Sunday, December 31, 2017

Oscar Qualified: Ethel & Ernest

The parents of beloved British illustrator and children’s book writer Raymond Briggs were the generation before Britain’s “Greatest Generation,” but they went through the same Great Depression and Second World War. They always kept their chins up and a stiff upper lip, but it was almost too much for them to bear when they learned their only son was transferring to art school. Briggs told their deceptively simple, emotionally resonant story in a bestselling graphic novel that Roger Mainwood adapted as the BBC-BFI-produced animated feature Ethel & Ernest (trailer here), which officially qualified for Academy Award consideration.

Ernest Briggs will work as a milkman for thirty-seven years, while Ethel, a former lady’s maid, toils as a clerk, but she chafes at the suggestion they are working class or “common laborers.” She votes Conservative and he supports Labour, but they both generally agree Churchill is the best man for the job during WWII. These were difficult years for the Briggs, because they were forced to send their only son Raymond to live with his kindly spinster aunts in the country, for his own safety. As a volunteer fireman, Briggs also witnesses the horrors of war first-hand and have a few close scrapes of his own. Yet, these sequences are by far the strongest of the film.

Of course, the Briggs continue to carry on, watching Twentieth Century history unfold from the vantage point of their cozy Wimbledon Park home. Churchill will be voted out and then triumphantly return, man will walk on the Moon, and Margaret Thatcher will stand for office. However, they are more concerned about the employment prospects for their slightly wayward artist son and his unruly hair.

E&E is a gentle film that gives voice to characters that are often overlooked in media, falling in between tony dramas like Downton Abbey and grubby melodramas, such as EastEnders. Conservative in temperament, they always maintained decorum—and in Ernest’s case, he was a Labour man who actually worked. Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn are absolutely pitch-perfect as the Briggses. You can always hear in their voices a hopefully optimism tempered by their past disappointments and modest expectations.

The hand-drawn animation is nostalgic, in a sophisticated way, in keeping with Raymond Briggs’ original illustrations. It is a handsome film, nicely supported by Carl Davis’s pleasant, era-appropriate score. Ethel & Ernest also features “In the Blink of an Eye,” penned and performed by Sir Paul McCartney. Frankly, it is one of his best tunes in years and it hits all the film’s themes square on the nose, so it is rather baffling that it wasn’t submitted for best original song. Seriously, he was one of the Beatles. Remember?

Ethel & Ernest is definitely an Oscar longshot, but it is quite a worthy little film. It would actually send a strong statement about the artistic maturity of the animation field if the Academy nominated Loving Vincent, The Breadwinner, Window Horses, A Silent Voice, and Ethel & Ernest. On other hand, maybe they would feel more comfortable just nominating films from Disney, the longtime employer of Harvey Weinstein, and Pixar, co-founded by John Lasseter. Hey, whatever works for them. The point is there are some exceptionally strong independent animated features in contention this year. Ethel & Ernest makes the field even stronger. Highly recommended, Ethel & Ernest is fully Oscar qualified, for your consideration.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Shortlisted: Revolting Rhymes (Animated Short)

The BBC has a lot of credibility with American audiences for mysteries, literary costume dramas, and Britcoms, but we really haven’t considered animation one of their comparative advantages. Yet, they have amassed an impressive record of Oscar nominations and festival play for their animated adaptations of the books of Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom). Now, two of the animators who collaborated on the Donaldson specials have turned their talents towards an author with a much wider American readership: Roald Dahl. Originally broadcast on consecutive nights, Jan Lacheur, Jakob Schuh, and (co-director) Bin-Han To’s Revolting Rhymes (trailer here) has since been rolled into one, but it is still short enough to be shortlisted for the best animated short film Academy Award.

In this fractured fairy story collection, the Big Bad Wolf will be the Hans Conriedian teller of tales, as well as the ominous villain up to no good. He starts his night by introducing himself to a kindly elderly woman enjoying a cup of coffee before she babysits for Little Red Riding Hood. As you might expect, there is some bad blood between her and the Wolf. However, for her to truly understand what actually happened, the Wolf must also tell the intertwined stories of Snow White and the Three Little Pigs.

In part two, the Wolf’s schemes successfully earn him entry into Red’s flat, but to buy time, her two children convince him to tell them a story, sort of employing the Scheherazade strategy. In this case, it is the stories of Beanstalk Jack and Cinderella that were in fact interrelated.

The Donaldson films were cute and sweet, but Revolting Rhymes are really funny, very much in the tradition of Fractured Fairy Tales. It should definitely appeal to fans of Shrek, but it is not as desperate to prove its hipness. While nowhere near the level of Studio Ghibli lushness, the animation is pleasingly colorful, lively, and faithful to the spirit of Quentin Blake’s illustrations.

The Revolting Rhymes bind-up also boasts an absolutely marvelous voiceover performance from Dominic West. It is safe to say his rich, commanding voice makes the Wolf quite a charismatic predator. Rob Brydon returns to voice assorted goofy characters, while Gemma Chan and Rose Leslie bring out the personalities of besties Snow White and Red.

There is no question RR is the best BBC animated special to make it into Oscar contention. It is consistently witty, not infrequently morbid (mostly in a kid friendly way), but always tied to tradition, just as you would expect from Dahl. Very highly recommended, Revolting Rhymes is on the Oscar shortlist and available on DVD.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes

As the protag of a break-up franchise, you would think Meng Yun would have plenty of experience with failed relationships by now. However, he was not around for the second installment. His buddy Yu Fei was there, but it was a very difference Yu Fei. Tian Yu-sheng goes back to the original elements for the conclusion of the [loose] trilogy, but Meng Yun is keenly aware he isn’t getting any younger—and the final break-up is sure to be the hardest in Tian’s Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Meng Yun and Lin Jia probably never should have called it quits, but they are both too stubborn to apologize or seriously examine their own faults. Their friends Yu Fei and Ding Dian never should gave broken up either, but they still spend so much time together, it is like they are still together. Frankly, they largely broke up out of solidarity with their friends and will likely patch things up sometime when they aren’t having closure sex.

Unfortunately, Meng and Lin are an entirely different case. They still conspicuously pine for each other, but they refuse to let go of their resentments and pride. As a result, both will most likely cause nothing but frustration and heartache for their subsequent romantic rebounds, but Lin’s former classmate and Wang Zi, the niece of Meng’s new client are still eager to try.

Part two was more of a traditional rom-com, but the Meng Yun installments better compare with Pang Ho-cheung’s more mature and realistic Love in a Puff/the Buff/Off the Cuff trilogy, except Ex 3 gets surprisingly fatalistic down the stretch. Basically, Tian wants us to understand you can still mess up a relationship, even if it was meant to be. On the flip side, if you have a chance to settle for someone who is attractive and compatible, don’t be an idiot about it. Just do it, even if you are not head-over-heels for them. These are points Meng and Jin will learn the hard way.

Han Geng and Kelly Yu Wenwen look like a perfect couple, but they each show substantial range, venturing into some dark and angsty places. In contrast, Ryan Zheng and Zheng Meng Xue keep things light and naughty, but they are undeniably charismatic as Meng and Lin’s shallow fuerdai-esque friends, Yu and Ding. They are certainly well matched. Luo Mi’s Wang Zi deserves better than she gets in the film, but conveys a fair degree of depth beneath her relentlessly cute and upbeat façade.

Essentially, Ex 3 is half rom-com and half anti-rom-com, which constitutes an interesting mix. That also means the candy-colored posters are a bit misleading. Regardless, Tian pulls off the balancing act fairly dexterously, while reaping the benefits of lead and supporting performances that considerably exceed expectations. Arguably, we are talking about the stuff of New Adult melodrama, but it is nicely executed. Recommended for fans of Pang’s Love trilogy who found the Tiny Times franchise too superficial, Ex-File 3 opens today (12/29) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows

Animation is a series of images that approximates movement through whatever techniques are employed. However, the right music can really make those visuals come alive. There are several excellent examples in the 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows, which opens tomorrow in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

The projectionist better crank up the bass for the opener, Quentin Baillieux’s “Can You Do It.” Essentially, it is a music video for Charles X’s catchy and groovy title tune, but the urbane urban images are just as distinctive. We follow a Fast and Furious-style drag race through the streets of LA, but with horses instead of cars. We are talking about a seriously cool three minutes here.

Pete Docter’s Student Academy Award-winning Next Door is also a shorty, but it is rather sweet and inventive. Using the real-life musings of a little girl at play, it shows how young and old can come together—in this case through the love of the kazoo.

Jac Clinch’s The Alan Dimension is more about dialogue than music and atmosphere, but it is quite witty and even somewhat science fiction-related, in a roundabout way. The titular Alan is formerly milk toast retiree who is convinced he is the next Nostradamus, but his long-suffering wife considers him more of a Criswell.

This year’s Show of Shows also includes a restoration of Paul Julian & Les Goldman’s adaptation of Maurice Ogden’s poem Hangman, originally published in the Communist publication Masses and Mainstream. Intended as a commentary on McCarthyism, it features a demonic gallows-keeper executing intimidated townsfolk one by one, as their neighbors fearfully submit to his authority. Of course, two years later American Communists did their best to look the other way, while Soviet tanks crashed into Hungary. Yet, there is still some value in its message. Especially now that the Left has officially gotten out of the 1st Amendment business. The Libertarian movement is now the only advocate for your most fundamental rights as a citizen, which is terrifying, considering how organized they are. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller: “first they came for the alt-right and I did not speak out, because they’re distasteful jerks.”

So, where were we? Julian & Goldman’s visuals are indeed quite stark and powerful, but it is Serge Hovey’s eerie score (which swings lightly yet darkly) that really gives the film its kick. It notably features the under-appreciated and under-recorded jazz pianist Calvin Jackson and the West Coast session stalwart, percussionist Emil [Richards] Radocchia. As an added bonus for jazz fans, Herschel Bernardi from Peter Gunn serves as the narrator.

Easily, the biggest standout of the set is Aurore Gal, Clémentine Frère, Yukiko Meignien, Anna Mertz, Robin Migliorelli, & Romain Salvini’s Gokurosama. Set entirely within a Japanese shopping center before opening hours, it follows an elderly bento box maker, who seeks treatment from the mall’s chiropractor when her back goes out, with the help of her good-hearted assistant. Gokurosama reaches a level of gentle visual and physical humor truly worthy of Jacques Tati, while also knowingly but affectionately satirizing Japanese consumerist culture. This is one that calls for repeated viewing to catch all the sly, subtle details.

Alas, it is followed by the worst in show, Kobe Bryant’s ode to himself, Dear Basketball, animated by Glen Keane. He was always true to the game, or so they would have us believe. Of course, they do not trouble our little heads with the sexual assault allegation he settled out of court. Bryant actually released a statement that said: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view the incident the same way I did.” Wow, how 2004 was that? Wouldn’t you like to get Rose McGowan’s take on that one?

Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s The Burden is probably the most acclaimed new film of the batch—and it’s a musical to boot. Its surreal sensibilities are impressive, but it mostly just hits equivalent notes rather than building to a crescendo. On the other hand, Tomer Eshed’s nature film satire, Our Wonderful Nature—The Common Chameleon is pretty straight forward, but quite droll.

Steven Woloshen’s Casino was conceived as a riff on Norman McLaren’s work, using gambling motifs and aptly enough, the music of the Oscar Peterson Trio, just like McLaren’s classic, Begone Dull Care. Peterson’s massively up-tempo take on “Something’s Coming” could make anything come alive, so it is impossible to not enjoy this abstract but refreshingly lively film.

David O’Reilly’s Everything is a fitting closer, matching archival recordings of British philosopher Alan Watts in a Stephen Hawking bag, accompanied by some suitably cosmic visuals. Frankly, O’Reilly makes his pre-Ted Talk speeches sound more profound than they really were, which is good filmmaking.

There are a few other constituent films that are undeniably quite artistically rendered, but do not have a lot of substance as cinematic statements. Nevertheless, it is always nice to see distinctive craftsmanship on screen. Recommended for animation fans (despite the presence of Kobe Bryant’s ego trip), the 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows opens tomorrow (12/29) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Submitted by Germany: In the Fade

There is no need to beat yourself up if you do not recognize the Queens of the Stone Age song Fatih Akin’s latest film takes its title from, but it is exactly the sort of dark, hard-rocking tune a hot mess like Katja Sekerci would listen to. She married her college dealer while he was still incarcerated. Yet, they both got clean and went straight, becoming stable parents for their studious little boy. It is a story that should have a happy ending, but instead an act of domestic terrorism will leave her grief-stricken and starved for vengeance and closure in Akin’s In the Fade (trailer here), Germany’s shortlisted official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens today in New York.

Through some economical editing, we are sufficiently invested in the Sekerci family when a pipe bomb rips through the Sekerci travel agency and translation service, killing her husband Nuri and young son Rocco. Being lazy civil servants, the cops just want to chalk it up to a former drug connection. However, her description of a rather Aryan-looking woman who left a shiny new bike unattended in front of their store-front eventually leads to the arrest of André and Edda Möller, two suspected members of the very real National Socialist Underground (that is indeed how they choose to self-identify).

A prosecution is soon brought against the Möllers, but Sekerci quickly finds she and her late husband are the ones on trial. Unfortunately, her recent backsliding drug use, brought on by extreme stress, plays right into the hands of the Mephistophelean defense attorney. Even the devastating testimony of Möller’s horrified father Jürgen cannot prevent Sekerci’s shaming and scapegoating. However, much of the information that comes out during the trial will prove useful in a private campaign for vengeance.

The first two acts of Fade are tight, tense, and downright devastating. Although Akin and Hark Bohm’s screenplay is mostly about violence motivated by bigotry, it also offers some insight into the pressures faced by recovering addicts. Unfortunately, the third act gets a bit wishy-washy, perhaps because of worries the film might get tagged with the Death Wish-style revenge thriller label. Yet, the original Bronson Death Wish is far more nuanced than most people realize (granted, the subsequent sequels, not so much).

Nevertheless, Diane Kruger’s harrowingly performance is the engine that will probably drive Germany to another best foreign language Academy Award. Her emotional wounds are so palpably realistic, it is hard to watch her go to such dark places. She could even be a player for best actress, unless the Academy wants to reward Meryl Streep for speaking out against her old colleague Harvey Weinstein after the extent of his horrid deviancy was already fully revealed.

Most of the rest of the cast are mainly cardboard villains who exist to drive sympathy for Sekerci or blandly shallow friends who are there just for the sake of losing patience with her. The exception is the great Ulrich Tukur (John Rabe, The Lives of Others), who will quietly but surely stagger viewers in his pivotal scenes as the decent Jürgen Möller.

Josh Homme (of the aforementioned Queens) penned an aptly heavy and jangling score, while cinematographer Rainer Klausman gives it all a stylishly ominous look. The only drawback comes when Akin realizes how thoroughly he stacked the deck and starts to add unwanted hand-wringing. His critical champions are calling this a return to form, but it actually fits better with his bizarrely under-valued Armenian genocide film, The Cut, then his character-driven indies, like the utterly unsoulful Soul Kitchen. Worth seeing for Kruger’s brave performance and as a wake-up call regarding the violent activities of the National Socialist Underground, In the Fade opens today (12/27) in New York, at the IFC Center and the Landmark 57.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On Wings of Eagles: A Chariots of Fire Pseudo-Sequel

Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner who wouldn’t compete on the Sabbath, was born and died in China, so he is still frequently referred to as the first Chinese gold medalist. He was also a devout Christian missionary, so for obvious reasons, it is tricky to fully depict the man of faith amid the current Chinese cultural-ideological climate (or pretty much any other time since the Japanese occupation). Still, Christian Chinese director Stephen Shin Kei-yin and Canadian “co-director” Michael Parker make a good faith effort picking up Liddell’s story after Chariots of Fire left off in On Wings of Eagles (a.k.a. The Last Race, trailer here), which is now available on DVD.

In Hugh Hudson’s classic, Liddell’s scoldy sister Jenny always insisted China was his true destiny and she was right. For years, Liddell preached and taught school there, marrying his wife Florence, with whom he had three daughters. Sadly, Liddell would never meet the youngest, because he was able to send his pregnant wife and family to the safety of Canada before the Japanese reached Xiaozhang village in rural Heibei, where he accepted his final posting.

Of course, everyone respected Liddell, including Xu Niu, a rickshaw driver with vague underworld connections, who became Liddell’s fixer and friend. His narration is particularly cagey when it comes to the lessons Liddell taught him, often sounding more like warmed over humanistic bromides. Yet, we clearly see crucifixes, Christian services, and hear hymns in decidedly dramatic contexts.

All things considered, we have to give Shin and Parker credit for getting in as much Christianity as they did. Unfortunately, the film is greatly disadvantaged by the lack of a stirring Liddell sermon. After all, Chariots has that beautiful “how to run a straight race” homily Ian Charleston’s Liddell delivers in the rain to a group of world-weary stragglers. It was probably just meant to help establish his character, but perfectly crystallizes the film in one scene. Nothing in Wings comes close to that moment.

Inevitably, Wings also echoes the Korean film My Way when the physically depleted Liddell is forced to run two pivotal races against the supposedly sporting camp commandant. However, the second race somewhat departs from the obvious formula, in a way that brings home the tragedies of war. Like many recent Chinese films, Shin, Parker, and co-screenwriters Rubby Xu and Christopher C. Chan wave the bloody shirt over the Japanese occupation, but at least they depict two Japanese soldiers trying to act decently, which you could certainly consider an act of Christian charity.

Joseph Fiennes gives a quietly dignified performance as Liddell, but too often he is drowned out by the other overly busy missionary-prisoners. Among that lot, Richard Sanderson is the clear stand out as Dr. Hubbard Peterson. Canadian raised Chinese star Shawn Dou is a bit stiff at times as Xu Niu, but he has some nice moments with Fiennes and Luo Yongging as his adopted son Xiao Shitou, who is quite an effective young performer, despite his unsubtle heart-string-pulling duties. Dou also deserves credit for taking on a potentially tricky project like this when he already has the terrific environmentally-themed Cultural Revolution drama Wolf Totem on his resume.

Sometimes you have to grade on a curve. Frankly, it is a minor miracle Wings was not completely emasculated. It is clear throughout the film Liddell was a good person, who believed devoutly and put others’ well-being ahead of its own.  The production values are a bit TV-movie-ish, but if a lot of streaming services had commissioned it, they would be carpet bombing Emmy voters with screeners. Worth seeing, especially in light of what it represents, On Wings of Eagles is now available on DVD.

Brawl in Cell Block 99: Vince Vaughn Goes Up the River

Evidently, most convicts sent to the big house fantasize about doing time in Austria’s luxurious looking Justice Center Leoben, but not Bradley “Don’t Call Him Brad” Thomas. He is determined to be transferred to the maximum-security, pre-war Red Leaf hell-prison, as soon as possible. He has his reasons in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Thomas was an ex-boxer trying to make and honest and peaceful living, but the recession forced him to return to work as runner for his drug lord pal Gil. He could tell something was wrong with their new Latin American connection, but he does his duty, accompanying two jittery thugs on a multi-million-dollar run. When things go sideways, Thomas wastes his cartel companions to save the drastically out-gunned cops. Of course, he is still sentenced to serious time, but at least it is a medium security facility.

On his second day, Thomas gets a visit from the mysterious “Placid Man” pretending to be his mega-pregnant wife Lauren’s OBGYN. In reality, he is a representative of the cartel, who holds him responsible for the loss of their shipment. They have kidnapped Lauren and will do awful things to her unborn baby unless he murders Christopher Bridge in Red Leaf’s hardcore Cell Block 99. To get there, he will have to be transferred twice, once from the more livable Franklin and then again into the subterranean dungeon. That will require a lot of bad behavior, but Thomas has the skills and the fortitude.

Brawl is one of the grittiest prison movies in years that deliberately evokes a 1970s vibe with its tunes and muscle cars. It doesn’t give you much faith in rehabilitation or the criminal justice system in general. Warden Tuggs and the Red Leaf guards definitely count as bad guys, but they are not even the worst of the worst. Regardless, just about everyone at Red Leaf deserves whatever comes their way, except for Thomas and maybe the inmate across the hall, who looks like Julian Richings.

About the last time Vince Vaughn had a stretch of serious dramas going was the late 1990s, when he appeared in the Malaysian prison drama, Return to Paradise. It was a good move for him to step away from wise-guy comedy and return to the prison setting, because Brawl is without question his best work in years. He is quietly intense, but his visceral physicality says plenty.

Don Johnson adds some southern fried villainy as the sadistic warden. He has probably reached the point of type-casting, but to his credit, Tuggs is less cliched and more realistic than his racist plantation owner in Django Unchained or the Joe Arpaio caricature in Machete (but sadly, he is nowhere near as flamboyant as good old Jim Bob Luke in Cold in July). Jennifer Carpenter also adds a bit depth and dimension as Lauren Thomas, which is impressive considering she mostly serves as the hostage-victim. For extra bonus points, Udo Kier brings his eccentric movie magic as the Placid Man.

Both Brawl and Zahler’s previous film Bone Tomahawk clocked in over two hours, which is ridiculous in both cases. Seriously, he has a good handle on genre elements, but he needs to work with a more assertive editor. Brawl is particularly slow out of the gates, but it pays off with more interest than Tomahawk. Recommended for fans of prison movies and 1970s throwbacks, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is now available on DVD and BluRay.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Tiger Zinda Hai (Ek Tha Tiger 2)

Once again, a new Salman Khan film opens in time for the holidays. Usually, the holiday in question is Eid, but we get it for Christmas. It is appropriate, since he is delivering peace on Earth and good will towards man—sort of. Khan brings together the Indian and Pakistani national security forces, so you can argue that’s close enough. India’s barrel-chested super-spy Avinash “Tiger” Singh Rathore already reached a separate peace with Zoya, Pakistan’s ISI agent-extraordinaire. When a group of Indian and Pakistani nurses are kidnapped by Daesh, the happy couple swing back into action, bringing their respective agencies into line with them in Ali Abbas Zafar’s Tiger Zinda Hai (trailer here), the long-awaited sequel to Ek Tha Tiger, which is now playing in New York.

For eight years, Tiger and Zoya have been living off their agencies’ radar, raising their young son Junior in a palatial Austrian chalet. Unfortunately, when the Iraqi military wounds the Daesh mastermind Abu Usman, his terrorist forces occupy the hospital where twenty-five Indian nurses and fifteen Pakistani nurses have been stationed as part of a relief mission. The American military is determined to bomb Usman back to the stone age (as if he weren’t already living there), but Tiger’s former (and sort of current) boss Shenoy negotiates a seven-day window for a rescue operation.

Tiger’s’ plan involves going undercover in the Iraqi oil refinery controlled by Daesh, where they will fake an industrial accident that will send them to the newly militarized hospital. However, Tiger quickly finds himself in Daesh’s crosshairs after foiling a reluctant young boy’s suicide bombing. Of course, who arrives to bail him out when he is surrounded by ticked off jihadis? “Mrs. Smith” herself, Ms. Zoya—and she has ISI back-up. Soon everyone is working together and relatively happy about it, but Daesh has not made things easier by centralizing their command center in the target hospital.

TZH is the second film based on the real life 2014 kidnapping of forty-nine nurses, who were apparently released under much less dramatic circumstances, leading some Indian commentators to wonder what sort of deal their government might have cut (it wouldn’t be ransom, since Daesh is loaded). Regardless, it is somewhat encouraging to see Indian pop culture takes the threat of terrorism very seriously.

You can’t get much more serious than turning loose Khan’s Tiger. Watching him plow down Daesh bad guys with a high-powered machine gun in his tree-trunk arms is the closest you can still get to Schwarzenegger in his Commando prime. He also has some reasonably decent chemistry with the Hong Kong-born, British-naturalized Katrina Kaif as Zoya. They can dance and make moon eyes at each other during the musical numbers and then blast away at the terrorists during the action sequences, with equal credibility. Indeed, Kaif has moves worthy of HK action cinema.

Accept for the annoyingly shticky Paresh Rawal as the Indian expat fixer Firdaus and Girish Karnad as the weary Shenoy, the supporting cast hardly registers, but it is hard to outshine Khan and Kaif. There is a reason they are two of the biggest movie stars in the world today (you won’t find anyone in Hollywood who can put as many butts in seats, regardless of the picture).

It is actually quite an experience to see TZH in New York. Even though it is a Bollywood release, Khan clearly has plenty of fans in Pakistan. In fact, the film features literal flag-waving for both India and Pakistan, resulting in competing cheers from the near-capacity audiences. Unfortunately, the CIA and American military are presented in much more ambiguous terms, but it is hard to blame TZH when we won’t extradite the Mumbai 11/26 terrorist, David Headley. Regardless, it is entertaining and cathartic to see legions of Daesh terrorists get their just desserts (and there haven’t been a lot of American films that have been interested in going there). Recommended for action fans who can handle some shamelessly schmaltzy music and romance, Tiger Zinda Hai is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Feng Xiaogang’s Mysteriously Delayed Youth

It was a time of macro and micro bullying. In the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, He Xiaoping assumes the abuse she has endured all her life will stop once is accepted into a PLA dance troupe. Alas, social hierarchies are just as rigid within the ranks of the military company. As the daughter of an accused Rightist in a re-education camp, she still finds herself at the bottom of the pecking order. The friendships and rivalries within her troupe will span decades in Feng Xiaogang’s maybe not so mysteriously delayed Youth (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Feng has helmed some of Mainland China’s most patriotic blockbusters, so observers were surprised when Youth was suddenly pulled from its scheduled October 1st release date. Some speculated the scenes of the never-spoken-of Sino-Vietnamese War were to blame, but it could just as easily be the frank depiction of Cultural Revolution’s injustices. Frankly, it is a miracle this film was allowed any kind of release whatsoever.

Indeed, for reasons that we eventually learn over time, the Cultural Revolution indirectly led to a rather rash act that immediately starts He off on the wrong foot with her more connected troupe-mates. Only the beloved Liu Feng (whose name is a play on that of propaganda martyr Lei Feng) ever shows her any compassion. Even the narrator, Xiao Suizi, is too timid to stand up for her, thereby risking social ostracism herself. Yet, that is precisely why Xiao rather than He is ultimately the film’s tragic figure.

Even after the Cultural Revolution ends with a whimper, the troupe is still caught up in dangerously tumultuous times. He will transfer to the nursing corps just in time to serve during the war with Vietnam. China would prefer to forget that one, but if reminded, they insist they were victorious, but the gore He witnesses suggests otherwise. Liu will also witness the horrors of war first-hand, thanks to a scandal that gets him cashiered out of the performance troupe.

In many ways, Youth is the film the respectable but over-hyped Testament of Youth was cracked up to be, but it is also much more. Despite the nostalgic tone, it clearly indicts modern China for deliberately turning its back on the service and sacrifice of Liu’s generation. However, at its most fundamental level, Youth is just an achingly sensitive coming of age drama. Even though very few viewers (even in China) will have served in PLA dance troupes, it will still evoke memories of boarding school, college, basic training, or whatever, when you were young and living amongst with a group of people your age. Some you liked, some you couldn’t stand, but you were all stuck going through the same things together.

Huang Xuan is still probably the best-known cast-member. He has been a solid and sometimes brave performer, especially in the films of Lou Ye, but his work as Liu is probably his most mature and fully dimensional performance yet. Miao Miao’s He is often so nakedly vulnerable, it is downright discomfiting to watch her. However, the greatest discovery might be the strikingly expressive Elane Zhong Chuxi as Xiao. Imagine having your heart-broken repeatedly by Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. That’s what her performance is like.

It is time for a major Feng Xiaogang retrospective. It is fair to say the political-ideological implications of Youth are complicated, which makes it interesting to unpack. It is also his follow-up to the absolutely exceptional I am not Madame Bovary, which was overtly critical of government corruption in China. Plus, his ostensibly larky Personal Tailor had some unexpected social commentary late in the third act. Could it be the man who helmed rah-rah films like Assembly, Back to 1942, and Aftershock is developing subversive tendencies? Whatever the cause, he is producing some of his best films.

Regardless of what it says about Feng continuing artistic evolution, Youth is a major film, from a major filmmaker. It is set against a sprawling canvas, but it has an exquisitely intimate feel, beautifully (Oscar-worthily) lensed by Luo Pan. Very highly recommended, Youth is now playing in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Holiday Gift Guide ’17: Free to Rock

How is it remotely possible the Plastic People of the Universe have yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? They are not merely one of the most enduring European hard rock bands in history. Their arrest and imprisonment directly inspired the Charter 77 movement, thrusting a little-known Czechoslovakian playwright named Vaclav Havel into international prominence. They’re still rocking today. The story of how the PPU and their fellow underground rockers helped undermine the Communist system is chronicled in Jim Brown’s Free to Rock (trailer here), narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, which is now available on DVD, just in time for Christmas.

During the Cold War, America and the West enjoyed an overwhelming soft power advantage. Radio Free Europe subtly spread an awareness of western freedom, particularly effectively with rock & roll (FYI, Voice of America did something similar with jazz). If you were a youth in the Baltics, you could listen to Elvis and the Beatles on the outlawed RFE or stick with the opera and marching music on the official State-sanctioned station. No contest.

Eventually, the Soviets realized rock & roll was maybe here to stay, so they tried to coopt the music with officially recognized, light beer versions of the rebel rock bands known as VIAs, Vocal Instrumental Ensembles (it works in the original Russian). The notorious Dean Reed (an expat American teen idol failure) was definitely a VIA act. However, Free to Rock challenges our perceptions of Dean, observing his presumptive accidental death from drowning occurred shortly after an increasingly disillusioned Reed expressed a desire to return to America.

Whether or not Reed fully deserves his treasonous reputation, there are plenty of genuine heroes in FTR. For instance, there is Andrey Makaravich, who has yet again been harassed and demonized for playing a benefit concert for Ukrainian orphans and refugees. In fact, we see many of the old Cold War-era rockers reuniting for a concert protesting the detention of Russian political prisoners, such as Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky.

It is quite inspiring that rock took a stand against tyranny during the Cold War—and is starting to do so again under the Putin regime, but it is deeply depressing that such effort might be necessary again. It is also rather unsightly to watch Jimmy Carter take credit for the fall of Communism, because he sent the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on a goodwill tour in 1977. Fortunately, the rest of the film is on solid historical (and moral) ground.

The DVD release of FTR comes with a bonus disk of the outtakes and supplemental material. Frankly, there is so much good stuff on disk two, it is a shame it isn’t curated better, because a lot of viewers will probably miss legendary Latvian rocker Pete Anderson visiting the KGB building where he was tortured or the profile Russian rock journalist Artemy Troitsky, who has been forced into exile in Estonia.

FTR’s subjects are true rock & roll rebels. Heck, even its expert commentator Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB General and Yeltsin ally, is currently wanted in Russia for treason. The film itself might feel like a PBS special, because it was, airing extensively this past summer. However, the stories of musicians like co-producer Stas Namin are inspiring and their music is still potent. Highly recommended as a gift for rock fans and Cold War history buffs, Free to Rock is now available on DVD, from MVD Visual.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Bright: Will Smith Comes to Netflix

Welcome to a post-racial alternate universe, but human nature still really isn’t so different. In this modern-day fantasy world, all mankind stands unified in their contempt for orcs and their jealousy for elves. Class distinctions are more stratified than ever, but even though we are mere mortals, we stand firmly in the middle, because the orcs threw their lot in with the Dark Lord way back when. They will never shake that scarlet letter, not even when one of their own joins the thin blue line. Daryl Ward does not like orcs any better than the next fellow, but he is stuck riding with Nick Jakoby, mismatched buddy-cop style in David Ayer’s Bright (trailer here), which premieres today on Netflix.

Ward was not exactly thrilled to partner with an orc in the first place, but he is even less so after getting shot by an orc thug, whom he suspects Jakoby deliberately let slip away. There is not a lot of trust there, even though Jakoby is desperately trying to make nice. Unfortunately, a clique of crooked cops wants Ward to set up his partner. Orc or no orc, that kind of dirty business does not sit well with Ward, but they leave little choice. However, the stakes really start to rise when Ward and Jakoby respond to a call involving magic.

According to screenwriter Max Landis’s system of magic, only “Brights” can wield magic wands. Of course, over 99% of such magic users are elves, but occasionally there is a human Bright. Sorry orcs, next time don’t side with the Dark Lord. As it happens, this might be the next time. Lialeh, the leader of the evil elf clan known as the Infirni aspires to raise the infernal overlord, but her wand was stolen by her remorseful protégé, Tikka. Now there is a mad scramble amongst all LA’s unsavory elements to recover the wand, which really doesn’t make sense, because if any non-Bright touches it, they will basically get atomized. You’d think they’d at least bring some oven mitts from home.

Bright is not the dumpster fire many critics are making it out to be, but it is safe to say internal logic is not its strong suit. On the other hand, Landis creates a compelling mythology, which he establishes without lines and lines of clunky expositional dialogue. Yet, on your third hand, there is no denying Bright gets clumsy and didactic driving home its admittedly well-meaning message of tolerance. We just so get it, after having our noses rubbed in it, six or seven times.

Regardless of all that, Joel Edgerton does some of his best work to date, despite the layers of orc prosthetics, as the painfully earnest Jakoby. It is a shockingly soulful performance, capturing the all the lonely alienation of an orc rejected by his own kind and despised by the rest of the world. In contrast, Will Smith never pushes himself the least little bit as Ward. He seems to think he can get by flashing his grin and cracking wise—and we really start to resent him for it, because he is more or less correct.

As Lialeh the villainess, Noomi Rapace looks like she gets indigestion from chewing scenery. It is too bad Vietnamese superstar Veronica Ngo does not get more dramatic heavy-lifting to do as her hench-elf Tien, considering she only appeared in Last Jedi for about thirty seconds as Paige Tico, but she still totally stole the picture as far as many fans as concerned. At least Edgar Ramírez looks like he is having fun as Kandomere, the Elfish federal Magic Squad agent.

The effects are pretty ho-hum, but Edgerton is terrific as Jakoby and Will Smith is Will Smith as Ward. The world-building is also impressive, but it would be even more effective if the film could go ten minutes without a teachable moment. Given the obvious parallels with Alien Nation it is also almost unforgivably awkward that the orc makeup looks so much like that of the “Newcomers.” It is more fun than you’ve likely heard, but it is not $90 million worth of fun. Recommended for fantasy fans who like their films loud and heavy-handed, Bright is now streaming on Netflix.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Drawing Home: The Whytes of Canada

You could say Peter and Catharine Robb Whyte were the Wyeths of Banff. They were definitely the first family of Canadian landscape painting. She originally hailed from Concord, MA, but she took to Banff and the husband who brought her there, like her WASPy, society family could hardly believe. Their outdoorsy love story is the focus of Markus Rupprecht’s Drawing Home (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Catharine Robb was always closer to her father than her mother, but Edith Morse Robb quite encouraged her relationship with John D. Rockefeller III. Yet, it was fellow art student Peter Whyte who won her heart. He was rather at a disadvantage living in the Canadian Rockies, but when she finally visited Banff, she fell for him and the rugged countryside. Before too long, the It Happened One Night-style Jericho Wall curtain separating the couple comes crashing down.

Lady Edith just doesn’t get it, but they have the support of Whyte’s parents and his mentor, naturalized German landscape painter, Carl Rungius. They are happy together, until tragedy strikes the ski lodge operated by the Whyte Brothers in 1933. Frankly, their mathematician pal Kit Paley acted like a jerk, but Whyte still takes his death hard.

Frankly, the screenplay co-written by Rupprecht and Donna Logan short-changes Peter Whyte in favor of his wife. They completely ignore his WWII service, taking him on a steep decline from the Paley accident to his eventual death, interrupted only by the brief redemption made possible by CRW.

Nevertheless, Rupprecht manages to integrate the work of both painters reasonably well and he fully capitalizes on the picturesque Banff landscape. Drawing also features a warm supporting turn from Rutger Hauer, letting him show a side we rarely get to see, with his charismatic portrayal of Rungius. Julie Lynn Mortensen and Juan Riedinger are relatively pleasant and credibly down-to-earth as the Whytes, but neither really puts a distinctive stamp on the film. Kate Mulgrew is also largely stuck playing a stereotypical snobby mother-in-law, but Kristin Griffith brings some heart and energy to the proceedings as Jean Caird, the Robb family nanny-housekeeper-busybody.

Cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin, composer Ben Holiday, and the design team all contribute to the film’s gauzily nostalgic vibe. The Whytes painted landscapes, but at times, the late 1920s and early 1930s scenes suggest the look of fellow Massachusetts resident Norman Rockwell’s work. It is generally a nice film—sometimes too nice. Recommended for sentimental patrons of nature art and conservation, Drawing Home opens tomorrow (12/22) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Yuletide Terror: We Always Find Ourselves in the Sea (short)

These days, Christmas horror is all about being naughty rather than nice. The lamer ones are transgressive just for the sake offending, while the best are darkly comic. Yet, there is a different tradition, exemplified by the BBC’s annual literary short film program, A Ghost Story for Christmas. Of course, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the granddaddy of all Christmas horror (Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future are pretty sinister cats). Sean Hogan’s new horror short is definitely in the latter tradition. Yet, We Always Find Ourselves in the Sea is still spooky enough to screen as part of the launch tour for the new anthology book, Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Filmand Television (trailer here).

Patrick’s modest seaside hovel might be pleasant in the summer, but it is depressingly dreary during the dead of winter. Due to past mistakes, Patrick is spending the holiday season alone, writing Christmas cards to himself. That sounds bad, but it gets worse when he starts to hear ominous voices rising from the sea. Yet, when a visitor from the past suddenly arrives, he hopes it heralds redemption, but it is more likely to be a reckoning of sorts.

Britain’s southern coast is clearly unremittingly chilly and gray around this time of year, but cinematographers Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson make it look startlingly cinematic. Visually, this is a heck of an impressively framed film, yet there is also some real human drama going on. Billy Clarke’s portrayal of Patrick is as honest and real as any you will see in “proper” Oscar-bait films. He is clearly haunted, in every conceivable way. On the other end of the spectrum, Jamie Birkett keeps viewers completely off-balance as his reserved but vaguely unsettling visitor.

In some ways, Hogan’s film shares a kinship with Jo Lewis’s short, Whisper, but it is more fully realized. Perhaps somewhat awkwardly, it is considerably superior to many of the features it has shared a bill with with, in conjunction with Yuletide Terror launch events. Very highly recommended, We Always Find Ourselves in the Sea screens tonight (12/21) in Philadelphia at PhilaMOCA and Saturday (12/23) in Chicago, at Heirloom Books.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Hangman: It’s a Puzzler

So, there’s another serial killer gimmick taken. You’d think the cops would actually try to solve the puzzle, because that word could possibly be one of those clue thingies, like “Rosebud,” but these cops couldn’t be bothered. They are too busy spinning their wheels in Johnny Martin’s Hangman (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

This was a terrible week for Det. Will Ruiney to get stuck chaperoning Christi Davies, a hack journalist. As fate would have it, he draws a serial killer case during her first ride-along. This will be a gruesome one. The killer slices the letters of his hangman game into each victim’s chest while they are still living. It turns out this case is also personal. In addition to the signature gallows template left at the first crime scene, the perp also carved the badge numbers of Det. Ruiney and his retired ex-partner, Det. Ray Archer into a desk. However, this might not technically be the first victim, considering the killer is already on his second letter.

The good news is the reporter is surprisingly helpful and team-oriented. The bad news is Ruiney might be even more closely connected to the case than he realized. Regardless, the unlikely trio will begin a nightly race against the clock when they determine the killer executes his victims at 11:00 PM, precisely on the dot.

Frankly, Hangman is nicely pacey and surprisingly effective during the 24-hour countdowns to murder, but the film craters down the stretch. Suddenly, people are acting weird and twitchy for no reason, but it is the final twist the really brings on the face-palms. Seriously, did screenwriters Charles Huttinger and Michael Caissie deliberately set out to undermine whatever good will the film might have accrued?

On the plus side, Al Pacino mostly reins himself in as Det. Archer, at least until the third act, when all bets are off. Karl Urban and Brittany Snow are respectably intense as Ruiney and Davies. The three form a decent combo when they get into their groove, plus Sarah Shahi gives the film some edge as the no-nonsense, wheelchair-bound Capt. Lisa Watson. Unfortunately, the Hangman winds up being an underwhelming, non-entity, which is obviously a severe drawback for a serial killer movie.

Hangman evaporates from memory pretty quickly, but it is still a better vehicle for Pacino (whose work has been hit-or-miss in the extreme over the last ten years) than the erratic Son of No One or the lame Misconduct. We’ve seen worse, but that’s our job. It’s the kind of movie that holds your attention just well enough when you get home late at night from a gig or a company holiday party, but you would never actually buy a ticket to see it in a theater. Nevertheless, it duly opens this Friday (12/22) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Blood Money: John Cusack Wants His Money Back

Judging from this film, one of the two credited co-screenwriters must have had one nasty breakup recently, because their protagonist is no mere femme fatale. She is a stone-cold mercenary viper. At least she sot of makes things interesting. Plus, for extra added VODness, there is John Cusack playing the whiny, motivationally challenged villain in Lucky McKee’s Blood Money (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Late in their senior year, Lynn briefly hooked up with her torch-carrying, dirt-poor platonic guy pal, Victor, but she has recently been seeing her other high school bestie dude, Jeff. While she is home from college, the trio decided to take a rafting trip together, because doesn’t that just sound like a super-fun time? Victor was already getting sick of it, before Lynn found eight million dollars stuffed in matching duffel bags. Of course, she wants to keep it and Jeff is too spineless to argue, but Victor wants to turn it over to the cops. Evidently, he is the only one of them who has seen A Simple Plan.

As you would expect, the man who packed that luggage wants it back. That would be Miller, a white collar D.B. Cooper wannabe, trying to set himself up off-the-grid, in style. Unfortunately, he will have to pry her cold, grubby hands off it.

Supposedly, Blood Money was intended as a loose riff on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but that’s just crazy talk.  Frankly, this is a complete car crash of a movie, for many reasons, not the least being the ostensive villain spends the first half of the film laying on a picnic table, pining for a cigarette. By the time old Miller starts dispensing 1970s psycho-babble relationship advice to an oblivious Victor, we know this train is hurtling off the bridge. The only question is how much hang-time will it record. Unfortunately, stuff doesn’t really start to happen until about the fifty-minute mark, so that means we have to wait an interminably long time, while the characters just sit around, awkwardly looking at each other.

Forget what critics said about The Paperboy. John Cusack was terrible as the bad guy in that film, just like he looks completely out of place as Miller, the antagonist-heavy, but the character is such a nebbish villain, he is perversely suited to it. Admittedly, Willa Fitzgerald is all kinds of fierce as Lynn. She came to play, that’s for sure. On the other hand, Ellar Coltrane and Jacob Artist give Victor and Jeff personalities of cardboard, and co-screenwriters Jared Butler and Lars Norberg endowed them the intuition of damp lint.

Still, you have to feel for Butler or Norberg, because one of them most of had his heart eviscerated. That’s the only way to write a character like Lynn. What can we say? Love stinks, yeah, yeah. In this case, it takes a ponderous excuse for a wilderness survival thriller and gives it an elephant syringe full of adrenaline through the breastplate in the final twenty-minutes. That is something, but it is baffling how a notable horror-genre helmer like McKee could let the film wallow in lethargy for so long.

Blood Money is a perfect example of why more critics should review B-movies, because its dubious decisions deserve our bemused attention. Not really recommended, in any way, shape, or form, Blood Money is still exponentially more interesting than Singularity, so maybe we can consider it a rebound for Cusack, if we grade on a generous curve. Blood Money releases today on DVD, so have fun sports fans.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Crooked House: One of Dame Agatha’s Favorites, Finally Adapted for Film

Reportedly, Dame Agatha Christie’s two favorite novels from her voluminous oeuvre were this twisty novel from 1949 and Ordeal by Innocence. Yet, neither featured a Poirot, Marble, or Beresford (Tuppence), so they have rather been odd men out. There was an under-rated 1985 film adaptation of Ordeal, but the anticipated BBC production has been shelved, due to criminal allegations leveled against one of its co-stars. Formerly only staged for radio, Crooked House is now left alone to draft off Branagh’s pseudo-blockbuster Orient Express. French director Gilles Pacquet-Brenner helms a slyly British drawing room whodunit with his adaptation of Crooked House (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Private investigator Charles Hayward met the well-heeled Sophie de Haviland while he was stationed in Cairo for the secret service, but she inevitably broke his heart (a slight departure from the book). Nevertheless, de Haviland trusts the embittered Hayward to investigate the presumed murder of her grandfather, Aristide Leonides, a Greek immigrant who made good. Leonides’s latest trophy wife Brenda stands to inherit everything—a fact that does not sit well with the rest of the family.

For reasons that eluded just about everyone else, old man Leonides insisted on keeping his entire dysfunctional, bile-soaked family in residence at his grand country estate. That includes the newest wife Brenda, Sophie’s dilettante father Phillip, her self-absorbed stage diva mother Magda, and her wastrel uncle Roger, who has been running the family catering business into the ground. Only the widowed Lady Edith de Haviland shows much strength of character, which is why she assumed responsibility for the education of the de Haviland children, including the precocious twelve-year-old Josephine.

Obviously, everyone is a suspect, especially Laurence Brown, the children’s tutor, whom it seems has been carrying on an affair with the presumptive merry widow, but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? Like the best of Dame Agatha’s work, the murderer in Crooked House is not immediately apparent, but the real pleasure comes from all the gnashing of teeth and door-slamming that come during the investigative process. Co-screenwriter Sir Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey acclaim), Tim Rose Price, and Paquet-Brenner deliver all the elements in spades, including the faithful ending, which must have been quite a shocker in 1949.

Glenn Close is terrific as the tart-tongued, no-nonsense Lady Edith. She is imperious yet grounded, in a way maybe only Kristin Scott Thomas could pull off with equal style. Gillian Anderson, Julian Sands, Christina Hendricks, and Christian McKay hold up their end, chewing the scenery and effortlessly bandying about barbed dialogue as Magda, Philip, Brenda, and Roger, respectively. Terence Stamp adds his well-earned gravitas and immediately recognizably baritone as Chief Inspector Taverner, a colleague of Hayward’s murdered father. Plus, the real breakthrough-discovery is young Honor Kneafsey, who is quite remarkable as Josephine.

Not surprisingly, Hayward and Sophie de Haviland are the dullest of the lot, but Max Irons somewhat exceeds expectations, playing the former with a welcome degree of forcefulness and intelligence. On the other hand, Stefanie Martini should have portrayed the latter as more of a femme fatale, but she is really just forgettably pedestrian.

Regardless, Crooked House is a triumph of set decoration and period details. The richly detailed trappings are spot-on, while the locations (King’s College Maughan Library and the Gothic Revival Tyntesfield estate) are wonderfully suggestive of elegance and murder most foul. Honestly, it is such good fun to see an old-fashioned mystery like this hit the big-screen again. Highly recommended for fans of British mysteries and the accomplished ensemble, Crooked House opens this Friday (12/22) in New York, at the Cinema Village.