Saturday, March 31, 2018

ND/NF ’18: Good Manners

Sleepwalking is something we expect to see in the English country estates of gothic romances, not the stratified urban jungle of São Paulo. However, the somnambulism of Clara’s pregnant new employer certainly seems to hold gothic implications, especially since it only happens during full moons. You’d better know what that means. Exploitation evolves into affection and love turns deadly in Marco Dutra & Juliana Rojas’s Bad Manners (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Clara never finished nursing school, so she really isn’t qualified to be a live-in maternity nurse. On the other hand, she is poor and desperate, making cheap and willing to perform menial household chores. That suits disgraced plantation heiress Ana Proença Nogueira to a “T.” Weirdly enough, she also feels reassured by Clara’s taciturn presence. She is an exploiter, but she still stirs up all sorts of protective feelings in the nurse-maid. Soon their ambiguous mutually shared attraction, become less ambiguous. However, Clara still cannot help noticing odd things about her lover-employer, like her insatiable appetite for red meat and her somnambulism when the moon is full.

Buckle up, because Dutra & Rojas take a radical ninety-degree turn at almost precisely the one-hour point. Frankly, it takes a while to get acclimated to the narrative shift. Regardless, it becomes clear Clara will be forced to manage some form of lycanthropy. In a way, this sexually-charged film is the lesbian werewolf film Bradley Gray Rust’s Jack & Diane promised, but failed to deliver.

Dutra and Rojas sparingly indulge in gore, but when they do, they really get their money’s worth. Clearly, they are more concerned with using lycanthropy as means to examine sexual, racial, and class dynamics under extreme stress. Yet, they still take care of the genre business, loading the film up with eerie foreboding. As a result, Manners represents a quantum step up from their previous feature collaboration, the frustrating in-betweener, Hard Labor.

Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano really are fantastic as the nurse-and-patient lovers. Their relationship evolves awfully fast and quite dramatically, but they totally sell it. Young Miguel Lobo is also pretty solid as the seven or eight-year-old bundle of joy in part two. Plus, the werewolf effects and makeup are surprisingly cool and somewhat different from what we have seen before.

This is definitely socially conscious, character-driven art-house horror, but it never looks down on the genre. In fact, it deliberately riffs on the archetypal climax of nearly every classic Universal monster movie. The upshot is this take on werewolves is smart, subversive, and entertaining. Highly recommended, Good Manners screens this Thursday (4/5) at MoMA and Friday (4/6) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2018.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Independent Lens: When God Sleeps

For this song, a fatwa issued against Iranian musician Shahin Najafi and a $100,000 bounty was placed on his head. You would almost think the Islamist Ayatollahs have no sense of humor whatsoever. Frankly, after five years of living with death threats, his is also running a little thin. Till Schauder documents Najafi as he lives life under extreme circumstances in When God Sleeps (trailer here), which airs this Monday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

In “Ay Neghi!,” Najafi pointedly asks the 10th Imam why his brethren are so preoccupied with trivial puritanical concerns, yet they tolerate conspicuous public corruption of the highest order. To most Westerners, this would be a rather mild and reasonable protest song, but it led to multiple fatwas calling for his execution, as punishment for his alleged apostasy. At this point, Najalfi’s international fame exploded.

Without question, the best sequences of the doc chronicle Najafi’s early response to the fatwas. Rightfully concerned for his safety, Najafi sought the protection of the woefully under-prepared German police, who had him file a farcical complaint against the ninety-year-old cleric who issued the initial death sentence. Much more helpful is muckraking German journalist Günter Wallraff, who initially sheltered Najafi in his fortified compound, as he had previously done for Salman Rushdie.

Without question, the best parts of the doc show how Najafi lives day-to-day as a target of fatwas. Somewhat understandably, Schauder seems even more interested in Najafi’s long-distance romance with Leili Bazargan, the granddaughter of Mehdi Bazargan, the interim Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Islamic government. However, to play up the star-crossed nature of their relationship, Schauder casts Bazargan as a theocratic hardliner, when he was arguably somewhat more nuanced than that. For instance, he resigned his post in protest when the American embassy was seized by students loyal to Khomeini.

However, the third act really get awkward when Najafi tries to become an advocate and humanitarian patron for the waves of immigrants washing into Germany, only to find his band-members are alarmed by the increasingly aggressive behavior of ostensive asylum-seekers receiving comp tickets to their shows. Reality can be so inconvenient.

Najafi is a worthy subject, whose experiences have much to say about the state of Iran and the wider Islamic world. Yet, the doc’s lack of urgency seems very much at odds with its subject matter. Frankly, When God Sleeps should have been less observational and more chronologically-driven. Schauder does not go out of his way to showcase Najafi’s music either, which might frustrate his fans. Nevertheless, it is important to get his story out there—and this is currently the only documentary about him. Recommended (especially the first half) for general audiences, When God Sleeps premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens this coming Monday (4/2).

Thursday, March 29, 2018

What the Fest!? ’18: Lowlife

We have seen Lucha Libre wrestlers heroically campy in the El Santo movies (courtesy of MST3K) and grotesquely depressing in Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Streets, but never like this. Beneath El Monstruo’s crimson and gold mask, there is a heart of darkness and a deep abiding sense of shame. However, he might have a shot at redemption when the bodies start piling up in Ryan Prows’ Lowlife (trailer here), which screens during this year’s What the Fest!?, at the IFC Center.

El Monstruo did not merely inherit his legacy from his fearsome father. He had to fight for it, like all Monstruos before him. He was always under-sized compared to prior Monstruos, as well as his luchador rivals, but no man was a match for his explosive rage. Inevitably, this led to a tragic incident in the ring that tarnished his reputation and cashiered him out of the league. Now Monstruo works for Teddy “Bear” Haynes, a vile loan shark and human trafficker, guarding the very women who look to Monstruo to be a defender of the innocent.

At least he managed to save his wife, Kaylee, whose unborn son will guarantee the legacy endures. That was Monstruo’s plan, but Haynes now has other ideas. Crystal, Kaylee’s birth-mother is desperate for a kidney to save her husband, the father Kaylee never met. Haynes will happily offer up one of Kaylee’s. However, Crystal will have a change of heart when she realizes Kaylee is not a voluntary participant.

Into this brewing mess barges Keith and his old running mate Randy, freshly released from prison, with the facial swastika tattoo to prove it. Randy could have snitched on Keith, but he did the time instead. Yet, Keith intends to set-up his old friend to protect his newly respectable suburban life and payoff his debts to Haynes. However, Keith has gone soft and naïve, so he will need Randy’s street smarts to survive Haynes’ shocking criminal assignment.

On paper, Lowlife sounds like a film so dark and cynical it could inspire entire audiences to give up the will to live. Yet, somehow Prows keeps the energy cranked up to such a manic level, viewers essentially speed by, leaving many of the grimmer details unnoticed. The fractured Pulp Fiction-style narrative also works better here than in nearly every imitator in between. Yet, what really gives the film guts and cojones is the way it deconstructs the luchador archetype. A lot of people in the Lucha Libre world will probably hate this film, but in a bizarre way, it still gives us hope for humanity.

Even though he never takes off the mask, Ricardo Adam Zarate is a true force of nature, as El Monstruo. Likewise, Mark Burnham’s Haynes is so flamboyantly wicked, he makes a worthy grudge-match antagonist. However, Jon Oswald shockingly steals the third act as Randy, the unlikeliest anti-hero, with a combination of perfect comedic timing and ironic guilelessness.

Frankly, it is a testament to Prows’ deft touch and traffic-directing prowess that Lowlife is not a deeply offensive train wreck. In defiance of all rational expectations and good taste, it manages to come together and land a haymaker. It is a wild ride, but real cult movies fans should not pass up such peerless madness. Highly recommended for the not-easily-offended, Lowlife screens this Sunday afternoon (4/1), as part of What the Fest!?—and opens in regular release the following Friday (4/6).

Kuleana: Sunny Noir, Hawaiian-Style

Hiram Fong became the first Asian American U.S. Senator when he was elected to represent Hawaii in 1959 and he became the 50th State’s last Republican Senator (thus far) when his final term ended in 1977. Roughly the same period is covered in this thriller of real estate development and cultural identity. Misfortune struck the Kanekoa and Coyle families in 1959 and in continues to compound twelve years later in Brian Kohne’s Kuleana (trailer here), which opens tomorrow throughout Hawaii and on Guam.

As children, Nohea Kanekoa and Kimberley Coyle played warrior and princess together. Then she disappeared one fateful night, supposedly the victim of an abduction. Kanekoa’s conveniently missing father was the prime suspect, but the real villain was Coyle’s abusive Anglo father Victor, a mobbed up real estate developer.

Flashforward to 1971. After his lower leg was amputated in Vietnam, Kanekoa works at a luxury tourist hotel, at least on the days his Uncle Bossy hasn’t fired him. It is he who discovers the body when Rose Coyle, Kimberley’s mother, coincidentally turns up dead after turning state’s evidence against her husband. The prodigal daughter sensed her mother was in danger, but she came out of hiding too late to save her. Frankly, it takes a while to convince Kanekoa she is indeed the long presumed dead Kim Coyle. Together, they will try to take down her father and start leveling their families’ karma.

It is easy to see why the Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce would support Kuleana, because its message is obvious: move to Hawaii and never age another day in your life. Aside from Nohea and Kimberly, who appear as children in 1959 and world-weary adults in 1971, every other character looks completely untouched by the passage of time. As a result, it is often difficult to distinguish the flashbacks from the 1970’s era timeline. Viewers will also do a double take when Ms. Rose (a distractingly young-looking Kristina Anapau, who also serves as an executive producer) visits her husband’s nemesis, Det. Tulba, to drop a dime, coiffed and outfitted like the Black Dahlia.

As a crooked land use thriller (begging for a Chinatown comparison), Kuleana is pretty underwhelming stuff. It is a shame, because the cast is much better than the material they have to work with. Moronai Kanekoa and Sonya Balmores show some real presence and charisma as the adult (namesake) Kanekoa and Coyle. There are also some memorably colorful supporting turns from Vene Chun, Branscombe “He Looks Familiar” Richmond, and Steven Dascoulias, as Uncle Bossy, the local crime boss’s chief henchman (known as “The Moke”), and Chad Blake, a sleazy yet oddly principled attorney, respectively. However, they are all struggling with a dubious narrative that manages to be simplistic and also logically-challenged, simultaneously.

Of course, Kohne and cinematographer Dan Hersey fully capitalize on Hawaii’s stunning natural beauty, because it would be madness not to. For real authenticity, the soundtrack also features Willie K’s blues-flavored Hawaiian music. It looks good and sounds good, but it can’t get the job done as a mystery-thriller, which is a serious drawback. Kohne and company mean well, but we just can’t recommend Kuleana when it opens tomorrow (3/30) in Pacific theaters.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

ND/NF ’18: An Elephant Sitting Still

The short life of Chinese novelist-turned-filmmaker Hu Bo recalls that of the late Marcin Wrona, except it is even more tragic. Both killed themselves before receiving the international accolades bestowed on their final films. In the case of Hu, it was also his first (finished under the supervision of his parents and a sponsoring arts group), but it is quite a statement—running just a whisker under four hours. An auspicious and heartbreaking debut, Hu’s An Elephant Sitting Still screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, giving ironic meaning to the festival’s very name.

Arguably, Elephant could be considered a Chinese descendant of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy for the way it portrays personal corruption as a symptom of societal corruption. It is also long, but it never feels excessive. We follow four profoundly unhappy residents of a depressed northern industrial city in a vaguely Altman-esque way, until their paths definitively and organically converge during the third act.

Each is miserable in his own way. Thuggish Yang Cheng is wracked with guilt after watching the best friend he cuckolded hurl himself to his death. Tightly wound high schooler Wei Bu also wrestles with guilt after pushing the school’s internet troll down a flight of stairs and into a vegetative state. Huang Ling was one of the victims he shamed, for carrying on an affair with the school’s married vice-principal. In contrast, elderly Wang Jin hasn’t injured anyone, but he has little meaningful human contact, aside from occasional visits from the son eager to consign him to a retirement home.

All four principles become fascinated with the urban legend of an elephant in the distant Manzhouli zoo, who has gone on strike, in the John Galt tradition, refusing to eat or move, as a perverse way of asserting its independent agency. It is a strange bit of apocrypha to obsess over, but it is certainly in keeping with the multiple layers of tragedy hanging over the film.

This is a sprawling but strangely hardscrabble epic that has a very digital look. Nevertheless, Hu and cinematographer Fan Chao use the whole screen, capturing some strikingly scarred urban vistas and playing games with depth of focus for effect. Above and beyond all else, Hu and his cast create four unsparingly messy but deeply haunted portraits of four very damaged people. They are almost like four distinctively dysfunctional parts of a dysfunctional whole (sort of like Jonathan Carroll’s novella Black Cocktail, but not as bleak). Indeed, deep down, there is a scintilla of hope that human connections can still be possible and meaningful—maybe.

Peng Yuchang and Wang Yuwen have some TV credits on their resume, but they each have an unaffected naturalism that makes them look and sound like they were plucked out of provincial high school to plays analogs of their own lives. At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, we would suggest Zhang Yu shows the intensity and unpredictability of vintage De Niro in the hoodlum role. Yet, Liu Congxi really anchors the film and keeps it honest as the dignified Wang Jin. He also forges some aptly paternal chemistry with the little girl playing his granddaughter, whose innocence is in fact quite important to the film.

Elephant is the sort of film that will knock you for a loop. It is amazing to think it is Hu’s first feature and depressing to know will be his last. In terms of scale, ambition, and purity of feeling, it is arguably the great Chinese morality play film of its era and a devastating critique of the so-called “Chinese Dream.” Very highly recommended, An Elephant Sitting Still screens (in all its four-hour glory) this Sunday (4/1) at MoMA and the following Sunday (4/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2018.

ND/NF ’18: Ava

Girls just want to have fun, even in Iran. Of course, life is much more complicated and restricted for them. The experiences of young Ava Vali are a case in point. Teen girls can still be difficult in Iran as well. Again, Vali is a perfect example. To any rational Westerner, she never does anything outside the bounds of propriety, but her rebelliousness inevitably leads to broken friendships and ruined reputations in Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Vali wants to take music lessons and date her classmate’s slightly older brother, who accompanies her violin recitals on piano. Most parents reading this review could deal with that (and probably feel like they got off pretty easy), but Vali’s mother is against her continued music studies and would have a melt down if she knew about Nima.

While keeping her slowly developing relationship with Nima a secret from the adults in her life, Vali rather rashly wants to show off for her friends. Yet, being seen with him, even under what most cultures would consider benign circumstances, could be her undoing. Her best friend Melody sometimes covers for her, but when her stern mother finds she is off galavanting, she creates a scene with Melody’s mother that could permanently rupture the girls’ friendship.

Vali’s mother is problematically strict, but she is nothing compared to the holier than thou headmistress, Ms. Dehkhoda. Frankly, prim properness of Ms. Dehkhoda is absolutely chilling. Likewise, her highly critical mother and deceptively easy-going father could easily be characters in an Asghar Farhadi film (like A Separation or The Salesman). Yet, rather awkwardly, young Vali herself comes across as such a deer-caught-in-headlights throughout the film, which undermines some of the intended ambiguity. The notion that this youngster could be a threat to anyone’s authority is hard to buy into.

Nevertheless, there are a number of individual scenes that just bristle with power and significance. Despite the way the misogyny and authoritarianism of contemporary Iranian society makes everything worse, many of the film’s themes and circumstances will be universally accessible, like the parents using Vali as a proxy for their own marital differences. Vahid Aghapoor and Bahar Noohian are quite remarkable as the bickering parent, with the latter fiercely raging while the former keeps everything bottled up, silently but potentially violently.

There is no question Persian cinema has a comparative advantage when it comes to dark, dysfunctional domestic dramas. Ava is not the absolute best of an unusually accomplished lot, but it still makes a statement and leaves an impact. Recommended on balance, Ava screens tomorrow (3/29) at MoMA and Sunday (4/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2018.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

ND/NF ’18: Gaze (short)

“Don’t get involved” is the cynical mantra of western urbanites. Apparently, it also applies in Tehran, with full force. A woman is in for a long but intense dark night of the soul in Farnoosh Samadi’s short film, Gaze (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

A working-class woman has just completed her menial night shift job. She wearily boards the bus, knowing she is on nights for the rest of the week and the following week too. After calling the sitter who is anxious to leave, she sees a crime being committed. The young punk in question also knows that she sees.

It is tricky to produce genre films in Iran due to all the moralistic regulations. However, Gaze probably comes the closest to being an Iranian riff on the domestic thriller, in the tradition of Wait Until Dark and Sleeping with the Enemy. In a mere fifteen minutes, Samadi stages a real white-knuckle cat-and-mouse game. Yet, aside from the suspense, there is a viscerally dramatic depiction of a single woman’s vulnerability in Iranian society (despite her being beyond reproach, morally and ethically).

Gaze represents some remarkably accomplished filmmaking. Just as importantly, it is driven by a completely natural but powerfully moving performance by Pedram Ansari as the distressed woman. It is a tight, tense, scrupulously realistic film, but it also has a haunting quality that lingers with viewers. Very highly recommended, Gaze screens during New Directors/New Films this Friday (3/30) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (4/1) at MoMA, as part of Short Program 1.

Acts of Violence: Bruce Willis Fights Human Trafficking

Brace yourself, because from here on out, Bruce Willis will serve as the voice of reason. He is an honest Cleveland police detective specializing in human trafficking crimes. When Roman MacGregors’ fiancée is kidnapped by a gang of traffickers, Willis’s Det. James Avery cautions them not to take the law into their own hands, but they’re not really listening and he doesn’t really mean it anyway. The gang picked the wrong heavily-armed, military-trained family to mess with in Brett Donowho’s Acts of Violence (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Mia practically grew up as part of the MacGregor family and now she is engaged to the youngest brother, Roman the paramedic. Middle brother Brandon is already married to Jessica, whereas eldest brother Deklan struggles with post-traumatic stress. Mia is the last sort of woman scummy Vince and Frank should consider grabbing (from her bachelorette party), because she will clearly be missed. In this case, the MacGregors are a particular dangerous pack of amateurs to rile up. In addition to their service revolvers, it seems the Army also let them keep flak jackets, assault rifles, and a bucket full of Semtex.

Basically, this is an eighties throwback vigilante action film. Of course, they have to take matters into their own hands—although it should be admitted old world-weary Avery and his partner, Det. Brooke Baker get pretty good results, no thanks to their sleazy and most likely corrupt captain. Still, screenwriter Nicolas Aaron Mezzanatto makes more concessions to reality than you might expect, as things get awfully messy and bloody for all concerned.

Cole Hauser is sufficiently rugged and hardnosed as Deklan, but frankly, it is hard to believe his two brothers, played by the considerably smaller and more nebbish Shawn Ashmore and Ashton Holmes have the wherewithal to keep up with him. Melissa Bolona shows more grit as the abducted Mia.

When it comes to carrying a picture, the Brothers MacGregor are somewhat charisma-challenged. However, Willis and Sophia Bush play off each other decently and each gives the film more grit and presence than it probably deserves. Perhaps they should have been more of the focus. As a saving grace, Mike Epps makes a reasonably flamboyant villain as the ruthless trafficking ring-leader, Max Livingston.

So, just like a good afterschool special, Acts of Violence (not to be confused with Isaac Florentine’s superior and more psychologically complex Acts of Vengeance) offers us plenty of timely enlightenment, such as human trafficking is bad and VA services should be more user-friendly. Still, it is satisfying in an old school kind of way to see the salty old copper eventually throw in with the rogue elements. Largely undistinguished but sometimes satisfying in a bonehead kind of way, Acts of Violence is now available on DVD.

I Remember You: A Ghostly Icelandic Procedural

The novel won an Icelandic crime fiction award, but the film is billed as horror all the way. That makes sense, because it has ghosts. It is also unusually moody and atmospheric. Angry spirits from the past make trouble for the present-day living in Óskar Thór Axelsson’s I Remember You (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Freyr is a police psychologist, but he cannot cure himself or solve his most significance case. His young son Benni vanished without a trace, never to be seen again, but not from a lack of trying on Freyr’s part. Work should be a healthy distraction for him, but this particular case will not be good for anyone. It seems that half a dozen senior citizens had their backs carved with tiny crosses for months before they were finally murdered by someone familiar with the circumstances of their school yard bullying from some sixty years prior. Their chief victim, Bernódus would be the prime suspect had he not disappeared under mysterious circumstances decades earlier.

Soon, Freyr is having visions of a little ghostly boy. He assumes they are stress-induced hallucinations, but he is unsure whether it is Benni or Bernódus. Initially, it is unclear to us what any of this has to do with the married couple and their third wheel friend who are refurbishing a dilapidated farmhouse on a remote island, but all will be revealed in good time.

Thanks to cinematographer Jakob Ingimundarson and some richly detailed and distressed set design, IRY is one of the spookiest looking and most stylish horror films of the last few years. It might be somewhat divisive among genre fans, because it leaves many conspicuously large loose ends dangling untied. Nevertheless, the closure it allows is quite dramatic.

As Freyr, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson is quite believably and compellingly haunted, in a psychological sense, without resorting to any phony theatrics. He is Icelandic after all, as his name would indicate. Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir does not have so much to work with as his partner, but they still play off each other well. On the other hand, Anna Gunnudis Guomundsdottir freaks out quite vividly, at least by Scandinavian standards, as the wife in the ill-fated farm house story arc.

Axelsson’s previous feature, Black’s Game had its merits, but IRY represents a quantum step up. This is a powerfully eerie film with smart dialogue and a very human sensibility at its core. Highly recommended for fans of literate horror films and Scandinavian mysteries, I Remember You (with no reference to Johnny Mercer intended) is now available on DVD and BluRay.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Operation Odessa: Like Miami Vice with Submarines

Next time you hear a demagogue inveigh against the so-called “militarization” of the police, ask yourself what sort of anti-submarine defenses your local PD has, because that is the sort of world we live in. It is an established fact the Cali Cartel has tried to purchase full military subs from the Russians on at least two occasions (that we know of). The second case we discovered through dumb luck, but the first attempted sale was broken up by some tenacious police work. Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg was one of the men brokering the sale. Somehow, he and his shady pals lived to tell the story in Tiller Russell’s documentary, Operation Odessa (trailer here), which premieres this Saturday on Showtime.

For a while, the Odessa-born Tarzan Fainberg worked for an Italian crime family in New York, but when things got too hot, he relocated to Florida, opening a strip club modeled on the fine establishment in the Porky’s movies. In terms of random pop culture references, Fainberg also became friendly with Vanilla Ice. More importantly, his club and subsequent Russian restaurant became hang-spots for every visiting Russian and Eastern European gangster. Soon he became their unofficial liaison to the South American cartels.

Fainberg formed fast friendships with Tony Yester, a former Cuban spy, and Juan Almeida, a supposed luxury car dealer. Technically, the three friends and co-conspirators were not drug traffickers, per se, but they facilitated the smuggling by brokering deals for heavy-duty twin-turbine Russian helicopters and the like. Russia was their K-Mart and everything was on Blue Light special—even including an old but still sea-worthy diesel submarine (available with or without armaments).

The story of Tarzan and his bros is so wild and colorful (and he is such a knucklehead), viewers will often lose sight of how terrifying this narco-kerfuffle really is, when you think about it soberly. There is a very real possibility one of the cartels is running a hard to detect Russian diesel sub, loaded up with cocaine—if we’re lucky. Obviously, this a real security concern for all police and Coast Guard vessels.

Regardless, the hard-partying Fainberg also waxes nostalgic for hedonistic Miami party scene. Subtlety is not his thing, which is just as well, considering he is the primary POV figure. However, Russell also managed to score on-cameras with Yester (whom Fainberg and Almeida were convinced would never agree) and the heavily disguised undercover who brought down their racket.

In terms of sheer style and energy, Operation Odessa (named for the inter-agency operation investigating Russian mob activity in South Florida) is one of the best true crime documentaries in years. It is impossible to be bored by the mayhem and skullduggery it documents. Russell also avoids making any political statements, which is definitely a plus. You could argue he comes perilously close to glamorizing Fainberg, but he also gives the law enforcement agents ample opportunity to have their say. It turns out, they are quite lively talking heads, as well.

This story is just crazy—and so are these people. It is rather amazing that so many of them are still walking around, but don’t count on them making the ten-year Operation Odessa reunion party. Highly recommended for fans of Billy Corben’s docs (such as Square Grouper), Operation Odessa premieres this Saturday (3/31) on Showtime.

Gemini: Making LA Noir Again

Breakout starlet Heather Anderson is one of the beautiful people, whereas her assistant Jill LeBeau is one of the little people. However, LeBeau really believed her boss when she called her a friend and made vague promises to start developing projects with her. That is why LeBeau is so disappointed to find she is suspected of murdering Anderson in Aaron Katz’s Gemini (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Instead of telling the director face-to-face she will not do re-shoots for his troubled film, thereby likely dooming the project, Anderson sends LeBeau in to do her dirty work for her. She is accustomed to such duties. She also tries to run interference with the stalkerish fan who crashes their table when the furious director storms off and her boss slinks in.

Clearly, Anderson depends on LeBeau for both emotional and organizational support. Their relationship is highly ambiguous and fraught with sexual overtones. Nevertheless, LeBeau must not show any signs of jealousy or possessiveness when partying with her boss and Tracy, Anderson’s secret model lover. Technically, they are still employer and employee, whereas jealousy and possessiveness are the specialty of Anderson’s very-ex boyfriend, Devin, whose house she still lives in.

You would think there would be plenty of suspects for Columbo-like Det. Edward Ahn to pester, but the murder weapon happens to be LeBeau’s off-the-books handgun, which has her prints all over it. Quite inconveniently, she even accidentally discharged it on the morning in question.

You have to give Katz credit, because Gemini just oozes noir style. Cinematographer Andrew Reed dazzles us with nocturnal neon and the glossy, glassy reflective surfaces of the characters’ sunny daylight hours. This is a vision of LA that Curtis Hanson and Roman Polanski would appreciate. Plus, Keegan DeWitt’s jazzy synth score gives it an appropriately freshened-up, ultra-now “crime jazz” vibe.

Lola Kirke is quite compelling as LeBeau, who suddenly must confront most of the assumptions that gave her life comfort and structure. She also forges some hard to define, yet undeniably potent chemistry with Zoë Kravitz’s Anderson. Kravitz’s performance is admittedly quite aloof and guarded, but such are the character’s requirements. John Cho adds some energy as the deceptively shrewd Det. Ahn, while Nelson Franklin and Michelle Forbes conspicuously steal their scenes as the director and agent who would not be out of place in Altman’s The Player.

For the most part, Gemini is an appealingly evocative Tinsel Town noir, but as in his Portland mumblecore noir, Cold Weather, Katz still has trouble wrapping things up in a convincing manner. Of course, it is the journey into the dark heart of La La Land that matters to genre fans, not the ultimate destination. Basically, it is Chet Baker cool, which is high praise, but not Miles Davis cool. Recommended for fans of LA noir, Gemini opens this Friday (3/30) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence

Jean-Louis Trintignant had plenty of work in Italy (like The Conformist and Death Laid an Egg), but they usually dubbed the iconic French actor. Not in this case. The man Trintignant plays is not known as Silence (Silenzio) for no reason. His vocal chords were sliced as child to prevent him from identifying his parents’ killers. He will have a chance for some payback in this snowy Spaghetti Western, but justice is a just as frozen as the landscape in Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (trailer here), which opens its long belated U.S. theatrical run this Friday at Film Forum.

Silence deserves its reputation as one of the darkest Spaghetti Westerns ever. Corbucci’s Django was not exactly Pollyannaish, but the producers of Silence forced him to film a cheerful and tidy alternate ending for the American market. As it turned out, there was no American market, so it remained unused—and do not go in expecting it now. Instead, there will be snow and death.

Utah, 1899. The state is about to be buried under the great blizzard and they are already plagued by rogue bounty hunters. The new governor has pledged to pardon the outlaws forced into the hills by the usurious banker and justice of the peace Henry Pollicut, but until the legalities are formalized, the swarms of bounty hunters will continue to shoot first and drop off the body for payment later.

Loco is the worst of the worst. His latest victim was African American outlaw James Middleton, whose wife Pauline is of particular interest to Pollicut. Instead of submitting, she recruits the wandering gunman known as Silence to avenge her husband. Silence has a knack for goading his prey into drawing first, allowing the shootist to blast them to their eternal judgement with no fear of prosecution. However, Loco understands his M.O.—and will seek to exploit it.

Supposedly, Silence is set in Utah (filmed in the Dolomites), but it has a decidedly Euro vibe. Partly it is due to Ennio Morricone’s soaring score, which sounds closer to Michel Legrand than his iconic Dollars trilogy themes. The pessimism and fatalism are also very European (seriously, how hard can it be to solve the bounty killer problem—just stop paying bounties).

Regardless, Trintignant is surprisingly hardnosed and badassed as Silence. Vonetta McGee (best known for blaxploitation classics like Melinda, Hammer, and Blacula) is terrifically fierce as the widow Middleton, while Klaus Kinski is supernaturally slimy as Loco. However, the late Frank Wolff is the unexpected X-factor, portraying Sheriff Gideon Burnett as a reluctantly righteous, decidedly un-shticky secondary hero figure.

Weird crippling and hobbling themes run throughout both Great Silence and Django. Antagonists are not merely beaten or killed. They are emasculated and broken. That makes both films grist for Freudian analysis, but Silence is also a feast for the eyes, thanks to Silvano Ippoliti’s dramatically stark widescreen cinematography. The result is a Spaghetti Western that is both a compelling morality play and an idiosyncratic oddity. Highly recommended for western fans in the mood for something darker and different, The Great Silence opens this Friday (3/30) in New York, at Film Forum.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

BUFF ’18: MexMan

Germán Alonso has the talent to become the next Tim Burton and the psychological hang-ups to be the new Tommy Wiseau, but at least Wiseau finished his films. Alonso is in danger of getting an incomplete on the proof of concept short that could shake lose the financing for his debut feature. It is painfully frustrating for his friends and collaborators, but it makes good train-wreck-documentary viewing in Josh Polon’s MexMan (trailer here), which screens today as part of this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival.

If all went well during the pre-production of Alonso’s MexMan, Polon’s film would be a boring DVD extra instead of a stand-alone doc. Without question, Alonso has talent—maybe even too much. He wowed his USC film school classmates with his thesis shorts, so Tyler Soper and his brother Ben are eager to sign on as producers and script doctors. However, they are forced to write the screenplay themselves when Alonso gets sidetracked by an outside puppetry project.

It is even worse than it sounds. Alonso is crafting a creepy birthday present from an old high school crush, who has done her best to avoid him since graduation. The Soper brothers and effects coordinator Jonathan Sims are forced to do all the prep work on MexMan, the short, including securing the participation of high-profile actor Jason Beghe, who seems like a pretty cool cat from what we see. Yet, Alonso manages to pull it together sufficiently to swoop in and finally act like the director, which leads to even more tensions.

It is just one face-palm moment after another in MexMan, the documentary, but it is impossible to look away from it. It just kills you to see Alonso’s creativity and energy get undermined by his neuroses and delusions. Yet, he has nobody to blame but himself. Like Sydney Pollack in Tootsie (a film reference Alonso might appreciate), the Sopers keep begging him to get some therapy. The fact that they maintain the project’s viability even while he is M.I.A. is a tribute to their professionalism. Nor should any blame be leveled at producer-financer Moctesuma Esparza, even though he conspicuously declined to participate in the documentary.

The last film was this uncomfortably compelling to watch was the [possibly mockumentary] doc, Kung Fu Elliot (the mind reels at the thought of Alonso casting Nova Scotian “White Lightning” Scott in his next attempt at a Mexican American-themed action movie). However, in the case of MexMan, Alonso actually comes across like a good person, albeit one that is somewhat naïve, a bit prone to ADD, and ragingly neurotic.

If you enjoy pulling your hair out in sympathetic frustration than MexMan is like a week at Disney World, with no lines for the rides. It is a spectacle of eccentricity, but perhaps also a tragedy of unfulfilled potential. Highly recommended as a micro-budget Hearts of Darkness or Lost in La Mancha, MexMan screens this afternoon (3/25) as part of the 2018 Boston Underground Film Festival.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Terror—on AMC and as part of What the Fest

You might wonder if sailors would be too superstitious to serve on a ship named HMS Terror, but when it was commissioned as a bomb ship, the name probably sounded reassuring. During the War of 1812, the Terror helped lay siege to Fort McHenry, thereby contributing to the composition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” However, when it was retrofitted as a polar exploration vessel, it stopped instilling terror and started attracting it, according to the laws of karma. It will be the crew’s profound misfortune to be assigned to an impossible mission, under the command of a tragically hubristic commander in the new period horror limited series The Terror, produced by Ridley Scott, which premieres on AMC this Monday—and the first three episodes will also screen together during the upcoming What the Fest!?

Sir John is determined not to return until he finally discovers the long-sought Northwest Passage, but unfortunately, it does not exist. Frankly, Captain Francis Crozier probably suspects as much. He is second in command to Franklin (who leads the expedition from HMS Erebus), and directly skippers the HMS Terror. Franklin is convinced providence will eventually open up a back channel to China for them, but you could say hope does not cut much ice that far north.

Inevitably, the two vessels become icebound, which would be bad enough on its own. To make matters worse, as the crew prepares to endure winter in the distant arctic seas, a mysterious creature starts hunting them. The so-called “Tuunbaq” looks like a mutant polar bear, but it seems to have some sort of psychic connection to the Inuit woman they fittingly but somewhat ironically dub “Lady Silence.”

Based on Dan Simmons’ novel, The Terror combines the icy dread of Lovecraftian horror with the grim but fact-based realities of conditions during a Nineteenth Century polar expedition. There is a palpable sense of claustrophobia, isolation, and biting wind-chill throughout the series. The set and design craftsmanship is absolutely first-rate, but from time to time, the battery of directors (Tim Mielants, Edward Berger, and Sergio Mimica-Gezzan) allow too much slack in the line. Arguably, this ten-episode series could have easily run a leaner, meaner eight episodes without seriously ill-effects.

Nevertheless, it is impressive how skillfully co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh build this sinister ice-bound world and establish the intricate network of relationships among the expedition’s crew. It is also nice to see a major television production entrusted to veteran character actors like Jared Harris and Ciarán Hinds. Indeed, both are well within their elements, bringing complex, humanizing dimensions in the dour, whiskey-medicating Captain Crozier and the arrogant, tunnel-visioned Franklin, who both feel a strong emotional attachment to their crews, but which manifests in very different ways.

Harris and Hinds give the series instant credibility, but Tobias Menzies delivers what might be the best performance, involving the most extreme character development arc, as James Fitzjames, the expedition’s third in command. Initially, he comes across like a Mr. Darcy-like character, but he becomes considerably humbler as reality sets in and his sympathies swing from Franklin’s gung-ho position to the pragmatism of Crozier.

For obvious reasons, this is a very Y-chromosome cast, but Nive Nielsen is terrific as the mysterious Lady Silence. Adam Nagaitis chews the scenery like an old pro, making a suitably despicable villain as the mutinous Cornelius Hickey (typically pronounced “Higgy”). Likewise, Paul Ready is indelibly memorably as the tragically empathetic Harry Goodsir, the ship’s surgeon (ranking below the doctor in 1800’s terminology).

It definitely feels like a long voyage, but there are scenes in Terror that will really stick with viewers. The term “punished as a boy” will always ring with meaning and a third act death clearly evokes David’s painting of The Death of Marat in its grim elegance. This is an effectively moody slow-boiler, but when the creature attacks, the effects are quite good. The series should also keep viewers honest with respect to the over-hyped storms that recently dusted through the City. Sure, there was a little snow, but there was no need to worry about scurvy. Recommended for fans of atmospheric period horror, somewhat in the Hammer tradition, The Terror premieres this Monday (3/26) on AMC—and 30% of it screens during What the Fest!?, at the IFC Center.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Bag of Marbles: Jo Joffo’s Survivor Story

Joseph Joffo’s childhood holocaust memoir is published by a university press here in America, but in France it is nearly as esteemed as Anne Frank’s diary, albeit with a more upbeat conclusion. Jacques Doillon previously adapted it for the big screen in 1975, but his film never had an American theatrical release. The story of familial love conquering hateful ideology is still compelling, even if many viewers can anticipate the broad strokes of Christian Duguay’s A Bag of Marbles (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Joseph (Jo) and Maurice Joffo are the youngest sons of Roman and Anna, naturalized Russian Jews who were never particularly religious, but still carry memories of pogroms from the old country. Perhaps because their father is barber, he has wind of an impending round-up, so the couple arranges for their two youngest to head down to the comparative safety of hostile Vichy France. Hopefully, their parents and grown siblings will join them shortly thereafter.

In the months that follow, the Joffo brothers will practically hide in plain sight, enrolling in a Petain-affiliated youth camp. This pattern repeats itself, when the family of a pompous Petainist takes in young Jo, assuming he is a Catholic Algerian war orphan. Maurice will find more palatable company in the home of a resistance activist, but the brothers are never apart for long.

Indeed, that sibling relationship is precisely what distinguishes Bag of Marbles. It is clear during the first act Jo gets a disproportionate share of their parents’ affectionate, while Maurice must make do with the scraps of their attention, but he is never bitter or jealous towards his younger brother. Instead, he is resolutely loyal and protective.

Dorian Le Clech and Batyste Fleurial are both very good as Jo and Maurice. They really act like brothers, convincingly teasing each other one minute, then closing ranks the next. Coline Leclère also has some touching moments as Françoise Mancelier, the daughter of Jo’s collaborator host, who is partly his crush and partly his confidante. However, amongst the large but largely colorless adult ensemble, it is Christian Clavier who really lowers the boom as Dr. Rosen, a Jewish doctor collaborating for more time, who provides some unexpected assistance.

It is hard to believe Duguay is the same director who quarterbacked Scanners II: The New Order and Scanners III: The Takeover, but imdb wouldn’t lie to us. He helms Marble with appropriate sensitivity, but his eye for pastoral setting almost makes the film too pretty. Regardless, it is a well-intentioned, technically polished work, powered by the two intense co-stars. Recommended for admirers of the occasional French film that really examine the nation’s problematic WWII experience (recently including Sarah’s Key, Come What May, and La Rafle), A Bag of Marbles opens today (3/23) in New York, at the 57th Street Landmark.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

BUFF ’18: The Theta Girl

You have to wonder how many fraternities and sororities knew the Greek letter theta was an ancient symbol of death. Gayce Delko probably did when she named the designer hallucinogen she peddles Theta. She considers herself a punk rock Aldous Huxley, but she is in totally over her head. However, she is too handy with a sawed-off shotgun to be considered a victim. In fact, she will get herself some big-time payback in Christopher Bickels’ The Theta Girl (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of the 2018Boston Underground Film Festival.

Delko sort of manages the all-woman dirt-punk band The Truth Foundation and sells her product in the clubs they play. However, Theta is an unusual drug that induces a shared collective high amongst everyone using at a given time. It really does open doors—in this case whisking users off to a cosmic plane inhabited by a weird pixie deity, somewhat reminiscent of MST3K’s Mr. B. Natural.

Everything is all fine and good, with Delko splitting all her proceeds with her oversexed bisexual talent, until Brother Marcus, a psychotic apocalyptic fundamentalist is doused and ferried off to the domain of “The Entity.” Believing the all-powerful pixie will bring about the Rapture if he can build up the initial momentum, Brother M and his two reluctant sidekicks start knocking off everyone else associated with Theta in a spectacularly gory fashion, including most of Truth Foundation. That makes Delko mean-mad, so she teams up with Derek, her (late) supplier’s middle man, to avenge the band.

Then it starts getting kind of violent—and tripped out. Yeah, you could say it is all slightly grindhouse. Basically, it is all about drugs, sex, violence, and punk rock. However, it is still disappointing Bickels and screenwriter David Axe make the villains Christian fanatics. Seriously, would it have killed them to make the bad guys Third Imam Islamist fundamentalists? Oh right, it actually could have. Christians—they’re always the safe, turn-the-other-cheek villains.

Be that as it is, it must be noted how awesomely fierce Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio is as Delko. Granted, she is not Kim Ok-vin in The Villainess, but she is up there with Violetta Schurawlow in Cold Hell. She also develops some ambiguously indeterminate chemistry with both Darelle D. Dove and Quinn Deogracias as Derek and Yolanda, the Truth Foundation’s lead vocalist.

Surely, you have a good idea whether Theta Girl will float your boat by now. On some level, you have to marvel at how steadfastly it defies good taste. The energy is also cranked all the way up, as if the Theta-users popped an amphetamine chaser. Recommended for fans of punk rock neo-grindhouse, The Theta Girl screens tonight (3/22) during the Boston Underground Film Festival.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

I Kill Giants: Here There Be Giants, Maybe

It’s a matter of scale. There are plenty of giants in fairy tales and literature (Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, the BFG), but not so many in film—and arguably none that are iconic to any extent. That could finally change in the digital age. Barbara Thorson would like to introduce us to the giants she fights, but just how real they might be remains an open question throughout Anders Walters’ I Kill Giants (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Thorson does not have any friends, but she believes it is better that way. She has accepted a higher calling: protecting her coastal Long Island hamlet from giants. Naïve kids would just get in the way. Nevertheless, plucky but lonely Sophia, who has just moved from England is determined to be her friend. Not even Thorson’s crazy talk about giants will dissuade her. Thorson reluctantly starts teaching her tag-along methods of protection against the mythical hulks, while trying not to get too close, because all the signs point towards a brewing crisis.

IKG shares quite a bit in common with A Monster Calls, but it is less manipulative and melodramatic than Bayona’s tear-jerker. At times, Thorson is a hard kid to love, but she is forceful and proactive. Screenwriter Joe Kelly adapted his own graphic novel (created with artist J.M. Ken Niimura), so it rather makes sense how easily the film exploits our expectations of what a comic book superhero should be like.

Young Madison Wolfe and Sydney Wade are also quite compelling as Thorson and Sophia, respectively. Zoe Saldana looks like she is trying too hard to be cool and sensitive as the sympathetic school shrink, but Imogen Poots is quietly devastated as Karen Thorson, the beleagured older sister forced to take responsibility for her family.

Walters won the Oscar for the animated-live action short film hybrid Helium, which would make a fitting prologue to IKG, both thematically and stylistically. He creates some arresting visual compositions, but he never lets them overwhelm the on-screen drama. This is a sleeper film largely off the entertainment media’s radar, but years from now, it might be remembered as the comic book movie of 2018 that really had legs. Recommended for fans of realistic character-driven fantasy, I Kill Giants opens this Friday (3/23) in New York, at the Village East.

Exitante!: Friendly Beast

Instead of Stockholm Syndrome, the phenomenon of hostage identifying with their captors, you can call this Sao Paulo Syndrome. Basically, the hostages start killing everyone, including their hostage-takers and fellow hostages alike. Two small time criminals pick the absolutely worst restaurant to hold-up in Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s Friendly Beast (trailer here), which screens as part of Exitante! New Films from Brazil at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

As his henpecking wife is so helpful to point out over the phone, Inácio’s restaurant has not panned out as he hoped. That is why he is so reluctant to refuse a rich, entitled couple who arrive right before closing. The hostess Sara is willing to wait on them and the beefy guy finishing his rabbit, because she carries a torch for her boss. When Djair, the recently fired chef also turns up to have it out with Inácio, it gives the La Barca restaurant quorum for two masked hoodlums’ ill-fated armed invasion.

They torment the obnoxious woman for a while until Inácio turns the tables, shooting one fatally (although it will take him time to bleed out). However, the siege is not over. There are just new captors. Ostensibly to avoid scandal, the suddenly unhinged Inácio ties everyone up and starts menacing the surviving armed robber. Apparently, Sara is swept up in his madness, because she is right there with him. They obviously are not thinking at all (“now we just need a plan” Inácio says, in what could become a classic movie quote), especially considering one of their hostages is a public prosecutor and another is an ex-cop. Yet, Inácio and Sara are so far off their rockers, it is hard to respond to the situation with any confidence.

It is pretty impressive how insane Friendly Beast gets, so it is a bit of a disappointment when Amaral starts to play up the surreal and implies rather than shows the big climatic beatdown. Seriously, it is way too late to start worrying about our delicate sensibilities. Regardless, Luciana Paes is scary intense as Sara, ranking up there with Isabelle Adjani’s subway tunnel scene in Possession, but Paes’s ferociousness is more prolonged. This a bold performance that involves blood splattered nudity and total emotional meltdowns. Just wow.

She blows everyone off the screen, but Irandhir Santos still gets his spotlight time as the flamboyant Djair and Ernani Moraes scores by dialing it down, in a lowkey, world-weary kind of way as Amadeu, the ex-cop. Murilo Benício is a somewhat weak presence, but in a weird way that works for the bitterly put-upon Inácio—sort of a sinister Walter Mitty who finally snaps.

If you like mayhem, Amaral has plenty for you right here. This film will be too maniacal for some peoples’ taste, but it is quite a bracing auteurist depiction of human nature at its most animalistic. Highly recommended for cult movie fans, Friendly Beast screens this Saturday and Sunday (3/24 & 3/25) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

QWFF ’18: Open Land—Meeting John Abercrombie

Like many guitar players, John Abercrombie often led an organ trio, but his music was more contemplative than typically greasy soul jazz. Probably no other guitarist has had as long and successful relationship with Manfred Eicher’s ECM record label, but he still swung. In short, he was a true jazz original. The late, great guitar hero takes stock of his life and career in Arno Oehri’s documentary Open Land—Meeting John Abercrombie (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Queens World Film Festival.

Open Lands opens with Abercrombie’s “Sad Song” playing over atmospheric scenes of Midtown Manhattan by night. As far as the musician’s fans are concerned, the film could go on like this forever, but Oehri soon shifts, introducing us to Abercrombie’s comfortable home. This is actually quite significant in retrospect, because the musician will later discuss in length the experience of being almost completely wiped out when his house burned down a few short years prior.

Abercrombie leads Oehri on a trip down memory lane, revisiting the nearby neighborhood of his pleasant, lower middle-class youth. He discusses his early musical experiences, but the highlight of the film is his vivid recollection of recording “Timeless,” his “greatest hit.” In doing so, he expresses great love and respect for Eicher and ECM (which is indeed an extraordinarily well-run artist-focused company).

Along the way, we also hear a good deal from Abercrombie’s last regular drummer and organist, Adam Nussbaum and Gary Versace, who are thoughtful when it comes to music and warmly affectionate when it comes to Abercrombie. Of course, the best part is listening to them play. Hats off to Oehri and co-producer Oliver Primus, because they totally got it. Unlike so many documentaries about musicians that lack confidence in their subjects to hold viewer interest, they include a full trio performance, with unedited solos from all trio members. It sounds terrific.

Obviously, Open Land takes on unexpectedly bittersweet dimensions since Abercrombie passed away last year (a few months after releasing his final ECM recording, Up and Coming). Yet, there are never any uncomfortable moments in the documentary, because Abercrombie always looks like he is in good health and good spirits.

In fact, this film is quite a blessing, documenting Abercrombie at the height of his powers, for posterity. Throughout the film, Oehri shows a clear affinity for the ECM aesthetic, often approximating the distant vistas of their album cover art, while sampling Abercrombie’s considerable recorded archive. All in all, it is an excellent tribute to a great artist. Let’s put it this way—it is worth venturing all the way to Queens to see it. Very highly recommended, Open Land—Meeting John Abercrombie screens this Friday (3/23) at the 2018 QWFF.