J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Dragon Blade: Jackie Chan, Centurion

The ambitions of a corrupt Roman consul would belittle Alexander’s conquests if he could realize them. He intends to assert control over the entire Silk Road, starting with the sleepiest stretch in western China. However, the impossibly upbeat captain of the Silk Road Protection Squad and a band of maverick centurions will stand against him in Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Huo An always tries to avoid physical violence. Yet, despite his status as a heroically departed general’s only true protégé, he has been banished to the provincial Wild Geese Gate due to trumped-up corruption charges. Apparently he is quickly rehabilitated, because he has already re-assumed command of the Silk Road forces when a Roman remnant arrives in all their glorious belligerence. First they fight, but they quickly forge a wary truce. Real camaraderie between the Han Silk Road forces and Roman soldiers follows soon after.

When word arrives Huo An’s men must rebuild the crumbling city in fifteen days, the Romans agree to help in exchange for assistance reaching the legitimate Roman authorities in Parthia. Combining Roman engineering with good old fashioned Chinese slave labor, they do indeed rebuild a shining city on a hill, throwing in a few extra aqueducts just because they enjoy building them. Unfortunately, the villainous Tiberius does not appreciate Han do-gooders aiding his enemies. After all, he has a young brother to kill in the astonishingly annoying Publius, who has thus far been protected by the world weary Lucius and his band of brothers, which now includes the honorary centurion Huo An.

Dragon Blade is not terrible, even though it has nearly all of the shortcomings you would fear. Of course, it starts with casting of John Cusack and Adrien Brody as Lucius and Tiberius. Probably no actors have looked or sounded more out of place in a classical antiquity setting since Edward G. Robinson appeared in the Ten Commandments. While Cusack seems to be trying to slouch through the film unnoticed, Brody is conspicuously dull in role that requires serious flamboyance.

Chan is hardly blameless either. Although he thankfully reins in the shticky comedy, Dragon Blade is a perfect example of his burgeoning martyr complex, which he shamelessly indulges. It also reflects his increasingly problematic Mainland-centric China chauvinism. According to Huo An, Westerners are trained to kill people, whereas Chinese soldiers serve to protect. Okay, while you’re at it, why don’t you explain to the emperor how the common people would like more say in issues of governance—or try telling it to Beijing today. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers came to the Admiralty to do exactly that, but Chan didn’t want to hear it.

Yet, one of the coolest things about Dragon Blade is the democratic idealism represented by Wild Geese Gate, as well as the massive CGI awe of the place. There are also some pretty spectacular warfighting scenes that inventively combine the styles of the two rag-tag forces united against Tiberius’s armies. Old Man Chan can still handle himself in a hand-to-hand scene, when he is not lecturing his audience and Lin Peng similarly makes the most of her limited screen time as the Hun warrior princess Lengyue. Costume designer Thomas Chong also takes full advantage of the opportunity to create costumes in the traditional styles of at least a dozen distinctive nationalities.

Regardless of Chan’s ideological baggage, director-co-screen writer Lee takes viewers on a rough narrative ride. There are more conspicuous gaps in Dragon Blade than Hillary Clinton’s email archives. Reportedly, twenty-some minutes were cut from the Chinese version for the American theatrical print, including a modern day framing device featuring Karena Lam. That was probably one of the easiest parts to lose, but as it is currently cut, characters’ allegiances will change drastically and considerable geographic distances will be traveled all quite suddenly without anyone taking any notice. That is just life on the Silk Road.

A chaotic mixed bag, Dragon Blade lacks the mature and engaging heft of Chan’s work in the unfairly dismissed Police Story: Lockdown and The Shinjuku Incident. For diehard fans, it opens this Friday (9/4) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lords of London: The Italian Interlude

For London loan shark Tony Lord, Italy is light years away from the world he knows. He is in Abruzzo, not Naples. How he got there is a mystery to him. Frankly, he sort of has an inkling but he would prefer to ignore the dramatic implications in Antonio Simoncini’s Lords of London (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Lionsgate.

Essentially, Lord inherited his father’s trade, even though the old troglodyte never took much interest in him. We will witness his dysfunctional formative years through Lords, fils’ many flashbacks. He will have some time for meditation whether he wants it or not. After getting shot by one of the many people he did wrong, Lord wakes up soaked in blood, but otherwise none the worse for wear in dilapidated villa outside a ridiculously picturesque Abruzzo village apparently stuck in the 1950s.

Much to his consternation, the entire village ignores him, except for the twinkly-eyed Francesco. The café owner is concerned the English punk his daughter has been seeing is no good, so he asks Lord to keep an eye on him. Unfortunately, the displaced gangster more than confirms Francesco’s suspicions.

By now you probably have a good guess just who everyone really is and what their relationships to each other are. That means you are exponentially quicker on the up-take than Lord. Yet, for some reason Simoncini insists on nursing his transparent secrets until an anti-climactic third act reveal. Arguably, the film might have been more effective if it had laid all those cards on the table rather than pretending to fool us.

Frankly, as director and screenwriter, Simoncini somewhat bungles the light fantastical elements, inadvertently creating a scenario where Ray Winstone’s Lord Sr. presumably ages about three or four decades in the span of five or six years. Maybe that would be possible during Callaghan’s Winter of Discontent, but not the swinging Macmillan years when he appears to be prowling about.

On the other hand, the ancient village and surrounding countryside look amazing thanks to cinematographer James Friend, who gives it all a classy chiaroscuro-like glow worthy of the Old Masters. Similarly, Giovanni Capalbo (whose wildly diverse credits include both Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Abel Ferrara’s Napoli, Napoli, Napoli) is quite the old Zen charmer as Francesco. He also manages to maintain some sense of mystery regarding what his character is up to. Glen Murphy is also pretty solid as the rather dense Lord, the sort of hardnosed role one could easily imagine Craig Fairbrass assuming. However, Ray Winstone is a surprisingly let-down as the elder Lord. All snarl and no swagger, he just doesn’t seem to be having fun with it.

Simoncini is going for the vibe of warmer, fuzzier Richard Matheson, like Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come. He doesn’t consistently pull it off, but earns credit for trying. At least it always looks great. Recommended for anyone considering an Italian vacation, Lords of London releases today (9/1) on DVD and digital from Lionsgate.

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Lawless Kingdom: The Four Return

Considering the Divine Constabulary gets to investigate all the cool supernatural crimes, while Department Six is stuck with the boring human cases, inter-agency rivalry is probably inevitable. However, it becomes quite pitched when the leader of the former is accused of murdering the commander of the latter. Everyone should probably know better, but they have to admit the evidence looks pretty bad. Some kind of scheme is afoot involving crimes from the past in Gordon Chan & Janet Chun’s Lawless Kingdom (trailer here), their sequel to The Four, which releases today on DVD from Lionsgate.

Based on the 1970s wuxia novels, The Four are like Song Dynasty Avengers, whose powers are derived from chi. When it comes to that chi, their leader Zhuge Zhengwo and the wheelchair-bound Emotionless have levels that give them Professor X-worthy mental and telekinetic powers. Iron Hands is the muscle, Life Snatcher is their Flash, and it is just a bad idea to anger the lycanthropic Cold Blood. Yet, for some reason Zhuge does exactly that when he appears to fire a steampunkish firearm at the werewolf.

When Cold Blood recovers, he demands answers from his boss, who promises them in two days. Unfortunately, he is arrested for the murder of Department Six’s Sheriff King before the allotted deadline is up. To make matters even more awkward, another soon-to-be dead man claims to be one of the Gang of Twelve, who murdered Emotionless’s family and irreparably damaged her legs. Supposedly, Zhuge dispatched them all to their eternal judgment at the time, so what gives?

Watching Lawless Kingdom (a.k.a. The Four II), it seems strange that the disability community has not vocally embraced this series. Emotionless might have been the victim of a crime, but she is no passive object of sympathy. In fact, it is arguably empowering and certainly cool to watch her laying down martial arts beatdowns with the aid of Iron Hands’ prosthetics. She is particularly assertive in Kingdom, contributing some series highlights and compensating for its conspicuous status as a middle bridge film, between the relatively self-contained first installment and the conclusion that has already opened in China.

Regardless, if you like The Four (and we did), Kingdom gives you more, while exploring the characters in greater depth. Anthony Wong and Crystal Liu Lifei have some particular fine moments as Zhuge and Emotionless, whose surrogate father-daughter relationship will be strained by deceit as well as the truth.

Although Sheng Taishen’s Sheriff King is presumably dead for good, he is wonderfully sly and slippery in his limited screen time. Deng Chao and Collin Chou also solidly perform Iron Hands and Cold Blood’s action roles, but Ronald Cheng’s Life Snatcher is inexplicably stuck on the sidelines for much of the film. While the major villains stay behind the Wizard’s curtain, former newscaster Liu Yan makes a memorable femme fatale as Ru Yan, a rather insidious colleague of Ji Yaohua, Emotionless’s rival at Department Six.

Considering how much spectacle Chan and Chun put up on screen, it is rather impressive how directly they keep it all connected to the human element. They create some terrifically fantastical set pieces, including a Mordoresque prison specifically designed for those blessed with superhuman chi. For wuxia and superhero fans, it is all good stuff. Recommended especially for those intrigued by the Emotionless character, Lawless Kingdom releases today (9/1) on DVD from Lionsgate.

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Brave Men’s Blood: Icelandic Cops Under Fire

On the fateful day of December 2, 2013, the Icelandic Police finally shot and killed someone dead for the first time in their two hundred twenty-five-plus year history. Instead of congratulations, they ordered a round of counseling all around. Typically, the rank-and-file do not carry firearms, relying instead on plenty of optimism. That arrangement suits the new Serbian kingpin in town just fine. However, an Internal Affairs cop with a chip on his shoulder will try launch a secret operation against the gangster and the high level officer protecting him in Olaf de Fleur’s Brave Men’s Blood (trailer here), which launches today on VOD from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Hannes Ámason’s old man was a legend on the force, but their relationship was always rather frosty. It becomes even more so when he washes out of the elite training program for the SWAT-like Armed Police division. Frankly, it is easy to read plenty of resentment into his decision to subsequently take an Internal Affairs posting. However, a major case with implications beyond the force drops in his lap when old school gangster Gunnar Gunnarson requests a jailhouse meeting. Having been pushed out by Sergej, the Serbian upstart, Gunnarson is slightly out of sorts. As a last resort, he is willing to funnel information to Ámason that will help him take down his rival and his chief protector, Narcotics Squad chief Margeir, one of his dad’s old cronies.

Playing it close to the vest, Ámason only recruits two allies: Ívar, the Armed Police squad leader who formerly thought so little of him and Andreas, Margeir’s former protégé, who has been assigned to desk duties following a violent assault. Yet, the bad guys still catch wind of his operation, which puts his family directly in harm’s way.

Somehow de Fleur makes Twenty-First Century Reykjavik look like Chicago in the 1920s. For such a violence-averse force, he manages to get the Armed coppers into a heck of a lot of fire-fights (they’re going to need some serious counseling after all this). He gives the super-slick Miami Vice tradition a cool Nordic makeover, but he is a little too enamored with the flashback as a narrative device. There are an awful lot of them in Blood, but some are much more effective than others.

Darri Ingolfsson slow burns perfectly well as the annoyingly moralistic Ámason, but as is often the case in genre cinema, the colorful supporting cast really helps make the film. Ingvar E. Sigurdsson is clearly having a blast as the devious Gunnarson, while Sigurður Sigurjónsson oozes rodent-like oiliness. J.J. Field also does his best Jude Law impression in his brief appearances as Sergej’s British money man, chewing on as much scenery as time will allow.

Technically, Blood is a sequel to de Fleur’s City State, but no previous familiarity is required to enjoy the follow-up. It doesn’t even feel like it is calling back to a previous film, but presumably it is even richer if you have that background in your mental DVR. Frankly, nobody does these sorts of films better than Hong Kong auteurs like Johnnie To and Andrew Lau, but de Fleur makes a real go of it. Recommended for fans of stylishly cynical crooked cops-and-gangster movies, Brave Men’s Blood launches today (9/1) on VOD, from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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Para Elisa: Spoiled Deadly

It is a bad idea to constantly spoil tantrum prone children. Nevertheless, whenever Elisa breaks a doll, her mother simply replaces it, with another living being. Ana will be the next victim lured into their macabre doll’s house, but at least her stoner-dealer boyfriend is not taking her disappearance for granted in Juanra Fernández’s Para Elisa (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD from Dark Sky Films.

Poor entitled Ana needs 1,000 Euros for her graduation trip, so she takes the drastic step of looking for a job. Diamantina is supposedly looking for a nanny and her tony flat is right on the town square. (It turns out the walls sure are thick though.) Kids are fine with Ana, but she balks when she learns Elisa is a developmentally challenged woman roughly her own age. Too late, Diamantina has already slipped her a mickey.

When she comes to, her vocal chords and muscles are still paralyzed by whatever eucalyptus cocktail the old woman brewed up. Much to her horror, Ana is expected to become Elisa’s latest living doll. Diamantina grimly cautions Ana to cooperate, lest she provoke Ana’s violent temper.

Granted, some might find the portrayal of Elisa problematically exploitative, but you do not review as many horror films as we have by being overly sensitive. Elisa is a handful—deal with it. Arguably, it is sort of a necessary pre-condition for a massively creepy premise. In fact, Ana’s state of pawed immobility taps into some deeply held anxieties, ranging from the sleep paralysis documented in Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare to the cast-bound Jimmy Stewart getting defenestrated in Rear Window.

Para Elisa does indeed incorporate Für Elise into its soundtrack, so give it credit for musical literacy. However, the final climax is a bit perfunctory, which is especially problematic considering it really is a shorty, barely hitting the seventy-five minute marker.

Nevertheless, Fernández’s execution is unflaggingly stylish. For some reason, Spanish horror films all seem to share a similarly eerie but distinctive look and vibe. It is hard to pin down, but you will recognize it every time. Maybe they are all burning ceremonial effigies of Franco off-screen. Regardless, Para Elisa maintains an unceasing atmosphere of dread, while the architecture and surrounding countryside of Cuenca in Castilla-La Mancha looks breathtaking. Recommended for fans of Spanish horror, Para Elisa is now available on DVD and VOD from Dark Sky Films.

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Blood Moon: the Latest British Werewolf Western

During the early days of Hollywood, Poverty Row studios like Republic, Monogram, and PRC relied on western oaters to pay the bills. These days, horror films are the low budget staple genre, so you could consider this a case of something old and something new. The fact that yonder werewolf western is also a British production makes it all the more eccentric, but we appreciate that. The bodies will pile up when a skinwalker hunts its prey in Jeremy Wooding’s Blood Moon (trailer here), which launches today on DVD and VOD from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Mud Flats was a stagecoach stopover already well on its way to being a ghost town, but the skinwalker hastened the process. Unfortunately, when the next stage pulls in for chow, they are taken hostage by the twitchy outlaw Norton Brothers (half-brothers technically). Amongst the passengers are Jake Norman, the new Marshal for the next town over, Sarah, his new wife with a checkered past, and Calhoun, the mysterious bad ass. There was also a priest, but the Nortons killed him almost immediately.

Even the profoundly unintuitive Nortons soon accept the idea something big and bad is prowling around outside, but they are still determined to have their fun inside. Meanwhile, the sheriff and Black Deer, his hard-drinking Native American frienemy and potential hook-up, follow the trail of the Nortons and the beast.

Like so many westerns before it, Blood Moon looks a little cheap, but it was filmed in Kent, so cut it some slack (after all, it is the first UK western since Carry On Cowboy). While the premise sounds like a dubious mash-up concept, it kind of works thanks to the strength of the characters. Frankly, Shaun Dooley is pretty darned awesome as the steely, super-together Calhoun. Yet, Anna Skellern is even more awesome as Marie, the franchise-minded, derringer-packing Miss Kitty. Wearing the black hat, American ringer Corey Johnson is charismatically loathsome and contemptuous as the more stable Norton. Eleanor Matsuura’s Black Deer also nicely provides the film’s required mysticism and defiance of authority.

Blood Moon is definitely a low budget wonder, but it deserves props for its energy and attitude. According to the laws of nature it should be a complete train wreck, but if you enjoy B-movies, this is the sort that will remind you why you developed such idiosyncratic tastes in the first place. Regardless, if you want to see a British werewolf western, Blood Moon is the only game in town, when it hits VOD platforms today (9/1), via Uncork’d Entertainment.

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Wolf Warrior: Wu Jing vs. Scott Adkins

Get ready for a steady diet of metaphors telling us lone wolves are most successful traveling in packs, or some such thing. They would be referring to Leng Feng. He is a loose cannon maverick type, but whenever he goes off the reservation, he is doing it for the team. Of course, he makes plenty of enemies that way, including a vengeful drug lord who can afford the best mercenaries money can buy. Their values compare poorly with those of the idealistic Feng, but they still manage to get the drop on his elite commando unit in Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior (trailer here), which releases today on DVD, BluRay, and digital platforms from Well Go USA.

Just when a Southeast Asian drug raid seems hopelessly lost, Feng takes a spectacular shot (three of them really) to save the day. In the process, he kills the impetuous brother of shadowy crime boss and aspiring global megalomaniac, Min Peng. He should be happy to be rid of such a pathetic tool, but Min Peng rather holds a grunge. Having eluded Chinese forces, the old criminal mastermind hires a team of western mercs, led by the highly skilled Tom Cat, to take out Leng. He also has some conventional world domination business for them to tend, but that is really just a tangent to a tangent.

Arguably, the plan to attack while Leng’s squad is engaged in war-games is sort of clever, since it necessarily means the Wolves will be strictly packing blanks. Unfortunately, that is about the only part of the film that works. Even though the Mainland born Wu rose to prominence in HK film like City Under Siege, Wolf Warrior was clearly conceived as feature length tribute to the PLA. To a man, the Wolves are invariably pure of heart, but also stiflingly dull. Its like the un-self-aware Chinese version of “America, Blank Yeah,” the anthem of Team America World Police, except irony is strictly forbidden.

As a director, Wu gives us a herky-jerky ride, but his martial arts skills remain undiminished. The film is kind of watchable when it shuts up and lets everyone get down to business. When he finally gets to his long anticipated face-off with Scott Adkins’ Tom Cat (a mercenary named after a celebrity couple), it is pretty satisfying. Yet, it is rather strange how much of the film’s action revolves around fire-fights and marksmanship, considering two of the world’s top big screen martial artists are present and accounted for.

At least they have stuff to do. For most of the film, Adkins’ Expendables 2 co-star Yu Nan is stuck wearing an earpiece and biting her lip as she gives tactical advice from the command center. On the other hand, Ni Dahong’s stone cold coolness as the villainous Min Peng is one of the film’s saving graces, even though his transformation from Pablo Escobar to Dr. Evil makes no sense. It also seems slightly odd that he would want to develop a super-virus that only kills Chinese people.

There are rumors floating about online that PLA personnel were required to see Wolf Warriors in theaters, which would explain its success. If so, Wu delivered everything his PLA patrons could have hoped for, often reducing the film to an old school Soviet May Day parade of shiny new military hardware and platitudinous dialogue. Disappointing for anyone who is not a member of the Young Pioneers, Wolf Warriors is strictly for Wu and Adkins completists when it releases today (9/1), from Well Go USA.

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Japan Society Monthly Classic: Carmen Comes Home

It will be a clash of small town and big city values—and boy, will the small town enjoy it. The prodigal daughter once known as Kin Aoyama apparently found fame and fortune dancing in Tokyo under the name Lily Carmen. She is an artiste, but her art involves G-strings. That does not mean she and her comrade Maya Akemi can’t be scrupulously serious about their dance. They are indomitably upbeat, but their visit might be more than her staid father can handle in Keisuke Kinoshita’s big screen musical Carmen Comes Home (trailers here), the very first Japanese color feature, which screens this Friday at the Japan Society, as part of their newly re-launched Monthly Classics series.

Even if Carmen/Aoyama has not amassed a fortune per se, she has made enough of a go of it to periodically send money and gifts home to her family. Her loyal sister Yuki is in awe of her, but old man Shoichi Aoyama instinctively distrusts the modern western influences she has no doubt absorbed. However, thanks to the intercession of the school principal, an ardent advocate for Japanese culture, he reluctantly consents to her visit. Nobody could miss Lily Carmen when she arrives. She is the one wearing the bright red dress. Clearly, Kinoshita was going to get his color film’s worth from the wardrobe and spectacular mountain scenery.

Naturally, Carmen and Akemi attract all kinds of attention in town, including the leering local mogul. Yet, the two women are more drawn to more plebeian townsmen, like the young school teacher Akemi impulsively falls for. Similarly, Carmen admits she still carries a torch for the now married Haruo Taguchi, who was blinded during the war. As the composer of dirge like odes to his small town, Taguchi is more in line with the Principal’s idea of a real Japanese artist. Unfortunately, Carmen and Akemi’s va-va-voom will inadvertently disrupt Haruo’s grand premiere performance, causing no end of angst.

Hideko Takamine was one the greatest screen actresses in the history of cinema, but she is best known for achingly tragic films like Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and Yearning, as well as Kobayshi’s The Human Condition, so it is nice to see her get the chance to kick up her heels a little. She is utterly charming as the bizarrely naïve Lily Carmen. Yet, underneath the goofy joy, she gives the subtlest hints of sadness. Nobody else could have pulled that off.

In a way, Carmen Comes Home is like a cross between Oklahoma and Gypsy, with all their slow or maudlin parts discarded. Still, it is clear Carmen and Akemi can never really go home again. The men will only see them as sex objects and the women will fear them as rivals. Despite their pluck and verve, it is ultimately quite a bittersweet film, but that is what makes it so distinctive, along with Takamine’s endearing performance. Recommended for fans of Takamine and movie musicals, the freshly restored Carmen Comes Home screens this Friday (9/4) and look for Go Takamine’s Paradise View in early October (10/2), as part of the Japan Society’s Monthly Classics series.

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Rififi: the Grand-Père of Heist Movies Returns

Many think writer Auguste Le Breton joined the French Resistance out of opposition to Vichy’s gambling prohibition. He would survive to become a French Elmore Leonard, known for his gritty action and affinity for slang. As it happened, his source novel was too coarse for genteel American blacklisted director Jules Dassin, who joined the Communist Party in the mid-1930s, right around the time of the Great Purge and the Moscow Show Trials. In order to lose the parts that offended his sensibilities, Dassin expanded the heist scene into half an hour’s worth of wordless action. At one time banned by several countries for its purported criminal instructional value, Dassin’s French noir classic Rififi (trailer here) returns to New York for a special one-week engagement starting this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Tony “le Stéphanois” (from Saint-Étienne) is decidedly the worse for wear after his recent prison stint. He willingly took the rap for Jo “le Suédois (the Swede), whose son Tonio (Tony’s godson and namesake) he dotes on, but his health and finances are in sad shape. To make matters worse, his ex-lover Mado took up with his nemesis, gangster-night club owner Pierre Grutter. After explaining his disappointment to her, Tony will commence planning his next and potentially last big score.

Jo and their mutual crony Mario Ferrati originally conceived of the jewelry store job as a simple smash-and-grab, but Tony wants the prime cuts in the safe. Recruiting Italian safecracker César “le Milanais,” they methodically case the joint and craft their elaborate timetable. The actual half-hour of heist operations is indeed a masterwork of noir filmmaking. However, it somewhat unbalances the film. While there is plenty of good hardboiled stuff in the third act, as the Grutter gang schemes to appropriate the hot ice for themselves, but it necessarily lacks the same hushed intensity of the celebrated centerpiece.

Regardless, Rififi (which very roughly translates as “trouble”) has long been recognized as a noir classic for good reason. Like Le Breton’s books, it has a street smart persona and a street level perspective. It captures the workaday milieu of postwar Paris, especially during the odd hours of the day and night when respectable folks were off the streets. Jean Servais also creates the template for the older, world-weary noir mentor, dealing with the business end of his bad karma. He slow burns like a crock pot with dangerously faulty wiring. Just looking at his lined face makes you want to pop an Advil.

Carl Möhner (probably next most often remembered for She Devils of the SS, which is pretty much what it sounds like), is rather under-heralded for his steady, proletarian work as Jo. However, Dassin himself (billed as Perlo Vita) indulges in a bit of broad ethnic stereotyping, for supposed comic effect, as César.

On heist movie listicals with any sense of history, Rififi inevitably ranks somewhere around number one. It is a film any noir fan has to see to consider themselves literate in the genre. Very highly recommended, Rififi opens this Wednesday (9/2) at Film Forum.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Creep: a Blumhouse/Duplass Joint

Patrick Brice does not want you to spend the night at any stranger’s place. Notable only for being exceptionally forgettable, his second film, The Overnight, chronicles the mounting awkwardness a yuppie dinner party turned sleep-over, at least as far as anyone can recall. For some reason, it has played just about every major festival, even though the only memorable thing about it are the jokes about the guy who isn’t Jason Schwartzman having tiny junk. However, you will definitely remember Mark Duplass is the title character of Brice’s first feature, Creep (trailer here), a Blumhouse BH Tilt production, which opens its belated premiere theatrical engagement this Wednesday at Videology in Brooklyn.

Like Safety Not Guaranteed, this Duplass film also starts with a classified ad. It seems a well-to-do dude requests the services of a videographer to film him over the course of a day. It pays $1,000, but “discretion is appreciated.” You don’t say. When Aaron arrives for the gig, Josef tells him he is dying from a brain tumor, but wants document how he really was for his unborn son. His inspiration is the Michael Keaton movie My Life. That alone should raise Aaron’s suspicions.

In fact, it does not take long for the video freelancer to conclude there is something very off about his client. Josef’s family vacation home is also unsettlingly remote. Nevertheless, one grand is one grand, so he sticks with it. At first, Josef just seems annoyingly eccentric, but he eventually tells Aaron some pretty whacked out stuff. Clearly, Josef is playing some sort of game with him. Unfortunately, viewers will have a better idea than Aaron where it is all headed, because they know they came to a horror movie.

Yes, this is a found footage film, but given the set-up, it makes sense to have all the bedlam documented on Aaron’s camera. Frankly, there is nothing radically original here, but it is seamlessly cut together by editor Christopher Donlon (fortunately, narrative developments allow for and even require a bit of snipping together). As a result, it is a tight film dominated by Duplass’s performance. He is massively creepy, so to speak, always just peaking over the precipice of camp, without ever plunging over the top.

Brice and producer-horror mogul Jason Blum owe a major debt of thanks to the owner of that mountain home. Its staircase is likely to become iconic among genre fans. Of course, Blumhouse does plenty of this sort of thing. They did not invent the found footage sub-genre, but one could argue they took it to the next level, nearly cornering the low budget studio market in the process. This is one of the better examples, powered by Duplass’s unabashed scenery chewing. Recommended for fans of Duplass and Blumhouse, Creep opens this Wednesday (9/2) at Videology (but it is also already available on VOD and even streams on Netflix).

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

MWFF ’15: Ernie Biscuit (short)

Cinema has not been kind to taxidermists. Norman Bates is the classic example amongst a small sampling. Ernée Bisquit is nothing like him, except for his extreme shyness and awkwardness around women. Spurred by an unlikely catalyst, the sad sack Bisquit takes drastic steps to rejuvenate his drab existence in Adam Elliot’s Claymation short, Ernie Biscuit, which screens during the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.

Bisquit was always a bit of an outsider, but it was a cruel childhood prank that rendered him deaf. He inherited his family’s Parisian taxidermy shop, but he never had much passion for it. The last time he felt a deep personal connection was with a young Jewish girl, whose family lived in the flat next to Bisquits’ in early 1940s. Tragically, they were never seen again after the infamous round-up, but Bisquit still cares for her pet duck. Realizing taxidermy is out of fashion in 1966, Bisquit impulsively sells his shop intending to relocate to Venice, where he and his first and only love dreamed of visiting.

However, Bisquit and his duck get on the wrong plane, ending up in Australia instead. Complications and misadventures necessarily ensue, including the Australianization of his name. Yet, Bisquit also manages to meet a flesh-and-blood woman. She has plenty of issues too, but that might just make it perfect, provided he survives the rest of the chaos engulfing him.

If Biscuit qualifies for Academy Award consideration, it should be the odds on favorite. Elliot already has one Oscar for his short Harvey Krumpet as well as considerable name recognition amongst the animation community for his feature film Mary and Max. His style is instantly recognizable, particularly his sensitively grotesque characters. Clearly, Elliot has a keen empathy for underdogs like Bisquit, but there is still a sense of playfulness throughout Biscuit. Somehow, the film manages to be consistently funny and genuinely touching, without ever getting shticky or saccharine, which is a neat trick really.

The distinctive music heard over the closing credits is Simon Park’s orchestration of the Van Der Valk theme, “Eye Level.” Evidently, music written for Dutch canals works just as well for those preoccupied with Venice. Regardless, it is another eccentric element that turns out perfectly. Occasionally somewhat macabre, but ultimately quite beautiful, Ernie Biscuit is very highly recommended when it screens this Tuesday (9/1) and the following Monday (9/7), as part of this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.

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Friday, August 28, 2015

MWFF ’15: North by Northeast

Cai Bing is sort of like a Chinese Miss Marple, but in addition her fellow villagers’ business, she also knows a heck of a lot about breeding hogs. It was not always so. The former university professor was sent down to the provincial breeding station during the height of the Cultural Revolution, but she adapted to her new environment remarkably well. She has just been rehabilitated, but before she returns to her old life she will help the local bumbling police captain hunt down a mysterious sex offender in Zhang Bingjian’s North by Northeast (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.

By applying Chinese medicine to pig husbandry, Cai produced some big hogs. She also found more personal contentment than she expected, even “adopting” Xiao Cui as her granddaughter. Frankly, she has made the best of the Cultural Revolution, all things considered, but she still does not suffer fools gladly. According to her withering judgement, Li Zhanshan, the village constable, is one such idiot.

Li and his tiny militia have been chasing the serial rapist known as “Liumang,” a loaded colloquial term meaning thug, pervert, or something in between. Unfortunately, the case gets personal for Cai when Xiao is raped by Liumang. Using Chinese medicine and deductive reasoning, Cai will try to guide “Footprints” Li’s investigation in more promising directions. Yet despite her wisdom, the mystery will outlast the waning Cultural Revolution.

While Northeast boldly invokes Hitchcock right there in its title, it is a bizarre tonal mishmash. It is probably safe to say you will never find a sunnier, more upbeat film about sex fiends and the Cultural Revolution. Seriously, do not try this at home, but somehow Zhang pulls it off. Of course, it all starts with Li Bin’s wildly charismatic and wonderfully acerbic performance as Cai. Acidic on the outside, but sweet and sentimental deep down, like Marianas Trench deep, she raises the cozy sleuth bar well above anything Margaret Rutherford or Angela Lansbury ever did. If you were ever a victim of a crime, you would want her giving the cops what-for on your behalf.

It is a tall order hanging with Li, but Ban Zan grows into the job, playing “Footprints” Li with far less shtick than his character’s pear shape and general level of incompetence would suggest. In fact, he gets as serious as the plague during the masterfully dark third act. He is indeed a major reason why this film will surprise you.

Where Xin Yukun’s A Coffin in the Mountain feels like a twisty top tier Coen Brothers’ movie as exemplified by a Fargo, Northeast is more closely akin to their bold but uneven mid-level films, like Hudsucker or O Brother. Still, that means there is more to recommend it than ninety-five percent of films can lay claim to. Li Bin is unquestionably the X-factor. Her turn as Cai is a thing of beauty and a force of nature. Recommended for her vinegary power and Zhang’s considerable style, North by Northeast screens this coming Tuesday (9/1) and Friday (9/4), as part of this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Storm Makers, On POV, Presented by Rithy Panh

Wars have been fought to end slavery, but the cruel trade in humanity still flourishes internationally. Unfortunately, it is hard to take macro military action when neighbors and family members are the ones selling future generations into slavery. Guillaume Suon and co-writer-assistant director Phally Ngoeum examine human trafficking in Cambodia from three uncomfortably intimate perspectives in The Storm Makers (promo here), produced and “presented” by Academy Award nominee Rithy Panh, which premieres this coming Monday on PBS as part of the current season of POV.

The titular Storm Makers are the human traffickers who barnstorm through provincial villages, luring the young and unemployed into bondage with false promises. Their victims are predominantly but not exclusively women, much like Aya. It was her own mother, perhaps half-knowingly, who sold her into slavery. However, like a flesh-and-blood ghost, Aya returned with stories of harrowing sexual abuse and a toddler, who was the product of repeated rapes. It has not been a happy homecoming for either woman.

In some ways, Aya’s mother is not so different from Ming Dy, who works as a “tout” recruiting girls from neighboring villages. She also sold her own daughter, which has irrevocably poisoned her relationship with her outraged Buddhist husband. Suon and Ngoeum follow the food chain up to Pou Houy, an unrepentant Storm Maker and massively hypocritical Evangelical Christian. His “employment agency” is a transparent front for trafficking, yet he has a steady stream of walk-in victim-clients. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Suon’s film is just how many people knowingly take a very bad gamble, simply because they see no other options.

Storm Makers is a quietly observational talking-head-free-zone, but it captures enough evil in action to make anyone’s blood run cold—provided they are of good conscience. Suon make it agonizingly clear just how corrosive a problem trafficking is in the long term, even for a relatively “lucky” survivor like Aya. In fact, the damage wrought to her psyche will knock you back on your heels.

Frankly, it is a little baffling how a film produced and blessed by Panh (who helmed the Oscar nominated The Missing Picture) never secured a high profile festival screening in New York, even though it snagged awards at Full Frame and Busan. Regardless, hats off to POV for programming it. Yet, screenings and broadcasts of Storm Makers are even more desperately needed in Cambodia, as well as Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan, where so many trafficked Cambodians end up.

This might sound wildly eccentric, but perhaps the Cambodian government’s time would be better spent cracking down on traffickers like Pou Houy than censoring and campaigning against soon-to-be-forgotten Hollywood movies like No Escape. Of course, there is no way the illicit trafficking trade could thrive for so long, without plenty of high level looking the other way. While Storm Makers can be unsettling to watch, it holds viewers riveted in a vice-like grip. Guaranteed to inspire outrage and diminish your appraisal of human nature (so therefore highly recommended), The Storm Makers debuts on POV this coming Monday (8/31).

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

When Animals Dream: A Danish Werewolf Coming of Age Story

Female shape-shifters in the movies tend to be highly sexualized, like Nastassia Kinski in the Cat People remake or Sybil Danning in Howling II. In contrast, Marie is pretty repressed, but she is a product of her coastal Danish environment. You could easily imagine John Calvin preaching in their wooden church. However, she will undergo some dramatic changes in Jonas Alexander Arnby’s When Animals Dream (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As the film opens, Marie is rather concerned about a persistent rash and strange tufts of hair growing in places where they shouldn’t be. Her elevated stress level will not help. She has just started work at a fish cannery, which is even less glamorous than it sounds. She makes fast-friends with a couple of the cool kids, including Daniel, who might even be potential boyfriend material. Unfortunately, she also quickly finds herself on the wrong end of the sexual harassing “pranks” of the sociopathic Esben and his cronies.

Frankly, the entire village is rather standoffish towards Marie. They fear she will turn out to be her mother’s daughter. For some time, her father has kept her formerly wild and beautiful mother zoned out on tranquilizers and anti-psychotic medication. Of course, when her werewolf nature starts to assert itself, the village doctor inevitably prescribes the same treatment for her, with her father’s acquiescence.

WAD is a wildly moody, thoroughly hypnotic, revisionist feminist take on lycanthropy. There will be plenty of painful deaths down the stretch, but it is more a riff on the mad-woman-in-the-attic trope than an exercise in gore. Nevertheless, when the film gets down to snarling business, it is unabashedly cathartic.

Lycanthropy as feminist survival strategy is all very good, but it is Sonia Suhl who really sells it as Marie. Beautiful, but in a freakishly ethereal way, Suhl’s very presence is unquantifiabaly disconcerting. Yet, she still gives an impressively real performance in her feature debut, viscerally expressing all of Marie’s social awkwardness and pent-up resentment. It is her movie, but the other Mikkelsen (Mads’ brother Lars) adds further layers of anguished ambiguity as Marie’s father, Thor, who will slowly strangle his loved ones to ostensibly save them from the potential mob with pitchforks that constitute their village.

Hollywood could conceivably remake WAD, but it has a distinctly dark, Scandinavian soul. There is a Nordic chill in its bones. Northern Jutland native Suhl also could not possibly be anymore Danish. As horror films go, WAD is definitely a slow build, but it is also a steady build that pays off handsomely. Recommended for adventurous werewolf fans, When Animals Dream opens this Friday (8/28) in New York, at the Village East.

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No Escape: the Reign of Terror Commences

It looks a lot like Thailand, but the use of Khmer lettering somewhat upset Cambodia. The anarchy and mass killings engulfing the fictional Southeast Asian city also rather parallel the brutal fall of Phnom Penh, which could be the real reason for the Cambodian government’s censorship decision. On the other hand, the head of state’s official garb bears a vague resemblance to that of the King of Thailand. Unfortunately, we will not have time to learn if he is also a jazz lover and amateur musician, like Bhumibol Adulyadej. The dear leader is about to become the dearly departed, unleashing murderous bedlam in John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape (trailer here), which opens today in wide release.

After his tech start-up crashed and burned, Jack Dwyer accepted a middle-manager position with Talbott, an international engineering firm. He is in the process of relocating his family to a country that is one hundred percent not Cambodia but happens to border Vietnam, where he will help construct a water plant. For this he should die, according to the ninety-nine percenters that are about to launch an insurrection. It is nothing personal, just ideology.

As the terrorists work their way through the Dwyer’s hotel, summarily executing guests room-by-room, Dwyer scrambles to lead with wife Annie and two daughters to safety. He will get some heads-up assistance from Hammond, a suspiciously cool-under fire Brit. However, things start to get truly desperate when the leftist guerillas call in the helicopter gunships to strafe their presumed safe haven on the roof.

No Escape would be a nifty thriller (sort of like Bayona’s The Impossible, if the tsunami came packing an AK-47), had it not felt compelled to periodically bring the action to a screeching stop in order to blame everything on western imperialism, or is it globalism in this case? In any event, we are responsible, please chastise us. That would be Pierce Brosnan’s job as Hammond, who assures Dwyer the men who just murdered scores of innocent bellhops and office workers are only trying to protect their families, like you Jack. Of course, such moral equivalency is simply farcical.

Believe it or not, Owen Wilson shows some real action cred as the super-motivated everyman. Brosnan also takes visible delight in Hammond’s dissipated tendencies, providing some much needed shtick-free comic relief. Sahajak Boonthanakit also compliments him rather nicely as “Kenny Rogers,” Hammond’s country music loving local crony. However, the film suffers from the lack of a focal villain—a Robespierre to incite the mob.

Despite the shortcomings of the script co-written with his brother Drew, Dowdle certainly has a knack for filming riot scenes. In fact, the first act is quite impressively staged managed, as we see the Dwyers cut off from contact with the outside world, reacting to dangerously incomplete information. At times, No Escape is a very scary film, but it is frequently undermined by its inclination to lecture. As a result, it falls short of the visceral intensity and unrepentant black humor of the Eli Roth-produced Aftershock. No Escape very nearly could have been great, but instead it is marked by stop-and-start inconsistencies. Still, Brosnan fans will be happy to hear No Escape represents a return to form for the Bond alumnus after a half dozen or so B-level movies, when it opens nationwide today (8/26), including at the Regal Union Square in New York, but not in undemocratic Cambodia.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

MWFF ’15: Kimi Kabuki (short)

Fandom can be creepy. Just ask Madeline. She was rather surprised to learn her husband is quite the admirer of a well-known porn performer. In fact, he will be attending an adult entertainment convention to meet her. Madeline will follow him there. Her intentions are unclear, but there is a good chance a scene will ensue in Yoko Okumura’s short film Kimi Kabuki (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.

Yes, Madeline found the stash on Robert’s computer and has been absolutely beside herself ever since. When she makes her way onto the exhibit floor, the sheer volume of the assembled naughtiness nearly overwhelms her. However, as she mills about looking for her about-to-be-busted husband, she kind of-sort of starts to enjoy herself. Unfortunately, there will still be the anticipated scene, but at least she gets to meet his favorite porn actress, Kimi Kabuki, who turns out to be way cooler than she expects.

It is hard to judge whether Okumura’s film is pro or con when it comes to pornography, but it is safe to say it advocates more open communication. In fact, the climatic dialogue shared by Madeline and her unattainable rival stands out so distinctively, because it cuts both ways. Arguably, the film is forgiving of human weakness and foibles, but it is not a push-over.

Given the context of the film, it might sound a little awkward to say we’re big fans of Jo Mei, so let’s argue she deserves wider recognition for her work in J.P. Chan’s excellent short films (such as Digital Antiquities and Beijing Haze) as well as his feature, A Picture of You. In fact, she might be one of the best and most prolific screen thesps appearing in serious short form dramas on a regular basis. You could program a super retrospective of her short film appearances, most definitely including Kabuki.

Once again, Mei delivers a tough, smart performance that contrasts nicely with Teresa Hegji’s naïve Madeline. While it is a more emotional role, Hegji keeps it grounded, avoiding cheap histrionics or any sort of phoniness.

Like many AFI supported films, Kabuki was produced by a lot of talent on both sides of the camera (see the recent Fandor spotlight for more examples). One can only imagine the coordination required to recreate the look and vibe of the adult trade show. (All you Roberts out there should take note, industry professional Alexa Aimes plays herself.) It is a perceptively written film, brought to life by an equally sensitive cast. Recommended for mature audiences (in the best sense of the term), Kimi Kabuki screens this Saturday (8/29) as part of the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.

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Memories of the Sword: Love, Vengeance, Tragedy. It’s All Good in the Goryeo Kingdom

Poong-chun, Deok-ki, and their lady comrade-in-arms Seol-rung were once dreaded warriors leading a rebellion against Goryeo Era tyranny. Unfortunately, betrayal cut short their uprising, along with the principled Poong-chun’s life. However, it was not jealousy that tore the trio asunder. It was more of a case of miscommunication. Of course, the tragedy compounds mightily when Poong-chun’s daughter seeks to avenge her murdered parents in Park Heung-sik’s Memories of the Sword (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For years, Seol-hee has been rigorously trained by Wol-so, a blind tea house proprietor to wreak vengeance on her enemies. Wol-so has kept many secrets, including her real identity: Seol-rung. She is not the only one living under a new name. Deok-ki is now Yoo-baek, a general so competent, he is naturally despised by his colleagues in court. The feeling is mutual.

When Yoo-baek observes the masked Seol-hee crash his martial arts contest, he immediately recognizes Seol-rung’s style. When news of her escapade reaches Seol-rung, it forces her hand. Revealing herself and Yoo-baek as Seol-hee’s familial enemies, Seol-rung casts out the girl with only her father’s sword. It is sort of a case of tough love, but it confuses Seol-hee no end. Nevertheless, it is suddenly healthy for her to be far away from Seol-rung.

At a youthful twenty-four (looking more like twelve), Kim Go-eun (who exploded onto the scene a mere three years ago in Eungyo (a Muse)) notches her first action lead here as Seol-hee. In fact, she is rather perfect for the role, looking young and vulnerable, but flashing some convincing moves. Yet, Jeon De-yeon truly delivers the romantic angst and a fair number of beatdowns as the very complicated Seol-rung. In contrast, international superstar Lee Byung-hun seems to be somewhat distracted as Deok-ki/Yoo-baek, as if he were waiting for his next G.I. Joe script to arrive, but Lee Kyoung-young makes an unusually hardnosed Yoda as the trio’s powerful and reclusive teacher.

There are some spectacular martial arts sequences in Memories, as well as some Crouching Tiger-esque scenes of skipping across rooftops and treetops that defy logic and gravity, but still look quite cinematic. Indeed, Park elevates the film with a good deal of visual poetry. Genre fans will also appreciate how he steadily deepens the impassioned tragedy with each new revelation. Recommended for action fans who appreciate classy production values and a bittersweet payoff, Memories of the Sword opens this Friday (8/28) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

My Voice, My Life: Dreaming of Fame and a Future in HK

If you expected class distinctions would vanish in Hong Kong after re-integrating with the Mainland, reality has been profoundly disappointing. For many, the only significant change is the undemocratic governance mandated by Beijing. Last fall, thousands of HK students protested for the right to hold legitimate elections. Simultaneously, a group of disadvantaged HK high school students discovered potential they never knew they had when they were selected to stage a professional musical theater production. Six of their fellow students were also recruited to document their behind-the-scenes drama. None of them were activists, but their efforts to assert control over lives and futures takes on unintended symbolic implications in Oscar-winner Ruby Yang’s My Voice, My Life (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In Hong Kong, there is a rigid hierarchy among secondary schools. Underperforming students at the last chance “Band 3” schools are often looked down upon by their peers and their elders, but their employment prospects are still better than those facing graduates of the Ebenezer School for the Visually Impaired. Of course, the latter students recruited for the awkwardly named L plus H Creations Foundation’s production of The Awakening (featuring a conspicuously Les Mis-ish sounding finale) are by far the most reliable during the early days of rehearsal. There will be a pretty steep learning curve for the other kids, both musically and personally.

Frankly, it was not always clear whether the production would really come together. In Coby Wang, they had a lead with all kinds of natural talent, but her acute lack of confidence prevents her from realizing her diva potential. More problematic are the troublemakers who undermine discipline and unity with their antics. Yet, as the rehearsals progress, the hardest cases start to realize their fellow students are relying on them to get it together.

Yang (who was last nominated for the short David-and-Goliath doc, The Warriors of Qiugang) and editor Man Chung Ma are extraordinarily dexterous juggling the various students’ and their backstories. Viewers really get a fully developed sense of at least eight or nine of the cast-members, while also meeting an assortment of parents, teachers, and theater professionals, which is quite an impressive feat of screen-time management in a ninety-one minute film.

None of these kids are bad per se. Some have just been living down to low expectations. Fortunately, several are extremely charismatic, while nobody in their right mind could root against the earnest Ebenezer students. Clearly, Andy Lau agreed. The HK superstar and former bad kid saw something of himself in the Awakening cast-members, so he hit the Hong Kong publicity circuit on the film’s behalf, making it an unexpected box-office success.

Of course, their story does not end here, but at least Voice gives us reason to suspect there is much more to come from its subjects (especially since they are now so well known to Lau). Frankly, they sort of cry out for the Seven Up treatment. Regardless, they deserve a chance to pursue a higher education and real career opportunities. Likewise, they ought to be able to vote for the politicians of their choice. At least Yang’s documentary should help with the former. Recommended for idealistic musical theater fans, My Voice, My Life opens this Friday (8/28) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Queen of Earth: the Horror of Depression

Depression runs in Catherine’s family. They are also one of the leading causes of depression in others. Ostensibly, she has come to her friend’s summer home to relax and get away from her troubles, but she will really just do her best to make everyone around her miserable in Alex Ross Perry’s acutely unsettling but undeniably riveting Queen of Earth  (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Catherine has just been dumped by James, the boyfriend with whom she was so lovey-dovey during last year’s trip to Virginia’s family vacation home. The timing is particularly bad, coming soon after the death of her father—a tragedy made worse by the unspoken circumstances involved. Back then, Virginia did not like James at all, but she does not seem to be judging him too harshly now.

As Catherine settles in, as best she can, Perry flashes back to her happier, co-dependent days with James. Virginia was not expecting her to bring him the summer prior, so she made no secret of her resentment. Catherine also immediately clashed with Rich, Virginia’s neighbor and potential love interest, who is decidedly not intimidated by artsy, pseudo-intellectuals like Catherine. A year later, James is out of the picture, but Rich is still there, expecting to get lucky with Virginia and rubbing her the wrong way.

Vexed by memories and annoyed by Rich and Virginia’s insensitivity, Catherine slides deeper into depression, perhaps losing her handle on reality in the process. If you ever doubted depression is absolutely a genuine health risk, just spend some time with Queen. Many of the dangers are readily apparent, while some are eerily implied. Yet, despite Catherine’s massively unreliable POV, it is definitely fair to say profoundly bad things are going on in that summer house.

You can argue how best to classify Queen, but it bears obvious comparison to Polanski’s Compulsion and Elisabeth Moss’s lead performance will completely chill you to your bones, so some might call it horror. However, it also has the uncomfortable intimacy of Cassavetes and even, Heaven help us, Ingmar Berman. Moss’s work is bold and disturbing, but tightly controlled and carefully calibrated. There absolutely no foaming at the mouth or similar such Meryl Streep shtick on display here. The film is also quite an ensemble piece, featuring first-rate supporting turns from Catherine Waterston and Patrick Fugit as Virginia and her friend with benefits. Frankly, nobody is remotely “likable” in this film, but you cannot tear your eyes away from them.

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams has amassed plenty of credits (including the terrific documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo and the highly entertaining Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead), but Queen might be the film that gets him award recognition. He gives Queen an undefinably retro look, amplifying the dramatic power with his long-held close-ups. It is a distinctive film in all senses that is likely to be regularly studied and re-examined for years to come. Recommended for admirers of psychological dramas (with the emphasis on psycho), Queen of Earth opens this Wednesday (8/26) at the IFC Center.

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