Thursday, November 30, 2017

ADIFF ’17: Horace Tapscott, Musical Griot

He led the other Arkestra—the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Obviously, Sun Ra was an influence, but unfortunately, the late, great Horace Tapscott never has a chance to discuss the man from Saturn in his long-awaited documentary profile. Barbara McCullough focuses more on his reminiscences of early days and formative influences in Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Like many jazz legends, Tapscott originally hailed from Texas, but his family relocated to Los Angeles at the height of the Central Avenue scene. Sadly, Tapscott left the planet in 1999, but McCullough had been documenting him off-and-on for three decades, with a rotating crew that including future indie filmmaking luminaries, such as Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. Throughout the film, she concentrates on Tapscott’s music and memories, with one exception. Tapscott’s high school mentor, Dr. Samuel Browne emerges as a real hero and secondary subject of Griot, which is clearly what Tapscott would have wanted.

It is too bad Tapscott never recorded for a major minor label, unless you count a one-off for Flying Dutchman, because his music still sounds fresh today. Perhaps the closest comparison would be later Andrew Hill, because they share similarly open and challenging harmonies, but remain tethered to strong rhythms and reasonably structured melodies. Like Hill, he fit right in that sweet spot between modal hardbop and experimental free jazz.

Wisely, McCullough lets viewers hear plenty of Tapscott, including his compositions: “Lino’s Pad,” “A Dress for Renee,” “Raisha’s New Hip Dance,” “The Giant is Awakened,” “Sketches of Drunken Mary,” and “Ancestral Echoes.” By far, the best performances McCullough captured came from a trio gig at the Village Vanguard, featuring Andrew Cyrille on drums and Roberto Miguel Miranda on bass. It is definitely Tapscott’s film, but jazz fans will also be interested to hear from contemporaries like Don Cherry and Arthur Blythe.

There is some terrific music in Griot, as well as some highly dubious politics. The CIA is chartered to gather and analyze intelligence from international sources, so it is highly doubtful they had any interest in a jazz artist, especially since he was never signed to a major label. Regardless, Tapscott’s legacy is his music and it definitely holds up over time. Highly recommended, Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot screens this Saturday (12/2) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

A Bad Idea Gone Wrong: A Low Calorie Caper

Marlon and Leo are just brimming with resentment for the one-percenters, because they want to be part of them. At least they are more honest than most people who use that term. They are going to steal from them outright. Of course, their breaking-and-entering escapades will take on several unforeseen complications in Jason Headley’s A Bad Idea Gone Wrong (trailer here), which opens today and tomorrow in select cities.

Marlon has a stupid fantasy of pulling a stick-up job, like the diner scene in Pulp Fiction, but Leo has the fractionally less stupid idea of burglarizing a house in a gated community. He knows the couple will be out of town, because she is his ex-fiancée, whom he has been cyber-stalking. Leo tries to keep those awkward facts to himself, but they will come out soon enough.

Frankly, Marlon has a somewhat clever method for getting into the gated development, but he reverts to form when he inadvertently arms the security alarm. Suddenly, they are trapped inside the house, at least until they can figure out the code. Perhaps the house-sitter they are completely surprised to find dozing in the master bedroom can help.

Bad Idea is small in scope, but rather funny, albeit in a modest way. As Marlon and Leo, Matt Jones and Will Rogers bicker and banter with easy, credible rapport. However, Eleanore Pienta scores most of the biggest laughs as Darcy, the house-sitter with a quickly revealed secret. It is hard to resist laughing when she is giving those two sad sacks what-for.

This is an enjoyable film in the moment, but absolutely nothing about it sticks in a viewer’s subconscious. It barely stretches to eighty-five minutes, including the end credits, yet it still feels padded. Still, if you want a pleasant film that leaves absolutely no baggage behind, this would be it. It was actually a Jury Award winner at SXSW, which just goes to show the Austin-based fest is no Sundance.

This year, probably no film will be damned with more faint praise than A Bad Idea Gone Wrong. Still, we’d rather re-watch it a dozen times than sit through ten minutes of the Tom Cruise-monstrosity The Mummy again. Recommended as the light weight fare it is, A Bad Idea Gone Wrong opens today (11/30) in Chicago at the Studio Movie Grill and several other cities (including Fort Collins, CO) tonight and tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Disaster Artist: How The Room Happened

Get your head around this: Tommy Wiseau has now joined the ranks of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergei Eisenstein, and yes Ed Wood as a director whose life has inspired a dramatic film treatment—a form of recognition that has thus eluded Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, and Michelangelo Antonioni. It is easy to understand why. The making of his comically melodramatic potboiler The Room was certainly dramatic. Supporting cast and crew could hardly believe their eyes, but Wiseau’s co-star and best friend will try to stick it out and smooth over the rough patches in James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If you haven’t seen The Room, think of it as a Woody Allen straight drama in the Interiors tradition, but executed by Ed Wood. Many thought the story of the well-to-do Johnny, who is inexplicably betrayed by his lover Lisa, was autobiographical—a suspicion Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay seems to winkingly confirm.

Initially, Greg Sestero was drawn to Wiseau because of his passion. When they moved out to LA together to pursue acting careers, he was the perfect roommate, especially because he already owned a comfortable flat there. What was the source of Wiseau’s considerable bank account? Just where did he come from and how old is he anyway? These are questions The Disaster Artist can never answer, but acknowledges as the great mysteries of our time.

Regardless, both Sestero and Wiseau mostly scuffled in Hollywood, even though the former managed to sign with a talent agent. For obvious reasons, casting directors just had no idea what to make of Wiseau, but rather than give up, he sat down and wrote a juicy part for himself to play. That screenplay would become The Room. During the unruly production, script supervisor Sandy Schklair could tell it was bad, but even he was unprepared for the lunacy of the final cut.

Disaster Artist will inevitable be likened to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and the comparisons are justified. Both celebrate the eccentric vision and defiant persistence of their subjects. Frankly, they suggest the world would be somewhat poorer without their wacky, ridiculously grandiose magnum opuses, which is arguably true. Can you imagine life without Plan 9 from Outer Space?

Franco smoothly directs the chaos and he adds considerably more madness with his career-defining performance as Wiseau. Not merely portraying Wiseau as a self-centered, un-self-aware nut-job (although there is definitely that), he also gets at the man’s underlying insecurities. He is a mess, but he is definitely something else.

In the role of Sestero, Franco’s brother Dave nicely serves as an audience surrogate and frustrated voice of reason. Seth Rogen earns some big laughs, but also deserves some credit for being willing to look like a bit of a jerkweed as Schklair. However, nobody was as good a sport as Ari Graynor, who portrays Juliette Danielle, the unfortunate actress who had to play an excruciatingly uncomfortable sex scene with the naked Wiseau.

There are dozens of Hollywood celebrities making cameos as either themselves or people tangentially related to Wiseau and Sestero, but the film really doesn’t need them. It works just fine as a bromance and a grade-Z riff on Truffaut’s Day for Night.  That said, viewers should definitely stay for the stinger after the closing credits. Ultimately, it is a surprisingly endearing, forgiving, and downright idealistic celebration of the creative process, as misdirected as it might be. Highly recommended for cult movie fans, The Disaster Artist opens this Friday (12/1) in New York, at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown and the Regal Union Square downtown.

Another Wolfcop: Lupine Lou Garou is Back

You can tell a lot about a country by the anxieties that surface in their genre films. For instance, Canada is gravely worried someone might be tampering with their beer. In the 1980s, Bob and Doug Mackenzie foiled an attempt to contaminate Elsinore Beer with mind-controlling drugs. This time, officer Lou Garou will challenge a villainous mastermind’s scheme to control humanity through the newly launched Chicken Milk Stout. Fortunately, Garou is not just a cop—he’s Wolfcop. He is also no stranger to alcoholic beverages in Lowell Dean’s looney sequel Another Wolfcop (trailer here), which opens in select U.S. cities this Friday and in Cineplex theaters across its native Canada on December 5th.

Do not let the title scare you. This is not like Teen Wolf Too, with a never previously mentioned cousin discovering he too is a werewolf. This is true blue Lou Garou. He hasn’t changed much. He still guzzles beer, scarfs on donuts, and turns into a wolf each full moon. He also still carries a torch for his colleague (now boss) Tina Walsh, but her contemptuous disinterest has evolved into Tracy-Hepburn-esque ambiguity.

While wolfed up, Garou stumbled across a mysterious shipment intended for Sydney Swallows, who is supposedly the town’s new benefactor. He reopened the mouth-balled brewery to churn out Chicken Milk, but it causes some nasty side-effects. Garou’s lowlife buddy Willie Higgins knows all about it. He was kidnapped and forced to serve as their guinea pig, so now he has what you might call an odd growth coming out of his stomach.

Another Wolfcop has all the lunkheaded attitude of the first film, but there is at least ten times more gore—all in good fun, of course. As Garou, Leo Fafard is just as endearing as ever, in a degenerate, shaggy dog kind of way. Amy Matysio’s Walsh gets considerably less screen-time this go-round, but she scores some of the biggest laughs with her acidic one-liners. Jonathan Cherry’s shtick as Higgins gets a bit tiresome, but Serena Miller steals numerous scenes as his lycanthropic sister, Kat. Yes indeed, there is more red-hot wolf loving in Another Wolfcop.

If only the DC Universe were as consistent as the Wolfcop franchise. It is not hard to see why Lou Garou is the pride of Saskatchewan. These films have heart—and also blood and intestines. But wait there’s more, including Kevin Smith playing the drunken mayor, at no extra cost to you the consumer. Wildly entertaining, Another Wolfcop is one of the rare sequels that darn near equals the first film. Very highly recommended, Another Wolfcop opens today in select U.S. cities and next Tuesday (12/5) in Canada.

(Poster: Tom “The Dude” Hodge)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao: Elegant Beast

The Maedas believe the family that schemes together, stays together. They are a lazy and rapacious bunch of deadbeats, embezzlers, and con artists, but they will meet their match when they cross paths with an even more manipulative seductress in Yuzo Kawashima’s Elegant Beast, which screens as part of Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao, the Japan Society’s series of newly 4K-restored Kawashima films, starring the great Wakao.

Rather than working a real job, Tokizo and Yoshino Maeda had their daughter Tomoko seduce the famous novelist Shuntaro Yoshizawa, from whom they immediately started borrowing money from, with no intention of ever paying him back. Thanks to Yoshizawa’s recommendation, their son Minoru landed a job with talent agent Ichiro Katori, whom he immediately started embezzling from. Fortunately, Katori’s books are so “irregular,” there is little chance he will go to the authorities. However, the Maedas are shocked and appalled to learn Minoru turned over at least half his skimmings to Yukie Mitani, Katori’s bookkeeper.

It seems Minoru is not the only one who has been redirecting funds her way. Katori, his outside account, and even the tax collector have fallen for her charms. One by one, they will all make their way to the Maeda flat (purchased by Yoshizawa to be his love nest with Tomoko, but appropriated by her parents), hoping to win back either Mitani or some of the cash they ill-advisedly bestowed on her.

Where has this film been all our lives? You will be hard pressed to find a more acidic and cutting social satire than Elegant Beast (a.k.a. Graceful Brute). The screenplay penned by auteur Kaneto Shindo is irrepressibly sly and unremittingly dark. Neither he nor Kawashima or Wakao take any prisoners in their skewering of the striving upwardly mobile post-war generation. Kawashima also keeps it lively despite the potential staginess of the single setting, through the inventive use of off-kilter camera angles and farcical traffic direction worthy of the Marx Brothers.

Wow, is Wakao ever something as Mitani. She ought to rank as one of the top ten femme fatales of all time, but Elegant Beast and most of Kawashima’s work in general is bafflingly under-screened outside of Japan. Likewise, Yunosuke Ito and Hisano Yamaoka make quite the picaresque pair as the unrepentant Maeda parents.

Elegant has all kinds of sharp edges, but it also has considerable visual flair, so it should be a real cinematic treat to see it on the big screen, in its pristinely restored glory. The Maedas are truly a nest of vipers, but they certainly are fun to spend time with. Very highly recommended, Elegant Beast screens this Saturday (12/2) and Sunday (12/3) at the Japan Society, as part of the Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao mini-retrospective.

ADIFF ’17: Sins of the Flesh

The combination of political unrest and illicit sex sounds very 1970s, in a Fassbinder-Wertmuller kind of way, but this film is very much rooted in the events of 2011. We are in Egypt, so both are decidedly dangerous, especially the sex. A morality tale of adultery, murder, and guilty consciences plays out in a remote tenant farm while the Tahrir Square demonstrations rage on in Khaled El Hagar’s Sins of the Flesh (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Technically, Ali is a convicted murderer, but given the chaos roiling the country, nobody will spend much time looking for him after his prison escape. Having no other family, Ali takes shelter with his older cousin Hassan, who married his intended, Fatma. It is especially painful for Ali to see them together, because he was sent to jail for fatally defending her honor.

Regardless of marriage vows and cousinly ties, Ali is determined to take up with Fatma again—and she will soon give in to temptation. Unfortunately, their farm-owning landlord Mourad observes their assignation. Although he is not about to directly involve himself in the tenants’ grubby lives, he files it away to blackmail Fatma into sexual compliance at a later date. He is indeed an exploiter, but he is more right than wrong when he constantly predicts the “Days of Rage” will lead to a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood that will be even worse than the Mubarak regime.

Sins is a complicated film to parse, because nearly everyone is highly compromised, except perhaps poor clueless Hassan. There is a good deal of carnal micro sinning going, but it is nowhere near as damaging as the macro political sins. Arguably, the former are a result of the corrosive latter, but El Hagar tries not to overplay the polemical causality.

Nahed El Sebai and Ahmed Abdala Mahomud are both suitably intense, as Fatma and Ali, convincingly wrestling with their status as both victims and perpetrators. However, it is Zaki Fateen Abdel Wahab and Mahmoud El Bezawy who really bring heft, dimension, and often subtlety to the film as Mourad and Hassan, respectively.

In many ways, Sins is a bold film, but it basically builds to the revelation that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Still, when the Muslim Brotherhood is in charge of the nouveau status quo, that is a somewhat daring observation. Fortunately, it works rather well on purely melodramatic grounds. Recommended as an impassioned but somewhat unfocused critique of the old regime and its short-lived successor, Sins of the Flesh plays for a week (12/1-12/7) at the Cinema Village, each afternoon at 1:00, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon

Rather refreshingly, this film presents a different kind of moon landing conspiracy theory. We went up there and back, sure enough. NASA just tacked on a few extra Apollo missions they never told us about. It turns out, one of those missions was unusually significant in a supernaturally cosmic kind of way. Years later, a Serbian-American CIA agent will investigate the consequences in Dejan Zecevic’s The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Liz Waid was a hacker who “volunteered” to serve her country after getting caught, but she has been on inactive bereavement leave for several months after the death of her son. Nobody is really eager to reactivate her for this mission, but she will be working with veteran lone wolf John Francis Smith (his real name), who always gets the job done.

Supposedly, they are recovering a fallen satellite, but the presence of Dysart, a terminally ill astronaut does not make sense for such a routine mission. They are not thrilled to have Darko, a Serbian military liaison also tagging along, but those are the rules. Of course, all their assumptions go out the window when the satellite they thought they were tracking turns out to be someone or something wearing the spacesuit of a fellow astronaut who disappeared during Dysart’s fateful mission.

The English-language Rift has been billed as Serbia’s first science fiction film, but it could easily crossover into horror sections. For instance, there are zombies, but they are definitely dead-who-rise, in the Book of Revelations tradition. Regardless, people just do not seem to stay dead in this remote corner of Eastern Serbia. It also subtly recalls hints of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which referenced astronauts in space and was set in the same world as The Ninth Configuration. Of course, that rift in the space-time continuum is pure sf (whereas the spooky isolated farmhouse setting takes us back to horror).

Rift is messy and eccentric, but its ambition is impressive. It also has a serious ace-in-the-hole in its star and co-producer Ken Foree, whose very presence makes it of interest to horror fans. It is thoroughly entertaining to watch him do his hardnosed thing—and he looks like he has hardly aged a day since Brian Yuzna’s The Dentist. For extra added nostalgia, Monte Markham plays Dysart, investing him with tragic dignity. As Waid, Katarina Cas holds her own with the genre veterans, while Dragan Micanovic gives expendable Darko more energy and dimension than you would expect. Plus, Mick Garris appears briefly as Waid’s editor for her journalist cover-gig.

The conclusion of Rift doesn’t make a lick of sense whatsoever, but that is how it goes with genre cinema. The soundtrack also sounds like a transparent attempt to copy the vibe of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side album. Yet, Rift is still weirdly compelling. Despite its rough edges, it is exactly the kind of film experienced cult film patrons will want to revisit over time. Recommended for Foree fans and those who appreciate offbeat category straddlers, Rift: The Dark Side of the Moon is now available on VOD platforms.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Swindlers: Conning the Con Artist

In The Flim-Flam Man, George C. Scott often says “you can’t cheat an honest man.” That’s Hwang Ji-sung’s entire business plan. He is a con artist, who targets other con artists (including the respectable white-collar variety). Hwang has no end of possible targets, but there is one particular purveyor of Ponzi schemes he has his sights set on. The con is on and it is definitely personal in Jang Chang-won’s deviously entertaining The Swindlers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jang Doo-chil is the Korean D.B. Cooper of pyramid schemes. He got away with billions and then faked his death in China, leaving behind thousands of ruined lives and at least ten suicides. Of course, to get away, he relied on highly placed corrupt officials in the Korean government. He also had papers forged by Hwang’s father, who was killed for his efforts, as a loose end. Since then, Hwang has sworn to kill Jang—and also shake loose some cash in the process.

That might sound like idle talk, but he is starting to get close enough to attract the attention of prosecutor Park Hee-soo. Hwang has already laid the groundwork to compromise a small-time real estate shark with direct links to Jang. Park wants in on the plan, so he puts his off-the-books team of not-so-reformed bunco artists at Hwang’s disposal. That includes a computer guy, Choon-ja, the designated femme fatale, and Ko Suk-dong, whom Hwang set up in one of his previous scams.

By the way, do not trust anybody. Sure, you’ve heard that before, but in this case, its warranted. It is amazing this is Jang Chang-won’s feature directorial debut, because he pulls of so much sleight of hand right before our eyes. It is also a minor miracle his attractive ensemble never starts breaking up, but they bluff their way through like consummate con artist professionals.

Of course, super-recognizable thesps like Park Sung-woong and Bae Sung-woo are total pros, who deliver in spades as the resentful Ko and Kwak Seung-gun, Jang Doo-chil’s trusted money man. Somehow, as Hwang, Hyun-Bin looks younger and edgier than he has in previous films like Confidential Assignment, so hey, good for him. Former K-pop star Nana also handles comedy and seduction with stylish flair as Choon-ja.

The Swindlers is the sort of film that totally plays viewers, but leaves them well satisfied by the experience. It is a good example of Korea’s emerging comparative advantage in caper movies, along with films like Seondal: The Man Who Sells the River and The Thieves. Logan Lucky was a genial film that critics hailed, but it is minor league small ball compared to The Swindlers. Very highly recommended for fans of Sting-style big con game movies, The Swindlers opens this Friday (12/1) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Inoperable: Time Loop Horror

It is yet another storm of the century, but this one might be the real deal. Amy Barrett would know. She keeps reliving the approach of a class five hurricane from a macabre slasher hospital. Time loops get distinctly sinister in Christopher Lawrence Chapman’s Inoperable (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

One minute, Barrett is stuck in traffic. Then she suddenly wakes up in a hospital bed. At first, it is a disorienting experience, but she will get used to it as it repeats over and over. Initially, the skeleton staff of the mostly evacuated hospital does not seem to notice her, but they will during her next “cycle,” in a violently menacing kind of way. However, unlike other time loops movies, she is not in this by herself. Ryan, a sheriff’s deputy, and Jen, an accident victim, are also fully cognizant of the horrors unfolding around them.

Each time she reconnects with them, they will try to figure out how to escape the madness. Based on the couple’s past experience, Barrett might have a slim advantage over them. Since she entered the loop alone, she can most likely leave alone, but because they came in together, they must also exit together.

Just when we thought the time loop movie had been driven into the ground and left for dead, Chapman figures out a way to breathe new life into the sub-sub-genre—and he manages to do it on a budget that looks like twelve cents. Frankly, it sort of works to his benefit. This has to be the grimmest, grayest, most Spartan hospital you have ever seen, but if you woke up in a bed there, you would want to skedaddle as fast as your feet would carry you. There is a fair amount of gore, but Inoperable is as likely to appeal to fans of science fiction and Twilight Zone-style ironic mind-benders. In any event, Chapman definitely redeems himself for producing and co-starring in the lame ClownTown.

Inoperable’s star Danielle Harris has a genre following, but it is Katie Keene and Jeff Denton, who really elevate it to the next level, as Jen and Ryan. Granted, there is not much time for character development here, especially as Barrett’s cycles accelerate, but they give us the feeling they are more fleshed out than they really are. Frankly, we really want to see them get back together and out of there—and whenever a film inspires a strong response like that, it must be onto something. Harris does not quite connect like they do, but you have to give her credit for keeping the energy level up as she constantly runs down corridors and keels over in cycling convulsions.

Alas, films like this often end in a frustrating, unsatisfying manner, which is particularly true of Inoperable. Nevertheless, it is the ride that matters, not the awkward dismount. Genre fans should be impressed by the extent to which it exceeds expectations. Recommended with surprising enthusiasm, Inoperable opens in limited release this Friday (12/1).

Brotherhood of Blades 2: The Infernal Battlefield

Everyone hates the Jinyiwei Imperial Guard (assassins), a.k.a. the Northern Bureau. Nobody better understands why than Shen Lian. He has done things he is not proud and witnessed worse. His two former cronies are currently unaccounted for, so he will have to navigate another murky conspiracy largely on his own in Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades 2: The Infernal Battlefield (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Shen Lian does not have many friends, so it really irks him when he loses one to in-fighting with the rival Eastern Bureau agency. It seems they really do not want him investigating the murder of a government official who was responsible for inspecting the Emperor’s dragonboat, right before it sank. The Emperor was rescued just in time, but getting waterlogged did not do his delicate constitution any favors.

Thanks to his many sins, Shen has amassed a small collection of Bei Zai’s paintings, because his Buddhist monastery of choice gives them as gifts in gratitude of large donations, sort of like PBS tote-bags. Unfortunately, Bei Zai also happens to be a dissident painter, known for including sly commentary in her work. Even more inconveniently, she is deeply involved in a conspiracy against the Stephen Bannon-Harry Hopkins-like eunuch Wei Zhongxian, the real oppressive power behind the throne.

Consequently, the Jinyiwei captain is deeply conflicted when he is dispatched to dispatch her, especially when he sees she is played by Yang Mi. Despite his better judgment, he ends up killing his fellow officer instead. Of course, that really lands him in the soup when he learns the creep was Wei’s godson. He will continue to protect her, even when her co-conspirators blackmail him to commit treasonous acts, which he feels rather ambivalent about. Frankly, it is his survival instinct and a possible love for Bei Zai that will drive his decisions.

The first Brotherhood was a solid period action film, but the second is even stronger, ironically because it ditches the brotherhood and focuses on Shen Lian, partly making him out to be a Yojimbo-esque free agent and partly a High Noon-style lone wolf. Still, there are very definitely themes of Esprit De Corps and solidarity, especially with respect to Shen’s complicated relationship with his commander, Lu Wenzhao.

Once again, viewers will enjoy some nifty hack-and-slash action in Blades 2, but the relationships and intrigue really make it dance and sing. In addition to the awkward romance, Shen forges an unlikely alliance with Captain Pei Lun of the Southern Bureau, who was originally assigned to investigate him, which becomes the stuff of wuxia gold.

Returning as Shen, Chen Chang really ups the ante this time around. He still broods like a monster, but he also starts to lose his cool rather spectacularly. He also develops terrific chemistry with Yang Mi and Lei Jiayin as his unlikely allies, Bai Zai and Pei Lun. Zhang Yi is delightfully roguish and Machiavellian as Lu Wenzhao, while Xin Zhilei shows some impressive moves as Ding Baiying, the conspiracy’s liaison to Shen Lian, who is quite lethal with a blade.

Like any good franchise, Blades 2 has a stinger that teases a further sequel. In this case, it promises some rather baffling turn-of-events, but we’ll take it anyway, because the second is so much fun. It manages to be simultaneously tragic and action-packed, as well as cynical and sentimental, like all the finest wuxia films (and you can easily walk into it without having seen the prior film). Enormously satisfying, Brotherhood of Blades 2: The Infernal Battlefield opens this Friday (12/1) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

ADIFF ’17: Mama Africa

During her time in exile, Miriam Makeba was a neighbor of Dizzy Gillespie and a good friend of Nina Simone, both of whom she would collaborate with. Makeba also married trumpet star Hugh Masekela, who was more than seven years her junior. Nobody did more to popularize Marabi and world music, not even her ex-husband. Mika Kuarismäki surveys her career and takes stock of her life in Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba (trailer here), which screens as the co-centerpiece film of this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

It only takes about ten seconds for viewers to understand why Makeba was such a popular international star. Her jazz and township influenced music was warm, infectious, and relentlessly catchy. She performed with some of the most prominent South African groups of the 1950s and made an indelible impression in Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back Africa. Subsequently, Makeba went on tour to support her international prominence, only to become an exile who was refused readmittance to her homeland.

Kuarismäki features some wonderfully swinging musical clips, but the highlight for jazz fans will be the interview with Village Vanguard grand dame Lorraine Gordon, who keeps interrupting the sit-down to take reservations. Makeba’s first American gig was a residency at the Vanguard, but it was not long before Harry Belafonte lured her away (the straight-talking Gordon readily admits she would have left them for Belafonte too).

Makeba’s music speaks for itself. Kuarismäki also gives ample space to her anti-Apartheid activism, especially her testimony before the United Nations. She really was a unifying force for South Africans, both in townships and in exile. However, he lets her off the hook for legitimizing some particularly repressive post-colonial dictators. Makeba and her third husband Stokely Carmichael had an especially close relationship with Guinea’s Sékou Touré (president from 1958 until his death in 1984), whose mass graves were discovered in 2012 (admittedly a year after Mama Africa first screened).

Regardless, reports of atrocities at Camp Boiro were generally acknowledged by the 1980s, yet Makeba’s grandson continues to lavish praise on the dictator during several points in the film. Regrettably, by not challenging her associates on this point, Kuarismäki leaves a very nice musical profile open to charges of white-washing.

People make mistakes, including musicians and filmmakers. In any event, Makeba’s legacy is her music, which sounds as fresh today as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. Kuarismäki is a sympathetic biographer (arguably too sympathetic), who conveys a good sense of her art and spirit, even though she had been dead several years before the film was produced. Recommended for fans of South African Jazz and Afropop, Mama Africa screens this Wednesday (11/29) at Teachers College, Columbia and next Sunday (12/3) at the Cinema Village, as part of the 2017 ADIFF. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Codename: Diablo! (short): Make Up Your Own Double Entendre

If you identify with the long-gone grindhouse tradition, you probably have a soft spot for the films of Russ Meyer. If were a horny teenager during the 1980s and early 1990s VHS era, the name Andy Sidaris might mean something to you. Both exploitation auteurs shared a certain aesthetic that has been exaggerated to the extreme in Aaron Barsky’s spoofy short half-hour film Codename: Diablo! (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

This is your basic girls-with-guns neo-exploitation film, but even more so. There is surely no mistaking the commonalities linking Kitty Steele, Barbie Blonde, and Monique Powers. They are a trio of lethal O.M.E.G.A. agents tasked with retrieving the stolen Diablo death-ray gun from the latex-wearing, ultra-lubricated agents of S.C.U.B.A., under the command of Contessa Del’Oro. Of course, her highly trained henchmen are no match for the O.M.E.G.A. operatives’ distractions.

If you want realism, then go watch a Sybil Danning movie. Frankly, the basic premise of Codename is so obviously ridiculous, Barsky is forced to animate the centerpiece action sequence. However, it is doubtful anyone is really going to watch this film for the fight choreography.

By far, Lilly 4K makes the most convincing super-agent as Kitty Steele. It is impossible to buy into Martina Big and Mary Madison Love as butt-kicking Le Femme Nikitas, but nobody is going to care. This probably won’t get veteran second-unit guy Barsky a shot at a Marvel franchise, but he keeps it moving along briskly, while maximizing the ogle shots.

It is just impressive that a film this frat house-ish can still be produced in our neo-puritanical day and age. You could say it is a one-joke film, but if that gag works once for you, it never diminishes with repetition. Recommended for cult movie fans who get the underlying nostalgia, Codename Diablo! is expected to launch today on DVD, with a VOD release scheduled for December 11th.

Explosion: Naturalistic Noir Goes Boom

In China’s western provinces, it is every man for himself. There is no OSHA regulating mine safety. The media doesn’t report on what goes on below ground and the cops only care about playing their own angles. When Zhao Yu-dong is set up to take the fall for a blasting disaster, the smart play is to take the hush money. It is not like he would even have to worry about jail time, because nobody would dare report the incident. However, the egregiousness of the “accident” and Zhou’s hardheadedness make him go lone wolf in Chang Zheng’s Explosion (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Zhao never wanted to be a blaster, but he followed in his father’s footsteps anyway. He certainly has enough experience to know one stick of dynamite should never produce the massive conflagration that resulted. He would like to start a new life with his fiancée Xiao Hong, but only a minimal amount of investigation turns up evidence of foul play. Before he knows what hit him, Zhao finds himself in the middle of a violent feud between two mining oligarchs. Li Yi was his predatory boss, but the vengeance-seeking Cheng Fei will become his main nemesis.

Of course, Zhao cannot count on any help from the cops, especially including his opportunistic former friend Xu Feng. They have already settled on him as their prime suspect for the subsequent murders they know about—and they have still only heard vague rumors of the original blasting mishap.

Explosion is a truly subversive film, because it presents itself to be an action movie chocked full of pyrotechnics, but it simultaneously delivers some very pointed social criticism, with respect to workers rights, workplace safety, public corruption, and to a much lesser extent, the despoilment of the environment (the latter is never directly addressed, but the arid ravaged landscapes silently speak volumes). Yet, it still functions as particularly lethal film noir, most definitely in the tradition of Black Coal, Thin Ice (bad things just seem to happen in and around Chinese coal mines).

Duan Yihong is terrific as Zhao. He projects a sense of danger even when he is getting the snot beat out of him, which happens often. Probably nobody is better at playing tough but vulnerable women than Yu Nan, who shines again as Xiao. There is also a wickedly effective tag-team of villains, including Cheng Taishen as the sinister mastermind, Cheng Fei, and Yu Ailei portraying his chief fixer.

Don’t worry, Chang does not let the social realism prevent him from blowing up a bunch of stuff. The wardrobe department also deserves credit for Li Yi’s flamboyantly evil-looking blue suede boots. This is a slam-bang thriller that should not be flying so low under the radar. Very highly recommended, Explosion is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Friday, November 24, 2017

ADIFF ’17: The Chemo Club

For two aging former models living in South Africa on their pensions, inflation is way more depressing than liver spots. That assumes they can still access their pension, but a sleazy fund manager has secretly raided small accounts like theirs, to cover-up his other financial shenanigans (by the way, pensioners suffers the exact same consequences when central banks engage in loose money inflation, but you won’t find a lot of screenwriters out there who really understand monetary policy). Regardless, Lulu Fredericks and Faith Moloi want their money back, so they will steal it themselves in Thandi Brewer’s The Chemo Club (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

In the swinging sixties, Fredericks portrayed Tessa, the action sex-goddess in a series of photo-designed comics books and Moloi was the model for the Pam Grier-esque “Her.” Those were the days. Currently, Moloi works part-time sweeping floors at the hospital where Fredericks just received her fatal cancer diagnosis. Fredericks wants to live out her remaining six months in style, but her pension has mysteriously vanished. Same for Moloi, who is the sole support of her unemployed daughter and entitled grandchildren.

Obviously, Grant Roberts, the odious public face of Trusted Corp is up to no good, but nobody seems to care. Therefore, the only logical course of action is to knock over the joint. Somehow, the brassy Fredericks convinces the more passive Moloi to go along with her scheme. Fanboy Sivu will go along with the caper for the sake of his pop culture thesis. They will also recruit their former photographer and lover, Gerhard, because they obviously need an eighty-year-old with a monocle. Periodically, we watch their comic book alter ego battling villainy, in ways that parallel their ebbing fortunes.

Clearly, Chemo Club is heavily derived from Going in Style and the pre-Kate & Allie Jane Curtain-Susan Saint James vehicle How to Beat the High Cost of Living, which is still the much funnier film, even though it has at least one joke that would cause apoplexy in the current climate. In contrast, Chemo Club is a tame comedy about oldsters doing it for themselves, which barely registers more edge than the embarrassingly slapsticky Love Punch.

Still, Brümilda van Rensburg, the Grand Dame of South African television, has plenty of regal presence as Fredericks. However, she does not develop much chemistry with either Lilian Dube’s Moloi or Tobie Cronje’s Gerhard. At times, Cronje is almost criminally shticky, but Rea Rangaka is probably an even worse offender as Sivu. Yet, somehow Shoki Mokgapa maintains her dignity as Roberts’ innocent assistant, whom Sivu crushes on hard.

It is interesting to see unpretentious popular cinema from other countries, but Chemo Club just doesn’t travel that well (unlike energetically likable South African exports, like Hear Me Move and White Wedding). The comedy is about as broad as it gets and caper fans will feel short-changed by the lack of tick-tock caper details. Best saved for unfussy fans of Marigold Hotels, The Chemo Club screens this Sunday (11/26) and Monday (11/27) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Lost and Found: Rediscovering the All-Time Worst Exploitation Studio

The schlock Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International (SSCPI) churned out must have been unwatchable since not even grindhouse documentary mainstay John Waters is willing wax nostalgic over the oeuvre of Morris “Stogie” Carlisle. Of course, mighty SSCPI never actually existed, but a small platoon of genre film bloggers and critics will pretend otherwise. Rather impressively, they mostly manage to keep a straight face in Jason Bailey & Mike Hull’s mockumentary Lost & Found: The True Hollywood Story of Silver Screen Cinema Pictures International (trailer here), which is now available on Vimeo VOD.

Carlisle’s grade-Z exploitation movies were reportedly unwatchable, but we will have to take critic Glenn Kenny’s word for it, because we can no longer judge for ourselves. “Tragically,” the entire SSCPI film library went up in flames just prior to their VHS transfer, thanks to Stogie’s cigar. That was it, they were all gone. All that was left of SSCP was a hefty insurance settlement. However, a cache of trailers was discovered three years ago, giving us a maybe not-so tantalizing glimpse at what we have lost.

The vintage grindhouse details are so spot-on and the talking head commentary is so persuasive, viewers will start to wonder if SSCPI maybe really did exist, but the cast listing in the end credits is a dead giveaway. In fact, Dave Bailey and Mac Welch are wonderfully sly as the supposedly late Carlisle and his semi-estranged frequent cast-member, Dick Haze. However, Clint Howard totally takes the cake appearing as Howard Clinton, a formerly famous star, who only shot a day’s worth of film with Carlisle, but footage of his portrayal of an angry cop barking order into a phone would be spliced into dozens of subsequent SSCPI films.

You have to give our colleagues credit for mining SSCPI for laughs. As usual, Grady Hendrix’s enthusiasm is contagious, while Kenny plays his bad cop, SSCPI-demystifying role to the hilt. Frankly, very few of the trailers within the film look tempting in any way, shape, or form, except perhaps Black Thunder, a.k.a. Grandmaster Brown (or should that be vice versa?). Nevertheless, anyone who has enjoyed nostalgic documentaries like American Grindhouse and Rewind This, spoofs like Turbo Kid, or neo-grindhouse films, such as Ladies of the House should appreciate the charms of Lost & Found. Highly entertaining, it is now available via Vimeo.

ADIFF ’17: Kafou

The boss has three rules for the luckless losers he has hired to make a delivery. Never stop the car, never roll down the windows, and never, ever look in the trunk. However, this will not be a Haitian homage to Speed. The two knuckleheads barely travel ten blocks before they break all three rules. Of course, that leads to some huge problems, especially that last point, in Bruno Mourral’s Kafou (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Doc needs money for his sick mother, so he quickly agreed when Zoe promised him work with the local kingpin, Captain Fritz Bama. Unfortunately, Doc did not realize how difficult the jerky Zoe would be to work with. At least Bama placed him nominally in charge, causing considerable resentment in Zoe. The night was already off to a bad start (don’t worry, surely no dogs were actually harmed in the making of Kafou, right?), before Zoe peeked in the trunk and recognized the kidnapping victim trussed up inside.

Kafou (a voodoo reference) is exactly the sort of darkly comical gangster-caper drama that always plays well at festivals. There is indeed all kinds of cynical laughs and one-blasted-thing-after-another suspense, but its betwixt-and-between running time makes it a tricky film to program. The fifty-minute mark basically represents a state of half-pregnancy, but it certainly never drags, so give ADIFF credit for taking the plunge.

Jasmuel Andri and Rolapthon Mercure are terrific as Doc and Zoe. They are totally convincing getting on each other’s nerves and worse, while still being quite amusing in a meathead kind of way. However, Manfred Marcelin still regularly upstages them as the flamboyantly villainous Bama.

Mourral in collaboration with cinematographers Lucas Gath and Clément Maillet definitely give the film an evocative noir-city-at-night vibe. In some ways, it harkens back to vintage Tarantino, but it also has an absurdist edge to it. Genre fans and Haitian expats should find it well-satisfying but length could be an issue for some patrons, since it plays as a discrete program on its own, so take that into consideration. Highly recommended, Kafou screens Saturday night (11/25) at Teachers College, Columbia, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

ADIFF ’17: Woven

About fifty people die every year from jumping or getting pushed onto New York subway tracks.  It represents an extremely low level of danger, but it is far more real than the lingering bogus Aspartame cancer scare. Eleni Tariku would know. Her brother met his death on the subway tracks, but how he got there is a mystery in Nagwa Ibrahim & Salome Mulugeta’s family drama Woven (trailer here), which screens during this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Dr. Abell Tariku (“A.T.”) is called away from his mother’s birthday party, but he will never make it to the hospital. Of course, this would happen in the only five square foot area of New York not covered by security cameras. His death absolutely devastates his mother Smra, but in some ways, it falls even harder on Eleni. Nevertheless, she will try to get on with her life. That means returning to work as a school councilor and evading her mother’s efforts to fix her up.

Charley Thompson is her latest hard-case client. His unemployed father Logan and alcoholic nurse mother Mila fight like cats and dogs juiced up on steroids. Logan is the one Tariku knows, because he is the one who has time to attend school meetings. Charley’s frequent acting-out necessitates several such conferences, allowing an opportunity for a mutual attraction to grow between councilor and parent.

Of course, everything is connected in Woven, as the title and Gary Sinise in CSI NY would suggest. In fact, it is almost too neat and tidy, especially considering how many millions of people live and act suspiciously in de Blasio’s New York, especially in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, it is rather refreshing to see a healthy, loving sibling story on-screen, even if it is cut short during the first act. It is also quite novel to see the Ethiopian Orthodox Church portrayed in a favorable light, but it is certainly a welcome development.

Co-director Mulugeta is an absolutely radiant presence as Eleni Tariku. She also develops some potent chemistry with Ryan O’Nan’s scruffy but fiercely protective Logan Thompson. Frankly, he covers an impressive emotional range during the course of the film. Tibebe Solomon Borga also makes an impression in limited screen time as the ill-fated A.T.

Woven is a mature film about family and forgiveness, but it sometimes overindulges in melodramatic flourishes and coincidental contrivances. Still, it is set in Brooklyn, where contrived melodrama is hardly unusual. Recommended for inclusive, faith-and-family oriented viewers, Woven screens this Saturday (11/25) and Sunday the 5th, as part of the 2017 ADIFF.

EUFF-Vancouver ’17: The Dissidents

It is easy to understand 1980s nostalgia. That was probably the last time we all had general confidence that the world was getting better, not worse. It was because of Reagan and Thatcher and Mulroney and Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa, but also because of Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cannon Films, and Miami Vice. The latter show has largely shaped three knuckleheaded Estonian defectors impressions of the West, so when unromantic Calvinist Sweden falls short of expectations, they will start to create some vice of their own in Jaak Kilmi’s The Dissidents (trailer here), which screens as part this year’s European Union Film Festival in Vancouver.

Ralf Tamm and his knockaround buddies have done pretty well purchasing black market consumer goods from tourists in the state hotel, but they will soon lose their network when Mario Viik and his older brother’s gang defect to Sweden via Finland. However, when the gang is busted, Viik offers to let Tamm and meatheaded Einar Kotkin take their prepaid spots. They had not really considering defecting, but it appears to be a once in a lifetime opportunity, requiring an immediate snap decision.

When Tamm’s trio finally stumbles through Finland into the land of Saab and Volvo, the local Estonian society hails them as heroes. Unfortunately, after they abuse the organization’s hospitality, the lads are forced to crash in a Swedish refugee center. (Of course, the Eighties-era institutional housing for asylum-seekers looks much nicer than what we see on the news today.) The more level-headed Tamm is inclined to get a job and start putting down roots, in hopes that his pregnant girlfriend will be able to join him. In contrast, the erratic Viik convinces the impressionable Kotkin to start pulling armed robberies in Finland, which will logically cause trouble for Tamm as well.

Somewhat counterintuitively, Dissidents is a narrative comedy that largely lacks the idiosyncratic charm of Disco and Atomic Warfare, the documentary Kilmi co-directed with Kiur Aarma, which also addresses the seductive lure of western pop culture during the final years of the Cold War. Fundamentally, Tamm and company are just not very appealing characters to begin with—and Kilmi continues to further stack the deck against them. Frankly, if they had acted in a less obnoxious, less entitled manner, they would have had a much easier time of things, so it is hard to take the film as any sort of coherent critique of Western Cold War values (plus, this is Sweden we are talking about, which barely qualified as the West in the 1980s—and nowadays, who knows?).

As Märt Pius looks distressingly like Matt “what did he know about Weinstein and when did he know it” Damon. Only Veiko Porkanen seems to relax and grow in on-screen charm as the dumb but well-meaning Kotkin. Still, there is clearly a lot of nostalgic fondness for 1980s music, fashion, and mass media, which is contagious.

There are some appealingly wistful moments in Dissidents, but Kilmi’s attempts to straddle heist movies, farce, and tragedy are often awkward. Still, the film has a very distinctive sense time and place. Three or four re-writes really could have sharpened Martin Algus’s script, but 80s nostalgia can never be all bad. A decidedly mixed bag, The Dissidents screens this Friday (11/24) as part of the EU Film Festival at the Cinematheque in Vancouver.