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By Joe Bendel. Miami Vice lied to you. It wasn’t Cuban or Colombian cartels that controlled the South Florida drug trade in the 1980’s. It was the ninjas. However, they met their match in Tae Kwon Do grandmaster and inspirational speaker Y.K. Kim. He and his students lay down some hard rocking justice in his long lost, feather-haired, labor of love, The Miami Connection, which Alamo Drafthouse saved from obscurity to conquer the world through a series of midnight screenings, beginning this Friday (hopefully) in New York.

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The Miami Ninjas pick a fight with the wrong band when they try to roust Dragon Sound from their new gig at “Central Florida’s hottest new night club” in Connection, co-directed by Kim and experienced exploitation auteur Woo-sang “Richard” Park. They are a tight band, who live, train, and rock together with Mark, their Tae Kwon Do master. The ninjas and drug dealers might have formed an alliance, but they are no match for the one-two punch of Tae Kwon Do and cheesy 80’s synthesizer rock.

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Further complicating matters, Mark’s number one protégé John has been dating Jane, the kid sister of Jeff the gang leader, against his wishes. Granted, he overreacts, but it is hard to blame him for being underwhelmed by the gawky lover-boy. Indeed, things get personal quickly. The plot might be a touch hackneyed (you know when a Dragon Sound member puts on a fancy new suit for a special occasion, he is in for a world of hurt) and the dialogue is what it is (and that’s not much), but the fighting is pretty awesome, courtesy of Grandmaster Kim – who clearly has no aversion to a spot of blood here and there. Former champion kickboxer Maurice Smith certainly knew how to conduct himself in a fight scene as well, but he has some of the most laughable drama as Jim, the keyboard player with the unhealthy mailbox obsession.

Hats off to the in-damn-domitable Y.K. Kim, who is finally getting distribution and cult fandom for Miami Connection, after the snobby Florida critics brusquely dismissed its ill-fated Orlando release in 1987. Thanks to those stick-in-the-muds, Kim & Park’s heartfelt smackdown was almost lost to posterity. That said, the Miami Connection experience is best shared with a rowdy group of likeminded viewers. Hopefully, large and vocal crowds will duly turn out when it screens this Friday and Saturday nights (11/2 & 11/3) at the Landmark Sunshine in New York.

Posted on October 30th, 2012 at 1:16pm.

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By Joe Bendel. In classical string quartets, they say the second violinist is not necessarily subservient to the first. They also say there are no small parts, only small actors – but nobody believes that either. The complicated inter-relationships of an acclaimed string ensemble will be challenged to their breaking point in Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet, which opens this Friday in New York.

The Fugue Quartet has performed together for nearly twenty-five years. Yet, as their quarter century anniversary approaches, their future becomes uncertain. Cellist Peter Mitchell, the senior member of the ensemble, has been diagnosed with early Parkinson’s. He can still function well enough to teach his students, including Alexandra Gelbart, the daughter of second violinist Robert and violist Juliette. However, it is not clear whether he is up to the rigorous demands of concert performance, especially Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor, a punishing seven movement piece that offers no resting place for musicians who tackle it.

It quickly becomes apparent that Mitchell was the glue holding the quartet together, even though first violinist Daniel Lerner largely dominated the quartet’s artistic decisions through the force of his personality. He also has romantic history with Juliette Gelbart, one of the many reasons for Robert Gelbart’s burgeoning resentment. Yet, recognizing his talent, the Gelbarts send their daughter to him for personal tutoring, resulting in drama that could permanently rip the Fugue asunder.

Essentially, Quartet is soap opera at its most sophisticated and refined. There is plenty of angst and jealousy at play, but the screenplay (penned by Zilberman and Seth Grossman) really sings when addressing the musicians’ approach to their art. For those coming from the jazz tradition, it is fascinating to watch the debate between Robert Gelbart, who wants to play Beethoven’s Opus without charts to give it a freer, more emotionally spontaneous feeling, and Lerner, who insists on following every little notation, down to the squiggle. Gelbert is not advocating improvisation, just a bit more interpretive latitude in their attack, but for Lerner this would ignore the benefit gleaned from years of careful study.

Liraz Charhi in "A Late Quartet."

Although he refrains from eccentric Walkenisms, Christopher Walken still steals nearly every scene he appears in as Mitchell. Knocking some richly written lecture scenes out of the park, one wonders if perhaps he missed his calling as a music teacher. Yet, the most Oscar worthy performance comes from the one member of the quartet not previously nominated. Mark Ivanir really opens up the icily precise Lerner, markedly laying bare the messy insecurities so many great artists share. In contrast, as the Gelbarts, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener stay on familiar ground, depicting the petty tribulations of the privileged class. We have seen this from them both before, but at least Zilberman shows them bickering in interesting places, like Sotheby’s.

Perhaps Zilberman’s most important collaborator is the Brentano String Quartet, whose elegantly elegiac rendition of the Opus powerfully underscores the film. Their fans will also enjoy seeing cellist Nina Lee appearing as herself, whom Mitchell is determined to recruit as his replacement. Memorably capturing the heart and milieu of classical music, Quartet deserves attention during award season, particularly for Ivanir and Walken. Yet, as a true chamber piece, it may lack the bombast the academy responds to. Recommended for classical listeners and those who appreciate the drama inherent in creative differences, A Late Quartet opens this Friday (11/2) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine, or so we all hope.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on October 30th, 2012 at 1:16pm.

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Narrating "A Liar's Autobiography."

By Joe Bendel. He was the one with the pipe. Graham Chapman could be as silly as any of the Pythons, but only he had the noble bearing to portray King Arthur, the would-be messiah Brian Cohen, and a battalion of aristocratic British military officers. He also played the title role in Yellowbeard – but nobody’s perfect. Indeed, that could be the mantra of Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett’s A Liar’s Autobiography: the Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (trailer here), a hyperkinetic kitchen sink of an animated biography, which opens in 3D this Friday, day-and-date with its 2D premiere on Epix.

Viewers of Jones (son of Terry) & Timlett’s Monty Python: Almost the Truth will know Chapman was the tragic Python, who struggled with substance and sex addictions, before succumbing to cancer at the terribly early age of forty-eight. Chapman was also perfectly open, if rather ambivalent, about his sexuality. Such a dramatic life offers plenty of grist for a biopic treatment, and it’s all in Liar’s Autobiography—somewhere.

Fourteen different animation houses using seventeen different animation styles illustrate the events of Chapman’s life, as narrated by the subject himself from the memoir that would inspire the film. Given the relative brevity and rapid succession of each constituent episode, it is hard to keep them all straight. At least they proceed in a somewhat orderly narrative fashion, depicting Chapman as a rather macabre baby (not unlike Seth Macfarlane’s Stewie), a precocious student, and as one of the gaggle of monkeys co-founding Monty Python.

The thread is easier to follow in his early years, though Autobiography is still prone to distraction – even dramatizing one of the Biggles war stories (strikingly rendered by Made Visual Studio) that captivated young Chapman. However, by the time Autobiography reaches Treat Studios’ Space Pods, the connection to reality has been gleefully severed.

A look at the life of a comic genius.

The greatest irony of Autobiography is that its biggest laughs and greatest emotional payoff comes from the real-life-honest-to-gosh video of John Cleese’s eulogy for Chapman, in which he promises to avoid “mindless good taste.” Most of the Pythons are represented in Autobiography, playing themselves as well as other co-conspirators and innocent bystanders. Fans will be delighted to hear honorary Python Carol Cleveland turns up for old time’s sake, too. Bizarrely, Cameron Diaz, who also used to be famous once, supplies the voice of Freud. However, Eric Idle is MIA, though his song “Sit on My Face” gets the full “Blame Canada” Busby Berkley treatment.

You don’t walk out of Autobiography, you stagger. While the 3D is characteristically hit or miss, the film[s] bombards the audience with wacky, tripped-out imagery. At times it is almost too much, but at least it scrupulously observes Chapman’s wishes regarding gratuitous good taste. You have to give its spirit proper due. Recommended more for the fanatical Python fan than the causal viewer (quick, what is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?), A Liar’s Autobiography will be the first 3D release to play at the Angelika Film Center when it opens this Friday (11/2) in New York, simultaneous with its 2D broadcast on Epix.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on October 30th, 2012 at 1:15pm.

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By Joe Bendel. They are known as Yakshis in southern India, but we would think of them as succubi. Every culture has their equivalent, but one architect fears he married one. Yet, his perception of reality may or may not be so reliable in Shalini Usha Nair’s Akam (Palas in Bloom; trailer here), which screened at the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival in New York.

Srinivas seemed to have his life laid out perfectly, until an accident left the young architect visibly disfigured. Abandoned by his girlfriend, he descends into a deep existential depression. It is only the chance late night meeting with a mysterious woman that snaps him out of his lethargy. Just what Ragini was doing at his construction site at that hour is a question that will bother Srinivas in months to come, but it concerns him little during their brief courtship.

For a while everything is great, and then just as suddenly things are terrible again. Srinivas finds himself besieged by minor misfortunes and ailments that he is convinced Ragini has caused. He is convinced she is a Yakshi, who seduced him in order to torment and eventually murder him, because that is what Yakshis do.

If Ragini is a Yakshi, Nair isn’t telling. There is evidence in the film to support either conclusion, but none of it is trustworthy, because of the manner in which Srinivas’s obviously warped POV skews the film’s narrative. Indeed, Akam’s open-endedness clearly gave some SAIFF patrons fits, just as Nair intended.

Loosely based on Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s novel Yakshi, Akam could have featured a spot of gore here and there, but Nair elected to keep it off-screen – which will further frustrate genre fans. That simply is not the tradition the film flows out of. However, there are enough hat-tips to Vertigo to inspire an angry missive from Kim Novak. Present day Kerala might seem worlds and centuries removed from Puritan New England, but Srinivas could almost be considered a Malayalam Hawthorne character, whose outward disfigurement corresponds to a spiritual disfigurement. The real horror of his story is the uncertainty over whether he is the victim or the tormentor, much like a Goodman Brown.

From "Akam."

As Srinivas, Fahadh Faasil vividly portrays a man plagued by inner demons and insecurities, while Anumol K’s Ragini certainly suggests a woman with closely guarded secrets. Freed from traditional genre demands, Nair’s pacing is decidedly patient. Unfortunately, the frequent flashbacks are not well delineated from the present day, often causing viewer confusion. Yet, her sparing use of sound, and the film’s overwhelming sense of darkness and stillness are unusually effective. Akam has a genuinely foreboding atmosphere that makes the ambiguous gamesmanship possible.

This is definitely not Bollywood. Technically it is Mollywood, but do not expect any Malayalam musical numbers. While the austerity of Nair’s style is demanding at times, the overall vibe really gets under your skin. Though not perfect, this is a film more festival programmers ought to consider. Recommended for cineastes who have a taste for the macabre but prefer mood over mayhem, Akam is set to have a limited Indian release this November.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on October 29th, 2012 at 1:36pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Welcome to India’s “Red Corridor.” While referring to the ideology of the militant Naxalite-Maoists who exercise de-facto governing authority in some of the country’s poorest provinces, it applies just as readily to the blood they shed to maintain their power. However, one ambitious policeman is determined to reestablish law and order in Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh, a selection of the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, co-starring Bollywood legend Kabir Bedi, who participated in a special intimate on-stage conversation at the Helen Mills Theater this past weekend.

SP Adil Khan is so by-the-book, he must be headed for a fall. He is in for a rude awakening when he accepts his newest posting, replacing a fallen friend and colleague in the Red Corridor. Just like his predecessor, Khan is lured into an ambush by false Naxalite informants. At least Khan lives to tell the tale and change tactics. Unlike his colleagues, Khan tries to win over the poor villagers’ hearts and minds, but whenever one reaches out to the copper, they are publicly executed by the ruthless Rajan. It looks bad for the home team until Khan’s academy drop-out buddy, Kabir, volunteers to go undercover. With no formal ties to the cops, he is the only one with a puncher’s chance of surviving the vetting process.

Rhea Menon in "Chakravyuh."

Thanks to their cover story, Kabir fits in with the Naxalites rather easily. He feeds Khan breakthrough intel, turning the tide against the Maoists. Yet, as Kabir starts to go proletarian, Khan realizes he may have made a mistake sending an impressionable hothead prone to snap decision-making on a sensitive infiltration mission.

This film would give Debbie Schlussel a conniption fit. Basically, it features the Muslim cop Khan (the only character whose religion is expressly identified, at least to western eyes) waging war against an increasingly sympathetic terrorist cult. Indeed, Chakravyuh is problematic in multiple ways, but also fascinating in much the same manner as the best Soviet propaganda films. There is no doubt that India’s rural poor have a hard lot in life, but it is pretty clear by now that the shining path offers no salvation. Perversely, Kabir and Rajan spend most of the film fighting the steel plant Kabir Bedi’s evil industrialist is trying to build, doing nothing to increase local employment opportunities.

Obviously, the irony of China allegedly supporting the Naxalites – while explicitly repudiating the Maoist excesses of the Cultural Revolution – is an irony lost on director Jha. At least he can stage rousing gun battles and spectacular massacres. Jha also integrates the musical numbers into the action in a manner that is more organic than one might expect. Yes, this is most definitely Bollywood.

Jha gets a critical assist from Arjun Rampal, who is an appropriately forceful presence as Khan. Had Jha belived in his mission, Rampal’s Khan might have joined The Raid’s Iko Uwais as the second great Muslim action hero of the year. Unfortunately, we are clearly meant to identify more with Abhay Deol’s Kabir, but his brooding is more petulant than Byronic. Still, Chakravyuh has the beautiful and well-armed Esha Gupta as Khan’s fiancée and comrade, Rhea Menon. SAIFF special guest Kabir Bedi also chews the scenery in a manner befitting a former bond villain (the lethal Gobinda in Octopussy).

Chakravyuh is simplistic and didactic, but it is never dull. Suitable for action fans who are able to discern and discount propaganda and dogma, Chakravyuh is now playing at the AMC Loews Newport Centre in Jersey City, following its North American premiere at the 2012 SAIFF.

Posted on October 29th, 2012 at 1:35pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Heather Mason’s teenaged years have been difficult. Her name is actually Sharon Da Silva, but she and her father Christopher, currently known as Harry, constantly move to new towns under assumed identities. Supposedly he is on the run from the law, but it is really to keep a step ahead of a bizarre death cult. They constantly call Sharon/Heather back to their shunned ghost town through supernatural means, and there will be a macabre homecoming in store for her in Michael J. (Solomon Kane) Bassett’s Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (trailer here), which opens today across the country.

Considered one of the better film adaptations of a video game, the first Silent Hill struck some chords with viewers by seriously addressing themes of faith and sacrifice. To save her daughter, Rose Da Silva accepted banishment on the other side of Silent Hill’s dimensional portal. Her husband has done his best to protect Sharon/Heather alone. However, when Rose sends him a Candyman-style inter-dimensional warning, it may already be too late. In order to save her father, Sharon/Heather resolves to give her tormentors the showdown they want.

Those who have played the survival game will know that there is a complicated backstory to Silent Hill, involving Alessa, the all-powerful witch-girl, whose curse holds the cult’s powers in check. There are also a number of bizarre entities living in this netherworld, including fan favorite Pyramid Head. Apparently one of the knocks on the first film was his relative lack of screen time, so it is rather odd Revelation also uses him rather sparingly again. However, Malcolm McDowell has a long and unpleasant scene as blind bogeyman Leonard Wolf, the former cult leader committed by his own daughter. (Gee whiz, it has been quite a while since his career-defining work with Lindsay Anderson, hasn’t it?)

Adelaide Clemens in "Silent Hill: Revelation."

Frankly, it is pretty easy for non-gamers to follow Revelation’s first two acts, but once Sharon/Heather arrives at Silent Hill, all bets are off. Sure, there is a clear narrative chain of events, but the underlying logic of the how’s and why’s is rather vague. In fact, it is rather like watching someone playing a videogame when you do not understand the rules.

Adelaide Clemens is perfectly credible horror heroine, even delivering a promo-reel worthy speech early in the film. Of course, Sean Bean certainly knows his way around a special effects-driven production by now. As Da Silva, he helps elevate the proceedings with his earnest everyman presence. In contrast, McDowell and Carrie-Anne Moss do not exactly make classic villains as the Wolf family cultists.

In all honesty, Revelation still probably represents the high end of the bell curve for video game adaptations. Good and evil have very real meaning here. While as a gamer Bassett was reportedly already steeped in the game’s mythos, he loses control of the third act, letting the film descend into poorly lit mayhem. There is a measure of payoff, but it comes after a head-scratching sojourn through the titular town’s sub-basements. Only for diehards franchise fans, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D opens today (10/26) in New York at the AMC Kips Bay and Regal E-Walk, obviously scheduled with Halloween in mind.

LFM GRADE: D+

Posted on October 26th, 2012 at 11:30am.

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