J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

South of Hell: Eli Roth & Jason Blum Take on WE tv

When it was founded, Charleston, South Carolina was open to all Protestant denominations. It is also home to the oldest synagogue in the United States that is still in regular use. On the darker flip side, a shadowy satanic cult operated there not so very long ago. It was led by Maria and David Abascal’s late but not nearly deceased enough father Enos. Recently, she has had strange dreams and visions of the malevolent Enos Abascal. It is safe to say they had a complicated relationship, considering he encased a demon within her. Maria Abascal is mostly in control, but her relationship with the sulfurous Abigail is necessarily complex. Still, she does her best to keep Abigail and her more conventional inner demons at bay in South of Hell (promo here), which premieres binge-style with seven back-to-back episodes this Friday on WE tv.

Created by Eli Roth & Jason Blum and produced by Blumhouse Television, South is the show we never thought we would see on WE tv, but here it is. Of course, it has a woman protagonist—or rather two of them, played by Mena Suvari—which apparently counted for a lot. It also has Charleston, providing an unending supply of atmosphere.

Given the Jim Jones-ish notoriety of their father and the dangerous force sealed inside Maria, the Abascal siblings have led a rootless life on the margins of society. They mostly eke out a living as exorcists, but Maria is also a part-time fortune teller, while David is a full time junkie. Thanks to Abigail, they are quite effective when hired to expel evil spirits. Somehow, Abigail developed a taste for eating her own demonic kind. Maria is able to harness that power, but only just barely. Something sinister is afoot, but have perhaps found an unlikely ally in the Reverend Elijah Bledsoe.

One episode is hardly enough to support a conclusive judgement, but at least it leaves viewers wanting more. Logically, it is also helmed by Roth to hook in his fan base. He rather deftly plays up the sinister ambiance, suggesting much that will presumably followed-up on later. Suvari has had an up-and-down career, but she is really terrific as the disillusioned Abascal and the uber-vampy Abigail. She generates some major heat in her scenes with herself. Although, we only see him teasingly briefly, Bill “Old Hats” Irwin shows some serious villainous potential as old man Abascal. David Abascal and Rev. Bledsoe are yet to be fully developed, but Zachary Booth and Lamman Rucker seem well cast thus far.

If you live in Los Angeles, you can make this a demonic possession-themed Thanksgiving weekend by catching the ripping good Korean film The Priests at the CGV and binge watching South of Hell. Although it is too early to pass judgement on the entire series, the first episode is definitely grabby enough to make you want to see the second, which is a tad frustrating when it is all you have. Definitely worth trying (and hopefully worth finishing), all seven episodes of South of Hell premiere tomorrow (11/27) on WE tv.

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Submerged: Occupy the Limo, Underwater

The Searles household limo is no James Bond vehicle. It might be well-fortified, which will come in handy, but it also sinks like a stone, which will be a problem. The intrepid family retainer-bodyguard-driver will have to think fast to save his boss’s daughter in Steven C. Miller’s way-better-than-you-expect Submerged (trailer here), an IFC Midnight release screening this weekend in New York.

Initially, it looks like Matt is not doing such a great job protecting Jessie Searles, but as we soon learn from flashbacks, he fought off a large contingent of armed would-be kidnappers rather efficiently. He reasonably assumed she and her club kid friends would be safe once they reached the new limo, considering it is basically a tank with a wet bar. However, when the gang forces them off the bridge, things quickly get dire. While battery power keeps the lights on, the rest of the electrical system is kaput, freezing the doors and windows. Unless they figure a way out, the undertow will drag them out to sea, where they are likely to never be heard from again. Of course, the bad guys are also still out there.

Despite the frequent flashbacks (always a dangerous proposition), Submerged is a surprisingly lithe and economical thriller. Matt’s Army Ranger background is a double blessing, making him a credible action figure as well as a cool and collected (but not particularly talkative) protagonist. His ambiguous relationship with Jessie Searles rather works in context, but the backstory involving his kid brother’s suicide gets a little melodramatic.

What is really bold about Submerged is the villains’ explicit class warfare rhetoric. Frankly, the limo might as well have been attacked by Bernie Sanders. Matt’s boss Hank Searles is also refreshingly positioned as a conscientious boss, forced to initiate a round of layoffs to protect the rest of his employees and the community, but for the conspirators, that is reason enough for him and his daughter to suffer and potentially die.

While his restraint is appreciated, Jonathan Bennett’s Matt is almost too understated for an action lead. However, Tim Daly (yes, from Wings) is quite charismatic and even compelling as the decent but naïve Hank Searles. Mario Van Peebles also adds some vigor and attitude as the Q behind the Searles limo.

Miller juggles the various revelations relatively well and manages to make a film about six people trapped in a sinking limo never feel stagey or narrowly focused. One of the better commercially-conceived American thrillers released this year, Submerged screens round midnight tomorrow and Saturday (11/27, 11/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Priests: Father Kim and the 12th Assistant Deacon

Shamans are all well and good for minor spirit infestation, but if you are facing a 5,000 year old arch-demon, you need to go to the Roman Catholic Church. However, you can’t settle for skeptical, hip and modern priest in the Pope Francis tradition. You need someone old school like Benedict XVI. It also helps if he is a little ornery. Father Kim Bum-shin definitely fits the bill. Unfortunately, he has trouble keeping assistants once they experience the long, perilous exorcism of Lee Young-sin. Good will battle evil short-handed in Jang Jae-hyun’s The Priests (trailer here), which opens this Thanksgiving in Los Angeles.

Deacon Choi Joon-ho is the twelfth assistant deacon sent to help the maverick Father Kim in his epic mission. If that sounds vaguely familiar than perhaps you saw or read about Jang’s award winning short film, 12th Assistant Deacon, which he remade and expanded as the feature length The Priests. It might be longer, but you still will not find much padding here.

Lee Young-sin was once a member of Father Kim’s congregation, but she is no longer the innocent girl he knew. Frankly, the demon would prefer to possess a boy, which is why it tried to force her into committing suicide. However, even in her now vegetative state, Lee’s spirit is strong. Still, she is no match for the beast within her. Nor were Father Kim’s previous eleven assistants. The guilt-ridden Choi does not inspire much confidence either, but at least he was born in the year of the tiger, which apparently counts for a lot when you’re tangling with demons.

Jang stays faithful to the essence of his massively atmospheric short film, while expanding the scope rather effectively. The climatic exorcism remains the film’s signature scene and it is still all kinds of tense. However, Jang has added one wrinkle—the use of a pig as a temporary vessel for the exorcised spirits, in accordance with the Biblical exorcism of the Gerasenes demoniac (a.k.a. Legion). Presumably he had more budget available for animal wrangling this time around.

Regardless, The Priests is a gripping horror thriller that treats themes of good, evil, Catholicism, possession, and sacrifice with life-and-death seriousness. It is hard to top the original Exorcist from 1973, but the two films definitely share a close kinship. Along with his prior short, The Priests suggests Jang could be the next major genre filmmaker to emerge from Asia. Yes, they are that good.

Oddly enough, the lesser known cast of the short film might just take the honors over the famous stars of The Priests. As always, Kim Yun-seok has a big presence as Father Kim, but at times his uber-gruffness borders on the perverse. Likewise, Gang Dong-won’s Deacon Choi is frustratingly callow and shallow before he gets his rude demonic wake-up call. However, Park So-dam will scare the pants off you as the slightly disturbed Lee Young-sin.

There is hardly any blood or gore in The Priests, because it runs deeper than that. Jang masterfully controls the mood, steadily cranking up the suspense and dread. He integrates a great deal Catholic imagery and demonic archetypes alongside distinctly Korean elements, such as Father Kim’s shaman colleagues (they are on refreshingly good terms). Altogether, it is a highly distinctive, metaphysically unnerving horror film that will be perfect for family viewing this Thanksgiving night. Enthusiastically recommended for genre fans, The Priests opens tomorrow (11/26) in Los Angeles at the CGV Cinemas and next Friday (12/4) in New Jersey at the Edgewater Multiplex.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dead of Winter: the Donner Party—Weather can be Dramatic

History has been unfair to the Donner Party. While they are often collectively referred to as “notorious,” the Uruguayan soccer team’s 1973 plane crash in Andes is considered an inspiring story of survival. Yet, both did similar things to stave off starvation. While many factors hindered the Donner Party’s passage to California, none were as punishing as the storms that left them snowbound on the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Somewhat logically, The Weather Channel branches out into original documentary production by chronicling and dramatically recreating the ill-fated 1846 expedition in Doug Glover’s Dead of Winter: the Donner Party (promo here), which premieres this Friday on the network.

Like so many who came before and after them, the group that came to be known as the Donner Party saw California as the land of opportunity. George Donner and James F. Reed were relatively successful in Springfield, Illinois, but they were convinced they could make substantially better lives for themselves with the California land grants. Their company of covered wagons was eager to get there as soon as possible, so they took a speculative shortcut called Hastings Cutoff. Obviously, it was a disaster.

Those who only know the Donner Party from its hazy reputation, might be surprised how quickly circumstances turned desperate for the group of pioneers and how long they resisted resorting to cannibalism. Arguably, their torturous crossing of the Great Salt Lake Desert was just as grueling as the snowstorms on the Sierra Nevada, but it came earlier in the trek, so it did not generate as drastic a death toll.

Glover, screenwriter Raymond Bridgers, and the assembled historical experts are all good storytellers, who happen to be refreshingly forgiving of the Donner Party. With a few terrible exceptions, the pioneers conducted themselves just as well as the Uruguayan football players. Men like Donner, Reed, and diarist Patrick Breen just wanted their children to have better lives than they did, but they sacrificed horribly for the sake of their American dreams.

The quality of Dead of Winter’s historical commentary is considerably better than average, while having Powers Boothe (Red Dawn and 24) as narrator gives the film some seriously cool cred. The dramatic recreation cast also look period-appropriate and eventually quite weathered and bedraggled. It is a well-produced documentary that convincingly shifts the focus on the Donner party from the lurid details of cannibalism to their harrowing exploits of heroism. You could almost say Dead of Winter is revisionist, in a good way. Shrewdly, it is scheduled for the night after Thanksgiving (making turkey leftovers look all kinds of appetizing). Recommended for history and weather buffs, Dead of Winter: the Donner Party premieres this Friday (11/27) on The Weather Channel.

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Janis: Little Girl Blue

It was a terrible one-two punch for rock & roll. Just sixteen days after the death of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin also passed away. She was supposed to record the vocals for Nick Gravenites’ “Buried Alive in the Blues” that day. Instead, it was included on her posthumous album as an instrumental track. For her songwriter friend, it was the cause of real heartbreak. It was also a bit of a setback for Joplin herself, even though the album went platinum several times over. Amy J. Berg chronicles the short, troubled life of the blues-rock icon largely through her own words in Janis: Little Girl Blue (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In today’s texting world, it seems rather remarkable how often Joplin wrote letters home to her parents and how forthright she was in her dispatches, considering how drastically her values differed from her those of parents. Her words are often heavy, in multiple ways. For a rebellious, musically inclined young woman like Joplin, Port Arthur, Texas was a good town to be from—far from. For a while, she felt somewhat more comfortable in Austin, but it was only San Francisco that truly welcomed her. However, with that sense of belonging came an introduction to hard drugs.

In fact, her first stint in the City by the Bay did not work out so well, but when she returned, she fell in with a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. They started to build quite a reputation, but it was Joplin that the promoters and managers were really interested in.

Berg talks to most of the surviving members of BBHC, as well as their contemporaries like Bob Weir from the Dead, Kris Kristofferson, and Country Joe McDonald (but strangely not Gravenites). Several speculate Joplin might have been happier and healthier if she had not agreed to leave the band and take on the pressure of leading her own band, with good reason. Frankly, if there is one thing Little Girl Blue has plenty of, its regret.

Regardless, the film works best when addressing Joplin’s music. Rather than present her as an ecstatic blues shouter, Berg’s experts explain how she was learning to master her voice like an instrument. The sequences involving the great lost love of her life are also quite touching. However, the film gets downright yucky when it suggests she had a sexual relationship with Dick Cavett, whose coyness is truly nauseating. It makes you wish Joplin would rise from the dead just to say it isn’t so.

Berg is an accomplished documentarian, but it still must have been intimidating to interview DA Pennebaker. Yet, he is a big part of the story (having made Monterey Pop), so Berg duly gets the necessary first-hand accounts from the doc trailblazer. All things considered, J:LGB is a highly watchable survey of Joplin’s life and legacy, but as an American Masters production, it is sure to turn up on PBS soon, so causal fans should be able to wait it out. Recommended in theaters for hardcore Joplin fans, Janis: Little Girl Blue opens this Friday (11/27) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Bolshoi Babylon: They’d Better Keep on Their Toes

During the Cold War, America had jazz and the USSR had the Bolshoi Ballet. We won the Cold War, but the Bolshoi still tours internationally, spreading Russian prestige. However, backstage drama took a rather ugly and embarrassingly public turn in early 2013 when Ballet Director Sergei Filin suffered a potentially disfiguring acid attack. Instead of bringing the company together it exacerbated pre-existing fissures, at least according to Nick Read’s Bolshoi Babylon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Babylon starts with the sort of tellingly ironic intro we always appreciate. According to one Bolshoi insider, Russia has two internationally recognizable name brands: the Kalashnikov and the Bolshoi, but the one-time market leading AK-47 has since been eclipsed by other automatic rifles. That says a lot about Russia in general. Unfortunately, Read and credited co-director Mark Franchetti are generally more content to observe than to probe.

We learn there was already deep discontent with Filin’s tenure as Ballet Director, a post roughly analogous to artistic director. Soon, disgruntled Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko is arrested for the crime and the company quickly divides into opposing factions. Dmitrichenko, a Bolshoi legacy, makes no bones of his resentment for Filin, specifically blaming him for sabotaging his girlfriend’s career. For many, this criticism rings all too true.

Frustratingly, Read shows no determination to get to the bottom of the controversy. Instead, he periodically lets partisans from Team Sergei and Team Pavel vent. Much of Babylon proceeds like Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse, offering us opportunities to watch rehearsals and performances from the wings. That is not without interest, especially for ballet connoisseurs, but it avoids the 800 pound gorilla we hear is stalking through the halls of the Bolshoi Theater.

Frankly, Babylon is a maddening missed opportunity. We are told straight up, as the Bolshoi goes, so goes Russia. It hardly seems coincidental corruption threatens to tarnish the storied ballet at a time when the Putin regime has increasingly tightened its control at home and launched belligerent military campaigns against its neighbors, but Read won’t go there.

There is some interesting stuff in Babylon, but it feels rushed out and provisional. Clearly, the guts of this story remains to be told. As a result, Babylon is primarily for dance fans who want a peak behind the Bolshoi’s curtain than serious geopolitical viewers looking for insight into the powerful and privileged of Putin’s Russia. A disappointing and sometimes repetitive mixed bag, Bolshoi Babylon opens this Friday (11/27) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Unknown Welles: The Deep [Work Print]

Hopefully Guy Maddin (who is scheduled to present a screening at MoMA this Tuesday) was in town last night and able to attend the final Unknown Welles screening, because it was the closest thing to seeing the sort of “ghost films” that have inspired so much of his recent work. You could even say the surviving stitched-together work prints had a spectral look not unlike Maddin’s films. Frustratingly, Orson Welles never finished his adaptation of Charles Williams’ Dead Reckoning (later filmed by Phillip Noyce as Dead Calm), but you could get a vivid sense of what it would have been like when the work print of Welles The Deep screened last night at MoMA as part of the 2015 To Save and Project International Festival of Preservation’s Unknown Welles sidebar.

No Welles fan will be surprised to learn the negative for The Deep is now lost, as are a few scenes here and there. As per his working method, most of the film audio was supposed to be dubbed in later, but Welles hit a snag when his star Laurence Harvey passed away. Repeatedly, Stefan Droessler of the Munich Filmmuseum stressed to the audience this was a work print, struck from the negative on the cheapest, crummiest film stock available. Its sole purpose was to serve as the vehicle for Welles’ editing mark-ups, which he did in a manner guaranteed to maximize confusion for future film restorers. You have to watch it with an eye for what could have been. Frankly, it is probably helpful to have seen the extended teaser trailer Welles cut together that screened with the fragments of The Dreamers to understand the intended look and flow.

Unlike Noyce’s Dead Calm, Welles is more faithful to Williams’ novel, maintaining the original five character cast. It starts in much the same fashion, with John and Rae Ingram becalmed in the middle of the ocean, but not particularly concerned about it. The Saracen still has auxiliary power, but being newlyweds they rather enjoy the time together in the middle of nowhere. Much to their surprise a dinghy approaches carrying the nearly dehydrated Hughie Warriner. He has come from the sinking yacht just now drifting into view.

After tending to the exhausted Warriner, Ingram rows over to the listing Orpheus to investigate inconsistencies in the shipwreck’s story. Unfortunately, once he reaches the sinking vessel, Warriner fires up the Saracen’s motor, abducting his wife and leaving him stranded, but he is not alone though. Warriner’s beleaguered wife Ruth and the Orpheus’s owner Russ Brewer were huddled below deck. Having faith in his wife’s survival instincts, Ingram does his best to make the Orpheus seaworthy. Although Brewer is not particularly helpful, he would also like to catch up with Warriner, who murdered his wife (under circumstances that remain rather murky).

Granted, Welles still had a lot of tightening up to do on the work print, but you can see the makings of a nifty thriller in there. It is obviously a crying shame The Deep was never completed and released, for a number of reasons. It probably would have been regarded as a rough equivalent of Touch of Evil. Clearly, it also would have made great strides in establishing Oja Kodar as a legitimate star in her own right, as Welles so desired. Today, only fans know her as Welles’ just-what-was-she-again, but The Deep would have been some sort of name for her. It is safe to say she is as good as Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm—and stills of her in her bikini and bright red sun hat would have been super publicity-friendly.

The Deep also would have burnished Harvey’s reputation. He was a big name in his day, but now he is largely remembered for The Manchurian Candidate, which had been largely withdrawn from public circulation until its 1988 re-release. Hughie Warriner easily would have been his second iconic role. Of course, Welles and Jeanne Moureau were no slouches either, as Brewer and Ruth Warriner, respectively. There is comparatively less audio of Moureau to extrapolate from, but Welles was deliciously caustic judging both from droll overdubs and his corresponding facial expressions.

The Deep is especially tantalizing because it is so close to being finished, yet so far. It really could have been a commercial hit for Welles. Maybe someday it still can. Regardless, it is a treat to see it, even in a form in which it was never meant to be seen. An absolutely fascinating viewing experience, The Deep was a fitting conclusion to this year’s To Save and Project at MoMA.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Unknown Welles: Journey Into Fear [Preview Cut]

In the Orson Welles’ filmography, this 1943 espionage thriller always has an asterisk next to the title in fans’ minds. Throughout his life, Welles insisted it was directed by his friend Norman Foster, except when discussing the scenes he helmed. Thanks to the misadventure of It’s All True, much of the daily directorial work was indeed left to Foster (who would make a bit of a name for himself with some nifty little noirs), but the Eric Ambler adaptation definitely bears the Welles stamp. Its ragged narrative edges also reflect RKO’s desire to edit it down under seventy minutes. Oh, but there were longer versions screened for preview audiences and European markets. The intrepid Munich Filmmuseum tracked down the various cuts as well as the shooting script to reconstruct a more coherent and surprising funny super-cut of Foster’s Journey Into Fear, which screened last night at MoMA as part of the 2015 To Save and Project International Festival of Preservation’s Unknown Welles sidebar.

It is the early “Phony War” days of WWII, when Britain still expected to forge an alliance with Turkey. It was therefore all fine and dandy that munitions expert Howard Graham was in Istanbul working to rearm the Turkish navy. Graham and his wife Stephanie are due to sail to Batumi (which really doesn’t make sense, since the USSR was allied with Hitler at this time, but so be it), but they will be waylaid by a convoluted conspiracy. Kopeikin, a corrupt representative of Graham’s company drags him to a nightclub, ostensibly to meet the alluring dancer Josette Martel. Through blind luck, Graham escapes an assassination attempt that claims the life of magician Oo Lang Sang instead.

For his own safety mind you, Colonel Haki of Turkish intelligence has Graham whisked away on a dodgy tramp steamer, assuring the baffled American he will personally see to his wife’s safety. In fact, one of the rediscovered scenes suggests Haki does indeed give Ms. Graham some ambiguously special attention. (Let’s not forget, Welles was quite the ladies’ man, who was once married to Rita Hayworth. Plus, Haki’s fur hat looks smashing.) Meanwhile, Howard Graham is spending quite a bit of time with Martel on that dodgy steamer, because she is the only passenger he really doesn’t think is out to kill him.

Journey has always been an entertaining yarn, but the more complete version makes considerably more sense. Even though the Filmmuseum restoration team was again forced to resort to intertitles in places, the reconstructed preview cut gives us a fuller sense of the wit and irony of the script co-written by Welles and star Joseph Cotton. It is rather delightfully mordant.

As Graham, Cotton prefigures many of the classic everyman Hitchcokian protagonists as well as his turn as Holly Martins in the even more classic The Third Man. He credibly portrays Graham’s evolution from clueless passivity to resentful exasperation. While his screen time as Haki is limited, Welles made the most of it. He was also clearly feeling the power of the hat. Everett Sloane also adds some comedic noir flavor as the dubious Kopeikin, while Dolores del Rio’s Martel brings plenty of femme and a hint of fatale.

What RKO did to their Welles catalog makes you want to pull your hair out. A longer, smoother cut could have become an iconic film, much like Lady from Shanghai and The Third Man. Even with intertitles, the Filmmuseum version is the best way to see it, so hopefully it will be more widely screened in the future. Of course, it is a perfect selection for To Save and Project, which concludes its Unknown Welles sidebar tomorrow night at MoMA.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Unknown Welles: The Dreamers

When in Split, Croatia, drop by the Joker Center shopping mall to see Oja Kodar’s sculpture of her longtime life-partner, Orson Welles. In a cinematic sense, Welles also put his collaborator and muse on pedestal in The Dreamers, his oblique and of course unfinished adaptation of two Isak Dinesen short stories, which screened last night at MoMA as part of the 2015 To Save and Project International Festival of Preservation’s Unknown Welles sidebar.

Among the program of maddeningly incomplete Wellesiana, The Dreamers best stands alone as a discrete film in its present state. That said, Welles’ original trailer for F for Fake further advances the docu-hybrid’s meta jokes, while the extended teaser for The Deep ought to make Welles fans drool for the work-print screening on Sunday. Unfortunately, the work-print screening of The Other Side of the Wind scenes edited by Welles are distractingly rough and the events they depict—a film shoot jeopardized by the abrupt departure of its star—are spookily prescient of the fate that would befall the still unfinished film.

While still somewhat fragmentary, The Dreamers manages to end on a note that roughly approximates closure. It is a deceptively simple, almost confessional film, focusing first on Welles playing a 19th Century trader obsessed with the immortal Italian diva Pellegrina Leoni, whom Kodar then portrays in more recent times. In their interpretation, she becomes sort of a Flying Dutchman Norma Desmond. Although Welles and Kodar pitched the film to number of big name stars, he clearly takes pleasure from Kodar’s close-ups.

The Dreamers is a talky film, but it is also eerily intimate. Frankly, the Borgesian nature of the title story makes it a hugely ambitious work to tackle, but even after all his set-backs, Orson Welles was still all about thinking big. While it lacks the power and dazzle of The Merchant of Venice, The Dreamers is still worth seeing, especially to get a glimpse of the exotic couple’s Los Angeles home. Any scrap of Welles is recommended in principle, but The Deep looks like a can’t-miss when the Unknown Welles sidebar continues this weekend at MoMA.

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Obayashi at the Japan Society: Sada

She was sort of like the 1930s Japanese Fanny Hill and Lorena Bobbitt all rolled into one. To say Sada Abe’s murder conviction became notorious would be an understatement, given the nature of her surgical cuts. She inspired several motion pictures, including Nagisa Oshima’s nearly equally notorious In the Realm of the Senses, featuring unsimulated sex scenes. That might sound like a tough act to follow, but Nobuhiko Obayashi’s distinctive aesthetics and deep empathy for Abe led to a radically different cinematic take. Of course, there is still plenty of sex in Obayashi’s Sada (trailer here), which screens during the Japan Society’s Obayashi retrospective.

Abe’s initial introduction to sex is not pleasant. A privileged student lures her to an inn, where he “ravages” her, to use a more delicate, bodice-ripper turn. However, some good comes with the bad when the innkeeper’s nephew Masaru Okada comes to her aid. She immediately falls for the medical student, but he has been consigned to a life of sequestration after contracting leprosy. Abe will never see him again, but she will always chastely love him.

Unfortunately, since Abe has been corrupted by the student, she resigns herself to working first as a geisha and then as a prostitute, the latter being less hypocritical. Still, she does not consider this a tragic fate since she genuinely enjoys the work. Nevertheless, she nearly reinvents herself in respectable fashion, thanks to the politically connected Sanosuke Tachibana. Intending to set her up in a cozy restaurant of her own, Tachibana arranges an apprenticeship with the very married Tatsuzo Kikumoto. Their subsequent affair will end badly for both (especially Kikumoto), but at least the sex is great while it lasts.

Although technically a period piece, Obayashi is not overly concerned with recreating vintage 1930s details. Instead, he is more concerned with enhancing and exaggerating the Abe legend through wild flights of stylization. The film starts with a fourth wall breaking Shakespearean prologue from Takiguchi, Abe’s brother-in-law and sometimes pimp cautioning the audience to expect scandal, while knowing full well that is what we came for. Obayashi frequently switches from black-and-white to color and playfully adjusting his film speeds. Takiguchi also pops up here and there to give more on-camera commentary and to engage in some old school physical comedy, thereby re-establishing the carnivalesque atmosphere.

Nevertheless, Sada is often quite serious and unremittingly frank when it comes to sex. In all likelihood, Sada just wouldn’t have worked without Hitomi Kuroki’s unclassifiable lead performance. As Abe, she manages to be naively innocent and ferociously seductive, simultaneously. She is in nearly every scene and she commands each and every one of them. However, Kyusaku Shimada is also bizarrely charismatic, in a rather sleazy way, as Takiguchi, the pimp and master of ceremonies. He even scratches out some unexpectedly touching moments during the long denouement.

In many ways, Sada feels like a precursor to Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko, except it is less acutely tragic. Both are sweeping tales of corrupting sex and a yearning for redemptive love. Yet, one of the cool things about Obayashi’s take is Abe’s refusal to be a victim, despite being victimized (and arguably psychologically scarred) by men. There are plenty of reasons why it might put off conventional viewers, but the adventurous will find it fascinating and maybe even cathartic. Recommended for fans of intense auteurs like Oshima, Nakashima and of course Obayashi, Sada screens tomorrow (11/22) as part of the Obayashi retrospective at the Japan Society in New York.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

RIDM ’15: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin

Making a film about Guy Maddin is an intimidating prospect. There is no way you can get away with conventional talking heads when profiling arguably the most distinctive stylist in world cinema today. Fortunately, Yves Montmayeur recognized the challenge and brought his A-game for The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin (trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2015 RIDM: Montreal International Documentary Festival.

Before going any further, fans should be duly reassured Udo Kier most definitely appears in 1,000 Eyes. It wouldn’t be a Maddin film without him. As the documentary opens, he and Geraldine Chaplin are participating in Maddin’s séance performance art-installation piece at the Pompidou Center. They are trying to raise the spirits of aborted films that were never produced. Maddin’s persistent fascination with films that never were has proved a rich vein for him to mine, also partly inspiring the mind-blowing The Forbidden Room.

Somewhat surprisingly, Montmayeur has a clear affinity for the more macabre aspects of Maddin’s films, which is not how most of his fans typically think of the surrealist. However, he also explores Maddin’s playfully transgressive sexual themes, which are always hard to lose sight of. Throughout the doc, Montmayeur shrewdly selects film clips for illustrative purposes. However, the auteur’s admirers will really respect the way Montmayeur manages to blend his documentary footage together with Maddin’s films and imagery in accordance the spirit of his subject’s visions. Maddin is also unceasingly helpful, talking seriously about his work, while maintaining a self-deprecating sense of humor. Maddin semi-regular Isabella Rossellini adds some star power, while John Waters and Kenneth Anger further bolster its cult appeal.

Although far from an exhaustive survey, Montmayeur paints a robust portrait of the filmmaker and the tone and motifs of his work. Maddin’s films are bizarrely seductive. Despite their often intentional fakeness, they somehow feel like a very real alternate reality. If you watch My Winnipeg, you will be convinced every strange and absurd story really happened in his Manitoba hometown. Montmayeur conveys a sense of the trippy, intoxicating power his best films have, which is quite an accomplishment. Running an economic sixty-five minutes, it delves reasonably deeply into the Maddin aesthetic without belaboring its points or repeating itself. Recommended for Maddin and Kier fans, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin screens today (11/20) and Sunday (11/22), as part of this year’s RIDM in Montreal.

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Unknown Welles: The Merchant of Venice

Orson Welles was one of the few theater and film directors who was not afraid to tinker with Shakespeare’s texts. It must have been the confidence that came from being a prodigy. He would therefore be the logical person to adapt and helm a “Reader’s Digest version of Shakespeare, but he still went way over-budget on his 1969 television production of The Merchant of Venice, forcing CBS to walk away and cut their losses. Long considered lost and unfinished, Welles’ version has been restored and pieced together from disparate sources by the Munich Filmmuseum. The remarkably coherent and satisfyingly Wellesian Merchant of Venice screened last night at MoMA as part of the 2015 To Save and Project International Festival of Preservation’s Unknown Welles sidebar.

As part of a full presentation on Welles in a Shakespearean bag, Filmmuseum director Stefan Droessler also screened a number of interview segments, television guest appearances, and fragments that never really went anywhere, but still involved Shakespeare. It is probably safe to say Welles is the only actor to perform Shakespeare on the Dean Martin Show, Ed Sullivan Show, and I Love Lucy. Nevertheless, Welles’ Shylock was the centerpiece.

Indeed, Welles unambiguously molds Merchant into Shylock’s story. There is only one brief cutaway to Belmont, with the rest was set in glorious Venice, conveniently starring Welles himself as the despised money-lender. Aside from a rather jaunty opening, in which Welles triumphantly returns to Venice (where he also shot Othello) lounging in a gondola, the film is probably the closest in tone to Welles’ The Trial. The entire city seems to be conspiring against Shylock, while wearing sinister carnival masks that weirdly bring to mind Eyes Wide Shut.

Naturally, Welles lost part of the audio track and the negatives, so the Filmmuseum restoration team frequently relied on a 1938 Mercury Theater production initially released as an enormous multi-record set in the days before LPs to fill in audio gaps. Believe it or not, it is not as jarring as it sounds. Unfortunately, they had to resort to inter-titles in occasional spots, but never during a critical dramatic moment. Most importantly, Merchant reflects Welles’ unmistakable sense of visual composition. Even when working in color he creates some starkly striking images.

The Filmmuseum’s restoration recently premiered at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, but it is strange it was not immediately snapped up by someone. Welles’ performance is as strong in Merchant as in any of his later works and his signature style remained undiminished. In this case, the cobbled together restoration should further burnish his reputation. It is too good to simply return to the vault, so Welles fans should keep an eye for it. It was also a great way to kick-off the Unknown Welles sidebar, which continues through Sunday (11/22) at MoMA.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

(Sort of) Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow

Turkey is delicious. It is no accident it has become the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Anyone serving beets instead should be deported. However, Ron Emmerson and his young son and teenaged daughter are guests of his hippy granola Aunt Cly, so they will have to make do. Fortunately, they will get so sidetracked with the monsters in the forest they will not have time to worry about food in Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow (trailer here), an original Lifetime movie produced by Lisa Henson, based on an idea the Muppet creator once developed with his writing partner Jerry Juhl, which premieres on the cable network this Saturday.

Emmerson basically lost everything in his recent divorce except his dignity—and even that is debatable. Unexpectedly stuck with his kids, the snotty social media-obsessed Annie and the geeky Tim, Emmerson invites them all over to his Aunt Cly’s hoping she would look after them while he finishes a presentation for his corporate slave-master. However, when gawky Timmy inadvertently lets loose evil Eldridge Sump’s gaggle of genetically juiced turkeys into the wild, Aunt Cly stands to lose her organic sustainable farm to Scrooge McTurkey.

To redeem himself, Tim heads out to take a snap of the local Big Foot-like legend and hereby claim a longstanding reward. Instead, he and Annie encounter a quartet of musical, rock-eating monsters and a pair of Sump’s goons.

Frankly, the villainous agri-business baddie is just a tediously dull cliché. It would have been much more interesting and realistic if the bad guys were the hippies, trying to frame an industrious Aunt Cly for reasons of ideology. However, the whole point of Hollow are the monsters and they are rather cute. They definitely follow in the Muppet tradition, except maybe bushier around the eyes. Youngsters who are already fans of the Muppets and the Fraggles should be charmed silly by the Turkey Hollow quartet.

Even with her character’s annoying eccentricities, Mary Steenburgen is wonderfully acerbic as Aunt Cly. Believe it or not, this is quite a nice role for her. Jay Harrington also exceeds expectations as the not-as-square-as-he-sounds Emmerson. However, the kids are just sort of okay and the bad guys are a shticky embarrassment. Yet, the real wincing comes from Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’ supposedly hip and ironic walk-on narration sequences. Let’s just say he is no Rod Serling.

You’ve got four endearing monsters in Hollow and if you are under thirteen that is more than enough. Despite the environmental organic blah, blah, blah, the film still has a nice message regarding the importance and resiliency of family. Director Kirk R. Thatcher, a Henson veteran, keeps it moving along at a good clip, powering through the shortcomings of Chris Baldi and Tim Burns’ ultra-conventional script. Worth checking in on to see the latest creations of the Henson workshop, but not worth rescheduling your weekend for, Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow airs this Saturday (11/21) on Lifetime.

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Obayashi at the Japan Society: I Are You, You Am Me

It came nearly six years after the original Freaky Friday, but the body-switch comedy was far from the acknowledged comedy sub-genre it is today. In fact, Nobuhiko Obayashi got into the game early on and he delivered exactly what people wondered about—the experience of suddenly having different private bits. Teenagers Kazuo and Kazumi Saito (no relation) are about to experience the switcheroo and quite a difficult transition it will be for them in I Are You, You Am Me (a.k.a. Exchange Student), which screens during the Japan Society’s Obayashi retrospective.

Obayashi’s picturesque home town, Onomichi was probably a pleasant place to grow up, because he has frequently returned to shoot films there. Kazumi Saito spent her early girlhood years there and has recently moved back with her family. On her first day of at her new high school, she is delighted to recognize her old playmate Kazuo Saito. However, she inadvertently embarrasses the teen meathead. That will lead to serious bad karma for her when a freak accident somehow causes a body swap. The not particularly introspective Kazuo will make the best of things in her body, but she has a much harder time adjusting to a boy’s life. At least Kazuo’s grades will improve.

It is strange I You, You Me has not been more aggressively marketed as a vintage rediscovery, because it would have been perfect for the body-switch craze of the late 1980s, but also speaks to more contemporary issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, during the switch-off, Kazuo is frequently taunted for his supposed homosexual mannerisms, while Kazumi’s mother is frustrated with her sudden tomboyisms.

Satomi Kobayashi is pretty incredible playing both Kazumi as Kazumi and Kazumi while Kazuo is stuck inside her body. She nails the body language of a goony-ish teen boy and just generally radiates energy. It is easy to see why she won best newcomer at the Yokohama Film Festival. On the other side of the coin, Toshinori Omi deserves credit for projecting what must have been a socially risky persona for 1982 Japan (but presumably less so for his successor when Obayashi remade it in 2007). Together, they play off each other in the various personas with real gusto. They largely carry the film, sharing both co-lead parts, but Masae Hayachi is also rather charming as Kazumi’s science fiction reading friend Akemi Yoshino, an all too brief supporting role.

Onomichi looks like the definitive coastal Japanese town, which it sort of is. After all, parts of Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Oshima’s Boy were filmed there. Yet, it still brings back nostalgia for the teen American 1980s, when the best way for parents to understand their kids (and vice versa, so to speak) was to spend time in their respective bodies—even though Obayashi takes it deeper and franker than Hollywood ever did. Recommended as another strangely distinctive coming of age tale from the under-heralded master, I Are You, You Am Me screens this Saturday (11/21) as part of the Obayashi retrospective at the Japan Society in New York.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Obayashi at the Japan Society: Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast

It is like the Little Rascals, but with white slavery. Although best known for the lunacy of House, Nobuhiko Obayashi can do it all, but he puts his unique stamp on whatever genre he takes on. On the surface, this film might resemble a shomin-geki (“home drama”) much like Ozu’s I was Born but . . ., but the primary school students eventually band together in hopes of saving the village bully’s stepsister from being sold into prostitution. Imperial pre-war societal values take it in the shins during Obayashi’s Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast, which screens during the Japan Society’s Obayashi retrospective.

Sudo Sotaro is the sort of annoying brat who always encourages mischief, but always manages to look innocent when their teacher eventually tries to re-establish some discipline. Transfer student Sakae Ohsugi isn’t having any of it. He intends to make Sotaro pay for all the trouble he causes. However, the older boy’s beautiful step-sister Shoucho takes a shine to Sotaro and tries to broker peace between them. It will take quite a while and an extended sequence of war games before the two rivals finally bury the hatchet. Eventually, they will make common cause when Ohsugi’s sleazy parents sell Shoucho to the local brothel.

Naturally, Shoucho is quite popular in town. The local recruiting officer has his own designs on her, but she has fallen for the village’s conscientious objector. Unfortunately, the two of them do not exactly make a power couple. That is why Sotaro must take matters into his own hands.

Bound functions quite well as a coming of age story most viewers will easily relate to, even though few of us ever prosecuted a war against a mobbed-up bordello when we were ten. Obayashi occasionally gives the film a wild stylistic twist, but he is always scrupulously restrained compared to the bedlam in House. Still, Bound never looks like the work of a shy filmmaker, especially down the stretch. Nor is he subtle in his critique of imperial militarism or the middle class timidity he clearly blames for allowing its rise.

There is no doubt Obayashi came to play, as did the wildly charismatic Yasufumi Hayashi, who brings boundless energy to the wide-eyed Sotaro. Isako Washio is not exactly the dead ringer for Setsuko Hara some descriptions suggest, but she has a similarly radiant warmth on-screen. She makes the tragedy of Bounds exquisitely so. Jun’ichrȏ Katagiri’s Ohsugi slow burns impressively for his age, but he is no match for either Hayashi or Washio, who have him bookended on both sides of the acting spectrum.

It is impossible to imagine a coming of age film like Bound getting produced in 1980s Hollywood. The general tone is not unlike Lord of the Flies, but with clueless John Hughes adults ineffectually wandering about. Yet, it is an oversimplification to argue the children should be in charge, because they do not do much better amongst themselves. Darkly distinctive and compelling, yet always strangely entertaining, Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast is a rather amazing film. Very highly recommended, fans of House (which duly kicks off the series this Friday) should see it while they have the chance. It screens this Saturday (11/21) at the Japan Society in New York.

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DOC NYC ’15: Not So Namaste (short)

Evidently the Romanian gymnastics program was still plenty brutal, even after Bela Karolyi’s defection. Of course, that should not surprise anyone, considering who was ultimately in charge. Ella Cojocaru survived the Romanian junior national team’s training regime during the waning days of Ceausescu, but only later found inner peace as an adult in the West, with a little help from the East. Cojocaru revisits the toxic gymnastics of her past and explains the healing power of yoga in Rita Baghdadi & Jeremiah Hammerling’s short but on-point Not So Namaste, which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Namaste could easily be much longer, leading one to wonder if it is a proof of concept production. Regardless, Cojocaru’s recollections of growing up in the years leading up to the 1989 Revolution are dramatic and valuable. At first, she had a passion for the sport, but it was literally beaten out of her. However, her mother would not let her quit, because it Olympic glory was one of the few means to a better life under the Socialist regime.

In a way, Namaste is like a short video postscript to Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. It also provides an empowering ending for a change. Cojocaru is a charismatic and forthcoming subject, while co-director Hammerling’s black-and-white cinematography gives it all a classy look. Festival programmers in particular ought to give it a try, because it could easily be coupled with sports films or Cold War Era documentaries. Recommended for both audiences, it screens tomorrow (11/19) as part of the Shorts: From There to Here block at DOC NYC 2015.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

DOC NYC ’15: Dreaming Against the World (short)

What were the crimes artist and poet Mu Xin was arrested for during his lifetime? Hardcore offenses, like talking informally about Madame Mao at a social gathering and making sketches in what became known as Taiwan in the years before the revolution (that’s right, he did not have the gift of clairvoyance). Of course, the Red Guards hardly needed a pretext to arrest and torture anyone during the Cultural Revolution. His secret, nonpolitical art was more than sufficient. Filmmakers Francesco Bello & Timothy Sternberg coaxed the late artist into reflecting on his life and work in the elegantly elegiac short documentary Dreaming Against the World (trailer here), a Motion Picture Institute (MPI) supported film that screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Mu Xin was born into a well to do family in Wuzhen, so he was doomed to face hardships during Mao’s various ideological campaigns. However, his early years were also greatly enriched by the extensive library a local intellectual left in his family’s care. Frankly, Mu Xin was better read in classic Western literature than any of us, which would hardly help his case during the Cultural Revolution, but it gave him perspective.

Although Mu Xin was a reluctant interview subject, he radiates dignity and erudite charm. Obviously, the episodes he warily speaks of were difficult to revisit, but he also seems to experience some cathartic release from the process. Yet, he is extraordinarily Zen-like referring to the scores of paintings, poems, plays, and other writings confiscated and destroyed during the collective insanity as mere “practice.”

For those who doubt the Communist experience immeasurably impoverished the world, Mu Xin’s lost work is conclusive proof. He is now best known for “Tower Within a Tower” series of landscape paintings and his secretly recorded Prison Notes, sixty six pages of such minute lettering, they are recognized as a work of art in their own right, as well as a courageous act of defiance. Still, one has to wonder what treasures would also be celebrated had they survived.

As Bello & Sternberg rightly point out, Mu Xin could have been summarily executed had his signature works been discovered while he was creating them. It is an incredible story, told with tremendous sensitivity. The filmmakers add just enough context to ensure any viewer can appreciate Mu Xin’s life and work, without getting sidetracked by the nightmarish historical dynamics at play. Several of the credited translators are also names we recognize and therefore give us even further confidence in the film’s accuracy and integrity. It is a film worthy of its accomplished and insightful subject. Very highly recommended, the thirty-five minute Dreaming Against the World screens before Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah this Thursday (11/19) at the SVA Theatre, as part of DOC NYC 2015.

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DOC NYC ’15: Love Between the Covers

By now, we all understand how romance readers often feel a strong emotional connection to their favorite authors. Remember when Annie Wilkes hobbled Paul Sheldon in Misery? That was a strong emotional connection. Yet, somehow that iconic scene is never referenced in Laurie Kahn’s Love Between the Covers (trailer here), an introduction to romance fandom that screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Those who work in publishing might focus on the most extraneous details in Covers, like why are there so many James Rollins paperbacks on the shelves in the opening credits? Perspective is everything. Fans and authors alike routinely complain the genre gets no respect, but if you have ever tried to get any sort of book besides romances into mass merchandisers, you know a high percentage of their book space is devoted to the genre, right off the top.

Regardless, readers have a right to gripe about snotty hipster attitudes (and they do). If you work all day and then go home to take care of some entitled brats, you should feel free to take what pleasures you can from series romances, 50 Shades of Grey, or 120 Days of Sodom. The problem with Covers is it is unabashedly fannish and pretty shallow.

Granted, the authors Kahn profiles are quite charming (which also holds true of every romance novelist I’ve ever met at trade shows). Look, they understood the principles of social media before Mark Zuckerberg. Mary Bly (an English professor and daughter of poet Robert Bly, who writes romance under the name Eloisa James) is a particularly charismatic and eloquent presence. Unfortunately, the film never really gets past the H.E.A. (“happily ever after”) formula and repetitive anecdotes of friendships forged through fandom.

Even if you knew precious little about trade publishing, you will hardly be shocked to learn romance books are the commercial drivers of the industry, largely written and consumed by women. That is about all Covers has for outsiders, but fans will appreciate the screen time granted to popular bestsellers, like Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz. Frankly, that is what the film is all about. Only recommended for the fans it was intended for, Love Between the Covers screens this Thursday (11/19) at the IFC Center, as part of DOC NYC 2015.

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Kingdom of Shadows: How the Drug War was Lost

We share a very long and largely unenforced border with Mexico. This is a particularly disturbing fact to keep in mind while watching the frequent discovery of mass graves throughout our neighbor to the south. The war on drugs will be blamed, but it is pretty clear that war is over in Mexico and the cartels won. Two former combatants and a courageous nun offer their perspectives on the current state of border anarchy in Bernardo Ruiz’s Kingdom of Shadows (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sister Consuelo Morales is a woman of great faith and humility, who tirelessly consoles families of the “disappeared” and constantly prods government officials on their behalf. She is the film’s unambiguous moral center, in part because her job is so hard. Frankly, the police in narco hotspots like Monterey are so corrupt, they are often seen as wholly owned subsidiaries of the cartels. Most of the disappearances are probably the work of the cartels, but some wholesale abductions have been traced back to various police forces, which makes absolutely no tactical sense, unless they were trying to get the populace to hate the cops even more, which is a distinct possibility.

Former border patrol officer and undercover agent turned Homeland Security official Oscar Hagelsieb also has a hard job. The narco-terror unfolding in Monterey and spilling over into Texas border towns like Socorro, Texas falls under his jurisdiction. He intercepted a lot of drugs and busted a lot of sinister characters during his undercover days. Ironically, that is one reason he keeps such a high profile now, in the hopes that his past associates will not seek to martyr such a prominent government spokesperson.

Don Henry Ford, Jr. was one of the traffickers Hagelsieb was trying to put away. Someone did indeed bust him and just in the nick of time. If he had been pinched any later, mandatory minimums would have applied. Ford was old school. He dealt with the relatively stable Amado Carrillo. According to Ford, his death left a vacuum that would be filled by a younger generation of sociopaths, an interpretation of history that seems to fit the facts pretty well.

The fact that Kingdom was produced by the highly partisan Participant Media does not inspire confidence, but Ruiz’s brutally honest Reportero earns his follow-up a fair hearing. Fortunately, it is also messily honest, to the point of losing control of its message. Frankly, the Trump campaign ought to bus primary voters to screenings, because it entirely vindicates his border security platform. Sure, there are some tacked-on arguments regarding mandatory drug minimums, but they are overwhelmed and undercut by the images of grisly carnage.

Watching Kingdom (and Reportero before it) gives viewers the impression Mexico is practically a failed state. It is a scary thought, but it certainly makes the paramilitary vigilantes seen in Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land look reasonable. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of answers in Kingdom, besides chastising America for the drug consumption that fuels the drug violence. That is fair enough, but it is worth remembering the media contempt that greeted Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Evidently, that is now the best strategy we have.

Some of its viewpoints are more insightful than others, but there is still plenty of revealing (and disturbing) stuff in Kingdom. It is uneven, but like Reportero, it is a pretty gutsy film. Recommended for its boots-on-the-ground documentary reporting, Kingdom of Shadows opens this Friday (11/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

DOC NYC ’15: The Babushkas of Chernobyl

They saw starvation during the Holodomor, Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukraine and radiation sickness during the Chernobyl meltdown. The latter paled compared to the horrors of Stalin. Having persevered through Stalin’s terror, they were not about to let a little thing like radiation scare them off. Holly Morris & Anne Bogart visit several of the two hundred-some matronly survivors who returned to their once-abandoned homes in The Babushkas of Chernobyl (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

The once bustling villages and mid-sized towns supporting the Soviet nuclear industry are now overgrown with weeds. Instead of a scorched wasteland, nature has largely taken back the so-called “Exclusion Zone.” According to PBS’s Nature, the wolf population has thrived in recent years. Considering their advanced age and vodka consumption, the “Babushkas” also seem to be doing relatively well. Valentyna Ivanivna attributes her longevity to the healing power of herbs, while Hanna Zavorotnya puts her faith in moonshine. They are probably both right.

Although the government still tightly controls access to the zone, they have semi-officially condoned the women’s recolonization, believing they will succumb to old age before the effects of radiation manifest in their bodies. It seems a quite reasonable position really. In contrast, Morris and Bogart also incorporate some of the video shot by the foolhardy thrill seekers venturing into the Exclusion Zone, often inspired by the Stalker video game. It is certainly fascinating footage to watch, but stupid as Hell.

Indeed, Morris and Bogart had to take a tag team approach to limit their exposure. We also get a series of timely reality checks from Vita Polyakova, a government guide, who shares the filmmakers’ affection for the Babushkas. Still, between the wolves and the returnees, you have to wonder if there are natural phenomena at work off-setting the effects of radiation.

Granted, the Babushkas are steadily passing away, but what can we expect. They survived the Holodomor, the National Socialist occupation, and in some cases terrible marriages. Frankly, their resiliency and ironic humor is impressive. They are almost as old as Bernie Sanders, but they have actually lived under the socialism he is so blindly devoted to. Perhaps we should listen to them when they tell us to keep plenty of moonshine and pig fat handy. Recommended for the rugged charm of its subjects and an intriguing view of a land few will visit, The Babushkas of Chernobyl screens this Wednesday (11/18) and Thursday (11/19) at the IFC Center, as part of the 20105 DOC NYC.

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