By Joe Bendel. Revenge is a family business for the characters of Lone Wolf and Cub. This is not exactly an official stage adaptation, but fans of the manga and films will recognize certain elements. The Rogue Assassin’s young Boy did indeed choose the sword over the ball. However, they might just meet their match in the form of the titular nemesis in Fred Ho & Ruth Margraff’s musical martial arts stage-production, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, which officially opened this weekend at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.
Once, the Rogue Assassin was the Shogun’s Kaishakunin, until the Imperial councilor, Iyagu of the ruthless Yagyu clan, convinced the old tyrant to turn against his loyal executioner. Iyagu’s assassins succeed in killing his wife, but the Shogun’s betrayed “second” escapes with his infant son. This proves to be a costly escapade. For ten years, the Rogue Assassin cuts through the Imperial assassins and ninjas like butter, depleting the Shogun’s treasury and undermining his ruling authority.
Rather sick of it all, the Shogun imports three super assassins from abroad, at considerable cost to Iyagu’s face. Not inclined to take matters lying down, the old conspirator plays his trump card, unleashing the She-Wolf Assassin. Raised from infancy to be Iyagu’s personal La Femme Nikita, her fate is mysteriously intertwined with that of the renegade father and son.
Much fighting ensues, impressively choreographed by lead actor Yoshi Amao for swords and Emanuel Brown (Electro in Broadway’s Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark) for martial arts beatdowns. The resulting spectacle is musically accompanied by the Afro Asian Music Ensemble, under the direction of conductor-multi-reed player Masaru Koga, performing Fred Ho’s funky Lone Wolf-inspired score. Incorporating elements of electric bass and baritone sax driven blaxploitation soundtracks and traditional koto and shakuhachi music, Ho’s themes are hip and propulsive, yet still fit the Jidaigeki action on-stage.
Unfortunately, Ho’s hardcore leftist ideology does not serve the story as well. Frankly, the Uncle Sam assassin caricature is just laughably didactic. A chicken fried colonialist, Colonel USA is hardly representative of the inward looking American foreign policy during the Edo era (1603-1868). Frankly, it is a bit of agitprop street theater that does not fit the otherwise dignified Noh-esque production.
Regardless, the stagecraft of She-Wolf is quite impressive. The lighting and smoke are suitably moody and the spare set is rather evocative. Likewise, the costumes provide the right period look without interfering with the fight choreography.
The cast holds up their end, too. Yoshio Amao is all kinds of brooding badness as the Rogue Assassin, but Ai Ikeda does him one better as the steely She-Wolf. Takemi Kitamura also shows some dramatic flair and action cred as She-Wolf’s sister (the most substantial of her three roles). As is standard practice, two young actors rotate as the Boy. Bradley Fong showed real presence in the part Sunday afternoon, never drowning amid all the stage effects and melee unleashed around him. (His alternate, Jet Yung is surely quite good, as well.) With Perry Yung’s Iyagu chewing the scenery with admirably villainous glee, it is a strong ensemble all around.
This is one of the better martial arts themed productions to grace New York’s independent stages in a fair amount of time and the music is always very cool. There are certain awkward excesses to She-Wolf, but that is sort of par for the course in New York’s theater world. Hopefully, Mr. Ho is happy with director Sonoko Kawahara’s muscular staging, considering the program’s sad note regarding his ill health. Recommended for martial arts fans and soul-world fusion jazz listeners, She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! runs through June 2nd at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.
Posted on May 20th, 2013 at 2:17pm.
By Joe Bendel. Who goes camping on a remote coastal Maine isle during the off-season? Psycho killers and their made-to-order victims, that’s who. There is nothing inherently wrong with a traditional slasher movie set-up, but the execution is decidedly problematic throughout Katie Aselton’s Black Rock, which opens today in New York.
Sarah has tricked her childhood friends Abby and Lou into joining her on a camping trip, in hopes that they will bury the hatchet. Years ago, Lou bedded Abby’s boyfriend. Still nurturing her resentment, the soon-to-be divorced Abby is not ready to forgive and forget. When they run into three hunters, the thoroughly annoyed Abby gets sloppy drunk and flirty with Derek, the alpha male, who rather misconstrues her attentions. This leads to all kinds of trouble.
When one of the sullen hunters tells the women what a hero Derek was in Iraq, no matter what they said at the court martial, we know what kind of movie we’re in for. Yes, that’s right, they are unhinged veterans. You might have thought the sleazy psycho Vietnam Vet exploitation film was an embarrassing relic of the 1970’s, but evidently Aselton and her husband-screenwriter Mark Duplass are determined to revive it. Yes, this is how the Duplass household would like to thank all our men and women in uniform: by suggesting they are an inch removed from Richard Speck. Really, you shouldn’t have.
Oddly, the first ten minutes or so show a flash of promise thanks to some caustically catty dialogue. That promise is short lived. By the time the bound women goad the craziest of the crazies into letting them go so they can hunt them down like real men, audience emotional detachment should reach one hundred percent. Nor does Rock have the guts to go all in with its gender-based victimization and retribution themes, a la I Spit on Your Grave. Instead, Aselton and Duplass basically follow the Most Dangerous Game template, chapter and uninspired verse.
To be fair, Kate Bosworth has some nice moments as the somewhat likably goofy Sarah. However, Aselton and Lake Bell largely blend together as Abby and Lou (or Lou and Abby). As their three antagonists, Jay Poulson, Will Bouvier, and Anselm Richardson never transcend their characters’ cookie-cutter stereotypes. Of course, they are not supposed to.
As a horror film, Black Rock is a bore. Yet, it has the potential to be something far worse. It is easy to see unsavory elements repurposing the exploitation flick to demonize American servicemen. After all, we know the Frankfurt terror attack was inspired by Brian De Palma’s Redacted and for weeks the administration blamed Benghazi on a YouTube video. A disappointment on every level, Black Rock is not recommended for anyone under any circumstances when it opens today (5/17) at the Village East.
LFM GRADE: F
Posted on May 17th, 2013 at 11:08am.
By Joe Bendel. It is hard to get around the symbolism of it all when a local village official deals a swift kick to a peasant’s family jewels. Technically, that is not considered proper behavior, but getting justice from the Party is a tricky undertaking. However, his pregnant wife is determined to extract an apology in Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju, which screens tomorrow as part of MoMA’s Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.
A Golden Lion award winner at Venice, Zhang adapted Chen Yuanbin’s novella with a documentarian’s eye for realistic detail—hence its inclusion in MoMA’s current retrospective. Following Qiu Ju’s quest for redress, her Story makes a fitting companion film to Zhao Liang’s Petition (also screening at MoMA), even though it is considerably more ironic and less harrowing. Regardless, justice was clearly an elusive proposition in 1990’s China (and remains so today).
During a stupid argument, Wang Shantang applied said kick to Qinglai. While problematic under any circumstances, injury to Qinglai’s reproductive organ carries far greater implications for the couple due to China’s population control policies. Should Qiu Ju miscarry, they could be permanently out of luck. Regardless, Wang is not apologizing, so Qiu Ju presses her case up the administrative ladder, with little support from the sulking Qinglai.
Needless to say, Chinese officialdom is rather inclined to circle the wagons around one of its own. There is indeed a pronounced Kafkaesque element to the film. Yet, Qiu Ju is no standard issue victim. Her indomitable spirit is rather ennobling, in marked contrast to the typically depressing protagonists of Sixth Generation social issue dramas and some of their Fifth Generation forebears. Likewise, there is an unusual gender reversal afoot, in which Qiu Ju trudges from town to city for the sake of her principles, while the emasculated Qinglai hobbles about their cottage.
In a radical change-up from her glamorous image, Gong Li (an outspoken critic of Chinese censorship) looks, sounds, and carries herself like an out-of-her-depth peasant woman. Yet, her Qiu Ju has a quiet fierceness and an affecting innocence that are unforgettable. Likewise, Kesheng Lei’s Wang makes a worthy antagonist. It is one of those slippery performances that are hard to either categorize or forget.
The Story of Qiu Ju is a significant film in Zhang’s canon and the development of Chinese cinema in the 1990’s. In a way it bridges the Fifth and Sixth Generations, despite its multi-award winning star turn from the still charismatic Gong Li. It certainly focuses a withering spotlight on contemporary China’s bureaucracy and legal system. Highly recommended for China watchers and Gong Li fans, The Story of Qiu Ju screens tomorrow night as part of MoMA’s Chinese Realities.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on May 16th, 2013 at 10:14am.
By Joe Bendel. There is a debate whether sponsor-a-child programs are truly beneficial or counterproductive. This film is more likely to confuse the issue rather than clarify it. Be that as it may, viewers looking for a good cry will probably find it in Pauline Chan’s 33 Postcards, which opens this Friday in New York.
Mei Mei (“Little Sister”) never really knew the parents who abandoned her at the orphanage. While she watched as many other girls were adopted, she always remained. At least she had one thing going for her: the Australian sponsor covering her school tuition. When the Orphanage choir books an Australian tour, she is excited to finally meet Dean Randall. Yet, for some strange reason he never responds to arrange a meeting.
Playing hokey, Mei Mei eventually tracks Randall down—in prison. It seems he is not a park ranger after all. On the bright side, he is up for parole soon, assuming he survives the prison protection racket. Being a trusting sort, Mei Mei falls in with Carl, the son of Randall’s old boss. Actually, he is not such a bad kid, but trouble is inevitable in their world.
While one might argue Postcards presents both the pluses and minuses of sponsorship programs, it pretty unequivocally suggests that the Australian prison system is ridiculously mismanaged. Regardless, it is impossible to root against the pure-of-heart Mei Mei. There is something about her earnest innocence that harkens back to China’s propaganda films of yore. Yet, Zhu Lin’s performance has such sincerity and charisma she will keep even the most jaded viewers totally invested throughout the film. It is a breakout turn that deservedly won her the Rising Star Award at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
Realizing there is no way he can outshine his young co-star, Guy Pearce doubles down on understated reserve. Nonetheless, they develop real chemistry together, even though their scenes together are largely confined to the prison visiting room. Unfortunately, as Randall’s public defender, Claudia Karvan (Padme’s elder sister in Revenge of the Sith) just stands around condescendingly, as if she is trying to decide if she really wants to be part of the movie or not. However, Lincoln Lewis (a great actor’s name) is kind of not bad as Carl.
Is 33 Postcards manipulative? Good gosh, yes, but the winning Zhu Lin carries it like a champion, while getting a quiet but effective assist from Pearce. Recommended for those who appreciate well executed sentimentality, 33 Postcards opens this Friday (5/17) in New York at the AMC Village 7 and is also available through Gravitas Ventures’ VOD platforms.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on May 15th, 2013 at 11:35am.
By Joe Bendel. Supposedly, Tito held Yugoslavia together as one big happy family. Nonetheless, a late 1970’s episode of ethnic-religious strife eventually causes unimaginable anguish for a Bosnian mother decades later. Her story, inspired by, but not directly based on a documented historical incident, vividly illustrates the painful legacy of war in Arsen Ostojić’s Halima’s Path, which screened last night as part of the narrative feature competition at the 2013 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.
Having lost her husband Salko and son Mirza during the war, Halima has been unable to complete the grieving process while their remains are still unaccounted for. However, a breakthrough appears to have been made. Her husband has been recovered. Perhaps her son will be, too. The international team just needs her DNA to match to her son, but she seems strangely reluctant to comply.
Flashing back to 1977, Safija is also in a very difficult position. She lives in a Muslim village and is pregnant with the child of Slavomir, a Christian boy from the nearest Serb village. Her father does not take the news well, beating her severely. After Slavomir violently intervenes, he is quickly dispatched to Germany, for fear of reprisals. He will return, though. Indeed, everyone’s lives will become knotted together in Halima’s bitter tale.
Given the wartime issues Path addresses, it is important to note that Ostojić is in fact a Croatian filmmaker, working with a Bosnian screenwriter, Fedja Isovic, and a Serbian co-producer. While most of the cast is either Croatian or Serbian, nearly all had family ties to Bosnia-Herzegovina (including Srpska, where the film has yet to screen, for obvious reasons). Yes, Isovic’s screenplay unambiguously depicts Bosnian-Serb war crimes. Yet ironically, during the first act, it is Serbian characters, most notably Slavomir’s father, who exemplify tolerance. Of course, war changes people and countries, as viewers see in dramatic terms.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Path as just another film about the war and its aftermath. While it is intimate in its focus, the substantial portion set in 1977 gives it a much wider historical scope. Nor does it rely on stock characters or simplistic moralizing. At its moments of reckoning, Path is most closely akin to classical tragedy in the Sophoclean tradition.
Perhaps more to the point, it also happens to be an excellent film, anchored by the devastating power of Alma Prica’s honest and dignified lead performance. It is remarkable, award caliber work. Sarajevo native Miraj Grbić (recognizable to some as Bogdan in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) also gives a finely nuanced performance as Halima’s brother-in-law, a character who suggests it is possible to become more humane with age, even after suffering the loss of loved ones.
Ostojić is best known for the black-and-white neo-noir A Wonderful Night in Split (co-starring Coolio), but with Path he drastically cranks down the auterist impulse, subordinating style to character and narrative. As a result, Path is visually lean and spare, communicating directly to receptive viewers. More commercial than film scouts have heretofore recognized, Halima’s Path has picked up numerous audience awards thus far. Strongly recommended, it was one of the clear highlights of this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.
LFM GRADE: A
[Editor's Note: Halima’s Path won the Golden Apple Audience Award at the festival.]
Posted on May 13th, 2013 at 11:32am.
By Joe Bendel. For the CIA, no good deed goes unpunished. When they finally take on a Hollywood-approved villain, it causes the violent destruction of their Belgian station. A former agency operative and his estranged daughter will have to figure out why in Philipp Stölz’s Erased, which opens this Friday in New York.
Ben Logan is a security consultant doing contract work for Halgate, a soulless multinational corporation. Unfortunately, he is too good at his job. After inadvertently uncovering something incriminating, Logan suddenly finds his office has been emptied, his bank account and email wiped clean, and his recent coworkers lying in the morgue as John Does. Only a timely bit of bad parenting saves Hogan and his daughter, Amy, sending them to the emergency room during that fateful night, instead of to their flat.
Logan does not know his daughter very well. He only assumed custody after the death of his ex-wife. Perhaps life on the run will help bring them together. However, he knows Anna Brandt only too well. He used to report directly to the corrupt CIA official—and he wasn’t working as a security analyst. He has “special” skills. That is why she will have to take charge of the manhunt personally.
Despite Brandt’s betrayal, Erased depicts the CIA in a reasonably positive light. As a policy, the agency is conscientiously working against the bad guys, rather than with them. Sure, Logan obviously worked for some kind of CIA hit squad, but based on the events that unfold, the agency seems to have a legit need for such specialists. Even Brandt has her moments down the stretch.
The fact that Brandt is played by Olga Kurylenko does not hurt, either. Smart and chic, she is more of a super-spy than a femme fatale, but she is always a worthy antagonist. Indeed, this might be Kurylenko’s year, following-up her starring role in Malick’s To the Wonder with a nice villainous turn. Some enterprising distributor ought to pick-up her powerful Chernobyl drama Land of Oblivion.
For his part, Aaron Eckhart makes a credible square-jawed hard-nose, carrying off his action scenes pretty well. As Amy, Liana Liberato is slightly less grating than she was in the clumsy Nic Cage vehicle Trespass. At least that constitutes progress. Unfortunately, Stars War alumnus Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter, sans moustache) largely phones it in as bland corporate baddy, James Halgate.
Erased (a.k.a. The Expatriate, a much cooler title) is indeed a bit of a departure from Stölz’s previous German language historical dramas, the so-so Young Goethe in Love and the superior North Face, but he shows surprising affinity for the material. Granted, screenwriter Arash Amel never cooks up anything truly new and different, but Stölz’s execution is polished and pacey. Not bad by B-movie standards, Erased opens this Friday (5/17) at the Village East and is already available through Radius-TWC’s VOD platforms.
LFM GRADE: C+
Posted on May 13th, 2013 at 11:30am.
By Joe Bendel. War is not conducive to stronger family values. It is not great for the economy, either. One Bosnian woman will struggle with both aspects of the war’s trying aftermath in Aida Begić’s Children of Sarajevo, which opens the 2013 Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York tonight at the Tribeca Cinemas.
Rahima and her younger brother Nehim are war orphans. Although they spent the better part of the war in separate orphanages, she has temporarily assumed custody. However, busy-body social workers constantly torment her with their condescending intrusions. Working semi-off the books in the kitchen of a mobbed-up restaurant, she is in a difficult position, made more difficult by Nehim’s behavioral issues. Things only get worse when he gets into a fight with a politician’s son.
Begić clearly establishes exactly how Rahima’s tribulations are fundamentally rooted in the recent war, without ever belaboring the point. Slowly, we learn that Nehim only started acting out in response to the mockery he faced at school when she began wearing the headscarf that she adopted as a source of solace. Similarly, we gradually come to understand the severity of Rahima’s post-traumatic stress as she goes about her daily routine.
“Routine” is the correct word. Children is a quiet, intimately observed drama that fully captures the monotony of Rahima’s struggle. We revisit the same stretch of her decaying urban environment, time and again. This might peel off some antsier viewers, but Begić fully captures the realities of life for marginalized survivors like Rahima.
As Rahima, Marija Pikić subtly conveys multitudes of anger and desperation, often relying solely on body language or a fleeting glance. When late in the third act when Rahima privately removes her headscarf, viewers will realize the truly chameleon-like nature of the striking Pikić’s performance. Ismar Gagula certainly makes a convincingly petulant teenager, but Nikola Đuričko leaves a more lasting impression as Tarik, Rahima’s would be suitor of ambiguous character.
Periodically, Begić eerily incorporates archival footage of the Siege of Sarajevo, underscoring the lingering influence of the war. Implying much, she relies on viewers to fill in considerable gaps, yet she methodically leads us into some very dark places. Although Children unquestionably qualifies as “art cinema,” it showcases some powerful work from Pikić and Begić. Recommended for adult attention spans, Children of Sarajevo screens as the feature part of Program 1, launching the 2013 BHFF tonight (5/9) in New York.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on May 9th, 2013 at 1:27pm.
By Joe Bendel. Cultural Exchange is a beautiful thing. A Muslim police officer will teach a mysterious American to wear a Batik to formal Indonesian affairs. He will return the favor by indoctrinating his reluctant by-the-book ally in the finer points of American buddy-action movies. Get ready to learn what’s good for you in Conor Allyn’s Java Heat, which screens ‘round about midnight this weekend at the IFC Center.
The Sultana was poised to succeed her father the Sultan as one of Java’s most influential and respected leaders. Unfortunately, she is killed by a suicide bomber. As viewers learn during Lt. Hashim’s interrogation, American Jake Travers was suspiciously close to the action—and he was not wearing his Batik. Hashim scolds the suspect that he ought to know better as a visiting Southeast Asian Studies scholar. “Art history,” Travers counters. Do not be surprised if this exchange is repeated maybe once or twice.
Of course, Travers is not really an academic and the terrorists are absolutely, positively not Muslims. Instead, the bad guy is Mickey Rourke, sporting the most bizarre, ethnically ambiguous accent you will ever want to hear. Give him credit, though – he maintains its impenetrable consistency.
Java is not what you would call subtle cinema. Father and son co-writer-co-producers Rob and Conor Allyn could have easily titled it “Muslims are not Terrorists: featuring Kellan Lutz’s abs.” Before long the term “doth protest too much” should echo through most viewers’ heads.
Still, there is stuff that works here. Ario Bayu totally delivers the intense cop-on-the-edge goods as Hashim. Likewise, Atiqah Hasiholan’s Sultana lends the film some classy charisma. Always a dependable spectacle, Rourke is truly a three-ring circus of villainy as the unclassifiable Malik. Even Lutz soldiers through relatively competently, exceeding expectations for a Twilight franchise alumnus.
Cinematographer Shane Daly gives it all a suitably mysterious sheen, particularly the climax at the great Borobudur temple. In general, the action sequences are credibly produced, if somewhat conventional. Frankly, Java Heat would be an impressively scrappy genre programmer if only it were not so determined to interrupt the flow with teaching moments. Recommended mostly for Rourke’s loyal fans (and God bless them), Java Heat begins a week of screenings tomorrow (5/10) at the IFC Center and is also available via IFC Midnight’s VOD platforms.
LFM GRADE: C
Posted on May 9th, 2013 at 1:26pm.
By Joe Bendel. Chris is the Charles Kuralt from Hell. He is determined to show his new girlfriend the British roadside attractions he adores, like the Keswick Pencil Museum—and woe unto those who despoil their tourist experience. They will pay dearly in Ben Wheatley’s macabre comedy Sightseers, which opens this Friday in New York.
The British call redheads like Chris “gingers.” Think of him as a Ginger Baker, except slightly more stable. This road trip together will be an important step for Tina’s efforts to break away from her mother’s domination. She is also mourning her recently deceased little yapping dog. Chris wants everything to be just right for her, so the loutish behavior of a fellow tram museum visitor brings out the worst in him.
Chris plays off his first murder as an innocent accident. However, Tina soon becomes an active accomplice in his killing spree. Before long, things are completely out of hand. It all adds quite the new wrinkle to their relationship.
Sightseers could safely be described as a dark comedy. If you are totally fine with the desensitizing violence of Nicolás López’s Aftershock, but would prefer a more cartoonish presentation, this film is in your power zone. Based on the comedy act developed by co-writer-co-leads Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, Sightseers is not shy about mining laughs from grisly terrain. In fact, the tone is much lighter than Wheatley previous film, Kill List, despite the superior body count. Nonetheless, the murderous everyday banality of Chris and Tina is in keeping with the themes and vibe of his prior work.
As Chris and Tina, Oram and Lowe offer an object lesson in comedy as psychological therapy. Oram deftly plays off serial killer archetypes while also showing a facility for physical comedy. Yet, it is Lowe who really taps into deep, disturbing places. They are funny, but you have to wonder about their childhoods.
Essentially, Sightseers is Two for the Road remade with Misery’s Annie Wilkes and a far less dapper Hannibal Lector. To their credit, Oram and Lowe keep one-upping the madness, so it never feels like the same gruesome joke repeats over and over again. Gleefully misanthropic, Sightseers definitely delivers the cult movie goods. Recommended accordingly, it opens tomorrow (5/10) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on May 9th, 2013 at 1:25pm.
By Joe Bendel. When they became sister cities, Verona and Ningbo (in east Zhejiang province) exchanged statues of Romeo & Juliet and Zhu Yanzhi & Liang Zhongshan, popularly known as the Butterfly Lovers. While the comparison between the two star-crossed couples was always apt, Jingle Ma cranks up the Shakespearean elements in The Assassin’s Blade, his romantic adaptation of Butterfly Lovers legend, which releases today on DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA.
Zhu has always led a sheltered life, but she longs to see the world. Suddenly she will have a bit of an opportunity. She is to study with the Soul Ease martial arts clan in a retreat high in the mountains. The order does not accept women, so she will have to pass as a man. Only her father’s old friend, Soul Ease’s healing practitioner, Herbal Head, knows her secret. Although they start off on the wrong foot, she soon forms a close bond with “Big Brother” Liang, the master’s top student.
It is all particularly confusing for him, given his inability to see through her clever disguise. Yet, viewers fully realize that they are predestined for each other, having appeared in each other dreams for years (though always seen from behind and slightly out of focus). Just when they start to get somewhere, her childhood friend “Brother” Ma Wencai appears to take Zhu home where news of their arranged marriage awaits. That’s just not going to work, especially considering Ma’s rather ruthless approach to love and war.
The first half of Blade channels Shakespeare’s comedies, particularly Twelfth Night’s cross-dressing romance. The pendulum swings to tragedy during the second half, directly invoking Romeo & Juliet. There is even a mysterious little McGuffin causing no end of complications. There was a time when Hollywood had a golden touch with romantic weepers, but these days Hong Kong and Chinese wuxia epics hold the overwhelming competitive advantage. Blade is a perfect example. Though viewers will suspect how it all must end, the film keeps us hoping otherwise – and audiences will likely be thoroughly satisfied by the poetic closing. It also delivers some pretty impressive swordplay, emphasizing the human weaknesses of the combatants -instead of making them nearly invulnerable supermen.
It is darn hard to believe that anyone could confuse Charlene Choi with a man. Regardless, as Zhu she is both vivacious and sincere. Wu Chun broods like mad opposite her and brings sufficient credibility to his action duties. Unfortunately, Hu Ge’s Brother Ma’s in-betweenness makes him too merciless to identify with, but too pathetic to cheer for his downfall.
While director Ma (perhaps best known as the cinematographer on some of Jackie Chan’s best known films) emphasizes the tale’s high literary tragedy, he keeps the pacing brisk and the action muscular. It all has a classy look in the tradition of Zhang Yimou epics that should appeal to fans of historical romance as much as martial arts fanatics. Recommended to general audiences as a thin edge of the wuxia wedge, The Assassin’s Blade (a.k.a. The Butterfly Lovers) is now available for home viewing from Well Go USA.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on May 7th, 2013 at 2:16pm.
By Joe Bendel. A film ought to be just long enough to tell its story. While Hollywood has not conditioned audiences to think of short films as star vehicles, the better ones have much more power than a padded feature. In fact, several big name filmmakers found twenty minutes was about the right length to tell some important stories. As a result, those who follow the international festival scene will be particularly interested in a number of the short films selected for the 2013 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.
As an Academy Award winner, Danis Tanović is truly a filmmaker of international stature. A past alumnus of the festival with Cirkus Columbia, Tanović again revisits the Bosnian War and its painful aftermath. Amir survived the war, ultimately settling in Scandinavia. He has returned to Bosnia hoping to recover his parents’ remains, but sadly, reports of their discovery prove false. Revisiting his former hometown, he comes face to face with the war’s flesh-and-blood ghosts.
Not only is Baggage is more visually dynamic than Cirkus (thanks in part to cinematographer Erol Zubcevic’s stylish work), it taps into far deeper emotions. Despite his grim subject matter, Tanović portrays both sides of human nature, producing an unusually resonant film (that might just overshadow the feature it precedes).
The man known to friends as Zizi is no celebrity. He is a good-natured everyman, whose nickname is untranslatable in a family outlet such as this. Director Nedžad Begović however, also made the international festival rounds with Jasmina, another past BHFF selection. His simply but aptly titled documentary profile Zizi allows his subject to tell his story, through his own words and anecdotes. Zizi proudly proclaims his love for Italy, where he was sheltered as a teenager, but he returned to help forge a new Bosnia. Even more than Baggage, Zizi is a hopeful film—a quality that has sometimes been in short supply at previous festivals, for understandable reasons.
Ante Novaković has certainly worked behind the scenes of dozens of films viewers know quite well. For The Fix he also recruited a familiar face, Armand Assante, who portrays Vincent, a gangster kingpin nobody wants to have a sit-down with. Unfortunately, two incompetent thugs will have to have the big talk. Fix is not a groundbreaker, but it is entertaining. It is especially nice to see that Assante, Mike Hammer in 1982’s I, the Jury, can still bring his tough guy thing.
BHFF has a strong track record for programming shorts, but this year’s slate is especially notable. Very highly recommended, Tanović’s Baggage screens this Friday (5/10) with Krivina (a bit of a tougher sell) as part of Block #3. Upbeat and likable, Zizi screens later that same evening, as part of block #4. Perhaps the most commercial and accessible selection of any length, The Fix screens this Thursday (5/9) as part of Block #2. As always, BHFF is always one of the City’s friendliest and most welcoming festivals, showcasing some of the most serious and sensitively rendered films. Recommended as the cure for a Tribeca hangover, this year’s edition gets underway Thursday at the Tribeca Cinemas.
Posted on May 7th, 2013 at 2:13pm.
By Joe Bendel. The cultural elite sure can get randy. Some of England’s greatest opera stars have come to perform in a high paying vanity production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, but the real action happens after rehearsals in Christopher Menaul’s 1st Night, which opened yesterday in New York.
The fabulously wealthy Adam plans to show his shallow social circle he can truly sing opera with a special command performance at his country estate. Secretly, though, he really intends to use the production as a means of wooing Celia, a conductor he has long carried a torch for. Naturally, through a contrived misunderstanding, he concludes she is not as available as he hoped. In a sour mood, he makes a caddish bet with the social climbing tenor Tom regarding the soprano, Nicoletta. Of course, when the leads start falling for each other, the bet hangs over their romance like Damocles sword.
Meanwhile, fellow diva Tamsin is having dysfunctional issues with her husband, the director – while Debbie, a budding star, goes all D.H. Lawrence, toying with the earnest young groundskeeper’s affections. There will be assignations in the forest and all kinds of comedy of errors, but don’t worry, the show will go on.
After Luciano Pavarotti’s notorious Yes, Giorgio, it took almost thirty years for someone to cast another opera singer in a musical comedy. Some purists might say Sarah is too crossover-pop, but it seems strange regardless to watch her in a largely non-singing part. Still, she is reasonably spirited scolding and flirting with Richard E. Grant’s Adam. Grant basically falls back on his standard British Fraser Crane tool kit, but there is a reason that persona has worked so well for him.
Poor Emma Williams endures numerous embarrassments as Tamsin, while Oliver Dimsdale fares little better as her predictably problematic husband. For their part, Mia Maestro and Julien Ovenden look distinctly uncomfortable trying to pull off Nicoletta and Tom’s Moonlighting style courtship. At least Susannah Fielding adds some decorative value as Debbie and Nigel Lindsay exudes likability as the gay featured tenor Martin, which is frankly what 1st Night most aspires to.
1st Night (formerly First Night) is not terribly ambitious, largely content to parade some lovely scenery and an attractive cast past viewers. Of course, the music is great too, even if the singing is conspicuously dubbed. In a way, it is a lot like Quartet, except its characters are all hale and hearty (which precludes any cheap heart-string tugging). A distracting trifle, 1st Night opened yesterday (5/3) in New York at the Quad Cinema and is also available of VOD platforms.
LFM GRADE: C
Posted on May 4th, 2013 at 12:46pm.