J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 29, 2017

God of War: Gen. Qi Versus the Pirates

General Qi Jiguang wrote the book on war and then he wrote the book on drilling armies—they were called The Ji Xiao Xin Shu and Record of Military Training. He was just the man to whip the Ming army into shape and expel the Japanese pirates. Those supposed ruffians and ronin have some high-ranking samurai secretly calling the shots, but they adhere to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which is so Sixth Century BC. Nobody knows better than Qi the failings of the Ming court, yet the revered General always answers the call to service in Gordon Chan’s rip-roaring God of War (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Yes, this will be another film in which the innocent Chinese were minding their own business until the belligerent Japanese launched an imperialist military campaign. At least in this case, some of the Japanese have misgivings regarding the ronin’s rampant pillaging—at least the ones with breeding. Of course, they are not there officially, but thanks to their tactical advice, the pirates have completely bedeviled Gen. Yu Dayou.

Even though Qi’s appointment amounts to a rebuke and a de facto demotion, the two generals earn each other’s respect on the battlefield. Unfortunately, neither of them is good at politics, but Qi is just too good to sideline for long. Crafty old Yamagawa hoped to divide Qi’s forces, by launching three simultaneous attacks, including one on Qi’s home town garrison. However, he did not count on Madame Qi-Wang, an accomplished martial artist in her own right, who will be literally holding down the fort in her husband’s absence.

God of War has several large-scale, blood-and-thunder battle sequences, but it is still surprisingly nimble on its feet. Chan segues quite smoothly from the big, explosive sieges to down-and-dirty hand-to-hand combat scenes. He gets a big assist from Vincent Zhao, who was the perfect choice to anchor the film as Qi. He has always had the martial arts chops, but he is about as big as a movie star can get and still be described as “under-appreciated” for him screen presence. Yet, his solid, dependable Joe persona quite suits Qi, who was known more for his ability to bring out greatness in his troops rather than his own super-human feats.

Nevertheless, Zhao still lays down some spectacular beatdowns on the ronin pirates. He also forges some pleasing chemistry with Regina Wan Qian, as the elegant but lethal Madame Qi-Wang. When Wan gets the chance to show off her action chops, she makes the most of it. She was terrific in The Laundryman and Paradise in Service, but this is the kind of role that should take her to the next level of stardom. As an added bonus, second-billed Master Sammo Hung has a small supporting part as the bull-like Gen. Yu, but he still puts an indelible stamp on the film.

In fact, Hung directly factors in an early sparring scene that is cleverly but not slavishly echoed in the third act. It is a nice, subtle touch from Chan, coming in a genre that more often inspires bombast. Frankly, it shows how reliable Zhao has been, how formidable a force Qian will probably become, and how eternally cool Master Sammo will always be. Highly recommended, God of War opens this Friday (6/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Letters from Baghdad: Gertrude Bell in Her Own Words

She was one of the few women T.E. Lawrence could almost stand—and that’s saying something. Together with Lawrence, Gertrude Bell was instrumental in defining the boundaries of modern day Iraq and installing the Hashemite Dynasty on the throne. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Bell tells her story in her own words, derived from her personal letters and diplomatic memorandum in Sabine Krayenbühl & Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Right from the start, Bell’s Oxford matriculation was rather defiant of British societal norms in the mid-1880’s. Thanks to the support of her indulgent widower father, she managed to convert her passion for travel, particularly through the Mideast region, into a full diplomatic position. At first, she was something of an intelligence freelancers, dashing off reports on tribal alliances, but eventually she was given an official brief of her own. She and Lawrence would indeed be colleagues, but not necessarily friends. Arguably, she had better luck forging connections with locals, partly due to the sexism and elitism of the foreign office and partly because she was not the sort to suffer fools gladly.

There is no question Bell led a fascinating life—and for better or worse, her legacy will be an awkward fact of life for decades to come. However, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum are somewhat hemmed in by their approach. Too often, her letters home tell her father she met this newly posted official at a diplomatic soiree and he seemed like a decent chap, but, presumably for security reasons, she rarely discusses her official activities in-country. It is only during the establishment of Iraq that we really hear her addressing her ministerial duties.

Krayenbühl and Oelbaum mostly play it pretty straight during the Iraq sequences, but they clearly hope Bell’s complaints regarding British colonial administration of the future Israel will reverberate with viewers. However, what is most distressing is the omission of Bell’s role as a witness of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide. Once again, one of the most censored and denied episodes in Twentieth Century history is again edited into oblivion.

In a stylistic twist, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum have actors playing Bell’s contemporaries as if they were talking head interview subjects, some of which work better than others. However, their judgement is spot-on in terms of the archival footage they married up with words of Bell’s correspondence. Tilda Swinton (who famously portrayed Orlando, whom Virginia Woolf based on Bell’s friend Vita Sackville-West, another talking head in Letters) has fine diction when narrating the older Bell’s letters, but her voice is not especially rich or distinctive.

Letters is fine on the broad strokes of Bell’s life, but it is short on the telling details. It is a competent introduction that is relatively successful humanizing its subject, but it feels better suited to PBS than theatrical distribution. Recommended (with limited reservations) as a future VOD pick, Letters from Baghdad opens this Friday (6/2) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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Vincent N Roxxy: Star-Crossed Love Gets Violent

These kids are probably perfect for each other. He’s an ex-con with anger management issues. She’s on the run from gangster who thinks she owes him money. What could go wrong, except everything in Gary Michael Schultz’s Vincent N Roxxy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Vincent (is anyone grown-up enough to have a surname in the movies anymore?) was driving by when he saw Roxxy being attacked by a thug working for “Suga,” the local loan-sharking drug dealer. Actually, he didn’t just happen to be in the neighborhood, but that’s a detail to worry about later. Long story short, he hits the dude with his car and she hits him with a brick. While making their getaway, the recently released Vincent invites Roxxy to come crash at his family farm. Initially, she passes, but a few weeks later, she shows up looking to lay low.

Naturally, Roxxy immediately accepts a job working with Kate, the trampy girlfriend of Vincent’s brother JC at a rough & tumble roadhouse. It’s the perfect place to be, if you’re looking for trouble. Kate’s knuckle-dragging ex has plenty of trouble to offer the Brothers X. Presumably, those other bad guys are also still out there looking for them too.

There is really no compelling reason for this film’s existence, but at least Schultz earns credit for an ending that somewhat upends expectations, while delivering some grindhouse style payback. If only there were more of that grunginess earlier in the film. Nevertheless, it should be stipulated Emile Hirsch and Zoë Kravitz have a surprisingly pleasant rapport as the country mouse-city mouse lovers. It is also somewhat refreshing to see their courtship last well past the first act before they inevitably go all in. Plus, Emory Cohen has volatile Ben Foster kind of thing going on as JC that works rather well for the film. Unfortunately, the villains are just your basic redneck creeps and street gang sociopaths.

This film isn’t terrible, but it will only be remembered by those who see it, for the brutal but undeniably cathartic final sequence. Still, that is more than many films can boast. Mostly just okay, Vincent N Roxxy releases this Friday (6/2) in limited markets and on VOD platforms, including iTunes.


Open Roads ’17: Ears

They say those who can’t do, teach. Our nameless slacker is a substitute teacher. People thought he had a brilliant career ahead of him, but it didn’t pan out. Most days, if you asked him, he would say it was everyone’s fault but his own. However, he probably wouldn’t be able to hear the question today, because he woke up with an incessant ringing in his ears. Yet, somehow this nettlesome development might finally spur him to get his act together in Alessandro Aronadio’s Ears (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2017.

After waking in his long-suffering girlfriend’s flat with said auditory ringing, the sad sack protagonist finds a note from the indulgent Alice regretfully informing him his friend Luigi passed away. Since he cannot remember any friends named Luigi, the news is more baffling than distressing for him. Over the course of an uncharacteristically busy day, he will try to have his ears treated, make a favorable impression in a long-shot interview, and figure out who Luigi was. However, he will be plagued by a series of mildly surreal misadventures.

Initially, Ears is oppressively quirky, in a way that flatters itself into thinking it is dark and edgy. The weird, boxy aspect ratio similarly feels like a gimmick. About the only redeeming feature is Francesco Di Giacomo’s ultra-chic Bruce Webber-esque black-and-white cinematography. Yet, seemingly out of nowhere, the film locks in during the third act, delivering some highly compelling and shockingly truthful scenes. Let’s face it, you can’t get much edgier than a brooding main character who decides to take responsibility for his life.

After moping through several interminable wannabe Fellini-esque sequences, Daniele Parisi knocks it out of the park in the big pay-off scenes. He also develops some complicated but endearing chemistry with Alice, played with realistic but engaging charm by Silvia D’Amico. The problem is, we have to sit through a lot of shticky over-the-top mugging to get there.

Still, it must be happily conceded Ears is a film that is actually going somewhere. The real irony is it finally stands out when it stops trying to be eccentric. If you go to its screenings, whatever you do, don’t leave early, or you will have sat through a lot of broad comedy that doesn’t land for nothing in return. Sort of recommended for the patient, Ears screens this Friday (6/2) and next Monday (6/5), as part of Open Roads at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Contemporary Philippine Cinema at MoMA: Expressway

If you thought it was Grinchy when terrorists took over Nakatomi Plaza during the annual holiday party in Die Hard, wait till you see how these two hitman spend their yuletide. It will be a sweaty, noir Christmas in Ato Bautista’s Expressway (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s new film series, A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema.

In the murky twilight world Ben and Morris inhabit, it is difficult to tell the difference between the government and organized crime. They are assassins who work for the “Colonel,” rubbing out honest cops and especially dishonest crooks, who think they can get away with skimming a little off the top. The world-weary Ben is sick of this line of work, but the young, sadistic Morris quite enjoys it. The former intends to retire after completing their latest batch of jobs, but these assignments will be particularly messy, in a soul-killing kind of way.

The fact that the aggressively talkative Morris never shuts up further sets Ben on edge, but that is rather the idea. As they pursue their bloody business, it becomes clear the two men share a secret connection. Ben also happens to know their final target, so small world, isn’t it?

Hardboiled crime just doesn’t get much darker than Expressway. It is a lethally efficient hitman anti-buddy movie that proudly proclaims its Tarantino influences with a visual hat-tip that should have fans howling in their seats, like a pack of wild dingoes. However, sensitive viewers should be warned the third act is amorally mean even by genre standards.

Regardless, Alvin Anson and Aljur Abrenica give tour de force performances as the stylistic opposites. Anson’s brooding Ben looks like a walking existential crisis, whereas Abrenica’s Morris is so aggressively obnoxious (intentionally so), viewers will be begging Ben to kill him after the first twenty minutes. Sparks fly as they play off each other.

Bautista’s execution is super slick and ominously warped. He keeps every second taut to the breaking point. If you enjoy shadowy underworld thrillers rife with revenge and betrayal than this is your catnip. Highly recommended for genre fans, Expressway screens this Friday (6/2) and Wednesday the 21st at MoMA, as part of their upcoming Philippine film series.

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Open Roads ’17: The Confessions

Central bankers should be more like Roberto Salus and his fellow Carthusian monks. Whenever the former talk, they needlessly rile the markets. IMF director Daniel Roché will never make that mistake again, because he has died under rather mysterious circumstances. Salus might very well understand what happened, but he is apparently bound by the confessional seal as well as a rather slippery vow of silence in Roberto Andò’s The Confessions (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2017.

For reasons that are never explicitly clear, Roché has invited Salus to attend the current G8 conference in an austerely swanky resort. It turns out the global financier wanted Salus to hear his confession, if it can be properly called that. The next morning, Roché’s body is discovered—an apparent suicide using the plastic bag Salus that previously held the monk’s suspiciously missing digital recorded. Would Salus ever secretly record a confession? That would be a grave betrayal of trust, but it sure would make the investigating secret service agents’ lives easier.

In addition to the dead body, there is also intrigue swirling around a controversial proposal Roché has pushed through, over the objections of Italy and Canada. Could they be related? Claire Seth suspects as much. Like Salus, the J.K. Rowling-like leftist children’s author was invited to observe the summit, along with aging rocker Michel Wintzl. Frankly, the notion the guardians of the western world’s financial systems would be interested in their insights is absolutely terrifying, but sadly far from impossible.

The Confessions starts out like a moody Claude Chabrol mystery, featuring a picturesque setting and a set-up ripe with potential. Unfortunately, the second and third acts are fatally mired in a morass of conspiratorial hokum. Andò is absolutely convinced the G8 would happily pass a proposal that deliberately makes the big industrialized nations richer and the small developing countries poorer, but he clearly has no idea what that policy would be. As a result, there are endlessly awkward conversations in which the finance ministers refer to “that thing we agreed to.” Instead of a juicy whodunit, Confessions degenerates into a middling Seinfeld episode.

It is a shame, because Toni (Great Beauty) Servillo is terrific as Salus. He is wise and humane, but in a rather astringent way that isn’t the least bit cutesy or shticky. Connie Nielsen also adds a refined presence as Seth and Marie-Josée Croze is entertainingly scandalous as the Canadian minister. Unfortunately, most of the other power brokers are standard issue stock characters.

In case the G8 is also looking for input from movie reviewers, I would advise a slow but steady increase in the money supply. Monetarism: it works every time. Andò would also be well-advised to limit the ideological soap-boxing in his next film. It completely sabotages everyone’s efforts in The Confession. A big disappointment, it screens twice on Thursday (6/1), the opening day of Open Roads, at the Walter Reade Theater.

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Für Elise (short)

Beethoven’s famous solo piano composition will never sound the same after watching this short film. For one thing, the sanitation trucks in Kaohsiung City play a tinny calliope recording of what residents refer to as “the Garbage Song.” However, the music will have considerably more ominous implications for the central character of Albert Ventura Roldán’s Für Elise (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

Ashin thinks he is a tough guy, but for some reason, he lets a pretty Taiwanese American tourist give him a hard time when she sits down at his outdoor market table uninvited. As coincidence would have it, her name is Elise and she arrives simultaneously with the garbage truck, playing its usual Für Elise. You could say it is her theme song.

Before long, Elise will suggest they have done this before. When she supposedly reveals her true nature, it greatly agitates the formerly cool and collected Ashin. She might not be telling the complete truth, but she still hits close enough to home to get Ashin to chase her through the city’s back alleys, which was apparently the goal all along. At this point, the rug is suddenly pulled out from under his feet.

It is hard to classify Für Elise in terms of genre, but it holds far more twists than you would expect from a twenty-five-minute short. To explain any more than the initial set-up would give much away. However, it is very impressive how skillfully and insidiously Roldán keeps upending Ashin’s perception of reality. Für Elise is also absolutely drenched in nocturnal noir atmosphere, which is further amplified by the eerie but classy cinematography of Jyun-Ming Wang and Carles Viarnès’ variations on the Beethoven theme. It is a tense, suspenseful film, yet it totally puts viewers in the mood for late-night street food.

Zai-Xing Zhang and Yi-He Chiu are both terrific as Ashin and Elise. Their chemistry is complicated and they face extreme circumstances, but they are always highly compelling and convincing. They really sell each revelation with their screen presence and dramatic credibility.

This is an excellent film that really delivers everything you could want from a cinematic experience. Frankly, the essential Macguffin could easily sustain a feature treatment, but it is best served by the briskness and muscular compactness of the short film format. If you enjoy psychological thrillers like Hitchcock’s Spellbound (seriously) and reality-twisters like Jacob’s Ladder than you will be duly impressed by Roldán’s film. Very highly recommended, Für Elise screens this coming Monday (5/29) at the Producers Club, as part of the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: The Ningyo (pilot)

According to legend, the ningyo is sort of like a Japanese mermaid, but if true, the lore surrounding the mythical beast holds much more dramatic implications. Supposedly, those who eat ningyo flesh will extend their longevity by centuries. However, the death of a ningyo will raise great storms and natural disasters to plague the nation of Japan. Therefore, it logically follows some people will be desperately looking for the ningyo, while others are determined to keep them undiscovered. A crypto-zoologist finds himself caught between two such factions in Miguel Ortega & Tran Ma’s independent pilot, The Ningyo (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

In this steampunky alternate 1911, Prof. C. Marlowe discovered the okapi in Africa, but his obsessive quest for the ningyo does not sit well with his museum or their donors. Even though the ancient map he recovered could be considered evidence, they just want Marlowe to shut up and go away. Yet, that map must be legit, because both the Bikuni clan and the shadowy H. Prestor Sealous want it, for very different reasons. Spurned by his colleagues, Marlowe agrees to a face-to-face with the latter, but there is no guarantee he will survive the trek to the creature-collector’s subterranean lair.

It is really amazing how fully Ortega and Ma realize the feeling and texture of a steampunk world, relying more on inspiration and creativity than things like cash. In contrast, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on films like The Wild, Wild West and The Golden Compass that look flat and pale in comparison.

Ortega and Ma also clearly know their ningyo lore, as well as their late Nineteenth Century/early Twentieth Century science fiction and adventure literature, visual allusions to which are sprinkled throughout the pilot/proof-of-concept short. Yet, we feel safe in assuming their first love is creating creatures, because there are a bunch of them in The Ningyo. Arguably, Sealous’s secret showroom ranks up there with Mos Eisley in the original Star Wars for the high number of invented species per capita.

As if that were not enough, cult film and television fans will definitely dig the cast, which includes Tamlyn Tomita (from The Karate Kid II and Awesome Asian Bad Guys) lending her elegant gravitas to the project as mysterious matriarch Kiyohime Bikuni, Louis Ozawa Changchien (recurring on The Man in the High Castle) personifying steeliness as the enforcer, Hatori Bikuni, and Jerry Lacy (from the original Dark Shadows) reveling in villainy as the evil Sealous. As Marlowe, Rodrigo Lopresti (a.k.a. The Hermit) also has a firm handle on brooding and scientific mumbo jumbo.

The Ningyo looks amazing and it is wildly fun to watch. However, since Marlowe is essentially a Gilded Age Indiana Jones, it should come as no surprise the pilot ends with a cliffhanger. Presumably, that will be true for all subsequent episodes, which just feels right for this kind of steampunk adventure genre. Anyone who sees the Ningyo pilot will hope to see the full series get produced soon. (Is anyone from Netflix or Amazon Studios free Sunday morning?) Regardless, it is just invigorating for genre fans to dive into such a richly crafted world. Very highly recommended, The Ningyo screens this Sunday (5/28) at the Soho Playhouse, as part of the Philip K. Dick Film Festival’s Fantasy and the Fantastic shorts block.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Aden (short)

It is unclear whether the Aden Corporation’s motives are altruistic or maybe slightly more sinister, but in the short run, they are the only force preventing full-scale chaos from erupting on the streets. More precisely, it is their beleaguered bounty-hunter who does all the hard work in Gary H. Lee’s short film Aden, which screens during the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

Cyrus will be doing a lot of running tonight. His mission is to secure a gifted child from the giant killer robot on his tail. The beastly machine is invisible to most of the people on the street, but he can see it just fine—sort of like Roddy Piper in They Live. All those hipster bystanders assume Cyrus is crazy, until they feel the shock waves from its giant metal feet.

You can tell Aden is a proof-of-concept short, because it raises many questions about the nature of its world, but supplies absolutely no answers. Instead, it delivers a mega-concentrated dose of science fiction action. It is pretty amazing what kind of movie magic can be realized in short films these days, but Lee happens to be a special effects and animation specialist, whose credits include the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Kung Fu Panda franchises.

As Cyrus, Kevin Alejandro never gets a second of peace in Aden, but he is still the sort of hard-nosed, rumpled screen presence fans will appreciate. Charles Rahi Chun, Caroline Macey, and Logan Kishi are also completely convincing as the terrified family caught up in the strange phenomenon afoot.

This is definitely a cool looking film that evokes the cityscape of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as well as the Los Angeles of classic Hollywood film noir, making it a perfect selection for the Philip K. Dick Film Festival. It is also a compelling calling card for the planned feature film. (Note to studio talent scouts, there are a number of promising independent pilots and proof-of-concept shorts at this year’s festival.) Highly recommended for cyberpunk and noir fans, Aden screens this Saturday (5/27) as part of the Philip K. Dick fest’s Block 5: PKD Shorts—Inspiration or Adaptation at the Soho Playhouse.

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SIFF ’17: Without Name

We’re not psychiatrists mind you, but we still caution against combining a mid-life crisis with an isolated locale and a satchel full of psychedelic drugs. Eric the independent land surveyor is a good case study. His latest job will take him deep into the eco-heart of darkness in Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Eric’s marriage is on the rocks, partly because his wife more or less knows he is having an affair with his grad student-intern, Olivia. Their relationship has also been strained lately, but he still needs her assistance on his latest gig. His practice would ordinarily be too small for a job of this size, but his corporate client appreciates his reputation for “discretion.”

Fortunately, the company found him digs in an ominous looking cottage, left vacant since the previous tenant went insane and disappeared into the woods. He left behind a hand-written volume on the power of trees that looks like it holds plenty of relevant warnings, but Eric is not paying attention. He is too preoccupied with his suspicions regarding Gus, the mushroom-tripping camper-dwelling drifter, whom Olivia is so obviously attracted to. Both the surveyor and his assistant have some strange “lost time” incidents in the woods, but nothing they can’t shake off, until Eric overindulges in the ‘shrooms, throwing open his doors of perception (and letting in evil Mother Nature).

If the return of Twin Peaks is not enough to scare you out of the woods, Without Name ought to finish the job. It is smarter and more disciplined than The Hallow, the last previous uncanny forestry horror film to hail from Ireland, but you could say it is moody to a fault. Generally, it is always a better genre strategy to suggest than to explicitly show, but Finnegan maybe pushes the point too far. Still, he masterfully sets the scene and stokes the foreboding vibe. Cinematographer Piers McGrail and the sound effects team also contribute distinctively creepy work that really helps establish and maintain the film’s disturbingly surreal tone.

It is indeed frightfully convincing to watch Alan McKenna’s Eric slowly descend into paranoia and madness. Even in the early scenes, he is so tightly wound, you could get a migraine just from looking at him. On the other hand, Niamh Algar plays Olivia with such shallow petulance, it is hard to buy into their relationship, especially considering Eric’s wife is played by the striking looking Olga Wehrly (granted, she is frosty with him, but she has good reason).

Regardless, Finnegan and company display a real mastery of mood and horror mise en scene. Arguably, the old nutter’s treatise on trees is one of the best books-within-a-horror-movie since the nefarious kiddie picture-book in The Babadook. If Without Name ever becomes a sleeper hit, an Irish specialty publisher should release a facsimile edition. Regardless, it boasts some truly impressive visuals and sound design, but a little bit more narrative focus wouldn’t have killed anyone. Recommended for patient fans of eco-pagan horror, Without Name screens this Sunday (5/28) and the following Friday (6/2) and Sunday (6/4), as part of the 2017 SIFF.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Philip K. Dick ’17: Sociopaths (short)

Polyglots who learn a second language often have better grammar than native speakers. Perhaps that logic explains why an android treats people better than their fellow human beings. Watching his interactions will lead to a hard revelation for a little girl in Sociopaths, a short film with bite, directed by A.T. (a.k.a. Takeshi Asai), which screens during the 2017 Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

A little girl drops her keys and nearly trips and falls, but a kindly android scoops them both up. Having never seen an android before, she starts following him in fascination. Time and again, she sees him to good deeds, but getting no thanks or acknowledgement in return.

For a while, Sociopaths seems like a lesson in proper manners and citizenship that would be instructive for younger viewers, but it takes a rather serious turn. Nevertheless, it certainly reminds us adults how we are supposed to act. It is a brief film, but young Miyu Ando is terrific as the little girl. She has to cover a wider emotional gamut than viewers will initially expect, but she does it like a champ. The craftsmanship of the android costuming and effects are also worthy of a big-budget studio tent-pole.

You could debate whether Sociopaths is really a work of science fiction, but it certainly uses the trappings of the genre to critique contemporary society, which is what the best speculative fiction has always done. It is indeed short (six minutes including end credits), but powerful. Very highly recommended, Sociopaths screens this Friday (5/26) at MoMI, as part of the International Sci Fi Shorts block of this year’s Philip K. Dick Film Festival.

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Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Everyone readily concedes the game of lacrosse was invented by the Haudenosaunee, also referred to as the Iroquois and Six Nations. However, it seems like Canadians will go out of their way to take credit for indoor “box lacrosse.” It’s the same basic rules and equipment, but with a roof. Wow, how did they ever come up with that? Not surprisingly, the Iroquois (as their jerseys self-identify) and Canadian national teams are natural rivals in World Indoor Lacrosse Championship (WLIC) competitions. Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter chronicle the development of the Iroquois national team and their bid for glory at the 2015 WLIC tournament in Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Iroquois homes throughout Upstate New York and Ontario are just like their neighbors, except there very well might be a lacrosse goal in the backyard. The game has always been a source of national pride, so it is not surprising the Iroquois are disproportionately represented among professional lacrosse players. Still, when WLIC decided to recognize the Iroquois national team, it was obviously a hugely significant decision.

It was also a big deal when the Haudenosaunee hosted the 2015 tourney (at the Syracuse stadium). Unfortunately, the Iroquois missed the previous championship, because the UK refused to recognize their tribal passports and the Iroquois refused to travel under official U.S. documents. When acting as hosts, they made it clear they hoped each team would go through the ceremony of having their passports stamped at the tribal offices. We’re pleased to report the American and Israeli teams were happy to oblige, with the proper spirit. In fact, the only team to snub the passport ritual was Team Canada.

Lacrosse is a fast-paced, action-packed game, but it does not get a heck of a lot of sports media attention, so it is fascinating to watch a behind-the-scenes peak into tournament play, especially from the underdog perspective of the Iroquois. Although scrupulously multicultural in their approach, Spirer and Baxter mostly take a straight-forward reportorial approach, with one notable exception. They really, really seem to dislike Dean French, the arrogant chairman of the Canadian national team, because they do their best to make him look like a fool and a blowhard. Towards that end, they get no shortage of assistance from Dean French, the tone-deaf chairman of the Canadian national team.

Arguably, the film veers a little too far out of bounds when it focused on attempts of Haudenosaunee leaders to start a dialogue with Pope Francis of the “Doctrine of Discovery” during his visit to America. Not surprisingly, Spirit Game is much more effective as a sports doc than as another piece of advocacy journalism. Recommended for sports fans of all WLIC member nations, except Canada, Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation opens this Friday (5/26) in Los Angeles, at the Arena Cinelounge Sunset (with its iTunes release set for 6/20).

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tav Falco’s Urania Descending

There is a heck of a lot of National Socialist gold still out there. Some is safely tucked away in Swiss vaults, but there is one wayward shipment rather tantalizingly lying at the bottom of Lake Atter (a.k.a. the Attersee). An American fleeing boobsie Arkansas will be recruited into a scheme to salvage that gold in Tav Falco’s first feature-length film, Urania Descending (trailer here), which screens this Thursday as part of a night of the Panther Burns front man’s film at the Anthology Film Archives.

Title cards warn us not to expect perfectly synchronized audio, but frankly there will not be a lot of dialogue to worry about. Not exactly found footage, Descending claims to be the mysterious 16mm reels of an unknown outsider-artist filmmaker, cobbled together as well as possible. Although there is a bit of talking here and there, Falco is clearly engaging with the conventions and motifs of silent cinema—much more so than the caper movie.

Fed up with leering lowlifes, Gina Lee just up and bought a one-way ticket to Vienna. How long can she afford to idle away her days in merry old Vienna? Maybe for quite a while, if she can complete the job offered to her by tango-dancing playboy Diego Moritz. Her job will be to romance Karl-Heinz Von Riegl, the son of the German officer in charge of the gold shipment that crashed in Lake Atter. It will not be difficult to get him talking about it, but snapping a picture of the pertinent map will be a trickier task.

That probably makes it sound like intrigue abounds in Descending, but frankly there are almost no twists or turns to this sixty-nine minute tale. Instead, Falco is much more interested in realizing the film’s neo-retro look. Think of it as a more animated cousin of Sally Potter’s Thriller, or a less grungy, modern day Alphaville. Indeed, Descending could pass for Godard’s remake of a John Huston caper film, produced by the Warhol factory.

Descending is probably most successful evoking the spirit of Vienna through its soundtrack of accordion music, tangos, waltzes, and hints of the Third Man theme. Nevertheless, its deliberately self-conscious gamesmanship ultimately wears thin. This is definitely a case where it would be much more nourishing to watch the films that inspired Falco. More intriguing as a concept than as a finished film, Falco’s Urania Descending screens this Thursday night (5/25) at the Anthology Film Archives.

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Last Man Club: Their Final Flight

The B-17 “Flying Fortress” is the iconic plane of WWII. The Memphis Belle was one. It is also what Pete Williams and his comrades flew. They survived the war, but not unscathed. With time running short for Williams, his old captain John “Eagle” Pennell will try to assemble what is left of the crew for a final hurrah in Bo Brinkman’s Last Man Club (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Williams suffered from long bouts of depression after the war (he had good reason), but Pennel lived a relatively happy and productive life. Yet, despite his close relationship with his grandson Taylor, he has yet to bounce back from his beloved wife’s death. However, when he gets a letter from Williams putting the onus on him to reassemble the crew, it might be exactly what Pennel needs. Of course, he will have to sneak off without his family’s approval, but he will quickly team up with Romy, a woman on the run from her abusive gangster ex-boyfriend. Soon the Feds and the mob are tailing them, as they make pit-stops to pick-up additional crew members sharing Williams’ disappointment in their golden years.

Expanded from Brinkman’s 2002 short film of the same name (starring the late Charles Durning), Club is achingly well-intentioned and faultlessly respectful of the Army Air Corp veterans. However, the narrative essentially recycles elements of films like Tough Guys and the original Going in Style. Frankly, the subplot involving Romy’s criminal past is half-baked at best, but Kate French develops some nice friendly-flirtatious chemistry with all the flight crew veterans, especially James MacKrell as Pennel. However, among the crusty old salts, it is probably Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure, WarGames) who fares best as Williams.

It is too bad there are not more flying scenes in Club, but it is all too clear Brinkman was working under some pretty severe budget constraints. It is also hard to believe these old Army buddies use such bland language when they finally reconnect, but so be it. The Greatest Generation deserves a better film, but for those in the mood for a sentimental journey (two Glenn Miller references in one review), Last Man Club releases today on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Long Strange Trip: The Grateful Dead in Four Hours

The Grateful Dead were an anomaly. They were hippies with work ethics. While the band was intact, they played an estimated 2,350 live gigs—an officially recognized Guinness World’s Record. Of course, that life on the road took a toll. The surviving band members look back on the music and the entire madcap phenomenon in Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour documentary-palooza Long Strange Trip (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Grateful Dead was one of the few bands whose members even casual listeners could name—at least as far as lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and maybe percussionist Mickey Hart. The true blues could also easily rattle off the names of bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutmann, and the late keyboarder player, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. The Dead were unusual in many ways, one being they considered their regular lyricists John Perry Barlow and Robert Hunter to be members of the band. They processed a rich gumbo of styles, including bluegrass from Garcia, jazz and avant-garde music from Lesh, and the blues from McKernan, synthesizing it into the original rock & roll jam band.

As Joe Smith, the former president of Warner Bros. Records readily attests, marketing the undisciplined Dead was a challenge in the early days. They racked up an enormous debt to the label by using their initial recording sessions as tutorials in studio production techniques. Of course, it is easy for him to look back and laugh, given the money the label made on the more stripped-down, Americana-influenced Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty albums. In fact, it is rather interesting to watch Long Strange and PBS’s American Epic in short succession.

Inevitably, The Dead decided they were much more of a live band than a recording act. Essentially, they subscribed to a jazz-like ethos that every set should be different, with no predetermined set lists. Yet, the very unpredictability and in-the-moment nature of Dead shows gave rise to a culture of bootleg “Tapers,” who religiously documented every set, eventually with the band’s officially blessing.

Initially, Long Strange is a bit unfocused, but the film locks in when the band really starts to establish its identity. Frankly, the participating band alumni (including Barlow and back-up singer Donna Jane Godchaux) are all quite forthcoming about the band’s excesses and tragedies. Weir and his co-founding members admit they let McKernan feel too isolated within the band. They tried not to make the same mistake with Garcia in the mid-1990s, but it seems the iconic musician just didn’t want to be helped. However, when it comes to from-the-hip reminiscing, nobody can top the Dead’s former road manager, Sam Cutler. He was only with the band during the years of 1970-1974, but what long, strange years they were.

In fact, Bar-Lev consistently exposes the darkness lurking just below the hippy-dippy Deadhead experience. Frankly, much of the film serves as a cautionary warning against drug abuse and the increasingly intrusive idolatry of fans. He also gets a rare glimpse of the notoriously interview-averse Hunter, but no sound-bites.

At four hours and two minutes, Long Strange runs about half an hour longer than executive producer Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Yet, jazz fans will be frustrated Bar-Lev never found time for Ornette Coleman, Merl Saunders, and Bruce Hornsby, all of whom notably collaborated with the band. It also seems strange he left out the Dead’s involvement with The New Twilight Zone, because it would have fit nicely with Garcia’s fascination with the Universal Frankenstein movies, which Bar-Lev uses as a recurring motif.

Still, the film has a good handle on what made the Dead and their music so successful. It vividly evokes the tenor of their successive eras, without idealizing any of them. Bar-Lev really makes the case they were the quintessential American rock band of the Twentieth Century. Recommended for serious Deadheads and causal listeners curious enough to invest four hours, Long Strange Trip opens this Friday (5/26) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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HIFF ’17: Yellow Fever

If MTV’s Daria Morgendorffer had been adopted in Korea, she would probably express many of the attitudes held by Asia Bradford. Yes, her parents named her Asia—clearly without consulting her first. She is so tired of the whole model minority, find a rich older white boyfriend thing. Nor has she any use for ethnic identity or the Ktown scene. However, an unlikely friend of the family might help her reconnect with her roots, or possibly poison her forever on all things Korean in Kat Moon’s Yellow Fever (clip here), which screens as part of the 2017 Hoboken International Film Festival (in New York).

Bradford lives with her Asian-obsessed, compulsively inclusive white-bread parents Michael and Li, along with her manga-addicted younger brother Taro in a tony Upper Eastside townhouse. Believe me, they are doing well if they have the room to put up her father’s prodigal best pal John Smart while he sells late mother’s suburban Jersey house. For years, Smart lived in Korea, trying to recover from a broken heart. It was Li Bradford who broke it.

Somehow, Smart and Asia Bradford recognize each other as kindred brooding souls. When he drags her to a real Korean restaurant she is stunned to discover she kind of likes it. He even manages to interest her in the language too. However, various jealousies and misunderstandings within the Bradford family will force Smart to move out before his closing.

Strangely, Moon shows a better handle on her WASPy characters than the abrasive Asia Bradford. Being sardonic is all well and good, but Bradford can really be a pill. On the other hand, Li and Michael are silly Upper Eastsiders, but in acutely human ways. Frankly, the film picks up in the second half, as their subplots expand.

In fact, Nahanni Johnstone and Michael Lowry are so good as the Bradfords, we care more about whether they will save their marriage than if Asia finally starts to find herself. Still, nobody can deny Jenna Ushkowitz has a facility with snark. As Asia, she also develops some effective chemistry with Scott Patterson’s deadpan world-weary Smart.

Despite some creepy awkward bits, Fever is a genuinely likable film that ties up all its loose ends in an entirely satisfying manner. In some ways, it is like an updated John Hughes movie for our times. It is worth noting Moon set the film in 2000, to take into account Korea’s late 1980s restrictions on international adoptions. It is not nearly as fun and nostalgic as Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching, but it is pleasant enough. Recommended for fans of hip UES coming of age dramedies, Yellow Fever screens this Wednesday (5/24) as part of the Hoboken International Film Festival, logically in Greenwood Lake, NY.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

SIFF ’17: Becoming Who I Was

It is bad enough that the Chinese Communist Party interferes with the free practice of religion in Tibet. Maddingly, they are also complicating the reincarnation of a revered Rinpoche. The nine-year-old boy born Padma Angdu was determined to be the reincarnation of a revered teacher. The problem is, he lives in the northern Indian city of Ladakh, but his previous monastery was in Kham, Tibet. Of course, China tightly controls access to the occupied nation. The young Rinpoche would live a freer life in India, but he has karmic business in Tibet. That dilemma will preoccupy the boy and his godfather in Moon Chang-yong & Jeon Jin’s documentary, Becoming Who I Was (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

In many ways, Angdu (as he was once known and sort of still is to some) is a normal boy, who would like to be bigger and better at sports than he is. However, he understands he has a special place in the universe. In fact, Angdu claims he still has memories of his life in Kham. Unfortunately, when his former monastery fails to collect their venerated abbot (whether they even know of his existence remains unclear), the Ladakh monastery expels Angdu into the care of his new religious guardian, the devout Urgyan Rickzan, who also happens to be the only trained doctor in the region. (That seems highly unfair, considering they were the ones who proclaimed him a Rinpoche in the first place.)

Ultimately, Rickzan will take Angdu on a physical and spiritual pilgrimage, hoping to cross the border into Kham. However, weather and geopolitics are stacked against him. Frankly, even though Angdu will surely have greater educational opportunities than his peers, it is highly debatable whether his Rinpoche status will make him happier in the long-run.

Regardless, the relationship between Angdu and Rickzan is deeply moving. Even when circumstances are at their worst, they can still make each other laugh, which is indeed the Tibetan Buddhist way. The terrain might also be treacherous to trudge through, but is it ever cinematic. Moon and Jeon, acting as their own cinematographers and cameramen, frame some stunning visuals. Yet, the screen loves Angdu and Rickzan even more. They are both enormously charismatic and deeply sympathetic figures.

In many ways, Becoming provides a counterpoint to Nati Baratz’s widely screened documentary, Unmistaken Child. However, it is absolutely certain Angdu’s life would be immeasurably better if the PRC were not still holding Tibet as a captive nation (as would be true for nearly everyone in the sovereign country). Recommended as vivid portrait of the grueling demands of faith for contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, Becoming Who I Was screens this Wednesday (5/24), Thursday (5/25) and the following Thursday (6/1), during this year’s SIFF.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem

An army sweeps through the Old City of Jerusalem. Thousands of residents were displaced even though their ancestors had lived in the Quarter for generations. Places of worship were destroyed and graves were desecrated. The year is 1948. The Army is the Jordanian Arab Legion and the neighborhood is the Old Jewish Quarter. Perhaps you were expecting different players? Regardless, the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem certainly provides helpful context for understanding the early history of the State of Israel. Fittingly, that is where Erin Zimmerman starts her deeply insightful hybrid documentary, before chronicling the David-and-Goliath-like Six-Day War in In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem (trailer here), which screens nationwide this Tuesday, via Fathom Events.

The Six-Day War was orchestrated by Nasser to literally wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. The tiny democracy was vastly outnumbered. Not only had the Egyptian demagogue convinced a willing Iraq and a reluctant Jordan to combine forces, just before the launch of hostilities, Israel would be abandoned by its greatest ally at the time: France. Yet, the resulting war did not go exactly as planned.

Zimmerman tells the story through the oral histories of the surviving veterans of the 55th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade, while also using actors to dramatize the historic events they participated in. The focal point of the film is Major Arik Achmon, who served as the intelligence officer under the brigade’s legendary commander, Mordechai “Motta” Gur. Achmon painstakingly planned a desperately dangerous mission in the Sinai, but when the war dramatically turned in Israel’s favor, he had to change gears at a moment’s notice and devise a strategy for taking the Old City.

You might think you were sufficiently familiar with the battles of the Six-Day War, but Zimmerman and her interview subjects provide fascinating details and absolutely riveting personal accounts. As Achmon and his comrades fully explain the conditions and circumstances they were dealing with, the magnitude of their victory seems genuinely miraculous.

Context is indeed the key to In Our Hands. Zimmerman and company really give viewers a full historical, social, and psychological perspective on the War and the events leading up to and following after it. Tiresome partisans will want to dismiss the film outright, because it was produced by CBN films, but it is a really fine work of historical documentary filmmaking. There is no religious proselytizing whatsoever. In fact, the film takes pains to point out a great many secular Israeli soldiers died alongside their religious Jewish counterparts, sacrificing their lives for the dream of a free and secure democratic State of Israel.

Given the nature of the re-enactment sequences, it is hard for the various cast-members to stand out for their work playing historical figures. Still, it must be readily admitted Sharon Friedman and Rami Baruch swagger quite effectively as Gur and legendary Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Historian and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael B. Oren also lends the film a real voice of authority as one of the leading talking head experts.

Whether you are a faithful supporter of Israel, or a kneejerk critic, there is much to learn from In Our Hands. It also does justice to the human interest of one of the greatest underdog triumphs in military history. Very highly recommended, In Our Hands screens this coming Tuesday (5/23) at participating theaters throughout the country, including the AMC Empire and the Regal Union Square in New York.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Suite Française: American Viewers Finally Get to See the Irene Nemorivsky Film

Irène Némirovsky was an international bestseller in her own lifetime, but today she is best known for an unfinished posthumous publication. Of Russian-Jewish heritage, Némirovsky was denied citizenship by France and ultimately deported to Auschwitz, despite her fame and status as a Catholic convert and political conservative. Her tragic fate echoes throughout the pages of the incomplete novella sequence belatedly published in 2004. Ironically, the film adaptation has had a circuitous fate as well. Two years after Saul Dibb’s Suite Française (trailer here) opened throughout most of Europe, the Weinstein production finally bows this Monday on Lifetime.

Dibb and co-screenwriter solely adapted Dolce, the second novella set in the provincial village of Bussy, but if viewers want to get a sense of the “French Exodus” depicted in Tempête en Juin, they can check out Christian Carion’s admirable Come What May. Lucille Angellier and her stern mother-in-law Madame Angellier are surprised by the sudden arrival of domestic war migrants from the cities, but the property-holding Madame quickly moves to exploit it. The next wave of visitors are even more disruptive. Those would be the occupying National Socialist military forces.

Like every large household, the Angelliers are forced to quarter a German officer. In their case, they are relatively fortunate to host Commander Bruno van Falk, a music composer somewhat suspect among his comrades for his perceived lack of enthusiasm for their Nazi business. However, as the heretofore loyal wife develops an ambiguous friendship with her boarder, it leads to friction with her suspicious mother-in-law and their resentful neighbors. Yet, their sort of affair will give the younger Madame Angellier cover for sheltering a rebellious fugitive.

Frankly, it is utterly baffling how an adaptation of a legit bestseller related to the Holocaust starring Michelle Williams, Kirstin Scott Thomas, and a pre-Wolf of Wall Street Margot Robbie in a small supporting role could be shelved for so long. If the Weinstein Company were publicly traded, we’d say dump your stock now, because if they can’t market a film like this, they are in serious trouble.

Granted, Dibb’s Suite is not a likely Oscar contender, but it is solidly presentable. As a point of comparison, Carion’s film is probably half a star better, but solely due to Matthew Rhys’s standout supporting turn, for which there is no equivalent in Suite. Still, Scott Thomas is absolutely pitch-perfect as Madame Angellier, for reasons that ought to be intuitively obvious. Nobody does upper-crust snobbery better than her, but she also makes her redemptive moments exquisitely poignant.

As her daughter-in-law, Michelle Williams is not exactly dazzling in any respect, but she develops some effective chemistry with Matthias Schoenaerts. Robbie actually makes a bit of an impression as Celine, the village trollop, but it is Sam Riley who really lost out from the film’s dithering non-release. He does some of his best, most intense work as Benoit, the resentful tenant farmer itching to join the resistance. On the other hand, it is frustrating to see Claire Holman (the under-recognized X-factor, who made Inspector Lewis such a reliable viewing pleasure) woefully under-utilized as Marthe, the loyal servant.

During a slow week, Suite would have been a valid option in theaters, so it is well worth watching on basic cable. It has high production values and big name cast-members (also including Lambert Wilson, switching from French to English at a moment’s notice and Luther’s Ruth Wilson). Most importantly, it has Scott Thomas, who is just about enough to recommend any film on her own. There is intrigue and romance, but Dibb always treats the macro historical tragedies in a respectful manner. Easily recommended for mainstream audiences, Suite Française premieres (finally) this Monday night (5/22) on Lifetime.

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SIFF ’17: Lake Bodom

This picturesque locale is sort of like a Finnish Wolf Creek. In 1960, three teenagers were brutally murdered on the shores of the idyllic looking camping spot. Several people have been suspected of the murder, including the sole survivor and a possible KGB agent, but nobody has been convicted of the crimes. That means the killer is still out there. In light of that fact, perhaps it is slightly unwise for four teens to sneak out there as part of an ill-conceived plan to recreate the murders in Taneli Mustonen’s Lake Bodom (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival.

Atte is exactly the sort of serial killer obsessive teen weirdo Jamie Kennedy satirized in the Scream franchise. In contrast, his sort of pal Elias just likes girls. Of course, that is reason enough for them to convince Nora and Ida to come with them on a camping trip to Lake Bodom. Frankly, Ida could use a break from her parents and the other kids at school. Recently she fell victim to a roofie that led to naked pictures posted on the internet. This will be her first time out of her ultra-fundie house since the incident. Could be the last time too.

Naturally, just as the irresponsible teens turn in for the night, they start hearing suspicious noises outside the tent. Obviously, the best course of action is for one or two of them to walk off on their own to investigate. As it happens, there is a decidedly devious twist midway through the film. That also means it is pretty easy to guess what will be the next shoe to drop after that, but Mustonen clearly understands viewers are primed for it.

All things considered, Lake Bodom is quite a lethally effective slasher film. Mustonen is not slavishly obsessed with the 1960 case, but he and co-screenwriter Aleksi Hyvärien incorporate clever parallels. Also, Mimosa Willamo and Mikael Gabriel are both far better than your average slasher fodder as Nora and Elias, respectively.

So, judging from their recent national horror movie export product, Finnish teens as represented by Lake Bodom are just as messed up as Swedish teens represented by Alena and American teens represented by Devil’s Domain. In each film, the internet is not doing them any favors. Undeniably brutal at times, but considerably smarter than the industry standard, Lake Bodom is recommended for serial killer horror movie fans when it screens tonight (5/19) and Sunday (5/21) as part of this year’s SIFF.

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