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By Joe Bendel. If Russia successfully annexes Crimea, what happens to the ethnic Ukrainian and Tartar population? If history is any guide, we should not be shocked by forced deportations. Frankly, they should probably consider themselves lucky if they do not take a detour through a Russian gulag. Residents of the Soviet occupied Kuril Islands were not so fortunate. The Production I.G team best known for the Ghost in the Shell franchise revisits a painful episode of Japanese history with Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island, which screened during the 2014 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

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Giovanni and Campanella are not traditional Japanese names, but they are the main characters of Kenji Miyazawa’s fantastical classic, Night on the Galactic Railroad. Tatsuo Senō is so fond of the novel he named his sons Junpei and Kanta to roughly correlate. At the time of Japan’s surrender, the elder Senō is the island’s civil defense coordinator, but since he is not technically military, he is not rounded up with the other soldiers.

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Initially, rumors spread like wildfire of what the Americans would do when they arrive. Unfortunately, it is the Soviets instead. Needless to say, their arrival is quite disruptive for the island community. Many families, including the Senōs, are displaced to make room for the occupiers. Similarly, Junpei’s class is forced to share space with the lower grades to make room for the soldiers’ children. Still, he forms an unlikely friendship with the commander’s daughter Tanya that steadily develops romantic overtones.

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Sadly, the Soviets will do no favors for tweener romance. After his father is arrested for distributing rice to needy villagers (so much for “to each according to their needs”), Junpei, Kanta, and their school teacher Sawako (who long carried a torch for dad) are forced to board the supposed repatriation transport without him. Ominously though, they do not seem to be bearing south towards Japan.

Frankly, screenwriters Shigemichi Sugita and Yoshiki Sakurai are remarkably restrained in their depiction of the Russian occupiers, perhaps for fear of reprisals. Nevertheless, the grim realities of the forcible deportations are inescapable. For all intents and purposes, the occupied islands were ethnically cleansed. Those familiar with Miyazawa’s short novel will also realize the Senō family is destined to experience acute tragedy.

From "Giovanni’s Island."

Indeed, the way the Galactic Railroad is weaved into Giovanni’s narrative is quite thoughtful and literate. Hardly stuck in denial, the film forthrightly acknowledges the misfortune of Koreans displaced by the Imperial military, whom the Russians never bothered to repatriate. There are also a few decent Russians in Giovanni (such as Tanya’s parents), but the Stalinist war machine is a brutal, impersonal fact of history.

Much like Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart, Giovanni uses poetic imagery to soften the blow of the on-screen heartbreak. Yet, there is a maturity to the film and how its characters (especially the young) resolutely “endure the unendurable” that is quite powerful. Viewers will not feel bereft at the end, despite the grueling journey it takes us on. While it focuses quite intimately on the Senōs and those closest to them, it is a rather epic story. Featuring characters you will care about caught up in historical forces likely to repeat themselves, Giovanni’s Island is the sort of animated film adults will appreciate as much or more than children.

Highly recommended as a legit big screen drama, Giovanni’s Island had its first screening outside of Japan at this year’s NYICFF. Patrons should keep an eye on their website, just in case another screening is added. Regardless, it should have a long life on the festival circuit.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on March 25th, 2014 at 6:30pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Why would a supposedly democratically elected government prohibit any public screening of a film with absolutely no violent or sexual content? In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi administration, a documentary describing how a sizable Jewish community once peacefully coexisted with Egypt’s Muslim majority was evidently not considered fit for public consumption, despite slavishly hewing to an “anti-Zionist” line. Arriving as a modest cause célèbre due to the fallen Morsi government’s misadventure in censorship (they eventually relented), Amir Ramses’ Jews of Egypt opens this Friday in New York.

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, a number of Egypt’s leading citizens happened to be Jewish. To this day, Laila Mourad remains one of the nation’s most popular recording artists, though many are apparently unaware of her Jewish heritage, judging from the brief man-on-the-streets interviews that open the film.

According to surviving members of the community, nearly all Jewish Egyptians self-identified with their country first and foremost, whereas their Jewish religion and culture was of secondary concern—if that. Everyone goes to agonizing lengths to distinguish between Jews and Zionists, clearly pre-supposing there is something fundamentally problematic about the latter. Yet, despite the vehement anti-Israeli sentiment expressed by many prominent Jewish Egyptians, they collectively found Egypt increasingly inhospitable following Nasser’s ascent to power.

From "Jews of Egypt."

Ironically, the experience of the unflaggingly loyal anti-Zionist Jewish Egyptians dramatically proves the Zionist point. Despite their Communist, anti-colonialist political affiliations, they were still arm-twisted into immigrating and, most painfully, renouncing their Egyptian nationality. Some were even imprisoned on the scantest of charges, solely because they were Jewish.

Nonetheless, Ramses and his assembled talking heads are not particularly inclined to ironic self-awareness. As far as historical accuracy goes, JOE is also highly suspect. Frankly, the film works best when examining the interrelations between the various members of the loose-knit Jewish-Egyptian society. Who knew whom and where they all wound up is rather engaging stuff.

The Orwellian impulse to erase all trace of Egypt’s considerable Jewish population is depressing, but not especially shocking. At least Ramses plants a flag that says these people existed. Considerably better at painting a picture of a unique cultural milieu than explaining the wider geo-political forces at play, Jews of Egypt is still a decidedly mixed bag. Viewers should go in already well grounded in the history of the region and Israel’s constant battle for survival. For those intrigued by its rocky pre-release reception, it opens this Friday (3/28) at the Quad Cinema in New York, via Art Mattan Productions.

LFM GRADE: C

Posted on March 25th, 2014 at 6:25pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Remember Tony Curtis in the naughty Euro-farce, The Amorous Mis-Adventures of Casanova? Sure you don’t, but forget it anyway. This incarnation of the aging rogue is worlds removed from Curtis’s leering carouser. It is the end of the party and the close of the Enlightenment era for Casanova, announced by none other than Dracula himself in Albert Serra’s defiantly dense and stately slow The Story of My Death, which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Casanova has become a dirty, sacrilegious old man. He still pursues his pleasures where he may, be they pomegranates or chamber maids. Initially, this all seems like a good gig to his new manservant, whose primary duties appear to listening to Casanova pontificate on whatever. However, he becomes somewhat disillusioned with his master during their questionable Carpathian holiday. Naturally, Casanova starts trifling with the daughters of a suspiciously accommodating land owner, but the undead Count also has eyes for the lasses.

On paper, Death probably sounds like a super commercial mix of sex and gothic blood-sucking, but Serra’s approach is unapologetically meditative, bordering on the explicitly experimental. This is not Anne Rice or even Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. It is one hundred fifty-eight minutes—and viewers will feel each and every second.

Serra might have a healthy contempt for narrative, but he has an eye for composition. Frame after frame intentionally evoke the Old Masters with their chiaroscuro effect and Serra’s extraordinary attention to mise-en-scene. Even though the score is credited to four composers (count them: Ferran Font, Enric Juncá, Joe Robinson, and Marc Verdaguer), there is not a lot of music heard during Death’s two and a half hours. Yet, in a rare genre concession, what there is sounds surprisingly distinctive and creepy.

From "Story of My Death."

Heading a typical Serra cast of non-traditional actors, poet Vincenç Altiaó rather livens up the proceedings, hedonistically chewing the scenery and relishing his self-consciously wicked dialogue. Eliseu Huertas also has an intriguing screen presence as the Count and his high-pitched keening is truly unsettling. Still, it is strange that he looks as old (or older) than Altiaó’s Casanova, yet his Dracula is supposed to represent coming era of Rousseau’s Romantic savagery.

Death could be considered the Hammer Horror film Terrence Malick has yet to make. Few vampire films feature half as many scenes of wind rustling through the grass. Frankly, Serra’s work demands to be considered solely on its own terms. Maddening and anesthetizing for the uninitiated, Death still takes viewers from one specific point to another. Selectively recommended for hardcore fans of Malick and Ben Rivers, The Story of My Death screens this coming Wednesday (3/26) at MoMA and next Saturday (3/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2014 ND/NF.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on March 25th, 2014 at 6:19pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Jackie Chan’s Asian Hawk character from Armour of God is back—sort of. He is known as a “JC” now (a heavy set of initials if ever there was), but he is in the same treasure hunting business. Such details hardly matter. Either way it is Jackie Chan giving his all to please audiences as action star, action choreographer, co-writer, and director of Chinese Zodiac (a.k.a. CZ12), which releases today on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

During the Second Opium War, the French and British largely razed the Old Summer Palace. (Time, civil wars, and the Cultural Revolution would eventually finish the job.) On that day of Imperialistic excess, twelve Chinese Zodiac statues were indeed plundered. Lost for well over a century, they have suddenly hit the market one-by-one. At least, that is the MacGuffin that swings JC/Hawk into action. The antiquities holding firm MC Corp hires JC and his team to track down the seven heads they have not yet auctioned. They are also the bad guys. No, it does not make much sense, but it gives Chan plenty of opportunity to scamper across roofs, get chased by dogs, and fight pirates.

Whatever, nobody is going to watch CZ12 for the intricate plotting. The whole attraction is the acrobatic action and elaborate stunts Chan can evidently still pull off at a youthful fifty-eight years. He may have slowed down a little, considering that most of the painful outtakes shown during the closing credits come from previous films, but he still looks like the real deal leaping and fighting.

The opening sequence, involving JC’s getaway from a Russian military base through the use of a luge-like human roller-ball suit, might sound a little goofy, but the execution is extremely cinematic (and suddenly timely). It also memorably introduces former Chinese taekwondo champion turned actress and model Zhang Lanxin as CZ12’s secondary action figure. There is also plenty of cat burglary, a huge action spectacle involving a massive shipwreck that serves as the centerpiece, and a climatic skydiving throwdown that looks cool but ends a bit precipitously. However, the best sequence is a good, old fashioned rumble between JC and a small army of henchmen.

From "Chinese Zodiac."

When Jackie Chan mixes it up, CZ12 is on solid ground, even though the villains (led by Oliver Platt) are a bit weak. Since they frequently assure JC they have no intention of killing anyone, it rather minimizes the stakes (but at least as movie businessmen go, they are only mildly nefarious). Chan’s periodic soap-boxing to advocate restitution of national relics is somewhat more distractingly problematic. It all seems a little ironic considering his notorious assertion that the Chinese people are too anarchic and “need to be controlled.” In that case, would not China’s dynastic treasures be better off in a stodgy western institution, like the British Museum?

Regardless of Chan’s muddled politics, he remains a ridiculously likable screen presence. He clearly wants to entertain and continues to take a fall to do so. Frankly, he is probably the one man on Earth who takes more back pills than Chevy Chase, but he still does his thing with verve. Shu Qi also looks radiant but understandably confused in her blink-and-you-missed-it cameo, while Zhang definitely earns her shot at a leading action role in the future. Recommended for Chan fans, Chinese Zodiac is now available for home viewing from Universal.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on March 25th, 2014 at 6:14pm.

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By Joe Bendel. During 1991 and early 1992, New York was about as depressed as depression gets. The only ray of hope came from a series of high profile organized crime prosecutions initiated by then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. Yet, somehow John Gotti, the “Teflon Don,” kept wriggling out of the net—at least until Sammy “the Bull” Gravano turned state’s evidence. His testimony would also reveal the locations of several mafia-affiliated “social clubs” in open court. Tommy Uva used this information for the extraordinarily daring but not particularly well thought out crime spree that inspired Raymond De Felitta’s Rob the Mob, which opens today in New York.

Uva is a loser, but Rosemarie loves him anyway. However, the rest of the Uva family still blames him and his lowlife ways for the death of his father. Uva on the other hand, vehemently blames the mafia loan sharks for their family tragedy. You could say he has a bit of a complex when it comes to wiseguys.

After a brief prison stretch, Uva gets a job with Rosemarie’s debt collection agency—probably the only business hiring during the Dinkins years. However, he is preoccupied with the Gotti trial. When he hears Gravano explain that guns are verboten in their neighborhood front clubs, Uva hatches a very dangerous idea explained pretty clearly by the film’s three word title. One night, he takes in a pretty paltry score, but one of the old-timers at the Waikiki Club happened to be carrying something seriously incriminating.

As films go, Rob is about as New York as it gets. The period details are spot-on and the attitude is razor sharp. Nobody cares what the New York Times has to say in their milieu. The journalist who gets the Uvas’ story is naturally the Post’s organized crime beat writer, Jerry Cardozo. De Felitta (better known for dramedies like City Island and docs, such as ‘Tis Autumn), deftly juggles the large ensemble of gangsters, cops, reporters, and Uvas, maintaining an appealingly gritty vibe.

However, the ace up De Felitta’s sleeve is once again Andy Garcia, who plays the composite don of dons “Big Al” Fiorello with tragic dignity worthy of a Shakespearean figure. As Garcia slowly reveals his backstory, we come to understand Fiorello reluctantly reached his current position through a strange twist of fate. He is a complicated figure, but he is about the only ethically nuanced gangster. In contrast, his underlings are a craven lot and just about everyone on either side of the side thinks Gotti is complete pond scum.

From "Rob the Mob."

While he does not quite knock it out of the park like Garcia (partly because De Felitta does not pitch him comparably fat fast balls over the plate), Ray Romano’s characteristic nervous energy and deadpan delivery still nicely serve Cardozo, a substantially straight dramatic role. While their over-the-top outer borough affectations are rather off-putting at first, Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda still develop some rather touching (and convincingly reckless) screen chemistry as the couple ironically dubbed “Bonnie and Clyde” by Fiorello’s gang. However, for real old school street cred, nobody can touch Burt Young doing his thing as aging mob lieutenant Joey D.

Granted, everyone will readily form an educated guess of the general direction Rob is headed, even if they are not familiar with the Uvas’ case, but De Felitta’s sure-footed execution will still keep viewers keyed in from start to finish. Featuring an award-worthy supporting turn from Garcia, Rob is one of the best American gangster films in several years. Particularly recommended for New Yorkers (who might be getting a glimpse of our de Blasio future as well as our Dinkins past), Rob the Mob opens today (3/21) at the Angelika Film Center.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on March 21st, 2014 at 11:32am.

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From "Nymphomaniac: Volume One."

By Joe Bendel. When Lars von Trier and the increasingly controversial Shia LaBeouf collaborate on a film, it creates a certain level of expectations. Add in a generous helping of explicit sexual content and you would anticipate of perfect storm of provocation. Instead, it will be fans of the Dogma 95 co-founder who will feel vindicated by his latest bout of risk-taking. Far from a source of joy, sex is an act of existential alienation in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Volume One, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Seligman is a good Samaritan, who offers to take Joe to a hospital when he finds her battered in the street. She firmly demurs, only reluctantly allowing the older man to patch her wounds in his nearby flat. Joe not only blames herself for her alarming state, she rather seems to think she had it coming. She will explain why over a hot cup of tea.

Joe discovered her power turns men into animals at a young age. Like a playboy notching his belt, she regularly challenges her chum B to a contest of who can score the most men in a given period. However, B starts breaking one of their cardinal rules, allowing affection (or worse still, love) to influence her erotic pursuits. As a result, Joe becomes a solitary seducer, who deliberately leaves broken lives in her wake. Yet, Seligman insists on finding redemptive elements in each of her tales—or so he tries, in between fishing analogies and literary allusions.

Nevertheless, Joe’s self-indictment is consistently and cumulatively damning. In a particularly memorable episode, Mrs. H outdoes Medea, shaming her wayward husband and the trampy Joe by crashing their vice-pad with her shockingly young sons. Yet, Joe really is not shamed. She is already hollow inside, desensitized by her carnal compulsions.

Yes, there is a lot of sex and nudity in Volume One, but it is not the least bit seductive or titillating. Instead, this is an unrated morality tale, which explicitly cautions viewers of the dire consequences wrought by divorcing sex from love (or least like to a reasonable extent).

It should be noted, this all applies solely to Volume One seen independently of Volume Two. Based on the teaser that runs during the closing credits, von Trier apparently cranks up the lurid content in the concluding installment. Whether or not this anticipated foray into Shades of Grey territory will come with a disingenuous claim of “empowerment” remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Volume One ends at an oddly logical and unsettling point.

Frankly, it is not the naughty business that is interesting, but the conversations between the not-as-young-as-she-used-to-be Joe and Seligman. Von Trier’s language is highly literate and rich with meaning. Past von Trier alumni Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård quickly develop the darnedest screen chemistry, encompassing morbid fascination and humanist compassion. Despite the film’s explicit content, von Trier assembled quite a cast, including Uma Thurman, who knocks the wind out of viewers as the ferocious Mrs. H.

From "Nymphomaniac: Volume One."

In a case of trial by fire, Stacy Martin makes a bold screen debut as the twenty-something Joe, but her character is so glacially reserved, the role better demonstrates her willingness to serve the needs of a film rather than her emotional range, per se. On the other hand, Christian Slater cannot shake off his snarky b-list persona as Joe’s henpecked father. (By the way, if any von Trier fans are wondering, Udo Kier will duly appear in Volume Two.)

With Volume One, von Trier stakes a claim to being a truly subversive contrarian. He makes sex look like no fun whatsoever. In fact, hedonism takes a toll on the soul and inextricably leads to some very dark places. Better to go fishing instead. Recommended for mature, fully informed audiences as a film in its own right, Nymphomaniac Volume One opens this Friday (3/21) in New York downtown at the Landmark Sunshine and uptown at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on March 20th, 2014 at 2:42pm.

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