Saturday, September 30, 2017

NYFF ’17: Look But With Love—Episodes 1 & 2

Of all the countries you could immerse yourself in, Pakistan probably would not be anywhere near the top of your list, due to its reputation for terrorism and intolerance. Of course, it does not have to be that way. Many activists (including some gutsy women) are getting involved on a grass roots level to spur positive change. Two-time Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy literally brings viewers into their lives in her virtual reality documentary series Look But With Love, the first two episodes of which are available for viewing today and tomorrow as part of the Convergence showcase at the 55th New York Film Festival.

In the first episode, “A Story of Women,” a group of young Pakistani women, who have never really enjoyed full rights of civic participation, are completing their SWAT training to directly battle terrorism. Obviously, the weapons drills and rappelling down buildings well suits the 360 VR. This is real deal counter-terror training, most definitely including bomb disposal.

There were times when LBWL inadvertently hinted at VR’s potential for the horror genre, because there are several instances when you suddenly realize heavily armed people are standing next to you. Hey there. It also illustrates one of the potential drawbacks for documentary filmmakers, because headset-wearers might find they miss subtitles with presumably useful information, because they are too busy looking around, gawking at the training compound. That’s a rather unique problem of viewers getting too absorbed in a film.

The second episode, “A Story of Dance,” profiles a distinguished but still spry dance teacher, who instructs her young students (girls and boys) in traditional dance forms, despite the Islamist prohibitions. She does indeed often find herself defending her dance lessons against radicalized parents, but she has a knack of winning them over. Her appeals to their pride in Pakistani culture and the beauty of the performances she stages mostly do the trick.

As you would expect, the dancing nicely lends itself to VR documentation. It is sort of like Wim Wenders’ Pina raised to the power of ten. For a while, there was a mini-boomlet in 3D documentaries that seems to have subsided. Perhaps that energy has been redirected into VR, because if you are going to do something, you might as well do it all the way.

When a multiple Academy Award winner start embracing VR, it suggests the format is reaching mainstream acceptance. It is particularly notable in the case of Obaid-Chinoy, who took home Oscars for the short docs, Saving Face and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. In this case, the technology certainly gives immersed-viewers a vivid and visceral appreciation of these women’s lives. Recommended for VR early-adopters and anyone interested in a boots-on-the-ground perspective on social change in Pakistan, Look But With Love can be experienced today and tomorrow (10/1) as part of the Convergence program at the 2017 New York Film Festival.

NYFF ’17: A Gentle Night (short)

With this film, Qiu Yang became the first Chinese filmmaker to win the Cannes Palme d’Or for best short film. Appreciative festival officials also claim he gave Cannes’ shortest acceptance speech ever: “****ing amazing.” His characters do not have a great deal to say either, but the film is still quite eloquent. Cai Zhuo might be stoic by nature, but she won’t sit quietly waiting for confirmation of the grimmest news a parent can receive in Qiu’s short film, A Gentle Night (trailer here), which screens as part of Shorts Program 1 during the 55th New York Film Festival.

Cai’s thirteen-year-old daughter Linlin never came home from school. She is not the sort of girl to run away from home, not that the cop handling their missing person report believes it or cares very much. He tells Cai and her less concerned husband to come back tomorrow, when the trail is cooler, but to bring her teacher with them. Of course, the pedagogue does not want to get involved. Feeling desperate and depressed, Cai starts walking the streets of their neighborhood, unsure whether it would be good or bad news if she discovers a clue to Linlin’s fate.

Loosely inspired by a real child disappearance in Changzhou, Gentle shares common themes with Qiu’s previous short film, Under the Sun. Both critique the “don’t get involved, mind your own business” attitudes prevalent in a consumerist Mainland culture increasingly divorced from traditional Chinese values. Whereas Sun depicts the grubby, exploitative behavior that gives rise to such sentiments, Night clearly establishes the resulting human cost.

Throughout Night, Cai is profoundly alone, like nobody would ever want to be. Li Shuxian’s performance might be quiet and taciturn, but it emotionally devastating just the same. Frankly, Li does not need many words to communicate her fundamental truth, over and over again.

As he did in Sun, Qiu and his cinematographer Constanze Schmitt often frame the characters at oblique angles, through open doorways and windows. Yet, instead of distancing viewers, it heightens the sensation of our eavesdropping on excruciatingly private moments.

They also perfectly capture a sense of eerie stillness of city life during the late night hours. Initially, the title sounds ironic, yet long dark nights of the soul are often hushed and placid for those not sharing in the crisis. Qiu depicts contemporary Chinese society in cold, unfeeling terms, but his film is deeply humanistic. Very highly recommended, A Gentle Night screens this coming Wednesday (10/4) and Friday (10/6) as part of Shorts Program 1 at the 2017 New York Film Festival.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Two Sentence Horror Stories, from Vera Miao and the Internet

If Poe had been forced to tweet, he might have produced something like two-sentence horror stories. The minor internet phenomenon is exactly what it sounds like. Generally, the longer first sentence evokes a situation of dread and the shorter second sentence is the kicker. Some of the best have been adapted for the small digital screen by writer-executive producer Vera Miao, who shares directorial duties with three emerging genre talents during the five-episode first season of Two Sentence Horror Stories (trailer here), which premieres this coming Tuesday on Verizon’s go90 streaming service.

The first episode, “Ma,” is about twenty minutes long, which really isn’t much shorter than a classic Twilight Zone episode. Poor mousy Mona has lived with her domineering mother so long, she has abandoned all hope of an independent life, until Erica moves into the building. Even though they are complete opposites, their mutual attraction is undeniable (despite a slightly rocky introduction). However, this is a horror film, so Ma is not likely to give up her hold over Mona without a struggle.

Wei-Yi Lin is compulsively watchable is tragically poignant as Mona. Even at her squirreliest, she makes us feel for the under-socialized woman. It is also nice to see Mardy Ma (who made her second career-acting debut in SundanceTV’s One Child) quite chillingly portray her not really-namesake. Ayesha Harris develops some compelling chemistry with Lin, while providing a grounded connection to the outside real world. Horror fans may already have a pretty solid notion of what is going on here, but Miao’s moody execution is still impressive.

Danny Perez (who made a bit of a splash with Antibirth) takes over the helm for “Snap.” Fittingly, it is a very new media story about Donny Dante, a scummy celebrity blogger who is getting some of his own public-shaming treatment after driving an unstable starlet to commit suicide. Someone is definitely out to deliver his comeuppance, but how are they leaving those disconcerting videos of Dante sleeping on his own phone? Arguably, “Snap” is the most conventional installments of the series (perhaps owing a small debt to Stephen king’s The Dark Half), but Perez keeps the tension cranked up.

“Guilt Trip,” directed by JD Dillard (best known for the promising Sleight), is probably the weakest of the batch. It feels like Miao started with the topical takeaway and reverse-engineered the narrative from there. The tale of a woman who picks up a victim of police brutality, but soon feels compelled, rightly or wrongly, to ditch him, never generates much tension and the big twist is glaringly predictable.

The series rebounds when Miao returns to the director’s chair for “Singularity.” Even before she gets into the horror elements, the unsettling practice of “body hacking” will creep out many viewers. Basically, Nala is trying to turn herself into a wifi zone through weird, back alley implants. Why is she trying to do that, you might ask? Her old friend George asks the same question when he patches her up. Originally, it was all about open source idealism, but when she starts to pick up on the uncanny entities all around her, she starts to have second thoughts.

“Singularity” is scary as heck, but there is a danger the Social Justice Warriors will start crusading against it on the grounds it equates the disastrous body-hacking with Nala’s transgenderism. That would be a completely unfair reading of the episode, but deliberately taking things out of context is what Social Justice Warriors do. Regardless, both Jen Richards and Bobby Naderi (who co-starred in the smart and challenging Persian horror film, Under the Shadow) are terrific as Nala and George.

The first season wraps up with “Second Skin,” directed by Ryan Spindell, which features some decent body horror, somewhat in the tradition of Starry Eyes. Luna, our down-trodden, scuffling coat check attendant, gets comped by a well-heeled client to the wrong hipster day spa. Without question, Carolyn Hennessy is the main attraction as the flamboyantly evil and well-accessorized Mare.

Easy the binge, four out of five Two Sentence Horror Stories are quite entertaining. Miao and Guy Pooles, who serves as cinematographer on all five stories, maintain an eerie atmosphere and a mounting feeling of dread. They seem to understand the things we can’t see are always more ominous than that which we can. Worth checking out for fans of horror anthologies and shorts, Two Sentence Horror Stories starts streaming this coming Tuesday (10/3) on go90.

Girl Flu: Indie Mother and Daughter

Her name is Robin, but her mother calls her “Bird.” Obviously, they live in LA, because any New Yorker would automatically think of Robin Byrd, the notoriously naughty fixture of Manhattan public access cable. Young Bird needs a lesson in the birds and the bees, because she is about to get her first monthly reminder of womanhood, but her aging party-girl mother can’t handle real stuff like that in Dorie Barton’s Girl Flu (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

White jeans, school outing. Yes, Bird’s first period is pretty much a perfect storm of yuckiness. Jenny is a mom, but she is not naturally mothering, but fortunately her no-nonsense pal Lilli sits Bird down for a brutally frank what’s what. Ironically, she even gets more compassion and practical advice from Arlo, her mom’s musician boyfriend, who is bizarrely losing patience with Jenny’s reluctance to commit.

Basically, Jenny’s casual mishandling of one of the biggest mother-daughter moments of them all unleashes Bird’s resentments, amplified by the girl’s jittery hormones. Clearly, she was not happy before, but her mother just buried her head in the sand. Aside from Arlo and maybe Lilli, the only one who really listens to her is Carlos, a smitten classmate who happens to have six older sisters.

Generally, Girl Flu is a likable indie, but there are two scenes in which Bird tries to pass off Arlo as her boyfriend that are unspeakably creepy. Although the older character never does anything inappropriate, he is probably still lucky to avoid arrest and prosecution.

Despite that uncomfortableness, Jeremy Sisto is terrific as Arlo. He is a smart, funny, and grounding presence, but as a professional musician, you’d think he’d occasionally play his instrument. Seriously, this cat doesn’t even practice.

Jade Pettyjohn looks like she is twelve going on ten, but she carries the film as the plucky Bird, while Katee Sackhoff is also convincingly annoying. However, they do so much yelling and bickering, they end up confirming chauvinist stereotypes regarding women. Still, it is mostly harmless and well intentioned. Okay for fans of frank but sentimentally schmaltzy indies, Girl Flu is now available on VOD.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Gerald’s Game: Mike Flanagan Adapts Stephen King

Only Stephen King would dedicate a book that revolves around S&M sex to his wife and her five sisters. Sure, it is about empowerment, but it is still weird. It was also considered one of the books least favored by King’s fans and the hardest to adapt for the big screen. Rather inconveniently, Jessie Burlingame is all tied up (or cuffed up) and can’t come to the phone in Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game (trailer here), which starts streaming tomorrow on Netflix.

This was supposed to be a naughty weekend that would help Jessie and Gerald Burlingame rekindle their marriage. However, the handcuffs and rough role-playing just didn’t work for her. First that made her husband resentful and then it made him dead from a massive stress coronary. Unfortunately, she is still hand-cuffed to the knobby four poster bed.

The newly widowed Burlingame slowly realizes she is trapped and nobody will come looking for them in their out-of-the-way vacation home until it is too late. To make matters worse, a Cujo-light stray dog starts nibbling on Gerald’s body. She still has the strength to shoe him away from her, but soon she will be too weak.

This is the perfect time to panic, but her subconscious conjures up visions of a particularly dismissive version of Gerald and an idealistically self-reliant analog of herself to goad and encourage herself to survive. Conversely, the extreme trauma of her situation spurs flashbacks to episodes of molestation and emotional manipulation from Burlingame’s childhood, which are much less motivating. She also starts having visions of a boogeyman she starts to call the “Moonlight Man,” who must surely be a hallucination, right?

To a large extent, Gerald’s Game functions like a memory play, but with a ticking clock and life-and-death stakes. The adaptation penned by Flanagan and Jeff Howard could almost be repurposed as a stage play, but it would be hard for Burlingame to have conversations with the her she always wanted to be. Regardless, they defy expectations with a high-percentile Stephen King movie, ranking with Misery and Cronenberg’s original Dead Zone.

Bruce Greenwood is one of the most reliable character actors working today, but he shows a fiercely malevolent side in Gerald’s Game that we have never had the chance to see from him before. He is quite flamboyantly sinister for a dead man, but Greenwood is also frighteningly believable, leading us to suspect this is closer to the real Gerald Burlingame than his wife ever admitted to herself. Carla Gugino does some of the best work of her career as both Jessie Burlingames, pretty much covering the entire range of human emotion. Of course, Carel Struycken (the Giant in Twin Peaks and Lurch in the Adams Family movies) is perfectly cast as the Midnight Man.

This was supposed to a triumphant year for King, thanks to the one-two punch of The Dark Tower and It. 2017 will indeed turn out that way for the Maine Mangler, but it will be due to the tandem of It (a monster hit) and Gerald’s Game. This could be the first Netflix original film that generates the publicity heat of their original series. Likewise, it should skyrocket Flanagan to the top-tier of horror directors, following his way, way better than it needed to be Blumhouse prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil. The sexual abuse scenes (a suspiciously frequent King motif) might have been trimmed a little, but as it is, Gerald’s Game is quite a smartly conceived, nerve-janglingly tense and claustrophobic horror thriller. Better than It, Gerald’s Game is highly recommended for fans of King and psychologically twisted tales when it launches tomorrow (9/29) on Netflix.

NYFF ’17: Genre Shorts

It is nice to know wherever you go in the world, you can still find vicious psycho killers and ragingly dysfunctional families—the two often go together hand in hand. Once again, the short programmers indulge our appetite for the chaotic and speculative when a new block of genre short films plays during the 55th New York Film Festival.

Frankly, the family in Natalie Erika James’ short film Creswick (trailer here) seems to be healthy and well-adjusted, but their furniture is sinister. Sam never felt comfortable in her father Colin’s cabin-workshop-home, but she never really understood why. Nevertheless, she is somewhat sad to return as a grown adult to help him close-up and move out of the property. However, he finally realizes what unsettled her as a child. Rugged old Colin is convinced there is another entity haunting the space.

Although only ten minutes long, Creswick is a terrific example of economical and evocative story telling. Thanks to the smart disciplined performances of Dana Miltins and Chris Orchard, the audience quickly picks up on the loving but somewhat strained nature of their relationship. It is also cool whenever a horror film credits a furniture designer—in this case Isabel Avendano.

The family in Angelita Mendoza’s The Last Light also love their children. Unfortunately, they are already down one cousin, who presumably fell victim to the budding ten-year-old serial killer they have tied up in the barn. Sadly, it seems tragedy is likely to compound when another young girl sneaks off, hoping to cultivate a friendship with the boy. Even though we suspect we know exactly where it is headed that sense of inevitability makes it palpably intense.

We next shift gears from the arid, windswept Mexican desert to a deliciously lurid Italian clinic. You might uncharitably accuse Alberto Viavattene’s Birthday of favoring style over substance, but what rich giallo style it is. A morally flexible nurse is assigned to help a rich old patient celebrate her 100th birthday. The nurse isn’t exactly Willard Scott, but that’s okay, the patient isn’t exactly Jessica Tandy. Birthday might be a bit more fantastical than classic giallos, but Sandro De Frino’s cinematography and Enrico Ascoli’s score or totally in the patent leather glove.

Gabriel de Orioste’s Program is probably the slightest film in the block addressing themes more fully explored in Guy-Roger Duvert’s feature Virtual Revolution and Grace Rowe’s short The Sweetening: digital love as a means of escape in trying times. Juan Pablo Arias Muñoz’s Hombre also treads a familiar path, forcing us to watch a sensitive adolescent struggle through a hunting trip with his judgmental father, while suspecting something unnatural is out there in the woods.

In a surprise rebound, the genre program closes with one of the strongest shorts, Hitchhiker from Damien Power, whose brutal and somewhat pedestrian Killing Ground we did not dig at Sundance. As an homage to hitchhiking horror and noir, Power cut-and-pastes his dialogue from films like The Hitcher and Detour, yet it never sounds like it is trying to do something cute. In the rather macabre tradition of Rabid Dogs, a violent but somewhat immature fugitive crosses paths with a no-fooling-around psycho hitchhiker. Hilarity does not ensue, but there are some lean cuts of morbid humor and man oh man, is Julian Garner ever something as the titular hitchhiker.

Cheers to Australia for starting and ending the program on high notes. Special thanks should also go out to Italy for inventing and constantly reinventing the giallo. The combined merits of Creswick, Hitchhiker, Birthday, and Last Light are more than sufficient to recommend Shorts Program 2: Genre Stories when it screens this Saturday (9/30) and Monday (10/2), as part of the 2017 New York Film Festival.

NYFF ’17: Spoor

It turns out Count Zaroff was right. Man is the most dangerous game. Something is poaching the poachers, because it is never hunting season for well-armed male chauvinists in this ridiculously backward Polish village. We had a good run at the top of the food chain, but the natural world just might be fighting back in Agnieszka Holland & Kasia Adamik’s disappointing Spoor (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

A retired engineer and part-time school teacher like Janina Duszejko ought to be a forceful advocate for animal rights, but whenever she tries to file a complaint against poachers, she ends up sputtering incomprehensible moral outrage. It makes it easy for the venal police chief to disregard her, but still earns her plenty of enemies. Waking one morning to find her beloved dogs missing, Duszejko suspects the worst and her fears are justified. However, a noxious poacher turns up dead shortly thereafter. The circumstances are suspicious, but baffling, since the only tracks leading up to the body are of the four-legged variety (you know, animal spoor).

Is something supernaturally natural afoot, as in Fessenden’s The Last Winter and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, or is there a more Scooby-Doo explanation, involving Old Man Smitters and a wolf costume? Somehow, Holland and co-screenwriter Olga Tokarczuk (adapting her own novel) come up with an answer that will leave all sides deeply unsatisfied, which is sort of perversely admirable.

We are supposed to be charmed and impressed by Duszejko’s pluckiness, but it is frankly annoying how she is always feeling things so deeply. She even recruits an amiably geeky hacker to her cause, but her strategy still largely consists of ineffectual tantrums. Her motives for investigating the murders never really compute either, especially if they are the result of Mother Nature rising up.

Nevertheless, Holland’s skill as a filmmaker remains crystal clear throughout Spoor. Holland, co-director Adamik, and cinematographers Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski give it an evocatively icy noir look. Just watching it will make you feel chilly. Holland also manages to maintain a palpable sense of tension, despite giving us so little in terms of real deal genre business. Viewers just keep watching, because they will feel like something significant is always about to happen.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka is fine as Duszejko, but like her character, she probably would have reaped better results by working smarter rather than working harder. Clearly, subtlety was not a priority for anyone involved. Nicely atmospheric but filled with light-weight polemics, Spoor should not be a priority when it screens this Saturday (9/30) and Sunday (10/1), as part of the 2017 NYFF.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

HK Cinema at SFFS ’17: Boat People

It was criticized by the Village Voice for being anti-Communist propaganda, even though it was the first Honk Kong film allowed to shoot on PRC territory. Of course, the Communists depicted in the film were from Vietnam, a country that had just spanked Mainland China in a war that is hard for us to imagine today. Regardless, as a humanist who always values human dignity over ideology (in stark contrast to the Voice), Ann Hui scrupulously depicts how the powerless struggle to survive in her 1982 classic Boat People, which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

During the Vietnam War, left-wing Japanese photo-journalist Shiomi Akutagawa consciously sided Viet Cong, so they are happy to invite him back for a propagandistic life-after-Liberation photo-essay. At least, his minder and her superior in the Cultural Bureau, the French-educated Nguyen, intend it to be propaganda. They carefully orchestrate his visits to Potemkin “New Economic Zones.” Yet, despite their efforts, Akutagawa starts to see cracks in the façade.

When they reluctantly allow him free unescorted passage through the streets of Danang, he starts to see the real Vietnam, including the execution of dissidents, the “registration” of ethnic Chinese, and widespread hunger. He also befriends Cam Nuong, a resilient fourteen-year-old who works odd jobs to support her two brothers and grief-stricken part-time prostitute mother.

Akutagawa tries to help Cam Nuong’s family monetarily, but his attention also brings government scrutiny. However, it is the experiences of To Minh, the lover of the French-style bistro-proprietress that Akutagawa meets through Nguyen who really opens the photojournalist’s eyes. On leave from a more representative New Economic Zone (N.E.Z.), To Minh has been desperately raising boat passage for himself, his mistress, and his best friend. Akutagawa will understand why, when he invites himself along on To Minh’s transport back to his concentration camp-like N.E.Z.

Boat People was not just Ann Hui’s international breakout, it was also one of the first roles to really generate recognition for Andy Lau. As To Minh, he actually looks reasonably Vietnamese. The dangerous charisma and brooding intensity are also already evident. George Lam similarly passes for Japanese quite convincingly, yet the way he quietly but compellingly portrays Akutagawa’s mounting disillusionment and moral outrage is even more impressive. Cora Miao and Shi Mengqi greatly humanize the film as To Minh’s mistress and the world-weary Nguyen, but Season Ma’s Cam Nuong really supplies the film’s heart, soul, and bitter hemlock.

Throughout the film, we can see Hui’s knack for eliciting sensitive performances. It was a big hit in HK, but it was way more truth than the world was ready for. For instance, Cannes rather gutlessly moved it out of competition to placate critics. However, Boat People would not be silenced or spiked.

In fact, its reputation has continued to appreciate over time, for good reason. It is a great film from a master filmmaker. Its screening is particularly timely, coming in the midst of PBS’s seventy-part The Vietnam War mini-series. Like ghostly voices, Boat People’s characters remind us the decision to abandon our allies to a vengeful, oppressive regime had dire moral repercussions. Spend five minutes with Cam Nuong and it will alter your perspective forever. Very highly recommended, Boat People screens this Sunday (10/1) as part of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema.

NYFF ’17: Mrs. Hyde

Despite her titular surname, the nocturnal alter-ego of Marie Géquil (sound it out) is more like an impersonal, fiery monster in the tradition of the H-Man than a down-and-dirty Victorian ripper. She doesn’t get a lot of breaks, but her mutation still has transformative effects for her Jekyll persona in Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde, which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

For most festival patrons, the casting of Isabelle Huppert as Madame Géquil is all they need to know. The fact that it is also a loose reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson is hopefully a bonus, but we are really talking loose here—like those pants need a belt and suspenders, plus some gathers round the cuffs.

Despite thirty years of experience, Madame Géquil finds herself on probation due to her ineffectual classroom manner. Teaching physics in a distressed urban technical school is not an easy task—and her openly hostile students do not make it any easier. Unlike the hypocritically unctuous principal, she has no truck with the soft bigotry of low expectations, but her refusal to dumb it down only increases her class’s antipathy. Than one fateful day, while Madame Géquil is performing an experiment, a lightning bolt from out of the blue strikes the school’s laboratory (a refurbished shipping container).

Suddenly, Madame Géquil has more confidence and appetite by day, but she sleepwalks by night. Eventually, she starts transforming into a Human Torch like figure that preys on the thugs running wild in the nearby projects. This two-pronged attack will help her finally reach Malik, her worst tormentor in class, who turns out to have an unsuspected aptitude for electrical engineering.

Although there is a thimble full of genre business in Mrs. Hyde, it is more an educator’s trials and tribulations, much in the tradition of The Class or Dangerous Minds, but it is darker and more fatalistic. It also has Huppert, who is terrific. Everyone seems to think she is playing against type here, but the truth is, you can see all the too-quiet intensity and barely contained resentment she has always conveyed so vividly. If you tipped her Géquil over, she might shatter.

As Malik, Adda Senani is a natural who looks like he really attends Arthur Rimbaud Technical School and hates every minute of it. He is a genuine discovery, but Romain Duris’s outrageously flamboyant, bang-flipping turn as the serpentine principal will really burn itself onto your corneas. Unfortunately, José Garcia’s Pierre Géquil is rather lightweight and inconsequential.

Mrs. Hyde is probably just good enough to satisfy Huppert’s admirers, but not chaotic enough to satiate Jekyll and Hyde buffs. Huppert and Duris certainly strut their stuff, even while pointedly critiquing French public education. It is an interesting, sometimes ironically amusing film, but not a knock-out punch. Recommended for fans of Huppert and patrons of French cinema, Mrs. Hyde screens this Friday (9/29) at Alice Tully Hall and Sunday (10/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYFF.

HK Cinema at SFFS ‘17: With Prisoners

In America, budding criminals are much better off if they are tried and convicted as minors rather than adults. It is the exact opposite in Hong Kong. If this sounds perverse to you, many surviving youthful offender would readily agree. Their experiences with HK’s “short sharp shock” juvenile justice system are dramatized in Wong Kwok-kuen’s expose-like narrative, With Prisoners (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Fan is a self-described “thug,” who is cocky enough to lay a smack-down on an off-duty cop during a fair and square bar fight. However, the abuse meted out at the Sha Tsui Detention Center will break him in a matter of days. Having survived one suicide attempt, Fan will knuckle down, becoming a model prisoner, by following the advice of Sharpie, a veteran re-offender. The older “boy” (prisoners as old as twenty-five are incarcerated at Sha Tsui) deliberately returned, to avenge a friend’s murder, which the guards dressed up as a suicide.

Most likely it was the work of the brutal senior guard Gwai, or one of his vicious comrades. Only the idealistic Ho and world weary veteran officer (rarely seen in the film) are beyond suspicion. Unfortunately, the soul-deadening violence of Sha Tsui is poisoning Ho’s relationship with his wife Samantha, a former junkie, whom he saved during his social-worker days.

There is plenty of socially conscious muckraking in With Prisoners. Realism certainly was not a problem, given the presence of many former inmates in the large supporting cast, including Mak Yee Ma, making an extraordinary debut as Sharpie. However, Wong and co-writer Wong Chi-bong include some more traditional crime drama elements to help pull viewers through, mostly revolving around the death of Sharpie’s friend and his subsequent pursuit of payback.

The quietly incendiary Mak is a heck of a discovery in Prisoners, but up-and-coming Neo Yau Hawk-sau also stretches his chops and range quite nicely as Fan. Kelvin Kwan’s is admirably earnest, but nobody can withstand the withering voltage of Lee Kwok-Lun’s work as the casually sadistic yet eerily charismatic Gwai. What makes it so scary and potent is the apparent effortlessness of his cruelty and how little it seems to affect him. It is a performance that ranks up with R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.

Western viewers might be surprised by the complete absence of homosexual references or overtones in Prisoners, but this is a Hong Kong movie, so it is subject to homophobic Communist Party censorship. At least the film’s characters need not worry about sexual assault in addition to torture and murder. Regardless, the film never feels whitewashed, since there are plenty of violent scenes that will indeed trouble the faint of heart. Recommended for fans of prison films and reformist issue-oriented movies, With Prisoners screens this Sunday (10/1) as part of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Realive: Disney’s Dream Come True

Who knew the future would be so uncertain? It turns out to be quite different, yet maddeningly the same. Go figure. This is especially frustrating for Marc Jarvis, because he will have to live in it. The first cryogenically frozen terminally ill patient to be successfully revived and cured experiences buyer’s remorse in Mateo Gil’s Realive (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It was tragic bad timing for Jarvis to get a one-year cancer diagnosis. His hipster advertising agency was thriving and he was finally settling into a healthy long-term relationship with Naomi, his former girlfriend several times over. She quits her job to make the most of what time they have left, but Jarvis has a different idea. He will technically kill himself before the disease can ravage his body, so he can be frozen and presumably revived later. Apparently, those bucket list items will have to wait—sixty years to be exact.

That is how long it takes for Jarvis to be defrosted—and boy is he surprised. Thanks to his precautions, he was a perfect specimen for the restoration process. However, instead of elation, Jarvis falls into a deep depression. Even Elizabeth, the pretty RN assigned to monitor his recover and “encourage” him in ways acceptable in the swinging 2080s, can’t make him forget about Naomi. To further boost his angst, Jarvis eventually learns Naomi also had herself deep-frozen, but not in as pristine condition, making her an unlikely contender for revival anytime soon.

There are some powerful moments in Realive that bear comparison to Mark Slutsky’s provocative short film Decelerators. Unfortunately, there is just no getting around the weakness of Tom Hughes as a lead (de ja vu, anyone?). Instead of brooding darkly, he just seems to lay about in a funk. It is impossible to believe Naomi (played by Oona Chaplin, Charlie's granddaughter) and Elizabeth (played by Charlotte Le Bon) could both be so concerned about his cold porridge personality.

Poor Chaplin is stuck with an under-cooked character, but she still manages to wring some poignancy out of the extreme situation she faces. Always reliable, Le Bon is actually the one who really sells the big emotional payoff, which must have been quite a challenge playing opposite Jarvis’s bald head and lifeless eyes.

At least Gil marshals his resources quite effectively. He and his design team realized an evocatively ambiguous vision of the future. It is a good-looking film, but Hughes still can’t carry it. That is a crying shame, because even though Gil’s script addresses some heady speculative themes, the relationship between Jarvis and Naomi is really what is supposed to drive it. Another film to stream later on Netflix or Shudder, Realive opens this Friday (9/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Don’t Sleep: Alex Rocco’s Final Film

According to imdb, this is the ninth time Cary Elwes has played a doctor. Considering several of those times has been as Dr. Lawrence Gordon in the Saw franchise, he hasn’t been a particularly helpful doctor. That is true again for Dr. Richard Sommers. Initially, he appeared to cure disturbed young Zach Bradford, but he really just kicked some seriously sinister issues down the road. The supernatural chickens finally come home to roost in Rick Bieber’s Don’t Sleep (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Bradford used to have nightmares about a doppelganger inhabiting a fake-looking nightmare world, who would replace him in the real world once he gained sufficient strength. His memories of that period are hazy, but apparently the nightmares eventually went away. Everything seems fine now. He is in his final year of law school and about to move in with his girlfriend Shawn Edmon. They even find the perfect “love nest,” right across the street from the McMansion owned by their super-cool landlords, Vincent and Jo Marino.

The Marinos often have the kids over for dinner with his spry old father. Unfortunately, the jawa-like creatures that once haunted Bradford’s dreams have started tormenting Mr. Marino senior. When they get done with him, they will move onto Jo Marino, while toying with the increasingly freaked out Bradford. It gets so bad, he will seek out Dr. Sommers to ask, what the heck, dude?

Even though the film is called Don’t Sleep, most of the bad stuff happens while the characters are wide awake. It ought to be called Don’t Rent to Cary Elwes’ Patients. Logic is not real priority here. To be fair, extensive reshoots may not have been an option given the death in 2015 of co-star Alex Rocco. Of course, that also implies this film has been on the shelf for a while.

In addition to the late, great Rocco (Moe Greene in The Godfather), who is both creepy and tragic as Mr. Marino, Don’t Sleep also mind-blowingly features Jill Hennessy as Bradford’s mom. Wow, seriously. Rounding out the recognizable names, Drea de Matteo falls apart spectacularly as Jo Marino. Of course, Elwes is in his element playing Dr. Sommers, the cold fish child psychologist. The problem here is not weak support. In fact, you could argue Alex Carter has almost too much screen presence as Vincent Marino, given how drab and passive Dominic Sherwood and Charlbi Dean Kriek are as the young lovers.

Perhaps it is also partly due to the lackluster special effects, but the big climatic revelation does not land, falling somewhere between a face-palm and a head-scratch. However, the closing theme song, “Devil Inside,” performed Stacy Earl and Skipp Whitman is so wonderfully cheesy, we believe it deserves Oscar consideration. Don’t Sleep is not recommended per se, but it is the sort horror film indulgent fans might find themselves inadvertently defending for reasons that escape them. Regardless, it is definitely a film to stream later on Netflix or Shudder, but for now, it opens this Friday (9/29) in LA at the Laemmle Monica Film Center and releases day-and-date on iTunes.

HK Cinema at SFFS ’17: 77 Heartbreaks

Break-up are often measured numerically. There are fifty ways to leave your lover and ten things I hate about you. The underappreciated Eva Lui comes up with seventy-seven reasons to dump Adam Cheung’s sorry butt. He will read them for himself when he comes across her journal in Herman Yau’s 77 Heartbreaks (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Lui understood Cheung had family issues, so she cut him a lot of slack. To antagonize his father, Cheung quite his job as a solicitor, becoming a kick-boxing instructor instead. Yet, one day, Lui up and leaves. This deeply depresses Cheung, but he doesn’t do any real soul searching over it. In fact, he passively falls into a relationship with Mandy, a love-struck student. As it happens, she will be the first to read Lui’s “77 Heartbreaks” journal, a volume purchased from the mysterious Heartbeat Shutter store. There almost seems to be a bit of magic to it. Regardless, it crystallizes Lui’s thoughts and gives Mandy fair warning.

Arguably, the various Chinas are becoming the world’s leading producer of rom-coms. Seriously, when was the last a Hollywood relationship comedy justified its space on a hard-drive? However, despite its rom-com elements, 77 Heartbreaks is neither very rom or com. Instead, Erica Li’s adaptation of her own novel is more of a tragedy and a withering indictment of male complacency. Although, in all honesty, there are not going to be a lot of guys willing to defend Cheung, who rather revoltingly, backs into a relationship with a woman just as attractive as Lui and even more eager to make it work, yet he treats her like dirt.

Strong and sensitive, Charlene Choi is terrific as Lui, while you could say Pakho Chow fully commits as an actor, making Cheung as self-centered and un-self-aware as could ever be humanly possible. However, Michelle Wai’s achingly vulnerable performance as Mandy will really make the audience want to line up to beat Cheung with their soap wrapped in their towels, in the manner of Full Metal Jacket. Not surprisingly, veteran Anthony Wong steals a few scenes as Lui’s boss, Solicitor Pak and Kara Hui cranks up the grace and dignity as Lui’s mother. Yet, the film’s secret trump card is Francis Ng as Shutter, the eccentric but profoundly humane photographer and silent partner in Heartbeat Shutter.

You have to give Yau and Li credit for never taking the easy way out. This isn’t like a slightly disappointing day for Bridget Jones. It is about coming to terms with the disappointments of life and the mortality of loved ones. Wisely, they also refrain from counting down every last heartbreak, concentrating on the general trajectory of the relationship instead. Considerably deeper than it looks, 77 Heartbreaks is recommended for fans youth dramas and break-up films like Singles, when it screens this Saturday (9/30) as part of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex-Trafficking

Sex-trafficking is not just a Third World phenomenon. It very definitely happens here, because this is where the money is. Men are also victims, as well as women and young girls and boys. Intellectually, we accept these facts, but we do not act like they have sunk in emotionally. Activist-filmmaker Sadhvi Siddhali Shree, the first North American Jain monk (she sometimes also uses the term nun) and a survivor of sexual abuse, forces viewers to examine rampant human trafficking in directly personal terms throughout Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex-Trafficking (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is hard to imagine anything more harrowing than the childhood of abuse survivor Dr. John A. King. He wasn’t trafficked per se, but his parents horrifically abused him and repeatedly pimped him to their friends. As a result, he can well relate to the experiences of trafficked women who are raped twenty or thirty times per day. Thailand remains the trafficking capitol of the world, but Houston and Los Angeles are also major hubs, while Afghanistan is a special category unto itself.

Unfortunately, sex-trafficking is a growing business in Vietnam, where it personally touched television host (and co-executive producer) Jeannie Mai, who discovered the daughter of her family’s neighbor had been sold into servitude at a hostess bar. Shree interviews a few such celebrities in Stopping, but they are personally involved and invested as activists. That definitely includes the eternally cool Dolph Lundgren, who appears with the first two minutes.

In fact, Lundgren sort of throws down the gauntlet, categorizing sex-trafficking as a massive collective failure in empathy. It is hard to argue otherwise when you hear the stories survivors tell. Survivor-activists like Karla Jacinto (who estimates she was raped over 42,000 times) really demand to be heard—and those who refuse tolisten are deliberately keeping themselves obliviously ignorant.

Watching Stopping Traffic really throws into stark relief how misplaced the majority of contemporary activism has been. Just imagine if the thousands who will show up at a congressman’s office to protest legitimate political differences instead gathered outside the Thai embassy to insist on stronger crack-downs on trafficking or at strip clubs and massage parlors where trafficked women have been forced to work in the past, to demand assures they are not currently involved in trafficking. We might actually start making inroads against a truly evil crime, instead of heightening the divisiveness of current discourse.

Shree and her battery of experts make the stakes painfully clear. Trafficking is also very definitely a women’s issue, because young girls are particularly at risk. This is a disturbing, enraging, yet maybe slightly hopeful documentary that will stick with you, pricking your conscience. Highly recommended, Stopping Traffic opens this Friday (9/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

The Sound: Toronto’s Haunted Lower Bay Station

Even though it is allegedly haunted, Toronto’s moth-balled Lower Bay subway station is strangely recognizable. It has often doubled for other subways in movies like Don’t Say a Word, Bullet Proof Monk, and the Total Recall remake. It was only operational from late February 1966 to early September of the same year. Supposedly, it was closed because of design flaws rather than the rumored death of “The Woman in Red,” but when was the last time a government agency closed a big expensive public works project just because it was poorly laid out? An intrepid paranormal investigator ventures down to debunk the station, but she might be getting in over her head in Jenna Mattison’s The Sound (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Kelly Johansen believes in the power of twitter rather than ghosts. She has built a large following disproving supposed hauntings. Sometimes her rational worldly explanations come as a relief to the not-so-haunted-after-all. In addition to her smart phone, she also has a lot of gear for measuring high and low frequency sound waves, which are usually part of her logical explanation for ghost sightings. She will lug it all down to the shuttered Lower Bay station (sans permission, of course), where her initial readings are off the charts.

It is quiet down there—too quiet—and the infrasonic sound waves are dangerously low. Prolonged exposure will cause nose bleeds, drowsiness, and eventually madness. By the way, Lower Bay was also built over a Potter’s Field and next to a mad house. These are two significant items that turn up in the google search Johansen probably should have conducted before rushing off to Toronto. At least the wifi is strong down there. The same will not be true for her state of mind.

The cool thing about The Sound is that it takes a credible shot at fusing technology with the supernatural. Instead of being part of the logical scientific explanation, the ultra-low frequency sound waves might just an indicator of uncanny juju afoot. Plus, the station itself and the warren of support tunnels are massively creepy. Frankly, this film ought to discourage further attempts at urban exploration, because it looks incredibly sinister and dangerous.

Mattison and her design team of Jim Goodall and Iskander Alex Sayapov have created a massively eerie subterranean environment, but their work is somewhat sabotaged by Rose McGowan’s lifeless lead performance. Yes, Johansen is supposed to be slowly succumbing to the effects of the infrasonics, but even in the safety of her Detroit apartment (more likely that’s Grosse Point), she is a rather dull, pedestrian presence. Johansen also behaves rather contemptuously towards the little boy and his grandfather (played by the great Stephen McHattie) in the prologue sequence, which further hampers our feelings of suspense and tension when she finds herself in supernatural harm’s way. Still, we can always count on crafty and colorful vets like McHattie and Christopher Lloyd (as a weirdly diligent maintenance man) to liven things up.

The Sound is a pretty impressive example of horror movie mise-en-scène, but it is not McGowan’s finest hour. Still, genre fans have been able to look past wooden performances before. It is worth doing so again in this case, because Mattison shows so much potential as a filmmaker. Recommended for horror enthusiasts looking for new talent, The Sound opens this Friday (9/29) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinema.

Veronica Ngo’s Tam Cam: The Untold Story

This Vietnamese fairy is a lot like Cinderella, but the slipper is golden rather than glass. There is also more death and reincarnation. As if that were not promising enough, Veronica Ngo (soon to be even more famous as the star of Star Wars: The Last Jedi) adds demons and Braveheart-style battles in her adaptation. The Cinderella step-sister has it particularly hard, but karma will do as it does in Ngo’s Tam Cam: The Untold Story (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Poor Tam is bullied rotten by her nasty step-mother Di Ghe and vain step-sister Cam, but she gets encouragement from a Joel Grey-like Fairy Godfather. There will indeed be a royal ball, open to all, where the disinterested Prince (and acting Regent) will chose a bride. Di Ghe conspires to keep Tam away, but her Fairy Godfather gets her there in time to try on the fateful slipper.

Sadly, even after she marries the Prince, Tam is not allowed to live happily ever after. Prodded by the evil Magistrate, Di Ghe murders Tam and convinces the Prince to allow Cam to care for him, as Tam supposedly would have wanted. However, Tam constantly reincarnates as birds or trees to save the shockingly unintuitive Prince from the Magistrate’s assassination attempts. Unfortunately, all appears lost when the Prince’s trusted lieutenant betrays him in battle, but Tam and the Fairy folk are still looking out for him.

The original tale of Tam and Cam takes a turn that is grislier than just about anything you will find in Perrault, Basile, or the Brothers Grimm. Ngo is probably wise to file down that sharp edge, but she adds plenty of hack-and-slash action and demonic brimstone. Frankly, it is pretty impressive how many narrative balls she manages to juggle, thereby securing a number of featured roles for members of 365, the Vietnamese boy band she produces.

Actually, the boys aren’t bad hacking away at each other. Ha Vi certainly comes across as a sweet innocent as Tam, whereas Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc convincingly plays against type (she was the endearing lottery ticket seller in Jackpot) as the catty Cam, but nobody out vamps Ngo as the wicked stepmother. Forget about Jolie in Maleficent or Blanchett in the recent live-action Cinderella, because they pale in comparison to Ngo’s flamboyant villainy.

She can also direct. Ngo and Diep The Vinh capitalize on Vietnam’s stunning natural vistas (at least as seen from a drone’s eye-view) to give the film a real epic feel. Her war scenes have grit and the CGI is a little wacky, but still better than you would expect.

It is hard to dislike Tam Cam, because it is one of those kitchen-sink kind of film, where crazy stuff is constantly thrown in, for the sake of our entertainment. Arguably, the fact that it maintains a consistent sense of narrative logic is a tribute to Ngo. It is wild, tragic, romantic, melodramatic, sometimes a little goofy, and most importantly fun. Recommended for fans of fairy tales and Ngo, Tam Cam: The Untold Story opens this Friday (9/29) in Orange County at the Regal Garden Grove and in San Jose at the AMC Eastbridge.

AlphaGo: Artificial Intelligence’s Grudge Match with Humanity

Forget Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The stakes were much higher in the grudge match between DeepMind’s Go-playing artificial intelligence and Go master Lee Seedol. You can probably blame science fiction publishers for that. We’ve rarely published novels that feature a thinking program saving the day. Scientists can envision a world where A.I.’s help clean the dishes, but the Singularity remains a pretty scary proposition, so it was more than just professional Go players who were rooting for Lee. The epic five-game match is documented move-by-move in Greg Kohs’ AlphaGo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There are so many potential variations in Go, it is considered more of an artform than a mere board game. It represents a far more complex programming challenge than chess. The AlphaGo program would also be far more legitimate measure of the state of the technology than the A.I. that defeated Kasparov. That program had the benefit of the experience of several chess masters, who helped teach it. AlphaGo would have to learn the game all on its own.

It learned pretty quickly, easily dispatching Chinese-born European Go champion Fan Hui in straight sets. It was a tough loss, especially his treatment in the Go press, but it put Fan in a unique position to understand the significance of the project. He subsequently signed on as a technical advisor to the program. However, Lee Sidol would be a different matter. Recognized as one of the most brilliant and unconventional players ever, everyone assumed he would cruise to victory. However, the real suspense will come from Lee’s valiant effort to scratch out a split.

Kohs clearly had unfettered access to the DeepMind team throughout its matches with Fan and Lee. While he did not have the same entrée to Team Lee, the Korean world champion still becomes the film’s genuinely heroic figure. We understand in no uncertain terms the pressure he endures as he carries the hopes of his country, the Go playing community, and basically the entire human race. The film also benefits greatly from Fan’s insider insights from serving as a player, coach, and judge in the AlphaGo story.

Kohs captures a lot of humanity in a film about artificial intelligence. The doc also might help alleviate some of our worst HAL-9000-esque fears regarding A.I. Yet, in moments of candor, even committed members of the DeepMind team admit a part of them was rooting for Lee out of human solidarity—so maybe we should go back to being paranoid after all. Highly recommended for viewers who enjoy popular science and games of strategy, AlphaGo opens this Friday (9/29) at the Village East.