J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Song of the Sea: A Selkie Story

W.B. Yeats is not often quoted in animated features, but his poem “The Stolen Child” is very definitely a source of inspiration for Tomm Moore’s latest film. If that sounds too serious for your viewing pleasure, take comfort from the presence of a big lovable fur ball of a dog named Cú—that being the Gaelic word for dog. There will also be selkies and assorted faery folk. Yes indeed, you can expect a generous helping of Celtic lore in Moore’s truly lovely Song of the Sea (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Presumably, Ben’s mother Bronagh died in child birth with his little sister Saoirse, but there is more to the story than he realizes. The truth is Bronagh was a selkie, a mythical shape-shifting seal woman, who can live on dry land for years, must eventually return to the sea. Saoirse is her mother’s daughter, who was born with a selkie coat to wear as she transforms, but her lighthouse keeper father keeps it hidden under lock-and-key for fear of losing her too.

Ben is supposed to look after his sister, but he often loses patience with the young girl. She has yet to speak a word, but she can make music worthy of Steve Turre with the shell Ben keeps as a remembrance of their mother. For the most part, the outdoorsy island life suits both children, but their bossy grandmother insists on relocating them to Dublin. Unfortunately, taking Saoirse that far from the water is not a good idea, but the faithful Cú will help guide them home. Along the way, they will meet several Fae beings who have a personal stake in restoring the young selkie’s powers.

Song of the Sea pretty much has it all when it comes to animated movies. Moore taps into some deep Celtic legend to tell a mature, psychologically complex coming-of-age story. Plus, Cú is just huggably adorable. The hand drawn animation is also a thing of beauty. While Moore’s figures are deliberately simple and anime-esque (in a big-eyed kind of way), his landscapes and fantasyscapes are breathtakingly lush. He also integrates music into the film in a culturally organic manner that powerfully underscores the on-screen mood and sometimes helps drive the narrative.

Granted, Saoirse hardly makes a peep in Song, but her character development arc packs quite an emotional wallop. Viewers older than your correspondent (by decades) were fighting off the sniffles at the conclusion of the screening we attended. Even if you have a heart of stone, you will completely invest in her story, in spite of yourself. Older boys will also readily identify with Ben, who has navigated much of life’s confusions largely on his own. Together, they will negotiate several highly fantastical turn of events, but it is their sibling relationship that anchors the film.

This year, GKIDS has two legitimate Oscar contenders in Song and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, both of which conclusively demonstrate animation can be a legit form of art. Each is also rather tragic, but in a wholly satisfying sort of way. Yet, Song is still safely kid-friendly (thanks again to Cú). Frankly, they ought to be in contention for best picture overall, but GKIDS will probably have to settle for an animation nomination for one or the other. Highly recommended, Song of the Sea opens this Friday (12/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stonehearst Asylum: the Poe Treatment

Dr. Silas Lamb certainly understands the pluses and minuses of corporal punishment and anesthetizing drugs as treatment for lunacy. He is after all based on the superintendent of Poe’s short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” He will indeed reveal a revolutionary and irreversible new treatment to his naïve young colleague. Yes, there has been the proverbial reversal of positions in the remote mental hospital, but the standard of care has arguably increased in Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum (trailer here), which releases on DVD and BluRay today, from Millennium Entertainment.

Idealistic Dr. Edward Newgate has arrived at Stonehearst determined to talk his way into a job. He has a passion for psychiatric medicine that duly impresses Dr. Lamb, even though he was not expecting a prospective assistant. Although he talks a progressive game, Newgate is rather shocked by Lamb’s indulgent methods. Several of the patients even perform nursing duties and dine with the staff at night. However, he is even more preoccupied with Eliza Graves, the abused wife of a rich and powerful society scion. For her own protection, Lamb promises to keep her safely committed. Of course, Newgate has his own ideas regarding Ms. Graves that become ever more confused when he discovers the real staff chained up in the dungeon.

It goes without saying, but Stonehearst would have been so much more awesome if it had been made by Roger Corman. Anderson and the design team get the trappings right, but they never properly convey an atmosphere of gothic dread nor a flair for cheeky camp. It is sort of like a middling BBC historical drama set in a nut house.

Still, Sir Ben Kingsley gets a spirit of things rather admirably. He certainly is not bashful when it comes to chewing on scenery and freaks out quite convincingly when he has to. Unfortunately, Jim Sturgess and Kate Beckinsale make pretty vanilla Victorians as Newgate and Graves, respectively. Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson have their moments as more conventionally problematic alienists, but there is only so much they can do. Even David Thewliss seems to be forcing matters as the malevolent groundskeeper known as “Mickey Finn.”

Screenwriter Ben Gangemi is about as faithful to Poe as the classic Corman adaptations, adding a further ironic twist that works well in context. Nevertheless, a costume genre film really ought to be more fun. Instead, Stonehearst is strangely determined to make a serious statement about the shortcomings of the Victorian mental health system, which seems beyond unnecessary at this point. Kingsley is a gamer, but only Poe completists should feel the need to catch up with Stonehearst Asylum, now available on DVD from Millennium Entertainment.

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Faraway: How Not to Tour the Philippines

Don’t want to take responsibility for your crummy life? Blame the Diwata, the creatures of Philippine legend that literally write the fates of every human being. An American tourist is convinced she knows where to find the seat of their mystical domain. There might be considerable treasure there as well. To be honest, she is not too sure about that point, but it doesn’t stop a gang of bandits from following her rag-tag party in Randal Kamradt’s Faraway (trailer here), which releases on VOD today, from Devolver Digital.

Audrey Felidor does not have much of a plan, but she seems to generally know where she is going. She acts All-American and does not speak Tagalog or other local lingo, despite claiming to be half-Filipino. Needing an English speaking guide, she somehow convinces Nick, the expatriate screenwriter staying in her boarding house to help her traverse three hundred miles to her destination island. He is a far cry from Indiana Jones, but at least their landlady’s rebellious daughter Hazel and her forbidden boyfriend Rey have a set of wheels. Unfortunately, their drunken chatter attracts the attention of a band of cutthroats that will be hard to shake.

To his credit, Kamradt staked out a mythical race that has not been spoiled by Twilight or another paranormal YA franchise. In fact, the opening introduction to the Diwata and their Diwataism is quite intriguing and grabby. The subsequent ride will have its bumpy patches, but there is something appealingly scrappy about the film, nonetheless.

To be honest, Faraway is a dashed difficult sort of film to review. If you only see one film in a week or a month, you are likely to be disappointed by its rough edges, but if you see ten or fifteen a week, you will give it credit for its eccentricities and stylishly turned scenes (particularly the expository puppet show and the rave in the jungle). Kamradt’s screenplay takes a surreal twist down the stretch that might not work so well, but it certainly is not the third act audiences will be expecting. For what it’s worth, the one-sheet is also totally cool.

In a case of aesthetic consistency, Dana Jamison brings the strangest screen presence to the film as Felidor. It is not that she is bad. In fact, her performance is rather effective given the full dramatic context, but it still feels a little odd. Over time, Nick Medina somewhat grows on the audience as his namesake screenwriter. First time screen-thesp Genelyka Castin is a total natural right from the start as Hazel, but Leonard Olaer’s Rey sort of wilts amongst the bedlam.

Those who are always looking for the next big thing in indie genre cinema will not begrudge time spent with Faraway and will be receptive to Kamradt’s next film, but it is not exactly a magnum opus. For now, give cast and crew credit for finishing what must have been a difficult shoot. Recommended for the adventurous who appreciate an unpolished bauble, Faraway is now available on VOD platforms from Devolver Digital.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation, Still in Progress

It could very well have been St. Joseph himself who miraculously constructed the Loretto Chapel’s circular staircase in Santa Fe, but strictly speaking, he was a carpenter. That leaves Antoni Gaudí in pretty exclusive company as a beautified architect. One hundred thirty years after it first broke ground, his life defining project continues to be erected in Barcelona. Stefan Haupt follows the progress and meditates on the significance of the already imposing cathedral in Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Originally commissioned in 1882, the Order of St. Joseph hired Gaudí to take control of the unwieldy project a year later. Known for his devout Catholicism and wholly distinctive style, Gaudí was an inspired but slightly risky choice. Throughout his final years, he lived and breathed the Sagrada Familia, even though he knew he would never live to see its completion. He hoped to see the Nativity façade finished, but tragically succumbed to injuries sustained from a tram accident. For a while, his assistant Domènech Sugranyes carried on in his stead, until the macro events of the Twentieth Century temporarily halted the project.

Haupt does a nice job chronicling the various phases of construction, but his cast of talking head experts are suspiciously concise when discussing the effects of the Spanish Civil War. Evidently, when the Loyalists were burning churches, they also destroyed all of Gaudí’s plans and scale models that they could find, leaving the Sugranyes and his fellow architects in absolute disarray, but they were good leftists, so let’s not discuss it.

Still, Haupt and the current architectural team clearly understand the Ken Follett-like sweep of the project. For many, it represents not just faith in God and his church, but a faith that succeeding generations would finish the work they started. Obviously, the final Sagrada Familia will be necessarily different from what Gaudí originally conceived, which is a burden and an opportunity for several contemporary artists working on its decorative elements. Easily the most eloquent is Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, who converted to Catholicism while working on the Sagrada Familia. In fact, there are a number of Japanese connections to the cathedral, such as Hiroshi Teshigahara, who previously documented an earlier period of construction in his film Antonio Gaudí (also opening this Friday).

At times, Haupt asks (or implies) some spot on questions, like what do contemporary Christians build if we no longer erect cathedrals? Of course, his trump card is the Sagrada Familia itself. It is a stunning sight, perhaps even more so when juxtaposed against the modern secular cranes supporting its raise into the heavens. It would be hard to make it look prosaic, but Haupt and cinematographer Patrick Lindenmaier find particularly cinematic angles for some truly dramatic visual compositions.

On the other hand, Haupt forces an artificially surreal note into the film when he stages brief scenes of dancer Anna Huber posing amid the half-constructed interiors. Regardless, it still serves as a thoughtful overview, primer, and guided tour of what has already become Barcelona’s most popular tourist attraction. Sometimes religion and architecture can actually draw a crowd. Recommended for Gaudí admirers, Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation opens this Friday (12/19) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

It is the second installment of Éric Rohmer’s cinematic quartet thematically linked by the four seasons and the closest he came to producing a Christmas movie. The year-end holidays will indeed be celebrated and a visit to church will yield tremendous spiritual comfort. Nonetheless, interpersonal relationships remain as tricky as ever in Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Technically, this tale begins at the end of summer—and what a lovely summer it was. While on holiday, Félicie fell madly in love with Charles, an itinerant but highly trained chef. After weeks of gamboling, they parted at the train station, promising to reconnect soon. When five years pass in a flash, it is clear that did not happen. However, it is not his fault. Félicie inadvertently scrawled out the wrong address, as she sometimes does.

Since he had no permanent information, their ties were severed, leaving her to raise the daughter he never knew of on her own. Yet, she clings to the romantic notion fate will somehow reunite them, just as she resolves to settle down with Maxence, her boss at the hair salon. That leaves tragically intellectual Loïc as the odd man out in her life, at least until she decides cohabitating with Maxence is not working out as she hoped, which takes about a day.

Rohmer’s films very definitely serve as time capsules, reflecting the peculiar pressures of love or something close to it at the time each was produced. While Winter’s exact circumstances seem quaint in era of e-mail, pining for the one that got away will never be an obsolete phenomenon and Rohmer fully captures the feeling. Although he is the missing man, Charles presence (or rather its lack) is tangibly felt throughout the film.

Frankly Rohmer is the sort of filmmaker audiences might very well hate if they only see one of his films, but if they binge on three or four, they will start to love them all. The aesthetics of their workaday visuals, deceptively simple narratives, and dialogue that is both realistic yet heavy in meaning takes some getting used to. In all honesty, Richard Misek’s docu-essay Rohmer in Paris is quite helpful developing one’s Rohmer sea legs, clueing viewers into Rohmerisms such as characters’ constant perambulating and his obsessive marking of the passage of days. Eventually though, the honesty of his films and the apparent effortlessness of his auteurism will just click open the lock in your head.

For the most part, Winter is good as most of Rohmer’s oeuvre, but a scene in which Félicie visits a local church rather than return to the impatient Maxence and her subsequent description of the resulting epiphany boost it to a higher level. It really demonstrates how Rohmer could lower the boom without anyone seeing it coming.

As Félicie, Charlotte Véry rises to the occasion of her big, character-plumbing scenes, but she often feels miscast, which is a slight problem considering she is on-screen nearly every second. Félicie is supposed to be a stunner, prone to impulsiveness, yet still easily capable of juggling multiple men. However, Véry has a somewhat modest screen presence.

Regardless, she still comes across real enough in the moment, even if we can’t quite buy into her as a pseudo-femme fatale. In contrast, Frédéric van den Driessche perfectly embodies the dashing Charles, while Hervé Furic plays the unassuming Loïc as a complicated, fully dimensional person, bookish though he might be. He keeps the film emotionally grounded and selflessly facilitates the big themes that ultimately emerge.

Winter is a quintessentially Rohmeresque film in that it leaves viewers feeling they have eavesdropped on someone else’s life and maybe gleaned a few lessons from the experience. Arguably, it takes some wild turns down the stretch, but Rohmer makes them look logical and matter-of-fact. Recommended for those who appreciate smart and mature drama, A Tale of Winter opens this Friday (12/19) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Radhe, Radhe: the Rites of Holi at BAM

In 1913, the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring caused riots. One hundred years, later it has been codified and canonized to such an extent, considerable programming was commissioned to celebrate its centennial. The music does not directly correlate to Stravinsky’s score, but it served as something of a road map for Prashant Bhargava when he filmed the Holi springtime festival in the Northern Indian city of Mathura. Conceived and commissioned as a collaboration with musician Vijay Iyer, Bhargava’s Radhe, Radhe: the Rites of Holi (trailer here), screens with the composer’s live score accompaniment as part of Iyer’s Music of Transformation concert program at BAM.

Now available on DVD from ECM Records, Radhe, Radhe is sort of an experimental melding music and images in the spirit of Shirley Clarke’s Bridges-Go-Round, but with dramatic and ethnographic components. Bhargava duly captures the eight day Holi festivities in Lord Krishna’s traditional birthplace, but he intersperses the revelry with impressionistic scenes of the goddess Radha, whose ardor for Krishna encompassed and transcended all forms of love.

Although it mirrors the twelve movement structure of Stravinsky’s Rites, viewers will be forgiven if they do not pick up on that point while immersed in the work, especially since the film only identifies two primary sections, “Adoration” and “Transcendence.” Iyer’s solo piano prelude is rather dissonant and free-ish, but it soon gives way to a brightly hued, driving theme with a somewhat Metheny-esque vibe nicely suited to the exuberant crowd scenes. Eventually the flutes evoke the sounds of traditional Indian musical forms, but the trumpets build to a series of rather brassy and jazzy crescendos.

During the “Transcendence” section, Iyer’s skittering piano often announces abrupt mood swings on screen. While Holi is a celebration, nobody is excluded from the customary dousing of colorful dies and powders, regardless of age or general willingness. Indeed, some targets of the merriment clearly do not enjoy the attention, which rather darkens the film’s tone, but it is true to life.

Perhaps the most intimidating challenge fell to actress Anna George, who must convey the passion and devotion of Radha without the benefit of dialogue. Yet, she does so with great power and sensitivity, without ever allowing becoming overwhelmed by Iyer’s roiling score.

The combined artistry of Iyer, Bhargava, and George really transports viewers to an entirely different sphere. Even with the recorded score, it is the darnedest Stravinsky tribute. Hearing it performed live (by Iyer with the International Contemporary Ensemble) should give it a further kick. Recommended for those who appreciate multi-media collaborations, Radhe, Radhe: the Rites of Holi screens during Iyer’s Music of Transformation concerts this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (12/18-12/20) at BAM.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The American Revolution, pts 2 & 3

Timothy Murphy was the original American Sniper. With his grooved rifle, Murphy singled-handedly turned the tide of the Battle of Saratoga and pretty much the entire war along with it. He is exactly the sort of scrappy unassuming hero that continue to get their due in the second and third installments of American Heroes Channel’s three-part The American Revolution (promo here), which continues right after Monday night’s’ premiere with The Empire Fights Back.

Ironically, the Revolutionary War never looked good for the Patriots until they finally won it outright. Things looked particularly grim when George Washington’s Continental Army was stranded in Brooklyn. That was bad news even in late August 1776, especially with the Redcoats advancing from Long Island and the British Navy hastening to cut-off the East River. It would be Joe Pesci-esque Col. John Glover who organized their daring retreat, allowing them to fight another day.

While Glover is definitely the ranking hero of Empire, the second and third episodes spread the overdue ovations around a bit more than the Joseph Warren-centric Rise of Patriots. In the two succeeding episodes, Oneida chief Han Yerry, Virginia slave James Armistead, Portuguese immigrant Peter Francisco, and teenaged girls Sybil Ludington and Betty Zane get their just due. At one time, the latter might have been familiar to some readers through the biographical novel written by her great-grandnephew Zane Grey, but name recognition for both Zanes has probably fallen off in recent years.

However, arguably the most intriguing figure of Empire is John Honeyman, a Patriot spy who was so successful, we are still unsure if that was really his name. There are several good candidates for movie treatments in AHC’s American Revolution, with Honeyman being at the top of the list (and requiring the most creative license).

Throughout Empire and the concluding Return of the Rebels, the series maintains it focus on heroism (as it well should, given the name of the network) and its implied endorsement of American exceptionalism (while still acknowledging without belaboring the gross inequities of slavery, which is a tricky balancing act). It also maintains the quality of the first episode, largely on par with some of the better (but often less heralded) PBS historical programs.

In fact, there is a real market for programming like American Revolution. People have an appetite for hook-y digestible history without a lot of ideological soapboxing that the History Channel is not serving the way it used to. Those serious but not necessarily scholarly military history buffs should definitely enjoy AHC’s American Revolution. Recommended for general audiences, episodes one and two air back-to-back this Monday (12/15), with the conclusion following this Tuesday night (12/16) on Discovery Communications’ American Heroes Channel.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

AFI’s EU Showcase ’14: Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service

High ranking secret policemen do not often get to present their own work at MoMA, but Donio Donev did. His involvement in the Bulgarian domestic intelligence service is an established fact now that his dossier has been released. However, Donev’s films really aren’t his films. It was always an open secret Anton Trayanov was the uncredited animator of beloved Bulgarian classics like The Three Fools, but Donev took all the bows on the international festival circuit. Mina Mileva & Vesela Kazakova set the record straight with Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2014 EU Film Showcase.

By all accounts, Donev really was a clever and skillful caricaturist, but he probably could not have animated a mouse if he shot 50,000 volts through it. Most Bulgarian filmmakers, especially those working in animation, knew Trayanov was the real artist responsible for some of the country’s best loved films. They also understood why his name was not on any of them. Under Communism, all of the film authority’s division heads and nearly all of the film directors were secret service agents.

Eventually, the understandably frustrated Trayanov was fired when he started complaining. For three years he survived as a construction worker for a Japanese firm building a luxury hotel in Sofia (lord knows why). He was lucky to get that gig, considering he was blackballed at every other Bulgarian state industry. Eventually, he started teaching animation at the National Academy Theater and Film Arts, where Mileva took his courses, before he was sacked again under murky circumstances.

Sadly, little has changed since the fall of Communism. The apparatchiks still jealously guard their power, but Trayanov might just get the last posthumous laugh. Although he died shortly after filming wrapped, his documentary had a record breaking theatrical run in Bulgaria. Not surprisingly, Donev’s family has threatened legal action. More troubling (if not necessarily shocking), Mileva and Kazakova have had they copyright protection revoked, award nominations rescinded, and endured a campaign of physical and emotional harassment.

It is easy to see why Uncle Tony et al touched a nerve. It addresses head on the privileges and abuses of position that have carried over from the Communist era. The case it makes on Trayanov’s behalf (and against Donev) is not just convincing. It is pretty much conclusive. In fact, there are a handful of scenes that are jaw-droppingly damning, as when Dimitar Tomov, animation chair of the National Academy, tries to convince Mileva Trayanov never taught the classes she enrolled in, through a combination of double-talk and Orwellian Newspeak. It is nearly as surreal watching an interviewer catch Donev in a telling contradiction during an archival television report. You have to wonder what happened to that poor guy.

Yet, UTTFTSS is as much a tribute to Trayanov and his films (and they really are his films) as it is an expose of institutionalized Party corruption. Despite all the wrongs done to him, Trayanov is an unflaggingly upbeat and winning presence on camera. Spending time with him is a pleasure. This is a genuinely bold documentary that will resonate with animation fans and anyone who values artistic freedom. If its cogently presented revelations do not forever change how you think of Bulgarian animation, nothing will. Highly recommended, Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service screens this coming Wednesday (12/17) and next Saturday (12/18), as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase, outside of Washington, DC.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

AFI’s EU Showcase ’14: Waste Land

Géant is the Col. Kurtz of Belgian art dealers. He has definitely embraced the heart of darkness in the Congo. He even has his personal “witch doctor.” It is not clear that he really believes, if the cop pursuing him believes he believes, or even whether the cop starts to believe himself. Regardless, Det. Leo Woeste is in for a rough final investigation in Pieter Van Hees’s Waste Land (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2014 EU Film Showcase.

Woeste is your basic cop on the edge. He tries to me a good husband and a responsible father to the step-son he has helped raise since infancy, but he has seen some terrible things. The fact that his new partner, Johnny Rimbaud, is a coke-fueled hedonist hardly stabilizes his erratic mood swings. When his wife Kathleen announces her pregnancy, but doubts the wisdom of keeping the baby, Woeste promises to retire from the force and start acting normal. Unfortunately, he has one last case to solve.

When an African immigrant is murdered and dumped in a garbage bag, the initial clues point towards Géant. Woeste tries to be extra-supportive to the slain man’s grieving sister, Aysha Tshimanga, perhaps because his fatherly instincts have been stimulated. However, their relationship soon takes on weird sexual overtones. She will accompany him to various underground boxing matches and hipster night clubs, where the throbbing hot house atmosphere will keep his head spinning.

Waste Land flirts with a lot of genres, but it never fully commits to any. It also injects some clumsy commentary on imperialism, particularly a running non-joke supposedly claiming Woeste is descended from Leopold II. Nevertheless, much of the second act investigation is rather compelling procedural stuff. Unfortunately, the climax is so self-consciously feverish, it undermines the gritty mystery and ambiguous genre elements that proceeded it.

Still, there is no denying Dardenne Brothers regular Jérémie Renier puts on a clinic as Woeste. This is fierce, no-holds-barred, rub-your-nose-in-the-self-destruction work, but it is never self-indulgent. In fact, he balances the inward burn with the outward rage quite adroitly. Babetida Sadjo also finds a spark in Tshimanga that elevates her beyond a mere victim, while Peter Van den Begin gorges on scenery as the roguish Rimbaud.

Despite its narrative frustrations, Waste Land is a massively stylish film. Cinematographer Menno Mans makes Brussels look like a real life Sin City, where most of the buildings are either abandoned warehouses or underground dance clubs. The opening sequence is especially evocative, in a disconcerting way. Nicely played and skillfully put together, Waste Land just lurches out of control down the stretch. Recommended for those who will admire its ambition, Waste Land screens this coming Tuesday (12/16) and Wednesday (12/17), as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase, outside of Washington, DC.

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The American Revolution: Forgotten Heroes Get Their Due on AHC

Losing one’s place in history is another unfortunate drawback to falling on the battlefield. Had he survived Bunker Hill, Dr. Joseph Warren probably would be remembered as a Founding Father on par with Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Instead, he sacrificed everything for liberty. Warren and scores of other overlooked patriots get their due in American Heroes Channel’s three-part The American Revolution (promo here), which premieres this Monday night, beginning with Rise of the Patriots.

It was Warren who dispatched Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride. He was a founding commander of the Minutemen, the organizer of an early patriot spy ring within Redcoat occupied Boston, and a leading orator for the cause. Yet, despite Warren’s prominence, Revere would become the iconic Minuteman. Through PBS-style dramatizations and several historians’ expert commentary, AHC’s American Revolution gives viewers a sense of how indispensable the good doctor was to the Patriot campaign in its earliest days.

Each installment will have a defining figure like Warren, but other notably overlooked Revolutionary War heroes will be peppered-in throughout the series. Rise, also duly salutes freed slave Salem Poor, whose courage at Bunker Hill seems tailored made for a dramatic treatment, as well as the irascible French and Indian War veteran Samuel Whittemore, who holds the distinction of being the oldest Revolutionary War veteran and apparently the hardest to kill.

The whole approach of the series is quite appealing. Clearly, there is a working assumption that freedom and love of country are worth fighting for. By focusing on the worthy but marginalized supporting players, it finds an angle to make familiar history feel fresh. No cherry trees or kite flying this time around. As an additional bonus, the talking heads are more engaging and in many cases more interesting to look at than is often the case in historical programming.

Frankly, the holiday season is a rather apt time to broadcast Revolutionary War programming, with the 238th anniversary of Washington’s Christmas Crossing of the Delaware fast approaching. Appropriately, heroes of Valley Forge and the Battle of Trenton will dominate the second episode, The Empire Fights Back, premiering immediately following Rise. AHC’s Revolution then concludes this Tuesday with Return of the Rebels. Based on the entertaining and indeed educational Rise, the entire American Revolution should definitely be well worth watching when it premieres this Monday (12/15) on Discovery Communication’s American Heroes Channel.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Egoyan’s The Captive

Its population is less than ninety thousand, but evidently organized pedophilia a growing danger in Niagara Falls, Ontario. They now have a sizable police task force working full time on such crimes. The leader even becomes an Oprah style celebrity. However, they have not produced sterling results. After eight years, Matthew Lane’s daughter Cass is still missing. Past his breaking point, the desperate father is more than willing to take the law into his own hands, if he can finally find a target in Atom Egoyan’s The Captive (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It has been a hard eight years for Lane and his wife Tina. She still blames him for their daughter’s abduction and so does he. He only briefly popped out to pick up a pie while she rested in the back seat of his truck after ice skating practice. Tragically, it was long enough for the pederast ringleader stalking them. As the years advanced and their marriage imploded, Tina started seeing Det. Nicole Dunlop for counseling, but her partner (and lover) Det. Jeff Cornwall still suspects Lane sold his daughter to a pedophile ring, because he reminds him of a guy he used to know. Seriously, that’s the best he can do after eight years?

Of course, Lane’s investigative techniques basically amount to him driving around looking for something suspicious, but he is still more effective than the cops, who will make a series of spectacular blunders. Eventually, Det. Dunlop will wind up in peril herself, following a head-scratchingly unlikely chain of events.

Frankly, it is a real shame Captive morphs into such a klutzy thriller, because Ryan Reynolds’ lead performance could have been a career game-changer in a tighter, more grounded film. He really digs in and digs deep as Lane. You feel his pain and his rage, without any cheap theatrics. He also makes the thriller mechanics work better than they deserve to, particularly an oblique confrontation with his daughter’s abductor late in the game.

Conversely, Kevin Durand is an excellent actor, but his performance as Mika, the pervert ringleader is beyond caricature. Everything about him, from his affected voice to his sinister sliver of a moustache screams “Chester Molester.” Yet, he still hob nobs with Niagara Falls’ elite without anyone getting suspicious. Rosario Dawson is reasonably competent as Det. Dunlop. She may not look like she is from Niagara Falls, Ont., but diversity in Canadian cinema is a good thing. As if on cue, Scott Speedman also turns up, underwhelming us as Cornwall, arguably the worst cop ever who wasn’t on the take, just to remind everyone this is a Canadian film.

There was a time during the mid-1990s and early 2000s people who did not normally patronize festivals and art cinemas still went to Egoyan’s films because they were so widely acclaimed and zeitgeisty. What a difference three or four films make. Many of his regular themes are still present and accounted for, but the narrative twists are rather clunky and therefore dashed difficult to buy into. Reynolds’ work is legitimately award caliber, but it really needs Ice-T and Richard Belzer. If you have DirecTV, it is almost worth watching just to see how Paul Sarossy’s uncompromisingly icy cinematography conflicts with the otherwise lurid vibe, but it is hard to recommended The Captive when it opens tomorrow (12/12) in New York, at the Village East.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marco Polo: A “Latin” in the Court of Kublai Khan, on Netflix

He wrote the equivalent of a bestselling memoir, before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Dozens of hand-written manuscripts of The Travels of Marco Polo have widely circulated, making it rather difficult to determine the canonical truth of the celebrated merchant’s life. That might be frustrating for scholarly biographers and historians, but it rather takes the pressure off filmmakers dramatizing his life. Before securing his fame and fortune, the young Venetian (or “The Latin” as he will often be called) finds an unusual place in the Court of Kublai Khan, becoming enmeshed within a geo-political struggle between two ancient dynastic powers in Marco Polo (trailer here), an original ten episode historical series premiering on Netflix this Friday.

Polo never knew his father Niccolò Polo, until the Venetian trader made a brief homecoming, before setting off for Asia once again. Desiring a paternal relationship, the younger Polo invited himself along, but it is soon apparent he is quite well-attuned to rhythms and mysteries of the Eastern world, perhaps even more than his father and uncle. In fact, the great Kublai Khan accepts Marco Polo into his service, when Niccolò Polo offers to barter him in exchange for trading rights along the Silk Road. Of course, the son is quite put out by this, but his father promises to return, which he will, but maybe not in the manner he imagined.

Valuing Polo’s shrewd observations unclouded by courtly biases, Kublai Khan often dispatches the Latin to report on flashpoints within his empire. Not surprisingly, Polo’s favor rather displeases the Khan’s Chinese-educated son, Prince Jingim. Frankly, Polo is not exactly close to anyone in court, least of all the Khan’s trusted ministers. However, he will develop something approaching friendship with Byamba, the Khan’s illegitimate son with one of his many concubines. Polo also becomes ambiguously involved with Kokachin, the Blue Princess, the last surviving noble of a conquered people, and Khutulun, the Khan’s independent-minded warrior niece.

Regardless of historical accuracy, writer-creator John Fusco spends enough time in the Khan’s harem to make the broadcast networks curse the FCC. As Mel Brooks would say, it’s good to be the Khan. Yet, despite the nudity and hedonism, some of MP’s strongest action figures are women. As Khutulun, Korean actress Claudia Soo-hyun Kim credibly wrestles men twice her size and projects a smart, slightly subversive sensibility. Olivia Cheng also displays first class martial arts chops (sometimes naked) as Mei Lin, a Song concubine who infiltrates the Khan harem on the orders of her war-mongering brother, the villainous Imperial Regent Jia Sidao. Zhu Zhu’s Kokachin might be more demur, but she is still quite compelling, balancing her vulnerability with resoluteness. Of course, international superstar Joan Chen frequently upstages everyone as the iron-willed Empress Chabi.

Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy holds his own as best he can amid the exotic locales and pitched battles, maintaining the necessary fish-out-of-water earnestness. However, he is no match for the British Benedict Wong (son of naturalized Hong Kong parents), who absolutely dominates the series as Kublai Khan. Although he put on considerable weight for the role, it is his commanding presence that really seems huge. Likewise, Tom Wu is terrific delivering the goods for genre fans as Hundred Eyes, Polo’s blind tutor in the martial arts.

In the initial episodes, MP offers more intrigue and Game of Thrones style decadence than actual fist-and-sword action, but the martial arts melees increase as the series progresses, with the threat (or promise) of an epic war hanging over everyone’s heads. There is a lot of setting-the-scene in episode one, but it quickly sets the addictive hook in the second installment and reels in viewers from there. Kon-Tiki directors Espen Sandberg & Joachim Rønning give the pilot an appropriate sense of mystery and sweep, which carries forth throughout the show. Based on the six episodes provided to the media, MP definitely seems to maintain its passion-fueled energy and richly detailed period production values. Highly recommended (so far), Marco Polo launches for binge-streaming this Friday (12/12) on Netflix.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

100 Days: Romantic Comedy & Traditional Rituals

The natural beauty and quaint charm of the Matsu Islands make them a perfect tourist destination. The spotty cell-phone reception and lack of wi-fi could also be attractive to visitors, but it is highly inconvenient for full-time residents. A hot shot telecom exec has returned to his home island to scuttle a fiber optic development plan. While he is there, he will pencil in his mother’s funeral. However, he never bargained on the local tradition requiring his marriage a little more than three months after the ceremony. Romance and ritual threaten to stall his career in Henry Chan’s 100 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Wu Bo Dan felt rejected by his mother when she re-married and packed the teen off to be educated in America. Frankly, he was fine with leaving, because he would only miss his ambiguous girlfriend Xiao Wei. Now a high-flying dealmaker, Wu is not sure how to react when his stepfather comes bearing the bad news. He also brought Wu one of his mother’s favorite chickens, confusing the corporate shark even more.

Once Wu finally arrives on fictional North Island, chicken in tow, he begrudgingly attends her funeral. Of course, he is having none of the get-married-in-100-days mandate. Fortunately, his step-brother Zhen Fong is willing to fulfill Wu’s ceremonial duties in his stead. Unfortunately, he has a five-year arranged engagement with Xiao Wei. That does not sit right with Wu, but she does not want to hear it.

100 Days is pretty much headed exactly where you think it is, but it has the good sense to lose the chicken before the second act starts in earnest. It is also a ridiculously good looking film. The island is spectacularly cinematic, sort of like the Village in The Prisoner, but with shrines dedicated to the ocean deity Mazu. The cast is also obscenely attractive, even including Xiao Wei’s shy, unlucky-in-love bridesmaid Yu Jen, played by the drop-dead gorgeous Julianne Chu. So yes, 100 Days will definitely make viewers want to visit Peikan Island’s Chinpi village, where the film was shot.

Model-turned-actress Tracy Chou plays Xiao Wei with demur intelligence, somehow managing to sell her martyr complex. Likewise, Chu’s turn as Yu Jen is touchingly sweet and wholly likable. Aboriginal actor Soda Voyu (seen in Seediq Bale) largely minimizes the shtick as the unflaggingly earnest and only slightly goofy Zhen Fong. On the other hand, poor Johnny Lu’s Wu gets quite a bit of slapstick comeuppance and never really feels like he connects with the other characters, except maybe briefly with Tsai Ming-hsui, who invests his step-father with a quiet dignity that classes up the joint.

100 Days never really tries to transcend the rom-com genre, but it observes the category conventions in moderation. Chan (whose American television credits include episodes of Scrubs and the better-than-its-reputation Kitchen Confidential) keeps things moving along at an easy mid-tempo and cinematographer makes everything sparkle in the warm sunlight. If you are looking for niceness in a film, it has a bounteous spread. Recommended as a safe date film, 100 Days opens this Friday (12/12) in the Los Angeles area, at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

Loznitsa’s Maidan: You are there in the Square

The opening lyrics of the Ukrainian National Anthem make a fitting commencement for any film on the Euromaidan demonstrations and the subsequent Russian aggression: “Ukraine’s glory has not yet perished, nor has her freedom. Upon us fellow patriots, fate shall smile once more.” Let’s be frank, most of the media now considers Ukraine’s freedom a lost cause and the lame duck administration no longer has anything to say on the issue. Yet, when the Ukrainians unite in common purpose, they are a resilient force. Sergei Loznitsa captures his countrymen’s collective spirit in the direct cinema documentary Maidan (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Kiev’s central city square is currently known as Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. It was previously known as Soviet Square, Kalinin Square (in honor of Stalin loyalist Mikhail Kalinin), and the Square of the October Revolution—and it might be so renamed again if deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian masters have their way. In late 2013, outraged Ukrainians took to the square, protesting Yanukovych’s decision to reject an association agreement with the EU, in accordance with Moscow’s wishes. Protests did indeed erupt in Maidan, the scene of many Orange Revolution demonstrations following Yanukovych’s suspect election in 2004, but it was far from the “pogrom” Putin suggested. Loznitsa has the footage to prove it.

In a way, it is too bad the Euromaidan movement advocates freedom and closer ties with the west, because Loznitsa’s documentary could have been the greatest socialist film ever made. Arguably, no other film so powerfully conveys the spirit of collective action and a sense of individuals dedicating themselves to a larger cause. There are many long takes and wide angle crowd shots, but Loznitsa and his fellow cameraman Serhiy Stefan Stetsenko capture the tenor of the time quite viscerally.

Loznitsa never focuses on representative POV figures, maintaining a macro perspective throughout. Nevertheless, we can easily observe the trends and magnitude of the situation from his vantage points. At first, there is very much a sense that things will change, much as it did in 2004. We see the volunteers making sandwiches and distributing tea to regular Sunday night demonstrators. A gullible media largely accepted Putin’s smears at face value, but it is hard to imagine a neo-fascist movement would dispatch four volunteers to make sure nobody slipped on a spot of spilled water in the lobby.

Tragically, Yanukovych would unleash the Interior Ministry’s Berkut forces in January. At this point the audience can clearly see how unscripted Loznitsa’s film truly was, as either the director or his co-cinematographer is caught in a tear gas attack. They maintain the same long fixed approach, but the pleas for medical personnel to come to the stage area to treat the collected wounded speaks volumes about the old regime. Not to be spoilery (unless you work at a major network, you should already know this ends rather badly), but Loznitsa concludes the film with a funeral for two fallen activists, which is absolutely emotionally devastating, even without a personal entry-point character to concentrate on.

Still, the individual stories of Maidan supporters desperately need to be heard, which is why Dmitriy Khavin’s Quiet in Odessa is such a timely and valuable film. Since there is almost no supplemental context in Loznitsa’s Maidan it is best seen in conjunction with a film like Khavin’s. However, it has the virtue of presenting events as they happened and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. Highly recommended for anyone seeking an immersive understanding of Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement, Loznitsa’s Maidan opens this Friday (12/12) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

(The international film community should also note Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov is still being held incommunicado in Russia, on trumped-up terrorism charges, awaiting his day in kangaroo court. Along with Loznitsa’s Maidan and Khavin’s Odessa, film programmers ought to consider scheduling Sentsov’s politically neutral Gaamer to raise awareness for his plight.)

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Keys of Heaven: Innocence Martyred

You could say Majid and Adel have student deferments. They are fifteen and twelve, respectively. Of course, that is hardly too young to die for Revolutionary Iran, especially when it was locked in mortal combat with Iraq. They might live in an Orwellian state prosecuting an apparently endless war, but the brothers lead desperate Dickensian lives in Finnish-Iranian director Hamy Ramezan’s short film, Keys of Heaven (trailer here), which starts a special three-day engagement tomorrow in Los Angeles.

It is in fact 1984. Majid and Adel are homeless in the great Islamist republic, but the elder brother insists they keep attending school. Should they drop out, they would be prime candidates to join the 500,000 other Iranian children who served in the Iran-Iraq War. They work late into the night as street hawkers to earn money for a more permanent relocation, because for some reason, Majid has cut all ties to their widower father. Unfortunately, the dissolute old Kiamarz still has the brothers’ identification papers, which they will need to sit for their final exams.

Keys is a dark film with a bracingly bitter twist that Ramezan skillfully implies rather than bashing the audience’s heads with it. The film very definitely protests the use of child soldiers, but it acknowledges (obliquely) even worse crimes. It also depicts the ruthlessness of the Ayatollah’s thought police in no uncertain terms. Yet, the brothers’ relationship is the engine driving the film.

Salar Ashtiyani gives an extraordinarily honest performance as the gaunt Majid. The young actor maintains a brittle intensity while subtly turning his big revelations. Yazdan Akhoondi’s Adel reliably serves as a wide-eyed picture of innocence and Shaghayeh Djodat brings considerable nuance and sensitivity to bear as the teacher who tries to help the brothers, but lacks a full understanding of their situation.

Filmed in Turkey with Farsi dialogue, Keys feels absolutely genuine. The period details look right and the atmosphere of paranoia is quite tangible. It could be called a powerful coming-of-age tale in a country where vulnerable children, like the brothers, frequently do not live long enough to come of age. Another fine example of diasporic Iranian filmmaking, Keys of Heaven is highly recommended when it screens this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons (12/9-12/11) at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles.

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Magician: Workman on Welles

Just imagine what might have been if Orson Welles had worked in the digital era. Probably no other filmmakers left behind so many unfinished yet potentially great films. As his latest video-biographer Chuck Workman documents, Welles had no shortage of work ethic. It was simply a lack of everything else, particularly money. You may have heard this story before, but Workman illustrates the great auteur’s rise and fall with a wealth of striking visuals and many rarely seen archival interviews. Welles gets the full Workman treatment in Magician: the Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Welles was a precocious but never small child. Evidently, in the Welles family, children had to be interesting performers, or they were banished to the nursery to be boring in private. Obviously, Master Orson was not about to be shunted away. In a departure from many DVD-behind-the-scenes-extras, Workman patiently invests a bit of time up-front on Welles’ formative years in Woodstock, Illinois, where he honed his craft at the Todd School and the local Woodstock Theatre, whose main stage has since been renamed in Welles in honor. Workman takes the audience there and it does indeed look like fitting launching pad for Comet Welles—an intimate yet classy space that could fire a young genius’s imagination.

By the time Welles hit the New York theater world, he was practically a fully formed master. Workman breezes through his early Broadway triumphs and radio superstardom, essentially using the feature films to island-hop his way through Welles career. At this point, the film starts to feel very familiar to anyone with a casual knowledge of Welles’ life and career. Yes, Citizen Kane is a masterpiece and The Magnificent Ambersons sort of is too, but according to Welles RKO cut out the most important parts. However, Workman includes some fascinating interview excerpts with the late Oscar winning Robert Wise, justifying the cuts he made at the studio’s behest.

Magician also incorporates tantalizing glimpses of films Welles started but never completed, such as The Deep, Don Quixote, and the technically finished but now mostly lost Merchant of Venice. Frankly, this is some of the best material Workman collects, hinting at what might have been. It nicely compliments Workman’s full visual portrait of the artist, which also directly addresses his larger than life celebrity status, as seen through clips of Welles guest appearances on I Love Lucy, The Muppet Show, and various chat shows and commercials.

There are not a lot of surprises in Magician. Frankly, you really have to stretch to find any new material at all in the film. Still, Workman and company make a convincing defense of Welles’ unfinished oeuvre, arguing he was committed enough to start production, whereas most would-be filmmakers accept defeat in the development or pre-production stages.

Magician certainly makes you want to watch all of Welles’ films again, including the ones that we can’t, which means it probably accomplishes its goals, but it never feels as fresh as Visionaries, Workman’s relatively recent (stylistically traditional) survey of avant-garde filmmaking. Recommended for Welles diehards looking for something to tide them over until the long rumored release of The Other Side of the Wind (promised for the auteur’s centennial this coming May), Magician opens Wednesday (12/10) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

New Romanian Cinema ’14: I’m an Old Communist Hag

Emilia was allowed to shake Ceauşescu’s hand because she was a Party member, who didn’t have sweaty palms. For a while, that encounter gave her great prestige in her state-run factory, but she tried to avoid discussing it after the revolution. Nonetheless, her nostalgia for the past is rather well known in Stere Gulea’s I’m an Old Communist Hag (trailer here), which screens during Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema 2014.

She was once an industrial foreman, but now Emilia and her husband Ţucu make do on their pensions and a bit of bartering-up. If you ask her, she will tell you the old dictator did a better job managing the economy. At least, that is how she remembers it. However, her memory is selective and she may have only noticed what she wanted to back in the day. She will slowly and only partially come to realize this when she visits Madame Stroescu to have a dress made for her expat daughter Alice’s sudden visit.

Madame Stroescu was always a favorite of Alice’s, but Emilia never realized how much the gentle woman suffered under Communism. She should have been an accomplished artist, but she was forced to work as a seamstress instead. With her eyesight now failing, even such work is beyond her, but she still hopes to have her late father’s confiscated tailor shop restituted to her. It is an inconvenient episode for Emilia to process, especially with the 2010 financial crisis swirling around her. In fact, that is why Alice and her American husband Alan have suddenly arrived. Both have been let go by their multinational employer and now find themselves at loose ends.

Despite its hot-button title, Hag is a restrained film that eschews all ideologies in favor of human relationships. Emilia is not a bad person. She just happened to do somewhat better than her neighbors during the old regime and is now experiencing a bit of a rough patch due to the new more cyclical system. Nevertheless, Valeria Seciu’s haunted Stroescu unambiguously serves as the film’s conscious and moral corrective. It is a quiet but powerful performance that undercuts Emilia’s romanticized memories.

While it is a more restrained and forgiving role than her celebrated turn in Child’s Pose, Luminita Gheorghiu still commands the screen as Emilia, embracing her complications. Ana Ularu counterbalances her well as Alice, the daughter who sees the past era in its full historical context, but struggles with her own personal and professional failings. Texan Collin Blair’s Alan resembles a young Michael Rapaport, which works rather well in context. There are probably a dozen additional supporting players playing former colleagues and family members, who are quite colorful, but feeling unfailingly real. Still, it is Gheorghiu and Seciu who really define the film with their contrasting presences.

Gulea was a rather bold critic of the Communist regime in past films, so Hag should not be dismissed as revisionism, but more of a meditation on how folks get by, regardless of the times. It is a nice film, elevated by several thoughtful performances and a lively yet elegiac score composed by Vasilé Sirli. Recommended for those interested in seeing a different side of Romanian cinema, I’m an Old Communist Hag screens this afternoon (12/7) at the Walter Reade Theater and tomorrow (12/8) in Long Island at the Jacob Burns Film Center, as part of Making Wave: New Romanian Cinema.

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Anchorage ’14: The Lookalike

Joe Mulligan has to be the nicest movie drug dealer since Mel Gibson in Tequila Sunrise. He is about to start courting Mila, who is deaf and has one prosthetic leg. Sadly, she has even worse problems to deal with, not including Mulligan. Their romance will be complicated by some dodgy narco-wheeling-and-dealing in Richard Gray’s The Lookalike (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Anchorage International Film Festival.

Mulligan and his brother Holt must be the two whitest guys in New Orleans. Salt-of-the-earth Joe only took up dealing to pay off their old man’s gambling debts. In contrast, his younger brother is a coke fiend and basically all-around pond scum, but in a way that is supposed to be endearing. Having finally cleared his father’s debts with Vincent, the family loan shark, the more mature Mulligan has tendered notice to his former employers, Bobby and Frank. They seem surprisingly cool with it, perhaps because they have a bigger deal to worry about.

For some reason to be revealed later, their retiring supplier is willing to turn over his business to them if they can arrange a night with Sadie Hill, a presumably ordinary civilian. The deal is all arranged until some last minute re-negotiating leads to Hill’s unlikely death. Obviously, they need a dead ringer—someone like Lacey, the cokehead who somehow became romantically involved with the irresponsible Mulligan. Anyone can tell this is a bad idea, but Holt has his own debt with Vincent to repay and Joe needs cash to finance his prospective cooking show (yes, really). It is a dream that would give him the respectability to pursue Mila, who also happens to be a concerned friend of the missing Hill.

In the years between Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, an indie crime film like Lookalike used to be released nearly every month. They all had hip urban characters who are secretly interconnected in ways they never realized and periodically do shocking things to keep us on our toes. Lookalike is a lot like those films that are like other films, but at least Gray keeps the energy level up and screenwriter Michele Gray skips the self-referential indulgences. Since it is ostensibly set in New Orleans, one might also hope for some distinctive local jazz, but no such luck.

Maybe he is not exactly terrific, but somehow Jerry O’Connell is engaging enough to maintain viewer attention. He also develops some surprisingly effective screen chemistry with Scottie Thompson, quietly overachieving as the fate-challenged Mila. In contrast, Justin Long, the Mac Guy, is aggressively annoying and problematically light weight as unreliable Holt. At least John Corbett and Steven Bauer get with the program, hamming it up just enough as the villainous partners. Frustratingly though, The Lookalike criminally underutilizes Luis Guzmán’s Vincent.

The Lookalike is dark and reasonably diverting, but nothing a genre fan has not seen done more stylishly dozens of times before. While it has already had its New York run, it may very well see some more festival and specialty attention following the announcement the Grays would write and direct the American remake/reboot/re-conception of Takashi Miike’s Audition. Right, good luck with that. It’s not like the original made a strong impression. For now, The Lookalike is just sort of okay, but there are probably worse ways to spend a winter night in Alaska. For cult fans of Guzmán and Scarface’s Bauer, it screens tonight (12/6) and tomorrow (12/7) as part of this year’s Anchorage International Film Festival.

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