J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Leviathan: To be Ruled by the Nasty, Brutish, and Short

It is worth noting Andrey Zvyagintsev originally hails from Siberia, the traditional banishing ground of Russian dissidents. Perhaps then it is not surprising dissent is in his DNA. Up to now, his films have shown an affinity for the marginalized and the compromised in Russian society. However, his latest, Cannes award winning film boldly critiques the two greatest power centers in modern Russia, Putin’s government and the Orthodox Church. Rather shockingly, Russia selected Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan as their official foreign language Oscar submission (one can imagine several film authority bureaucrats were transferred to Siberian radio for that one), but it stands a fair chance of being nominated, having just made the shortlist cut. Already a recognizable contemporary classic, Leviathan (trailer here) opens Christmas Day at Film Forum.

Kolya is not a sophisticated man, but he knows injustice for what it is. He lives next to his hardscrabble automotive garage with his somewhat younger second wife Lilya and Roma, his son from his first marriage. His house and surrounding land are all he owns, but the town’s corpulently corrupt Mayor Vadim Shelevyat covets it for his dodgy development scheme. Naturally, he is not inclined to pay Kolya a fair price, preferring instead to use the Russian equivalent of imminent domain.

Shelevyat expects that will be that, as it usually is when the machinery of the state is unleashed, but Kolya is made of unusually stern stuff. His old army buddy Dmitri also happens to be a hotshot attorney from Moscow, who owes Kolya a favor. Dmitri fully understands the law in such cases, but Shelevyat and his underlings refuse to acknowledge it. The advocate also has a dossier of embarrassing dirt on the Mayor, but getting into a hardball contest with Shelevyat is a dangerous proposition. As the provincial dictator turns up the heat, with the implied support of the local Orthodox bishop, tensions within Kolya’s family and Dmitri’s mixed motives threaten to fatally undermine the embattled mechanic.

There is no mistaking Leviathan’s political implications, especially when Putin’s ominous portrait stares down from Shelevyat’s wall as plans each successive abuse of power. However, the extent to which he calls out the Orthodox Church for abetting the current regime is jaw-droppingly gutsy (should you doubt it, simply review the fate of the Pussy Riot band-members after protesting the Church’s support for Putin). Yet, it would be wrong to mislabel Zvyagintsev as anti-Church, because there is at least one pious Orthodox clergyman in Leviathan, who appears uncomfortable with his leadership.

Zvyagintsev briefly unleashes Russia’s anarchic sensibilities when Kolya’s off-duty highway patrol officer buddies take him target-shooting using the portraits of the old Soviet masters. Not so coincidentally, they might be the healthiest characters in the film, but despite their unruliness, they are largely disenfranchised cogs in a state apparatus dominated by the likes of Shelevyat.

Clearly, Leviathan offers a withering assessment of the current state of Russian affairs, but Zvyagintsev’s critiques are fully integrated into the wider narrative whole. In fact, the former serve the latter, rather than vice versa. As a result, Leviathan has the form of a parable, the soul of a Russian tragedy, and the moral outrage of a J’accuse. Critically, it is also remarkably forceful when judged on purely cinematic terms. As Kolya, Aleksey Serebryakov is no mere symbolic everyman. His pain and rage hit the audience on a level that is honest and true. Likewise, Vladimir Vdovichenkov plays Dmitri and all his human failings with mature subtlety. Yet perhaps appropriately, Roman Madianov largely defines and personifies Leviathan as the buffoonish but ruthless Shelevyat.

Without question, Leviathan is an important cinematic statement that will reverberate beyond the short term awards season. It is like hydrogen peroxide in film form. It stings and it disinfects. Stylistically, it is somewhat uncompromising, but it still demands a wide audience. Highly recommended, it opens Thursday the 25th (ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas) at Film Forum in New York. Patrons in other cities should waste no time seeing it when it opens, in case the national exhibitors start pulling it for fear it will offend an oppressive foreign regime, since that’s what they apparently do these days, especially when they are released by a division of Sony.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night

So much for labor solidarity. The workers of Sondra’s local have voted to allow management to lay her off so they can keep their bonuses. It will be a devastating blow to her and her family, but that’s her problem, not theirs. However, she has been granted a second vote, due to the foreman’s improper attempt to influence the outcome. With the encouragement of her husband Manu and a supportive workmate, Sondra will fight for her job, practicing retail politics at its most personal in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Sondra was already grappling with the debilitating clinical depression that contributed to her extended sick leave. Obviously, this will not help. Unfortunately, her time away convinced management they could make do with one less person and the unseen, barely referenced union agreed. Reportedly, the foreman told her co-workers management was determined to lay off somebody regardless of the vote, so they might as well get their bonuses out of the deal. The truth of that contention is a bit murky.

Armed with this new information, Sondra tries to buck-up and lobby her colleagues to allow her to stay, despite the very real financial cost they would have to bear. Thus proceeds a series of incredibly awkward conversations. Some react with bitter resentment, while others overflow with guilt. Each becomes an intense one-on-one encounter, but they all essentially start the same way. Unfortunately, the Dardennes’ naturalist ethos precludes them from fast-forwarding through Sondra’s familiar expository intros, but at least they always go someplace uncomfortably honest. In fact, she even learns some of her co-workers are in an even worse position, due to their abusive home lives and dicey legal standings.

Two Days is being billed as the Dardenne Brothers’ first collaboration with a major movie star, which must be news to Cécile de France, who starred in the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike, as well as Eastwood’s Hereafter and scores of high profile French films. Regardless, it is easy to see why the New York Film Critics Circle named Marion Cotillard best actress for her work as Sondra. It is a raw, earthy performance that eschews superficial flash for a deeper, darker means of expression. Sometimes it is painful to watch her (of course that was true of the ludicrously twitchy Meryl Streep in Ossage County, but for the opposite, less edifying reason).

Clearly, this is Cotillard’s show, but Fabrizio Rongione’s turn as the more stable Manu also makes quite a quiet impact. In fact, the entire ensemble is remarkably assured and uncompromisingly convincing, despite their radically differing levels of professional experience (as per usual in the Dardennes’ films). Arguably, each confrontation between Sondra and a co-worker could stand alone as a self-contained film, given the strength of the supporting cast.

Although Belgium selected Two Days as their official Foreign Language Academy Award submission, it did not make the shortlist. There is always critical favorite that gets snubbed and ironically this year it is Two Days, a film driven by the process of vote-counting. Although it is a bit repetitive as a whole, the individual performances and in-the-moment flashes of truth more than carry the film. Recommended for those who appreciate social drama and Francophone cinema, Two Days, One Night opens Christmas Eve (12/24) at the IFC Center in New York.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hou Hsiao-hsien at the Freer: Millennium Mambo

What’s the point of slouching through Fin de siècle Taipei if you do not indulge in a little hedonism? Unfortunately, that seems to be the best life can offer one lost beauty. She will find far more consolation in artificial stimulants and pounding club music than from her spectacularly unhealthy lover in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (trailer here), which screens tomorrow at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery in Washington, DC.

Vicky is a stunning beauty, but she has made some terrible choices, such as getting involved with Hao-hao, an emotional abusive deadbeat. She would like to make a clean break from him, but every time she tries, he keeps coming back, worming into her life and living space once again. However, when Vicky lets Jack, a mid-level gangster, serve as her sugar-daddy she might finally be well rid of Hao-hao. Nevertheless, do not expect a happy ending for their apparently platonic whatever-it-is.

Mambo’s opening shot of Vicky walking through a somewhat sketchy looking pedestrian bridge is a visual tour-de-force with all the iconic sexuality of Marilyn Monroe’s subway vent encounter, but infused with a potent sense of menace. Unfortunately, the rest of the film lacks the same level of pop. While Hou’s anesthetized vibe is a deliberate strategy that sort of works, his temporal shifts are not clearly delineated. Still, Vicky’s dispassionate narration, told from the vantage point of ten years in the future, is eerily disconcerting. It almost sounds as if she were whispering from the graveyard, even though there is no reason to believe she will not bounce back from her setbacks, landing on her feet or what-have-you.

Few films give viewers such intimate knowledge of its characters, yet somehow we never really feel we understand who they truly are. Of course, that is the whole point. Despite her inscrutability, Shu Qi holds viewers’ attention in a vice-lock. It is not just her ethereal beauty. We can see there is something dramatic brewing in her eyes, we just can’t tell what. As Hao-hao, Tuan Chun-hao makes a contemptible character strangely forgettable, but the steely gravitas of Jack Kao’s namesake at least gives Shu Qi some memorable support during the third act.

Arguably, Mambo is very definitely a product of its hipster millennial time. By now, the combination of its dreamy neon visuals and driving electronica already feels a little dated. Still, the film’s evocative nocturnal look is a prime example why Mark Lee Ping-bin is considered one of the world’s foremost cinematographers. It is hardly perfect, but it is still quite worth seeing, if only for Shu Qi’s seductively raw performance. It should also help tide over fans as we wait and hope for The Assassin, Hou’s first wuxia film, naturally starring Shu Qi. Recommended for those who appreciate Hou’s more rarified art-house releases, Millennium Mambo screens (for free) tomorrow (12/21), at the Freer Gallery in DC.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Submitted by Serbia: See You in Montevideo

Uruguay hosted the first FIFA World Cup in 1930. It was a full sixty-five years before Sepp Blatter joined the international sports organization, but the fix was still in, nonetheless. The Yugoslavian National Team will bear the brunt of the tournament’s dubious officiating, but they will make history just the same in Dragan Bjelogrlić’s See You in Montevideo (trailer here), which Serbia has selected as their official foreign language submission for the upcoming Academy Awards.

It was not easy getting to Uruguay. It took an entire film (Bjelogrlić’s Montevideo: Taste of a Dream, submitted in 2011) for poor earnest Aleksandar “Tirke” Tirnanić and roguish Blagoje “Moša” Marjanović to unite their team and win the honor of representing Yugoslavia at the World Cup. The transatlantic passage was no picnic either, entailing much seasickness. Even when they arrive, the Yugoslavian team still can’t get any respect. Expected to go one-and-out, they are booked in a divey hotel, while the rest of the field will stay at palatial resort. Nobody gives them a puncher’s chance when they draw Brazil in the first round, but since they face-off halfway through the film, it might be safe to assume they have an upset in them. However, impartial officiating goes out the window when Yugoslavia is matched up with the host nation in the semis.

The National Team’s 1930 run is still the best international showing for both Yugoslavian and Serbian football-soccer to date and it is a pretty good sports story. However, two films both clocking in with a running length of about two and a half hours hardly seems economical. Frankly, each could have easily come in under ninety minutes, but they love the all Serbian 1930 Yugoslavian team in Serbia, so Bjelogrlić takes his time.

This time around, Bjelogrlić and his co-writers Ranko Božić and Dimitrije Vojnov prospect for more laughs and pile on the subplots. Sometimes they do not make much sense, like that featuring the game Armand Assante as Hotchkins, an American looking to sign players for some sort of American soccer tour, which would have gone over like a lead balloon in depression-era America. However, Tirnanić’s romance with Dolores, a Uruguayan beauty, is rather sweet and appealing, even if her lunatic brother’s subplot to the subplot is way too over-the-top.

Regardless, Petar Strugar convincingly transitions Marjanović from dashing cad to world-weary sportsman. Assante chews scenery like he hasn’t eaten since American Gangster. It is a head-shakingly odd performance, but strangely enjoyable. Elena Martínez generates plenty of heat as Dolores and forges some respectable screen chemistry with Miloš Biković’s otherwise plodding Tirnanić. However, Branko Đurić is defiantly shticky and manipulative as Paco, a Croatian expat who befriends Mali Stanjoe, the team’s young Dickensian mascot.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the second Montevideo installment is the nostalgia for Yugoslavian identity. While the previous film often expressed pride in the team’s Serbianess, the players explicitly demand respect for Yugoslavia this time around. Despite the weirdness of Assante’s Hotchkins, the film also portrays the American team in a consistently favorable light, suggesting they were good sports, much like Jackson Scholtz in Chariots of Fire. In fact, the conclusion serves as a cool example of sportsmanship and old fashioned love of the game.

Evidently, there is even more to the team’s story that was chronicled in a companion television series. One of the smaller sports networks ought to pick-up the entire Montevideo franchise, because the sport is growing in popularity here, but 1930 still represents America’s peak World Cup performance, so far (just as it does for Yugoslavia and Serbia). It certainly deserves a wider international audience than the FIFA-bankrolled United Passions. Easily one of the most accessible films of this year’s foreign language submissions, See You in Montevideo had a special screening in Los Angeles this Monday, hosted by Deadline’s AwardsLine. Recommended for sports fans who do not mind a little sentimentality, it will screen again soon at the 2015 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

AFI’s EU Showcase ’14: Falling Star

In 1870 the Duke of Aosta was elected King of Spain. If the very concept of electing a monarch sounds weird, just wait till you get a load of the surreal treatment he gets in Lluis Miñarro’s anti-bio-picture. His reign was short and there would not be a King Amadeo II succeeding him. Frankly, he never had a chance to govern in any meaningful way, as Miñarro makes crystal clear in the otherwise subjectively hallucinatory Falling Star (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2014 EU Film Showcase.

Shortly after his parliamentary election, King Amadeo’s most influential supporter is assassinated. Essentially, he becomes a lame duck before he is even sworn in, without any pomp or circumstance. Arguably, the self-described “Republican King” could have been a reformist force. He even advocated the separation of church and state. However, the Republicans, Basques, and Catalans simply were not having any further king business. Without a constituency, King Amadeo becomes a veritable prisoner in his palace.

With only a handful of servants and a few duplicitous ministers for company, the King’s mind starts to wander a bit. He is plagued with bizarre nightmares and shares some odd moments with the lusty serving wench who wanders in and out of the picture. He perks up a little when his wife María Vittoria finally joins him, but the die is cast.

In terms of effectiveness, Amadeo is right down there with Pu Yi, but the Spanish monarchy would rebound following his abdication and a brief Republican interregnum. In fact, he seems ripe for critical reappraisal given his relative progressiveness, but that is not really Miñarro’s program. Instead, he engages in the sort of playful postmodern historical anachronisms that everyone hated in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

He also indulges in plenty of sexually charged flights of fantasy that emphasize bizarre imagery over explicit titillation (if you want to see a man having rough sex with a melon than you’re in business). In terms of visual composition and Mise en scène, Falling is not so very far removed from Albert Serra’s The Story of My Death, but Miñarro maintains a far punchier vibe (even though not a whole heck of a lot happens in an objective sense).

Resembling Franco Nero at the peak of his popularity, Àlex Brendemühl (chilling in The German Doctor) is terrific as King Amadeo, visibly choking down the anger and resentment of each new indignity. As María Vittoria, Bárbara Lennie’s regal screen presence and intriguing allure add a needed kick to the film, but none of the pervy servants are ever fleshed out (so to speak) into compelling characters.

Potential viewers should take note: Falling has a short but naughty stinger, so if you go, you might as well stay for the very end. On paper, it sounds like a wild romp, but the disparate elements never congeal into a satisfying whole. The one hundred eleven minute running time also feels all that and maybe more. Interesting as an opportunity to pop-psychoanalyze contemporary Spanish cultural currents, but a radically mixed bag as a movie-going experience, Falling Stars is only for self-selecting audiences when it screens tomorrow (12/19) and Sunday (12/21) as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase, outside of Washington, DC.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Song of the Sea: A Selkie Story

W.B. Yeats is not often quoted in animated features, but his poem “The Stolen Child” is very definitely a source of inspiration for Tomm Moore’s latest film. If that sounds too serious for your viewing pleasure, take comfort from the presence of a big lovable fur ball of a dog named Cú—that being the Gaelic word for dog. There will also be selkies and assorted faery folk. Yes indeed, you can expect a generous helping of Celtic lore in Moore’s truly lovely Song of the Sea (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Presumably, Ben’s mother Bronagh died in child birth with his little sister Saoirse, but there is more to the story than he realizes. The truth is Bronagh was a selkie, a mythical shape-shifting seal woman, who can live on dry land for years, must eventually return to the sea. Saoirse is her mother’s daughter, who was born with a selkie coat to wear as she transforms, but her lighthouse keeper father keeps it hidden under lock-and-key for fear of losing her too.

Ben is supposed to look after his sister, but he often loses patience with the young girl. She has yet to speak a word, but she can make music worthy of Steve Turre with the shell Ben keeps as a remembrance of their mother. For the most part, the outdoorsy island life suits both children, but their bossy grandmother insists on relocating them to Dublin. Unfortunately, taking Saoirse that far from the water is not a good idea, but the faithful Cú will help guide them home. Along the way, they will meet several Fae beings who have a personal stake in restoring the young selkie’s powers.

Song of the Sea pretty much has it all when it comes to animated movies. Moore taps into some deep Celtic legend to tell a mature, psychologically complex coming-of-age story. Plus, Cú is just huggably adorable. The hand drawn animation is also a thing of beauty. While Moore’s figures are deliberately simple and anime-esque (in a big-eyed kind of way), his landscapes and fantasyscapes are breathtakingly lush. He also integrates music into the film in a culturally organic manner that powerfully underscores the on-screen mood and sometimes helps drive the narrative.

Granted, Saoirse hardly makes a peep in Song, but her character development arc packs quite an emotional wallop. Viewers older than your correspondent (by decades) were fighting off the sniffles at the conclusion of the screening we attended. Even if you have a heart of stone, you will completely invest in her story, in spite of yourself. Older boys will also readily identify with Ben, who has navigated much of life’s confusions largely on his own. Together, they will negotiate several highly fantastical turn of events, but it is their sibling relationship that anchors the film.

This year, GKIDS has two legitimate Oscar contenders in Song and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, both of which conclusively demonstrate animation can be a legit form of art. Each is also rather tragic, but in a wholly satisfying sort of way. Yet, Song is still safely kid-friendly (thanks again to Cú). Frankly, they ought to be in contention for best picture overall, but GKIDS will probably have to settle for an animation nomination for one or the other. Highly recommended, Song of the Sea opens this Friday (12/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stonehearst Asylum: the Poe Treatment

Dr. Silas Lamb certainly understands the pluses and minuses of corporal punishment and anesthetizing drugs as treatment for lunacy. He is after all based on the superintendent of Poe’s short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” He will indeed reveal a revolutionary and irreversible new treatment to his naïve young colleague. Yes, there has been the proverbial reversal of positions in the remote mental hospital, but the standard of care has arguably increased in Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum (trailer here), which releases on DVD and BluRay today, from Millennium Entertainment.

Idealistic Dr. Edward Newgate has arrived at Stonehearst determined to talk his way into a job. He has a passion for psychiatric medicine that duly impresses Dr. Lamb, even though he was not expecting a prospective assistant. Although he talks a progressive game, Newgate is rather shocked by Lamb’s indulgent methods. Several of the patients even perform nursing duties and dine with the staff at night. However, he is even more preoccupied with Eliza Graves, the abused wife of a rich and powerful society scion. For her own protection, Lamb promises to keep her safely committed. Of course, Newgate has his own ideas regarding Ms. Graves that become ever more confused when he discovers the real staff chained up in the dungeon.

It goes without saying, but Stonehearst would have been so much more awesome if it had been made by Roger Corman. Anderson and the design team get the trappings right, but they never properly convey an atmosphere of gothic dread nor a flair for cheeky camp. It is sort of like a middling BBC historical drama set in a nut house.

Still, Sir Ben Kingsley gets a spirit of things rather admirably. He certainly is not bashful when it comes to chewing on scenery and freaks out quite convincingly when he has to. Unfortunately, Jim Sturgess and Kate Beckinsale make pretty vanilla Victorians as Newgate and Graves, respectively. Michael Caine and Brendan Gleeson have their moments as more conventionally problematic alienists, but there is only so much they can do. Even David Thewliss seems to be forcing matters as the malevolent groundskeeper known as “Mickey Finn.”

Screenwriter Ben Gangemi is about as faithful to Poe as the classic Corman adaptations, adding a further ironic twist that works well in context. Nevertheless, a costume genre film really ought to be more fun. Instead, Stonehearst is strangely determined to make a serious statement about the shortcomings of the Victorian mental health system, which seems beyond unnecessary at this point. Kingsley is a gamer, but only Poe completists should feel the need to catch up with Stonehearst Asylum, now available on DVD from Millennium Entertainment.

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Faraway: How Not to Tour the Philippines

Don’t want to take responsibility for your crummy life? Blame the Diwata, the creatures of Philippine legend that literally write the fates of every human being. An American tourist is convinced she knows where to find the seat of their mystical domain. There might be considerable treasure there as well. To be honest, she is not too sure about that point, but it doesn’t stop a gang of bandits from following her rag-tag party in Randal Kamradt’s Faraway (trailer here), which releases on VOD today, from Devolver Digital.

Audrey Felidor does not have much of a plan, but she seems to generally know where she is going. She acts All-American and does not speak Tagalog or other local lingo, despite claiming to be half-Filipino. Needing an English speaking guide, she somehow convinces Nick, the expatriate screenwriter staying in her boarding house to help her traverse three hundred miles to her destination island. He is a far cry from Indiana Jones, but at least their landlady’s rebellious daughter Hazel and her forbidden boyfriend Rey have a set of wheels. Unfortunately, their drunken chatter attracts the attention of a band of cutthroats that will be hard to shake.

To his credit, Kamradt staked out a mythical race that has not been spoiled by Twilight or another paranormal YA franchise. In fact, the opening introduction to the Diwata and their Diwataism is quite intriguing and grabby. The subsequent ride will have its bumpy patches, but there is something appealingly scrappy about the film, nonetheless.

To be honest, Faraway is a dashed difficult sort of film to review. If you only see one film in a week or a month, you are likely to be disappointed by its rough edges, but if you see ten or fifteen a week, you will give it credit for its eccentricities and stylishly turned scenes (particularly the expository puppet show and the rave in the jungle). Kamradt’s screenplay takes a surreal twist down the stretch that might not work so well, but it certainly is not the third act audiences will be expecting. For what it’s worth, the one-sheet is also totally cool.

In a case of aesthetic consistency, Dana Jamison brings the strangest screen presence to the film as Felidor. It is not that she is bad. In fact, her performance is rather effective given the full dramatic context, but it still feels a little odd. Over time, Nick Medina somewhat grows on the audience as his namesake screenwriter. First time screen-thesp Genelyka Castin is a total natural right from the start as Hazel, but Leonard Olaer’s Rey sort of wilts amongst the bedlam.

Those who are always looking for the next big thing in indie genre cinema will not begrudge time spent with Faraway and will be receptive to Kamradt’s next film, but it is not exactly a magnum opus. For now, give cast and crew credit for finishing what must have been a difficult shoot. Recommended for the adventurous who appreciate an unpolished bauble, Faraway is now available on VOD platforms from Devolver Digital.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation, Still in Progress

It could very well have been St. Joseph himself who miraculously constructed the Loretto Chapel’s circular staircase in Santa Fe, but strictly speaking, he was a carpenter. That leaves Antoni Gaudí in pretty exclusive company as a beautified architect. One hundred thirty years after it first broke ground, his life defining project continues to be erected in Barcelona. Stefan Haupt follows the progress and meditates on the significance of the already imposing cathedral in Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Originally commissioned in 1882, the Order of St. Joseph hired Gaudí to take control of the unwieldy project a year later. Known for his devout Catholicism and wholly distinctive style, Gaudí was an inspired but slightly risky choice. Throughout his final years, he lived and breathed the Sagrada Familia, even though he knew he would never live to see its completion. He hoped to see the Nativity façade finished, but tragically succumbed to injuries sustained from a tram accident. For a while, his assistant Domènech Sugranyes carried on in his stead, until the macro events of the Twentieth Century temporarily halted the project.

Haupt does a nice job chronicling the various phases of construction, but his cast of talking head experts are suspiciously concise when discussing the effects of the Spanish Civil War. Evidently, when the Loyalists were burning churches, they also destroyed all of Gaudí’s plans and scale models that they could find, leaving the Sugranyes and his fellow architects in absolute disarray, but they were good leftists, so let’s not discuss it.

Still, Haupt and the current architectural team clearly understand the Ken Follett-like sweep of the project. For many, it represents not just faith in God and his church, but a faith that succeeding generations would finish the work they started. Obviously, the final Sagrada Familia will be necessarily different from what Gaudí originally conceived, which is a burden and an opportunity for several contemporary artists working on its decorative elements. Easily the most eloquent is Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, who converted to Catholicism while working on the Sagrada Familia. In fact, there are a number of Japanese connections to the cathedral, such as Hiroshi Teshigahara, who previously documented an earlier period of construction in his film Antonio Gaudí (also opening this Friday).

At times, Haupt asks (or implies) some spot on questions, like what do contemporary Christians build if we no longer erect cathedrals? Of course, his trump card is the Sagrada Familia itself. It is a stunning sight, perhaps even more so when juxtaposed against the modern secular cranes supporting its raise into the heavens. It would be hard to make it look prosaic, but Haupt and cinematographer Patrick Lindenmaier find particularly cinematic angles for some truly dramatic visual compositions.

On the other hand, Haupt forces an artificially surreal note into the film when he stages brief scenes of dancer Anna Huber posing amid the half-constructed interiors. Regardless, it still serves as a thoughtful overview, primer, and guided tour of what has already become Barcelona’s most popular tourist attraction. Sometimes religion and architecture can actually draw a crowd. Recommended for Gaudí admirers, Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation opens this Friday (12/19) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter

It is the second installment of Éric Rohmer’s cinematic quartet thematically linked by the four seasons and the closest he came to producing a Christmas movie. The year-end holidays will indeed be celebrated and a visit to church will yield tremendous spiritual comfort. Nonetheless, interpersonal relationships remain as tricky as ever in Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Technically, this tale begins at the end of summer—and what a lovely summer it was. While on holiday, Félicie fell madly in love with Charles, an itinerant but highly trained chef. After weeks of gamboling, they parted at the train station, promising to reconnect soon. When five years pass in a flash, it is clear that did not happen. However, it is not his fault. Félicie inadvertently scrawled out the wrong address, as she sometimes does.

Since he had no permanent information, their ties were severed, leaving her to raise the daughter he never knew of on her own. Yet, she clings to the romantic notion fate will somehow reunite them, just as she resolves to settle down with Maxence, her boss at the hair salon. That leaves tragically intellectual Loïc as the odd man out in her life, at least until she decides cohabitating with Maxence is not working out as she hoped, which takes about a day.

Rohmer’s films very definitely serve as time capsules, reflecting the peculiar pressures of love or something close to it at the time each was produced. While Winter’s exact circumstances seem quaint in era of e-mail, pining for the one that got away will never be an obsolete phenomenon and Rohmer fully captures the feeling. Although he is the missing man, Charles presence (or rather its lack) is tangibly felt throughout the film.

Frankly Rohmer is the sort of filmmaker audiences might very well hate if they only see one of his films, but if they binge on three or four, they will start to love them all. The aesthetics of their workaday visuals, deceptively simple narratives, and dialogue that is both realistic yet heavy in meaning takes some getting used to. In all honesty, Richard Misek’s docu-essay Rohmer in Paris is quite helpful developing one’s Rohmer sea legs, clueing viewers into Rohmerisms such as characters’ constant perambulating and his obsessive marking of the passage of days. Eventually though, the honesty of his films and the apparent effortlessness of his auteurism will just click open the lock in your head.

For the most part, Winter is good as most of Rohmer’s oeuvre, but a scene in which Félicie visits a local church rather than return to the impatient Maxence and her subsequent description of the resulting epiphany boost it to a higher level. It really demonstrates how Rohmer could lower the boom without anyone seeing it coming.

As Félicie, Charlotte Véry rises to the occasion of her big, character-plumbing scenes, but she often feels miscast, which is a slight problem considering she is on-screen nearly every second. Félicie is supposed to be a stunner, prone to impulsiveness, yet still easily capable of juggling multiple men. However, Véry has a somewhat modest screen presence.

Regardless, she still comes across real enough in the moment, even if we can’t quite buy into her as a pseudo-femme fatale. In contrast, Frédéric van den Driessche perfectly embodies the dashing Charles, while Hervé Furic plays the unassuming Loïc as a complicated, fully dimensional person, bookish though he might be. He keeps the film emotionally grounded and selflessly facilitates the big themes that ultimately emerge.

Winter is a quintessentially Rohmeresque film in that it leaves viewers feeling they have eavesdropped on someone else’s life and maybe gleaned a few lessons from the experience. Arguably, it takes some wild turns down the stretch, but Rohmer makes them look logical and matter-of-fact. Recommended for those who appreciate smart and mature drama, A Tale of Winter opens this Friday (12/19) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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Radhe, Radhe: the Rites of Holi at BAM

In 1913, the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring caused riots. One hundred years, later it has been codified and canonized to such an extent, considerable programming was commissioned to celebrate its centennial. The music does not directly correlate to Stravinsky’s score, but it served as something of a road map for Prashant Bhargava when he filmed the Holi springtime festival in the Northern Indian city of Mathura. Conceived and commissioned as a collaboration with musician Vijay Iyer, Bhargava’s Radhe, Radhe: the Rites of Holi (trailer here), screens with the composer’s live score accompaniment as part of Iyer’s Music of Transformation concert program at BAM.

Now available on DVD from ECM Records, Radhe, Radhe is sort of an experimental melding music and images in the spirit of Shirley Clarke’s Bridges-Go-Round, but with dramatic and ethnographic components. Bhargava duly captures the eight day Holi festivities in Lord Krishna’s traditional birthplace, but he intersperses the revelry with impressionistic scenes of the goddess Radha, whose ardor for Krishna encompassed and transcended all forms of love.

Although it mirrors the twelve movement structure of Stravinsky’s Rites, viewers will be forgiven if they do not pick up on that point while immersed in the work, especially since the film only identifies two primary sections, “Adoration” and “Transcendence.” Iyer’s solo piano prelude is rather dissonant and free-ish, but it soon gives way to a brightly hued, driving theme with a somewhat Metheny-esque vibe nicely suited to the exuberant crowd scenes. Eventually the flutes evoke the sounds of traditional Indian musical forms, but the trumpets build to a series of rather brassy and jazzy crescendos.

During the “Transcendence” section, Iyer’s skittering piano often announces abrupt mood swings on screen. While Holi is a celebration, nobody is excluded from the customary dousing of colorful dies and powders, regardless of age or general willingness. Indeed, some targets of the merriment clearly do not enjoy the attention, which rather darkens the film’s tone, but it is true to life.

Perhaps the most intimidating challenge fell to actress Anna George, who must convey the passion and devotion of Radha without the benefit of dialogue. Yet, she does so with great power and sensitivity, without ever allowing becoming overwhelmed by Iyer’s roiling score.

The combined artistry of Iyer, Bhargava, and George really transports viewers to an entirely different sphere. Even with the recorded score, it is the darnedest Stravinsky tribute. Hearing it performed live (by Iyer with the International Contemporary Ensemble) should give it a further kick. Recommended for those who appreciate multi-media collaborations, Radhe, Radhe: the Rites of Holi screens during Iyer’s Music of Transformation concerts this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (12/18-12/20) at BAM.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The American Revolution, pts 2 & 3

Timothy Murphy was the original American Sniper. With his grooved rifle, Murphy singled-handedly turned the tide of the Battle of Saratoga and pretty much the entire war along with it. He is exactly the sort of scrappy unassuming hero that continue to get their due in the second and third installments of American Heroes Channel’s three-part The American Revolution (promo here), which continues right after Monday night’s’ premiere with The Empire Fights Back.

Ironically, the Revolutionary War never looked good for the Patriots until they finally won it outright. Things looked particularly grim when George Washington’s Continental Army was stranded in Brooklyn. That was bad news even in late August 1776, especially with the Redcoats advancing from Long Island and the British Navy hastening to cut-off the East River. It would be Joe Pesci-esque Col. John Glover who organized their daring retreat, allowing them to fight another day.

While Glover is definitely the ranking hero of Empire, the second and third episodes spread the overdue ovations around a bit more than the Joseph Warren-centric Rise of Patriots. In the two succeeding episodes, Oneida chief Han Yerry, Virginia slave James Armistead, Portuguese immigrant Peter Francisco, and teenaged girls Sybil Ludington and Betty Zane get their just due. At one time, the latter might have been familiar to some readers through the biographical novel written by her great-grandnephew Zane Grey, but name recognition for both Zanes has probably fallen off in recent years.

However, arguably the most intriguing figure of Empire is John Honeyman, a Patriot spy who was so successful, we are still unsure if that was really his name. There are several good candidates for movie treatments in AHC’s American Revolution, with Honeyman being at the top of the list (and requiring the most creative license).

Throughout Empire and the concluding Return of the Rebels, the series maintains it focus on heroism (as it well should, given the name of the network) and its implied endorsement of American exceptionalism (while still acknowledging without belaboring the gross inequities of slavery, which is a tricky balancing act). It also maintains the quality of the first episode, largely on par with some of the better (but often less heralded) PBS historical programs.

In fact, there is a real market for programming like American Revolution. People have an appetite for hook-y digestible history without a lot of ideological soapboxing that the History Channel is not serving the way it used to. Those serious but not necessarily scholarly military history buffs should definitely enjoy AHC’s American Revolution. Recommended for general audiences, episodes one and two air back-to-back this Monday (12/15), with the conclusion following this Tuesday night (12/16) on Discovery Communications’ American Heroes Channel.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

AFI’s EU Showcase ’14: Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service

High ranking secret policemen do not often get to present their own work at MoMA, but Donio Donev did. His involvement in the Bulgarian domestic intelligence service is an established fact now that his dossier has been released. However, Donev’s films really aren’t his films. It was always an open secret Anton Trayanov was the uncredited animator of beloved Bulgarian classics like The Three Fools, but Donev took all the bows on the international festival circuit. Mina Mileva & Vesela Kazakova set the record straight with Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2014 EU Film Showcase.

By all accounts, Donev really was a clever and skillful caricaturist, but he probably could not have animated a mouse if he shot 50,000 volts through it. Most Bulgarian filmmakers, especially those working in animation, knew Trayanov was the real artist responsible for some of the country’s best loved films. They also understood why his name was not on any of them. Under Communism, all of the film authority’s division heads and nearly all of the film directors were secret service agents.

Eventually, the understandably frustrated Trayanov was fired when he started complaining. For three years he survived as a construction worker for a Japanese firm building a luxury hotel in Sofia (lord knows why). He was lucky to get that gig, considering he was blackballed at every other Bulgarian state industry. Eventually, he started teaching animation at the National Academy Theater and Film Arts, where Mileva took his courses, before he was sacked again under murky circumstances.

Sadly, little has changed since the fall of Communism. The apparatchiks still jealously guard their power, but Trayanov might just get the last posthumous laugh. Although he died shortly after filming wrapped, his documentary had a record breaking theatrical run in Bulgaria. Not surprisingly, Donev’s family has threatened legal action. More troubling (if not necessarily shocking), Mileva and Kazakova have had they copyright protection revoked, award nominations rescinded, and endured a campaign of physical and emotional harassment.

It is easy to see why Uncle Tony et al touched a nerve. It addresses head on the privileges and abuses of position that have carried over from the Communist era. The case it makes on Trayanov’s behalf (and against Donev) is not just convincing. It is pretty much conclusive. In fact, there are a handful of scenes that are jaw-droppingly damning, as when Dimitar Tomov, animation chair of the National Academy, tries to convince Mileva Trayanov never taught the classes she enrolled in, through a combination of double-talk and Orwellian Newspeak. It is nearly as surreal watching an interviewer catch Donev in a telling contradiction during an archival television report. You have to wonder what happened to that poor guy.

Yet, UTTFTSS is as much a tribute to Trayanov and his films (and they really are his films) as it is an expose of institutionalized Party corruption. Despite all the wrongs done to him, Trayanov is an unflaggingly upbeat and winning presence on camera. Spending time with him is a pleasure. This is a genuinely bold documentary that will resonate with animation fans and anyone who values artistic freedom. If its cogently presented revelations do not forever change how you think of Bulgarian animation, nothing will. Highly recommended, Uncle Tony, Three Fools, and the Secret Service screens this coming Wednesday (12/17) and next Saturday (12/18), as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase, outside of Washington, DC.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

AFI’s EU Showcase ’14: Waste Land

Géant is the Col. Kurtz of Belgian art dealers. He has definitely embraced the heart of darkness in the Congo. He even has his personal “witch doctor.” It is not clear that he really believes, if the cop pursuing him believes he believes, or even whether the cop starts to believe himself. Regardless, Det. Leo Woeste is in for a rough final investigation in Pieter Van Hees’s Waste Land (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2014 EU Film Showcase.

Woeste is your basic cop on the edge. He tries to me a good husband and a responsible father to the step-son he has helped raise since infancy, but he has seen some terrible things. The fact that his new partner, Johnny Rimbaud, is a coke-fueled hedonist hardly stabilizes his erratic mood swings. When his wife Kathleen announces her pregnancy, but doubts the wisdom of keeping the baby, Woeste promises to retire from the force and start acting normal. Unfortunately, he has one last case to solve.

When an African immigrant is murdered and dumped in a garbage bag, the initial clues point towards Géant. Woeste tries to be extra-supportive to the slain man’s grieving sister, Aysha Tshimanga, perhaps because his fatherly instincts have been stimulated. However, their relationship soon takes on weird sexual overtones. She will accompany him to various underground boxing matches and hipster night clubs, where the throbbing hot house atmosphere will keep his head spinning.

Waste Land flirts with a lot of genres, but it never fully commits to any. It also injects some clumsy commentary on imperialism, particularly a running non-joke supposedly claiming Woeste is descended from Leopold II. Nevertheless, much of the second act investigation is rather compelling procedural stuff. Unfortunately, the climax is so self-consciously feverish, it undermines the gritty mystery and ambiguous genre elements that proceeded it.

Still, there is no denying Dardenne Brothers regular Jérémie Renier puts on a clinic as Woeste. This is fierce, no-holds-barred, rub-your-nose-in-the-self-destruction work, but it is never self-indulgent. In fact, he balances the inward burn with the outward rage quite adroitly. Babetida Sadjo also finds a spark in Tshimanga that elevates her beyond a mere victim, while Peter Van den Begin gorges on scenery as the roguish Rimbaud.

Despite its narrative frustrations, Waste Land is a massively stylish film. Cinematographer Menno Mans makes Brussels look like a real life Sin City, where most of the buildings are either abandoned warehouses or underground dance clubs. The opening sequence is especially evocative, in a disconcerting way. Nicely played and skillfully put together, Waste Land just lurches out of control down the stretch. Recommended for those who will admire its ambition, Waste Land screens this coming Tuesday (12/16) and Wednesday (12/17), as part of the AFI’s EU Film Showcase, outside of Washington, DC.

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The American Revolution: Forgotten Heroes Get Their Due on AHC

Losing one’s place in history is another unfortunate drawback to falling on the battlefield. Had he survived Bunker Hill, Dr. Joseph Warren probably would be remembered as a Founding Father on par with Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Instead, he sacrificed everything for liberty. Warren and scores of other overlooked patriots get their due in American Heroes Channel’s three-part The American Revolution (promo here), which premieres this Monday night, beginning with Rise of the Patriots.

It was Warren who dispatched Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride. He was a founding commander of the Minutemen, the organizer of an early patriot spy ring within Redcoat occupied Boston, and a leading orator for the cause. Yet, despite Warren’s prominence, Revere would become the iconic Minuteman. Through PBS-style dramatizations and several historians’ expert commentary, AHC’s American Revolution gives viewers a sense of how indispensable the good doctor was to the Patriot campaign in its earliest days.

Each installment will have a defining figure like Warren, but other notably overlooked Revolutionary War heroes will be peppered-in throughout the series. Rise, also duly salutes freed slave Salem Poor, whose courage at Bunker Hill seems tailored made for a dramatic treatment, as well as the irascible French and Indian War veteran Samuel Whittemore, who holds the distinction of being the oldest Revolutionary War veteran and apparently the hardest to kill.

The whole approach of the series is quite appealing. Clearly, there is a working assumption that freedom and love of country are worth fighting for. By focusing on the worthy but marginalized supporting players, it finds an angle to make familiar history feel fresh. No cherry trees or kite flying this time around. As an additional bonus, the talking heads are more engaging and in many cases more interesting to look at than is often the case in historical programming.

Frankly, the holiday season is a rather apt time to broadcast Revolutionary War programming, with the 238th anniversary of Washington’s Christmas Crossing of the Delaware fast approaching. Appropriately, heroes of Valley Forge and the Battle of Trenton will dominate the second episode, The Empire Fights Back, premiering immediately following Rise. AHC’s Revolution then concludes this Tuesday with Return of the Rebels. Based on the entertaining and indeed educational Rise, the entire American Revolution should definitely be well worth watching when it premieres this Monday (12/15) on Discovery Communication’s American Heroes Channel.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Egoyan’s The Captive

Its population is less than ninety thousand, but evidently organized pedophilia a growing danger in Niagara Falls, Ontario. They now have a sizable police task force working full time on such crimes. The leader even becomes an Oprah style celebrity. However, they have not produced sterling results. After eight years, Matthew Lane’s daughter Cass is still missing. Past his breaking point, the desperate father is more than willing to take the law into his own hands, if he can finally find a target in Atom Egoyan’s The Captive (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It has been a hard eight years for Lane and his wife Tina. She still blames him for their daughter’s abduction and so does he. He only briefly popped out to pick up a pie while she rested in the back seat of his truck after ice skating practice. Tragically, it was long enough for the pederast ringleader stalking them. As the years advanced and their marriage imploded, Tina started seeing Det. Nicole Dunlop for counseling, but her partner (and lover) Det. Jeff Cornwall still suspects Lane sold his daughter to a pedophile ring, because he reminds him of a guy he used to know. Seriously, that’s the best he can do after eight years?

Of course, Lane’s investigative techniques basically amount to him driving around looking for something suspicious, but he is still more effective than the cops, who will make a series of spectacular blunders. Eventually, Det. Dunlop will wind up in peril herself, following a head-scratchingly unlikely chain of events.

Frankly, it is a real shame Captive morphs into such a klutzy thriller, because Ryan Reynolds’ lead performance could have been a career game-changer in a tighter, more grounded film. He really digs in and digs deep as Lane. You feel his pain and his rage, without any cheap theatrics. He also makes the thriller mechanics work better than they deserve to, particularly an oblique confrontation with his daughter’s abductor late in the game.

Conversely, Kevin Durand is an excellent actor, but his performance as Mika, the pervert ringleader is beyond caricature. Everything about him, from his affected voice to his sinister sliver of a moustache screams “Chester Molester.” Yet, he still hob nobs with Niagara Falls’ elite without anyone getting suspicious. Rosario Dawson is reasonably competent as Det. Dunlop. She may not look like she is from Niagara Falls, Ont., but diversity in Canadian cinema is a good thing. As if on cue, Scott Speedman also turns up, underwhelming us as Cornwall, arguably the worst cop ever who wasn’t on the take, just to remind everyone this is a Canadian film.

There was a time during the mid-1990s and early 2000s people who did not normally patronize festivals and art cinemas still went to Egoyan’s films because they were so widely acclaimed and zeitgeisty. What a difference three or four films make. Many of his regular themes are still present and accounted for, but the narrative twists are rather clunky and therefore dashed difficult to buy into. Reynolds’ work is legitimately award caliber, but it really needs Ice-T and Richard Belzer. If you have DirecTV, it is almost worth watching just to see how Paul Sarossy’s uncompromisingly icy cinematography conflicts with the otherwise lurid vibe, but it is hard to recommended The Captive when it opens tomorrow (12/12) in New York, at the Village East.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marco Polo: A “Latin” in the Court of Kublai Khan, on Netflix

He wrote the equivalent of a bestselling memoir, before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Dozens of hand-written manuscripts of The Travels of Marco Polo have widely circulated, making it rather difficult to determine the canonical truth of the celebrated merchant’s life. That might be frustrating for scholarly biographers and historians, but it rather takes the pressure off filmmakers dramatizing his life. Before securing his fame and fortune, the young Venetian (or “The Latin” as he will often be called) finds an unusual place in the Court of Kublai Khan, becoming enmeshed within a geo-political struggle between two ancient dynastic powers in Marco Polo (trailer here), an original ten episode historical series premiering on Netflix this Friday.

Polo never knew his father Niccolò Polo, until the Venetian trader made a brief homecoming, before setting off for Asia once again. Desiring a paternal relationship, the younger Polo invited himself along, but it is soon apparent he is quite well-attuned to rhythms and mysteries of the Eastern world, perhaps even more than his father and uncle. In fact, the great Kublai Khan accepts Marco Polo into his service, when Niccolò Polo offers to barter him in exchange for trading rights along the Silk Road. Of course, the son is quite put out by this, but his father promises to return, which he will, but maybe not in the manner he imagined.

Valuing Polo’s shrewd observations unclouded by courtly biases, Kublai Khan often dispatches the Latin to report on flashpoints within his empire. Not surprisingly, Polo’s favor rather displeases the Khan’s Chinese-educated son, Prince Jingim. Frankly, Polo is not exactly close to anyone in court, least of all the Khan’s trusted ministers. However, he will develop something approaching friendship with Byamba, the Khan’s illegitimate son with one of his many concubines. Polo also becomes ambiguously involved with Kokachin, the Blue Princess, the last surviving noble of a conquered people, and Khutulun, the Khan’s independent-minded warrior niece.

Regardless of historical accuracy, writer-creator John Fusco spends enough time in the Khan’s harem to make the broadcast networks curse the FCC. As Mel Brooks would say, it’s good to be the Khan. Yet, despite the nudity and hedonism, some of MP’s strongest action figures are women. As Khutulun, Korean actress Claudia Soo-hyun Kim credibly wrestles men twice her size and projects a smart, slightly subversive sensibility. Olivia Cheng also displays first class martial arts chops (sometimes naked) as Mei Lin, a Song concubine who infiltrates the Khan harem on the orders of her war-mongering brother, the villainous Imperial Regent Jia Sidao. Zhu Zhu’s Kokachin might be more demur, but she is still quite compelling, balancing her vulnerability with resoluteness. Of course, international superstar Joan Chen frequently upstages everyone as the iron-willed Empress Chabi.

Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy holds his own as best he can amid the exotic locales and pitched battles, maintaining the necessary fish-out-of-water earnestness. However, he is no match for the British Benedict Wong (son of naturalized Hong Kong parents), who absolutely dominates the series as Kublai Khan. Although he put on considerable weight for the role, it is his commanding presence that really seems huge. Likewise, Tom Wu is terrific delivering the goods for genre fans as Hundred Eyes, Polo’s blind tutor in the martial arts.

In the initial episodes, MP offers more intrigue and Game of Thrones style decadence than actual fist-and-sword action, but the martial arts melees increase as the series progresses, with the threat (or promise) of an epic war hanging over everyone’s heads. There is a lot of setting-the-scene in episode one, but it quickly sets the addictive hook in the second installment and reels in viewers from there. Kon-Tiki directors Espen Sandberg & Joachim Rønning give the pilot an appropriate sense of mystery and sweep, which carries forth throughout the show. Based on the six episodes provided to the media, MP definitely seems to maintain its passion-fueled energy and richly detailed period production values. Highly recommended (so far), Marco Polo launches for binge-streaming this Friday (12/12) on Netflix.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

100 Days: Romantic Comedy & Traditional Rituals

The natural beauty and quaint charm of the Matsu Islands make them a perfect tourist destination. The spotty cell-phone reception and lack of wi-fi could also be attractive to visitors, but it is highly inconvenient for full-time residents. A hot shot telecom exec has returned to his home island to scuttle a fiber optic development plan. While he is there, he will pencil in his mother’s funeral. However, he never bargained on the local tradition requiring his marriage a little more than three months after the ceremony. Romance and ritual threaten to stall his career in Henry Chan’s 100 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Wu Bo Dan felt rejected by his mother when she re-married and packed the teen off to be educated in America. Frankly, he was fine with leaving, because he would only miss his ambiguous girlfriend Xiao Wei. Now a high-flying dealmaker, Wu is not sure how to react when his stepfather comes bearing the bad news. He also brought Wu one of his mother’s favorite chickens, confusing the corporate shark even more.

Once Wu finally arrives on fictional North Island, chicken in tow, he begrudgingly attends her funeral. Of course, he is having none of the get-married-in-100-days mandate. Fortunately, his step-brother Zhen Fong is willing to fulfill Wu’s ceremonial duties in his stead. Unfortunately, he has a five-year arranged engagement with Xiao Wei. That does not sit right with Wu, but she does not want to hear it.

100 Days is pretty much headed exactly where you think it is, but it has the good sense to lose the chicken before the second act starts in earnest. It is also a ridiculously good looking film. The island is spectacularly cinematic, sort of like the Village in The Prisoner, but with shrines dedicated to the ocean deity Mazu. The cast is also obscenely attractive, even including Xiao Wei’s shy, unlucky-in-love bridesmaid Yu Jen, played by the drop-dead gorgeous Julianne Chu. So yes, 100 Days will definitely make viewers want to visit Peikan Island’s Chinpi village, where the film was shot.

Model-turned-actress Tracy Chou plays Xiao Wei with demur intelligence, somehow managing to sell her martyr complex. Likewise, Chu’s turn as Yu Jen is touchingly sweet and wholly likable. Aboriginal actor Soda Voyu (seen in Seediq Bale) largely minimizes the shtick as the unflaggingly earnest and only slightly goofy Zhen Fong. On the other hand, poor Johnny Lu’s Wu gets quite a bit of slapstick comeuppance and never really feels like he connects with the other characters, except maybe briefly with Tsai Ming-hsui, who invests his step-father with a quiet dignity that classes up the joint.

100 Days never really tries to transcend the rom-com genre, but it observes the category conventions in moderation. Chan (whose American television credits include episodes of Scrubs and the better-than-its-reputation Kitchen Confidential) keeps things moving along at an easy mid-tempo and cinematographer makes everything sparkle in the warm sunlight. If you are looking for niceness in a film, it has a bounteous spread. Recommended as a safe date film, 100 Days opens this Friday (12/12) in the Los Angeles area, at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.

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