J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

BUFF ’18: The Theta Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

I Kill Giants: Here There Be Giants, Maybe

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: ,

Exitante!: Friendly Beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

QWFF ’18: Open Land—Meeting John Abercrombie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: , , ,

Thessaloniki ’18 on FS: In Situ

Thessaloniki and Athens are sort of like Chicago and New York. Even though the former is usually overshadowed by the latter, they can at least lay claim to having a distinctive avant-garde jazz scene all their own. Indeed, a free improvisational music scene exploded in the Aegean city after the fall of the military regime and it has held on ever since. Although they use the term “jazz” intermittently, the Free Jazzers discuss in depth the art and practice of improvisation, as well as some of their shared history in Chryssa Tzelepi & Akis Kersanidis’s In Situ, which streams for free until Sunday on Festivalscope’s public facing platform.

Their ethos is free and experimental, but you can still hear a good deal of structure in the music documented in situ, in In Situ. Thanks to a few practically-underground clubs, like pianist Sakis Papadimitriou’s hole in the wall, the music had an infrastructure to provide gigging and learning opportunities. We hear him in a variety of contexts, including plucking the piano strings in a very outside performance, but going inside during the film’s surprisingly swinging closer.

Tzelepi and Kersanidis introduce us to many colorful figures, including Gianni Lenoci, who also experiments with treated pianos, as well as practicing Butch Morris’s conduction techniques of big band conducting. Drummer Floros Floridas is Papadimitrou’s frequent duo partner, photographer, Aris Georgiou is sort of the Francis Wolff of their scene and graphic designer Dimitris Arvanitis is the Reid Miles.

There are also a couple ringers of note. German drummer Gunther “Baby” Summer is a former East German, who originally discovered jazz through Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts and now regularly collaborates with Greek jazz musicians. He is also quite stylistically flexible—his nickname is a reference to an early hero, New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds. We also see parts of a command performance by Art Ensemble of Chicago veteran Roscoe Mitchell, backed up by many now familiar Greek jazz musicians.

In Situ is a remarkably accessible introduction to free jazz and free improvisation. These musicians are definitely playing outside—and flying high without safety nets—but they never sound abrasive. Even if audiences do not fall in love with what they hear, it should sufficiently stretch out their ears to widen their potential listening spectrum. Frankly, it is a shame this film stands virtually zero chance of securing theatrical distribution in America (seriously, a documentary on Greek free jazz improvisors). Tzelepi and Kersanidis also earn credit showing a bit of style in the way they frame interview sequences, which is a plus. Recommended for anyone interested in adventurous music, In Situ streams free of charge on the civilian Festivalscope until Sunday (3/25), as part of their collection of films from this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cedric Klapisch’s Back to Burgundy

Wine experts love to talk about how important terroir (the combination of land and environmental factors) is for Burgundy wines. That makes it very labor and resource intensive. A prodigal son is only back few days when his estranged siblings put him to work overseeing the harvest. It is no vacation, but it might be the distraction from his marital problems that he needs in Cédric Klapisch’s Back to Burgundy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jean made it home to Burgundy just in time for a final conversation with his father, but it was unsatisfyingly one-sided. Due to several misunderstandings, he is not particularly welcomed by his younger brother Jérémie, but middle sister Juliette tries to act as peacemaker. She is also the new boss of the family domain, for which all three now owe over $500,000 in inheritance taxes as the equal co-heirs.

Much to his surprise, Jean will stay through the harvest to help his siblings settle the estate business. It is also a way for him to take a time-out from his increasingly strained marriage, but he still misses his son Alexander dearly. At least he manages to patch things up with Jérémie and Juliette, to an extent, as the four distinctive Burgundy seasons pass.

Klapisch knew wine thanks to his connoisseur father and a stint as a waiter in a fancy New York restaurant, but the real expert is co-star Jean-Marc Roulot, an actor and real-life vintner, who plays the domain manager Marcel. He coached Klapisch and the cast through all the techniques of harvesting and subsequent domain business, so it is scrupulously realistic from a viticultural perspective.

As for the drama, that is Klapisch’s specialty. He is one of the best at writing and helming multi-character dramas that combine romantic and familial storylines. That might sound straight forward, but if it were so easy, everybody would be doing it [well]. Rather remarkably, Klapisch managed to film on-location on Burgundy over all four seasons, which isn’t Boyhood, but still represents an unusual level of commitment. However, he might have been a little too enamored with the details of viticulture, because a few subplots are allowed to turn into dead ends, such as Jean’s flirtation with Lina, an attractive seasonal harvest worker.

Nevertheless, Burgundy is a very human and forgiving examination of family and the constant struggles for those whose livelihood is rooted in the land. Pio Marmaï, Ana Giradot, and François Civil are all terrific as Jean, Juliette and Jérémie, respectively, totally convincing us they have years of shared history and resentments together. Roulot is appealingly down-to-earth and obviously in his element as Marcel, while María Valverde adds some needed heat and intensity as Alicia.

It all looks magnifique, thanks to Klapisch’s stylish élan and Alexis Kavyrchine’s sun-dappled cinematography, which just revels in the Burgundy landscape. Their efforts certainly will not damper Burgundy’s burgeoning tourism or exploding real estate market. Recommended for patrons of French cinema and French wine, Back to Burgundy opens this Friday (3/23) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center and next Friday (3/30) in Queens, at the Kew Gardens Cinema.

Labels: ,

Beauty and the Dogs: Tunisia, Post-Jasmine

There was a revolution in Tunisia, but it only toppled a regime, leaving oppressive ideologies and prejudices intact. In fact, secular Tunisians have grown alarmed at the growing influence of Islamists following the Jasmine Revolution. The notorious case of the woman known as “Meriem” is a horrifying case in point. For her first narrative feature, Kaouther Ben Hania fictionalizes some of the details of the compounded crime, but she remains tragically true to real life throughout Beauty and the Dogs (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Mariam Chaouch is pretty and social, but not political. She is not the sort who is inclined to make trouble. The two Tunisian police officers who raped her probably picked up on her innocence. Yet, the college student from the country has the naïve notion that she should get for the crimes she suffered. Youssef will support her search for justice, sometimes perhaps with a bit too much reformist zeal. He was an activist during the Jasmine protests, who was getting extortion money for a third corrupt copper at the time of Chaouch's attack. He still witnessed plenty.

With him by her side, Chaouch tries to make reports at various hospitals and police stations, but everyone, men and women alike, callously refers her back to the neighbor precinct where her rapists are stationed, to file the bureaucratically mandated complaint. She can hardly believe it herself when she does exactly that. At that point, their lives are very much in danger. It is worth noting there is at least one good cop in the station, perhaps, but he is vastly outnumbered.

A long night deserves long takes—nine of them to be exact, one for each of the films chapters. Thanks to digital technology, this is easier to do than in the days of Hitchcock’s Rope, but it is still a gutsy call. Yet, it works quite well in this case. Frankly, Ben Hania is not flashy about it, but she uses the tight, hand-held camera work to build a sense of uncomfortable confinement. It also might have been a bit of method aid for the ensemble to crank up the tension.

Clearly, Mariam Al Ferjani needed no such help, because her screen debut as Chaouch is a jaw-dropping tour de force. Even though Ben Haria keeps the actual violence off-screen you feel it very directly through her pain and confusion. Arguably, Ghanem Zrelli is the weak link, who often looks like he is just there as Youssef to help facilitate the business on screen. However, Noomen Hamda is quietly and rather profoundly compelling as Chedli, a veteran detective appalled by his colleagues’ criminal behavior, but whose conscience and courage is maybe not yet at a tipping point. That is a tricky place to play a character, but he pulls it off remarkably well.

To her credit, Ben Hania never waters down the extent to which Islamist misogyny contributes to Chaouch's plight. In one telling scene, a particularly ruthless cop makes a point of discussing with Youssef the absence of Joseph of Nazareth from the Quran. The implications of that, coming in a police interrogation room, are pretty chilling. Ben Hania’s previous hybrid-doc The Challat of Tunis had some interesting elements, but Beauty represents a whole new level of cinematic accomplishment. Very highly recommended, especially for anyone who wants to understand the post-Jasmine world, Beauty and the Dogs opens this Friday (3/23) in Los Angeles, at the Landmark Nuart.

Labels: ,

Final Portrait: Sitting for Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti is immortalized on the 100 Swiss Franc note. He also currently holds the record for the highest auction price received for a work of sculpture—$126 million for L’Homme au doight (Pointing Man). In today’s art world, these are the highest measures of success, but like many true artists, Giacometti was plagued by self-doubt. In fact, his particularly neurotic artistic sensibility made it quite a protracted business to sit for Giacometti as a model, as an American art critic learns for himself in Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1964, James Lord was already one of the foremost experts on Giacometti’s work and something of a personal friend. Naturally, he is quite flattered when the revered Swiss artist asks Lord to sit for him. It will just be two days Giacometti assures him. It certainly will not conflict with his flight back to New York at the end of the week. However, as Giacometti obsessively obliterates and re-paints the portrait, Lord reluctantly agrees to repeatedly reschedule his flight, at no small expense. While growing increasingly impatient for Giacometti to finish, Lord nonetheless finds himself drawn into Giacometti’s exclusive world, observing the weird dynamics of Giacometti’s relationship with his wife Annette and on-call call-girl Caroline, while forging a fast friendship with Giacometti’s sculptor brother Diego.

Final Portrait is not exactly the meatiest film ever produced, but it is intoxicatingly nostalgic and sophisticated, like a glass of Pernod at a vintage Parisian café. Frankly, it certainly looks like there were worse fates than getting delayed in Paris circa 1964. (Indeed, Lord only protests intermittently, since among other things, it allows him to attend the press unveiling of Marc Chagall’s Paris Opera ceiling).

Geoffrey Rush might be experiencing a bit of PR turbulence right now, but there is not denying he is an eerie physical match for Giacometti. The artist’s eccentricities and insecurities are also perfect for the actor who made his reputation playing David Helfgott, Inspector Javert, Peter Sellers, the Marquis de Sade, and the King’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue. You can see pieces of them all in Giacometti, but Rush gives him a charm of his own that allows the audience to fully get why Lord keeps sitting for him (frankly, we don’t understand why he wanted to leave in the first place, but so be it).

Armie Hammer bears a similarly strong likeness to Lord. He is quite tall in the role, but he also nicely balances Lord’s youthful enthusiasm and Eastern reserve. Plus, it is nice to see a member of the hardscrabble Armand Hammer clan finally make good. This is the first film Tucci directed that he does not also appear in, but his alter-ego Tony Shalhoub is present and accounted for. In fact, Shalhoub is quite invaluable grounding the film and injecting some gentle humor as Diego Giacometti. In contrast, Clémence Poésy does little to elevate the stock character of Caroline.

Light like a blonde roast coffee, Final Portrait is low on stress, but unusually inviting, with credit also due to Evan Lurie’s lithe, French café society-appropriate music. This should be a film MoMA eventually revives from time to time, because their regular membership would enjoy it as much as the film program patrons. Recommended for those who appreciate fine art and fine living, Final Portrait opens this Friday (3/23) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, on the Criterion Channel

The tentatively titled Memoria will be Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film shot outside Thailand, but the rain forests of Colombia do not look so very different from the settings of his previous films, particularly Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives. Weerasethakul openly wonders if he might lose his mojo in a foreign land, but he is convinced he needs the challenge of working outside his comfort zone. He is on a long location-scouting trip, but he has the company of actor-turned-filmmaker Connor Jesssup, who gives the auteur a casual documentary treatment befitting his impressionistic style in A. W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which premieres tomorrow on the Criterion Channel (on Filmstruck).

Weerasethakul adopted the sensible nickname of “Joe” for expediency’s sake, but Weerasethakul still makes us thankful for the copy-and-paste function. He is one of a growing number of internationally renown filmmakers who is more widely watched abroad than in his native country, but Thai movie buffs really ought to give Cemetery of Splendor a try, because it his best work yet.

Jessup, best known as an actor in Falling Skies is a passionate admirer of Weerasethakul’s aesthetic, so he set out to profile his role model, but his subject often turns the camera back on him, because that is what natural-born filmmakers do. It is fitting though, because the short doc has a languid rhythm and intimate vibe very similar to Weerasethakul’s films. Jessup bows to convention by incorporating a number of clips from his subject’s film, including the Palme D’Or-winning Boonmee and Cemetery. However, even ardent fans might not recognize the extracts from the prolific Weerasethakul’s experimental shorts and art installation films, because it is hard to keep up with that kind of work.

If you dig Weerasethakul than you will be charmed by A.W., whereas those who are unfamiliar or standoffish towards his films might start to glean some appreciation from Jessup’s Portrait. The relatively economical running time of forty-seven minutes is also a point in its favor. It is nice to have this film for those who will be studying Weerasethakul in the future (as they surely will be), but it will not eclipse Corman’s World or the weirdly under-screened Rohmer in Paris on the honor roll of compulsively watchable documentaries about film directors. Recommended for Joe Weerasethakul fans, A. W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul starts streaming tomorrow (3/19) on the Criterion Channel/Filmstruck.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, March 17, 2018

MFF ’18: Love Education

When it comes to marriage, it isn’t the love or the memories that really matter. It’s the paperwork. Alas, Qui Huiying’s father was not particularly diligent at documenting his two marriages, but those were chaotic times in the Mainland provinces. As a result, Qui and her father’s first wife find themselves in a standoff throughout Sylvia Chang’s Love Education (fortunately also starring Chang herself), which screens during the 2018 Miami Film Festival.

After the death of her mother, Qui decides her parents should be buried together, even though that would mean exhuming him from the grave “Nanna” tends every day. In fact, the soon-to-retire teacher is convinced this was her mother’s dying request, even though her husband Yin Xiaoping and daughter Weiwei totally missed it. Determining legal standing in this case will be a tricky business. Grandpa and Nanna were joined in an arranged marriage, but he left their famine-wracked village a few months later hoping to find opportunity in the big city. There he met Qui’s mother, whom he married according to more modern and legal conventions. However, neither has the right kind of official court marriage license to prove their rightful custodianship of his grave.

Meanwhile, Weiwei was falling for Da, a brooding hipster bar singer, at least until his ex and her young son showed up on his doorstep. Their relationship might sound like it will parallel that of Qui’s parents, but Chang is too sophisticated a filmmaker for such simplistic one-to-one gimmicks. Indeed, it soon becomes clear their halting romance is very much their own.

Granted, Love Education is messy in both smart ways that are true to life and in less fortunate reflections of a somewhat untidy screenplay. However, it is enormously refreshing to see an emotionally mature relationship-driven film that features intelligently drawn, fully dimensional female and male characters. Clearly, Chang has a special knack for this kind of drama, having also helmed the exquisitely delicate Murmur of the Hearts.

Of course, she is also one of our greatest living actresses. Critics love to laud Dame Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon as more mature actresses who are still glamorous, but that should apply one hundred-fold to Chang (just check out her recent work in Office and Mountains May Depart). This time around, she still somehow manages to sneak up on us, charging ahead as the dutiful-daughter-tiger-mother in the first two acts—and then suddenly lowering the boom on us in key scenes down the stretch.

Likewise, the formerly banned filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhaung gives a lowkey performance as Yin, until he suddenly just pulls the rug out from under us. Lang Yueting nicely portrays Weiwei’s process of maturing and coming into herself, while Geng Le adds some intriguing flair as the actor-parent of one of Qui’s problem students.

Love Education is an intimate film that makes you fee like you are practically a member of Qui’s family. Yet, buried within, there is some thinly veiled critiques of China’s longstanding record of polygamous practices in rural areas, as well as the chaotic mid-20th Century ideological movements that left so many government records offices in a state of utter shambles. First and foremost, there is really terrific work from Sylvia Chang on both sides of the camera. Highly recommended for readers authors like Gail Tsukiyama and Lisa See, as well as Chang’s many fans, Love Education screens tomorrow (3/18), as part of this year’s Miami Film Festival.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, March 16, 2018

Journey’s End: R.C. Sherriff’s Classic Drama, Back on the Big Screen

R.C. Sherriff’s classic stage play was such a definitive depiction of WWI, Heinz Paul opted to maintain the characters’ Britishness for his 1931 German language film production. Ironically, it would be Aces High, a 1976 Franco-British co-pro that took the most liberties, shifting the drama from the trenches to a fighter squadron. This time around, director Saul Dibb and screenwriter Simon Reade closely follow the original text with their faithful yet still powerful adaptation of Journey’s End (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Hopelessly naïve with respect to the war, 2nd Lt. Raleigh manages to get himself assigned to the infantry company of Captain Stanhope, his senior at school and his sister’s romantic interest. Unfortunately, the war has taken a drastic emotional toll on Stanhope, who now regularly self-medicates with whiskey. Nevertheless, his is still the best trench-level officer in the British Army.

With the launch of what would be known as the Spring Offensive imminent, Raleigh’s timing is downright perverse. In fact, Stanhope bitterly resents his presence, fearing Raleigh will inform his sister of his post-traumatic condition and that Raleigh’s blind hero-worship will lead to his death. The latter concern becomes especially pressing when Stanhope’s superiors order him to dispatch Raleigh and the beloved second-in-command, Lt. “Uncle” Osborne on a dubious daytime raid.

Dibb opens up the drama just a bit, giving viewers a sense of the intricacies of the trenches, but he retains the feeling of airless claustrophobia. Just being there looks like a miserable experience, so it is easy to see how the added tension of the anticipated German attack would try men’s souls. The film itself feels more than sufficiently realistic, but Dibb is also clearly attuned to the institutionalized class differences between officers and the enlisted.

Sam Claflin is terrific and almost terrifyingly intense as Stanhope. It is an achingly brittle performance that actually pairs up nicely with his work in Their Finest, which is tonally quite different, yet shares some overlapping themes. Likewise, Paul Bettany really gives the film depth and soul with his humanistic portrayal of Osborne. Much like he did in Zoo, Toby Jones finds his opportunities to inject pathos and dignity into Mason the cook, who might otherwise be a stock character cliché in someone else’s hands. Frankly, the maturation and disillusionment of Asa Butterfield’s Raleigh seems a bit slow, but his character is really just there to serve as a foil and mirror to Stanhope.

It is nice to see Dibb finally get another film released in American theaters after the Weinsteins dithered away his quality adaptation of Suite Française. This is an even better film that captures the horrifying futility of war without indulging in graphic gore. Highly recommended, Journey’s End opens today (3/16) in New York, at the Landmark 57.

Labels: , , ,

Demon House: Paranormal TV Host Makes the Documentary Leap

If poverty and crime are a magnet for the sinister supernatural than Gary, Indiana should be Demon City, USA. It was there that Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans bought a notoriously haunted house sight-unseen and got far more than he bargained for. At least that is the story he tells in his documentary (sure, go ahead and scoff) Demon House (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

Whatever went down in the house before Bagans took possession, it was freaky enough to make veteran police officers and child protective services case workers vow to never step foot in it again. Bad things happened to those who had been inside, including several near fatal accidents. The previous tenants had actually had an exorcism performed by Father Mike Maginot, a major supporting character in the film. They now refuse to have any dealings with Bagans, because they are afraid he could re-infect them with the demons or whatever it might be.

It would seem Bagans’ investigation extended the house’s tragic history by delivering up new victims, such as his home-inspector, who is reportedly diagnosed with cancer shortly after finishing his appraisal. Things really get ugly when a family of former tenants pays a spontaneous visit. Yes, we should all be skeptical, but at least in some cases, such as the murder of a psychic Bagans frequently worked with, the details can be quickly verified with a google search, which is sort of unsettling.

Retired Gary PD Captain Charles Austin also appears to be totally legit and not the least bit inclined to hysterics. Even for us rational positivists, he and Maginot lend the film a lot of credibility.

So, was the now demolished house really haunted? Of course not. Don’t be stupid. However, we can believe that Bagans and his crew really believed. Who knows what that can make possible when combined with some really terrible Feng shui. Frankly, Bagans over-relies on the sensationalistic tactics of his Travel Channel show. His constant teases and recaps always sound like they should end with “after these commercial messages.” Nevertheless, the demonic business is genuinely scary at times and often quite convincingly filmed/staged/produced/documented—whichever, take your pick.

It is inevitable that Demon House will be described as a feature-length episode of Ghost Adventures, but it is also an unusually effective one. We prefer to think of it as a found footage horror film that recruited talent connected to the real-life house that inspired the film. In any event, it is a creepy film that will not do the Gary Chamber of Commerce any favors. Recommended for fans of ghost-chasing TV and found footage horror movies, Demon House opens today (3/16) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset.

Labels: , ,

Rendez-Vous ’18: Before Summer Ends

Ah, home sweet oppressive regime. Iranian expatriates like these three grad students have a complicated relationship with their homeland. As one puts it, he feels more at home in Iran, but he is more like the person he wants to be in France. When one of the trio decides to return home, his two mates convince him to take one last (or rather first) road trip together in Maryam Goormaghtigh’s Before Summer Ends (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Arash is a big fellow, who was apparently spoiled by his family in Iran. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ashkan and Hossein adapted better to life in Paris, especially the latter, who married a French woman. When Arash announces his plan to return, his friends try to talk him out of it, yet they obviously understand his decision. Nevertheless, they will have one last hurrah of easily accessible beer and wine, while camping out and carousing along the French Riviera.

Reportedly, Goormaghtigh originally intended to make a documentary about the refugee experience (because there are hardly any of those already), but the three expat friends just captured her filmmaking enthusiasm. Indeed, it is quietly compelling to watch them navigate their in-between expatriate existences: not citizens, not asylum-seekers, not illegal aliens, nor stateless fugitives.

Although filmed direct-documentary-style, Before often has the feel of a chatty Richard Linklater indie-road-comedy, especially when two French indie-rockers start tagging along. However, serious issues are always percolating right below the surface. In fact, we eventually learn Arash is not the only one who will have to make hard-and-fast residency decision.

The trio, simply credited as Arash, Ashkan, and Hossein (which is telling in itself), crack their share of scatological jokes, but they also have some shrewd insights to offer. Perhaps the resemblance between the geography of the south of France and the north of Iran put them in a conducive head-space. In any event, we certainly feel like we know them when the film finally runs its course.

Before Summer Ends is a small film, but it has some wry nuggets of wisdom to offer. Considering how much they enjoy their potent potables, it is hard to imagine the three amigos could re-acclimate to life in contemporary Medieval Iran, but they themselves suggest they are very different people in their native country. Recommended for those in the mood for a lowkey film that still has substance, Before Summer Ends screens tomorrow afternoon (3/17), as part of French Rendez-Vous ’18, at the Walter Reade.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 15, 2018

NYICFF ’18: Zombillenium

Hector is becoming more human. He was a workplace safety inspector and now he is a zombie. It’s definitely an improvement. After years of bullying companies, he now finds himself at the bottom of the monster pecking order. However, Hector might just finally organize the passive walking dead in Arthur de Pins & Alexis Ducord’s Zombillenium (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

As a widowed single father, Hector has not been doing right by his daughter Lucie. After promising to take her to the all-too-real monster-themed amusement park Zombillenium, he tries to wriggle out of it by shutting it down with workplace safety citations. However, the park’s general manager, Francis Von Bloodt will not stand for that, so he kills Hector and remands him into Zombillenium service as a zombie.

Oddly enough, it turns out Hector makes a good zombie. Thanks to his contributions, the zombie attractions start to gain popularity at the vampires’ expense. With the exception of the sympathetic Von Bloodt, this new turn of events does not sit well with the blood-suckers, so they start plotting, because they are monsters after all. Meanwhile, Gretchen the Nine Inch Nails-listening intern-witch (whose father is rumored to be quite an infernal one) will try to facilitate a reunion between the embattled Hector and his grieving daughter.

De Pins and Ducord cast the zombies-versus-vampires struggle in unsubtle class warfare terms, yet the militant labor rights messaging rather clashes with wonton abuse of government regulatory power displayed by Hector while still in human form. At least nobody sings “The Internationale,” but the filmmaker clearly would not mind if little ones in the audience jumped up to yell “¡no psaran!,” while pumping their fist. It’s a shame, because it drags down the fun quotient of an otherwise charming animated film.

If you can overlook the forays into propaganda, Zombillenium is an entertaining monster movie that tweaks the traditional legends and movie conventions in clever ways. The father-daughter relationship is rather sweet and touching, while the ambiguous chemistry that develops between Hector and Gretchen pays off nicely.

As a side note, Zombillenium had its only 3D screening at the festival last Sunday. Ordinarily, we consider 3D an underwhelming cash-grab, but in this case, it works unusually well. A good deal of the story involves the park rollercoaster and Gretchen’s witchboard, so there is all kinds of swooping and swooshing, which makes for a richer, fuller 3D experience than someone pointing a sharp stick at the camera.

Zombillenium is definitely a film for older kids, because there are some intense scenes, including the downtrodden zombies laboring like Sisyphus on the Conan wheel in H-E-double hockey-sticks. However, fans who know their Famous Monsters of Filmland and Drak Pack will get a kick out of seeing the classic monster archetypes updated for the postmodern era. Recommended despite its didactic excesses, Zombillenium screens again in 2D this Saturday (3/17), as part of the 2018 NYICFF.

Patrons of French cinema might also be interested in Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Romain Segaud’s Two Snails Set Off, a three-minute animated adaptation of the Jacques Prévert poem. It is more about creepy-crawly critters than creatures, but it displays the same Baroque-level of detail seen in Jeunet’s features, such as Delicatessen. It also features the voice talent of a platoon of famous French screen thesps, including Audrey Tatou and Irène Jacob. Brief but still recommended for the auteur’s fans, Two Snails screens as part of the Heebie Jeebies short block this Sunday (3/18).

Labels: , , , ,

Mantra: Sounds into Silence—at the Rubin Museum of Art

Kirtan music—it’s not just for yoga anymore. Many new listeners still come through the doorway of Bhakti yoga, but the audience for the call-and-response chanting has grown into something bigger and more broadly based. Both listeners and musicians explain what the music means to them in Georgia Wyss’s Mantra: Sounds into Silence (trailer here), co-directed by Wari Om, which has several upcoming screenings at the Rubin Museum of Art, featuring special live kirtan performances.

For most avid listeners, kirtan music helps take them out of themselves and immerses them in a collective music-making experience. For the most part, they identify with the Vedic and Sikh traditions, but Buddhists are also represented. In fact, the most intriguing sequences feature the Venerable Lama Gyurme, the preeminent Tibetan Buddhist teacher in France, as he is accompanied by Jean-Philippe Rykiel, a French jazz musician who has lately adapted himself to world music contexts.

Frankly, we would have preferred to see more forms of experimental cross-pollenated kirtan, such as the hip-hop fusions of MC Yogi and the C.C. White’s aptly named Soulkirtan conception, which is indeed powerfully soulful. The music just seems more alive when it evolves and travels, at least according to our jazz ethos.

Nevertheless, the music is often striking and the scenery is quite picturesque. Yet, one of the most compelling performances is Jai Uttal’s San Quentin concert arranged by the prison’s Buddhist priest, Susan Shannon. Clearly, the music affects the audience deeply, which is all to the good, considering if there is a list of places that could use a greater sense of transcendent peace, San Quentin would surely rank towards the top. You also have to give Uttal (who has worked with Don Cherry and Bill Laswell) credit for tearing up his set, like he was playing to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden.

We would have enjoyed hearing a little more about the musicians’ influences and creative processes, but we go in for that kind of musical inside-baseball stuff. Regardless, the film is lovely to look at and listen to, while always making an effort to be accessible to a wide spectrum of viewers. Recommended for world music listeners and students of Eastern religion, Mantra: Sounds into Silence screens at the Rubin Museum on 3/16, 3/17, 3/18, 3/21, 3/22, twice on 3/24, and twice on 3/25.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Cold Hell

According to this religiously motivated serial killer, Islam’s Zamhari Hell is so cold, it burns. In that case, it would not mean much if Hell froze over. Regardless, Hell may very well have frozen over judging from the surprises this Austrian thriller has in-store for viewers. In addition to being relentlessly tense, it also stays true to current realities, in ways that would be spoilery to explain. It also happens to be the work of an Academy Award winner, Stefan Ruzowitzky (for The Counterfeiters). Hitchcockian elements get a very-of-right-now spin in Ruzowitzky’s Cold Hell (trailer here), a Shudder exclusive, which premiere tomorrow on the horror streaming platform.

Özge Dogruol has a right to be bent out of shape. She constantly endures hostile sexism, especially from her Muslim Turkish family. She is closest with her cousin Ranya, whose husband employs Dogruol as a cab driver. She even faces condescending chauvinism at her Muay Thai gym, but fighters quickly change their tune after going a few rounds with her. She is a tough customer, but she is still alarmed to see a shadowy psycho torturing a prostitute to death through a courtyard window, especially when she realizes he noticed her watching.

Initially, the Archie Bunkerish Det. Christian Steiner dismisses her fears. He still isn’t very compassionate when Rayna is murdered wearing her jacket. However, he finally admits she might be in peril when the killer tries to murder her in her own cab, causing a series of spectacular accidents as a result. In addition to playing the killer’s cat-and-mouse game, Dogruol is determined to protect Rayna’s toddler daughter Ada from her pederast father. It is a lot of pressure, but at least she somehow forges an unlikely alliance with Steiner.

Cold Hell played a number of horror-specialty festivals, but it is really a dark thriller in the tradition of Se7en, but considerably superior. This is a lean, mean psycho-suspense machine. It all starts with Violetta Schurawlow blowing the doors off the joint as Dogruol. If it were not for Kim Ok-vin’s action lead for the ages in The Villainess, Schurawlow’s Dogruol would probably rate as the best action heroine since Angela Mao retired. She is intense, vulnerable, and completely credible when administering a beatdown.

Schurawlow is also terrific playing off and with Tobias Moretti’s Steiner. Although unlikely, their sharp-edged chemistry is so potent, it just carries us along, sweeping us past any credibility objections. On the other side of the ledger, Sammy Sheik is relentlessly sinister as a character who turns out to be rather malevolent.

If a Social Justice Warrior ever watched Cold Hell, they would probably start protesting. Fortunately, they really do not pay attention to indie and international genre films, because this is an absolutely dynamite thriller. Cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels makes it all look ultra-stylish, in the De Palma-esque tradition of being Hitchcockian. Ruzowitzky keeps it hurtling along like a runaway train, while eliciting gritty but sensitive work from his ensemble. It is easily one of Shudder’s best exclusive acquisitions. Very highly recommended, it starts streaming on the horror service tomorrow (3/15).

Labels: , , ,

Our Blood is Wine: Reviving a Tradition in Georgia

The Soviets did the near impossible. They turned the richly diverse wines of Georgia into undrinkable swill. Under the occupation, all the distinctive regional strains of grapes went into the same vat, producing muddy grape juice. Gone were the varietals and varied local traditions. That is exactly what collectivization means. Happily, many Georgians are rekindling the ancient qvevri winemaking process. Filmmaker Emily Railsback and sommelier Jeremy Quinn introduce viewers to many of the new generation of traditional Georgian vintners in Our Blood is Wine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York and Chicago.

Georgian wine has a well-deserved reputation for being special, but few outside the sovereign nation have tasted the real deal. Often it is more acidic but less alcoholic than other wines, but it truly spans the gamut of body and taste. When Quinn wanted to connect with the essence of what wine should be, he came to Georgia.

Although the local crops and qvevri techniques (huge clay pots that ferment underground) atrophied during the Captive Nation years, they persisted household to household, bottle to bottle, like winemaking samizdat. With a resurgence of interest in Georgian culture underway, many micro-wineries are now producing for an export market (largely Japan, where they know fine wine). Ironically, the boom in international interest really exploded when Russia placed an embargo on Georgian wine.

OBIW is a very casual film that was literally shot on an iPhone, but its lowkey nature suits its subject and participants. Although there is a very serious side to this story, Railsback focuses on the positive. There is a real camaraderie shared by the vintners and Quinn, as well as a spirit of joie de vivre when it is time to imbibe (and sing). There is also a palpable sense of excitement when long dormant regional wines are successfully revived—in one case after an estimated hiatus of three hundred years.

We also share a justified feeling of optimism that this qvevri renaissance can help fuel an economic revival. After all, their wines are organic and exclusive—perfect for the export market. It is just a breezy, down-to-earth viewing experience, like sharing a fine bottle of wine with new friends, amid a gorgeous scenic backdrop. Highly recommended for wine connoisseurs and those interested in post-Soviet economic and cultural developments, Our Blood is Wine opens this Friday (3/16) at the Village East in New York and the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

Labels: ,

SXSW ’18: Milford Graves Full Mantis

You could say Milford Graves is an experimental jazz musician. He is the co-holder of a medical patent and often records the human heart as part of a long-term holistic musical project. Graves is also generally considered part of the free jazz school, but as is often the case, that label is not sufficient for his music. Graves’ former student Jake Meginsky and co-director Neil Young document the percussionist’s music and ideas in Milford Graves Full Mantis (trailer here), which screens at this year’s SXSW.

Graves has played with some of the greatest names in free jazz. In fact, we hear him playing with a decidedly free group early in the documentary. However, whenever Grave’s percussion is front and center, it is totally accessible. We can hear African and Asian influences in there, but we are always talking about rhythm—sometimes boisterous and sometimes hypnotic, but always propulsive.

To approximate the experience of their lessons, Meginsky prompts Graves to speak his peace during Full Mantis—and he has a lot to say. Some of his ideas are a bit out there, but they are the eccentricities of a survivor. He has lived quite a life, having worked as a trained physician’s assistant (making us wonder if he ever played with Eddie Henderson, the jazz M.D.) and made it through the tumult of the 1960s in relatively intact.

He generally seems philosophically and empathically inclined, particularly during a concert in Japan at a school for autistic children. For most musicians, that would have been a tough gig, but he and dancer Min Tanaka use rhythm to reach the student on a profound level. Nor do they let it ruffle their feathers when some of the kids encroach on the performance space and in some cases start playing along. Fortunately, somebody captured it on a video camera, because it is an absolutely extraordinary performance that is quite moving, both emotionally and physically, in a toe-tapping kind of way.

The Japanese concert is such a crescendo, it probably should have concluded the film, but there is at least one more sequence that will stick with viewers for a long time to come. Graves relates a harrowing 1960s encounter with street crime and racism that sort of cuts both ways from the perspective of current gun and law enforcement controversies.

Full Mantis ranges freely across topics that interest Graves, including martial arts (that is where the mantis reference comes in), medicine, and of course music. His fans would not want it any other way. Meginsky and Young might just win over some new ones for him with their meditative yet surprisingly zesty treatment. Highly recommended anyone who enjoys feeling some rhythm, Milford Graves Full Mantis screens again tomorrow (3/15) and Friday (3/16), as part of the 2018 SXSW.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Assistant: Nathalie Baye Will Permanently File You

Temp workers just don’t work out in the movies. Remember Lara Flynn Boyle in The Temp or Ali Larter in Obsessed? Don’t feel bad if the answer is “no.” This is sort of the classy version of those films, except sixty-something Marie-France Ducret is more interested in inappropriately grandmothering her boss’s young son than any sort of romantic relationship in Christophe Ali & Nicolas Bonilauri’s The Assistant (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

While rushing his pregnant wife Audrey to the hospital, Thomas Lemans accidentally mowed down Ducret’s twentysomething son. Nine years later, she still holds a grudge. The accident took a toll on the separated Lemanses’ marriage, but he clearly wriggled out of a prosecution. In the meantime, Ducret built up a resume of short-term work at architecture firms, making her the perfect temp candidate when Lemans’ assistant has her own accident. Actually, he uses the term “secretary,” because he is an entitled jerk.

Naturally, Ducret starts worming her way into Lemans’ life, proving just how helpful she can be, especially when it comes to whiny nine-year-old Leo. She sets off all Audrey (still Lemans)’s alarm bells, but frankly Thomas could use the help. He is prepared to deal with her indefinitely when she eventually marries his father Eric, but she will be an unhealthy influence on the whole family.

You could think of The Assistant as the mirror image of Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka, in which Nathalie Baye played the suspected hit-and-run driver stalked by Emmanuelle Devos’s avenging mother. This time she is the aggrieved hunter, but both films clearly share a Hitchcockian influence. You can also see a touch of an influence of Fatal Attraction and other 1980s and ‘90s dark relationship thrillers.

Baye is terrific as Ducret. As ruthless and cold-blooded as she gets, she still maintains a degree of audience sympathy. All things considered, Malik Zidi keeps up with her quite well, even though poor Lemans is decidedly slow on the uptake. Seriously, if you plow down an innocent pedestrian, at least have the decency to learn his name. Plus, seasoned vet Johan Leysen really helps hold it all together as Lemans’ craggy but sensitive father.

Admittedly, the rest of the Lemans family are more like awkward props than full-fledged characters, but Ducret’s manipulations are insidiously compelling to watch. It is a slick and stylish cat-and-mouse game, but with a darkly ambiguous heart. Recommended for fans of French thrillers, The Assistant is now available on DVD From Distrib Film/Icarus Films.

Labels: , ,