Monday, January 23, 2017

BAMkids Film Fest is this weekend

This weekend Brooklyn Academy of Music is holding its annual BAMKids Film Festival. This annual two day event is full of great kids films for the smaller ones. Yes they run a film or two for older kids, but mostly this is a fest for the under ten set.

I’ve covered the festival several times over the years, but this year and last year I have not really mentioned it more than a curtain raiser like this because the I’ve had problems with conflicting scheduling. I simply can’t get into Brooklyn.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go…. After all the festival always has some great shorts and they are running MOLLY MONSTER which is great fun for the little ones. If you can get to Brooklyn by all means go….

For more information on the films and tickets go here.

Sundance ’17: Tokyo Idols

They have done something beyond the powers of American pop and rock stars. They have maintained a strong CD market. That is because Japanese idols are the crack cocaine of cuteness and their addicted fans will purchase discs as another form of collectible merchandise. Their bubbly school girl images are anathema to most feminists, but the degree to which middle-aged Japanese men have used fandom as a substitute for real relations might be even more problematic. British-based Kyoko Miyake examines the phenomenon from the perspective of aspiring performers and the men who “support” them in Tokyo Idols, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Popular amongst idol-fans, Rio Hiragi is poised for mainstream crossover success. To breakthrough, she is working the idol scene hard. As the industry demands, she is in constant contact with her fans online and regularly meets them face-to-face at handshake events. These are exactly what they sound like: one minute of ostensibly innocent physical contact and fannish conversation. Miyake zeroes in on the sexual aspect of these events, which is certainly fair and pretty darned disturbing given some of the age differentials. At least Hiragi is maybe old enough to vote—and frankly seems rather together. It just gets creepy when we watch grown men cheering and chatting up fourteen- and twelve-years old idols.

As an expat who still returns to Japan semi-regularly, Miyake (who documented her lovely aunt’s resilience after the 2011 earthquake-tsunami in My Atomic Aunt) had the right balance of critical distance and common cultural references to do justice to her subject. She asks plenty of tough questions, getting many fans to admit they have given up on legitimate romantic relationships, preferring their brief intervals of chaste “girlfriend experience” with their favorite idols. However, she never directly drops the “p” word, even though it hangs in the air like a skydiving white elephant. Yet somehow, throughout it all, the audience will still find themselves rooting for Hiragi to make it to the next level up.

Frankly, based on the interactions and interviews Miyake captures, it is hard to say which are the more pitiable, the girls (and they really are still girls) who sacrifice their youth for the sake of fame, or the men who throwaway any hope of connecting with a woman in real time and in some cases, slavish devote all their disposable income to boosting their favorites’ careers. It is a fascinating and sometimes uncomfortable deep dive into Japanese pop culture. Highly recommended for fans of J-pop and anyone who wants to put the Japanese national psyche on the couch for analysis, Tokyo Idols screens again tomorrow (1/24) in Salt Lake and Thursday (1/26) and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

MARIE CURIE THE COURAGE OF SCIENCE (2016) New York Jewish Film Festival 2017

Biography of Marie Curie the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences is an odd duck film. Very mannered and deliberately done the film strives very much to be an art film.Filmed at times to be a kind of documentary

The film has a very odd feel, due I think in large part to the cameras limited movement and choice of angles which kind of shackle us to a very deliberate and limited point of view, I never had a sense of being in a real place with real people. It felt more like a filmed stage play or theatrical experience where the audience has a limited ability to see the world of the action. The result was I never really connected with what was happening on the screen.

The film plays January 24th

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Nightcap 1/22/17 Neighboring Scenes starts Thursday, Editing animation, politics and Randi's links

How Do You Edit an Animated Film? from The Royal Ocean Film Society on Vimeo.
Neighboring Scenes the annual Latin American Film Festival at Lincoln Center Starts Thursday and runs until the 31st and it’s a must attended. In all seriousness you want to get tickets and go because every year they show great films that may not get a US release. For every film like the devastating Oscar hopeful THE CLUB, which ran last year, there are four or five small gems that may not end up seen with films like this year’s winners A DECENT WOMAN and WHERE I GROW OLD .

Every year I go into the series having no clue what most of the films are but I always come out needing to talk about and share the great films I just saw. My advice is look over the list of films and just go to anything that looks even remotely interesting.

As this posts I’m still working on coverage. I have a few reviews lined up but I’m looking to see a few more during the festival now that I’m set with a few other things. Keep reading because we will be posting coverage.

For tickets and more information go here.
While the plan was to keep this brief and while Unseen is not a political website I would be remiss in not saying a word about the new President.

He’s the wrong guy.

A sterling example of why one should not get involved with something one doesn’t really want (I’ve been told by people connected to the initial campaign he was running it simply for the cheap publicity) our new CEO is clearly in way over his head as his inability to play well with others reveals.

If you voted for him consider that his promises to drain the swamp and clean up Washington have gone down the toilet as he picked one of the men responsible for the banking crisis to run the banks, a man who made money from medical technology to run health and human services, a man who doesn’t know lead in water causes brain damage to run the EPA and a woman who hates public schools and thinks guns should be allowed in schools to prevent bear attacks to be the head of education. You may also find yourself without health insurance since, as several pro-Trump friends have found out, his move to repeal Obamacare is going to remove their new health insurance they got under the Affordable Care Act. Additionally he wats to cut the national Endowment for the Arts which will affect the films this site was set up to highlight.

We have elected a billionaire who has never had a business succeed, and who’s personal wealth would be exactly where it is had he done nothing. He is a sociopath who has no sense of anything outside of himself. He genuinely doesn’t understand people exist beyond him which is why he has pending sexual misconduct cases against him.

If you are unhappy call your representatives and senators-have their numbers on speed dial. Email them and send them letters (they listen to letters because if you’re pissed enough to use the mail they know you are serious). Let them know you will vote against them and make sure others will.

I will be steering away from politics here from on- but I have to state where I stand because what is about to happen in Washington will affect all of us.
And now some of Randi's Links

The aristocrat who discovered dinosaurs and died penniless
12 thing most New Yorkers don't know about the city
Inside the Creative Community: The Power and Process of Animated Film – Westminster Town Hall Forum
600 groin hits from America's Funniest Home Videos

Sundance ’17: Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower

A teenager should not feel personally responsible for saving his homeland’s values and way of life, but this is the role Joshua Wong has voluntarily assumed. As the founder of the student activist society Scholarism, Wong has challenged the Mainland Communist Party’s plans to impose Party indoctrination in Hong Kong schools and its relentless efforts to undermine the “One China Two Systems” promise of HK democracy. Viewers will see what genuine democracy protests look like and how perilously high the stakes can in Joe Piscatella’s documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

To promote obedience, the Education Bureau of Hong Kong proposed, at the Mainland Party’s behest, the ominous sounding Moral and National Education (MNE) curriculum, which was essentially Communist propaganda combined with criticisms of democratic forms of government. In response, the not quite fifteen-year-old Wong founded Scholarism and began coordinating a campaign of protests and outreach. Rather remarkably, the Mainland’s dedicated servant HK Chief Executive CY Leung gave a bit of ground, making the MNE curriculum voluntary, at each school’s discretion.

Ironically, the partial MNE victory may have given Wong and Scholarism too much faith the Mainland’s political puppets would listen to reason when presented with the overwhelming will of the people. Tragically, that would not be the case during the 2014 Umbrella Protests.

To say the Western media’s coverage of the 2014 demonstrations was inadequate would be a gross understatement. Frankly, Piscatella’s documentary is crucially valuable just for its lucid step-by-step chronicle of the Umbrella movement—so named because the demonstrators (the vast majority of whom were high school and college students) deployed umbrellas to combat police tear gas. For 79 days, the students hung tough—and when the police shock troops started using military-style tactics against them, the normally rail-thin Wong launched a dangerous hunger strike.

As in Chan Tze-woon’s more verite (but equally valuable) Yellowing, the one thing that immediately strikes viewers of Teenager is just how shockingly young Wong and his Scholarism colleagues look. Both films will make you wish you could travel back in time to the Admiralty and Mong Kok to protect them. What is nearly as significant in Teenager is how explicitly and ardently Wong and his classmates identify as Hong Kongers, not Chinese.

Piscatella follows a pretty standard documentary playbook, utilizing media footage and talking head interviews. However, many of his commentators are unusually insightful and honest in their analysis, such as the journalist who describes the current Beijing-Leung strategy as the shrinkage of One China-Two Systems to One China-1.9 Systems and then to 1.8 Systems, and so on.

Even though everyone really ought to know how the Umbrella Demonstrations turned out, viewers will still get caught up in Teenager’s narrative. It is a highly compelling, emotionally involving film by any standards. There is no false optimism, but Piscatella leaves the audience with some hope, once Wong explains how he and his fellow activists have learned from the mistakes of 2014. If you want to protest, protest Xi Jinping and CY Leung (frankly, this film could very well be why the festival was hacked). If you want to see a great doc, make every effort to see Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower when it screens again this afternoon (1/22) in Salt Lake and Wednesday (1/25) and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: My Life as a Zucchini

They have big heads and even bigger problems. They might be stop-motion animated figures, but they understand they are too old for adoption to be a practical possibility. Instead, they will have to make the best of things in Claude Barras’s My Life as a Zucchini, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

If nothing else, Barras teaches us “courgette” is the French word for zucchini. Nine-year-old Icare prefers his rather odd vegetable nickname, for a host of complicated reasons. That was what his drunken mother used to call him, before Zucchini accidentally killed her in an instinctive act of self-preservation. Since his father has long-absconded, he is remanded to an orphanage, where his preferred moniker will draw the bullying attention of Simon, a longtime resident. Why yes, Zucchini has been picked up by GKIDS, why do you ask?

For a while, things look decidedly Dickensian for Zucchini. However, Raymond, the kindly policeman who worked his mother’s case, periodically drops by to check on him. Life takes a turn for the better when the spirited Camille moves into the home (following her parents’ murder-suicide). He takes an instant liking to her and it seems to be mutual. However, unlike the other children, she wishes to stay in the foster home rather than moving in with her shrewish, exploitative aunt.

Obviously, Zucchini/Courgette is not your typical merchandising-friendly animated film. Adapted from Gilles Paris’s YA novel (which is reportedly even more naturalistic than the film), Barras and screenwriter Céline Sciamma (a prominent French filmmaker in her own right) are dealing frankly and forthrightly with some serious subject matter. They do so in a way that will make young viewers appreciate not being talked down to and have animation fans admiring the way they stretch the dramatic use of the art form.

Clearly, Zucchini was a labor of love for Barras and his design team, because all the sets, backdrops, and costumes have been crafted with extraordinary care. As grim as things get, there is something about the look of the orphanage that inspires hope. Ultimately, the narrative also gives viewers a bittersweet glow. This review is based on the original French language dialogue track, which features some unusually sensitive vocal performances, particularly Michel Vuillermoz as Raymond the copper, so the English dub cast better not screw it up. In fact, it sounds downright terrific thanks to Swiss jazz-crossover musician Sophie Hunger’s lightly grooving soundtrack.

At just under seventy minutes (FYI, with a short stinger midway through the closing credits), Zucchini stirs quite a few emotions in a relatively short span of time. Rather deservedly, it already has a reputation as the little-film-that-could, having secured a Golden Globe animation nomination and a spot on the best foreign language Oscar shortlist. Indeed, just about anyone should respond to its deep humanistic embrace. Very highly recommended, My Life as a Zucchini screens again this afternoon (1/22) and this coming Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Free and Easy

Zhang Zhiyong is a soap salesman just like Ryan O’Neal sold Bibles in Paper Moon and Robert Preston sold musical instruments in The Music Man, except his con is even more predatory. The blighted Northern provincial town is no River City, but trouble is coming just the same in Jun Geng’s Free and Easy, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Here is how it works: Zhang Zhiyong blows into town and introduces himself to a bystander, offering him a free sample of a bar of scented soap. When the mark sniffs it, he falls unconscious, allowing Zhang to lift his wallet and valuables. At least that is how it is supposed to work. Christian convert Gu Benben is so congested he does not keel over like the other two men he was proselytizing. Actually, the Christian evangelism is just an excuse to hand out flyers for his decades-missing mother. Xu Gang, the phony dispossessed monk does not inhale either, but when the fumes from the freebie finally fell him, Zhang finds he has nothing worth stealing.

Soon word of Zhang and his knockout soap reach the local constabulary, but instead of hunting the con man, corrupt copper Zhang Xun tries to use the soap on Zhang’s new pretty landlady, Chen Jing, but she wants absolutely nothing from or to do with him. Her husband Xue Baohe understandably resents Zhang Xun’s pursuit of his wife, but he has other problems distracting him. Some person or persons unknown has been harvesting the trees he has been planting along the highway as part of a rare re-forestation campaign, thereby putting his own position in considerable jeopardy.

Granted, Zhang Zhiyong and Xu Gang might not be perfect, but there is no question Zhang Xun is the scummiest villain in F&E, which is well in keeping with popular attitudes towards the People’s Police. It also continues a recent mini-boomlet of Fargo-like socially conscious Chinese provincial noirs, such as Zhang Bingjian’s North By Northeast, Cao Baoping’s Cock and Bull, and Xin Yukun’s deliciously devious A Coffin in the Mountain. Jun Geng keeps piling one darned thing after another on his weary cads, but the style and tone of F&E is much more restrained.

Regardless, the ensemble is aces all around, especially Zhang Zhiyong, who raises stone cold flintiness to an art form as his namesake (apparently, that is a self-referential thing for many of the principles). Xue Baohe probably pulls off the most surprises as the formerly cringe-inducing forester Xue. Xu Gang gives the film further complicating human dimensions as Xu Gang the impostor monk, who seems to feel a need to live up to the role he has fraudulently assumed.

F&E is a vermouth-dry comedy that casts a cynical, bloodshot eye on contemporary Chinese society. The cops are the worst, but there is no shortage of grifters looking to pull a fast one. Although it is a bit slower than you might expect, F&E is still smart and archly funny. Recommended for fans of con artist movies and Chinese cinema, Free and Easy screens again today (1/22) in Salt Lake and tomorrow (1/23), Thursday (1/26), and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Slamdance ’17: Dave Made a Maze

You could almost appreciate it as a masterwork of outsider art, if it were not so lethal. Rather, inconveniently, it happens to be right smack dab in the middle of Dave and Annie’s living room. When the latter returns from a business trip, she discovers the former has been lost inside for three days. She and an oddball group of friends discover it is bizarrely cavernous inside, sort of like the Tardis, but with booby traps. DIY constructionism takes a weirdly fantastical turn in Bill Watterson’s Dave Built a Maze, which premiered during the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival.

Don’t call it a maze—it’s a labyrinth. Hence, there must be traps and yes, a minotaur. Dave did not create those per se. His cardboard Escher-like construction just took on a life of its own. Much to Annie’s frustration, he will not let her simply cut into it. He has too much pride in his creation. It could also be catastrophically dangerous given the structure’s instability. The exasperated Annie calls in his friend Gordon as back-up. Unfortunately, the scene soon turns into a circus. Eventually, she just heads into its cave like entrance, with whoever cares to tag along. However, things get real in a hurry when several of their more expendable friends are quickly killed off.

It is hard to fairly convey a sense of the film’s tone. You would never call it cutesy or quirky, nor is it dark or moody. One might start with Michel Gondry and Edgar Wright as reference points, but they are still not quite right. Regardless, Maze is wildly inventive and slyly funny, featuring some absolutely incredible cardboard set designs. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner, along with art director Jeff White deserve standing ovations for what they have realized (presumably on a not-so extravagant budget).

There is also plenty of snappy, archly sarcastic dialogue, delivered with pitch-perfect aplomb by Adam Busch and James Urbaniuk (a.k.a. Ned Rifle), as Gordon and Harry the aspiring documentarian, respectively. Nick Thune’s titular Dave is necessarily a bit off a sad sack, but Meera Rohit Kumbhani’s Annie just lights up the screen with her smart, grounded, star-making presence.

Frankly, it is kind of shocking how well Maze works. There is nothing twee about it, especially not the tripped-out animated sequences. It is all kind of nuts, but it adheres to its own system of illogic. Very highly recommended for cult film fans, Dave Made a Maze screens again tomorrow (1/23), as part of this year’s Slamdance in Park City.

Strad Style (2017) Slamdance 2017

Portrait of 32-year-old Danny Houck who lives in the middle rural Ohio. An employed recluse Houck somehow convinces a European concert violinist that he can duplicate a Stradivarius.

At times this is an extremely interesting look at violins and violin making. The artistry and skill to turn out a finely crafted instrument is a something that not many people possess. Whether Danny Houck possesses the skill is up in the air but he certainly has the knowledge to make a stab at making a great instrument

How you react to this film is going to depend upon how you react to the man at the center of the film. That's a potential issue because he's at the center of the film from start to finish and if he doesn't click with you this can be a long haul. Hauk is clearly a man of great knowledge and skill but he also is an odd duck at times as we see him go through his daily routine. Personally I'm mixed on him. I found what he was doing captivating but I really didn't care much for the man himself.

For the most part I really like STRAD STYLE. I think the film is telling one hell of a story, though to be perfectly honest I really don't know why the film is almost two hours long since, as I said Houck is a bit of an acquired taste. That said I want to see the film again because I find the violin stuff fascinating.

Definitely worth a look when the film screens again at Slamdance or when the film eventually makes it to a theater near you.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Brian Harrison talks about HELL FOLLOWS Slamdance 2017

Earlier today I published a review for HELL FOLLOWS a killer short that will undoubtedly act as a take no prisoners calling card for its writer director Brian Harrison. Harrison’s film is the work of a filmmaker who seems to have a better handle on filmmaking than most long term directors. His film is the sort of thing that once you see it you’ll want to see again and again- and you’ll want to see lengthened into a feature because based on what is in the short a feature should be earth shaking.

In the course of emailing back and forth between Harrison and his team I realized that I should get down some of what we were discussing formally- to that end I sent off a few quick questions. What follows is the brief interview that resulted.

I want to thank Brian Harrison for agreeing to answer my questions.

STEVE: Watching the film there is a sense that your love of Asian cinema is more genetic as opposed learned. When did you get hooked on Asian cinema?

BRIAN: Nature or Nurture. The true question of many personality traits, benevolent and malevolent. As in most answers, mine is a little bit of both. Nurture in that I was raised, from the somewhat inappropriate age of 6, on a myriad of provocative and rebellious Japanese cinema. It began with my father introducing me and guiding me into the world, then, nature took over. As was the case with my training in the martial arts, there has always been something inside me that has been drawn to the sensibility. To the honor. To the custom. To the history. To the feeling. To the look. To the philosophy. Something I cannot explain. But something that exists deep in my being. A previous life? Maybe. A specific neurotransmitter? Possibly. All better left unexplained… just embraced with vigor and heart.

STEVE: How did the film come about?

BRIAN: The film started with a novella I wrote about 2 years ago, entitled BLACK AS HELL DARK AS NIGHT. The book contains parts of this story and 2 other stories, all of them related/intertwined through familial relationships. Some of it takes place in Japan, some in the US. All of it, hyper-violent and hyper-real. After writing the novella, I started in on the feature screenplay (also entitled BLACK AS HELL DARK AS NIGHT). When the first draft was completed, I took a step back and realized what I had possibly created here… a manga comic, sans the actual comic books. The world, the feeling, the characters… all seemed to have that flavor to them, although the feature film is set in a vastly non-manga city – a hyper-realistic ghetto in Osaka called Airin-chiku. Once I realized that, I immediately started in with my concept artist, Jack Gregory, and we began the process of creating the manga. So that’s where we are now.

STEVE:The film starts in the middle of the story - are you hoping to expand the film into something longer?

BRIAN: We have the short film – which is kind of nightmare sequence from the feature – the feature screenplay, the novella, and now the manga in production. The intention is release these in a sort of Suicide Club (Sono - 2001) manner. The feature, the novella and then the manga. With room for additional stories within these stories – all in the same manner. A huge lofty goal for sure, but a plan nonetheless. All of which is high gear, moving forward at ludicrous speed.

STEVE: Why is it in Japanese?

BRIAN: The answer is simple. The story is a Japanese one. it takes place in Japan and all the characters are Japanese… so… they speak Japanese. Can’t be any other way nor would I ever do it any other way. One note though, the feature is partially in English as well, but that is being done for a very specific purpose.

STEVE: What are your influences- cinematic and elsewise?

BRIAN: To answer this, I could write pages upon pages upon pages… each set dedicated to who influences me and why. Obviously, we do not have the time or space to do that here, so, I think what I want people to know is that my main influence is LIFE. Everything I encounter. A sound. A person. A thought. A feeling. A color. A film. A book. A language. A philosophy. A taste. A smell. A hallucination. Everything. As a filmmaker and really as a sentient being, I truly believe that the most important influence should be the taking in of all experience and filtering it through your synapses. Once you do this, those experiences become unique to each being’s brain and consciousness… and then, you can deliver that unique “take” to others.

STEVE: What are you favorite films?

BRIAN: There are truly hundreds of films that I consider my “favorites.” It is almost impossible to make a short list of them, as I would undoubtedly be leaving hundreds off the list. Pictures are like food or clothes or music. Your favorites come and go, change with mood, with age, with life. Into something one day, something else the next. One day, a film is the most important thing in your life, the next year, you can’t believe you liked it at all. Films are meant to come into your life in precise moments, leave their mark on you and move on to the next soul. There are some that you, of course, watch over and over and over again. But, to be completely honest, I rather not make a list. Instead, I challenge everyone reading this to watch Hell Follows, and come back to me with an extensive list of films you think are my favorites/influences (at least for this picture). That I can confirm or deny.

Sundance ’17: The Nile Hilton Incident

It is now the Nile Ritz-Carlton, but management could still do without this kind of product placement—just like the New York Sofitel probably wasn’t particularly eager to see the Dominique Strauss-Kahn movie. Regardless, the location couldn’t be better: Nile views right on Tahrir Square. Repercussions from a murder committed behind the hotel’s closed doors will ultimately spill out into the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Incident is “based” on the 2008 murder of Lebanese Suzanne Tamim, the winner of a Pan-Arab Pop Idol contest, like hundreds of Law & Order episodes were “ripped from the headlines.” The Ritz-Carlton would probably like to point out Tamim was actually murdered in Dubai, but a close ally of the Mubarak administration was indeed arrested for the crime. In this case, the late Lalena was a night club performer who maybe turned a few tricks on the side to survive. Rather inconveniently, one of her popular Tunisian colleagues starts making noise at the station, as if she could find justice there.

Col. Noredin will be the investigating officer, which should not inspire a heck of a lot of confidence, since we first meet him making the police department’s protection money pick-ups. Clearly, his commander (who also happens to be his uncle) expects Noredin to sweep it all under the rug. However, when he starts going through the motions of an investigation, he quickly links a wealthy business leader and parliament member to the crime. Evidently, a Sudanese maid saw it all, but she is understandably making herself scarce.

There are considerable merits to Incident, starting with its stylish look and the strikingly seedy back alley locations. However, the general narrative arc harbors few surprises. Believe it or not, it turns out privilege has its privileges. On the other hand, even though historians might object, the way Saleh conflates the Tamim/Lalena murder with the Tahrir Square protests is quite effective.

Fares Fares (from the Department Q trilogy) is all kinds of intense as the self-loathing Noredin. You can practically see the steam coming out of his nostrils. Slimane Dazi is also chillingly soulless as his quarry. Yet, the greatest attraction for many viewers will be the nocturnal tour of Cairo’s streets, bars, and opium dens.

You can hear echoes of Chinatown throughout the film, but it is worlds removed from Saleh’s best known film in America, Metropia, the Tribeca-distributed dystopian animated feature. Good but too predictable to be great, The Nile Hilton Incident screens tonight (1/21), tomorrow (1/22), Thursday (1/26), and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: F’n Bunnies (short)

Those Scandinavians are so progressive and permissive—especially an old leftie like Raimo, but his new next door neighbor will really put him to the test. Miku is the bigamist leader of a satanic sex cult, but he looks like a Juggalo, which would be even worse. Time will tell whether Raimo learns to set aside his prejudices and join the sinister orgies or remains a middle-aged fuddy-duddy in Teemu Niukkanen’s Fucking Bunnies, part of the Midnight Shorts Program screening at the 2017 Sundance FilmFestival.

Raimo goes out of his way to be nice to the minorities who work in his public housing project, as well as the junkies who crash outside. Yet, Miku is just too much for him to deal with. Despite his KISS-style face paint and loud parties, everybody seems to think Miku is a heck of a guy, including Raimo’s wife. To make things particularly awkward, both are experienced squash players in need of partners. His wife keeps pushing him to make nice with Miku, but Raimo just can’t do it—and can you blame him?

Bunnies is a bold satire—arguably too bold for its own good. Obviously, it wants to make a statement about tolerance and xenophobia, especially in light of the refugee humanitarian crisis/invasion, but it is perfectly appropriate for Raimo to be appalled when he finds Miku engaging in wet, messy S&M sex in the basement storage area. (seriously, most of Europe’s “new immigrants” wouldn’t cotton to that either, but they might be okay with Miku’s twenty wives).

Bunnies could well have the opposite effect than Niukkanen intended, but at least it is funny (which is more important from a viewer’s perspective). As Raimo, Jouko Puolanto is a generous straight man, while Janne Reinikainen’s Miku is completely nuts. The glaring contrast between them is a solid comedy bedrock. Niukkanen and co-screenwriter Antti Toivonen are not afraid to push the boundary of propriety. We have to admire their chutzpah, even though it probably undermines the teaching moments.

Hey, aren’t you supposed to use Western Union to send messages anyway? The edgy humor of Bunnies is sure to bring down the house with cult film fans, who will surely spread the word. Recommended for the late-night crew, Fucking Bunnies screens again in the Midnight Shorts Program tonight (1/21) in Salt Lake and Monday (1/23) and Thursday (1/26) in Park City, during this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Colossal

You have never seen a kaiju movie like this before. For one thing, it is the city of Seoul that gets devastated over and over again, rather than Tokyo. In addition, two small town losers might somehow bear some responsibility for the carnage. Rest assured, alcohol is most definitely involved in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

The hard-partying, unemployed Gloria assumed she would be a New Yorker for life until her exasperated boyfriend Tim evicts her from his tony apartment. Rather depressingly, Gloria is forced to crash on the floor of her family’s old provincial home, where she has not lived in since elementary school. However, good old torch-carrying Oscar still recognizes his long-time crush and offers her a job at his bar. Obviously, this is a problematic source of employment for her, but Gloria still is not ready to grow up and be responsible.

One late afternoon-early evening, Gloria wakes up to news reports of a giant kaiju terrorizing Seoul. A few days later, the monster returns to wreak more havoc. Coincidentally, both rampages coincide with all-night benders that stretched into the not-so early morning—8:05 AM to be precise. Realizing the connection, Gloria starts to sober up. However, when she drags Oscar and the town’s Norm and Cliff to witness her power via the internet an Ultraman-like giant robot suddenly also appears.

Like a good Nacho Vigalondo film, Colossal takes a dark turn around the midway point, but it is always deeply rooted in human flaws and weaknesses. Frankly, Vigalondo is really building on the themes and symbolism of classical tragedy—we all remember “jealousy is the green-eyed monster,” right? Yet, the film has an appealingly grungy feel.

Vigalondo also showcases Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis like you have never seen them before. In this case, Sudeikis, the former Saturday Night Live cast-member is actually funny, but he also convincingly veers into Jack Torrance territory during the third act. However, Hathaway gives a tour de force performance as the boozy self-sabotaging Gloria. Forget Les Mis. Forget Rachel Getting Married. This is the film that really shows her range.

Without question, this is the most intimate, character-driven kaiju film you will ever hope to see. It is often addresses emotional issues with brutal honesty, but it is also a ton of fun. Once again, it reconfirms Vigalondo is one of the best (and least predictable) genre filmmakers working today. Very highly recommended, Colossal screens again tonight (1/21) and tomorrow night (1/22) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Plastic China

In China, they recycle plastic, but throwaway lives. It is the leading importer of plastic waste from the West, but education is a luxury dependent on factors like family income and geography. The savage inequalities of contemporary China are inescapably evident in the Shandong recycling plant, whose routines and travails are captured in Wang Jiu-liang’s Plastic China, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

What you discard might end up in Kun’s struggling recycling plant. The owner labors like a mule, but his employee Peng mostly comes across like a lazy drunk. Frankly, Peng’s ten-year-old daughter Yi-jie has a much greater work ethic. She seems to have assumed most of the family’s childcare duties to relieve her constantly pregnant mother, but also does her share of plastic sorting.

Both Kun and the audience can plainly see the responsible-beyond-her-years Yi-jie should be in school, but the useless Peng spends most of the family’s money on drink. Obviously, the idea of simply enrolling her in public school is completely foreign in this province. It would cost Peng a considerable tuition fee under the best of circumstances, but the fact they are ethnic Yi from Sichuan, without proper residency permits, presents further complications.

Wang’s previous documentary was the environmental horror show Beijing Besieged by Waste, so it would seem he has a perverse affinity for dumps and waste-processing facilities. However, Plastic is very much focused on its human subjects. Yi-jie quickly emerges as Wang’s focus, whom viewers will earnestly root for. She is a hard-working, sensitive kid, who deserves a future, but it is not clear she will have one.

While Wang’s approach is strictly observational, he clearly takes sides in the recycling plant’s conflicts. Of course, it is difficult to fault him for aligning with youthful innocence and virtue. On the other side of the spectrum, the myriad flaws of both Kun and Peng are mercilessly exposed for the audience to pass judgement on. Still, life is hard for everyone in Plastic—and it only gets harder. For extra, added irony, the hollow words of Chairman Mao constantly echo throughout the film.

Plastic has been shoehorned into Sundance’s environmental theme this year, but even if the recycling plant were pristine and carbon-neutral, it still would be no place for a child with Yi-jie’s potential. After meeting her on-screen, you might be tempted to trash some plastic toys in hopes they might reach her, but that is about as likely as successfully delivering a message in bottle. What she really needs are a more equitable educational system and fairer residency regulations. Recommended for its human drama and the genuine outrage it inspires, Plastic China screens again tomorrow (1/22), Tuesday (1/24). Thursday (1/26), and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: Killing Ground

You know Australian psycho-stalkers just aren’t what they used to be when a victim gets away from Mick Taylor in the Wolf Creek TV show. As problematically sadist as the original films were, there was no denying John Jarratt’s distinctive screen presence. German and Chook just can’t compare, except perhaps in the violence they unleash on-screen in Tasmanian-native Damien Power’s Killing Ground, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Sam and her doctor fiancé Ian decide to spend New Year’s Eve camping in his favorite spot for reasons that will utterly mystify regular horror movie viewers. On the way, the seedy looking German (with the requisite snarling attack dog) recommends another campsite, but Ian’s heart is set on their original destination. They are bummed out to find another tent already pitched there, but at least they are quiet—too quiet. By the time they mosey on over, viewers know the family in question has met a grisly fate at the hands of German and less cautious protégé Chook. Throughout the first act, Power cross-cuts between Sam and in Ian in the film’s now and the ill-fated family of aging hippy Rob, his wife Margaret, their moody teen daughter Em, and their toddler Ollie a few days in the past, just to make Grounds look more ambitious than it really is.

Just to give viewers fair warning, Ollie’s grisly fate plays a pivotal role in the film, so yeah, good times. Frankly, there are so many legitimately clever and surprising indie horror films getting produced today, it makes watching a grinder like Ground rather depressing in comparison.

Still, the cast is quite strong, especially Harriet Dyer as Sam. Although he is no Jarratt, Pederson is certainly an effectively silent, surly, anti-social sadist. It should also be stipulated in all due fairness, the peculiar stresses Power inflicts on Sam’s relationship with Dr. Ian represent a bit of a fresh spin on the gruesome genre material. However, that hardly makes the film any more entertaining to watch.

This is really straight, no chaser Aussies exploitation. If that is your thing, this is your film. For the rest of us, it is mostly just a downer. There are better, fresher genre films out there. Only for grindhouse diehards, Killing Ground screens again this afternoon (1/21) and Thursday night (1/26) in Park City and tonight (1/21) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Hell Follows (2016) Slamdance 2017

Dear God I love it when I run across a filmmaker with style to burn. Brian Harrison has style to burn and then some. His great short HELL FOLLOWS is a possible portent of great things to come.

The film nominally the story of a good brother taken over by his dead evil brother who then goes off to get revenge. There isn't much more than that, but it doesn't need more than that because the film is a calling card of a someone with talent.

Shot largely in black and white in the style of a Japanese neo-noir but with occasional flashes of color HELL FOLLOWS looks like it was shot by one of  the current slew of Japanese filmmakers such a Takashi Miike in one of his manic moods or Sion Sono or one of a half dozen other who are bouncing around my brain. It also has a touch of Frank Miller's Sin City comic welded into it as well.

Normally I would be unhappy with a film that seemingly is borrowing so much from so many different places (even the credits remind me of other films) but the film is so masterfully done that I can see the influences but I can not for the life of me tell what precisely they are. Harrison is using what he knows and is forming his own cinema. Yes this looks like Miike and Miller but it's clearly not- this is the work of a filmmaker who is going bigger or reaching higher and making something greater because he can use the past to stand on. This is in direct contrast to someone like Quentin Tarantino who steals from other directors but does so in such away that we can see where he's lifting from.Tarantino is less concerned with creating something new than refashioning something old. Harrison is creating something new.

One some level the film is pure form over content, with the film being largely bits of flashy storytelling, but at the same time the film is so well done it drags you along to the point that when you reach the end credits you genuinely want to see what happens next. Is this film a show reel for a feature? If it is I'll buy my ticket to that feature right now.

This is a must see and one of the unexpected joys of the new film year.

The film plays at Slamdance in the Anarchy Shortstonight at 1030 and Monday at 10pm local time. For tickets and more information go here.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Good Postman (2016) Sundance 2017

Haunting portrait of a small dying Bulgarian town Golyam Dervent on the border of Turkey the race for mayor is on. In addition to the current mayor there are two other candidates, one is throw back to the communist days and the other, is the village postman Ivan. Ivan has a radical idea to save the town by taking in Syrian refugees in the hope that if they save them they can save the town.

Operating on multiple levels The Good Postman is on its surface a look at the outsider political process in a small town. It’s so small that there are only 38 people in the village and everyone knows everyone. Even so both Ivan and his chief rival are the outsiders behind the towns incumbent mayor. We are given a ringside seat to a film that will examine what it take to both win the election and attempt to bring the town back from the brink of extinction.

On another level the film is working on is as an examination of the refuge problem in Europe. Golyam Dervent was once the literal gateway to Europe and the steady stream of refugees passing through the village are causing ripples. Despite Ivan’s good hearted desire to help people in need and the town itself the rumblings of the anti-immigrant factions of the right are seen to be in action on TV and the edges of the town. It’s this portion of the film that is so haunting since it nicely gives voice to the various sides of the issues. What is most intriguing is that within the village the most vocal voices against taking in any refugees comes from those who are themselves immigrants.

What starts off as a kind of comedy flips somewhere along the way to become a rather sad look at the state of Europe today. Its a film that leaves you pondering many thing- What does taking in refugees actually mean?  As it is being on the border the village has a problem in that the refugees wander through it on their way to somewhere else- but what would happen if they stayed? Can a  town be compassionate?

The Good Postman is something rare in documentary filmmaking, something that plays more like fiction. Watching the film I was struck by the notion that what I was watching was not real but a carefully modulated film from Eastern Europe. The people reminded me of characters in films from in and around Bulgaria. The images are simply stunning and at times seem too carefully composed to have been gotten by chance. This is not a knock against the film rather statement that this portrait of reality somehow transcends of happenstance recorded reality to become a very real and moving work of art.

Thinking about the film some weeks on I find I am still haunted by the film. There is something about it that hangs around your brain. The people crawl inside your heart and take up residence, its ideas rattle around and keep popping up asking to be considered.

Recommended when the film runs again at Sundance (tickets here) or during what I’m certain will be its eventual theatrical run

Kuro (2017) Slamdance 2017

When I was watching KURO a couple of weeks back I didn't know what to make of it at first. The film is nominally a story being told by a caregiver to her lover while we see her day to day existence. It would seem to be straightforward except that things don't line up since the voice telling the story is never specifically spelled out to be the woman in the visuals while what we are seeing is not necessarily  what is happening in the story - the result is a dark tale that once experienced is damn near impossible to shake.

KURO is a perfect example of why one should not read press notes or material on the film. The press notes will specifically tell you that the people in the film are the protagonists of the story, but if you watch the film blind as I did you quickly discover that isn't the case. There are inferences in the press material which may or may not be in the film. I mention this because I was never quite certain of what was what and who was who and it all became a grand glorious game to piece the film out.

The one thing that was in the press notes that is absolutely true is that directors Joji Koyama,and Tujiko Noriko (who stars as the woman) have made a film that breaks down any notions you have of narrative. The pair wanted to make a film that explores how we fashion stories in order to give meaning and order to our lives and we they have done just that. KURO with it's dual narrative structure forces you to seriously consider how you understand the world and everything in it. Because things are not clear in the film we genuinely have to piece things together which is what makes the film so incredibly powerful - which is why I don't like that there are possible pointers in the press notes.

The effect of seeing KURO is like having a whale slowly swallow you .What seems to be a happy tale slowly becomes darker and darker. While there is no doubt that it could be read as Romi revealing her mental space that is selling the film much too short. There is great deal going on in the story and in the images that make it one of the most oppressive films I've seen in a long time. Its a film that begins in a lovely garden and ends in a wasteland. When the film was done my first reaction was simply to ask- "what the hell was that?" Now several weeks later I'm (happily) still trying to work that out. The fact that this review is devoid of details is because I'm still trying to work out what I want to say and how I feel about the film.

What I do want to say, and what I feel I have to say is that KURO is one of the most effecting and affecting films I've seen in a long time. Its a film that sneaks up on you and clubs you from behind. Its a film that is not like anything you've seen, not wholly, not like this. Its as brilliant a film as you are likely to see. It is a film that is must see for anyone who loves great films- especially ones that chart new territory.

I have  nothing else I can say other than KURO is the first great film I've seen in 2017.

KURO plays at Slamdance on January 22 and 23. For more information and tickets go here.

Sundance ’17: What Tears Us Apart (short)

If Shen Dai had remained in China, there is no way an Isabelle Huppert-like film star ever would have been part of her social circle. In this case, it is probably safe to say “Isabelle” is based on Huppert, since she is played by the screen legend herself. That bit of casting was quite a coup for Hu Wei’s latest short film, but it never overshadows the complicated emotions at the center of What Tears Us Apart, which screens as part of Shorts Program 1 during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

There are indeed social-political implications to Shen Dai’s story that viewers might guess (especially if they are cognizant of the government’s strict family planning policies), but they still ought to let Hu reveal everything in his own due time. Initially, we are not sure why an older Chinese couple is visiting Isabelle and her gracious slightly older husband Benoît—nor perhaps are they. Eventually, we figure out they are really there to see Shen Dai and her daughter, but she prefers to have Isabelle and Benoît present to run interference. However, when the three finally sit down just themselves, the older woman’s emotions come gushing out uncontrollably.

As always, Huppert is a force to be reckoned with, but you will be hard pressed to see a more haunting performance than Nai An’s devastating portrayal of Shen Dai, in any film of any length. Clearly, her life in France has thus far been more comfortable than it would have been had she remained in China. Yet, we get a visceral sense of her lingering pain and resentment. Although more active as a producer, Nai An also gave a remarkably sensitive and powerful lead performance in Ying Liang’s When Night Falls, a film of such bold integrity it caused the filmmaker to be declared persona non grata in his Mainland homeland. As an added bonus, veteran French character actor André Wilms (Le Havre) nicely counterbalances the tart Huppert as the easygoing Benoît.

Hu was nominated for an Oscar for his previous short film Butter Lamp, which seems worlds removed from WTUA, at least on paper. However, both shorts are marked by Hu’s carefully rendered visual compositions. This is twenty-minute chamber drama, but he and cinematographer Julien Poupard make it look both delicately intimate and impressively cinematic. Based on Butter Lamp and WTUA, Hu’s first feature should be an event to eagerly anticipate. Very highly recommended, What Tears Us Apart screens with Shorts Program 1 today (1/20) at the Sundance Resort, Wednesday (1/25) at Salt Lake, and tomorrow (1/21) and next Saturday (1/28) here in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

Sundance ’17: I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore

It beats bowling. As police forces are increasingly emasculated by the professional activist sector, vigilantism could become a good date activity. Ruth Kimke and her neighbor might just be ahead of the curve for once. However, they are ill-prepared for the desperate scumminess of the villains they will hunt in Macon Blair’s Netflix-produced I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Kimke’s life was already pretty sad. Having her laptop and her grandmother’s silver burglarized sends her to the end of her tether. It is really more about the revulsion for having her space invaded than the actual stuff (though the loss of her connection to her beloved grandmother is a real bummer). Of course, the cops can’t/won’t do Jack Straw, so when she locates her laptop’s GPS, she recruits her neighbor Tony, the only member of her limited social circle who would be willing to join her.

It turns out the punks with her laptop bought it semi-legitimately from a dodgy second-hand goods retailer. That leads to another ugly scene, but it also puts them on the trail of the thief, an entitled thug recently disowned by his exasperated wealthy father. Rather inconveniently, Kimke’s campaign of righteous indignation has complicated the more ambitious plans he has cooked up with his lowlife associates.

IDFAHITWA might not be a cinematic revelation, but it is mordantly funny and briskly paced. Blair (probably best known as the lead in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin) takes a shrewdly understated approach, shunning the over-stylized excesses that often weigh down otherwise promising neo-noir gene indies. Instead, he gives Melanie Lynskey space to create a full and complete character study of an ordinary working class woman under unusual stress.

Blair is also unusually evenhanded in the treatment of Tony, the goofy sidekick, suggesting maybe a Jesus freak with pretentions of martial arts virtuosity isn’t the worst guy to have around, when you get right down to it. Likewise, Elijah Wood teases out Tony’s daffy charm and makes his various tics, like outbreaks of prayer at times of sudden pressure rather reasonable, all things considered.

As you would expect from Blair’s recent credits, IDFAHITWA has a dark sensibility, but it is never nihilistic. Frankly, it is quite pleasantly enjoyable, which is definitely something. Considering the genre portfolio Wood is building, it will definitely wind up on a lot of Netflix-generated user-profile lists. Recommended for fans of colorful Fargo-like crime dramas, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore screens again this morning (1/20) in Park City, tomorrow (1/21) at the Sundance Mountain Resort (remember that is haul from PC, UT), and Wednesday (1/25) and Thursday (1/26) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.