J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: The Water Margin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chang Cheh at the Quad: Heroes Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Picnic at Hanging Rock: The Mystery Still Beguiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantaspoa ’18: The Man with the Magic Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Genesis: The Singularity Get Biblical

By now, we know any post-apocalyptic shelter named “Eden” will be anything but. The Biblical references will not stop there. It is 2067 and humanity isn’t quite dead enough, so we will go ahead and hasten the Singularity to finish the job in Freddie Hutton-Mills & Bart Ruspoli’s people-hating Genesis (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Paul Brooks earnestly tries hold the last dregs of human civilization together as the civilian proles’ official liaison to the Eden government, but he is losing heart. The government elites keep slashing rations, even though they still eat quite well themselves. Like Marie Antoinette, they treat the “Civvies” like dirt, insisting they do nonsensical “punishment duty” for minor infractions. Basically, this entails walking around outside, until their environmental suits start losing their integrity. You’d think they would just stand still, to cause less wear and tear, but they can’t help wandering off. Periodically, some sort of environmental death ray flares up, forcing them to take shelter in rusted-out cars. Considering how many wrecked jalopies are out there, you’d think they could use them to build a bigger base.

Dr. Eve Gabriel (her name is a double-whammy) still has hope—and he is named Abel (seriously). That is the AI android built with technology developed by her late husband. It/he also happens to be the spitting image of the robotics scientist. Dr. Gabriel hopes that Abel will be able to forage for food and potentially scout for other human survivors, because he can walk around the post-apocalyptic surface without a hazmat suit. Yet, as Abel learns more about human nature and starts thinking for himself, the implications become rather awkward for Team Eden.

Why do Hutton-Mills & Ruspoli hate their fellow humankind so much, they want to eradicate us as a species? Frankly, the theme that humanity has become too sick to merit survival has become alarmingly prevalent in science fiction and end-of-the-world films in recent years. Okay, so maybe people hate Trump, but killing us off as a species definitely seems like overkill.

In this case, Genesis is not just rehashing a particularly problematic theme. It is basically cobbled together from bits and pieces cast-off from dozens of more accomplished sf films. A particular head-slapper is the big revelation that comes midway through. We won’t be outright spoilery, but as a hint, it was probably lifted from the original Bladerunner.

Compared to Genesis, Singularity (with John Cusack) is still complete junk. This film has a boatload of issues, but it benefits tremendously from the reassuring presence of John Hannah. He has a lot of accrued good will from Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Mummy franchise. In fact, Hannah is terrific doing the post-apocalyptic thing in the honestly entertaining Gina Carano vehicle, Scorched Earth, but we can only follow him so far here.

Likewise, Olivia Grant is considerably better than this movie deserves as Dr. Gabriel, who has quite a developmental arc. For what it’s worth, Warren Brown is also decently nefarious as Sec. Jordan Ainsley. Unfortunately, Chiké Okonkwo takes the vaguely sketched Abel and makes him almost impossibly boring, for a genocidal machine.

This is bad future speculation, bad character development, and bad world-building. Yet, the conclusion promises (threatens) more to come. As armchair futurologists, our analysis says a Genesis sequel (probably to be titled Revelations) is highly unlikely. Not recommended, Genesis releases today on DVD.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

In Darkness: Murder She Heard

There are a fair number of pianists to be found in classic giallos. Most likely, it is because of the genre’s obsession with hands—often donning patent leather gloves and wrapped around a woman’s throat. For a while, it seems like this film will paying homage to the J&B whiskey-guzzling Italian tradition. It even opens with the blind pianist scoring a neo-retro-giallo. Alas, the screenplay then gets “topical,” throttling the good vibes of Anthony Byrne’s In Darkness (trailer here), co-written and co-produced with his fiancé and star, Natalie Dormer, which opens this Friday in New York.

Sofia is light-sensitive, but legally blind. Nevertheless, she gets around London just fine on her own. She knows her upstairs neighbor Veronique by the smell of her perfume. At least, she did until the disturbed young woman took a header out the window. However, the scuffle she overheard suggests homicide rather than suicide. It turns out, the hot mess neighbor had a notorious father—alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal Zoran Radic.

The bad news is the killer got a good look at her. Fortunately, he also knows she is blind. In fact, Marc, the brooding murderer will keep an eye out for Sofia as she gets swept up in the aftermath. It turns out Veronique had an incriminating flash-drive, loaded with dirt on Daddy Dearest. However, before the film settles into a one-set, three-act thriller in the tradition of Wait Until Dark, we start to learn Sofia also has her own Balkan connections.

The first half-hour or so of In Darkness is not bad, because it largely employs old school stage-thriller techniques, including the home invading murderer slowly skulking around the oblivious Sofia. Frustratingly, the more it reveals of its exploitative back story, the less effective it becomes. To make matters worse, Byrne and Dormer frequently lay some pretty patchy groundwork to establish their future revelations.

Still, Dormer has some nifty noir thriller chemistry with her Game of Thrones co-star Ed Skrein, as the conflicted killer. Ben Wheatley-regular Neil Maskell nicely plays against type as the shlubby but doggedly honest DI Oscar Mills. However, the highlight of the film is Joely Richardson’s flamboyant scenery chewing as Alex, Marc’s sharp-tongued and sharp-clawed sister and security consultant boss. Plus, with the appearance of James Cosmos, dependably weathered, as Sofia old comrade, In Darkness scores the GoT hattrick.

In the case of In Darkness, less probably would have been much more. Frankly, its political intrigue does not make much sense and bears little relation to reality. The notion the British government is sheltering Radic from the Russians is particularly dubious, considering how war-time Serbia and Srpska have tilted towards Putin. Frankly, the West fiddled while Sarajevo burned, but we have pretty diligent about apprehending and extraditing Bosnian Serb war criminals, because closing the barn door after the fact is what we do best.

There are some sparks between Dormer and Skrein, but ultimately, they are undermined by a messy narrative and questionable character reveals. Cinematographer Si Bell gives it all a stylish, tantalizingly-close-to-giallo look, but that just makes us pine for the delicious lunacy of Peter Strickland’s retro giallo freak-out, Berberian Sound Studio. We wish we could send it back to the editing bay, but as it stands, In Darkness is too inconsistent to recommend when it opens this Friday (5/25) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Chang Cheh at the Quad: House of Traps

In 1982, the Shaw Brothers released two films based on the classic Chinese novel, The Seven Heroes and the Five Gallants. Cat vs. Rat starred Kara Hui, whereas Chang Cheh’s version had no women roles whatsoever. It’s still fun anyway. Chang’s House of Traps, fondly remembered as the last time he assembled his so-called Venom Mob (from The Five Deadly Venoms), screens as part of the Quad’s upcoming retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

It is Kung Fu versus booby-traps and a rather nasty thief. Yan Chunmin is the honest scholar crime-busting judge Bao Zheng has appointed Inspector General of Xiangyang, the seat of rebellious Prince Zhao Jue’s power. The line between hero and thief (or grifter) is rather porous throughout the film, as a con man becomes the scholar’s protector and two thieves ostensibly aligned with the Prince will eventually face-off against each in the climatic battle.

Along the way, hidden allies will reveal themselves and the four surviving Gallant “Rats” will rally to the loyalist cause after one of their brothers is killed in the Prince’s titular “House of Traps.” It is there that the Prince stores several significant stolen works of art as well as the dishonor roll of all who have sworn allegiance to his uprising—sort of an early version of the NOC List.

Basically, House of T is Kung Fu with a touch of Rube Goldberg and some costumes worthy of Evel Knievel or Liberace (but seriously, what’s with those knit bonnets?). It seems like a simple story, but Chang and co-screenwriter Ni Kuang manage to complicate the heck out of it. There is an unwieldly large cast of name characters, who are constantly coming and going, like characters in a screwball farce. However, Philip Kwok and Lu Feng certainly show off the martial arts chops the Venom Gang were famous for.

There are plenty of fan-pleasing fight sequences, plus a few rather striking visuals. However, what really sets the film apart is the goriness of the deaths inside the Prince’s house of pain. Stuff happens there that is worthy of the Saw and Final Departure franchises, but Chang manages to keep the overall tone brisk and upbeat. Sure, it is goofy and bloody, but it is still good clean fun. Recommended for fans of the Shaws and the Venoms, House of Traps screens this Thursday (5/24), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

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Nature: The World’s Most Wanted Animal

They are considered the only truly scaly mammal, but if you are not already familiar with the pangolin, you may not have much time to get to know them. Currently, they are considered the most endangered and most illegally trafficked animals on the globe. However, pangolins have a few friends out there, including dedicated preservationist Maria Diekmann and possibly the most famous woman in the world, Angelababy (trust me, nobody in Hollywood can touch her social media numbers). From Namibia and Vietnam to Hong Kong, activist race to save the pangolin in Victoria Bromley’s The World’s Most Wanted Animal (promo here), which airs this Wednesday on PBS as part of the current season of Nature.

Diekmann is pretty the boots on the ground when it comes to saving the African pangolin in Namibia. She gets the call when authorities recover live pangolins. Even with their scales, they are a surprisingly cute little creature, sort of like armadillos that walk upright on their hindlegs, but with more personality. Tragically, pangolin scales have been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine and there is also demand in Chinese restaurants for their meat. As a result, the Chinese market has largely decimated the Asian species of pangolins, despite the best efforts of Thai Van Nguyen and his pangolin rescue colleagues at the nonprofit Save Vietnam’s Wildlife—and they are fast depleting the African population, as well.

Essentially, Most Wanted is divided into two parts. The first focuses on Diekmann’s work in Namibia, giving special attention to Honey Bun, a pangolin she saved as a baby. The second chronicles Diekmann’s travels in Asia, learning from her Vietnamese colleagues’ experiences and strategizing PR outreach with Angelababy. Clearly, the only way to save the pangolins for the long term is to make the consumption of their products socially unacceptable in the Chinese market. One of the results of their meeting was this stark PSA, posted on her social networks. (For the record, Maggie Q is also a pangolin ambassador, so pay attention.)

Throughout Most Wanted, Bromley and Diekmann definitely drive home the urgency of the situation (which is indeed dire), but the pangolins are still quite entertaining to watch, especially Honey Bun. They are their own best advocates, but it does not hurt to have Angelababy cranking up her star-power. Cinematographers Sue Gibson and Graham MacFarlane also capture some stunning shots of the natural landscapes of Africa and Vietnam. There is actually quite a bit in this film to see—and protect. Highly recommended for the message and the visuals, The World’s Most Wanted Animal premieres this Wednesday (5/23), on PBS’s Nature.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: The Five Deadly Venoms

How would you like to be rescued by a toad or a lizard (possibly a gecko, depending on the translation of the subtitles)? Fortunately, there are no distressed damsels in this Shaw Brothers classic. Instead, the Venom martial arts clan will take care of some internal business. The Master has died, but he has sent his last student out to find out whether his brothers have been naughty or nice in Chang Cheh’s legendary The Five Deadly Venoms, which screens during the Quad’s upcoming retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

The old master trained five disciples, each in a different venom style. The Centipede attacks so quickly, it is like getting pummeled by hundreds of fists. Snakes strikes accurately and lethally at his victim’s weakest point. Toad is nearly invincible to fist or blade, but if his secret Achilles heel is pierced, he loses all his mojo. Lizard is so speedy, he walks up walls like Spiderman. Scorpion is known for his deadly kicks, which sounds conventional, but he is the sneakiest snake in the grass of them all.

The master sent them back out into the world, at which point they adopted new names and mostly started to reflect discredit on the clan through their crimes. With his dying breath, he instructs Yang Tieh to track down his five brothers, ascertain who has strayed from the righteous path and punish the wicked. Yang was trained in all five venoms, but his master died before his training was completed. He will not be able to defeat any of his seniors alone, but if he teams up with one of them, they will be able to perfectly compliment each other.

That will most likely be either Toad or Lizard (who is masquerading as a mildly corrupt constable). They are more rogues than villains. Like the other mystery venoms, they are searching for the treasure purloined by Yun, the Master’s elderly former clan brother. In fact, Toad is so public-spirited, he assists his brother Lizard apprehending a murder, whom they (rightly) suspect to be Centipede, but that calls unfortunate attention to Toad and his conspicuous toad-like invulnerability. Most of the venoms are pretty easy to guess, but Yang hides in plain sight, posing as a goofball drifter, which he mostly is.

Five Venoms is beloved as much for its eccentricity as it is for its martial arts spectacle. Frankly, some of the moves are downright loopy, but it is tough to beat the energy. Even by late 1970s Shaw Brothers standards, this is not exactly a lush production, but it is arguably the original archetype for a host of imitating-homage-paying followers, including Tarantino’s white-washed, anglicized Lady Snowblood rip-off, Kill Bill.

Kuo Chui and Lo Mang are both terrific as Lizard and Toad, respectively. Frankly, the film is at its rollicking best when it functions as their buddy movie. Alas, they are not together for long, but they make a dynamite team during that time. Chiang Sheng is also weirdly effective as Yang, who seems like a total sad sack throughout the first two acts, yet steps up nicely for the big climatic showdowns. Plus, Wei Pei looks appropriately slimy, but nicely handles the evolution of Snake.

So, pick your poison. There have been many more artistically refined martial arts films since 5DV, but this is the original article. In retrospect, we can even view it as a forerunner to scores of films, even including The Usual Suspects. It still delivers the goods, with all kinds of cynical good humor. Very highly recommended for martial arts fans, The Five Deadly Venoms screens this Wednesday (5/23) and Friday (5/25), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

SIFF ’18: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful

Nothing drives corruption like government land use policy. Of course, if you throw in some illicit sex and jealousy, things can really get explosive. The Tang family will find themselves in the eye of a brewing storm when their loves and lusts exacerbate a political scandal in Yang Ya-che’s shamelessly entertaining The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

Madame Tang is ostensibly just an antiquities dealer, but she has leveraged her position as the widow of a revered general to become a behind-the-scenes political power broker. She has essentially given up grooming her oldest daughter Tang Ning, whose disgust at her mother’s amoral machinations manifests in various forms of self-medication (sex, booze, pills, awkward scenes in public). Instead, her youngest daughter, fourteen-ish Tang Chen most often assumes co-hostess duties.

In anticipation of a major developed project, Madame Tang has guided her political associates to buy up parcels in an otherwise sleepy rural district, using shell companies. Her circle of influence includes the regal wife of the speaker and up-and-coming legislator Lin, whose family is the Tangs’ nearest neighbors. However, the deal starts to fall apart when the Lin family is mysteriously massacred in their home. Only their teenage daughter Lin Pien-pien survives, but only just barely, in a comatose state. Tang Chen will be assigned her bedside vigil, even though her relationship with the somewhat older teen is complicated—just like everything else having to do with the Tangs.

Like Yang’s Girlfriend Boyfriend, Bold is set in Taiwan during the 1980s, but they feel like they are worlds apart. While his previous film is unabashedly earnest, Bold is dark, twisted, and maybe even a little lurid, but it sure is fun to watch the Tang family and their associates behave spectacularly badly. There is always another shoe left to drop, but Yang primary and over-riding concern is always Madame Tang’s dysfunctional relationships with her daughters. Gosh, this would be such a nice film for Mother’s Day viewing.

Speaking of mothers, the great Kara Wai [Hui] (amid her latest career renaissance) knocks it out of the park as the sly, string-pulling Madame Tang. One knowing look from her is worth more than a mountain of CGI effects. Of course, we always knew she was awesome. Probably the biggest surprise is Wu Ke-xi, who is best known for her remarkably bold but naturalistic work in Midi Z’s docu-like films. As the hot mess sister Tang Ning, she proves she can preen, seduce, and Dynasty-slap fiercer than anyone. Holy cats, can she ever burn up the screen. Yet, Vicky Chen (a.k.a. Qi Chen, who was such a revelation in Angels Wear White) hangs with them both as the deceptively innocent-looking, utterly destabilizing Tang Chen.

Bold is a deliciously cynical film that is also kind of trashy, but in the best way possible. Frankly, it would be fitting if Madame Tang warned viewers to buckle-up their seat belts, a la late Bette Davis, because this is definitely a roller coaster ride. It is just your basic sarcastic political melodrama, with a considerable body-count, so what’s not to like? Very highly recommended, The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful screens tonight (5/19), next Saturday (5/26), and the following Monday (5/28), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Carter & June: They’re No Bonnie & Clyde

Most tourists believe they should spend a lot of time on Bourbon Street, because it is famous. Leave it to them. When you are in New Orleans, check out the clubs on Frenchmen and Decatur Streets instead. Frankly, Spencer Rabbit’s strip club is even sleazy than the worst of Bourbon Street, but he intends to expand. However, to do so, he will need to cash to pay-off the grossly corrupt police chief. He intends to raise his liquidity through a bank heist he is fronting, but two former lovers plan to complicate the scheme. Unfortunately, their complications get complicated in Nicholas Kalikow’s Carter & June (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

June O’Malley needs money for lawyers to contest an unfair custody decision. Carter Jennings needs money to prevent Rabbit’s goons from breaking his kneecaps. Together, the former romantic and scam artists partners agree to reunite to intercept Rabbit’s big score. Their inside person will be Rabbit’s inside person: a former stripper he managed to place in an assistant manager position. Her job is to distract the gunman in the safety-deposit vault, her latest conquest, while O’Malley and Jennings switch bags.

It was all supposed to be a sleight of hand job, but when the hold-up turns into a shoot-out, all bets are off. They still manage to make the switch, but now their fates are intertwined with that of Officer Jason Twitty, the beat copper who shot up the joint. The naïf should be easy to manipulate, but his unfaithful, grasping wife Darla Mae Twitty has been doing it longer than they have.

C&J starts out promisingly, with colorful characters and rude, decidedly un-PC humor, but it eventually dissolves into a conventional Tarantino knock-off. Yet, the real problem is the sheer dullness of the co-leads, especially when compared to the infinitely more interesting supporting cast.

There is no denying Timothy Omundson cranks the snide b1tchiness up to eleven as Rabbit. James Landry Hébert certainly tries his hardest as poor Twitty, while James Moses Black (who was really terrific in Dark Meridian) does what he can as the moderately crooked Internal Affairs detective, Duke Johnson (the have quite a sliding scale for corruption in Nola). Alas, the film just can’t get much momentum going, because Michael Raymond-James and Samaire Armstrong are so lethally boring as the title characters.

There is a dab of Crescent City color in C&J, but there is plenty of room for more New Orleans music, culture, and style. That is actually a shame, because the genuine sights and sounds of New Orleans (and Cajun country up north) make anything more fun. Frankly, no Nola film should ever be this bland. Just kind of whatever, Carter & June opens today (5/18) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


SIFF ’18: Suleiman Mountain

History and religion have not been kind to Kyrgyzstan. They are still stuck with the trappings and infrastructure of the mid-1980s Communist era, while chauvinistic attitudes keep them from evolving into a modern society. The nation is overwhelmingly Muslim, but there is also a shamanistic tradition. Unfortunately, many now equate shamanism with fakery. Karabas and his first wife Zhipara are partly to blame for that. When they reunite, they start pulling some of their old scams together, much to the consternation of his new second life. There isn’t a sitcom on network TV that reflects this not-so modern family unit, perhaps because its long-term viability is not such a sure thing in Elizaveta Stishova’s Suleiman Mountain (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

When Zhipara finds her long-lost son Uluk in an orphanage, Karabas welcomes them both back into his unstable life. In the meantime, he also married the now-pregnant Turaganbubu, but polygamy remains an acceptable practice in “modern” Kyrgyzstan. She wants nothing to do with Uluk and Zhipara, but Karabas is fiercely loyal to his son. Yet, he is so gruff and generally irresponsible, he ends up crushing all the boy’s expectations. Frankly, Karabas is not much, but Kyrgyzstani society is such that both Zhipara and Turaganbubu believe they need him as a protector.

Named for the spiritually and geologically significant landmark, Suleiman Mountain takes viewers to an exotic locale, rarely seen in film, but gives them a distinctly gritty, hardscrabble view of life there. Everyone in Kyrgyzstan has it hard, but Karbas’s invariably bad decisions always make things worse. Despite his somewhat picaresque nature, it is often painful to watch his corrosive influence on the people around him. Yet, there is no denying the film’s raw energy and unvarnished honesty.

Asset Imangaliev is so believably self-centered and self-sabotaging as Karabas, viewers will want to pummel him, after only twenty minutes. Turgunay Erkinbekova similarly comes across utterly naturally as the confused and resentful Turganbubu. Yet, Perizat Ermanbetova towers above everyone as the weary but resourceful Zhipara.

S Mountain is the sort of film that feels very docu-like, even though it tells a fictional narrative. It is also a rather remarkable depiction of motherhood and parenthood, for reasons that are too complicated to explain. It has virtually zero commercial prospects, because it is not a film that files down rough edges or sugar-coats anything, but it very definitely invites viewers to walk in the shoes of people very different from us. Recommended for anyone intrigued by the Central Asian Republics, Suleiman Mountain screens today (5/18) and Sunday (5/20), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

SIFF ’18: The Eternal Road

Scandinavians have a calm, quiet image, but Finnish history in the early 20th Century was anything but. The Whites fought the Soviet back Reds in their 1918 Civil War, but Finns fought for their very existence against the invading Soviets during the Winter War of 1939 and the subsequent Continuation War. In between, an estimated 6,000 Finnish Americans immigrated to the USSR out of socialist solidarity. Jussi Ketola did not join them voluntarily, but as a “guest” of the workers’ paradise, he is not allowed to leave. Unfortunately, he is not exactly comfortable there, nor is he warmly welcomed either in Antti- Jussi Annila’s The Eternal Road (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

Rugged, taciturn Ketola is assumed to hold vaguely socialist sympathies, but he is also a farmer, so he was drafted by the Whites, before immigrating to America, only to return during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, that gives him little credit with the White score-settlers, who threaten to lynch him near the Soviet border. The good news is he escapes alive. The bad news is he wakes up Petrozavodsk, where a NKVD officer rather playfully informs Ketola he is suspected of being a spy. It is not that they really believe he arrived with a bullet in his side to commit espionage, but it is a way of exerting control over him.

The cheerfully sinister Kallonen wants Ketola to inform on his new hosts at Hopea, a collective farm operated by Finnish-American Christian socialists. They believe in Stalin’s Russia, even though they are believers, but as the Purges start escalating in the mid-1930s, it will only be a matter of time before they wind up on the chopping block. However, Ketola makes a new life for himself there, marrying the widowed Sara and adopting her eight-year daughter Mary. For six years, he manages to keep Kallonen at bay, but 1936 will be an ugly and tragic time for everyone on the collective farm.

Based on fact, Eternal Road shines a spotlight on some little-known history. You do not hear very much about the American immigrants to the Soviet Union, because that is exactly how Stalin wanted it. The very idea of a Christian collective farm in Stalinist Russia also boggles the mind, but such institution was obviously surgically removed from all Soviet media and memory as well. Even more fundamentally, the film reminds us just how predatory and belligerent the USSR behaved towards Finland during the inter-war era.

Ketola is definitely a strong silent time, but as the epic everyman, Tommi Korpela broods and slow-burns like nobody’s business. However, it is Hannu-Pekka Björkman who really lands the knock-out punch as the jovially evil Kallonen. He is truly one of the year’s great villains, but it is important to note, everything he does is grounded in historical truth. Somewhere between the two poles of Korpela and Björkman, Danish Sidse Babett Knudsen (probably the most recognizable cast-member, from Borgen, Westworld, and 1864) anchors the film as the passionate but down-to-earth Sara.

Annila helms with a sure-hand, capturing the complexities of the era, while depicting Soviet brutality in powerful, unambiguous terms. This is a sweeping epic, but the practical matter-of-factness with which the characters face their crises and carry on is rather touching. Very highly recommended, The Eternal Road screens tomorrow (5/18), Tuesday (5/22), and Wednesday (5/23), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Champion: Don Lee Arm-Wrestles

It takes a brave man to star in an arm-wrestling movie after the face-plant that was Over the Top. Ladies and gentlemen, that man is Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok). He is the one who brawled his way through a train car of zombies in Train to Busan. Believe it or not, his character even references the notorious Sylvester Stallone bomb as his inspiration. Yet, Lee manages to surpass his role model in Kim Yong-wan’s unabashedly earnest family sports drama Champion (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

“Mark” Baek Seung-min is big, but shy. He had a hard time of things during his formative years, so it is understandable. His desperately poor Korean mother gave him up for adoption, but his American foster parents died shortly after his arrival in the States, leaving him essentially on his own. Inspired by Over the Top, arm-wrestling became his only passion, but his professional career was cut short in America by a dubious scandal. His only friend, the sleazy (but possibly decent way deep down) Jin-ki has lured him back to Korea with the promise of managing his professional comeback.

To sweeten the deal, Jin-ki also offers up the address of Baek’s birth-mother, but the arm-wrestler soon learns she has recently passed away from cancer. However, he discovers he has a sister (Su-jin), a niece, and a nephew he never knew of. Suddenly, they have someone to chase away the mobbed-up bill collectors and fix things around the apartment, while Baek finally starts to feel a sense of belonging. Of course, his refusal to throw matches at the behest of a crooked sponsor will probably lead to trouble down the line, especially when the scummy sports bettors recruit Punch, a steroid-juicing, psychotic former contender to be their standard bearer, straight out of prison.

Lee, who was born in Korea, but grew up in America, graduating from Columbia State University, clearly understands where his character is coming from. He is acutely earnest as Baek, but he also looks like he could rip Stallone’s arm off. It is easy to see why he has already reached a significant level of stardom in Korea and is poised to do the same internationally when you see him interacting with Ok Ye-rin and Choi Seung-hoon, the young, ridiculously cute thesps playing his niece and nephew. The fact that he is not dramatically up-staged by them, pretty much says it all.

Lee also shares some nice chemistry with Han Ye-ri’s Su-jin and turns some rewarding third act scenes with Kwon Yool’s heretofore annoying Jin-ki. Unfortunately, Yang Hyun-min and Lee Kyoo-ho make rather generic villains, who really are not very enterprising. Plus, Kim’s screenplay manufactures a lot of bogus drama that starts to try our patience. Yet, we can’t help rooting for Baek and his potential new family, because they all look so good together.

So, to recap, if you need a sensitive hulk, Don Lee is your man. As good old Lincoln Hawk says: “The world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.” To that end, Lee carries this film and thereby grabs leading man status. Nobody should have any illusions—Champion is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, but it is an indomitable crowd pleaser—with distinctly Korean sensibilities. Recommended for fans of Don Lee and family-friendly triumph-over-adversity sports movies, Champion opens this Friday (5/18) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Incoming: Scott Adkins Kicks Butt on a Space Station

The world’s superpowers have finally come together in space, but not in a Star Trek kind of way. They have joined forces to rendition the Hell out of six utterly savage terrorists. Of course, no good ever comes from bad guys in space. Scott Adkins wanted to use his inspection to close down the project, but he will have to act more proactively when the terrorists take over the station in Eric Zaragoza’s Incoming (trailer here), which has a special one-night only screening at the Sunset Arena CineLounge this Friday.

The former International Space Station has been retrofitted into a prison, with the British Kingsley serving as the interrogator, warden, and one-man crew. He has nothing to show for the last five years, so the hard-nosed American Reiser is determined to shut him down. To further his cause, he has brought along Dr. Stone, a gullible liberal do-gooder. Unfortunately, she is so appalled by Kingsley’s operation, she allows Argun, the leader of the notorious “Wolf Pack” to escape through a misguided show of pity.

Soon, the terrorists have control of the station and the shuttle, which they intend to use to crash their former prison into Mother Russia, thereby igniting global nuclear war. The only people who can stop them are Reiser, Stone, and their shuttle pilot Bridges, who are all still loose in the station, like John McClane in Nakatomi Plaza.

To an extent, Incoming seems to indict practices of extra-territorial rendition as anti-terrorist practices that violate the core principles of constitutional democracy. On the other hand, it also suggests terrorists will always be terrorists, so any attempt to reason with them will end in tears. Of course, it is probably just a fool’s errand trying to fashion a coherent political statement out of Jorge Saralegui’s threadbare screenplay.

Alas, this is definitely a minor film in the Scott Adkins canon. He chops are as razor sharp as ever, but the film can’t seem to make up its mind whether he should be the sinister villain of Wolf Warrior and Expendables 2 or the brooding hero of Savage Dog and Close Range. Michelle Lehane turns out to be a pleasant surprise, displaying a forceful presence, even though she is working with a lame script and standing next to Adkins most of the time. As Argun, Vahidin Prelic certainly looks the part, but his facility for scenery chewing is so-so at best.

There are a number of entertaining fight sequences, because Adkins is Adkins. Yet, when Dr. Stone explains early on the malnutrition endured by the prisoners lowered their bone density, the inconsistent screenplay primes us for a feast of bone-snapping that never happens. You can find plenty of better Adkins movies available on VOD and DVD, like the free-wheeling Accident Man, but this is the latest. Only for hardcore fans viewing in the comfort of their own homes, Incoming is now available on VOD platforms (including iTunes) and screens this Friday (5/18) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

If for no other reason, HBO’s remake of Fahrenheit 451 stakes a claim on history, because it gives Keir Dullea bragging rights as perhaps the only actor to appear in films based on the work of both Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Unfortunately, this adaptation is far too concerned with being “timely” and “relevant,” thereby limiting its long-term significance. Bradbury’s anti-censorship message is perhaps more needed now than in 1953 when he wrote his classic novel, but it doesn’t come through in an urgent, principled way in Ramin Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 (trailer here), co-adapted with the great expat Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi, which premieres this Saturday on HBO.

Guy Montag is a fireman, just like mentor, Captain Beatty. As you should know, that means they set fire to banned books (pretty much all of them), rather than extinguishing accidental fires (come to think of it, wouldn’t they still need old-fashioned firemen in a dystopian world?). Montag has never really thought about the implications of his work, except maybe when a repressed incident from his childhood resurfaces in his memory. However, an encounter with Clarisse McClellan, one of Beatty’s reluctant sources, starts churning up vague doubts. Not long after, he secretly takes home a contraband book, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. With McClellan’s help, the book spurs Montag to start thinking for himself, perhaps for the first time.

Montag is further haunted by the horrifying sight of an old fashioned “Eel,” who opts to self-immolate rather than abandon her books. In a significant departure from Bradbury (and Truffaut), she also happens to utter a word she really shouldn’t have, because it gives the Firemen a clue as to a game-changing book-preservation initiative the dissident underground has concocted. (As an aside, Montag’s media-anaesthetized wife Millie was cast, but later cut from the final film, which seems like a rather Orwellian act to make such a major character disappear without a trace.)

Without question, the greatest misstep of this Fahrenheit is the attempt to update the near dystopia with elements of internet culture and reality TV that will be familiar to contemporary viewers. However, this just distracts more than it enhances the films credibility. It’s a constant source of business undercutting the starkness of Bradbury’s original vision. Bahrani and Naderi also ash-can the background drumbeat of impending war, which explained why all these thought police regulations were implemented in the first place.

Still, the ever-reliable Michael Shannon is quite intriguing and compulsively watchable, playing the hard-nosed Beatty, who has his own secret print vices. In contrast, Michael B. Jordan is rather inert and inexpressive as Montag, the Fireman supposedly wrestling with his conscience and doubts. Nor is there much chemistry between him and Sofia Boutella’s McClellan. However, Dullea adds a note of integrity as the learned “Historian,” who is also involved in the book-preserving underground. That really was perfect casting.

Fahrenheit just doesn’t hold together as a persuasive cautionary vision, which is a shame, because we could use a good version about now. Quite problematically, it plays ideological favorites with the books we see burning. You will not find any conservative classics like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the Firemen’s bonfires, but it is hard to think of a book that would be less acceptable to the dystopian powers-that-be. In fact, it rather mixes the message when one of the underground “Book People” is introduced as “Chairman Mao” because she memorized the Little Red Book—yet you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in history who did more to censor and eradicate books than Mao Zedong. Sadly, the film never really drives home the point that we should apply the 1st Amendment most to books and articles that we do not agree with, or else we risk adulterating our own constitutional protections. A major disappointment, Fahrenheit 451 premieres this Saturday (5/19), on HBO.

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Wim Wenders’ Submergence

James More is a lot like James Bond, but he can also devise a sustainable village water supply system. He has to know the engineering, because it is all part of his cover. (By the way, that is “More” with one “o,” as in For All Seasons.) Regardless, it is easy to believe women would be interested in him, but he is not a Bond-like player. That is why the intoxicating and possibly tragic vacation romance that blossoms between him and Danielle Flinders, an avowedly single workaholic marine bio-statistician, hits them both so hard in Wim Wenders’ Submergence (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Before leaving on a dangerous assignment, More takes a rare vacation in Normandy. We can safely say it will be perilous, based on the in media res opening, focusing on More starving in a Somali Jihadist prison cell. Flinders is also biding time before leaving on an undersea expedition that is not without risks. When they meet, the mutual attraction is immediate—and it progressively deepens over their short holiday.

When it is time to leave, they resolve to try to make a go of it long-distance, but, presumably for her protection, More has yet to fully level with Flinders regarding his true line of work. That is why she is so confused when he goes dark after getting captured by the Islamists. She is so distracted by his presumed ghosting, it even affects her work. He too is rather heartsick over her, but he has more pressing concerns, like catching bugs to eat.

Submergence is considerably better than critics made it out to be, but the speed at which Flinders’ separation anxiety turns into self-pity is hard to buy into. Granted, she thinks he is in Kenya rather than Somalia, but that is still not a super-stable country with an ultra-modern communications infrastructure. She really ought to chill out and stop calling every five minutes.

Still, the first half romance is quite appealing, in a Brief Encounter kind of way. Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy are attractive leads, but they also have a real facility for making screenwriter Erin Dignam’s adapted dialogue sound natural—and erotically charged. Their chemistry feels real.

More’s captivity sequences also have a visceral charge. Some have focused on a bit of dialogue in which More professes to admire the terrorists’ faith, but that is taken somewhat out of context. Frankly, the film is pretty forthright in its depiction the ruinous influence of Islamist extremism on Somalia. There is not much for viewers or More to admire there. In fact, it gets rather bold when the subject of a forced conversion video comes up.

Apparently, J.M. Ledgard’s source novel makes much of how the two lovers’ lives supposedly parallel each other’s after their separation, but Wenders wisely de-emphasizes that synchronicity, aside from a few moments of dog whistle intuition, wherein Flinders suddenly cocks her head in sudden alarm. In fact, the deep-sea exploration branch of the film is definitely its weakest link. Nonetheless, Celyn Jones is terrific as Thumbs, her less talented colleague, who is better suited to winning over the ship’s crew.

Of course, Vikander and McAvoy are the marquee attractions and they play their wind-swept romantic roles to the hilt. Wenders and cinematographer Benoît Debie fully capitalize on the strikingly cinematic landscapes of Normandy for the courtship segments and the Greenland Sea (Iceland, Faroe Islands) for the submersible episodes. It looks great, but despite all its lyricism, Submergence is still shrewder and more connected to the real world, as it really is, than most Hollywood films. Recommended for fans of star-crossed art-house romance, Submergence is now available for home viewing.

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