J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Final Project: Yet More Found Footage

There are several kinds of plantations to be found in Louisiana. The classic antebellum style is very different from the Creole variety.  Some are also haunted. This is definitely one of those. A team of college students armed with video cameras will try to spend the night there in Taylor Ri’chard’s The Final Project (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Houston and Atlanta.

Guess what true believers. Something terrible happened at the old plantation, but the six students managed to capture it all on film. It seems one of them went kind of nuts, causing no end of embarrassment, especially for the mortified family member who introduces the screening.

In order to graduate, Genevieve Richard, her BFF, her current and previous BFs, a TA, a meathead, and a ditz must make a hand-held shaky-cam documentary of their night in spook central, because Recording Gruesome Deaths 101 was not exactly the blow-off class she was hoping for. Naturally, there is all sorts of jealousy and resentment going on causing Richard to walk out in a huff, just as things start getting strange.

Actually, Project is far less graphic than most horror films. Frankly, the ghosts or grudge-holding entities make short work of their victims, so at least we can say they don’t play with their food. The framing device, featuring the pixelated Ri’chard is not bad either. However, characterization of any sort is problematically thin and the ensemble no-name cast is serviceable, at best.
Such levels of mediocrity are not ideal, but in this genre, they are not absolutely fatal Achilles Heels. Found footage films of vary quality, including
JeruZalem, Hollows Grove, Classroom 6, Creep, and the original Grave Encounters have helped themselves tremendously with their creepy locations. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of the plantation is just okay. That means Ri’chard cannot earn any easy points simply by soaking up the ambiance.

In just about every respect, Project is barely good enough to get by with a little help, but nothing the cast and crew contribute are special enough to distinguish the film from the pack. When you get right down to it, the film is pretty bland, which has to be the worst possible thing you can say about a horror movie.

There are way more plantation horrors in 1970s slavery exploitation films and considerably more enjoyable chills in JeruZalem and Grave Encounters 1. In contrast, The Final Project is a rather workaday effort that mostly goes through the motions. Simply not distinctive enough to recommend or despise, The Final Project opens tomorrow (2/12) in Houston at the Edwards Greenway and in the Atlanta area at the Regal Hollywood, Town Center, and Mall of Georgia.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

MyFFF ’16: Heatwave

Heat kills. Just ask Camus’s Meursault. It’s not great for crops either. An unseasonable warm spell will set in motion a chain of events that culminates in murder. However, the developmentally challenged Josef Bousou maybe had it coming—or perhaps the good villagers deliberately misinterpreted his aggressively boorish behavior. He certainly winds up dead, as we can tell from the in media res opening. How he got that way will be revealed in the long flashback that forms the core of Raphaël Jacoulot’s Heatwave (trailer here), which currently streams as part of the 2016 My French Film Festival.

The thirty year-old Josef seems to have an elementary school child’s understanding of life, as well as an equivalent capacity for mischief. Madame Bousou often gets complaints regarding petty thefts and blasting loud music, but she steadfastly ignores them all. The ever-indulgent Mayor Daniel Huot-Marchand often runs interference for the Bousous, but Josef’s latest exploits will test his patience.

To help the village’s smaller farmers survive the drought, Huot-Marchand and the council approved the creation of a mechanized communal well station. Yet, in an apparently cruel act of sabotage, the pump is stolen and the key to the service shed is found on Bousou’s person. With sentiment already running against him, the easily manipulated hulking child sexually accosts a village elder. Of course, after a day or two of observations, Bousou returns home to his not-sufficiently-concerned family. When Bousou’s teenaged crush makes similar but more dubious charges against him, things really start to get ugly.

Frankly, Jacoulot’s weird attempt to switch gears in last twenty minutes never really works, because of how assiduously he has stacked the deck against Bousou in the preceding hour-plus. Despite everything that comes to light, it is hard to blame the Mayor for requesting professional intervention when Bousou haltingly forces himself on the old lady. Seriously, that is a totally fair deal-breaker, even if it technically never escalates to the point of legal criminality. As a practical matter, Bousou is cast as such an obnoxious trouble-maker, Jacoulot has no accrued sympathy to draw on when he makes his late pivot.

Still, it is sort of fascinating to watch Heatwave play out as a sort of perverse passion play. Karim Leklou is completely convincing as the socially underdeveloped Bousou—perhaps even too much so. As usual, the ever-dependable Jean-Pierre Darroussin brings the film instant salt-of-the-earth credibility as the conflicted Huot-Marchand. It is easy to understand why people vote for him, especially compared to the preening ideologue New Yorkers are currently stuck with.

Heatwave does not come together the way it is supposed to, but it is still weirdly compelling to view it unspooling. It ultimately works towards a conclusion that feels unfairly arbitrary, but Camus probably would have appreciated that. Jacoulot arguably loses control of the picture, but at least that makes it interesting. The price is also reasonable, considering it streams for a mere $2.20 as part of this year’s online My French Film Festival, concluding next Thursday (2/18).

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Nina Forever: Death Does Not Part Them

Poor Rob is way past “it’s not you, it’s me.” Besides, it really is her. Nina is the one who’s dead, yet he still can’t break up with her. Of course, her ghost is not about to make things easy for him. That puts his new, living, breathing girlfriend in an awkward position in the Blaine Brothers’ Nina Forever (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

After her latest dumping, Holly decides she needs a brooding Byronic type. She thinks her supermarket co-worker Rob will fit the bill—and does he ever. Still broken up over the death of his girlfriend Nina, Rob tries to passively commit suicide through recklessness, only ending up with some cuts and bruises for his efforts. However, life suddenly seems to make sense again when he finally starts dating Holly. Unfortunately, it all turns sour the first time they hit the sheets. Somehow, whenever they start to get physical, it summons the spirit of Nina. She is angry, obstinate, and very bloody. Her arrivals will ruin many a set of sheets.

Despite Nina’s supernatural inconvenience, Holly and Rob are convinced they are in love, so they try to make it work. Holly even suggests a threesome-like arrangement with her spectral rival, but Nina is far too possessive for compromise. Yet, the smitten lovers (the two living ones) will carry on nonetheless, until things really get weird.

Despite all the plasma that comes with Nina’s appearances, Forever is a surprisingly down-to-earth film. Frankly, there is more honesty in this ostensive horror-comedy than the average Noah Baumbach film, especially the scenes involving Nina’s grieving parents, played with acute sensitivity by Elizabeth Elvin and David Troughton. It is an unusually sharply written film that has some genuinely biting surprises in store for viewers.

Abigail Hardingham is spectacularly skittish and twitchy as Holly. It is impossible to envision her in a conventionally healthy relationship, even though we do root for her. In contrast, Fiona O’Shaughnessy makes a wonderfully macabre diva as Nina. While Cian Barry’s Rob is deceptively straightforward, he truly delivers the film’s emotional pop down-the-stretch.

Nina Forever really puts zombie rom-coms like Life After Beth to shame. It has the grit of a more accessible Ken Loach film and the subversive sensibility of Ben Wheatley. (Probably, the closest comparison would be Benson & Morehead’s Spring, but Forever has a darker vibe.) In all honesty, it deserves consideration outside the genre ghetto, but at least we will appreciate it here. Recommended for fans of dark fantasy and grounded supernatural tales, Nina Forever opens this Friday (2/12) at the MGN Five Star Cinema in Los Angeles, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

American Master B.B. King

Even for squares, B.B. King’s name is synonymous with the blues. He was once one of the so-called “Three Kings,” along with Freddie King and Albert King (no relations), but eventually just became “the King,” as crowned by Eric Clapton with their Riding with the King album. His name also graces the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, where they sometime even book blues musicians. The life and music of Indianola’s favorite son are celebrated in Jon Brewer’s B.B. King: the Life of Riley (trailer here), which airs this Friday on PBS, as part of the current season of American Masters.

B.B. stood for “Blues Boy” or “Beale Street Boy” and it stuck for Riley B. King. King was already working in the cotton fields as a young lad, but he had the unusual good fortune of working for the fair and decent Flake Cartledge, who employed an African American manager for his plantation. He also happened to buy King his first guitar. King started out playing in a gospel harmony ensemble, but the blues were his destiny.

King’s distant relative Bukka White taught him a few licks and a good deal survival skills for the music business. For a while he built his name recognition and earned some bread as a DJ on the trailblazing African American radio station, WDIA, but when “3 O’Clock Blues” hit, King became a full time road warrior.

In the broadcast edit, Brewer covers must of his career highlights, including collaborations with the Rolling Stones, U2, and Clapton. He revisits the famous London Live sessions as well as the making of King’s greatest hit, “The Thrill is Gone.” Although Brewer wrapped shooting shortly before King’s death, the legendary was still sharp and reflective during his final interview segments. It is also a kick to hear King’s classic sidemen banter and reminisce about the old days, both good and bad.

If some of the transitions in Life of Riley seem a bit abrupt, viewers should understand over an hour was snipped from the film’s theatrical cut for its American Masters broadcast. You can see the full version at Fandor. Although editing B.B. King is always problematic, there are very good reasons for at least one chop. The original film begins with Bill Cosby making an extraordinarily unfortunate analogy in light of what we now know. It is hard to object to losing that, but it also makes it harder to object to other cuts. It is actually a shame, because the broadcast version lacks some really nice sequences in which King pays tribute to Cartledge and his first grade school teacher Luther Henson of the Elkhorn School.

There is still plenty of music in Life of Riley, which is really what King was all about. There are also plenty of anecdotes from legit colleagues and admirers, like Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Edgar Winter, Leon Russell, Aaron Neville, and George Benson (however, you will have to go to Fandor or the DVD to hear the eternally cool Bernard “Pretty” Purdie).

There is a lot of good stuff in the full version, but the broadcast edition is a decent Reader’s Digest treatment. It should definitely leave viewers wanting more, which is probably a good. Recommended in whatever cut best fits your schedule, the fifty-some minute edit of B.B. King: Life of Riley airs this Friday (2/12) on most PBS outlets nationwide.

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Comin’ at Ya! in 3D (or 2D, Depending on Man-Cave)

It launched the mini-3D boom in the early 1980s, but it was also the last gasp of the Spaghetti Western. It seems like the least likely of hits in retrospect, but its timing was perfect. Apparently, the world was ready for another round of 3D gimmickry and a band of American expats and Italian filmmakers were just the folks to deliver it. Prepare for a barrage of sundry items falling towards the camera in Ferdinando Baldi’s Comin’ at Ya! (trailer here), which is now available on DVD and 3D BluRay from MVD.

Without Comin’ at Ya! there would probably be no Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone or Treasure of the Four Crowns (also from Team At Ya!), so let’s thank our lucky stars this film exists. Kind of known for the “Stranger” films, Tony Anthony knew his way around a Spaghetti western, so he had street cred with the core fan base, despite looking a bit soft around the edges for a stone-cold killer like H.H. Hart. Presumably, Hart is a former desperado of some sort, but he had resolved to settle down with Abeline, his newlywed wife as of just after the opening credits (and what credits they are, featuring no end of falling dry goods.

Unfortunately, the Pike and Polk Thompson, a pair of Mexican white slaver brothers crash the ceremony to abduct the bride and leave the groom for dead—but not nearly dead enough. With the help of a drunken old Scottish former seminarian (they are always handy in a tight spot), Hart will ride south to rescue Abeline and serve up some payback. It quickly becomes personal for the Thompson Brothers too, especially Pike, the mastermind. As a result, all sorts of lethal weapons will be hurled at the screen.

Anthony is no Clint Eastwood or Franco Nero, but he has a pretty good badass strut. Victoria Abril (now most famous for her work in Pedro Almodóvar’s Kika and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) is more than sufficient as the woefully helpless Abeline (watching her and the captive women shriek at a laughably fake bat attack is pretty cringey). However, Gene Quintano, who was later celebrated as the genius responsible for writing Police Academy 3 and 4, is quite decently dastardly as Pike Thompson.

Baldi throws everything at the lens except the kitchen sink, but frankly that blatant ridiculousness is the whole reason to watch it. On the other hand, the level of violence directed towards women is a bit eyebrow-raising. Well beyond lax Spaghetti Western standards, it approaches Giallo levels. In fact, the entire film is wildly politically incorrect, allowing Hart full license to kill Mexican and Native American white slavers without a twinge of guilt. It is impossible to imagine to imagine Hollywood distributing At Ya! today, so it is nice to have its shamelessness preserved for posterity. Recommended for fans of Spaghetti Westerns and 1980s nostalgia, Comin’ at Ya! is now available on 3D BluRay and regular DVD from MVD.

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Monday, February 08, 2016

SBIFF ’16: She Walks

You would think French immigration has more dangerous illegals to worry about than Chinese street walkers—and perhaps they do. Still, any extra attention is dangerous for Lin Aiyu. Keenly aware of her precarious position, Lin will try to work the only angle left to her when she is pulled into some dodgy underworld dealings in Naël Marandin’s She Walks (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Lin once worked as a maid for a snobby, established French-Chinese family, but like many of her street walking colleagues, she tired of the rigid control and meager pay. She now sends home a small remittance each month, scrimped from her work as an off-the-books home care-giver and the tricks she turns during the day. While she prefers the current arrangement (despite the obvious hazards), she no longer has legal standing to remain in France. Nonetheless, old Monsieur Kieffer is quite fond of Lin and her daughter Cherise, but it is his son who controls the purse-strings.

One fateful morning, Daniel Alvès, the sleazy neighbor across the street, forces his way into Kieffer’s flat behind the startled Lin. Initially, he promises to only stay one day, but he soon settles into the storeroom. As they can clearly see, groups of thugs are constantly giving his place a good turning over. Eventually, Lin gives him an ultimatum. He can continue to stay, but he must agree to marry her, thereby granting her legal status. However, Lin is determined to keep their bargain a secret from Cherise, just as she does with her prostitution sideline.

Without question, Marandin conceived She Walks with the best of intentions, but he needed someone to edit out the awkwardness (and unintentional irony) of his press bio, which states the film was “inspired by his reaching out to Chinese women working as prostitutes in Paris.” Reaching out, was he? Be that as it may, She Walks never exploits its female cast members. Inevitably, there are several graphic sex scenes, but they are the sort that will turn off reasonably healthy viewers, rather than heating them up.

Clearly, Marandin also forged a high degree of trust with his lead, Lan Qui. She carries the film with an extraordinarily brave and revealing performance. Physically and emotionally, she opens herself up to the audience, holding back nothing. It is quiet, deeply grounded work, yet raw as anything you’ve seen. In fact, the entire ensemble of Chinese street walkers is quite exceptional. They are funny and earthy, still attractive but convincingly weathered by life. Listening to them banter and gossip is really the only respite Marandin offers us, because She Walks is otherwise unremittingly downbeat and pessimistic.

Of course, a depressing film is still well worth seeing, if it is well made and there is a point to all the misery it rubs our nose in. That is definitely true for She Walks. We do sympathize wholeheartedly with the exploited Chinese women, who collectively do not represent a fraction of the threat posed by a lone Islamist Isis sympathizer. It is also significant as a French film allowing an Asian women a starring role. Lan Qui fully capitalizes on the moment, making an indelible impression. Cate Blanchett’s embarrassing Joan Crawford shtick in Carol looks like amateur hour compared to her. Recommended for mature audiences, She Walks screens this Wednesday (2/10) and Friday (2/12), as part of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

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Standoff: Laurence Fishburne Gets Villainous

You haven’t seen a cemetery this isolated since Night of the Living Dead. It makes sense for someone in hiding to hold a memorial service there, but it is curtains for all when a hitman gets the drop on them. The nearest house belongs to Carter Greene, which is sort of convenient, considering he is one the brink of suicide. However, he puts everything on hold when a twelve year-old witness seeks his protection. The combat veteran will dig-in with her for the duration in Adam Alleca’s Standoff (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Poor little orphan Isabel has already had quite a time of it. She still clings to the camera given to her by her deceased father, which will be significant when her aunt’s soon-to-be-late boyfriend takes her to visit her parent’s grave. She does indeed manage to get a snap of the killer at work, sans mask. Somehow she reaches Greene’s house just in time. Still grieving the son who died due to his own negligence, the former soldier was one or two shots away from ending it all. Instead, he gets a flesh wound in the leg from the killer, returning the favor with some twenty gauge buckshot to the waist.

Since they are out in the middle of nowhere, the killer can simply let his siege play out. Greene has the advantage when it comes to relative blood loss, but the killer has an overwhelming ammunition edge. He has a full clip, whereas Greene only has one short-range, wide dispersing shell left. The killer is also better at talking trash, but Greene is surprisingly resourceful—and in need of redemption.

Standoff is a perfectly good reminder that you can’t make a pizza without plenty of cheese. Let’s be honest, Laurence Fishburne’s villainy muscles have atrophied since his career-making performance as Ike Turner. However, he delivers some howlingly ludicrous lines with gusto. You have to give him credit for chewing the scenery like a champ, making Standoff rather watchable. It also leaves Thomas Jane as the strong, silent type, which was surely a relief to him.

To continue giving credit where it is due, Ella Ballentine is also quite good as the ticky and withdrawn Isabel. She comes across as a convincingly messed-up kid, without ever trying the audience’s patience. We never want Greene to kick her down the staircase, which is often the glaring weakness in films like this.

Frankly, Standoff really isn’t that manipulative either. Alleca is much more concerned with the tactics and strategies employed in each skirmish. Of course, there are preposterous plot holes all over the place, but at least everyone came to play. It is a total B-movie, but it is worth a stream when it inevitably turns up on Netflix, which should be in about twelve hours after its release. In the meantime, it opens this Friday (2/12) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Face of the Devil: Welcome to the Amazon Lodge

The Puma Rinri Amazon Lodge must be the beneficiary of the best or worst product placement ever. That is their logo plain as day, right when the end credits start to roll. Clearly, most of the film was shot there and it does indeed make the resort look enticing. The scenery is spectacular and the rooms are fab, but it is a bit of a drawback that the only observable employee is a practitioner of the dark satanic arts. Frankly, it would probably still be worth visiting, but that devil worshipper is not the guests’ biggest problem in Frank Pérez-Garland’s Peruvian horror flick, Face of the Devil (trailer here), which releases on DVD today in the UK.

Lucero’s father is a tad on the protective side, but understandably so, all things considered. Years ago, a demon possessed her mother, forcing him to exorcise it the hard way. Both father and daughter still carry the emotional scars from that day. Nevertheless, the old man finally relents, agreeing to let Lu join her BF and his hard-partying pals on their Andean getaway.

They certainly get away from it all staying at the high mountain inn, including things like emergency medical services. C’mon, what could go wrong, except maybe falling prey to the Tunche. According to their spooky tales poolside tales, the Tunche is a shapeshifting demon who stalks the mountainside. If you hear his piercing whistle, you basically know your butt is toast. However, Face of the Devil is probably a more evocative title than Whistle of the Tunche. Regardless, you had better believe he is real, because the old caretaker readily vouches for his existence.

In any event, the revelers from Lima are all considerate enough to let the Tunche stalk them in their swimwear. Aside from the schlubby Mateo, they all have fine beach bods. However, they also have real relationships that raise the stakes somewhat. Granted, Face is about as predictable as most horror films, but screenwriter Vanessa Saba brings Lucero’s backstory full circle somewhat cleverly. She is also pretty creepy appearing as Lu’s mother in the flashback sequences.

Vania Accinelli is perfectly presentable as Lu, but Nicolás Galindo and Carla Arriola develop some surprisingly compelling chemistry as Mateo the plugger and the curvy Paola, whom he so obviously carries a torch for. However, the real star of film is the exclusive mountain retreat (it is up there with The Shining’s Overlook Hotel). If you were an ancient elemental demon you would want to stalk victims there too. In contrast, the Tunche is supposedly a shapeshifter, but he is mostly invisible throughout the film. At least he is not especially sadistic, preferring to dispatch his prey quickly and efficiently, which is rather considerate of viewers’ tolerance as well.

Location is often key in horror films, so Face’s exotic backdrop really is key to its mojo. Largely foreswearing gore, Pérez-Garland builds up the suspense rather nicely, while cinematographer Roberto Maceda Kohatsu and art director Cecilia Herrera give the production a real quality look. Although not hugely ambitious (aside from the location shooting), Pérez-Garland gets the job done. Recommended for genre fans, Face of the Devil is now available on DVD in the UK from Jinga Films.

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Sunday, February 07, 2016

SBIFF ’16: Dream Land

It still stings to be rejected by a lover, even if your country has a painful history of genocide. These are the “First World” problems faced by Lida, a successful up-market real estate agent, whose territory encompasses Phnom Penh. Life does not just carry on for her and her friends. It careens at light speed. A different sort of Cambodian experience comes to light in American-born-and-based Steve Chen’s Dream Land (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Lida (Da) is good at her job, but maybe she doesn’t even have to be all that competent. Phenom Penh is booming. To show a luxury condo is to sell it. It does not hurt that she has a good look either. She would turn most men’s heads, but since her current lover Kun is a fashion photographer, his constant contact with beautiful women has apparently made him fickle. He has rarely been around in recent weeks, but when Lida has seen him, his passive aggressive frostiness has left her hurt and confused.

Lida will deal with her frustrations in a variety of ways. Some could come straight out of Sex and the City, but eventually she tries to recharge with a trip to the ancient Imperial coastal retreat of Kep. Yet, even there she finds signs of burgeoning development and commercialization.

Cambodian super model Lida Duch and her previous co-star Sokun Nhem are apparently quite popular from the blockbuster Khmer fantasy Sbek Kong, but local audiences will probably be a tad confused by Chen’s slow cinema-ish approach. Strictly speaking, it is true not a lot happens, but that is greatly reflective of real life. Indeed, Chen is very much interested in the pop songs, romance comic books, and karaoke bars that help the harried modern Cambodian get through the day. Frankly, that probably makes Dream Land considerably more interesting for international viewers on the outside looking in, rather than domestic patrons who are already immersed in this environment.

However, what really distinguishes the film is Duch’s remarkable performance. It is quietly reserved work, but powerfully vulnerable and emotionally brittle. She can say a lot with very little, so the camera just adores her. Frankly, it is hard to fairly judge Nhem as his near namesake, because what few scenes he has are so thoroughly stacked against him. Basically, he comes in and acts like a jerkheel, while Chen keeps him relegated to the far, out-of-focus corner of the frame. In contrast, Hak Kim is painfully empathic as the mutual friend so obviously carrying a torch for Lida.

Dream Land is not exactly a milestone of global cinema, but it is still exciting to see Cambodian film industry continue to rebuild itself following the almost complete destruction the country’s cinema heritage under the Communist insanity of the Khmer Rouge. Chen has already been a part of that effort, working as part of the camera crew on Davy Chou’s masterful Golden Slumbers. (Chou in turn served as an associate producer on Dream Land.) At this point, each Cambodian film is still important as another building block in that effort, but Chen’s film is also significant for bringing Duch international recognition. Despite the art house pacing, Dream Land has considerable merits. Recommended for sophisticated patrons, it screens tomorrow (2/8) and Tuesday (2/9), as part of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

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Saturday, February 06, 2016

Sundance ’16: Mostly Midnight Shorts

Bob Morrison’s “Hey Puppet Man” 45 might not have hit the top of the charts, but it has a dark, fuzzy quality that makes it a perfect theme song for a psycho killer. If that were not enough street cred, the rest of his soundtrack was composed by none other than horror legend John Carpenter. Thanks to Carpenter’s involvement, Jacqueline Castel’s short The Puppet Man was one of the coolest films of any length that screened at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

It is not hard to see Carpenter’s influence on Castel, but that is a good thing. Christine and her hard partying friends have stepped into the wrong bar. She is sufficiently intuitive to feel instantly uncomfortable, but they are determined to drink up until their cab comes. However, when Christine goes off looking for a restroom, she gets a good look at the Puppet Man instead. It is hard to say whether the man in the floppy hat with shaved eye-brows is supernatural in nature or just psychotic. Probably both. Regardless, Christine’s shallow drinking buddies will probably keep their cabbie waiting, which is a shame, because he is played by Carpenter.

The combination of Carpenter’s retro-electronic score and Castel’s hazy, neon cinematography really evoke memories of the horror master’s early 1980s glory days. In her acting debut, fashion model Crystal Renn shows all kinds of scream queen potential. Yes, Puppet Man is only nine minutes—and what a tense nine minutes they are—but it could well become recognized as a significant film in the horror canon.

While Puppet Man is the best of the Midnight Shorts program, Jason Woliner’s Dinner with Family with Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family is nearly as harrowing, but for very different reasons. The Adult Swim-produced Freudian nightmare features big name co-stars (Tony Roberts and Patty Lupone) trading barbs so harsh and scathing, they would make Neil LaBute uncomfortable. If five percent of Gelman’s self-caricature is true to life, than he must be a profoundly damaged person. Regardless, it sure is funny. In fact, it would pair rather nicely with Richard Bates, Jr.’s Trash Fire.

Adult Swim also contributed The Pound Hole, directed by “The Daniels” (a.k.a. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert), two of the big winners at this year’s Sundance. Along with Swiss Army Man, we can see they have a real penchant for mixing wild goofiness with sappy sentimentalism. Set in a hipster night club called the Dog Pound, the Daniels follow the birth, life, and death of the punky DJ’s love child, bizarrely accelerated into the span of one night, by his driving beats. It is amusing, but feels tame compared to spectacle that is Brett Gelman’s family.

Visually, Simon Cartwright’s Manoman is nearly as distinctive as Puppet Man, but ironically, it is the film that is made with puppets. When a put-upon prole attends a session of primal scream therapy, he inadvertently releases his inner id or demon, who promptly leads him on a crime spree. Even though it clocks in at a mere eleven minutes, Manoman eventually runs out of narrative steam, but it still has some wonderfully clever moments, as when the somewhat self-aware puppets attack each other’s strings.

For sheer madness, it is tough to beat Nick DenBoer’s The Chickening, which remixes footage of Kubrick’s The Shining, turning the Overlook Hotel into a poultry theme park. Little Danny Torrence is now a stubble-faced teamster and the spectral twins now have beaks. If you thought Room 237 would make Kubrick turn over in his grave, Chickening should have him like a top. Yet, despite all the lunacy, you have to respect the skilled craftsmanship that went into it.

Calvin Lee Reeder’s even shorter The Procedure is basically a one-joke sketch, yet it somehow won the Short Film Jury Award. Frankly, it probably brought down the house when it screened, but it is rather underwhelming when viewed in the comfort of your own home. Happily, it is also much more accessible than his utterly unwatchable The Oregonian, yet one can still see stylistic consistencies. In contrast, Eddie Alcazar’s Fuckkkyouuu is an eight minute endurance challenge. Essentially, he strobes-up and purees a lesbian love scene with the primordial ooze, sort of like a nefarious grafting together of Blue Is the Warmest Color and the ape scene in 2001, but why?

Outside of the Midnight program, Cavieh Zahedi’s Bob Dylan Hates Me (already available on Fandor) is just as neurotic as his highly personal documentaries, most notably including The Sheik and I. Conceived as a pilot, Zahedi documents two increasingly disastrous encounters with his one-time hero, culminating with the titular punchline. If Zahedi can sustain the wit and energy, this could be a terrific series, perfect for fans of Dr. Katz. They even have a similar, sketchy style of animation.

It is tough to beat John Carpenter in his element, regardless of length or format. In contrast, Dylan would probably rather not have his likeness represented at Sundance—with good reason in this case, even though Zahedi is always hardest on himself. As always, there were some significant finds in the short film programs passed over by feature-snobs, especially The Puppet Man, Dinner with Family, etc., The Chickening, and Bob Dylan Hates Me, all of which are highly recommended following their screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Friday, February 05, 2016

A Melody to Remember: the True Story of the War Orphans’ Choir

As the Korean War rages, children really are amongst the hardest hit. Orphans like Dong-goo and Soon-yi are forced to live a Dickensian existence, begging and stealing on the streets of Busan for the Fagin-like “Hook,” (so known, because he has one). However, they might find hope and belonging in a children’s choir organized by South Korean Second Lieutenant Han Sang-yeol. Yet, the war and the exploitative Hook remain as dangerous as ever in Lee Han’s A Melody to Remember (trailer here), which opens today in Queens, New York.

Before the war, Lt. Han was a music student who doted on his little sister. When the Communists occupied their home, they showed the relatively well-to-do children what class warfare really means. Han barely survived, but his sister sadly died. In a year or so, Han matures into a steely junior officer, but his sister’s death continues to haunt him.

Given his education and the recommendation of an MP who once served in his platoon, Han is appointed director of the orphanage on the Busan military base. It is the passion project of ardent South Korean social worker Park Joo-mi. Initially, the battle-hardened Han dismisses her as a dilettante, but they warm to each other as he becomes emotionally involved with the kids. The circumstances of Dong-goo and Soon-yi particularly resonate with him. The brother and sister were orphaned after their father was killed in turn by another grieving father, whose late son he ratted out to the North Koreans. Han would like to break the cycle of violence they are mired in, but technically they are only “on loan” to the choir from the super-connected Hook.

As a “based on a true story” Korean historical drama, you know Melody will be really trying to open up the tear ducts down the stretch. The combination of music, cute kids, and wartime tragedy is certainly potent. Considering its elegiac nostalgia, it is absolutely bizarre to find the film tangentially involved in a government scandal. Allegedly, the chief Korean financial regulatory agency (FSC) was strong-arming banks and insurance companies to buy bulk quantities of tickets, because lead actor (and K-pop star) Siwan serves as their media spokesman. If true, this has to be one of the most ill-conceived cases of government malfeasance ever.

It is actually rather a shame, because Siwan is surprisingly good as Lt. Han, but he might not get the credit he deserves in light of the FSC’s meddling, at least in Korea. Siwan also shows a strong affinity for his young co-stars and develops some decent chemistry with Ko Ah-sung’s Park. Lee Hee-joon makes the most of Hook’s ambiguities (he is not quite the jerk-heel villain we first expect), but it is little Lee Re who truly rips out the viewer’s heart and stomps on it, as poor grief and guilt-stricken Soon-yi.

Yes, Melody is nakedly manipulative, but it succeeds in wrenching hearts and jerking tears. If you want to see a quality melodrama, this is it. Recommended for those who like their films sad and sweeping, A Melody to Remember opens today (2/5) at the AMC Bay Terrace in Bayside, Queens.

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Slamdance ’16: Embers

Doomsday came and went, but the world keeps ending every night. Due to some sort of pathogen, infected survivors have lost their short and long term memory. Out of sight means out of mind. That applies to time spent sleeping as well. Nevertheless, a motley remnant of humanity will carry on as best they can in Claire Carré’s Embers (trailer here), which screened as the closing night film at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

When a man and a woman wake up next to each other, they reasonably assume they are in some sort of relationship. When they notice their matching cloth bracelets, it cinches it for them. Just as they have so many times before, the couple give each other names, hoping what impulse provides, will be correct. This time, it is Ben and Jenny. Like characters from a Beckett play they will head into the post-apocalyptic environment for no apparent reason, but at least they have each other.

Meanwhile, a young boy witnesses some of the best and worst of human nature, as he falls in with a series of temporary protectors. The one known as “Teacher” in the credits seems to be functioning at a slightly higher level than the rest of the shuffling dregs, but he ought to be. He was once a research psychiatrist specializing in human memory.

In contrast to those above ground, Miranda is painful aware of the slow passage of time. She has remained infection free, living with her father in an underground bunker facility. However, the isolation is taking a toll on her mind and soul.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Embers is that it is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. It is sort of like Dr. Moreau fused Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the Adam Sandler vehicle 50 First Dates, but the vibe most closely resembles the delicately balanced Perfect Sense. Frankly, Embers is unusually poignant, especially when focusing on Ben and Jenny (or Max and Katie, as they will soon call themselves). The watching them continue to be a couple, despite it all, is really quite touching.

Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva develop some remarkable chemistry together, especially considering how much relationship shorthand their situation precludes them from sharing. Embers also gives immediately recognizable but hard to place character actor Tucker Smallwood an opportunity to shine as the Teacher. Mathew Goulish is also acutely tragic as the boy’s short-lived Guardian. However, Greta Fernández is a problematically distant (like a cold fish) as the profoundly privileged Miranda.

Throughout Embers, it is rather inspiring to see love endure, in the face of such existential challenges. It is also pretty scary how convincingly Gary, Indiana stands in for a catastrophic urban wasteland. Maybe the city fathers should reconsider their current economic development policies. Regardless, Embers is a highly distinctive and mature post-apocalyptic science fiction fable. Recommended with conviction for cerebral viewers, it screens on February 19 and 21 at the Oxford Film Festival, after closing out this year’s Slamdance in Park City.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Monkey King 2 in 3D: Aaron Kwok Wears the Monkey Suit

After causing an uproar in Heaven, Sun Wukong needs to repent. However, monkeys are not good at contrition, nor are kings or demigods. Nevertheless, the Monkey King agrees to do penance by protecting Buddhist monk Xuanzang on his pilgrimage in search of scriptures. Unfortunately, a seductive demoness will try to end the epic Journey to the West prematurely in Cheang Pou-soi’s The Monkey King 2 in 3D (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The Goddess Guanyin offers the Monkey King an offer he cannot refuse. In exchange for his freedom, Sun Wukong will loyally protect and serve Xuanzang during his journey. Of course, this will be easier said than done. To restore her demonic life force, the wicked White Bone Spirit is determined to eat the monk, thereby ingesting his spiritual essence. As a result, Xuanzang’s party is constantly surrounded by minor demons in human guise, but the monk remains obstinately blind to their true nature.

The two constantly argue over Sun Wukong’s apparently groundless fighting and killing. The Monkey King’s comrades, Zhu “Pigsy” Bajie and Sha “Sandy” Wujing find themselves stuck awkwardly between the monkey and the monk, but they have a sinking feeling the hairy demigod is more right than wrong.

Unlike Surprise, Monkey King 2 largely plays it straight, or at least as straight as possible when the protagonist is hyperactive primate. This time around, Aaron Kwok steps into Donnie Yen’s monkey suit and just basically goes nuts in a way we never knew he had in him. Watching him zip around in the hirsute makeup sort of brings to mind Robin Williams. Frankly, it is kind of stunning that he can bring this kind of chaos. Reportedly, Kwok trained hard for the role, but the physical is the least of it. Still, he definitely looks good performing Sammo Hung’s zippy, otherworldly action choreography.

While Kwok is a minor revelation, Gong Li re-confirms she is one of the best in the business as White Bone Spirit, a.k.a. Baigujing. She has to be the most alluring and sophisticated supernatural temptresses perhaps ever seen on-screen. She brings all kinds of sinister élan, yet drops subtle hints of her long buried humanity. In contrast, William Feng Shaofeng is a bit wooden as Xuanzang, but it is hard to compete with Kwok and Gong.

Monkey King 2 is so frenetically supercharged, it sort of leaves viewers dazed. At times, the gravity-defying Sun Wukong looks more like a character in a video game than a movie. However, you have to give Kwok credit for pushing himself. As crazy as it gets, Gong still classes up the joint and even manages to outright steal the show. Recommended for fans of big, bold wuxia madness, The Monkey King 2 in 3D open tomorrow (2/5) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Misconduct: The Whole Film is Out of Order

Two profoundly unpopular professions are about to be pitted against each other. It will be arrogant Big Pharma exec versus corner-cutting ambulance chaser. They should also throw in some biased journalists and crooked politicians. Do gold-diggers and assassins count? In any case, there will be scandal and litigation aplenty in Shintaro Shimosawa’s Misconduct (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Arthur Denning is fabulous rich, but he has his hands full. In addition to managing the fallout from a disaster experimental drug trial, his trophy lover Emily Hynes has been kidnapped for ransom. Denning genuinely seems to be interested in getting her back, so he hires a pair of hostage recovery specialists. However, there is something funny about Hynes’ abduction, as we learn when the film rewinds a month or so.

Don’t you just love jumbled in media res openings? In this case, it is especially confused, because it sends decidedly mixed signals with respect to Denning’s character. Apparently, the real protagonist is Ben Cahill, a blow-dried mouthpiece, who has thrown himself into his work instead of properly dealing with his wife’s miscarriage. Cahill will file a class action suit against Denning based on information illegally obtained from his old flame, Emily Hynes. Yes, she is definitely up to something. We soon learn Hynes is planning to fake her own abduction. It is a convoluted scheme that somehow involves a mysterious Korean assassin-enforcer known as “The Account,” which has to be the saddest criminal nickname ever.

Misconduct is an absolute narrative mess, which is too bad, because there are a few workable bits and pieces in there. If Shimosawa had openly invited viewers to sympathize with Denning, much like Freddy Heineken in Kidnapping Mr. Heineken or Kingo Gondo in High and Low, the film might have gotten some place. Julia Stiles’ foul mouthed kidnapping specialist also has potential, but she disappears for most of the film. Instead, we largely have to watch the pseudo-triangle of Josh Duhamel, Alice Eve, and Malin Akerman, three actors who seem to work a lot, but nobody really understands why. At least Akerman helps her case with a wonderfully vampy femme fatale turn as Hynes.

Sir Anthony Hopkins shows flashes of the old brilliance as Denning, but there is only so much he can do with the underwritten, contradictory role. Sadly, Al Pacino continues his slow decline, going down shouting as Cahill’s sleazy senior partner, Charles Abams. International superstar Lee Byung-hun looks utterly bored in his scenes as The Accountant, for good reason. To his credit, Glen Powell brings more dignity than the film deserves as Cahill’s unheeded voice-of-reason office mate, Doug Fields, whereas Duhamel and Eve are so dull and plastic-looking, they sort of make a fitting couple as the Cahills.

Misconduct could have just been a cheesy B-movie. There is plenty of room in the world for another, especially since Akerman gives it some kick. However, screenwriters Simon Boyes & Adam Mason rip-off (and water-down) the twist ending that really launched the legal thriller craze in 1987, pre-Grisham. That’s just lame. Not recommended, Misconduct opens tomorrow (2/5) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Slamdance ’16: Chemical Cut

LA’s superficial world of modeling is like a pouty Logan’s Run. Irene signed just in time, with only one year of youthful eligibility left before “aging out” of the business. Unfortunately, she will not be frolicking in the stately pleasure dome. Instead, the novice model will be constantly exploited in former America’s Next Top Model contestant Marjorie Conrad’s Chemical Cut, which screened during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

Irene’s life before modelling was pretty depressing. She worked in retail and spent most her free time being demeaned by her toxic platonic pal, Arthur. One day, she gets a platinum blonde dye job on a whim. Shortly thereafter, Jared, a dodgy modeling agent slips her his card. Figuring she has nothing to lose, she signs with the obnoxious predator. However, since Jared constantly books her for “free tests,” Irene starts burning through her savings with no future income in sight. Initially, it seems like a godsend when Spring, a more established, better paid model takes Irene under her wing, but she also turns out to be a real user.

Evidently, modelling is a tough racket. If this is breaking news for you, than Chemical has even more disillusionments coming down the pike. Of course, for most of us living in the grown-up world, this is pretty standard stuff. It is all largely presented without humor, allowing viewers little consolation as we witness the pathetic embarrassments rained down upon poor Irene.

As a result, Chemical Cut just isn’t much fun. Conrad might be photogenic, but she is a bit of a shrinking violet on the big screen. At least she is endurable, which is more than can be said for Ian Coster, who is like fingernails on a blackboard as the screechy Arthur. Although her character Spring is a real self-centered pill, only Leah Rudick seems capable of sustaining a long-term relationship with the movie camera.

As a cautionary tale, Chemical is relentless, but as drama, it is kind of pokey. To be fair, the lack of redeemable or compelling characters probably makes it feel slower than it really is. Frankly, spending time with these people is a chore—Irene included. Too shallow to be a teachable film and too downbeat to be a comedy, Chemical is tragically half-pregnant. It means well, but that does not get the audience very far. Conrad’s TV modelling credentials will probably earn it a few looks from programmers, but it will not make much noise on the festival circuit after premiering at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Southbound: Where the Twilight Zone and V/H/S Intersect

Get your kicks on Route 666. Cellular and GPS service never seem to work along this lonely stretch of interstate, but there will be plenty of locals coming around. Unfortunately, they are not so helpful. All road trips take macabre detours in the wickedly creepy horror anthology Southbound (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Many of the filmmakers who contributed to the V/H/S franchise, including the Radio Silence guys who capped off the original film, tag-teamed on Southbound. Fortunately, their styles mesh easily, because the constituent story arcs deliberately run together. All five are decidedly scary, starting with Radio Silence’s The Way Out. Two bloody and bleary-eyed rough necks appear to be caught in a sort of loop, much like Isaac Ezban’s The Incident, except the weary duo are also being chased by spectral skeleton monsters that have been summoned to punish them for some profoundly transgressive sin. Just what did they do? Hold your horses, because more will be revealed when they reappear later.

The Way Out ends in the roadside motel where Roxanne Benjamin’s Siren begins. A hipster-punk version of The Runaways is checking out and hitting the road for their next gig. When a flat tire leaves them stranded by the side of the road, a rather mysterious family offers them shelter. Most of the band foolishly trusts them but not Sadie, their lead singer. In fact, she is quite confused and alarmed by how much they know about the recent death of a fellow band member.

The third story rather brusquely cuts off the second in an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire kind of way. David Bruckner’s aptly titled Accident also happens to be the creepiest, most intense arc of the consistently strong film. Poor Lucas did indeed run someone over due to his own negligence. However, he tries to do the right thing, but the malevolent 911 operator has different ideas. This works particularly well because of the spot-on writing. Several times Lucas is sufficiently alert to question the sinister voice’s dubious statements, but his desperation makes him accept each explanation. It turns into a real mind-reeler, yet it is believable enough to be deeply unsettling.

Again, we follow one of the hitherto unseen principals of Accident into Patrick Horvath’s Jailbreak. A man walks into a bar. Complications ensue. It would be spoilery to reveal anymore, but Horvath’s segment establishes some of the evil nature of this localized zone of supernatural and psychological mayhem.

Radio Silence comes back for more with The Way In, which eventually loops back into The Way Out again. How they get there is a twisted trip. Let’s just say it ends well, at least from the genre fans’ perspective (but for the characters, not so much).

There is no dead weight in Southbound and hardly any slack. Although Benjamin has primarily been active in producer roles, Southbound announces her arrival as a major directorial talent. In some respects, Siren is the most conventional of the five (or four, depending on how you count them) component arcs, but she really kicks it up several notches.

Even though there are not a lot of familiar faces in the cast, the performances are all rock solid. Mather Zickel is a particular standout as Lucas, the tormented driver. For genre fans, the voice of Larry Fessenden as the local DJ is also instantly reassuring. Frankly, by horror standards, there is not a great deal of blood or gore in the film, but there are plenty of scares. Highly recommended for those who appreciate franchises like V/H/S and the original Twilight Zone, Southbound opens this Friday (2/5) in New York, at the Village East.

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The Pack: When Dogs Run Free

Remember Meryl Streep uttering the famous line: “a dingo ate my baby?” Maybe she got off easy. A pack of wild dogs is out to gnaw on the entire Wilson family, as well as anyone who might visit them in Nick Robertson’s The Pack (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

The Wilsons are facing foreclosure, but it really isn’t their fault. They have suffered unusually heavy livestock losses over the last few months. Unfortunately, their slimy mortgage banker came out to float a lowball offer on their Outback sheep ranch, but he will not make it back to the office. He’s about to become rabid puppy chow.

Look, this is what happens when leash laws are not properly enforced. It leads to anarchy and crimes against nature. Weather-beaten Adam Wilson and his veterinary-trained wife Carla will have to corral their moody teenager Sophie and her bratty little brother Henry if they plan to make any sort of run for it. There is a good chance the dogs have them out-classed.

The Pack is not a terrible animals-attack movie, but it pales in comparison to Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which wasn’t even a genre film, per se. Most of the Wilsons are relatively likable, down-to-earth, and proactive, but young Henry’s penchant for hoarding bullets is an annoyingly ill-conceived subplot. Presumably, most Outback kids grow up learning how to safely handle firearms and ammunition at an early age. His fascination really does not make sense.

Frankly, the stars of The Pack are the German Shepherds trained by the Guard Dog Training Center and the animatronic dog puppets designed by Steve Boyle. They definitely look snarly and cunning. Apparently, the act of “sneaking up” on actors is tough to train, but they nailed it cold. Amongst the people, Anna Lise Phillips creates the strongest discrete personality as the resourceful Carla Wilson.

The Wilson house sure looks like a classic Outback hacienda, giving the film a decent sense of place. Cinematographer Benjamin Shirley also captures some terrific close-ups of his canine cast. Nevertheless, the film never gets much beyond just okay. In fact, by horror standards, it feels frustratingly restrained. Only recommended for super-keen fans of the rampaging beast sub-genre, The Pack opens this Friday (2/5) in New York.

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Sundance ‘16: The Greasy Strangler

It is a SpectreVision production, but it would not be surprising if the American Heart Association were secretly involved. After watching all the gelatinous grease ooze across the screen, viewers are likely to opt for nothing but raw vegetables for the rest of the year. For gross-out reasons, a serial killer slathers his food in grease and lathers his entire body up in oily fat before going out on the prowl. You would think his fingers would slide off victims’ necks, but somehow he manages to rack up a ridiculous body count in Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler, which quickly achieved infamy at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Big Ronnie is constantly bullying his socially maladjusted son Big Brayden, particularly regarding his supposed insufficient use of grease when cooking. Somewhere in the back of Big Brayden’s tiny mind, he sort of suspects his father might be the notorious Greasy Strangler, perhaps because Big Ronnie periodically feels compelled to deny it, for no apparent reason.

Somehow Big Ronnie and Big Brayden make ends meet by conducting cut-rate bait-and-switch historic disco tours. Big Ronnie still likes to go out clubbing decking out in a leisure suit with a strategic hole in the crotch to reveal his laughably long member. Do not get the wrong idea. It’s sickly yellow color cannot be all that enticing to reasonably healthy women, but it certainly intimidates his son. Poor Big Brayden is not exactly a chip of the old block in the respect, as we see only too well. Nevertheless, the vaguely Jeffrey Tambor-looking man-child somehow starts dating a former tour patron, but the loathsome Big Ronnie is determined to steal her for himself.

Yes, you have a whole lot of grease and prosthetic junk in Strangler, but that’s about it. Frankly, it represents all the worst instincts of midnight movies. Basically, Hosking just keeps beating the same couple of jokes into the ground like a pile-driver. A lot of people at midnight screenings probably convinced themselves they enjoyed it. Obviously, that is the only suitable venue for a film like this. When buoyed-up by the crowd, you might start laughing at Hosking’s sheer gall and your own endurance for its conspicuous crappiness, but that is a pathetically cheap way to get over.

Strangler makes John Waters look tasteful, Troma look sophisticated, and Ed Wood look accomplished. It is also literally review-proof, as evidenced by the ironic trumpeting of Strangler’s withering trade reviews. Regardless, all Strangler leaves behind are some unpleasant grease-stains (and a cool one-sheet). Consider yourself warned as The Greasy Strangler continues to build on its notoriety following its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Sundance ’16: Nari

You could say Gingger Shankar’s mother and grandmother were born to be musicians. They hailed from a musical family, but they were hardly groomed to perform. In fact, the women were expected to sacrifice their careers to care for their husbands and children. Shankar pays tribute to her illustrious but frustrated ancestors in the New Frontiers multimedia program Nari, featuring a short film directed by Sun Yunfan (trailer here), which was staged at Festival Base Camp during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Gingger Shankar is the daughter of Dr. L. Subramanium, arguably the best known classical Indian musician currently touring the world today. However, Shankar makes it readily apparent their relationship is somewhat strained. She was expected to conform to her family’s wishes and forgo a promising music career, just as her mother had—but Shankar was less compliant. (Presumably, her great uncle Ravi Shankar was more progressive, since by adopting her mother’s maiden name, she obviously invokes his memory.)

Shankar’s grandmother Lakshmi was once quite famous in India. She had numerous bestselling records and performed in a ballet written by Nehru. Shankar even had a starring role in a vintage Bollywood musical, stills from which tantalizingly appear throughout the Nari short film and accompanying slide show. In contrast, her daughter Viji never had a fair chance to realize a fraction of her potential. Although she was recruited for a special George Harrison touring showcase, viewers get the sense that was seen as sort of a family franchise. After years away from the music business, Shankar’s mother started planning her debut solo album, but she only provisionally recorded half the songs before succumbing to cancer.

While there are some striking animated sequences in Sun’s short film, the main attraction of Nari is the live concert element. Gingger Shankar’s music is incredibly distinctive, blending classical Indian traditions with hip hop and electronica, but in a way that sounds organic rather than contrived. Clearly, she regularly listens to a wide array of influences and bakes them all into her rhythmically forceful music.

Although playing to pre-recorded tracks can be problematic, it makes sense when Shankar and her trio play accompany her late mother’s surviving vocal tracks (which have been duly remixed to fit her conceptions). The melodic and harmonic diversity of her set is also impressive. There are a lot of hummable tunes in Nari, as well as some virtuoso playing.

As we are told, Nari means both “woman” and “sacrifice” in Sanskrit, which might be a little too on-the-nose. Still, it hardly matters because the music so readily transports listeners to an elevated state of mind. It is too bad a restored print of Lakshmi Shankar’s film did not also screen in conjunction with Nari, because the included visuals definitely leave the audience intrigued. Nevertheless, the music is really the thing and it is terrific. Highly recommended, Nari is a tourable show that ought to have a long life on the road after bringing the Base Camp crowd to their feet at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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