J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, February 05, 2016

A Melody to Remember: the True Story of the War Orphans’ Choir

As the Korean War rages, children really are amongst the hardest hit. Orphans like Dong-goo and Soon-yi are forced to live a Dickensian existence, begging and stealing on the streets of Busan for the Fagin-like “Hook,” (so known, because he has one). However, they might find hope and belonging in a children’s choir organized by South Korean Second Lieutenant Han Sang-yeol. Yet, the war and the exploitative Hook remain as dangerous as ever in Lee Han’s A Melody to Remember (trailer here), which opens today in Queens, New York.

Before the war, Lt. Han was a music student who doted on his little sister. When the Communists occupied their home, they showed the relatively well-to-do children what class warfare really means. Han barely survived, but his sister sadly died. In a year or so, Han matures into a steely junior officer, but his sister’s death continues to haunt him.

Given his education and the recommendation of an MP who once served in his platoon, Han is appointed director of the orphanage on the Busan military base. It is the passion project of ardent South Korean social worker Park Joo-mi. Initially, the battle-hardened Han dismisses her as a dilettante, but they warm to each other as he becomes emotionally involved with the kids. The circumstances of Dong-goo and Soon-yi particularly resonate with him. The brother and sister were orphaned after their father was killed in turn by another grieving father, whose late son he ratted out to the North Koreans. Han would like to break the cycle of violence they are mired in, but technically they are only “on loan” to the choir from the super-connected Hook.

As a “based on a true story” Korean historical drama, you know Melody will be really trying to open up the tear ducts down the stretch. The combination of music, cute kids, and wartime tragedy is certainly potent. Considering its elegiac nostalgia, it is absolutely bizarre to find the film tangentially involved in a government scandal. Allegedly, the chief Korean financial regulatory agency (FSC) was strong-arming banks and insurance companies to buy bulk quantities of tickets, because lead actor (and K-pop star) Siwan serves as their media spokesman. If true, this has to be one of the most ill-conceived cases of government malfeasance ever.

It is actually rather a shame, because Siwan is surprisingly good as Lt. Han, but he might not get the credit he deserves in light of the FSC’s meddling, at least in Korea. Siwan also shows a strong affinity for his young co-stars and develops some decent chemistry with Ko Ah-sung’s Park. Lee Hee-joon makes the most of Hook’s ambiguities (he is not quite the jerk-heel villain we first expect), but it is little Lee Re who truly rips out the viewer’s heart and stomps on it, as poor grief and guilt-stricken Soon-yi.

Yes, Melody is nakedly manipulative, but it succeeds in wrenching hearts and jerking tears. If you want to see a quality melodrama, this is it. Recommended for those who like their films sad and sweeping, A Melody to Remember opens today (2/5) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Bayside, Queens.

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Slamdance ’16: Embers

Doomsday came and went, but the world keeps ending every night. Due to some sort of pathogen, infected survivors have lost their short and long term memory. Out of sight means out of mind. That applies to time spent sleeping as well. Nevertheless, a motley remnant of humanity will carry on as best they can in Claire Carré’s Embers (trailer here), which screened as the closing night film at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

When a man and a woman wake up next to each other, they reasonably assume they are in some sort of relationship. When they notice their matching cloth bracelets, it cinches it for them. Just as they have so many times before, the couple give each other names, hoping what impulse provides, will be correct. This time, it is Ben and Jenny. Like characters from a Beckett play they will head into the post-apocalyptic environment for no apparent reason, but at least they have each other.

Meanwhile, a young boy witnesses some of the best and worst of human nature, as he falls in with a series of temporary protectors. The one known as “Teacher” in the credits seems to be functioning at a slightly higher level than the rest of the shuffling dregs, but he ought to be. He was once a research psychiatrist specializing in human memory.

In contrast to those above ground, Miranda is painful aware of the slow passage of time. She has remained infection free, living with her father in an underground bunker facility. However, the isolation is taking a toll on her mind and soul.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Embers is that it is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. It is sort of like Dr. Moreau fused Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the Adam Sandler vehicle 50 First Dates, but the vibe most closely resembles the delicately balanced Perfect Sense. Frankly, Embers is unusually poignant, especially when focusing on Ben and Jenny (or Max and Katie, as they will soon call themselves). The watching them continue to be a couple, despite it all, is really quite touching.

Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva develop some remarkable chemistry together, especially considering how much relationship shorthand their situation precludes them from sharing. Embers also gives immediately recognizable but hard to place character actor Tucker Smallwood an opportunity to shine as the Teacher. Mathew Goulish is also acutely tragic as the boy’s short-lived Guardian. However, Greta Fernández is a problematically distant (like a cold fish) as the profoundly privileged Miranda.

Throughout Embers, it is rather inspiring to see love endure, in the face of such existential challenges. It is also pretty scary how convincingly Gary, Indiana stands in for a catastrophic urban wasteland. Maybe the city fathers should reconsider their current economic development policies. Regardless, Embers is a highly distinctive and mature post-apocalyptic science fiction fable. Recommended with conviction for cerebral viewers, it screens on February 19 and 21 at the Oxford Film Festival, after closing out this year’s Slamdance in Park City.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Monkey King 2 in 3D: Aaron Kwok Wears the Monkey Suit

After causing an uproar in Heaven, Sun Wukong needs to repent. However, monkeys are not good at contrition, nor are kings or demigods. Nevertheless, the Monkey King agrees to do penance by protecting Buddhist monk Xuanzang on his pilgrimage in search of scriptures. Unfortunately, a seductive demoness will try to end the epic Journey to the West prematurely in Cheang Pou-soi’s The Monkey King 2 in 3D (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The Goddess Guanyin offers the Monkey King an offer he cannot refuse. In exchange for his freedom, Sun Wukong will loyally protect and serve Xuanzang during his journey. Of course, this will be easier said than done. To restore her demonic life force, the wicked White Bone Spirit is determined to eat the monk, thereby ingesting his spiritual essence. As a result, Xuanzang’s party is constantly surrounded by minor demons in human guise, but the monk remains obstinately blind to their true nature.

The two constantly argue over Sun Wukong’s apparently groundless fighting and killing. The Monkey King’s comrades, Zhu “Pigsy” Bajie and Sha “Sandy” Wujing find themselves stuck awkwardly between the monkey and the monk, but they have a sinking feeling the hairy demigod is more right than wrong.

Unlike Surprise, Monkey King 2 largely plays it straight, or at least as straight as possible when the protagonist is hyperactive primate. This time around, Aaron Kwok steps into Donnie Yen’s monkey suit and just basically goes nuts in a way we never knew he had in him. Watching him zip around in the hirsute makeup sort of brings to mind Robin Williams. Frankly, it is kind of stunning that he can bring this kind of chaos. Reportedly, Kwok trained hard for the role, but the physical is the least of it. Still, he definitely looks good performing Sammo Hung’s zippy, otherworldly action choreography.

While Kwok is a minor revelation, Gong Li re-confirms she is one of the best in the business as White Bone Spirit, a.k.a. Baigujing. She has to be the most alluring and sophisticated supernatural temptresses perhaps ever seen on-screen. She brings all kinds of sinister élan, yet drops subtle hints of her long buried humanity. In contrast, William Feng Shaofeng is a bit wooden as Xuanzang, but it is hard to compete with Kwok and Gong.

Monkey King 2 is so frenetically supercharged, it sort of leaves viewers dazed. At times, the gravity-defying Sun Wukong looks more like a character in a video game than a movie. However, you have to give Kwok credit for pushing himself. As crazy as it gets, Gong still classes up the joint and even manages to outright steal the show. Recommended for fans of big, bold wuxia madness, The Monkey King 2 in 3D open tomorrow (2/5) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Misconduct: The Whole Film is Out of Order

Two profoundly unpopular professions are about to be pitted against each other. It will be arrogant Big Pharma exec versus corner-cutting ambulance chaser. They should also throw in some biased journalists and crooked politicians. Do gold-diggers and assassins count? In any case, there will be scandal and litigation aplenty in Shintaro Shimosawa’s Misconduct (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Arthur Denning is fabulous rich, but he has his hands full. In addition to managing the fallout from a disaster experimental drug trial, his trophy lover Emily Hynes has been kidnapped for ransom. Denning genuinely seems to be interested in getting her back, so he hires a pair of hostage recovery specialists. However, there is something funny about Hynes’ abduction, as we learn when the film rewinds a month or so.

Don’t you just love jumbled in media res openings? In this case, it is especially confused, because it sends decidedly mixed signals with respect to Denning’s character. Apparently, the real protagonist is Ben Cahill, a blow-dried mouthpiece, who has thrown himself into his work instead of properly dealing with his wife’s miscarriage. Cahill will file a class action suit against Denning based on information illegally obtained from his old flame, Emily Hynes. Yes, she is definitely up to something. We soon learn Hynes is planning to fake her own abduction. It is a convoluted scheme that somehow involves a mysterious Korean assassin-enforcer known as “The Account,” which has to be the saddest criminal nickname ever.

Misconduct is an absolute narrative mess, which is too bad, because there are a few workable bits and pieces in there. If Shimosawa had openly invited viewers to sympathize with Denning, much like Freddy Heineken in Kidnapping Mr. Heineken or Kingo Gondo in High and Low, the film might have gotten some place. Julia Stiles’ foul mouthed kidnapping specialist also has potential, but she disappears for most of the film. Instead, we largely have to watch the pseudo-triangle of Josh Duhamel, Alice Eve, and Malin Akerman, three actors who seem to work a lot, but nobody really understands why. At least Akerman helps her case with a wonderfully vampy femme fatale turn as Hynes.

Sir Anthony Hopkins shows flashes of the old brilliance as Denning, but there is only so much he can do with the underwritten, contradictory role. Sadly, Al Pacino continues his slow decline, going down shouting as Cahill’s sleazy senior partner, Charles Abams. International superstar Lee Byung-hun looks utterly bored in his scenes as The Accountant, for good reason. To his credit, Glen Powell brings more dignity than the film deserves as Cahill’s unheeded voice-of-reason office mate, Doug Fields, whereas Duhamel and Eve are so dull and plastic-looking, they sort of make a fitting couple as the Cahills.

Misconduct could have just been a cheesy B-movie. There is plenty of room in the world for another, especially since Akerman gives it some kick. However, screenwriters Simon Boyes & Adam Mason rip-off (and water-down) the twist ending that really launched the legal thriller craze in 1987, pre-Grisham. That’s just lame. Not recommended, Misconduct opens tomorrow (2/5) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Slamdance ’16: Chemical Cut

LA’s superficial world of modeling is like a pouty Logan’s Run. Irene signed just in time, with only one year of youthful eligibility left before “aging out” of the business. Unfortunately, she will not be frolicking in the stately pleasure dome. Instead, the novice model will be constantly exploited in former America’s Next Top Model contestant Marjorie Conrad’s Chemical Cut, which screened during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

Irene’s life before modelling was pretty depressing. She worked in retail and spent most her free time being demeaned by her toxic platonic pal, Arthur. One day, she gets a platinum blonde dye job on a whim. Shortly thereafter, Jared, a dodgy modeling agent slips her his card. Figuring she has nothing to lose, she signs with the obnoxious predator. However, since Jared constantly books her for “free tests,” Irene starts burning through her savings with no future income in sight. Initially, it seems like a godsend when Spring, a more established, better paid model takes Irene under her wing, but she also turns out to be a real user.

Evidently, modelling is a tough racket. If this is breaking news for you, than Chemical has even more disillusionments coming down the pike. Of course, for most of us living in the grown-up world, this is pretty standard stuff. It is all largely presented without humor, allowing viewers little consolation as we witness the pathetic embarrassments rained down upon poor Irene.

As a result, Chemical Cut just isn’t much fun. Conrad might be photogenic, but she is a bit of a shrinking violet on the big screen. At least she is endurable, which is more than can be said for Ian Coster, who is like fingernails on a blackboard as the screechy Arthur. Although her character Spring is a real self-centered pill, only Leah Rudick seems capable of sustaining a long-term relationship with the movie camera.

As a cautionary tale, Chemical is relentless, but as drama, it is kind of pokey. To be fair, the lack of redeemable or compelling characters probably makes it feel slower than it really is. Frankly, spending time with these people is a chore—Irene included. Too shallow to be a teachable film and too downbeat to be a comedy, Chemical is tragically half-pregnant. It means well, but that does not get the audience very far. Conrad’s TV modelling credentials will probably earn it a few looks from programmers, but it will not make much noise on the festival circuit after premiering at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Southbound: Where the Twilight Zone and V/H/S Intersect

Get your kicks on Route 666. Cellular and GPS service never seem to work along this lonely stretch of interstate, but there will be plenty of locals coming around. Unfortunately, they are not so helpful. All road trips take macabre detours in the wickedly creepy horror anthology Southbound (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Many of the filmmakers who contributed to the V/H/S franchise, including the Radio Silence guys who capped off the original film, tag-teamed on Southbound. Fortunately, their styles mesh easily, because the constituent story arcs deliberately run together. All five are decidedly scary, starting with Radio Silence’s The Way Out. Two bloody and bleary-eyed rough necks appear to be caught in a sort of loop, much like Isaac Ezban’s The Incident, except the weary duo are also being chased by spectral skeleton monsters that have been summoned to punish them for some profoundly transgressive sin. Just what did they do? Hold your horses, because more will be revealed when they reappear later.

The Way Out ends in the roadside motel where Roxanne Benjamin’s Siren begins. A hipster-punk version of The Runaways is checking out and hitting the road for their next gig. When a flat tire leaves them stranded by the side of the road, a rather mysterious family offers them shelter. Most of the band foolishly trusts them but not Sadie, their lead singer. In fact, she is quite confused and alarmed by how much they know about the recent death of a fellow band member.

The third story rather brusquely cuts off the second in an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire kind of way. David Bruckner’s aptly titled Accident also happens to be the creepiest, most intense arc of the consistently strong film. Poor Lucas did indeed run someone over due to his own negligence. However, he tries to do the right thing, but the malevolent 911 operator has different ideas. This works particularly well because of the spot-on writing. Several times Lucas is sufficiently alert to question the sinister voice’s dubious statements, but his desperation makes him accept each explanation. It turns into a real mind-reeler, yet it is believable enough to be deeply unsettling.

Again, we follow one of the hitherto unseen principals of Accident into Patrick Horvath’s Jailbreak. A man walks into a bar. Complications ensue. It would be spoilery to reveal anymore, but Horvath’s segment establishes some of the evil nature of this localized zone of supernatural and psychological mayhem.

Radio Silence comes back for more with The Way In, which eventually loops back into The Way Out again. How they get there is a twisted trip. Let’s just say it ends well, at least from the genre fans’ perspective (but for the characters, not so much).

There is no dead weight in Southbound and hardly any slack. Although Benjamin has primarily been active in producer roles, Southbound announces her arrival as a major directorial talent. In some respects, Siren is the most conventional of the five (or four, depending on how you count them) component arcs, but she really kicks it up several notches.

Even though there are not a lot of familiar faces in the cast, the performances are all rock solid. Mather Zickel is a particular standout as Lucas, the tormented driver. For genre fans, the voice of Larry Fessenden as the local DJ is also instantly reassuring. Frankly, by horror standards, there is not a great deal of blood or gore in the film, but there are plenty of scares. Highly recommended for those who appreciate franchises like V/H/S and the original Twilight Zone, Southbound opens this Friday (2/5) in New York, at the Village East.

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The Pack: When Dogs Run Free

Remember Meryl Streep uttering the famous line: “a dingo ate my baby?” Maybe she got off easy. A pack of wild dogs is out to gnaw on the entire Wilson family, as well as anyone who might visit them in Nick Robertson’s The Pack (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

The Wilsons are facing foreclosure, but it really isn’t their fault. They have suffered unusually heavy livestock losses over the last few months. Unfortunately, their slimy mortgage banker came out to float a lowball offer on their Outback sheep ranch, but he will not make it back to the office. He’s about to become rabid puppy chow.

Look, this is what happens when leash laws are not properly enforced. It leads to anarchy and crimes against nature. Weather-beaten Adam Wilson and his veterinary-trained wife Carla will have to corral their moody teenager Sophie and her bratty little brother Henry if they plan to make any sort of run for it. There is a good chance the dogs have them out-classed.

The Pack is not a terrible animals-attack movie, but it pales in comparison to Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which wasn’t even a genre film, per se. Most of the Wilsons are relatively likable, down-to-earth, and proactive, but young Henry’s penchant for hoarding bullets is an annoyingly ill-conceived subplot. Presumably, most Outback kids grow up learning how to safely handle firearms and ammunition at an early age. His fascination really does not make sense.

Frankly, the stars of The Pack are the German Shepherds trained by the Guard Dog Training Center and the animatronic dog puppets designed by Steve Boyle. They definitely look snarly and cunning. Apparently, the act of “sneaking up” on actors is tough to train, but they nailed it cold. Amongst the people, Anna Lise Phillips creates the strongest discrete personality as the resourceful Carla Wilson.

The Wilson house sure looks like a classic Outback hacienda, giving the film a decent sense of place. Cinematographer Benjamin Shirley also captures some terrific close-ups of his canine cast. Nevertheless, the film never gets much beyond just okay. In fact, by horror standards, it feels frustratingly restrained. Only recommended for super-keen fans of the rampaging beast sub-genre, The Pack opens this Friday (2/5) in New York.

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Sundance ‘16: The Greasy Strangler

It is a SpectreVision production, but it would not be surprising if the American Heart Association were secretly involved. After watching all the gelatinous grease ooze across the screen, viewers are likely to opt for nothing but raw vegetables for the rest of the year. For gross-out reasons, a serial killer slathers his food in grease and lathers his entire body up in oily fat before going out on the prowl. You would think his fingers would slide off victims’ necks, but somehow he manages to rack up a ridiculous body count in Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler, which quickly achieved infamy at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Big Ronnie is constantly bullying his socially maladjusted son Big Brayden, particularly regarding his supposed insufficient use of grease when cooking. Somewhere in the back of Big Brayden’s tiny mind, he sort of suspects his father might be the notorious Greasy Strangler, perhaps because Big Ronnie periodically feels compelled to deny it, for no apparent reason.

Somehow Big Ronnie and Big Brayden make ends meet by conducting cut-rate bait-and-switch historic disco tours. Big Ronnie still likes to go out clubbing decking out in a leisure suit with a strategic hole in the crotch to reveal his laughably long member. Do not get the wrong idea. It’s sickly yellow color cannot be all that enticing to reasonably healthy women, but it certainly intimidates his son. Poor Big Brayden is not exactly a chip of the old block in the respect, as we see only too well. Nevertheless, the vaguely Jeffrey Tambor-looking man-child somehow starts dating a former tour patron, but the loathsome Big Ronnie is determined to steal her for himself.

Yes, you have a whole lot of grease and prosthetic junk in Strangler, but that’s about it. Frankly, it represents all the worst instincts of midnight movies. Basically, Hosking just keeps beating the same couple of jokes into the ground like a pile-driver. A lot of people at midnight screenings probably convinced themselves they enjoyed it. Obviously, that is the only suitable venue for a film like this. When buoyed-up by the crowd, you might start laughing at Hosking’s sheer gall and your own endurance for its conspicuous crappiness, but that is a pathetically cheap way to get over.

Strangler makes John Waters look tasteful, Troma look sophisticated, and Ed Wood look accomplished. It is also literally review-proof, as evidenced by the ironic trumpeting of Strangler’s withering trade reviews. Regardless, all Strangler leaves behind are some unpleasant grease-stains (and a cool one-sheet). Consider yourself warned as The Greasy Strangler continues to build on its notoriety following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Sundance ’16: Nari

You could say Gingger Shankar’s mother and grandmother were born to be musicians. They hailed from a musical family, but they were hardly groomed to perform. In fact, the women were expected to sacrifice their careers to care for their husbands and children. Shankar pays tribute to her illustrious but frustrated ancestors in the New Frontiers multimedia program Nari, featuring a short film directed by Sun Yunfan (trailer here), which was staged at Festival Base Camp during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Gingger Shankar is the daughter of Dr. L. Subramanium, arguably the best known classical Indian musician currently touring the world today. However, Shankar makes it readily apparent their relationship is somewhat strained. She was expected to conform to her family’s wishes and forgo a promising music career, just as her mother had—but Shankar was less compliant. (Presumably, her great uncle Ravi Shankar was more progressive, since by adopting her mother’s maiden name, she obviously invokes his memory.)

Shankar’s grandmother Lakshmi was once quite famous in India. She had numerous bestselling records and performed in a ballet written by Nehru. Shankar even had a starring role in a vintage Bollywood musical, stills from which tantalizingly appear throughout the Nari short film and accompanying slide show. In contrast, her daughter Viji never had a fair chance to realize a fraction of her potential. Although she was recruited for a special George Harrison touring showcase, viewers get the sense that was seen as sort of a family franchise. After years away from the music business, Shankar’s mother started planning her debut solo album, but she only provisionally recorded half the songs before succumbing to cancer.

While there are some striking animated sequences in Sun’s short film, the main attraction of Nari is the live concert element. Gingger Shankar’s music is incredibly distinctive, blending classical Indian traditions with hip hop and electronica, but in a way that sounds organic rather than contrived. Clearly, she regularly listens to a wide array of influences and bakes them all into her rhythmically forceful music.

Although playing to pre-recorded tracks can be problematic, it makes sense when Shankar and her trio play accompany her late mother’s surviving vocal tracks (which have been duly remixed to fit her conceptions). The melodic and harmonic diversity of her set is also impressive. There are a lot of hummable tunes in Nari, as well as some virtuoso playing.

As we are told, Nari means both “woman” and “sacrifice” in Sanskrit, which might be a little too on-the-nose. Still, it hardly matters because the music so readily transports listeners to an elevated state of mind. It is too bad a restored print of Lakshmi Shankar’s film did not also screen in conjunction with Nari, because the included visuals definitely leave the audience intrigued. Nevertheless, the music is really the thing and it is terrific. Highly recommended, Nari is a tourable show that ought to have a long life on the road after bringing the Base Camp crowd to their feet at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Sergei Eisenstein is considered as Russian as vodka, but technically, he was born in Riga when Livonia was a governorate of the Russian Empire. He is responsible for some of the most successful propaganda films of all time, but some of his later films were also banned by Stalin. He was already a complicated figure before Peter Greenaway came along with a film suggesting Eisenstein engaged in a passionate affair with a male lover during his ill-fated Mexican venture. That relationship is somewhat fictional, but there is plenty of scholarship regarding his closeted sexuality. Of course, such contentions are highly controversial in today’s rabidly homophobic Russia. Once again, the Putin regime follows in the Soviet tradition. As Greenaway notes, during the Stalinist years, homosexuality was punishable with a term of hard labor in a Siberian gulag. That would give the Soviet auteur good reason to hide his sexuality in Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Eisenstein shot plenty of film in Mexico, but it would be left to others to edit it together into the some kind of order. Frankly, we will not see him shoot much of anything, because he is too preoccupied with Palomino Cañedo, a leftwing comparative religion professor serving as Eisenstein’s personal escort—very personal. Smarting from Hollywood’s rejection, Eisenstein came to Mexico to shoot Que Viva Mexico, a supposedly non-ideological celebration of post-revolutionary life in the county, as well as its folk customs, produced by Eisenstein’s American admirers, including Upton Sinclair. However, the film became a spiraling disaster worthy of Orson Welles.

Whether entirely true or not, Greenaway’s screenplay certainly explains how Eisenstein completely lost control of the project. We quickly get a sense Eisenstein has long tried to deny his orientation, which gives rise to a host of hang-ups and self-esteem issues. This being a Peter Greenaway film, there are also plenty of Full Monty shots, exposing the source of some of Eisenstein’s insecurities to the full view of the audience.

Like most Greenaway films, Guanajuato is dazzling both in its visual presentation and its erudition. Greenaway clearly draws on an intimate familiarity with Eisenstein’s work, but while he often incorporates archival photos and film stills in his Greenawayesque collages, Greenaway is never groaningly obvious in his homages. We never see Eisenstein stop to stare at a staircase and shake his head, as if to say “nope, can’t use that one.” However, the most impressive aspect of the film is the razor sharp dialogue, in which we can hear Eisenstein subtly suggest a disconnect between the Soviet promise and the Soviet reality, while never explicitly critiquing Stalin’s dictatorship.

Finnish actor Elmer Bäck (co-star of The Spiral) is an eerie dead-ringer for Eisenstein and bold enough to let it all hang out for considerable stretches of time. Mr. Bäck does not have a lot of secrets left after this one—nor does Luis Alberti, who is nearly as exposed as Cañedo. Frankly, there romantic chemistry is a bit questionable, but Eisenstein’s assorted angsts are completely convincing.

Despite its messiness, Guanajuato is a tour-de-force that harkens back to the hothouse vibe and postmodern subversiveness of Greenaway’s classic Pillow Book. The fact that has caused a good deal of awkward teeth-gnashing in Russia is also a nice bonus. Recommended for mature, grown-up cineastes, Eisenstein in Guanajuato opens this Friday (2/5) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza and Angelika Film Center.

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Curve: Taking the Scenic Route with Blumhouse

Listening to Roxette is simply bad karma. Mallory Rutledge claims it is just a mix tape her sister made, but she keeps playing it. Nevertheless, she certainly does not deserve what happens when she picks up a psychotic hitchhiker in Iain Softley’s Curve (trailer here), a Blumhouse production, which releases today on DVD.

Rutledge is clearly less than psyched about her imminent wedding, yet she agreed to drive her workaholic fiancé’s blazer from San Francisco to the ceremony in Denver. She is taking the scenic route, which we know will be her downfall. When the old school SUV breaks down in a cellular dead zone, Christian Laughton comes along just at the wrong moment. He actually gets her up and rolling again—and even seems willing to let Rutledge go her own way. Unfortunately, when she offers him a ride out of guilt, it gives the phony moralizer license to unleash his inner Max Cady.

Things quickly go from bad to worse when the alarmed Rutledge runs off the road. Laughton is thrown free, but she is pinned inside the car, well beyond the sightline from the highway. At first, Laughton is somewhat confused by this turn of events, but he subsequently returns to torment her at regular intervals. Of course, there is also a torrential storm on the horizon to further raise the stakes.

Softley seemed to have a promising career ahead of him when Backbeat, the fifth Beatle movie, came out in 1994, but his subsequent films have only been consistent in their inconsistency. Curve is ever more so. On paper, it looks like a fusion of The Hitcher and 127 Hours, but the finished product is a ho-hum affair that frequently relies on stupidity to drive the action (hidden cell phones ringing at inopportune times, cops thinking they hear Rutledge’s desperate cries for help but then deciding it was nothing after all, etc., etc.).

The blond surfer-looking Teddy Sears actually has a somewhat credible Ted Bundy thing going on and Julianne Hough does serviceable work as the reasonably proactive Rutledge. However, his attempts to goad her into some sort of self-assertive survival mindset jut ring false.

Technically, Curve is competent, but undistinguished. Somehow Kimberley Lofstrom Johnson & Lee Patterson’s screenplay is both underwritten and over-written, depending on how you look at it. There is worse stuff out there, but Curve just isn’t worth making any effort to see when it releases today on regular DVD.

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Monday, February 01, 2016

Sundance ’16: Rams

Welcome to northern Iceland, where the sheep are brawny and the men are taciturn. Estranged brothers Gummi and Kiddi are particularly quiet. They haven’t spoken to each other once over the last forty years. That happens in farm country, but disaster is about to strike their peaceful valley in Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum, following its screenings at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

We never really know why they had their falling out, but we eventual have reason to suspect the younger, more sensitive Gummi was the favored brother. They live nearly side-by-side, tending flocks descended from the same legendary stock, but their feud remains unabated. The only communication is conducted through terse notes carried by a neutral sheepdog. Kiddi has just edged out Gummi in the annual best ram contest by a fraction of an inch, but when the sulking loser takes a look at the winning ram, he thinks he sees signs of the dreaded scrapie (BSE).

A fatal viral disease related to Mad Cow, scrapie is no laughing matter. Due to the close proximity of their sheep, a finding of scrapie at Kiddi’s farm is likely to be just as devastating for Gummi. Of course, he is sure his brother will not see it that way, so he cautiously approaches a third party instead. Unfortunately, Gummi’s diagnosis proves to be painfully accurate. Naturally, this does not exactly thaw the brothers’ cold war. Kiddi lashes out and then seeks refuge in drink, but sad-eyed Gummi has a desperate plan up his sleeve.

Rams bears many superficial resemblances to Benedikt Erlingsson’s drily comic Of Horses and Men, but it is a darker, more Spartan film. Real livelihoods are at stake in Rams, but the bond between men and sheep is even more tragically significant. For the brothers and their neighbors (for Gummi, they are also friends), scrapie is like Armageddon.

Frankly, the endlessly expressive and empathic Sigurður Sugurjónsson’s Gummi also gets the better of Theoódór Júlíusson’s more sitcom-ish Kiddi. There is a reason why he is the primary POV character. You can tell a lot about the younger brother just by the way Sugurjónsson buckles his overalls.

Both the windswept Icelandic vistas and the rough-hewn décor of their homes vividly emphasizes the brothers’ isolation. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gives it all an appropriately Nordic look, while production designers Barni Massi and Sigurb Jörnsson fashion a Fargo-like look for their world, but more austere. It is an extraordinarily refined work of cinema craftsmanship, but the one sheet suggestions a considerably more light-hearted experience than Hákonarson has in-store for viewers. Recommended for fans of low-key Scandinavian fare, such as the films of Bent Hamer, Rams opens this Wednesday (2/3) in New York, with fresh credentials as a Spotlight selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’16: Water Ghost (short)

The stretch of the Yuanjiang River that bisects Changde is not as notorious as the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, but it has enough suicides to employ a specialized body fisher. After witnessing one such unfortunate tragedy from a distance Wen Li followed a compulsion to find the body fisher in her meditative short documentary Water Ghost (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

The body fisher is not an urban legend. He really exists, but the nature of his work makes him a somewhat averse to publicity. He is a private contractor who receives no government compensation. It is the grieving families that hire his services, so obviously the negotiations for each job are an awkward process. Naturally, there are specialized techniques to his work that few wish to learn. For either social or superstitious reasons, the body fisher has no competition to speak of.

Yet, the body fisher is a salt-of-the-earth working man, who quickly warms to Wen Li (his wife, maybe not so much). She also seems to relate to him quite easily, partly through a shared awareness of the related folklore and partly as a result of her own sad family history.

After quietly observing the body fisher at work, she drastically switches gears, chronicling the sad events of her father’s death through shadow puppetry. Visually, these sequences are absolutely arresting. In fact, the starkness of her images are well suited to the acute tragedy of her tale.

Although Water Ghost is a highly personal film, it is also deeply thoughtful. Wen Li seamlessly and thoroughly intertwines her family history with traditional archetypes and gritty, socially conscious reportage. It is a beautiful film, in a darkly elegiac way. Highly recommended for those who follow Chinese language cinema, Water Ghost screens at the upcoming Cinequest following its North American premiere at this year’s Slamdance.

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Sundance ’16: Wild

Wolves are solitary creatures, but they mate for life. Perhaps that is why Ania is attracted to them. By ‘attracted,” we mean in the most provocative way possible. The call of the wild is strangely seductive to her in Nicolette Krebitz’s Wild (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Ania is a mousy office drone, but her blowhard boss can see just enough of the swan beneath her ugly duckling exterior to skirt the boundary of sexual harassment. Yet, Ania hardly seems to notice. She just plugs away, maintaining her emotional distance from everyone around her. One night, she locks eyes with a wolf on the edge of the woods surrounding her drab apartment building. Strangely, it is her first real connection that we know of. Soon she is leaving meat for it, hoping to win its trust. After an aborted attempt, she successfully entraps and smuggles him into an abandoned flat in her complex.

Initially, the wolf is generally not receptive to her plans. He is rather loud, hostile, and smelly, demonstrating several reasons why exotic pets are such a terrible idea. However, as their “courtship” progresses, Ania and the wolf come to an understanding. Yes, it will have a physical component. Yet, she is not just drawn to the wolf. She also finds his “lifestyle” enticing.

It is important viewers do not confuse the various films simply titled Wild. One features a beautiful actress doing awards caliber work and the other is a light-weight Reese Witherspoon vehicle. Fortunately, this is the former (though technically it is the later production). It also seems to bear comparison to Roar, the notorious Tippi Hedren film, in which the cast was regularly mauled by poorly trained lions. Human-wolf proximity is downright intimate here as well. It all gets rather alarming for safety reasons, rather than prurient concerns. However, wolf trainers Zoltan Horkai and peter Ivanyi deserve credit for the masterful control, as does lead actress Lilith Stangenberg for her nerves of steel.

Frankly, it is a bit of a surprise Stangenberg did not walk away with this year’s performance award. This is one of the darnedest empowerment arcs you will ever see, but she makes every animalistic step believable. Krebitz’s aesthetic is pretty severe and she lets the film get a slow start out of the blocks, but somehow she manages to take the potentially lurid material and make it feel dignified and cerebral.

Too bad Sundance does not have an animal handling award, because Wild would have won in a landslide (the same would have been true for White God last year). If you want to see a film about human-lupine relations and not feel guilty or embarrassed about it afterward than this is the one you have been waiting for. It is also worth seeing for the rest of us, thanks to Stangenberg’s fearless (in several ways) breakout performance, so expect to see it programmed aggressively, following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sundance ’16: Swiss Army Man

It was the year of the fart joke at this year’s Sundance and the stinkiest ones came from Daniel Radcliffe. That is because he finally played the role he and every other actor was born to play: a gaseous corpse. It is a somewhat passive part, but he has more dialogue than you might expect in the Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, which screens today as the winner of the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Seriously, that’s not a joke.

Hank is a castaway on the brink of suicide. We never really understand how he got there, but the truth is, this discouraging turn of events is not that worse than his normally crummy life. Just as he is about to end it all, he sees a body wash up on shore. Unfortunately, the body really is a body, but in his addled state, Hank starts talking to the deceased, whom he comes to know as “Manny.”

Despite his lifeless state, Manny is a handy dude to have around. There is plenty of fresh water to be squeezed out of his gut and his voluminous gas allows him to power through the water like a motorboat. In fact, he will fart Hank to within reach of civilization. As the castaway talks to his lifeless companion, Manny starts to answer back. Is it all in Hank’s sun-baked head? Yes probably, but Manny still might be able to help him work through his issues, just by being such a good listener.

Swiss Army is sort of a love-it-or-hate-it film, yet a handful of us still managed to find ourselves /mixed on it. On some level, you have to respect the tandem known as “The Daniels” (a.k.a. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) for their willingness to follow their weird scatalogical vision through to its logical extremes (especially if you happen to be a Sundance juror). Nevertheless, as the film stands, it is an uneasy mix of slapstick and sentiment. Frankly, the things get wildly overwrought in the third act—at which points the Daniels only have their tongues partly embedded in their cheeks. That heartstring tugging just feels cheap and unearned.

Still, you have to marvel at Paul Dano’s commitment to the often tasteless material. As Hank, the Daniels leave him out there on a limb, but he manages to create a somewhat poignant sad clown persona. Although Manny has more to do than most corpses, Radcliffe still demonstrates a good sense of humor (and a fierce determination to overcome his Harry Potter image) by taking on the rather stiff role. All things considered, their chemistry together isn’t that bad.

Although Swiss Army sounds deliriously unhinged, it sort of tries to have it both ways, which is a mistake. Yet, a film with this many big set piece sequences built around fart gags deserves some sort of acknowledgement. Evidently, that would be the directors’ award. If you are still intrigued, then judge for yourself when Swiss Army Man screens tonight (1/31) in Park City, as an award-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’16: Richard Linklater—Dream is Destiny

Who is the most representative Sundance alumnus, Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith? Both have brought many projects to the festival and are represented again this year in some form. It is a close call, but the Oscar love shown for Boyhood (which had a special sneaky screening last year) tips the scale to Linklater. Austin’s favorite filmmaker is affectionately profiled in SXSW senior director Louis Black’s Richard Linklater—Dream is Destiny, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Linklater came along with Slacker at precisely the right time. It was practically a work of outsider cinema, but it had enough polish to catch the rising indie wave. He thought he was going studio with Dazed and Confused, but the studio changed its mind. Nevertheless, audiences gravitated to his retro-Texan answer to American Graffiti over time. He also started working with a cat named McConaughey.

Soon thereafter, he began another fruitful long-term association with Ethan Hawke on the first of what he would jokingly refer to as the lowest grossing trilogy of all time. However, audiences caught up with the “Before” films into time to make Before Midnight a pretty impressive performer at the specialty box office. And then there was Boyhood.

Frankly, even IFC’s Jonathan Sehring sounds a little surprised his twelve year investment paid off. In some ways, his interview segments constitute another victory lap, but he is entitled, considering all the heat he took from the company’s finance people. There is indeed a good deal of Boyhood in Destiny, but it was twelve years of his life.

Generally, Black reasonably weights Linklater’s filmography, but the continued short shrift given to Me and Orson Welles feels unfair (one critic describes it as “the one that got away”). On the other hand, it is hard to blame him for sweeping Fast Food Nation under the rug (but honestly, his Bad News Bears remake wasn’t that bad. Really, it wasn’t).

Filmmaker profiles like Destiny or Tessa Louise-Salomé’s Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax are sort of tricky to review. For those of us covering festivals, they are nice palate cleansers. We can revisit some films we enjoyed, file away some insights for the next time we review their work, and then move on to another screening. However, we probably would not be so satisfied with the experience if we had paid the full ticket price.

Destiny is exactly the sort of doc that gets compared to DVD extras—and not without some justification. Still, Black scores interviews with most of Linklater’s big name collaborators and talks extensively with the man himself. He moves things along well enough and gives us a vivid sense of Linklater’s distinctly Texan environment. It is highly watchable, but probably still best suited for Linklater’s most passionate admirers. For those hardy fans, Richard Linklater—Dream is Destiny screens again this morning (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Slamdance ’16: Last Summer

Plenty of divorcing couples have used their kids to inflict pain on each other, but this entitled princeling has been weaponized particularly cruelly. His Japanese mother has lost all custody and visitation rights to her well-heeled western ex-husband. Franky, the helplessly spoiled Kenzaburo (Ken) does not seem like much of a prize, but his mother’s love remains unabated. Unfortunately, she only has four days to say her goodbyes for the next eleven years in Leonardo Guerra Seràgnoli’s Last Summer (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

Although the precise details are never revealed, it is strongly implied mental health struggles and her ex-husband’s wealth brought Naomi to this point. Presumably, those pills she pops in the morning are not vitamins. Clearly, her history was used against her in court and with the four man crew of the luxury yacht provided for Naomi’s farewell visit. Although Alex the captain remains rather open-minded, Eva the steward and Rebecca the surrogate nanny are clearly looking to undermine any last hopes Naomi might have of forging a connection with Ken.

This could have easily been the stuff of Lifetime channel melodrama, but Seràgnoli goes for broke with his rarified art cinema approach and largely pulls it off. Gianfilippo Cortelli’s cinematography has the lush glossiness of a fashion magazine spread that perfectly suits the graceful simplicity of Milena Canonero’s frocks. Canonero’s production design team perfectly conveys the ironically austere vibe of the ultra-chic trappings. (Indeed, the yacht is a trap, for both the aching mother and the problematically passive son).

As stylishly produced as Summer is, the key that makes it work is Rinko Kikuchi’s quiet but violently powerful performance as Naomi. The one-two punch of her vulnerability and beauty is absolutely heart-stopping. This is not a dialogue-heavy film, but you can read it all in her eyes.

Kikuchi also develops some wonderfully ambiguous chemistry with Yorik van Wageningen’s increasingly sympathetic Captain Alex. In fact, the shifting crew dynamics are quite subtly rendered, adding further layers to the hothouse atmosphere. Initially, young Ken Brady does not make much of an impression, but he duly comes out of his shell when Naomi starts to reach his privileged character.

Can you imagine how much this kid will hate his father when he turns eighteen and discovers the old man has been keeping him from his elegant and soulful mother? Seràgnoli and his celebrated co-scripters, Banana Yoshimoto and Italian graphic novelist Igort give us hope it just might come to that eventually, while scrupulously avoiding any phony sentimental cop-outs. Thanks to Kikuchi, it is a lovely little chamber drama. Recommended as a satisfying indulgence for sophisticated audiences, Last Summer screened at this year’s Slamdance, but it is sure to turn up at subsequent festivals given the talent involved.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sundance ’16: Film Hawk

When reviewing a documentary like this, you just have to take the inside baseball approach. I know I have seen Bob Hawk at Sundance, but I’ve never spoken with him. I’m pretty sure he stands in the express line, while I’m in the general press/SIO queue. I’m not complaining, because it is easier to talk to the wonderfully cool volunteers that way—and generally my press colleagues are a pleasant lot. I wasn’t shut out of a single P&I screening I targeted this year, so the system worked great for me. Regardless, Hawk gets the short line and he’s certainly earned it. JJ Garvine & Tai Parquet profile the indie film insider in Film Hawk, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Although Hawk has a fair number of producer credits and has recently directed a short film, he is best known as a film consultant. If you want to get your film into Sundance and then sell it to a specialty distributor for several million dollars, Hawk can help you develop a strategy, if he likes what you’ve done. He is probably most “famous” for launching Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Edward Burns’ The Brothers McMullen, and their careers along with them. The success of those two films really represent the glory days of the indie scene.

On the other hand, that sort of means we can indirectly blame Hawk for Tusk, Red State, and Cop Out, but let’s stay positive. In fact, Smith’s heartfelt reminiscences are the emotional backbone of the doc. Their relationship is obviously special, but plenty of other filmmakers also pay tribute to the confidante-strategist, including Burns, Barbara Hammer, Ira Sachs, Scott McGehee & David Siegel, and Kimberly Reed, whose personally revealing documentary Prodigal Sons Hawk executive produced.

Ironically, Hawk has not exactly enriched himself with his king-making work. The film consultant will not allow Garvine & Parquet access to his Manhattan apartment, but he makes it pretty clear it is alarmingly Spartan. Frankly, one of the best scenes in Film Hawk is a production meeting between subject and co-directors in which he sets up that boundary. Watching the old pro shape his own documentary is strangely fascinating. He is also unusually candid discussing his past struggles with suicidal depression. Still, there are too many scenes of Hawk the raconteur, regaling his tablemates at Elaine’s or wherever.

Garvine & Parquet probably get as much from Hawk as anyone could, but their production values leave much to be desired. The undignified soundtrack that sounds like it was mostly recorded on a cheesy Casio synthesizer is particularly embarrassing. That might come across as rather harsh, but if the filmmakers want to commission a richer, more professional soundtrack, I can refer them to some wildly talented jazz musician-composers, who could probably whip up something truly distinctive.

Be that as it may, Film Hawk has some nice moments, but the target audience has to be rather limited. It will be enjoyed by Hawk’s numerous friends and clients, as well as those of us who have seen him around, but that has to be the extent of it. Basically, it is like Todd McCarthy’s Pierre Rissient profile, except less polished. Recommended for serious festival professionals, Film Hawk screens again tonight (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Everybody’s Fine: Zhang Remakes Tornatore

At this point, a parent really ought to be able to deal with a son or daughter coming out of the closet, but things are still very different in China. However, Guan Zhiguo manages to take it in stride. That doesn’t mean he’s progressive, he is just used to his grown children’s disappointments. A series of unannounced visits will yield bittersweet fruit in Zhang Meng’s Mandarin remake of the Giuseppe Tornatore’s Italian film, Everybody’s Fine (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

As you might remember from Tornatore’s film (but hopefully not the 2009 American remake starring Robert “Keep Meeting the Parents” De Niro), when all his offspring bail on Guan’s attempted family gathering, the widower hits the road to pay surprise pop-in visits to his two sons and two daughters. He starts with his youngest son Guan Hao, but the photographer never appears at his studio-flat. Eventually, he moves on to his eldest daughter Guan Qing, who is in the midst of a messy divorce she has kept from him. Viewers also learn from sotto voce conversations, her brother Hao was visiting Tibet, but his whereabouts are currently unknown following a disastrous avalanche.

The Guan siblings duly work the phones, warning each other of their father’s anticipated visits and conspiring to keep their brother’s uncertain fate from him. Unfortunately, the shortfall between the lives Guan Zhiguo expected to find and the messy realities offer plenty of grist for arguments. This is particularly true of Guan Quan, who sold the Shanghai flat his parents bought for him to help fund a dubious start-up. At least, Guan Chu really seems to be working as a ballerina in Macao, but that gig turns out to be less impressive than her father had been led to believe. Even he can tell there is more to Chu’s relationship with her roommate than she lets on, further upending his perception of his daughter.

In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to coopt the concept of the “American Dream” with their “Chinese Dream” propaganda campaign. While intended as a pseudo-nationalistic slogan, many have chosen to interpret it in economic terms not so very different from its American analog. In several ways, screenwriter Xiao Song’s adaptation critiques both competing conceptions of the Chinese Dream, lamenting the damage done to familial bonds and cultural traditions by go-go consumerism and runaway urbanization.

If Zhang was still smarting from the shelving of his 2014 film Uncle Victory because of its star’s drug arrest, he sure plays it safe with Zhang Guoli, who has appeared in overtly propagandistic films such as The Founding of a Republic and Back to 1942. Unfortunately, actor Zhang also plays it safe with his performance. He hunches up his shoulders colorfully enough and putters about with a dignified air, but he never takes us anywhere surprising. However, Yao Chen, Ye Yiyun, and Shawn Dou quite distinctively render the angsts and resentments of Qing, Chu, and Quan, respectively.

Despite the memory-play nature of Guan Zhiguo’s journey, Zhang Meng maintains a surprisingly up-tempo pace. He also recruits a number of big name cameos, including auteur Jia Zhangke, appearing as a Macanese gangster, and Vivian Wu (The Last Emperor, The Pillow Book) flashing some earthy charm as the Sichuan mahjong player with whom Papa Guan strikes up a flirty friendship.

Generally, Everybody’s Fine is still a sentimental melodrama, but it incorporates some intriguing commentaries regarding tolerance and the commoditization of life. Those Chinese particulars and the work of Yao and Ye give it a huge leg up on the De Niro version. A nice, non-taxing film, Zhang’s Everybody’s Fine earns a qualified recommendation for those interested in the all-star cast and its respected filmmaker. It is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Sundance ’16: Equity

Remember Facebook’s over-hyped, under-performing IPO? Naomi Bishop certainly does. However, she is more haunted by the recent blockbuster IPO she was not able to land for her firm. She hopes to get back on track with the initial offering for Cachet, a vaguely sketched out internet privacy company. It’s so private, nobody really knows what is does. Regardless, it should be money in the bank for Bishop, but some of her closest colleagues are out to sabotage her in Meera Menon’s Equity, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Bishop is under pressure from her dim-witted blue-blooded boss to generate revenue the way she used to or resign herself to career stagnation. Consequently, Bishop is in no position to help her under-compensated and increasingly resentful assistant, Erin Manning. She has fun hooking-up with Michael Connor, a hotshot in her firm’s trading division, but she is right not to trust him. He is about to bolt to a rival firm, so he is looking for inside information to hobble her IPO.

It is not clear whether it is good or bad timing, but Bishop happens to re-connect with Samantha, an old classmate now prosecuting securities crimes in the U.S. Attorney’s office, just as the Cachet IPO starts to turn sour on her. (Since she works for the government, she can’t even afford a surname.) Of course, it was no coincidence. Samantha was not so subtly digging for dirt on Bishop’s firm.

Absolutely everyone in Equity is rotten to some extent, which is actually refreshing. Screenwriter Amy Fox never tries to gin up phony moralistic outrage by cutting away to the widows and orphans who stand to be dispossessed due to the characters’ shenanigans. In Equity’s world, when you play with vipers, you are likely to get bitten. It’s as simple as that.

Anna Gunn really gives it her all as Bishop. She can go from earnest glass ceiling exhibit A to snarling office nightmare on the turn of a dime. She looks like she is a part of this world, though not necessarily comfortable within it. Co-producer Alysia Reiner avoids all the usual crusading prosecutor clichés as the smart but ethically nuanced Samantha. However, her co-producer Sarah Megan Thomas’s Manning is a rather blandly vanilla, which gets a bit problematic when her sharp elbows are supposed to come out. Frankly, the extent of Connor’s villainy seems shortsighted and arbitrary, but James Purefoy clearly enjoys his dastardliness, which counts for a lot.

Even though Menon and Fox would probably be delighted if Equity led to tighter securities regulations, it would be dashed difficult to legislate against the kind skulduggery on view here. The fact that it does not immediately lend itself to teachable moments and online petitions makes it one of the better thrillerish financial dramas of recent vintage. Recommended on balance, Equity screens again early this morning (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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