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By Joe Bendel. Oddly, nobody actually says the word “Beatles” in their first movie. It’s not like anyone needed to. It was clearly emblazoned across Ringo’s bass drum. Of course, just about everyone knew who they were. Beatlemania was already a full-fledged phenomenon that would be even further stoked with the initial release of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Digitally restored by Janus Films in time for its fiftieth anniversary, Lester’s iconic introduction to the band re-releases this Friday at New York’s Film Forum.

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If you are still trying to figure out if the four lads from Liverpool were mods or rockers, you will not get a straight answer in AHDN, but that is all part of its charm. Instead, the Beatles just sort of be themselves as they gracefully deal with the challenges of superstardom, while trying to keep Paul’s grandfather out of trouble (his other grandfather). They run from hordes of screaming fans, play sound-checks, accidentally get arrested, and generally riff off each other. It is all still breezy fun fifty years later thanks to the wit and easy charm of Alun Owens’ screenplay and the Beatles themselves.

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Looking back at AHDN, it is remarkable how profoundly it shaped our perceptions of the Beatles’ personas: George is the cerebral one, John is the snarky one, Paul is a bit of a pushover, and Ringo is a goof. It also established a deceptively easy formula that has proved exceedingly difficult to emulate, as a host of meet the band box-office duds proved (Spice World, anyone?). To be fair, it is hard to compete with enduring original songs like the title smash hit, “All My Loving,” “And I Love Her,” “I Should Have Known Better,” and “She Loves You.”

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Lester and the Fab Four also had a not-so-secret weapon in veteran comedic character actor Wilfrid Brambell, who was then nearly as recognizable as the Beatles from his leading role in the hit sitcom Steptoe and Son (remade in America as Sanford and Son). He has a way of mugging that seems rather dryly amusing. He also demonstrates perfect timing playing off the Lads. Likewise, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans do a Mutt-and-Jeff routine as characters based on the Beatles’ personal assistant and road manager that nicely balances broad rubber-faced comedy with a kind of hyper-real sense of what it must have been like to ride the Beatles whirlwind.

AHDN provides a time-capsule of mid-1960s London, where you could buy milk from vending machines and television broadcasts involve transistors and dials. Yet, it still feels fresh and unspoiled. It is rather mind-boggling to suggest this, but AHDN would be a fine way for parents to introduce their children to the Beatles, because despite their mischievous inclinations, they essentially come across as good kids. More importantly, it is just funny in a good-hearted way and rocks (innocently and politely). It is a true classic that looks and sounds great after Janus’s careful 4K restoration. Highly recommended for any serious film lover, A Hard Day’s Night opens this Friday (7/4) at Film Forum.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on July 1st, 2014 at 11:50pm.

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By Joe Bendel. The conquest of Mt. Everest is considered the final crowning achievement of the British Empire, but it was successfully completed by a New Zealander and a Nepali (or possibly Tibetan) Sherpa. It was a nearly impossible climb with early 1950s gear – that was further complicated by the odd logistical error here and there. However, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were part of a generation that refused to substitute excuses for success. The story of their summiting is recounted and recreated in Leanne Pooley’s 3D documentary Beyond the Edge, which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Before Hillary joined Colonel John Hunt’s 1953 expedition, the Everest statistics told a grim tale: “thirteen deaths and no summits.” Hillary, an unassuming bee-keeper, was one of only two New Zealanders in Hunt’s party, but he truly looked like a mountaineer. He also had the skills and the drive to for the final push. Unlike most of his Sherpa colleagues, Tenzing Norgay also had a climber’s ambition to summit—and summit first. Like good Survivor contestants, they sized each other up, recognized their compatibilities, and formed an alliance. Soon they were a team, hustling to establish a path through the dreaded icefall to impress Hunt.

Yes, there will be setbacks and complications. One of the strangest aspects of Beyond is the way its vocabulary more often evokes horror films than National Geographic specials. There are references to the “Death Zone” immediately below the summit and the “stench of death” asserting itself even before that stage. Nevertheless, Beyond is visually awe-inspiring. The 3D adds depth, but is not absolutely necessary—the spectacle of the Himalayas does not need punching-up. For her hybrid approach, Pooley seamlessly integrated restored 16mm color footage shot by the Hunt expedition with dramatic recreations mostly filmed in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Just watching the immersive visuals will make viewers feel chilly and light-headed.

There is also plenty of expert commentary in Beyond, but Pooley eschews the traditional talking head approach, opting instead for disembodied voice-overs, sort of like Room 237, except her professionals are insightful and experienced Everest veterans rather than cracked eccentrics. The enthusiastic participation of Hillary’s mountaineering son Peter and Tenzing Norgay’s son Norbu Tenzing also adds apostolic credibility.

Mountain climbing sequences used to be where movies went to die (MST3K’s “rock climbing” riffs for Lost Continent pretty much said it all), but documentaries somehow managed to crack that nut. Like Nick Ryan’s K2 doc The Summit before it, Beyond is tight, tense, and very cinematic. Yet, instead of a tragic cautionary tale of reckless overreach, Pooley’s film celebrates courage, ambition, and sheer will power. No mere Discovery Channel special, it is much more dramatic and entertaining than you would expect. Highly recommended for sporty audiences, Beyond the Edge opens this Friday (7/4) in New York at the IFC Center.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on July 1st, 2014 at 11:45pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Real massage therapists have anatomical and physiological training to rival doctors, but it remains a widely misunderstood profession. Perhaps in hopes of separating the therapeutic and sensual connotations, it has been one of the few avenues of employment traditionally open to the blind in China. The so-called “doctors” of such a Nanjing clinic are highly skilled, but also deeply human. Their lives will connect and conflict in Lou Ye’s ensemble drama Blind Massage (clip above), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

The staff is blind, but the patients are entirely sighted, at least as far as we know. That itself is a role reversal. The Sha Zongqi Massage Centre is run by the gregarious Sha Fuming and his reserved partner, Zhang Zongqi, who always try to place new therapists in need of work. Their latest two recruits come with issues. Sullen Xiao Ma gradually lost his sight during his early teen years and has yet to come to terms with his blindness. In contrast, Dr. Wang had once amassed a sizable nest egg, but he lost it all during the financial crisis, forcing him to ask his old friend Sha for a job.

The relationships between staff members will become complicated, like a Chinese massage version of ER. Xiao Ma will be recklessly attracted to Dr. Wang’s partial sighted fiancée Kong, before developing a full-on obsession for local (fully sighted) prostitute Xiao Man. Despite Xiao Ma’s frequent brothel patronage, his beautiful colleague Du Hong nurses an attraction to him, while rebuffing the advances of the desperately lonely Sha.

About a dozen other characters factor into the mix somehow. Frankly, Blind Massage is a bit unwieldy with subplots, but it is hard to say where to cut, because they each work on their own terms. The film was adapted by Lou’s documentary filmmaker wife Ma Yingli from Bei Feiyu’s novel that has already been produced as a multi-part television drama—and it is easy to imagine these characters working in a telenovela format.

However, Lou’s approach is distinctly cinematic, approaching the experimental. His past films have directly raised issues of perception (particularly last year’s NYAFF selection, Mystery), but he takes it in a different direction during Blind Massage, visibly reducing the light and softening the focus during scenes driven by blind characters and reverting to standard levels for sequences involving sighted characters or expository housekeeping. He also employs a narrator to read the unseen credits and provide background information on characters, evoking the experience of enhanced visual descriptions.

Blind Massage captures the arbitrary unfairness of life in vivid terms, but that also offers an opportunity for unlikely cast-members to shine. As a case in point, Guo Xiaodong’s Dr. Wang seems rather unassuming, until blowing the doors off the joint in a confrontation with loan sharks dogging his irresponsible, sighted younger brother. It is a scene and a performance worthy of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

From "Blind Massage."

Mei Ting also pulls the emotional rug out from under us, as the ostensibly standoffish, Du Hong. She resents the fuss made by her colleagues (especially Sha) over the beauty they can never see, yet experiences some of the film’s greatest heartsickness.

On its face, Blind Massage is totally apolitical, but You is still pushing boundaries with its uncomfortable intimacy and matter-of-fact description of contemporary Chinese life for any sort of underdog population. It seems downright tame by our standards, but considering the Puritanism of Communist censors, many scenes represent no small risk to You’s standing. Yet, they are never gratuitous, well serving the characters’ emotional development at crucial junctures. Despite a bit of narrative messiness, it is an engrossing film that pulls viewers into the lives on screen in a vivid, ambitiously experiential way. Recommended for mature audiences, Blind Massage screens Wednesday (7/2) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on July 1st, 2014 at 11:40pm.

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From "No Man’s Land."

By Joe Bendel. Dennis Weaver only had one psycho-semi to deal with in Duel. There are multiple parties of angry rustics-on-wheels out to drive Pan Xiao off the road—permanently. Of course, he sort of has it coming. He’s an attorney. Only the law of the jungle applies on this lonely stretch of Gobi Desert highway, but at least there is a socially redeeming coda tacked on to satisfy Chinese censors. Nevertheless, audiences can see most of the dark beast that is Ning Hao’s long delayed No Man’s Land when it screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

The hot shot big city attorney has come to represent Lao Da, a falcon poacher accused of murder. Of course, we know he is guilty, because we have seen the prologue. Nevertheless, Pan Xiao gets him off with a little Billy Flynn razzle dazzle. This was no mere charity case. Pan Xiao expects to get paid, so when Lao Da balks at ponying up cash on the barrelhead, the lawyer takes possession of his client’s shiny new Mustang instead. He really should have just used his return ticket on the train.

In fact, the counselor has been played by the poacher, who stashed a cache of falcons in the car and has a henchman waiting to waylay Pan Xiao. It is a good plan, but it did not anticipate the long-haul truckers the mouthpiece tangles with on his way out of town. Posing as a broken down motorist, Lao Da’s accomplice Lao Er is supposed to ambush the attorney once he has pulled over, but due to a cracked windshield, he plows over the his would-be assailant. Not knowing Lao Er’s intentions, Pan Xiao now believes he has a body to dispose of. However, stopping by a remote price-gauging gas station only makes matters worse, particularly when their trafficked lap dancer, Li Yuxin, looks to Pan Xiao to be her rescuer.

That takes us about twenty minutes into the film. From there, things get very brutish, violent, and complicated. Nearly everyone wants to kill Pan Xiao and the cops are ready to assume the worst about him, after their embarrassment in court. Nonetheless, it is hard to see what activated the state censors’ schoolmarm reflexes, except maybe the pervasive nihilistic violence. Could they really be so concerned about the image of the legal profession or are they reluctant to admit the lurid truth regarding falcon poaching?

From "No Man’s Land."

After it was liberated from the vault, No Man’s Land set the Chinese box-office on fire, largely thanks to the presence of two stars from Lost in Thailand. Xu Zheng’s characters just do not travel well, but he plumbs hitherto unseen dark places as Pan Xiao. He is not a standard issue victim, by any stretch, but he cannot out-fierce steely Tibetan actor Duobujie’s Lao Da. Yu Nan (the only under-40 cast member of The Expendables 2) also adds some heat and a human touch as Li.

Even the approved-happy-happy cut of No Man’s Land is totally in-yer-face stuff, but we can only wait and hope for a straight no chaser director’s cut to trickle out. Regardless, it is hard to beat action director’s Bruce Law’s car-crashing survivalist mayhem. Highly recommended for genre fans who take their coffee black, No Man’s Land screened yesterday (7/1) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on July 1st, 2014 at 11:35pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Sure, a three hour baseball movie might sound like bizarre overkill, but it is still considerably brisker than many of Al Leiter’s outings for the Mets (we’re all fans here, by the way). It is long, but this scrappy underdog story of tolerance and resilience generally makes good use of its time. Taiwanese and Japanese players will indeed come together on the diamond in Umin Boya’s Kano, the centerpiece selection of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which screens Sunday, so forget that World Cup noise.

Despite the spectacular revolt dramatized in co-writer-producer Wei Te-sheng’s Warriors of the Rainbow: Sediq Bale, Japan has consolidated its imperialist hold on Taiwan. Despite the increasing (but unequal) economic ties between the two countries, Taiwan is not where the Japanese go when their careers are on the way up. However, for tightly wound account Hyotaro Kondo, it represents a chance to start over following a vaguely defined public humiliation. Yet, against his better judgment, Kondo soon volunteers to coach the Kagi Agriculture and Forestry Public School’s high school baseball team (called Kano for short).

It was Kondo’s intense coaching style that led to so much grief in Japan, but he has never had a team like this. For one thing, it is an ethnically mixed squad, consisting not just of Japanese and Taiwanese players, but aboriginal and Chinese students as well. They also receive next to no material support from their school. Still, Akira Go, the kid on the mound, has a monster arm. Everyone scoffs when Kondo vows to take the team to Koshien, Japan’s national high school tournament, especially given their ‘O-fer record, but guess what happens next year.

Despite its incontrovertible status as a sports movie, Kano neatly sidesteps a number of the genre clichés. The big game will duly choke you up, but in a far more satisfying way than you expect. Coach Kondo even says there is no crying in baseball, but good luck with that.

Masatoshi Nagase is truly the coach of all movie coaches as the strict but fiercely loyal Kondo. He commands the screen just like Kondo commands his players, but when he lets his softy paternal side peak through, it is always heavy. Oddly, perhaps the most distinctive supporting turn amongst the players is actually Ken Aoki as rival pitcher Hiromi Joshiya, whose trip to see Kano’s dirt playing field for himself while on leave from the Imperial Army supplies the film’s framing device. British based Japanese actor Togo Igawa also adds a note of gruff dignity as Kondo’s former mentor, Coach Sato.

From "Kano."

Production designer Makoto Asano’s recreation of 1931 provincial Taiwan looks so real you can practically taste the mud and thatch. It is a high quality period production and probably the most epic baseball movie ever thanks to cinematographer Chin Ting-chang’s sweeping, wide screen visuals. Yet, the on-field camaraderie is not simply a good lesson in sportsmanship. It looks like a conscious attempt at Taiwanese-Japanese rapprochement , strategically coming at a time of high Mainland saber rattling (and frankly that is probably not a bad impulse to act on).

Happily, Kano does not feel like it runs anywhere near its three hours, but there is no getting around the generous helpings of baseball. As great as Nagase is, Kano’s appeal will probably be limited to fans of the game (which includes just about everyone in Taiwan judging from its domestic box-office). Earnest, entertaining, and appealingly old fashioned, Kano is recommended for lovers of baseball and those who follow Japanese and Taiwanese cinema when it screens Sunday evening (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as the centerpiece of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on June 29th, 2014 at 12:14am.

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By Joe Bendel. Eight-Faced Buddha is the Al Sharpton of Thai drug lords. That ridiculous coif should be sufficient grounds to throw his butt in jail. However, he also has an extensive body count to his credit and a massive wave of heroin headed towards Hong Kong. The only thing standing in its way is an extremely tired undercover cop, his handler, and their boss and mutual boyhood chum. Their friendship will be severely strained in Benny Chan’s action conflagration The White Storm, which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

So Kin-chau is due for some R&R with his very pregnant wife, but Chief Inspector Ma Ho-tin keeps sending him out for one more sting. They were supposed to finally bust his longtime target Black Chai, but when Ma learns the trafficker has a deal in the works with Eight-Faced, So must engineer a last minute escape for the both of them. So reluctantly goes deep undercover with Black Chai – with only Ma, their third Musketeer Cheung Chi-wai, and another honest HK colleague for back-up.

Frankly, the boundary between cops and criminals in Thailand is rather porous. Ma and his colleagues have to go rogue just to foil the crooked cops trying to rat out So. Unfortunately, when Ma’s game-changing operation goes wrong, it goes massively, cinematically wrong. It will fatally sabotage his career and plague his conscience for years, until a big twist suggests his guilt might be a tad misplaced.

From "The White Storm."

There is nothing subtle about White Storm. It is all about projectile explosions and brooding, but it truly delivers some awesome over-the-top action spectacle. Nothing is off the table including a romance with Eight-Faced’s transgendered daughter, Mina Wei. Arguably, that is the most sensitively rendered element of this delirious gun-down. Evidently, Nick Cheung’s steamy publicity photo shoot with the transgender beauty queen Treechada “Poyd” Malayaporn raised quite a few eyebrows in HK, so mission accomplished.

In fact, all three big name leads are in fine form throughout. Louis Koo’s So slow burns like nobody’s business, while Sean Lau Ching-wan compellingly portrays Ma’s rapid descent from hot shot to a self-loathing shell of a man. However, Cheung takes viewers on the wildest character arc as his rapidly evolving namesake. Vithaya Pansringarm, who stole just about every scene in Only God Forgives, also turns up, playing a far more ethically ambiguous cop, but he is criminally under-employed.

While White Storm indulges in quite a bit of Thai exoticism, Chan never strays too far from an old school hail of bullets. Its super-charged energy level and tragic sensibilities follow in the tradition of some of the best HK action films. Highly recommended for fans of Hong Kong Cinema and the big name cast, The White Storm screens tomorrow (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on June 29th, 2014 at 12:09pm.

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