J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

SAIFF ’14: Dukhtar

Zainab is supposed to be the child-bride daughter of a child-bride mother. At just fifteen years old (frankly, not so very young by Islamist standards), Allah Rakhi (meaning “God protects”) was married off to a much older tribal chieftain. Now her ten year old daughter is to be a peace-offering to any even older rival clan leader. Refusing to consign her daughter to a fate worse than her own, the mother flees with her child into the mountains in Afia Serena Nathaniel’s Dukhtar (trailer here), Pakistan’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Allah Rakhi’s initial escape is rather clever, but she does not have much a plan after that. She really has nobody to turn to, since her “husband” has prohibited any contact with her family since their marriage. Since Zainab is now considered the property of creepy old Tor Gul, both clans are out to capture her and kill her mother. That would be their idea of “honor.” Into this misogynist tribalism drives trucker and former mujahidin veteran Sohail. At first, he is reluctant to shelter the fugitive women, but he soon becomes their ardent protector. They will need him.

Let us be clear, nobody is terrorizing Allah Rakhi and their daughter because they are upset about drone strikes or resent America’s friendship with a democratic state like Israel. No, it is simply the thing to do for its own sake. This is a harrowing depiction of institutionalized misogyny and the pain and desperation it causes. Yet, as bracing as Dukhtar is, Nathaniel’s symbolic imagery often has a poetic beauty. She and her cinematographer tandem of Armughan Hassan and Najaf Bilgrami also vividly capture the vast splendor of the mountain vistas, so the film isn’t just a slap in the face.

Nathaniel gets a critical assist from her leads, who are surprisingly subtle, but still deeply expressive. It is particularly powerful to watch Samiya Mumtaz convey all the fear, confusion, and anger Allah Rakhi has been forced to guardedly bottle up. She also forges some ambiguous but genuinely touching chemistry with Mohib Mirza’s Sohail, who handles his own significant character development arc rather sure-footedly. Even young Saleha Aref is quite grounded and believably restrained as Zainab.


Watching Dukhtar leads one to abandon all hope for Pakistan, but the mere fact they submitted it for Academy Award consideration (and the likely attention that comes as a result) could be considered a hopeful sign. Despite a rough patch here or there, Dukhtar is a compelling narrative, featuring several mature, well-balanced performances. It is an important film for multiple reasons that demands a wider audience. Enthusiastically recommended, Dukhtar screens tonight (11/22), as part of this year’s SAIFF.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

NYKFF ’14: Man on High Heels

Detective Yoon Ji-wook is definitely a cop on the edge. In fact, he is overdue to be re-assigned. Hey there, gender-bender pun. Just when Seoul’s most feared gang-busting cop is about to walk away from his life of butt-kicking, the bad guys pull him back in. Genres will also be bent and blurred in Jang Jin’s Man on High Heels (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Korean Film Festival (in Brooklyn).

Yoon regularly faces down large packs of gangsters singlehandedly. Nobody knows that better than Heo Bool. The mob boss is currently facing a raft of charges while recovering from Yoon’s thorough thrashing. Charges have been filed against the cop, but they are nothing the hotshot prosecutor can’t handle. This might be the perfect time for Yoon to go out on a high note, allowing him to finally resolve his identity issues with reassignment surgery.

However, there are a couple of loose ends Yoon is still not sure how to tie-up. One is Jang-mi, an aspiring singer and bartender, who often provides freelance undercover support for Yoon. Their ambiguously platonic relationship is even more ambiguous than she realizes. The other loose end is Kim Jin-woo, Yoon’s hero-worshipping protégé. Unfortunately, Heo Bool’s son Heo Gon might solve his interpersonal problems the hard way when he declares war on the Seoul organized crime task force and all of Yoon’s closest associates.

Heels is the strangest mishmash of genres. It is a complicated tale of unrequited love, rooted in a tragically sentimental schoolboy crush story, periodically punctuated with no holds barred action beatdowns. The first and the latter are often rather effective, but the heavy handed flashbacks are really pushing it.

Frankly, Yoon’s scenes with Jang-mi are surprisingly touching, perhaps even more so before their secret connection is revealed. They just seem to be two lost souls who manage to connect in a hard to define way. In contrast, the detective’s scenes with his new life coaches just seem to drag on. After a while, we just so get the subverting masculinity thing.

As Yoon and Jang-mi, Cha Seung-won and Esom develop some quiet but powerful chemistry. Cha’s performance is particularly versatile, encompassing action cred and the sensitive deconstruction of his macho image. In a small but notable supporting turn, Park Sung-woong gives the film two healthy shots of attitude and energy as Prosecutor Hong. Unfortunately, none of the villains have the same verve.

Jang’s script is all over the place, but at least cinematographer Lee Sung-je gives it an appropriately noir sheen. The ambivalent conclusion might even be problematic for American LGBT festivals, but it is quite daring by local Korean standards. While it earns credit on that score, the midsection is still a little draggy. Recommended for fans of Korean thrillers open to gay and transgender themes, but not an essential artistic statement on either front, Man on High Heels screens tomorrow night (11/22) at the BAM Rose Cinema, as part of this year’s NYKFF.

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SAIFF ’14: Jigarthanda

At least he’s not making another indie navel gazer. When an aspiring hipster filmmaker gets an offer to make a violent gangster movie, he decides to do it the hard way. Traveling to Madurai to research a local gangster, Karthik inadvertently attracts the attention of his intended subject. Things will get a bit sticky, but the film must go on in Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda (trailer here), which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Karthik should have just remade a Hong Kong gangster movie like Scorsese. Bringing the true story of “Assault” Sethu to the screen is a dangerous proposition. Just ask the muckraking journalist he burns to death. Crashing with his local school chum Oorani, Karthik takes the indirect approach, trying to befriend key henchmen. He also starts romancing Kayal, the daughter of Sethu’s housekeeper. Of course his mercenary motives will eventually cause trouble for Karthik, especially if he ever realizes he might have squandered something good. However, Sethu will be a more pressing problem when he busts the clumsy snoops.

Fortunately, a prospective big screen treatment appeals to Sethu’s vanity. He is more than happy to talk and talk about one horrific crime after another. Inconveniently for Karthik, Sethu soon develops Get Shorty ideas, but he is no Chili Palmer. This is where his filmmaking mettle will really be tested.

Comedy often travels poorly, but Jigarthanda’s dark satire (particularly as manifested in the third act) translates unusually well, sort of like Tarantino adapting O.Henry, but with more restraint. Still, there is enough violence to make it tricky to definitively categorize, while compensating for most of Karthik and Oorani’s early rubber-faced slapstick.

As Karthik, Siddharth is plenty earnest, but rather bland in that comedic leading man sort of way. Conversely, Bobby Simha gives a big, physical performance in just about every way imaginable. His colorful associates also have their moments, especially Sangili Murugan as Petti Kadai, the shopkeeper who knew Sethu back in the day.

Jigarthanda is that rare film that actually becomes more stylish as it progresses, so it is worth sticking with it. At times, it critiques the media glamorization of gangsters quite pointedly, but it is first and foremost a valentine to movies and the artists who are forced to compromise in order to make them. Recommended for fans of Tamil cinema, Jigarthanda screens tonight (11/21) as part of this year’s SAIFF.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Late Phases: There’s a Wolf at the Door

The security around Ambrose McKinley’s new gated retirement community is not very effective, considering there is at least one fatal animal attack every month, like clockwork. It takes him all of one night in his new home to figure out it corresponds to the full moon. Putting two and two together, the blind Vietnam veteran will count down the days until the next fateful moon in Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It is debatable who has a keener sense of smell, McKinley or the werewolf stalking Crescent Bay. McKinley would seem to be at a disadvantage. Soon after moving into a new environment, his service dog Shadow is killed by the lycanthrope. Since McKinley never owned a cane, he prowls around the neighborhood with the help of a shovel. However, he is still handy with firearms and his bad attitude is a heck of an equalizer. Just ask his put-upon son Will. His new neighbors are even less charmed by McKinley, especially the one he is hunting and being hunted by.

Phases is being billed as veteran character actor Nick Damici’s breakthrough performance and they’re not kidding around. He finds new ways to be awesome as the spectacularly surly McKinley. He is often funny, genuinely touching in key dramatic scenes, but one hundred percent hardnose, through and through.

Damici rules the roost, but Phases is also brimming with a cult-friendly supporting cast, most notably including Tom (Manhunter, House of the Devil) Noonan as Father Roger. Somehow he simultaneously makes the good Father a refreshingly sympathetic man of the cloth, as well as a compelling suspect. The Last Starfighter’s Lance Guest sure looks a lot older as Griffin, Crescent Lake’s resident community organizer, whereas Glass Eye Pix founder Larry Fessenden always looks like someone you might buy a headstone from. Add in Tina Louise from Gilligan’s Island as one of McKinley’s catty neighbors and Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook as an ammo salesman and you have yourself an ensemble.

For his first English language production, Bogliano went 1980s old school. He takes plenty of time for character development, showcasing screenwriter Eric Stolze’s sly dialogue and Damici’s grizzled presence. While the slow build is moody and suggestive, the werewolf effects are a little cheesy, but in an appealing retro gross-out kind of way. Frankly, it all comes together in a satisfyingly nostalgic package. Highly recommended for werewolf fans, Late Phases opens tomorrow (11/21) in New York at the IFC Center.

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V/H/S: Viral—Maintaining the Gold Standard of Found Footage Horror

If some form of uncanny mass hysteria broke out in Los Angeles, would anyone notice? At least, there would be no shortage of handheld devices to record the phenomenon. The reigning champion of found footage horror franchises gets a spruced up framing device, taking it to the streets for its third installment, V/H/S: Viral (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

“Viral” is definitely the key word for Kev, the amateur videographer dreaming of youtube glory in Marcel Sarmiento’s interstitial Vicious Circles. However, it takes on multiple meanings when outbreaks of mob violence follow the wake of the evil clown ice-cream truck pursued by nearly all of LA's Finest. Somehow, the clown-mobile also managed to abduct his long-suffering girlfriend, making the hot pursuit distinctly personal for Kev. The early segments of Circles really capture a vivid sense of the city’s mean streets, where the everyday is just as scary as the horror movie elements. Unfortunately, the conclusion makes little sense and is even less satisfying.

Overall, the discrete constituent films are much stronger and scarier. While Gregg Bishop’s Dante the Great largely plays like a well-executed Twilight Zone episode, it has some nice flashes of macabre humor. The titular Dante was a poor aspiring illusionist with little prospects until he got his hands on a mysterious cape. Reportedly, it was once owned by Houdini, but he was so freaked out by it, he deliberately shed it somehow. Right, you’re already getting the picture and his new assistant Scarlett soon will too. Frankly, Dante often seems to “cheat” on the found footage format, but since it has some pretty cool scenes of magical mayhem, so be it.

Arguably, the most inventive segment of Viral is Nacho Vigalondo’s Parallel Monsters. Alfonso is an eccentric inventor who has created a portal to an alternate dimension, as has his counterpart on the other side of the hatch. They switch places to briefly explore each other’s worlds, but our Alfonso soon discovers he is in the one parallel universe they never explored in Star Trek. Let’s just say it belongs in a horror anthology like this. The way Vigalondo slowly reveals details on this other dark world is quite clever and massively creepy.

Frankly, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s Bonestorm is not much for character development, but it is tough to beat for sheer adrenaline charged lunacy. Basically, a group of knuckleheaded thrill-seekers head down to Tijuana to film a skateboarding video, but they inadvertently crash some sort of demonic zombie party. Madness ensues—spectacularly. When it comes to energy and attitude, Bonestorm is a gory three-ring circus, while remaining fully found footage-compliant. You just need to pop a few Dramamine and see it for yourself.

Few horror franchises still perform as consistently the third time around as the V/H/S series. While the first film maintained a more uniform atmosphere of dread and the second hits higher peaks with Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto’s Safe Haven and Jason Eisener’s Alien Abduction Slumber Party, Viral has fewer weak links overall. Diabolically fun, V/H/S Viral is enthusiastically recommended for the full spectrum of horror fans when it opens tomorrow (11/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Sleepwalker: Family Drama and Home Renovations

Obviously, something problematic must have happened during Christine’s childhood. The somnambulism is not such a big deal, but her penchant for awkward comments and compulsively irresponsible behavior can be a real drag. Not surprisingly, she will be a destabilizing influence when she pays a sudden visit to her half-sister in Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Growing up with Christine was often difficult—and Kaia still has the scars to prove it. Technically, they are burns, which are probably worse. As the model daughter, Kaia has become an outward model of stability. Despite the remembrances of her half-sister she carries in intimate places, Kaia has commenced a romantic relationship with Andrew, a local construction worker. Together, they are renovating her expatriate father’s modernist country house. They prefer to maintain their quiet privacy, but that will not be happening this weekend.

As she often does, Christine has recklessly bolted from her long-suffering fiancé, Ira, who will catch up to her in the morning. A wealthy blue-blood, he currently works as a UN Inspector. Considering how perceptive he is, it is easy to see how the Iranian nuclear program advanced so far. For reasons that remain baffling, he deduces a little sisterly togetherness will be good for Christine, so they invite themselves to stay for the weekend. None of this sits well with Andrew, the proletarian class warrior. It turns out the salt-of-the-earth worker also did time for hitting his previous girlfriend. So it should be an awesome weekend, especially when Christine starts doing highly inappropriate things in front of Kaia and Andrew while in a somnambulist state.

Norwegian actress-screenwriter Fastvold’s feature directorial debut is an English language production in its entirety, but stylistically it feels very European. The influence of Dogme 95 is inescapable, but while the film desperately wants to be Festen, it misses quite wide of the mark.

Frankly, the performances and execution are all pretty solid. As Kaia, Gitte Witt silently stews like crockpot, while Stephanie Ellis’s Christine is a suitably hot mess. Perhaps the biggest surprise is co-writer Brady Corbet, finding rewarding depth and nuance in the ever-patient Ira. Unfortunately, Christopher Abbott’s Andrew is largely a one-note resentful townie cliché. Still, the fundamental problem is all their efforts are expended on behalf of a script that only delivers a weak shrug for a payoff. We have seen this all before and we have seen it much more sharply written, so during most of the film, we have to wait for the characters to catch up with us.

Even with all the fictional renovations under way, it still looks like a cool house, so at least Sleepwalker has good architecture. Fastvold’s vibe is strong, but her narrative is weak. The cast tries hard, but their road map just won’t get them very far. A misfire but not a complete dead loss, The Sleepwalker opens this Friday (11/21) in New York at the IFC Center.

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SAIFF ’14: 1,000 Rupee Note

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” Jesse Unruh famously said. Uttamrao Jadhav certainly agrees. He even has a cow for a campaign symbol. When on the campaign trail, he spreads around plenty of “walking around money.” However, when he gives the grieving mother of a widely reported farm-suicide several large bills (for appearance’s sake) it leads to no end of trouble in Shrihari Sathe’s 1,000 Rupee Note (trailer here), which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Budhi is a notoriously thrifty hard bargainer, but her fellow villagers never object. They are only too aware of the widow’s tragic history. At least she is not alone in the world. Her neighbor Sudama frequently checks up on her. His wife pretends to resent the attention he gives Budhi, but it is really just an act. Naturally, when Jadhav schedules a political rally, which necessarily comes with the promise of a free dinner, they make sure Budhi attends. They also prod her to get into the walking around money line. However, when Jadhav learns of her significance he drops several 1,000 Rupee notes on her.

Finally, Budhi should be able to have her glasses fixed and her son’s portrait reframed, with plenty left over to buy gifts for Sudama and his wife. However, when she and her surrogate son arrive at the big city market, they simply cannot break the bills. Eventually accused of passing counterfeit notes, the will cool their heels in the local police station, perhaps indefinitely.

If you are expecting a somewhat quirky braided story following those bills, in the tradition of Twenty Bucks, you had better think again. Rupee is a dark, caustic indictment of political corruption that opts for naturalism over satire at every juncture. Let’s not mince words, this film is depressing.

While the execution is competent but rather straight forward, there is no denying the effectiveness of Sathe’s leads. As Budhi, Usha Naik gives the film real depth and soul, while her maternal chemistry with Sandeep Pathak’s Sudama is genuinely touching. Pooja Nayak also has some nice moments as his wife. However, the assorted crooked cops and politicians are too clichéd to be fully credible characters, but not flamboyant enough to be engaging villains.

Wearing its class consciousness on its sleeve, the Marathi Rupee shares a thematic kinship with the Hindi Peepli Live, but it lacks the magnetic charm of a Naseeruddin Shah. Still, its skepticism of government and politics is hard to argue with. It just doesn’t really leave us anyplace to go but down. For those looking for something highly respectable and polemical, 1,000 Rupee Note is all that, but it isn’t so much fun when it screens tonight (11/19) as part of this year’s SAIFF.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

As the Light Goes Out: HK’s Bravest

They love their firefighters in Hong Kong. It is easy to understand why when you do the math. Hong Kong has the world’s fourth highest population density, concentrated in a mere 426 square miles, built straight up into the sky. In such an environment, fire equals bad. Ordinarily, no conflagration could withstand the collective manliness of the HKFD, but all bets are off when one of their family members is trapped within the mother of all electrical fires in Derek Kwok’s As the Light Goes Out (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and digital platforms from Well Go USA.

This is supposed to Ho Wing-sam’s last duty day before transferring out of the Lung Kwu Tan station. Frankly, he has just been marking time since he was passed over for promotion, in favor of his more political astute former pal, Yip Chi-fai. His crusty old mentor Lee Pui-to is also due to retire imminently. Factor in the fact that it is Christmas Eve and you know it will not be long before a four-alarm fire breaks out.

Frustratingly, things would not have been so bad if it weren’t for careerist CYAing and denial. When Sam’s team gets the call for a winery fire in the New Territories, they initially extinguish it relatively swiftly. The responsible Ho starts taking a few additional preventative measures until Yip pressures him to return to the station, to help spit-polish everything for the chief-of-chief’s visit. Unfortunately, the winery is a little too close to the septic tank, which is a little too close to Hong Kong’s natural gas pipeline, which runs directly into the main power station. By the time Ho figures this out, the winery has reignited and the die is cast.

At least he has some good men to face down the colossal inferno, including old Lee, whose withering stare is usually sufficient to make most fires fizzle out. Despite his attempted hazing, the veteran fireman also quickly warms to Ocean, a forty-two year old immigrant rookie and former Mainland firefighter, who is still able to pass his physical training with perfect marks. He is assigned to help power plant engineer Ying Lan close the main pipeline, but her short-sighted boss over-rules their efforts at the plant level, making everything go boom. As if the stakes were not high enough already, the son of “Chill” Yau Bong-chiu, the firefighter who took the fall for Ho and Yip during an administrative inquiry, walked away from his school tour group and is now lost in the burning power plant.

ATLGO makes Backdraft look like an Oscar Wilde drawing room comedy. This is the ultimate one-darned-thing-after-another disaster film, featuring almost as many big name stars as The Towering Inferno. The fire truly rages and when particulate matter gets in the air, it become a massively combustive spectacle. Yet for sheer lunacy, nothing tops Jackie Chan’s early cameo (you’ll know it when you see it).

There will be no metrosexual whininess in ATLGO. Even though his mustache is kind of wimpy, Nicholas Tse is all man as “Sam” Ho, whereas Hu Jun is simply all Hulk as Ocean. Yet, nothing is stronger than Simon Yam’s attitude as the crafty old Lee. Fire-fighting is clearly still a man’s business in HK, but Michelle Bai Bing’s Ying convincingly supplies the brains of the film. Add the likes of Andy On, Shawn Yue, and Michelle Wai and you have no shortage of romantic leads playing supporting roles.

ATLGO is a rousingly old-fashioned film about heroism and sacrifice, but it also has a healthy contemporary contempt for bureaucracy and authority. It is sort of the best of both eras. Highly recommended for fans of fire-fighting action, As the Lights Go Out is now available on DVD, BluRay, and digital VOD from Well Go USA.

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The Mule: It’s a Dirty Business

Working in customs can be a dirty business. Rubber gloves just don’t come thick enough to make it alright. Of course, it is even worse to be a suspected smuggler on the receiving end. For obvious reasons, time is presumably on the law’s side, but one poor dupe will do his best to put his bodily functions on hold in Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson’s “based on a true story” crime drama The Mule (trailer here), which releases in select markets and on VOD this Friday.

Unbeknownst to sad sack footballer Ray Jenkins, the vice-captain of his team and their dodgy patron have a regular heroin smuggling operation going. This year, Jenkins really ought to attend the annual season-ending trip to Thailand, since he has been awarded their player of the year honor. It would also be a fine opportunity for Jenkins to stuff his stomach with condoms filled with heroin. He would prefer to decline, but his parents’ gambling debts have him in a tight spot. He nearly gets away clean, but some last minute suspicious behavior gives him away to Australian customs.

Not quite as dumb as he looks, Jenkins will not agree to any x-rays or cop to anything. Under Aussie law, he will be held without charge for seven days or two number twos, at which point the evidence should speak for itself. However, Jenkins refuses to go, fortified by his strange willpower and a heavy dose of constipating codeine. It will get ugly, as Detectives Croft and Paris become increasingly impatient holed up in their airport hotel room with its jury-rigged porcelain throne, especially the hot-headed Croft.

If any film could scare a prospective drug mule straight, this would be it. Let’s just say it goes there and skip the graphic descriptions. Frankly, Sampson and co-writers Leigh Whannell (from the Saw franchise) and Jaime Browne largely turn poor Jenkins into a moaning ball of constipation wrangled over by the various cops, gangsters, and his legal aide attorney. However, he will somehow rouse himself for some clever third act twists.

Hugo Weaving is a constant source of entertainment, snarling his way through the film as Croft. Co-writer-co-director Sampson is also appropriately nebbish, in a doughy way, as the unspeakably miserable Jenkins. While Georgina Haig’s public defender is not much of a presence, the film rather slyly implies she is far more interested in Jenkins as a potential cause than concerned with his physical well-being. Regardless, Whannell and John Noble hold up their ends as totally slimy villains.

Contrasting pitiful Jenkins’ cautionary tale with the wall-to-wall coverage of Australia’s America’s Cup Victory makes The Mule a rather idiosyncratic early 1980s period piece. Still, this is not Miami Vice. No doubt about it, the premise is a bit off-putting, to put it tactfully. However, the execution is quite strong, buoyed by its considerable attitude and gumption. Recommended for fans of dark, somewhat scatological thrillers, The Mule launches on iTunes and opens in limited release this Friday (11/21).

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Isis Rising: A Night in the Museum with Priya Rai

Remember the good old days, when Isis was merely a vengeful Egyptian demigod determined to wreak havoc upon the earth? Well, she’s back and more scantily clad than ever. A group of randy college students will feel her wrath in Lisa Palenica’s Isis Rising: Curse of the Lady Mummy (trailer here), now available on DVD from TomCat Films.

Centuries ago, Osiris and his wife-sister Isis were murdered by their power-mad brother Set. The thing is, you can never kill a black arts practitioner like Isis dead enough. All she needs is a half dozen college kids who frankly look too old to be undergraduates trying to get stoned off some resurrection incense and she’s back in business. As luck would have it, Professor Shields’ star pupil Amy and five of her dumbest classmates have volunteered for an all-night research session in the local natural history museum.

Evidently, some strange collector has donated a trove of hitherto unseen antiquities to the museum, including said incense, as well as Isis’s Book of the Undead and her mummified corpse. It is so spectacular, internationally renowned Egyptologist Dr. Nasir has joined the party, hoping to uncover evidence to support his theories (which basically boil down to if Isis were still here, she’d be really hacked off). So yes, you could probably say he’s in for a case of good news-bad news.

If you are wondering why Isis looks more appropriately dressed for the Luxor Hotel in Vegas than Luxor, Egypt, it might help to know she is played by adult entertainment star Priya Rai in her mainstream breakout debut. However, her established fanbase is likely to be disappointed with Rising, since it really only delivers the obvious cleavage and one carefully cropped sex scene featuring other cast members.

It is hard to fairly judge Rai’s performance because her screen time is relatively limited and what little dialogue she has is electronically distorted. Still, it is easy to see how she found success in her chosen field (feel free to insert your own joke about orbs here). Evidently, co-producer James Bartholet also works in “the business,” but you can’t really see why from his supporting turn as Henry the goofball security guard, which is probably a blessing.

As you would expect from a B-movie, the supporting ensemble varies widely in terms of professionalism. Without question, Jing Song and Seth Gandrud score the highest marks as Amy the A-student and Dr. Nasir respectively. You really have to give the latter credit for all the cheesy exposition he duly establishes with a straight face. As for the other classmates, including writer-director Palenica’s Felicia, they just can’t get killed soon enough.

The special effects throughout Rising are uniformly bad—even by the production standards of mid 1980’s straight-to-video sci-fi-horror knock-offs. However, they found a small but legit natural history museum to shoot in, so the mummy-less contemporary scenes looks surprisingly good. In fact, it is sort of bizarrely entertaining to watch them madly dash about the dinosaur exhibits, like having a museum sleepover as a kid with half a dozen of your nuttiest friends.

There was probably room in the world for a low budget film about a curvaceous mummy overstocked with awkward conversations, so Palenica and company have filled it. If you keep your expectations low enough, like basement level low, it is sort of fun, or at least hard to actively dislike. Frankly, every cult film expert probably needs to see it, just so they can address the Rai connection. For her fans and diehard mummy enthusiasts, Isis Rising is now available on DVD from TomCat Films.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Monk with a Camera: Nicholas Vreeland’s Photography for a Higher Calling

Being the subject of documentaries runs in the Vreeland family. Celebrated Vogue editor Diana Vreeland’s career was chronicled in her own doc, Diana Vreeland: the Eye has to Travel and she logically played a part in films by Bruce Weber and about Bert Stern. Through her influence, her photographer grandson Nicholas apprenticed with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, but instead of following in her footsteps, he charted his own course as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Vreeland’s life and complicated relationship to the worldly discipline of photography are explored in Guido Santi & Tina Mascara’s Monk with a Camera (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Typically, young men of Vreeland’s background either become playboys or elite public servants, like his ambassador father. He was well along his way to the former, considerably aided by his precocious talent for photography. Meeting models was never a problem for him, but a chance introduction to Khyongla Rato Rinpoche changed his life.  Through the spiritual instruction of his lifelong teacher, Vreeland found the meaning he had been seeking.

Although the Tibetan exile initially discouraged him from taking robes, Vreeland’s calling would not be denied. It helped when his cameras were stolen, thereby eliminating such distracting influences. However, his brother gave him a replacement as a going away gift, should inspiration later strike him. Years later, necessity would serve that function while spearheading a relatively ambitious fundraising drive to expand the growing Rato Monastery, his teacher’s former home. As a Vreeland, he still had plenty of well-healed contacts, but the financial crisis threw a spanner in the works. However, sales of his striking photographs successfully covered the sudden shortfalls. Such resourcefulness even impressed His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

There are plenty of lessons to learn from Vreeland’s story, starting with the obvious inclusiveness of Tibetan Buddhism. While he might have engendered understandable skepticism when formally beginning his journey, clearly no racial resentment or class warfare prejudices hampered his acceptance in the cloistered community. It also suggests art can serve sacred causes as well as worldly desires. Indeed, his work shows a keenly humane eye for the bustling hardscrabble life around the monastery and throughout India.

For a film so focused on the spiritual life, Camera is surprisingly lively. Santi and Mascara captured some highly significant milestones, but also incorporate plenty of quietly telling moments. Despite their vows, Vreeland and his colleagues are still very definitely engaged in the business of life. It is just a terrible shame that they cannot practice their religion in its traditional spiritual seat. Indeed, Camera is rather timely in a way, following the recent APEC summit, where our current lame duck apparently had nothing to say about the state of the Tibetan occupation, once again. Recommended for spiritual seekers and photography bugs alike, Monk with a Camera opens this Friday (11/21) at the Lincoln Center.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: A Persian Vampire Stalks Bad City

This vampire wears a chador rather than a cape. She is clearly not an Anne Rice kind of vampire, but you will still find plenty of vice in Bad City, where she stalks her victims. Ana Lily Amirpour finally delivers the Iranian existential rock & roll vampire western the world has been waiting for with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The dialogue is Persian, but it was shot in a California boom-and-bust oil town that easily passes for a lawless provincial corner of Iran. Although not explicitly political, there is no way the regime would ever cotton to a depiction of Iranian society rife with prostitutes, pimps, pushers, and junkies (frankly, they are just no fun whatsoever). Of course, this seedy environment makes a perfect hunting ground for “the Girl,” who prowls through Bad City’s dark streets late at night on her skate board.

Like an old school E.C. Comics blood-sucker, the Girl generally bites those who have it coming, such as “the Pimp,” who has been hassling “the Persian James Dean” over his junkie father’s debts. Or at least he had been. Yet, the Girl somehow develops a friendship with “the Prostitute” despite their very different temperaments. However, it is her halting mutual attraction to the Persian James Dean that really challenges her choice of undead lifestyle.

AGWHAAN sounds absolutely crazy on paper and indeed in many ways it is, but it is an art film through-and-through rather than a cult midnight movie. Amirpour’s pacing is slow and deliberate, in a seductive kind of way. If audiences are not careful, Bad City will anesthetize them. Fortunately, the driving alt rock-rockabilly soundtrack supplies plenty of aural caffeine (this is a case where a soundtrack album could easily out-perform the source film).

Regardless, viewers should stick with AGWHAAN, because it is a truly unique cinematic experience, starting with Lyle Vincent’s gobsmackingly arresting black-and-white cinematography. Arguably, the film is stylistically most closely akin to the work of Bruce Weber (best known for directing Calvin Klein commercials and the Chet Baker doc Let’s Get Lost).

AGWHAAN is the sort of film that washes over you, yet it still heralds the arrival of a major star in Sheila Vand. As the Girl, she gives a quiet but deeply expressive performance. Somehow she is able to look exquisitely vulnerable and eerily sinister at the same time, which is quite a trick. Likewise, Mozhan Marnò defies all clichés with her sensitive work as the prostitute.

There is something wonderfully subversive about a delicate looking lady vampire wreaking havoc on Iran’s low life men. Who wouldn’t love to see her take the bite to the oppressive theocrats in a sequel? A rich feast for eyes and ears, it is completely unlike any other vampire movie you have previously seen. Highly recommended for fans of ambitious genre film and Persian cinema, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night opens this Friday (11/21) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco

Carlos Saura is sort of like the Busby Berkeley of flamenco and other traditional Iberian musical forms, except he stages musical numbers with Spartan elegance. There will be no talking whatsoever, just singing, dancing, and playing in his latest intimate musical performance film. Saura follows up his 1995 art house hit Flamenco with the aptly titled Flamenco, Flamenco (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Saura will not even cheapen his visually gorgeous film with a lot of inter-titles identifying the many accomplished musicians making up his all-star flamenco ensembles. In a way, that is unfortunate for them, because their performances would make converts out of any non-fan who just happened to wander into Flamenco-squared. Indeed, the Flamenco choreography framed by Saura and revered cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is particularly cinematic, emphasizing the dancers’ long vertical lines and their whirling garments.

There is no question Saura is one of the best filmmakers in the world when it comes to capturing dance on film. He also has an intuitive sense of how to best use the inherent tension of flamenco percussion. Although flamenco costuming is traditionally rather modest, several of the younger singers and dancer convey quite a bit of passion through their performances. However, when María Bala steps forward for her solo, the audience is transported to the Andalusian caves.

In terms of quality, Flamenco, Flamenco is remarkably consistent, but there are still notable standouts. Surprisingly, one of the best is a two piano duet for Dorantes and Diego Amador. They both have spectacular technique, but what really distinguishes “Cartagenera y Bulerías” is just the sheer contagious fun they are having playing together.

This time around, Saura’s approach will be somewhat controversial for purists, because he includes several younger, fusionistic performers, such as Rocío Molina. However, when she dances “Garrotín” with a cigarillo clenched in her lips, she looks like she could have been Bizet’s inspiration for Carmen. Yet perhaps the most striking choreography comes on the sacred-themed “Holy Week,” which also stretches our conceptions of flamenco in a different way.

Shot entirely within the Seville Pavilion for 1992 Expo, F-F has a real sense of flowing space, accentuated by Storaro’s swooping camera that often matches the dancers’ dramatic moves. At times, Saura uses gallery motifs for his backdrops, but he often just employs warm primary colors to set-off the performers. Aside from his previous films (such as Tango and Fados), the most logical comparative would be Trueba’s Calle 54, which is high praise indeed. A rich feast for eyes and ears alike, Flamenco, Flamenco is highly recommended for general audiences, whether they think they like flamenco or not, when it opens this Friday (11/21) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: Bela Fleck How to Write a Banjo Concerto

Mozart wrote his first symphony at the precocious age of eight, but Béla Fleck would probably be most impressed by the fact he wrote it without the help of the Sibelius composition program. Of course, Mozart did not pen much for a banjo soloist, leaving the field open for Fleck. Fans will watch him wrestle long and hard with a high profile symphonic commission in Sascha Paladino & his banjo virtuoso brother’s Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Fleck had previously co-written extended symphonic work with classical bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zukir Hussain, but “The Impostor” would be his first solo composition. Basically, Fleck holes up during a few short sabbaticals, grinding it out with the help of Sibelius. For the most part, he tries to tune out the advice of Meyer, his classical “big brother” and his wife, clawhammer player Abigail Washburn. Frankly, the doc makes the composition part look easy. The hard part is going from Sibelius to a flesh and blood symphony orchestra.

It is interesting to watch Fleck tinker with the concerto based on feedback during rehearsals. We also see some of the informational interviews he conducted with the Nashville Symphony’s section principals. It seems like he was looking to incorporate the sort of things they like to play, which is probably a winning strategy to keep the orchestra on his side.

Yes, Fleck will feel the stress, with the premiere date fast approaching and the concerto not exactly set in stone. However, there are plenty of backstage documentaries that deliver far more emotional oomph (Every Little Step, for instance). Despite the presence of Fleck’s big name friends who periodically pop in to offer moral support, including Steve Martin, Marcus Roberts, the late Earl Scruggs (to whom the film is co-dedicated), and Chick Corea (who never once mentions Scientology), it is hard to see Concerto as a proper theatrical documentary. Rather, it has the vibe and heft of a free digital download bundled with his Deutsch Grammophon album.

If anyone in the film actually refers to the piece by its title, “The Impostor,” it sure is easy to miss. Regardless, Fleck & Paladino never sketch out the rudimentary narrative underpinning it. There just seems to be an assumption viewers are already fairly up to speed on major Fleck projects. Throughout Concerto, he seems likable and remarkably easy-going, all things considered, and only a fool would deny his dazzling technique. Nevertheless, the neurotic thoughts we see scribbled across the screen John Madden-style quickly become an annoying device.

As impressive as Fleck’s musical accomplishments are, Concerto is rather lightweight cinema. While nowhere near as hollow as Kevin Spacey’s recent vanity doc, it is still not as musically satisfying as Fleck and Paladino’s previous feature documentary, Throw Down Your Heart (after all, we hear more of “The Impostor” as played by Sibelius than the Nashville Symphony). Only recommended for die-hard Fleck fans, Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto screens this Thursday (11/20), as part of DOC NYC 2014, with the composer himself scheduled to attend.

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: Kasamayaki

Katsuji and Shigeko Kokubo are a lot like the Shinoharas in Cutie and the Boxer, except they gave up their ambitions of conquering the American art world and returned to Japan. When they did, somehow they left their twelve year old daughter Yuki behind. If you are wondering how that worked, their grown filmmaker daughter will ask them directly when she documents her post 3/11 return to Japan in Kasamayaki (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

A stone’s throw from Fukushima, Kasama is a traditional rural artist colony, particularly known for its kasama-yaki style of pottery. At its finest, it approaches the sort of elegant and deceptively simple work the Ippodo Gallery often showcases. In recent years, the Kokubos largely support themselves through their pottery, but Katsuji had dreamed of making it as a painter.

Just what arrangements they made for their daughter when they slunk out of New York are never really explained. There is some vague talk about not wanting to take her out of school, but her mother clearly does not want to discuss it—and her father is just as obviously the junior partner when it comes to family decisions.

Frankly, Kasamayaki is a somewhat odd film, because it is outwardly quite placid and meditative, but there is a lot of emotional turmoil brewing below the surface. At times, the very act of filmmaking appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep Kokubo’s parents at arm’s length. However, those eager for some heartwarming Hallmark moments will at least get a bit of paternal rapprochement. There are also cats and dogs lazing all around the Kokubos’ converted farmhouse, which is always a plus for that audience.

Kasamayaki is much more about intimate family drama than documenting the realities of post-earthquake Fukushima, but there are a few telling time capsule moments, as when Kokubo’s father checks out one of the Geiger counters provided by the local government. Yet, despite it all, Kasama still looks like a lovely place to visit when seen through her lens.


Although small in scope, it is strangely absorbing, following in the tradition of intensely personal Japanese documentaries, represented by films like Mami Sunada’s Death of a Japanese Salesman and Yang Yonghi’s Dear Pyongyang. Recommended for those who appreciate Japanese pottery and the vérité aesthetic, Kasamyaki screens tomorrow (11/16) as part of DOC NYC 2014.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Starry Eyes: Ready for Her Close-Up?

If only Astraeus Pictures employed the traditional Hollywood casting couch, Sarah Walker would be much better off. Instead, they will play sadistic games with her head and her life in Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Show business is a tough racket. Walker is reasonably talented and attractive, but she just cannot catch a break. It hardly helps when one of her so-called friends steals a gig out from under. Frankly, they are not really her friends, they are her roommate’s friends. Her life is already like the darkside of Melrose Place and it will get steadily darker when she auditions for Astraeus.

Even though the indie studio has been somewhat off their game lately, scoring the lead in their latest horror movie would be a career-making coup. Unfortunately, Walker bombs during the weirdly confrontational audition, but when the casting director happens to witness her massively self-loathing breakdown in the ladies room, complete with hair-pulling and paroxysms, Astraeus is suddenly interested again.

Nonetheless, they will hardly fulfill all her dreams just like that. The callbacks will be truly sinister. Yet, each time Walker draws a line in the sand, she inevitably comes crawling back. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of Starry is her willing complicity in her own damnation (for lack of a better word).

While there are teases of demonic horror in Starry (that the one-sheet duly capitalizes on), its first two thirds are more closely akin to a claustrophobic Polanski psycho-thriller. However, when the gloves come off in the final act, it gets spectacularly gory. Yet, in a way it comes as a relief, finally providing a break from the more realistically grounded and disturbing mental cat-and-mouse game that came before. It might even earn a laugh or two if you have a particularly evil sense of humor.

Starry will not be to everyone’s tastes (boy, is that safe to say), but the way it eviscerates Hollywood fakeness certainly sets it apart from the field. Being an insincere frenemy will get you painfully dead in Starry. As disturbing as Walker’s arc gets, Kölsch & Widmyer’s screenplay is a lot like a vintage E.C. comic—everybody who gets it probably had it coming.

As Walker, Alex Essoe absolutely goes for broke. She has moments that rival Isabel Adjani’s epic freak-out in Żuławski’s Possession. However, she cannot be accused of overly excessive histrionics (like say, Meryl Streep in Osage County, since we’re still not ready to let that one go), because the film’s dramatic context truly demands something viscerally explosive—and Essoe delivers in spades.

Although the who’s-and-what’s of Astraeus remain murky, Louis Dezseran makes a distinctively sleazy patrician villain as the producer and implied studio boss, admirably gnawing on scenery in the old school Hammer tradition. Emerging indie genre star Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills, Compliance, The Innkeepers) also takes a memorable turn Carl, Walker’s boss at a Hooter’s style scarf-and-barf, who might be what passes for a likable character in Starry.

When Starry finally lowers the curtain, you are likely to hear loud exhaling throughout the theater. It is a darkly intense film, but also unusually well executed by genre standards. Arguably, there is even an element of Bergman-esque angst buried amid the body horror and bloody carnage. Recommended for adventurous cult cinema fans, Starry Eyes opens today (11/14) in New York at the Village East.

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DOC NYC ’14: The Chaperone (short)

It is a lot like School House Rock, but with rampaging bikers and Kung Fu. It incorporates retro hand drawn animation, stop motion, live action martial arts sequences, and exploding papier-mâché heads. It is also a documentary. Fraser Munden and co-director Neil Rathbone pretty much have it all in their thirteen minute true-story smackdown The Chaperone (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Ralph Whims is a dedicated teacher and a natural bad-ass. To this day, he remains cult-famous in his Montreal neighborhood for the night he faced down a gang of bikers that crashed the youth social he was chaperoning. High and disorderly, the bikers were knowingly terrorizing the intimidated church kids, until Whims stepped up. He pretty much handled them Bruce Lee-style, but he got a timely assist from the DJ, Stefan Czernatowicz—and they have remained close friends ever since. It was the 1970s, this sort of thing happened back then.

Munden and Rathbone give an animated blow-by-blow of the encounter and its pretty awesome. They also throw in all kinds of weird interludes and asides, including close-ups of the bikers’ heads going poof. (It’s a symbolically rendered poof.)  They create a wildly funky vibe through the appropriately funky soundtrack, the early ‘70s period details, and the massively cool attitude. However, with his narration, Whims also offers some darned practical advice to anyone facing down a pack of thugs. He knew how to handle himself, that’s for sure.

Nostalgia is rarely as action-packed as it is here. Pound-for-pound, second-by-second, The Chaperone has to be the most wildly entertaining film screening at DOC NYC. Highly recommended for fans of animation, exploitation teen films, and afterschool specials, The Chaperone screens before Rubble Kings this Sunday evening (11/16).

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

HK Cinema at SFFS ’14: Aberdeen

Cheng Tung was once a fisherman in Aberdeen Harbor, but he now works as a Taoist priest, specializing in the “Breaking Hell” ceremony. Unfortunately, the patriarch cannot break the Hell of his own family. Resentments will be nursed and neuroses will run wild in Pang Ho-cheung’s Aberdeen (trailer here), which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

All the Chengs have their own problems, particularly little Chloe. She is dealing with bullies at school and her ailing chameleon, Greenie. Her parents are outwardly supportive and engaged, but her father Cheng Wai-tao has come to privately doubt whether he truly is her father. She just doesn’t seem cute enough to be the daughter of the super-slick motivational speaker and his actress-model wife, Cici. At least, she was an actress-model. Gigs have become scarce and getting scarcer, as she proceeds to get steadily older.

Meanwhile, Chloe’s uncle Yau Kin-cheung is having a reckless affair with his much younger but increasingly codependent nurse, while his oblivious wife (Wai-tao’s older sister) struggles with her unresolvable mother issues. Unfortunately, Cheng Tung is not allowed to exercise much authority. Offended by his relationship with a bar hostess, his son has almost completely frozen the old man out.

For HK cinema fans who primarily know Pang for his naughty screwball comedy Vulgaria and the gory satire Dream Home, the sensitive family drama of Aberdeen will be quite a revelation. While there are distinctive fantastical interludes, particularly the Kaiju Greenie rampaging through the scale model streets of Hong Kong, it is still thoroughly grounded and often quite subtle. On paper, the beached whale that becomes a focal point for the Chengs and the unexploded WWII ordinance discovered near Yau’s flat sound like face-palmingly heavy handed symbolism, yet Pang never overplays them.

Regardless what her father says, young Lee Man-kwai’s Chloe is all kinds of cute and she anchors the film very effectively. However, it is Gigi Leung who really lands the knock-out punch as Cici. There have been a number of films about actresses struggling to maintain their careers as time flies, one of the most notable being Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Yet, as great as Juliette Binoche is in that film, the audience never comes to know and understand her character as we do Leung’s Cici. She has a few key scenes that will just cut your legs out from under you. She also looks great, as does Dada Chan who appears in an extended cameo playing a character much like her pre-Vulgaria persona, probably as a thank you to Pang for her award-winning breakout role.


It is rather remarkable how many interconnected relationships Pang and his all-star cast are able to fully flesh out. Surprisingly potent but never overbearing, Pang’s Aberdeen captures the messiness of life with honesty and affection. Highly recommended, it screens this Sunday (11/16) as part of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema series.

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Brahmin Bulls: Fathers and Architects

Ashok Sharma once had grand ambitions of winning a Nobel Prize. Father of the Year, not so much. He came up empty on both counts. Sharma will try to reconnect with his grown architect son, but another face from his past will complicate matters in Mahesh Pailoor’s Brahmin Bulls (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sharma lives in Boston, but he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. Nevertheless, Sid Sharma considers himself more of the heir to Richard Neutra than his father’s son. Unfortunately, that is not what clients are looking for, thereby causing him stress in his firm. (Frankly, he probably ought to feel a little heat, since it looks like he plays tennis all day and gets smashed in hipster bars every night). Dr. Sharma will use an academic conference as a pretext for visiting his more-or-less estranged son, but he might have an additional ulterior motive. It turns out his former mistress, Helen West, will be one of the conference speakers.

As viewers might expect, the reunion starts out massively awkward, but steadily thaws before getting predictably uncomfortable again. However, Pailoor skips the clichéd old world vs. new world clash of cultures. Frankly, the senior Sharma is just as westernized and modernized as his soon-to-be divorced son, if not more so. In fact, one of the most intriguing aspect of this film is the treatment of his arranged marriage (to Sid’s late mother, whom he cheated on). Obviously, it was a difficult marriage and he justly blames himself for the worst of it, but it is not like it was his idea in the first place. Indeed, it is rather complicated.

There is an awful lot of standard issue father-son melodrama in Brahmin (tennis, the game that pulled them apart might just bring them back together). Still, distinguished screen actor Roshan Seth (Nehru in Gandhi and villain Chattar Lal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) is refreshingly dignified and understated as Dr. Sharma. He and Sendhil Ramamurthy play off each other rather well, as father and son. For comic relief, Michael Lerner is a lot of fun hamming it up as his formerly hard-partying academic colleague, while Mary Steenburgen also hits the right note of graceful resignation as West. On the other hand, Sid’s office and social network seems to be populated with an awful lot of boring characters.

Be that as it may, you have to give credit to a film that loudly proclaims it love for Neutra’s houses. Even if Brahmin follows a formulaic narrative, it is far less manipulative and sentimental than its themes would suggest. There is nothing particularly special about its technical package, but at least the admirably restrained Pailoor keeps it moving along, so it goes down relatively smoothly overall. No cause for fireworks, but those looking for emerging talent might want to check it out, because Pailoor could well be building towards bigger and better things with subsequent films. It opens tomorrow (11/14) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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DOC NYC ’14: Top Spin

Out of the eighty-eight total Olympic medals awarded for table tennis, China has won forty-seven and North Korea has won three, so do not expect the totalitarian-friendly IOC to drop the sport anytime soon. However, a young generation of players dream of winning the first American table tennis medal. Sara Newens & Mina T. Son follow three promising U.S. Olympic team hopefuls throughout the season leading up to the London Games in Top Spin (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang both live in North California and play an aggressive, attacking style of table tennis. Women’s championships often come down to the two of them. Currently, Hsing is number one, but it is always a pitched battle. Long Island’s Michael Landers is also a leading contender, but the odds might be a bit longer for him to secure a spot on the Olympic team. All three have sacrificed much of the traditional high school experience to pursue glory in the games, but Zhang seems to do a better job balancing a social life with her arduous competition schedule.

Right, so don’t call it ping pong. Clearly, all three young athletes train like mad. Newens and Son give viewers a good sense of the physically demanding work they do, as well as the considerable mental preparation required. Of course, they do it all solely with the Olympics in mind, since there is no professional table tennis circuit to speak of in America.

Happily for Newens and Son, the leading contenders are also highly engaging screen presences. It seems like they were born to be interviewed by Bob Costas. Their parents are also frequently seen throughout the film, coming across unflaggingly supportive. According to the post-script, Hsing, Zhang, and Landers have all successfully transitioned to college life, so they obviously did something right. However, the film clearly implies the Zhangs gave greater priority to their daughter’s social development, which is a subject worthy of greater exploration.


Viewers definitely get a thorough understanding of the Olympic qualifying process from Top Spin, but it resists getting bogged down in micro-details. Frankly, the various ball-spin strategies remain utterly mysterious. However, Newens & Son were once again fortunate to have a relatively upbeat (if not necessarily Cinderella story) ending. Anyone who sees their documentary will follow table tennis at the 2016 Rio Games much more closely, looking for the return of familiar names to build on their London experience, which should make NBC delighted. Recommended for fans of the Olympics and scrappy underdogs, Top Spin screens this Saturday (11/15) as part of DOC NYC 2014.

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