J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Cinema on the Edge: Animated Shorts

Over the years, the CCP has been overtly hostile to many expressions of regional and national cultural tradition, but nowhere more so than in occupied Tibet. Therefore, programming shorts that bring Tibetan folktales to life through animation inspired by Thangka painting would not endear a film festival to the Party authorities. Not surprisingly, the Beijing Independent Film Festival did so anyway. Fittingly, two of Bai Bin’s Tibetan films anchor a program of animated shorts, which screens as part of the Cinema on the Edge retrospective to the fearlessly indie fest.

There is no question Bai Bin’s The Hunter and the Skeleton is the head-and-shoulders high point of the animated block. In this ancient tale, a hunter rashly heads off in search of game, despite the shaman’s warning. It turns out, this is an inauspicious time for such pursuits, because a demonic skeleton has been hunting hunters. Yet, for some reason, the fiend likes this hunter. First he gives the man a seven day extension before eating him. Then he offers the man a deal—he will be spared if he leads the skeleton to his village. Stalling for time, the man will have to defeat his new “friend” with only the help of his talisman and his trusty hunting dog.

There are real stakes in Skeleton, as well as a rather macabre sensibility, which is why it is even grabbier than Bai Bin’s environmentally-themed An Apple Tree. In both films, the vibrant Thangka colors and stylized figures are unlike anything you have seen in animation before. These are unusually striking films that tap into centuries-old mojo. Any self-respecting animation fan needs to check them out.

In contrast, several of the other animated selections are much less accessible to mainstream animation fans. Zhong Su’s Perfect Conjugal Bliss and Ding Shiwei’s Double Act play a double game, contrasting and conflating images of the authoritarian state with post-industrial decay and class stratification, respectively. Visually, they are often surreal, which helps confuse the censors and maintain plausible deniability.

This is even more the case with Zhang Yipin’s How, a sort of distaff, dystopian Little Nemo, and Qiu Anxiong’s abstract, avant-garde environmental apocalyptic fable, The New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2. While Zhou Xiaohu’s Mirror Room holds considerably fewer political implications, the sexualized gender-bending imagery is even more likely to provoke the Puritanical authorities’ wrath.

After Bai Bin’s film, the next most aesthetically and emotionally engaging selection is easily Chen Li-hua’s Family Reunion. Following the trials and tribulations of A-mei, an aboriginal migrant worker, it too celebrates regional cultural traditions, while dramatizing the challenges faced by itinerant laborers.

While somewhat uneven, the collected independent animated shorts are often challenging both in terms of visual style and thematic substance. However, the preponderance of ambiguous narrative forms eventually blurs the constituent films together. Still, the program is well worth seeing for the wonderfully rich and distinctive work of Bai Bin and Chen Li-hua. Recommended for connoisseurs of animation and experimental film, Cinema on the Edge’s animated film program screens this Thursday (9/10) at the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA).

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Friday, September 04, 2015

Portland ’15: Generation Maidan

After being kidnapped from Ukraine and illegally imprisoned in Russia, Oleg Sentsov was just sentenced to twenty years, even after his accusers in Putin’s kangaroo court recanted their testimony. Sentsov is famous, so just think what is happening to the less well-known Ukrainian civic leaders rounded-up Gestapo-style by Russia. Pavel Yurov does not have to imagine. The Euromaidan-supporting playwright was tortured and imprisoned by Russian-backed separatists for seventy days. Yurov is one of many young Ukrainians who tell their stories in Andrew Tkach’s Generation Maidan: a Year of Revolution and War (trailer here), produced in conjunction with the Ukrainian Babylon’13 filmmaking cooperative, which screens during the 2015 Portland Film Festival.

In late 2013, Ukrainians of all walks of life finally tired of the corrupt Yanukovych regime when the elected autocrat pulled out of negotiations with the EU to curry favor with his Russian patrons. Initially, a small group of protestors gathered in Maidan Square, but the outrage caused Yanukovych’s harsh response would ultimately attract hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors. This process would repeat. Tragically, Yanukovych would use every dirty trick in the book against the movement, before settling on undisguised brute force.

There is no question the Maidan protests were a confusing time, but Tkach does an excellent job of establishing the historical timeline, step by step, while also capturing a visceral sense of what it was like to be under fire from Yanukovych’s notorious riot police, the Berkut. Some footage is absolutely jaw-dropping, such as the incident in which a genuine Maidan protestor placed himself between the armored Berkut line and a gang a balaclava donning agent provocateurs, “attacking” the police to provide them a phony justification for a full scale crack-down.

Sadly, the Western media has been too prone to accept these crude manipulations peddled by the Russian state media, but such video helps set the record straight. Unfortunately, the subsequent war precipitated by Russia and its separatist clients constitute even murkier waters for media, due to the nature of civil wars. However, anyone should be able to understand the implications of Yurov’s harrowing experiences.

Like Dmitriy Khavin’s Quiet in Odessa, Generation Maidan constitutes real reporting from Ukraine at a time when it is in short supply. It also captures the spirit of the Maidan movement, on personal, cultural, and generational levels. Perhaps the character of Maidan is best represented by Alexandra Morozova, who tirelessly played piano to raise the morale of Maidan activists. Fittingly, her music also serves as the film’s soundtrack, giving it a great deal more class than your typical battlefield dispatches.

Clearly, Tkach and his crew put themselves in harm’s way to tell these stories. In fact, his cameraman recorded the first Maidan death while he himself was receiving medical treatment. (Of course, it is much easier to just repurpose a Russian press release from the hotel bar.) Their images of state-sanctioned brutality and military aggression will make your blood run cold, but the resolution of young, idealist Ukrainians is inspiring. It is also worth noting all proceeds from the documentary will go to the Ukrainian Prosthetic Assistant Project. Highly recommended, Generation Maidan screens again tomorrow (9/5) at this year’s Portland Film Festival, where it just had its American fest debut.

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A Sinner in Mecca: the Bravest Documentary of the Year

The extra security provided openly gay Muslim filmmaker Parvez Sharma when it premiered at this year’s Hot Docs was an ominous but not entirely shocking development. Yet, in a perverse way, the death threats prompted by his latest film constitute a ringing endorsement. Nonfiction-filmmaking does not get much gutsier than Sharma video-documenting his Hajj. Arguably, it is a bit surprising the ever-so open Saudi government granted his Hajj visa. They probably already regret it, but not for reasons you suspect. Ignore the overheated internet trolling and honestly engage with the issues raised by Sharma’s A Sinner in Mecca (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Sharma had already been on the business end of a minor fatwa, because of his prior documentary on the Muslim LGBT experience, A Jihad for Love. After marrying his partner, Sharma decided to take his Hajj, hoping to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. Of course he will secretly document the process. He is a filmmaker. That is what he does. Frankly, nobody is more aware of the potential danger for an internationally recognized LGBT activist in Wahhabist Saudi Arabia than Sharma. He was consciously risking his life to make the film, but he was completely unprepared for the rampant exploitation and abuse all pilgrims must endure.

Critics of Sharma will latch onto his sexuality because they are homophobic (and misogynistic and anti-Semitic), but the real arsenic in the film are the many scenes exposing the Saudi government’s neglect and overt commercialization of Islam’s holiest site, bar none. Tellingly, one fellow pilgrim tells Sharma: “I’m glad they don’t allow non-Muslims, so the Western world cannot see this.”

As Sharma struggles to complete the pilgrimage rituals, he must navigate filthy streets teeming with rubbish, amid what is supposedly a holy and protected city. Unquestionably though, the most disturbing incident comes when Sharma relates a conversation he had with a man whose wife was sexually molested while circling the Kaaba, which Muslims consider to be the first house of worship, constructed by Abraham. Apparently, this is not an uncommon experience.

Much of Sinner would be legitimately horrifying even if Sharma was not constantly worried his true identity might be revealed. That is why the coda in which he declares his faith is renewed feels completely out of place and inconsistent with everything that preceded it. One suspects that Sharma is trying to convince himself for his own personal reasons. We have to respect that, but the footage he covertly shot (on mini-handhelds and his iPhone) speaks thunderously.

First and foremost, Sinner thoroughly indicts the Saudi custodianship of Mecca. If you really wanted to be provocative you could argue the global Muslim community would be much better served if Mecca were in Israel, because the Israeli government understands how to respect and preserve artifacts and landmarks associated with other religions (exhibit A: the Dead Sea Scrolls). Regardless, Sharma’s Hajj is a very personal act, but his documentation has much greater implications. Bold and stingingly truthful, A Sinner in Mecca is very highly recommended when it opens today (9/4) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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9/11: The Lost Hero—Jason Thomas’s Story on Destination America

On September 11, 2001 Jason Thomas only thought of himself as a U.S. Marine called to serve. That meant he did not hand out a lot of business cards and he certainly did not negotiate any back-end deals. As a result, Thomas’s identity remained a mystery for years after he spear-headed the dramatic rescue of two Port Authority Police Officers trapped in the rubble with another former Marine. His long untold story gets the right treatment in Steve Humphries’ British-produced 9/11: the Lost Hero (promo here), which premieres this coming Tuesday on Discovery’s Destination America.

Sgt. Thomas was no longer on active duty, but he still had his uniform in his trunk. When dropping his daughter at his mother’s house (as previously planned), Thomas heard the news of the terrorist attacks. Without hesitating, he donned his uniform and headed into the city, like a very human superhero.

Through happenstance, there is some rather remarkable primary-source video of Thomas rushing towards the World Trade Center site. There is no question he was there. For hours, he helped first responders tend to the wounded, but he really wanted to search for survivors amid the wreckage. Eventually, he and former Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes did exactly that, ignoring all warnings to avoid the unstable debris. Tragically, there did not seem to be any survivors to rescue, only remains to secure, until they heard a faint cry for help. That was Will Jimeno buried deep beneath them, with fellow officer John McLoughlin trapped well below him.

Talking at great length in Lost Hero, Jimeno unreservedly credits Thomas and Karnes for their survival. It was indeed quite the tense operation, chronicled by Humphries with step-by-step precision. Yet, for years Jimeno was unable to properly thank Thomas—though not from a lack of trying.

Thomas might be the only man to draw breath that was ever able to get Oliver Stone to make an apology. In retrospect, it must be rather embarrassing for him to have cast a white actor to play Thomas in World Trade Center, which largely focused on their rescue efforts. However, the release of the film became the catalyst for Thomas finally receiving proper recognition. Although Humphries is rather circumspect addressing the issue, it is also pretty clear Thomas wrestled with post-traumatic stress during the years immediately following 9/11, until he finally started discussing his experiences with his family. Indeed, his story is helpful, instructive, and inspiring in a number of ways.

The vivid, visceral recollections of Thomas and Jimeno really give viewers a tactile sense of their fateful encounter. There is also quite a satisfactorily uplifting conclusion to it all. Somehow, September 11th has gone back to being just another day for a lot of people, so Lost Hero is a necessary reminder of the enormity of the attack and the heroism of the response. Highly recommended, 9/11: the Lost Hero airs this coming Tuesday (9/8) on Destination America.

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The Transporter Refueled: Frank Martin Rises Again

They look like they stepped out of a Robert Palmer video. Frank Martin’s latest clients are highly synchronized and they need a driver. They will repeatedly break his rules, but their desperation makes them quite persuasive. Of course, Martin always keeps his cool in the latest re-configuration of Luc Besson’s strangely resilient franchise. Deliveries will be made in Camille Delamarre’s The Transporter Refueled (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Clearly, Martin got his keenness for punctuality from his chop-busting father, who has just retired from an ambiguous government career that came with a cover job as a salesman for Evian (it’s “naïve” spelled backwards). He ought to be a little more resourceful, but somehow Frank Senior allows himself to be taken hostage by four women trafficked into prostitution by a Russian vice lord. Anna, Gina, Maria, and Qiao know they cannot simply run away from Arkady Karasov. They will have to hit his network where it counts—in the wallet. Thus, Martin reluctantly serves as their wheelman for a series of clever heists, while his father jolly well enjoys being a hostage.

When it comes to films set in Monaco, Refueled beats the stuffing out of the justly infamous Grace of Monaco. Delamarre understands what Transporter movies are supposed to be and executes accordingly. There are at least two action sequences that are ludicrously over the top, but what of it? It is not like the film slows down long enough for us to analyze the aerodynamics of any given scene. Cinematographer Christophe Collette also makes the Principality backdrops sparkle quite alluringly.

Ed Skrein has a strange look. It’s like you can see the exact shape of his skull because there is only a thin layer of skin stretched over it. He also has an odd screen presence, coming across as intense, but somehow simultaneously disdainfully disinterested in everything around him. Yet, that sort of works for Frank Junior. He has all kinds of cred in the fight scenes, but Ray Stevenson gets all the laughs as his cooler, funnier dad. His shameless scenery chewing is a major reason why the film is such deliriously guilty pleasure.

Loan Chabanol, who attracted notice with her short but memorable appearance in Fading Gigolo, can’t project the same élan as Anna, but it is hard to compete with all the black Audis flying through the air. It is also a shame former Miss World Yu Wenxia does not have more screen time, because she seems to have a bit of a spark, but most of the time Anna’s three amigos just strut about in the background, to raise our awareness of human trafficking. What did you expect, really? Frankly, the film’s real shortcoming is its interchangeably generic villain. We have seen plenty of cats like Radivoje Bukvic’s Karasov done before and done better (Michael Nyqvist in John Wick springs readily to mind).

Refueled does not want to hear any whining about messages or characterization. It is a self-aware meathead movie that delights in its own shallowness. Style and energy are all that matter in a Besson-produced action joint, but Delamarre brings more than enough to keep the boss happy. Sort of a weird early 2000’s nostalgia trip for franchise fans that will also resonate for the original MTV generation, The Transporter Refueled is recommended for those who want a shiny object to distract them. It opens across the country today (9/4), including the AMC Empire in New York.

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Arthur & George: Conan Doyle Investigates

For Sherlock Holmes fans, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s embrace of spiritualism has always been an embarrassment. However, in the days following his first wife’s death, the great mystery writer also distinguished himself by exposing at least two grave miscarriages of justice, notably including the George Edalji case. The premise is completely true, but Julian Barnes fictionalized treatment cranked up the mystery and intrigue, as Doyle had done from time to time in his own historical fiction. Following in the tradition of two popular incarnations of Sherlock Holmes and the Murder Rooms series featuring Doyle and his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, the television adaptation of Barnes’ Arthur & George premieres this coming Sunday as part of the current season of Masterpiece on PBS (promo here).

Doyle was always technically faithful to his first wife, even though appearances often suggested otherwise. He was indeed attracted to a Miss Jean Leckie, but still scrupulously respected his marriage vows. Nonetheless, when his wife succumbs to tuberculosis, guilt drags him into a deep funk. Somewhat ironically, the prospect of championing George Edalji’s cause rouses his spirits.

At one time Edalji was an aspiring solicitor, but his life was derailed when he was convicted of a rash of animal mutilations that shocked the provincial village of Great Wyrley. The crimes seemed to be related to a nasty spate of poison-pen letters, whose vitriol were primarily directed at the mixed-race Edalji family. Yet, the constabulary hastily concluded they were all the work of Edalji’s deranged, attention-seeking mind. Although Edalji has already served his sentence in full, he still seeks to clear his name, so he can once again pursue a legal career. Doyle is immediately convinced of the man’s innocence, but his Watsonish personal secretary Alfred Wood is not so sure. Unfortunately, Edalji’s squirrely behavior seems to justify his skepticism.

Martin Clunes is absolutely perfect as Doyle. He is blustery and larger than life, but in a way that suggests confidence and joie de vivre rather than the bumbling shtick of a Bertie Wooster. We can believe he created Holmes and is capable of conducting his own investigations. He also shares some rather earnest and engaging romantically-complicated chemistry with Hattie Morahan’s Leckie. In fact, their relationship subplot is not the empty dead weight you might expect. As Edalji, Arsher Ali is all kinds of awkward and standoffish, contrasting with his sociable benefactor quite effectively.

Veteran television director Stuart Orme realizes several impressively atmospheric sequences and maintains a healthy energy level, but it is a little embarrassing how long it takes Doyle to figure out who really did it, despite said villain’s compulsively suspicious behavior. Nonetheless, watching him apply his Sherlockian principles in practice is good clean fun. The three-part series is a reliably classy period piece with enough social conscience to give it some edge, but not so much that it gets preachy. Recommended for fans of all things Holmesian and Clunes (from Doc Watson), Masterpiece’s Arthur & George airs over the next three Sundays (9/6-9/20) on most PBS stations.

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Contracted Phase 2: More Body Horror

His unfortunate name is BJ and he makes Typhoid Mary look socially responsible. He infected Samantha with the zombie pathogen in the first film, most definitely against her will. Subsequently, she passed it on to the horny torch-carrying Riley, before he realized how grotesque she had become. She will not make it past the prologue of the sequel, but he spends most of the second film experiencing what she went through in the first. However, he will be a little more concerned with the macro picture in Josh Forbes’ Contracted: Phase 2 (trailer here), which screens midnight-ish this weekend at the IFC Center.

Picking up immediately where the first film left off, Phase 2 reveals it really is curtains for Samantha and her mom. Riley is pretty much done for too, but he does not realize it yet. However, his rashes and strange growth thingys do not look good. The periodic projectile vomiting of blood is also a bad sign. He is definitely changing, undergoing what will be an ugly and painful process. However, old BJ will get a kick out of it while watching from somewhat afar.

Det. Crystal Young wants to get to BJ through Samantha’s social circle, but Riley is in denial and therefore unwilling to come clean. Of all possible times, his feisty grandmother finally decides to fix him up with Harper, her impossibly tolerant visiting care nurse. For their first date, Riley takes her to Samantha’s memorial service, because he knows how to show a lady a good time. At least there is a little bit of humor when one of their hipster friends performs a perfectly dreadful tribute song (that is supposed to be embarrassingly awful).

Even by sequel standards, Phase 2 seems like a pedestrian repackaging of genre movie elements. The big deal about the first film was the way it applied Cabin Feverish body horror to the zombie, so Forbes wisely never stints on the slimy, pus-oozing transformation scenes. Narrative logic might not be a priority but he certainly knows what he needs to do.

If you have been pining for a sequel to the first Contracted, your enthusiasm might be tempered by writer-director Eric England noninvolvement in any capacity on Phase 2. It also might be a bummer screenwriter Simon Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest) does not return as BJ, but the evil Patient Zero really does not have a lot of interesting stuff to do this time around. On the other hand, Matt Mercer shivers and wretches as well as anyone could ask as the ill-fated Riley. Anna Lore’s Harper is also nicely down-to-earth and engaging.

Based on the near complete lack of resolution, it is safe to assume there are already plans or at least hopes for a Phase 3. They need not rush into production, because Phase 2 ought to hold even the most rabid body horror consumers a good long while. Still, if that’s your bag, than Phase 2 is just dripping with delightful offal. Mere mortals should be wary when Contracted: Phase 2 screens Friday (9/4) and Saturday (9/5) nights at the IFC Center in the West Village.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Portland ’15: Made in Japan

For many Country Music isn’t what it used to be. Sales might be stronger than ever, but the new breed of blow-dried pop acts simply lack authenticity. However, Tomi Fujiyama is the real deal. She was Country before Country was cool—in Japan. She even played the Grand Ole Opry in 1964, when it was still broadcast from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. She would love to have a return engagement, but the current group of squares in charge apparently lack vision. Nevertheless, she continues to pursue her Country dreams in Josh Bishop’s Made in Japan (trailer here), which just screened during the 2015 Portland Film Festival.

Tomi Fujiyama has had more than her share of career setbacks, yet remains astonishingly upbeat and energetic. She initially cut her teeth playing American music in U.S. military base clubs, quickly figuring out what styles generated the most tips. Although there were plenty of folks in the music industry only too happy to take advantage of her, at least one American cat was willing to take the time to work on her pronunciations. As a result, her singing voice is something else. When carrying a tune, she has almost perfect diction and a surprisingly deep and resonant tone. Frankly, she owns “Tennessee Waltz,” pure and simple.

Returning to America with her quietly indulgent husband, Fujiyama revisits the sites of her eventful days playing Nashville and Vegas, while campaigning for another Opry gig. Not to be spoilery, but the Opry Entertainment management just didn’t get it. Instead, Fujiyama is embraced by a younger, hipper new traditionalist movement thriving outside the Opry establishment.

Bishop’s experts cogently explain the fractures in contemporary Country music, while also providing full historical context, way back to the music’s roots in English sea shanties and murder ballads. Elijah Wood also handles the narrator duties with clarity and what sounds like affection. However, there is no question Fujiyama is the engine that makes the film go. Her charm and charisma are undeniable, but it is her voice that will get you. She can hold a room full of No Depression-reading music snobs absolutely transfixed with her renditions of traditional Japanese folk songs.

Even if Made did not quite have the ending Bishop and Fujiyama’s friends hoped for, it will still give you a nice warm feeling. (Nevertheless, if you think its lame the Opry has not booked her yet, drop them a line here and ask them why. They would definitely like to hear from you. That’s why they provide a method to give feedback.) Sweet and entertaining, Made in Japan would make an intriguing double bill with Banjo Romantika. Very highly recommended, Made in Japan screens next at the Calgary International Film Festival, following its West Coast premiere at this year’s Portland Film Festival.

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Dragon Blade: Jackie Chan, Centurion

The ambitions of a corrupt Roman consul would belittle Alexander’s conquests if he could realize them. He intends to assert control over the entire Silk Road, starting with the sleepiest stretch in western China. However, the impossibly upbeat captain of the Silk Road Protection Squad and a band of maverick centurions will stand against him in Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Huo An always tries to avoid physical violence. Yet, despite his status as a heroically departed general’s only true protégé, he has been banished to the provincial Wild Geese Gate due to trumped-up corruption charges. Apparently he is quickly rehabilitated, because he has already re-assumed command of the Silk Road forces when a Roman remnant arrives in all their glorious belligerence. First they fight, but they quickly forge a wary truce. Real camaraderie between the Han Silk Road forces and Roman soldiers follows soon after.

When word arrives Huo An’s men must rebuild the crumbling city in fifteen days, the Romans agree to help in exchange for assistance reaching the legitimate Roman authorities in Parthia. Combining Roman engineering with good old fashioned Chinese slave labor, they do indeed rebuild a shining city on a hill, throwing in a few extra aqueducts just because they enjoy building them. Unfortunately, the villainous Tiberius does not appreciate Han do-gooders aiding his enemies. After all, he has a young brother to kill in the astonishingly annoying Publius, who has thus far been protected by the world weary Lucius and his band of brothers, which now includes the honorary centurion Huo An.

Dragon Blade is not terrible, even though it has nearly all of the shortcomings you would fear. Of course, it starts with casting of John Cusack and Adrien Brody as Lucius and Tiberius. Probably no actors have looked or sounded more out of place in a classical antiquity setting since Edward G. Robinson appeared in the Ten Commandments. While Cusack seems to be trying to slouch through the film unnoticed, Brody is conspicuously dull in role that requires serious flamboyance.

Chan is hardly blameless either. Although he thankfully reins in the shticky comedy, Dragon Blade is a perfect example of his burgeoning martyr complex, which he shamelessly indulges. It also reflects his increasingly problematic Mainland-centric China chauvinism. According to Huo An, Westerners are trained to kill people, whereas Chinese soldiers serve to protect. Okay, while you’re at it, why don’t you explain to the emperor how the common people would like more say in issues of governance—or try telling it to Beijing today. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers came to the Admiralty to do exactly that, but Chan didn’t want to hear it.

Yet, one of the coolest things about Dragon Blade is the democratic idealism represented by Wild Geese Gate, as well as the massive CGI awe of the place. There are also some pretty spectacular warfighting scenes that inventively combine the styles of the two rag-tag forces united against Tiberius’s armies. Old Man Chan can still handle himself in a hand-to-hand scene, when he is not lecturing his audience and Lin Peng similarly makes the most of her limited screen time as the Hun warrior princess Lengyue. Costume designer Thomas Chong also takes full advantage of the opportunity to create costumes in the traditional styles of at least a dozen distinctive nationalities.

Regardless of Chan’s ideological baggage, director-co-screen writer Lee takes viewers on a rough narrative ride. There are more conspicuous gaps in Dragon Blade than Hillary Clinton’s email archives. Reportedly, twenty-some minutes were cut from the Chinese version for the American theatrical print, including a modern day framing device featuring Karena Lam. That was probably one of the easiest parts to lose, but as it is currently cut, characters’ allegiances will change drastically and considerable geographic distances will be traveled all quite suddenly without anyone taking any notice. That is just life on the Silk Road.

A chaotic mixed bag, Dragon Blade lacks the mature and engaging heft of Chan’s work in the unfairly dismissed Police Story: Lockdown and The Shinjuku Incident. For diehard fans, it opens this Friday (9/4) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lords of London: The Italian Interlude

For London loan shark Tony Lord, Italy is light years away from the world he knows. He is in Abruzzo, not Naples. How he got there is a mystery to him. Frankly, he sort of has an inkling but he would prefer to ignore the dramatic implications in Antonio Simoncini’s Lords of London (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Lionsgate.

Essentially, Lord inherited his father’s trade, even though the old troglodyte never took much interest in him. We will witness his dysfunctional formative years through Lords, fils’ many flashbacks. He will have some time for meditation whether he wants it or not. After getting shot by one of the many people he did wrong, Lord wakes up soaked in blood, but otherwise none the worse for wear in dilapidated villa outside a ridiculously picturesque Abruzzo village apparently stuck in the 1950s.

Much to his consternation, the entire village ignores him, except for the twinkly-eyed Francesco. The café owner is concerned the English punk his daughter has been seeing is no good, so he asks Lord to keep an eye on him. Unfortunately, the displaced gangster more than confirms Francesco’s suspicions.

By now you probably have a good guess just who everyone really is and what their relationships to each other are. That means you are exponentially quicker on the up-take than Lord. Yet, for some reason Simoncini insists on nursing his transparent secrets until an anti-climactic third act reveal. Arguably, the film might have been more effective if it had laid all those cards on the table rather than pretending to fool us.

Frankly, as director and screenwriter, Simoncini somewhat bungles the light fantastical elements, inadvertently creating a scenario where Ray Winstone’s Lord Sr. presumably ages about three or four decades in the span of five or six years. Maybe that would be possible during Callaghan’s Winter of Discontent, but not the swinging Macmillan years when he appears to be prowling about.

On the other hand, the ancient village and surrounding countryside look amazing thanks to cinematographer James Friend, who gives it all a classy chiaroscuro-like glow worthy of the Old Masters. Similarly, Giovanni Capalbo (whose wildly diverse credits include both Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Abel Ferrara’s Napoli, Napoli, Napoli) is quite the old Zen charmer as Francesco. He also manages to maintain some sense of mystery regarding what his character is up to. Glen Murphy is also pretty solid as the rather dense Lord, the sort of hardnosed role one could easily imagine Craig Fairbrass assuming. However, Ray Winstone is a surprisingly let-down as the elder Lord. All snarl and no swagger, he just doesn’t seem to be having fun with it.

Simoncini is going for the vibe of warmer, fuzzier Richard Matheson, like Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come. He doesn’t consistently pull it off, but earns credit for trying. At least it always looks great. Recommended for anyone considering an Italian vacation, Lords of London releases today (9/1) on DVD and digital from Lionsgate.

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Lawless Kingdom: The Four Return

Considering the Divine Constabulary gets to investigate all the cool supernatural crimes, while Department Six is stuck with the boring human cases, inter-agency rivalry is probably inevitable. However, it becomes quite pitched when the leader of the former is accused of murdering the commander of the latter. Everyone should probably know better, but they have to admit the evidence looks pretty bad. Some kind of scheme is afoot involving crimes from the past in Gordon Chan & Janet Chun’s Lawless Kingdom (trailer here), their sequel to The Four, which releases today on DVD from Lionsgate.

Based on the 1970s wuxia novels, The Four are like Song Dynasty Avengers, whose powers are derived from chi. When it comes to that chi, their leader Zhuge Zhengwo and the wheelchair-bound Emotionless have levels that give them Professor X-worthy mental and telekinetic powers. Iron Hands is the muscle, Life Snatcher is their Flash, and it is just a bad idea to anger the lycanthropic Cold Blood. Yet, for some reason Zhuge does exactly that when he appears to fire a steampunkish firearm at the werewolf.

When Cold Blood recovers, he demands answers from his boss, who promises them in two days. Unfortunately, he is arrested for the murder of Department Six’s Sheriff King before the allotted deadline is up. To make matters even more awkward, another soon-to-be dead man claims to be one of the Gang of Twelve, who murdered Emotionless’s family and irreparably damaged her legs. Supposedly, Zhuge dispatched them all to their eternal judgment at the time, so what gives?

Watching Lawless Kingdom (a.k.a. The Four II), it seems strange that the disability community has not vocally embraced this series. Emotionless might have been the victim of a crime, but she is no passive object of sympathy. In fact, it is arguably empowering and certainly cool to watch her laying down martial arts beatdowns with the aid of Iron Hands’ prosthetics. She is particularly assertive in Kingdom, contributing some series highlights and compensating for its conspicuous status as a middle bridge film, between the relatively self-contained first installment and the conclusion that has already opened in China.

Regardless, if you like The Four (and we did), Kingdom gives you more, while exploring the characters in greater depth. Anthony Wong and Crystal Liu Lifei have some particular fine moments as Zhuge and Emotionless, whose surrogate father-daughter relationship will be strained by deceit as well as the truth.

Although Sheng Taishen’s Sheriff King is presumably dead for good, he is wonderfully sly and slippery in his limited screen time. Deng Chao and Collin Chou also solidly perform Iron Hands and Cold Blood’s action roles, but Ronald Cheng’s Life Snatcher is inexplicably stuck on the sidelines for much of the film. While the major villains stay behind the Wizard’s curtain, former newscaster Liu Yan makes a memorable femme fatale as Ru Yan, a rather insidious colleague of Ji Yaohua, Emotionless’s rival at Department Six.

Considering how much spectacle Chan and Chun put up on screen, it is rather impressive how directly they keep it all connected to the human element. They create some terrifically fantastical set pieces, including a Mordoresque prison specifically designed for those blessed with superhuman chi. For wuxia and superhero fans, it is all good stuff. Recommended especially for those intrigued by the Emotionless character, Lawless Kingdom releases today (9/1) on DVD from Lionsgate.

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Brave Men’s Blood: Icelandic Cops Under Fire

On the fateful day of December 2, 2013, the Icelandic Police finally shot and killed someone dead for the first time in their two hundred twenty-five-plus year history. Instead of congratulations, they ordered a round of counseling all around. Typically, the rank-and-file do not carry firearms, relying instead on plenty of optimism. That arrangement suits the new Serbian kingpin in town just fine. However, an Internal Affairs cop with a chip on his shoulder will try launch a secret operation against the gangster and the high level officer protecting him in Olaf de Fleur’s Brave Men’s Blood (trailer here), which launches today on VOD from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Hannes Ámason’s old man was a legend on the force, but their relationship was always rather frosty. It becomes even more so when he washes out of the elite training program for the SWAT-like Armed Police division. Frankly, it is easy to read plenty of resentment into his decision to subsequently take an Internal Affairs posting. However, a major case with implications beyond the force drops in his lap when old school gangster Gunnar Gunnarson requests a jailhouse meeting. Having been pushed out by Sergej, the Serbian upstart, Gunnarson is slightly out of sorts. As a last resort, he is willing to funnel information to Ámason that will help him take down his rival and his chief protector, Narcotics Squad chief Margeir, one of his dad’s old cronies.

Playing it close to the vest, Ámason only recruits two allies: Ívar, the Armed Police squad leader who formerly thought so little of him and Andreas, Margeir’s former protégé, who has been assigned to desk duties following a violent assault. Yet, the bad guys still catch wind of his operation, which puts his family directly in harm’s way.

Somehow de Fleur makes Twenty-First Century Reykjavik look like Chicago in the 1920s. For such a violence-averse force, he manages to get the Armed coppers into a heck of a lot of fire-fights (they’re going to need some serious counseling after all this). He gives the super-slick Miami Vice tradition a cool Nordic makeover, but he is a little too enamored with the flashback as a narrative device. There are an awful lot of them in Blood, but some are much more effective than others.

Darri Ingolfsson slow burns perfectly well as the annoyingly moralistic Ámason, but as is often the case in genre cinema, the colorful supporting cast really helps make the film. Ingvar E. Sigurdsson is clearly having a blast as the devious Gunnarson, while Sigurður Sigurjónsson oozes rodent-like oiliness. J.J. Field also does his best Jude Law impression in his brief appearances as Sergej’s British money man, chewing on as much scenery as time will allow.

Technically, Blood is a sequel to de Fleur’s City State, but no previous familiarity is required to enjoy the follow-up. It doesn’t even feel like it is calling back to a previous film, but presumably it is even richer if you have that background in your mental DVR. Frankly, nobody does these sorts of films better than Hong Kong auteurs like Johnnie To and Andrew Lau, but de Fleur makes a real go of it. Recommended for fans of stylishly cynical crooked cops-and-gangster movies, Brave Men’s Blood launches today (9/1) on VOD, from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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Para Elisa: Spoiled Deadly

It is a bad idea to constantly spoil tantrum prone children. Nevertheless, whenever Elisa breaks a doll, her mother simply replaces it, with another living being. Ana will be the next victim lured into their macabre doll’s house, but at least her stoner-dealer boyfriend is not taking her disappearance for granted in Juanra Fernández’s Para Elisa (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD from Dark Sky Films.

Poor entitled Ana needs 1,000 Euros for her graduation trip, so she takes the drastic step of looking for a job. Diamantina is supposedly looking for a nanny and her tony flat is right on the town square. (It turns out the walls sure are thick though.) Kids are fine with Ana, but she balks when she learns Elisa is a developmentally challenged woman roughly her own age. Too late, Diamantina has already slipped her a mickey.

When she comes to, her vocal chords and muscles are still paralyzed by whatever eucalyptus cocktail the old woman brewed up. Much to her horror, Ana is expected to become Elisa’s latest living doll. Diamantina grimly cautions Ana to cooperate, lest she provoke Ana’s violent temper.

Granted, some might find the portrayal of Elisa problematically exploitative, but you do not review as many horror films as we have by being overly sensitive. Elisa is a handful—deal with it. Arguably, it is sort of a necessary pre-condition for a massively creepy premise. In fact, Ana’s state of pawed immobility taps into some deeply held anxieties, ranging from the sleep paralysis documented in Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare to the cast-bound Jimmy Stewart getting defenestrated in Rear Window.

Para Elisa does indeed incorporate Für Elise into its soundtrack, so give it credit for musical literacy. However, the final climax is a bit perfunctory, which is especially problematic considering it really is a shorty, barely hitting the seventy-five minute marker.

Nevertheless, Fernández’s execution is unflaggingly stylish. For some reason, Spanish horror films all seem to share a similarly eerie but distinctive look and vibe. It is hard to pin down, but you will recognize it every time. Maybe they are all burning ceremonial effigies of Franco off-screen. Regardless, Para Elisa maintains an unceasing atmosphere of dread, while the architecture and surrounding countryside of Cuenca in Castilla-La Mancha looks breathtaking. Recommended for fans of Spanish horror, Para Elisa is now available on DVD and VOD from Dark Sky Films.

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Blood Moon: the Latest British Werewolf Western

During the early days of Hollywood, Poverty Row studios like Republic, Monogram, and PRC relied on western oaters to pay the bills. These days, horror films are the low budget staple genre, so you could consider this a case of something old and something new. The fact that yonder werewolf western is also a British production makes it all the more eccentric, but we appreciate that. The bodies will pile up when a skinwalker hunts its prey in Jeremy Wooding’s Blood Moon (trailer here), which launches today on DVD and VOD from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Mud Flats was a stagecoach stopover already well on its way to being a ghost town, but the skinwalker hastened the process. Unfortunately, when the next stage pulls in for chow, they are taken hostage by the twitchy outlaw Norton Brothers (half-brothers technically). Amongst the passengers are Jake Norman, the new Marshal for the next town over, Sarah, his new wife with a checkered past, and Calhoun, the mysterious bad ass. There was also a priest, but the Nortons killed him almost immediately.

Even the profoundly unintuitive Nortons soon accept the idea something big and bad is prowling around outside, but they are still determined to have their fun inside. Meanwhile, the sheriff and Black Deer, his hard-drinking Native American frienemy and potential hook-up, follow the trail of the Nortons and the beast.

Like so many westerns before it, Blood Moon looks a little cheap, but it was filmed in Kent, so cut it some slack (after all, it is the first UK western since Carry On Cowboy). While the premise sounds like a dubious mash-up concept, it kind of works thanks to the strength of the characters. Frankly, Shaun Dooley is pretty darned awesome as the steely, super-together Calhoun. Yet, Anna Skellern is even more awesome as Marie, the franchise-minded, derringer-packing Miss Kitty. Wearing the black hat, American ringer Corey Johnson is charismatically loathsome and contemptuous as the more stable Norton. Eleanor Matsuura’s Black Deer also nicely provides the film’s required mysticism and defiance of authority.

Blood Moon is definitely a low budget wonder, but it deserves props for its energy and attitude. According to the laws of nature it should be a complete train wreck, but if you enjoy B-movies, this is the sort that will remind you why you developed such idiosyncratic tastes in the first place. Regardless, if you want to see a British werewolf western, Blood Moon is the only game in town, when it hits VOD platforms today (9/1), via Uncork’d Entertainment.

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Wolf Warrior: Wu Jing vs. Scott Adkins

Get ready for a steady diet of metaphors telling us lone wolves are most successful traveling in packs, or some such thing. They would be referring to Leng Feng. He is a loose cannon maverick type, but whenever he goes off the reservation, he is doing it for the team. Of course, he makes plenty of enemies that way, including a vengeful drug lord who can afford the best mercenaries money can buy. Their values compare poorly with those of the idealistic Feng, but they still manage to get the drop on his elite commando unit in Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior (trailer here), which releases today on DVD, BluRay, and digital platforms from Well Go USA.

Just when a Southeast Asian drug raid seems hopelessly lost, Feng takes a spectacular shot (three of them really) to save the day. In the process, he kills the impetuous brother of shadowy crime boss and aspiring global megalomaniac, Min Peng. He should be happy to be rid of such a pathetic tool, but Min Peng rather holds a grunge. Having eluded Chinese forces, the old criminal mastermind hires a team of western mercs, led by the highly skilled Tom Cat, to take out Leng. He also has some conventional world domination business for them to tend, but that is really just a tangent to a tangent.

Arguably, the plan to attack while Leng’s squad is engaged in war-games is sort of clever, since it necessarily means the Wolves will be strictly packing blanks. Unfortunately, that is about the only part of the film that works. Even though the Mainland born Wu rose to prominence in HK film like City Under Siege, Wolf Warrior was clearly conceived as feature length tribute to the PLA. To a man, the Wolves are invariably pure of heart, but also stiflingly dull. Its like the un-self-aware Chinese version of “America, Blank Yeah,” the anthem of Team America World Police, except irony is strictly forbidden.

As a director, Wu gives us a herky-jerky ride, but his martial arts skills remain undiminished. The film is kind of watchable when it shuts up and lets everyone get down to business. When he finally gets to his long anticipated face-off with Scott Adkins’ Tom Cat (a mercenary named after a celebrity couple), it is pretty satisfying. Yet, it is rather strange how much of the film’s action revolves around fire-fights and marksmanship, considering two of the world’s top big screen martial artists are present and accounted for.

At least they have stuff to do. For most of the film, Adkins’ Expendables 2 co-star Yu Nan is stuck wearing an earpiece and biting her lip as she gives tactical advice from the command center. On the other hand, Ni Dahong’s stone cold coolness as the villainous Min Peng is one of the film’s saving graces, even though his transformation from Pablo Escobar to Dr. Evil makes no sense. It also seems slightly odd that he would want to develop a super-virus that only kills Chinese people.

There are rumors floating about online that PLA personnel were required to see Wolf Warriors in theaters, which would explain its success. If so, Wu delivered everything his PLA patrons could have hoped for, often reducing the film to an old school Soviet May Day parade of shiny new military hardware and platitudinous dialogue. Disappointing for anyone who is not a member of the Young Pioneers, Wolf Warriors is strictly for Wu and Adkins completists when it releases today (9/1), from Well Go USA.

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Japan Society Monthly Classic: Carmen Comes Home

It will be a clash of small town and big city values—and boy, will the small town enjoy it. The prodigal daughter once known as Kin Aoyama apparently found fame and fortune dancing in Tokyo under the name Lily Carmen. She is an artiste, but her art involves G-strings. That does not mean she and her comrade Maya Akemi can’t be scrupulously serious about their dance. They are indomitably upbeat, but their visit might be more than her staid father can handle in Keisuke Kinoshita’s big screen musical Carmen Comes Home (trailers here), the very first Japanese color feature, which screens this Friday at the Japan Society, as part of their newly re-launched Monthly Classics series.

Even if Carmen/Aoyama has not amassed a fortune per se, she has made enough of a go of it to periodically send money and gifts home to her family. Her loyal sister Yuki is in awe of her, but old man Shoichi Aoyama instinctively distrusts the modern western influences she has no doubt absorbed. However, thanks to the intercession of the school principal, an ardent advocate for Japanese culture, he reluctantly consents to her visit. Nobody could miss Lily Carmen when she arrives. She is the one wearing the bright red dress. Clearly, Kinoshita was going to get his color film’s worth from the wardrobe and spectacular mountain scenery.

Naturally, Carmen and Akemi attract all kinds of attention in town, including the leering local mogul. Yet, the two women are more drawn to more plebeian townsmen, like the young school teacher Akemi impulsively falls for. Similarly, Carmen admits she still carries a torch for the now married Haruo Taguchi, who was blinded during the war. As the composer of dirge like odes to his small town, Taguchi is more in line with the Principal’s idea of a real Japanese artist. Unfortunately, Carmen and Akemi’s va-va-voom will inadvertently disrupt Haruo’s grand premiere performance, causing no end of angst.

Hideko Takamine was one the greatest screen actresses in the history of cinema, but she is best known for achingly tragic films like Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Yearning, as well as Kobayshi’s The Human Condition, so it is nice to see her get the chance to kick up her heels a little. She is utterly charming as the bizarrely naïve Lily Carmen. Yet, underneath the goofy joy, she gives the subtlest hints of sadness. Nobody else could have pulled that off.

In a way, Carmen Comes Home is like a cross between Oklahoma and Gypsy, with all their slow or maudlin parts discarded. Still, it is clear Carmen and Akemi can never really go home again. The men will only see them as sex objects and the women will fear them as rivals. Despite their pluck and verve, it is ultimately quite a bittersweet film, but that is what makes it so distinctive, along with Takamine’s endearing performance. Recommended for fans of Takamine and movie musicals, the freshly restored Carmen Comes Home screens this Friday (9/4) and look for Go Takamine’s Paradise View in early October (10/2), as part of the Japan Society’s Monthly Classics series.

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Rififi: the Grand-Père of Heist Movies Returns

Many think writer Auguste Le Breton joined the French Resistance out of opposition to Vichy’s gambling prohibition. He would survive to become a French Elmore Leonard, known for his gritty action and affinity for slang. As it happened, his source novel was too coarse for genteel American blacklisted director Jules Dassin, who joined the Communist Party in the mid-1930s, right around the time of the Great Purge and the Moscow Show Trials. In order to lose the parts that offended his sensibilities, Dassin expanded the heist scene into half an hour’s worth of wordless action. At one time banned by several countries for its purported criminal instructional value, Dassin’s French noir classic Rififi (trailer here) returns to New York for a special one-week engagement starting this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Tony “le Stéphanois” (from Saint-Étienne) is decidedly the worse for wear after his recent prison stint. He willingly took the rap for Jo “le Suédois (the Swede), whose son Tonio (Tony’s godson and namesake) he dotes on, but his health and finances are in sad shape. To make matters worse, his ex-lover Mado took up with his nemesis, gangster-night club owner Pierre Grutter. After explaining his disappointment to her, Tony will commence planning his next and potentially last big score.

Jo and their mutual crony Mario Ferrati originally conceived of the jewelry store job as a simple smash-and-grab, but Tony wants the prime cuts in the safe. Recruiting Italian safecracker César “le Milanais,” they methodically case the joint and craft their elaborate timetable. The actual half-hour of heist operations is indeed a masterwork of noir filmmaking. However, it somewhat unbalances the film. While there is plenty of good hardboiled stuff in the third act, as the Grutter gang schemes to appropriate the hot ice for themselves, but it necessarily lacks the same hushed intensity of the celebrated centerpiece.

Regardless, Rififi (which very roughly translates as “trouble”) has long been recognized as a noir classic for good reason. Like Le Breton’s books, it has a street smart persona and a street level perspective. It captures the workaday milieu of postwar Paris, especially during the odd hours of the day and night when respectable folks were off the streets. Jean Servais also creates the template for the older, world-weary noir mentor, dealing with the business end of his bad karma. He slow burns like a crock pot with dangerously faulty wiring. Just looking at his lined face makes you want to pop an Advil.

Carl Möhner (probably next most often remembered for She Devils of the SS, which is pretty much what it sounds like), is rather under-heralded for his steady, proletarian work as Jo. However, Dassin himself (billed as Perlo Vita) indulges in a bit of broad ethnic stereotyping, for supposed comic effect, as César.

On heist movie listicals with any sense of history, Rififi inevitably ranks somewhere around number one. It is a film any noir fan has to see to consider themselves literate in the genre. Very highly recommended, Rififi opens this Wednesday (9/2) at Film Forum.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Creep: a Blumhouse/Duplass Joint

Patrick Brice does not want you to spend the night at any stranger’s place. Notable only for being exceptionally forgettable, his second film, The Overnight, chronicles the mounting awkwardness a yuppie dinner party turned sleep-over, at least as far as anyone can recall. For some reason, it has played just about every major festival, even though the only memorable thing about it are the jokes about the guy who isn’t Jason Schwartzman having tiny junk. However, you will definitely remember Mark Duplass is the title character of Brice’s first feature, Creep (trailer here), a Blumhouse BH Tilt production, which opens its belated premiere theatrical engagement this Wednesday at Videology in Brooklyn.

Like Safety Not Guaranteed, this Duplass film also starts with a classified ad. It seems a well-to-do dude requests the services of a videographer to film him over the course of a day. It pays $1,000, but “discretion is appreciated.” You don’t say. When Aaron arrives for the gig, Josef tells him he is dying from a brain tumor, but wants document how he really was for his unborn son. His inspiration is the Michael Keaton movie My Life. That alone should raise Aaron’s suspicions.

In fact, it does not take long for the video freelancer to conclude there is something very off about his client. Josef’s family vacation home is also unsettlingly remote. Nevertheless, one grand is one grand, so he sticks with it. At first, Josef just seems annoyingly eccentric, but he eventually tells Aaron some pretty whacked out stuff. Clearly, Josef is playing some sort of game with him. Unfortunately, viewers will have a better idea than Aaron where it is all headed, because they know they came to a horror movie.

Yes, this is a found footage film, but given the set-up, it makes sense to have all the bedlam documented on Aaron’s camera. Frankly, there is nothing radically original here, but it is seamlessly cut together by editor Christopher Donlon (fortunately, narrative developments allow for and even require a bit of snipping together). As a result, it is a tight film dominated by Duplass’s performance. He is massively creepy, so to speak, always just peaking over the precipice of camp, without ever plunging over the top.

Brice and producer-horror mogul Jason Blum owe a major debt of thanks to the owner of that mountain home. Its staircase is likely to become iconic among genre fans. Of course, Blumhouse does plenty of this sort of thing. They did not invent the found footage sub-genre, but one could argue they took it to the next level, nearly cornering the low budget studio market in the process. This is one of the better examples, powered by Duplass’s unabashed scenery chewing. Recommended for fans of Duplass and Blumhouse, Creep opens this Wednesday (9/2) at Videology (but it is also already available on VOD and even streams on Netflix).

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

MWFF ’15: Ernie Biscuit (short)

Cinema has not been kind to taxidermists. Norman Bates is the classic example amongst a small sampling. Ernée Bisquit is nothing like him, except for his extreme shyness and awkwardness around women. Spurred by an unlikely catalyst, the sad sack Bisquit takes drastic steps to rejuvenate his drab existence in Adam Elliot’s Claymation short, Ernie Biscuit, which screens during the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.

Bisquit was always a bit of an outsider, but it was a cruel childhood prank that rendered him deaf. He inherited his family’s Parisian taxidermy shop, but he never had much passion for it. The last time he felt a deep personal connection was with a young Jewish girl, whose family lived in the flat next to Bisquits’ in early 1940s. Tragically, they were never seen again after the infamous round-up, but Bisquit still cares for her pet duck. Realizing taxidermy is out of fashion in 1966, Bisquit impulsively sells his shop intending to relocate to Venice, where he and his first and only love dreamed of visiting.

However, Bisquit and his duck get on the wrong plane, ending up in Australia instead. Complications and misadventures necessarily ensue, including the Australianization of his name. Yet, Bisquit also manages to meet a flesh-and-blood woman. She has plenty of issues too, but that might just make it perfect, provided he survives the rest of the chaos engulfing him.

If Biscuit qualifies for Academy Award consideration, it should be the odds on favorite. Elliot already has one Oscar for his short Harvey Krumpet as well as considerable name recognition amongst the animation community for his feature film Mary and Max. His style is instantly recognizable, particularly his sensitively grotesque characters. Clearly, Elliot has a keen empathy for underdogs like Bisquit, but there is still a sense of playfulness throughout Biscuit. Somehow, the film manages to be consistently funny and genuinely touching, without ever getting shticky or saccharine, which is a neat trick really.

The distinctive music heard over the closing credits is Simon Park’s orchestration of the Van Der Valk theme, “Eye Level.” Evidently, music written for Dutch canals works just as well for those preoccupied with Venice. Regardless, it is another eccentric element that turns out perfectly. Occasionally somewhat macabre, but ultimately quite beautiful, Ernie Biscuit is very highly recommended when it screens this Tuesday (9/1) and the following Monday (9/7), as part of this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.

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