Thursday, May 31, 2018

BFF ’18: Okaasan (Mom) (short)

Ever since the 1930s, Japanese cinema has had a comparative advantage producing domestic dramas. It helped that filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Yasujiro Shimizu were just so good at it. Fittingly, Japanese-American filmmaker-thesp Kana Hatakeyama follows in this tradition with her short film about Japanese homecomings. A daughter studying abroad learns it won’t be easy, but maybe she can come home again in Hatakeyama’s Okaasan (Mom), which screens during this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival (trailer here).

The absence of men in this family is conspicuous. It used to be Yuka, her mother, and her grandmother, but she left for college and her grandmother passed away. This will be the first cemetery visit and death anniversary ceremony for Yuka. Unfortunately, we soon start to suspect the grandmother probably served as a mediator between the two younger generations. However, there is still Hime-chan, the loyal and cinematic family dog.

Okaasan is a simple and subtle film, but its emotions are very real and deeply felt. We can see each woman carries her share of guilt and resentment for various reasons. It is not exactly a problem of miscommunication—they are really having trouble reconnecting. Yet, they still share so much history together as well as a foundation of love to build on.

This is a quietly beautiful film that shuns cheap sentimentality and completely earns its moving payoff through hard work. Both Kana and Kako Hatakeyama give sensitive but highly disciplined performances—and yes, they are quite believable as mother and daughter.

There is also something rather lovely about the way Hatakeyama depicts the restorative influence of traditional rituals and the gentle rhythms of life in the mother’s provincial town. Frankly, it looks like a good place to live. Yuka and her mother are also good people, they just have their issues, which makes them human. (Plus, Hime-chan is a charmer.) It is just refreshing to spend time with them in this environment. Very highly recommended, Okaasan (Mom) screens Saturday (6/2) and Sunday (6/10), as part of short film programs at this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival.

Open Roads ’18: Naples in Veils

This is the other Naples—the city we never see in films like Gomorrah. It is a center of great art and architecture, but death remains a constant presence there. Indeed, those cobblestone alleyways are both romantic and ominous in Ferzan Ozpetek’s Naples in Veils (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018.

After one scorching hot night with Andrea, Adriana is convincing he must be the one. Therefore, she is rather disappointed when he fails to show for their date the next day. The good news is he did not intentionally stand her up. The bad news is he happens to be on her slab at the medical examiner’s office. He wasn’t merely murdered. He was also blinded and disfigured. Looks like a Camorra warning killing to us, but nobody comes to that conclusion in this film.

Already reeling from horror and disappointment, Adriana starts seeing Andrea’s doppelganger throughout the city. That would be Luca, his twin brother, who was separately adopted out while both were still in infancy. Luca’s planned meeting with Andrea never happened, but he needs little encouragement to pick up with Adriana where his brother left off. Of course, they both agree to keep his kept-man presence in her flat secret, for fear his brother’s killers will then come looking for him. This definitely includes the police and even Antonio, the rumpled detective falling for her. Much to her own surprise, Adriana also starts feels a degree of attraction to him as well, further complicating matters.

The Naples of Gomorrah is nowhere to be found in the lush, sophisticated Veils, which should do wonders for the city’s tourist trade. The locales are exquisitely cinematic, while the drama itself is unapologetically steamy. It mostly qualifies as a psychological thriller in the tradition of De Palma’s Obsession, but there are also oblique hints of the supernatural. Yet, the really cool thing about the film is the extent to which its twists and turns are rooted in the city’s macabre lore.

Giovanna Mezzogiorno is absolutely terrific as the haunted (in whichever sense of the word) Adriana, proving you do not need to look like a CGI-enhanced supermodel to heat up the screen. Nobody will nod off during her scenes with Alessandro Borghi (as both brothers), but she is at her best playing with and off Adriana’s extended family and family friends, who constitute Naples old guard. Anna Buonaiuto is wonderfully tart-tongued and regal as Aunt Adele, while Beppe Barra is practically the soul of Naples incarnate as old ribald Pasquale.

Frankly, the merits of the ending are debatable, but it is a pleasure getting there. Watching Veils is like a sipping a series of cappuccinos on the city’s piazzas. Ozpetek masterfully commands the film’s seductive mood and even manages to pull off a surprise or two through misdirection. It may very well be his best film yet. Very highly recommended, Naples in Veils screens this Saturday (6/2) at the Walter Reade as part of this year’s Open Roads (and it can also be seen at the Seattle International Film Festival on 6/2, 6/5, and 6/6).

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Blumhouse’s Upgrade

Grey Trace has a six-million-dollar death wish. His wife was killed by street thugs, who left him alive, but paralyzed. However, a reclusive tech company founder can repair him with his innovative chip implant. In addition to reconnecting his brain to his spinal column, the so-called STEM AI program also offers helpful commentary directly into Trace’s head. It can even take over his body, suppressing pain and responding with near instantaneous reflexes. Of course, what is the point of all that technology if you can’t use it to get some payback? Trace turns into an augmented vigilante, pursuing slightly less augmented killers in Leigh Whannell’s Blumhouse-produced Upgrade (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is the near-future, when self-driving cars are finally a reality. Unlike his business-achiever wife Asha, Trace is an analog guy, who makes his living restoring vintage muscle cars for wealthy clients like the Musk-y Gatesy Eron. Unfortunately, on the way home from a delivery, Asha’s self-driving car malfunctions, crashing in the shunned inner-city neighborhood where Trace grew up. Soon thereafter, they are attacked by a gang of savage killers. She dies and he wishes he had too, but Eron offers him a new lease on life. Much to the patient’s surprise, it comes with the voice of STEM in his head.

Due to the NDAs Trace signed, he must maintain the public façade of his quadriplegia for the time being. However, this will provide a rather handy alibi when he and STEM start knocking off bad guys. Naturally, the supposedly well-meaning Det. Cortez starts poking around after a few deaths, even though she couldn’t catch any of Asha’s killers to save her soul. Yet, just when Trace starts to get comfortable with the idea of STEM, we start to see potential dangers in relinquishing control of your body. This is, after all, a movie from Blumhouse, the folks who brought you Get Out.

Upgrade has the virtue of being less full of itself than the over-hyped Get Out. For most of the film, it is a relatively straight forward vigilante movie, with cyberpunk trappings and enough bloody mayhem to keep the studio’s fans satisfied. Unfortunately, the third act twists are not as clever as Whannell thinks they are. Calling the AI STEM is also an awkward accidental red herring, because it will most likely have kneejerk viewers thinking of stem cells, but the implications of this technology are very definitely a mixed bag.

Nevertheless, Logan Marshall-Green suitably intense as Trace. He quickly develops a rapport with Melanie Vallejo’s charismatic Asha, which is a necessary but somewhat frustrating condition for films like this to work. Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel (Get Out, 12 Deadly Days, The Purge: Election Year) convincingly looks and acts like a cop, but Cortez’s priorities seem a little out of whack. Harrison Gilbertson is too young and dull to believably portray an eccentric genius like Eron, but Simon Maiden nicely follows in Douglas Rain’s footsteps with his smoothly sinister voice-overs for STEM.

There are some whizbang fight scenes while STEM is in control of Trace’s body, which might be enough for meathead viewers. There really isn’t much new here, except a contagious mistrust of self-driving cars and considerably more gore than you typically see in cyberpunk and dystopian science fiction. Frankly, the second act is solidly entertaining, whereas the opening is all about tragedy and the closing implodes under the weight of its groaner irony. Recommended as an eventual Netflix or Shudder streamer for its good parts, Upgrade opens this Friday (6/1) in New York theaters, including the AMC Kips Bay.

BFF ’18: Nemtsov Bridge (short)

One of the greatest weapons against tyranny is memory. The Soviet era illustrated this in no uncertain terms, when purged officials were literally excised from history books and newspaper records. Yet again, history repeats itself under Putin. The Commissar would very much like the general public to forget the assassination of his leading critic, Boris Nemtsov, but that will not happen under Grigory Saksonov’s watch. Ivan Makachev profiles the leader of a hardy band of volunteers who guard the memorials to Nemtsov that still adorn the site where he was gunned down in the short but significant documentary Nemtsov Bridge, which screens as part of this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival.

Saksonov was always committed to building real and meaningful democracy in Russia, but he took a hiatus from activism to protect his mother. She had been fired from her job to punish him for speaking out against the Putin regime. After her death, he recommitted himself to the cause of democratic reform, most notably by defending the makeshift memorials on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge from Putin’s thugs.

While on duty, Saksonov often engages with pedestrians, including younger Russians who seem depressingly inclined to forget and/or deny the past. Judging from the film, Russia’s Millennials might be even more disappointing, and disinclined to protect free speech, than our own. Yet, Saksonov is always respectful.

Indeed, Makachev’s subject is a truly inspiring figure to meet. The last time we see him, he is getting roughed up (to put it mildly) by the cops during a March 26, 2017 demonstration. The man is committed and the truth is on his side, but it is unclear whether it will ultimately set the country free.

Makachev’s commitment is also impressive, considering he revisits Saksonov several times over the course of nearly two years. Very highly recommended as cinematic journalism and a profile in courage, Nemtsov Bridge screens as part of short film programs this Sunday (6/3) and next Friday (6/8) during the 2018 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Fantaspoa ’18: Vampire Clay

Usually, water and vampires do not mix, but this case is different. Frankly, the term “vampire” might be a bit of a misnomer, but whatever you call it, this is some deadly dangerous clay. Once it gets a little bit of moisture, it will absorb and control its victims body-snatcher-style in Sôichi Umezawa’s gleefully gruesome Vampire Clay (trailer here), which screens as part of Fantaspoa 2018 in Brazil.

Due to earthquake damage, Yuri Aina is forced to relocate her prep school for prospective art students to a temporary shack. While digging in the back, she unearths a bag of dehydrated clay. Of course, she brings it inside, only to cast it aside. Alas, her star student, Kaori Hidaka findsit after returning from a Tokyo workshop. She adds water and then all Hell breaks loose.

As the mystery man skulking about outside eventually reveals, the killer mutant clay was produced by Minoru Mitazuka, the previous occupant of the ramshackle studio. The critically maligned sculptor infused a special batch of clay with his toxic waste-contaminated blood and all the bad vibes he could muster. Now his evil spirit pursues victims, pouring into cuts and other openings in the skin. It is not pretty to watch, but Umezawa’s practical effects are certainly inventive and fantastically gory.

Clay’s unapologetically simple and straight-forward narrative only serves as a clothesline on which Umezawa hangs each incident of slimy, pus-dripping body horror. Yet, the pure joy he obviously takes in his macabre craftmanship is contagious. Frankly, you have to laugh and shake your head in appreciation each time he tops his previous grotesquery.

As an added bonus, Umezawa throws in a thimble’s worth of character development, offering some pluckiness in Hidaka and a little bit of human vulnerability in Aina’s backstory, but not so much that it would detract from the ghoulish business at hand. His makeup and effects are wildly gross, but the design of Miktazuka’s sculptures is also wonderfully creepy.

Nobody is going to call Vampire Clay “post-horror” anytime soon. This is your basic blood-splattered red meat, but you have to give Umezawa credit having such a distinctive vision. This film has an unmistakable look and aesthetic, which is definitely something. Recommended for fans of body horror and mutation movies, Vampire Clay screens Friday evening (6/1) at this year’s Fantaspoa (and it is already available on VOD here in America).

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Open Roads ’18: Rainbow—A Private Affair

It seems cosmically unfair that Italian writer Beppe Fenoglio died of Bronchial cancer at the age of forty, as surviving WWII as an Italian partisan. However, he has continued to have a literary presence through the posthumous publication of a number of works, including this novella of love and war. Frankly, the two are not so easy to distinguish in Rainbow: A Private Affair (trailer here), the final film collaboration from the Taviani Brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018.

Before he was a partisan, Milton was a student of English literature—hence his nickname. He also carried a torch for the free-spirited Fulvia, whom he often visited at her family’s summer estate, along with their mutual friend Giorgio. It was sort of a Jules & Jim style triangle. However, the revelation Fulvia might have favored Giorgio, perhaps even in carnal terms, has Milton profoundly distracted from the war. Fortunately, his comrades are also Italian, so they can understand his inconvenient shift in priorities.

Determined to learn the truth, Milton obtains leave to visit Giorgio, who is also a partisan, attached to a different brigade operating around the Langhe region. However, as soon as he arrives, Milton learns his friend (or rival) has been arrested by the Blackshirts. This propels Milton’s desperate scramble to capture a “roach” he can exchange for Giorgio, but his motives are not exactly clear. He wants to hear the truth from Giorgio directly, yet his loyalty towards his friend also seems genuine, at least to some extent.

Vittorio Taviani passed away a little over one month ago, but he and his brother still show a fine command of their craft with their final outing as a filmmaking tandem. In fact, it is a fitting capstone for their work, given its aching romanticism. It is also rather personal, even limited in scope, as the title would suggest. Yet, despite all Milton’s heartsick gloominess and death-seeking behavior, it is ultimately a life-affirming film.

Luca Marinelli broods for all he is worth as Milton, but ironically, his most memorable and moving scenes are played with neither Fulvia or Giorgio. In fact, they both seem too shallow to be worth his anxiety, as portrayed by Valentina Bellè and Lorenzo (blonder than he was in Marco Polo) Richelmy. However, there several small but brilliant supporting turns, such as Antonella Attili as the austere caretaker of Fulvia’s family villa and Andrea Di Maria as a roach who fancies himself a jazz drummer.

Arguably, Marinelli’s real co-star is Judy Garland, whose rendition of “Over the Rainbow” Fulvia plays incessantly. Giuliano Taviani (Vittorio’s son) and Carmelo Travia nicely incorporate the tune into their lush, somewhat jazz-influenced soundtrack, but it would have been much cooler if they’d used a Billie Holiday song. Regardless, cinematographer Simon Zampagni fully captures the ominous beauty of the fog-shrouded Langhe foothills. Throughout it all, the Tavianis deftly maintain the mysterious, mystical atmosphere, without indulging in excessive pretentions or padding. It is a lovely little film that serves as an apt coda on their storied careers together. Highly recommended, Rainbow: A Private Affair screens Friday (6/1) and the following Monday (6/4) as part of this year’s Open Roads.

The Last Witness: The Katyn Cover-Up

You would have thought the British government would have learned their lesson on appeasement, but apparently not. It has only been a few short years since the end of WWII, but the new Labour government is determined to avoid embarrassing the Soviets. The last thing they want to do is open a formal inquiry into the 1940 mass murder of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war, police officers, community leaders, and clergy in the Katyn Forest. However, a disillusioned journalist will try to force their hand when he discovers a fugitive dissident who saw enough to set the historical record straight in Piotr Szkopiak’s The Last Witness (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Stephen Underwood did not serve in the war, due to a childhood injury that left him blind in one eye. His brother John rose up through the ranks, becoming a captain, but he still feels guilty, because he caused the accident. Captain Underwood is assigned to a Polish displaced person’s camp. The mood there is quite bad, since the British government no longer recognizes the Polish government in exile. Despite the respect accorded to Col. Janusz Pietrowski of the Polish Home Army, the British government would much prefer to see the Polish asylum seekers return home, where they would surely be imprisoned or worse.

This is especially true of Mason Mitchell, a young, fast-tracked British Home Office official. Underwood does not think very much of him. The reporter happens to be engaged in an affair with his wife, Jeanette, who is also serving at the Polish camp. Her husband does not much care about such things, but he would never divorce her, for social and professional reasons. One day, Underwood spies a Russian trying to pass for a Polish refugee. Intrigued, he discovers that man was a farmer outside of Smolensk, who witnessed uniformed Polish soldiers executed by NKVD and Russian military personnel, rather than the Germans, as the Soviets claimed until 2010. Unfortunately, his interest also draws the attention of Soviet agents.

Szkopiak’s film strictly focuses on the cover-up rather than the war crime, unlike Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, which encompasses both. However, it is important to keep in mind both filmmakers had direct connections to the massacre. Wajda’s father was murdered by the Soviets, whereas for Szkopiak, it was his grandfather. Arguably, Katyn was Wajda’s final masterwork, whereas Last Witness is essentially a dark but largely conventional thriller.

Yet, Szkopiak’s screenplay, co-written with Paul Szambowski, is bursting at the seams with fascinating political nuggets that are true to the historical record. The so-called “O’Malley Report” really exists and the British government most definitely did its best to suppress it. Even more provocative are the hints that Mr. Mitchell is perhaps a contemporary of the Cambridge Five and their treasonous ilk. Frankly, there are aspects of this film that will be too smart for some viewers and too honest for others.

Alex Pettyfer’s performance as the civilian Underwood is grimly reserved and tightly disciplined. It is impressive in its way, but it probably would have better served the film in a supporting role rather than the primary lead. Henry Lloyd-Hughes makes Mitchell unambiguously slimy, while keeping viewers guessing on several other points. Will Thorp gives the film steely gravitas as Col. Pietrowski (perhaps his best work to date), while Robert Wieckiewicz is terrific as the man who knew too much (a more complicated role than one might assume).

Periodically, we give lip service to the truth as a higher ideal when it helps grind our political axes, but too often, the commitment is disingenuous and short-lived. Katyn is a case in point. Putin is doing his best to walk back the Russian government’s official declaration of guilt, to the complete disinterest of our factionalized media. This is therefore a timely and much needed film in many ways, but it also functions as a gripping (and galling) historical thriller. Highly recommended, The Last Witness launches today (5/29) on VOD platforms, including iTunes, and releases next Tuesday (6/5) on DVD.

It Came from the Desert: B-Movie with Ants

It is a case of double retro nostalgia. At this point, the 1989 Commodore Amiga video game inspired by Them! and any number of Roger Corman sci-fi monster quickies seems like an unusual candidate for a feature adaptation, but at least it had a story. As it happens, most of the characters and plot points did not survive the property’s revival, but the ants are still in here. They will be big and mean in Marko Mäkilaakso’s It Came from the Desert (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Lukas Deakins has just notched another dirt bike victory, thanks in part to his brainy younger brother Brian’s legal modifications. What better way to celebrate than a sloppy kegger out in the middle of the desert? To thank his bro, he will also invite along Brian’s longtime crush, Lisa, but it will take a crisis to get him to make a move.

Fortunately, a government contractor has fused alien DNA with common ants, because obviously that is what the scientific method dictates. Of course, they are adaptive little buggers, who managed to overrun the underground facility. The smarty pants scientists thought they were being clever by genetically engineering the need for an outside catalyst for their reproduction. That would be alcohol. Well, so much for that.

ICFTD is an amiable film with two likable central characters, but it clearly assumes that plus its nostalgic premise is more than enough to carry it over the finish line. Unfortunately, it lacks the real inspiration of a film like Graham Kelly Greene’s criminally under-distributed Attack of the Bat Monsters. Instead, we are just watching the cast, with their loopy grins, gamely going through the motions.

Vanessa Grasse portrays Lisa as a relatively forceful and proactive character, even though she will eventually require some rescuing. Harry Lister Smith is unflaggingly earnest as Brian, but Alex Mills approaches accidental self-parody as the nauseatingly cocky Lukas. However, the film deserves credit for the ant effects. The CGI is light-years more convincing than anything that would have been possible in the 1950s, 1960s, or even 1980s, but there is still an eccentricity to the attacking ants that is in keeping with the campy spirit of the films that inspired it.

Frankly, it is rather surprising how straight Mäkilaakso and his cast play it, which is a point in their favor. Unfortunately, Mäkilaakso and his co-screenwriters Trent Haaga and Henry Woon, Jr. never figure out where to take it. For genre fans, the results are nostalgic, but not particularly memorable. For seriously sentimental fans of the game (clips of which appear during the closing credits), It Came from the Desert releases today (5/29) on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Rodin: The Sculptor of Balzac and the Lover of Claudel

Here in New York, both the Met and the MoMA have casts of Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. It must be among the few common pieces held in both collections, but it makes sense both museums would want it. It is commonly referred to as the first truly modern sculpture, but the contemporary reaction was far less laudatory. The evolution of the iconic work becomes the central narrative line of Jacques Doillon’s Rodin (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1880, Rodin is already recognized in many quarters as a master, but not by French society universally. Life is not bad. He has received a game-changing commission in The Gates of Hell and his relationship with his protégé-lover Camille Claudel has not turned completely toxic yet. Unfortunately, that will change in a few short years. Rodin will also receive the Balzac commission that will inspire and frustrate him for years to come.

Claudel has been the subject of two previous films, Bruno Nuytten’s 1986 Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel,1915, starring Juliette Binoche, so it is time Rodin got some equal time. Although Vincent Lindon hardly portrays him as a saint, Doillon’s screenplay clearly suggests Claudel was severely emotionally disturbed and Rodin went to considerable lengths to support her. Meanwhile, the philistines kept hounding him for a conventionally idolized statue of Balzac.

Lindon is quite forceful as Rodin, nicely conveying both his rough-hewn working-class roots and his artistic sensibilities (for lack of a better term). Initially, he looks rather craggy for a forty-year-old, but people aged quicker in the 19th Century. He also develops some rather complicated but surprisingly warm chemistry with Séverine Caneele as his rustic common law wife, Rose Beuret. Contemporary critics might find her simple devotion troubling, but it is historically accurate (and again, the 19th Century was an entirely different era, especially for a middle-aged woman with limited resources). Likewise, Claudel gets no PR favors from Doillon’s treatment. Izïa Higelin is an underwhelming screen presence opposite Lindon—and inevitable comparisons to Adjani and Binoche will not do her any favors either.

There are some beautiful moments in Rodin, such as his lunch with his Modernist colleagues, in which he bucks up the spirits of a dejected Cézanne, briefly but memorably played by Arthur Nauzyciel. However, there is no getting around the stately slowness of Doillon’s pacing. If you want to soak up the details of Rodin’s meticulously recreated studio than this film will be your heart’s desire, but if you want brisk scandal, go back to Nuytten. (Also, at the risk of sounding like a goody-two-shoes, there is a ridiculously gratuitous sex scene, but perhaps it helps maintain Doillon’s provocative reputation.)

Regardless, Doillon’s Rodin will give most viewers a greater appreciation of the vision and sweat equity that went into the artist’s remarkable body of work, which cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne often frames in suitably dramatic ways. Recommended for serious admirers of the artist and lead actor, Rodin opens this Friday (6/1) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Open Roads ’18: The Place

It is sort of like an Italian Cheers, but nobody knows the name of the quiet, Mephistophelean man who always sits in the corner table. If you are there to see him, you must be desperate, but the deals he offers never bring peace of mind. If this sounds familiar, then perhaps you remember
Christopher Kubasik’s two-season FX television show, The Booth at the End, which Paolo Genovese been remade as an Italian one-shot feature. Fans of the source show will find it translated surprisingly smoothly when Genovese’s The Place (trailer here) screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018.

He sits in “The Place” (this time around, it really is more of a café than a diner), where he drinks a lot of coffee, a little bit of whiskey, and lets the despairing sign away their souls. All day long, people ask for miracles, but he gives them Faustian bargains. One old woman wants to cure her husband’s Alzheimer’s. To do that, she must place a bomb somewhere where it is sure to kill a certain number of people. Hers is probably the most extreme case, but not by much. To save his son, one man must kill another innocent child. Rather nefariously, “The Man” sends another favor-seeker on a mission to protect the girl he is stalking.

The thing of it is, The Man at the corner table is by far the most interesting character in the film (and several others are quite compelling). We never get any of his backstory or any real explanation, but we quickly get the impression he takes no pleasure from any of this mayhem. He is a cosmic middle man—perhaps even a reluctant one, whose hands are tied by the mysterious notebook he frequently consults. Angela, who works the swing and graveyard shifts can’t figure him out, but he rather uncharacteristically seems to enjoy her efforts to crack his code.

Frankly, it is pretty darned impressive how successfully Genovese boils down the first season of Booth into a tight, taut feature. It will hold viewers rapt by its spell for one hour and forty-five minutes, yet you will probably have no desire to go catch-up with the two seasons of Booth (even though it stars the ever reliable Xander Berkeley), because you will feel like you have seen it in its essence.

Genovese puts a lot on the cast’s shoulders, because he retains the original show’s minimalist technique of unfolding all of the narrative developments in conversations with the Man, but they bear it smashingly, particularly Valerio Mastandrea, who is wonderfully subtle as the Man himself. Throughout the entire film, he has the audience guessing whether he is the monster many favor-seekers think him to be, or the lonely, world-weary man Angela assumes he is. He is also perfectly counter-balanced by Sabrina Ferilli as the warm and down-to-earth Angela. You can see why anyone would guzzle java at her late-night café. The Place is also frequented by at least half a dozen other top Italian thesps, such as Alba Rohwacher (I Am Love, Hungry Hearts) and Marco Giallini, who are all working at the top of their respective games.

The Place is not exactly a thriller per se, but it turns a couple of twists that are real game-changers. As a remake of a somewhat known American property, The Place will probably be a tough sell for theatrical distribution, which is a shame, because it is a prime example of super-slick, ultra-grabby filmmaking. Very highly recommended, The Place screens twice this Thursday (5/31) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Open Roads.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

SIFF ’18: Mutafukaz

The city is clearly a dystopian Los Angeles, as envisioned in Japanese-style anime animation, by a team of French and Japanese filmmakers. In the not too distant future, LA (or least the neighborhood provocatively known as “Dark Meat City (DMC)” is plagued by gang violence and government corruption, so very little has changed. There also might be an alien conspiracy secretly calling the shots behind the curtain. Presumably, that part is fiction. The plot points might be old hat, but the visuals are truly eye-popping throughout Shojiro Nishimi & Guillaume Renard’s French-language Mutafukaz (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival.

There are not a lot of jobs in DMC, but Angelino still manages to get fired regularly. He is the one with the round, shiny 8-ball-like head. Orphaned at a young age, as a result of the tragic events seen during the prologue and subsequent flashbacks, Angelino essentially grew up fending for himself. However, he now has a real friend in his roommate Vinz, a lovable loser with a flaming skull for a head. Angelino has also bonded with the swarms of cockroaches living in their decrepit building, despite Vinz’s misgivings. Willy, the socially inept kitten or dormouse or whatever, is not exactly their close buddy, but they tolerate his compulsively talking presence.

One day, Angelino notices horns and assorted demonic appendages growing out of the shadows of some of DMC’s denizens—mostly those in positions of authority. Of course, when they realize he can “see,” like Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live, the conspiracy starts hunting Angelino and his friends. Much to his surprise, the stress brings out the ominous powers lying dormant within Angelino.

That is all pretty standard X-Files stuff, but there are a few things that really distinguish Mutafukaz. First of all, the animation, particularly the wonderfully baroque and eccentric looking world of DMC. Nishimi served as character designer and animation director on Tekkonkinkreet, so the two films’ pronounced stylistic kinship certainly makes sense. Renard’s screenplay also has a defiantly anarchic sense of humor, which often pokes self-referential fun at itself. Yet, perhaps the most appealing aspect of the film is the simple and honest friendship shared by Angelino and Vinz. There was no great drama that brought them together, but when trouble comes their way, they stick together.

Mutafukaz started as a short film, evolved into a graphic novel series, before coming full circle as a feature, so there is mostly likely plenty of ready mythology to accommodate future films. It looks great, but it would be even better without all the familiar Men in Black business, simply focusing on Angelino, Vinz, and Willy as they try to survive the lunatic world around them. Recommended for its heart and style (but not its narrative), Mutafukaz screens Tuesday (5/29) and Thursday (5/31), as part of this year’s SIFF.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: Vengeance

Who is more dangerous to cross, a Guoju Opera star or a Kabuki actor? Judging from the cinematic evidence, neither is a high percentage play. Kon Ichikawa’s Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is like steak tartar, cold, elegant, and rich, whereas Chang Cheh’s early Republican revenge drama is like a seared but still bloody T-bone, yet they are both nourishing and satisfying. In this case, David Chiang is rather peeved over the gruesome murder of his older brother in Chang’s Vengeance, which screens as part of the Quad’s current retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

Frustrated by his wife’s ill-concealed dalliance with local martial arts power broker Feng Kaishan, Guan Yulou crashes his school, humiliating the master in front of his students. Feng maybe had it coming, but he still rounds up fifty or sixty students and gangsters to ambush Guan in his favorite tea-house. They cut him to shreds, but Guan still manages to take out two dozen or so attackers, before getting his eyes gauged out, which gets us about fifteen minutes into the film.

Soon thereafter, Guan Xiaolu shows up, looking to avenge his brother, because that’s the name of the film. First, he pays a call on his sister-in-law Hua Zhengfen to express his slight disappointment in her behavior. Then he pops by to visit her estranged sister, Hua Zhengfang, an old flame, who is definitely down with Team Guan. With the help of her information and candlelit suppers, the younger Guan will track down the mobbed-up Feng and his co-conspirators in the local government.

This film means business, just like Guan Xiaolu. There is a heck of a lot of that infamous bright crimson Shaw Brothers stage-blood getting splashed around here. It is definitely a martial arts movie, but the action falls into two extremes: gritty back-alley knife fighting and the refined acrobatic stage performances of Guan Yulou—the ratio is about one hundred to one, in favor of the former. However, Chang rather stylishly intersperses flashbacks to Yulou’s performances amid the carnage of Xiaolu’s throw-downs. In fact, it is sufficiently artistic to make Vengeance a worthy double-feature pairing with Ichikawa’s Kabuki Actor.

Frankly, Vengeance is right up there with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires as one of Chiang’s coolest movies. He is terrific as the driven, no-screwing-around Guan Xiaolu. Ku Feng chews the scenery with sinister élan while getting his butt kicked sideways as the lecherous Feng. Ti Lung also shows some tremendous physicality as the short-lived Guan brother, whereas Alice Au Yin-ching makes quite the deliciously catty femme fatale as Zhengfen.

There is no bait-and-switch or tiresome attempts at subtlety here. It is all payback, all the time, yet it happens to be one of the more visually stylish films of the Chang retrospective. What more can you ask for? Very highly recommended, Vengeance screens tomorrow (5/26) and Monday (5/28), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: The Water Margin

Like Journey to the West, it is not practical to adapt all of Shi Nai’an’s classic 14th Century novel in one shot. Filmmakers usually just cherry-pick certain chapters. Chang Cheh and co-screenwriter Ni Kuang chose chapters 64-68, out of an even 100. It was a logical decision, because there is a big Kung Fu battle at the end of Cheh’s Shaw Brothers production, The Water Margin which screens as part of the Quad’s current retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

At this point, most of the colorful heroes of Liangshan Marsh have already assembled, Avengers-style. The only ones left to join are Lu Junyi and his ward-protégé, Yan Qing—sort of like Batman and Robin, to mix the superhero metaphor. Lu is a minor lord with unimpeachable integrity and killer Kung Fu skills, but he wants no truck with outlaws. Unfortunately, Lu still winds up arrested by the local military governor, for allowing Liangshan emissaries free passage after they unsuccessfully try to recruit him. Instead, the militia does the Liangshans’ recruiting for them.

A good portion of Water Margin is devoted to Yan Qing efforts to save his master, teaming up with various Liangshan heroes. Eventually, they will face the forces of Shi Wengong, a warlord loyal to the oppressive government. It will be a real grudge match, because Shi set off the entire narrative arc, by killing the officially recognized leader of the Liangshan heroes. Of course, Lu will face off against him, but four of Shi’s best students will also square-off solo against four top heroes, including Lady “Green Snake” Hu.

Even at its time and even more so in retrospect, Water Margin just overflows with well-known HK actors (and a few from Japan), like a Shaw Brothers Expendables. It is really impossible to keep everyone straight after only one viewing, even though Chang’s super-scripts helpfully identify each character and actor playing him during their initial entrance, even well into the third act.

It hardly matters, because Water Margin is such high-spirited fun. The film starts with a nearly ten-minute drunken bacchanal back at Liangshan Marsh, which really sets the tone for the rest of the film. The groovy Hammond organ-sounding soundtrack also keeps the film bopping along at a healthy trot.

As Yan Qing, David Chiang’s laidback presence and on-screen athleticism wear well over the course of film and nicely compliment the righteous Lu. Tetsuro Tamba (best known as Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice) is terrifically steely and commanding as the strictly-business Lu. Half a dozen Shaw regulars make the most of their moments as heroes, but Lily Ho Lili definitely stands out as Lady Hu, for obvious reasons (especially since this is a Chang film).

Water Margin is definitely a Shaw Brothers movie. It isn’t afraid of getting its hands during in a throw-down. Yet, it also can be considered a forerunner to big budget, epic-scale martial arts spectacles, like Crouching Tiger and Red Cliff. It is all kinds of rousing (even though the narrative is largely structured around a series of Liangshan foul-ups). Highly recommended for martial arts fans, Water Margin screens this Saturday night (5/26), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How Long Will I Love U: Chinese Time Travel Makes a Comeback

From 1999 to 2018, Shanghai real estate values skyrocketed. That is a reality that will jump out at an aspiring property developer like Lu Ming when he gets a chance to see the future with his own eyes. However, fate will not allow him to profit from his advance knowledge. He also happens to be rather distracted by his fellow time traveler, Gu Xiaojiao. They live in the same apartment during different time periods, but suddenly they become reluctant roommates in director-screenwriter Su Lun’s How Long Will I Love U (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gu used to live a life of privilege, but it all collapsed after the untimely death of her father. Lu has a vision of an exclusive building of loft condos, but his only potential investor is conspicuously dodgy. Both are missing something in their lives when destiny throws them together. One fateful morning, they wake up to find their apartments have been merged together. When they leave the flat, they enter either 1999 or 2018, depending on which one of them opened the front door. The entire apartment is sort of like the mail box in Il Mare (The Lake House).

At first, there is a whole lot of bickering between the two roomies, but slowly, a sort of Tracy-and-Hepburn romantic attraction starts to percolate between them. However, viewers also start to pick up hints that there might be some connections between the time travelers even they are not aware of. Then they get a load of Lu’s future (or present) self.

How Long starts out as a mildly goofy rom-com, but it evolves into an endearingly bittersweet time travel fantasy. Although not as tragic as Il Mare (not even close), it gets pretty serious, wading into some heavy themes of redemption, free will, and identity, in a reasonably credible fashion.

Tong Liya truly lights up the screen, making us feel for the insecure Gu, even when she is at her poutiest and most immature moments. Playing Lu at both ages, Lei Jiayin is awkward and reserved to a fault, which rather better suits his more calculating older self. Still, when he allows the façade to finally crack in the third act, it constitutes a real pay-off.

Su Lun keeps the time travel fantastical enough, we can justify overlooking the logical knit-pickings. She also has enough ironic time-line-continuum stuff going on to keep science fiction fans invested. There is some fresh stuff here, but she never over-reaches her grasp. For what it’s worth, it is also somewhat encouraging to hope and assume the Communist government has slightly loosened its absurd ban on time travel narratives, judging from this film and last year’s Duckweed. Recommended for fans of Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time and the heart-tugging anime film Your Name, How Long Will I Love U opens this Friday (5/25) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Chang Cheh at the Quad: Heroes Two

Shaolin brotherhood means never having to say sorry for accidentally serving up a comrade to the Manchurian oppressors (but it would still be a nice gesture). At first, Fang Sai-yuk and Hung Si-kuan will fight each other, but they are destined to fight shoulder-to-shoulder in Heroes Two, Chang Cheh’s Shaw Brothers-produced-red-meat-martial-arts-fastball-over-the-plate, which screens as part of the Quad’s upcoming retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

Dastardly Gen. Che Kang has razed the Shaolin temple and massacred the Ming loyalists inside, but Hung managed to slip out to fight another day. Unfortunately, Che’s thugs convince the Shaolin trained Fang his brother is actually a violent criminal, using all the battered henchmen he leaves in his wake as evidence. Alas, Fang (a popular wuxia hero since the Qing era) has more enthusiasm than intuition, so he realizes his mistake at the precise moment it is too late.

Wracked with guilt, Fang connects with the last of the local Shaolin remnant. Learning Che is holding Hung in his dungeon (which would have been our first guess anyway), Fang tries a frontal assault, but barely survives the power of the general’s iron-mojo-fist. Instead, he falls back on plan B: tunneling like Bronson in The Great Escape.

Apparently, Chang needed the help of science fiction novelist Ni Kuang to wrestle this super complex screenplay into submission. Okay, so it is a pretty straight forward string of fight sequences, but at least they sketch out a moderately interesting assortment of supporting characters. Bruce Tong Yim-chaan gives the film archetypal depth as Nien Shui-ching, the son out to avenge his father murdered at the temple. Tong convincingly portrays him as a disciple with above-average but not super-human Kung Fu chops. Fong Sam also gives the film some verve as 3rd Sister, the widowed restaurant proprietress affiliated with Shaolin and the Ming underground.

Of course, this film is all about fighting, but happily Fu Sheng (in his breakout role) and Chen Kuan-tai were definitely up to the physical demands. Throughout the film, they are constantly fighting, running, or getting the snot kicked out of them. They have the skills and the right presence for each hero (youthful exuberance or enlightened brooding, respectively).

In many ways, Heroes Two matches the stereotypical image of Kung Fu movies many non-fans have in their heads, but that is also the source of its unfussy, eager-to-entertain charm. You want tiger claw and stork technique, well, Chang and action directors Tony Kai and Liu Chia-liang have you covered. Recommended as old school escapist fun, Heroes Two screens this Friday (5/25) and the following Tuesday (5/29), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The Mystery Still Beguiles

It is considered one of the most quintessentially Australian novels of all time. The 1975 film adaptation not only helped popularize the Australian New Wave internationally, it also launched the careers of Oscar-nominated director Peter Weir, John Jaratt (star of the notorious Wolf Creek films), and Gheorghe Zamfir, “Master of the Pan flute” (heard on the soundtrack). It takes a lot of guts to have another go at such an iconic property, but somehow screenwriters Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison, along with Larysa Kondracki (director of three episodes and general “creative consultant”) pull it off with dashed impressive verve. The completely binge-worthy six-episode limited-series adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock (trailer here) defies skepticism when it launches this Friday on Amazon Prime.

On Valentine’s Day 1900, several students of Appleyard College and one of their teachers mysteriously vanished while on the school’s annual picnic at the Hanging Rock formation in central Victoria. Their disappearance caused a scandal in the sleepy village and sparked a media firestorm throughout the rough-and-tumble nation. Despite days of searching, no sign was found of any of the missing picnickers. It led many of their classmates (as well as readers and viewers) to question the legitimacy of concepts like truth and reality. Then one of the girls is miraculously found alive on the rock’s summit, but this only leads to more questions and greater uncertainty.

Weir’s 1975 Hanging Rock is considered one of the haziest, dreamiest, most disorienting films ever. The 2018 television adaptation has those qualities too, especially the earlier episodes helmed by Kondracki, but it also embraces the gothic implications of the story. Oftentimes, this Hanging Rock feels like it might have been ghost-written by Daphne du Maurier or even Willkie Collins, which is not a bad thing. In fact, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw plays a small but aptly significant role as reading material for two of the missing during the prior Christmas break.

Natalie Dormer fully embraces the gothic femme fatale tradition as a decidedly younger Mrs. Appleyard than the Weir film has accustomed us to. Yet, she is terrific casting withering stares and dropping barbed comments. Watching her lord over Appleyard College is deliciously entertaining in the manner of vintage Hammer Films. Unfortunately, Kondracki and company somewhat overdo a good thing by incorporating far too many flashbacks from her lurid past in London.

In contrast, the voluminous flashbacks featuring the missing students (and their wayward teacher Miss McCraw) quite effectively and intriguingly deepen the story and strengthen the character development. They also explain how what was quite haunting as a one hundred-minute film can hold up and maintain its atmosphere of mystery over six fifty-some-minute episodes.

Hanging Rock 2018 could very well catapult the twentysomething central trio of Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving (niece of Hugo), and Madeleine Madden to international stardom. In a way, they are archetypes who together make a whole. Sullivan plays Miranda Reid, the Katharine Hepburn-esque free-spirit, who chafes under traditional gender roles. Weaving is Irma Leopold, a pampered but emotionally neglected heiress, while Madden is Marion Quade, the shy, cerebral daughter of a scandalous mixed-race union—in a perhaps the most dramatic, but fruitful innovation on Weir’s long-presumed definitive film.

This time around, the underclassman Sara Waybourne is played by the conspicuously younger (and talented) Inez Currõ, which makes the dynamics of her hero-worshipping relationship with Reid much more logical and believable. Among the grown-ups, Lola Bessis nicely counterbalances Miss Appleyard’s evil eye as French instructor Mlle. de Poitiers, who emerges as Hanging Rock’s gothic heroine.

All six episodes were lensed by cinematographer Gary Phillips, giving the series a consistent, evocative look. The rock itself is quite an eerily beautiful locale. Indeed, throughout the series, viewers can palpably feel how the secluded environment and oppressive Australian heat could drive anyone a little mad, especially when combined with raging teenage hormones. No matter how highly you regard the 1975 classic, the 2018 Hanging Rock will still pull you in and propel you to binge the entire series. Very enthusiastically recommended, the new Picnic at Hanging Rock drops this Friday (5/25) on Amazon Prime.

Fantaspoa ’18: The Man with the Magic Box

The level of technology is different, but 1952 Stalinist Poland and its dystopian future circa 2030 do not look that much different from each other. There is rationing in both time periods: water in the future and everything else in the past. Yet, there is a good reason Adam is so keenly interested in the somewhat Orwellian future. Her name is Goria. Much to her own surprise, they will be a secret item in Bodo Kox’s The Man with the Magic Box (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Fantaspoa in Brazil.

Without explanation, Adam finds himself in the future. The opening prologue suggests it will not go well, but there seem to be several helpful people around, who are willing to help him get acclimated. They even arrange a janitorial job for him at an imposing office tower. It is there that he meets Goria. Obviously, she is important, because she has her own office, not that there are any privacy benefits to it. The future is very Bloomberg Media, with open work-stations, glass walls, and translucent computer monitors.

They immediately catch each other’s eye, but she blows him off hard. Yet, he keeps plugging away, which she loves. Soon, a spontaneous hook-up during a terrorist attack morphs into something potentially more serious and long-term. That would suit Adam, but his footing in this world is tenuous as best. He seems to have a connection to the past, which he sees in visions and hears through phantom broadcasts he picks up with a vintage console radio (one of those wirelesses, with wires). He also starts to attract the unwanted attention of the secret police.

Arguably, Magic Box is like a cross between Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Somewhere in Time. It does not offer a very elaborate vision of the future, but it feels more real and fully realized than the recent remake of Fahrenheit 451. True, the narrative stepping stones do not always fit together with perfect logic, but the central relationship is consistently intriguing and redemptive. Honestly, the star-crossed but deeply passionate romance that develops between the caustic Goria and the socially awkward Adam would still hold viewer interest in a contemporary non-genre movie.

Olga Boladz is simply amazing as Goria. She is not exactly a plastic-looking model-type, but wow, can she make an entrance. Even in subtitles, her acid-tongued line deliveries are wickedly droll. Piotr Polak’s Adam is her polar opposite, but it is the sort of deceptively quiet, deeply sincere performance that sneaks up on viewers. Sebastian Stanki Stankiewicz also pulls off some surprises as Adam’s broom-pushing colleague Bernard, who initially just seems like weird comic relief, but holds some significant secrets.

Like a magpie, Kox borrows elements from films across the genre spectrum, notably including Brazil, Men in Black, and no kidding, Being John Malkovich. Yet, the linkage between Poland’s Communist past and feared dystopian future give them all significance and purpose. Kox also them together in interesting ways (unlike certain post-apocalyptic movies we could mention) and never lets anything interrupt the chemistry of his leads. Very highly recommended (in spite of and maybe in appreciation of its baffling loose ends), The Man with the Magic Box screens tomorrow (5/23) during this year’s Fantaspoa.