J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Margaret Mead ’17: Chomo (short)

Since the Dalai Lama and the leadership of Tibetan Buddhism were forced into exile, they have spread their wisdom and faith much wider around the world than would have otherwise been possible. It has also been a two-way exchange. In recent years, educational opportunities have expanded tremendously for Tibetan Buddhist nuns, at least for those living outside Tibet. The first class of nuns are poised to take the Geshema degrees following the requisite seventeen years of study. This is an especially significant milestone for a young nun contemplating her future in Maayan Arad’s short documentary Chomo (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Lobsang Chomo (“nun” in her local dialect) made the arduous journey to Dharamshala expressly so she would have educational opportunities that are not available in her native Tibet, where the Communist government insists it has the right to set policies for the religious faith. When we meet her, she has been studying in earnest for several years and has been recognized as one of her nunnery’s top doctrinal debaters. She is on track to sit for her Geshema exam (in a mere fourteen or fifteen years), but she will take time out to visit her family, now residing in a distant Northern India village, to reflect on her life choices so far.

The forty-two-minute Chomo is packed wall-to-wall with stunning visuals, but it is the charismatic Chomo who truly lights up the film. Even with her clean-shaven head, she is a stunning presence, but her wisdom and sense of humor are what really make her beautiful. Arad just quietly observes the daily goings-on at the nunnery and follows Chomo as she journeys through the wildly cinematic mountain passes on her way home. Yet, this film never feels hushed and airless like some In Great Silence-style documentaries. Instead, viewers always have the sense that a whole lot of life is happening.

We always knew Tibetan Buddhism offered more wisdom than its CP oppressors, but here is proof it is also more progressive. There might not be full parity yet, but some significant glass ceilings have been broken, quietly and philosophically. On a less optimistic note, the film also reminds us in passing of the arrest and conviction (on mystery charges) of Lobsang Jamyang, a Tibetan monk who wrote tracts advocating freedom of expression under the name Lomik. Nevertheless, Chomo is a positive, refreshingly life-affirming film. Very highly recommended, Chomo screens this Saturday (10/21) with Pixelating Holiness, as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.

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Liberation Day: Back in the DPRK

During the early 1980s, the very name of the Slovenian industrial metal-avant-garde band Laibach was declared illegal by the Communist government. (It happened to be the German name of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital.) You would therefore expect they would be the last rock band that would agree to perform in North Korea, one of the last remaining Communist regimes. Yet, they signed on for the unlikely gig, presumably because they appreciated both the irony and the potential publicity. As if Pyongyang were not surreal enough, the band infamous for their “satirical” crypto-fascist stylings came to rock the house, but satisfying the censors would be quite the adventure, duly documented in Ugis Olte & Morten Traavik’s Liberation Day (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Perhaps, you are thinking: “wait, haven’t I heard this joke before?” Yes, Mads Brügger and his co-conspirators made the North Korean censors squirm with their proposed good will variety show,documented in Red Chapel. The difference is Laibach and show producer-co-director Traavik really wanted to stage a serious concert—so much so, they were willing to make numerous concessions to the censors and their minders.

Of course, reality frequently crashes their party, starting from day one, when a high-ranking apparatchik basically calls them fascist pigs at their welcoming banquet. They should have said takes one to know one, but instead Traavik claims the band is constantly misrepresented in the media, just like the peace-loving state of North Korea, so they therefore share a kinship.

The extent to which the band is willing to compromise their artistic integrity for the sake of the concert is frankly disappointing. Seriously, you guys used to give Tito the finger. Show some nihilistic contempt for authority. Frontline estimates one out of every one hundred North Koreans is a political prisoner and entire families--two generations in each direction--routinely condemned to concentration camps for one member's thought crimes. Yet, Laibach obediently minds their minders ignores this reality. That's not iconoclasm, its servility.

Still, you have to gawk at some of the spectacle, including Laibach performing their satanic-sounding Sound of Music covers, with the full approval of the censorship bureau. Apparently, the Julie Andrews movie is a staple of North Korean television, but good luck collecting those residuals.

There are some mind-blowing moments in Liberation that remind us how weird our world truly is. However, the absence of a Brügger-like figure and his constant ironic commentary and reality checks is keenly felt. Brügger took his crew to North Korea to subvert the totalitarian regime, whereas Traavik set out to capitalize off it. Big difference. Check out Red Chapel before you even think of watching Liberation (it streams on Amazon Prime). There is plenty of weird sights to behold, but ultimately Liberation Day is disappointingly well-behaved when it opens this Wednesday (10/18) in New York, at Film Forum.

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NYFF ’17: Amalric’s Music Films

What do Canadian Opera soprano Barbara Hannigan and Downtown multi-everything John Zorn have in common? Aside from the fact both have probably conducted ensembles playing in a broadly classical context (certainly true in her case), they both are known associates of French actor-director Matheiu Amalric and been the subjects of his short films. Usually they were largely unplanned. Amalric just had his camera running, suspecting something interesting would happen. His rapport with his subjects and their remarkable talent produced the three highly distinctive short documentaries that screened as a program at the 55th New York Film Festival.

Hannigan is the subject of C’est presque au bout du monde and Music is Music, which each clock in around twenty minutes and bookend the nearly hour-long John Zorn (2010-2017). Presque was an online commission for the Paris Opera, but seeing it on a theater screen instead of a little streaming window is an almost overwhelming experience.

When you are an artist of Hannigan’s caliber, you do not simply crack your knuckles and hit the high notes. You have to warm up your instrument, which in her case is her entire body. Amalric captured her warm-up process before several performances, which he and his editor Caroline Detournay assembled into a master-cut. To say this is a private process would be an understatement. Hannigan is incredibly exposed, captured often in a ritual that suggests auto-eroticism. Yet, when you watch it, viewers will feel an extraordinarily personal and protective attachment to her.

The Zorn film is something completely different, starting with the fact is not, strictly speaking, finished yet—and may never be. According to Amalric’s lively post-screening discussion, he and Detournay have already cut together more footage for the next installment, which is great news, because what he has so far is terrific.

Again, Amalric was commissioned to do a standard TV doc on Zorn, but apparently that went by the wayside. Instead, they became fast friends. Every time they crossed paths, Amalric filmed Zorn in performance, as well as his backstage comings and goings. In just fifty-four minutes, Amalric conveys the wide ranging stylistic diversity and virtuosity of Zorn’s work. We see him in a variety of settings, including a Downtown-style jazz ensemble (featuring Dave Douglas) and approvingly watching a string trio perform his chamber composition, “Freud.”

Yet, probably the greatest merit of the Zorn piece is the way it captures his sense of humor. I know several jazz musicians and most of them are very funny, because when you accept that kind of life, you have to have a sense of humor or you’ll soon be crying. In later sequences, Amalric and Detournay show Zorn listening appreciatively to other musicians sets, which is another decision that really pans out.

Similarly, viewers get a keen sense of how Hannigan relates to other musicians in Music is Music. For her latest CD, Crazy Girl Crazy, Hannigan chose a program of Alban Berg and George Gershwin that she performed as both featured vocalist and conductor. To make things even more interesting, the musicians of the Ludwig Orchestra would also perform the chorale arrangements, sort of like the flip-side of John Doyle’s Sondheim revivals. Initially, they are clearly uncomfortable in their new role, but Hannigan coaxes them out of their shells, which is lovely to watch. The way she makes connections between Berg and Gershwin is also fascinating. Frankly, it is just nice to see her expand the classical canon to include the Great American Songbook.

None of Amalric’s music films could be described as fannish, but they each can turn viewers into fans because they really get at the essence of their subjects. You feel like you have been backstage with them and then watched them perform from the wings. Very highly recommended, Music is Music is now available as an extra with Crazy Girl Crazy and John Zorn 2010-2017 will continue to expand and hopefully screen again at future NYFFs. Presque is also available online from the Paris Opera, but you won’t get the same overpowering impact that way.

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Brooklyn Horror ’17: 1974

In the 1970s, consumer 8mm was largely for A-V geeks. Most of them were not aspiring indie filmmakers. Instead, they used the format to document milestones, like weddings, graduations, and demonic possessions. Manuel (a man-child toy-maker) wants to capture his early days in a new house with his newlywed wife Altair, but he records some disturbing events when she falls under the influence of a mysterious force. She claims to be communing with angels, but that seems highly unlikely throughout Victor Dryere’s Mexican found footage 1974 (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Dryere really did shoot 1974 in 8mm and his cast sure look like they’re wearing polyester. The early 1970’s details are spot on, except for the appearance of a Rubik’s Cube (accurately called a “Wonder Cube,” as it was known at the time, but it did not break out with consumers until the awesome 80s). Whatever, at least it helps reassure us what we’re watching really isn’t real.

Sure, there are a few weird little things happening here and there, but Manuel doesn’t worry about them until a load of bricks and black paint mysteriously arrives at their doorstep. To his surprise, Altair starts using them to build a black door in their bedroom, because “the angels told her to.” As she becomes increasingly spacey, even her standoffish sister Tere grows concerned. Manuel’s stoner pal Callahan even moves into to somehow help, but a fat lot of good he’ll do.

Of course, we know it ends badly from the in media res prologue, featuring the baffled TV news report of the aftermath. Frankly, this is one of the few found footage films in recent years that looks totally credible. So many Blair Witch copy-cats cheat and cut corners, but this really looks like freaky events in 1974 that were caught on a crummy consumer 8mm camera. If just about any viewer saw a film like this in 1998 (pre-Blair) they would be easily convinced it was legit—and deeply disturbed by it.

Granted, the ending is completely insane, but Dryere still comes close to earning it. Although it features some relatively established cast-members (such as Diana Bovio playing Altair), 1974 is not a star-making kind of film. Instead, they mostly do their duty to blend into the yucky 1970s milieu, while Dryere films them from odd angles and in unflattering light. The results are indeed pretty scary. Recommended for horror fans attracted by the ‘70s setting, 1974 screens tonight (10/15) at the Wythe Hotel, as part of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

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Brooklyn Horror ’17: Clementina

Difficult real estate markets force difficult decisions. Even though Juana suspects her husband was acting under the evil influence of their new apartment when he brutally assaulted her, she still refuses to move out. New Yorkers will understand. The square footage is considerable, but the terrible feng shui still makes their flat feel claustrophobic in Jimena Monteoliva’s Clementina, which screens today during the 2017 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Mateo beat Juana so badly, he induced a miscarriage, yet she insists on covering for him when she wakes up in the hospital. The cop and social worker assigned to her case assume she is simply too scared to identify him, but she clearly believes there are extenuating supernatural circumstances. Yet, she insists on returning to their flat, presumably so he knows where to find her.

Juana shuts out everyone trying to help her, except their neighbor Olga. Sensitive to the spirit world, she recommends Juana pay close attention to what the ghosts are trying to tell her, especially when the unhinged Mateo finally returns.

Clementina is certainly a moody film, but it is a bit muddled. There are times when Monteoliva and co-screenwriter Diego Fleischer suggests the spirits intend to protect Juana, but they certainly could have made the job easier if they had not pushed Mateo into a state of violent psychosis. Granted, we are probably supposed to assume it was always in him, deep down, but it only comes out in the fateful flat.

Regardless, Clementina is rather smaller in scope and more conventional than many of the films screening at this year’s festival. Still, Cecilia Cartasegna gives a harrowing performance as Juana, powering the audience through some questionable decision-making. Emiliano Carrazzone’s menacing turn as Mateo will also have viewers holding their breath. However, the film’s inconsistent attitudes towards the paranormal goings-on muddies its effectiveness as a domestic violence parable. Frankly, Mateo is probably right when he tells her they should cut their losses and bolt from the flat.

A lot of talent went into Clementina, but they produced an unusually dour, downbeat horror film. It has good intentions, but the internal contradictions distract from the takeaway and the drama. The cast will impress, but Clementina should not be a priority for fans when it screens this afternoon (10/15), as part of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

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Brooklyn Horror ’17: The Forest of Lost Souls

What happens in the suicide forest does not necessarily stay in the suicide forest. In the Portuguese equivalent of Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, an old man and a cynical teen meet as they make their final preparations. They will share their final moments together, until the film takes a sharp turn into left field slasher territory. Suicide is certainly not painless in José Pedro Lopes’ The Forest of Lost Souls (trailer here), which screens today during the 2017 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

For Ricardo, it seems appropriate to end his life in the same forest where his older daughter Irene committed suicide. However, the punky Carolina makes him realize how little he thought through the practical matters. Not pre-writing a suicide note was a mistake, because the lack of closure becomes an invitation to procrastination. Likewise, the hunting knife he brought is ridiculously unrealistic. However, she could help on both scores, if he would just stop lecturing her on the failings of her entitled generation.

One twist later brings us to a suburban neighborhood, where an oblivious family is in mortal danger. It is connected to the first half, in an especially sinister way, but it would be no fair telling. There is definitely slashery business, but it is the anticipation that kills us, rather than the actual violence. Daniela Love and Jorge Mota are both terrific as Carolina and Ricardo, particularly during and after the big pivot.

Without question, Forest of Souls far scarier and creepier than Jason Zada’s similarly themed, but workaday The Forest, but it is not as horrifying as the sappy symbolism of Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees (but don’t hold that against it). Lopes stage-manages the prey-stalking sequences with clockwork precision. Yet, ultimately it is the irony of what happens that chills us to the bone.

Francisco Lobo’s black-and-white cinematography is even more stunning than that of Veronica, but there is still no denying this is a horror movie. Seriously, this is one that could keep experienced genre fans up at night. Highly recommended, The Forest of Lost Souls screens this afternoon (10/15) at the Wythe Hotel as part of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Brooklyn Horror ’17: Salvation

According to rumor, patients of this crummy metropolitan hospital know when their vitals take a turn for the worse when they are paid a visit by a certain doctor in his clown costume. He is like the Patch Adams of death, but at least he keeps busy. The outlook is not great for thirteen-year-old Cris, but she has been offered a rather unconventional cure from a fellow patient in Denise Castro’s Salvation (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Cris is at the age when she wants to rebel against her mother and authority figures, which is natural enough, but does not make her a model patient. Walking the halls one night, she slips into a sequestered wing with only one occupant. That would be Victor, who is even less cooperative than she is. He also claims there are medical reasons for his isolation. He is not contagious, he is a vampire. Any day now, he will regain enough strength to slip away into the night. He might be willing to turn Cris and take her with him, if she shows sufficient commitment to the undead way of whatever.

This film is just dying for you to compare it to Let the Right One In—and there is a stylistic and thematic kinship. However, it is a stretch to call it a horror movie. It is more aptly described as a darkly fantastical coming of age story—unless you have a phobia of hospitals, in which case Salvation will scare the pants off you.

Marina Boti and Ricard Balada brood with fierce, anti-social intensity as Cris and Victor, but weirdly enough, the four or five-year age difference between them feels more awkward then the protective relationship Eli the little girl vampire shares with her parent-like familiar in Right One. However, Laura Yuste is absolutely terrific as Cris’s long-suffering mother, who still has to put up with her crap during some of the darkest days a parent can know.

There is no question, the art and design team created a massively creepy environment to putter around. José Luis Pulido’s cinematography also reinforces the darkly, moody vibe. Yet, Castro and co-screenwriters Lluís Segura and Laia Soler often undercut the potential suspense with frequent attempts to “de-mystify” the vampire elements. At times, Salvation feels like it believes it is better than a crass plebeian horror movie (and that attitude is always a bummer). Earning a decidedly mixed recommendation for some fine performances and its accomplished technical craftsmanship, Salvation screens this afternoon (10/14) at the Spectacle Theater and tomorrow (10/15) at Video Revival, as part of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Brooklyn Horror ’17: Rift

Seriously, if you had to choose between an axe-murderer and an ex, most of us would take the axe-murderer every time. At least we’d spare ourselves those awkward conversations: “So, how’ve you been? Great, great.” Yet, Gunnar reluctantly trudges out to the remote Icelandic boonies when he gets a distressing call from his former lover. Obviously, there is still unfinished business between them. Perhaps poor Einar is also somewhat predisposed to do something rash. However, Gunnar starts to suspect someone or something sinister could constitute more of a danger to Einar than himself in Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Rift (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Apparently, Einar had forgotten about his drunk-dialing incident, because he is genuinely surprised when Gunnar turns up at his family’s cabin. Nobody comes to Rökkur without a darned good reason, but Gunnar starts to wonder if he really had one. Nevertheless, he figures Einar’s squirrely behavior merits a few days’ observation. He becomes legitimately concerned when he learns some kind of stalker-pranker has been harassing Einar with late night door-knocking and window-rattling.

It turns out these rocky windswept fields are riddled with bad karma. One of Einar’s nearest neighbors has a long history of abusing boys. It was also here that Einar nearly perished as a young lad, when his eerily realistic imaginary friend lured him into the wilderness. The imaginary friend presumably went away when Einar’s parents moved them into the city, but the predatory farmer is still there.

Rift is another slow-burning film that derives a lot of its potency from its unsettling ambiguous vibe. Yet, there are moments that are scary as heck. Without question, Rift represents a quantum step up from Thoroddsen’s rather conventional, in-your-face Child Eater. This time around, he generates more scares from what is unseen and implied than from a predictably orderly series of blood-lettings. Still, there is a similar atmosphere of mounting dread, except it is even more pronounced this time around.

As Gunnar and Einar, Björn Stefánsson and Sigurður Þór Óskarsson develop pitch-perfect dysfunctional chemistry together. We completely believe they had to break-up, yet can’t help periodically torturing each other again. They feel real together, unfortunately for the characters.

This is also an unusually accomplished horror film. John Wakayama Carey’s icy cool cinematography heightens the feeling of loneliness and alienation, while Einar Sv. Tryggvason’s minimalist music slowly worms its way under your skin. They are also both so very Nordic, which is important.

Frankly, you could replace the gay lead characters with a straight couple without losing much, but you couldn’t move the film to Los Angeles. From the Eero Saarinen-esque cabin to the desolate landscape suitable for an ECM Record cover, this is definitely a film set in Iceland, at its most Scandinavian. Highly recommended for sophisticated genre fans, Rift screens tonight (10/13) at the Wythe Hotel and tomorrow (10/14) at Video Revival, as part of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

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Brooklyn Horror ’17: Veronica

When was the last time a psychologist actually helped a patient in any movie? Perhaps Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P? And before that? David & Lisa maybe? Do not expect a lot of breakthroughs when a reclusive analyst reluctantly takes on a difficult patient. Instead, she should worry about surviving with her sanity in Carlos Algara & Alejandro Martinez-Beltran’s Veronica (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

She might be a head-shrinker, but our unnamed psychologist still clearly wrestles with forms of agoraphobia and social anxiety. She continues to publish, but she no longer actively treats patients. Nonetheless, she cannot refuse her mentor when he refers a particularly hard case to her.

Veronica de la Serna has heard all the psycho-babble before and she takes perverse pleasure in spitting it back at the psychologist. Clearly, she has a great deal of anger and resentment. She also has sexual issues, which she recognizes in the psychologist, as well. After several rounds of testy verbal sparring, de la Serna focuses on her sexuality as her prime weapon for destabilizing the doctor. However, the shrink has a tool shed fully stocked with axes, chains, and sinister mushrooms.

Anyone who has seen their share of psych-you-out movies will probably guess the big old twist, but Algara & Martinez-Beltran execute it with great visual flair. Miguel Angel Gonzalez Avila’s stunning black-and-white cinematography has a Gregg Toland glow and the darkly ominous overtones of Dean Cundey’s work with John Carpenter. The good doctor’s lodge-cabin-villa is also a terrific horror movie location, making the Overlook in The Shining look conveniently subway accessible.

Olga Segura exudes danger and sexuality as the deeply threatening de la Serna. As the doctor, Arcelia Ramírez falls apart pretty spectacularly, while coyly maintaining her secrets. The two women play off each other quite well. Algara and Martinez-Beltran also keep them moving around the house and grounds at a sufficient clip to prevent a feeling of staginess from setting in.

Viewers of good conscience could debate whether Veronica really is a horror movie in the strictest sense or more of a psychological thriller. Either way, it is stylish and intense. Recommended for fans of dark mind-benders, Veronica screens tonight (10/13) at Video Revival and tomorrow (10/14) at Videology, as part of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Foreigner: The Jackie Chan Crossover We’ve Been Hoping For

Jackie Chan is sixty-two and has broken more bones than most people knew they had. The same is true of Quan Ngoc Minh. The Chinese-Vietnamese Navy SEAL-trained commando lost nearly everything after the fall of South Vietnam, but he was content to watch his young daughter grow up safe and happy in London. When she is cruelly murdered in an IRA splinter group’s terrorist attack, Quan will stop at nothing to avenge her. Of course, he will need names, which he assumes the former IRA deputy minister for Northern Ireland Affairs can supply (and not without reason). A violent cat-and-mouse game thusly commences in Martin Campbell’s The Foreigner (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Quan and his family were part of the Vietnamese boat people exodus, but his first two daughters were murdered by Thai pirates before they reached Singapore. From there, Quan managed to immigrate to England and establish legal citizenship, but his wife died giving birth to Fan. When the so-called “Real IRA” blows up the dress shop she was patronizing, Quan’s American training kicks in.

Hardnosed Commander Bromley is leading the investigation. He doesn’t seem to have many leads or any love for the IRA, so Quan keys in on the super-slick Liam Hennessy, who is essentially deputy minister for keeping a lid on the hotheads. There was a time when he was the one planting the bombs, but now he is “reformed.” Hennessy is playing a dangerous game, trying to extract more concessions from the British in exchange for intel on the terrorists. Naturally, he patronizes and grossly underestimates Quan, until the grieving father starts leaving warning bombs of his own. He also seems to be more than Hennessy’s former IRA thugs can handle, but just barely.

Chan is not a superman in The Foreigner. Frankly, he acts his age and maybe a little extra, taking some beatings nearly as bad as those in the bizarrely under-appreciated Police Story: Lockdown. It is somewhat surprising how much screen time he concedes to the rest of the cast, but this still might be his best straight-up dramatic performance. Still, the fights and stunt work is first-rate, so fans will not be disappointed on that score.

Just as the dour, angsty Chan will be new for most fans, the sleazy, venal, self-pitying Hennessey is a Pierce Brosnan we haven’t seen before either. He is such an unpleasant character, we quite enjoy watching him take flak from all sides. Orla Brady makes a spectacularly evil Lady Macbeth type as Hennessy’s slightly disappointed wife Mary, while Ray Fearon’s Bromley swaggers with authority.

Screenwriter David Marconi also deserves tremendous credit for updating Stephen Leather’s Troubles-set novel to the post-Good Friday era. Frighteningly, the hidden IRA weapons caches that are frequently mentioned are very real. Marconi and Campbell also clearly establish the factional rivalries and alliances within the IRA and its subsidiaries that they suggest still persist to this day. Sure, this is an action thriller, but it leaves viewers convinced the current peace remains perilously fragile.

Frankly, a lot of the IRA infighting material would still work in a movie without Jackie Chan, but adding him as the destabilizing fuse kicks it up to another level. This really is the kind of polished crossover production Jackie Chan fans have been hoping. Campbell has had a few misfires, like Green Lantern, but The Foreigner should re-establish him as one of the top action directors in the business (along with Casino Royale). Very highly recommended for general audiences, The Foreigner opens tomorrow (10/13) in several New York theaters, including the AMC Empire.

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NYFF ’17: Ismael’s Ghosts, Director’s Cut

It is like Day for Night mixed with a little le Carré, but it is all very Arnaud Desplechin. Ismaël Vuillard (the protag of Desplechin’s Kings & Queen, again portrayed by Mathieu Amalric) is supposed to make a movie about notorious diplomat and possible spy Ivan Dedalus, who certainly sounds related to Paul Dedalus, a recurring character in three other Desplechin films, also played by Amalric. Everything is related and possibly everyone is Desplechin in Ismaël’s Ghosts (trailer here), which screens as a Main Slate selection of the 55th New York Film Festival.

This is not the version of Ghosts that garnered Cannes jeers. Instead, we get a “director’s cut” that is twenty-minutes longer. Frankly, the long version is still pretty confused, but it must be even harder to follow with pieces carved out. Vulliard is supposed to be telling the story of Ivan Dedalus, a notorious diplomat and spy from a working-class background, who ironically was often attached to missions precisely because he was suspected of dealing with the Russians.

However, Vulliard’s personal drama keeps getting in the way. Depending on what point Desplechin flashes back to, the surrogate character is either romancing Sylvia, the shy astrophysicist, preparing his mentor-father-in-law Henri Bloom for a retrospective tribute in Israel, or dealing poorly with the sudden reappearance of his long presumed dead wife Carlotta Bloom. Eventually, the stress gets to be too much for Vulliard, forcing his long-suffering friend and line producer Zwy to track him down.

Even if Desplechin added an additional hour, Ghosts would probably still be a jumbled, herky-jerky affair. The constant flashing forwards and backwards can leave your head spinning, but the whole point is how everything is supposed to be mixed up in Vulliard’s head, so you just have to roll with it.

In fact, there is a lot of good stuff in here. Louis Garrel is almost unrecognizable as the intriguing Ivan Dedalus, so much so, we wouldn’t mind seeing Desplechin return to his character. Amalric and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Sylvia also have some appealingly fresh and mature chemistry together. Hippolyte Girardot also shows a flair for physical comedy as the poor, put-upon Zwy. Surprisingly, it is Marion Cotillard’s sequences as Carlotta Bloom (dig the Vertigo reference) that mostly muddy up the film.

It hardly matters if viewers have not seen Kings and Queen, because the significant events of that film are barely referenced in Ghosts. Anyone who can write up a cogent, detailed five-page synopsis of it has our respect. Yet, one could argue the old joke about the weather also applies to this film. If you are not enjoying it, just wait five minutes and it will change. Frankly, Ghosts is more briskly paced than the equally Proustian My Golden Days, but it has none of the whiny teen angst. Better than reported, Ismaël’s Ghosts, Director’s Cut is recommended for patrons who enjoy unpacking films when it screens tomorrow (10/13) and Saturday (10/14) during this year’s New York Film Festival.

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M.F.A.: Francesca Eastwood Breaks Through

So, interesting timing for this film’s theatrical release. It has been slated for quite some time, lest anyone suspect otherwise. Regardless, the echoes will be inevitable when this brutal campus rape and revenge sort of-thriller opens amid the Hurricane Harvey coverage. It is almost too zeitgeisty, because Francesca Eastwood’s star turn deserves to be considered on its own merits when Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. opens tomorrow in New York.

This subject was already as hot button as it could get. Shrewdly though, it is a hipster art student who will be the initial predator. Noelle’s more conservative paintings are always denigrated in class, whereas his edgy work is always praised. Naturally, she has a crush on him, so she readily accepts when he invites her to his house party. However, he something quite sinister in mind when he takes her to his room to view his etchings or whatever they were.

Even though she was raped, her best friend cautions her to just do her best to move on. Nevertheless, Noelle tries to report it to campus authorities, but finds the trauma counselor is more interested in covering up potential media scandals. When she confronts her attacker he first denies and then gets violent, but he is the one who accidentally dies in the scuffle. He won’t be the last. The freshly empowered Noelle starts preying on three football players who infamously recorded their attack, but still beat the rap. Perhaps not coincidentally, her art also becomes darker and more potent.

Leite manages to walk a fine line, retaining thriller genre aspects without descending into exploitation. She is definitely asking viewers is this what it takes to deter campus predators? It is hard to argue with that during a week like this.

Despite the serious intentions, M.F.A. could have been DOA without the powerful, game-changing performance from Francesca Eastwood (who is also very good in Cardinal X, a film about a very different kind of troubled college student). She makes Noelle’s evolution frighteningly believable every step of the way. Leah McKendrick is also totally credible and ultimately quite poignant as her fellow victim housemate. Most of the rest of the characters are only broadly sketched out, but considering how many are predators, what do you expect?

Viewers should understand M.F.A. shares little kinship with a genre payback movie like José Manuel Cravioto’s Bound to Vengeance (a.k.a. Reversal). There is no reason it necessarily should, but its credentials as Midnight selection at SXSW and a Fantasia selection, now distributed Dark Sky Films could very well create expectations for a very different sort of film. Regardless of current events, anyone interested in the future of film should check out Eastwood’s work. Recommended for mainstream audiences who can handle its uncompromising depiction of tough subject matter, M.F.A. opens tomorrow (10/13) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Screamfest LA ’17: Trench 11

The death and disillusionment of WWI led to a surge in interest in spiritualism and the occult, so a WWI horror movie makes plenty of sense as a concept. Of course, for one Canadian tunneller, the war was already horrific enough. The last thing he needs is a German mad scientist weaponizing a zombie serum. Much to the regret of his Prussian commanding officer, Dr. Reiner has tried to do exactly that, but the results are disastrous in Leo Scherman’s Trench 11 (trailer here), which screens tonight during Screamfest LA.

The war has turned in the Allies’ favor, allowing them to dispatch a team to investigate the massive bunker under Trench 11. The retreating Germans tried to destroy it, but they couldn’t finish the job. Captain Jennings and Dr. Priest from British Intelligence are convinced there is something nasty down there, so they requisition Abrahm Berton, the best tunneller available, and a small American escort.

Unfortunately, they find the bunker is not so abandoned after all and some of the Germans have become so savage, they even attack their fellow countryman. As we would expect, none of this bothers a true believer like Reiner, a.k.a. “The Prophet,” who sees the mutated soldiers as a means of cleansing Europe of its decadence.

Scherman and co-screenwriter Matt Booi definitely suggest Reiner and Müller, his ostensive commander, foreshadow the National Socialists and the resistance put up by select aristocratic officers, such as Von Stauffenberg. Yet, despite Müller’s moral conscience, the film definitely does not do any favors for Germany’s national image.

Of course, Berton the Canadian is our primary POV character of this Winnipeg-shot, Raven Banner-distributed film, which rather makes sense. In fact, Rossif Sutherland carries the film quite well as the battle-scarred but still steely tunneller, so it all works out rather nicely. Shaun Benson is also terrific as the disillusioned but decisive Müller, but Robert Stadlober’s Reiner looks and sounds more like an obnoxious club kid than an evil genius.

Since most of the film takes place in a candle-lit subterranean bunker, lighting (simply for viewer watchability) is an issue throughout the film. However, the dark, shell-damaged location is undeniably creepy and claustrophobic. This is definitely one of the better weird war movies in a while. Indeed, it is considerably superior to an obvious comp film like Frankenstein’s Army, but Dead Snow; Red vs. Dead still towers over all challengers. Recommended wholeheartedly for horror fans, Trench 11 screens tonight (10/11) during Screamfest LA.

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NYFF ’17: Farewell, My Lovely

It is hard to believe, but Robert Mitchum was the only actor to play Philip Marlowe in more than one feature film. Even Humphrey Bogart was one-and-done after The Big Sleep (he was Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon). Chandler fans prefer to forget Mitchum’s second outing in a modern day Big Sleep remake, but his debut as Raymond Chandler’s classic gumshoe is justly considered one of the best. Fittingly, Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely screens as part of the Robert Mitchum retrospective during the 55th New York Film Festival.

Some perhaps thought Mitchum was too old for the part in 1975, but this is also an older, more reflective Marlowe. After years of working cases for twenty-five dollars a day, plus expenses, Marlowe finds himself aging out of a profession that provides plenty of enemies but no health insurance. Currently, he is laying low in a flea bag motel, trying to avoid both the cops and the bad guys. His latest case has taken a particularly nasty turn, as we shall see, in media res.

By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy, an ex-con fresh out of the joint, to find his missing lover, Velma. It is hard to say no to anyone named Moose. As Marlowe starts to follow leads on Velma, he initially gets the runaround and then people start trying to kill him. Apparently, they want to kill Moose too, but he lays low even better than Marlowe. When in doubt, Marlowe and everyone else he crosses paths with swill gallons of booze. Seriously, this could almost be Hong Sang-soo’s Marlowe movie. Frankly, as in most great Chandler movies, the plot details are a little hazy, but the noir atmosphere and 1940s period production details are to die for.

John A. Alonzo’s moody color cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, in a nostalgic, back alley kind of way. Yet, David Shire (still probably best known for his funky Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 theme) does him one better, with a dreamily bluesy crime jazz score. Featuring jazz musicians who were totally comfortable in a studio session, such as Dick Nash, Ronnie Lang, Chuck Findley, Cappy Lewis, and Larry Bunker, the soundtrack album stood on its surprisingly well (take it from me).

Of course, it is Mitchum who utterly dominates the film as a haggard, world-weary Marlowe in a performance of seemingly effortless perfection. There have been other good Marlowes (Powers Boothe was the man when it came to television), but Mitchum was the only one who could hang with Bogart.

Yet, Farewell is fully stocked with colorful supporting turns, including a wonderfully vampy Charlotte Rampling as femme fatale Helen Grayle. Former boxer Jack O’Halloran (one of the three super villains in Superman II) is absolutely terrific as Malloy, the lovestruck tough guy. Criminally underappreciated John Ireland is rock solid as the honest copper, Lt. Nulty, while Harry Dean Stanton plays the brazenly corrupt Det. Rolfe with understated menace. In terms of historical footnotes, Farewell features a young Sylvester Stallone as a henchman, crime novelist Jim Thompson in his only movie cameo as Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle, and Jerry Bruckheimer receiving his first full producer credit behind-the-scenes.

David Zelag Goodman’s adapted screenplay has an end-of-an-era vibe, poignantly heightened by the pleasure Marlowe takes throughout the film following Joe DiMaggio’s famous pursuit of the consecutive-game hitting streak record, which baseball fans know will end in frustration. Again, it is Mitchum’s narration that makes it work so well. This is simply a classic P.I. film and a representative high-point in Mitchum’s filmography. Very highly recommended, Farewell, My Lovely screens this Saturday (10/14) as part of the 2017 New York Film Festival.

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The Departure: Monk, Rocker, and Angel of Mercy

Ittetsu Nemoto is the of the Zen Buddhist equivalent of Clarence the Angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, but he has a much heavier case load. In the therapeutic ritual he developed, “The Departure,” clients are invited to envision their own deaths. Nemoto has an admirably high survival rate, but it is unclear how long much longer he can endure the pace and pressure of his counseling practice. Viewers will observe Nemoto taking years off his own life as he saves others in Lana Wilson’s The Departure (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Nemoto is also much like the punker turned Buddhist priest protagonist of Naoki Katô’s Abraxas, except he is the real deal. When we first meet Nemoto, he is seeking the solace of the void in the heavy electronica music of a late-night dance club. That is where he goes when he needs to turn off his head, but the clubbing environment on top of the stress and strain of his suicide prevention work is taking a toll.

We watch Nemoto cajole and console his clients, both in person and over the phone. Frankly, he never seems particularly eloquent or deep, but it is his earnest commitment that seems to resonate with clients. Yet, the spiritual energy he consumes as part of his intervention work often leaves him tired and distant with his wife and their young son. Although the situation is not yet completely dire, Nemoto’s persistent health issues are forcing his to consider his own potential death, while he labors to convince others to say yes to life.

Like many docs that eschew narration and talking head interviews, the pace of The Departure feels a little slow at times. However, Wilson captures some remarkable images. Throughout it all, Nemoto remains a deeply compelling character. He is a priest, not a saint, but his dedication and empathy appear to be limited only by his own physical and emotional endurance.

Departure does not end with a climatic crisis, which is probably a good thing for Nemoto and his clients, but Wilson still skillfully uses one of Nemoto’s signature ceremonies to build to an emotional climax. As documentary profiles go, it is downright immersive at times. An inspiring snapshot of Zen Buddhism in action, The Departure is highly recommended for mindfulness audiences when it opens this Friday (10/13) in New York, at the Metrograph.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

It is the origin story of an origin story. Think of it as everything you wanted to know about the creator of Wonder Woman but were afraid to ask. Go back to a time when S&M was frowned upon in comic books in Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

William Moulton Marston was the star of the Radcliffe psychology department, but his wife Elizabeth had the brains of the family. Yet, no university would take her on as a full professor, not even Radcliffe (which probably thought it was progressive simply because it had a psych department). Nevertheless, Olive Byrne, Marston’s pretty new work-study assistant is in awe of the couple—and romantically attracted to them both, even though she is engaged to a painfully traditional frat brother.

Nearly from the start, Prof. Marston is convinced they can make their unconventional relationship work, but Ms. Marston is more skeptical. Her concerns regarding social stigma prove well founded. The trio will indeed suffer disgrace and ostracism, but just when their prospects look dreariest, Marston causes a sensation with his comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, inspired by the strength of his partners and the light boudoir bondage they enjoy. Sadly, the schoolmarms at the Comic Commission take a dim view of her Amazon ways.

It is hard to keep up with Wonder Women’s frequent tonal shifts. One moment, we are invited to gawk at their naughty sessions and the next minute the film is stoking our outrage at middle class America’s Puritanical narrowmindedness. (If they had just locked their front door a lot of trouble could have been avoided, but apparently those were different times.)

No matter which primal emotions the film happens to be appealing to, Rebecca Hall is a wickedly smart, riveting screen presence as Elizabeth Marston. Not surprisingly, the legal Marston wife is also the most complex character. In contrast, it is hard to see how Bella Heathcote’s passively mousy Olive Byrne could inspire a paragon of female butt-kicking. However, Luke Evans is surprisingly expressive conveying the former Professor’s insecurities and regrets.

It is truly a drag how voluntary morality regulation drained so much fun out of comic-books. Still, you have to wonder what Dr. Drew might say about this film. Let’s be honest, such an arrangement really isn’t a practical option for most people. Arguably, Robinson presents a permissive moral world-view that is just as simplistic as the one she critiques. Wonder Women is a handsome period production and the deep roots of the American icon are certainly provocative, but the film doesn’t add up to much more than the smug feeling of superiority over the prudish booboisie. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is not an affront to anything, but it is too inconsistent to merit Wonder Woman fans’ time and money when it opens this Friday (10/13) in New York, at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

HBO Short Film: Tokyo Project

Tokyo—it is the hip place for Americans to go to be moody and depressed. Unlike Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Sebastian the Brooklyn businessman appreciates Japanese culture, both high and pop. It would just be nice if he had someone to share it with. Claire the freelance photographer might be a good candidate, but like him, she seems to carry a deep sadness on her shoulders in Richard Shepard’s short film Tokyo Project (trailer here), which premieres this Saturday night on HBO.

We quickly glean from the voice messages Sebastian leaves, his wife will not be joining him on this trip, due to an unspoken tragedy she has yet to allow herself to recover from. As a result, Sebastian’s tour of Shinjuku sake bars and ramen restaurants takes on a melancholy vibe. The huge neon signs and chaotic Shibuya scramble crossing could dwarf any man, but he looks especially small. Still, he cannot help noticing Claire, another American staying at his hotel, with whom he has a series of near-encounters.

At first, she discourages his advances, but the frequency of their paths crossing wears down her reluctance. Half-jokingly, she claims to be a ghost, but that could actually be true metaphorically. Regardless, finding solace in each other’s arms might not be as simple as viewers might like to think.

If only a fraction of HBO’s subscribers watch Shepard’s film, it will still greatly boost Tokyo tourism, no matter how they feel about Project as a work of short cinema. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (whose work includes Hell or High Water) feasts on the mega-cityscape. Sometimes he makes the city feel warm and sometimes cool, but it is always visually arresting.

Tokyo Project also happens to be a surprisingly touching narrative drama. Yes, Lena Dunham signed on as an executive producer, but do not hold that against it. Both Ebon Moss-Bachrach (co-star of Dunham’s Girls and the radically different Punisher coming from Netflix) and Elisabeth Moss convey a powerful sense of their characters’ pain and regret, but they do so with quiet restraint. Shusaku Kakizawa gives surprising depth and presence to the potentially thankless helper role of Sebastian’s translator Shu, which fortunately establishes at least a bit of Japanese representation in a film set in Japan.

Shepard keeps his big reveal close to his vest, but the viewing experience does not really hinge on it, so it hardly matters if viewers guess where his screenplay is headed. It is also a nice change of pace to see a film about American tourists who conduct themselves appropriately while abroad. Recommended for those who appreciate adult relationship dramas and anyone interested in an armchair tour of the Japanese capital, Tokyo Project airs this Saturday night (10/14) on HBO.

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Museum Watching: The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg

Uli Sigg was like the Herb & Dorothy of contemporary Chinese art, but he was always a highly respected member of the economic and political establishment. Thanks to his special access, he was one of the first westerners to collect artists like Ai Weiwei during his early years in China as a businessman and diplomat. It turns out he also had a good eye for collecting. The reigning superstars of the international art world pay tribute to their Swiss friend and patron in Michael Schindhelm’s The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg (trailer here), which has several upcoming screenings around the country.

Ironically, when China first opened in the early 1980s, it was more open then than it is now. Sigg was one of handful of western businessmen allowed into the country to form joint-ventures. Frankly, as the representative of the Schindler Group (they manufacture elevators and escalators), Sigg wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing in Mainland China, but he managed to acquire and renovate an abandoned factory that became quite a profitable concern in its day.

Sigg also kept his eyes open and made plenty of contacts, so he was a logical choice to become Switzerland’s ambassador to China, Mongolia, and North Korea (interestingly, Hong Kong and Taiwan were not part of his remit). Having good diplomatic instincts, Sigg thought it would be a nice gesture if the Swiss embassy displayed the work of contemporary Chinese artists.

Sigg was a quick study and confident in his judgement, so he soon became a regular visitor to the studios of Ai Weiwei, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Cao Chong’en, and his daughter Cao Fei (also an interesting filmmaker), all of whom talk to Schindhelm at length. Today, we can barely afford to drop their names in a review, but Sigg was able to acquire important formative works from them. Yet, Sigg always planned to return a good portion of his collection to a museum that would keep it on view for the Chinese people. He found the right partner in M+, an innovative contemporary art museum currently under construction in Hong Kong. Hey, HK is totally part of China, right? Oh, sweet irony.

Ever the diplomat, Sigg is generally circumspect when it comes to addressing current or even historical controversies on camera. However, it seems telling how many artists he championed were profoundly influenced by traumatic experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, that makes perfect sense, considering most of them were born in the early to mid-1960s, usually to middle class families. Indeed, the mere fact Sigg is one of Teacher Ai’s confidants says plenty.

The bald-pated, hawk-nosed Sigg also happens to be a heck of an attention-grabbing screen presence. The seventy-one-year-old is still razor-sharp and can remember with crystal clarity meetings with Deng Xiaoping and just about every other subsequently important government official.

If only more ambassadors were as engaged and far-sighted as Sigg (although the late, great Hon. Smith Hempstone’s tenure in Kenya remains the gold standard). Sigg amassed a remarkable collection, lived an accomplished life, and now finds himself the subject of a pretty strong documentary. Schindhelm keeps it moving along at a good clip and uncovers some fascinating and telling details. Recommended for China watchers and fine arts patrons, The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg screens tonight (10/10) in New York at the Asia Society and next Wednesday (10/18) at the Sloan Lake Denver Drafthouse, as part of their film/STILL series, presented in conjunction with the Clyfford Still Museum.

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Demonic, Produced by James Wan

A swampy Baton Rouge location will make any haunted house scarier, but this one happens to have an especially nasty ritualistic history. You know it must be frightening, because it carries the imprimatur of James Wan, arguable the most successful horror filmmaker of the last ten years. To make even creepier, it boasts an alleged real deal predator as an executive producer—Harvey Weinstein of course. His brother Bob was always the go-to guy for their Dimension genre releases, so his grossness really shouldn’t tarnish this rather scrappy exercise in supernatural horror. History is out to repeat itself in Will Canon’s Demonic (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

In 1988, Martha Livingston killed four of her friends and then committed suicide as part of a Satanic ritual. Sometime around the present day, six young people visited her spooky old house, hoping to raise the spirits of her victims. We would know this was a spectacularly bad idea, even if the film’s flashback structure did not reveal three of them are already dead. First on the scene, Det. Mark Lewis discovers the deeply disturbed John, who could either be a victim or the perp. It turns out he has a close connection to the previous murders. His mother was the one that got away in 1988. His pregnant girlfriend Michelle and her jerky ghost-chasing ex also happen to be the two who are presently unaccounted for.

Soon, he will turn over his interrogation to police head-shrinker Dr. Elizabeth Klein, with whom he was supposed to have a date that night. The horrific events will unfold for viewers through John’s flashbacks and the bits and piece of footage restored from the team’s many surveillance cameras.

It is baffling why TWC-Dimension gave Dimension such shabby distribution, especially since it comes with the Wan branding. Despite the stupid twentynothings, this is a pretty good horror film for adults, because of the professional demeanor and personal chemistry shared by Lewis and Klein. Frank Grillo and Maria Bello are both terrific as our intrepid investigators. They act like grown-ups but still have very attractive yet seasoned screen presences.

As for the immature victims, they are mostly functional grist for the mill, but Aaron Yoo adds some awkward eccentricity as their socially stunted computer guy. It also should be stipulated, the surprise survivor who turns out to be the evil entity helps make the most of the terrifying revelation.

Unlike most supernatural horror films, Demonic adds elements of the mystery genre rather adroitly. Klein and Lewis are also unusually strong genre characters, so it is too bad Demonic’s theatrical release was squandered, thereby making a franchise based around them highly unlikely. Sure, the ending is a little nuts, but that is how it goes with haunted house-possession movies. Recommended for horror fans, Demonic releases today on DVD.

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