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By Joe Bendel. You will never find a collegiate sports program less tainted by agents and money than the Xinjiang University baseball team. It is the only area of the highly segregated campus where Uyghurs and ethnic Han Chinese freely mix. They could not field a team without each other. Christopher Rufo documents the passion for the game that keeps the underdog team together in Diamond in the Dunes, which airs this Sunday on PBS World as part of the current season of Global Voices.

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Parhat Arblat might be the best baseball player in the entire Xinjiang province. He is also a member of the Uyghur minority. Despite his soon-to-be-completed university education, his future remains uncertain. He is far more likely to return to shepherding than field an offer from the Yankees, or even our beloved Mets. Although he might be a comparatively okay player, he unfortunately appears to be getting played by his childhood sweetheart.

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Nevertheless, he emerges as a leader on the field, teaching the younger players how to play the game and conduct themselves in life, as they train for their one big annual game with a Tibetan University. Yes, Arblat and his Xinjiang teammates are the boys of one single summer day. They practice all year to face their nearest rivals, one thousand miles away—a thirty hour train journey. That is commitment.

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The irony of an American game bringing together Xinjiang’s fractious ethnic groups is not entirely lost on the players. Frankly, the broadcast cut of Diamond could have played up the unifying power of sportsmanship more, because it is quite compelling. Rufo also seems to deliberately de-emphasize the Uyghurs’ Muslim faith, portraying the regions’ differences in largely racial and cultural terms.

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From "Diamond in the Dunes."

Still, the extent and severity of Xinjiang segregation exposed in the film is truly mind-boggling. The fact that Communist China gets a pass from professional protestors and NGOs constitutes sheer hypocrisy. Indeed, the film serves as an indirect indictment of the western media’s coverage of China. Remember all the coverage of the 2009 Ürümqi riots? Exactly.

Arblat is an enormously sympathetic POV figure, so it is nice that Rufo can balance some hopefulness with the hardscrabble realities of his provincial Xinjiang life. While the broadcast edit feels noticeably abbreviated, it still makes rewarding viewing. Recommended for baseball fans and China watchers, Diamond in the Dunes airs on PBS World this Sunday (8/10).

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 2:01pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Life is cheap, organs are expensive. That is the principle driving a woman with a rare blood type and her quest for payback. She is willing to pay quite dearly to avenge her husband and daughter, offering her organs as a reward in Jeong Yeon-shik’s The Fives, which screened during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Go Eun-a was once a strict mother and somewhat scoldish wife. Tragically, her life turned upside-down when her pre-teen daughter Ga-yeong recognized an older fellow music student with her so-called “Uncle,” serial killer Oh Jae-uk. After dispensing with his intended victim, Oh tracks down the family, brutally murdering Ga-yeong and her father. However, the mother survives, destined to spend the rest of her days confined to a wheelchair.

Knowing her doctor coveted her heart for his ailing daughter, she strikes a dire bargain: find four other patients or family members with specialized skills to help her track, capture, and execute her family’s murderer in exchange for what they need. It will be deeply-indebted police technician Park Jeong-ha’s job to ferret him out online, engineer-thief Nam-cheol to shadow and verify, former gangster Jang Dae-ho to be the muscle, and the shifty doc will perform their promised transplants. Of course, their undertaking gets considerably more complicated when Oh starts hunting his hunters.

The Fives represents a bit of Korean cinema history as the first film adaptation of a web comic directed by its original creator. Nevertheless, the dark tale of revenge and moral angst follows in a long tradition of Korean thrillers, including recently Lee Jung-ho’s Broken and Kim Kwang-sik’s Tabloid Truth. While The Five is not as emotionally resonant as Broken, it is tough to match its pitch black heart.

Yet, in its way, Fives is more sympathetic in its treatment of Evangelicals, particularly Hye-jin the volunteer trying to minister to Go, than most recent Korean imports. Oh, the metrosexual hipster artist, is also the sort of serial killer you are not likely to see in a Hollywood thriller anytime soon. It is sort of like watching the evil twin of quirky indie comedy—exceptionally evil.

From "The Fives."

Kim Sun-a is all kinds of intense as Go, while Park Hyo-joo is truly heartbreaking as Hye-jin. Ma Dong-seok, Shin Jung-keun, Lee Chung-ah nicely flesh out Jang, Na-cheol, and Park, giving them an identity beyond their plot function. However, Jung In-gi’s craven sawbones is a bit cringy. Oddly, On Joo-wan is so spectral-like as Oh, it is hard to render a full judgment on his work.

Even though Go has a highly cinematic talent for lethal Rube Goldberg constructions, The Fives is pretty down to earth by the standards of the genre. Jeong clearly prefers to keep the action up-close-and-personal rather than mount extravagant spectacles. He keeps viewers looked in, even though its bleak portrayal of human nature is exhausting. Recommended for fans of vigilante and serial killer movies, The Fives is likely to develop legs following its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia, which wraps up today (8/7) with screenings of the ridiculously entertaining Zombeavers and the devastating Han Gong-ju.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 1:53pm.

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By Joe Bendel. It was late in the Lindsay administration. New York really was becoming the grungy crime-ridden vice pit largely sustained by attitude people remember with such strange fondness. John Wojtowicz helped paint that picture. True, there is more to his story than the ill-fated bank robbery immortalized in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, but there is no getting around that notorious incident in Brooklyn. Wojtowicz speaks for posterity (and he is not shy about it) in Allison Berg & Frank Keraudren’s The Dog, which opens this Friday in New York.

For the record, Wojtowicz did his time in Lewistown, not Attica. Arguably, he was a something of a gay marriage pioneer, wedding his lover Ernest Aron (subsequently known as Liz Debbie Eden) in a Catholic-aping ceremony. It was a troubled union, mostly because of Aron’s discomfort living as a man. Initially, Wojtowicz opposed the gender re-assignment surgery, but he eventually relented. Of course, that would cost money. Recruiting two accomplices from the scene, Wojtowicz hatched a very half-baked plan.

The late Wojtowicz (adopting the moniker of “The Dog”) sounds every bit the tough talking, unapologetic New Yorker viewers would expect. His interviews dominate Berg & Keraudren’s film, for obvious reasons. They also evoke plenty of the era’s seedy atmosphere, while documenting the early years of New York gay activism. It definitely has value as a time capsule, but it does little to burnish Lindsay’s reputation.

In addition to Wojtowicz, Berg & Keraudren talk to nearly all of the surviving principles, including his first “legal” wife, Carmen Bifulco, and George Heath, the third wife Wojtowicz met in prison. Clearly, the man was not shy or commitment phobic. Unfortunately, Eden and Lindsay have long since passed.

Berg & Keraudren keep the pacing brisk, never getting overly fixated on any particular tribulation. While the film holds unmistakable GLBT interest, it should also appeal to true crime audiences. Recommended for old school New York nostalgics, The Dog opens this Friday (8/8) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center uptown and the IFC Center downtown.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 1:32pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Like many Venezuelans, Dulce has spent long years in prison for crimes she did not commit. However, she is not a political prison. She was simply blamed for the supernatural tragedy that unfolded in her house. Considered the first Venezuelan horror movie, Alejandro Hidalgo’s The House at the End of Time had fans sit up and take notice during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The audience will get numerous added perspectives on what exactly happened that night, but one thing is certain. Dulce’s husband Juan José was stabbed to death. There were not a lot of other suspects to be found, especially not their eldest son Leopoldo, who seemingly vanished without a trace. Convicted of both their presumptive murders, Dulce eventually is granted a supposedly humanitarian release. However, the terms of her parole require her confinement in the very house where she endured those horrors.

As Hidalgo flashes back in time, we witness an earlier night of terror that thoroughly destabilizes Dulce’s family. Clearly, some strange agency is at work, but Juan José and the cops are quick to dismiss Dulce. Frankly, the only person who ever believes her is the sympathetic parish priest, who tries to counsel the older Dulce her during her house arrest. Researching the evil looking domicile, he discovers it was specially constructed by a mysterious English Mason. Over time, the state took possession of the house, offering it to low income families, but never revealing its macabre history.

House starts out as a decidedly atmospheric horror movie, but it evolves into a genre-defying, reality-bender. It is a far more complex narrative than viewers will initially suspect, but Hidalgo marshals the assorted strands quite adroitly. It is also rather refreshing to see an uplifting portrayal of a Catholic priest, with the ultra-subtle implication of government bureaucratic disregard for public welfare being a nice added bonus.

From "The House at the End of Time."

Former Miss Venezuela Ruddy Rodríguez glams down rather boldly to play Dulce. Far from a heroic mother figure, it is a full-fledged, emotionally complicated performance. Guillermo García also raises the good Father above a mere symbol of decency. However, the younger cast-members can be a bit awkward on-camera.

Of course, one of the biggest stars is that creepy old house, which art director Evadne Mullings decks out in lovingly dark detail. There must be more keys in House than any other film playing at Fantasia (all those locked doors seem like a fire hazard, but they well serve Hidalgo’s tense narrative). Cinematographer Cezry Jawkorski’s gives it all a moody, morose look that heightens the foreboding. It all works surprising well, raising the stakes for the old dark house movie. Recommended for genre fans, The House at the End of Time was one of the pleasant surprises at this year’s Fantasia.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 1:32pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Simon Boisvert might be the world’s most misunderstood unknown filmmaker. Through sheer gumption, he produced six independent features, but he is keenly aware of their various flaws. Viewers might be unfamiliar with his films, but they will come to fully understand them all when the Quebecois filmmaker turns the camera on himself in Bold & Brash: Filmmaking Boisvert Style, which screened during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Boisvert may have been tragically influenced by Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men. For some reason the Aaron Eckhart character struck such a chord, he inspired the protagonist of Boisvert’s debut, Stephanie, Nathalie, Caroline & Vincent. To save money, Boisvert played Vincent himself, but he readily acknowledges the limitations of his acting chops. Nonetheless, the film garnered a bit of notice, even though it released on VHS on September 11, 2001.

For at least one commentator, Boisvert is a French Canadian Ed Wood, but the comparison is rather unfair. He sort of has his critical champions, who can find worthiness in some, if not all of his films. Arguably, his talky, relationship-driven films are not so very different aesthetically from the work of Henry Jaglom (is that a heresy to suggest?). However, Boisvert has had more than his share of bad luck, including uncooperative crews and sound mixing disasters.

While Boisvert’s candidness is often surprising, his tenacity is equally impressive. Despite his frustrations, he has gotten his films distributed in some form, except for Barmaids, which he was forced to shelve for purely technical reasons. Aspiring filmmakers should draw some real business lessons from his experiences.

From "Bold & Brash."

Ironically, Bold & Brash looks considerably more polished than many of the films it surveys. Were it not for the raggedness of many of the illustrating film clips, it could pass for a more conventional documentary on indie filmmaking. At times, Boisvert argues sometimes budget constraints really are too severe, as when he produced the concert scenes in the rock & roll melodrama Venus de Milo with less than twenty extras. Still, his resiliency is impressive.

Oddly enough, Bold & Brash might find his widest audience yet. Consistently entertaining and rather insightful, it ought to be programmed somewhere like Anthology as part of a full Boisvert retrospective. It was one of the pleasant surprises at this year’s Fantasia.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 1:31pm.

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By Joe Bendel. She does the kind of work Americans “just won’t do,” like cleaning up Master Crawford’s vomit. The Crawfords are most definitely one percenters—and writer-director Michael Walker will never let us forget it in the dark morality play/borderline-thriller The Maid’s Room, which opens this Friday in New York.

Drina seems pretty, hard working, and illegal enough not to complain. That is good enough for the Crawfords to hire her as the live-in maid at their Hamptons house. They will only be there over the weekends, but their entitled son Brandon will spend the entire summer there. Of course, he notices Drina, but he is mostly too busy drinking like a fish to do anything horrifically inappropriate. Unfortunately, one drunken mistake will kill his buzz and put Drina in an increasingly awkward position.

Just in case you did not get it, the Crawfords think the rules do not apply to them because of their wealth, whereas the naïve Drina believes everyone is accountable in the eyes of God and the law. Subtle Maid’s Room is not. Still, the first major dark turn is a bit of a surprise, because the film seemed to be conditioning the audience to go in a different direction.

Perhaps Maid’s Room’s greatest inequity is the disparity between characters. Frankly, Drina is sweet but boring. Granted, Brandon Crawford, a sort of Raskolnikov figure, does not have much more going on, either. However, Mr. Crawford is a forceful, surprisingly complicated character, who dominates the film in every sense. Even with the deck completely stacked against him, Bill Camp elevates his performance to classically tragic dimensions.

In contrast, Paula Garcés is unflaggingly earnest as Drina, but mostly she just bites her lip and furrows her brow as she wrestles with her employer’s moral bankruptcy. Annabella Sciorra is also fairly potent as Mrs. Crawford, but the uptight mom routine feels pretty familiar by now.

From "The Maid’s Room."

The Crawford home certainly looks exclusive, but some of the film’s details are a little ridiculous, like the Erin Brockovich movie poster Drina hangs in her titular quarters. Seriously, a Colombian immigrant in her early twenties would choose the 2000 Soderbergh film to brighten her walls? It is almost laughable when Walker uses it as a device to strengthen her resolve, as if asking WWEBD, what would Erin Brockovich do?

There are several nicely staged sequences in the second act that demonstrate how one mistake inevitably begets another. Unfortunately, the film is overly preoccupied with its intended take-aways at the expense of narrative. As a result, the promising moments are smothered by its class consciousness. A misfire despite Camp’s highlight reel work, The Maid’s House opens this Friday (8/8) in New York at the Cinema Village.

LFM GRADE: C-

Posted on August 8th, 2014 at 1:31pm.

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