J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Wolf at the Door: a Kidnapping in Rio

In most violent criminal cases, the cops automatically suspect relatives or someone close to the family. The kidnapper of six-year-old Clara certainly qualifies as the latter. You could say she has a relationship with both the mother and the father. What starts out as a mystery becomes a stark inquiry into motivation, so do not expect any bossa nova in Fernando Coimbra’s uncompromisingly grim and gritty A Wolf at the Door (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

On this fateful afternoon, poor Clara is picked up from school, but not by her mother, Sylvia, who has good reason to panic. Since she and her husband Bernardo have little money, ransom seems unlikely, so they immediately turn to the police. Det. Delgado is aloof, but he has some choice comments for the teachers who blithely lets Clara walk away with her abductor. Those lines provide the only humor, dark as it is, throughout Coimbra’s relentlessly dour narrative.

Suspicion soon falls on Rosa, Bernardo’s mistress, but she manages to talk her way through Delgado’s first interrogation. However, when we learn she knowingly cultivated an ostensive friendship with Sylvia, her presumptive rival, it is safe to assume something is up with her.

Although the first act is relatively procedural-ish, Coimbra quickly lays all his cards on the table, through a series of flashbacks and time-shifts. We get the facts quickly enough, but the film wants us to agonize over questions of motive and madness. While we can admire the integrity of Coimbra’s approach, most well-adjusted viewers will resent the way he forces the audience to wallow in his characters’ existential wretchedness.

Let’s face it, this film is not much fun. Granted, the performances are powerfully effective, but in a scrupulously realistic way. Obviously, there is no escapism in Wolf, nor is there any stylistic devices to distance viewers from the angst and bile on-screen. It is like watching a disturbingly intimate and exploitative documentary.

Nevertheless, the vaguely nauseous dread Wolf inspires is a testament to its small ensemble. Milhem Cortaz is particularly menacing as Bernardo, the low rent Lothario. Juliano Cazarré is also shrewdly understated as Delgado, while Leandra Leal nurtures Rosa’s corrosive craziness quite believably.

It is easy to resent Wolf for rubbing our noses in its inhumanity, but it must be conceded Coimbra plays a masterfully manipulative game of show-and-tell every step of the way. Unfortunately, it rather belabors the same naturalistic and deterministic notes over and over. Recommended for fans of Latin American miserablism, A Wolf at the Door opens tomorrow (3/27) in New York, at the Village East.

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New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: King of Guangzhou (short)

China’s Hukou household registry and rigid residency permit system has turned native born Chinese into illegal economic immigrants within their own country. At least they do not necessarily stand out. Such is not the case for Adede, a Nigerian overstaying his work visa to build a family with his pregnant wife. His desperation makes him ripe for exploitation in Quester Hannah’s short film King of Guangzhou, which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

Adede was legal for a considerable time, having duly applied for and received visa extensions. Those days are over. The Guangzhou authorities have launched a get-tough campaign on immigration, routinely denying extensions and aggressively deporting undocumented workers. Unfortunately, it is hard to make the do-the-jobs-Chinese-just-won’t-do argument, when there are scores of rural migrant workers eager for work in the big cities.

However, Adede also has very personal reasons for staying on. He has married Meiling and they have a child on the way. Despite his difficult circumstances, he insists they stay in China, because that is “where the future is.” Maddeningly, he will make some terribly rash decisions in hopes of securing new papers.

It is quite impressive Hannah produced King as a student film pursuant to his studies at NYU, Tisch Asia School of the Arts. After all, this is location shoot in Guangzhou, which has to be tricky under the best of circumstances and even more so when the film addresses a somewhat sensitive topic like immigration. Factoring in the dialogue in multiple languages, King just completely puts to shame the twee indie navel gazers that seem to get the lion’s share of buzz at major festivals (but not here).

There is definitely a street level immediacy to King, but its real power is in its depiction of the central relationship. As Adede and Meiling, Uchenna Onyia and Karen Bee Lin Tan, look and feel like a genuine couple. Their chemistry together is initially quite touching and ultimately rather devastating.

King presents a gritty, unvarnished look at contemporary life in China for the marginalized and dispossessed, while also offering some fine performances. Conceivably, it could be programmed by African American and Asian festivals, as well general interest fests, so it could turn up any number of places, but it is well worth seeing regardless of the venue. Highly recommended, King of Guangzhou screens tomorrow (3/27) with An American Ascent, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema, at BAM.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NYTFF ’15: Consequences

One problem with off-the-books building projects is they make it dashed difficult to come clean when trouble goes down. The same is doubly true of secret affairs. A hot shot real estate developer, his fiancée, and his somewhat estranged best friend will learn these truths first hand over the course of a long fateful night of the soul in Ozan Açiktan’s Consequences (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Turkish Film Festival.

Cenk was once deeply involved with Ece, but he hasn’t seen her since his stints in rehab and trying to find himself in America. He thought he could handle seeing her again, but evidently not. She is now engaged to his old pal Faruk, who is putting up the architectural designer in a building he is illegally renovating in the gentrifying neighborhood of Karaköy. After an awkward meeting at Faruk’s party, Cenk beats a hasty retreat, but Ece soon follows. It does not take long for things to get hot and heavy, before they are inconveniently interrupted by a pair of intruders, who turn out to be two of Faruk’s undocumented laborers. One thing leads to another, resulting in the older man tumbling down the stairs and cracking his head.

To protect Ece, Cenk sends her off into the night, facing Faruk by himself. The developer and his lawyer Merve quickly take charge of the situation, hoping to minimize everyone’s exposure. It seems Faruk does not have the required permits or even a clear title to the property. Merve also smells something fishy about Cenk’s story, but she doesn’t have much time to worry about it. Unfortunately, the situation escalates precipitously when the man’s companion returns with about a dozen of his belligerent colleagues.

Açiktan and his co-writers, Cem Akas and Faruk Ozerton, do a nice job keeping one darned thing happening after another. Reportedly, the noir thriller is under-represented in Turkish cinema, especially those that are sexually charged to any extent, but they have crafted a distinctly stylish one. It is also rather intriguing to speculate about its beyond-the-screen meaning in an increasingly Islamist and less secular Turkey. On one hand, faithlessness holds potentially dire consequences, so to speak, for the characters. Yet, we sort of get the sense the film regrets Cenk and Ece were not able to get more sinning in before the situation started spiraling out of control. The film also resists class conscious interpretations, depicting the outraged workers in unflattering, thuggish terms.

Ilker Kaleli and Nehir Erdoğan are all kinds of angsty as Cenk and Ece, respectively, but Tardu Flordun really steals the show as the roguish Faruk. He might be insufferably arrogant and a corrupting influence on everyone around him, but it is hard to root against such a colorful figure. Likewise, Esra Bezen Bilgin matches him step for step as the shrewd and cynical Merve. It is nice to see a Turkish film that features a woman as its smartest character, by far.

Ahmet Sesigürgil’s noir cinematography looks terrific and Açiktan perfectly captures the sketchy urban after hours vibe. Everything about this film screams that it will end badly, but it is still entertaining watching matters plummet from bad to worse. Recommended for fans of assignations-gone-wrong thrillers in the Fatal Attraction tradition, Consequences screens this Saturday (3/28) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NY Turkish Film Festival.

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3 Holes and a Smoking Gun: The Script that Dreams are Made of

Can there be a less auspicious start to a film than a trip on the 7 Train? Yet, in this case it is rather apt. Like the desperate screenwriter character making his way into the City, the film longs for Manhattan prestige, but is stuck out in the outer boroughs. One script to die for might just change everything in Hilarion Banks’ Three Holes and a Smoking Gun (trailer here), which opens this Friday in the Los Angeles it so bitterly resents.

Bobby Blue Day was once a Hollywood scribe who worked with the Spielberg-esque Stephen Worthy, but now he is teaching a screenwriting night class in New York. He is paying an unexpected early morning visit to John F. Kennedy Ariamehr, his formerly least promising student, who just turned in a perfect screenplay. Ariamehr has just spent the night with Sailor Stewart (seriously dude, what is up with these names?) a fellow student who was recently involved with Day. Fortunately, she is off to an audition, so Day and Ariamehr can get all thrillery about his screenplay. Day might just kill to get his name on that screenplay, but if he does, he won’t be the first.

As we learn from a long, credibility challenged flashback, Ariamehr already lured the true screenwriter, one Winston Mimsby (he’s British) to his death. In fact, it was a rather prolonged death by poisoning. Frankly, it is hard to believe the guileless Mimsby would write a script called Hijack, but not only did he do so, he cranked it out on an old school Remington. Therefore, Ariamehr must rush out into the night on a hard target search for his own vintage 1940s typewriter. At least, it provides us with the film’s best scene: a slightly surreal encounter in Joey the Junkman’s antique notions shop. Unfortunately, it is followed by a would-be mugging scene that perversely neither Ariamehr nor his hemophiliac assailant want to walk away from.

Once known as 3 Holes, 2 Brads, and a Smoking Gun, the film’s title has wisely been shortened. Are the two Brads like the two Jakes? Actually, they are both Brad Bradley, a nemesis from Day’s Hollywood years met in yet another flashback. The three holes are probably metaphorical, but the smoking gun is readily identifiable.

Regardless, 3 Holes et al is intended to be a screenwriter’s riff on Ira Levin-Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap, but it is way too overloaded with red herrings and Pacino quotes. The film’s overwhelming MVP by far is Joaquim de Almeida (Desperado, 24) whose too brief appearance as Joey the Junkman enlivens the film and hints at tantalizing craziness that is sadly never realized. On the other hand, cult actor Richard Edson (Joey Breaker) is largely wasted as a third act copper.

Man, let’s hope nobody was killed over this screenplay. James Wilder labors like a rented mule as Day, but he still can’t make it work (he’s also an architect and a juggler, so we applaud his versatility). It was obviously a labor of love, but either the severe budget constraints forced some unduly harsh choices or the creative team lost their perspective along the way. Now available on most VOD platforms, 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun opens this Friday (3/27) at the Laemmle Music Hall 3.

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New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: An American Ascent

Whether you call it Mount McKinley or Denali, it still lacks the sort of mystique that surrounds Everest or K2, despite its status as the highest point in North America. However, real mountaineers respect anyone who makes a credible attempt at it. Unlike other storied peaks, Denali campaigns cannot rely on Sherpas to do all the heavy lifting. Those attacking it have to earn every step they take. It is therefore a fitting site for the expedition documented in Andrew Adkins & George Potter’s An American Ascent (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

On the 100th anniversary of Mount McKinley’s first summiting (we will use both names interchangeably out of respect for our friends in Ohio and Alaska), a party of nine African American climbers set out to repeat the feat. Aside from the obvious lure of adventure and Denali’s general being there, they also wanted to make a statement. There were frustrated many outdoors sporting and recreational activities were considered “white” things to do. In the long run, many fear support for environmental advocacy will waiver in the African American community, but in the short run, they hope to provide an example for younger, urban school children to consider national parks like Denali part of their heritage as well.

There is a bit of soap-boxing on these issues, but the daily drama of their campaign properly dominates the film. Adkins & Potter nicely establish the personalities of the individual climbers and capture some intense moments. Anyone who has seen any of the recent mountaineering docs (and there have been some good ones) knows you should not consider summiting the determination of success or failure. Nonetheless, there is a fair degree of suspense surrounding this question in Ascent.

Ascent combines a compelling story with good intentions, but it is bizarrely shy when it comes to capitalizing on the stunning vistas visible from Denali. Obviously, such shots look great on-screen, but they also heighten our sense of place. In this respect, Meru, K2, Beyond the Edge, and The Summit are all superior films.

Still, Ascent has its considerable merits, including taking the time to acknowledge trail-blazing African American alpinist Charles Crenchaw. It is solid mountaineering doc, but a bit on the short side at just under seventy minutes, so it is proceeded by the notable short film, King of Guangzhou about a Nigerian migrant worker trying to extend his stay in China. Recommended for outdoors sporting enthusiasts, An American Ascent screens this Friday (3/27) at BAM, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cupcakes: Israel the Inclusive

The UniverSong competition is like Pop Idol, but more nationalistic. Israel has never placed highly, despite their assiduous but counterproductive efforts. However, this year they might have an outside chance when six Tel Aviv neighborhood friends are unexpectedly tapped to represent their country—provided they stay true to their own voices in Eytan Fox’s Cupcakes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Based on the Eurovision Song Contest (which Israel has participated in since 1973), UniverSong is a big deal to for Anat, the bakery owner (care to speculate as to what her specialty might be?). Unfortunately, her husband’s sudden decision to abscond to Thailand puts a damper on her viewing party. The massive egg laid by Israel’s contestant does not help either. To cheer her up, five neighbors sing her an improvised “Sun Will Come Up Tomorrow” style ditty. It actually sounds pretty good thanks to her friends’ heart and the acoustic guitar accompaniment of lesbian alt-rocker Efrat.

In fact, it sounds so good, out-and-proud school teacher Ofer submits his cell phone video to the UniverSong equivalent of the Israeli Olympic committee, who decide to think outside the box and select the amateurs. The presence of former beauty queen turned business woman Yael probably did not hurt. Of course, everyone but Ofer is initially reluctant to participate for their own reasons, but eventually all but Dana, the press secretary to the Orthodox minister of culture, comes around. Even Keren, the shy blogger (is there really such a thing?) signs on for the contest. Unfortunately, the national organizers are determined to make them as cheesy as Israel’s last crash-and-burn competitor.

If you enjoy compulsively upbeat Israeli pop, your film has arrived. It is all very poppy and peppy and candy-colored, but audiences will be hard pressed to remember much by the time the closing credits stop rolling. Yet, Cupcakes is significant in one respect. It paints a vibrant portrait of Israel’s diversity and tolerance.

Everyone knows Ofer and Efrat are gay and lesbian, but that does not stop anyone from rooting for him. Ofer is matter-of-factly entrusted with the nation’s young skulls full of mush, frequently putting on drag shows for his appreciative charges—with no protests. Even his difficult romance with the closeted son of the Israeli UniverSong sponsor is a decidedly low stakes issue. One of the Israeli UniverSong organizers says “we are proud of our proud contestants,” lamenting they did not have an Arab member, as well. Of course, that is hardly likely to happen given said gay and lesbian band-mates.

The cast convincingly come across like comfortable friends with years of shared history together. Their casual moments together feel right. Actress-model Yael Bar-Zohar brings surprisingly rich subtlety and maturity to her ex-Miss Israel namesake, whereas Ofer Shechter over indulgences in shtick as his flamboyant namesake. Separately, Dana Igvy, Keren Berger, and Anat Waxman are a bit dull as their namesakes, but they click as an ensemble.

Fox and co-writer Eli Bijaoui manage to sidestep the worst possible clichés in the third act, but they are not afraid of a little sentimentality either. It is a pleasant but hardly essentially look at contemporary Israel’s inclusiveness. Recommended for fans of Fox’s previous box office hits and Babydaddy from Scissor Sisters (who wrote the “Song for Anat”), Cupcakes opens this Friday (3/27) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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New Voices in Black Cinema ’15: Ojuju

There is no greater public health crisis than a zombie apocalypse. In this case, it is directly linked to a contaminated water supply, but high population density, unprotected sex, and some wicked strong weed are also contributing factors. Once infection takes hold, it runs like wildfire through a Lagos slum in C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Ojuju (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New Voices in Black Cinema at the BAM Rose Cinemas.

People think Romero (hat tip intentional) is a little strange, because the slacker actually seems to be serious about fulfilling his obligations to his highly pregnant girlfriend, Alero. Nobody is more confused by this then his former hook-up Aisha, but his buddies Emmy and Peju also have a hard time adjusting to his domestic bliss. Alas, it is not to last.

The first victim we see fall prey to the shufflers will be Fela, the local drug dealer, who has been selling some particularly potent product lately. He also samples the wares more than he should, so the strange figure staggering towards him just doesn’t set off the alarm bells it should. Inevitably infected, he and his crony begin the feverish process of transformation, despite the local prostitute’s efforts to care for his mystery illness. Soon, nearly the entire neighborhood except Romero, Emmy, and Peju are part of the shuffling horde. Unfortunately, there are limited egress points for the largely self-contained slum, so getting out of Dodge will be a tricky proposition.

Those who might be expecting the weird Evangelical perspective often reflected in Nollywood films can just forget it. Ojuju will not begrudge its socially disadvantaged characters a little sin while the sinning is good. Everyone tokes up a little to get by, even the incredibly foul-mouthed adolescent known simply as “the Kid.” What really makes the zombie (or ojuju) outbreak so devastating are the hard facts of life in a Nigerian slum. Obasi gives us a vivid sense of what they are like, including the bottleneck exit and the razor wire encircling it.

While Ojuju was obviously shot on a micro-budget, the gritty, low-fi aesthetic nicely suits the zombie genre. Obasi delivers enough gore to mollify genre fans, but the sweaty, claustrophobic vibe is what really generates the mounting dread. He also tacks on a long, almost entirely unrelated coda, but it largely works as a short film in its own right, so just consider it a bonus.

Perhaps Ojuju’s nicest surprise is the ensemble’s professionalism. Ranging from solidly presentable to legitimately polished, they are consistent in a good way, with Gabriel Afolayan and Chidozie Nzeribe particularly intense standouts as Romero and Fela, respectively. Making a virtue of its rough edges, Obasi exceeds expectations for his scrappy upstart zombie film. Recommended for undead fans, Ojuju screens this Friday (3/27) at BAM, as part of this year’s New Voices in Black Cinema.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

My Italian Secret: The Cyclist and the Archbishop

Considering the sport of cycling’s most important competition recently lost nine years of history to doping scandals, you would think they would look celebrate a genuine hero from their past, but Italian champion Gino Bartali’s clandestine efforts to save Italian Jewry remain largely unsung. He was not alone in his secret defiance. Eighty percent of Jews in wartime Italy survived thanks to Bartli and a host of like-minded Italians. Oren Jacoby profiles many of Italy’s righteous and the grown survivors they helped save in My Italian Secret (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Mussolini had been firmly entrenched in power since the 1920s, but the Holocaust was slow in reaching Italy. Yes, anti-Semitic laws were passed, but anti-Semitism never really caught on as an ideology. It was not until the German occupation that deportations started in earnest. Of course, there were more than enough Fascists willing to collaborate, but not Bartali.

The Fascists did there level best to coop Bartali as a symbol of Italian physical supremacy, but the cyclist refused to participate in their propaganda. Fortunately, his standing as Italy’s preeminent sportsman granted him certain liberties, such as an excuse for long distance bike runs. Soon, Bartali was shuttling counterfeited documents provided by the Catholic Church to Jews in hiding. Bartali further risked his neck by sheltering a Jewish family in his own home.

Frankly, it is quite eye-opening to see the bourgeoisie or even privileged status of so many of the Italian Righteous, given the carefully romanticized proletariat image of the resistance. Granted, Bartali came from rugged smallholding farm stock, but Marchesa Gallo did not. Yet, she sheltered numerous Jewish families in her grand palazzo. Likewise, Dr. Giovanni Borromeo was a man of considerable position, who ran tremendous risks operating his special “K” wing, where he hid Jewish fugitives supposedly infected with the nonexistent “K” disease. Jacoby also makes it crystal clear how deeply involved the Catholic Church was in rescue efforts. In fact, it was the Archbishop of Florence who recruited Bartali in the first place.

Jacoby uses the tried and true methods of documentary filmmaking, to good effect. He sparingly employs recreations, but incorporates plenty of archival photos and video. However, the most dramatic sequences by far capture the heartfelt meetings between the survivors (now of advanced years) and the children of their protectors. The Hot Club soundtrack selections are also quite pleasant.

Frankly, it is strange more of these incidents have not been more widely reported, especially given Italy’s remarkable high Jewish survival rate. However, Bartali was characteristically modest about his actions. Fortunately, he now has Oscar nominated actor Robert Loggia to literally speak for him. Jaded viewers might think they more or less know the trajectory of its collected stories and perhaps they do, but the details are unusually rich. Secret also helps counteract the ideologically-driven smearing of the WWII-era Church and Pope Pius XII, complimenting recent scholarship, like Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope. Recommended for general audiences and especially students, My Italian Secret opens this Friday (3/23) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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From Mayerling to Sarajevo: the Love and Death of the Archduke

This is why “Old Europe” is a term of such derision. In the early Twentieth Century Austro-Hungarian Empire, snobbery was at its most severe when applied within the noble classes. Privilege was assiduously protected and innovation was just as strenuously discouraged. The heir-apparent meant to shake things up, but alas, it was not to be. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s courtship of Countess Sophie Chotek and their tragic final days take on further significance in Max Öphuls’ woefully overlooked but freshly restored 1940 classic, From Mayerling to Sarajevo, which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Obviously, this story will end badly for Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Everyone should know an assassin’s bullet awaits them in Sarajevo. Those who consider that a spoiler should go hang their heads in shame. The Mayerling reference may not be so obvious, but it was the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera at the Habsburg hunting lodge in Mayerling that thrust Franz Ferdinand into the immediate line of succession.

As the film opens, the current Emperor Franz Josef has resigned himself to Franz Ferdinand role as his successor, despite his misgivings over the younger noble’s reformist inclinations. Of course, it is his professed preference for decentralization and tolerance that makes the Archduke rather popular throughout the empire. It is generally good for business to keep him busy with inspection tours, but that is how he meets the Countess.

Sophie Chotek is a noble-born Czech, but that was not good enough for the Habsburgs. Supposedly, only nobility directly related to crowned heads of state were eligible to marry the Archduke. Frankly, their initially meeting goes rather badly, culminating with Chotek giving him a dressing down of sorts, but he loves every minute of it. Soon romances blossoms, but they try to keep it a secret for the sake of the Archduke’s future position. However, their love will not be denied, especially when oily court ministers start conspiring against them.

Sarajevo (as it is often more simply known) is one of the oddest star-crossed romances, because it openly invites sympathy for two lovers born into unimaginable good fortune, while it inexorably hurtles towards its catastrophic end. Indeed, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were a couple worthy of Shakespeare, but Öphuls and a small platoon of screenwriters (including Carl Zuckmayer and Jacques Natanson) do them justice. They also rather burnishes the image of Franz Ferdinand, who is largely considered something of a footnote today. While opinions vary as to the extent of his liberalism, it is hard to dismiss his tentative support for the concept of a “United States of Austria” (duly featured in the film) and the necessary loss of status it implied.

Sarajevo also serves as a worthy re-introduction to American actor John Lodge, who is suitably commanding, yet slightly roguish as Franz Ferdinand. Fluent in French, Lodge (the brother of Henry Cabot, Jr.) is now better known for his political career as a Connecticut Congressman and Governor and later the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Argentina, and Switzerland. He truly looks the part and develops some believably spirited romantic chemistry with French leading lady Edwige Feuillère. As Sophie, she must walk a fine line between fighting for her man and suffering for her country, but she makes her dilemmas feel quite real and pressing.

Watching Sarajevo, we understand Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are not joking when they say the Empire needs him. It is easy to envision a far less turbulent (and bloody) Twentieth Century had he not been assassinated. With the National Socialist invasion imminent, Öphuls clearly invokes his democratic reputation for propaganda purposes, but Öphuls would take refuge in Hollywood, by way of Switzerland and Spain soon after its release.

Frankly, it is rather eerie watching how petty concern for court protocol inadvertently led to such horrific macro events. Throughout the film, Öphuls demonstrates a wonderfully shrewd eye for the trappings and architecture of power while portraying the royal romance with humor and sensitivity. Hugely entertaining in ways both grand and hauntingly sad, From Mayerling to Saravejo is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (3/27) in New York, at Film Forum.

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Man from Reno: Murder, She Alluringly Wrote

Mystery novelist Aki Akahori’s Inspector Takabe is like a Japanese Maigret, but her life is about to turn into a Mary Higgins Clark novel, except darker. A chance encounter with a seductive stranger leads to more intrigue than Akahori bargained for in Dave Boyle’s Man from Reno (trailer here), the best narrative award winner at the 2014 L.A. Film Festival, which opens this Friday in New York.

Although Takabe rules the Japanese bestseller lists, Akahori is uncomfortable with her success. Tired of her celebrity status, she deserts her publicity tour, taking refuge in San Francisco, where she once went to school. In her hotel, she meets a handsome Japanese tourist from Reno, or so she deduces. She did not have a tryst in mind, but she eventually yields to his charms. However, just when things start heating up, he precipitously vanishes. Even more disconcerting are the total strangers who suddenly want to take a quick look-see in her room for who-knows-what.

Just north of town, Paul Del Moral, the sheriff of San Marco, is also searching for a Japanese man. In this case, it is the individual he accidentally hit during severe fog-in, who up and left the hospital in a suspiciously rash manner. Soon a dead body turns up in San Marco who seems to have some connection to the fellow Del Moral dubbed “Running Man.” Inevitably, Del Moral’s investigation will lead him to San Francisco and the increasingly uneasy Akahori.

Reno represents a quantum step up for Boyle, whose previous films, like White on Rice, have been largely classifiable as romantic comedies. His frequent collaborator Hiroshi Watanabe is also back in the fold, but this time around he plays a strictly serious supporting role. Instead, Ayako Fujitani and veteran character actor Pepe Serna take star turns as Akahori and Del Moral, respectively. Expect to see more of them because they both make major statements with their smart, charismatic, yet understated performances.

As thrillers go, Reno (co-written by Boyle, Joel Clark, and Michael Lerman) has several fresh twists and it nicely captures the between-worlds vibe of the expatriate lifestyle. Technically polished, Richard Wong’s evocatively noir cinematographer also heightens the tension during several key scenes.

Murkier than one might expect, Reno is an effective somewhat romantic suspenser that never rushes to tip its hand. Yet, it even more appealing to see such a film anchored by people who look like Akahori and Del Moral. Granted, Fujitani is a beautiful woman, but in a mature, cerebral manner. Likewise, Serna is wonderfully grizzled, in a confidence-inspiring way. They are terrific, carrying the film relay-style during their many solo scenes. Highly recommended, Man from Reno opens this Friday (3/27) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

NYICFF ’15: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

He was born into a Maronite Catholic family and wrote his best known work in English, but Kahlil Gibran was subsequently embraced as a symbol of Arab culture. Without question, his best known work is The Prophet, arguably the original break-out New Age bestseller, whose celebrity admirers include Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Salma Hayek. Her regard for the instantly recognizable Knopf title was such that she produced a big screen animated adaptation of the book few would have thought adaptable. The ambition and animation are definitely impressive, but the source material remains unwieldy in Roger Allers’ Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

In order to give the film a central storyline, Allers took some liberties with the framing device. The exiled prophet Mustafa (here more of a hipster painter and poet) is indeed bidding a fond farewell to the citizens of Orphalese, but he will not simply hop on the tall ship and sail off into the sunset. The oppressive Pasha and his thuggish police sergeant are planning permanent measures to halt his progressive influence before they let him go anywhere. The resulting narrative is like a weird passion play, with the assorted peasants in the countryside and merchants in town celebrating his presumed release with much feasting and drinking. At each stop along the way, Mustafa gives the crowd a pithy bit of prose poetry wisdom that are impressionistically rendered by a diverse roster of animators.

No longer is Almitra a seer. She is now the rebellious mute daughter of Kamila, the widowed housekeeper hired to tidy up the prophet’s exile cottage. Sharing a connection with the island’s seagulls, she is the first to suspect the fate awaiting Mustafa. Presumably, these liberties taken with the text pass muster with the Gibran establishment, given their active role in the production.

Regardless, the film as a whole is necessarily uneven, since Allers and Hayek-Pinault (as she is billed here) deliberately embrace its episodic structure. Not surprisingly, the best sequences are “On Love” animated by Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea) and “On Marriage” crafted by Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat). The abstract nature of the texts are also particularly well suited to the styles of Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) and Bill Plympton (Cheatin’). However, the other four parables largely blend together.

Following in the footsteps of Richard Harris’s Arif Mardin-produced musical interpretation of The Prophet, Liam Neeson continues the Irish Gibran tradition as the voice of Mustafa. To be fair, his husky, reassuring tones are rather well suited to the film. Hayek-Pinault is perfectly serviceable as Kamila. (Since she is once again playing a mother facing difficult circumstances, Prophet should really be considered a companion film to Everly and the two should be screened together whenever possible). Quvenzhané Wallis gets precious little actual dialogue as Almitra (but perhaps that is just as well), while Alfred Molina does his best to keep up with the slapstick humor directed at his pompous Sergeant.

Whatever you do, always observe the authorial possessive in the title, like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Although the film’s cultish impetus is a little creepy, it is intriguing to see such a high profile attempt at impressionistic, non-narrative animated filmmaking. Unfortunately, some of the contributing filmmakers are better suited to the task than others. A strange hybrid, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is recommended for animation enthusiasts who want to see something a little outside the norm (whereas younger viewers will probably find it indulgently lecture-y) when it screens again today (3/22) at the DGA Theatre, as the closing film of the 2015 NYICFF.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

VFF ’15: What’s the Time in Your World

The question is not why someone decided to leave Iran, but rather why on earth would they ever come back. It seems especially strange for a woman like Goli to leave the still comparative safety of Paris, but she has indeed returned. She experiences a bittersweet homecoming, with the emphasis on the bitter in Safi Yazdanian What’s the Time in Your World (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Vilnius Film Festival. As our Baltic friends and allies cast a wary eye at their belligerent imperialist neighbors to the east, we salute their commitment to freedom and the arts, the latter most definitely reflected by this year’s “Kino Pavasaris.”

Considering Goli did not make the journey home for her mother’s funeral, many are quite surprised to see her now. It seems to have been a rather impulsively decision, but Yazdanian will slowly explain it through his examination of the expatriate psyche—at least to an extent. While her aunt is happy to see her, nobody is more pleased by the end of her exile than Farhad, the local framer. However, Goli is quite perplexed to receive so much attention from a man she does not remember.

It turns out, she and Farhad distantly traveled in the same extended social circles during her student days, but she obviously made a far greater impression on him than he did with her. Nevertheless, he stepped up considerably while she was in Paris, befriending her aunt and late mother. Given his vouched for status as a friend of the family, Farhad is now determined to woo Goli, but she remains confused and ambivalent about him.

Ostensibly, Time has nothing to do with politics, concentrating instead on fundamentally human issues, such as love, infatuation, and memory. Yet, there is a big conspicuous hole in the film where all of Goli and Farhad’s mutual friends should be. It becomes clear anyone with any talent and a minimal capacity for free-thinking finds a way to immigrate. There is a reason a drop-out like Farhad is the big man of the town. All the best and the brightest have left.

In many ways, Time is a tragic film, but its characters are too mature and world weary to engage in any sort of hand-wringing. Indeed, there is a lot of resignation, but that will not necessarily lead to reconnection and reconciliation. Frankly, that is why the chemistry between co-leads, Leila Hatami (A Separation) and Ali Mosaffa (The Past) is so hard to describe, yet so potent.

This is a small film, but it is acutely sensitive and arguably rather honest, in an oblique way. Clearly, Yazdanian is an actor’s director, but he also gives viewers a vivid sense of the northern coastal city of Rasht, as well as the considerable effort required to get there. Christophe Rezai’s distinctive guitar and strings score further heightens the melancholia, evoking both classic and contemporary musical forms.

It is a classy package well worth checking out. Should you head off to Vilnius to see it? Sure, if that is an option. If not, look for it as it continues to make the festival rounds. Recommended for thoughtful audiences, What's the Time in Your World screens this Monday (3/23) and Thursday (3/26) at this year’s Vilnius Film Festival. (Other notable highlights include Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service; Li’l Quinquin; Timbuktu; The Fool; Gyeongju; and Rocks in My Pockets.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

NYICFF ’15: Moomins on the Riviera

With grace and naiveté, the oblivious Moomins face the perils of pirates and French snobbery. Naturally, the pirates are much more pleasant to deal with. Nevertheless, some of the Moomins will rather enjoy living the high life in the south of France, at least until the bills come due in Xavier Picard’s Moomins on the Riviera (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

In the film, Moominpappa says it straight out—they are not hippopotamuses. It is not clear just what they are, but they are clearly some sort of anthropomorphic animal. Already well known from Tove Jansson’s children’s book series, the Moomins made the transition to the funny pages, but they were abruptly canceled by a leftwing Finnish paper that found them too bourgeoisie. Subsequently, the comic strip was revived by a British syndicate. Eventually, the Moomins were adapted as a Japanese anime series, so they are quite well-established internationally, even though they never cracked the U.S. market. Still, there is no reason American kid will not appreciate a family of talking animals, ambiguous though their species might be.

All is pretty okay in the vaguely Northern European Moominvalley as the film opens. Young Moomin shyly pursues his flirty neighbor Snorkmaiden, when not out fishing with his friend Snufkin. When a pirate ship founders on the rocky shoals, the Moomins mobilize to salvage what they can. Of course, they gather up all the books and tropical seeds, neglecting the pirates’ treasure. Largely on impulse, the Moomins and Snorkmaiden soon set off on a nautical expedition of their own, rather irresponsibly sailing into a white squall. After a brief detour, the Moomins land on the Riviera, which the star-struck Snorkmaiden has always dreamed of visiting. She and Moominpappa soon fall in with the moneyed smart set, but Moomin and Moominmamma are uncomfortable with the shallow, indulgent lifestyle.

The animation of Picard’s Moomins is nowhere near as lush as a Studio Ghibli release or the work of GKIDS associated filmmakers like Tomm Moore or Michel Ocelot, but that is somewhat by design. The new Moomins feature deliberately evokes the feel of the vintage comic strip. In fact, that clean look is appealingly classy and well-suited to the Riviera backdrop.

Although Picard and a battery of four co-screenwriters faithfully adapted a story arc from the original newspaper strips, the film’s narrative is not exactly earth-shaking stuff. However, there are a lot of clever bits of business thrown in for seasoning. Moomin is also a decent sort of chap and the be-true-to-yourself-and-beware-of-phonies message should appeal to parents.

Despite skewing towards younger audiences, Riviera has a sophisticated vibe older viewers will appreciate. Considering it recently set the Finland record for two-week box office gross, it is probably safe to assume there will be more Moomins to come. Pleasantly upbeat and life affirming, Moomins on the Riviera is recommended for kids 5-10 (as per the festival’s guidelines) and animation fans who will enjoy its gentle quirks. It screens again this Sunday (3/22) at the IFC Center, as part of this year’s NYICFF.

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The Walking Deceased: Shamble Hard, with a Vengeance

It is clear why Sheriff Lincoln survived the zombie apocalypse. He doesn’t have any brain for them to eat. Yes, that name is supposed to remind you of another zombie killing lawman. Despite taking a few respectful potshots from other franchises, this zombie spoof is to The Walking Dead what Galaxy Quest was to Star Trek and Space Balls was to Star Wars. The body count is also true to the spirit of the original source material when Scott Dow’s The Walking Deceased (trailer here) shambles into select theaters today.

Just like Deputy Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead (and Bill Masen in Day of the Triffids), Sherriff Lincoln wakes up from a coma to discover the world has largely ended. After an awkward meeting with ne’er do well survivors Chicago and Green Bay, Lincoln sets out to find his long neglected family before hopefully rendezvousing with the small moronic band of survivors holed up at the shopping mall. Oddly, that is one of the very few hat-tips to George Romero’s Living Dead series, which got the whole zombie party rocking in the first place. However, it cribs more liberally from zombie rom-coms like Warm Bodies and Life After Beth with Romeo, the sensitive zombie, who falls for hot-headed hottie survivor Brooklyn.

Since he seems to be getting better, the squabbling band reluctantly accepts him into their ranks. He still has difficulty communicating, but he serves as the film’s voice of reason through his interior monologues. He will duly trundle along when the group heads off in search of Safe Haven Ranch, because they did something similar in The Walking Dead.

Okay, so the humor in Deceased is usually pretty crude and dumb. Nonetheless, it must be granted Dow and screenwriter Tim Ogletree really know their Walking Dead. Unlike the hopefully abated plague of spoof movies so generic they literally had the word “movie” in their title, Deceased genuinely wants to send-up zombies and not whatever else happens to be playing in multiplexes.

Not surprisingly, Deceased is decidedly uneven. Nobody will ever mistake it for Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but at least it is not afraid to be rude. In fact, the film generates a surprisingly number of laughs when it lets the dysfunctional characters tear into each other. Honestly, the cutting dialogue will exceed expectations (logically assuming they are on the modest side coming in). Dave Sheridan boldly doubles down on buffoonishness as the Sheriff, while Joey Oglesby and Sophia Taylor Ali bring the sharp-elbowed attitude, as Chicago and Brooklyn, respectively. Unfortunately, everyone else’s one-note characterizations wear thin over time.

Look, we’re talking about a meathead movie here. It is dumb, but sometimes amusing and often quite bloody. It does not pretend to be much more, but that is still more than most mash-ups deliver. If that is enough for you, The Walking Deceased opens today (3/20) in limited markets and also launches on iTunes.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ghoul: Old Horrors Return to Ukraine

Andrei Chikatilo was an ardent Communist and a serial killer with over fifty confirmed victims. As a small child, he lived through the famine years of Stalin’s punitive collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture, so many have speculated the widespread suffering and rumors of cannibalism profoundly twisted his psyche over time. Ominously, just like the Soviet Russian Army, it seems the malevolent spirit of Chikatilo has returned to torment the Ukrainian people again in Petr Jákl’s Ghoul (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New Jersey.

Three Americans have come to Ukraine to finish their spec documentary on Twentieth Century cannibalism. Initially, it is not exactly Chikatilo’s story they have come to tell, but that of Boris Glaskov, a local man who was convicted but leniently sentenced for committing an act of cannibalism, while supposedly possessed by Chikatilo’s spirit. Through their dodgy fixer Valeriy and Katerina, a more trustworthy interpreter, they arrange to interview Glaskov in the spooky old farmhouse where it all went down. Naturally, he never shows, but for some reason Ina, the village “witch,” tagged along, thinking she might be needed.

By the time the crew realize Glaskov stood them up, it is quite late and everyone is rather drunk. Resigned to the situation, they resolve to spend the night there, so they can chase him down in the morning. Needless to say, a lot of weirdness happens that night. They do not necessarily remember most of it, but the cameras recorded it all. While they try to dismiss the psychic’s spooky talk, they will eventually accept her diagnosis of the situation—they will have to placate the vengeful spirit haunting the house if they ever hope to leave.

Reportedly, Ghoul had the highest opening gross for a horror film in Czech history. It is definitely informed by the tragic weight of Soviet history but some might find its use of archival images from the Great Ukrainian Famine to be problematically exploitative. One simply cannot picture an American horror film using photos of the Holocaust in a similar manner. Still, the Chikatilo and Ukrainian angles are what really distinguish Ghoul from the crowded field of found footage horror films. Jákl also skillfully utilizes some creepy sets and props, but that and the intriguing backstory are about all it has to offer.

In truth, the entire cast is pretty generic, but at least nobody stands out in a bad way. Perhaps Alina Golovlyova makes the strongest impression as the demure Katarina, but Ghoul is hardly a star-making vehicle. Rather, it is the eerie looking work of cinematographer Jan Šuster and the entire design team that earns the most props. Granted, horror connoisseurs have seen far schlockier found footage films, but it is disappointing Jákl started with such a genuinely intriguing premise, only to settle for so much mediocrity. Mostly just a standard time killer for genre fans, Ghoul opens this Friday (3/20) at the AMC Loews Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth, NJ.

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Jauja: Viggo in the Wilderness

Imagine watching a pan-and-scan version of John Ford’s wide-screen masterpiece The Searchers on a smart phone. Even though the film is a classic, it would be a frustrating way to watch it. Yet, Lisandro Alonso intentionally does something similar. Probably the best thing going for his latest film is the stunning Patagonian backdrop, but he filmed the picture in the videographic 4:3 TV-like aspect ratio. Audiences should be warned, Alonso’s experimental aesthetic will always trumps their viewing experience in Jauja (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Captain Gunnar Dinesen is a Danish land surveyor serving during the so-called late 1800s “Conquest of the Desert” and therefore culpable for genocide in the film’s eyes. The only thing that interests him in Argentina is his daughter Ingeborg, for whom he seems to have an unhealthy attachment. Perhaps out of spite, she runs off with a rakish young military officer, so her father sets off in hot pursuit. He will follow and follow and follow, as the film slowly descends into a tiresome Beckett-like exercise in absurdism. However, in the final minutes, it throws a pointless surreal reality twister at us that is probably supposed to be Borgesian, but really just invalidates any lingering investment we might still have in the film.

Frankly, Jauja is the sort of film that mostly relies on intimidation to get by. Far too many critics are afraid to call out films that are high in pretension and low in substance for fear they will be dismissed as knuckle-dragging philistines or uneducated rubes. Take it from someone well versed in poststructuralist critical theory and reasonably conversant in the history of experimental cinema—damn little happens in Jauja.

Still, it is hard to believe Viggo Mortensen is the star of both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and this film. As Dinesen, he is credibly intense in a tunnel vision sort of way, but he is mostly just out there on his own. Someone ought to toss him Tom Hanks’ volleyball from Castaway.

Perhaps you thought Jauja was the third Gabor Sister, but in this context it is a mythical city of wealth and luxury that kind of sort of represents all manner of quixotic quests. However, the film is really about obsession and European guilt, which somehow manages to come out through the characters’ stilted interactions and the meager servings of narrative. It will have plenty of critical champions, but in this case the emperor has no clothes. Not recommended, Jauja opens tomorrow (3/20) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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ND/NF ’15: Parabellum

When the end of the world comes, it will hit Buenos Aires just as hard as New York—maybe even worse, because we are more accustomed to grand scale emergencies. As social order starts to break down, they might start to miss the military junta. A group of schlubby middle class survivalists do not intend to wait that long. They will enroll in a post-apocalyptic training camp—just in the nick of end times. Prepare yourself for an aesthetically severe Armageddon in Lukas Valenta Rinner’s Parabellum (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Alarmed by the constant reports of civil strife, Hernan Oviedo the unassuming office drone is going off the grid. After cutting his utilities, he heads off for his preparedness boot camp. He is a scrawny cat, but he is still fitter than some of his more obese colleagues. Nevertheless, they have come to learn skills that will soon be necessary, like camouflage, explosives, hand-to-hand combat, and marksmanship. Rinner observes them going about their drills with a tone of quiet mockery, but his motley characters will have the last laugh before they even get to the third act. It seems their preparations are not simply physical. They are also ready to become ruthless predators for the sake of survival.

It is hard to believe a film about a cult-like paramilitary organization running wild during the apocalypse could be so quiet and narratively diffuse. Granted, plottish kinds of things do happen, but Rinner de-emphasizes them, often relegating them to the distant corner of the screen, where they are easily overlooked. He certainly shows no interest whatsoever in his characters’ personalities and interior lives, but he loves his wide shots.

Pablo Seijo totally nails Oviedo’s world-weariness and existential disillusionment, doing the best that he can in what is far from an actor’s showcase. To put it in perspective, Rinner is far more likely to shoot his cast from behind rather than face forward, by at least a ratio of two-to-one in favor of the backs of their heads. That is immediately distancing and it gets rather dull over time.

Ironically, Parabellum initially appears to ridicule its paranoid characters, but largely vindicates their paranoia at a relatively early stage. Roundabout or even openly experimental approaches to apocalyptic subject matter can yield fruit, but it seems they are better suited to short films, like Andreas Bolm’s The Revenants. In truth, Parabellum is a tough slog with a miserly payoff. Recommended for the small handful of admirers for conceptual filmmakers like João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata, it screens this coming Monday (3/23) at MoMA and Tuesday (3/24) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2015 ND/NF.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Gunman: Sean Penn’s Congo Temp Gig

Seriously, why bother assassinating a government official of a failed state? A small team of mercs will do so anyway, because a job is a job. Unfortunately, the shadowy outfit managing the contract has started tying up loose ends. Those would be Jim Terrier and his former comrades-in-arms. He just might be the only left who isn’t part of the conspiracy, but he should be enough to bring them all down in Pierre Morel’s The Gunman (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For a while, Terrier was really enjoying the Congo assignment. While secretly working for Lawrence Cox’s death squad, he volunteered as a relief coordinator by day to maintain his cover. That is how he met and fell hard for Annie, the professional do-gooder. Unfortunately, just when both their romance and the country’s civil war are heating up, Terrier is assigned to the team taking out an uncooperative natural resources minister looking to renegotiate terms (in real life, the mining companies would just say fine, call us when you have a working legal system). Since he will be the trigger man, Terrier will have to vanish afterwards, leaving Annie to the creepy advances of Felix, his smarmy corporate contact.

Haunted by his collective guilt, Terrier returns to Congo, hoping to do penance, like Jack Bauer in the two-hour special 24: Redemption. However, when an unusually well-equipped hit squad shows up gunning for Terrier, he realizes someone is out to get the old gang, but they all seem to be dead, except for him and the suspiciously chipper Cox. Felix also seems to be acting excessively obnoxious, but that is just sort of how he is. For understandable reasons, his wife Annie has mixed emotions seeing Terrier again, but the sparks are still there. She tries to guilt trip him, pointedly asking: “what did you expect showing up after all this time,” but since they just slept together, things are probably exceeding his expectations (but not necessarily ours).

Frankly, the early scenes of the hard-bitten assassins doubling as relief logistical specialists are rather intriguing and hint at dramatic possibilities the film opts not to take. Of course, we have to deal with the film as it is and not what it might have been. Granted, the narrative drive and internal logic start to sag in the second act, with the former rebounding and the latter utterly imploding down the stretch, but nobody can blame Sean Penn. Gunman is really his coming out party as a middle aged action figure, where he indeed shows he has the chops and the presence. He also clearly put in the time at the gym.

However, Idris Elba is even more impressive, getting second billing over Javier Bardem for maybe two days of work, tops. Appearing as DuPont, the Interpol agent, he just drops in, makes an extended treehouse analogy and then disappears until it’s time for the mopping up. Yet, he is still totally badass. Ray Winstone does his old hardnosed thing as Terrier’s trustworthy associate Stanley and Mark Rylance’s Cox chews on a fair amount of scenery. Frankly, it is hard to know what to make of former Bond villain Bardem, but at least he isn’t playing it safe as the whiny, petulant Felix. On the other hand, it is safe to say Jasmine Trinca (so subtle and earthy in Valeria Golino’s Honey) is woefully wasted as the problematically passive Annie.

There are some nicely executed old school actions scenes in Gunman, but some sequences are undermined by questionable editing. On several occasions it looks like Terrier is in the immediate path of assorted perils, only to find him safely outside the line of fire an abrupt cut or two later. Taken helmer Morel gets the attitude right, but he largely keeps the film on a medium tempo rather than a break neck speed. You just leave the theater suspecting in most alternate universes, this movie is totally awesome, but the one we get is just okay. It will satisfy hardcore Penn fans, but the rest of us should feel no urgent need to rush out to see it when it opens this Friday (3/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Tracers: Taylor Lautner Jumps and Climbs

Pay attention children. Taylor Lautner will demonstrate why you should stay in school. He is a bike messenger who keeps losing his bicycle. That is a shame, because he owes a lot of money to a loan shark. Most unfortunately, he did not borrow enough to save his dying mother’s house, so he is now practically homeless and on the hook for the principle and the fast compounding vig. This poor kid is so dumb, the shadowy leader of a gang of parkour thieves figures he might as well start exploiting him too in Daniel Benmayor’s Tracers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Cam, the sullen bike messenger, needs all the runs he can get. He owes big time to the Chinatown mob and he is behind on his rent to the single mother, whose garage he is crashing in (maybe he has a room as well, but he never seems to use it). Unfortunately, his livelihood gets irreparably banged up when he swerves to avoid Nikki, a parkour chick falling out of the sky. Naturally, he responds to this crisis by obsessively watching parkour videos on his smart phone.

Nikki has no interest in a loser like him (and neither do we), but she feels guilty enough to drop off a new set of two-wheels for him at the messenger center. Logically, he has that one stolen out from under him when he sets off in search of her. After a few beatings administered his loan officer’s thugs, Cam manages to talk his way into Nikki’s gang. Her colleagues are pretty impressed, considering he developed some mean parkour skills in about twenty minutes. Miller, the mastermind, also sees a sucker he can use. However, Cam is always causing trouble, pestering him for dough and making swoony eyes at Nikki, who is stuck being Miller’s woman, whether she likes it or not.

Eventually, everyone in this line has to cover a Taylor Lautner film, so it might as well be something as innocuous as Tracers. Essentially, it starts out trying to be the old Kevin Bacon vehicle Quicksilver and then attempts to morph into a parkour thriller in the tradition of the Luc Besson produced B13 franchise. Sadly, it lacks the catchy 1980s soundtrack of the former and the pedal-to-the-metal energy of the latter. Even though parkour is the reason for Tracers’ being, the action is just sort of okay. To give an example, at one point Benmayor prominently frames the Empire State Building, getting our hopes up that the film will finally go for it like Remo Williams at the Statue of Liberty—but no, it’s just there for background color.

It is hard to really see why Lautner has a movie career from Tracers. He exhibits absolutely no charisma, but to be fair, he seems inoffensive and mostly rather polite. As Nikki, Marie Avgeropoulos is blandly attractive in much the same way. There are other members of the gang, but they hardly merit individual names. They just run, jump, and die, when necessary. On the other hand, Adam Rayner makes a reasonably competent lead villain as Miller and Johnny M. Wu serves as a relatively entertaining supporting villain as Jerry the loan shark.

Somehow Benmayor managed to find all the gritty, post-industrial riverfront locations left in New York. He has a decent eye for urban blight, but he lets the teeny-boppish melodrama intrude too much on the action. Nevertheless, the film ends with a surprisingly satisfying turn of events, but calling it a “twist” would be too strong a term. In all honesty, Tracers just isn’t worth your movie ticket dollars. Parkour fans are much better off revisiting the B13 movies, but it might suit the needs of DirecTV subscribers who want to turn off their brains and zone out in front of something harmless. Regardless, it opens theatrically this Friday (3/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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