J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

WFA ’18: A Roar of Wolf Troops

This is quite the rarity: a Chinese film celebrating the valor of their nation’s military. It is particular unusual, because it casts the Imperial Japanese as the bad guys, thereby potentially fostering a national sense of resentment—something the cultural commissars are ever so scrupulous to discourage. No, not really. At least this time around they reveal their secret weapon: notoginseng. It healing powers are desperately needed at the front, so a crack squad from the Yunnan Army will ensure its safe delivery, with a little help from the you-know-who in Zhang Xiniwu’s A Roar of Wolf Troops (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Winter Film Awards in New York.

The Yunnan Army largely consisted of the ethnic Zhuang minority, who take pride in the martial arts and military heritage. Their specialty is fighting the Japanese and only the Japanese. Of course, the Nationalists and Communists are also busy fighting each other. Unfortunately, the Yunnan Army was not so good at keeping intel secret, because all interested parties will converge on the shipment.

Nong San and his men are riding shotgun, but he gets some unexpected help from the local CP cell leader and a team of behind-the-lines Zhuang resistance fighters, led by his fiancée, Lu Xiaomei. However, before the Japanese forces have a chance to swoop down on them, a group of bandits steals the cargo using sneaky but non-lethal tactics. Fighting and scheming ensues, but there is a distinct honor gap between the Yunnan soldiers and their Japanese rivals.

The frequency with which Mainland China’s sanctioned media relives and relitigates the Second World War is becoming almost comical in its kneejerk obsessiveness. Nevertheless, the world war has inspired many, many entertaining films, including a good number of outright classics. Roar can’t compare with any of them, but it is likably plucky, in an earnest, B-level budget kind of way.

As Nong San, Mo Tse definitely has the action chops, but he is constantly upstaged dramatically by Xiao Dong Me’s Lu. She is all kinds of fierce, showing off plenty of her own skills. Yet, there is something about Yi Ling playing Lu’s mute sister Azi that draws the eye and commands the screen. She obviously has no dialogue, but she is quite intense and expresses much. Of course, the interchangeable Japanese heavies could have wandered in from any number of previous films, while the mostly absent Nationalists probably get off easy.

Roar is a tad bit more eccentric than most Chinese war films, which is a plus. After all, it is something of an ode to holistic Chinese medicine. Zhang keeps it moving along nicely, so it doesn’t feel so slavishly propagandistic. It is not classic, but fans of Chinese warfighting action movies will appreciate its novelty when A Roar of Wolf Troops screens tomorrow (2/25) at the Cinema Village, as part of this year’s Winter Film Awards.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Philip K. Dick ’18: The Tolls (short)

Considered more of a historical urban legend than established fact, “Die Glocke” or “The Bell” was reported to be a National Socialist super weapon that combined Atomic research with occultism. It is a terrifying prospect if it actually existed—as it apparently does in an alternate dimension. Unfortunately, it will threaten the looming Allied victory in parallel realities as well in Liz Anderson’s short film, The Tolls (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Philip K. Dick Film Festival in New York.

Distraught over the presumed death of his wife Sadie, everyman GI Wes usually kills himself atop the Presidio overlooking the Bay. This time will be different, much to the surprise of Hans, a dimension-hopping SS officer, who is used to stepping over Wes’s body as he infiltrates the base. Instead, the grieving soldier pursues the German into the field of the German uber-reactor, jumping together into a world where Hitler was victorious. That is certainly alarming, but Wes soon discovers his Sadie is alive in this dimension, albeit married to a Nazi officer. He is in profound danger, as are other dimensions, but his Sadie seems to be the same person, with the same values.

The Tolls is a remarkably inventive time travel/alternate history film that actually holds some pretty mind-blowing implications when you think about it after the fact. Regardless, Anderson and her co-screenwriter-lead actor Wylie Herman squeeze an awful lot of narrative and sf speculation into a mere twenty minutes. This premise, along with these characters could easily sustain a full-length feature, but it would be hard to top the potency of the short film.

Herman is terrific as Herman, believably wrestling with some cosmic challenges, as well as some acutely human pain. As Hans, Anthony Cistaro (from Witchblade) again makes quite a suave and sinister villain. Plus, the Presidio Park locations really makes it all look big and cinematic.

The Tolls is way better than most of the time/interdimensional travel films that have recently come along, at least since Mi Yang rocked Reset. (The one exception would the equally excellent, but radically different Paleonaut, which also screens at the PKD Fest.) This is the kind of film that will fire up true genre fans, because it shows how much an inspired cast and crew can pull off when they work together on a nifty concept. Very highly recommended, The Tolls screens this Sunday (2/25), as part of Block Eleven: International Sci-Fi Shorts 3, at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea

Like the Wolf Warrior franchise, Hong Kong action auteur Dante Lam’s latest Mainland production was largely funded by the PLA and supported with extensive in-kind donations of military hardware. At least in this case, we get their money’s worth. Apparently, the military granted Lam’s every over-the-top request and the results are all up there on the screen when Operation Red Sea (trailer here) opens today in New York.

Basically, Red Sea is a loose thematic sequel to Lam’s blockbuster, Operation Mekong. This time around, the military takes center stage and the ripped-from-the-headlines story is based on 2015 evacuation of Chinese nationals from Yemen. Refreshingly, there are no western bad guys. Instead, they are Middle Eastern terrorists and Somali pirates (in the prologue). Sure, there is flag-waving, but it is not nearly as distracting as in the Wolf Warrior films.

Given the evacuation plot, Red Sea bears some resemblance to Wolf Warrior 2, but the action scenes, also choreographed by Lam, far exceed anything in Wu Jing’s hit duology. To a large extent, the film is one long action sequence, as one rescue mission begets another and eventually morphs into an operation to recover stolen yellowcake from a mad mullah. If you think that sounds like a criticism, you are sorely mistaken. Lam pulls out all the stops, giving us infiltrations, drone warfare, house-to-house combat, sniper duels, tank battles, helicopter attacks, and hand-to-hand combat during the mother of all dust storms.

Arguably, it is halfway realistic too, since a number of Jiaolong commandos are killed in the line of duty. Frankly, Lam does not spend a lot of time on boring old character development. Jiang Luxia’s Tong Li probably stands out the most, simply because she is a woman (who has no trouble hanging with her male colleagues). Ironically, the most memorable performance comes from Hai Qing, as French-Chinese reporter Xia Nan. Eventually, we learn became so driven to expose terrorists because her husband and young son were murdered in the 7/7 London bombings, which is a nice character development touch.

Red Sea is just a pedal-to-the-medal action movie that constantly doubles, triples, and quadruples down on explosions, mayhem, and blood & guts. In terms of sheer spectacle, it is tough to beat. Alas, Lam pays the piper with a closing shot across the bow basically warning the world better stay out of the South China Sea, if we know what’s good for us, but up until then, it goes down pretty smooth. Highly recommended for action fans, Operation Red Sea opens today (2/23) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Are We Not Cats

This is one semi-rom-com that should definitely carry a “don’t try this at home” warning. Seriously kids, drinking antifreeze is bad for you and eating hair is even worse. Yet, two potential lovers share that feline habit in Xander Robin’s Are We Not Cats (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Even shaggy-haired Eli would call himself a luckless loser. When his father decides to pick up stakes for Arizona, he leaves Eli a cargo cube truck that becomes his home and only source of irregular employment. One haul upstate connects him with Kyle, a born user, who drags him to a club, where the nebbish sad sack is thunderstroke by the jerk’s girlfriend, Anya.

She is an ultra-hipster, who wears a wig, because she has chowed down on all her hair. (In contrast, Eli just nibbles on his mane a little, as a nervous tic.) She is unusually sweet for a club kid, but she is unhealthily codependent on the abusive Kyle. Nevertheless, Eli will take his shot, thereby inflaming Kyle’s jealousy. However, puncturing Eli’s tires, leaving him stranded at Anya’s place as a result, probably is probably not the most effective way of lashing out. Then potential tragedy strikes, testing Eli’s judgement and our stomachs.

AWNC earned a lot of admirers for its sudden detour into body horror, but it takes a long time getting there. For a good deal of the film, viewers will just feel like they are standing around watching Eli being awkward and uncomfortable. We respect Robin’s interest for these extremely marginalized characters, but he makes us work pretty hard for it. Also, the big shocking sequence totally strains credulity, which is a legit issue, considering how gritty and grimy the film is most of the time.

Still, Chelsea Lopez really announces herself as a talent to watch with her performance as Anya. She clearly has a remarkable knack for expressing much with very few words. Michael Patrick Nicholson also makes a compelling sad sack and develops some earnestly engaging chemistry with Lopez.

This is the kind of film you will want to like more, especially if you have heard the raves coming out of genre festivals. The tone is somewhat uneven, with weird dashes of Wes Anderson and Shinya Tsukamoto (of Tetsuo fame) thrown in, but it is always grungy to a fault. Still somewhat worth seeing, but more as sign of promising things to come than a film to love and get swept up in, Are We Not Cats opens today (2/23) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Philip K. Dick ’18: Niggun (short)

It is fitting that we finally officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After all, it is a city that captures the imagination and it endures all attempts at destruction. In the far future, it will be about all that is left of the fabled planet Earth in Yoni Salmon’s animated short film, Niggun (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

The Rabbi and the Archaeologist believe they deduced the location of the mythical Earth from a series of esoteric clues, but they are alarmed when the smallish blue planet does not appear where it should. As they get closer, they find clusters of fragments held together by gravity. The largest asteroid holds the well-preserved remains of what resembles the capital city of Jerusalem. At first, they are disappointed, but there is still much to see. However, it is not quite as lifeless as it initially looks.

Niggun is a strangely rewarding film, because it gives off a whimsical vibe, but evokes a deeper, sadder sense of wisdom and enlightenment. Frankly, it is hard not to be moved by the site of Israel in ruins—still standing as all that really remains intact of Earth.

Salmon’s animation is also quite droll, incorporating hat-tips to Star Trek and Planet of the Apes (with the Statue of Liberty’s torch). The result is a cool and surprisingly successful attempt to reconcile the sacred with the profane and the spiritual with the slapstick. Highly recommended, Niggun screens this Sunday (2/25) as part of programming Block Ten: International Animation/Fantasy, at this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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The Chamber

This isn’t James Cameron’s top of the line submersible. The cranky Swedish researcher’s craft is held together chewing gum and defiance. It is the last sub a special ops team would want to commandeer, but desperate times call for desperate measures. They become even more desperate when disaster strikes in Ben Parker’s The Chamber (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

The Chamber has been on the shelf for a spell after its initial festival run, so as a result, it feels somewhat dated, in an unlikely way. It is not that we cannot believe the news reports of North Korea behaving badly, interspersed throughout the opening credits. On the contrary, we can believe them so well, it is hard to join Parker’s hand-wringing over the wisdom of the mission and its execution. Three Navy SEAL-like commandos have been ordered to retrieve a memory card from a drone shot down over DPRK waters and destroy the drone, so most viewers will agree they darn well better retrieve the memory card and destroy the drone. End of moral dilemma.

Of course, Mats doesn’t know that. He is only along because he knows how best to pilot his temperamental submersible. He is on the strictest need-to-know basis, so he acts like a churlish five-year-old throughout the entire first act. The team leader, “Red” Edwards tries to make nice, but Mats prefers to be a pill. He definitely rubs Parks the wrong way, which is unfortunate, because he is the biggest of the three—and he will soon go a little nutty from pressure sickness.

It is painfully obvious Parker does not know anyone in the military from his depictions of the commandos. First of all, nobody has to explain the bends to a Navy SEAL, even if he is in the throes of full scale undersea-pressure-induced psychosis. Nor would an elite group act like teenagers moaning and griping at each other. None of the men would ever second guess Edwards’ decision to blow the drone. Frankly, they are prepared for these kinds of extreme eventualities.

If you want to see a thriller about trapped people dealing with limited oxygen and burgeoning psychosis, catch up with Ben Ketai’s not bad Beneath. It also features some nice performances from Witchblade’s Eric Etebari and the great Jeff Fahey. Unfortunately, only Charlotte Salt is convincing as the cool and collected Edwards. At least Elliot Levey projects a suitably intelligent presence for the tech guy, but he looks like he would be hard-pressed by basic training. On the other hand, no military man would carry himself in the manner of James McArdle’s obnoxious and argumentative Parks. However, nobody is more insufferable than Johannes Bah Kuhnke as the grating Mats.

Yes, sometimes the military has to do things that aren’t very nice and sometimes they even die. That is the price they pay for our freedom and security. They certainly understand that better than Parker does. He just gets everything wrong about the military mindset and personality, in ways that directly undermine the film. Not recommended, The Chamber opens tomorrow (2/23) in theaters and on iTunes.


Mehrdad Oskouei at Anthology: Nose, Iranian Style

Rather surprisingly, Iran leads the world in per capita rhinoplasty. It maybe isn’t what the martyrs died for during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, but they indirectly contributed to it. When you are forced to wear the chador, suddenly your nose becomes much more important to your self-esteem. However, Mehrdad Oskouei was somewhat baffled by the number of young Iranian men also getting nose jobs when he set out to investigate the phenomenon in Nose, Iranian Style, which screens as part of Documentary, Iranian Style at Anthology Film Archives.

Compared to his other films about juvenile delinquents and gender iniquities in provincial Iran, Nose is definitely a lighter film from Oskouei. Yet, he still has he same calm, reassuring style as an interviewer that gets his subjects talking like old friends. If they ever franchise Kids Say the Darnedest Things in Iran, he would be the logical candidate to host. Nevertheless, he still offers some trenchant social observations.

Basically, Oskouei and some of his commentators see this trend as a by-product of a vacuous (and highly censored) pop culture that holds little interest for younger generations, who also feel alienated from political and religious authorities. There is indeed also the issue of women who want to look good in the deeply resented chador.

Still, it seems younger Iranians just have it in for the nose. Oskouei talks to a number of pre-teens who just can’t wait to go under the knife. They all seem to think he and his crew could use some work too. Of course, this isn’t without discomfort, expense, and even risk.

Watching Nose, it is clear there are some really attractive young Iranians, who need plastic surgery like they need emergency ice shipments in Antarctica. Those Green Wave demonstrations must have been quite a happening (and what a pity they were so harshly crushed). Apparently, you have to do something to pass the time, when free expression and unfettered political participation are not available (granted, that is not exactly how Oskouei puts it). Deceptively light-hearted and ultimately quite fascinating, Nose, Iranian Style screens with the short doc Maryam of Hengam Island this Saturday (2/24) and Sunday (2/25), as part of Anthology’s Oskouei retrospective.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Philip K. Dick ’18: Sound from the Deep (short)

It is like At the Mountains of Madness for the era of climate change. H.P. Lovecraft is indeed the loving and sinister inspiration for this tale of primeval arctic horror, but it has an international flavor the scribe from Providence would have had a hard time relating to. The Arctic Ocean is a cold, dark place that was better shunned by mankind in Antti Laakso & Joonas Allonen’s short film, Sound from the Deep (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Philip K.Dick Film Festival.

Mikael Aalto is a Finnish grad student, who joined a joint Scandinavia-Russian petroleum prospecting vessel as a research fellow, under the tutelage of his mentor, Prof. Norberg. Their mission was to search for oil and natural gas deposits in the regions of the ocean recently opened to navigation due to polar melting. Unfortunately, they have nothing to show for their efforts until Aalto picks up a strange noise on his instruments. Norberg convinces the captain to take a detour to investigate, arguing it must be a large pocket of natural gas. However, Aalto and Sofia, the Russian sonar specialist, are not so sure.

At a tight and tense twenty-nine minutes, Sound might just be the purest and most effective Lovecraft homage yet. It is also massively impressive from a simple logistical perspective. Laakso and Allonen have a legit looking Arctic cutter that they put through some very stormy seas. They have scenes that are more cinematic than anything in The Perfect Storm. Yes, there is also something Elder God-ish, but they vary it slightly from strict Lovecraftian mythos.

Sound is so impeccably Lovecraftian, it starts with Aalto telling his cautionary story, mindful that his listener most likely assumes he is mad. Ojala Eero is perfect as the accursed survivor, cover the spectrum from an awkwardly cerebral rational positivist to the profoundly shaken doomsayer. Nastasia Trizna is also scary convincing portraying Sofia’s mental deterioration.

Thanks to Ville Muurinen’s sweeping cinematography, Sound is one of the rare short films that truly deserves to be seen on a big screen. The creature effects are also terrific. Anyone who appreciates ambitious genre filmmaking will be fired up by what Laakso & Allonen have to offer, but Lovecraft fans will absolutely flip for it. Very highly recommended, Sound from the Deep screens this Saturday (2/24) as part Block Four: International Sci-Fi Shorts 2, at this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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Curvature: Time Travel on a Budget and a 36-Hour Time Limit

In the TV show 7 Days, that was the limit to how far they could travel back in time. Sam Beckett was limited to the span of his own lifetime in Quantum Leap. However, the time travel system developed by Helen Phillips’ fellow scientist husband only goes back 36 hours. That means she cannot go back and prevent his murder, but maybe she can stop herself from becoming a murderer herself in Diego Hallivis’s Curvature (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Phillips has been a basket case since the suicide of her husband Wells, but she suddenly snaps out of her funk when she gets a mystery call warning her to get out of the house. It is sort of like the opening scene to The Matrix, but the voice sounds weirdly like her rather than Laurence Fishburne.

When she connects with her platonic work pal, Alex, Phillips learns she has lost a week of time. Soon thereafter, she comes to suspect the time machine Wells developed with his partner at Curvature Corp. really works—and the mysterious blue hoodie woman is actually herself, gone back thirty-six hours. When she discovers the truth about Wells’ murder, which we can guess the second our prime suspect enters the frame, she realizes why she went back. Can she stop herself from going to a very dark place, when she happens to be herself?

Curvature is an okay time travel film, but it is way too predictable. Honestly, one of the innumerable drawbacks to filmmakers’ biases against businessmen and venture capitalists is that it makes it stupidly simple to deduce the real villain’s identity. Curvature is a clear-cut example of that phenomenon.

On the plus, side the time travel stuff is pretty decent. Wisely, Hallivis does not try to do too much with respect to near-misses and crossed paths for Phillips and Phillips-prime. Instead, he focuses on Phillips’ intellectual and emotional challenges. A bit where she and good old Alex use their shared history to figure out a password is especially well-written, by Brian DeLeeuw. Lyndsy Fonseca and Zach Avery also turn it quite nicely, even they are often a bit stiff together. Sadly, the great Linda Hamilton had to be released early, so we only get a few tantalizing scenes of her playing Phillips’ mentor. However, it is fun to see been-in-everything character actor Glenn Moorshower turn up again as Wells’ partner, Tomas.

Curvature has its merits, but it is also saddled by its budget constraints and blind spots. It is the sort of independent science fiction we want to champion, but this is definitely a case where the sum of its parts is greater than its whole. Just kind of okay, Curvature opens this Friday (2/23) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


Mehrdad Oskouei at Anthology: The Other Side of the Burka

The tight-knit Islamist villages dotted along Iran’s southern coast look extreme even to many Revolutionary true believers throughout the rest of the country. Down there, the chador is not sufficient. Women must wear Burkas. At least it is the Gulf-style metallic mustache-guard burka rather than the completely encasing version preferred in Afghanistan, but if you think it is so comfortable than why don’t you start wearing one? The women who live there are desperate, miserable, and bereft of hope, judging from the interviews Mehrdad Oskouei conducts in The Other Side of the Burka, which screens as part of Documentary, Iranian Style, a new retrospective of the documentarian’s work starting this Friday at Anthology Film Archives.

The catalyst for Burka was the suicide of a long-suffering wife and mother named Samireh. Ironically, she seemed to be in better spirits than many other women, but there is no secret why she did what she did. The words of her widower husband speak volumes: “As the saying goes, women are like footwear, if you lose one, you can easily obtain another. But, what am I to do with my children?” Well, maybe he could consider stepping up and taking responsibility, but we’re just spit-balling here.

In any event, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Oskouei quickly establishes what social conditions are like. Women are married off early in this region—thirteen-year-old brides are not uncommon in the community. They are forced to have many children, but their husbands often have difficulty supporting their families. On the flip side, when times are good, the men often take younger second wives.

Oskouei records one harrowing story after another chronicling physical abuse, mental cruelty, and perverse attempts to induce abortions. The filmmaker tries to show the men some compassion too, explaining how over-fishing forced many fishermen to resort to smuggling, running a very real risk of arrest and imprisonment to feed their families. Yet, it is as obvious as the burka on your face they would be much better off if they married women who were somewhat older and allowed them to complete their education and pursue employment outside the home.

Again, it is striking how completely these women trust Oskouei. They have difficult stories to tell, especially to an Iranian man, yet they give him shockingly intimate testimony, on-camera. They are brave to reveal so much, but he was also pretty gutsy to expose the systematic injustices they continually endure. It clocks in at an economical fifty-two minutes, but it says plenty in that time. Very highly recommended, The Other Side of the Burka (paired with Oskouei’s documentary short, My Mother’s Home, Lagoon) screens this Friday (2/23) and next Monday (2/26) during the Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mikhalkov’s Sunstroke

Ivan Bunin was the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but that did not exactly thrill the Soviets, since he was living in Paris at the time as a “White émigré.” Among the White or Menshevik-affiliated exiles, Bunin was a rock star, but it was a small group. Nikita Mikhalkov reminds us why so few dissidents escaped the 1920s Red Terror in his fusion of Bunin’s nonfiction Cursed Days and the titular short story. Mikhalkov remains a problematic figure, but there is no question Sunstroke is one of his best films in years, which finally releases today on DVD.

It is 1920. A large contingent of surrendered White officers are being processed for their promised return to Russian society. In exchange for relinquishing their arms and accepting the Soviet state they have even been promised the opportunity to immigrate. It is all very depressing for an honorable officer like the unnamed lieutenant, but his heart was already broken a lifetime ago in 1907. As he endures the boredom and petty indignities of the makeshift POW camp, his mind drifts back to his brief, intoxicating affair with a mystery woman while they were both traveling on a Volga steamship.

Sadly, it would only last one mad night, but the memory still lingers. Even the day after, largely spent in the company of Egoriy, a plucky street urchin takes becomes bittersweet in retrospect. Indeed, the 1907 narrative is classic Bunin, somewhat reminiscent of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” In contrast, the 1920 storyline is all Soviet, through and through. It also happens to be the more powerful strand. Although Mikhalkov eventually brings the twains together in a way that genuinely pays off, the 1907 narrative really could have been handled as one or two long flashbacks. In contrast, it is quite haunting to watch the loved-and-lost romantic lieutenant facing the utter end of his era, with dignity and sad resignation. (At least his comrade still has his loyal hunting dog Syabr).

Everyone should generally know how 1920 ended for Russia, but Mikhalkov still manages to surprise us. He is a talented filmmaker, but there is no question he is tainted by his friendship with Putin and his own unprecedented consolidation of power within the Russian film industry. We give him credit for calling for the release of Oleg Sentsov, which he really didn’t have to do, but by defending Russian aggression and imperialism in Ukraine, he has become what he condemns in the third act of Sunstroke and throughout the Burnt By the Sun trilogy.

Regardless, Mikhalkov’s stitching together of Bunin is truly epic in a tragically lyrical way that totally falls within his cinematic wheelhouse. He can balance the dark romanticism of his Dark Eyes with a historical indictment in the tradition of Wajda’s Katyn. Frankly, this film deserves more attention, but it is Mikhalkov’s own darned fault it has not enjoyed the festival love bestowed on his earlier films.

In addition to his bravura filmmaking techniques, Mikhalkov gets the benefit of some fine ensemble work. Milos Bikovic is terrific as Syabr’s owner, the aristocratic naval officer, Baron Nikolay Alexandrovich Gulbe-Levitsky, Vitaliy Kishchenko is wildly but believable unhinged as the defiant cavalry captain, and Kiril Boltaev is wryly sardonic as the Cossack Captain. However, nobody can withstand the furious power of Miriam Sekhorn as Rozaliia Zemliachka, a Communist revolutionary figure and architect of Soviet mass murder. She is just a chilling, show-stopping tour de force. Ironically, Martinsh Kalita and the Ukrainian-born Viktoriya Solovyova aren’t nearly as engaging as the star-crossed lovers.

Mikhalkov is still going big, which pays dividends in this case. This is a mixed bag film (that appears to have been judiciously trimmed for its US home release, with no obvious ill effects), but when it connects, it lands a haymaker. It takes a little work (and requires overlooking Mikhalkov’s politics), but it is worth it. Recommended for fans of Russian cinema and literature, Sunstroke releases today on DVD, from Distrib Films US/Icarus.

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Fantasporto '18: Still/Born

It’s not the dingoes. It’s a hag demon that is out to steal Mary’s baby. That’s assuming it really isn’t postpartum depression, like everyone around her so unhelpfully assumes. Whatever the case might be, infant Adam is definitely in jeopardy throughout Brandon Christensen’s Still/Born (trailer here), which screens at this year's Fantasporto.

Little Adam is already a survivor, considering his twin brother died during child birth. Mary and Jack are feeling some dramatically mixed emotions, but they try to focus on what they have. Soon after returning home, Mary starts seeing flashes out of the corner of her eye. She tries to explain them away, but the incidents quickly escalate. Before long, she is desperately trying to thwart the entity’s murderous schemes. Of course, all she gets from her doctor are anti-depressants. To be fair, Jack is reasonably supportive for a reasonable period of time, ill-timed business trips notwithstanding, but the demon has a knack for framing up Mary good.

Miscarriages and stillbirths are awfully painful for couples that suffer them, so exploiting them for a horror movie is a dicey proposition but hey, we don’t use the term “exploitation” for nothing. To their credit, Christensen and co-screenwriter Colin Minihan address such subjects with as much sensitivity as can be mustered in a fright flick. Unfortunately, the actual demonic and/or psychological horror is pretty standard stuff, albeit executed with a little stylish flair. There simply is never a moment in Still/Born that truly surprises us.

It is a shame, because the conventional narrative squanders a fierce and bravely vulnerable performance from Christie Burke as Mary. We truly believe her terror is real, regardless of its true nature. Alas, the film also wastes the great Michael Ironside in a largely inconsequential near-cameo as close-talking Dr. Nielsen. He doesn’t even get to yell at anyone. However, Rebecca Olson makes a strong impression as Mary’s desperate housewife neighbor, Rachel.

While we’re on the subject, why do Rachel and her husband have so many decorative skulls in their home and backyard? Wow, if that’s a thing, it’s sure been a while since we lived in the burbs. In fact, this is a perfect horror film for suburban consumption. It definitely taps into primal parental fears, but it follows a very well-established pattern. Still/Born is not terrible, but it is not good enough to recommend to discriminating horror viewers when it screens at Fantasporto.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

The Lodgers: Gothic Ireland

Loftus Hall has a bad track record when it comes to hosting company. According to legend, it is haunted by the ghost of a girl who went mad there when she discovered the handsome young houseguest who caught her eye was really Satan himself—but that will have to keep for a different movie. This film shot on location in the County Wexford manse is all about the supernatural entities below that control the lives of the teenage residents. Twins Rachel and Edward (we dare not speak their family name) are caught in a tragic cycle, paying for the depravities of their sinful ancestors in Brian O’Malley’s The Lodgers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Rachel and Edward’s parents committed suicide. Apparently, it runs in the family. Unfortunately, they are not alone. A malevolent force comes out after midnight to claim nocturnal dominion over the spooky mansion. The twins must abide by their three rules: be tucked into bed by midnight, never allow a stranger to cross the threshold, and never be gone for long. Obviously, this is bad for their social development, but Rachel still manages to start a haltingly flirtatious relationship with Sean, a decent lad who recently returned from WWI with a relatively mild case of PTSD.

Rachel meets Sean just as she starts to question whether she should obediently accept her fate, like her badly stunted brother. To further destabilize matters, the sleazy family solicitor Mr. Bermingham starts coming around, pestering Rachel to allow him to sell the property, in order to get them out from under their mounting debts. Plus, Dessie, the local bully constantly targets Rachel, because she is vulnerable and Sean, because he fought with the British.

The Lodgers is a deliciously atmospheric gothic yarn in the tradition of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, with some luridness cribbed from V.C. Andrews thrown in for extra salaciousness. Loftus Hall is definitely a sinister setting—it is hard to imagine anyone ever living there comfortably. Location is half the battle in a film like this, but Charlotte Vega is terrific as Rachel. There is also something surprisingly poignant about the tentative romance percolating between her and Eugene Simon’s Sean, as two underdog outsiders. Bill Milner is suitably creepy and clammy as the soul-ravaged Edward, while David Bradley looks like he might have ambled in from a Hammer Horror movie as dissipated old Bermingham.

Written by David Turpin, a composer and literature professor, The Lodgers is clearly engaging with the gothic tradition. However, it also challenges traditional Irish prejudices, with respect to landowners and the British. (Many will find the hostility unleashed against Sean rather shocking, but remember, Ireland maintained formal neutrality during WWII as well.) Like the best of gothic chillers, it is more about the sustained mood of foreboding (which O’Malley maintains quite surehandedly) than jump scares or gross-out moments. Recommended for fans of the genre, The Lodgers opens this Friday (2/23) in New York, at the Village East.

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7 Guardians of the Tomb: Li Bingbing, Tomb Raider

China has a love-hate relationship with tomb spelunkers. The government rails against western looters and demands the restitution of national antiquities. On the other hand, some of China’s bestselling novel, film, and television franchises feature Lara Croft-Indiana Jones-style characters, including the Ghost Blows Out the Light and Daomu Biji books that have spawned competing film and television adaptations. At least this Chinese-Australian co-production develops its own “original” mythology. It is all very ridiculous, but it is still good clean fun to head into the ancient lair with producer Li Bingbing in Kimble Rendall’s 7 Guardians of the Tomb (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

As an expert in poisonous venoms, Dr. Jia Lee could be quite useful on this outing, but she also has a personal stake. It is her adventurer brother Luke who is missing. He had been searching for a fabled emperor’s tomb that supposedly holds his alchemist’s secret rejuvenating elixir or some such thing. Apparently, his potion worked, he just got tired of his boss, or so we can glean from confusing costumed flashbacks.

Regardless, the expedition funded by cosmetics-pharma tycoon Mason Kitteridge, an old family friend of the Lees and Luke’s boss, is about to get chased underground by a Biblically-sized sandstorm. The good new is Luke’s GPS is still faintly transmitting. The bad news is millions of highly organized killer spiders stand between Dr. Jia’s ragtag group and her brother.

Guardians (the whole “7” business is obviously just a ploy to get it listed highly in VOD menus) aims to please during its economical eighty-three minute running time, offering up plenty of booby traps, ancient clues, and creepy-crawly arachnids. Li is a highly credible action lead—arguably more so than Kellan Lutz acting petulant as the boorish search-and-rescue expert, Jack Ridley. Stef Dawson, Jason Chong, and Shane Jacobson add some color and seasoning as the expedition’s communications specialist, archeologist, and blokey comic relief, respectively. However, the real MVP is Kelsey Grammer, who definitely came to play, which means he chews the scenery with a vengeance as arrogant old Kitteridge.

The tomb trappings are decent and the spider effects are good enough to freak out an arachnophobe. The backstory really makes no sense whatsoever and the rest of the story isn’t exactly rigorously logical either. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark (neither was the last Indiana Jones movie, for that matter), but it is enjoyable to see Li take the lead and Grammer do his villainous thing. Despite his extensive sitcom work, he really has a talent for playing bad guys. As a guilty pleasure, 7 Guardians of the Tomb is a perfect hangover VOD movie, so be advised when it opens this Friday (2/23) in LA at the Laemmle Music Hall and also releases through the On Demand platform.

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Mehrdad Oskouei at Anthology: Starless Dreams

Like everything else in Iran, being a woman makes it harder to be confined to a juvenal correctional facility. However, many of the young women remanded there would prefer to stay rather than return to their families. They are the first to admit they committed the crimes they were accused of, but viewers will quickly conclude probably everyone else in their worlds ought to be behind bars, rather than them, based on the heartbreaking confessions recorded in Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams (trailer here), which screens as part of Documentary, Iranian Style, a new retrospective of the documentarian’s work starting this Friday at Anthology Film Archives.

This is Oskouei’s third documentary shot at the Centre for Correction and Rehabilitation of Young Adults, but it was the first time he was allowed in the ultra-restricted girls’ section. They really are girls—teens and even tweeners forced to live on the streets and commit crimes to survive or pay for a fix. Getting approval for films on the boys was a dicey proposition, but Starless was a particularly daunting bureaucratic challenge. Nevertheless, it is clear the young women immediately trusted Oskouei and even forgot his presence during times of high emotions.

Several of the young residents were sentenced to the Centre for drug-related crimes. At least one is there for conspiring to kill her violent, drug-addicted father, much in the style of The Burning Bed. Several were victims of domestic violence and sexual molestation, which they fear will only get worse if they are released back into the custody of their abusive families. However, the Centre’s administration makes it clear once they exit the property, their former charges are no longer their responsibility. We do not see very much of the adult supervision in Starless, but when we do, they look really bad.

This film will just break your heart over and over again. The stories these young women have to tell are absolutely harrowing. Yet, they judge themselves just as harshly as the problematic adults they encounter. Oskouei never directly addresses politics or ideology, but it is crystal clear his subjects have been poorly served by Iran’s legal and social welfare systems, as well as the judgmental misogyny of the Islamist state religion.

It is also easy to see why the juvenile prisoners were so accepting of Oskouei. His voice is remarkably warm and soothing, while his questions always reflect the sort of humanist perspective they have rarely encountered. This is a quietly intimate film, but it is just as much a work of progressive muckraking as anything Jacob Riis ever did. Highly recommended, Starless Dreams screens this Friday (2/23) and next Monday (2/26) during the Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

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The Cured: Post-Zombie Ireland

Just what we needed, more forms of identity politics. In this case, it is your zombie status that really matters. It’s more complicated than you might think. After the outbreak of the Maze Virus, a cure was developed that returned 75% of the infected to their former human state. Alas, one quarter remain feral zombies, the so-called “Resistants.” Having lived through a zombie apocalypse, many of the uninfected still harbor suspicions of the other 75%, perhaps with some justification in David Freyne’s The Cured (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There is already a substantial body of film that speculates on how society would adjust to a cure for zombie-ism, including the BBC America show In the Flesh and the Canadian film, The Returned. The notion that some of the uninfected still hold a grudge is an old saw by now, but Freyne still harps on it. The first wave of “Cured” integration was not exactly a smashing success. Senan and Connor are part of the second. They hunted together during their zombie days, which they still vividly remember. One of their victims was Senan’s brother, a fact he declines to share with his American sister-in-law Abigail when she agrees to take him in, but the memory still tortures him.

Senan wants to live a quiet life and be a good uncle to his nephew, but Connor is a bad influence on him. Before the zombie outbreak, Connor was an up-and-coming politician, so he logically becomes a leading figure in the Cured-power movement. They argue they are merely a civil rights group, but there is reason to suspect they yearn to return to their days of brain-munching.

The Returned wants to lecture us on inclusion and understanding, but it is undone by its genre.
When you make a zombie movie, you need to have the zombie hoards start rampaging eventually, so you have to have a reason the fragile peace collapses. In this case, it is Connor and his Cured militants who upset the not so great equilibrium. That means they really are dangerous after all, so the hawkish skepticism was justified, rendering film’s didactic messaging null and void. Except for Senan, it sure starts to look like the only good zombie is a dead zombie.

In Maze, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor played an IRA terrorist serving time in HM Maze Prison, while in The Cured, he plays Connor, who was infected with Maze virus. It is highly debatable which character shows more remorse, if at all. Regardless, he is unsettling intense as the Cured resistance leader—arguably so powerfully so, he helps undermine Freyne’s efforts to liken the Cured to dispossessed immigrants and victims of police brutality.

To her credit, producer Ellen Page disappears into the role of mournful Abigail, but it is not like she has an overpowering movie star presence to contend with. Seriously, Juno was over ten years ago. Sam Keeley is also an effectively woeful sad sack as Senan. Yet, Paula Malcolmson has some of the best lines and the most interesting business as Dr. Joan Lyons, who is convinced she can cure the Resistant too, if she can just get six more months to perfect a serum, or maybe a full year—eighteen months, at the outside.

The Cured is so busy using zombies as a vehicle for Romero-esque commentary, it doesn’t even notice when its allegory collapses. Guess what? Zombies are dangerous, that’s what. Vaughan-Lawlor is impressive, and the Irish urban backdrop lends itself to the demilitarized dystopian near future. It just doesn’t add up to what Freyne intended. Too muddled to recommend, The Cured opens this Friday (2/23) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mainland Noir: Lethal Hostage

It is maybe the most extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome ever, but it happens in Burma. Yes, even Chinese films still call it Burma, not Myanmar. No matter what you call it, the area along the Chinese border is a lawless domain and the neighboring Chinese city of Ruili is a classic border town. Crimes from the dark past will directly affect the lawless present in Cheng Er’s Lethal Hostage (trailer here), which screens as part of the Mainland Noir film series now underway at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Sun Honglei plays “350,” a steely drug cartel lieutenant with ambitions of advancement. Need we go any further? Using a fractured narrative structure, Cheng kicks things off with two seemingly unrelated events that turn out to be profoundly linked. Xiao An visits her life-battered dentist father asking him to bless her marriage, but he bitterly refuses. Meanwhile, a young woman becomes suspicious of her neighbor, because something in his flat makes her dog Feng Feng bark like crazy. Poor Feng Feng will stir up a whole lot of trouble for himself and his owner, who happens to be the hot mess sister of the narcotics detective pursuing the neighbor’s boss.

Rewind ten years and we see 350 taking the dentist’s young daughter hostage after a drug deal goes spectacularly bad. It will be the start of a long string of misfortunes for the distraught father. However, Xiao An somehow brings out 350’s compassionate side. He will even stage a cartel coup to protect her. Of course, the machinations of fate will pull them all back to Ruili in the present time.

Lethal Hostage is an inadequate title to describe the gritty ruthlessness and tragic irony of Cheng’s narrative, but so be it. In many ways, it would be a fine companion film paired up with Johnnie To’s Drug War, which is high praise indeed. It all fits together nicely, but the scenes set in the sister’s apartment building are especially tense, in the tradition of Wait Until Dark.

Of course, Sun is superhumanly hardnosed as 350. Watching him stalk through Burma makes us believe he could knock birds out of the sky with a withering stare. Wang Luodan is affectingly earnest and vulnerable as his grown wife, while Gao Ye covers the spectrum, from passive aggressive party girl to an utterly terrified hostage herself. However, veteran character actor Ni Dahong really delivers the pathos as the woeful dentist.

Cheng does a lot of flashing backwards and forwards, but he always clearly establishes his place on the timeline. There are plenty of twists, but even more attitude and menace. It also obliquely recalls recent shoddy public works construction scandals, particularly the school collapses during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when a similar fate befalls a school 350 funded on behalf of his wife, which is pretty gutsy on Cheng’s part. Very highly recommended, Lethal Hostage screens this Thursday (2/22) and next Sunday (2/25) at the Yerba Buena Arts Center, as part of their Mainland Noir film series.

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Scent of Rain & Lightning

Oklahoma: it’s where the wind comes sweeping down the plain and family grudges can turn deadly. Technically, the book was set in Kansas, but the movie was shot in the Sooner State. Frankly, its not like New Yorkers or Angelinos could tell the difference. The family grudge business is what they will focus on, as will Jody Linder. Ten years ago, Billy Croyle was found guilty of murdering her parents, but his sentence has just been commuted. Since the past is already disturbed, Linder starts investigating that tragic night herself in Blake Robbins’ The Scent of Rain & Lightning (trailer here), which is now playing in Los Angeles.

Croyle is mean brute with and an evil temper. He definitely had a score to settle with his former employer, ranching baron Senior Linder (Jody’s grandfather) and the necessary capacity for violence. However, some inconsistencies in the trial record have come to light, starting with his son Collin’s anti-alibi. The morally conflicted young man now admits his father never roused from his drunken stupor on the night of the murders.

As Jody Linder peels away at the onion, she sees a darker side to her parents and platoon of uncles. There was also some embezzlement going on at their Colorado ranch, which may or may not be a red herring. Nobody really wants her to uncover the truth. Plus, the feral Croyle is still out there, nursing his grudges and resentments.

As a dustbowl noir, Scent is stronger on atmosphere than suspense. However, it is a terrific vehicle for Maika Monroe, whose work is remarkably sure-footed throughout the film. Despite her genetic good fortune, as Linder, she always comes across as very down-to-earth and humanly vulnerable. Watching her is like watching your own sister or daughter struggle with some deep, dark family secret.

Monroe also gets first-rate support from a deep ensemble bench. Brad Carter is chillingly and convincingly ferocious as Billy Croyle, while Will Patton demonstrates again why he is one of the best in the business with his hard-charging but increasingly complex portrayal of Senior. However, all the uncles duly look alike (doesn’t anyone in the plains states shave anymore?), which makes them believable as kin, but dashed difficult to tell apart.

Scent is undeniably predictable, but Robbins nicely evokes the lonely vibe of tallgrass country. The genre elements are so-so, but it is worth seeing anyway as a showcase for Monroe, who still has the potential to usurp Jennifer Lawrence’s position in Hollywood, especially given JLaw’s recent string of under-performers and outright bombs. Deserving more attention than its currently getting, The Scent of Rain & Lightning is now playing at the Arena Cinelounge.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Detective K: Secret of the Living Dead

Post-Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes has faced off against Dracula a number of times, so it is only fair Detective K[im Min] would get his own run-in with the living dead. However, he will be considerably more fortunate. Instead of a Transylvanian nobleman, he encounters a beautiful Joseon princess, who has lost her memories of her previous existence. For now, she is a gentle day-walker, but all bets are off when she remembers who did her wrong in Kim Suk-yoon’s Detective K: Secret of the Living Dead (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Wol-young (as Kim will call her) was immolated into dormancy, but she wasn’t burned sufficiently to destroy her. As a result, a mystery fugitive manages to revive her, before sacrificing himself for her safety. Meanwhile, Kim is unmasking a Scooby-Doo-style fake vampire. His next case won’t be so easy. A ruthless full-on vampire has been turning and then immolating the grown sons of prominent villagers. Logically, Kim is dispatched to stop the macabre serial murders.

As their paths cross, Kim and Wol-young discover they are both interested in the shadowy perp, whom the lady vampire just feels she knows from someplace, but cannot recall how. An uneasy but flirtatious truce is forged as they work together tracking their quarry. As long as the freshly revived Wol-young refrains from tasting blood, she can control her vampiric nature, but she will still be denied her memories. Of course, avoiding blood will be difficult given the circumstances.

If the previous Secret of the Lost Island was a little too shticky for your taste, you might consider giving the franchise a second try with Living Dead. Kim Myung-min and Oh Dal-su still engage in plenty of rubber-faced broad comedy as Kim and his loyal but cowardly servant Seo Pil, but the vampire story is far darker and way more poignant than Lost Island viewers would expect. As emotionally engaging vampire movies go, it falls somewhere between Byzantium and Let the Right One In, but still with a goofy sense of humor, somewhat akin to Vampire Cleanup Department.

Without question, Kim Ji-won is a major reason why it works so well. As Wol-young, she is eloquently expressive and achingly vulnerable. There is no question she muscles poor Seo Pil off the screen, taking command of the picture. On paper, Living Dead would sound like an unlikely star-making vehicle, but she turns it.

Franchise helmer Kim Suk-yoon also deserves credit for staging some highly cinematic action scenes and running up a body count exponentially higher than the norm for historical comedy. Frankly, there might be more tragedy than comedy in Living Dead, but that plays to Korean cinema’s comparative advantage. Recommended surprisingly enthusiastically for vampire fans, Detective K: Secret of the Living Dead opens today (2/16) at the Los Angeles and Buena Park CGV Cinemas.

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IFFR ’18 on Festivalscope: YEAH

It is unfortunate few people live in Ako’s provincial housing complex, because she could use some supervision. She definitely has persistent mental health issues, but she might also be haunted by ghosts (with an outside chance of being one herself). Regardless, it is nearly impossible for her to make human connections in Yohei Suzuki’s long short or short feature YEAH, one of several recent selections from the International Film Festival Rotterdam that streams for a limited time on Festivalscope’s public-facing VOD platform.

When we first meet Ako, she is having an earnest discussion with a tailor’s mannequin and an old growth tree somewhere in the wooded outskirts surrounding the complex. Since all the cookie-cutter buildings look the same, she accidentally barges into the wrong flat—a relatively common occurrence judging from the matronly mother’s reaction. However, her teen son is much more forgiving of Ako’s eccentricities. In fact, he might be the only person who really looks out for her during the course of the film.

Ako’s family situation is a little uncertain, but she definitely has a brother who would like to commit her for a while. Eventually, she meets another young woman who is as off as she is, but it is still not a healthy relationship. She really ought to seek out the kindly lad, but she is obviously not thinking clearly.

YEAH (an oblique reference to Ako’s difficulties with American colloquialisms) manages to combine the look of vérité naturalism with an unsettling sense of the surreal. Even in the economically depressed town of Mito, Ako’s world should not be so depopulated and lonely. Yet, she careens about on her own, with only the occasional snarky teen mocking her from afar. Visually, it serves as a metaphor for the isolation and alienation resulting from her scrambled psyche.

Despite Suzuki’s challenging aesthetic approach, the film is almost entirely reliant on Elisa Yanagi’s haunted and haunting portrayal as Ako. She can be disruptive and vexing, but Yanagi vividly taps into her unspecified traumas, laying herself emotionally bare. We really want things to be better for her, which is frustrating, but also the sign of a lethally effective performance.

YEAH is the rare sort of film that is tough to watch on both stylistic terms and on a gut level. Although Suzuki does his best to keep the allegorical readings abstract, it leaves us with a nagging suspicion all is not right with the world. The awkward forty-five-minute running time also makes it difficult to categorize and program, in a betwixt and between sort of way. At least those who appreciate subtly avant-garde cinema will have their chance to take it all in while YEAH streams for public audiences on Festivalscope, through February 20th.