J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Hacker’s Game: Young Cyber Activists in Love

The internet is not forever, as a recent New Yorker piece on digital archiving makes abundantly clear. Yes, there is always the nefarious deleting, like the Russian-backed paramilitary commander, who tried to memory hole a tweet bragging about shooting down what turned out to be Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Yet, more often than not, it is a question of hosts going out of business and links becoming corrupted. BL Reputation Management can hasten the process with a little scrubbing and a bit of astro-turfing here and there. Their latest recruit is particularly skillful at navigating the twilight regions of the web, but one of the parties might be getting more than they bargained for in Cyril Morin’s Hacker’s Game (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Soyan did not hack into BL’s system cleanly enough to escape discovery, but his work was sufficiently skillful to convince the company to offer him a job in lieu of prosecution. Company chairman Russel Belial and his right hand femme fatale, Lena Leibovitz, will keep the hacker on a short leash, but it is not like he had much of a personal life anyway. The one promising development is his ambiguous friendship (and possibly romance), with fellow hacker Loise. They met on a rooftop catching open wifi signals. She has skills too, which she utilizes on behalf of human rights NGOs, but frankly she prefers ink-and-paper over digital alternatives. Yet, the somewhat immature Soyan manages to woo her (to an extent) with a virtual chess game.

There is a ton of backstory in Game, including the reported exploits of Angela King, a mysterious cyber activist who sounds like a cross between Edward Snowden and Neo in the Matrix trilogy. Somehow Soyan, Loise, and BL are all somehow involved in the wider intrigue, but Morin takes forever to close the loop—even though we can largely guess the broad strokes from the get-go. It just seems like an awful lot of the film consists of Loise and Soyan sitting next to each other, wearing VR visors, thereby preventing any real intimate chemistry from developing.

There are a few intriguing elements sprinkled throughout, including the highly ambiguous portrayal of Loise’s former do-gooder employer. Cinematographer Romain Wilhelm fittingly evokes the dark, murky look of the classic 1970s conspiracy thrillers. Strangely though, Morin’s screenplay never really taps into the current zeitgeist, mostly just feeling like another warmed over serving of anti-corporate paranoia.

Be that as it may, there is something strangely compelling about Pom Klementieff’s Loise. Even her halting delivery of the English dialogue seems to work in context. On the other hand, she and Chris Schellenger (with his anemic mustache and goat patch beard) never look like a believable couple. Prop specialist-turned character actor King Orba has some nice moments as Belial, the villain who maybe sort of believes his own rhetoric. However, the rest of the supporting ensemble gets to be quite a source of adventure, producing some awkward line readings and plenty of general dramatic clunkiness.

Arguably, Hacker’s Game would have been more interesting if it depicted BL in more ambiguous terms. In all honesty, it is not hard to think of circumstances for relatively decent customers to seek out there services, like the CEO who married a long retired porn star mentioned early in the film. A little over a century ago, people could restart their lives by moving to the frontier, but that is no longer an option in the digital age. Regardless, Klementieff is probably due to breakout internationally, but this just isn’t the film to do it. Despite some style points, it is just too slowly paced and too logically-challenged. For the hardcore net neutrality fanatics, it opens tomorrow (3/6) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015

These Final Hours: Australia Dies Last

James has mainly gone through life as a surly, self-absorbed slacker, but he is turning over a new leaf. Frankly, his efforts to reform his worthless life come in just under the wire. However, they still count for a lot in Zak Hilditch’s doomsday drama, These Final Hours (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The comet or whatever it was originally impacted in the North Atlantic. Western Europe was wiped out first and New York soon followed. We were probably fortunate in that respect. The apocalyptic shockwaves rippling across the globe will reach Western Australia last, giving the citizens of Perth enough time to anticipate the wrath about to hit them. They will deal with it in very different ways.

The immature James is determined to meet his end in a state of debauched delirium, so he leaves the lover he is with to join his even shallower girlfriend at a hedonistic end of the world party. In doing so, he fully realizes he is leaving the woman he always should have been with, in favor of the profoundly wrong one. Yet, fate intervenes when he observes two pedophiles abducting a young girl. Even after saving Rose, he is uncomfortable playing the role of her protector, but he eventually agrees to escort her to the aunt’s home where she hopes to meet up with her father. Of course, this trip becomes increasingly perilous, considering the end is nigh.

There is no doubt this particular apocalypse is a complete downer in every respect. Hilditch’s screenplay is nothing like cult favorite Night of the Comet, in which the end of the world was a total blast. Despite being a somewhat genre-ish film, TFH is emotionally heavy and deeply resonate. Yet, in a strange way it makes a hopeful statement, arguing redemption is still possible up until the very point we are engulfed in continent-buckling fireballs.

Nathan Phillips has kicked around for a while doing Australia TV and movies (such as the original Wolf Creek) and the odd Hollywood gig, but his work in TFH is next-level worthy. He convincingly establishes all of James’ considerable personality flaws, but he soon takes us to some genuinely raw and cathartic places. For the most part, Angourie Rice is respectable child thespian, but the character of Rose is problematically passive at times, like a garden variety horror movie child-in-jeopardy. On the other hand, Lynette Curran’s scenes with Phillips as James’ semi-estranged mother pack a real punch.

This is sort of film that does the little things right, such as the unseen David Field, who sets the perfect tone with some of the best voiceovers of the year as the intrepid radio broadcaster. Hilditch and his SFX team also pull off a fitting finale that feels appropriately all-encompassing without looking excessively 1990s Roland Emmerichian. This is a very well-crafted film that should generate positive attention for all involved, but you might want to follow it up with something more upbeat, like Comet. Recommended for fans of apocalyptic cinema, These Final Days opens this Friday (3/6) in New York, at the Village East.

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Big Muddy: Getting Noir in Rural Canada

It is like a film noir in the middle of an Andrew Wyeth painting, except these are the plains of Saskatchewan rather than the hardscrabble fields of Maine. It is even as quiet as a canvas at times. That can be both good and bad, but at least it suggests some integrity of vision on the part of screenwriter-director Jefferson Moneo when giving his prior short film the feature treatment. Rural Canada gets dark and dangerous in Moneo’s Big Muddy (trailer here), which screens this weekend at the Catskills’ Mountain Cinema.

Martha Barlow and her current man, Tommy Valente, are no Bonnie and Clyde. Frankly, they are pretty crummy people, who specialize in liquoring up poor slobs, to set them up for subsequent home invasion robberies. At least, Barlow loves her moody son Andy. She just cannot help surrounding him with chaos. She ain’t seen nothing yet.

Unbeknownst to Barlow, her former lover Donovan Fournier is out to find her, having escaped from his prison farm. Even more ominously, Buford Carver, the horse race fixing gangster who came somewhere between Fournier and Valente, is back in town with a new horse and all kinds of bad intentions. Worried about the influence he exerts over her son, Barlow agrees to meet him at the track, but when Valente crashes the party with a gun and a poorly thought through plan things get very bad, especially for Carver’s prized horse. Suddenly, Barlow and her son are on the run, with a satchel full of Carver’s cash and a couple of highly irritated gangsters on their tail.

The two twains of Muddy will meet in Barlow’s rustic hometown, where she and Andy crash with her less than thrilled old man, Stan. In fact, Moneo handles the intersection of the two major plot lines quite deftly. However, he sure loves character-establishing scenes of Andy and Grandpa stringing up barbed wire fences. The truth is an editor with a free hand could easily trim fifteen or twenty minutes of Muddy without any ill consequences, but that is hardly unusual these days.

Happily, Muddy features the craggy gravitas of Stephen McHattie as Grandpa Stan. As usual, he commands the screen with his forceful badassery. On the other hand, Nadia Litz and David La Haye are not bad per se, but they make the strangest looking couple as Barlow and Fournier. James Le Gros is also reliably villainous, but his Carver seems a bit restrained when it comes to chewing the scenery and talking the trash.

Regardless, Moneo’s strong feel for the lonely, howling plains and Craig Trudeau’s stylish cinematography give Muddy a distinctive pastoral-noir vibe. It can be a bit slow, but it delivers when it needs to. Those who enjoy small town thrillers should find it worth seeing. Recommended accordingly, it has its premiere New York theatrical run this weekend (3/6-3/8) at Mountain Cinema and also just released this week on DVD.

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Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island—the Next Case

Considering what debased currency did to the Roman Empire, the Joseon king is right to be concerned about an upsurge in counterfeit silver in circulation. However, it is highly debatable whether Kim Min, a.k.a. Detective K, and his shticky sidekick are the right people to investigate. They dive head-first into the case nonetheless in Kim Sok-yun’s Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Queens.

Even in the Joseon era, no good deed goes unpunished. As a reward for his brilliant service, Detective K has been banished to the provincial coast. He understands it is just a temporary political thing, but it provides a handy excuse to rebuff young Da-hae. Desperate to find her missing sister Do-hae, she swims the channel every morning to cook and clean for the so-called detective, hoping he will take on the case. Eventually, she sets out to find Do-hae herself. Unfortunately, by the time Det. K grows alarmed by her prolonged absence, he is so deeply embedded on our hate-list, he will probably never redeem himself.

Of course, it is the counterfeit silver that really motivates Kim Min to sneak away from his exile. Naturally, this leads to trouble with the authorities, but at least one high-ranking official will cover for him. His investigation soon brings him to the wild and woolly Japanese port colony that processes most of Joseon’s silver imports. There Detective K encounters Hisako, the femme fatale courtesan, who is either a lethal villain or an alluring ally. Only time will tell. However, the pressure and guilt will quickly mount for Detective K when he realizes the disappearances of Da-hae, Do-hae, and hundreds of other young nobi slave girls are somehow related to the silver counterfeiting ring.

There is something a little off about Lee Nam-gyu and Kim Soo-jin’s screenplay when it makes us despise the franchise character. It is really not Kim Myung-min’s fault, but he never conveys any spark of life as Detective K. For his part, the rubber faced character actor Oh Dal-su continues to be Michael Caine-level busy. Despite a little mugging, he is likable enough as the put-upon sidekick, Seo Pil. On the other hand, Lee Chae-eun and Hwang Chae-won are unusually charismatic and painfully heartrending as Da-hae and Do-hae, respectively. At least for pure entertainment, Lee Yeon-hee scorches up the screen as Hisako.

Nobody respects Korean cinema more than we do here, but the not infrequent habit of putting tiny little girls in positions of horrifying peril has become a too familiar custom better honored in the breach than the observance. It makes it difficult to enjoy the action and mayhem. Nevertheless, Detective K has some impressively mounted set piece sequences and several highly effective supporting turns. Recommended for those who enjoy broad comedy mixed with intrigue, Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island opens this Friday (3/6) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Bayside, Queens.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

October Gale: Clarkson and Nadda Together Again

Imagine a Hallmark Hall of Fame production that breaks out into a thriller—eventually. Viewers should be advised: they will have to wait a rather long time. Dr. Helen Matthews has come to her family’s cabin to mourn her recently deceased husband and clear out the clutter. It is decidedly off-season in Northern Ontario’s Georgian Bay. That will be perfect for either cathartic meditation of criminal skullduggery in Ruba Nadda’s October Gale (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Matthews’ son tries to dissuade her from moping about the cabin during the stormy season, but she is drawn to the place. Perhaps it is the solitude she really needs. Alas, her seclusion will be interrupted when a man with a conspicuous bullet-wound collapses in her cabin. Vague on the details, he is eager to be on his way once she has stitched him up, but that simply is not realistic. Even if he were strong enough, his dinghy could never navigate the mounting storm.

Of course, someone shot the man calling himself William. Turns out, one of them was an old neighbor of Matthews’ who comes calling. Belatedly, Matthews’ realizes the extent of their trouble and starts to prepare for his return. Fortunately, he will be bringing the man responsible for the violence with him. That would be the mysterious Tom, played by the ever-reliable Tim Roth, who delivers a much needed energy boost to the film.

It is nice to see Nadda working again with Patricia Clarkson, the star of her art-house hit, Cairo Time. Their first collaboration is a beautiful ships-passing-in-the-night romance. Nadda’s Syrian-set follow-up Inescapable had its heart in the right place and made some worthy points, but it just did not click as a thriller. Unfortunately, such is also the case with Gale.

Nevertheless, Gale is not a complete dead loss. In general, it is always refreshing to see a character like the intelligent and mature Matthews on screen. Medically trained and handy with firearms, she is the antithesis of a helpless victim, which is cool. The compulsively watchable Clarkson is instantly credible in the role. However, aside from Roth’s late arrival, she does not have much support. Scott Speedman, who must be the primary beneficiary of some sort of Canadian protectionism for thespians is so lifeless and wooden as William, you could almost confuse him with the dead parrot in the Monty Python sketch.

The thrills never really coalesce in Gale, but it has a strong sense of place (as was also true of Cairo). Cinematographer Jeremy Benning capitalizes on the striking scenery of the isles dotting the bay, conveying both the beauty and the ominous power of nature. Thrillers just aren’t Nadda’s thing. Best saved for cable or Netflix streaming, the uneven October Gale opens this Friday (3/6) at the IFC Center.

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Road Hard: Maybe Sort of the Adam Carolla Story

Comedian Bruce Madsen is sick of going out on the road. The only consolation is he lives in Los Angeles. He is pretty sick of it too, but he stays because that is where his daughter and the business are. He grinds away hoping his agent will find a way to get him back on television, enduring the pettiest annoyances the club circuit has to offer in Adam Carolla & Kevin Hench’s Road Hard (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Madsen was once the co-host of the crude but popular Bro Show. His former partner is now the star of his own late night network talk show. Yes, there do seem to be some parallels between Carolla’s life and his on-screen character. Madsen is also divorced, living in the converted garage of his former McMansion, so he can be close to his adopted daughter, Tina—that is when he happens to be in town. Since Madsen was once on television, he can still draw relatively well at middling comedy clubs, but it is getting to be a drag.

Madsen perks up a little when he meets Sarah at a typically de-moralizing gig. Of course, she happened to be there through a strange set of circumstances. She certainly isn’t a fan, but they will somehow meet again. Will Madsen finally get off the show business treadmill or will his persistence finally be rewarded? Road Hard will answer those questions satisfyingly, but first Madsen’s ego will have to take a few beatings.

Road Hard is sort of like Scared Straight for anyone considering a career as a comedian, but it is consistently humorous, nonetheless. Clearly, Carolla can still do old school stand-up, because his bits are peppered throughout the film. He is also quite funny kvetching with his cronies Phil Rosenthal (essentially playing himself) and David Alan Grier (as Michael Gerard, a comic on an unlikely upswing). Yes, you read that here first—the words “David Alan Grier” and “funny” used in the same sentence. Howie Mandel also turns up for an unusually edgy and self-deprecating cameo, again as himself, but Larry Miller disappointingly resorts to a lot of shtick as Madsen’s sleazy agent (is there any other kind?), “Baby Doll” Weissman.

Yet, one of the nicest surprises is the easy-going chemistry between Carolla and Cynthy Wu and his former Loveline colleague, Diane Farr, as Tina and Sarah, respectively. These feel like believably imperfect but workable relationships. In fact, there are some moments down the stretch that are quite sweet, despite all the preceding masturbation jokes.

Yes, Road Hard works blue from time to time, but it has both an edge and a heart. Its show business insider stuff rings true and it delivers laughs at a more regular pace than the standard issue studio comedy. Recommended rather enthusiastically for stand-up fans and those of us who always wondered what went on behind-the-scenes at Loveline tapings, Road Hard opens this Friday (3/6) in New York at the AMC Loews Village 7 and also launches on iTunes day-and-date.

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Kidnapping Mr. Heineken: Holland’s Most Notorious Abduction

Alfred Henry “Freddy” Heineken was sort of like the Netherlands’ Lindbergh Baby, except he was nobody’s victim. A desperate group of disenfranchised construction workers pulled off the truly daring abduction, but getting away clean turned out to be a trickier proposition. Nevertheless, their crime-of-the-century had considerable long term consequences that are duly revealed in Daniel Alfredson’s Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (trailer here), which opens this Friday.

Frankly, if Holland in the early 1980s had better respected property rights, Cor van Hout and his business partners might have never resorted to crime. They desperately needed a loan to keep their small construction enterprise afloat, but their only collateral was a building infested with legally protected squatters—not exactly a property the bank would be happy to assume should they default. Ironically, old man Heineken, a supporter of the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, probably would have empathized. Regardless, when Van Hout and his hot-tempered mate Willem Holleeder resolve to follow Willie Sutton’s advice and go where the money is, it necessarily means Mr. Heineken.

Showing considerable patience, Van Hout, Holleeder, and their accomplices spend two years in planning, rather than rushing into the operation. They want the authorities to assume Heineken was grabbed by a well-funded international terrorist organization or the mob. Initially, it all goes according to plan, but old man Heineken is cool customer. His chauffeur Ab Doderer is a different story. Heineken tries to reassure his panicking employee through the walls of their makeshift cells, but the working class immigrant is not holding up well.

You can expect to see a lot of negative reviews of Mr. Heineken from those hung up on class warfare rhetoric because of its largely positive portrayal of Freddy Heineken. He is consistently calm, collected, and caring with respects to poor Doderer. It is also rich to learn how he responded to his kidnapping as a capitalist once he was released (no thanks to his captors).

In large measure, Mr. Heineken is the sort of caper film where the whole point is to watch it go spectacularly wrong. Getting the ransom is the easy part, as it usually is. The getaway is way more difficult. However, in this case, the endgame is especially long and twisty.

Screenwriter William Brookfield incorporates a number of fascinating historical details into the narrative and the mostly British Commonwealth cast looks appropriately continental and suitably beaten down where applicable. Of course, Sir Anthony Hopkins is totally credible as Freddy Heineken, instantly establishing his intelligence and charisma. Jim Sturgess does his best work in years as the angsty Van Hout, while Sam Worthington is reliably tightly wound as Holleeder (but not nearly as awesome-nuts as he was in the under-rated Texas Killing Fields).

Alfredson, who helmed the second two Swedish Lisbeth Salander films, keeps the action moving along and the tension cranked up, despite the fatalistic direction it must take. Cinematographer Fredrik Bäckar also gives it a gritty look that nicely suits the times. It is quite a well-produced period-thriller that does justice to fascinating real life events. Recommended quite highly, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken launches on iTunes and opens in select theaters this Friday (3/6), including George R.R. Martin’s Jean Cocteau Cinema in Albuquerque.

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Monday, March 02, 2015

Faults: a Bargain Basement Deprogrammer in Over his Head

They do not use an initial article. Claire’s cult merely refers to itself as “Faults.” “From a fault comes a change” they like to say—and they seem to think a big apocalyptic one is coming. That is why they do not have time for children, or “parasites” as they call them. Okay, that sounds a little creepy, but it still isn’t as nuts as Xenu and the thetan madness. Her parents will hire a disgraced cult expert to deprogram her, but nothing will go according to his plan in Riley Stearns’ Faults (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ansel Roth was once a bestselling cult investigator with his own television show, but a case that went sour cost him just about everything. He now lives a hand-to-mouth existence giving seminars in third-rate hotels, where he transparently hawks his self-published follow-up book, to pay back Terry, his loan shark-ish manager, who fronted the printing costs. Who would attend his speaking engagements? The truly desperate, like Claire’s parents, Paul and Evelyn.

Although Roth had essentially quit the de-programming business, he agrees to help the couple, largely due to the motivation supplied by his manager’s enforcer. Yet, as soon as he abducts the young woman and commences the process, strange complications start to arise. Claire is unusually calm and pre-possessed, answering his questions without a lot of rhetorical contortions. On the other hand, her parents start to acting in suspicious ways that might suggest a history of emotional and perhaps even sexual abuse. Nevertheless, Roth is under pressure to get this deal done, so he can pay off his overdue debt.

Given the potentially lurid nature of its subject matter, it is rather impressive how low-key and subtle Stearns’ treatment is. He takes his time establishing Roth’s bitter and nebbish character through some wickedly droll black comedy. The stakes are considerable throughout the chess game he plays with Claire (played by Stearns’ real life wife, Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but when things take a macabre turn, it is more amusing than alarming. Granted, we have seen many variations on the film’s big twist before, but the smaller helper-twists are quite clever.

It is shame award season never seriously considers genre films, because Leland Orser’s lead performance merits that sort of attention, just like the dynamite Nick Damici in Late Phases. He masterfully alternates between comedy and tragedy, without breaking stride. He and Winstead crackle together in their sparring sessions. Lance Reddick (the hotel manager in John Wick) is also all kinds of hardnosed as Terry’s muscle, Mick, while John Gries chews plenty of scenery as his weird boss.

There are several spots in the third act Stearns could have played up much bigger, but that matter-of-factness makes the film quickly appreciate in viewers’ consciousness, in retrospect. Look, sometimes less really is more. In fact, Faults is a cool example of how a highly effective genre hybrid can be whipped up on a limited budget. Aside from maybe one sequence, the whole thing could have been shot in a low-rent motor lodge. The finished product is a great showcase for Stearns and his consistently strong ensemble of character actors. Highly recommended, Faults opens this Friday (3/6) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Grey Gardens: With the Beales and the Maysles Brothers

In 1978, the now defunct downtown cabaret booked probably the strangest act to grace its stage. “Little” Edie Beale was not very well reviewed, but she had a loyal following that delighted to be personally welcomed back into to her idiosyncratic life. You could argue she and her mother “Big” Edie Beale were the original “reality” stars, but instead of television, it was David & Albert Maysles’ documentary that introduced them into American pop culture. Nearly forty years after its initial release, a new 2K restoration of the Maysles’ groundbreaking Grey Gardens (trailer hereopens this Friday at Film Forum.

Grey Gardens (edited by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, with whom the Maysles shared directorial credits, along with producer Susan Froemke) holds the distinction of being the first documentary adapted as a Broadway musical (but not the last, thanks to Hands on a Hardbody). Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie Beale often had songs in their hearts, but there was little money in their bank accounts, which is why their titular Hamptons estate was in such a state of disrepair when the documentarian brothers started filming them. Frankly, it was shocking to people that residents of tony Georgica Pond could live like that, especially considering they were Bouviers—the aunt and cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

What happens in Grey Gardens is not so very different from what happens in reality TV today. Big and Little Edie basically do their thing, which involves a good deal of bickering and the occasional song. Eventually, they host a rather awkward dinner party, despite the ever expanding holes in the walls, resulting from the constant gnawing of rats and raccoons.

When watching Grey Gardens for the first time, viewers should try to see it through 1975 eyes, as best they can. At the time, it was almost unbelievable how natural and unaffected the Beales are by the Maysles’ cameras. It is not that they are oblivious, because they openly address the filmmakers from time to time. They just seem to have a no inherent reservations with sharing the intimate episodes of their lives. Arguably, they were decades ahead of the wider culture in this respect.

For contemporary audiences, Grey Gardens still holds up, largely due to the singularly irrepressible personalities of its subjects. Intellectually, we might also well understand how influential Grey Gardens has been in shaping popular conceptions of the documentary. Yet on a baser level, four decades later, we still get that voyeuristic sense of peeking in on the dirty linen of the Kennedy-Bouvier family, with whom our collective fascination will probably never fully subside.

As cineastes will expect, the Criterion restoration looks terrific. In truth, the colors have probably never popped as much as they do now. Oddly, but appropriately, some of deep saturated hues (mostly supplied by Little Edie’s fashion creations) evoke sense memories of Bert Stern’s concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which in its very different way also offered an ironic perspective on a privileged, old moneyed community—in that case: Newport, RI.

It is hard to imagine the contemporary documentary as we now know it without Grey Gardens. However, its considerable influence makes it easy to overhype in an era when online over-sharing is the norm and MTV’s The Real World is old hat. Still, those intrigued by the extreme mother-daughter relationship and the Beales’ high profile family connections will find Grey Garden remains a strange and beguiling place to visit. Recommended for anyone interested in the history and tradition of documentary filmmaking, the restored Grey Gardens opens this Friday (3/6) in New York at Film Forum.

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Deli Man: Get a Load of that Pastrami

By now, many people do not realize at the time of the Civil War, Jews were largely more accepted by the South than the North. However, there was one Unionist who stood tall against anti-Semitism (Lincoln, of course). Maybe it should therefore not be so surprising one of the one hundred fifty-some surviving real deal kosher delis happens to be in Houston, Texas. Proprietor Ziggy Gruber (formerly of New York) will be our primary guide through the savory traditions of delicatessen cuisine in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s Deli Man (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gruber was born into the delicatessen establishment, as the grandson of the owner of Broadway’s famed Rialto deli. He started working part-time for his beloved grandfather at an early age and absorbed all his traditional recipes and practices like a sponge. He now co-owns and operates Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, one of an estimated 150 legit kosher delis in America. To put things in perspective, there were over 1,500 certified kosher delis in New York City during the 1930s.

Anjou supplies some historical context (pastrami originally came from Romania) and offers some analysis of deli fare as a poignant cultural remnant of a shtetl world that no longer exists, but when you really get down to it, Deli Man is all about the food. The mountainous pastrami sandwiches are as mouth-watering as you would expect, but everything coming out of Gruber’s kitchen looks appetizing. In fact, he whips up some sort of roast shank that could probably justify a trip to Houston by itself.

Anjou could not have cast a more fitting central figure than the effusive Gruber. The man knows deli traditions through and through, yet he treats his staff and customers like family, regardless of their backgrounds. We also meet a representative sampling of other deli men and women, including Jay Parker of Ben’s Best in Rego Park, Queens, which is about as authentic as it gets. However, Anjou only peaks into the personal life of Gruber, who may have finally found someone willing share so much of his time with the corned beef. It is nice to see things working out for him, considering what he has done to keep his family and culinary traditions alive.

Anjou duly observe the irony that it was Jewish Americans’ successful acceptance and assimilation into suburbia that largely drove scores of neighborhood kosher delis like Ben’s Best out of business, without belaboring the point. Indeed, there is some serious substance to the film, but there is no getting around its food porn indulgence—and who would want to? Recommended for those who appreciate culinary cultural history on rye, Deli Man opens this Friday (3/6) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Landmark Sunshine, not so far from Katz’s on Houston Street.


Sunday, March 01, 2015

FCS ’15: The World of Kanako

Showa Fujishima has made just about every parenting mistake a father can make and invented some that are uniquely his own. Not surprisingly, he really hasn’t been around much to see the results. At least that allows him to cling to a few willful misconceptions regarding Kanako. However, when his estranged ex-wife begrudgingly requests the ex-cop’s help finding their missing daughter, he learns far more than he bargained for in Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of Film Comment Selects.

Prepare to have your head messed with. Nakashima will fracture his timeline nearly beyond recognition and do his best to represent Fujishima’s warped perspective. The former copper now working as a rent-a-cop always had anger management issues, which directly led to his personal and professional disgrace. He is supposed to take drugs for his temper and mood swings, but they do not seem to be working, even though they might somewhat skew his perception of reality.

Kanako has already been missing for five days before Fujishima’s ex finally asks for his help. Intuitively, he assumes her disappearance is linked to the punky gang kids she has been hanging with, which is largely correct, but his presupposition that Kanako is an innocent victim will be rudely disabused. He soon learns she is up to her neck in drugs and pimping out classmates to well-heeled pedophiles. She was also apparently somehow mixed up in the suicide of her classmate Ogata. We will learn just exactly how so in flashbacks seen through the eyes of Boku, a secondary POV character, whose experiences with Kanako will parallel those of poor Ogata.

Meanwhile, Fujishima’s hostile former colleagues are more than happy to treat him as a suspect in a gangland-style killing perpetrated at the minimart he was ostensibly guarding. It turns out Kanako’s world is a small world when links turn up suggesting a connection between the convenience store massacre and her disappearance. Fujishima is in for a lot of pain and humiliation, but he will deal out plenty more to anyone he considers a potential suspect or accomplice.

Man, Kanako is dark, even by the standard Nakashima set in his previous films, Confessions and Memories of Matsuko. However, unlike the seamlessly constructed escalation of Confessions, WoK is a bit of a rat’s nest, compulsively flashing forward and backwards and liberally tossing unreliable perceptions or downright hallucinations to the point where many viewers will just drop the narrative thread and stop caring altogether, despite the occasional tongue-in-cheek hat-tips to 1970s exploitation cinema. The form of the film is enough to give you a headache, separate and apart from the rampant cruelty it depicts. Based on Akio Fukamachi’s novel, WoK is a nihilistic indictment of just about everything—that’s nihilism spelled with a capital “F” and a capital “U.”

To his credit, Kôji Yakusho doubles down over and over again as the violently erratic Fujishima. It is a messy, let-it-all-hang-out performance, but Yakusho takes it to such dark places, it is ultimately rather soul-scarring. Nana Komatsu is ethereally evil as the deceptively innocent looking Kanako, while Satoshi Tsumabuki chews the scenery with swaggering glee as Det. Asai, the sucker-sucking cop who apparently thinks he’s Kojack. Ai Hashimoto manages to add a thimble full of humanity to the film as Kanako’s estranged and disgusted middle school friend Morishita, but such figures of decency are few and far between in Kanako’s world. Frankly, it is hard to fully judge Kanako’s former homeroom teacher, Rie Higashi, but (Matsuko star) Miki Nakatani’s performance is truly riveting and maybe even redemptive.

If this is what life is really like for Japanese middle and high school students, I would immigrate if I were a parent. It is hard to imagine a more exhausting film than WoK, for reasons of both style and content. It is clearly the work of a genuine auteur, who does not get his just international due, but Nakashima really demands a great deal of indulgence this time around. Lacking the tightness of Confessions and the pure gut-wrenching emotional payoff of Matsuko, it just starts to feel like it is piling it on after a while. For those who enjoyed cult hits like Confessions, Lady Snowblood, Audition, and the real Oldboy, but found them too artificially optimistic, WoK will give you the straight shot of bile you crave. Recommended accordingly for ardent Nakashima admirers, The World of Kanako screens this Thursday (3/5), at the Walter Reade Theater, concluding this year’s Film Comment Selects.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

NYICFF ’15: When Marnie Was There

For young Anna Sasaki, coming of age is a particularly dramatic process, in a dark psychological kind of way. She is like a character out of Daphne du Maurier or Mary Roberts Rinehart novels, who has been sent to spend the summer in a bucolic marshland that could have been painted by the Impressionists. Nobody would be better suited to realize her new environment than the Studio Ghibli team, but alas, this will be their final release for the foreseeable future. While it lacks the tragic sweep of its immediate predecessors (Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises), Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There (trailer here) is an appropriately intimate goodbye that packed the house for the opening night of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Sasaki is far too sensitive to make friends easily with her classmates. Her stress-aggravated asthma does not help either. After a particularly severe attack, Sasaki’s mother Yoriko sends her to stay with her extended relatives, kindly old Kiyomasa and Setsu Oiwa. However, as a foster child, Sasaki has difficulty accepting any of them as family, including Yoriko, despite their genuine concern.

To humor Setsu, she makes a few half-hearted to befriend with some of the village girls her age, but Sasaki prefers to make sketches on her own. One of her favorite subjects, is Marsh House, an abandoned mansion, only intermittently accessible during low tides. Strangely though, a young girl named Marnie seems to live there with her ominously gothic servants. Sasaki and Marnie are drawn to each other like lonely kindred spirits. At last, each feels they have finally found a true friend. Yet, Marnie’s penchant for vanishing without a trace confuses and sometimes hurts Sasaki.

It does not take much deduction or intuition to figure WMWT is some sort of supernatural story, but it still holds some profoundly resonant secrets. It certainly looks like a Studio Ghibli film, which means it is lushly gorgeous. As with The Secret World of Arrietty, his previous film as a director (also based on a British YA novel), Yonebayashi fully captures the beauty and malevolent power of the natural world. Frankly, it is rather impressive how quickly and yet how smoothly he can change the vibe from sunny pastoral to psychological suspense. There is even a scene in a supposedly haunted grain silo that evokes the mission tower staircase in Vertigo, fittingly enough in a film featuring a titular character named Marnie.

WMWT is a deeply humanist film, brimming with forgiveness and empathy. Through her POV, we will acutely understand how coming to terms with the past will allow Sasaki to carry on and embrace life. As a potential sign-off from Studio Ghibli, that’s not bad. Amongst their storied output, it probably ranks somewhere in the middle, but had it come from just about any other animation house, it would represent their crowning achievement. Granted, the opening act is a little slow getting it in gear, but overall, it is remarkably astute emotionally and refreshingly life-affirming. Highly recommended, When Marnie Was There screens again next Saturday (3/7) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYICFF.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

Big News from Grand Rock: Journalism Up North

Leonard Crane is like the Jayson Blair of provincial Canada, except he meant well. Desperate to keep his small town newspaper in business, Crane starts cribbing human interest stories from the movies. Unfortunately, things get a little out of hand when he raises the stakes with an expose. There might just be a big story out there in Daniel Perlmutter’s Big News from Grand Rock (trailer here), which opens today in Canada.

You can pretty much tell from the staff meeting why readership is woefully down at the Weekly Ledger when the deep voiced Ted Baxter-ish Bill pitches a story about a local woman who bought a lottery ticket. No, it hasn’t won—yet. It is a pretty sleepy hamlet, so it might be a pleasant place to live (aside from the potholes), but it sure is hard to drum up news copy. When the longtime owner announces his intention to sell, Crane does his best to woo back advertisers. Out of desperation, he rewrites the Bill Murray elephant movie Larger than Life as local interest story. It is a safe film to start with, because who would admit to watching it?

The keep the flow of reader-friendly stories coming, Crane seeks out recommendations from a willingly complicit video store clerk. However, when he pushes Barbet Schroeder’s medical thriller Desperate Measures on Crane, the resulting expose proves too sensational, attracting a reporter from a relatively big city to confirm his allegations of secret cloning experiments conducted by a shadowy cult. Yet, just when he faces exposure and ostracism as a fraud, mysterious events start to suggest he might have accidentally stumbled onto something after all.

Big News is a low key comedy, but the humor is considerable and admirably consistent. There are a lot of very clever lines, but the way Perlmutter and his leads master the rhythm of their dialogue for laughs is particularly effective. For some of their exchanges, you can almost imagine Perlmutter was drilling them with a stopwatch, Howard Hawks-style.

As Crane, Ennis Esmer deftly walks a comedic tightrope, often serving as a straight man during most of his scenes, but then perfectly delivering the understated kicker that pays off all the set-up. Aaron Ashmore and Peter Keleghan are terrific wild cards playing off Esmer as his video co-conspirator and the clueless reporter (to use the job title generously). The awkward chemistry between him and Meredith MacNeill as out of town journalist also works quite effectively in the context of the film.

Granted, Perlmutter started with a promising premise, but the intangibles of the well-turned phrases and the natural, unforced feel of the riffing really distinguishes it from the field. Frankly, Big News from Grand Rock is too good not to find some sort of distribution here in America, but if you happen to be in Toronto, by all means, drop by the Carlton Cinema, where it opens today (2/27).

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Ejecta: Assume the Probing Position

If aliens ever arrive on earth, all those broadcasts we have been beaming into space could be a problem for us. They will either expect we will jump to all sorts of awkward assumptions about probing or will worry we might start vivisecting them in an underground bunker. This film certainly will not help. William Cassidy has lived with a painful implant for years. It has turned him into a half-mad shell of a man, but that will not stop the military from torturing him anyway in Chad Archibald & Matt Wiele’s Ejecta (trailer here), which opens late night tonight in New York at the IFC Center.

Among UFO geeks, Cassidy is a near legendary figure. He is not exactly a reliable witness, but he creeps out everyone who meets him. The long term pain and side effects from his prolonged alien contact, dating back forty years, has completely chopped and diced his psyche. Although he no longer remembers doing so, he granted UFO-chasing filmmaker Joe Sullivan (sadly not the Chicago piano player who gigged with Eddie Condon) access to his spectacularly miserable life.

Sullivan picked a fine time to start documenting Cassidy. In addition to the aliens, Dr. Tobin, a civilian scientist working with the military also wants a piece of him. She thinks he can tell her when the invasion or whatever will start. For some strange reason, Cassidy is not inclined to be helpful, so she goes medieval on him, using some special confiscated alien technology. Yet, that implant might help keep his brain from totally liquefying.

Julian Richlings racked up the awards on the genre festival circuit for playing the tortured (literally and figuratively) Cassidy—and not without reason. He goes all in, freaking out one minute, gaunt and withdrawn the next, without lurching ridiculously over the top, like an alien-abducted Meryl Streep. However, he is about the only thing going for this film.

Frankly, Ejecta is littered with plot holes that are only made more conspicuous by the film’s fractured chronology. There is really no logic to the confrontations between Cassidy and Tobin, beyond a desire to make heavy-handed commentaries about “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Lisa House’s Tobin is a ridiculous caricature of sadist villainy, who just becomes embarrassing as the film wears on. It is even difficult to follow the on-screen action when the film combines the worst of shaky campaign and 1980s-style gauzy, neon cinematography, in the dubious tradition of Alien from L.A.

Throughout Ejecta, Richlings truly looks like his head might explode, which is not nothing. Nevertheless, the alien invasion-conspiracy business is nothing you haven’t seen done better any number of times. Not recommended, Ejecta screens just before midnights tonight and tomorrow (2/27 & 2/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Out of the Dark: a Colombian Grudge

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, so who’s to say there really was a spill at the “old paper mill?” Or maybe those grudge-holding supernatural hellions are actually the restless spirits of children killed by conquistadors instead of mercury-riddled kids. Either way, they want some payback against exploitative westerners in Lluís Quílez’s Out of the Dark (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Sarah Harriman has come to Colombia from the UK to take over the old man’s paper mill. Not the “old mill,” mind you. Nobody goes there anymore. She will be managing the shiny new mercury-free mill. Her husband Paul is able to stay at home with their daughter Hannah, because he is a children’s book illustrator. Is that job really cool enough though? Maybe he should have been a rock & roll children’s book illustrator.

As we know from the prologue, there are some very hacked off whatevers haunting the Harrimans’ palatial new digs. Poor Dr. Contreras Sr. will sacrifice his life for the sake of our exposition. Before long, they start tormenting young Hannah, who subsequently starts exhibiting signs of a bizarre malady. Of course, the Harrimans are concerned, but they keep shutting her door tight and nipping off to the opposite side of the oligarchical estate. Hey guys, maybe keep the door open a crack or buy a baby monitor or just quietly check on her every so often? Before long, the malevolent beings make off with Hannah, driving each Harriman out looking for a trail to follow.

It seems like an awful lot of Out consists of the Harrimans standing around, saying things like “oh, don’t disturb her, I’m sure she’s fine.” Still, the house is terrifically creepy. Also, Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman come across like a believable couple (but not too bright). As Grandpa Jordan, Stephen Rea is a dependably intriguing screen presence, especially when he skulking around, greasing the palms of corrupt Colombian politicians. However, young Pixie Davis is the only member of the family who sounds legitimately British (somehow she has an Irish grandfather, a Canadian father, and an American mother).

Frankly, Stiles has been criminally under-rated. She was terrific in Twelfth Night at the Delacorte (Shakespeare in the Park), but this is probably not the film that will win over hearts and minds. While Out looks suitably atmospheric, it is simply too slow and clunky. Colombia should have gotten more for their new tax incentives. Beyond the impressive real estate, it is just another tepid, logic-challenged genre outing. Not recommended, Out of the Dark opens tomorrow (2/27) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ana Maria in Novela Land: A Telenovela Pulls a Body Switch

The only thing Ana Maria Soto is industrious about is tweeting telenovelas. She has a fair number of followers, but none them are her quickly exasperated work colleagues. Those gigs never last long anyway. Frankly, even her long suffering family hardly notices the difference when she pulls a 1980s style body-switcheroo with the heroine of the telenovela she currently tweets. Fish will be out of water and lessons will be learned in Georgina Garcia Riedel’s Ana Maria in Novela Land (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Soto just got pink-slipped from another job and flaked out on her older sister’s bridal dress fitting. Her family is pretty bummed out with her, but everything seems to make sense when tonight’s episode of Passion Without Limits starts. However, a freak electricity surge exchanges her consciousness with the lead character, Ariana Tomosa, who is engaged to a wealthy older man, while carrying on an affair with his brooding son.

Of course, Soto knows all this, so she adapts to life in the telenovela relatively easily. On the other hand, Tomosa is out to sea in the real world, but Tony, the young neighborhood internist who always carried a torch for Soto, will help the presumed amnesiac start to act like a real person. In fact, she soon becomes easier to live with than the real Ana Maria, despite her dramatic nature. Meanwhile, Soto enjoys vamping it up in the telenovela, but she knows full well its limited run will soon conclude—and then what?

Initially, Novela Land is kind of amusing and it features fan favorite Luis Guzmán playing Schmidt, Tomosa’s scheming attorney nemesis. Sadly, it is also the final film of Elizabeth Peña (Lone Star, La Bamba, Down and Out in Beverly Hills), who has some nice moments giving uncooperative bridal staff what-for. Still, there is not much heft to the film, even before starts recycling its body switch jokes.

Everyone hams it up, because obviously. Still, Edy Ganem effectively differentiates Soto from Tomosa. There are a few inventive gags, such as when Soto happens to wander into a Korean soap opera. Pepe Serna deadpans nicely as Father Miguel, but the forthcoming Man from Reno is a much more compelling (and infinitely darker) showcase for his under-appreciated chops.

Unfortunately, Soto’s K-drama interlude is as surreal as the film gets. Given the premise (essentially an updated riff on the John Candy movie Delirious), Riedel and co-screen-writer Jose Nestor Marquez could have played more mischievous games with on-screen reality, but they mostly just keep it safe and sentimental. Too sitcom-my and not nearly out there enough for mainstream genre audiences, Ana Maria in Novela Land is mostly just for fans like Soto when it opens this Friday (2/27) at the Burbank and Orange AMC theaters in California.

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Triumph in the Skies: Hong Kong’s Favorite Way to Fly

Where American networks failed with shows like Pan Am and LAX, Hong Kong found tremendous success with a prime time airliner drama. While it had the benefit of some star power from Francis Ng and Michelle Ye, it was really the multi-character romances that were powering the show. How big was it? Big enough to snag a New Year’s theatrical release for the big screen edition. Hearts will be broken on multiple continents in Wilson Yip & Matt Chow’s Triumph in the Skies (trailer here), which is now playing in New York and select markets.

By-the-book Captain “Sam” Tong and his not-so-by-the-book co-pilot Jayden Koo used to be a regular flight crew, but they have split up. Tong is still the senior officer with Skylette, but the new boss’s son and heir apparent, Branson Cheung, has assigned him to serve as the technical advisor for their new commercial starring rock-star diva TM Tam. Nobody on-set wants to hear his quibbles, except maybe Tam. There are such polar opposites, they naturally start to attract.

Cheung, who also serves as a Skylette flight captain, is rather surprised to find his old flame Cassie Poon Ka-sze is part of the crew on his newly assigned plane. She is still disappointed he put their relationship on hold to please his father, but the sparks are still there. Meanwhile, Koo or “Captain Cool,” has landed a cushy job as the private pilot of a party plane, where he meets the seemingly ambitionless Kika Sit. However, he realizes almost too late there is far more to her story.

If you have seen a few Chinese romantic comedies you will basically know what to expect here, but Yip & Chow’s execution is wildly slick and lethally effective. You are not likely to see a sparklier movie anytime soon. Triumph has so much jet-setting, it makes Sex in the City look like EastEnders.

Sure, it is tons of manipulative, yet each of the three primary story arcs works surprising well, with the best being Tong’s halting flirtation with Tam. It is also the best written braided-storyline, featuring some wry, understated dialogue and terrific chemistry between series veteran Francis Ng and Sammi Cheng. You can almost think of it as an HK version of a James L. Brooks late middle-age relationship film. She also performs a catchy punk version of “Over the Rainbow” that will make you think that was what Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg really had in mind the whole time.

In contrast, Triumph totally goes for the tears with Captain Cool’s possibly tragic romance, but Amber Kuo just lights up the screen as Kika Sit. Of course, Julian Cheung is not exactly is not exactly a jowly sourpuss either—and they both know how to crank up the cute in their big feature spots.

The third romance starring Louis Koo is a lot like an HK rom-com starring Louis Koo, but it is still one of the better ones. Again, he and Charmaine Sheh have surprisingly strong chemistry. However, the notion of an attractive working woman sitting around waiting for the man who walked out of her life to saunter back might not sit too well with American audiences.

Despite the vaguely Leni Riefenstahl-ish title, Triumph in the Skies is a pleasingly upbeat and colorful film. These days, it is just no fun whatsoever to fly on a commercial airliner or schlep through an airport, but it would be worth taking off your belt and shoes to fly with the ridiculously good looking crews of Skylette. Maybe it is a guilty pleasure, but it is fun. Recommended for those looking for an entertaining movie romance that pretty much covers all the bases, Triumph is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Everly: Salma Hayek vs. the Yakuza

Even if you believe “violence is never the answer and what the world really needs is more love and understanding,” just keep it to yourself. Everly does not have time for warm and fuzzy liberal new age platitudes and we do not want to hear them. She is simply too busy worrying about escape and payback. For several years, she was enslaved as a prostitute by the Yakuza, but now she will try to shoot her way out of their fortified brothel. It is not a well thought out  plan, but at least she will be able to take a lot of bad guys with her in Joe Lynch’s Everly (trailer here), which opens this Friday in targeted markets.

Everly used to be the favorite of the kingpin, Taiko, but not anymore. An honest cop also lost his head over her. Taiko had it boxed up and presented to her. She had agreed to testify for the late detective, but obviously that will not be happening. Taiko’s men were supposed to do their worst to her, but she was able to stash a gun in the toilet bowl. Bullets will fly—and they will keep flying, but Everly is not immune to them. In fact, she starts the film pretty dinged up, but she is able to patch herself up and keep going.

Unfortunately for him, one of Taiko’s bean-counters gets gut-shot in the first volley. There is clearly no way he will make it. Much to her surprise, the dying paper-pushing gangster offers her some helpful strategic consultation as he slowly expires. Acting on his advice, she makes a risky play, arranging a pretext for her mother and the daughter she never knew to pick up a bag of traveling money from Taiko’s high-rise of hedonism-turned war zone.

To their credit, Lynch and screenwriter Yale Hannon understand the point of a film like this and therefore never cheapen it with a disingenuous take-away about the supposed dangers of firearm possession or the folly of vengeance taking. Taiko and his associates need to die—period. Frankly, some bits are rather disturbingly explicit, particularly those involving the “Sadist” played by the classy Togo Igawa (the first Japanese member of the Royal Shakespeare Company), but that makes it extra satisfying when they get theirs.

It should also be noted the forty-eight year old Salma Hayek looks all kinds of dangerous as Everly. She is in tremendous shape and shows real action chops, but in a grittier, less cartoony way. She conveys the well-armed rage of a desperate mother, which makes each showdown deeply primal. There are real stakes in Everly—and plenty of blood, but her relatively quiet scenes with Akie Kotabe as the dying suit are some of the film’s best.

We have often lamented the dearth of legitimate female action stars in Hollywood and mainstream indie movies. It is so bad, Meryl Streep has laughably been suggested for the female Expendables film in development. With Everly, Hayek blasts herself into contention to lead the whole darned shooting match. Despite its obvious debt of inspiration to Gareth Huw Evans’ The Raid, it is an old school, deliciously sleazy revenge thriller that always delivers the goods right to your doorstep and never expects a tip. Highly recommended for fans of exploitation action, Everly is now available on VOD via iTunes and opens this Friday (2/27) in selected cities.

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Serangoon Road: Singaporean Intrigue with Joan Chen

If the boy from Empire of the Sun, grew up to be a hardboiled private detective, he would be a lot like Sam Callaghan. The Aussie expat is still haunted by his childhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp, but he toughened up considerably through his Malaya military service. He used to lend a hand to the late Winston Cheng on a freelance basis, but he reluctantly agrees to a more regular arrangement when his widow Patricia decides to keep the agency open. Thanks to the Secret Societies, terrorist bombings, and all sorts of garden variety smuggling, they will find no shortage of business in Serangoon Road (promo here), HBO Asia’s first original series production, which releases today on DVD from Acorn.

Callaghan sort of blames himself for Cheng’s death, but the elegant Mrs. Cheng plays the guilt card with restraint. Although she is from a “mainline” establishment Peranakan Chinese family, the childless widow still needs the agency as a means of support. With the help of Sam and her progressive niece Su Ling, she also hopes to catch her husband’s murderer.

Their first case seems to be a one-off with little long term implications, but it will introduce the large cast of characters. Fresh-faced CIA recruit Conrad Harrison and his shadowy boss “Wild Bill” need the Cheng Agency to track down an African American sailor accused of murdering his best mate. It is probably the series’ least flattering depiction of American spooks and servicemen, but at least Harrison, one of those “best and brightest,” seems to care about right and wrong. He is also very interested in Su Ling, but she initially wants nothing to do with a Yankee government employee.

The past will directly haunt the present in subsequent episodes, as when the Cheng Agency takes on an illegal refugee’s case in the second episode. Forced to take flight during the Japanese invasion, Ms. Feng has returned (undocumented) in search of the husband she left behind. The case looks pretty cold until Ms. Feng is mysteriously poisoned. As she clings to life, Callaghan scrambles to trace her beloved husband, empathizing with her deep sense of loss. He will become even more personally involved with a case later in the season, when the Aboriginal soldier who watched over him during the darkest hour of the war is accused of murdering an aspiring journalist.

Many of the Cheng Agency cases lead back to Kay Song, the heir apparent of Singapore’s most feared secret society (a gang primarily involved in crimes of sin). For some reason, the sinister gangster has it in for Kang, Callaghan’s compulsive gambling partner in a barely legal shipping operation. It is hard to see why he bothers, given Kang’s multitude of self-destructive flaws. Frankly, Kang subplots will become a tiresome distraction as the series progresses.

As befits a good period noir, everyone in Serangoon is compromised to some extent, particularly Callaghan, who is rather openly carrying on an affair with Claire Simpson, the wife of a junior executive assigned to a powerful western trading company’s Singapore office. Conveniently, Frank Simpson is often required to travel throughout Southeast Asia. Rather awkwardly, Callaghan is even hired to investigate his rival when Simpson is anonymously sullied with rumors of corruption.

During the course of the first season, the Cheng Agency will also deal with a mysterious foundling, a suspicious business leader with political aspirations, his nearly as suspicious trade unionist brother, two kidnapped Australian tourists, and a massive race riot that the bad guys will opportunistically exploit to the fullest. Structurally, each episode is reasonably self-contained, but they fit together to form a wider overall narrative arc.

Although many of the mid-sixties Singaporean details are quite intriguing, it is the strong ensemble cast that really distinguishes Serangoon. Even though he sometimes overdoes the heartsick brooding, Don Hany’s Callaghan still has an appropriately manly yet world weary screen presence. Of course Joan Chen adds plenty of class and sophistication as Patricia Cheng. It is easy to see why western bureaucrats would have confidence hiring her.

Frankly, the real discovery is Pamelyn Chee (who maybe a handful of people saw in Wayne Wang’s Princess of Nebraska), stealing scene after scene with Su Ling’s wry sarcasm and slightly deceptive elegance. Chin Han chews the scenery like he enjoys the taste as the villainous Kay Song (just as he did in Marco Polo). Somewhat frustratingly, Indonesian superstar Ario Bayu does not get a lot of fun things to do this time around, but there is room for his character, Inspector Amran, to grow. However, Maeve Dermody’s hopelessly vanilla Simpson falls somewhat short in the scandalous femme fatale department. It is hard to get why Callaghan is so hung up on her. Maybe you just have to be there—in Singapore—circa 1964.

Regardless, there is more than enough mystery, betrayal, and colorful supporting characters to keep viewers engaged and increasingly invested. Frankly, it seems strange the American HBO did not pick it up to fill a slow spot in their calendar. In terms of production quality, it holds its own with most limited-event cable series and should equally satisfy Joan Chen fans who know her either from Twin Peaks or Xiao Hua (The Little Flower). Recommended for anyone who enjoys humid noir in serial form, Serangoon Road is now available on DVD from Acorn.

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