J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Margaret Mead ’14: The Darkside

It is sort of like ethnographic research for the campfire. Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton invited Australians to submit stories about their interactions with the spirit world as part of a larger oral history project with an aboriginal focus. However, the results were not always as spooky as he expected. Family and loss are the primary themes of the thirteen tales re-told by screen-actors in The Darkside (trailer here), Thornton’s documentary by monologue, which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Like nearly every anthology film, Darkside is a bit uneven, but Thornton, serving as his own cinematographer, always gives his static shots a warm eerie glow befitting the subject matter. By far the scariest story (and the one most riveting to watch) chronicles the tragedy wrought on the narrator’s family by a cast-off Ouija board. Occasionally, Thornton breaks format, as when he pans and scans the darkened corridors of the National Film and Sound Archive. Another more traditionally creepy tale of the supernatural, it should particularly interest AMNH patrons, since it involves poet Romaine Moreton’s brush with the malevolent spirit of Sir Colin Mackenzie, the notorious director of the discredited Australian Institute of Anatomy, whose building was repurposed to serve as the film archive.

For fans of 1980s movies, it is quite amusing to see Bryan Brown turn up as one of the storytellers, but his yarn does not have the archetypal weight of the better installments. Easily, the most emotionally resonant tale is logically the final chapter, whereas the penultimate segment features the liveliest delivery. Oddly, the weakest anecdote, a mere sketch about a traditional aboriginal grandfather’s response to a lunar eclipse apparently inspired the one-sheet, but at least most of the constituent ghost stories hold some sort of deeper cultural significance.

Executed with tremendous sensitivity, Darkside is a quiet film that takes its time finding its footing, with some of the earlier stories feeling like warm-ups for the heavier stuff to follow. It is a bit unusual to have a Margaret Mead selection that is so appropriate for Halloween programming, but its concern for indigenous people and oral history nicely fits the festival’s mission. More elegiac than scary overall, The Darkside is recommended for viewers interested in indigenous Australian culture and the ghost story-telling tradition when it screens this coming Sunday (10/26) at the American Museum of Natural History as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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Exists: Bigfoot Stomps About

It turns out Bigfoot is as big and blurry as he looks in photos. Frankly, it is probably smart not to show too much of your monster, too soon. Of course, if anyone knows their way around a found footage horror film it is Blair Witch and VHS2 co-director Eduardo Sánchez. An annoying camera geek will naturally have the tools to document the mayhem when a group of friends get on Sasquatch’s bad side in Sánchez’s Exists (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For some reason, Uncle Bob stopped going to his rustic hunting cabin, so his nephews Matt and Brian had to steal the keys for a weekend getaway. Convinced it will be Shangri-La up there, they drag along Matt’s girlfriend, their pal Todd, and his girlfriend. Actually, their friends are more Matt’s than Brian’s. Matt is the brooding, popular brother, while Brian is the goofy one who hopes to post a Bigfoot video on youtube. Oh, he’ll have some footage alright. However, he was asleep when their car hit some sort of mysterious furry object.

No, whatever it was, it was not a deer. The state of Uncle Bob’s cabin is also a bit of a buzz kill. It sure looks like he left in a hurry. Nevertheless, the five not-as-young-as-they-act partiers start drinking and getting on each other’s nerves before Bigfoot basically lays siege to the joint. Unfortunately, ‘Quatch is probably the smartest character in the film.

To be fair, Chris Osborn is not bad as Brian, nibbling on the scenery here and there. In contrast, the rest of the ensemble is so nondescript viewers will hardly remember them from scene to scene. Still, the Sasquatch could serve as a highly credible Wookie audition for big and athletic Brian Steele.

Exists is like the Busch Beer of horror movies. If you want to sit back and savor a drink, there are much more refined options, but if you just want to get hammered, it will get the job done. We have seen found footage of plenty other cabins in the woods, but Sánchez has a strong command of the genre mechanics. Shrewdly, he keeps the big harry one under wraps in the early going, framing some rather effective what-did-we-just-see-out-of-the-corner-of-our-eyes shots.

Even if it does not break any new genre ground, Exists is a lean and brisk foray into the dark woods, thanks to Mike Elizalde’s creature design, Andrew Eckblad and Andy Jenkins’ tight editing, and Sánchez’s willingness to occasionally fudge the found-footage format. There are better Halloween selections screening during Anthology Film Archives’ Industrial Terror series, but there are far worse possibilities at the multiplex. It opens this Friday (10/24) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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UNAFF ’14: The Gold Spinners

He was Soviet Estonia’s Don Draper, the only Mad Man operating in a barking mad system. Thanks to a unique set of circumstances, his Esti Reklaamfilm (ERF) Studio prospered nicely as the only production house for television commercials in the USSR. Peedu Ojamaa looks back on his strange but groovy career in Hardi Volmer & Kiur Aarma’s The Gold Spinners (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

Ojamaa started at as a cub reporter, transitioning into newsreel production, specializing in uncommonly watchable reports, at least by the admittedly dismal standards of the Soviet media. Of course, Estonians were familiar with the TV commercial as concept, because they were furtively watching Finnish broadcasts (by all means, see Aarma’s even more rollicking Disco and Atomic War for the full glorious story).

Why oh why, would a Socialist Workers’ Paradise need something as crassly capitalistic as the commercial spot? To help perpetuate certain illusions, such as the non-existent demand for some state-mandated products. Conversely, even though scarcities like butter and sugar would immediately sell-out anyway, ERF’s commercials created a false image of plenty.

Arguably, Ojamaa became the first crony capitalist when Soviet planners, in their infinite wisdom, declared one percent of all state enterprises’ annual budgets had to be spent on advertising. As a result, ERF probably produced spots for products that never really existed—and the likely examples are pretty incredible to behold. Frankly, many of ERF’s commercials are considerably more entertaining than Super Bowl ads, like animator Priit Pärn’s energy conservation PSA. While prudish Party censors maintained a tight rein on programming, ERF was also apparently “free” to pursue the old adage “sex sells,” so parents be warned.

Granted, there is a good deal of nostalgia for the work ERF produced, but no illusions regarding the corruption and inefficiency of the Soviet Socialist system. One might say, Volmer and Aarma treat the Communist era with the irony it deserves. Regardless, the impish humor of both the film and the commercials it documents are quite winning.

Indeed, Spinners has the same punchy editing, subversive humor, upbeat soundtrack, and wickedly insightful cultural-political history that made Disco such a blast. Aarma and his collaborators on both films prove documentaries can be wildly entertaining and enormously informative at the same time. Very highly recommended, The Gold Spinners screens this Sunday (10/26) as part of session 29 of this year’s UNAFF.

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Industrial Terror: The Night of the Living Dead

It was the very last film ever screened at the late, lamented Two Boots Pioneer Theater. Obviously, they had no intentions of going quietly. It was also one the few films broadcast on MTV at the height of its 1980s cool cachet and now holds a richly deserved spot on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Yet, the auteur who would inaugurate the zombie genre spent years whipping up commercials for Pittsburgh television as one of the principals of the Latent Image production house. Rightly and necessarily, George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead screens together with a selection of his commercial work as part of Anthology Film Archive’s Industrial Terror film series.

Somehow this film is just as potent the twentieth or thirtieth time around. As you really ought to know, at least according to the LOC, the original Living Dead follows the plight of a group of strangers stranded in a farm house during a mysterious zombie apocalypse. Yet, despite the peril outside, they end up turning on each other.

It is a simple formula many have tried to replicate, but never with the same success. Romero masterfully doles out information via the unreliable media, using zombies sparingly in the second act. Instead, he relies on human nature to build the tension. Of course, he delivers the zombie cannibalism when he is good and ready.

On yet another repeat viewing, a few things jump out about Living Dead. After witnessing her brother’s death, the character of Barbra spends the rest of the film in a state of shock, which we rarely see in horror movies, but it is a much more believable response than dropping a series of ironic pop culture references.

While it has been said before, Duane Jones really should have become a much bigger star. He immediately instills viewer confidence as Ben and the subtle manner in which he takes a protective interest in Barbra is quite touching. A few more of him and things might have turned out better.

Keith Wayne’s Tom also serves as an effective audience surrogate. He is the sort of conciliator you want in your life boat and he is handy with tools. Yet, it is probably Bill Hinzman who truly made the film. As the first zombie in the cemetery, his gaunt face has become an iconic image of cinematic zombies.

Decades later, Living Dead’s conclusion remains the same stinging slap in the face. Indeed, it all holds up remarkably well. You have seen it before, but this is the perfect venue to see it again, along with some apt commercial selections, including a groovy riff on Fantastic Voyage for Calgon and a racially-themed presidential campaign spot, which should scare the willies out of everyone with the prospects of a McGovern administration. Highly recommended under any circumstances, the original black-and-white (non-colorized) Night of the Living Dead screens this Saturday (10/25) and Tuesday (10/28) at Anthology Film Archives, as part of Industrial Terror.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

1,000 Times Good Night: Getting the Shot, No Matter the Cost

Yes, women have also become homicide-suicide bombers in Afghanistan. An Irish photojournalist with the hints of a French accent has the photos to prove it. In fact, she could not stop taking them, contributing to a premature detonation while she was still within the general blast area. She survives, but the damage done to her family unit will be harder to patch-up in Erik Poppe’s 1,000 Times Good Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

If you find it problematic to compulsively document (and consequently somewhat fetishize) a terrorist bomber’s final hours, than congratulations. You had the appropriate human response. On the other hand, Rebecca argues she is bearing witness to the inhumanity of the world, but at some point bearing witness will come to resemble abetting through inaction.

Good Night’s opening sequence consists of some truly provocative, visceral stuff, but to really understand it, you also have to see the symmetrically related conclusion. Ultimately, the film forces Rebecca to confront the ethics of her calling in gut-wrenching, soul-churning terms. However, to reach that point, we have to slog through some just okay family drama.

When Rebecca is finally discharged from the hospital, she has clearly lost a step physically and might be gun-shy for the first time in her career. Her marine-biologist husband Marcus is ready to divorce her and their daughters are emotionally reeling from the near permanent loss of their often absent mother. Frankly, the youngster bounces back faster than moody teenaged Steph, perhaps because the older girl better understood the circumstances. For the sake of her family, Rebecca resolves to retire, but maybe she can be convinced to take Steph on a bonding tour of a Kenyan refugee camp, because it’s absolutely, positively safe as houses.

If Juliette Binoche ever gave a bad performance, the sun might start orbiting the earth. In fact, she is admirably restrained, given the horrors her character witnesses and the bodily and spiritual wounds she suffers (had Meryl Streep overacted the part in her place, she would have been rending her garments and howling at the moon). Instead, Binoche smartly and convincingly portrays a woman forced to emotionally blinker herself, for survival’s sake.

While the mother-daughter melodrama becomes tiresome over time, Lauryn Canny is still quite impressive as Steph. Likewise, Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau does his best to scratch out something as the long suffering hubby. U2 fans should also keep their eyes open for Larry Mullen, Jr, who is perfectly respectable as Tom, a friend of the family.

Good Night is an uneven film, but when it does connect, it is with a haymaker. You have to keep with it, but it is worth it if you do. Recommended on balance, 1,000 Times Good Night opens this Friday (10/24) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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Margaret Mead ’14: Kismet

Many of them sound more like telenovelas than soap operas, but whatever you call them, Turkish television serial melodramas are doing boffo business internationally. Bulgaria and Greece are important markets, but the popularity of Turkish television has exploded in the Middle East. Greek filmmaker Nina Maria Paschalidou documents the progressive influence of Turkey’s primetime soaps in Kismet (trailer here), which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Only in the Middle East could a series about a sultan and his harem be considered liberal and progressive. That would definitely be the awkward case study in Kismet. A far better example is Fatmagul, an extraordinary bold drama following a woman’s quest to bring her three rapists to justice. In the Islamist world, that is explosive stuff. Other shows frankly address issues such as arranged marriages to child brides, spousal abuse, and genital mutilation, inspiring women to speak out and even seek divorces. Not surprisingly, one misogynistic bureaucrat in the Emirates’ Department of Religious Affairs launches into quite a tirade against Turkish television (it goes without saying, but if your government has some sort of Department of Religion, you probably live in a theocratic fever-swamp).

Paschalidou profiles the fans who watch the programming, the cast-members they adore, and the creative staff (often led by women) who put them together and keep them going. While the strongest sequences focus on the Middle Eastern market, she also interviews fans in Bulgaria and Greece (where there is also growing resentment of Turkish programming, not for ideologically reasons, but simply due to its Turkishness).

Frankly, Kismet’s execution will not blow anyone away, but the premise is fascinating. Paschalidou vividly illustrates her points with film clips shrewdly selected for their taboo-breaking content and their inherent theatricality. You are unlikely to see any of these shows picked up by American broadcasters anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. Still, a program like Fatmagul really ought to be available to some extent, just for the way it uncompromisingly reflects the violence and exploitation of women endured by women in the Middle East (and the greater Islamic world).

Having received production support from Al Jazeera and clocking in at about an hour, Kismet definitely has the feel of a television special report, albeit one of reasonable depth and substance. However, you are unlikely to see the hidebound news media tackle this subject, so intrigued viewers should see it now. Recommended for patrons concerned about global women’s rights, Kismet screens this Friday (10/24) at the AMNH, as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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Cannibal: The Tailor of Granada

He has the fastidiousness of Hannibal Lecter and the social grace of Norman Bates. He has his faults, but his work is extremely dignified. He is Granada’s finest tailor. He also cooks—people. However, the threadsmith may or may not try to turn over a new leaf in Manuel Martín Cuenca’s Cannibal (trailer here), available on DVD today from Film Movement.

Outside of the kitchen, Carlos definitely seems to have issues with women. We never really learn how he reached this point, but the comments of his cranky old seamstress suggest he was always a little off. We immediately see Carlos stalking his prey and the almost sensual manner in which he goes about the butchery. He seems comfortable with his predatory existence until two Romanian sisters throw him off his game. Alexandra is the player and Nina is the plugger. When the former moves into his apartment building, she first tries to use the resolutely unseduced tailor to help build a clientele for her massage services. Soon though, she is pulling him into a drama with her abusive boyfriend.

When Alexandra disappears under mysterious circumstances, the earnest Nina comes looking for her. Despite his better judgment, Carlos constantly offers her small bits of assistance. Clearly, he feels an attraction to her, but is it romantic or culinary?

Without question, this has to be the most restrained cannibal movie in the history of the exploitation subgenre. There is no gore and precious little blood, but it shows the savagery of human nature in no uncertain terms. Cuenca also revels in the city’s ancient architecture and prominent Catholic trappings, using them as an ironic counterpoint to Carlos’s unspeakably lurid deeds.

Cannibal will be a hard film for man viewers to swallow, because it definitely invites sympathy for the devil or at least prompts us to root for him to change his spots. There is a lot of ambiguity, but arguably heinous sin will be its own punishment. Indeed, Cuenca’s film is light-years removed from Cannibal Apocalypse. In point of fact, it is shockingly refined and sophisticated, featuring the truly elegant cinematography of Pau Esteve Birba. Throughout the film, you can just feel the weight of Andalusian history and smell the humid evening air.

Aside from a few stock figures here and there, Cannibal is essentially a three-character two-hander, with Olimpia Melinte playing both sisters. In each personas, she develops subtly hued, erotically charged chemistry with Antonio de la Torre’s Carlos, who really supplies the bloody guts and dark soul of the picture. Arguably, it is the best cinematic serial killer performance since Anthony Perkins made the terribly under-appreciated Psycho sequels in the 980s, but de la Torre did not have the benefit of Norman Bates’ somewhat sympathetic backstory.

Cannibal is a strangely accomplished and deliberate film that slowly builds into classical tragedy rather blood-splattered mayhem. Its audience will fall within a narrow band of the cineaste spectrum, being too refined for midnight movie fanatics and too transgressive for proper art-house patrons. Recommended accordingly for adventurous and demanding viewers, Cannibal is now available on DVD from Film Movement.

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UNAFF ’14: My Stolen Revolution

It is pretty heavy when an atheist Marxist confesses nostalgia for the Shah of Iran. Nahid Persson Sarvestani does not express such a sentiment in those exact terms, but she comes close, readily arguing the Islamist regime that followed the Shah’s secular authoritarian rule turned out to be far, far worse. Essentially establishing the Islamist-theocratic corollary to the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, Persson Sarvestani collects the harrowing oral history of several former comrades in My Stolen Revolution (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

As a teenager, Persson Sarvestani was an ardent leftist, who had no qualms about joining forces with the Islamic fundamentalists against the Shah. In retrospect, this was a mistake. She ruefully admits the Islamists had superior organization, which launched them into power when Carter pulled the rug out from under our ally the Shah. Soon, the new regime was imprisoning and torturing proven troublemakers like Persson Sarvestani. Although she was able to get out of the country while the getting was good, her younger brother was executed in her place.

Long nurturing an acute case of survivor’s guilt, Persson Sarvestani sought out several revolutionary comrades who were not so fortunate, in the hope they could offer some insight regarding her brother’s final days. However, the reunion with her former cadre leader does not go so well. Persson Sarvestani is appalled to find the good leftist has found solace in the Muslim faith she once rejected. For Persson Sarvestani, that is a deal-breaker.

Fortunately, the subsequent colleagues she tracks down have remained reasonably true to their ideals. Instead of a misogynistic religion, they take comfort in art. Unlike Persson Sarvestani they saw the insides of Iran’s political prisons and lived to tell about it—barely. Indeed, most of the women are dealing with the lingering pain and physical ailments caused by the extreme torture they endured.

Their stories are so harrowing it is no exaggeration to say Persson Sarvestani’s experiences pale in comparison. She is clearly just as aware of this as viewers will be, yet there is still an awful lot of her throughout the film. When she invites her new friends on a retreat to share their testimony, the film would have been better served if she had just stepped out of the way, rather than making such a point of grappling with her own feelings.

Nevertheless, the women’s individual indictments of the Revolutionary regime are powerful stuff. Of course, the ruling ideology and theocratic state apparatus responsible for the physical and psychological torture of sixteen year old girls remains unchanged. Despite a few video diary indulgences, My Stolen Revolution is a timely and valuable film. Recommended for viewers concerned about international women’s rights, it screens this Saturday (10/25) in Palo Alto, as part of session 25 of this year’s UNAFF.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me: the Long Farewell

As a one-time member of the first-call studio ensemble, the Wrecking Crew, Glen Campbell could definitely play. His livelihood depended on it. That musical prowess will not abandon Campbell, even when he faces the early and intermediate stages of Alzheimer’s. His “Goodbye Tour” will be a tense high-wire for his family and sidemen, but there will be moments that justify the stress. James Keach documents the good times and mounting frustrations on-stage and behind-the-scenes in Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For those who only know “Rhinestone Cowboy” in a rather condescending way, Keach does a nice job encapsulating Campbell career in the film’s opening minutes. He and his fourth wife Kim (a former Rockette) will soon get the unambiguous confirmation of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Even at this early stage, it is clear she understands the implications far better than he. In fact, Kim Campbell is really the protagonist of I’ll Be Me more than her husband, because she is the one who will take the responsibility and do the work, with the help of their grown children Ashley, Cal, and Shannon, who are also regular members of Campbell’s band.

Despite the risks, the Campbells decide to embark on one last tour, as a way to give longtime fans a sense of closure. In the early going, performing also seems to have a therapeutic benefit for Campbell. The shows are generally quite good, but there are always awkward moments that will become more frequent over time.

In many ways, I’ll Be Me is the equal inverse film of Alan Hicks’ Keep on Keepin’ On, documenting Clark Terry’s continuing dedication to his student while his physical health precipitously declines. Terry’s body might be failing him, but he remains a supportive and insightful music teacher and mentor. On the other hand, Campbell is still strong as a bull, but his brain chemistry is betraying him.

By its very nature, I’ll Be Me asks just what performers owe to their fans and vice versa. Like most real musicians, Campbell during happier days would probably have said he owed them everything and they owed him nothing. Yet, the way the fans pick him up and cover for his rough patches during the later dates is rather touching. So too are bonds shared by Campbell, his wife, and their children. In fact, I’ll Be Me could very well launch Ashley Campbell as a chart-topper in her own right. Yes, she is photogenic, but she can also play like a chip off the block.

In any documentary closely chronicling sickness and tribulation, there is always the risk of confusing exploitation with intimacy. Keach always stays on the right side of the line, showing enough for reality to hit home, but never intruding into the truly ugly moments. Sensitive to all concerned but still honest to the circumstances, he largely redeems himself for helming the misguidedly cloying Waiting for Forever. Recommended for fans of Campbell and fans of his fans (such as Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, and Taylor Swift), Glen Campbell I’ll Be Me opens this Friday (10/24) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Industrial Terror: Carnival of Souls

It must be the only film selected for both the Criterion Collection and the Rifftrax treatment. Rightly or wrongly, it was largely ignored when first released and would be the only feature narrative helmed by its producer-director. Yet, Herk Harvey remained a prolific filmmaker, releasing scores of educational shorts through his Kansas-based Centron Corporation. Like Harvey, many future horror auteurs honed their craft and bided their time making educational and industrial films that often strangely foreshadow their macabre work to come. Fittingly, Harvey’s Carnival of Souls with the Centron short None for the Road screen together during Anthology Film Archive’s before-and-after film series, Industrial Terror.

When reluctant street racing passenger Mary Henry manages to walk away from a fatal accident, it ought to be an occasion for some soul searching. However, she seems determined not to process it. Always temperamentally aloof, she simply proceeds with her prior plans, accepting a church organist position in Utah arranged by the owner of the local pipe organ factory. In her new town, Henry tries her best to cut herself off from social contact, even though she dearly needs an emotional support system.

Beginning during her lonely drive into town, Henry has been haunted by visions of a ghoulish man. Perhaps even more troubling, she experiences episodes of time-stoppage, during which the townspeople around appear oblivious to her freaked-out presence. Spurning offers of help from the kindly priest and concerned Dr. Samuels, Henry becomes increasingly obsessed with the darkly picturesque abandoned carnival outside of town.

That carnival setting is definitely creepy, but most of Harvey’s film is a rather Edward Hopper-esque take on the horror movie genre. There is no gore at all, but the lighting and shadows are all kinds of eerie. Refreshingly, this is the sort of film where priests and factory owners are good people. Unfortunately for Henry, there is also very real supernatural business afoot.

Granted, some of the line readings are a little stilted, but Harvey’s visual style is remarkably accomplished, particularly his smooth jump-cut transitions. He patiently builds an atmosphere of foreboding, rather than resorting to sudden shock scares, perfectly supported and emphasized by Gene Moore’s unnerving organ score.

The performance of method-trained Candace Hilligoss (who bears some resemblance to Judith O’Dea in Romero’s original Night of the Living, another Industrial Terror selection) is almost too inwardly focused for the demands of the genre, but she is certainly convincingly brittle and standoffish. While the supporting ensemble is admittedly all over the place, Stan Levitt provides a solid anchor as Dr. Samuels and Harvey himself is effectively ghastly as the ashen apparition man.

Carnival will have its critical champions and detractors, but you can see its influence in scores of films, such as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. It is a strong example of the greater efficacy of suggestiveness rather than splatter in horror movies. Thematically, it is also a good fit with None for the Road, in which a research scientist gets lab mice hammered and tries to balance them on metal dowels, while telling kids if they are going to drink and drive, get so blitzed the Highway Patrol is guaranteed to pull them over. Science is hardcore. Carnival of Souls is also weirdly potent stuff. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (10/24) and next Tuesday (10/28) as part of Industrial Terror at Anthology Film Archives.

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Frank Capra at Film Forum: The Donovan Affair

Although everyone recognizes Frank Capra was spoofing old dark house mysteries in Arsenic and Old Lace, few understood he was also spoofing himself. That is because his very first 100% talky was a murder mystery set in an atmospheric manor, but almost nobody has seen it since its 1929 premiere. Perversely, there is decent print preserved in the Library of Congress, but none of its sixteen inch Vitaphone soundtrack discs survive. On the other hand, we have the sound for its trailer, but not the film.

As part of his efforts to mount comprehensive Capra retrospectives, Film Forum repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein has reconstructed the dialogue to produce special “live read” presentations of Capra’s The Donovan Affair. Twenty-some years in development, Goldstein and company’s stagings were a highlight of last year’s TCM Film Festival and the current Frank Capra film series soon to conclude at Film Forum.

Jack Donovan is a gambler, adventurer, and all around cad. If you didn’t want to kill him, you probably didn’t know him very well. His next dinner date will be his last. He has been invited to the birthday party of Capt. Peter Rankin, who hates his guts, because he knows Donovan has been blackmailing his trophy wife Lydia (but he has not used any of the proceeds to pay off his gambling debts). Donovan also has eyes for her step-daughter, which rankles her tightly wound fiancé. To make matters worse, Donovan happens to be available now that he seduced and subsequently abandoned the Rankin’s maid.

Yes, Donovan only has himself to blame, especially when he has the lights turned out to show off his glowing cat’s eye ring, in a scene that only works in a synch-sound picture. When the lights come on again, we see someone has availed themselves of the opportunity to dispatch the heel. Soon the blustering Inspector Killian and his oafish right-hand man Carney are on the scene, but they do not inspire much confidence, especially when their attempt to recreate the murder works a little too well.

Yes, if we could hear them, Jack Holt and Fred Kelsey are probably putting the “ick” in shtick as Killian and Carney, but Capra seems to be having great fun playing with sound. Complicating matters for Goldstein and crew, Capra experiments with conversations conducted between people in different rooms, often outside the camera’s field of vision. Plus there are plenty of those chaos-generating blackouts. It is quite the tricky shoot, featuring a good deal of skulking outside the house and the exchanging of loaded glances.

Eschewing the MST3K aesthetic, the live read cast plays it scrupulously straight within the film’s dramatic context. Of course, they still convey the larger than life nature of their characters, maintaining an appropriately madcap energy level. For many viewers, Boardwalk Empire’s Allen Lewis Rickman and The Practice’s Michael Badalucco will be the most recognizable fuming and bickering away as Killian and Carney, respectively. However, for discerning patrons, James Karen is the man, having appeared in The Return of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, Samuel Beckett’s Film, and the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Yes, wow. Naturally, he brings the voice of authority to Capt. Rankin.

From time to time, lost films are rediscovered, but this is more like a resurrection. Donovan must have been somewhat successful, since Capra’s career continued on an upward trajectory following its release. It is clearly a product of its time, but it is frankly scandalous that Columbia could misplace both the sound and the script (forcing Goldstein and his cast to supplement an incomplete dialogue transcript found in the files of the defunct New York State Board of Film Censors with studious lip-reading sessions). This Frank Capra we are talking about. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are not just movies, they are pillars of American culture.

The effort was definitely worth it. Despite the nostalgic creakiness of the film, it leads to a greater appreciation of the breadth and depth of Capra’s career and his early mastery of sound. It is also just a lot of fun to watch the dark and stormy bedlam. This is something you cannot see every day, so if Goldstein and the Donovan players ever mount a live-read near you, jump at the chance to see it. The Donovan Affair definitely added something special to Film Forum’s Capra retro, but they have yet another special to come. Following the Wednesday night (10/22) screening of You Can’t Take It With You, Rickman will moderate a Q&A with Anne Kaufman and Chris Hart, the daughter and son of playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

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Submitted by Sweden: Force Majeure

At least it was an iPhone. If it had been a generic droid Tomas grabbed before abandoning his family in the face of an apparent but unrealized disaster, it really would have been embarrassing. His wife is still pretty disgusted, but he will deny everything in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

With its Cannes credentials, Force was a logical choice for Sweden’s official foreign language Academy Award submission, but it is not the sort sentimental cheer that warms older members’ hearts. Nevertheless, it is a story about family. Swedish workaholic (if such a person exists) Tomas has finally set aside five days for a skiing trip in the French Alps. The view is spectacular from a mountainside restaurant, but when a controlled avalanche gets a little too close, Tomas grabs said phone and skedaddles, leaving Ebba behind with their young son and tweener daughter. When he sheepishly returns, acting as if nothing happened, their meals are covered in a light dusting of snow, but the damage to their family unit will be considerable.

While Tomas tries to play it off, Ebba keeps forcing the issue throughout the increasingly testy day, even bringing casual acquaintances at the lodge into their drama. Despite their attempts to shield the kids from the worst of it, the issue continues to fester with everyone. When Tomas’s mate Mats arrives with his twenty year old girl friend, they are effectively enlisted to render an independent judgment. However, the loaded story fuels their own clash of the sexes.

If Östlund set out hoping to make viewers wince and whisper “wow, that’s awkward” than Force is a smashing success. He has a real knack for putting his characters under a microscope and making them squirm, which is impressive (and exhausting) to watch. He also cleverly transforms the relatively mundane hotel setting into something cold, dark, and severe, often showing the couples’ confrontations from the perspective of a janitor watching from across the rotunda.

In terms of tone, Force is reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s dogme classic The Celebration, except no laws are broken. Yet, there is certainly a strong sense of betrayal when Tomas fails to uphold the unspoken standards of masculinity and fatherhood. While the mountains dwarf Östlund’s characters, his interior shots have a palpable sense of claustrophobia.

Lisa Loven Kongsli’s performance as Ebba is smart and, if you will, forceful. You can see her picking the emotional scab for almost masochistic and sadist reasons alike, but she never launches into outrageously over-the-top-Meryl-Streep-in-Osage-County territory. In contrast, it is Johannes Kuhnke’s job to slowly deflate Tomas, which he does quite convincingly. Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju’s Mats is also quite an engaging sad sack inadvertently caught up in his pal’s mess.

Strangely, Östlund leaves the door open for redemption in a finale that seems quite out of place compared to everything it follows, but he never does any favors for tourism in the French Alps. This film will make the beach look like a better destination until the next tsunami movie comes along. A bracingly well play spectacle of family disintegration, Force Majeure is recommended for those who appreciate caustic chamber dramas when it opens this Friday (10/24) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

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White Bird in a Blizzard: Gregg Araki Goes Back to the Late 1980s

Tired of movies based on YA tearjerkers and dystopian potboilers? Refreshingly, Laura Kasischke writes novels for grown-ups. As for Gregg Araki, he often makes films about teenagers that only adults are old enough to watch. It might seem like an unlikely combination of sensibilities, but it mostly works in Araki’s adaptation of White Bird in a Blizzard (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is the late 1980s, but Eve Connor acts like she just walked out of a Douglas Sirk movie. Rather than dying on the inside, the ostensibly perfect homemaker makes her family miserable, particularly her husband, Brock. Their daughter Kat tries to stay out of the fray, preferring to hang with her hipster outcast friends and hook-up with Phil, her pseudo-boyfriend, who lives across the street. Yet, she still notices her mother’s increasingly erratic behavior in the days leading up to her mysterious disappearance.

Told in retrospect, sort like a sexually charged, had-I-only-known Mary Roberts Rinehart novel, White Bird examines the ways Kat Connor deals with her mother’s absence—a process that definitely includes resentment and denial. Still, certain opportunities come with mystery, such as her semi-regular trysts with the investigating officer, Det. Scieziesciez. He has his own Nancy Grace-like theories regarding her mother’s fate, but she does not want to hear them. Yet, when she returns from her first semester of college, Connor suddenly starts to crave some closure.

Although White Bird is downright restrained compared to Araki’s wickedly entertaining Kaboom and most of his prior films, he is still working with familiar elements, especially the horny teenagers. He also goes for broke with the third acts twists that should satisfy his cult indie fanbase, but it is really a period domestic mystery and works rather well in that context.

It is hard to think of the late 1980s/early 1990s as a period setting, but Araki and the design team capture the era’s look, texture, music, and zeitgeist quite well. Connor’s frequently self-referential narration might take some viewers out of the film, but fans will understand a Gregg Araki joint is the perfect place for knowing sarcasm.

He also has a perfect mouthpiece in Shailene Woodley. Forget about those love-struck teens with cancer, this should be considered her breakout star-vehicle, because she carries the film through sheer verve and attitude. Of course, Eva Green was born to play a hot mess like Eve Connor and she delivers accordingly. Christopher Meloni sneaks up on viewers quite efficaciously as the compliant but tightly wound Brock Connor, but unfortunately, Shiloh Fernandez’s vacuous presence becomes increasingly problematic for Phil from the block.

Instead of an over-the-top bacchanal, White Bird represents quite a richly realized accomplishment of mise-en-scène. Somehow Araki maintains a vibe that is simultaneously nostalgic and insidious, getting some suitably cagey work from his cast. Recommended for fans of subversive mystery-thrillers, White Bird in a Blizzard opens this Friday (10/24) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

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UNAFF ’14: When You Can’t See the Film

For Hollywood, Chinese multiplexes are paved with gold. Unfortunately, you will be more likely to see a leprechaun inside one than a locally produced independent film or documentary. Any film accurately reflecting the struggles of China’s underclass and the corruption of the Communist government will never be approved for domestic distribution. Of course, that will not be an issue for our left coast moguls, but it is a persistent frustration for discerning cineastes and just plain curious viewers. The sad state of official Chinese film distribution is analyzed in Yijun He’s short but revealing documentary, When You Can’t See the Film, which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

Sadly, Yijun’s film is especially timely in the wake of thuggish forced closure of this year’s Beijing Independent Film Festival. This is a familiar story to small but hearty band of the underground film clubs that have sprung up to fill the demand for unsanctioned independent film, particularly documentaries. Often meeting in bars or universities, organizers risk arrest and persecution for the sake of cinema, but they are not bandits. Clubs always screen films with the consent and participation of filmmakers grateful to have a forum for their works, typically offering a small honorarium for their appearance.

Since their previous venues were shut down under suspicious circumstances, the primary club featured in WYCSTF ironically rents space from a local multiplex, sort of following the hide-in-plain-sight strategy. It is nice to see American documentarian J.P. Sniadecki (whose The Iron Ministry was one of the unlikely hits of this year’s NYFF) present his previous film Yumen and graciously engage with patrons. On the state authorities’ Richter scale, Yumen is probably about a three, given it applies Sniadecki’s uncompromising ethnographic observational aesthetic to an abandoned Northwest industrial ghost town.

However, Xu Xin’s Karamay qualifies as a radioactive ten-plus. The nearly six hour epic documentary expose the infamous (despite a total media blackout) fire in which nearly three hundred school children perished while government officials were ushered to safety. It is clearly the film to program if you want your screening swarming with cops.

The club organizers Yijun profiles and the filmmakers they support truly represent independent film in its bravest and most honest manifestation. It puts to shame our smug little so-called indies that cling to the label and the marketing platforms that come with it. At a svelte thirty minutes, When You Can’t See the Film is quite illuminating and sadly frustrating for film lovers. Highly recommended, it screens this Saturday (10/25) in Palo Alto, as part of session 27 of this year’s UNAFF.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Margaret Mead ’14: Jalanan

It is like an Indonesian Once, except these real life buskers have a far more difficult time scraping out a subsistence living on the streets of Jakarta. They have considerable talent, but Indonesia is a tough room to play. Music, culture, and local regulations all collide in Daniel Ziv’s documentary, Jalanan (trailer here), which screens during the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Jalanan means “streetside”—and that is exactly where Ziv’s three primary buskers play. It is also more or less where Boni Putera and his family live. For ten years, they have squatted beneath an underpass, jury-rigging a rather impressive system of plumbing. As street living goes, it is relatively comfortable, but there are drawbacks, especially when the canal floods.

Even though she does not wear a headscarf, Titi Juwariyah often incorporates her Islamic faith into her lyrics. Of course, they usually garner respectable tips from more devout commuters. Frankly, through her experiences, viewers get a very personal sense of what it is like being a Muslim woman in the Southeast Asian country, especially with respects to parental rights (which will be denied to her) and educational opportunities (which were cut short for her at an early age).

As the most political of the buskers, it is not surprising Bambang “Ho” Mulyono serves some jail time, but he is picked rather randomly as part of the cops’ general campaign against fun and reason. He is not the only one temporarily imprisoned on dubious pretenses, but at least he eventually wriggles loose. In fact, he might have the most optimistic arc of the trio.

There is a lot of messy life happening in Jalanan, including significant good things and unresolved bad things, but the greatest surprise of the film is probably the quality of their music. Yes, they are street buskers, but they should in no way be confused with the “smile, it won’t mess up your hair” dude who sometimes warbles on the 6 train. Frankly, they are considerably better than your average hipster coffeehouse singer-songwriters. Their tunes are distinctive and their lyrics often have heavy meaning.

Whenever a documentary closely observes the trials and tribulations of those living in extreme poverty, the appearance of exploitation is always an issue. However, Ziv has apparently put some of his money where his lens was, starting and donating to a permanent housing fund for his subjects. He certainly pulls viewers into their lives, emphasizing the specificities of Indonesian life. In fact, the general hopefulness of Jalanan distinguishes it from many well-meaning but downbeat (and often condescending) documentary guilt trips focused on the developing world. Combining cultural insights with some catchy music, Jalanan is recommended socially conscious and busker-conscious audiences when it screens this Friday (10/24) at the AMNH, as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Twin Sisters: Separated but Profoundly Linked

It is hard to imagine how a parent could ever abandon two good kids like Mia and Alexandra, but China’s draconian One Child policy and the extreme rural poverty force people to do desperate things. At least they were each adopted into loving homes—that is each of them separately. Evidently, the orphanage thought they stood a better chance of adoption individually, rather than as a package deal. However, through the intercession of fate, the sisters would maintain not just an awareness, but also a love for each other, despite living on opposite sides of the Earth. Mona Friis Bertheussen documents their indomitable bond in Twin Sisters (trailer here), which airs this Monday as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

In 2003, the Hauglums from Norway and the Hansens from Sacramento came to China to adopt a baby girl. The Norwegian group was supposed to be gone by the time the American adoptees arrived, but events conspired to delay the Hauglums. Suddenly, they were amazed to see the Hansens holding a little girl, who was the spitting image of their Alexandra. Despite the orphanage’s denials, they exchanged contact information and eventually performed a DNA test, but it would hardly be necessary as the girls got older. Seriously, look at them.

Although there are cultural and linguistic barriers, both girls grow up feeling a deep connection to each, even though they had never really met. Eventually, the parents arrange to visit each other and are rather staggered by the girls’ similar mannerisms and personalities.

Obviously, the twins’ situation is imperfect, since they would dearly wish to live together, but their respective parents are good people, who do the best they can. Frankly, that is quite nice to see in a documentary, for a change. For sociologists, there is probably plenty of nature versus nurture grist as well, but most viewers will just be charmed by the sweet tempered girls themselves.

Cheers to Bertheussen for making Sisters, because its European festival screenings served as another catalyst to bring together the twins. However, there is a conspicuous lack of follow-up with respects to the orphanage. Many viewers might like to see her try to get some bureaucrat there to admit on-camera they flat-out lied, as the Hansens and Hauglums can prove. Instead, she maintains her focus on the families, preferring a humanist vibe over potential confrontations.

Consequently, Twin Sisters is a sensitive film that borders on outright feel-goodism. Bertheussen’s young subjects are more than engaging enough to sustain the film, convincing viewers China’s loss will be America and Norway’s considerable gain0. Recommended for those in search of wholesome family viewing, Twin Sisters airs this Monday (10/20) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Young Ones: It Makes You Miss Rik Mayall Even More

For centuries of human history, more battles have been fought over water than probably any other natural resource. Apparently, Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother only recently discovered the strategic value of water, but he is duly impressed. Unfortunately, viewers will find an entertainment drought in Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Ernest Holm was once a farmer, but his parched land is almost as arid as the characters he encounters. Following some sort of vaguely defined environmental disaster, Holm and his socially underdeveloped son Jerome eke out a modest living selling supplies to the knuckle-draggers working for the corrupt water works in the mountains. Flem Lever (a name everyone says with a straight face, to their estimable credit) covets Holm’s trading business and his eternally distant daughter, Mary. Despite Holm’s rugged manliness, the pretty boy Lever still manages to kill him in the desert, framing his new pack mule android for the murder most foul.

Of course, it takes Jerome quite a while to suspect Lever, because intuition hardly runs in the family. Ironically, Lever is much better suited to reversing the family’s fortunes, given his devious nature and ruthless follow-through. Nevertheless, little Jerome will get himself some payback when the time is right.

Ernest Holm is the sort of role Michael Shannon was born to play, but sadly that is the only bit of casting that makes sense in Young Ones. A slow burning brooder like Shannon should be counterbalanced with someone who can project and maybe even chew a bit of scenery. Instead, for Holm’s sort of grown children, Paltrow calls on Kodi Smit-McPhee and Elle Fanning, two of the mousiest screen thesps you will ever come across. Watching them shuffle around the farm makes the films of Bela Tarr look like madcap romps.

Without question, Young Ones’ MVP is cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who also lensed Perfect Sense, an infinitely superior apocalyptic allegory. He gives the parched vistas the proper John Ford treatment, but unfortunately he does not have much else to shoot in terms of narrative or characters. Unremittingly dull, yet also pretentious, Young Ones is a would-be futuristic western genre-bender that completely melts down. Not recommended for anyone, it opens today (10/17) in New York at the Village East.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fury: A Sherman Tank’s Last Stand

Sherman tanks such as the one Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier commands were like portable Alamos. During WWII, American tank crews suffered staggering losses to Germany’s superior armored forces, but they could still do a lot of damage before their number came up. Essentially, that was also the strategy of the fanatical German remnants, who refused to recognize National Socialism’s imminent defeat. Instead of a march to victory, a new post-Normandy addition to Collier’s crew will have the mother of all fiery baptisms in David Ayer’s Fury (trailer here), which opens tomorrow nationwide.

For years, Collier has beat the odds, somehow bringing his men safely through each battle. Unfortunately, his luck, or at least his machine-gunner’s, has just run out. For a replacement, he is stuck with Norman Ellison, a transfer from clerical services, who could not possibly be anymore naïve. In contrast, the German-speaking Collier has no illusions about the nature of war or the enemy they face. His tank, “Fury,” is indeed aptly named, reflecting his general attitude, particularly when it comes to the SS.

Of course, Ellison will take plenty of not-so good-natured ribbing from his new brothers-in-arms: Boyd “Bible” Swan, the token fundamentalist, Trini “Gordo” Garcia, the token Hispanic, and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, the token sociopathic jerkweed. When the rookie Ellison makes a mistake that leads to the death of another crew, Fury becomes an even more tense and awkward place to be. However, Collier is determined to make a stone cold killer out of Ellison, one way or another. The process might even involve a fair amount of climatic heroics.

Frankly, Fury’s first act is a tonal traffic accident, designed to shock us out of our supposed “jingoism” and rub our noses in the war crimes committed by the Greatest Generation. We see a lot of Collier dispatching surrendered Germans, until some script editor apparently noticed the film was making the Nazis look sympathetic. As a result, the second act is a sort of war crimes poker game played out between Collier and the SS, in which battlefield executions are called and raised with strafed civilians.

It is a darned shame Ayer wastes so much time trying to be hip and revisionary, because when Fury gets down to the a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do action, it is pretty spectacular. The early battle scenes are certainly tense and brutal, but they also clearly and dramatically establish the mechanics and dynamics of armored combat. They are all well staged, but the big centerpiece showdown-conflagration is an instant classic. (Sensitive viewers should be warned: there are graphic scenes of limbs decapitated by all manner of projectiles and explosives.)

Without question, Fury features the best tank-fighting sequences ever staged on film. Unfortunately, the further they get from the Sherman M4, the shakier the film gets. As a case in point, an overly long sequence in which Swan, Travis, and Garcia crash a quiet moment Collier and Ellison are trying to have with two German women makes no sense within the film’s dramatic context.  They are supposed to fear and revere Collier, but they are acting like knuckle-dragging savages, just to make the audience hate them.

Nevertheless, Brad Pitt gets down to business quite effectively and efficiently as Collier. He is one of the few contemporary American screen actors with genuine movie star presence, but he is still completely credible playing a grizzled hardnose. Shia LaBeouf is also surprisingly flinty as Swan, so his reported self-mutilation did not go to waste. As Ellison, Logan Lerman also brings more grit and substance to the table than one might expect. Conversely, Jon Bernthal’s Travis is all bug-eyed shtick, while Michael Peña’s Garcia has really no distinguishing personality traits whatsoever.

There is a real disconnect between the extraordinary armored combat scenes and Ayer’s problematically erratic screenplay. Flirting with moral equivalency, he keeps telling us war is Hell when he is not blowing stuff up real good. Still, Pitt and the awesome warfighting scenes are just enough to carry the day. Recommended for fans of war movies, Fury opens wide tomorrow (10/17), including the AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York.

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UNAFF ’14: In the Wake of Stalin

The fact that assassinated independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya supported the work of the Russian research and archival non-profit Memorial pretty much tells you all you need to know about its mission and place in the Putin-era body politic. Dedicated to exposing Stalin’s crimes against humanity and preserving the oral history of his victims, Memorial endures constant harassment and demagoguery. The dictator’s pervasive legacy and the drive to whitewash its enormity are examined in Thomas Johnson’s In the Wake of Stalin, which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

Through forced agricultural collectivization, willful acceptance of the resulting famines, a notorious series of purges and show trials, and periodic anti-Semitic campaigns, Stalin physically and spiritually devastated the Soviet people. Yet today, more and more Russians use loaded terms like “strong leader” and “iron willed” to describe Stalin.

In part, matters reached such a frightening and depressing state because there has never been a national reckoning of the Communist Party’s crimes. There is a government appointee officially charged with investigating Soviet human rights violations, but his lack of initiative is rather appalling, even by the standards of Soviet era bureaucrats. Memory stepped in to fill that void, but the reaction from Putin’s enforcers and loyalists has not been pretty.

While the title suggests more of a survey of Stalinist horrors, Johnson’s film, co-written with Marie Brunet-Debaines evolves into a documentary tribute to Memory, but they clearly deserve the ovation. The testimony they capture from Memory interview subjects is truly harrowing, while the thuggish graffiti and threats they document are simply ugly.

Nonetheless, Wake consistently draws a clear distinction between Stalin and Putin, readily conceding they are not moral equivalents (thus far). However, the dictum regarding those who forget the past deafeningly echoes throughout the film. Clearly, there are those who wish to render the past forgotten—and they presumably have their reasons.

Indeed, Wake is a level-headed analysis of Russia’s current ideological climate, enriched by its wider historical context. It is not alarmist, but it is alarming. Thoroughly researched and substantiated, it is a valuable work of cinematic reportage. Highly recommended, In the Wake of Stalin screens this Sunday (10/16) at Stanford University as part of session 10 of the 2014 UNAFF.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Stephen King’s Big Driver, On Lifetime, for Real

In publishing, the term “cozy” describes mysteries in the Miss Marple tradition. It is often used derisively as short hand for old lady books, until the author hits the bestseller list, at which point they become divas and we kiss up to them. Tess Thorne is not there yet, but she was getting close. Unfortunately, a violent attack will interrupt her well planned life in Lifetime’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Big Driver (promo here), which premieres this Friday on the cable network.

“Self-promoter” is a term we also use for authors who are compulsively willing to drive off to an event where they might sell a few copies. Thorne assumes her latest library speaking engagement will be that sort of gig. She does fine with her fans, but she runs into terrible trouble when Ramona Norville, the programming librarian, suspiciously punches a so-called shortcut into her GPS. Instead, she takes a detour into Hell when some jagged road debris punctures her tire. At first, she thinks the man she will eventually know as “Big Driver” is a Good Samaritan, but he turns out to be a homicidal sexual predator.

Let’s be upfront and frank about this. The sexual assault Thorne endures is far more graphic and intense than anything you would expect from anything on commercial cable, especially Lifetime, for crying out loud. It will be a deal-breaker for many people, so be forewarned. On the other hand, it certainly establishes the stakes and lays the dramatic framework for the somewhat dissociative state in which Thorne plans her vengeance.

Left for dead by her tormentor, Thorne never considers reporting Big Driver to the police for a number of mostly rational reasons (sadly). Instead, she tracks down her assailant employing her mystery writer’s deductive reasoning and attention to detail. She will do this alone, but her subconscious will offer commentary in the guise of Doreen, the leader of her novel’s crime-solving knitting circle and her GPS (this works a lot better than it sounds).

So yes, Big Driver is dark, but it is also intense. Screenwriter Richard Christian Matheson (the son of the legendary Richard Matheson, who has adapted King for television before) really gets into the dark corners of the human psyche, combining elements of the psycho horror movie and the Death Wish thriller. Director Mikael Salomon (the cinematographer on Backdraft and The Abyss) maintains an atmosphere of dread and moral ambiguity that ought to meet with the author’s approval. Frankly though, he might push things too far in the first act.

Maria Bello gives a brave performance in Thorne’s victimization scenes and is also impressively fierce during the subsequent payback sequences. As Norville, Compliance’s Ann Dowd continues to make a name for herself as the go-to creepy late middle-aged lady. Joan Jett also adds some attitude as Betsy Neal, a bartender who helps Thorne pick up Big Driver’s trail.

Big Driver is the second novella from King’s Full Dark, No Stars collection to get a dramatic treatment this month, closely following Peter Askin’s Stephen King’s A Good Marriage. That’s half the book. So far, so good. Thanks to the contributions of Salomon, Matheson, and Bello (and King too, by extension), Big Driver is a taut, provocative telefilm, but it might be too much for the Netowork’s regular viewers. Recommended for King fans, Big Driver airs this Saturday (10/18) on Lifetime.

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