By Joe Bendel. This is not the Long Island of Ed Burns movies. As everyone should remember from high school English class, East Egg is where the old money elite are ensconced and West Egg is where the nouveau riche frolic the nights away. They are so close, yet so far away. This is still the case in Baz Luhrmann’s brassy 3D adaptation of Fitzgerald’s moody classic, The Great Gatsby, which opens across the country today.
Mystery man Jay Gatsby throws extravagant parties in his West Egg mansion in hopes his old flame will someday wander in. Daisy Buchanan now lives with her husband, Tom, an old moneyed philandering bully. Gatsby hopes her nebbish cousin Nick Carraway, living in the hobbit cottage next to his estate, will help him woo her back. A lot of drinking ensues as the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s faded billboard look down on man’s folly. At least it’s a heck of a party.
Let’s be frank, Luhrmann is a West Egg filmmaker if ever there was one. Once again he empties his kit bag of ostentatious razzle dazzle, anachronistic music, and a singular fusion of pop culture irony with syrupy melodrama. To his estimable credit, Luhrmann never tries to crank up the novel’s modern “relevancy.” Gatsby and his gangster associate Meyer Wolfshiem are not reconceived as sub-prime lenders, nor do any characters’ untimely deaths coincide with the 1929 stock market crash.
Instead, Luhrmann is the sort of director who might step on the set and proclaim: “you know what this scene needs? More dancing flappers.” To an extent, we should all be able to buy into that. You can dismiss Luhrmann’s style as shtick, because it is, but it is his shtick. However, on some level, he still has to hold together a narrative and guide his cast. The latter is rather problematic, starting at the top.
Aside from his gloriously over the top entrance, set to the crescendo of Rhapsody in Blue, Leonardo DiCaprio is profoundly wrong as Gatsby. This is the great Byronic brooder of proper upstanding American literature, but you would hardly know it here. Chipper and shallow, DiCaprio’s Gatsby is like the Gatsby Gatsby always wanted to be. This is rather disastrous given Luhrmann’s surprising faithfulness to Fitzgerald’s storyline.
Perhaps even more head-scratching is the choice of Carey Mulligan to play Daisy Buchanan, especially considering her eerie resemblance to DiCaprio. Is Luhrmann offering a subversive commentary on the characters’ narcissism when they stare into their beloved’s eyes and see themselves reflected back? Or is it just a case of careless casting? Regardless, it is quite creepy to watch them rekindling their romance. Far from a femme fatale, her Buchanan is just plain mousy.
On the other hand, poor Tobey Maguire has been taking it in the shins from critics, but his “gee whiz” persona is perfectly suited to Nick Carraway. Likewise, many were thrown for a loop by the announcement that the great Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan would play Wolfshiem, but that voice could sell anything. Next time, let’s make him Gatsby.
Who would have been better suited for the title role? Seriously, how about Robert Downey, Jr.? Take into account the similarities between Tony Stark and Jay Gatsby: both are conspicuous consumers and relentless re-inventers. They have rather ambiguous wartime experiences and are smitten with ghostly pale blondes. Of course, we can instantly believe Downey has been to some very dark places. DiCaprio, not so much.
For his next project, Luhrmann ought to do a legitimate Busby Berkeley musical. His big, sprawling musical bacchanals really are a lot of fun to behold. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is sabotaged by the inappropriate leads and a complete abandonment of the novel’s dreamy ambiguity. Big and loud, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is what you would expect, never transcending the Moulin Rouge! template. For those who want to see Fitzgerald this way, it is now playing pretty much everywhere with a movie screen, including at the Regal Union Square in New York.
LFM GRADE: C+
Posted on May 10th, 2013 at 10:26am.
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. When natural disasters strike, the social order often breaks down. Nevertheless, one still suspects the aftermath of a devastating earthquake would be more “orderly” if that evil old villain Pinochet were still in charge. Whatever the case, hedonism turns to anarchy in Nicolás López’s Aftershock (trailer here), produced by co-star Eli Roth, which opens this Friday in New York.
When Ariel calls his friend Gringo, it is meant with affection. Not so much with Pollo. he American tourist puts up with it, though, because the privileged Pollo knows a lot of women. Hooking up with three hot foreign ones, they head off for a weekend of partying in the coastal town of Valparaíso. Monica, the responsible one (just like in Friends) is not so sure it is a good idea, but nobody wants to listen to her.
That night in the club, a massive quake hits. Just making their way to the street is an ordeal. Suddenly, it is dog eat dog on the streets. Pollo’s connections mean nothing to the escaped prisoners roaming the city, but he is the only one of the group who speaks Spanish. Do not get too attached to any character as they scramble to survive.
Essentially, López applies Roth’s aesthetics to an Irwin Allen-style disaster movie, reveling in the resulting death and destruction. While Aftershock is not appointed with the customary horror movie trappings, it definitely follows in the midnight movie tradition. To López’s credit, he delivers exactly what he promises. Aside from Roth’s surprisingly likable Gringo, it is hard to expend much sympathy for characters as they charge into the meat-grinder, but the one-darned-thing-after-another mechanics of it all are a spectacle to behold.
Roth’s everyman Gringo nicely serves as the audience’s forthright entry point into the madness and fellow standout Nicolás Martinéz is appropriately loud and annoying as the entitled Pollo. Andrea Osvárt also finds some resiliency in Monica, but the other women are more decorative than memorable. Aftershock also boasts a supposedly surprise cameo appearance from a teen star developing a more adult persona. Though it is more or less an open secret, it is rather insubstantial gimmick and not the reason to see Aftershock.
If you want to see self-absorbed partiers pay for their sins, then Aftershock is your huckleberry. Sure, there is plenty of collateral damage, but that is how Roth and López roll. For those looking for a dose of bloody cinematic mayhem, Aftershock fits the bill. Recommended for cult movie veterans, Aftershock opens this Friday (5/10) in New York.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on May 7th, 2013 at 2:14pm.
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. It looks like shepherding and dung collecting are the only forms of work available in tiny Xi Yang Tang village. Yet, somehow ten year old Yingying seems to do more than her fair share. The eldest of three sisters, she very definitely lives in the Other China, far removed from go-go Shanghai and the meddling Communist Party policy makers. Wang Bing documents six months of their hardscrabble existence in the simply titled Three Sisters, which opens this Friday at the Anthology Film Archives.
As the eldest, Yingying naturally assumes responsibility for her younger siblings: six year old Zhenzhen and four year old Fenfen. Their mother deserted long ago and their father is often absent, fruitlessly looking for work in the nearest urban center. Aside from meals served by a resentful aunt, they practically live like Dickensian street urchins.
Eventually, Yingying’s grandfather asserts his patriarchal authority. Believing he has arranged work for his recently returned son, he decides the two youngest will leave with their father in the city and Yingying will live with him in the village. She will go to school and he will pay her pocket money for her work in the fields. Initially, this looks like a good opportunity for her, both in terms of socialization and future opportunities. However, it soon becomes clear that tending the flock takes precedence over her studies. The results are heartbreaking.
Frankly, she ought to be subject to child labor laws, but she lives in rural China. For obvious reasons, Wang never places political considerations front and center. Yet, the implications are conspicuously obvious and explicitly stated at the annual feast Yingying attends with her grandfather. It is there that the village headman explains that the national government is intent on collecting the health insurance premiums they cannot afford. They are also determined to continue with euphemistically titled “rural development” programs to replace the villagers’ current mud-floored homes with prohibitively expensive new units. They’re from the party—they’re here to help.
Audiences of Three Sisters are guaranteed to feel maddeningly helpless. Yingying is a good kid who deserves better than her lot in life, but what can viewers do? This is China, the new global superpower, to whom our elected leaders have largely mortgaged our own futures. Nonetheless, Wang’s expose of shocking rural inequality is thorough and compelling.
Three Sisters unquestionable serves as an indictment of the government’s unfilled promises, but as a work of cinema it is profoundly intimate. Granted, patrons accustomed to multiplex fare will find the quiet pace and two and a half hour running time challenging. Yet, the simple power of Yingying’s story ought to hit anyone of good conscience on a deeply human level. Recommended for China watchers looking for a stiff shot of reality, Three Sisters opens this Friday (5/10) in New York at the Anthology Film Archives.
LFM GRADE: A-
Posted on May 6th, 2013 at 8:58pm.
By Joe Bendel. Although the ukulele is descended from Portuguese instruments, Japan has long been the instrument’s second home outside Hawaii. Likewise, Japan had always been an important market for the fifth generation Japanese Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. Filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura documents Shimabukuro’s post-2011 Japanese tour and other career highlights in his profile Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, which airs on PBS this Friday.
Shimabukuro was a shy kid who was understandably troubled by his parents’ divorce. He did not have a privileged upbringing, so it is hard to begrudge the good fortune he experienced early in his career. As a mere teen, Shimabukuro established a following, fronting a Hawaiian fusion band. He struggled a bit at the start of his solo act, but a video of Shimabukuro performing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (posted without the musician’s knowledge) became one of YouTube’s first viral sensations.
From that point on, Shimabukuro became the reigning king of ukulele crossover-breakouts. While not jazz per se, he incorporates extensive jazz and rock influences. It would be interesting to hear him play a session with Lyle Ritz, the original jazz ukulele player, especially considering Shimabukuro’s knowledge and respect for his instrument’s history. In fact, Strings often shows Shimabukuro acting as an educational ambassador—like a Wynton Marsalis of the ukulele.
When dark clouds gather in the third act, Shimabukuro is not directly affected. However, as a native of Sendai, his loyal longtime manager is deeply distressed by damage and tragedy left in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake. Shimabukuro does his part, performing for displaced survivors, while remaining all too conscious that there is only so much his spirit-raising efforts can do.
Indeed, throughout Strings, Shimabukuro never falls into any shallow celebrity traps. If that makes him sound likably boring, at least his music is dynamic and vivid. Nakamura showcases his performances well. Of course, his famous Central Park Beatles rendition is included, but the film’s defacto theme “Blue Roses Falling” is actually a more interesting piece. Frequent festival patrons and Indy Lens viewers might be more familiar with Shimabukuro’s music than they realize. He composed music for Hula Girls (set in the hardscrabble Fukushima prefecture) and some of his tunes were licensed for Debbie Lum’s Seeking Asian Female.
Essentially, Strings paints a portrait of a nice guy, with a nice story, performing some impressive music. However, the third act carries a bit of emotional heft. Recommended for open ears, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings has its national broadcast this Friday (5/10) on most PBS outlets (following a special presentation on Hawaii’s PBS station this past March).
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on May 6th, 2013 at 8:57pm.
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.
By Joe Bendel. A sailor is never particularly comfortable on land, even under the best circumstances. As a result, they are decidedly unsuited to dealing with system-rigging gangsters, or at least such was the case for one boy’s father in the hybrid short film A Grand Canal, which screens during the 2013 Columbia University Film Festival, an annual showcase for Columbia MFA students’ thesis films and screenplays.
The narrator tells us his father resembled and sounded like Chinese pop singer Liu Huan. Singing Liu’s signature tunes was one of the captain’s few pleasures that did not involve navigating the rivers and canals near their provincial port town. Largely an absentee father, his young son still idolizes him. Unfortunately, when the local “boss” refuses to pay an invoice, it jeopardizes his father’s small fleet.
One of the biggest surprises of Canal is the way it becomes a meditation on the healing potential of art (especially cinema). Ma frequently upends audience expectations, playing ironic games with the flashback structure. Yet, it never feels showy or excessively hipsterish. In fact, it is quite touching, in good measure due to a remarkable lead performance from Mei Song Shun, who delivers dignity and gravitas in spades. He can also sing.
Although Canal is set some twenty or so years in the past, its story remains quite timely as China struggles with increasingly predatory manifestations of crony-capitalism (within an avowed socialist system, which is quite the trick). It is quite an impressive looking production and a completely absorbing film. Highly recommended, A Grand Canal will doubtlessly intrigue China watchers but also resonate as a paternal drama. It screens tomorrow (5/4) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of Program C at this year’s Columbia University Film Festival. Southern Californians should also note details on the 2013 Los Angeles edition of the fest will be announced shortly.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on Posted on May 4th, 2013 at 12:46pm.
By Joe Bendel. This must have been a hard pitch. One would suspect Henry James’ novel of narcissistic, self absorbed parents of privilege would hit close to home for many decision-makers working in the movie business (studio or indie, it hardly matters anymore). Yet somehow, the poor little rich girl will indeed wrestle with her parental issues in Scott McGehee & David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew, which opens tomorrow in New York.
Beale and Susanna are Maisie’s parents, if we can really use that word. He is a dodgy art dealer and she is an over-the-hill rock star angling for a comeback. Both are more interested in their careers than their daughter. When they think of Maisie, it is mostly as a potential club to bludgeon each other with during their divorce proceedings.
Since he is able to present a more stable front, Beale wins considerable custody rights. However, this is not all bad. He is also taking her nanny Margo as his trophy wife. She actually cares about Maisie, willingly giving her the time and attention she cannot get from her parents. Meanwhile, Susanna marries the working class Lincoln, apparently to have a live-in sitter for Maisie. Like Margo, he quickly develops a paternal affection for his step-daughter that the ragingly insecure Susanna perversely resents. Hmm, does anybody see the potential building blocks of a more functional family unit in here somewhere?
Poor Mrs. Wix. Maisie’s frumpy second nanny really gets the shaft from screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright’s adaptation. While the James novel rebukes the shallow indulgence he considered endemic in society, McGehee and Siegel’s WMK seems to suggest blonds make better parents. The proceedings are also marked by a heightened class consciousness, with the nanny and bartender showing superior character than Maisie’s privileged biological parents.
Regardless of what James might think of his novel modernized and transported to New York, McGehee and Siegel have an unbeatable trump card in their young lead. As Maisie, Onata Aprile is completely unaffected and wholly engaging. She covers a wide emotional spectrum, carrying the audience every step of the way.
Likewise, Joanna Vanderham is charismatic and surprisingly vulnerable as Margo, while Alexander Skarsgård’s understated nice guy Lincoln is likable enough. Julianne Moore labors valiantly to humanize the self-centered and psychologically erratic Susanna, but Steve Coogan is largely stuck playing a caricatured straw-man as the arrogant Beale.
Maisie’s cast and co-director definitely stack the deck, but at least they do it thoroughly and compellingly. Viewers will absolutely care about the bright and precociously self-aware Maisie, which is the acid test for any film focused on a young protagonist. The upscale New York locations also add a dash of élan. Anchored by several well turned performances, What Maisie Knew is surprisingly satisfying. Recommended kind of affectionately for fans of literary melodrama, it opens tomorrow (5/3) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on May 2nd, 2013 at 11:31am.