J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Rocks in My Pockets: Depression and Talent Run in the Family

Perversely, the Soviet occupation of Latvia probably saved the life of animator Signe Baumane’s grandmother, Anna, at least temporarily. The resulting privations and exploitation provided a distraction from the depression and suicidal impulses that plagued her all her life. Combining art and therapy, Baumane chronicles the mental health trials of the women in her family, culminating with her own struggles in Rocks in My Pockets (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Baumane’s father and his seven brothers and sisters revere their sainted mother, but Baumane slowly pieces together a darker story. She was such a bright young girl, her father saved and even borrowed to send her to college, making Anna one of the few women in 1920s Latvia with an advanced education. Unfortunately, the only job she found after graduation was as the secretary to the entrepreneur who would become Baumane’s grandfather.

Initially, Anna was in awe of his erudition and sophistication, but his jealous controlling side quickly surfaced after their marriage. Instead of living a life of cosmopolitan glamour in the city, Anna dutifully followed her husband into the forest, where he established a turpentine factory. Unlike many of his schemes, it was relatively successful until the Soviets invaded, nationalizing it and everything else in their wake.

With eight months to feed, Anna rouses herself from her depression, navigating the life-and-death challenges posed by the Soviets, the Germans, and then the Soviets again. In fact, the Communists never stopped shaking down Anna and her family, confiscating their provisions when they are on the outs as partisans, just as they did when they were conquering oppressors.

Needless to say, Soviet psychiatric care was not exactly scientifically or socially progressive, either. It was mostly just about doping patients up, locking them up, and stigmatizing them thereafter, as Baumane learns first hand. In between, she revisits the sad history of many lost relatives, reading between the lines.

Even if it is animated, a film about depression sounds rather depressing, especially when a good portion of it is set during the Communist era. However, Baumane’s animation is quite striking, often taking viewers down surreal, symbolically resonant rabbit holes, and her message is also empowering and ultimately upbeat. In fact, the closing lines are absolutely unforgettable.

Yes, there is a prescriptive element to the film (tragically timely in the wake of Robin Williams’ death), but animation enthusiasts can enjoy it simply on a visual level. While Baumane tips her hat to Bill Plympton and Jan Svankmajer, her hand-drawn figures and backgrounds often bring to mind the work of Sally Cruishank (although they are somewhat less colorful, perhaps reflecting the subject matter and setting).

Clearly, Rocks is a very personal film, but Baumane’s family experiences offer a highly relevant and accessible perspective on the greater realities of depression and even Twentieth Century Latvian history. She convincingly makes the sort of jump from the private to the universal that Barabara Kopple’s glitzy, self-helpy Running from Crazy miserably failed to pull off. Highly recommended for fans of animation and those who appreciate its message, Rocks in My Pockets opens this Wednesday (9/2) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Baby Blues: Devil Doll on a Gloomy Sunday

Known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song,” Rezső Seress’s “Gloomy Sunday” has become the stuff of urban legend, but the only suicide that can be directly linked to it was that of its songwriter.  That makes it quite an odd choice for a producer to update for the biggest star on his roster, but it was not entirely Hao’s idea. He had help from the devil doll left behind in his new home. The sinister ragamuffin will be a malevolent influence on Hao’s new family, especially his wife in Po-chih Leong’s Baby Blues (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD from Well Go USA.

Hao and his pregnant wife Tian Qing have just purchased a spectacular new home for a veritable song. The only drawback seems to be the homeless guy camped across the street, who is always yelling spooky warnings. For some reason, they hardly notice him, but she finds the creepy doll utterly charming. Unfortunately, it seems he is a “Jimi doll,” who drove the previous owners to bad ends. Even though accidents mysteriously follow Hao’s reworked song, now known as “The Intruder,” the mega-popular Ying Lan digs its edginess. Everything seems to be going right for the couple, until it is time to deliver her twins. Adam will make it, but Jimmy will not. However, this leaves a vacuum for the Jimi doll to fill.

Of course, the doctors assure Hao his wife is simply suffering from postpartum depression and perhaps he is as well. Nonetheless, he and Tian Qing’s tomboy sister Trinket soon suspect something weirder is afoot. Eventually, they even start paying attention to the old cat’s jibber-jabbering.

Yes, Baby Blues owes an obvious “debt” to the Chucky franchise, but it actually has several additional supernatural hooks that often compete with each other. The “Gloomy Sunday” references are actually pretty clever and cool, while the recurring twin motif is rather creepy. Yet, all mixed together they collectively undermine what Poe called the “unity of effect.” There are also loose ends and blind alleys all over the place. Still, one would sort of like to see Keira Knightly and Adam Levine remake the film as “Can a Song End Your Life.”

Beyond the on-screen action, Baby Blues generated considerable interest as the first film co-starring real life couple Raymond Lam and Karena Ng. However, perhaps shrewdly, they do not share any romantic scenes as Hao and Trinket. Without question, Ng gets the better of the deal, proving well suited to the mettlesome sister. In contrast, Lam’s Hao is a bit wooden, saddled with the intuition of cold porridge. At least newcomer Janelle Sing goes nuts pretty convincingly, while Kate Tsui clearly enjoys preening through the film as Ying Lan.

Baby Blues is also the British-born, Los Angeles-based Leong’s first HK production in two decades. It is odd choice of project to lure him back, but it was probably a guaranteed money maker. There are indeed some surprisingly big names attached to this straight forward genre outing, including Irene Wan, who makes the most of her third act near-cameo.

As horror films go, Baby Blues is certainly presentable. Genre fans will appreciate the ways it tweaks various conventions, but the killer doll effects do not meet the industry standard. Leong does not have a particularly strong feel for the requisite mood either, but the veteran cast knuckles down and powers through. The result is a mish-mash, but it has its moments. For fans of HK horror, Baby Blues is now available on DVD, BluRay, and VOD from Well Go USA.

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Monday, September 01, 2014

The Congress: Ari Folman Channels Stanislaw Lem

Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem deftly satirized Soviet utopianism in The Futurological Congress. For his modernized riff, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman uses Hollywood as the new evil empire. It is a smooth substitution. In the very near future, the movie business will take exploitation to even greater technological heights, as Robin Wright learns first-hand when she plays herself in Folman’s The Congress (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lem’s novel may have provided the seed of inspiration, but you not find his well traveled hero Ijon Tichy. Instead, Wright will attend the conference in his stead, but first we will witness the final days of her acting career. Despite her early success in hits like The Princess Bride, Folman’s Wright turned out to be difficult to work with, frequently dropping out of high profile roles at the last minute. While she always claimed it was for the sake of her ailing son Aaron, her frustrated agent really knows it is fear and a lack of confidence that sabotaged her career.

However, Miramount has a final offer to make. For a lump sum payment, they will digitize Wright and program her into all the hit movies she was never shrewd enough to accept. Evidently, this is the way the business is going, so she reluctantly accepts. Twenty years later, she is the biggest star in the business, but nobody recognizes the real Wright. Accepting an invitation to speak at Miramount’s Futurological Congress, Wright plans to challenge their questionable ethical priorities from the podium. However, to get there, she must travel into Miramount’s animated city of avatars. Unfortunately, little things like the nature of time and reality will complicate her plan.

Frankly, the first fifty minutes of live action could have easily been condensed. In fact, by the time the film finally switches over into animation, Folman seems so eager to go off on a fantastical romp he never fully establishes the rules and boundaries of his chemically induced world of cartoon avatars. Still, it all looks spectacularly trippy.

Granted, Folman’s Congress is a bit of a narrative mess and it lacks Lem’s subversive bite, but it is fully stocked with fascinating ideas and surprisingly effective performances. In one of many intriguing side-plots, Folman puts a Matrix-like spin of Otto Preminger’s Laura when Dylan Truliner confesses to Wright he fell in love with her while working as the animator manipulating her digital image.

As Al the agent, Harvey Keitel delivers a monologue end all monologues, while Paul Giamatti (who could have advised Wright on playing a meta-meta version of herself, having done something similar in Cold Souls) adeptly brings some stabilizing sensitivity and dignity to the film as Aaron’s kindly Dr. Baker. Whether as an animated avatar or in the flesh, Danny Huston also makes a dynamite villain as Miramount (great name) studio boss Jeff Green.

Most importantly, The Congress’ animation is wildly cool and colorful, with enough thinly disguised cameos and visual quotes to reward dozens of repeat viewings. In contrast, the Wright family drama gets tiresome the first time through, especially when it comes to poor, pitiful Aaron, whose bland personality seems to be degenerating along with his sight and hearing. Nevertheless, Folman puts so much crazy ambition up on the screen, it more than compensates for the occasional lapse into Lifetime melodrama. Recommended for fans of cult science fiction and animation, as well as Lem readers who enjoy being scandalized, The Congress opens this Friday (9/5) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Billy Wilder’s Rakish Fedora

It turns out Norma Desmond was right. By 1978 the pictures had gotten small. One reclusive actress could make them big again, if only she were willing. One scuffling independent producer thinks he has the perfect comeback vehicle for her, but he will have to get past her suspiciously protective entourage in Billy Wilder’s newly restored Fedora (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Unlike Desmond, the uni-named Fedora appears truly ageless. Part of the credit must go to Dr. Vando, her personal physician, but he is just as controlling as the rest of her gatekeepers. Fedora is staying at Countess Sobryanski’s villa on the Greek Isle of Corfu, where access is strictly limited. Even though she has rebuffed Hollywood’s overtures for years, Barry “Dutch” Detweiler has come on borrowed money, script-in-hand, hoping to entice her with his modern day remake of Anna Karenina. Since the film starts in media res at Fedora’s funeral, it is safe to assume the trip will not be a success. In fact, Fedora will dispatch herself in the manner of Tolstoy’s heroine. Of course, there will be a decidedly thorny explanation for her actions.

As we learn in flashbacks, Detweiler has a personal reason to believe Fedora might consider his offer. They once had a fling when she was at the height of her stardom and he was a very junior but very popular production assistant. There will be many more deep dark secrets from the past that Wilder and his celebrated screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond clearly enjoyed teasing out.

As a sort of thematic sequel to Sunset Boulevard, starring William Holden as Detweiler, Fedora ought to be beloved or reviled, yet it has been largely overlooked during the succeeding years instead. Frankly, that is rather baffling, because their dialogue is as snappy as ever and their take on the late 1970s business of moviemaking is drily mordant. There are obvious parallels with Boulevard, but they dress it up with the scandalous trappings of the Harold Robbins novels then in vogue (sex, drug addiction, children secretly born out of wedlock).

Nevertheless, Wilder was still Wilder, so he could secure some really big stars to appear as themselves. Henry Fonda cranks his likability up to superhuman levels to play himself as the president of the Academy, specially delivering Fedora’s honorary Oscar two years before he was awarded his own. On the flipside, Michael York is quite the good sport appearing as a shallow, clueless Michael York.

Holden proves he can still masterfully handle Wilder’s adult banter, but there is also something poignant about Detweiler’s mounting desperation and nostalgia for the good old days. Even in his final years, he was a true movie star. Marthe Keller is also quite compelling in the title role, which turns out to be quite the complicated part, for reasons that would be spoilery to explain. Likewise, it is great fun to watch José Ferrer’s Vando swill his liquor and chew his scenery.

Sure, Fedora is alternatively lurid and campy—all the best films about Hollywood are, at least to some extent. More importantly, it has the wit and the attitude you would hope for. Not exactly a masterwork and certainly not a masterpiece, Fedora is really just a ripping good exercise in storytelling. Highly recommended for fans of classic movies and the people who made them, Billy Wilder’s Fedora opens this Friday (9/5) at New York’s Film Forum.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Portland Film Festival ’14: Blemished Light

The Indian subcontinent is a fractious, factionalized region, but the criminalization of homosexuality is an unfortunate constant. Of course, there are violent extremists who seek to further impose their strict Islamist agenda on those they deem unbelievers or apostates. In his split narrative following a closeted lesbian’s desperate attempt to find love and a Muslim terrorist stalking a moderate academic, director-co-writer Raj Amit Kumar issues a plea for tolerance and civility, but finds little of either in Blemished Light (trailer here), which had a special midnight screening at the 2014 Portland Film Festival.

Leela Singh is the apple of her senior police officer father’s eye, but she simply cannot submit to the proper marriage he has arranged for her. The doting but stern Devraj will be scandalized when he learns Singh is a lesbian, who intends to win back her former secret lover, Sakhi Taylor, a bi-sexual Indian-American artist. Taylor holds a downtown hipster image of herself, but she still cares about how she is perceived in Indian society. Their reunion will be uneasy, but for Singh the die is already cast, thanks to the video confessional she left for her father.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Husain has arrived in New York for a grim mission he whole-heartedly embraces. He has been chosen to abduct and execute Fareed Rahmani, a prominent proponent of a more liberal vision of Islam. In his frequent media appearances, Rahmani argues true Muslims do not go about killing people. Husain intends to demonstrate otherwise, but first is supposed to extract a confession of heresy.

While the two discrete storylines never intersect, they are highly compatible thematically and make it difficult to dismiss the film as mere “Islamophobia.” Clearly, Kumar and co-writer suggest prejudice based on religion, gender, and sexual orientation is an issue endemic to the region that transcends demographic categories.

Blemished also benefits from the imprimatur of the legendary Victor Banerjee (best known in the West for A Passage to India and several Satyajit Ray films), whose mastery of his craft remains unabated. As Rahmani, he fully humanizes the potential martyr figure (in an uncorrupted sense of the term), ultimately delivering a devastating punch to the viewer’s gut. In contrast, Adil Hussain’s Devraj Singh is appropriately intense and decidedly disturbing, credibly laying the groundwork for some otherwise unfathomable choices as a father. Bhavani Lee also demonstrates future star power potential and a vivid screen presence as the complicated and contradictory Taylor.

This is a film rich in telling scenes, such as the stilted interactions between Husain and his Americanized support network, many of whom seem to be trying to preserve their plausible deniability. There are issues here and there, including an underdeveloped subplot involving Singh’s pregnant platonic girlfriend and an excursion into surreal imagery that looks quite striking but clashes with the overall tone of social realism. However, the film’s visceral immediacy demands an audience.

Inspired by the verse of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, it is a bold and bracing film, featuring an extraordinarily compelling and humanistic performance from Banerjee. Highly recommended for his fans and patrons of accessible Indian Parallel Cinema (or high-end Bollywood), Blemished Light is sure to generate controversy as well as a long life on the Indian and LGBT festival circuits following its special screening at this year’s Portland Film Festival.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Cesare Mori: the Iron Prefect

To this day, there is a reservoir of good will for Mussolini’s Fascist Party in Sicily, thanks in large measure to the “Iron Prefect.” Although he had a checkered personal history with the Fascists, he pursued the Mafia like an Italian Elliott Ness, getting better results for his efforts. After all, they do not give you a nickname like the Iron Prefect for nothing. Gangs will be busted but not permanently eradicated in the historical crime mini-series Cesare Mori (trailer here), which is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.

Mori was a hard cop to kill. During his first posting in Sicily, he stepped on all the wrong toes pursuing the Carlino Gang and the murder of Count Chiaramonte. Mori succeeds in routing the Carlinos, perhaps too well, leaving a vacuum open for the Mafia factions responsible for the Chiaramonte homicide. Making a deal with the devil, the widow Elena Chiaramonte forges an alliance with the Mafia’s facilitators. She will regret this, but not before she supplies a bogus alibi to her husband’s murderer.

With his prosecution scuttled, Mori is promoted up and out of Dodge. In Bologna, he became the only Prefect to stand up to Black Shirt thuggery. Yet, Mussolini was still willing to return him to Sicily with greater authority when the Mafia’s power started to eclipse that of the state.

Without question, the most intriguing aspect of Cesare Mori the mini-series is Mori’s ambiguous relationship with Il Duce. Conveniently, the real life Mori died before the onset of WWII, so he cannot be implicated in any Fascist war crimes. Still, he was a Party member, who somehow made his peace with Mussolini. Clearly, Pietro Calderoni and his battery of co-screen-writers portray Mori’s fascism much like a reluctant Democrat assistant district attorney in Manhattan. He is keenly aware of the party’s corruption and incompetence, but it is the only game in town if he wants to pursue a career in justice.

On the other hand, the clunkiest storyline in Mori involves Saro, an orphaned mobster’s son temporarily adopted by the Moris until the ambitious future Don Tano Cuccia re-establishes the Mafia’s custody. Watching his high-strung wife pine for the ingrate Saro gets old fast. The production is also rarely helped by Pino Donaggio’s overwrought music, which makes several perfectly respectable dramatic scenes sound and feel unnecessarily melodramatic.

Still, Vincent Pérez (probably best known for the “red cloak” scene in Queen Margot and succeeding Brandon Lee in The Crow: City of Angels) is suitably commanding as Mori. He can also ride a horse, which is important. Evidently, Mori preferred to make his entrances on horseback rather than clambering out of an auto, to cut a more imposing figure with the criminal element. When he swaggers and seethes, Mori works quite well.

Comedic actor Adolfo Margiotta is also surprisingly effective as his deputy, Francesco Spanò, who turns out to be more serious and competent than his hound dog looks suggest. As the Countess, Gabriella Pession generates some flirtatious heat with Pérez, but she is saddled with a problematic character that spends most of the decades-spanning production kidding herself about the state of her affairs.

Mori is a fascinating historical and television figure, whereas Saro is just rather sorry. In fact, it is hard to watch Cesare Mori without analyzing what its respective depictions of Mori, Mussolini, and the Mafia say about current Italian attitudes. In fact, it might be controversial with some audiences because dead-ringer Maurizio Donadoni’s portrayal of Il Duce is unflattering on balance, but not so very different from your average politician on the make. Despite its flaws, director Gianni Lepre keeps the 200 minute mini moving along briskly, while Pérez’s performance provides a steely anchor of conviction. Recommended for fans of gangster dramas with minor aesthetic reservations, Cesare Mori is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Here Comes Uncle Joe: He Delivers

Unfortunately, (Joe) Byung-gi Cho is not in a growth business. He has an extremely loyal but steadily shrinking customer base. For years, he has delivered groceries and sundries to the elderly residents of rural An-dong.  Not just a merchant, he has become an integral part of their lives. However, the demands on his time often cause friction with his own family. Filmmakers Wooyoung Choi & Sinae Ha document his quiet but not necessarily simple life in Here Comes Uncle Joe (promo here), which airs this Sunday on PBS World’s Global Voices.

Once, “Uncle Joe,” as the Aunties and Uncles call him, was a promising academic, until his relationship with a former student short-circuited his career. They are still married, with children, but she begrudges all the time his spends with his An-dong clientele. For many of his customers, Uncle Joe is a lifeline for nutrition and socialization. To some he is a drinking buddy and to others he is a surrogate for the grown children who never visit. He cannot help getting emotionally involved with them, so when one of his aging customers inevitably passes away, it is hard for him to shake it off.

HCUJ is not just about plucky oldsters and the younger sensitive cat who hangs with them. It is largely a gentle observational doc, but the filmmaking duo never sugarcoats Uncle Joe’s disappointments in life or his own family issues. Yet, despite catching him in moments of sadness and regret, they clearly suggest his life has meaning.

So yes, Uncle Joe seems like an unabashedly good guy. The hour long broadcast cut captures some moments of real drama, especially when a beloved community member passes. Still, there is nothing in the film you would consider shocking, by any stretch. Somehow though, the co-writer-co-directors keep all the niceness from getting too cloying. Towards that end, Lee Byung-hoon’s elegant acoustic soundtrack provides a key assist, setting a vibe reminiscent of some Kore-eda’s family dramas.

HCUJ is not as cute and quirky as Marigold Hotel fans might prefer, but it reaffirms the messiness of life nonetheless. While far from indispensible, it is a sensitive look at rural, traditional values-holding Korea. Recommended for Reader’s Digest subscribers with an international interest, Here Comes Uncle Joe airs this Sunday (8/31) as part of the current season of PBS World’s Global Voices.

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Houdini, the Man, the Miniseries

He collaborated with H.P. Lovecraft and became the sworn enemy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the nearly eighty-eight years since his death, nobody has approached Harry Houdini’s fame and accomplishment as an illusionist and escape artist, while perhaps only the Amazing Randi has equaled him as a debunker of psychic phonies. Yet, despite some vintage stills and a brief flirtation with those new-fangled moving pictures, his live performances were almost solely the stuff of memory. Yet, the fascination with Houdini persists. The man in chains takes center stage once again when the two-night miniseries Houdini premieres this Labor Day on the History Channel (promo here).

As we meet young Erik Weisz (soon to be Ehrich Weiss and eventually Harry Houdini), it is clear he is a mother’s boy, with deep-seated father issues. These themes will constantly return over the two nights like swallows to San Juan Capistrano. Due to his youthful confidence, the future Houdini is convinced his facility for magic tricks will bear great fruit eventually. Naturally, he spends years scuffling, but at least he meets his future wife Bess through those down-market gigs. However, when Houdini’s handcuff escape starts generating buzz, he re-invents himself as an escape artist and his career ignites.

Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (The Seven Percent Solution novel and screenplay) takes viewers on a mostly breezy jaunt through Houdini’s colorful life, largely sticking to the facts, or in the case of Houdini’s supposed work with the American and British Secret Services, well reported suppositions. Whether it is true or not, Tim Pigott-Smith looks like he is having a ball playing British spymaster William Melville, the original “M.” It is also allows for some entertaining intrigue, as when Houdini thoroughly befuddles the Czar and his fellow faker, Rasputin.

The second night is necessarily darker, progressing as it must towards the inevitable, with the bulk of the drama devoted to Houdini’s drive to debunk false mediums using parlor tricks to fleece the grieving. There is very little that could be considered truly genre-centric in the séance sessions, but the trappings will still have a bit of appeal to fans.

Although he is considerably taller than the spark-pluggish Houdini, Adrien Brody’s gaunt, sad-eyed persona fits the escape artist rather well. He also looks like he put in the time when it came to the crunch sit-ups. As Bess, Kristen Connolly’s earthy energy plays off him well, even if their chemistry is a little flat. While he has little dramatic heavy lifting to do, Evan Jones’s earnestness also wears well on Jim Collins, Houdini’s assistant and chief co-conspirator.

There are a lot of fun sequences in Houdini (the disappearing elephant is particularly well staged), but the visually stylized punch-to-gut symbolic motif is way over done and the effects look terrible on screen. Still, the mini addresses Houdini’s Jewish heritage in respectful, sympathetic terms, which must have been a strange change of pace for director Uli Edel, whose highly problematic terrorist apologia Baader Meinhof Complex suggests killing Jews is nothing to get upset about.

Fans with a checklist will be able to tick off just about all of the iconic escapes, from straightjackets to milk cans. Overall, it is a nice blend of fact-based fiction and somewhat more fanciful speculation. However, it feels slightly stretched to cover two nights. Recommended for admirers of Houdini the performer and scourge of spiritualists, Houdini the mini-series airs this Monday and Tuesday night (9/1 & 9/2) on the History Channel.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Road to Ninja, the New Naruto Movie

Naruto Uzumaki is a lot like your classic adolescent fantasy protagonist, but the trappings are ninja-related rather than the stuff of sorcery and knight errantry. Growing up as an orphan, he is rash on the outside and sensitive on the inside. Even though fans know his creation story quite well, it will be revisited in detail and perhaps even altered when the junior ninja finds himself whisked into an alternate world in Hayato Date’s Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Uzumaki’s father and mother bravely sacrificed their lives defending Konohagakure from the rampaging Nine-Tailed Demon Fox. Even though his parents are immortalized on the village’s Rushmore-like monument, Naruto is often shunned because they were forced to mystically seal the demon within him. Naruto is usually a pretty plucky kid, but he is going through a rough patch, making the absence of his family particularly acute. In contrast, his crush-rival Sakura Haruno is feeling especially embarrassed of her intrusive, ultra-square parents.

However, before you can “alternate Star Trek universe,” the malevolent Tobi traps them in the Tsukuyomi world, based largely on their deepest subconscious desires. Much to their surprise, Haruno is now the celebrated orphan of the village heroes, while Uzumaki’s parents are alive and well. Instead of martyrs, they are workaday ninjas and loving parents (who insist on calling him Memna rather than Naruto). Everything looks the same, but most of their friends have reversed their primary character traits. In a way, this makes Road an easy series entry point, since most of the backstory no longer applies.

The Naruto franchise is classified as Shōnen manga, which usually means a lot of fighting. Road is no exception, but its themes of sacrifice and parental love give it more Capra-esque sentiment than you might expect. Since it was plotted out by series creator Masashi Kishimoto, you know it is legit. It is a rather self-contained story arc, but it arguably offers fans greater character development. Frustratingly though, like many anime features, the big showdown relies on a lot of flash-and-dazzle spectacle that largely becomes a blur of fireballs and fix-demons. It would be more effective to bring things down to a more personal level, like Mel Gibson and Gary Busey duking it out on Danny Glover’s front lawn.

Under Kishimoto’s watchful eye, Date and company maintain the franchise’s quality control. In fact, there are some great images of Konohagakure and its environs, evoking Edo-era Japan and Tolkien-like fantasyscapes in equal measure. There is more heart to Road than you usually find in well established warhorse properties, which might be why it is the Japanese box-office’s top performing Naruto feature thus far. Nevertheless, it requires a predisposition to teenaged ninjas and all the angst and combat they face. Solidly executed but probably not crossing over from the fan zone, Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie screens this coming Sunday (8/31) and Monday (Labor Day, 9/1) in New York at the Village East. For a complete list of cities and dates, check the Eleven Arts website here.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Damned: The Witch in Pandora’s Box

When you see a little girl in a horror movie, run for all your lungs are worth. Unfortunately, the Reynolds family does not realize they are in a fright flick. Sure, they are stranded in an old decrepit hotel in the middle of nowhere, but they are initially too preoccupied with their passive aggressiveness in Victor García’s The Damned (a.k.a. Gallows Hill, trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Following his wife’s death, David Reynolds’ relationship with his daughter Jill has been strained. She makes no secret of her lack of enthusiasm for his upcoming marriage to Lauren and receives plenty of encouragement for her petulant acting-out from her hot aspiring journalist Aunt Gina. Determined to drag her back to America for the wedding, the Reynolds must take a major detour to retrieve her passport, because roaming around Colombia without papers is such a good idea for international travelers. Of course, a torrential storm and a highway mishap forces them to take refuge in an ominous boarded up resort that now only houses creepy old Felipe and the little girl he has locked in the basement cell.

When they inevitably discover innocent looking Ana Marie, he warns them not to listen to her evil lies, but they do. Needless to say, Felipe is soon proved correct. It turns out the spirit of a witch executed on Gallows Hill was possessing his daughter and is now out for revenge against the descendants of her executioners.

At first, The Damned looks like a Colombian riff on Charles Beaumont’s classic “Howling Man” Twilight Zone episode, but it also takes elements from Gregory Hoblit’s underrated Fallen and gives them a good twist. In fact, the whole system of possession is a rather clever bit of horror movie mechanics. However, the film’s best asset is the incredibly eerie setting. Unlike the Stanley, this is one movie hotel horror fans will not want to visit.

Twilight vampire franchise survivor Peter Facinelli is pretty solid as the exasperated father. He makes a convincing couple with Sophia Myles, who adds some welcome grace and class as the eternally understanding Lauren. On the other hand, Nathalia Ramos’ constantly pouting quickly makes Jill a tiresome eye-roller, while Colombian superstar Carolina Guerra is almost distractingly sultry as Aunt Gina, the supposedly scuffling reporter.

Thanks to cinematographer Alejandro Moreno and production designer Asdrúbal Medina’s team, The Damned is a fine example of how much visual style and ambience can add to horror film. Although García and screenwriter-co-producer Richard D’Ovidio never reinvent the supernatural wheel, they keep it spinning quite effectively. Recommended with confidence for genre fans, The Damned opens this Friday (8/29), late night, at the IFC Center and is currently available on IFC Midnight’s VOD platforms.

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The Calling: Popping Pills and Chasing Serial Killers

It is hard to say which are dumber in this non-mystery: the Christians who willingly sacrifice themselves in rituals that violate nearly every tenet of their faith or the Keystone cops who spend more time chasing their tails than the only suspect we ever see. At least, Detective Hazel Micallef has the excuse of being a pill popping drunk. Nonetheless, she is the only copper smart enough to figure out a serial killer is on the loose in Jason Stone’s logically challenged The Calling (trailer here), opening this Friday in select theaters.

Micallef lives with her mother, drinks too much, and openly carries on with a married man in the small Canadian town of Fort Dundas (perhaps that should be Fort Dunderhead). She is currently the town’s acting police chief by virtue of seniority, but her position is tenuous at best. However, when one of her mother’s church cronies is decapitated, Micallef’s atrophied intuition says it must be the work of a serial killer.

With the help of her long suffering deputy and a green transfer from Toronto, she identifies similar facial manipulations in other bodies just outside her jurisdiction. For some reason, she seeks the counsel of Father Price, who immediately confirms each victim’s mouth has been molded to form part of a long forgotten early Christian sacrificial-reincarnation prayer. Gee, that’s not suspiciously convenient at all.

Of course, about ten seconds later we learn the good Father is indeed well acquainted with the killer. While he is morally conflicted (because Donald Sutherland could not possibly play an out-and-out bad guy in a Susan Sarandon movie), he still acquiesces to the mysterious Simon’s dubious scheme.

The Calling is based on the first of three Micallef mystery novels written by Michael Redhill under the Inger Ash Wolfe pseudonym. However, there is not much mystery in the film and common sense is also scarce as hen’s teeth. On paper, the Micallef character sounds promising, but Sarandon is the wrong person for the role. Instead of embracing her degenerate nature, she plays her like some sort of martyr, trying to be a hard drinking Sister Helen Prejean with a badge.

Evidently, Gil Bellows is the new go-to-guy whenever a casting agent needs a small town deputy, but he provides a much needed sense of stability for the ludicrous plot. As Father Price, Sutherland manages to say some ridiculous lines with a straight face. Sarandon’s fellow Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn must have owed one of the producers a big favor, because she has absolutely nothing interesting to do as Micallef’s mother. Regardless, she appears natural and credible in all her scenes, unlike the awkward looking Topher Grace, sticking out like a sore thumb as the freshly re-assigned Ben Wingate. However, Christopher Heyerdahl brings real presence and a bit of ambiguity as Simon, the symbolically loaded bogeyman.

Ill conceived and executed in a manner that minimizes any potential suspense, The Calling just doesn’t have much going on. Clearly, Scott Abramovitch’s screenplay fancies itself some sort of Bill Maher critique of faith-before-reason Christianity, but its defining characteristic is its blandness. Not recommended, it opens this Friday (8/29) in select cities.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kundo—Age of the Rampant: the Butcher vs. the Bastard

If the peasants won’t take to their pitchforks, the Chusul Clan will do it for them. They are sort of like Robin Hood and his men, but they aren’t very merry. The Chusul outlaws definitely believe in stealing from the rich. That would be Jo Yoon, a Naju lord’s sociopathic illegitimate son. It is the have-not’s versus the man who has everything except a proper name in Yoon Jong-bin’s smash hit Kundo: Age of the Rampant (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It was sort of the Chusuls’ fault that the death of Lord Jo Won-suk’s son opened up a void to be filled by his new presumptive heir, Jo Yoon. Still, at the time, it was a highly satisfying mission for Dae-ho, the Chusul captain. Indirectly, it also brings Dolmuchi into the picture. The lowly clever-wielding butcher is hired by Jo Yoon to murder his half-brother’s pregnant widow. However, Dolmuchi has an outbreak of conscience at the last moment.

Slightly disappointed, Jo Yoon has the poor butcher’s family murdered, but Dolmuchi is saved at the last moment by his future Chusul comrades. Despite the wise spiritual counsel of Ddaeng-choo, “the Vicious Monk,” Dolmuchi is consumed with a desire for revenge. However, Jo Yoon’s almost superhuman martial arts were nearly the death of him the last time they faced off. Frankly, the Naju usurper might be too powerful for Dolmuchi’s adopted clan, but when he really starts to squeeze the peasantry, Dae-ho resolves to act.

The obvious class warfare themes drive Kundo like the runaway bus in Speed, but it never loses sight of the action. In fact, there are numerous spaghetti western hat-tips, including a big noisy one to the original Django, which is awesome. There is also the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai/Seven Warriors dynamic of the rag-tag Chusul action team coming together, including the hulking Chun-bo, Lee Tae-ki, a former aristocratic turned outlaw, and Ma-hyang, the strictly-business archer they both carry a torch for.

It seems like the creepiest villains in Korean cinema are often distinctly androgynous—and Jo Yoon is no exception. Freshly discharged from his mandatory military service, Gang Dong-won’s performance has the grace and menace of a psychotic ballet dancer. He is flamboyantly cruel, but screenwriter Jeon Cheol-hong takes pains to establish the linkage to his miserable childhood.

Indeed, Gang chews the scenery quite effectively as the clammy Jo Yoon. Conversely, Ha Jung-woo practically blows smoke out his ears as the massively intense Dolmuchi. Lee Sung-min and Yoon Ji-hye are both steely cool as Dae-ho and Ma-hyang, respectively, while former MMA trainer Ma Dong-seok (a.k.a. Don Lee) is reliably energizing as the Friar Tuck-ish Chun-bo. However, veteran character actor Lee Kyoung-young (practically unrecognizable without his glasses) nearly steals the show as the hardcore but deeply compassionate priest. Unfortunately, viewers who blink might miss Korean indie star Kim Kkobbi fleetingly appearing as Jo Yoon’s fugitive half-sister-in-law.

Kundo literally tells us serfs: “United you are people, divided you are thieves.” Fortunately, it then proceeds to kill a bunch of extras. Frankly, the rhetoric might sound more DPRK than ROK, but Jo Yoon’s tyranny just as easily validates Lord Acton as it does Leon Trotsky. More importantly, the action sequences are pretty spectacular. Dolmuchi even fights like a butcher, which is quite cinematic. Recommended for those who enjoy epic, morally black-and-white, two hour-plus epic historical conflagrations, Kundo: Age of the Rampant opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

The Notebook: A Different Kind of War Diary

Perhaps no nation’s history during World War II is as torturously complex as the Hungarian experience. Although Regent Miklós Horthy largely refused to abet National Socialism’s Final Solution, his resistance was tragically reversed by a full scale occupation and the Arrow Cross coup d’état. In war-torn 1944, twin thirteen year old brothers will learn the worst lessons possible from Germans, Soviets, and their fellow Hungarian countrymen alike in János Szász’s Oscar nominated The Notebook (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The nameless twins had lived sheltered lives, but the war’s grim turn changes everything. Fearing for their safety in the city, their mother deposits them with the grandmother they have never known. She is not pleased to meet them. Conspicuously estranged from her daughter, the old woman feels no emotional bond to the two boys. Reluctantly accepting their presence on her farm, she works them like animals for meager rations. When they complain, she beats them before drinking herself into a stupor.

The boys receive similar treatment from the villagers, who openly refer to the old woman as a witch. As a survival strategy, the twins banish all memory of their parents. To harden their bodies and deaden their souls, they institute a training regimen of physical abuse and voluntary starvation. Their only friend is “harelip,” a somewhat older girl on a neighboring farm, who tutors them in criminal techniques. Yet, they still document their daily lives in the notebook, in accordance with the father’s instructions.

Based on Agota Kristof’s source novel, The Notebook is sort of the fictional anti-thesis of Anne Frank’s Diary. While the brothers document the horrors of war from a young person’s perspective, there is nothing life-affirming or empathic to glean from their journal entries. Instead, it is a harrowing account of their efforts to become inhuman in order to survive an inhumane situation. Yet, the brothers do not evolve into true sociopaths. Rather, their remnants of decency consistently manifest themselves in problematically violent ways.

Ironically, the brothers’ only protector is the local ranking German officer, who displays suggestively pedophilic tendencies. Ensconced in their grandmother’s former home, he appreciates their singular training sessions. Not so surprisingly, when the Soviets arrive, they act more like rapacious conquerors than liberators. Yet, the worst abuses of Hungarians are arguably committed by other Hungarians.

Since the brothers largely react with such stoic indifference to each new outrage, it is difficult to pass judgment on the young leads, András and László Gyémánt, except to commend their poker faces. In contrast, Piroska Molnár is an absolute dread terror as their Grandmother Dearest, but her monster is not without pathos. As the officer, Ulrich Thomsen is the model of Teutonic severity, whose black leather neck-brace adds creepy Fifty Shades overtones to his appearance.

At times, Szász cranks up the privations and tribulations to almost excessively lurid levels, but the film’s black soul consistently pulls it back into a stark naturalism. Innocence is not merely killed in Notebook it is incinerated and its ashes are dispersed into nothingness. Yet, irony still asserts itself in uncomfortable ways. Recommended with respect rather than affection for those who appreciate uncompromising morality tales, The Notebook opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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Canopy: War is a Personal Business

Australia and Singapore enjoy close diplomatic and economic ties. There is a free trade agreement between the two countries and Singapore provided assistance to Australia’s Afghanistan deployment. It is a special relationship forged in WWII by soldiers like the two protagonists of Aaron Wilson’s intimately experiential Canopy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For a pilot like “Jim,” being shot down over the dense jungles of Singapore is a double-edged sword. The thick vegetation provides natural cover, but it is an unforgiving and disorienting environment. It makes it difficult to distinguish friend from foe, which becomes an issue when he encounters “Seng.” Somehow, he conveys to Jim he is a Singaporean-Chinese soldier trapped behind enemy lines. An alliance is quickly forged, but few words are exchanged. Even if they were not stealthily evading the Japanese patrols, they could not understand each other anyway.

With its near complete lack of dialogue, Nic Buchanan & Rodney Lowe’s stunning sound design, and Stefan Duscio’s ominously beautiful cinematography, Canopy is likely to generate comparisons to Terrence Malick. It is a richly crafted film, but it is also a taut viewing experience that packs a real emotional wallop. With incredible subtlety, Wilson implies whoever survives the long dark night will honor the memory of their fallen nocturnal comrade for the rest of his life. Clearly, the length of time is not important in Canopy. Rather it is the intensity that matters.

Frankly, it is quite a complement to contend Canopy’s eighty-four minute run time (including credits) actually feels short, given its quiet wordlessness and the measured deliberateness with which Wilson submerges viewers in the murky setting. Yet, just as it is for Jim and Seng, Canopy is over before you know it.

Given Wilson’s approach, Canopy necessarily entails a distinct acting challenge for his two co-leads, but they rise to the occasion quite impressively. For Khan Chittenden, looking like a younger Matt Damon is probably both a curse and a blessing, but such cosmetic matters quickly melt away in Wilson’s jungle. As Jim, he expresses the film’s spirit of solidarity in a way that is genuinely moving. Likewise, the Taiwanese Mo Tzu-yi is silently eloquent and utterly believable as the wounded but resourceful Seng.

Co-productions are all the rage right now, but unlike Hollywood courting China, audiences can feel good about what this Australia-Singapore joint venture represents. Canopy violates nearly every war movie convention, yet it better represents the realities of combat than most of its forerunners. Highly recommended (for disciplined audiences), Canopy opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Man Who Lost His Head: Repatriation Rom-Com

The town of Otakataka on New Zealand’s rugged west coast is economically depressed and it is all Britain’s fault. Years ago, the dastardly imperialists lured Chief Takataka into a life of debauchery and captivity. Before shuffling off his mortal coil, the once promising leader left his wood carved mask to his people, prophesying its arrival would herald better times. Unfortunately, it has yet to leave England—and it is repressed Ian Bennett’s job to see that it stays there in Terry Johnson’s The Man Who Lost his Head, which might be turning up on select PBS stations anytime in the coming months.

Bennett’s entire professional life has been spent at the British Museum of Imperial Plunder, or whatever screenwriter Mark Wallington calls it. He is not very politically adept, but his engagement to the director’s daughter ought to give him a leg up over his showbiz oriented rival, Adrian Minter. Bizarrely, the museum has opted for Minter’s South Pacific exhibition over Bennett’s Egyptian proposal. That seems counter-intuitive for anyone with a layman’s understanding of museum attendance, but the fictional soon-to-be released Captain Cook film starring Brad Pitt partly explains it away.

Regardless, unforeseen complications arise when the museum takes Takataka’s mask out of mothballs. Tightly wound Maori activist Zac promptly files a claim, which the museum has no intention of honoring, but they have to put on a show of due consideration for appearances sake. To seal the deal for his promotion, Bennett is dispatched to Otakataka for some glad-handing and fact-finding that should all culminate in a summary rejection of their claim. Yet, despite his reserved demeanor and social awkwardness, a halting romantic attraction develops between him and Lollie, the local school teacher.

Essentially, Lost Head is like a Hugh Grant rom-com from the early 1990s, except the principals are ten or fifteen years older. It is a cinch that fuddy-duddy Bennett will learn some late life lessons and British imperialism will swiffered into the dustbin of history. Still, it is appealing to see middle-aged romance blossom on screen. As Bennett and Lollie, Martin Clunes (a.k.a. Doc Martin) and Nicola Kawana duly forge some pleasant chemistry.

Nevertheless, the narrative is such a by-the-numbers affair, it gives viewers plenty of time to pedantically pick apart the raggedy details. For instance, the precipitating claim to Takataka’s mask seems especially weak considering it has never been out of British possession or traveled off England’s green and pleasant land. The supporting Otakataka villagers are also predictably quirky, beyond all reason. Most frustratingly, Johnson rarely capitalizes on the surrounding natural beauty of the North Island locale.

This is a television movie that never exceeds the expectations for television movies. Fans of Hallmark productions that enjoy watching soulmates discover each other under unlikely circumstances should find it is safe and reassuring, but the rest of us will consider it a decaffeinated time-waster, at best. For Clunes fans, it is now available for participating PBS stations, including Kentucky’s KET, where it is scheduled for this coming Saturday night (8/30).

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Strange Lands: The End of August at the Hotel Ozone

Jaromír Vejvoda’s “Roll Out the Barrel” (a.k.a. “Beer Barrel Polka”) is probably the bestselling polka tune of all time. Will Glahé hit #1 on the U.S. charts with his traditional recording before it was reworked into the Andrews Sisters’ wag-waver “Here Comes the Navy.” It is also the only record to survive the apocalypse in Jan Schmidt’s The End of August at the Hotel Ozone, which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center current series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

Frankly, a beer might help those settling in to watch Ozone, because Schmidt presents a distinctly bleak and vaguely absurdist vision of the future. Years after some sort of nuclear Armageddon (the details are hazy), an old woman with implied military training leads a band of unruly women born post-apocalypse through the Doupov Mountains. It seems the end of the world hit men the hardest, due to their higher vulnerability to the subsequent diseases. The old woman honestly doubts there are any left, but she keeps looking anyway, in the vain hope one of her rag-tag troupe will become the Eve to his Adam.

Unfortunately, the younger women do not inspire much confidence in humanity’s future. During most of the rather aimless opening half, the teen to twentysomethings mostly quarrel with each other in between random acts of animal cruelty (Peta would have a conniption fit if anyone ever tried to reshoot some of Schmidt’s sequences). However, their wanderings eventually take them to the “Hotel Ozon,” which is still maintained by its old caretaker. Yes, he is a man, about the same age as their leader. Initially, he is overjoyed by their company, especially that of his fellow doomsday survivor. However, ignorance will inevitably lead to tragedy.

Ozone is a dashed hard film to get one’s head and arms around. Presumably, it was green-lit by the Party authorities with the expectation it could serve as a pseudo-peacenik propaganda piece, attacking the capitalist warmongers. Instead, it is a politically neutral indictment of human nature and a sharp rebuke to utopianism in any form.

Considering the grave circumstances, it is difficult to understand how the younger women could be so reckless and wasteful with scarce resources. Perhaps we are supposed to ask whether they are any different than those who caused the end of the world. Still, the film brings to mind a famous Reagan story. Reportedly, while still governor, his official motorcade was briefly blocked by protestors, one of whom tapped on his window holding a sign saying “we are the future.” Without skipping a beat, he jotted the response: “then I’m selling my bonds.”

Indeed, there is little by way of character development for any of the post-Armageddon women. In contrast, Beta Ponicanová’s performance as the old woman is unusually mature and subtlety shaded. Likewise, Ondrej Jariabek is achingly tragic as the old man. Their scenes together carry real weight and power. Nevertheless, the film leaves us feeling sort of confused and stranded.

So yes, youth is wasted on the young. Happily, the world did not end in 1967. In fact, then Czechoslovakia successfully threw off its Communist oppressors during the Velvet Revolution. Unlike the almost feral younger generation of Ozone, Vejvoda’s son Josef would honor his father legacy and respect his musical tradition, becoming an accomplished jazz drummer and composer. Check out his arresting “Angel’s Cry in My Head, Angel’s Laughter in My Heart” here. The recording quality is not so hot, but the venue is quite fitting and the quote from “Barrel” makes it barely relevant to the discussion at hand. Granted, Schmidt’s Ozone is an interesting relic from the past, but the music of both Vejvodas is more strongly recommended. Not exactly unmissable, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone screens this coming Thursday (8/28) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Strange Lands: Morel’s Invention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strange Lands: The 10th Victim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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