J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sundance ’17: Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower

A teenager should not feel personally responsible for saving his homeland’s values and way of life, but this is the role Joshua Wong has voluntarily assumed. As the founder of the student activist society Scholarism, Wong has challenged the Mainland Communist Party’s plans to impose Party indoctrination in Hong Kong schools and its relentless efforts to undermine the “One China Two Systems” promise of HK democracy. Viewers will see what genuine democracy protests look like and how perilously high the stakes can in Joe Piscatella’s documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

To promote obedience, the Education Bureau of Hong Kong proposed, at the Mainland Party’s behest, the ominous sounding Moral and National Education (MNE) curriculum, which was essentially Communist propaganda combined with criticisms of democratic forms of government. In response, the not quite fifteen-year-old Wong founded Scholarism and began coordinating a campaign of protests and outreach. Rather remarkably, the Mainland’s dedicated servant HK Chief Executive CY Leung gave a bit of ground, making the MNE curriculum voluntary, at each school’s discretion.

Ironically, the partial MNE victory may have given Wong and Scholarism too much faith the Mainland’s political puppets would listen to reason when presented with the overwhelming will of the people. Tragically, that would not be the case during the 2014 Umbrella Protests.

To say the Western media’s coverage of the 2014 demonstrations was inadequate would be a gross understatement. Frankly, Piscatella’s documentary is crucially valuable just for its lucid step-by-step chronicle of the Umbrella movement—so named because the demonstrators (the vast majority of whom were high school and college students) deployed umbrellas to combat police tear gas. For 79 days, the students hung tough—and when the police shock troops started using military-style tactics against them, the normally rail-thin Wong launched a dangerous hunger strike.

As in Chan Tze-woon’s more verite (but equally valuable) Yellowing, the one thing that immediately strikes viewers of Teenager is just how shockingly young Wong and his Scholarism colleagues look. Both films will make you wish you could travel back in time to the Admiralty and Mong Kok to protect them. What is nearly as significant in Teenager is how explicitly and ardently Wong and his classmates identify as Hong Kongers, not Chinese.

Piscatella follows a pretty standard documentary playbook, utilizing media footage and talking head interviews. However, many of his commentators are unusually insightful and honest in their analysis, such as the journalist who describes the current Beijing-Leung strategy as the shrinkage of One China-Two Systems to One China-1.9 Systems and then to 1.8 Systems, and so on.

Even though everyone really ought to know how the Umbrella Demonstrations turned out, viewers will still get caught up in Teenager’s narrative. It is a highly compelling, emotionally involving film by any standards. There is no false optimism, but Piscatella leaves the audience with some hope, once Wong explains how he and his fellow activists have learned from the mistakes of 2014. If you want to protest, protest Xi Jinping and CY Leung (frankly, this film could very well be why the festival was hacked). If you want to see a great doc, make every effort to see Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower when it screens again this afternoon (1/22) in Salt Lake and Wednesday (1/25) and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Slamdance ’17: Dave Made a Maze

You could almost appreciate it as a masterwork of outsider art, if it were not so lethal. Rather, inconveniently, it happens to be right smack dab in the middle of Dave and Annie’s living room. When the latter returns from a business trip, she discovers the former has been lost inside for three days. She and an oddball group of friends discover it is bizarrely cavernous inside, sort of like the Tardis, but with booby traps. DIY constructionism takes a weirdly fantastical turn in Bill Watterson’s Dave Built a Maze (trailer here), which premiered during the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival.

Don’t call it a maze—it’s a labyrinth. Hence, there must be traps and yes, a minotaur. Dave did not create those per se. His cardboard Escher-like construction just took on a life of its own. Much to Annie’s frustration, he will not let her simply cut into it. He has too much pride in his creation. It could also be catastrophically dangerous given the structure’s instability. The exasperated Annie calls in his friend Gordon as back-up. Unfortunately, the scene soon turns into a circus. Eventually, she just heads into its cave like entrance, with whoever cares to tag along. However, things get real in a hurry when several of their more expendable friends are quickly killed off.

It is hard to fairly convey a sense of the film’s tone. You would never call it cutesy or quirky, nor is it dark or moody. One might start with Michel Gondry and Edgar Wright as reference points, but they are still not quite right. Regardless, Maze is wildly inventive and slyly funny, featuring some absolutely incredible cardboard set designs. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner, along with art director Jeff White deserve standing ovations for what they have realized (presumably on a not-so extravagant budget).

There is also plenty of snappy, archly sarcastic dialogue, delivered with pitch-perfect aplomb by Adam Busch and James Urbaniuk (a.k.a. Ned Rifle), as Gordon and Harry the aspiring documentarian, respectively. Nick Thune’s titular Dave is necessarily a bit off a sad sack, but Meera Rohit Kumbhani’s Annie just lights up the screen with her smart, grounded, star-making presence.

Frankly, it is kind of shocking how well Maze works. There is nothing twee about it, especially not the tripped-out animated sequences. It is all kind of nuts, but it adheres to its own system of illogic. Very highly recommended for cult film fans, Dave Made a Maze screens again tomorrow (1/23), as part of this year’s Slamdance in Park City.

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Sundance ’17: Free and Easy

Zhang Zhiyong is a soap salesman just like Ryan O’Neal sold Bibles in Paper Moon and Robert Preston sold musical instruments in The Music Man, except his con is even more predatory. The blighted Northern provincial town is no River City, but trouble is coming just the same in Jun Geng’s Free and Easy, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Here is how it works: Zhang Zhiyong blows into town and introduces himself to a bystander, offering him a free sample of a bar of scented soap. When the mark sniffs it, he falls unconscious, allowing Zhang to lift his wallet and valuables. At least that is how it is supposed to work. Christian convert Gu Benben is so congested he does not keel over like the other two men he was proselytizing. Actually, the Christian evangelism is just an excuse to hand out flyers for his decades-missing mother. Xu Gang, the phony dispossessed monk does not inhale either, but when the fumes from the freebie finally fell him, Zhang finds he has nothing worth stealing.

Soon word of Zhang and his knockout soap reach the local constabulary, but instead of hunting the con man, corrupt copper Zhang Xun tries to use the soap on Zhang’s new pretty landlady, Chen Jing, but she wants absolutely nothing from or to do with him. Her husband Xue Baohe understandably resents Zhang Xun’s pursuit of his wife, but he has other problems distracting him. Some person or persons unknown has been harvesting the trees he has been planting along the highway as part of a rare re-forestation campaign, thereby putting his own position in considerable jeopardy.

Granted, Zhang Zhiyong and Xu Gang might not be perfect, but there is no question Zhang Xun is the scummiest villain in F&E, which is well in keeping with popular attitudes towards the People’s Police. It also continues a recent mini-boomlet of Fargo-like socially conscious Chinese provincial noirs, such as Zhang Bingjian’s North By Northeast, Cao Baoping’s Cock and Bull, and Xin Yukun’s deliciously devious A Coffin in the Mountain. Jun Geng keeps piling one darned thing after another on his weary cads, but the style and tone of F&E is much more restrained.

Regardless, the ensemble is aces all around, especially Zhang Zhiyong, who raises stone cold flintiness to an art form as his namesake (apparently, that is a self-referential thing for many of the principles). Xue Baohe probably pulls off the most surprises as the formerly cringe-inducing forester Xue. Xu Gang gives the film further complicating human dimensions as Xu Gang the impostor monk, who seems to feel a need to live up to the role he has fraudulently assumed.

F&E is a vermouth-dry comedy that casts a cynical, bloodshot eye on contemporary Chinese society. The cops are the worst, but there is no shortage of grifters looking to pull a fast one. Although it is a bit slower than you might expect, F&E is still smart and archly funny. Recommended for fans of con artist movies and Chinese cinema, Free and Easy screens again today (1/22) in Salt Lake and tomorrow (1/23), Thursday (1/26), and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’17: My Life as a Zucchini

They have big heads and even bigger problems. They might be stop-motion animated figures, but they understand they are too old for adoption to be a practical possibility. Instead, they will have to make the best of things in Claude Barras’s My Life as a Zucchini (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

If nothing else, Barras teaches us “courgette” is the French word for zucchini. Nine-year-old Icare prefers his rather odd vegetable nickname, for a host of complicated reasons. That was what his drunken mother used to call him, before Zucchini accidentally killed her in an instinctive act of self-preservation. Since his father has long-absconded, he is remanded to an orphanage, where his preferred moniker will draw the bullying attention of Simon, a longtime resident. Why yes, Zucchini has been picked up by GKIDS, why do you ask?

For a while, things look decidedly Dickensian for Zucchini. However, Raymond, the kindly policeman who worked his mother’s case, periodically drops by to check on him. Life takes a turn for the better when the spirited Camille moves into the home (following her parents’ murder-suicide). He takes an instant liking to her and it seems to be mutual. However, unlike the other children, she wishes to stay in the foster home rather than moving in with her shrewish, exploitative aunt.

Obviously, Zucchini/Courgette is not your typical merchandising-friendly animated film. Adapted from Gilles Paris’s YA novel (which is reportedly even more naturalistic than the film), Barras and screenwriter Céline Sciamma (a prominent French filmmaker in her own right) are dealing frankly and forthrightly with some serious subject matter. They do so in a way that will make young viewers appreciate not being talked down to and have animation fans admiring the way they stretch the dramatic use of the art form.

Clearly, Zucchini was a labor of love for Barras and his design team, because all the sets, backdrops, and costumes have been crafted with extraordinary care. As grim as things get, there is something about the look of the orphanage that inspires hope. Ultimately, the narrative also gives viewers a bittersweet glow. This review is based on the original French language dialogue track, which features some unusually sensitive vocal performances, particularly Michel Vuillermoz as Raymond the copper, so the English dub cast better not screw it up. In fact, it sounds downright terrific thanks to Swiss jazz-crossover musician Sophie Hunger’s lightly grooving soundtrack.

At just under seventy minutes (FYI, with a short stinger midway through the closing credits), Zucchini stirs quite a few emotions in a relatively short span of time. Rather deservedly, it already has a reputation as the little-film-that-could, having secured a Golden Globe animation nomination and a spot on the best foreign language Oscar shortlist. Indeed, just about anyone should respond to its deep humanistic embrace. Very highly recommended, My Life as a Zucchini screens again this afternoon (1/22) and this coming Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sundance ’17: Person to Person

Forget seven degrees of separation. In indie movies, New Yorkers are only separated by two or three degrees. Therefore, paths are bound to intersect. Mercifully, Dustin Guy Defa does not belabor the near-missed connections and tangential relationships in the day-in-the-lives of interconnected New Yorkers. Still, there is apparently no better city to be hip and dumb, judging from Defa’s Person to Person, a feature riff on his similarly titled short film, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Real life Red Hook record store owner Bene Coopersmith is the interesting exception to everything above. His namesake Bene is a likable record collector (aren’t we all?), who has a line on a rare Charlie Parker record. However, when the seller has passes off a knock-off, Bene pursues the villain for the sake of justice for all vinyl junkies.

Meanwhile, Bene’s temporary roommate Ray must figure out a way to apologize to his probably ex-girlfriend for posting naked pictures of her on the internet. Good luck with that one. Across town, Phil, a bottom-feeding tabloid reporter is trying to train Claire in the practice of unethical journalism. They are working the case of a suspicious widow, who left her late husband watch to be repaired at Jimmy’s shop, earning him visits from the police and the reluctant Claire. To round out another day of sun in New York, we periodically check in with the sexually ambiguous Wendy, who might somehow be attracted to the best pal of her roommate’s boyfriend, who just so happens to be a guy.

On one hand, we want to give Defa credit for namechecking Parker and including some of his music on the generally terrific soundtrack. Yet, it sort of nags at us that it is not so true to the jazz record collecting experience. Everybody respects Bird’s artistry, but his records are not particularly collectible, because even in his day, they pressed considerable quantities. It would have been more realistic if the con involved a rare mono Blue Note.

Regardless, Coopersmith has boundless energy and an air of sincerity that is quite refreshing. His scenes have plenty of vigor and zip. In contrast, as Phil the “journalist,” Michael Cera basically amalgamates and exaggerates all the annoying shtick of his previous neurotic characters. Crafty Philip Baker Hall adds much needed gravitas as Jimmy the watch repairman and Tavi Gevinson is also surprisingly intriguing as Wendy, even though her story arc is the least developed.

Arguably, Person to Person the feature demonstrates why Defa is so well regarded for his short films (several of which also feature Coopersmith as Bene). There are some finely rendered discrete moments, but the whole is uneven and off-balance. Mostly endurable and largely inoffensive, Person to Person screens again this afternoon (1/21), Thursday (1/26), and Friday (1/27) in Park City and Tuesday (1/24) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’17: The Nile Hilton Incident

It is now the Nile Ritz-Carlton, but management could still do without this kind of product placement—just like the New York Sofitel probably wasn’t particularly eager to see the Dominique Strauss-Kahn movie. Regardless, the location couldn’t be better: Nile views right on Tahrir Square. Repercussions from a murder committed behind the hotel’s closed doors will ultimately spill out into the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Incident is “based” on the 2008 murder of Lebanese Suzanne Tamim, the winner of a Pan-Arab Pop Idol contest, like hundreds of Law & Order episodes were “ripped from the headlines.” The Ritz-Carlton would probably like to point out Tamim was actually murdered in Dubai, but a close ally of the Mubarak administration was indeed arrested for the crime. In this case, the late Lalena was a night club performer who maybe turned a few tricks on the side to survive. Rather inconveniently, one of her popular Tunisian colleagues starts making noise at the station, as if she could find justice there.

Col. Noredin will be the investigating officer, which should not inspire a heck of a lot of confidence, since we first meet him making the police department’s protection money pick-ups. Clearly, his commander (who also happens to be his uncle) expects Noredin to sweep it all under the rug. However, when he starts going through the motions of an investigation, he quickly links a wealthy business leader and parliament member to the crime. Evidently, a Sudanese maid saw it all, but she is understandably making herself scarce.

There are considerable merits to Incident, starting with its stylish look and the strikingly seedy back alley locations. However, the general narrative arc harbors few surprises. Believe it or not, it turns out privilege has its privileges. On the other hand, even though historians might object, the way Saleh conflates the Tamim/Lalena murder with the Tahrir Square protests is quite effective.

Fares Fares (from the Department Q trilogy) is all kinds of intense as the self-loathing Noredin. You can practically see the steam coming out of his nostrils. Slimane Dazi is also chillingly soulless as his quarry. Yet, the greatest attraction for many viewers will be the nocturnal tour of Cairo’s streets, bars, and opium dens.

You can hear echoes of Chinatown throughout the film, but it is worlds removed from Saleh’s best known film in America, Metropia, the Tribeca-distributed dystopian animated feature. Good but too predictable to be great, The Nile Hilton Incident screens tonight (1/21), tomorrow (1/22), Thursday (1/26), and Saturday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’17: Colossal

You have never seen a kaiju movie like this before. For one thing, it is the city of Seoul that gets devastated over and over again, rather than Tokyo. In addition, two small town losers might somehow bear some responsibility for the carnage. Rest assured, alcohol is most definitely involved in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

The hard-partying, unemployed Gloria assumed she would be a New Yorker for life until her exasperated boyfriend Tim evicts her from his tony apartment. Rather depressingly, Gloria is forced to crash on the floor of her family’s old provincial home, where she has not lived in since elementary school. However, good old torch-carrying Oscar still recognizes his long-time crush and offers her a job at his bar. Obviously, this is a problematic source of employment for her, but Gloria still is not ready to grow up and be responsible.

One late afternoon-early evening, Gloria wakes up to news reports of a giant kaiju terrorizing Seoul. A few days later, the monster returns to wreak more havoc. Coincidentally, both rampages coincide with all-night benders that stretched into the not-so early morning—8:05 AM to be precise. Realizing the connection, Gloria starts to sober up. However, when she drags Oscar and the town’s Norm and Cliff to witness her power via the internet an Ultraman-like giant robot suddenly also appears.

Like a good Nacho Vigalondo film, Colossal takes a dark turn around the midway point, but it is always deeply rooted in human flaws and weaknesses. Frankly, Vigalondo is really building on the themes and symbolism of classical tragedy—we all remember “jealousy is the green-eyed monster,” right? Yet, the film has an appealingly grungy feel.

Vigalondo also showcases Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis like you have never seen them before. In this case, Sudeikis, the former Saturday Night Live cast-member is actually funny, but he also convincingly veers into Jack Torrance territory during the third act. However, Hathaway gives a tour de force performance as the boozy self-sabotaging Gloria. Forget Les Mis. Forget Rachel Getting Married. This is the film that really shows her range.

Without question, this is the most intimate, character-driven kaiju film you will ever hope to see. It is often addresses emotional issues with brutal honesty, but it is also a ton of fun. Once again, it reconfirms Vigalondo is one of the best (and least predictable) genre filmmakers working today. Very highly recommended, Colossal screens again tonight (1/21) and tomorrow night (1/22) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’17: Plastic China

In China, they recycle plastic, but throwaway lives. It is the leading importer of plastic waste from the West, but education is a luxury dependent on factors like family income and geography. The savage inequalities of contemporary China are inescapably evident in the Shandong recycling plant, whose routines and travails are captured in Wang Jiu-liang’s Plastic China (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

What you discard might end up in Kun’s struggling recycling plant. The owner labors like a mule, but his employee Peng mostly comes across like a lazy drunk. Frankly, Peng’s ten-year-old daughter Yi-jie has a much greater work ethic. She seems to have assumed most of the family’s childcare duties to relieve her constantly pregnant mother, but also does her share of plastic sorting.

Both Kun and the audience can plainly see the responsible-beyond-her-years Yi-jie should be in school, but the useless Peng spends most of the family’s money on drink. Obviously, the idea of simply enrolling her in public school is completely foreign in this province. It would cost Peng a considerable tuition fee under the best of circumstances, but the fact they are ethnic Yi from Sichuan, without proper residency permits, presents further complications.

Wang’s previous documentary was the environmental horror show Beijing Besieged by Waste, so it would seem he has a perverse affinity for dumps and waste-processing facilities. However, Plastic is very much focused on its human subjects. Yi-jie quickly emerges as Wang’s focus, whom viewers will earnestly root for. She is a hard-working, sensitive kid, who deserves a future, but it is not clear she will have one.

While Wang’s approach is strictly observational, he clearly takes sides in the recycling plant’s conflicts. Of course, it is difficult to fault him for aligning with youthful innocence and virtue. On the other side of the spectrum, the myriad flaws of both Kun and Peng are mercilessly exposed for the audience to pass judgement on. Still, life is hard for everyone in Plastic—and it only gets harder. For extra, added irony, the hollow words of Chairman Mao constantly echo throughout the film.

Plastic has been shoehorned into Sundance’s environmental theme this year, but even if the recycling plant were pristine and carbon-neutral, it still would be no place for a child with Yi-jie’s potential. After meeting her on-screen, you might be tempted to trash some plastic toys in hopes they might reach her, but that is about as likely as successfully delivering a message in bottle. What she really needs are a more equitable educational system and fairer residency regulations. Recommended for its human drama and the genuine outrage it inspires, Plastic China screens again tomorrow (1/22), Tuesday (1/24). Thursday (1/26), and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’16: F’n Bunnies (short)

Those Scandinavians are so progressive and permissive—especially an old leftie like Raimo, but his new next door neighbor will really put him to the test. Miku is the bigamist leader of a satanic sex cult, but he looks like a Juggalo, which would be even worse. Time will tell whether Raimo learns to set aside his prejudices and join the sinister orgies or remains a middle-aged fuddy-duddy in Teemu Niukkanen’s Fucking Bunnies, part of the Midnight Shorts Program screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Raimo goes out of his way to be nice to the minorities who work in his public housing project, as well as the junkies who crash outside. Yet, Miku is just too much for him to deal with. Despite his KISS-style face paint and loud parties, everybody seems to think Miku is a heck of a guy, including Raimo’s wife. To make things particularly awkward, both are experienced squash players in need of partners. His wife keeps pushing him to make nice with Miku, but Raimo just can’t do it—and can you blame him?

Bunnies is a bold satire—arguably too bold for its own good. Obviously, it wants to make a statement about tolerance and xenophobia, especially in light of the refugee humanitarian crisis/invasion, but it is perfectly appropriate for Raimo to be appalled when he finds Miku engaging in wet, messy S&M sex in the basement storage area. (seriously, most of Europe’s “new immigrants” wouldn’t cotton to that either, but they might be okay with Miku’s twenty wives).

Bunnies could well have the opposite effect than Niukkanen intended, but at least it is funny (which is more important from a viewer’s perspective). As Raimo, Jouko Puolanto is a generous straight man, while Janne Reinikainen’s Miku is completely nuts. The glaring contrast between them is a solid comedy bedrock. Niukkanen and co-screenwriter Antti Toivonen are not afraid to push the boundary of propriety. We have to admire their chutzpah, even though it probably undermines the teaching moments.

Hey, aren’t you supposed to use Western Union to send messages anyway? The edgy humor of Bunnies is sure to bring down the house with cult film fans, who will surely spread the word. Recommended for the late-night crew, Fucking Bunnies screens again in the Midnight Shorts Program tonight (1/21) in Salt Lake and Monday (1/23) and Thursday (1/26) in Park City, during this year’s Sundance.

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Sundance ’17: Killing Ground

You know Australian psycho-stalkers just aren’t what they used to be when a victim gets away from Mick Taylor in the Wolf Creek TV show. As problematically sadist as the original films were, there was no denying John Jarratt’s distinctive screen presence. German and Chook just can’t compare, except perhaps in the violence they unleash on-screen in Tasmanian-native Damien Power’s Killing Ground, which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Sam and her doctor fiancé Ian decide to spend New Year’s Eve camping in his favorite spot for reasons that will utterly mystify regular horror movie viewers. On the way, the seedy looking German (with the requisite snarling attack dog) recommends another campsite, but Ian’s heart is set on their original destination. They are bummed out to find another tent already pitched there, but at least they are quiet—too quiet. By the time they mosey on over, viewers know the family in question has met a grisly fate at the hands of German and less cautious protégé Chook. Throughout the first act, Power cross-cuts between Sam and in Ian in the film’s now and the ill-fated family of aging hippy Rob, his wife Margaret, their moody teen daughter Em, and their toddler Ollie a few days in the past, just to make Grounds look more ambitious than it really is.

Just to give viewers fair warning, Ollie’s grisly fate plays a pivotal role in the film, so yeah, good times. Frankly, there are so many legitimately clever and surprising indie horror films getting produced today, it makes watching a grinder like Ground rather depressing in comparison.

Still, the cast is quite strong, especially Harriet Dyer as Sam. Although he is no Jarratt, Pederson is certainly an effectively silent, surly, anti-social sadist. It should also be stipulated in all due fairness, the peculiar stresses Power inflicts on Sam’s relationship with Dr. Ian represent a bit of a fresh spin on the gruesome genre material. However, that hardly makes the film any more entertaining to watch.

This is really straight, no chaser Aussies exploitation. If that is your thing, this is your film. For the rest of us, it is mostly just a downer. There are better, fresher genre films out there. Only for grindhouse diehards, Killing Ground screens again this afternoon (1/21) and Thursday night (1/26) in Park City and tonight (1/21) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Sundance ’17: I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore

It beats bowling. As police forces are increasingly emasculated by the professional activist sector, vigilantism could become a good date activity. Ruth Kimke and her neighbor might just be ahead of the curve for once. However, they are ill-prepared for the desperate scumminess of the villains they will hunt in Macon Blair’s Netflix-produced I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Kimke’s life was already pretty sad. Having her laptop and her grandmother’s silver burglarized sends her to the end of her tether. It is really more about the revulsion for having her space invaded than the actual stuff (though the loss of her connection to her beloved grandmother is a real bummer). Of course, the cops can’t/won’t do Jack Straw, so when she locates her laptop’s GPS, she recruits her neighbor Tony, the only member of her limited social circle who would be willing to join her.

It turns out the punks with her laptop bought it semi-legitimately from a dodgy second-hand goods retailer. That leads to another ugly scene, but it also puts them on the trail of the thief, an entitled thug recently disowned by his exasperated wealthy father. Rather inconveniently, Kimke’s campaign of righteous indignation has complicated the more ambitious plans he has cooked up with his lowlife associates.

IDFAHITWA might not be a cinematic revelation, but it is mordantly funny and briskly paced. Blair (probably best known as the lead in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin) takes a shrewdly understated approach, shunning the over-stylized excesses that often weigh down otherwise promising neo-noir gene indies. Instead, he gives Melanie Lynskey space to create a full and complete character study of an ordinary working class woman under unusual stress.

Blair is also unusually evenhanded in the treatment of Tony, the goofy sidekick, suggesting maybe a Jesus freak with pretentions of martial arts virtuosity isn’t the worst guy to have around, when you get right down to it. Likewise, Elijah Wood teases out Tony’s daffy charm and makes his various tics, like outbreaks of prayer at times of sudden pressure rather reasonable, all things considered.

As you would expect from Blair’s recent credits, IDFAHITWA has a dark sensibility, but it is never nihilistic. Frankly, it is quite pleasantly enjoyable, which is definitely something. Considering the genre portfolio Wood is building, it will definitely wind up on a lot of Netflix-generated user-profile lists. Recommended for fans of colorful Fargo-like crime dramas, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore screens again this morning (1/20) in Park City, tomorrow (1/21) at the Sundance Mountain Resort (remember that is haul from PC, UT), and Wednesday (1/25) and Thursday (1/26) in Salt Lake, as part of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance ’17: What Tears Us Apart (short)

If Shen Dai had remained in China, there is no way an Isabelle Huppert-like film star ever would have been part of her social circle. In this case, it is probably safe to say “Isabelle” is based on Huppert, since she is played by the screen legend herself. That bit of casting was quite a coup for Hu Wei’s latest short film, but it never overshadows the complicated emotions at the center of What Tears Us Apart, which screens as part of Shorts Program 1 during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

There are indeed social-political implications to Shen Dai’s story that viewers might guess (especially if they are cognizant of the government’s strict family planning policies), but they still ought to let Hu reveal everything in his own due time. Initially, we are not sure why an older Chinese couple is visiting Isabelle and her gracious slightly older husband Benoît—nor perhaps are they. Eventually, we figure out they are really there to see Shen Dai and her daughter, but she prefers to have Isabelle and Benoît present to run interference. However, when the three finally sit down just themselves, the older woman’s emotions come gushing out uncontrollably.

As always, Huppert is a force to be reckoned with, but you will be hard pressed to see a more haunting performance than Nai An’s devastating portrayal of Shen Dai, in any film of any length. Clearly, her life in France has thus far been more comfortable than it would have been had she remained in China. Yet, we get a visceral sense of her lingering pain and resentment. Although more active as a producer, Nai An also gave a remarkably sensitive and powerful lead performance in Ying Liang’s When Night Falls, a film of such bold integrity it caused the filmmaker to be declared persona non grata in his Mainland homeland. As an added bonus, veteran French character actor André Wilms (Le Havre) nicely counterbalances the tart Huppert as the easygoing Benoît.

Hu was nominated for an Oscar for his previous short film Butter Lamp, which seems worlds removed from WTUA, at least on paper. However, both shorts are marked by Hu’s carefully rendered visual compositions. This is twenty-minute chamber drama, but he and cinematographer Julien Poupard make it look both delicately intimate and impressively cinematic. Based on Butter Lamp and WTUA, Hu’s first feature should be an event to eagerly anticipate. Very highly recommended, What Tears Us Apart screens with Shorts Program 1 today (1/20) at the Sundance Resort, Wednesday (1/25) at Salt Lake, and tomorrow (1/21) and next Saturday (1/28) here in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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M. Night Shyamalan’s Split

The term “multiple personality” is out of fashion. Psychiatrists like Dr. Karen Fletcher prefer Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and they really hate horror films that exploit it. Considering her star patient just kidnapped three teenage girls, she really doesn’t have much grounds to complain. Things had been running pretty smoothly inside the body of the man born Kevin Wendell Crumb as long as Barry controlled each personalities’ access to “the light,” but the bad kids have taken over in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (trailer here), which opens today in a theater near you.

Dennis would be the compulsively tidy, sociopathic one and Patricia is his sinister compatriot. They were not supposed to come out anymore, but they won over Hedwig, the bratty pre-teen, who has the power to subvert Barry’s authority. Dennis is now calling the shots, but he plans to give way to an apocalyptic twenty-fourth personality.

It is really bad luck that Casey Cook was abducted. Claire Benoit only invited the troubled gothy girl to her birthday celebration out of reluctant obligation. When Dennis snatches her up along with Benoit and her BFF Marcia, Cook better realizes the precariousness of their position. To survive, they will have to win over one of Crumb’s other personalities—perhaps the one that keeps sending late night cry-for-help emails to Dr. Fletcher, who might just be the least intuitive headshrinker in movie history.

Despite her slow uptake, the best passages in Spit feature her verbally probing Dennis pretending to be Barry. There’s definitely some good war-of-wits-and-words stuff going on. On the other hand, the flashbacks explaining Cook’s family issues are predictable and clumsy. The cat-and-mouse game Cook plays with the twenty-three personalities falls somewhere in between. By now, most of us horror fans are weary of watching a psycho holding women victims in his dungeon, but Shyamalan gives the problematic convention a few fresh spins.

Frankly, the days of Shyamalan’s big phony twist tent-pole movies are long gone and good riddance. If he sticks with Blumhouse, he can make a mint and build up a hip cult following by crafting sinister (so to speak) little genre thrillers. In all honesty, the world can use honest exploitation fair far more than the ponderous pretension of The Happening.

James McAvoy is a pretty game as the many faces of Kevin, preening about quite menacingly. Dr. Fletcher’s diagnoses and methods might be questionable, but Betty Buckley is really terrific as the controversial DID expert. Watching her analyze and spar with McAvoy is great fun. On the other hand, up-and-coming stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula are pretty standard horror movie victims and a rather dreary final girl.

Not to be spoilery, but Shyamalan finds an inspired way to tie the events of Split into the universe of his circa 2000 greatest hits. Arguably, he makes the film right there and then. He also takes a Hitchcockian cameo, but it seems like an endearing eccentricity once the excesses of prior films are stripped away. Creepy and grungy (in the right way), Split should keep the Shyamalan comeback train chugging along. Recommended for fans of psycho and psychological thrillers, Split opens in theaters today (1/20), including the AMC Empire in New York.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

NYJFF ’17: Dimona Twist

Dimona was (and still is) a modest provincial town in the Negev Desert when large parties of Moroccan and Polish immigrants were encouraged to settle there. Fortunately, the Israelis are good at building quickly. Perhaps you might have heard that already. Despite what the UN and the old Administration thought, this is a good thing. Of course, starting from scratch in the hardscrabble community was not easy, especially for the girls and young women accustomed to a more cosmopolitan environment. Yet, they survived and ultimately thrived, as they explain in Michal Aviad’s documentary, Dimona Twist (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Among the new arrivals, the Poles were Ashkenazi and the Moroccans were Sephardi. Their parents did not mix well, which set up many a Romeo & Juliet-style romance amongst the younger generations. Life was hard regardless in Israel during the mid-1960s, especially for those who did not speak Hebrew. Yet, most of the women Aviad interviews slowly managed to find their place in the Israeli economy and society.

Yes, they also danced the twist. It seems the Moroccan Dimonians came over with particularly hip record collections. Nevertheless, the “twist” in Dimona Twist is probably overstated. In terms of theme, style, and tone DT is much more closely akin to Aviad’s Women Pioneers than a music or style doc.

Regardless, the stories of resiliency are pretty darn impressive. Again, there is a pronounced feminist dimension to Aviad’s latest film. Israel is truly a feminist nation, but in the 1960s, there were pockets like Dimona, where the more patriarchal attitudes from their old homelands (most definitely including Morocco) still held sway.

In fact, Dimona Twist represents Israel’s continuing efforts to come to terms with its complicated past, including the less than edifying aspects. Such self-examination and self-criticism is a unique manifestation of liberal democracy. Yet, viewers should really watch DT for the toughness of its subjects. They ask for no sympathy and express few regrets. Respectfully recommended for those interested in Israeli history, Dimona Twist screens twice this coming Monday (1/23) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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NYJFF ’17: Angel Wagenstein—Art is a Weapon

Bulgarian screenwriter-novelist Angel Wagenstein was sort of like the Alexander Dubček of Soviet-era cinema. He really believed in Socialism with a “human face” and frequently criticized the oppressive excesses of Soviet Socialism. His films were often hailed abroad but censored at home—always a sure sign of quality. Andrea Simon profiles the nonagenarian filmmaker in Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon (trailer here), which screens with the Wagenstein-scripted Stars as part of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Wagenstein served with the Bulgarian Partisans, trained in Moscow, and worked with the illustrious DEFA studio in East Germany (the classic Eolomea was based on his novel). He should have been a valued member of the establishment, but the criticisms of Stalinist Communism he not so subtly buried in his films led to his expulsion from the Party on more than one occasion.

Still sharp as a tack at ninety-four, Wagenstein has never had any illusions regarding the Soviet Union. However, as an original red diaper baby, whose revolutionary parents were exiled to Paris before WWII, Wagenstein maintains his early faith in socialism. Frankly, Simon rather glosses over his time as a member of parliament for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the reconstituted Communist Party), merely characterizing it as “frustrating.” However, the Socialists (and absolutely the Communists before them) bear a great deal of responsibility for the current depressed and depressive state of things in Bulgaria, but Simon lets Wagenstein off the hook for legitimizing them through his well-earned prestige.

Of course, it is hard to fault Simon’s somewhat deferential treatment when Wagenstein takes viewers on a tour of prisons he had been incarcerated within. The clips from his films are also quite illustrative of Wagenstein as an artist and a political thinker. They will definitely leave viewers wanting to see more, but the festival has happily obliged by presenting Simon’s documentary on a double-bill with Stars, arguably his most historically important film.

Wagenstein remains a towering figure in Bulgaria and a recognizable name in many former Captive Nations, but he is not as well-known as he ought to be in the West, so it is nice to have Simon’s film to help rectify that situation. It is also good to give the anti-Communist Left their due. Their economic positions might be torturous, but they were on the right side of history when it mattered most. Together with Stars, Angel Wagenstein: Art is Weapon is highly recommended for cineastes when they screen this Sunday (1/22) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYJFF.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

We Are the Flesh: Mexican Extremity

Mariano is sort of a Mexican cross between Tool Time Tim Allen and the Marquis de Sade. He has no use for bourgeoisie morality, but he sure goes through the duct tape. Desperate siblings will be caught in his madness during Emiliano Rocha Minter’s nasty bit of extremity, We Are the Flesh (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

It is hard to follow his futzing, but it appears Mariano is trying to turn a post-industrial loft into a womb-like lair, mostly through the liberal application of duct tape. Into this heart of darkness wander a waifish brother and sister in search of food. Of course, simple supplication will not suffice. Instead, Mariano will sink his hooks into the siblings, forcing them to commit incestuous sexual acts and to act as his accomplice in the ritual murder of a captured soldier.

Using language reminiscent of Sade’s puerile paeans to perversion, Mariano gains a Svengali-like hold over his guest, particularly the sister. He also dies and comes back during rave, because Rocha Minter will not spare us any symbolic provocations. To top things off, he delivers a twist ending that was a groaner when M Night Shyamalan used it in the mid-2000s.

There is no question Rocha Minter is a powerful visual stylist, but his desire to shock is often counterproductive. Any intended commentary on Mexican society is lost in the not-so simulated outrageousness. Still, you have to give the cast credit for so willingly shedding their clothes and their dignity, especially María Evoli, who really goes for broke as the sister. It is a bold performance and a bold career move, since she will have something that will probably be considered in the same general neighborhood of A Serbian Film on her resume.

So, we’re still building that wall, right? Suddenly, it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. A lot of talent and effort went into Flesh, including Yollótl Alvarado’s dream-like cinematography and the off-the-wall work of art director Manuela García. That is why it is so frustrating the final film does not inspire more feeling than cold, clammy distaste. Not recommended, We Are the Flesh opens this Friday (1/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Father, Die: Southern Exploitation for People Who Hate the South

It is only due to the influence of his father that Asher Rawlings is the man he is today: a psychosomatically deaf-mute introvert. However, he harbors ambitions of becoming a patricidal killer. It would be an improvement. Revenge comes deep fried in Sean Brosnan’s grubby My Father, Die (trailer here) which opens this Friday in New York.

MFD opens with an ultra-stylized flashback that shows us how Rawlings’ dysfunctional family ran fatally off the rails. To teach him the birds-and-the-bees, his older brother Chester sets him up to peep while he pays a call on Nana. She is roughly Chester’s age, but their Neanderthal father Ivan stills considers her his exclusive sexual property. Therefore, the biker father logically murders Chester and beats the snot out Asher when he barges into their rendezvous.

Ten years later, the old man is released due to prison over-crowding, leading Rawlings to understandably freak out. Resolving the best defense is a good offense, Rawlings saws off a shotgun and heads out to kill his father like the rabid dog he is. Thanks to a violent encounter with Ivan’s old pal Tank, Rawlings gets the drop on him in his scumbag motel. However, he ill-advisedly assumes the battered Ivan is dead. You know what assuming does. Thus, Rawlings’ grudge match becomes a mutual thing.

Frankly, MFD probably sounds considerably more fun than it really is. Tonally, it is a bizarre mishmash, over-reliant on black-and-white flashbacks and ponderous narration recorded in Rawlings’ prepubescent, pre-tragedy voice. They are played so achingly self-serious, it makes you wonder if they were intended to parody pretentious indie films. Needless to say, if viewers can’t tell if considerable portions of MFD were meant to be satire that’s a problem.

Brosnan’s oozing contempt for the South also gets old quickly. Whether it is white power bikers or tent revival evangelists who secretly visit pornographic webchats wearing an S&M hood, his vision of Southern men is gothic in the extreme. How would Brosnan (son of Pierce) like it if Southern Evangelical filmmakers made a film in Ireland, portraying the Irish as nothing but drunks and terrorists? Obviously, that would be grossly unjust, but it would be about as fair as the treatment dispensed in MFD.

Since English Joe Anderson spends most of his time as “adult” Asher wearing shades and his late brother’s raccoon skin hat, it is hard to connect with the character and the performance. At least former Merseyside-born boxer Gary Stretch is impressively fierce as the dad from Hell. As Tank, Kevin Gage (from Wisconsin—technically not the South either, but much closer) chews the scenery and howls in pain with gusto.

So, what about that comma between “father” and “die?” Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. Its better off without it. Awkward title syntax just seems to generate bad karma. As it is, MFD is already too scuzzy in the wrong, non-retro sort of way. By refusing to fully embrace the payback genre and the bayou milieu, Brosnan ultimately sabotages his own attempt at neo-Southern exploitation. Not recommended, My Father Die opens this Friday (1/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Fists of Fury: Kung Fu Clips of Death

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Kung Fu movies were almost as deadly as the fashions. You will indeed see feathered hair, particularly during a clip for our hostess with the mostess, marital arts legend Cynthia Rothrock. However, her timing and delivery are clearly better suited to action than comedy. Still, there is nostalgia to be found in Charles Band’s Kung Fu clip compilation film Fists of Fury (trailer here) which is now available on DVD from Full Moon Features.

You can’t even call Fists the That’s Entertainment of Kung Fu, because it doesn’t cherry-pick iconic scenes. It merely stitches together vintage coming attractions, sort of in the tradition of Drafthouse’s Trailer War, but some of these films are no particularly obscure. For one thing, there is a lot of love for Angela Mao Ying, but that is understandable, because we have a lot of love for her too. It also makes us think Nora Miao is way overdue for a retrospective of her own.

Not to sound grouchy, but Full Moon really could have at least digitally removed the grainy European subtitles half-visible in some trailers. Yet, the awesomeness still shines through for a number of these films. Frankly, it is nice to see Kao Pao-shu get her due as a pioneering woman director in the trailer for Bandits, Prostitutes, and Silver, starring Mao. It is also cool to see Pan Pan Yeung get the A Star is Born treatment in the trailer for The Story of Drunken Master, which appears to be the only collected teaser that featured original footage.

Fists will definitely make you want to watch many of the films teased by the trailers. For instance, Hammer’s Shatter, co-starring Peter Cushing and Lily Li looks like it would make a dynamite double feature paired with Stoner (not included, but too good not to plug). It is also know before Debbie Allen was directing episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and A Different World, she appeared in more reputable projects, like Ebony, Ivory, and Jade, a martial arts thriller about Olympic athletes sold into white slavery.

However, many of these trailers are probably already available on YouTube, like the one for Wonder Women, in which Nancy Kwan’s Dr. Tsu tells Ross Hagen: “it is possible for me to transplant any body part.” You can insert your own joke when he replies: “any body part?” In fact, you will have to, because there is no MST3K style running commentary and the comedy bits in between are excruciatingly painful. All you’re really getting with Fists is curation and compilation. Still, some of these films are just a blast no matter how chopped and diced up they are. Fists of Fury is not really recommended per se, but once you start watching, it is hard to stop, sort of like the infomercials for 1980s one-hit-wonder compilations on late night television. It is now available on Amazon, so there you have it.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Trespass Against Us: Gleeson and Fassbender as Father and Son

In the UK, Irish Travellers are officially recognized as an ethnic group, whereas in Ireland, they are simply considered a social group. Yet, within both countries, Travellers commonly face prejudice and widespread suspicion of criminal behavior. Chad Cutler’s father is doing his best to perpetuate those stereotypes. Crime is definitely their family business, but Cutler has ambitions of a different, better way of life for his son in Adam Smith’s Trespass Against Us (trailer here) which opens this Friday in theaters.

Compared to the rest of his father Colby’s Traveller campsite, Cutler is the responsible one, but not necessarily by his outsider wife Kelly’s standards. The illiterate Cutler adamantly insists his children must go to school, but his “traditional” father does his best to discourage his impressionable grandson Tyson from his studies. Obviously, that is a major point of contention between father and grown son, but Cutler’s intention to retire from crime and his increasing antagonism towards some of the cruder members of the camp will fray their relationship further. However, Chad Cutler has a hard time resisting a good car chase. Indeed, he and British copper P.C. Loverage are like the Traveller version of Smoky and the Bandit.

Adam Smith has a heck of a name to live up to, so best of luck to him. Obviously, Trespass is an insignificant trifle compared to The Wealth of Nations, but it is a rollicking good time—which is not nothing. Smith has a particular knack for reinvigorating movie car chases, getting a key assist from the Chemical Brothers’ Big beat score. Chases scenes often feel like rote obligations, but they are the best part of Trespass.

Of course, Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson are also two of the very best in the business. When they face-off as Chad and Colby Cutler, they generate all the right kind of sparks. However, Lyndsey Marshal holds her own against both of them as the understandably exasperated Kelly Cutler. She provides the film a reality check and a moral center, without ever coming across like scold. In fact, she is a net plus when it comes to generating on-screen energy in general and particularly in her chemistry-heavy scenes with Fassbender.

Frustratingly, Trespass wilts into a treacly after-school special in its final scenes, but until then, Smith largely hits the right notes: ruckus and earthy, but not excessively quirky, naturalistic, cynical, or violent. Solidly entertaining, Trespass Against Us opens this Friday (1/20) in select cities.

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Duvivier’s Panique

Technically, the Parisian commune of Villejuif has never been a historically Jewish enclave. However, it is the end of the tram line, which still makes it all too fitting for the ill-fated Desire Hirovitch, better known a Monsieur Hire. He is so anti-social, we might speculate he is “on the spectrum” in today’s parlance. Yet, he will be tragically shocked by his neighbors’ hostility and suspicion in Julien Duvivier’s long unseen Panique (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum in a fresh new DCP restoration.

If old Hire sounds familiar, then you might know him through Patrice Leconte’s Monsieur Hire, another adaptation of the same Georges Simenon novel. Whereas Michel Blanc was a more nebbish, bloodlessly fastidious sort in Leconte’s take, Michel Simon’s original Hire is conspicuously husky, hirsute, and you know . . . foreign-looking. Each seems to cry out to be shunned, which in their own contempt for the ignorant proletariat, a fate both Hires have probably accepted too readily.

Although Duvivier plays down the voyeuristic aspects of Simenon’s story, Hire does indeed first encounter Alice (as she now calls herself) through peeping. At first, she reacts with disgust, but when Hire persistently precipitates “offline” meetings, she and her lover Alfred Chartier decide to frame him up as their fall guy. It is soon revealed Chartier recently bumped off Villejuif’s resident old maid, while waiting for his lover to be released from prison. The murder has the working-class district on edge, but they will be only too willing to pin the crime on Hire. When Alice starts stringing along the awkward lug, she is rather surprised to find she somewhat likes him, but Chartier maintains such a tight Svengali hold over her, she is incapable of backing out.

The plan is simple. Set-up Hire and let the angry mob do the rest. As schemes go, it is pretty elegant in its simplicity and psychologically insightful. This was Duvivier’s French homecoming film after his wartime Hollywood interlude, so it is easy to interpret it as an allegorical indictment of France’s anti-Semitic collaboration. Perhaps to soften the blow, the milieu feels distinctly pre-war, but that ultimately emphasizes how deeply rooted such xenophobic attitudes were within the French social fabric.

It is just painful to watch Simon’s Hire barrel along unaware of the resentments and betrayal simmering around him. He is a tragic figure, sort of the equal opposite of the free-spirited tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning (the original Down and Out in Beverly Hills), arguably his most recognizable role. Viviane Romance was already an experienced femme fatale, but she makes Alice’s conscience pangs completely convincing, yet hopelessly too little, too late. She has the advantage over Leconte’s Sandrine Bonnaire, in every way. Still, the sly André Wilms certainly distinguishes the later film as the intrepid inspector, whereas all the coppers in Panique are rather colorless government functionaries.

Even by French noir standards, Panique’s criminals are viciously calculatingly sociopaths. The notorious bitterness and archetypal significance of Duvivier highly cinematic climax will surely ring with viewers, even though many will be seeing it for the first time. For too long, Panique has been written about more than screened, due to print quality issues. Happily, it now looks and sounds terrific. Highly recommended for connoisseurs of French cinema, Panique opens this Friday (1/20) in New York, at Film Forum.

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