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By Joe Bendel. Even in death, Chinese citizens remain victims of the Cultural Revolution. Since those dark days, burial has been illegal in the PRC, banned due to its religious connotations. As a result, entire generations have been consigned to an eternal fate as disquiet ghosts, at least according to traditional beliefs. The tragic connection between intrusive government funerary policy and a young migrant worker will be revealed in Fabianny Deschamps experimental hybrid New Territories, which screens during the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

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Hong Kong’s New Territories represent the Promised Land for Li Yu. It is there she is to meet her fiancée, after the human traffickers smuggle them across the border. However, her fate will somehow become entangled with Eve, a French sales executive pitching alkaline hydrolysis to the Chinese authorities as a carbon neutral alternative to cremation. She had traveled to Li’s home province, because of its high rate of compliance with the government’s cremation mandate. Understandably, she chose to seal the deal in Hong Kong, where she can celebrate in style once the business is done.

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The audience does not see much of Li, for reasons that will eventually be revealed. However, she is omnipresent as the film’s narrator. Eschewing conventional dialogue and narrative forms, Territories is somewhat akin to João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, except the execution is far superior. In all honesty, this might be the most emotionally resonant pseudo-experimental film you will see in a month of non-narrative Sundays.

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Of course, there is very definitely a story underpinning Territories, which even takes on genre dimensions. Though rarely seen, Yilin Yang’s voiceovers as Li are absolutely devastating. Eve Bitoun deliberately portrays her namesake as something of a cipher, but her descent into spiritual oblivion is quite compelling (while her Fifty Shades scene is unnecessarily off-putting). Deschamps also gives viewers a unique perspective on time-honored practices, such as the burning of spirit money.

From "New Territories."

It is difficult to identify the right audience for New Territories, because it demands receptiveness to avant-garde forms, yet is still deeply rooted in the social and historical iniquities of Communist China. Although it is largely set in HK’s financial district and takes its name from the peninsular region, the guts of the film concern realties on the Mainland. Cinematographer Tomasso Fiorilli perfectly lenses HK, in all its alluring menace. It is a very thoughtful, artful film, highly recommended for the adventurous (and sufficiently prepared), when it screens this Friday (8/22), Saturday (8/23), and Sunday (8/24) as part of this year’s MWFF.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:56pm.

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By Joe Bendel. The Jinyiwei were one of the earliest forerunners of the Secret Service, but they soon became one of the first secret police organizations. Their original mandate was to protect the Ming Emperor, but they quickly became a law unto themselves. Feared and despised, Jinyiwei agents lived short and lonely lives. Nobody understands this better than Qinglong, who persists at any cost to complete what he assumes will be his final assignment in Daniel Lee’s 14 Blades, which opens this Friday in New York.

As a Jinyiwei, Qinglong carries the service’s notorious 14 blades: eight are devised for torture, five for fighting (so to speak), and one is designed for a Jinyiwei’s final exit. Like many of his brothers, Qinglong survived a brutal recruitment process when he was only just a child. He still carries the emotional scars from his baptism of fire, so the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when he discovers the Jinyiwei leadership has been corrupted by their eunuch commander, Jia Jingzhong.

Realizing his was set-up during his latest mission, Qinglong goes rogue, seeking the missing imperial seal Jia and his ally, the treasonous Prince Qing, intend to use to legitimize their power grab. Although outnumbered, Qinglong will recruit key allies, retaining the services of the nearly bankrupt Justice Escort Agency (and developing a doomed attraction to proprietor Qiao Yong’s rebellious daughter, Qiao Hua in the process). He will also forge an alliance with a notorious highwayman known as “The Judge” and his Heaven Eagles Gang, who will get to keep all the gold the conspirators are transporting with the Macguffin seal.

14 Blades does not exactly break a lot of new wuxia ground, but the striking Yinchuan desert locations distinguishes it from the field. Kate Tsui (2004 Miss Hong Kong) also makes a memorable nemesis as Tuo Tuo, Prince Qing’s adopted daughter. Her serpentine lash is a fearsome weapon, but the way she sheds her apparently animated robes to disorient her opponents does not make much sense (nor is it done for purposes of titillation). She has the fight chops though, which is the important. When she and Qinglong finally go at it in earnest, their showdown does not disappoint.

In the Ip Man franchise and Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia), Donnie Yen proved he can be enormously charismatic and engaging on-screen, but he can also be a tad distant and aloof in lesser films. Frankly, it takes a while to warm to his icy Qinglong, but eventually he forges some nicely tragic romantic chemistry with (Vicki) Zhao Wei’s pure-hearted Qiao Hua. However, Wu Chun nearly upstages Yen as the bold and impulsive Judge. When Qinglong faces him and Tsui’s Tuo Tuo, the film really takes flight. However, it is also pleasing to see crafty veterans, like the late Wu Ma and the great Sammo Hung appearing as Qiao Yong and Prince Qing, respectively.

14 Blades boasts some spectacular action, exotic scenery, and a cautionary message about absolute power and its inevitable abuses. It might not be Yen’s best work, but he responds to the first class ensemble surrounding him. A quality wuxia production, 14 Blades is recommended for serious fans and casual viewers alike when it opens this Friday (8/22) in select theaters and also launches on TWC-Radius’s VOD platforms.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:55pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Many in the entertainment industry can relate to the frustration of undergoing therapy, only to find the underlying issue getting steadily worse—and therefore perhaps identify with Charlie McDowell’s feature directorial debut (a hit at Sundance, Tribeca, and Fantasia). In this case, his protagonist’s marriage continues to disintegrate, despite their couples counseling. As a last resort, they will spend a romantic weekend in a specially recommended resort home, but their getaway takes a strange turn in McDowell’s The One I Love, which opens this Friday in New York.

Ethan was already losing Sophie before his unspecified infidelity, but it has become a handy cudgel for her to wield. Nonetheless, she agreed to the counseling sessions that have thus far proved fruitless. Taking a different tack, their therapist refers them to an idyllic hideaway, where they can hopefully rekindle and reconnect. However, there is a genre film surprise in store for them there.

Although it comes relatively early, there is a general understanding the nature of TOIL’s big twist should not be spoiled. It is safe to say that guest house will rock their world. In terms of tone, McDowell’s film is sort of like to the more comedic installments of The Twilight Zone—think of Keenan Wynn in “A World of His Own,” except darker.

By accepting the unofficial ground rules, reviews of TOIL must be torturously vague at times. Frankly, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss give remarkably good performances, but it would be spoilery to explain why. Still, it is safe to say we can easily buy into them as a couple with some problematic history. Ted Danson (McDowell’s stepfather) also makes the most of his brief appearance as their mysterious therapist. In fact, TOIL was a real family affair, with McDowell’s mother, Mary Steenburgen contributing her voice as Ethan’s mother (heard via cell phone) and his famous significant other pseudonymously doing the costuming.

From "The One I Love."

Thanks to the way the leads sell its double-secret premise, TOIL works quite well as fantastical dramedy. The jokes (improvised and scripted) are quite clever and editor Jennifer Lilly cuts it all together impressively seamlessly (again, you have to see it, to understand what a feat this is).

You know when bacon plays a pivotal role in a movie there must be something good on tap. TOIL is indeed that film. Nicely executed by cast and crew, The One I Love is recommended for those looking for an anti-rom-com when it opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:54pm.

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By Joe Bendel. The Oseberg Viking ship was an extraordinary archaeological find. It remains one of the best preserved vessels, but it has not exactly boosted the reputation of Viking nautical engineering, considering two modern facsimiles have proved unseaworthy. Nevertheless, an absent-minded archaeologist is convinced the Oseberg ship ventured all the way up to Norway’s Finnmark region. He also believes they witnessed something that inspired the apocalyptic Norse myths, so naturally he drags his bratty kids along to investigate. They will definitely find something in Mikkel Brænne Sandemose’s Ragnarok, which launches on VOD today.

The Viking Ship Museum display of the Oseberg craft is quite dramatic. Unfortunately, the widower-father Sigurd Svendsen has essentially talked himself out of a job there with all his crazy theories. However, when his reckless co-worker Allan discovers a corroborating artifact, Svendsen packs up his petulant daughter Ragnhild and devoted son Brage to spend their summer vacation scouring for more runes in exciting Finnmark.

Naturally, Ragnhild is not too thrilled about these plans, but the spectacular scenery briefly shuts her up. They quickly meet up with Elizabeth, Allan’s “cool chick” colleague, and their hard drinking guide Leif, who is clearly just itching to yell “throw me the idol and I’ll throw you the whip.” There are headed towards Odin’s Eye, an island in the middle of former Soviet border outpost, where viewers know Queen Åsa’s father met with a painful death centuries ago in the prologue. Could there be some truth to the legend of the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr? That might explain why there’s a snake on the poster.

Frankly, one of the best things about Ragnarok is the setting. The suspiciously deserted Soviet military base is pretty creepy and the Odin’s Eye isle is worthy of a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie. Unfortunately, the creature effects are completely lacking the awe factor. Worse still is all the Svendsen family drama we have to sit through.

From "Ragnarok."

Apparently, Pål Sverre Hagen is Norway’s go-to actor for adventurous academics, following-up his portrayal of Thor Heyerdahl in the Oscar nominated Kon-Tiki with his turn as Svendsen. He is appealing earnest as the naïve archaeologist and he develops some pleasantly flirtatious chemistry with Sofia Helin’s hip and sporty Elizabeth. However, the kids are like fingernails on a blackboard.

Given the success of Marvel’s Thor franchise and History Channel’s Vikings, it is not surprising Norse mythology is getting a look-see from more filmmakers. Sandemose certainly proves fjords are strikingly cinematic, but he never fully capitalizes on the Ragnarok mythos or the Oseberg backstory. Instead, he concentrates on emulating the most annoying parts of Jurassic Park. There are moments of promise in Ragnarok, but it never comes together, at least not for reasonably adult audiences. Nevertheless, it is now available for Norse mythology fans to try on VOD from Magnolia/Magnet. It also opens theatrically next Friday (8/22) in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema.

LFM GRADE: C+

Posted on August 15th, 2014 at 12:14pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Can a director with only five full features sustain a documentary and a retrospective? In this case, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors alone should provide ample fodder for weeks of analysis. Yet, Carax himself remains a cipher, despite the efforts of Tessa Louise-Salomé to illuminate the mystery man and his films in Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax, which opens today at Film Forum as part of their Carax series now underway.

What sort of name is Leos Carax? “A real assumed” one he responds, when asked. Perhaps that is somewhat clarifying (it also happens to be an anagram of “Oscar” and “Alex”). The rest of his biography remains quite murky and that is not due to any clerical oversight on his part. Clearly, Louise- Salomé tries to capitalize on the intrigue of Carax’s mystique, but she never scores a meaningful peak behind the mask. Instead, Mr. X steadily morphs into a critical appreciation of the filmmaker’s small but rich body of work, led by his longtime champion, Richard Brody of The New Yorker.

At least Louise-Salomé maintains a Caraxian vibe, filming her talking heads amid evocative shadows and the flickering images of Carax’s films. Even Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa and actor Denis Lavant (widely considered Carax’s on-screen alter-ego) submit to her human movie screen treatment, but not the man himself, who is present solely via prior canned voiceovers.

From "Mr. X."

Those looking for tangible dish will be disappointed, but the initiated should enjoy seeing the cult auteur’s cult auteur get his cinematic laurels. Arguably the most intriguing sequences involve his near Waterloo, the dramatically over-budget Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but all his features are revisited at length, along with Merde, Carax’s contribution to the anthology film, Tokyo!, whose title character he would memorably revisit in Holy Motors (or Holy Moly Motors as some call it).

The gee-whiz enthusiasm for Carax shared by Louise- Salomé and her interview subjects (including Harmony Korine, Kylie Minogue, and Cannes Festival president Gilles Jacob) is appealing and Kaname Onoyama’s stylish cinematographer rather befits the subject. However, Mr. X never transcends its fannish devotion. Recommended mostly for the faithful binging on Carax, Mr. X: a Vision of Leos Carax opens today (8/15), in conjunction with the Film Forum’s Carax retrospective.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on August 15th, 2014 at 12:14pm.

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By Joe Bendel. There is a cult operating in the shadows of Connecticut’s well heeled neighborhoods. This is no mere meatheaded Ivy League secret society. They practice human sacrifice. Sadly, Tom Hawkins’ son was their latest victim. Understandably, the grieving father is not ready to forgive and forget in Gregory W. Friedle’s The Word, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Hawkins regularly brokers multi-million dollar deals for his firm, yet somehow his son Kevin was snatched right out from under his nose at the mall. Not surprisingly, the single father is suffering from crushing guilt, as well as rage and bereavement. He is a complete wreck, but he still agrees to take a meeting with the FBI, who inform him his son’s murder fits a pattern of ritualistic homicides throughout New England. There is most definitely a cult behind the killings, but they are organized in a highly regimented cell structure. However, they have successfully placed undercover agent David Richardson in a cell overseen by a mid-level cultist.

Bafflingly, that deep cover agent regularly attends meetings with Hawkins, the local detective on the case, and his no-nonsense handler, special agent Mike Sheehy. You might think that would be some sort of breach of protocol or security, but apparently not. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the plot, allowing Hawkins to stumble across Richardson acting far too familiar with his ostensive target.

As a thriller, The Word is kind of a train wreck, but it is not even clear it wants to be one. Essentially, the first half hour is dedicated to exploring the depths of Hawkins’ pain and grief. Arguably, this is what works best in the film, before it eventually shifts gears into a murky revenge-conspiracy melodrama, riddled with plot holes. Frankly, it is embarrassingly easy to tell who the secret cultist is, due to the limited cast of characters. Still, Friedle finds some compelling Nutmeg State locations, including Castle Craig near Meriden.

From "The Word."

To be fair, Kevin O’Donnell is not bad as Hawkins and the commanding Broadway vet James Naughton (Michael Frayn’s Democracy) truly looks and sounds like a Fed. Bernie McInerney also has a nice moment as Hawkins’ priest, but the rest of the ensemble comes across a bit awkwardly, to put it in diplomatic terms.

Since there is no ominous text or tract driving the evil doers, even The Word’s title is rather off. It is an earnest film that all parties involved fully committed to, but the inconsistent script doomed their efforts from the start. It feels mean to say it, because it is such a scrappy indie production, wearing its CT pride on its sleeve, but The Word just cannot be recommended. For indomitable Connecticut cinema boosters, it opens tomorrow (8/15) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

LFM GRADE: D+

Posted on August 14th, 2014 at 11:20am.

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