J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Strange Lands: Morel’s Invention

Morel’s Mediterranean party palace looks like Xanadu as refurbished by Le Corbusier. The music and fashions are vintage 1920s, whereas the technology he has developed is considerably more to near side of “near-future” than when Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1940 novel was first published. Nevertheless, its big revelation still comes as a surprise. Yet, the real drama derives from the fugitive protagonist’s tortured response in Emidio Greco’s Morel’s Invention (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

He is a castaway who does not wish to be found. Washing up on a deserted island, he finds a dusty, closed-up villa, but as soon as he reconnects the power and water, Morel arrives with his guests for a week of low impact revelry. The interloper tries to avoid them, but he becomes fascinated with the beautiful Faustine. His infatuation grows deeper when he witnesses her rebuffing Morel. However, when he rashly approaches her, she refuses to acknowledge him.

Of course, something extraordinary is afoot or Invention would not be programmed during Strange Lands. However, be advised some of the FSLC descriptive copy gives away too much of the game. Frankly, you might kick yourself for not guessing it, but editor Mario Chiari seamlessly cuts the film together, effectively hiding the secret in plain sight.

For those previously unfamiliar with the Argentine novel[la], Greco’s Italian film, or a subsequent English short film based on the same source material, Morel’s Invention is the biggest find of the series. The first act set-up requires a little patience, but the pay-off is shockingly moving. Even though it is very much set in the terrestrial world, it completely takes viewers out of their current mindset.

Godard’s onetime muse Anna Karina is absolutely perfect as the beautiful but distant Faustine. The role of Morel, the inventor with profound tunnel vision, also fits British Giallo veteran John Steiner like a glove. Nevertheless, it is Giulio Brogi who really lowers the emotional boom as the tragic castaway.

Invention’s coastal beaches and art deco interiors are absolutely stunning, rivaling the Village from The Prisoner series as desirable speculative fiction setting for a vacation getaway. In fact, that helps explain certain decisions that are made. Masterfully orchestrated by Greco, it is an under-heralded masterwork of international cinema. Highly recommended, Morel’s Invention screens this coming Wednesday (8/27) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

Labels: , ,

Strange Lands: The 10th Victim

It is odd when an author novelizes himself, but is sort of what Robert Sheckley did. He wrote the short story adapted as the film that he subsequently wrote the novelization for. He then wrote two original sequels. Give the credit to Ursula Andress’s deadly brassiere. Sure you can call it satirical sociological science fiction, but it is really about being beautiful in Rome. Life is short but hedonistic in Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

To placate humanity’s violent instincts, the global authorities instituted the Big Hunt. Participating players compete in ten hunts, alternating as hunter and victims. Hunters are fully informed of their prey’s habits and background, whereas victims simply better be careful. Players who survive ten hunts win fame and a fortune in 1965 dollars. Those that don’t are dead.

American Caroline Meredith is one hunt away from completing the cycle. Her victim will be Marcello Polletti, an upcoming Italian player saddled with excessive debt and excessive lovers. To maximize publicity for her sponsor, the Ming Tea Company, Meredith plans to kill Polletti on live television at the Temple of Venus. Of course, Polletti is automatically suspicious when Meredith approaches him in the guise of a television reporter. Nevertheless, they are instantly (albeit warily) attracted to each other. Even though he suspects he will have to kill Meredith, Polletti starts to play along, hoping it will not come to that.

With its depiction of legalized murder serving as a social pressure relief valve, 10th Victim predates scores of dystopian films, such as Running Man, The Purge, Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and the French film Le Prix du Danger, which was based on another Sheckley short story. However, the Big Hunt is arguably more about alleviating the ennui of modern life than appealing to man’s more savage instincts.

Playing a bored playboy, Marcello Mastroianni truly spread his wings in 10th Victim. Considering he had to romance Ursula Andress, he also really took one for the team. Frankly, it is a little bizarre to see Andress playing a Yank, given how often distributors over-dubbed her for the American market. However, she looks great in Meredith’s lethal couture (but not so much Mastroianni’s blond die job). Yet, even with their tongues firmly planted in cheeks, Mastroianni and Andress generate plenty of heat together.

10th Victim’s script (credited to Petri and a battalion of collaborators) is almost too glib for its own good, but the style is to die for. Petri prioritizes attitude over suspense, thoroughly sending up the hyper-real decadence of Mastroianni’s Fellini oeuvre. It all looks and sound great, thanks to Piero Piccioni’s wickedly groovy soundtrack, cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo’s eye for flash-and-dazzle, and costume designer Giulio Coltellacci’s fab frocks. You don’t really invest in 10th Victim as a movie, but it is hard not to enjoy it on its own terms. Recommended for fans of the superstar cast and those who can appreciate some mordant Italian irony, The 10th Victim screens this coming Wednesday (10/27) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Macabro ’14: Darkness by Day

Had Lillian Hellman ever written a horror film set in provincial Argentina, it might have looked a lot like this. Shades of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla are also easily discernible in Martín Desalvo’s near two-hander, Darkness by Day (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Macabro, the Mexico City International Film Festival.

Virginia leads a sheltered life on the family’s ancestral estate in the middle of nowhere. At his brother’s behest, her father leaves Virginia home alone to check on her critically ill cousin Julia. As soon as he leaves, Virginia’s other cousin Anabel arrives in a state of extreme exhaustion. Something is clearly vexing her too. She has no appetite and only seems to rouse herself at night. These are also odd times in the village at large. There are reports of a rabies outbreak and other young women seem to be suffering from symptoms similar to those afflicting Julia.

Strangely, the confused Virginia cannot seem to reach her father by cell or land line. Yet, as Anabel strengthens, the shy woman becomes more enthralled by her mysterious cousin. This seems to greatly concern her father and uncle when they finally return bearing bad news.

It would be interesting to watch Darkness in close dialogue with Mauricio Chernovetzky & Mark Devendorf’s The Curse of Styria, which also screens at Macabro. Both favor mood and atmosphere over blood and cheap thrills, but Darkness is an especially slow builder. Unlike Styria, Josefina Trotta’s screenplay eventually embraces the lesbian overtones of Le Fanu’s classic. In fact, Darkness is quite Hellmanesque, depicting the cousins’ fathers as not just paternal but paternalistic.

Mora Recalde (Desalvo’s real life partner) compellingly portrays Virginia’s innocence and her subsequent fall from grace. She subtly hints at the young woman’s possible arrest development, without overplaying her hand. However, Romina Paula really ought to be more seductive as Anabel.

Visually, Darkness is unusually elegant, creepy, and evocative by horror movies standards, thanks to the first class work of cinematographer Nicolás Trovato and art director Fernanda Challi. That old spooky family manse was a real find. Recommended for genre fans who appreciate moodier gothic films, Darkness by Day screens this Sunday (8/24) and next Friday (8/29), as part of the 2014 Macabro. Also recommended, the thematically related Curse of Styria launches the festival with a free screening tonight (8/21).

Labels: , ,

Macabro ’14: Sapi

Which is more dangerous: torrential monsoons, demonic possession, or the tabloid media? All three are coalescing into a perfect storm in Metro Manila. As reports of spiritual possession sweep the city, two rival networks will race to bottom trying to scoop each other. The story takes on personal dimensions for one particular news crew in Brillante Ma Mendoza’s Sapi (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Macabro, the Mexico City International Film Festival.

It is a Catholic country, so they take demonic doings quite seriously. It is also a ratings driver. SBN even has a show dedicated to it: Sapi, meaning possession. Unfortunately, PBC has been eating their lunch. The case of a school teacher named Ruby is a perfect example. By the time reporter Dennis Marquez got there with his producer Meryl Flores, PBC had already caught all the juicy Linda Blair action, so they had to settle for a bland sit-down with the apparently exorcized woman.

In a Mary Mapes level breach of journalistic ethics, Flores strikes a deal with Baron Valdez, their freelance cameraman, to smuggle some of the good footage out of PBC. However, when their pilfered video runs on SBN, they neglected to pixelate Ruby’s face. Suddenly, a lot of people are unhappy with Flores and her team, perhaps including a supernatural agency. In fact, ever since they left Ruby, the three tabloid journalists have been plagued by disturbing dreams and gory visions.

Sapi is a strange genre hybrid that probably spends more time on the dodgy side of journalism than the business of supernatural horror. Thankfully, Mendoza does not go the found footage route, but the film clearly has a deliberately handheld video-on-the-fly look just the same. Yet, since Sapi is so grounded, when Mendoza springs a paranormal jolt, it is really freaky.

Unfortunately, in addition to being morally challenged, the SBN journalists are also kind of dull. Rather, it is the supporting veteran character actors who really add color and flavor to the proceedings, such as Jon Achaval and Raquel N. Villavicencio as the bickering news director and station chief.

Nonetheless, Mendoza uses the city to full noir effect. He captures a vivid sense of its chaos and grittiness, without wallowing in poverty porn. It is even more ragged around the edges than he intended, with many of the pieces rather haphazardly forced together, but his mastery of mood and tone is impressive. Throughout Sapi there is a persistently unnerving sensation something sinister lurks just outside our field of vision and the notion of bottom-feeding journalists exploiting demonic possession feels all too here-and-now. Recommended for those who prefer a healthy dose of social commentary with their horror films, Sapi screens this Saturday (8/23) and the following Friday (8/29), as part of this year’s Macabro.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MWFF ’14: Scars of Cambodia (short)

For a fifty-some year old fisherman who survived the Maoist Khmer Rouge reign of terror, words cannot adequately describe the tortures he endured. Yet, he is compelled to silently testify, nonetheless. Despite the language barrier, Tut conveys the horrors of his ordeal to filmmaker Alexandre Liebert in the short documentary Scars of Cambodia (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Tut is a fisherman in the coastal village of Kampot. He is a rugged man of dignity, who was swept up in the genocidal Khmer Rouge machine that killed an estimated twenty-one percent of the nation’s population. The titular “scars” are metaphorical, but Tut also bears plenty of physical kind, still visible decades later.

Arguably, Scars represents a somewhat experimental approach to documentary filmmaking, but it succeeds on its own terms. Tut rarely speaks and Liebert never subtitles him, yet his body language is beyond eloquent. It becomes crystal clear Tut endured beatings, stabbings, electrocution, and that favorite of torturers down through the ages—the old pliers to the finger nails.

Without question, it is an act of courage on Tut’s part just to revisit these ghastly memories. As some consolation for viewers, he now seems to be a respected member of his community. Yet, the audience will be left with numerous unanswered questions, especially considering Tut and his wife are probably old enough to have a large extended family, yet it seems to be just the two of them from what we can glean.

Although conceived as part of a larger prospective web-documentary series and photo exhibit project, Scars ably stands on its own. It probably should not be the first or last film anyone sees on the Khmer Rouge’s socialist madness. Everyone really should initially have it initially spelled out for them. Still, Scars of Cambodia is an unusually powerful manifestation of non-verbal oral history. Highly recommended, it screens Monday (8/25), Tuesday (8/26), and Wednesday (8/27) during this year’s MWFF.

Labels: , , ,

Strange Lands: In the Dust of the Stars

Would you travel halfway across the galaxy to check out a prank call? Supposedly, that is exactly what this star-faring crew has done. However, once they arrive on TEM 4, they are assured there is nothing to see here, so please move along. Thanks to the brainwashing, most of them are inclined to agree. Of course, there is a sinister scheme afoot in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars (trailer here), which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

Say what you will about the locals, but they throw a smashing party. The entire crew is quite taken with their psychedelic hospitality, except Suko the navigator, who stayed behind to nurse his suspicions about the “accidental” distress call that brought them to this swinging planet. As a result, he is the only one not to get dosed by their sonic mind-blocking device. Rather put out by his fellow crewmembers’ giddy compliance, Suko will single-handed uncover the truth on TEM 4. However, it is not like his comrades would be much help, even under the best of circumstances.

Frankly, the Cynro crew inspires even less confidence than Peter Davison’s Doctor Who—and it starts right at the top. In 1978, a woman space captain might have been considered a progressive symbol, but Akala is no Janeway, not by a long shot. She is indecisive, gullible, and conspicuously frustrated by her unconsummated longing for Suko. Clearly, he shares her lust, but he makes do with a willing subordinate instead, presumably out of respect for the chain of command.

The entire Cynro crew looks like a wish fulfillment fantasy, consisting of a couple middle aged dudes and half a dozen hotties in mod jumpsuits. Indeed, Dust features some of the most flamboyant costumes this side of The Fifth Element. In terms of narrative, it is sort of like a middling Star Trek episode in which Yeoman Rand performs a naked interpretive dance, but Dust is really about its candy-colored sets and costumes, as wells as its free-loving melodrama.

It is hard to believe this was a co-production of the GDR and Romania. One can only imagine the expressions of bewilderment on the scoldy state censors’ faces as they watched the Temer dancers Vogueing through the “Boss’s” Henry Moore sculpture garden, but since the oppressed eventually rise up against their oppressors, Dust was apparently safe as houses.

The general hamminess of the ensemble hardly matters either. Arguably, Alfred Stuwe fares the best as Suko and Jana Brejchová (the one-time Mrs. Miloš Forman) gets by okay as Akala. On the other hand, Ekkehard Schall and Milan Beli bring extra cheese as the boss and his chief enforcer, Ronk.

Dust is a ton of fun in a trippy retro kind of way. Karl-Ernst Sasse’s groovy soundtrack is a classic of its kind and production designer Christa Helwig truly crafted a strange land. Recommended as a lava lamp curio from the DEFA filmography, In the Dust of the Stars screens this Saturday (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the Strange Lands film series.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

MWFF ’14: New Territories

Even in death, Chinese citizens remain victims of the Cultural Revolution. Since those dark days, burial has been illegal in the PRC, banned due to its religious connotations. As a result, entire generations have been consigned to an eternal fate as disquiet ghosts, at least according to traditional beliefs. The tragic connection between intrusive government funerary policy and a young migrant worker will be revealed in Fabianny Deschamps experimental hybrid New Territories (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Hong Kong’s New Territories represent the Promised Land for Li Yu. It is there she is to meet her fiancée, after the human traffickers smuggle them across the border. However, her fate will somehow become entangled with Eve, a French sales executive pitching alkaline hydrolysis to the Chinese authorities as a carbon neutral alternative to cremation. She had traveled to Li’s home province, because of its high rate of compliance with the government’s cremation mandate. Understandably, she chose to seal the deal in Hong Kong, where she can celebrate in style once the business is done.

The audience does not see much of Li, for reasons that will eventually be revealed. However, she is omnipresent as the film’s narrator. Eschewing conventional dialogue and narrative forms, Territories is somewhat akin to João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, except the execution is far superior. In all honesty, this might be the most emotionally resonant pseudo-experimental film you will see in a month of non-narrative Sundays.

Of course, there is very definitely a story underpinning Territories, which even takes on genre dimensions. Though rarely seen, Yilin Yang’s voiceovers as Li are absolutely devastating. Eve Bitoun deliberately portrays her namesake as something of a cipher, but her descent into spiritual oblivion is quite compelling (while her Fifty Shades scene is unnecessarily off-putting). Deschamps also gives viewers a unique perspective on time-honored practices, such as the burning of spirit money.

It is difficult to identify the right audience for New Territories, because it demands receptiveness to avant-garde forms, yet is still deeply rooted in the social and historical iniquities of Communist China. Although it is largely set in HK’s financial district and takes its name from the peninsular region, the guts of the film concern realties on the Mainland. Cinematographer Tomasso Fiorilli perfectly lenses HK, in all its alluring menace. It is a very thoughtful, artful film, highly recommended for the adventurous (and sufficiently prepared), when it screens this Friday (8/22), Saturday (8/23), and Sunday (8/24) as part of this year’s MWFF.

Labels: , ,

Strange Lands: Eolomea

Eolomea is sort of like utopia or Erehwon, except it really might exist—maybe. It is one of the great debates of Prof. Maria Scholl’s age, but she is more concerned with the recent rash of vanished cargo ships. As she pursues her investigation, she will need the help of her summer fling in Hermann Zschoche’s Eolomea, which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

In a case of rotten timing, yet another space freighter loses contact with space station Margot just as Scholl is giving her report to the UN-like council of interplanetary busybodies. Strangely, her toughest critic, Prof. Oli Tal, seems to know all the details already, including the presence of his daughter on the latest missing vessel.

Tal was not always such a bureaucratic boor. He was once a hotshot flight officer, who was keen to initiate an expedition to Eolomea. Unfortunately, he could never entirely prove its existence, so no mission was ever authorized. Ironically, Tal becomes one of Scholl’s friendlier associates, as she diplomatically probes him for the truth. At least, he will meet her for lovely picnics and a spot of witty repartee. Still, he is no substitute for Dan Lagny, the disgruntled moonbase crewmember, whom she met during a recent seaside holiday. Although Lagny wanted to resign (and perhaps pursue a serious relationship with Scholl), he is too talented for Scholl to approve his release. Indeed, she will be quite glad to rendezvous with him when she lights off to Margot herself.

Of the major science fiction films produced by the East German studio DEFA, Eolomea is the critical redheaded stepchild, but it is really the best of the lot. Frankly, its withering depiction of a risk-averse bureaucracy stifling space exploration feels more John Galt than Erich Honecker (but perhaps the space station was a hat tip to his wife Margot). It also presents a rather crummy, dysfunctional vision of the future, not so very different from the GDR’s crummy, dysfunctional socialist present.

Yet, in subtle ways, it portrays how mankind has yet to emotionally acclimate to the interstellar age. This is particularly acute in the case of Pilot Kun, Lagny’s grizzled old comrade. Surprisingly, Eolomea is quite touching, serving as an elegy to the relationships and connections that were ultimately not meant to be.

As Scholl, Dutch actress Cox Habbema carries the film with grace, smartly playing off Rolf Hoppe’s Tal and Ivan Andonov’s Lagny. Hoppe (seen in Volker Schlöndorff’s English language Palmetto and a raft of German television productions) is a standout as the exasperating but charming Tal, while Vsevolod Sanayev nicely embodies the film’s increasingly confused human element as old Kun.

Arguably, Eolomea is a deceptively simple story, but it captures the romantic spirit of space exploration. Fans will also appreciate Günther Fischer’s groovy soundtrack, which sounds more in keeping with some of its trippier DEFA counterparts. Granted, the over abundance of temporal shifts is counterproductive, but it still has a unique vibe that sticks with you weeks after watching it. Recommended as the class of DEFA science fiction, Eolomea screens this Saturday night (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

Labels: , , ,

14 Blades, Wielded by Donnie Yen

The Jinyiwei were one of the earliest forerunners of the Secret Service, but they soon became one of the first secret police organizations. Their original mandate was to protect the Ming Emperor, but they quickly became a law unto themselves. Feared and despised, Jinyiwei agents lived short and lonely lives. Nobody understands this better than Qinglong, who persists at any cost to complete what he assumes will be his final assignment in Daniel Lee’s 14 Blades (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a Jinyiwei, Qinglong carries the service’s notorious 14 blades: eight are devised for torture, five for fighting (so to speak), and one is designed for a Jinyiwei’s final exit. Like many of his brothers, Qinglong survived a brutal recruitment process when he was only just a child. He still carries the emotional scars from his baptism of fire, so the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when he discovers the Jinyiwei leadership has been corrupted by their eunuch commander, Jia Jingzhong.

Realizing his was set-up during his latest mission, Qinglong goes rogue, seeking the missing imperial seal Jia and his ally, the treasonous Prince Qing, intend to use to legitimize their power grab. Although outnumbered, Qinglong will recruit key allies, retaining the services of the nearly bankrupt Justice Escort Agency (and developing a doomed attraction to proprietor Qiao Yong’s rebellious daughter, Qiao Hua in the process). He will also forge an alliance with a notorious highwayman known as “The Judge” and his Heaven Eagles Gang, who will get to keep all the gold the conspirators are transporting with the Macguffin seal.

14 Blades does not exactly break a lot of new wuxia ground, but the striking Yinchuan desert locations distinguishes it from the field. Kate Tsui (2004 Miss Hong Kong) also makes a memorable nemesis as Tuo Tuo, Prince Qing’s adopted daughter. She her serpentine lash is a fearsome weapon, but the way she sheds her apparently animated robes to disorient her opponents does not make much sense (nor is it done for purposes of titillation). She has the fight chops though, which is the important. When she and Qinglong finally go at it in earnest, their showdown does not disappoint.

In the Ip Man franchise and Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia), Donnie Yen proved he can be enormously charismatic and engaging on-screen, but he can also be a tad distant and aloof in lesser films. Frankly, it takes a while to warm to his icy Qinglong, but eventually he forges some nicely tragic romantic chemistry with (Vicki) Zhao Wei’s pure-hearted Qiao Hua. However, Wu Chun nearly upstages Yen as the bold and impulsive Judge. When Qinglong faces him and Tsui’s Tuo Tuo, the film really takes flight. However, it is also pleasing to see crafty veterans, like the late Wu Ma and the great Sammo Hung appearing as Qiao Yong and Prince Qing, respectively.

14 Blades boasts some spectacular action, exotic scenery, and a cautionary message about absolute power and its inevitable abuses. It might not be Yen’s best work, but he responds to the first class ensemble surrounding him. A quality wuxia production, 14 Blades is recommended for serious fans and casual viewers alike when it opens this Friday (8/22) in select theaters and also launches on TWC-Radius’s VOD platforms.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, August 18, 2014

The One I Love: In the Guest House

Many in the entertainment industry can relate to the frustration of undergoing therapy, only to find the underlying issue getting steadily worse—and therefore perhaps identify with Charlie McDowell’s feature directorial debut (a hit at Sundance, Tribeca, and Fantasia). In this case, his protagonist’s marriage continues to disintegrate, despite their couples counseling. As a last resort, they will spend a romantic weekend in a specially recommended resort home, but their getaway takes a strange turn in McDowell’s The One I Love (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ethan was already losing Sophie before his unspecified infidelity, but it has become a handy cudgel for her to wield. Nonetheless, she agreed to the counseling sessions that have thus far proved fruitless. Taking a different tack, their therapist refers them to an idyllic hideaway, where they can hopefully rekindle and reconnect. However, there is a genre film surprise in store for them there.

Although it comes relatively early, there is a general understanding the nature of TOIL’s big twist should not be spoiled. It is safe to say that guest house will rock their world. In terms of tone, McDowell’s film is sort of like to the more comedic installments of The Twilight Zone—think of Keenan Wynn in “A World of His Own,” except darker.

By accepting the unofficial ground rules, reviews of TOIL must be torturously vague at times. Frankly, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss give remarkably good performances, but it would be spoilery to explain why. Still, it is safe to say we can easily buy into them as a couple with some problematic history. Ted Danson (McDowell’s stepfather) also makes the most of his brief appearance as their mysterious therapist. In fact, TOIL was a real family affair, with McDowell’s mother, Mary Steenburgen contributing her voice as Ethan’s mother (heard via cell phone) and his famous significant other pseudonymously doing the costuming.

Thanks to the way the leads sell its double-secret premise, TOIL works quite well as fantastical dramedy. The jokes (improvised and scripted) are quite clever and editor Jennifer Lilly cuts it all together impressively seamlessly (again, you have to see it, to understand what a feat this is).

You know when bacon plays a pivotal role in a movie there must be something good on tap. TOIL is indeed that film. Nicely executed by cast and crew, The One I Love is recommended for those looking for an anti-rom-com when it opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Labels: ,

K2 Siren of the Himalayas: 100 Years After Abruzzi

K2 is a challenge to summit, but as recent films have documented, getting back down is even more treacherous. However, merely reaching the mountain’s base requires a determined effort from climbers, before they ever set their first piton. Viewers will get a full perspective on the 8,000 meter mountaineering experience in Dave Ohlson’s K2: Siren of the Himalayas (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1909, the Duke of Abruzzi led an expedition to K2. Although they did not ultimately summit the second highest peak on Earth, their experiences were invaluable for future attempts, much as the Italian nobleman hoped. One hundred years later, alpinist Fabrizio Zangrilli (of Boulder, Colorado) led his intrepid party to K2. Of course, they were fully aware of the Duke’s historic campaign, but the tragic events of the previous year preoccupied their thoughts considerably more.

In a sense, K2 is an independent sequel to Nick Ryan’s The Summit, which reconstructed the murky events that led to the deaths of eleven climbers in August, 2008. Zangrilli knew some of them. It is a small world in his line of work. Yet, he attacked K2 just the same, along with Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the future National Geographic Explorer of the Year, who was then still working on her goal to become the first woman to scale all fourteen 8,000 meters without artificial oxygen.

Ohlson captured some dramatic visuals, but arguably the most mind-blowing shots in the film are not of K2, but the ridiculously unsafe mountain highways Zangrilli’s group had to traverse just to reach Concordia, the gateway to K2 and three other 8,000 meters. Getting there is a trek in itself, with Pakistan’s regional instabilities adding additional danger.

Periodically, Ohlson intersperses footage of Zangrilli, Kaltenbrunner, and company with Vittorio Sella’s incredible photographs of the Abruzzi expedition. It gives viewers a good sense of the mountaineering tradition. More importantly, Ohlson uses Zangrilli’s example to redefine a successful 8,000 meter attempt. Clearly, Zangrilli is a great sportsman, but he had yet to summit K2. However, he had foregone perfect opportunities to carry down an ailing colleague. Instead, a successful K2 team leader brings his entire party safely off the mountain. After all, several climbers summitted during the fateful 2008 incident.

Evidently, we are witnessing a golden age of mountaineering documentaries. K2 follows hard on the heels of The Summit and Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge, all of which are quite good, but in different ways. K2’s strengths are the wider contexts it provides, as well as some insight into the bonding that happens between fellow alpinists. Mountain climbing does not look like much fun in The Summit, but we come to understand why Zangrilli and his colleagues do it after watching Ohlson’s footage and interview segments. Recommended with equal enthusiasm for sporting audiences, K2 Siren of the Himalayas opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Labels: ,

That Man from Rio: Belmondo Globe-Trots

Rio gets top billing, but it will be Brasília most viewers will remember from this classic Jean-Paul Belmondo escapade. One has to wonder what unreconstructed Marxist architect Oscar Niemeyer thought of his utopian capitol city being portrayed as the stomping ground of a wealthy oligarch, but it sure looks great on-screen. Viewers’ will get a North by Northwest perspective on his monumental buildings in Philippe de Broca’s freshly restored, Oscar-nominated That Man from Rio (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum, in honor of its fiftieth anniversary.

Adrien Dufourquet is not really from Rio. He hails from a French working class province. Dufourquet planned to spend his week’s leave from the army with his high maintenance kind of-sort of fiancée, Agnès Villermosa, but as soon as he arrives in Paris, she is abducted. Clearly, this is the work of the same gang that heisted a rare Amazonian statuette from the Musée de L’Homme and also kidnapped the curator, Professor Norbert Catalan, an old friend of Villermosa’s late father.

Of course, the Parisian cops are worse than useless, but Dufourquet is a tougher cat to shake. In the more innocent early 1960s (before the proliferation of PLO hijackings and September 11th), Dufourquet is able to bluff his way onboard the transatlantic flight taking Villermosa and her abductors to Rio, but nobody will listen to him once they arrive. Even though he is essentially a fugitive himself, Dufourquet continues to pursue his fiancée, with the help of several lucky turns and Sir Winston, a shoeshine boy from the favela.

It turns out there are three “Maltec” statues that might hold the key to an even greater treasure. Catalan acquired the Musée’s on a trip with Villermosa’s father and their backer, De Castro, a Bond villain-looking financier (played by Thunderball’s Adolfo Celi), who seems to own the entire city of Brasília. (Frankly, he turns out to be a more interesting character than Niemeyer might have preferred.)

One can maybe see seeds of the future French spy spoof franchise OSS 117 in Rio, but Dufourquet is far more resourceful and resilient than Jean Dujardin’s broadly comedic alter ego. His sequences shimmying around the ledges of the Brasília construction sites also bring to mind the Hitchcock classic, whereas the peaceful scenes of respite with the poor but hospitable favela residents suggest the inspiration of Marcel Camus’ international smash hit Black Orpheus. As possible influences go, those two 1959 films are pretty good ones.

With Rio, Belmondo was well into the process of transitioning from nouvelle vague icon to true superstar. To that end, he does not simply rely on his on-screen charm, giving a surprisingly physical performance as Dufourquet, both in terms of the action and slapsticky comedy. He is not afraid to look slightly ridiculous or get a little muddy for the sake of our entertainment. He also has okay chemistry with the somewhat icy Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve’s sister, who would tragically die in a car accident a little more than three years after the release of Rio.

De Broca keeps the energy level cranked up and capitalizes on the incredible Brazilian locations. There is quite a bit to see in the film, beyond the Dufourquet’s madcap romp. Good, breezy fun, That Man from Rio is recommended for fans of Belmondo and modernist architecture when Cohen Media Group’s 2K restoration opens this Friday (8/22) at New York’s Film Forum.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Expedition to the End of the World: Greenland Beckons

Thanks to climate change, the spirit of adventure is alive and well. More mild summer temperatures have made some of Greenland’s most remote northern fjords briefly navigable. It is an invitation from nature a ragtag party of scientists and artists could not refuse. Daniel Dencik documents their journey in Expedition to the End of the World (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

The Activ is a three-mast schooner, but it cuts through the ice quite efficiently. It might be an old school means of travel, but at least one crewmember brought along his personal ultralight aircraft. They are a somewhat eccentric bunch, who periodically blast Metallica and engage in DIY skeet shooting. There is the geologist, the geochemist, the geographer, the zoologist, the archaeologist, the painter, and the theologist. There might even be a cobbler and a candlestick maker onboard somewhere.

Without question, the natural beauty of the surrounding vistas is strikingly cinematic. Dencik also has the integrity to include some exchanges that do not exactly match up with viewer expectations, as when several scientists tell us just because they study climate change does not necessarily mean they have an opinion on the subject. He also captures a good deal of ruckus (bordering on meathead) behavior—some of it involving firearms.

However, nearly everyone seems to be trying out lines to use on the lecture circuit later. Frankly, at times the interview segments sound like a collection of fortune cookies written by Stephen Jay Gould. There is also a rather conspicuous question hanging over the film. We are told climate change has only now made this picturesque stretch of land accessible to mankind, but since there seem to be traces of ancient humanity there, does that not suggest temperatures were once roughly commensurate to what they are now?

The scenery is spectacular and the drive to explore is always appealing. Nonetheless, the audience will be more than ready to leave the far reaches of Greenland well before the Activ sets sail for home port. It is a worthy subject, but Expedition could have easily been a fifty-some minute PBS special instead of a feature length theatrical doc. Recommended for fans of nature films who can tune out pretentious pontificating, Expedition to the End of the World opens this Wednesday (8/20) at New York’s Film Forum.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Martin Scorsese Presents: Innocent Sorcerers

There was a brief and shiny moment during Poland’s tragic years of Communism when disillusioned youth could pursue Bohemianism. It did not last. Of course, many of those early 1960s musicians, artists, and would be drop-outs joined the Solidarity movement as fed-up adults. However, life still seems to have a lot of possibilities outside of politics for Bayzli and his associates in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers, which screens as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema film series that has made its way from the Film Society of Lincoln Center to the Denver’s SIE FilmCenter.

Bayzli (a.k.a. “Medicine Man”) is a sports doctor who moonlights as a jazz drummer, or vice versa. He takes nothing seriously, even including music, but least of all women. While doggedly avoiding his ostensive girlfriend Mirka, Bayzli reluctantly agrees to help his hipster buddy Edmund separate the Holly Golightly-esque Pelagia from her square boyfriend.

However, instead of steering her back into the club to wait for the exceedingly interested Edmund, the two somehow wind up back at the doctor’s flat. For the rest of the night, they engage in verbal parrying worthy of Eric Rohmer. Maybe it is significant, but perhaps it is all meaningless. Nonetheless, neither of them is ready to let go of the evening, despite their determined efforts to play it cool.

Although Sorcerers was Wajda’s immediate follow-up to his WWII trilogy, it is something of an anomaly in the director’s filmography. Unlike Man of Iron and Katyn, it almost never addresses political or historical controversies. However, there is a deep-seated skepticism informing the characters’ world views. They spend their nights partying and their days sleeping, because they clearly do not believe their contemporary society is offering anything worth sacrificing for.

Yet, the film is distinguished by a lightness of mood. On paper, this one-crazy-night story sounds largely interchangeable with any number of modern day indies, but Wajda, the young master, never lets the proceedings get too cynical, sentimental, or quirky. Rather, it all unfolds rather effortlessly and matter-of-factly.

One thing is certain, nobody could ever assemble a cast like this again, including co-screenwriter and future auteur Jerzy Skolimowski appearing as a punch drunk boxer. It would also be difficult to corral international fugitive Roman Polanski, who plays the bass-player leader of Bayzli’s band. Sadly, Zbigniew Cybulski (sometimes called “the Polish James Dean”) is no longer with us, but he brings plenty of manic method as Edmund. Likewise, the late and very great Krzysztof Komeda and the not quite as well known but still late and pretty great Andrzej Trzaskowski added some real deal jazz cred, essentially playing themselves.

In fact, Komeda’s score sounds fantastic. It swings hard, but still has a pensive character. You can real hear how he links early 1960s hardbop to the more open but emotional resonant music of his protégé, Tomasz Stanko. Indeed, it is a major reason why Innocent Sorcerers is such an enduring masterwork. You know it must be good, because it still managed to generate official flak for Wajda, even though he thought it was completely apolitical. Highly recommended, it screens this Monday (8/18) at the SIE FilmCenter, during the Denver run of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema touring film series.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ragnarok: Summer Vacation in Finnmark

The Oseberg Viking ship was an extraordinary archaeological find. It remains one of the best preserved vessels, but it has not exactly boosted the reputation of Viking nautical engineering, considering two modern facsimiles have proved unseaworthy. Nevertheless, an absent-minded archaeologist is convinced the Oseberg ship ventured all the way up to Norway’s Finnmark region. He also believes they witnessed something that inspired the apocalyptic Norse myths, so naturally he drags his bratty kids along to investigate. They will definitely find something in Mikkel Brænne Sandemose’s Ragnarok (trailer here), which launches on VOD today.

The Viking Ship Museum display of the Oseberg craft is quite dramatic. Unfortunately, the widower-father Sigurd Svendsen has essentially talked himself out of a job there with all his crazy theories. However, when his reckless co-worker Allan discovers a corroborating artifact, Svendsen packs up his petulant daughter Ragnhild and devoted son Brage to spend their summer vacation scouring for more runes in exciting Finnmark.

Naturally, Ragnhild is not too thrilled about these plans, but the spectacular scenery briefly shuts her up. They quickly meet up with Elizabeth, Allan’s “cool chick” colleague, and their hard drinking guide Leif, who is clearly just itching to yell “throw me the idol and I’ll throw you the whip.” There are headed towards Odin’s Eye, an island in the middle of former Soviet border outpost, where viewers know Queen Åsa’s father met with a painful death centuries ago in the prologue. Could there be some truth to the legend of the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr? That might explain why there’s a snake on the poster.

Frankly, one of the best things about Ragnarok is the setting. The suspiciously deserted Soviet military base is pretty creepy and the Odin’s Eye isle is worthy of a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie. Unfortunately, the creature effects are completely lacking the awe factor. Worse still is all the Svendsen family drama we have to sit through.

Apparently, Pål Sverre Hagen is Norway’s go-to actor for adventurous academics, following-up his portrayal of Thor Heyerdahl in the Oscar nominated Kon-Tiki with his turn as Svendsen. He is appealing earnest as the naïve archaeologist and he develops some pleasantly flirtatious chemistry with Sofia Helin’s hip and sporty Elizabeth. However, the kids are like fingernails on a blackboard.

Given the success of Marvel’s Thor franchise and History Channel’s Vikings, it is not surprising Norse mythology is getting a look-see from more filmmakers. Sandemose certainly proves fjords are strikingly cinematic, but he never fully capitalizes on the Ragnarok mythos or the Oseberg backstory. Instead, he concentrates on emulating the most annoying parts of Jurassic Park. There are moments of promise in Ragnarok, but it never comes together, at least not for reasonably adult audiences. Nevertheless, it is now available for Norse mythology fans to try on VOD from Magnolia/Magnet. It also opens theatrically next Friday (8/22) in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Word: Cults in Connecticut

There is a cult operating in the shadows of Connecticut’s well heeled neighborhoods. This is no mere meatheaded Ivy League secret society. They practice human sacrifice. Sadly, Tom Hawkins’ son was their latest victim. Understandably, the grieving father is not ready to forgive and forget in Gregory W. Friedle’s The Word (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Hawkins regularly brokers multi-million dollar deals for his firm, yet somehow his son Kevin was snatched right out from under his nose at the mall. Not surprisingly, the single father is suffering from crushing guilt, as well as rage and bereavement. He is a complete wreck, but he still agrees to take a meeting with the FBI, who inform him his son’s murder fits a pattern of ritualistic homicides throughout New England. There is most definitely a cult behind the killings, but they are organized in a highly regimented cell structure. However, they have successfully placed undercover agent David Richardson in a cell overseen by a mid-level cultist.

Bafflingly, that deep cover agent regularly attends meetings with Hawkins, the local detective on the case, and his no-nonsense handler, special agent Mike Sheehy. You might think that would be some sort of breach of protocol or security, but apparently not. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the plot, allowing Hawkins to stumble across Richardson acting far too familiar with his ostensive target.

As a thriller, The Word is kind of a train wreck, but it is not even clear it wants to be one. Essentially, the first half hour is dedicated to exploring the depths of Hawkins’ pain and grief. Arguably, this is what works best in the film, before it eventually shifts gears into a murky revenge-conspiracy melodrama, riddled with plot holes. Frankly, it is embarrassingly easy to tell who the secret cultist is, due to the limited cast of characters. Still, Friedle finds some compelling Nutmeg State locations, including Castle Craig near Meriden.

To be fair, Kevin O’Donnell is not bad as Hawkins and the commanding Broadway vet James Naughton (Michael Frayn’s Democracy) truly looks and sounds like a Fed. Bernie McInerney also has a nice moment as Hawkins’ priest, but the rest of the ensemble comes across a bit awkwardly, to put it in diplomatic terms.

Since there is no ominous text or tract driving the evil doers, even The Word’s title is rather off. It is an earnest film that all parties involved fully committed to, but the inconsistent script doomed their efforts from the start. It feels mean to say it, because it is such a scrappy indie production, wearing its CT pride on its sleeve, but The Word just cannot be recommended. For indomitable Connecticut cinema boosters, it opens tomorrow (8/15) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Admiral: Roaring Currents

During the late 1500s, naval warfare was a tough business, almost entirely powered by galley oars. Like most forms of warfighting at the time, it usually boiled down to a numbers game. Yet, Admiral Yi Sun-shin will try to hold off 330 invading Japanese vessels with a mere twelve ships (if that), largely through his force of will. Of course, he also has home field advantage, including the treacherous strait the Japanese will try to navigate in Kim Han-min’s smash Korean box office hit The Admiral: Roaring Currents (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Admiral Yi has often defeated the noble-born Japanese General Wakizaka, but he was lucky to escape their last confrontation with his life. Still ailing from his torture and imprisonment, the freshly released and pardoned Admiral Yi assumes command of the Joseon fleet, all twelve ships. Frankly, none of the king’s generals believe he can do anything with his ragtag remnant except let the army absorb them. In contrast, Admiral Yi understands they must slow the Japanese advance or his unappreciative king will surely be lost.

Needless to say, not everyone sees things his way, forcing the Admiral to deal with insurrection at the senior officer level. However, the Japanese leadership is even more deeply divided. While Wakizaka is still nominally in charge, de facto command has been assumed by Kurushima, the ruthless former brigand. He has no interest in winning hearts and minds, but his contempt and overconfidence might be his undoing.

Yes, Roaring is a Joseon St. Crispin’s day on the Myeong-Nyang Sea. Evidently, director Han is waging one man war against Shogunate Japan, following up his action driven War of the Arrows with Yi’s heroic story. While Roaring is not as breakneck and adrenaline charged as Arrows, it features some massive cannonball-and-grappling hook spectacle, churned to butter on the Myeong-Nyang’s roiling waves. Seriously, this probably not the film for viewers prone to sea-sickness.

It is also jolly good fun to hear the Japanese generals cursing Yi, like Seinfeld hissing “Newman.” Appropriately, the legendary Admiral is played with haggard gravitas by Choi Min-sik, currently one of the world’s biggest movie stars, given his turns in Oldboy, Nameless Gangster, New World, and Luc Besson’s Lucy. Although his Yi is considerably more reserved than his celebrated gangster performances, he fully brings out the Admiral’s tragically heroic dimensions.

Arguably, Choi’s most important co-stars are the warships and the angry sea, much as it was in The Perfect Storm. However, Ryu Seong-ryong’s Kurushima still makes a highly hissable villain, even if he does not quite generate the same malevolent charisma he brought to bear as Qing the Japanese man-hunter in Arrows. Although her screen time is brief, Juvenile Offender’s Lee Jung-hyun also adds a memorable note of pathos as the traumatized Lady Jung.


There is no question Han puts a lot of movie up on the screen with The Admiral. It is the sort of military epic Mel Gibson used to make before his implosion, which is meant as a compliment. Recommended for fans of patriotic Korean cinema and big picture historicals, The Admiral: Roaring Currents opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the AMC Empire and the AMC Bay Terrace in Flushing.

Labels: , ,

Marker at BAM: Level Five

The notion people on the internet are not necessarily whom they purport to be might have been an unsettling new notion in 1997. At that time, documentarian-essayist Chris Marker used the language of cyberpunk to inform his then latest cinematic hybrid. Technologically, its fits squarely between WarGames and The Matrix, but the aesthetic is all Marker. The ghosts of history and the digital future warily circle each other when Marker’s freshly restored Level Five (trailer here) finally has its premiere North American Theatrical release this Friday, as part of BAM’s Marker retrospective.

Laura is a novelist, who inherited the task of completing her late lover’s computer strategy game. Submerging herself in his work, she tries to work her way through his simulation of the Battle of Okinawa, the final Pacific Theater conflict before Hiroshima. Yet, the program refuses to recognize any of her attempts to avoid Imperial Japan’s tactical mistakes. Instead, it forces history to tragically repeat itself, chapter and verse.

Frankly, the game itself is not much of a Macguffin and it offers very little in the way of sporting engagement. It is really just a collection of talking heads to click on. Still, the commentary Marker collects is undeniably the film’s strongest material. Through interviews with filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and martial artist and Bushido authority Kenji Tokitsu, as well as the recorded testimony of Reverend Shigeaki Kinjo, Marker thoroughly critiques Imperial militarism, while still putting their kamikaze tactics in a wider historical context.

Frankly, the film makes a strong case that some of the worst Japanese war crimes were committed against their own people. Provocatively, Marker’s experts suggest (but never really prove) the military’s ferocity at Okinawa and the subsequent mass suicides and supposed mercy killings of the civilian population were intended to intimidate the Americans, but inadvertently hastened the decision to drop the atomic bomb.

There could be a good forty-five minutes of insightful analysis of the Japanese war experience in Level Five, which is not nothing. However, Laura’s long dark nights of recorded video diaries and trolling internet chatrooms are rather awkward, to put the matter diplomatically. Ordinarily, it is not fair to hold the technical shortcomings against such a fiercely idiosyncratic, anti-commercial production, but in this case the medium is at least a small part of the message. Unfortunately, Level Five’s visuals look on par with MST3K favorite Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.

Marker still had a keen eye for a disconcerting image or a revealing truth, but the attempt to capture an of-the-moment zeitgeist does not serve the film well, in retrospect. One wishes he had simply made documentary about Kinjo and the Battle of Okinawa, but he made Level Five instead. Nevertheless, his leftist admirers have waited years to see it, so they might as well satisfy their curiosity when Level Five opens this Friday (8/15) at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Frank: How to Get a Head in the Music Business

He is sort of the Glenn Gould of indie rock. He is determined not to let superficialities, like his face, distract from the music. Nonetheless, the uni-named Frank’s gigs are uniformly disastrous. He might very well be a musical genius, but it will be overshadowed by the chaos that follows him in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Jon is sure there is a tortured songwriter somewhere within him, but he is really just a decent middleclass suburban chap (something the film considers rather tragic in its own right). He can at least pound out the chords on his keyboard, which is more than enough for him to “luck” into a temp replacement gig with the Soronprfbs. Yes, that is unpronounceable, that is part of the joke.

It turns out the Soronprfbs are fronted by Frank, just Frank, a real deal tortured singer-songwriter who never removes his large papier-mâché head. Although most of the band immediately dislikes Jon, dismissing him as a poser, Frank takes a shine to the eager outsider. Even though the gig predictably descends into bedlam, Frank offers him a permanent position in the band.

Before he realizes it, Jon is holed up with Soronprfbs in their rustic Irish cabin, working (supposedly) on their new album. Despite the efforts of Clara, Frank’s gatekeeper, to send him packing, Jon is soon underwriting the band’s madness with his inheritance. He is also documenting it all via tweets and youtube.

To be fair, Michael Fassbender gives an extraordinary performance as Frank. Obviously, he is laboring under unusual conditions for an actor, since he is unable to use facial expressions throughout most of the film. Largely relying on body language, he still eloquently expresses Frank’s tickiness and volatility.

However, something about the film just does not sit right. It is not just Jon’s compulsive tweeting and hash-tagging constantly flashing across the screen, making Frank feel so two years ago. Anyone who knows working musicians will be turned off by the spectacle of such self-defeating behavior. No professional musician would act like this, because they are professionals.

Granted, Frank and the Soronprfbs are profoundly undone by their excesses. Indeed, Frank the film depicts the dark side of quirkiness, clearly suggesting right from the start Frank the character is not merely eccentric, he is genuinely sick. Yet, that close association of talent and madness is a pernicious cliché that poorly serves promising musician struggling to make it on the scene.

While British audiences might recognize Frank as a fictionalized cousin of musician-comedian Chris Sievey’s stage persona Frank Sidebottom, he is largely his own bobble-headed man for American viewers. However, the film’s frequent tonal shifts will makes it difficult to come to terms with him. The rather bland stock figures augmenting the rest of the Soronprfbs (including the tiresomely shrewish Maggie Gyllenhaal as Clara) provide little help.

On paper, Frank has the makings of a cult classic (“Fassbender Sings! In a Big Fiberglass Head!”), but the concept just doesn’t click. Maybe it is too indie and not enough rock. Fassbender puts on a clinic with his famous features tied behind his back, but Frank still rings hollow when it opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Labels: ,

Carax at Film Forum: Mr. X

Can a director with only five full features sustain a documentary and a retrospective? In this case, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors alone should provide ample fodder for weeks of analysis. Yet, Carax himself remains a cipher, despite the efforts of Tessa Louise-Salomé to illuminate the mystery man and his films in Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum as part of their Carax series now underway.

What sort of name is Leos Carax? “A real assumed” one he responds, when asked. Perhaps that is somewhat clarifying (it also happens to be an anagram of “Oscar” and “Alex”). The rest of his biography remains quite murky and that is not due to any clerical oversight on his part. Clearly, Louise- Salomé tries to capitalize on the intrigue of Carax’s mystique, but she never scores a meaningful peak behind the mask. Instead, Mr. X steadily morphs into a critical appreciation of the filmmaker’s small but rich body of work, led by his longtime champion, Richard Brody of The New Yorker.

At least, Louise-Salomé maintains a Caraxian vibe, filming her talking heads amid evocative shadows and the flickering images of Carax’s films. Even Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa and actor Denis Lavant (widely considered Carax’s on-screen alter-ego) submit to her human movie screen treatment, but not the man himself, who is present solely via prior canned voiceovers.

Those looking for tangible dish will be disappointed, but the initiated should enjoy seeing the cult auteur’s cult auteur get his cinematic laurels. Arguably, the most intriguing sequences involve his near Waterloo, the dramatically over-budget Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but all his features are revisited at length, along with Merde, Carax’s contribution to the anthology film Tokyo!, whose title character he would memorably revisit in Holy Motors (or Holy Moly Motors as some call it).


The gee-whiz enthusiasm for Carax shared by Louise- Salomé and her interview subjects (including Harmony Korine, Kylie Minogue, and Cannes Festival president Gilles Jacob) is appealing and Kaname Onoyama’s stylish cinematographer rather befits the subject. However, Mr. X never transcends its fannish devotion. Recommended mostly for the faithful binging on Carax, Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax opens this Friday (8/15), in conjunction with the Film Forum’s Carax retrospective.

Labels: , ,