violence in Ato Bautista’s Gemini (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s new film series, A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema.

As Manuel’s interrogation begins, the detective acknowledges the slippery nature of truth, but we have to start somewhere. Julia finally wants to come clean. Her sister murdered Anton, the brother of their tutor, with whom the more forward Judith was romantically involved. When Anton eventually showed his true colors, it sparked a bloody altercation, after which Julia helped Judith dispose of the body. At least that is Julia’s story and she is sticking to it, for the time being. However, there are plenty of reasons to doubt her veracity, starting with the fact Manuel’s partner is a dead-ringer for Anton.

Gemini is filled with doubling, including the central twins, the odd doppelganger, and the frequent use of reflections. Frankly, the film is weird in just about every way. Somehow, Bautista uses techniques and motifs of experimental cinema to disorient and thoroughly creep out viewers. It is hard to say just what Gemini is, because it is probably too cerebral to be horror and too gory to be a straight psychological thriller. Regardless, it is certainly distinctive.

Sheena and Brigitte McBride are indeed identical twins, who are eerily cold and distant as Julia and Judith (or possibly Judith and Julia). Yet, we can vividly feel the fear of the former (presumably), as her constructed realities begin to collapse. However, it is Mon Confiado who really holds the film together and carries it through its twists and turns as the interrogator.

On top of all the surreal reality-problematizing, there is also a fair spot of body horror in Gemini. Yet, despite the profoundly warped perspective, there is a very human tragedy at the film’s center. Viewers have to be comfortable with all the gamesmanship, but experienced genre fans will find it is worth the effort. Recommended accordingly, Gemini screens this Sunday (6/4) and Saturday the 17th at MoMA, as part of their upcoming Philippine film series.

Dark Signal: Live and Local on Radio JAB

This is the last night of live and local radio in a remote, English-speaking corner of Wales. Radio JAB (dig that groovy call sign) was already scheduled to convert to a national network format, but the final night of the Laurie Wolf show is still likely to give the UK’s FCC a cow. There will be psychic connections, spectral voices, and mass murder broadcast live and direct in Edward Evers-Swindell’s Dark Signal (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

For several years, the good residents of this Welsh district have been terrorized by the Wedlock Killer, who snips off the ring finger of his victims, wedding band and all. We will see him methodically dispatch Sarah Keller in her far too isolated farm house. Rather bafflingly, we will return shortly thereafter with Kate Komisarczyk and her dodgy boyfriend. For reasons that are not immediately clear, he is convinced there is a small fortune stashed in the house. She is not the criminal type, but she desperately needs money to care for her wheelchair-bound son, so Komisarczyk will be the lookout—and there will be plenty to lookout for.

Simultaneously, Wolf is starting her final show and she is packing plenty of bad attitude. She is even less thrilled when she learns her technician Ben Evans has booked the book-hawking psychic Carla Zaza as her final guest. However, things start to get interesting when Zaza and Evans start picking up some sort of ghostly communication, apparently from one of the Wedlock Killer’s victims.

Pontypool remains the ultimate when it comes to horror movies set in radio stations, but Evers-Swindell does not lack for ambition. There are a lot of moving parts in this serial killer-ghost story hybrid, some of which rely heavily on coincidence to set them in motion. Still, when Madame Zaza makes contact, things definitely get spooky. In fact, Evers-Swindell masterfully capitalizes on the claustrophobic nature of radio studio to heighten the tension. Unfortunately, most genre fans will immediately guess who the Wedlock Killer really is, because it’s the sort of person it always is in horror movies.

Regardless, it is jolly good fun to see giallo veteran Cinzia Monreale returning to the genre as the mysterious Zaza. Siwan Morris is also appealingly disdainful as Wolf. However, Joanna Igaczewska’s Komisarczyk does not look like she could last five seconds in a farm house of death.

Evers-Swindell and co-screenwriter Antony Jones also manage to tie up all the loose ends in a surprisingly satisfying package, which is all too rare in recent horror releases. Frankly, it is eerie and inventive enough to put it on the right side of the bell curve. Easily recommendable for regular horror consumers, Dark Signal opens this Friday (6/2) in Los Angeles, at the Arena CineLounge Sunset.

Monday, May 29, 2017

God of War: Gen. Qi Versus the Pirates

General Qi Jiguang wrote the book on war and then he wrote the book on drilling armies—they were called The Ji Xiao Xin Shu and Record of Military Training. He was just the man to whip the Ming army into shape and expel the Japanese pirates. Those supposed ruffians and ronin have some high-ranking samurai secretly calling the shots, but they adhere to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which is so Sixth Century BC. Nobody knows better than Qi the failings of the Ming court, yet the revered General always answers the call to service in Gordon Chan’s rip-roaring God of War (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Yes, this will be another film in which the innocent Chinese were minding their own business until the belligerent Japanese launched an imperialist military campaign. At least in this case, some of the Japanese have misgivings regarding the ronin’s rampant pillaging—at least the ones with breeding. Of course, they are not there officially, but thanks to their tactical advice, the pirates have completely bedeviled Gen. Yu Dayou.

Even though Qi’s appointment amounts to a rebuke and a de facto demotion, the two generals earn each other’s respect on the battlefield. Unfortunately, neither of them is good at politics, but Qi is just too good to sideline for long. Crafty old Yamagawa hoped to divide Qi’s forces, by launching three simultaneous attacks, including one on Qi’s home town garrison. However, he did not count on Madame Qi-Wang, an accomplished martial artist in her own right, who will be literally holding down the fort in her husband’s absence.

God of War has several large-scale, blood-and-thunder battle sequences, but it is still surprisingly nimble on its feet. Chan segues quite smoothly from the big, explosive sieges to down-and-dirty hand-to-hand combat scenes. He gets a big assist from Vincent Zhao, who was the perfect choice to anchor the film as Qi. He has always had the martial arts chops, but he is about as big as a movie star can get and still be described as “under-appreciated” for him screen presence. Yet, his solid, dependable Joe persona quite suits Qi, who was known more for his ability to bring out greatness in his troops rather than his own super-human feats.

Nevertheless, Zhao still lays down some spectacular beatdowns on the ronin pirates. He also forges some pleasing chemistry with Regina Wan Qian, as the elegant but lethal Madame Qi-Wang. When Wan gets the chance to show off her action chops, she makes the most of it. She was terrific in The Laundryman and Paradise in Service, but this is the kind of role that should take her to the next level of stardom. As an added bonus, second-billed Master Sammo Hung has a small supporting part as the bull-like Gen. Yu, but he still puts an indelible stamp on the film.

In fact, Hung directly factors in an early sparring scene that is cleverly but not slavishly echoed in the third act. It is a nice, subtle touch from Chan, coming in a genre that more often inspires bombast. Frankly, it shows how reliable Zhao has been, how formidable a force Qian will probably become, and how eternally cool Master Sammo will always be. Highly recommended, God of War opens this Friday (6/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Letters from Baghdad: Gertrude Bell in Her Own Words

She was one of the few women T.E. Lawrence could almost stand—and that’s saying something. Together with Lawrence, Gertrude Bell was instrumental in defining the boundaries of modern day Iraq and installing the Hashemite Dynasty on the throne. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Bell tells her story in her own words, derived from her personal letters and diplomatic memorandum in Sabine Krayenbühl & Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Right from the start, Bell’s Oxford matriculation was rather defiant of British societal norms in the mid-1880’s. Thanks to the support of her indulgent widower father, she managed to convert her passion for travel, particularly through the Mideast region, into a full diplomatic position. At first, she was something of an intelligence freelancers, dashing off reports on tribal alliances, but eventually she was given an official brief of her own. She and Lawrence would indeed be colleagues, but not necessarily friends. Arguably, she had better luck forging connections with locals, partly due to the sexism and elitism of the foreign office and partly because she was not the sort to suffer fools gladly.

There is no question Bell led a fascinating life—and for better or worse, her legacy will be an awkward fact of life for decades to come. However, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum are somewhat hemmed in by their approach. Too often, her letters home tell her father she met this newly posted official at a diplomatic soiree and he seemed like a decent chap, but, presumably for security reasons, she rarely discusses her official activities in-country. It is only during the establishment of Iraq that we really hear her addressing her ministerial duties.

Krayenbühl and Oelbaum mostly play it pretty straight during the Iraq sequences, but they clearly hope Bell’s complaints regarding British colonial administration of the future Israel will reverberate with viewers. However, what is most distressing is the omission of Bell’s role as a witness of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide. Once again, one of the most censored and denied episodes in Twentieth Century history is again edited into oblivion.

In a stylistic twist, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum have actors playing Bell’s contemporaries as if they were talking head interview subjects, some of which work better than others. However, their judgement is spot-on in terms of the archival footage they married up with words of Bell’s correspondence. Tilda Swinton (who famously portrayed Orlando, whom Virginia Woolf based on Bell’s friend Vita Sackville-West, another talking head in Letters) has fine diction when narrating the older Bell’s letters, but her voice is not especially rich or distinctive.

Letters is fine on the broad strokes of Bell’s life, but it is short on the telling details. It is a competent introduction that is relatively successful humanizing its subject, but it feels better suited to PBS than theatrical distribution. Recommended (with limited reservations) as a future VOD pick, Letters from Baghdad opens this Friday (6/2) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

Vincent N Roxxy: Star-Crossed Love Gets Violent

These kids are probably perfect for each other. He’s an ex-con with anger management issues. She’s on the run from gangster who thinks she owes him money. What could go wrong, except everything in Gary Michael Schultz’s Vincent N Roxxy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Vincent (is anyone grown-up enough to have a surname in the movies anymore?) was driving by when he saw Roxxy being attacked by a thug working for “Suga,” the local loan-sharking drug dealer. Actually, he didn’t just happen to be in the neighborhood, but that’s a detail to worry about later. Long story short, he hits the dude with his car and she hits him with a brick. While making their getaway, the recently released Vincent invites Roxxy to come crash at his family farm. Initially, she passes, but a few weeks later, she shows up looking to lay low.

Naturally, Roxxy immediately accepts a job working with Kate, the trampy girlfriend of Vincent’s brother JC at a rough & tumble roadhouse. It’s the perfect place to be, if you’re looking for trouble. Kate’s knuckle-dragging ex has plenty of trouble to offer the Brothers X. Presumably, those other bad guys are also still out there looking for them too.

There is really no compelling reason for this film’s existence, but at least Schultz earns credit for an ending that somewhat upends expectations, while delivering some grindhouse style payback. If only there were more of that grunginess earlier in the film. Nevertheless, it should be stipulated Emile Hirsch and Zoë Kravitz have a surprisingly pleasant rapport as the country mouse-city mouse lovers. It is also somewhat refreshing to see their courtship last well past the first act before they inevitably go all in. Plus, Emory Cohen has volatile Ben Foster kind of thing going on as JC that works rather well for the film. Unfortunately, the villains are just your basic redneck creeps and street gang sociopaths.

This film isn’t terrible, but it will only be remembered by those who see it, for the brutal but undeniably cathartic final sequence. Still, that is more than many films can boast. Mostly just okay, Vincent N Roxxy releases this Friday (6/2) in limited markets and on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

Open Roads ’17: Ears

They say those who can’t do, teach. Our nameless slacker is a substitute teacher. People thought he had a brilliant career ahead of him, but it didn’t pan out. Most days, if you asked him, he would say it was everyone’s fault but his own. However, he probably wouldn’t be able to hear the question today, because he woke up with an incessant ringing in his ears. Yet, somehow this nettlesome development might finally spur him to get his act together in Alessandro Aronadio’s Ears (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2017.

After waking in his long-suffering girlfriend’s flat with said auditory ringing, the sad sack protagonist finds a note from the indulgent Alice regretfully informing him his friend Luigi passed away. Since he cannot remember any friends named Luigi, the news is more baffling than distressing for him. Over the course of an uncharacteristically busy day, he will try to have his ears treated, make a favorable impression in a long-shot interview, and figure out who Luigi was. However, he will be plagued by a series of mildly surreal misadventures.

Initially, Ears is oppressively quirky, in a way that flatters itself into thinking it is dark and edgy. The weird, boxy aspect ratio similarly feels like a gimmick. About the only redeeming feature is Francesco Di Giacomo’s ultra-chic Bruce Webber-esque black-and-white cinematography. Yet, seemingly out of nowhere, the film locks in during the third act, delivering some highly compelling and shockingly truthful scenes. Let’s face it, you can’t get much edgier than a brooding main character who decides to take responsibility for his life.

After moping through several interminable wannabe Fellini-esque sequences, Daniele Parisi knocks it out of the park in the big pay-off scenes. He also develops some complicated but endearing chemistry with Alice, played with realistic but engaging charm by Silvia D’Amico. The problem is, we have to sit through a lot of shticky over-the-top mugging to get there.

Still, it must be happily conceded Ears is a film that is actually going somewhere. The real irony is it finally stands out when it stops trying to be eccentric. If you go to its screenings, whatever you do, don’t leave early, or you will have sat through a lot of broad comedy that doesn’t land for nothing in return. Sort of recommended for the patient, Ears screens this Friday (6/2) and next Monday (6/5), as part of Open Roads at the Walter Reade Theater.

Contemporary Philippine Cinema at MoMA: Expressway

If you thought it was Grinchy when terrorists took over Nakatomi Plaza during the annual holiday party in Die Hard, wait till you see how these two hitman spend their yuletide. It will be a sweaty, noir Christmas in Ato Bautista’s Expressway (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s new film series, A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema.

In the murky twilight world Ben and Morris inhabit, it is difficult to tell the difference between the government and organized crime. They are assassins who work for the “Colonel,” rubbing out honest cops and especially dishonest crooks, who think they can get away with skimming a little off the top. The world-weary Ben is sick of this line of work, but the young, sadistic Morris quite enjoys it. The former intends to retire after completing their latest batch of jobs, but these assignments will be particularly messy, in a soul-killing kind of way.

The fact that the aggressively talkative Morris never shuts up further sets Ben on edge, but that is rather the idea. As they pursue their bloody business, it becomes clear the two men share a secret connection. Ben also happens to know their final target, so small world, isn’t it?

Hardboiled crime just doesn’t get much darker than Expressway. It is a lethally efficient hitman anti-buddy movie that proudly proclaims its Tarantino influences with a visual hat-tip that should have fans howling in their seats, like a pack of wild dingoes. However, sensitive viewers should be warned the third act is amorally mean even by genre standards.

Regardless, Alvin Anson and Aljur Abrenica give tour de force performances as the stylistic opposites. Anson’s brooding Ben looks like a walking existential crisis, whereas Abrenica’s Morris is so aggressively obnoxious (intentionally so), viewers will be begging Ben to kill him after the first twenty minutes. Sparks fly as they play off each other.

Bautista’s execution is super slick and ominously warped. He keeps every second taut to the breaking point. If you enjoy shadowy underworld thrillers rife with revenge and betrayal than this is your catnip. Highly recommended for genre fans, Expressway screens this Friday (6/2) and Wednesday the 21st at MoMA, as part of their upcoming Philippine film series.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Open Roads ’17: The Confessions

Central bankers should be more like Roberto Salus and his fellow Carthusian monks. Whenever the former talk, they needlessly rile the markets. IMF director Daniel Roché will never make that mistake again, because he has died under rather mysterious circumstances. Salus might very well understand what happened, but he is apparently bound by the confessional seal as well as a rather slippery vow of silence in Roberto Andò’s The Confessions (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2017.

For reasons that are never explicitly clear, Roché has invited Salus to attend the current G8 conference in an austerely swanky resort. It turns out the global financier wanted Salus to hear his confession, if it can be properly called that. The next morning, Roché’s body is discovered—an apparent suicide using the plastic bag Salus that previously held the monk’s suspiciously missing digital recorded. Would Salus ever secretly record a confession? That would be a grave betrayal of trust, but it sure would make the investigating secret service agents’ lives easier.

In addition to the dead body, there is also intrigue swirling around a controversial proposal Roché has pushed through, over the objections of Italy and Canada. Could they be related? Claire Seth suspects as much. Like Salus, the J.K. Rowling-like leftist children’s author was invited to observe the summit, along with aging rocker Michel Wintzl. Frankly, the notion the guardians of the western world’s financial systems would be interested in their insights is absolutely terrifying, but sadly far from impossible.

The Confessions starts out like a moody Claude Chabrol mystery, featuring a picturesque setting and a set-up ripe with potential. Unfortunately, the second and third acts are fatally mired in a morass of conspiratorial hokum. Andò is absolutely convinced the G8 would happily pass a proposal that deliberately makes the big industrialized nations richer and the small developing countries poorer, but he clearly has no idea what that policy would be. As a result, there are endlessly awkward conversations in which the finance ministers refer to “that thing we agreed to.” Instead of a juicy whodunit, Confessions degenerates into a middling Seinfeld episode.

It is a shame, because Toni (Great Beauty) Servillo is terrific as Salus. He is wise and humane, but in a rather astringent way that isn’t the least bit cutesy or shticky. Connie Nielsen also adds a refined presence as Seth and Marie-Josée Croze is entertainingly scandalous as the Canadian minister. Unfortunately, most of the other power brokers are standard issue stock characters.

In case the G8 is also looking for input from movie reviewers, I would advise a slow but steady increase in the money supply. Monetarism: it works every time. Andò would also be well-advised to limit the ideological soap-boxing in his next film. It completely sabotages everyone’s efforts in The Confession. A big disappointment, it screens twice on Thursday (6/1), the opening day of Open Roads, at the Walter Reade Theater.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Für Elise (short)

Beethoven’s famous solo piano composition will never sound the same after watching this short film. For one thing, the sanitation trucks in Kaohsiung City play a tinny calliope recording of what residents refer to as “the Garbage Song.” However, the music will have considerably more ominous implications for the central character of Albert Ventura Roldán’s Für Elise (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

Ashin thinks he is a tough guy, but for some reason, he lets a pretty Taiwanese American tourist give him a hard time when she sits down at his outdoor market table uninvited. As coincidence would have it, her name is Elise and she arrives simultaneously with the garbage truck, playing its usual Für Elise. You could say it is her theme song.

Before long, Elise will suggest they have done this before. When she supposedly reveals her true nature, it greatly agitates the formerly cool and collected Ashin. She might not be telling the complete truth, but she still hits close enough to home to get Ashin to chase her through the city’s back alleys, which was apparently the goal all along. At this point, the rug is suddenly pulled out from under his feet.

It is hard to classify Für Elise in terms of genre, but it holds far more twists than you would expect from a twenty-five-minute short. To explain any more than the initial set-up would give much away. However, it is very impressive how skillfully and insidiously Roldán keeps upending Ashin’s perception of reality. Für Elise is also absolutely drenched in nocturnal noir atmosphere, which is further amplified by the eerie but classy cinematography of Jyun-Ming Wang and Carles Viarnès’ variations on the Beethoven theme. It is a tense, suspenseful film, yet it totally puts viewers in the mood for late-night street food.

Zai-Xing Zhang and Yi-He Chiu are both terrific as Ashin and Elise. Their chemistry is complicated and they face extreme circumstances, but they are always highly compelling and convincing. They really sell each revelation with their screen presence and dramatic credibility.

This is an excellent film that really delivers everything you could want from a cinematic experience. Frankly, the essential Macguffin could easily sustain a feature treatment, but it is best served by the briskness and muscular compactness of the short film format. If you enjoy psychological thrillers like Hitchcock’s Spellbound (seriously) and reality-twisters like Jacob’s Ladder than you will be duly impressed by Roldán’s film. Very highly recommended, Für Elise screens this coming Monday (5/29) at the Producers Club, as part of the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: The Ningyo (pilot)

According to legend, the ningyo is sort of like a Japanese mermaid, but if true, the lore surrounding the mythical beast holds much more dramatic implications. Supposedly, those who eat ningyo flesh will extend their longevity by centuries. However, the death of a ningyo will raise great storms and natural disasters to plague the nation of Japan. Therefore, it logically follows some people will be desperately looking for the ningyo, while others are determined to keep them undiscovered. A crypto-zoologist finds himself caught between two such factions in Miguel Ortega & Tran Ma’s independent pilot, The Ningyo (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

In this steampunky alternate 1911, Prof. C. Marlowe discovered the okapi in Africa, but his obsessive quest for the ningyo does not sit well with his museum or their donors. Even though the ancient map he recovered could be considered evidence, they just want Marlowe to shut up and go away. Yet, that map must be legit, because both the Bikuni clan and the shadowy H. Prestor Sealous want it, for very different reasons. Spurned by his colleagues, Marlowe agrees to a face-to-face with the latter, but there is no guarantee he will survive the trek to the creature-collector’s subterranean lair.

It is really amazing how fully Ortega and Ma realize the feeling and texture of a steampunk world, relying more on inspiration and creativity than things like cash. In contrast, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on films like The Wild, Wild West and The Golden Compass that look flat and pale in comparison.

Ortega and Ma also clearly know their ningyo lore, as well as their late Nineteenth Century/early Twentieth Century science fiction and adventure literature, visual allusions to which are sprinkled throughout the pilot/proof-of-concept short. Yet, we feel safe in assuming their first love is creating creatures, because there are a bunch of them in The Ningyo. Arguably, Sealous’s secret showroom ranks up there with Mos Eisley in the original Star Wars for the high number of invented species per capita.

As if that were not enough, cult film and television fans will definitely dig the cast, which includes Tamlyn Tomita (from The Karate Kid II and Awesome Asian Bad Guys) lending her elegant gravitas to the project as mysterious matriarch Kiyohime Bikuni, Louis Ozawa Changchien (recurring on The Man in the High Castle) personifying steeliness as the enforcer, Hatori Bikuni, and Jerry Lacy (from the original Dark Shadows) reveling in villainy as the evil Sealous. As Marlowe, Rodrigo Lopresti (a.k.a. The Hermit) also has a firm handle on brooding and scientific mumbo jumbo.

The Ningyo looks amazing and it is wildly fun to watch. However, since Marlowe is essentially a Gilded Age Indiana Jones, it should come as no surprise the pilot ends with a cliffhanger. Presumably, that will be true for all subsequent episodes, which just feels right for this kind of steampunk adventure genre. Anyone who sees the Ningyo pilot will hope to see the full series get produced soon. (Is anyone from Netflix or Amazon Studios free Sunday morning?) Regardless, it is just invigorating for genre fans to dive into such a richly crafted world. Very highly recommended, The Ningyo screens this Sunday (5/28) at the Soho Playhouse, as part of the Philip K. Dick Film Festival’s Fantasy and the Fantastic shorts block.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Aden (short)

It is unclear whether the Aden Corporation’s motives are altruistic or maybe slightly more sinister, but in the short run, they are the only force preventing full-scale chaos from erupting on the streets. More precisely, it is their beleaguered bounty-hunter who does all the hard work in Gary H. Lee’s short film Aden, which screens during the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

Cyrus will be doing a lot of running tonight. His mission is to secure a gifted child from the giant killer robot on his tail. The beastly machine is invisible to most of the people on the street, but he can see it just fine—sort of like Roddy Piper in They Live. All those hipster bystanders assume Cyrus is crazy, until they feel the shock waves from its giant metal feet.

You can tell Aden is a proof-of-concept short, because it raises many questions about the nature of its world, but supplies absolutely no answers. Instead, it delivers a mega-concentrated dose of science fiction action. It is pretty amazing what kind of movie magic can be realized in short films these days, but Lee happens to be a special effects and animation specialist, whose credits include the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Kung Fu Panda franchises.

As Cyrus, Kevin Alejandro never gets a second of peace in Aden, but he is still the sort of hard-nosed, rumpled screen presence fans will appreciate. Charles Rahi Chun, Caroline Macey, and Logan Kishi are also completely convincing as the terrified family caught up in the strange phenomenon afoot.

This is definitely a cool looking film that evokes the cityscape of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as well as the Los Angeles of classic Hollywood film noir, making it a perfect selection for the Philip K. Dick Film Festival. It is also a compelling calling card for the planned feature film. (Note to studio talent scouts, there are a number of promising independent pilots and proof-of-concept shorts at this year’s festival.) Highly recommended for cyberpunk and noir fans, Aden screens this Saturday (5/27) as part of the Philip K. Dick fest’s Block 5: PKD Shorts—Inspiration or Adaptation at the Soho Playhouse.

SIFF ’17: Without Name

We’re not psychiatrists mind you, but we still caution against combining a mid-life crisis with an isolated locale and a satchel full of psychedelic drugs. Eric the independent land surveyor is a good case study. His latest job will take him deep into the eco-heart of darkness in Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Eric’s marriage is on the rocks, partly because his wife more or less knows he is having an affair with his grad student-intern, Olivia. Their relationship has also been strained lately, but he still needs her assistance on his latest gig. His practice would ordinarily be too small for a job of this size, but his corporate client appreciates his reputation for “discretion.”

Fortunately, the company found him digs in an ominous looking cottage, left vacant since the previous tenant went insane and disappeared into the woods. He left behind a hand-written volume on the power of trees that looks like it holds plenty of relevant warnings, but Eric is not paying attention. He is too preoccupied with his suspicions regarding Gus, the mushroom-tripping camper-dwelling drifter, whom Olivia is so obviously attracted to. Both the surveyor and his assistant have some strange “lost time” incidents in the woods, but nothing they can’t shake off, until Eric overindulges in the ‘shrooms, throwing open his doors of perception (and letting in evil Mother Nature).

If the return of Twin Peaks is not enough to scare you out of the woods, Without Name ought to finish the job. It is smarter and more disciplined than The Hallow, the last previous uncanny forestry horror film to hail from Ireland, but you could say it is moody to a fault. Generally, it is always a better genre strategy to suggest than to explicitly show, but Finnegan maybe pushes the point too far. Still, he masterfully sets the scene and stokes the foreboding vibe. Cinematographer Piers McGrail and the sound effects team also contribute distinctively creepy work that really helps establish and maintain the film’s disturbingly surreal tone.

It is indeed frightfully convincing to watch Alan McKenna’s Eric slowly descend into paranoia and madness. Even in the early scenes, he is so tightly wound, you could get a migraine just from looking at him. On the other hand, Niamh Algar plays Olivia with such shallow petulance, it is hard to buy into their relationship, especially considering Eric’s wife is played by the striking looking Olga Wehrly (granted, she is frosty with him, but she has good reason).

Regardless, Finnegan and company display a real mastery of mood and horror mise en scene. Arguably, the old nutter’s treatise on trees is one of the best books-within-a-horror-movie since the nefarious kiddie picture-book in The Babadook. If Without Name ever becomes a sleeper hit, an Irish specialty publisher should release a facsimile edition. Regardless, it boasts some truly impressive visuals and sound design, but a little bit more narrative focus wouldn’t have killed anyone. Recommended for patient fans of eco-pagan horror, Without Name screens this Sunday (5/28) and the following Friday (6/2) and Sunday (6/4), as part of the 2017 SIFF.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Sociopaths (short)

Polyglots who learn a second language often have better grammar than native speakers. Perhaps that logic explains why an android treats people better than their fellow human beings. Watching his interactions will lead to a hard revelation for a little girl in Sociopaths, a short film with bite, directed by A.T. (a.k.a. Takeshi Asai), which screens during the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

A little girl drops her keys and nearly trips and falls, but a kindly android scoops them both up. Having never seen an android before, she starts following him in fascination. Time and again, she sees him to good deeds, but getting no thanks or acknowledgement in return.

For a while, Sociopaths seems like a lesson in proper manners and citizenship that would be instructive for younger viewers, but it takes a rather serious turn. Nevertheless, it certainly reminds us adults how we are supposed to act. It is a brief film, but young Miyu Ando is terrific as the little girl. She has to cover a wider emotional gamut than viewers will initially expect, but she does it like a champ. The craftsmanship of the android costuming and effects are also worthy of a big-budget studio tent-pole.

You could debate whether Sociopaths is really a work of science fiction, but it certainly uses the trappings of the genre to critique contemporary society, which is what the best speculative fiction has always done. It is indeed short (six minutes including end credits), but powerful. Very highly recommended, Sociopaths screens this Friday (5/26) at MoMI, as part of the International Sci Fi Shorts block of this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Everyone readily concedes the game of lacrosse was invented by the Haudenosaunee, also referred to as the Iroquois and Six Nations. However, it seems like Canadians will go out of their way to take credit for indoor “box lacrosse.” It’s the same basic rules and equipment, but with a roof. Wow, how did they ever come up with that? Not surprisingly, the Iroquois (as their jerseys self-identify) and Canadian national teams are natural rivals in World Indoor Lacrosse Championship (WLIC) competitions. Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter chronicle the development of the Iroquois national team and their bid for glory at the 2015 WLIC tournament in Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Iroquois homes throughout Upstate New York and Ontario are just like their neighbors, except there very well might be a lacrosse goal in the backyard. The game has always been a source of national pride, so it is not surprising the Iroquois are disproportionately represented among professional lacrosse players. Still, when WLIC decided to recognize the Iroquois national team, it was obviously a hugely significant decision.

It was also a big deal when the Haudenosaunee hosted the 2015 tourney (at the Syracuse stadium). Unfortunately, the Iroquois missed the previous championship, because the UK refused to recognize their tribal passports and the Iroquois refused to travel under official U.S. documents. When acting as hosts, they made it clear they hoped each team would go through the ceremony of having their passports stamped at the tribal offices. We’re pleased to report the American and Israeli teams were happy to oblige, with the proper spirit. In fact, the only team to snub the passport ritual was Team Canada.

Lacrosse is a fast-paced, action-packed game, but it does not get a heck of a lot of sports media attention, so it is fascinating to watch a behind-the-scenes peak into tournament play, especially from the underdog perspective of the Iroquois. Although scrupulously multicultural in their approach, Spirer and Baxter mostly take a straight-forward reportorial approach, with one notable exception. They really, really seem to dislike Dean French, the arrogant chairman of the Canadian national team, because they do their best to make him look like a fool and a blowhard. Towards that end, they get no shortage of assistance from Dean French, the tone-deaf chairman of the Canadian national team.

Arguably, the film veers a little too far out of bounds when it focused on attempts of Haudenosaunee leaders to start a dialogue with Pope Francis of the “Doctrine of Discovery” during his visit to America. Not surprisingly, Spirit Game is much more effective as a sports doc than as another piece of advocacy journalism. Recommended for sports fans of all WLIC member nations, except Canada, Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation opens this Friday (5/26) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset (with its iTunes release set for 6/20).

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tav Falco’s Urania Descending

There is a heck of a lot of National Socialist gold still out there. Some is safely tucked away in Swiss vaults, but there is one wayward shipment rather tantalizingly lying at the bottom of Lake Atter (a.k.a. the Attersee). An American fleeing boobsie Arkansas will be recruited into a scheme to salvage that gold in Tav Falco’s first feature-length film, Urania Descending (trailer here), which screens this Thursday as part of a night of the Panther Burns front man’s film at the Anthology Film Archives.

Title cards warn us not to expect perfectly synchronized audio, but frankly there will not be a lot of dialogue to worry about. Not exactly found footage, Descending claims to be the mysterious 16mm reels of an unknown outsider-artist filmmaker, cobbled together as well as possible. Although there is a bit of talking here and there, Falco is clearly engaging with the conventions and motifs of silent cinema—much more so than the caper movie.

Fed up with leering lowlifes, Gina Lee just up and bought a one-way ticket to Vienna. How long can she afford to idle away her days in merry old Vienna? Maybe for quite a while, if she can complete the job offered to her by tango-dancing playboy Diego Moritz. Her job will be to romance Karl-Heinz Von Riegl, the son of the German officer in charge of the gold shipment that crashed in Lake Atter. It will not be difficult to get him talking about it, but snapping a picture of the pertinent map will be a trickier task.

That probably makes it sound like intrigue abounds in Descending, but frankly there are almost no twists or turns to this sixty-nine minute tale. Instead, Falco is much more interested in realizing the film’s neo-retro look. Think of it as a more animated cousin of Sally Potter’s Thriller, or a less grungy, modern day Alphaville. Indeed, Descending could pass for Godard’s remake of a John Huston caper film, produced by the Warhol factory.

Descending is probably most successful evoking the spirit of Vienna through its soundtrack of accordion music, tangos, waltzes, and hints of the Third Man theme. Nevertheless, its deliberately self-conscious gamesmanship ultimately wears thin. This is definitely a case where it would be much more nourishing to watch the films that inspired Falco. More intriguing as a concept than as a finished film, Falco’s Urania Descending screens this Thursday night (5/25) at the Anthology Film Archives.