Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Machines (2016) Sundance 2017 MOMA Doc Fortnight 2017

Observational documentaries can either be wonderfully immersive experiences or down right snooze fests. Frequently directors don't know how long to hold their shots or over estimate the interest of their audience and stretch things out past the point of breaking. There is a fine line to be walked and it's the rare director who finds and exploits the sweet spot. Thankfully director Rahul Jain knows where that spot is and his MACHINES is a truly hypnotic experiences.

Beginning with moving camera on the prowl through the various rooms of a textile factory in India MACHINES brings us into the heart of a plant where men and machines and men who become machines work long 12 hour shifts, in all kinds of conditions, in order to turn out beautiful colorful cloth. We watch as dyes are mixed, cloth is created and the men make sure it all runs smoothly. The sounds are that of the machines constantly running and clanking along in a steady rhythm.

I fell into this film and stayed with it to the end. Usually I find the spell breaks somewhere along the way, but this film's brief 1 minute run time is the perfect length. Nothing goes on longer than it should. It also helps that Jain keeps things mtheoving. More often than not the camera seems to be on the prowl moving, shifting, observing, trying to get a better vantage point. Even when the shot is more or less static there is motion as if we were in the room and were shifting out weight from one foot to another.

This is one of the best observational docs that I've run across recently. This is a film that really puts you in the mill with the men Thanks to perfect framing by cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva who rightly won an award at the recently ended Sundance Film Festival. Trust me on this his camera work makes this film a must see when the film plays February 16th at MOMA's Doc Fortnight. Between Villanueva's camera work and Jain's picking of subjects this is a team that is going to do great things. Trust me there is a sympatico between them that is magical. They truly put you in the factory if they pumped in smells during the screening you'd swear you were in India.

This film is a must see on the big screen. Its highly recommended.

The film has just finished it's run at SUndance. It will next be seen as the opening night film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York's opening film for their annual Doc Fortnight. (For more information and tickets- on Sale February 2nd- go here.)


Sundance ’17: Kaputt/Broken—The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck (short)

Exploiting vulnerable labor for profit is everything socialist propaganda crusades against. Yet, the exploitation of the inmates at Hoheneck Prison helped keep the financially ailing East Germany from completely imploding. Of course, in reality there was nothing democratic or republican about the GDR/DDR. Survivors of the abuse and exploitation tell their tales in Alexander Lahl & Volker Schlecht’s black-and-white animated short documentary, Kaputt/Broken—The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck, which screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

The Brutalist architecture of Hoheneck screamed East German oppression—and the insides lived up to the outside. It was perennially overcrowded, because at least politically-motivated arrests in the DDR consistently ran above quota. Daily life was a mixture of routine humiliation and grinding toil to make their production quotas in the prison’s bed linen sweat shop.

Kaputt/Broken is a powerful seven-minute indictment of the socialist system, executed in an evocatively severe style that could be described as a cross between Honoré Daumier and a Stasi dossier. Yet, perhaps what is most striking is the grimly poetic language taken directly from original oral histories of Hoheneck survivors.

Conditions at Hoheneck were simply barbaric, but the bitterest pill for the former political prisoners to swallow is the fact the West helped underwrite their torture by buying Hoheneck’s garments. The Wall has fallen, but the victims of the socialist East clearly remain traumatized. That lingering pain comes through clearly in the haunting short. Schlecht’s animation is almost perversely elegant, while the minimalist sound design heightens the eerily tragic vibe. Very highly recommended, Kaputt/Broken won the Short Film Jury Award for Animation at this year’s Sundance. It next screens February 17th and 19th during MoMA’s Doc Fortnight.

Chapter and Verse (2015)

After a run through the festival circuit the moving CHAPTER AND VERSE hits theaters in New York this Friday and theaters in LA and Chicago next Friday. The film is the debut of Jamal Joseph professor, activist and Black Panther.

The film is the story of S Lance Ingram a former gang leader who returns to Harlem after 10 years in prison he is striving to stay out of trouble and do the right thing. Befriending Miss Maddy a woman with a teenaged grandson S begins to look out for the boy, hoping to steer him away from trouble. Unfortunately in order to keep the boy safe he may have to give up his chance at freedom.

This is a solid urban drama. The film is a wide eyed film that has no easy answers or rah rah ending. Made by people who have experienced lives similar to the ones shown in the film CHAPTER AND VERSE has an almost documentary feel to it. Yes, there are actors we know on screen but their stories are not the sort of thing that Hollywood typically send our way. This is, as the poster says, a Harlem story, though I suspect it's also the story of a hundred other cities.

CHAPTER AND VERSE is highly recommended. It is an early year gem and a sterling example why small independent films matter- it is through them that real life is shown and not the one manufactured by the mass media.

See this film when it opens Friday.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Workers Cup (2017) Sundance 2017

Portrait of life in the Qatar workers camps where men from all over the world live while they build the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. As they build 24 companies field teams and set up a tournament for the workers.

Odd ball mix of middling sports doc about the teams and the games mixes with a semi social justice story that only touches on the horrible existence of the workers that results in a film that just sort of lays there.

If you aren't aware of the terrible situation of the workers in Qatar this film will give you only a hint of the bullshit that is going on. Effectively the companies are recruiting people from all over the globe- many being asked to pay fees to get the job- only to find slave like conditions when they get there. Work days are every day. Their papers are stolen, they can not leave the camps except to go to work and contact is limited with the outside. Many camps are over crowded. The men are effectively slaves with the inability to do anything even go home controlled by the companies and the Qatar officials. Little of that is really in the film which mentions it but focuses more on the men and the football matches. (if you want to know start with the HBO REAL SPORTS stories)

While the lack of information on what the workers actual conditions might have worked had the film been more adept at showing the football teams, their prep and the matches in anything remotely an exciting way. The sports footage in this film might actually be the least exciting I've ever seen. Its not bad, there simply isn't any emotion in it.

About half way into the film I suddenly started to wonder how Hubert Vigilla would describe the film if we were talking to each other about it. Hubert has this killer way of reducing everything down to laser simplicity. There is a genius to it. I keep hearing him say "There were these workers who were abused and then some football happened." Which kind of sums up my feeling.

I suspect that the reason the film is so odd is that the director had to promise certain limitations in order to get access and then had to cut around it.

Personally I found this film to be disappointing and not really worth the time- which kills me because the guys in the film deserve to be seen and heard.

Sundance ’17: Kaiju Bunraku (short)

How can Japan be some stoic in the face of rampaging kaiju monsters? They are just used to it. If you have seen the Daimajin movies, you know this sort of thing has gone on for centuries. You need not explain the kaiju phenomenon to this particular weary married couple of traditional bunraku marionettes. They will weather yet another attack in Lucas Leyva & Jillian Mayer’s short film Kaiju Bunraku, which screened during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

As per custom dating back to the early 1800s, the puppeteers bringing life to K-B’s characters appear all in black, with their faces hooded. They are performing on an actual stage, apparently before a live audience, but the sets and costumes are so richly crafted, viewers will immediately be transported into the bickering couple’s world. The man and woman live in an unspecified time, presumably pre-Twentieth Century, except they understand only too well the poisonous effects of the radiation released on their environment from the constant kaiju assaults. Like Sisyphus, they ordinarily just pick up the pieces of their lives and carry-on until the next kaiju barges through. However, the man might finally reach his breaking point this time around.

Although fans will say it is not canonical, K-B arguably represents the first Mothra film to make it to Sundance. Regardless, the film is wickedly cool in conception and execution, staying true to the spirit of both bunraku theater and Japanese kaiju cinema. The artistry of the Bunraku Bay Puppet Theater is wonderfully refined and hugely entertaining. They really bring out the emotional poignancy of the two characters.

K-B will absolutely leave viewers wanting more bunraku and more kaiju, but the film itself feels entirely self-contained. It is a terrific short that should be a cinch to get programmed at the genre festivals coming later in the year, much like Do No Harm. Enthusiastically recommended for those who appreciate Japanese culture and cult cinema, Kaiju Bunraku premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Good American Opens Friday

I saw this film when it played DOC NYC in 2015. Here is the review I ran back then

Portrait of Bill Binney, a US government whistleblower who worked for the NSA. Binney and some other code breakers developed Thin Thread a data collecting program that was discontinued not long before the September 11th attacks. Many people believe that Thin Thread would have stopped the attacks from happening.

I'm not going to lie. I saw this film a couple hours after the recent attacks in Paris and I know it affected my tolerance for the film. I say that because the film's discussion of the 9/11 attacks mixed with the opening of the feelings of 14 years ago.

This is a good portrait of Binney and Thin Thread is more fuel to the fire of questioning if American intelligence and politicians have any idea as to what they are doing. Binney's recounting of a system that mined data but kept people's privacy that was discounted by people in power is a chilling one especially as more and more stories break.

While I like the film a great deal and on it's own terms I think it's a must see, I find that I'm growing increasingly annoyed that films such as this are necessary when the information that is contained in them has been readily available for years. Binney and Thin Thread has been a topic of discussion for many people who read more than the tabloids for years. While it is not certain it really would have stopped the 9/11 attacks, its nice to pretend it would have. Watching the film I was reminded of Edward Snowden and the love being thrown his way when a good number of his revelations were already in the public domain but no one paid attention until a big deal was made of Snowden. Isn't anyone paying any attention what is going on? Apparently not. People are too busy navel gazing and looking at Facebook to find out hat is really going on.

Thank god for filmmakers for people like director Fredrich Moser for getting this information out so that people will actually pay attention to it.

Summer's Puke is Winter's Delight (2016) Sundance 2017

Sawako Kabuki's SUMMER'S PUKE IS WINTER'S DELIGHT is a three minute endurance test. An animated music video of a sort, the film has fractured techno beat over stuttering dialog and the sound of a woman throwing up. I suspect that some are going to feel the need to heave themselves.

The images are drippy melty sort of images where a woman eats to much then throws up and then runs off to have melty sex with a man who force feeds her and it all repeats. The effect is disturbing and disorienting and despite running only three minutes it feels much longer

I honestly have no idea. I suspect the film exists to get Kabuki noticed but beyond that this is the sort of thing one would pass around to friends just to see their reaction as opposed to wanting to sit down for a good time. Misogynistic, the film maybe trying to say something about the things women do for their lovers but it's a film that bludgeons it's characters and the audience to the point of not caring- or at least wanting to hide under the seat in front of them.

Artistically the lines and images are interesting and well rendered but divorced of the disturbing soundtrack there isn't anything we haven't seen before.

If you run across this you may want to test yourself, but mostly I'd suggest taking a pass- or running to the rest room if you run across this at a festival.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Cipka (2017) Sundance 2017

Renata Gąsiorowska's CIPKA (Pussy) is a masterpiece. A beautifully animated short that just works to hell with the fact that I'm a guy this is just a great film.

The plot of the film has a girl alone decide to pleasure herself but things go sideways. I can't really explain more than that because of the nature of what happens will be lessened.

The visuals of the film are stunning. They are simple. see above, but at the same time they manage to covey so much. What I love is how as the film goes on things become more complicated, the visuals more detiled. With the bits toward the end I was smiling with wonderful sense of glee because the film just pulls it all together into a glorious use of color that replaces the white world.

My only question with the whole film is why does it feel it needs a guy with a telescope in a couple of scenes. Yes I know it allows for a funny  gag but it's out of place.

I can't say enough good about it except that it's very possible Renata Gąsiorowska maybe one of new favorite directors. If this one plays near you see it.

(Additionally I would love to hear what any women who see it think of it)

Nightcap 1/29/17 Noting the passing of John Hurt, The Oscar noms, Herzog on Neko Atsume, TANNA, XXX THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE, and Randi's links (lots of videos)

John Hurts Twitter avatar-his Twitter page is now down
John Hurt died Friday and my heart broke.

One of the few things I ever wanted to get out of doing Unseen Films was a chance to meet him. It never happened, either I was from too small an outlet to get a slot or things just couldn't fall together to make it work- I tried but fate prevented it.

I discovered him in ALIEN. That movie blew me away and I ended up tracking down everyone's films after seeing it. My mom knew who Hurt was and recommended CRY OF THE PENGUINS and THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT. Between those, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and ELEPHANT MAN I became a devoted fan. He may have made some questionable movies but his performances never were and he almost always broke your heart (Pick a film)

I was lucky enough to see him live once. From the top of the Havey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music I saw him do Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. Yes it has been recorded but this was Hurt live and in person. From a million miles or at least a million steps away I watched him tear Beckett down and make it his own. When it was done he did a Q&A and answered everyone's question as it it was the most important in the world. It was pure magic.

Two of his final roles moved me deeply. His priest in JACKIE was so good that if I could find an actual priest such as he I would consider rejoining the church.

As for his role as The War Doctor aka a previously unknown Dr Who, he literally brought me to tears with the reveal. The man I had always wanted  to be the Doctor was at last THE DOCTOR. That was the coolest thing to me, And while he only had one TV adventure there are now numerous stories with him,  many recorded by Hurt himself. Tom Baker may be the Doctor of my youth  John Hurt was the Doctor of my soul.

John Hurt will be missed.  I will mourn him deeply, as I have done with a handful of people I've never met but who shaped who I am-the fathers and mothers who burned themselves into me (Adams, Milligan, Ebert...). While some gave me a sense of humor, a love of music, or sense of adventure, John Hurt gave me a sense of humanity. It was through his performances that I truly learned about the depth of emotion and how everyone felt something deep inside.

God bless and God Speed- and thank you for the wonders....
In KRAPP'S LAST TAPE

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The Oscar Nominations came out Tuesday. I’m filled with more happiness than I usually am at times like this, but also  lots of confusion and the usual lack of caring.

I’m thrilled with the Best Documentary choices. FIRE AT SEA aside I think it’s a solid bunch of choices. I’m thrilled WHITE HELMETS got a Short Doc nom.

Back in December I did a breakdown of the possible Animated Oscar noms and I got four out of the five. I thought either YOUR NAME or THE LITTLE PRICE would be the fifth nom but blew it on both. I’m told that the love for Lin Manuel Miranda resulted in MOANA getting the nom. I’ve also been told the whole Paramount dropping and Netflix picking up THE LITTLE PRINCE hurt its chances. I can live with the choices.

Best Foreign Language film is largely WTF but it’s been that way since the category was short listed. While TONI ERDMANN seems to be a lock- the truth is A MAN CALLED OVE has a huge following and may win. And THE SALESMAN suddenly has a chance if only to stick a finger in Trump's eye.

Will I watch the Oscars this year? Possibly some- but to be honest my interest just isn’t there. It rarely is these days since my best films rarely have no chance for a golden statue.

On the other hand look for reviews of a number of the sort films as well as some of the other nominees between now and the big night.
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Up for an Oscar for best Foreign Language Film TANNA is from Australia. Shot in the Vanuatu language the film is based on an incident that happened 30 years ago on the island some that gives the film it's title. The film concerns a pair of star crossed lovers on the fast track to disaster.

A stunningly beautiful film this is a film that is going to haunt anyone who sees this on a big screen. I saw this on a screener on my lap top and I knew I was losing much because half the film is the image and sense of place.

Its a really good film, and I recommend it to anyone wanting a change of pace - but how this got an Oscar nom eludes me. Its a lovely film that is going to work best for those who fall into it, but its not Oscar material. On the other hand it's nomination assures that it won't fall off the face of the earth- hell if it wasn't for the Oscar nom I probably would never have ever noticed or mentioned it.
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XXX THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE is a great deal of fun. High art it isn't. , but who cares?

Vin Diesel is sent to take on Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa who have stolen a computer device that can crash satellites. Nothing is as it seems.

It's one action scene after another. While the film has taken flack for the unbelievability of the action sequences they are no more crazy than then any other action film- for example the FAST AND THE FURIOUS films.

I want a sequel- especially if everyone comes back.
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Just a heads up- This week lots of new releases and the tail end of our Sundance coverage
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And now Randi's Links

TK TUNSTALL
Dafoe and the distance to Utopia
Under the Bridge Trailer
Neko Atsume
Attack of the Atomic Banana
Grappling with Faith
A lost Austrian film which fore saw the rise of the Nazi's is found
Emotions you never knew you had
Can Mozart drive you mad?
Ninja Spider
Vintage picture of New York's Chinese New Years


RUMBLE-INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD (2017) Sundance 2017

Rough, raw imperfect and so full of life it changes the way you see the world RUMBLE-INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD is freaking awesome. Its one of those great documentaries that grabs you by the gonads and drags you along. It will force you to rethink how you see music history.

The film is nominally a look at the place of native Americans in the history of rock and roll but in reality this is a history of all popular music. Beginning with Link Wray, who's RUMBLE gives the film its title, the film then spreads out to show how Native Americans changed all of popular music. And I do mean all since we get a Frank Sinatra anecdote and and Tony Bennett on camera talking about some of the people being discussed made them who they are. Of course the film highlights a large number of people with Native American blood in them including Mildred Bailey, Charlie Patton, side men Jesse Ed Davis, Randy Castillo and of course the big names of Jimi Hendrix and Robbie Robertson. And it ties it all up with a glorious selection of talking heads including Steven Van Zandt, TAj Mahal, Buddy Guy, Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Tony Bennett...and the list goes on.

If that wasn't enough the film is full of video and audio recordings of many of the legends discussed. this is important for two reasons, first they are great pieces of music, but more importantly they reveal how the once shunned upon rhythms and vocal patterns were repurposed as rock and other standards. It's something that is plain as day once it's pointed out- but odds are you never thought to listen to it.

Wow and then some.

I have no rational thoughts concerning this film. RUMBLE is the the equivalent to walking into a juke joint and seeing someone unexpected blow you away. I have no words to describe what a major rewrite of how I view music this just caused. I have only emotions and lots of "Oh Wows". which I kept mumbling to the annoyance of the people around me.

If I must say something bad about the film it's that there is simply too much to the story and while what is here is top of the line, this could have been a bit longer simply because it's clear we're only getting part of the story.

No idea if it's one of the best films of the year but it's damn certain it's one of my favorites.

The film is done with Sundance but I full expect it to continue on the festival circuit before hitting PBS (They were one of the producers). Do yourself a favor see it in a theater where the big picture and big sound will over whelm and the colorful language won't be censored.

One of 2017's must see films

Sundance ’17: Do No Harm (short)

The Hippocratic Oath is about to get a serious workout and the surgical scalpel will become a lethal martial arts weapon. She is truly a doctor who fights for her patients, but there is a special reason for her ferocity in Roseanne Liang’s Do No Harm, by far the best film in the Midnight Shorts Program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

In a private Hongjing hospital, the unnamed doctor is quietly stitching up a gangster, until a rival gang rudely interrupts. They nearly massacre the entire surgical team, but the doctor is tough to kill. Her patient is probably just a bad a thug or maybe even worse, but she will protect him no matter what, racking up a gosh darned impressive body count of her own.

Harm is a super-charged, ultra-gritty action movie in the tradition of hospital shoot ‘em ups like John Woo’s Hard Boiled and Johnnie To’s Three, but Liang averages considerably more mayhem per minute. As the doctor, Marsha Yuen instantly establishes herself as an action figure, but also has sufficient gravitas to be a trusted medical profession. If you were going under the knife, you would want her to be the one in charge of the operation.

The large supporting ensemble of gangsters also have impressive stage-fighting skills and project the appropriate malevolence. Young Emily Tam is also quite effective in her third act appearance. In fact, she and Yuen are so good, the ambiguous ending is rather frustrating. Hopefully, Liang will fix that in the feature version—because this is exactly the sort of short that seems ripe for a longer treatment. Regardless, the butt-kicking is highly entertaining and the credible performances duly reflect the dire stakes. Enthusiastically recommended, Do No Harm should be a cinch to turn up at genre festivals like Fantasia after rocking the Midnight Shorts at this year’s Sundance.

DECENT WOMAN (2016) Neighboring Scenes 2017


A woman takes a job as a maid in a gated community and drifts through her days until she discovers that just over the hedge is nudist colony where all inhibitions and limitations are stripped away.

Amusing if some what distant comedy of manners is going to delight some and bore others. While most certainly enjoyable the film's distant stance and the insistence on making sure the audience knows it's making a point kind of drains the fun out of the film. As much as I liked the film there was a point at which I kind of stepped away from the film simply because I was tied of trying to embrace the film and being pushed away.

Definitely worth a look when the film closes out the Neighboring Scenes festival Tuesday

Saturday, January 28, 2017

My Father's Tools (2017) Sundance 2017


My Fathers's Tools - Trailer from Wapikoni mobile on Vimeo.

Heather Condo's short MY FATHER'S TOOLS is a portrait of Condo's husband Stephen Jerome who makes baskets in the traditional way, more or less, of the Mi’gmaq aboriginal community of Gesgapegiag in the province of Quebec, Canada. Its a really cool little film that kind of flips on you. What I mean by that is that as it starts you're wondering where it's going ut once Jerome gets back to the shop and actually making the basket you kind of fall into it.

Definitely worth the time to see it.

The film was produced by Wapikoni mobile, a portable studio fully equipped with cutting-edge technology that “travels to” First Nations communities. A To see other aboriginal films produced by Wapikoni mobile, please visit the official website www.wapikoni.ca

Sundance ’17: Their Finest

Michael Powell and Charles Frend were great filmmakers, but they couldn’t win the war on their own. Catrin Cole will also do her part as a “Rosie the Riveter” of screenwriting. Initially, she is recruited to boost a prospective propaganda film’s appeal to women, but her talent will lead to more substantial contributions in Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Cole thought she was applying for another clerical job, but it was in fact a position writing “slop,” Bechdel Test-passing dialogue, for wartime propaganda films. Evidently, her bosses were impressed by her uncredited newspaper work. Of course, she will remain uncredited on the film and she will necessarily be paid less than her male counterparts. Yet, it is still quite an opportunity.

At first, veteran screenwriter and committed cynic Tom Buckley is less than thrilled to share an office and duties with Cole, but he recognizes her talent relatively quickly. Their mutual attraction will develop more slowly, but in an assuredly steady fashion. Cole will also win over hammy past-his-prime leading man, Ambrose Hilliard, as she helps morph his comically bumbling character into a figure of tragic heroism, while still serving the best interests of the film.

Frankly, the film-within-the-film Cole and company labor to complete actually looks like it would be pretty good, or at least easily watchable if Scherfig and her ensemble made it for reals, which is definitely saying something. Conceived as a chronicle of the Dunkirk evacuation designed to boost British moral and sway still neutral American public opinion, it definitely seems to be in keeping with the tone and aesthetics of the classic Powell, Frend, and Cavalcanti films of the era.

The primary film itself is also quite stirring and genuinely touching. Gemma Arterton takes a completely charming and engaging star-turn as Cole that could potentially raise her profile in America to the level she has reached in the UK. She is like a more vulnerable Rosalind Russell, which we do not say lightly. The romantic chemistry she forges with Sam Claflin’s Buckley always feels like it develops organically. Likewise, her scenes with Hilliard (played with wry zest by Bill Nighy, the acting guy) have the wit and charm of vintage Ealing comedy. Yet, perhaps the biggest laughs come from Jake Lacy, portraying an American RAF volunteer, cast in Cole’s film for his jawline and real life heroic exploits rather than his painfully awkward line-readings.

To its credit, Their Finest is not the predictable feel good film you might expect. Overall, it will do wonders for viewers’ morale too, but Scherfog and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe stay true to the desperate realities of London during the Blitz. Regardless, it is a pleasure to watch the accomplished ensemble do what they do best, including Jeremy Irons and Richard E. Grant making the most of cameo appearances. It would make a fitting pairing with The King’s Speech with its rousing portrait of the British home front, but with a pinch of feminist commentary unobtrusively sprinkled into the mix. Enthusiastically recommended, Their Finest screens again today (1/28), as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Bad Day for the Cut

It is sort of like a Northern Irish western, but instead of looking for the man who shot his pa, Donal is out to kill the chick who had his mum’s head bashed in. It turns out it is part of an IRA feud dating back to the 1970s. Who knew they could hold a grudge so long in those parts? Yet, they most decidedly do in Chris Baugh’s Bad Day for the Cut, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Donal is resigned to be a quiet middle-aged farmer, who lives with his mother and fixes cars on the side, until dear old Florence is murdered in an apparent burglary gone wrong. Shortly thereafter, two thugs try to dispatch Donal in a phony suicide, but the crusty cat is harder to kill than they anticipated. It also helps that Bartosz’s heart really wasn’t in it. His was forced to assist in the hit job by human traffickers holding his sister Kaja. Forging an alliance of convenience that will blossom into trust, Donal and Bartosz follow the chain of gangsters up the ladder to Frankie Pierce, who built a trafficking and prostitution empire out of her father’s old IRA terrorism network.

Baugh and co-screenwriter Brendan Mullin repeatedly emphasize the tragic nature of the unending cycle of revenge-taking. Yet, there sure seems to be a lot of people in Bad Day who need killing. So maybe the real message is you better just finish the job completely, because that last bad guy left alive is ever so likely to come back to haunt you later.

Regardless, Nigel O’Neill is all kinds of awesome as salt-of-the-earth Donal. He broods like a monster, yet still remains believably unassuming. He is the kind of dude who will convince you Nixon was right about riling up the quiet majority. It is definitely a bad idea in Donal’s case. This is not a buddy movie by any stretch, but the co-conspirator chemistry he forges with Józef Pawlowski’s Bartosz evolves in credibly engaging ways.

Bad Day is also blessed with several great villains starting with Susan Lynch, who plays Pierce with wonderfully foul-mouthed Cruella De Vil flamboyance. She is ably assisted by Stuart Graham as her natty right-hand man. Plus, David Pearse (Grabbers, Zonad) gets to do his weaselly thing as Gavigan, Pierce’s first lieutenant unlucky enough to fall into Donal’s hands.

According to Bad Day, revenge is like money and good looks—you can never have too much. Nevertheless, Baugh certainly isn’t mucking around with this hard-nosed morality play. He stages some brutally intense action scenes, often exploiting whatever common household items might be at hand. It is a lean, mean killing machine, but it definitely has a moral center. Highly recommended for fans of payback movies, Bad Day for the Cut screens again today (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

White Helmets (2016)


The Oscar nominated White Helmets is a must see. A deeply moving portrait of the civilian group in Syria who rush in to help the victims of the war rescuing those trapped in collapsed building or bombings will reduce you to tears. If one wants proof that there is goodness in the world one need only see this film.

Following members of the team we see what it takes a job that they don’t get paid for and which will probably kill them. Not only are they running toward the danger of war they are now being made targets by the Syrian government who don’t want any survivors in the wastelands they are creating.

This film rocked me to my core. The film deserves an Oscar and the men and women in the white helmets deserve out love and support.

A must see

While the film can be seen on Netflix I have to  add that Filmatique (who is not screening the film) will donate 50% of all its proceeds to the Syrian organization White Helmets during the week of January 26th - February 2nd.

You can make a difference. Sign up now at Filmatique or donate directly to White Helmets.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sundance ’17: Rememory

Without our memories, we wouldn’t have our guilt, jealousy, and resentments—all the stuff that makes us human. It would seem the messy combination above also contributed to the death of noted memory specialist Dr. Gordon Dunn. Unfortunately, Dunn’s new game-changing invention is also missing, prompting the mysterious Sam Bloom to conduct his own investigation in Mark Palansky’s Rememory, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

It is not clear whether Bloom really was a friend of Dunn’s or if he simply hoping the Macguffin device would help him process his emotional issues. Clearly, Bloom blames himself for the death of his rock-star brother, because he was behind the wheel at the time of the fatal accident. This looks like a perfect case for Dunn’s treatment. His invention records and plays back memory with flawless accuracy, stripping away the distortions we layer on over the years. According to Dunn, viewing painful memories in this fashion is cathartic, but at least one disgruntled patient vehemently begs to differ. As a further complication, Dunn had begun tweaking his device after documenting a number of unfortunate side effects.

Of course, the agitated Todd is seen furtively leaving Dunn’s office on the fateful night in question. So is his spurned lover Wendy, who is also rather disappointed Dunn used a number of her emotionally charged memories in his Steve Jobs-style product launch, without prior permission. Tracking down the memory VCR would certainly help Bloom crack the case, but it might not necessarily cure what ails him.

It is hard to explain why, but Rememory does not feel like a Sundance film. It is built around an intriguing premise, but Palansky never delves too deeply into issues of memory and identity. Nevertheless, the noir style is quite appealing. Game of Thrones fans will also be happy to hear Peter Dinklage is terrific as Bloom. It is a moody but understated turn that proves he can carry a film. His scenes with Julia Ormond playing Dunn’s slightly estranged widow are especially rich and laden with complicated chemistry. The late Anton Yelchin (who had two films at Sundance this year) is also twitchy and jangly, like a raw nerve ending, as poor desperate Todd. Plus, Martin Donovan is perfectly cast as the smooth-talking Dunn, but unfortunately there is no opportunity for a proper scene with him and Dinklage together.

Rememory is a reasonably entertaining film, but it is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Regardless, it is a pleasure to watch pros like Dinklage and Ormond do their thing. Sadly, it also takes on additional irony as one of Yelchin’s final films that happens to be all about memory and grief. Recommended overall for fans of social-psychological science fiction, Rememory screens again tomorrow (1/28) at Sundance Mountain Resort and Sunday (1/29) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Kung Fu Yoga: Jackie Chan Goes Bollywood

It is a martial arts film deliberately crafted to support Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” neo-Silk Road-sphere of influence policy. It is also a tomb-raiding film without tomb-raiding, Instead, world famous archaeologist “Jack Chan” risks life and limb to recover lost artifacts for the greater glory of China. In addition to physical danger and extreme elements, he must also deal with deceptions and double-crosses in Stanley Tong’s Kung Fu Yoga, which opens today in New York.

When a highly regarded and impressively limber Indian archaeologist requests Chan’s help tracking down a treasure lost during the Journey to the West era, he can hardly say no. Along with his teaching assistants and Jianguo an old crony who specializes in remote petroleum drilling, Chan globe-trots off the China-India border, to follow the clues on an ancient map. Unbeknownst to them, the well-heeled descendant of the rebel Magadha army lies in wait to ambush Chan’s team. It was his ancestor who lost the fabulous treasure, so he intends to steal it back to restore the family honor.

However, the real treasure remains buried somewhere deeper within India. To find it, both parties will have to acquire the artifact stolen by Jones, the son of Chan’s late friend and colleague. Unfortunately, Jones has put it up for auction in Dubai, the conspicuous consumption capitol of the world.

Granted, KFY is a little wacky, but it is not a full-on goofball spectacle in the mode of Chuen Chan’s 1979 Kung Fu vs. Yoga. Arguably, the sequence in which Jack[ie] Chan pursues a car chase with a not so tame lion in the back seat of his appropriated SUV harkens back to the madcap spirit of vintage Chan movies. Tong also makes Dubai look like an absolutely horrible, nauseatingly shallow place to visit and an even worse place to live.

Chan mostly acts two-thirds his age in KFY, even checking into the hospital at one point. Aarif Rahman’s Jones displays some solid chops, carrying a disproportionate share of the martial arts load, while Eric Tsang is about as shticky as you would expect as Jianguo. Disha Patani is certainly a good sport flirting with Chan as the secret Indian princes Ashmita. However, Mu Qimiya matches and maybe exceeds her yoga flexibility and screen appeal as Chan’s assistant Nuomin.

There is a good deal of corn in KFY, but there are also a handful of gleefully outlandish action scenes, including one set in a cage full of hyenas (beasts are definitely beastly in this Chan outing). It closes with a Bollywood number which is a cliché, but it is still good, clean fun. It can get silly, but never in the way that makes loyal fans gag. Recommended as a fluffy, harmless romp, Kung Fu Yoga opens today (1/27) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Sundance ’17: Berlin Syndrome

If Australian Melanie Joosten’s debut novel had been originally published by a New York house instead, it would probably be titled The Girl in Berlin. The play on “Stockholm Syndrome” might be a bit too forced, but it is still more distinctive than yet another attempt to evoke Gillian Flynn and Paula Harkins. One thing is completely certain, an Australian tourist lands in deadly serious trouble in Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Clare has a thing for vintage GDR (DDR) architecture and the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Maybe that is why she feels such an instant attraction to Andi, a native East German school teacher. They have similar tastes in art and literature, but he seems rather bitter about both Re-Unification and the grim old days of Communism. Unfortunately, his attitudes towards women are also complicated, in the worst possible way.

After meeting in a promising Before Sunrise manner, Clare wakes to find her one-night stand just won’t end. She is locked into Andi’s refurbished and specially reinforced flat—the only still hospitable unit in an abandoned GDR-era housing complex. Initially, Clare rebels, but that just gets her trussed up. Quickly, she decides making nice is a shrewder course of action, but she remains watchful for any possible escape opportunity. Most ominously, she picks up clues suggesting she is not the first woman Andi has held captive.

Shaun Grant’s adaptation of Joosten’s novel makes the title sound misleading. While there are times Clare puts on a good show for Andi, viewers will never wonder if she is starting to feel a Stockholm Syndrome attachment for him. Still, the cat-and-mouse games are definitely tense stuff. However, Andi’s impossibly good luck is truly cosmically unjust. He just seems to get every break.

Regardless, the glammed down Teresa Palmer gives a harrowingly intense performance as Clare. She makes the audience feel every ounce of her characters suffering. Max Riemelt (who sort of looks like Jason Ritter, who looks a lot like Jason Giambi) is also appropriately clammy and tightly wound, which makes it even harder to believe she could fall for him.

Shortland (the Australian specialist in German language films, probably best known for Lore) shows sure-footed instincts, conveying a visceral sense of Clare’s claustrophobia, but periodically opening the film up to show more of Andi’s awkward interactions with the world. Yet, in all honesty, many of us regular genre [re]viewers are getting a little tired of creepy abduction thrillers. Shortland and cinematographer Germain McMicking give it plenty of style, but it is debatable whether it really fills a void in the world. Recommended for those not fatigued with kidnapping-confinement dramas, Berlin Syndrome screens again today (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Day Of Reckoning (2016)

Joel Novoa's DAY OF RECKONING is coming out on VOD at an odd time. This film about demons coming up from the center of the earth and trying to destroy the world is going to be seen as an allegory for the taking of power by Donald Trump. The analogy is wrong but considering how the first days of his administration has been seen by many as the end of the world, any film showing a demon horde is ripe to be co-opted by those looking for solace.

The plot of the film concerns what happens after the Day of Reckoning. It seems mass die offs were followed by mass migrations which were followed by an eclipse which signaled the demon hordes to come to the surface and kill man kind. The attack lasted 24 hours and destroyed much of the world. 15 years later another eclipse is predicted and the signs are following  an eerie pattern.  As the demons rise up to attack David and his family are forced to flee the city and attempt to make it to the home of an aunt and uncle who have a shelter.

A really good action horror film DAY OF RECKONING doesn't skimp on the monsters. filled with thousands of beasties and lots of carnage this is wickedly wonderful little film. This is a popcorn film of the highest order. While the film initially played last October on SYFY with commercials I think that ould be the wrong way to see this. Moving along at a frequently lightning speed and designed to keep you on the edge of your seat this is a film you can't break up. The spell will break and the film will seem to be a typical made for SYFY schlock film- which it isn't. While not as good as writer Gregory Gieras's BIG ASS SPIDERor production company Epic's similarly themed JERUZALEM, DAY OF RECKONING is a real kick in the pants. This is better than most films that premiere on SYFY in their Saturday at 9pm slot by miles.

If the film has any real flaw it would be the unevenness with which the the CGI monsters are integrated. Sometimes they look perfect and real and sometimes they look badly put into the scene. It kind of breaks the spell but once you go with it everything is fine.

I really liked this film a great deal and I recommend the film for any monster film lover-especiallyif you can watch it without commercials.

DAY OF RECKONING will be available on VOD and digital platforms Tuesday January 31st

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sundance ’17: Icarus

Unlike most subjects of documentaries premiering at Sundance this year, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov was not available for post-screening Q&A’s. That is because he is in Witness Protection. Dr. Rodchenkov and the Federal government believed he was targeted by the Putin regime for assassination, perhaps much like several of his colleagues who suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. Before he went underground, Dr. Rodchenkov told his story to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and filmmaker Bryan Fogel. As a result, Fogel radically reshaped his proposed doping documentary into the riveting expose, Icarus, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

As a high-performing amateur cyclist, Fogel originally conceived the film as a guerilla chronicle of his undercover attempt to conduct his own doping regimen in the mode of Lance Armstrong. He was referred to Dr. Rodchenkov, because the director of the Russian Anti-Doping Center was considered sufficiently maverick to serve as Fogel’s advisor. As Fogel and Rodchenkov develop trust and rapport, rumors start to swirl regarding the legitimacy of Russia’s record medal haul at the Sochi games. Soon, Dr. Rodchenkov is directly implicated in those allegations. At that point, the doctor levels with Fogel: he oversaw a systemic doping campaign across all sports on the direct orders of Putin’s trusted deputies. He now fears for his own life.

In the scenes that follow, Icarus becomes the film CitizenFour was hyped to be, but can’t hold a candle to. After assisting Dr. Rodchenkov’s escape to America, Fogel engineers the release of his story to the press and WADA. Dr. Rodchenkov packed light, but he wisely brought along hard drives and cell phones loaded with proof.

Icarus is shocking in many ways, starting with how poorly Dr. Rodchenkov’s story was reported in the West. We mostly just accepted news of the Russian doping scandal as par for the course, following in the alleged tradition of the old school Communist Olympic training machines. However, the “smoking gun” conclusiveness of Dr. Rodchenkov’s evidence is stunning. Yet, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to ignore it, presumably out of deference to Putin’s vodka and caviar. Aside from Putin and his FSB enforcers, the biggest villain in Icarus is undoubtedly Thomas Bach, the cravenly hypocritical IOC president.

Unlike Snowden (with whom Dr. Rodchenkov is directly compared with), viewers can feel the Russian whistleblower’s life is constantly in palpable danger during the doc’s second and third acts. Yet, there are even graver stakes involved. Fogel trenchantly points out Putin invaded Ukraine while riding a wave a nationalist popularity largely based on Russia’s Sochi triumphs.

Granted, there is a little too much of Fogel doing prep work for his original conception of the documentary, with him in the center. However, once the focus shifts to Dr. Rodchenkov, the film becomes taut, tense, suspenseful, and downright revelatory. This is truly gutsy documentary filmmaking. Icarus could very well be the motivation for the hacking of this year’s Sundance, if it was not the Chinese Communist Party in retribution for the screenings of the outstanding Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower. (Such scenarios might sound petty, but that is how dictatorships roll.) Very highly recommended, Icarus screens today (1/26) at the Sundance Mountain Resort and this Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: The Discovery

Science is still essentially agnostic. It makes no promises of harps and angels. However, Dr. Thomas Harber claims to have proof that after death, human consciousness leaves for a different plane of existence, the details of which remain unknown. As a result, tens of millions of people have committed suicide in anticipation of a fresh start. Yet, karma is still karma in Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Forty million plus have already taken their lives after “The Discovery,” but Harber is not inclined to take responsibility or show remorse. After all, they will go on somewhere, right? Perhaps he is also somewhat desensitized to suicide after his wife took her own life, pre-Discovery. Of course, that is why he is so driven to establish the specifics of the afterlife or whatever.

Harber’s semi-estranged son Will has come to his cult-like research institute hoping to convince the scientist to recant his claims. On the ferry to chilly, off-season Newport, Will encounters the mysterious Isla. Having sensed something dark hanging over her, Will manages to intervene during her suicide attempt. His father rather takes a liking to her too, so he agrees to take her on as a research subject/associate/cult member. Meanwhile, the junior Harber makes a discovery of his own that not necessarily contradicts his father’s, but radically alters its implications.

In terms of its metaphysical aesthetics, Discovery is not wildly incompatible with Matheson’s What Dreams May Come. It is safe to say karma plays a role, but it would be spoilery to spell it out. Still, it is probably safe to say McDowell and Justin Lader’s screenplay takes a radically unexpected turn, but it will not leave viewers dispirited. Quite the contrary.

Frankly, Jason Segel and Rooney Mara do some of their best work to date as Will and Isla. They are both convincingly smart and damaged, so it really feels like their relationship develops organically. Although it almost goes without saying, Robert “Sundance Kid” Redford’s Dr. Harber has all kinds of gravitas and presence. Yet, maybe the biggest surprise is Jesse Plemons’ humanistic, sneaks-up-on-you turn as Will Harber’s deceptively slacker-ish brother Toby.

The Discovery is an unusually smart film that features some provocative speculation but never skimps on character development. It is a worthy follow-up to McDowell’s crackerjack debut, The One I Love. Highly recommended, The Discovery screens again tomorrow (1/27) and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

WHERE I GROW OLD (2016) Neighboring Scenes 2017

Magical slice of life story about a woman who travels from Portugal to Brazil in order to see if it's the place where she would like to spend the rest of her life. Moving in with an old friend life happens.

Wonderful film has me scratching my head as to why this film hasn't shown up in New York sooner especially since the film was funded in part by the Tribeca Film Festival. This is one of those films that's so good you can't understand why people haven't snapped it up and talking it up.

The enjoyment here is not so much the loose narrative thread but the characters and small moments that nail life as lived instead of life as seen in movies. Three cheers for director Marília Rocha in his first narrative film for taking his documentary training and using it to make a film that feel more real than many documentaries.

This film works more or less from top to bottom with it's non actor cast creating characters that put pretty much every Hollywood performance to shame. To be certain the fact that we don't know anyone on screen helps, but at the same time they do more then act and seem to open themselves up on screen.

This is a stunning film that I hope gets picked up for release in the US otherwise this is going to be a case of yet another film that I'm talking about at years end that no one has ever heard of and has to be tracked down through odd sources.

One of the must sees of not only Neighboring Scenes but also the early film year.

WHERE I GROW OLD plays Sunday at Neighboring Scenes.



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Slamdance ’17: Future ’38

There were no flying cars in the future, nor did we enter a Star Trekian age of peace. We should know, we’re living in it, or at least we soon will be. It is an exercise in retro-futurism, imagining the year 2018 as seen from 1938. Our point-of-view comes from Essex, an intrepid time-traveler who hopes to avert the messy world war brewing in Europe. However, the Germans might not be a defanged as everyone assumes during the years Essex skips over in Jamie Greenberg’s Future ‘38, which premiered at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Thanks to Essex, there was/will not be a war. Instead, we entered era of Pax Formica, ushered in by a demonstration of our secret weapon. It is/was much like the atom bomb, but it was fueled by Formica instead of plutonium or uranium. The tricky thing is it takes eighty years for the Formica core to build up enough power. The solution is obvious. Stash the super-Formica in a secure vault and send Essex eighty years into the future to retrieve it.

Essex arrives in the lobby of a flop-house run by Banky, a glamorous tough cookie, who finds herself strangely attracted to Essex, in a Tracy-Hepburn kind of way. Although she does not believe his time travel mumbo jumbo, she humors him anyway. Thanks to the ticker-tape version of the internet, they learn the old War Department building has been converted into the new German embassy, so naturally they will crash their reception. However, the Germans have some ideas about rewriting history of their own.

Future ’38 is presented as an ostensibly rediscovered lost film, introduced by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Frankly, its retro-futurism is much more informed by contemporary attitudes than those of the 1930s. However, some of technical mash-ups are amusing (smart phones still placing calls through operators and the like). The look of the picture is also terrific, thanks to the way it so perfectly approximates the look of early Technicolor film stock.

Frankly, the first half of the film feels rather precious and gimmicky, but viewers should stick with it, because Greenberg ties everything together surprisingly cleverly in the third act. It legitimately pays off down the stretch, after the game co-leads win us over. Nick Westrate and Betty Gilpin have a good handle on the dialogue’s necessary rat-a-tat-tat tempo, playing off each other quite nicely. Gilpin is particularly charismatic, channeling her inner Rosalind Russell.

It starts slow, but it steadily builds steam. One might argue it also reminds us of the dangers of complacency when it comes to protecting our freedoms, but that is probably a stretch. It is really just a goofy and ultimately quite sweet film. Without question, it has more heart and substance than Space Station 76 (an obvious comp movie). Recommended for fans of time travel films and Golden Age science fiction, Future ’38 screens again tomorrow (1/26), during this year’s Slamdance.

Sundance ’17: 78/52

Marli Renfro is a former Playboy Bunny and cover model who participated in truly groundbreaking cinematic history. She was Janet Leigh’s body in Psycho and there was quite a bit of doubling for her to do—78 set-ups and 52 cuts in total—and what cuts they were. The construction and legacy of the iconic/notorious shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are lovingly analyzed in Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sure, there are knowing homages (like the prologue to Scream), but no film has really come close to the shock of presumptive star Janet Leigh’s first act death in Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece. Of course, she was dispatched while taking a shower. If you haven’t seen Psycho several times already than shame on you, but keep in mind Philippe will “spoil” Norman Bates’ big secret almost immediately. This is a film for film lovers that presupposes intimate familiarity with Psycho, the Hitchcock canon in general, and the slasher and Giallo films it inspired.

Technically, Philippe shoehorns in some wider discussions of Psycho, such as the rainy driving sequence that in many ways foreshadows the shower scene in question. He also gives some solid “making of” background. Sadly, neither Hitch nor Leigh is still with us, but Renfro stills looks great and is happy to discuss her role in the film. Without question, her recollections will be the most newsworthy for fans. In addition, Philippe also incorporates commentary from a host of genre superstars, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Karyn Kusama, Richard Stanley, Leigh Wannell, Mick Garris, and Elijah Wood.

Frankly, there are not a lot of groundbreaking revelations in 78/52, but Philippe’s deep dive provides a useful methodology for taking stock of the film’s artistry and cultural influence. Some diehards might complain that composer Bernard Herrmann’s instantly recognizable themes get somewhat short shrift. He also mercifully spares Gus Van Sant an awkward discussion of his ill-conceived 1998 shot-by-shot remake.

Without question, Psycho is one of the most important genre films ever made and the shower murder is clearly its defining scene (although some of us will argue the epilogue in which Simon Oakland explains it all is a close second). Philippe’s feature-length analysis easily sustains itself and the decision to render the film in black-and-white was rather inspired. Recommended with affection for fans of Hitchcock and nearly every subsequent psycho-stalker film, 78/52 screens again tomorrow (1/26) in Park City and Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Plastic China (2016) Sundance 2017

To say that Plastic China is an eye opener is an understatement. An look at a onetime farmer who now runs a plastic recycling plant and is just getting by the film is a glaring example of the gulf between the haves and have nots in modern day China.

Plastic waste from all over the world is shipped to China where it is shred and then recycled. The tedious work of sorting all the refuse is done by poorly paid workers. Kun and his family does most of the work with the help of Peng who get paid a couple of dollars a day - which he promptly drinks leaving nothing for his own family to live on.

While many films have shown the disparity between the classes in China none have done so graphically. Kun and his family are not particularly well off and we watch as the various bit of waste come through their hands hinting at a better life that they can only dream of. To be certain Kun is better off than Peng, but at the same time he isn’t making a killing. We watch as everyone in the film dreams of a better life. This is not the sort of thing I’m guessing the Chinese Communist Party are really going to want us to see since the platitudes we hear from Chairman Mao are seen woefully out of touch with the lives Kun and family are living.

Director Jiuliang Wang has made and film that forces us to sit up and take notice. Not really taking a stand as to what we are seeing the film appears to be more or less a record of the lives of everyone involved. Events simply play out without any sort of commentary. The result is a film that places us in the lives of people on the outer edge of people who are part of the largest market in the world. Yes we’ve seen the poverty in other films but rarely have we seen the vastness of the divide.

To be honest this is a film I need to see a second time. It’s not that there is too much to take in or anything like that rather it’s that my expectations were shaken up, the film didn’t go where I expected and I need to see it again so I can get past the “oh wow” factor I kind of felt. More simply put it kicked up stuff I’m still processing and I need a second time through to help order all my feelings. (the downside of festival screenings is you only get one time through.)

PLASTIC CHINA was literally the first film I saw in 2017 and it was a great way to start the film year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Free and Easy (2016) Sundance 2016

A gangster with soap that knocks people out so he can rob them, a fake monk looking for solidarity through common pursuit, a forest ranger looking for a stolen tree, cops trying to solve a crime without clues and a few other odd ball people wander through Jun Geng's very funny farce FREE AND EASY.

One might be tempted to compare it to some of the off kilter work of Jim Jarmusch or similar directors but at the same time there is something truly unique and quite wonderful, not to mention frequently funny about Geng's film. Sure everything seems to be odd or off  with all of the characters and situations in the film, but at the same time Geng has rooted the film largely in a reality that makes us accept what we are seeing. Sure the soap bit is out there, but all of the rest really isn't that far from reality or people we know- we're just seeing them through a slightly farcical lens.

There is a flavor to FREE AND EASY unique and wonderfully it's own. Its a film that looks like other films set in the wilds of China, much like how can see several versions of the same dish from different restaurants  but there is always something slightly different to the taste the result of the chef's slighting differing ways of mixing the ingredients. Geng has this wonderful way of mixing the humor/fantasy with reality to make something that in its way really hits home.

Early in the film there is a scene where a young man who was robbed via the soap goes to report the incident to the police. The sequence goes sideways as the police begin to quiz him about his martial arts skills and then ask for a demonstration. It's an odd moment  but watching a young man  do a few reluctant kung fu moves  the uncertainty, excuses creates this wonderful connection to reality.. It nails that awkward moment we've all experienced where someone has asked us to be on. Its a throw away moment that moves us closer to believing what we are seeing. There are several moments through out the film which ring with a clarity and understanding of reality that most dramas never get.

This a farce that isn't really a farce even though things play that way. This is a film that is ultimately something much more.

I really love this film a great deal. Its one of those movies where I can't stop thinking about. Its also a film where I have been struggling to do a review where I can fully  express the feeling and the flavor of the wonders that are contained inside. Its a film that sneaks up on you and makes you fall in love with it.

If you want to cut to the chase and get to the pull quote simply know that this is one of the best films I've seen from Sundance this year. Its one of the gems of the early film year and a film I can't wait to for friends to see it so that we can discuss it.

Go see this film.

The film's remaining Sundance screening schedule:

Public Screening #4: Thursday, January 26, 2:30PM (Prospector Square Theatre)
Public Screening #5: Friday, January 27, 1:00PM (Holiday Village Cinema 4)

Sundance ’17: Marjorie Prime

Perhaps we can think of it as the emotional singularity: that potential juncture when our artificial intelligence constructs better understand our inner psyches than we do. It is possible humanity or at least one family reaches this point in Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s play, Marjorie Prime, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

To help her deal with the loss of her beloved husband, Marjorie’s daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon have installed the latest in bereavement technology: an AI hologram of her late husband. They are somewhat surprised when she opts for the young, handsome Walter who proposed to her, rather than an older version that would better match Marjorie in her current advanced years. He is there to comfort her and remind her of memories that have slipped her increasingly unreliable mind. However, knowing she will not remember the truth as it happened, Marjorie will sometimes recommend alterations, to make Walter Prime’s stories better reflect reality as she would have preferred it.

Although Marjorie’s health is clearly failing in the first act, Tess is unable to resolve the issues in their strained relationship before her death. Despite her skepticism, she too will try achieve some sort of catharsis with the help of Marjorie Prime. There is a great deal of family history that has been left unspoken and even deliberately forgotten, but the primes might know more than the mortals realize.

Ironically, Marjorie Prime is a film about artificial intelligence that is deeply humanistic and insightful into the foibles and weaknesses of humankind. Almereyda embraces the stage roots of his source material, accentuating the intimacy of the chamber drama. He definitely opts for a minimalist style, but that actually heightens the elegiac tone (also thanks to a considerable assist from accomplished indie cinematographer Sean Price Williams).

Lois Smith (who originated the role on stage) anchors the film with a wide-ranging yet subtle performance as Marjorie/Marjorie Prime. Jon Hamm develops some intriguing chemistry (if we can really call it that, in this case) with her as Walter Prime. Azumi Tsutsui is terrific in her brief but pivotal scene as Tess and Jon’s granddaughter Marjorie. However, the wonderfully sensitive performances of Geena Davis Tim Robbins as the brittle Tess and achingly empathetic Jon are what really linger in the viewer’s head after it all wraps up.

Frankly, there is a lot of provocative speculation about how AI could alter the human condition that is hidden within plain sight throughout Prime. It definitely qualifies as science fiction, even though it is driven as much or more by its characters than its ideas. Very highly recommended for sf fans and those who will appreciate it as a richly textured family drama, Marjorie Prime screens again this morning (1/24) and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, tomorrow (1/25) at Sundance Resort, and Thursday (1/26) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.