Friday, November 30, 2018

Anna and the Apocalypse: Your New Christmas Tradition

We have the cure for Hallmark Christmas TV movies right here for you. It started life as a short film zombie spoof of the High School Musical franchise and its ilk, but adding Yuletide jolliness just makes it even richer. The songs are actually pretty good and the survival rate is on par with The Walking Dead (if not lower) in John McPhail’s instant classic Anna and the Apocalypse (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Anna Shepherd is a smart Scots teen who wants to travel for a year after high school, rather than go straight into uni. That plan does not sit well with her protective widower father or John, her torch-carrying best pal helplessly mired in the friend-zone. Then on the night of her school’s Christmas talent show, the zombie apocalypse strikes. Anna and John are stuck at the bowling alley where they work, along with Steph, the school paper’s aspiring muckraker, and wannabe filmmaker Chris.

Meanwhile, Chris’s girlfriend Lisa, his grandma with a heart condition, and Anna’s school custodian dad are stuck at the school, where the authoritarian headmaster has instituted martial law. To save their loved ones, Anna and Chris will need some help from Nick, the cocky one-time hook-up she now regrets. Periodically, they will also break out into song.

Those musical numbers are really something too. Roddy Hart & Tommy Reilly’s tunes dramatically over-achieve. “Break Away” and “Hollywood Ending” are rousing openers, but they still drip with teen angst. “Turning My Life Around” would be a catchy anthem of self-empowerment, but it is performed as an extended site-gag by the ear-bud-wearing Anna and John, who are oblivious of the zombie attacks erupting around them, until the final bars. However, Lisa, Chris’s prima donna girlfriend gets the hands-down funniest number with the spectacularly suggestive “It’s that Time of Year.” Honestly, Marli Siu deserves serious awards consideration just for being able to perform it straight.

This is a very funny film, but its also weirdly poignant at times. Despite all the gore and goofiness, the young ensemble is so earnest, viewers cannot stop themselves from investing in them emotionally. Ella Hunt deserves to be the breakout star of the year for the charm and forcefulness of her star turn as Shepherd. Again, Siu is simply unforgettable as Lisa. Malcolm Cumming’s John is such an achingly nice sad sack, we just want to give him a chuck on the shoulder and a pep talk about more-fish-in-the-sea. Mark Benton keeps it real and grounded as her protective pa, while Ben Wiggins adds electric energy and bad boy charisma as Nick.

Technically, Apocalypse is a feature work-up of the late Ryan McHenry’s short film, Zombie Musical, but the jokes are more outrageous and the songs are more tuneful in McPhail’s film. It is a lot more than just another zombie spoof or just another goofy genre musical. Honestly, your new holiday tradition is here—and it is fun for the whole family. Very highly recommended, Anna and the Apocalypse opens today (11/30) in New York at the AMC Loews Lincolns Square uptown and the Regal Union Square downtown.

Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer

We hate to root against an underdog, but if Elliot is picked to help guide Santa’s sleigh, it will throw off the rhyme scheme for everyone’s favorite Christmas carol. Frankly, he hardly stands a chance. For starters, he isn’t even a reindeer. He is a miniature horse—and some of the other reindeer cheat. Still, the little guy has moxie in Jennifer Westcott’s Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Elliot trains hard on the reindeer run in his petty zoo, but Walter the owner concentrates his attention the hot-dogging DJ, who has the advantage of being a reindeer. The closest thing Elliot has to a coach is his best friend, Hazel the constantly eating goat. Thanks to a sudden retirement, Santa has an unexpected vacancy, so he convenes an emergency try-out. With Hazel’s encouragement, Elliot stows away to the North Pole, where he disguises himself as reindeer and enters the training camp as a free agent walk-on. He even makes the initial cut, before Hazel uncovers a nefarious, Christmas-jeopardizing plot among the elves.

It should be stipulated many of the film’s sports references are quite clever. You have to laugh a little when Corkie, the human reporter, busts on Walter, a former pro baseball player, for getting the yips. Unfortunately, that is about as memorable as the film gets. Elliot and Hazel are kind of cute, but the animation wilts when compared to Mamoru Hosoda’s artistically composed Mirai, also opening today. In fact, little Elliot can be a little whiner at times.

Undoubtedly, the most commercial aspect of the film is the big-name vocal cast, including John Cleese as the retiring Donner and Martin Short as the scheming elf Lemondrop and Ludzinka, a cliched Eastern European cousin to Natasha Fatale from Rocky & Bullwinkle, who plans to buy the petty zoo and turn all the animals into jerky. Sadly, a little bit of Samantha Bee’s Hazel goes a long, long way (man, does she ever shut up?), but Morena Baccarin snappily delivers some of the film’s best lines as Corkie.

There is nothing terribly bad about Littlest Reindeer. It just isn’t good enough to justify your time. Even if you are craving an animated sports film, you are probably better off re-watching Animalypics. Not recommended, Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer opens today (11/30) in New York, at the Village East and there will be a special nationwide screening on Saturday (12/1).

Thursday, November 29, 2018

AHITH ’18: Kid Fury—The Phantom Witch (short)

It is safe to say Kid Fury has father issues, but that is not unusual for wandering martial arts heroes. Fortunately, he has a quest to keep him occupied (always healthier than Freudian analysis). Kid Fury is out to recover a mysterious slightly Hellraiser-looking antique box. Word has it, the valuable antique is now in the hands of the titular villain, so that is where he goes in Jino Kang’s short film Kid Fury: The Phantom Witch (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, in San Francisco.

It is tough walking the Earth as a lone warrior. Technically, Kid Fury is homeless, but he has a secret benefactor looking out for him—but maybe the shadowy figure does not really have the Kid’s best interests at heart. At last he knows where he stands with the Witch: in great peril. She might just be too much for the rookie to handle, but he shouldn’t have any problem getting through her henchmen first.

Kid Fury is a seriously grungy film, but in an appealing, vintage Cannon and Golden Harvest sort of way. It is also debatable which it is: the second installment of a short film series or the next episode of a web-series. The narrative is pretty straight-forward (although there will be some third act revelations, as well as lingering business from Kid’s first outing), but the real attraction is the fight choreography. Kang stages some bone-crunching confrontations that action fans will eat up like red meat, served nice and rare.

In fact, Kang is his own best ally, displaying massive skills and steely screen presence as the mysterious Master Huang. As Kid Fury, Timothy Mah has considerable chops as well, but Kang towers over him. It is always entertaining to see a master show-up the arrogance of youth, but Kang has the seasoned steeliness to make it convincing.

Whether it is really a short or a webisode, Kid Fury: The Phantom Witch is just good clean fun. The latest installment totally sells viewers on the concept and the characters, packing all kinds of martial arts goodness into 19 minutes. It looks pretty binge-worthy to us. Highly recommended for action fans, Kid Fury: The Phantom Witch screens Sunday (12/2), as part of AHIITH Short Film Collection III, at this year’s Another Hole in the Head.

EUFF (Ottawa) ’18: Rodeo

Imagine the challenges our founding fathers would have faced if the thirteen colonies shared a border with Britain. That was the daunting prospect that loomed over Estonia’s first democratically elected prime minister, after the Baltic nation declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Mart Laar made some very controversial decisions, but in many cases, they were necessary for the reborn republic to survive. Laar’s eventful first administration is even-handedly chronicled in Kiur Aarma & Raimo Jöerand’s Rodeo (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 European Union Film Festival in Ottawa, Ontario.

When Laar formed his first government in 1992, he was the youngest prime minister ever elected in Europe. He had three critically important goals: formalize Estonian independence, replace the Soviet Ruble with Estonian currency, and force the Soviets to withdraw their troops. The fact that all three were accomplished makes it hard to judge Laar to harshly. In fact, many would argue (ourselves included) that his administration was a smashing success. However, he had to tell a few tactical lies along the way that would ultimately lead to a no confidence vote.

Estonian was and still is one of the best performing post-Soviet economies. Laar’s market-based reforms worked astonishingly quickly, but there was still short-term pain. During the lowest point of the post-independence crunch, Laar made the decision to sell the considerable Ruble holdings stashed for safe-keeping in Estonia’s national bank. However, this transaction had to be kept secret during the testy troop withdrawal negotiations with the Soviets (especially since the buyer was the Chechens).

Depending on your historical perspective, the events chronicled in Rodeo either happened just yesterday or ever so very long ago. In either case, this is some fascinating 20th Century history that was not well-reported on at the time. What Laar and his coalition did was nothing short of remarkable, including the establishment of Estonian military, almost entirely from scratch, and replacing a moribund socialist economy with a dynamic capitalist system. Those are some big projects—and the Estonian experience offers lessons—even for politically and economically mature nations. Capitalism: it works every time.

You can learn a lot from Rodeo, but do not think of it as bitter medicine to swallow. Aarma & Jöerand’s execution is surprisingly lively, incorporating a funky soundtrack and sly wild west analogies to introduce each major political development. It is worth noting Aarma co-directed The Gold Spinners and produced Disco and Atomic Warfare, two similarly entertaining documentaries with which Rodeo shares a kinship. In fact, the film flies by at warp speed, thanks to the punchy editing of Henri Kuus and Matti Näränen.

Regardless, the history and analysis of Rodeo is rock-solid. Major figures like Laar himself and the unusually rational Swedish PM Carl Bildt discuss the events in question at-length and on-camera. Economically and historically-challenged politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (whose trade policies are not that very different) should be required to watch it. Very highly recommended, Rodeo screens this Saturday (12/1) at the Canadian Film Institute, as part of the EUFF ’18.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Blood Brother: Cop and Robber

Alas, this film tells us to forget social mobility. In the rough & tumble outer wards of New Orleans, friendship is destiny. No matter how hard you try to rise above your humble origins, your friends will keep dragging you down. That is particularly true for Sonny. He went straight, becoming an undercover cop, but his old running mate is determined to pull him back into the criminal lifestyle in John Pogue’s Blood Brother (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New Jersey.

Fifteen years ago, Sonny, Jake Banning, and two other delinquent friends happened across an armored car robbery that went sour for everyone. Both sides shot each other dead, except for one of the guards, whom Banning finishes off. He is sentenced to hard time, but gets out early due to good behavior. In the meantime, Sonny has gone straight. He was in a committed relationship with Megan, broke up with her, and has tentatively started reconnecting, while still trying to act as a father figure for her younger sister Darcy.

When Banning gets out, the four finally split the loot they made off with on that fateful day. He insists there are no hard feeling, especially towards Sonny, since the guilt-wracked cop was the only on who visited him in prison. However, he quickly kills their two former accomplices, doing his best to implicate Sonny in the crimes. To draw out his supposed friend, Banning also starts seducing the cluelessly rebellious Darcy, like Max Cady in Cape Fear.

Blood Brother has two major motivational-credibility issues. It is hard to believe how suddenly Banning down-shifts from aw shucks loyal pal to a manipulative, vengeance-seeking sociopath. It is also tough to accept the remorseful cop would try to hold back the better portion of the heist loot, considering how much he has to lose, yet he does.

If viewers get past some highly dubious decision-making, Blood Brother is not a bad film. Both Trey Songz and Jack Kesy are suitably intense and gritty as Sonny and Banning. In fact, they produce a fair degree of sparks when they face-off. Joy Lofton is also terrific as Sonny’s sarcastic, long-suffering colleague Lorna.

Throughout the film, Pogue is clearly just as uncomfortable handling Sonny’s inter-personal relationships as tightly-wound character is himself. It is also a shame a film set in New Orleans does not incorporate any of the local music and culture to speak of. Nevertheless, the violently tragic nature of the two antagonists’ fraying friendship is surprisingly compelling. It is definitely a mixed bag, but there is more to Blood Brother than it is likely to get credit for from closed minded critics. Maybe worth a look-see when it hits streaming services, Blood Brother opens this Friday (11/30) in Jersey, at the Fabian 8.

Unstoppable: Don Lee Throws Down

If you want to gage Korean public opinion with respect to the financial services industry, the institutionalized loan-sharking depicted in films like Pieta  and For the Emperor should make matters sufficiently clear. Ki-tae’s sleazy outfit takes predatory lending to a new low. His real business is trafficking women, many of whom were forced to serve as a prostitutes and mail-order brides to pay off their bad debts. He also kidnaps victims the old school way. His latest victim is Kang Dong-chul’s wife Ji-soo. That was a really bad decision. Kang will administer as many beatdowns as it takes to get her back in Kim Min-ho’s Unstoppable (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ki-tae is a really sick jerk. His preferred M.O. is to abduct a pretty woman and then convince her husband or family to accept a sizable cash payment in exchange for her. However, Kang is not playing that game. He cannot be bought and he is darned difficult to stop. There is a reason Kang was known as the “Bull” during his murky early years. Seriously, Ki-tae would have been better off abducting Liam Neeson’s wife.

With the help of his fish-mongering partner Choon-sik and Gomsajang, an eccentric private investigator, Kang starts closing in on Ki-tae’s accomplices. When he lets his fists ask the questions, they get pretty talkative—and that is basically the gist of the movie. It is uncomplicated, but effective, much like Kang himself.

For obvious reasons, Unstoppable is a perfect star vehicle for the super-busy Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok. He can be cherubically sweet in his early domestic scenes and then slam it down with authority in the action sequences. In terms of chops, size, and charisma, he is one of the few action stars who rivals Schwarzenegger in his prime.

On the other hand, Kim Seong-oh’s Ki-tae could be the most despicable villain of the year—and maybe also the most flamboyant. He came to play, that’s for sure. Alas, Kim Min-jae and Park Ji-hwan are pretty shtcky as Gomsajang and Choon-sik, respectively, but Lee helps keep them in check. He also develops some appealing chemistry with Song Ji-hyo, playing Ji-soo.

It is hard to see the Don Lee express slowing down anytime soon, because he clearly has the moves and presence to carry a crowd-pleaser like Unstoppable. It is an unfussy but undeniably satisfying film. Arguably, it is exactly the sort of old school, good vs. evil, scruffy underdog street-fighting film genre devotees crave. Recommended for fans of Lee and red meat action, Unstoppable opens this Friday (11/30) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Sicilian Ghost Story: It is and It Isn’t

Forget about The Godfather, the book and movie, as well as any other form of popular entertainment that suggests the Mafia abides by a code of honor. There was nothing honorable about the abduction and murder of twelve-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo. He was the son of a Mafia informant held for over 700 days, who wasted away to nearly nothing before his captors finally strangled him and broke down his body in a vat of acid. The true crime that outraged Italy gets refracted through a lens of magical realism in Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Luna has it bad for Giuseppe—real bad. Despite his natural arrogance and his family’s considerable wealth, Giuseppe reciprocates her interest. Their budding couple-status has Luna on cloud nine, until Giuseppe stops coming to class. He is gone for days without any explanation from his family. She starts coming round his family’s villa, but his grandfather brusquely turns her way each time. Eventually, they have to come clean. Giuseppe has been kidnapped by the mafia, to force his father to recant his testimony.

Although the title is somewhat deceptive, there are indeed several kinds of ghosts in SGS. The longer Giuseppe is held incommunicado, while hope of his safe return steadily fades, the more frequently Luna experiences vivid and tactile visions and waking dreams of the much-abused lad. In fact, she starts to believe she has even physically interacted with him.

SCS has all the grit of recent, un-glamorized Mafia dramas, including The Sicilian Girl and Grassadonia & Piazza’s own Salvo, but it is subtler and much more visually striking. Some of the images they craft are just arrestingly tragic and beautiful. Soap Skin’s ambio-minimalist pop tune “Safe with Me” also perfectly underscores the film’s otherworldly and elegiac vibe.

Julia Jedlikowska is absolutely riveting as Luna. In many ways, she is a difficult kid to like, but her intensity and tenacity just blows everyone else off the screen. Gaetano Fernandez is mostly just okay as Giuseppe, but he has a truly devastating pseudo-soliloquy late in the film. Vicenzo Amato also has some nice scenes as Luna’s working-class father.

Throughout SGS, it is unclear whether Luna’s fugue interludes are merely subconscious reveries or legitimately supernatural. Grassadonia & Piazza maintain a sense of mystery regarding these and other aspects of the film. It is eerie and horrifying, regardless of genre distinctions.  Recommended for sophisticated viewers, especially those who appreciate cinematic fables, Sicilian Ghost Story opens this Friday (11/30), in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Default: They’re from the IMF and They’re Not Here to Help

Blame the central bank. That’s typically the prime (so to speak) suspect during most financial crises. In the case of South Korea’s near bankruptcy of 1997, the Bank of Korea (BOK) was pursuing a contradictory policy. They wanted to keep the won pegged to the dollar, requiring a tight money strategy, yet they also wanted to spur exports with loose money. On top of their Jekyll and Hyde monetary policy, the major banks kept turning over non-performing loans to large enterprises in industries “anointed” by the national government. That did not work either. However, the BOK gets off easy in Choi Kook-hee’s Default (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is a period of semi-wild exuberance, as the story of South Korea’s economic miracle continues to chug along. However, there is a liquidity crunch brewing beneath the surface and only BOK economist Han Shi-hyun sees it coming. At current burn rates, the bank will not have sufficient foreign reserves to maintain its peg and clear the necessary balance-of-payments involved in international trade. Unfortunately, most of her colleagues prefer to keep their heads buried in the sand. The Vice-Minister of Finance is the exception. He welcomes the crisis as a way to force through his package of economic reforms (several of which really were needed).

Nevertheless, the stringent conditions demanded by the IMF director represent some bitter, recessionary shock treatment. Accepting the bailout will also deal a devastating blow to national pride. Han is convinced they can manage the crisis with less invasive monetary policy, but if you know your history, you will not be in suspense regarding the outcome.

The fictional Han is a forceful character to reckon with, but the subplot involving an increasingly desperate small factory owner is just nakedly and clumsily manipulative. Those scenes are so openly propagandistic, they inspire eye-rolling rather than feelings of revolutionary solidarity. On the other hand, the villainous rogue trader Yoon Jung-hak is bit like the dog that never barks, since he never comes into direct conflict with Han and the rest of the emergency response team during the course of his short-selling and bargain-taking. The actual financial intrigue is pretty gripping, but screenwriter Eom Seong-min definitely takes liberties with the root causes and circumstances of the IMF bailout, for obvious political reasons (for the record, right-of-center think tanks like the Heritage Foundation opposed the agreement, on both economic and political grounds).

Regardless, superstar Kim Hye-soo is terrific as Han. It is a smart, compassionate portrayal of a smart, complicated economist (there are some out there). Vincent Cassel’s high-handed scenery-chewing as the IMF director is also jolly fun to watch. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast give broad, clichéd performances as stock-character villains and victims. This is particularly true of Jo Woo-jin’s compulsively sneering Vice-Minister. Seriously, why not give him a handlebar mustache to twirl, in case anyone somehow managed to miss the point?

There are legitimately cautionary aspects to the 1997 “bailout” that should be called out and scrutinized. However, it is always problematic to play it fast-and-loose with the historical record. Nevertheless, the film’s main point—that being the bailout was unnecessary and in many ways counter-productive—is convincingly established. Frankly, there is so much good stuff in Default, it makes us want to take it into an editing bay and unleash our inner Stephen Soderberghs. Its flaws are considerable, but it is still an impressive showcase for Kim. Earning a very conflicted mixed review, Default opens this Friday (11/30) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai

Four-year-old Kun has no idea when it comes to space-time continuums. He just resents it when his little sister thinks she can boss him and act all mature. However, it is not the new-born freshly arrived from the hospital who gets these ideas. It is her future time-traveling self. She might actually help her little older brother grow up a little, but she will get help from family members past and present in Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and also has several special nation-wide Fathom Events screenings over the next two weeks.

Kun had always been the center of his universe and probably the most important supporting character, in his opinion, was the family dog, Yukko. However, everything changed when he suddenly had to share his parents’ time and affection with Mirai (whose name means “future”). He promised to be a good big brother to her, but his jealousy often got the best of him. However, it will actually be a lapse of memory on the part of their stay-at-home dad that prompts teen-something Mirai’s first visit. It has to do with a ceremonial display that must be taken down by a certain time, or Mirai’s marriage could be delayed by years, at least according to the superstition.

The Mirai from the future finds Kun is even brattier then she realized, but she is pretty resourceful when it comes to negotiating with four-year-olds. Eventually, Kun also takes advantage of the time-traveling power of their back yard, visiting his strict mother when she was just an equally naughty little girl. However, he really starts to getting a bigger picture of the world when he visits his late great-grandfather when he was a dashing post-war engineer and motorcycle daredevil.

One of the charms of Mirai is that it feels no obligation to explain the time traveling. It just expects us to accept it, much like Kun, Mirai, and Yukko do. Each encounter Kun has with family members from different time periods is absolutely charming and many times emotionally resonant. However, Hosoda risks alienating viewers from his central character by so thoroughly and relentlessly establishing his spoiled sense of entitlement. Frankly, a lot of anime fans who will eventually buy this film on DVD will probably regularly fast-forward through the first twenty minutes or so. Still, you sort of have to respect Hosoda for being so up front and honest in his characterization.

Regardless, if you stick with Mirai, it definitely becomes magical during the second and third acts. Hosoda is one of the great master animators working today and Mirai shows him in full command of his powers. Time and again, he turns Kun’s very grounded and realistic environment into something mysterious and fantastical. His characters are also quite sweet and endearing, especially teen Mirai, cocky but big-hearted great-grandpa, and their nebbish father.

It has already been a terrific year for anime, thanks to features like Fireworks, Liz and the Blue Bird, and Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, but for fans, a new film from Hosoda will be a fitting climax. It will not disappoint. This is a film of considerable artistry, originality, and heart. Recommended for anime enthusiasts and slightly older kids (something like eight-and-above), Mirai opens this Friday (11/30) at the IFC Center and screens via Fathom Events on 11/29, 11/30, 12/5, and 12/8.

Submitted by Germany: Never Look Away

Gerhard Richter was a direct inspiration for Kurt Barnert, but there is a little bit of Sigmar Polke in him, as well as every other East German artist who crossed over to the West, for the sake of artistic freedom. Like Richter, Barnert is a product of the Cold War era, but his art grapples with [East and West] Germany’s dark legacy from WWII. However, in Barnert’s case, the crimes of the National Socialist regime will hit home much closer than he initially expects in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away (trailer here), Germany’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens a special awards-qualifying run this Friday in New York.

As a boy, Barnert dearly loved his free-spirited aunt, Elisabeth May. She had a formative influence on him, encouraging his artistic talent and secretly assuring him it was okay to like the notorious exhibition of supposedly “degenerate art.” Alas, she was too free a spirit for her times. Her unconventional attitudes resulted in her commitment to an insane asylum, where National Socialist hardliner Prof. Carl Seeband would eventually euthanize her, along with the rest of his patients.

Seeband is a true believer in the Party’s racial theories, but he also respects power and authority. He therefore is perfectly happy to switch his loyalties to Communism, after saving the life of a top Soviet officer’s pregnant wife. As the years go by, he becomes a pillar of the GDR regime, who is not about to let his daughter marry a scruffy art student like Kurt Barnert. Inconveniently (for Seeband), the two students are deeply in love and have the tacit approval of his wife, but as an arrogant control freak, he has no problem employing genuinely sinister psychological tactics to undermine their relationship. However, his own past is always lurking out there and will eventually force the entire family to slip over to the West.

Forget Johnny Depp and The Tourist ever existed. Never Look Away is an entirely worthy follow-up to Donnersmarck’s masterful The Lives of Others, which is high praise indeed. Like his Oscar-winning feature debut, NLA has moments that are exquisitely elegant and also disturbingly chilling. Donnersmarck is consciously engaging with his country’s ism-driven history as well as the question of what it means to be German, but both films of his non-duology very definitely explore the psychology of oppressors and those who willingly follow them, as well.

NLA is also an incredible depiction of the creation of art and an exploration of its significance during the last Century. Painstaking effort went into recreating the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, including the reproduction of some subsequently destroyed paintings that were only documented in small black-and-white photographs. The way he stages Barnert’s great artistic breakthrough (modeled on some of Richter’s early work) is highly cinematic—exhilarating is arguably not too strong a word. As an added bonus, Max Richter’s minimalist but evocatively melodic score might just be his best to-date. NLA runs a full three hours and change, but Donnersmarck so fully commands our attention, it flies by like a hurtling bullet train.

Regardless of Donnersmarck’s intent, many people will inevitably consider NLA and TLOO as part of a thematic set, due to the presence of Sebastian Koch in both, albeit in vastly different roles. His portrayal of Prof. Seeband is a staggering portrait of magisterial villainy and the psychological debasement that results. Frankly, it is a performance on the level of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.

Tom Schilling does not have anything remotely approaching Koch’s power and gravitas (who does?), but he is completely convincing performing Barnert’s acts of artistic creation, which are absolutely essential to the film. However, Saskia Rosendahl (probably best known for the over-hyped Lore) is the greatest revelation, also giving her career-best (so far) as the charismatic but tragic Aunt Elisabeth.

There is no need to parse words. Never Look Away is just a great film. It is not as quite overwhelming as The Lives of Others, but its big moments sneak up on viewers and suddenly pull the entire floor out from under their feet. Honestly, it is amazing how close it comes to matching the level of achievement Donnersmarck reached with his first feature. This is important cinema, but it is also richly rewarding on an emotional level. Very highly recommended, Never Look Away opens this Friday (11/30) in New York, for a week-long Oscar-qualifying week run (it will return early next year).

Sunday, November 25, 2018

NYADIFF ’18: The Sky Princess

There is no Twilight Zone in this world. How very sad. They eat vegetables and work all day in Sun Village, because of the constant sunlight. In contrast, people scarf meat and dance all endless-night in Moon Kingdom. A poor young Sun Villager will bring the halves together, but it is not clear how or why in Dara Harper’s animated fable, The Sky Princess (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2018 New York African Diaspora International Film Festival’s school program.

Dafina’s family is poor, even by Sun Village standards. Yet, her parents take perverse pride in the hard-working simplicity of their lives. She is definitely short of princely suitors. She just has her goofball pal Mosi, who is determined to get out of the friend zone. As a result, she cannot resist when the evil Owl-creature Tamu offers her a bargain that does not sound so Faustian, allowing her to experience life as the princess of Moon Kingdom for as long as she wants. At first it is rather fun to live as royalty, but she eventually starts to miss her family (even though the voice of her new mom, the Moon Queen is supplied by Vivica A. Fox). Unfortunately, when she finally decides to opt out, Tamu shows her his true colors.

Even though the animation of Claye Edou’s Minga and the Broken Spoon is rather simple, it is still appealingly old fashioned in a sentimental throw-back kind of way. In contrast, the CG-animation of Sky Princess just looks cheap and down-market, like a YouTube gag video thrown together with public domain animation software.

Harper’s narrative is a nice story that has some nice messages with respect to true love and filial piety, but in some ways, it could be seen as a critique of Dafina’s aspirations for upward social mobility, which is problematic (suggesting she should have just accept her lot farming and eating veggies). The prologue and epilogue also clearly state Dafina brought about a rapprochement between Sun Village and Moon Kingdom, but we never see that happen at all. The songs are not especially memorable either.

It is nice to give every kid an opportunity to identify with heroic animated characters, but the timing for Star Princess is not so great, considering Miles Morales, the African-American-Puerto Rican Spiderman is about to swing into theaters. It is achingly well-intentioned, with no objectionable subject matter whatsoever, but animation connoisseurs will definitely find it a minor film. Obviously intended for young audiences, The Sky Princess screens this Tuesday (11/2) and Thursday (11/29), during this year’s NYADIFF.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

BiTS ’18: Fugue

Malcolm’s life is like 50 First Dates, but with bad guys. Apparently, he wakes up everyday with his memory wiped, but it is only temporary condition his wife assures him. Still, things could get awkward for the both of them if anyone were to show up looking for the valuable item he is holding. As far as he knows, it could be Marsellus Wallace’s soul, because he can’t remember. Yet, matters turn out to be even more complicated in screenwriter-director Tomas Street’s Fugue (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival.

According to Helen’s reassures, everything will be fine eventually, as long as Malcolm keeps taking his pills and listening to her trips down memory lane. Obviously, the situation is not ideal, but people have endured worse. However, he keeps getting weird flashes of Deja vu or something. Of course, his situation really takes a turn for the worse when masked home invaders barge in. At this point, Street pulls a game-changing whammy on the audience, upending most of our assumptions.

Street’s secrets are not revolutionary, but the way he links together the film’s bifurcated structure is very clever. It is hard to go into detail without giving the game away, but several cast members are really terrific as characters who are more or less playing roles in the film. They definitely fool us along with their on-screen audience.

Regardless, on the basis of his star turn as Malcolm and his work in Lifechanger, Jack Foley is poised to become the next genre star to achieve cult popularity (oddly, both roles involved mysterious pill-popping). His distinctive grey locks certainly also help him stand out. Yet, Laura Tremblay goes toe-to-toe with him and nearly steals the show as Helen. The small ensemble of co-stars are key collaborators, helping to sell each twist and reveal, especially Kristen Da Silva and Michael Lipka—as other people.

Street is totally having one over on viewers, but since he shows respect for our intelligence, we don’t mind be played for fools, so to speak. He and co-editor Sean Danby, along with the continuity person deserve enormous credit for hiding all the seams. Highly recommended for fans of dark, twisty psychological thrillers, Fugue screens Monday night (11/26), as part of this year’s BiTS.

Friday, November 23, 2018

BiTS ’18: Deadsight

Imagine there was a zombie apocalypse and the mega-pregnant Marge Gunderson from Fargo and blind Howard Keel from The Day of the Triffids only had each other to rely on. That is basically the premise of this new Canadian zombie-viral outbreak movie. The elements are familiar, but the Spartan intimacy makes them work once again in Jesse Thomas Cook’s Deadsight, which screens as part of this year’s Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival.

When Ben Neilson comes to, he finds he is handcuffed to an ambulance gurney and his mysteriously sightless eyes have been bandaged (always a bad sign). Somehow, he manages to send an SOS from the radio, but only Mara Madigan receives it, in a partial, garbled form. She is just starting what is supposed to be the last day before her pregnancy leave, so she is still unaware of the zombie outbreak underway.

Eventually, Neilson and Madigan will come together in a farm house not so very different from the one we all vividly remember from the original Night of the Living Dead, but she remains justifiably suspicious of Neilson, due to the conspicuous cuffs. It is pretty clear to Madigan staying in the farmhouse is not a sustainable option, but that means she will have to make some pretty hard moral choices.

So yes, zombie fans have been down this road before, but there is something very honest and potent about Cook’s stripped-down approach and Liv Collins & Kevin Revie’s screenplay. Thanks to cinematographer Jeff Maher, it all looks suitably bleak and Canadian. As Madigan and Neilson, screen-writer Collins and Adam Seybold feel like real people, caught in a really, really bad situation. We buy into them, even when Neilson survives through sheer blind luck, so to speak. They are terrific together and Ry Barrett is highly disturbing (in an impressive way), as another survivor Neilson has the questionable fortune to meet.

Cook has been quite the busy bee, not only helming Deadsight, but also co-directing The Hoard with Matt Wiele, who is on-board here as a producer. They are very different films, but together they are quite a one-two-punch to look out for. Enthusiastically recommended, Deadsight screens this Sunday (11/25) during BiTS 2018, in Toronto.

NYADIFF ’18: Sons of Benkos

The Colombian village of Palenque de San Basilio was the first colony of freed slaves ever established in the Americas. It predated Liberia by over one hundred years. Not surprisingly, the Spanish were less than thrilled with its founder, Benkos Biohó, who was both a former slave and a former African prince. Biohó met a tragic end, but Palenque would become one of the leading hubs for African music in Latin America. Silva Lucas surveys the current Palenque music scene and examines its cultural implication in Sons of Benkos, which screens during the 2018 New York African Diaspora International Film Festival.

Although the Spanish betrayed and executed Biohó, the village remained highly aware of its African heritage. However, the African influence on local music really became significant in the 1960s and 1970s, when African styles like Highlife, Afrobeat, and Makossa came to international prominence. Soon, a “sound system” sub-culture sprung up, blasting the latest African imports across the neighborhood. Palenque bands started incorporating African styles, but they gave them a local twist. Interestingly, there is also an older Cuban son tradition in Palenque, but it is largely associated with funeral ceremonies.

There is no question the medium-sized, fifty-two-minute Sons of Benkos is a worthy and informative film, but it will leave many fans of Latin and African music wanting more (arguably a good sign). We could have easily followed Lucas on a deep dive into the Palenque scene, but he basically skims the surface. Of course, he is also analyzing Palenque’s historical and social significance as a community of former slaves, which is also important. Still, there should be plenty of music and material to support a full-feature length documentary treatment—and anyone who sees Benkos would surely be willing to come back for more.

Regardless, Lucas’s film sounds great as it is. Visually, it is a little raw, but there is no question he was there on the streets and in the sound system parties. Easily recommended for Latin, African, and “World” music listeners, Sons of Benkos screens tomorrow (11/24), preceding Cimarronaje en Panama, as part of this year’s NYADIFF.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

BiTS ’18: The Hoard

The Keno Brothers couldn’t handle Murph Evans and his level of hoarding. Sheila Smythe’s prospective reality show, Extreme Haunted Hoardings should be better equipped, but as Evans often points out, her team of psychologists, contractors, and ghost-hunters are mostly a bunch of idiots. Things will get ugly and maybe even deadly in Jesse Thomas Cook & Matt Wiele’s The Hoard (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival.

There is actually a somewhat intriguing horror premise buried under all of Evans’ clutter. As a compulsive hoarder, he has amassed a vast amount of stuff acquired from dead people at estate sales, thrift stores, and what have you. The mountains of junk also create veritable labyrinths that could entrap Smythe’s cast, once the entity attacks.

Right from the start, they assume some kind of haunting is going on. That is why YouTube channel paranormal investigators Chloe and Caleb Black are part of the team. They will have primary responsibility for one of Evans’ three clutter filled houses with eviction notices pending. Meathead contractor Derek “Duke” Jago and “The Falcon,” his reluctant Maltese assistant take point for the second house, while Smythe and the ridiculously pompous Dr. Lance Ebe quarterback the third property and also do their best to ride herd on Evans. Alas, they immediately fall behind, due to very human reasons, as well as possible supernatural factors.

Frankly, Hoard would be a funny film even if it were only an earthly spoof of reality shows. Barry More might just serve up the comedic performance of the year as the mordantly funny, yet still fundamentally decent Evans. In contrast, Tony Burgess is completely loathsome but still wickedly amusing, in a face-palming kind of way, as Dr. Ebe. Lisa Solberg and Justin Darmanin help round the film as the relatively normal Smythe and the Falcon.

There are probably some people who will object to exploiting a very real compulsive disorder for the sake of some laughs and all kinds of mayhem. Boo-hoo, get over it. Sly and unhinged, The Hoard is one of the best horror comedies in years. Very highly recommended for genre fans, it screens this Sunday (11/25) during BiTS 2018, in Toronto.

NYADIFF ’18: Last Drinks at Frida’s (short)

Frida’s is not the most welcoming jazz club in the world, but it will serve Indigenous patrons. There are not a lot of nightclubs in post-war Sydney that will, so it would be a shame if this shell-shocked soldier found himself banned from the premises. He really hasn’t done anything wrong, but he knew Frida way back when, making things awkward in Bjorn Stewart’s short film Last Drinks at Frida’s, which screens as part of the 2018 New York African Diaspora International Film Festival.

He served honorably, but the unnamed WWII soldier has a severe case of PTSD compounded by the racism and disinterest of Australian society he returned to. Frida’s was one place he could go to drown his sorrows—and the music is good. Nobody knows his name there, but he knows Tilly de Frida, the proprietress and main vocal attraction. They were both students together at one of the notorious schools for young Indigenous Australians. She really did not know him then either. He has always been shy and has become even more withdrawn. Yet, something about the man in uniform draws Frida’s eye.

Although Last Drinks is more about social criticism than musical numbers, it makes perfect sense to set it in a jazz club. It also sounds swingingly era-appropriate, thanks to the music of Charlie Chan, who also leads the on-screen combo backing up Frida. It is a nice group, featuring Chan on piano, Andrew “Jock” Robertson on reeds, Ashley Tuner on bass, Andrew Dickeson drums, and Ursula Yovich providing Frida’s smoky vocals.

Mathew Cooper and Dalara Williams develop some rather poignant chemistry together as the soldier and the songbird. Cinematographer Roger Lancer also gives it the sort of moody, noir look that perfectly suits a film set in a jazz club. It looks good and sounds great. Despite the hardboiled trappings, it ultimately makes its points with a relatively light touch, which is a credit to Stewart and screenwriter Kodie Bedford. Very highly recommended for fans of jazz dramas and Australian cinema, Last Drinks at Frida’s screens tomorrow (11/23) and Saturday, December 1st, as part of the Aboriginal Australia shorts block at this year’s NYADIFF.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

BiTS ’18: Altered Skin

There is nothing like a zombie outbreak to overcome resistance to modern medicine. Gone are the days when Pakistani militants targeted vaccinating health workers, as documented in Tom Roberts’ Every Last Child. Now, one of the world’s largest Big Pharma companies is in Pakistan, thanks to the infection slowing patch. Business is booming, but they have a dirty secret an American expat is desperate to uncover in Adnan Ahmed’s Altered Skin (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival.

It is hard to say whether those inflicted with the MN-2 virus are full zombies per se, or just viral outbreak victims. Regardless, these “carriers” will eventually descend into a state of mindless rage. Tragically, Craig Evans wife, Dr. Insiya Zia will soon be one of them. She is currently in a medically induced coma after contracting the virus from a patient, but time is running out for her.

It is already too late for muckraking TV journo Shehzad Amin, but his widow is convinced Evans is the right person to expose her missing husband’s murderers. Evans is rather skeptical, but when he gets a whiff of something funny at the drug company, he starts investigating in earnest. Zia’s life might depend on what he uncovers.

Although mostly in English, Altered was shot entirely in Karachi, by a mostly Pakistani cast and crew. Admittedly, there are some pacing issues, but the film’s professional-grade production values far exceed expectations. Ahmed maintains a gritty vibe of foreboding that is really quite impressive. The entire ensemble is also quite polished, particularly Aamir Qureshi, who is excellent as Amin in flashbacks and taped television reports.

As Evans and Zia, Robin Dunne and Juggan Kazim make a convincing married couple. He is also sufficiently credible as the dogged, bull-in-a-china-shop Westerner. Throughout it all, Ahmed gives viewers a vivid sense of nocturnal back alley Karachi. It is a dangerous environment, precisely because it is so easy to lose oneself in it. All things considered, it is pretty good. Recommended for fans of rage-berserk viral-mutant outbreak thrillers, Altered Skin screens this Friday (11/23) during BiTS 2018, in Toronto.

NYADIFF ’18: Minga and the Broken Spoon

Minga has a lot in common with Cinderella, like an evil step-mother and a selfish step-sister, but her prince recognizes her right away as the woman he loves. They will still have to fight for their happily-ever-after in Claye Edou’s Minga and the Broken Spoon (trailer here), which screens as part of the New York African Diaspora International Film Festival’s school program.

Broken Spoon has already made history as the first animated film produced in Cameroon. Animation fans should grade on a generous curve, because its level of sophistication is a far cry from what they would expect from Japanese and Hollywood animation houses. However, the vibrant colors are pleasing to the eye and appropriate to the film’s setting and story. There are also several virtue-instilling messages parents will appreciate. If you want to really dive deep, you can also pull out a timely critique of polygamy.

Poor Minga is the daughter of her late father’s second wife. When both her parents died from disease, she was left at the mercy of her step-mother, Mami Kaba, who exploits her cruelly. When Minga accidentally breaks a spoon her late father has specially crafted for Mami Kaba, the first wife finally expels the Cinderella-like girl from her home. Frankly, it is the best thing that could happen to Minga, but she doesn’t immediately see it that way. However, thanks to the help of a mysterious hermit, Minga soon finds herself in the company of Prince Lobe and his loyal retainers. She should just declare victory then and there, but she is determined to have a rapprochement, even though she doesn’t owe them anything.

Shrewdly, Edou adapted a beloved Cameroonian children’s book, guaranteeing a large domestic audience for the film, over and above its novelty as the nation’s first animated feature. It is easy to see analogs or models for many plot points in Broken Spoon, including Cinderella, of course, but also Aladdin, several of Aesop’s fables, and the frog and the scorpion parable Orson Welles tells in Mr. Arkadin. However, Minga’s tale rewards hard work, humility, and respect for elders in compelling ways.

It is probably safe to say the third act makes a decisive break from the Cinderella narrative, but that makes it feel rather fresh and different. The closing song is also quite catchy. Again, animation connoisseurs need to temper their expectations, but they should at least give the film its trailblazing due. In fact, it is quite likable in an old-fashioned kind of way. Recommended for patrons of African cinema and supportive animation fans, Minga and the Broken Spoon screens this Friday (11/23), next Friday (11/30), and Sunday, December 9th, during this year’s NYADIFF.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Luciferina: That’s Her Name, Don’t Wear It Out

Everyone knows “Final Girls” are expected to remain virginal, if they hope to survive. However, that is in slasher movies. This is demonic horror. Evidently, the rules here are different—much different. A naïve novice will have to adapt quickly in Gonzalo Calzada’s Luciferina (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Even though Natalia was never baptized, she felt compelled to run off to a convent. Her parents were always a little odd. Frankly, one of the reasons she left was to get away from them, but that meant leaving her older sister Angela behind. Rather awkwardly, Natalia must return home when an accident kills their mother and permanently incapacitates their father. She receives a somewhat frosty reception from Angela, but her sister needs her to participate in a weird ayahuasca-consuming rite.

Apparently, some really sinister stuff was going on back home while Natalia was gone. The details are a little hazy, but it seems her parents were not that much different from John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby and the mother in Satan’s Slaves. To uncover their lost memories and exorcise their parents’ bad mojo, Angela wants Natalia to travel with her and her obnoxious friends to a remote island where there is an abandoned, deconsecrated nunnery, to participate in a hallucinogenic-driven ritual presided over by a sketchy shaman. Right, let the healing begin.

Except, of course it doesn’t. Instead, you know who crashes the party. Up until this point, Luciferina was a moody film, filled with foreboding and a steadily rising level off tension, but from then on, it goes completely nuts. However, we locked in, whether we like it or not, because Calzada’s set-up work is so effective. The vibe of the first two acts is reminiscent of vintage John Carpenter, which is high praise indeed, whereas the third act is like Ken Russell on a crack cocaine bender.

Sofia Del Tuffo is distressingly vulnerable and altogether disarming as the deer-in-the-headlights Natalia. Yet, the dilapidated sets and ominous locations regularly overshadow the human cast. It is the sort of film that routinely defies gravity, like Wile E. Coyote, when he takes a wrong turn over a gaping chasm. Easily recommended for fans of demonic supernatural horror, Luciferina is now available on DVD.