By Joe Bendel. Eolomea is sort of like utopia or Erehwon, except it really might exist—maybe. It is one of the great debates of Prof. Maria Scholl’s age, but she is more concerned with the recent rash of vanished cargo ships. As she pursues her investigation, she will need the help of her summer fling in Hermann Zschoche’s Eolomea, which screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center new series, Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi.

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In a case of rotten timing, yet another space freighter loses contact with space station Margot just as Scholl is giving her report to the UN-like council of interplanetary busybodies. Strangely, her toughest critic, Prof. Oli Tal, seems to know all the details already, including the presence of his daughter on the latest missing vessel.

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Tal was not always such a bureaucratic boor. He was once a hotshot flight officer, who was keen to initiate an expedition to Eolomea. Unfortunately, he could never entirely prove its existence, so no mission was ever authorized. Ironically, Tal becomes one of Scholl’s friendlier associates, as she diplomatically probes him for the truth. At least, he will meet her for lovely picnics and a spot of witty repartee. Still, he is no substitute for Dan Lagny, the disgruntled moonbase crewmember, whom she met during a recent seaside holiday. Although Lagny wanted to resign (and perhaps pursue a serious relationship with Scholl), he is too talented for Scholl to approve his release. Indeed, she will be quite glad to rendezvous with him when she lights off to Margot herself.

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Of the major science fiction films produced by the East German studio DEFA, Eolomea is the critical redheaded stepchild, but it is really the best of the lot. Frankly, its withering depiction of a risk-averse bureaucracy stifling space exploration feels more John Galt than Erich Honecker (but perhaps the space station was a hat tip to his wife Margot). It also presents a rather crummy, dysfunctional vision of the future, not so very different from the GDR’s crummy, dysfunctional socialist present.

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Yet, in subtle ways, it portrays how mankind has yet to emotionally acclimate to the interstellar age. This is particularly acute in the case of Pilot Kun, Lagny’s grizzled old comrade. Surprisingly, Eolomea is quite touching, serving as an elegy to the relationships and connections that were ultimately not meant to be.

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From "Eolomea."

As Scholl, Dutch actress Cox Habbema carries the film with grace, smartly playing off Rolf Hoppe’s Tal and Ivan Andonov’s Lagny. Hoppe (seen in Volker Schlöndorff’s English language Palmetto and a raft of German television productions) is a standout as the exasperating but charming Tal, while Vsevolod Sanayev nicely embodies the film’s increasingly confused human element as old Kun.

Arguably, Eolomea is a deceptively simple story, but it captures the romantic spirit of space exploration. Fans will also appreciate Günther Fischer’s groovy soundtrack, which sounds more in keeping with some of its trippier DEFA counterparts. Granted, the over abundance of temporal shifts is counterproductive, but it still has a unique vibe that sticks with you weeks after watching it. Recommended as the class of DEFA science fiction, Eolomea screens this Saturday night (8/23) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Strange Lands.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:57pm.

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By Joe Bendel. K2 is a challenge to summit, but as recent films have documented, getting back down is even more treacherous. However, merely reaching the mountain’s base requires a determined effort from climbers, before they ever set their first piton. Viewers will get a full perspective on the 8,000 meter mountaineering experience in Dave Ohlson’s K2: Siren of the Himalayas, which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1909, the Duke of Abruzzi led an expedition to K2. Although they did not ultimately summit the second highest peak on Earth, their experiences were invaluable for future attempts, much as the Italian nobleman hoped. One hundred years later, alpinist Fabrizio Zangrilli (of Boulder, Colorado) led his intrepid party to K2. Of course, they were fully aware of the Duke’s historic campaign, but the tragic events of the previous year preoccupied their thoughts considerably more.

In a sense, K2 is an independent sequel to Nick Ryan’s The Summit, which reconstructed the murky events that led to the deaths of eleven climbers in August, 2008. Zangrilli knew some of them. It is a small world in his line of work. Yet, he attacked K2 just the same, along with Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the future National Geographic Explorer of the Year, who was then still working on her goal to become the first woman to scale all fourteen 8,000 meters without artificial oxygen.

Ohlson captured some dramatic visuals, but arguably the most mind-blowing shots in the film are not of K2, but the ridiculously unsafe mountain highways Zangrilli’s group had to traverse just to reach Concordia, the gateway to K2 and three other 8,000 meters. Getting there is a trek in itself, with Pakistan’s regional instabilities adding additional danger.

From "K2: Siren of the Himalayas."

Periodically, Ohlson intersperses footage of Zangrilli, Kaltenbrunner, and company with Vittorio Sella’s incredible photographs of the Abruzzi expedition. It gives viewers a good sense of the mountaineering tradition. More importantly, Ohlson uses Zangrilli’s example to redefine a successful 8,000 meter attempt. Clearly, Zangrilli is a great sportsman, but he had yet to summit K2. However, he had foregone perfect opportunities to carry down an ailing colleague. Instead, a successful K2 team leader brings his entire party safely off the mountain. After all, several climbers summitted during the fateful 2008 incident.

Evidently, we are witnessing a golden age of mountaineering documentaries. K2 follows hard on the heels of The Summit and Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge, all of which are quite good, but in different ways. K2’s strengths are the wider contexts it provides, as well as some insight into the bonding that happens between fellow alpinists. Mountain climbing does not look like much fun in The Summit, but we come to understand why Zangrilli and his colleagues do it after watching Ohlson’s footage and interview segments. Recommended with equal enthusiasm for sporting audiences, K2 Siren of the Himalayas opens this Friday (8/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on August 19th, 2014 at 1:57pm.

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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.

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.

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.

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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