J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Master Builder: Ibsen Re-Staged by Shawn & Gregory

Critics generally rank The Master Builder not far below Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House in Henrik Ibsen’s oeuvre, but it is revived far less frequently. Notable past productions include a 2008 Malayalam film adaptation, a 1992 Broadway revival featuring Lynne Redgrave, and a 1960 television special starring E.G. Marshall. That did not leave a lot of iconic baggage for André Gregory to contend with when he staged a modern translation penned by his frequent collaborator and dinner companion Wallace Shawn. Their take on Ibsen’s somewhat autobiographical play now hits the big screen, but the original’s Scandinavian angst remains unmistakable in the Jonathan Demme helmed A Master Builder (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Halvard Solness is probably dying and his former mentor Knut Brovik most certainly is. Before his imminent demise, Brovik would like to see Solness make some sort of affirmation of his son Ragnar’s talents. However, the celebrated architect refuses to do so, preferring to keep the junior Brovik under his thumb as his draftsman. Frankly, he is afraid the son might usurp his position, just as he unseated his father. It also suits Solness to maintain a high degree of control over Ragnar, considering he has taken the young man’s fiancée Kaya Fosli as his mistress.

Solness’s relationship to his wife Aline is even more complicated than his dealings with the Brovik family. It seems he feels profound guilt over a shared tragedy from their past that will be revealed over time. The catalyst for his subsequent revelations and soul searching will be the arrival of Hilde Wangel, a free-spirited young woman, who was quite taken with Solness as a teenager. Evidently, he made some rather inappropriate advances at the time. Yet, it was the vision of Solness laying a wreath atop her village’s newly erected church steeple that really made an impression on her.

It will be Builder’s curse to be inevitably compared to Louis Malle’s classic career coda Vanya on 42nd Street, but that is a ridiculously high standard to be measured against. It is impossible replicate the evocative vibe of the gutted New Amsterdam Theatre in which it was mounted and Joshua Redman’s smoky harbop musical interludes are also sorely missed. Instead, Demme doubles down on intimacy, focusing on his actors and their human frailties.

As an acting showcase, Builder is still considerable, particularly Shawn, who gives full voice to Solness’s guilt and arrogance. He is a complex but manipulative character, who must be one of the great late-career challenges a stage actor can tackle. While it is a smaller role, Gregory cuts an acutely tragic figure as the physically and emotionally ailing Brovik. It is also good to see Broadway and Vanya veteran Larry Pine return as Dr. Elert Herdal. While it is smaller part, he has a very nice scene drawing out Solness’s initial first act confession.

Although Aline Solness’s preoccupation with obligation is difficult to re-contextualize in a modern production, Julie Hagerty still manages to flesh out a multidimensional portrayal. However, Lisa Joyce never successful integrates Wanger’s contradictory aspects. As a result, she largely remains a destabilizing cycher, periodically stirring matters up, apparently because that is what she does.

Builder is a serious and sensitive interpretation of Ibsen, but it does not have the timeless élan of Malle’s Vanya. At times, it is almost too respectful, allowing the string ensemble soundtrack to underscore the pathos of it all rather than injecting a little energy. Recommended for those who appreciate highly literate stage drama, A Master Builder opens this Wednesday (7/23) at New York’s Film Forum.

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A Most Wanted Man: When Hoffman Met le Carre

Yes, intelligence gathering sometimes involves cloak-and-dagger work, but there is also a lot of bureaucracy. That has always been a side of the secretive business novelist John le Carré has been closely in touch with. For better or worse, all the hallmarks of a le Carré bestseller are to be found in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of his A Most Wanted Man (trailer here), which opens this Thursday in New York.

Hamburg was the city where the September 11th terrorist attacks were planned—a fact German intelligence is keenly aware of. It was not Gunther Bachmman’s territory at the time, but the spymaster is still in need of redemption. He was transferred to port city after his Beirut network was exposed. The who’s, how’s, and why’s remain murky, but there is no question regarding damage done to his career. However, the world weary scotch drinker has big game in his sights: Dr. Faisal Abdullah, an ostensive philanthropist and advocate of Muslim tolerance, whom Bachmann has reason to suspect is furtively funneling funds to terrorist organizations.

Being old school to his bones, Bachmann eschews interrogations or anything physical. He prefers to trap his prey and then turn them into assets. That is the plan with Abdullah, using the poor hapless Issa Karpov as bait. The son of a Chechen woman and a high ranking (and therefore corrupt) Soviet military officer, Karpov understandably identifies with his mother’s side of the family. Escaping his Russian torturers, Karpov has been branded an Islamist terrorist, but Bachmann is skeptical. Dieter Mohr, a more politically sensitive rival from an overlapping agency, would prefer to arrest the Chechen with great fanfare, but Bachmann sees the newly arrived asylum-seeker as an opportunity.

As it turns out, Karpov’s despised old man had an account in Hamburg—an account large enough to be a chip in Bachmann’s game. However, to play it, he will have to handle Karpov’s immigration attorney, Annabel Richter, and Tommy Brue, the banker holding his funds. Unfortunately, Bachmann is a le Carré protagonist, which means he must spend a great deal of time in boardrooms convincing dim-witted ministers to go along with his plan. For now, Martha Sullivan, the regional CIA string-puller, will give him time, but her patience and Bachmann’s trust are limited.

If you like your thrillers talky, you are already a le Carré reader and therefore thoroughly primed for Wanted. On the plus side, Corbijn’s is fully stocked with intelligent characters and meaty dialogue heavy with meaning. Conversely, le Carré’s moral equivalency between all parties is present in full force, as well as an aversion to cinematic action. Although its running time clocks in just over two hours, the ending still feels unsatisfyingly unfinished, leaving viewers to wonder if everyone would really leave things as they are.

Of course, the primary, if not only reason to see Wanted is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who fits into the role of Bachmann like a comfortably rumpled suit. Le Carré has said Hoffman is the only American who could play his iconic George Smiley—and it is easy to see what he means. Bachmann and Smiley are clearly cut from same cloth, while Hoffman, Gary Oldman, and Alec Guinness were/are some of the smartest, most engaging actors in the business.

Hoffman’s mushy German accent also works rather well in context, but Rachel McAdams is not nearly as convincing as Richter, the slumming daughter of privilege human rights attorney. At least Willem Dafoe certainly looks at home as Brue, the self-loathing banker. Sadly, Nina Hoss does not have much to do as Bachmann’s lieutenant, Irna Frey, but she classes up the joint, nonetheless. Most of the German cast-members largely serve as window dressing, especially Rush’s Daniel Brühl, who is about as easy to spot as Tony Curtis in The List of Adrian Messenger playing one of Bachmann’s surveillance specialists. Arguably, it is Robin Wright who best hangs with Hoffman, warily sparring with his Bachmann as the suspiciously smooth Sullivan.

Wisely, Andrew Bouvell’s adapted screenplay somewhat waters down the criticism of post-9-11 American foreign policy, but anti-Americanism is baked into the fiber of le Carré’s source novel. Yet, it is the film’s brief but explicit criticisms of Putin’s Russia that feel timelier now. Corbijn has a good eye for the project, capturing the cold, cerebral world of intrigue and modernist architecture. There is much to admire about it, but aside from Hoffman’s haggard everyman performance, the film does it best to keep viewers at arm’s length, like a film that does not want to be wanted. Recommended for knowing fans of le Carré and Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man opens this Thursday night (7/24) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gangster Night: Al Capone—Icon

Al Capone did not leave a lot of evidence lying around—particularly not in his vault, right Geraldo? Elliott Ness could also confirm the scarcity of Capone’s paper trail. Almost overnight, he became the original archetype of the sharp dressed gangster, but his glory days were relatively short-lived. Chicago’s most famous resident gets the biographical and sociological treatment in Al Capone: Icon (promo here), which airs this Tuesday during PBS’s “Gangster Night.”

He was Brooklyn’s native son, but he found his fame and fortune in the Windy City. It was a precipitous rise from a street barker hustling speakeasy customers to the boss of the Chicago Outfit. Prohibition made all the difference. As you might have heard, it never really took. In fact, it led to widespread acceptance of criminal behavior. Capone had a good run riding that wave. Unlike his gangster contemporaries, Scarface Al cultivated the media, who gave him rockstar coverage for a while. However, the carnage of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre turned opinion against Capone, even though he was never directly implicated in the killings.

Of course, most everyone should know Capone was never convicted for his gangster business (aside from a relatively minor weapons charge). Nevertheless, Capone sought to embody the gangster age, so he took the brunt of the public’s Valentine’s Day outrage. Frankly, most of Icon’s expert commentary is more concerned with Capone as a media figure and a model for countless gangster movie protagonists.

Many viewers will probably want to hear more about Capone’s operations, but frankly the Feds probably still do too. Regardless, there is an interesting cast assembled to discuss Capone as a cultural phenomenon, including a veteran Chicago Commander of Detectives Thomas Reppetto, Capone’s grand niece Deirdre, very former mobster Frank Calabrese, Jr., and several academics. Rather surprisingly, the great vocalist Cassandra Wilson also appears (quite stylishly), discussing Capone’s role as an early patron of jazz as the king of the Chicago’s nightlife.

While the talking heads are a bit uneven, Icon is still consistently informative in an entertaining, non-taxing sort of way. Arguably, there is better quality control for PBS’s lower profile one-off specials like this than some of their bigger marquee events. Recommended for those who enjoy gangster-watching, Al Capone: Icon premieres this Tuesday (7/22) as part of “Gangster Night,” along with the History Detectives’ investigation of the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance (which presumably fails since no indictments have been issued).

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Japan Cuts ’14: Hello! Junichi

Junichi Hayashida is a naturally empathetic kid. Unfortunately, that does not impress a lot of third graders. However, he might gain a little bit of confidence through time spent with his five friends and their bombshell student teacher. Being a kid is hard, but it still has its moments in Katsuhito Ishii, Kanoko Kawaguchi & Atsushi Yoshioka’s Hello! Junichi, which screens as part of the 2014 Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film (special festival trailer here).

Anna-Sensei makes quite an impression on everyone, especially Hayashida’s romantically frustrated homeroom teacher. However, he still only has eyes for Maeda. During art class, he found himself borrowing a bunny eraser from her, but he has yet to gird up the courage to return it. This is the sort of thing Anna-Sensei picks up on immediately. Initially, this intimidates Hayashida, just like everything else in life, except more so. Yet, he comes to trust her when she defends him and his mates when they get into a tight spot.

Although Junichi’s parents are well to do, he spends more time with more-with-it-than-he-seems grandfather. Unfortunately, his friend Masato Kuramoto’s home life is much more difficult. Money is tight, so his soon-to-be single mother must work multiple jobs. To help him give her special birthday, Hayashida and his friends agree to stage a special concert for her, with Anna-Sensei’s help, of course.

In terms of tone, Hello is reminiscent of Ishii’s The Taste of Tea, but it substitutes moments of wild but terrestrial zaniness for the magical realism of his Tochigi-set family pastoral. Co-directed with two of his workshop graduates, Hello balances a battalion of characters with ease. They mostly maintain a mood of wistful whimsy, but it still forthrightly addresses the issue of bullying.

Hikari Mitsushima, who took no prisoners in Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, once again becomes a force of nature as Anna-Sensei, the Miss Jean Brodie we always wanted. She develops some real chemistry with her young co-stars and looks great beating on the various adults who cross her. Still, young Amon Kabe distinguishes himself, carrying the narrator-chief POV duties like a good little soldier.

Likewise, Yohei Hotta and Rio Sasaki are remarkably compelling as the gruff but sensitive Kuramoto and the forceful aspiring pop idol, Kayo Tanaka. Frankly, the all the third grade supporting players are quite assured. It is some of their adult counterparts who get a bit shticky (but not enough to undermine the film’s good vibes).

Anna-Sensei’s magnetism is undeniable and her kids are all quite endearing. As a result, it is hard to imagine anyone would not be won over by Hello’s charm. Gentle but relatively true to life, it is perfect for family viewing. To that end, the Japan Society is offering a special $6 admission deal for children twelve or younger. Recommended with affection, Hello! Junichi screens tomorrow (7/20), the closing day of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Japan Cuts ‘14: My Little Sweet Pea

Mugiko Koiwa’s life revolves around anime. Her brother Norio is all about pachinko. Neither is particularly industrious, but fortunately their long lost mother Saiko was helping pay the bills, unbeknownst to her daughter. Sadly, Saiko will not have enough time to rebuild their relationship, but Mugiko will learn to appreciate her mother after the fact in Keisuke Yoshida’s My Little Sweet Pea (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

Pleading hardship, Saiko moves in with Mugiko and the surly Norio, who shacks-up with his girlfriend shortly thereafter. It is a decidedly awkward situation for Koiwa, who always thought Saiko had abandoned her family. While she makes some halting efforts, she never really accepts Saiko into her life before the older woman’s death. Unsure of her own feelings, Koiwa agrees to takes her mother’s ashes to her provincial home town for her forty-nine day ritual.

However, Koiwa is rather shocked when the community receives her like a rock star. Evidently, she is the spitting image of her mother in her younger years. Saiko only visited once after moving to Tokyo to fruitlessly pursue her pop star dreams, but she is fondly remembered by all, particularly her cabbie Manabu Inomoto, a luckless suitor, and Saiko’s best friend, Michiru. It turns out Koiwa has a lot to learn about her mother and she will have the time to learn, thanks to some missing internment paperwork.

If you prefer your films on the cynical side than Sweet Pea might just make you break out in hives. However, anime fans should sit up and take note, Production I.G (the studio behind Ghost in the Shell) created original animated sequences seen during Koiwa’s early fangirl sequences. They are pretty cool, but they are a distinct anomaly in their filmography.

The real point of Sweet Pea is Koiwa’s journey rediscovering her lost mother. As her host and guide, Michiru, Yumi Asou is wonderfully warm and humane, unexpectedly outshining just about everyone. On the other hand, Yoichi Nukumizu indulges in a bit of shtick as Inomoto. Nevertheless, he nicely turns his big serious third act speech. Maki Horikita portrays Koiwa’s internal arc of development with believable restraint, but Ryuhei Matsuda makes little impression as brother Norio, while Kimiko Yo’s Saiko never really lands the emotional haymaker.

The Oscar winning Departures (which co-starred Yo) is an obvious comparison film, with the misunderstood Saiko taking the place of the encoffineer’s absentee father. While Sweet Pea is not nearly as devastating, it feels more true to life. It is a wistful, endearing film that works on its own terms. Recommended for fans of tearjerkers with anime seasoning, My Little Sweat Pea screens tomorrow (7/19) at the Japan Society as part of the 2014 Japan Cuts.

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Japan Cuts ’14: Man from Reno

Mystery novelist Aki Akahori’s Inspector Takabe is like a Japanese Maigret, but her life is about to turn into a Mary Higgins Clark novel, except darker. A chance encounter with a seductive stranger leads to more intrigue than Akahori bargained for in Dave Boyle’s Man from Reno (clip here), the best narrative award winner at the 2014 L.A. Film Festival, screens as part of this year’s Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

Although Takabe rules the Japanese bestseller lists, Akahori is uncomfortable with her success. Tired of her celebrity status, she deserts her publicity tour, taking refuge in San Francisco, where she once went to school. In her hotel, she meets a handsome Japanese tourist from Reno, or so she deduces. She did not have a tryst in mind, but she eventually yields to his charms. However, just when things start heating up, he precipitously vanishes. Even more disconcerting are the total strangers who suddenly want to take a quick look-see in her room.

Just north of town, Paul Del Moral, the sheriff of San Marco, is also searching for a Japanese man. In this case, it is the individual he accidentally hit during severe fog-in, who up and left the hospital in an equally rash manner. Soon a dead body turns up in San Marco who seems to have some connection to the fellow Del Moral dubbed “Running Man.” Inevitably, Del Moral’s investigation will lead him to the increasingly uneasy Akahori.

Reno represents a quantum step up for Boyle, whose previous films, like White on Rice, have been largely classifiable as romantic comedies. His frequent collaborator Hiroshi Watanabe is also back in the fold, but this time around he plays a strictly serious supporting role. Instead, Ayako Fujitani and veteran character actor Pepe Serna take star turns as Akahori and Del Moral, respectively. Expect to see more of them because they both make major statements with their smart, charismatic, yet understated performances.

As thrillers go, Reno (co-written by Boyle, Joel Clark, and Michael Lerman) has several fresh twists and it nicely captures the between-worlds vibe of the expatriate lifestyle. Technically polished, Richard Wong’s evocatively noir cinematographer also heightens the tension during several key scenes.

Murkier than one might expect, Reno is an effective somewhat romantic suspenser that never rushes to tip its hand. However, it even more appealing to see a film anchored by people who look like Akahori and Del Moral. Granted, Fujitani is a beautiful woman, but in a mature, cerebral manner. Likewise, Serna is wonderfully grizzled, in a confidence-inspiring way. They are terrific, carrying the film relay-style during their many solo scenes. Highly recommended, Man from Reno screens tomorrow (7/19) at the Japan Society as part of the 2014 Japan Cuts.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Japan Cuts ’14: Greatful Dead

Japan is the nation that brought us the hikikomori phenomenon and Nami is grateful, so to speak. However, she is not interested in garden variety shut-ins. It is the seriously cracked loners, or “solitarians” as she dubs them, that fascinate her. Her unhealthy obsession will take on dangerous dimensions in Eiji Uchida’s Greatful Dead (yes, that is how it is spelled, trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Japan Cuts: the New York Festival ofContemporary Japanese Film.

Nami’s parents were highly flawed. Her mother’s compulsive third world child sponsorship never left her time for her own daughters. In contrast, their father was only interested in her, so when she abandoned her family to live the Mother Theresa lifestyle, it essentially killed him inside. Eventually, he takes up with a seductive new mistress Akko-chan, but she hardly helps his state of mind. At least he has a lot of money to leave Nami.

Now in her twenties, the privileged Nami consumes like mad, while her sister revels in the ordinariness of her stable family life. Nami wants no part of it. She prefers documenting the sad and sometimes twisted lives of her solitarians. Her latest seems to hold special meaning for her. Mr. Shiomi was evidently once a man of some position, but now he shuns his family, leading the sort of aggressively anti-social existence Nami finds so charming. However, when Korean evangelical Su Yong starts to reform and uplift Shiomi, it threatens to spoil Nami’s fun. Extreme measures will be taken in response.

In a way, Greatful asks which is the stronger force, consumerism or Christian fellowship. Surprisingly, it treats the latter quite fairly. However, it takes viewers to an existentially dark and bloody place, like nothing one would ever see in Evangelical cinema. Still, Su Yong is unquestionably the film’s most sympathetic and virtuous character, played with deep sensitivity by Korean indie star Kim Kkobbi.

Nonetheless, Kumi Takiuchi completely dominates the film, effortlessly transitioning from eccentric kookiness to raging sociopathic ferocity. It is an unsettling performance, because she shows the little girl inside Nami, lashing out for attention. Likewise, Takashi Sasano is pretty fierce himself, convincingly portraying Shiomi’s personal evolution and his sudden snap back into brutishness, courtesy of Nami.

Greatful is absolutely chilling at times, but its morbid sense of humor takes the worst of the edge off. It is quite cleverly constructed and Uchida’s execution is unflaggingly tight and tense. It is not what you would call “feel good,” yet Uchida someone leaves us some ambiguity to clutch at. Highly recommended for those who take their horror-comedies unsweetened, with a side order of social commentary, Greatful Dead screens tomorrow (7/18) at the Japan Society as part of the 2014 Japan Cuts.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

K: Missing Kings—the Anime Story Continues

Shizume City appears to be a futuristic metropolis, but beneath the surface, it is like feudal Scotland. Secret clans forge alliances and rivalries, fueled by their unique powers. Kuroh Yatogami and his feline fellow clan member Neko have been looking for Yashiro Isana, the Silver King, who ominously vanished after what fans know as the “Academy Island Incident.” Their fruitless search will be interrupted by more inter-clan conflict in Shingo Suzuki’s K: Missing Kings (trailer here), the feature length sequel to the hit manga and anime series, which opens this Friday in major markets.

The Silver Clan members are not the only ones struggling with potential losses. The Red Clan, known as HOMRA, has essentially been in hiding, largely out of touch with each other. For some reason, the Green Clan (a.k.a. Jungle) is hunting Anna Kushina, a young HOMRA member with Professor X-like powers. 

The two Silver Clan members will team up with Kushina’s protector, Rikio Kamamoto as best they can, but they are temporarily overmatched by Yatogami’s old nemesis and his super-charged ninja accomplice. As a result, an unlikely request for help will be made to Scepter 4, the icily efficient Blue Clan.

Unlike many feature incarnations of popular anime franchises, Missing Kings is not an inconsequential side adventure shoehorned into the established timeline. It advances the storyline in significant ways. That means there are real stakes involved. While that makes it a high priority for the existing fan base, newcomers are not given much exposition to get up to speed with. Granted, viewers should be able to pick up on the basic elements of X-Men and various conspiratorial hidden history motifs at play. However, the relationships between the various clans will be richer and far more comprehensible to those who are familiar with their shared histories.

Fortunately, there is a lot of good action in Missing Kings, starting with a highly cinematic raid on the Gold Clan’s corporate headquarters. In quieter moments, it spins out some legitimate character development arcs, particularly for Yatogami and Kushina. Returning writer GoRa also answers some lingering questions from the series, while still leaving plenty unresolved.

A high quality anime production, Missing Kings looks great and sounds surprisingly hip thanks to a jazzy-quiet storm-ish soundtrack. The faithful should be well satisfied, but it is still an awkward entry point for the uninitiated. Recommended for fans or those who just want to see some well executed anime action, K: Missing Kings opens in some markets this Friday (7/18), but screens Saturday and Monday (7/19 & 7/21) in New York at the Village East. Check for local listings at Eleven Arts site here.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sound and Chaos: Making Records in Brooklyn

Fans like to think there is something about the Muscles Shoals mud that makes those records sound so good. Maybe there is something about the Gowanus Canal that gives recordings at Martin Bisi’s BC Studio a similarly intangible quality. The unusual extent of his space is also a contributing factor. Bisi and the eclectic artists he waxed, taped, and now digitized tell studio stories in Ryan Douglass & Sara Leavitt’s Sound and Chaos: the Story of BC Studio (trailer here), which screens this Thursday at the Anthology Film Archives.

Bisi started in the music business as a roadie for Bill Laswell’s band, Material. It might sound like a humble beginning, but it involved enough face time with the band that Laswell appointed Bisi the task of opening an underground-friendly recording space. With the backing of Laswell and Roxie Music’s Brian Eno, BC was born. Despite their high profile patronage (and Bisi’s lack of experience), BC quickly developed its own identity.

The real fun of S&C comes from gawking at the roster of artists who have come through BC doors. While it is closely identified with No Wave, Post-Punk, and assorted Downtown artists, like avant-garde jazz and experimental composer John Zorn, the darnest sessions were laid down there. For instance, Herbie Hancock’s “Rock-It,” widely considered the first commercial single utilizing turntable and scratching techniques, was partially recorded at BC. Even more surprising, a then unknown singer named Whitney Houston recorded her lead vocal debut on a Material track there, also featuring free jazz legend Archie Shepp on tenor.

S&C works best as grungy nostalgia trip, but it loses some of its charm in the final quarter of an hour, when the talking heads get more political and Bisi starts fretting about the gentrifying effect of the new Whole Foods that opened right across the street from BC. Actually, it is sort of amusing when he reluctantly admits he is not so very different from the rest of the store’s clientele. Regardless, the simple truth is neighborhood either evolve or die.

Aside from the odd hipster BKLN excesses, S&C is mostly breezy fun. Douglass & Leavitt capture the atmosphere of the studio, as well as many sly interview segments with the likes of Laswell, Bob Bert formerly of Sonic Youth, and Michael Holman (Jean-Michel Basquiat’s bandmate in Gray). Recommended for Downtown music fans and Brooklyn loyalists, Sound and Chaos screens this Thursday (7/17) at the Anthology Archives in the East Village (which they say isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be).

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Back Issues: Milos Forman’s Favorite Publisher Does His Thing

Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Larry Flynt is still making money from naughty pictures. His were always the naughtiest, as prosecutors sometimes noticed. Michael Lee Nirenberg, the son of longtime Hustler art director William Nirenberg, tells his publishing success story in Back Issues: the Hustler Magazine Story (trailer here), which is now available on VOD.

Thanks to Miloš Forman, we already know the general trajectory of Flynt’s story. He started with a club that produced a tacky newsletter that eventually evolved into the granddaddy of tacky magazines. He showed more than his competitors and was prosecuted as a result. However, he won his cases on First Amendment grounds.

Look, we might well be sympathetic to Flynt’s 1st Amendment arguments and completely believe his readers have a right to buy his magazines. However, neither Forman nor Nirenberg ever make a persuasive case Flynt’s victories prevented the storm-troopers from shuttering any other sort of press that was not in the dirty picture business. It is therefore difficult to enthusiastically celebrate him as a free press champion or fret that we were spared a tumble down the slippery slope.

On the other hand, both Nirenbergs will convince viewers Flynt is quite a challenging boss to work for. While the senior Nirenberg has undeniably found memories of the overall zaniness, some incidents clearly still rankle him. Evidently, working at a permissive, zeitgeisty magazine is still work. In fact, the elder Nirenberg seems to be one of the few who could actually get things done.

The junior Nirenberg’s interviews with his father are pleasantly chatty and occasionally revealing. Perhaps even more candid are the sit-downs with Flynt’s brother Jimmy. In contrast, the notorious Flynt always seems to be consciously playing a scripted part. There are also plenty of reminiscences with the talent that appeared within his pages, whose names would surely mean nothing to any of us, right?

There is maybe a thimble full of revisionism in Back Issues and a whole lot of gawking. Ironically though, Nirenberg is reluctant to show many of the images that caused such consternation, which is an indirect commentary in itself. Breezily distracting, but mostly rather shallow, Back Issues is best left to those who are fascinated by Flynt’s world. It is now available on VOD from Filmbuff.

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Japan Cuts ’14: Unforgiven

For Jubei Kamata, it is the end of an era—the Tokugawa Era. The former samurai-assassin used to kill with impunity and then he simply killed to stay alive, but he gave up killing at the behest of his beloved late wife. However, killing is a skill you never forget. Reluctantly, Kamata digs up his sword for a final violent errand in Sang-il Lee’s Unforgiven (trailer here), an inspired cross-cultural remake of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western, which screens tomorrow as part of this year’s Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

In a remote frontier village on Hokkaido Island, two ranchers brutally disfigure Natsume, a young prostitute. Rather than prosecute them, local police chief Ichizo Oishi merely requires the former samurai pay restitution to the brothel owner. Outraged by his callous disregard for Natsume’s suffering, her fellow prostitutes pool their money to place a bounty on the offending settlers.

Old Kingo Baba intends to collect that bounty, so he tries to recruit his old samurai comrade Kamata, a.k.a. “Jubei the Killer.” Already haunted by his past carnage, Kamata dearly wishes to keep his promise renouncing violence. Unfortunately, a disastrous harvest leaves him no other option to provide for his young son and daughter. Soon, Kamata and Baba are joined by Goro Sawada, an impulsive would-be outlaw, who also happens to be half Ainu (the indigenous people of Hokkaido and Sakhalin). As it happens, Kamata’s late wife was also Ainu, giving the two men a distant kinship and a shared outage at the Meji government’s repression of Ainu customs.

Arguably, the Ainu element further deepens the Unforgiven story beyond the Eastwood’s revisionist critique of a violent, misogynistic American west. Closely paralleling the original, Lee’s adaptation perfectly fits within the rough and tumble early Meiji northern provinces, where many former Shogunate ronin sought refuge.

Ken Watanabe (who starred in Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima) is impressively hard-nosed and world weary standing in for his former director. Akira Emoto’s nervous energy playing Baba is a bit of a departure from Morgan Freeman’s analog, but it works well in context. Koichi Sato is smoothly fierce in the Hackman mold and Shiori Kutsuna is devastating as the disfigured (but still beautiful) Natsume. Yet, it is evidently still hard to get the balance of exuberance and angst right for Sawada/the Schofield Kid.

Cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu gives the Hokkaido vistas the full John Ford treatment, while Lee invests the action sequences with a tragically operatic vibe. It is a gritty period production that represents a triumph return to the tradition of Jidaigeki films and westerns riffing and channeling each other. Frustratingly, it is also a reminder of how rare the contemporary western has become in Hollywood, even though Japanese cinema continues to find creative grist in its national history. Highly recommended for fans of moody westerns and samurai films, Unforgiven screens tomorrow (7/15) at the Japan Society as part of the 2014 Japan Cuts.

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Fanny: Without Marius

For sailors, it is an age old question—which is stronger, the love of a woman or the call of the sea? It is an issue that preoccupies the first two plays of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy. In the opening installment, Marius has apparently answered in favor of the latter. Abandoned and secretly pregnant, the woman he once loved must now carry on in Daniel Auteuil’s adaptation of Fanny, which opens this Friday in New York.

Although they long carried torches for each other, Marius decided he had to ship out when he finally had the opportunity and Fanny believed she had to let him go. Unfortunately, her unwed pregnancy promises to ruin her standing around the Old Port of Marseilles. Marius’s gregarious father César is still under the illusion his son will soon return to marry Fanny, but the lack of letters from her former lover speaks volumes.

Much to her surprise, Fanny’s old suitor, Panisse the sail merchant renews his marriage offer, even after she fully explains her condition. Initially, César bitterly resents their union, but when they fully take the tavern-keeper into their confidence, he accepts the pragmatism of the arrangement. He will be the godfather to his absent son’s baby, while Panisse’s wealth will secure his future. Of course, the big uncertainty looming over their arrangement is Marius, should he ever return.

As both actor and director, Auteuil has an assured command of Pagnol’s work. While there are a few strikingly cinematic sequences in Fanny, he intimately focuses on the personal drama, eschewing flash and dazzle. He also delivers the most memorable performance, defining the sacrifices of parenthood in exquisitely sensitive terms. Jean-Pierre Darroussin is not far behind Auteuil, playing old Panisse with painful dignity and earnestness. Victoire Bélézy looks lovely and deeply tragic as Fanny, whereas Raphaël Personnaz largely underwhelms as the titular prodigal son.

Fanny has an evocative old world vibe, heightened by the best score over-rated film composer Alexandre Desplat has penned in years. Cinematographer Jean-François Robin gives it all a warm, nostalgic (in the best sense) look. A quality period literary adaptation, Fanny satisfactorily stands alone for viewers who have not seen the preceding Marius. Recommended for patrons of French cinema, Fanny opens this Friday (7/18) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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A Five Star Life: Luxury for One

Irene Lorenzi is used to ordering soup for one—and she expects it served at a very specific temperature. It is not that she is too high maintenance to even find a dinner partner. It is her job. Lorenzi is the mystery guest five star hotels dread. It is not the worst lot in life to draw, but it often a solitary one, leading to a mild mid-life crisis in Maria Sole Tognazzi’s elegant dramedic bauble, A Five Star Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lorenzi largely lives out of her suitcase, putting five star hotels through a rigorous secret inspection process. When she returns home, she catches up with her sister Silvia and beloved nieces as best she can. She also tries to touch base with Andrea, her former lover who is now her platonic (and only) friend. Like Lorenzi, he also has a hip job, but at least managing an organic food coop keeps him down with the people—the Volvo-driving people. That is how he met Fabiana, a one-night stand turned pregnant girlfriend. He might just be ready to commit to marriage and fatherhood, causing Lorenzi to re-examine her own life.

Fear not, Five Star is far too smart for angst-ridden soul-searching. Despite all her misgivings, Lorenzi still enjoys her job. It also often serves as a convenient escape hatch whenever things start to get too real with Silvia and Andrea. Yet, all the lavish service makes it difficult to forge human connections. Indeed, Tognazzi’s screenplay, co-written by Ivan Cotroneo and Francesca Marciano, presents a social critique of the opulent lifestyle rather than a political-ideological indictment (at least that is how it plays on screen, regardless of their intent).

Frankly, part of the inescapably appeal of Five Star are the highly cinematic resorts Lorenzi inspects in exotic locales such as Marrakesh and Tuscany. There is no question there is a fair amount of luxury porn going on here. Nevertheless, it presents a unique take on a professional woman, wrestling with her life choices.

Given the focus on Lorenzi, the film largely rests on the shoulders of Margherita Buy, who won Italy’s equivalent of the Oscars for her lead performance. Smart, sophisticated, and reserved, she comes across like an Italian Cécile de France, which is not a bad thing. She certainly has the right look and mature substance to be a credible connoisseur of the best of the finest. The subtlety with which she reveals Lorenzi’s insecurities is also quite effective.

Five Star is undeniably narrow in scope, but it is nimbly sure-footed, giving viewers an intimate peak into a well structured but unusual life. There is definitely very real drama at its core, but Tognazzi allows viewers plenty of time to revel in the rarified surroundings, which sparkle in cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari’s lens. It is all quite satisfying, like room service soup served at the proper temperature. Recommended for fans of Italian cinema and those who enjoy gawking at exclusive locales, A Five Star Life opens this Friday (7/18) in New York at the Paris Theatre. 

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

OIFF ’14: Gaamer

Really good film festivals are not just an assortment of screenings. They provide a sense of community. Every year, I look forward to fests like Sundance, NYAFF, and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Festival because of the people I expect to see there. That is why the continuation of the Odessa International Film Festival represents a small but significant victory for Ukraine’s cultural sector. Unfortunately, there is one particular filmmaker who will not be able to attend.

Pro-Ukrainian democracy activist Oleg Sentsov was arrested by the Russian military while attempting to smuggle food to barricaded Ukrainian military personnel in the occupied province of Crimea. He is now being held on trumped up terrorism charges, awaiting a show trial in Moscow. To date, Ukrainian consular personnel have been denied access to Sentsov, in clear violation of diplomatic law and custom. In his place, Sentsov will be represented at this year’s inspiringly defiant OIFF with his 2011 feature directorial debut, Gaamer (trailer here), which has a special screening this Tuesday.

Ostensibly, there are no political implications to be gleamed from Gaamer. The extra “a” represents a distinctively Slavic pronunciation of “gamer” adopted by video game fanatics in parts of Eastern Europe. Sentsov was once part of the subculture, just like his protagonist. Alex is an unrepentant underachiever. However, under his gamer handle Koss, he is one of the top players of the first-person shooter Quake in his depressed post-industrial town.

Much to his long suffering mother’s frustrations, Alex/Koss has been expelled from his technical school, preferring to idle his time away in a computer gaming parlor, presumably much like the one Sentsov once managed. When he places highly in a local tournament, he is recruited by one of the top national teams. At least he will have free gaming for the near future, but then what?

It is tempting to try to read further political significance into the work of filmmakers like Sentsov or Iranian dissident Jafar Panahi, because you would think it has to be in there somewhere to justify such heavy-handed human rights abuses. However, there is absolutely no commentary on neo-Soviet Imperialism to be found in Gaamer.

Instead, it is a film about lifestyle choices and their consequences. Specifically, it examines the awkward period when gaming loses its thrill. After all, a video game is by its nature fleeting and apparently Quake is one of those games that always ultimately ends with a player’s in-game death. So just what does Alex/Koss have to show for his monitor time?

Frankly, Putin would probably prefer an anesthetized Ukraine, lulled by video games or whatever into a state of extreme myopia. In that limited sense, Gaamer’s get-out-and-get-involved-in-life message is somewhat at odds with his expansionist agenda. However, the truth of the matter is Sentsov was simply rounded up for being a prominent ethnic Ukrainian in the Crimea, with a history of democratic activism.

Clearly, Sentsov also understands the characters of Gaamer and the worlds in which they interact. Vladislav Zhuk is totally convincing as the socially underdeveloped Alex/Koss, but his distant, cipher-like nature is sometimes frustrating. While it is not exactly a showy role, Zhanna Biryuk perfectly calibrates her performance as his mother.

All things considered, Gaamer is a very promising first feature. It has its odd rough edges and pacing issues here and there, but those who see it would be intrigued enough look out for Sentsov’s follow-up film. Unfortunately, production on what was to be called Rhino was postponed due to the Maidan Square protests and the Russian invasion. Any serious filmmaker like Sentsov deserves to have a chance to develop his art over the course of several pictures, but his abduction and incarceration now makes that impossible. Even Putin-approved filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov has (somewhat boldly) joined the chorus of voices demanding his release.

If you happen to be in Odessa, attending the screening of Gaamer this Tuesday (7/15) would be a great way to show solidarity, while seeing a good movie in the process. For the rest of us, light up the social networks and online petitions. Free Oleg Sentsov.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

NYAFF ’14 & Japan Cuts ’14: Wood Job!

Yoki Iida is a forester and he’s okay. Yuki Hirano is a forestry-trainee and he’s a mess. Trees will chopped, fish will be out of water, and lessons will be gently learned in Shinobu Yaguchi’s Wood Job! (trailer here), which screens as a joint presentation of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts.

After failing his university entrance exams and getting dumped by his girlfriend, Hirano does what any slacker would do. He applies for a “green job.” His real motivation is the pretty girl on the cover of the forestry brochure. However, it turns out forestry involves real work—something Hirano was never any good at. Yet, just when he is primed to desert, he runs into Naoki Ishii, the forestry covergirl. Evidently, she was never a student, but she once dated one. Frankly, she is rather annoyed to see her picture still in circulation and thinks even less of scammers like Hirano, who enroll hoping to put the moves on her.

However, Ishii’s telling off has a perversely motivating effect on Hirano. He sticks out the training program and accepts a yearlong apprenticeship in her remote lumber village. Of course, Hirano still has a lot to learn about the forest. His boss, the gruff but gruff Iida is not very impressed, but the mismatched mentor and protégé slowly start to grow on each other.

Will honest, hearty country living finally win over Hirano? Will he ever win over Ishii? Do you want to see grown men wearing a thong-sash during their Burning Man forest rituals? If you answered yes to that last one, Wood Job is definitely the film for you.

Granted, writer-director Yamaguchi follows a pretty well established formula. One could consider it Japan’s teenage/early adult Northern Exposure with lumber. Nevertheless, his mastery of mood and keen visual sense elevates it well above standard Doc Hollywood terrain. While mostly grounded, there is one particularly striking excursion into magical realism Yamaguchi executes with graceful understatement. He also gives viewers very practical instructions in proper tree-chopping technique. Seriously, you will think you can actually do this stuff after seeing the film.

Shota Sometani’s Hirano is a bit of a goof and a goon, but he portrays his maturation with a fair degree of subtlety. As Ishii, Masami Nagasawa brings some healthy verve and attitude, while developing nice Fleischman-O’Connell chemistry with Hirano. In contrast, Hideaki Ito is pure mountain man as Iida.

Somehow Yamaguchi is able to convey the sensation of that crisp mountain air. He is not afraid of a little sentiment either—and why should he, anyway? It is all quite a sweet, sure-footed, ax-wielding coming of age film that gets steadily more inviting as it progresses. Recommended for fans of bittersweet romantic comedies, Wood Job! screens tomorrow (7/13) at the Japan Society, as a joint selection of this year’s NYAFF and Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

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Japan Cuts ’14 & NYAFF ’14: All-Round Appraiser Q

Riko Rinda is sort of the Japanese Lovejoy, except she is far more reputable and much cuter. She can appraise anything, but she specializes in fine art and jewelry. Much to her surprise, she will be called upon to evaluate a masterpiece that should need no appraisal in Shinsuke Sato’s All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa (trailer here), which screens as a co-presentation of the 2014 Japan Cuts and New York Asian Film Festival.

Rinda, a.k.a. All-Round Appraiser Q, is good at her job. Struggling journalist Yuto Ogasawara is not. They both happened to be working the same gourmet reception. Rinda’s client is concerned the slicker than slick outfit renting his restaurant is too good to be true. Ogasawara’s boss thought a cooking demonstration would be the only assignment he couldn’t possibly make of hash of. He was wrong. Rinda duly foils the criminal goings on, but Ogasawara misses the photo. However, he suspects Rinda might be an even bigger story, especially when she is offered a chance to serve as a special Japanese curator on the Mona Lisa’s world tour.

After sleuthing out the real La Joconde to pass her audition, Rinda is whisked off for training with her snooty colleague, Misa Ryusenji. Yet, Rinda eventually develops some fake-spotting chemistry with her. They appear to have the makings of a real team, until Rinda falls sway to a sinister force. At this point, the eager Ogasawara takes up the case in earnest.

Yeah yeah, Dan Brown, right? In point of fact, Manbu Uda’s adaptation of Keisuke Matsuoka’s source novel rather cleverly incorporates the painting’s strange history, including handyman Vincenzo Peruggia’s unlikely theft in 1911 and the recent discover of the initials in her eyes. However, Appraiser Q is considerably more fun than a month of Da Vinci Code clones.

In large measure, this is due to the character of Rinda. While she is as brilliant and nearly as eccentric as Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, she is also warm and empathetic. Frankly, it is nice to see an endearing underdog find her niche, especially when seen shortly after the emotional angst of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Snow White Murder Case. Haruka Ayase’s performance is scrupulously demure, yet she lights up the screen.

Tori Matsuzaka’s Ogasawara trails after her as best he can, largely keeping the shtick in check. Asian film connoisseurs will not be shocked to hear awkward looking westerner Pierre Deladonchamps is embarrassingly clunky as Rinda’s French instructor, but Eriko Hatsune delivers some subtle surprises as Ryusenji.

Appraiser Q has several nice twists and loads of genre appropriate atmosphere. The “Monna Lisa” misspelling is a tad unfortunate, but these things happen. Ayase and company put on a great show, which is the thing to focus on. It makes you hope it is the start of a franchise. Highly recommended for those who enjoy old fashioned romantic mysteries, All-Round Appraiser Q screens tomorrow (7/13) at the Japan Society, as a joint selection of this year’s NYAFF and Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

NYAFF ’14 & Japan Cuts ’14: The Devil’s Path

Junji Sudo is a yakuza. Shuichi Fujii is a journalist. That means they are both users. Yet, each will discuss justice with earnest indignation in Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Devil’s Path (trailer here), which screens as a joint presentation of the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts.

In the opening scenes, the audiences watches Sudo kill, torture, and torment several victims, so it causes no great distress to learn he is now on death row, awaiting word on his final appeal. Before he goes, Sudo has a few things he wants the world to know. Fujii’s editor assigns him the provisional interview, expecting he will quickly dismiss Sudo’s letter as an attempt to buy time at the eleventh hour and move on to the political scandal stories she is much more interested. However, it does not work that way.

Sudo is willing to admit to three additional murders the cops know nothing about, for the sake of implicating the associate who set him up. He had always considered the man he called “Doc” (or “Sensei” depending on the translation) as a close friend and ally. During their time together, Doc was the brains behind some really nasty real estate and insurance schemes and Sudo was the brawn. Nevertheless, Doc duped the yakuza into believing his closest cronies had betrayed him. Needless to say, they all met very bad ends, for which Sudo will likely pay the highest price.

Naturally, Fujii is skeptical and Sudo’s accounts are frustratingly light on details. Considering how many horrible deeds he committed, these three just were not that memorable at the time. Yet, when Fujii starts probing, Sudo’s story holds up.

The idea of a malevolent bad guy helping an investigating-protagonist solve some sort of crime probably sounds like another pale copy of the Silence of the Lambs-Blacklist formula, but there is considerably more to Devil’s Path. For starters, Fujii’s relationship with Sudo is decidedly awkward and nearly entirely antagonistic. It is also a rather bracing look at what are typically considered white collar crimes, perpetrated in a lethal blue collar fashion.

As Sudo, Pierre Taki is a truly riveting presence, holding a vice-like grip on viewers. In contrast, Takayuki Yamada’s Fujii is rather weak and dull opposite him, which is surprising given his fierceness in the thematically related The Samurai that Night (seen at last year’s Japan Cuts). On the other hand, Lily Franky calls and raises Taki as the ruthless Doc. Usually cast in shaggy dog roles, such as the easy going father in Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, Franky delivers a lightning bolt out of the blue here. Amongst the rest of the large but mostly beaten down supporting ensemble, Nozomi Muraoka stands out a bit, bringing some Runyonesque dash as Fujii’s editor.

In all honesty, Devil’s Path could have lost an entire subplot involving Fujii’s wife Yoko and her mounting frustrations caring for his mentally deteriorating mother. Yet, the grit and grime of Sudo’s story is quite distinct from any other yakuza film. Recommended for those who prefer their crime dramas dark and existential, The Devil’s Path screens tomorrow (7/12) at the Japan Society, as a joint selection of this year’s NYAFF and Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Korean Short Film Madness

It is not called work because it is easy. Three protagonists will struggle with their vocations, whether they properly chose them or not, in three of the selections programmed for the New York Asian Film Festival’s annual Korean Short Film Madness, which screens this year at the Asia Society.

Being a filmmaker should be a cool job, but Kim is struggling mightily with his thesis film in Han Jun-hee’s Understanding Movies. With his cast and crew growing increasingly annoyed with his dithering, the mysterious arrival of Louis Giannetti, author of the widely adopted cinema textbook Understanding Movies seems to be a godsend to Kim. Unfortunately, the fictionalized version of the real life academic clearly has a very different aesthetic sensibility. In a way, Han’s Understanding Movies is sort of like the Marshall McLuhan gag in Annie Hall, except McLuhan won’t shut up. It is all quite droll and viewers might even pick up some cinema studies insights here and there.

Of the three selected films under consideration, Kim Jin-tae’s Long Inside Angle Shot is by far the least mad. Ne’er-do-well Tae-bong would like to squander his money on his shallow mercenary girl friend, but unfortunately his billiards obsessed mother has drained his savings to buy a billiard hall. It was not her idea. The Buddhist monks who come to her in visions recommended this investment. Not really trying to make a go of it, Tae-bong challenges Mother Felsen to a winner-take-all match. How do you think that turns out? Frankly, Angle is pleasant enough, but it feels under-developed, even for a short.

Kim Hyeon-cheol’s Trunk is also something of a mixed bag, but what it does well, it does really really well. Harried Kyeong-min was supposed to pick her overbearing boss up at the airport, but she is running so late her career is in jeopardy. Nonetheless, she tries to close the trunk of her neighbor’s car when she notices the open hatch. When the darn thing just won’t close, she calls said neighbor, who does not seem very neighborly. She asks if Kyeong-min looked inside, but that does not seem like a very good idea. Marsellus Wallace’s soul might be in there.

Although it only runs an economical thirteen minutes, Trunk’s set-up and general execution are massively creepy. Kim Hyeon-cheol’s lead actress is always believable even and especially as she becomes progressively freaked out. It also features an unusually sinister voice-over performance. However, the pay-off is an over-the-top head scratcher. Still, horror movie endings are often disappointing. An intriguing premise and loads of atmosphere are a good deal more than we usually get.

This year’s Korean Short Film Madness includes four other films that also sound plenty mad. Understanding Movies and Trunk are definitely recommended for those who appreciate neurotic humor and dark, possibly uncanny thrillers, while Long Inside Angle Shot passes the time without taxing anyone terribly. They all screen tomorrow (7/11) at the Asia Society as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Japan Cuts ’14 & NYAFF ’14: The Snow White Murder Case

Nobody in their right mind would call Mao Inoue homely and the young actress playing her middle school aged self has to be one of the cutest kids ever. Yet, those caught up in the mob mentality will believe anything. Group think in its many guises, including social networking, scandal mongering journalism, and peer pressure, stands thoroughly indicted in Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Snow White Murder Case (trailer here) , which screens as a co-presentation of the 2014 Japan Cuts and New York Asian Film Festival.

Noriko Miki was Little Ms. Perfect at her cosmetic company (makers of Snow White soap). Outwardly beautiful and gracious, she was actually manipulative and mean. She also happens to be dead, having been found stabbed repeatedly and then burned to beyond recognition. The media will chose to print the legend, led by TV news part-timer Yuji Akahosi, who sees his relationship with one of the murdered woman’s co-workers as his opportunity to hit the big time. During their interview, Risako Kano not so subtly casts suspicions on Miki Shirono, referred to in his reports as “Miss S.”

In subsequent interviews, their fellow co-workers are eager to follow Kano’s lead, especially since Shirono has conveniently disappeared. Slowly, old high school and college friends emerge to defend Shirono. As they tell their stories in flashbacks, viewers see a pattern of bullying develop in her formative years. Yet, Akahosi doubles down on his narrative, egging on the internet’s baying hounds.

Ostensibly a mystery, Snow White is really the sort of film that rips your heart out and stomps on it. All three actresses playing Shirono are just overwhelmingly endearing and vulnerable. Viewers with any sliver of sympathy will be deeply moved by her/their sensitivity and indomitable faith the future will somehow be better.

Snow White was adapted from Kinae Minato’s novel, as was Tetsuya Nakashima’s incendiary Confessions—and it is easy to see a kinship between the two, especially in the way students’ causal cruelty leads to major macro consequences. However, Nakamura’s film does not leave audiences feeling so bereft and numb.

In addition to Inoue and her fellow Sironos, Shihori Kanjiya and her younger alter ego are terrific as Miss S.’s loyal but emotionally stunted childhood friend, Yuko Tanimura. Arguably, Go Ayano is appropriately vacuous and annoying as Akahosi, in a hipster Williamsburg kind of way. Yet, it is TV actress Nanao in her first feature role as Miki, who really gives the film a disconcerting edge.

Considering how intricately plotted Snow White is, the final resolution comes surprisingly quickly and cleanly. Nevertheless, witnessing Shirono’s life is an experience that really gets into your soul. Indeed, its genre trappings are rather deceptive, dressing up an intensely personal drama that steadily expands in scope. Highly recommended, The Snow White Murder Case screens tomorrow (7/11) at the Japan Society, as a joint selection of this year’s NYAFF and Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

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