J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

6 Days: The Other Iranian Hostage Crisis

It was the other Iranian Hostage Crisis. While the prolonged captivity of American embassy personnel in Tehran made Jimmy Carter look weak and incompetent, the siege of the Iranian embassy in South Kensington, London made it clear to the world Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a strong leader, who was not to be trifled with. However, the SAS (Special Air Service) commandos did not storm the embassy immediately. For five days, DCI Max Vernon did his best to keep the terrorists talking. The British response to the hostage-taking is dramatized day-by-day in Toa Fraser’s 6 Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

To this day, Western authorities are still rather baffled why Arabic-speaking Khuzestan separatists launched their operation on British soil. Although they maintained diplomatic relations, the UK and Iran were not on friendly terms. Yet, Arabistan Liberation gunmen expected the Brits to convince Iran to release their imprisoned comrades. They also demanded safe passage, which the Thatcher government refused to grant. That did not leave DCI Vernon much room to negotiate. However, he maintained a dialogue with his terrorist counterpart and even managed to secure a handful of hostage releases, as a sign of “good faith.”

While Vernon was talking, Rusty Firmin and the SAS were formulating attack plans. Glenn Standring’s screenplay does its best to suggest Thatcher placed undue restrictions on the operation, out of concern for how it would play in the media. However, it is hard to argue with the results. Despite some strongly worded statements, Thatcher’s decisiveness clearly made an impression on Iran.

The South Kensington hostage rescue is a fascinating and highly instructive episode in fairly recent history, whose significance has never really been fully appreciated on our shores. Fraser effectively shows the action from the perspectives of both the cops and the SAS, but attempts to include the standpoints of the media are far less compelling. After all, they are just along for the ride. 6 Days is a radical departure from Fraser’s last film, the very cool Maori martial arts fantasy, The Dead Lands, but his execution is lean and pacey. Throughout the film, he concretely establishes the military, political, and humanitarian stakes at play in the stand-off.

As Vernon, Mark Strong is as intense as always. Likewise, Jamie Bell looks young, but he has an appropriately steely presence as Firmin. Abbie Cornish doesn’t really bring much to the party, but to be fair, she is only playing journalist Kate Adie. One could also argue Tim Pigott-Smith is excessively pompous and high-handed as Home Secretary William Whitelaw, who was an unusually sure-footed politician throughout his long career in public service.

Any victory over terrorism is worth revisiting on film, for numerous reasons. Fraser breaks down the South Kensington rescue operation quite well, fully capitalizing on all the inherent drama and action. Recommended for fans of Argo and The Delta Force franchise, 6 Days opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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New Filipino Cinema ’17: Bliss

Reportedly, film production in the Philippines is much more regulated now than during the glory days of Roger Corman’s jungle prison movies. However, Jane Ciego might have her doubts. She was badly injured on the set of her latest picture—a horror movie about a famous actress abused by her caretakers after she is badly injured on the set of her latest movie. You might have a general idea of the meta-ness afoot, but there are still plenty of twisted turns to Jerrold Tarog’s Bliss (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Ciego has been a star since she was a child, but this film was supposed to be her breakout as a serious actress. Ditto for Abigail, the character she was playing. She has been successful enough to produce her ambitious art house horror film and continue to be a meal ticket for her ineffectual husband Carlo and her greedy stage mother, Jillian. Again, the same is true for her character, except her husband in the film-within-the-film is maybe slightly less contemptible. Regardless, this is hardly the sort of film you would want to “lose” yourself in, if that is indeed what happened to Ciego, or Abigail.

Things get even more sinister when Tarog gives us reason to suspect Ciego’s openly hostile private nurse Lilibeth is actually Rose, who is wanted by the police for sexually molesting young patients. As Ciego and Abigail’s realities conflict and intrude upon each other, Tarog keeps doubling back and folding the narrative over, to spring darkly clever revelations.

Iza Cazaldo has a Kate Beckinsale vibe working that is absolutely perfect for Ciego/Abigail. She establishes a strong persona as Ciego, which makes it so compelling to then watch her tear it apart at the seams. Evidently, there was a lot of buzz about her topless scene in the film, but it is nothing like what her fans probably assumed. Adrienne Vergara is also creepy as heck as Lilibeth/Rose and Shamaine Buencamino is spectacularly bad news as Mama Jillian. However, Audie Gemora often upstages everyone as her wildly flamboyant director, Lexter Palao.

Serving as his own editor, Tarog rather brilliantly cuts together all the reality problematizing and timeframe shifts. Mackie Galvez’s mysteriously murky cinematography further causes us to lose sight of ostensive in-film reality. It all adds up to a head-trip you can never take for granted. Highly recommended for fans of horror movies and Lynchian cinema, Bliss screens this Saturday (8/19) and next Thursday (8/24) as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA.

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Old School Kung Fu ’17: My Young Auntie

Martial arts talent definitely runs in this family. Cheng Tai-nun married into it, but she has as much chops as anyone. She is also surprisingly young and pretty, but she is the still the elder in Lau Kar-leung’s My Young Auntie, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

To prevent his wastrel criminal brother Yu Yung-sheng from inheriting his estate, a childless landowner marries Cheng, a trusted servant and martial arts champion, to insure his nephew Yu Ching-chuen becomes his rightfully beneficiary. Immediately after his death, she quickly brings him the will and deeds for safe keeping. Of course, the genial, older middle-aged Yu is not expecting an auntie like her, so miscommunication and misunderstandings inevitably ensue. It is even more so the case with Yu’s son Charlie, a westernized college student.

He definitely thinks she is hot, but hopelessly square in her traditional ways, so he and his jerky pals try to teach her a lesson in Hong Kong hipness. Unfortunately, while they having their fun, Yung-sheng’s colorful cast of henchmen steal the estate documents. Naturally, that means Cheng and Charlie will have to take them back, but they might need an assist from his father (her nephew) and his skilled brothers.

Auntie is definitely a comedy with the emphasis on physicality. Frankly, some of the jokes will strike contemporary viewers as rather boorish. However, there is no denying Kara Hui’s chops and presence as the titular Auntie. Trained as a professional dancer, she was clearly blessed with tremendous grace and flexibility. You can definitely see how her experience with one sort of choreography laid her in good stead for another.

There is a lot of “Tiger Claw” kind of Kung Fu going on that looks absolutely insane, but Lau totally sells it as director, fight choreographer, and co-star, playing Old Nephew Yu. In fact, he takes over the big climatic match-up with Yu Yung-sheng, which is likely to produce mixed emotions in fans. As much as we want to see Kara Hui settle accounts, there is something satisfying about watching the grey-haired veteran throw down with authority.

Within the Shaw Brothers filmography, Auntie is also notable for addressing issues of evolving gender roles and the culture clash between modernized and westernized Hong Kongers and traditional country residents. It has all kinds of energy but the gags tend towards the shticky side of the spectrum (Gordon Liu wearing a blond Musketeer wig? Yes, it’s in there). My Young Auntie is definitely recommended for Kara Hui and Shaw Brothers fans, but King Hu’s Shaw-produced Come Drink with Me is even more entertaining and visually impressive. For your Shaw Brothers fix, My Young Auntie screens this Saturday (8/19) and Come Drink with Me screens Sunday (8/20), as part of Old School Kung Fu 2017 at the Metrograph.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Adventurers: Andy Lau Steals His Way Across Europe

Evidently, French prisons are so hot at rehabilitation either. To be fair, this Hong Kong jewel thief was primed for recidivism. He was caught stealing part of the priceless “Gaia” three-piece necklace set. To find the villain who betrayed him, he will need the other two pieces. He will also commit crimes against the English language, but his French copper nemesis sounds nearly as awkward in Stephen Fung’s breezy The Adventurers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Dan Zhang is an old school Thomas Crowne kind of jewel thief, who was planning on going straight after the big score that sent him up the river. With a few loyal accomplices and “Red” Ye, a hotshot new recruit, Zhang plans to take the other two pieces of Gaia. The first outstanding component-piece has been put up for charity auction in Paris by Tingting, a Chinese celebrity animal lover. Ironically, Red will whip up the animal rights protestors against her, over her alleged fur wardrobe, to cover-up the caper unfolding.

That will be the easy heist, even though it is in Bissette’s backyard. The hard one will be the third piece of Gaia, nestled in a vault within a castle outside Prague, owned by a nouveau riche Chinese oligarch. His security is state-of-tomorrow’s-art, but Zhang has Red. However, Bissette also has his own surprise ally, Amber Li, the art expert who authenticated the original fateful piece of Gaia, who happened to be engaged to Zhang at the time. Unaware of his true profession, she also felt slightly betrayed by the events that transpired.

Despite the fractured syntax, The Adventurers is cheerful throwback to old fashioned caper movies. Yes, there are all kinds of double- and triple-crosses going on, but it is still a genuinely low stress affair. It is all about exotic locales (Paris, Prague, Kiev), cat burglar stunts and gizmos, and a ridiculously attractive cast (Andy Lau, Shu Qi, Zhang Jingchu, You Tianyi, and probably Tony Yo-ning Yang counts too), plus bonus character actors Jean Reno and Eric Tsang.

If you enjoy watching Raffles-like characters shimmying across ledges and illuminating motion sensor-lasers, then The Adventurers is your cup of General Foods International Coffee. As Zhang, Lau has his on-screen charm cranked up to eleven. Shu Qi enjoys playing against type as the mercenary femme fatale Red, but Zhang Jingchu might actually outshine everyone as the sensitive but cerebral Li. Of course, Reno and Tsang do their thing as Det. Bissette and Zhang’s “uncle” fence, King Kong.

The Adventurers probably will not make it onto very many awards ballots, but it will be fifty times more entertaining to re-watch than Crash, American Beauty, or Titanic. It is a fun, sparkly film that goes down easy and leaves you with a desire to visit Prague with Shu Qi or Andy Lau. Recommended as pleasant “Summer Friday” matinee, The Adventurers opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard: Guarding Samuel L. Jackson

Alexander Lukashenko must be bent out of shape. Hollywood makes a movie about a Belarusian dictator trying to escape prosecution for crimes against humanity, but they can’t be bothered to call him out by name? Instead, it is one Vladislav Dukhovich who has put a price on the only international assassin crazy enough to testify against him. All the other potentially damaging witnesses have been killed, but Darius Kincaid is bizarrely hard to kill. He will also have old nemesis, personal security specialist Michael Bryce watching his back, whether he likes it or not, in Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Several years ago, a Japanese arms dealer under Bryce’s protection was drilled between the eyes, dragging Bryce’s business down with him. It was Kincaid who made the shot. In the small world department, Bryce’s ex, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel is in charge of Kincaid’s security. Captured through a fluke, Kincaid cut a deal to testify against Dukhovich in exchange for his wife’s freedom. Unfortunately, his lack of faith in Interpol’s security protocols will be vindicated when Dukhovich’s mercenaries ambush their motorcade. Suspecting a mole in the agency, Roussel contracts Bryce to safely transport Kincaid to The Hague, despite their bitter history as rivals. Much Odd Couple-style humor ensues, as the body count escalates.

In between car chases and gun fights, Kincaid and Bryce will bicker and banter—and in the case of the former, drop MF bombs like there is no tomorrow. Yep, he would be the one played by Samuel L. Jackson. Frankly, this is the sort of loopy action comedy that were a staple of 1980s second run dollar theaters. It is therefore rather fitting Richard E. Grant has a cameo in the prologue as Bryce’s latest sleazy client.

It should be readily stipulated Jackson and Ryan Reynolds develop an amusing comedic chemistry together. They settle into a nice rhythm playing off each other and neither is too shy to mug a little for the camera. Jackson is basically recycling his Pulp Fiction persona yet again, but it still hasn’t gotten old yet, so it’s tough to blame him. Reynolds is well cast as the armed-and-dangerous Felix Unger. It is also nice to see Elodie Yung get to participate in the action as Roussel, while Gary Oldman (a reliable villain if ever there was one) chews the scenery as an entitled dictator would. However, Salma Hayek is under-employed as Kincaid’s borderline psychotic wife Sonia.

Bodyguard has plenty of action, exotic locales (getting riddled with bullet holes, but whatever), and some classic blues and R&B tunes licensed for the soundtrack. That doesn’t exactly add up to a masterpiece, but it is fun in a goofy, meathead kind of way. Thanks to the gung-ho commitment of Jackson and Reynolds, it all works on a basic laughter-and-mayhem level. Recommended for fans of Jackson and old school action-comedies, The Hitman’s Bodyguard opens this Friday (8/18) throughout the City, including the AMC Empire in Midtown.

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AOF ’17: Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon (short)

It is always nice when animated films can teach us a lesson in comparative religion. Take for instance, Fugen Bosatsu, a Bodhisattva (an enlightened one, who defers Nirvana to help point us crass mortals in the right direction) and one of the eight Buddhist zodiac guardians. He will play a significant role in Siddharth Ahluwalia’s animated short film Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon, which screens during this year’s Action on Film Festival.

The Chinese zodiac is represented by twelve animals, but there are only eight guardians, so some will have to double up. Fugen Bosatsu has responsibility for Snake and Dragon. As it happens, Jake was born in the Year of the Dragon, so his connection to the Dragon Guardian makes some kind of sense. Under Fugen Bosatsu’s guidance, he is pursuing a quest through what looks like a Southeast Asian pyramid.

Bosatsu essentially plays like a proof-of-concept superhero origins story, but with considerably more spiritual significance. There is no question Ahluwalia’s concept could be expanded to support a feature or series treatment. With a visual style clearly inspired by anime, it should be quite accessible to genre fans, even if they are completely ignorant of Buddhism.

Maddeningly, Osamu Tezuka’s second film in his anime adaptation of Kozo Morishita’s manga life of Buddha has yet to screen in North America—at least not to any extent that we might notice, so Bosatsu is a nice bite-sized consolation while we continue to wait. It is fun, stylish, and well-versed in Buddhist teachings. Highly recommended, Bosatsu—Year of the Dragon screens this Friday (8/18), as part of the 2017 Action on Film Festival.

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Future Imperfect: Ghost in the Shell 2 Innocence

These cops freely quote Descartes, Confucius, and Milton. It is impressive, but their cybernetic implants probably help. Batou has been augmented to such an extent, he has become a full-fledged cyborg, but he is still more corporeally human than his commanding officer, Major Motoko Kusanagi. She took what was left of her consciousness that she could claim for herself and disappeared into the network. However, she still has his back in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

Batou’s new partner Togusa has very few implants. He also has a family, so he is not thrilled about the hard-charging Batou’s tactics. The days following the Major’s disappearance have been uncertain for the Men in Black-ish Section 9, but they are still working cases, like the one just assigned to Batou and Togusa. A new model of specially modified gynoids (female androids) have run amok, killing their owners and then self-destructing. Both acts clearly violate the Asimovian principles of android programming that still apply in this world.

Evidently, these gynoids in question have been specially designed for adult entertainment purposes. That explains why the victims have kept things so hush-hush. The possible involvement of the yakuza also logically follows, but a shadowy off-shore company is the real brain behind the gynoids’ design. With the help of the ghostly Major and his reluctant partner, Batou will try to connect the dots, while also fending off a brain hack and caring for his beloved basset hound, Gabu (or Gabriel, depending on subtitles).

At the time of its production, Innocence was one of the most expensive anime films ever, forcing Production I.G to co-produce with Studio Ghibli. Over a dozen years after its theatrical release, it still looks terrific. The world-building is richly detailed and often awe-inspiring in scope. However, what remains most striking about the film is the intriguing relationship that continues between Batou and the unseen (but perhaps ever-present) Major. It is surely the reason for Innocence selection for Future Imperfect.

Not only does the film directly address what it means to be human, it also includes plenty of fan-pleasing action and a loyal, slobbering basset hound (a recurring motif in Oshii’s films). It also stands alone relatively easily. If you happened to be one of the few people who accidentally saw the live-action Hollywood version, try to forget it entirely, if you haven’t already—and start fresh with Innocence. Highly recommended, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence screens this Friday (8/18) and Saturday (8/19) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

What Happened to Monday?: Multiple Noomi Rapaces on Netflix

In the medium-future, the Euro-dystopia has adopted China’s family planning policies. One-child allotments are rigorously enforced by the jackbooted Child Allocation Bureau (CAB). Extra siblings are humanely put into cryogenic sleep to await a better, more sustainable world. Yeah, sure there are. In any event, cranky inventor Terrence Settman was not about to let his orphaned septuplet granddaughters get whisked away to a bureaucratic fate worse than death. Instead, he secretly raised them to live as the tag-team Karen Settman persona. However, when the first Karen Settman of the week fails to come home, her grown twins must track her whereabouts without revealing their secret in Tommy Wirkola’s What Happened to Monday? (trailer here), a Netflix original film, which starts streaming this Friday.

Old Man Settman, seen in formative flashbacks, assigned each twin a day of the week to leave the apartment, which became their informal names among themselves. At the end of each day, the siblings would have a group review, so they could fake their way through their respective days. Since they each have their respective talents (Friday is a numbers cruncher, Thursday can drink all night with clients), they have risen up the corporate finance ladder quite quickly. However, on the day Karen Settman receives the big promotion they had been working towards, Monday disappears.

Obviously, if anyone on the outside sees two Karen Settmans, it would be curtains for at least six of them. Nevertheless, Tuesday will have to venture out to determine the fate of Monday. Despite some tiresome smoke-blowing from a work rival, it quickly becomes apparent the dastardly Nicolette Cayman is involved. Not only is she the architect of the draconian One Child policies and the director of the CAB, she is also a candidate for parliament, so she is not eager for news of septuplets surviving undiscovered well into adulthood to leak to the press.

Sometime in the 1970s, the apocalyptic left recognized Marx’s failures and adopted an 18th Century British country curate as the guiding philosophical star. Thomas Malthus’s dire forecasts of exploding population and dwindling resources could be used to justify no end of governmental controls. Formerly a liberating force, the masses became the rapacious instrument of their own destruction. Happily, Malthusian analysis was thoroughly debunked by Julian Simon, but screenwriters Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson obviously did not get the memo. People are still little more than a drag on resources in Monday’s world. It is just a little tacky to kill them outright, like Cayman does.

Obviously, there are echoes of Orphan Black to be heard in Monday. It also bears some similarities to Ben Bova’s entertaining 1980s novel Multiple Man, in which a series of clones managed to get elected President of the United States and then somehow lose their “Monday.” Bova’s novel would probably require a lot of updating, but its political intrigue would still be more fun than Wirkola’s derivative dystopia.

Most problematically, Noomi Rapace does not distinctly delineate her various Karen Settmans, forcing us to rely on superficials, like wardrobe and hairstyle to tell them apart. Glen Close has chewed plenty of scenery as various villainesses, but she phones it in as Cayman. However, Willem Dafoe’s Grandpa Settman is appropriately intense and (justly) paranoid, while Marwan Kenzari charismatically upstages his love interest[s] as Adrian Knowles, the CAB officer who has been secretly carrying on an affair with Monday.

Dystopia is getting old. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back towards Heinleinesque and Roddenberryesque science fiction optimism. Monday is a case in point. It all just feels like familiar ground. Okay as a time-wasting stream, but instantly forgettable, What Happened to Monday? launches this Friday (8/18) on Netflix.

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Sidemen: The Long Road to Glory

Just imagine how awesome the original Blues Brothers movie soundtrack would have been if it also included Muddy Waters. That had been the intention, but the ailing Muddy was not able to make the shoot with John Lee Hooker on Maxwell Street. However, Muddy’s longtime sidemen Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith can be seen backing Hooker on “Boom Boom.” Still, only hardcore blues fans recognized them. They played on legendary recordings, but Perkins, Smith, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin received their overdue ovations very late in their lives and careers. Scott D. Rosenbaum profiles the three late great blues masters amid their eleventh-hour renaissances in Sidemen: Long Road to Glory (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Let’s make it clear, without Muddy and Wolf, there would be no Rolling Stones, no Eric Clapton, no Jimi Hendrix, and not much rock & roll to speak of. Without Perkins, Smith, and Sumlin, Muddy and Wolf would not have had the same potent groove. The musicians and listeners who really dove deeply into the blues understood their significance, but not casual listeners. As a result, all three found themselves scuffling when their bread-and-butter employers died in the early 1980s. Since Sumlin had always considered Wolf a surrogate father-figure, his death hit the guitarist even harder.

Rosenbaum includes long excerpts of the three legendary sidemen jamming together and with their admirers. He also interviewed each of them at length, so this film has obviously been a long time coming, considering all three men passed way in 2011, within an eight-month span. The film also features appreciations from Johnny Winter and Gregg Allman, both of whom subsequently played their final bars, as well. However, the film gives off positive vibes, rather than wallowing in elegiac melancholy. Nevertheless, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (which Sumlin felt had unjustly overlooked him) comes off looking like a bunch of jerks for not inducting Sumlin while he was still alive.

Their music pretty much speaks for itself—and Rosenbaum showcases it to maximum effect. Still, we also hear from some pretty talented colleagues and admirers, including Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bobby Rush, Elvin Bishop, and Shemekia Copeland, who are all, happily, very much alive and well, who say whatever is left to be said.

If you don’t get Sumlin, Perkins, and Smith (as well as Muddy and Wolf), by the time the too-short Sidemen finishes, you probably never will. You’re also most likely tone-deaf and generally beyond hope as a person. In fact, Rosenbaum has managed to craft a loving tribute that never feels indulgently fannish. He does right by the men who were true to the music for so many years. Very highly recommended, Sidemen opens this Friday (8/18) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

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New Filipino Cinema ’17: Seklusyon

The training for these post-war Filipino priests is almost like a spiritual Fear Factor. For seven days, they will be sequestered in a remote villa to confront their inner and outer demons. The latter are very real to these novices. As if the sink-or-swim practice were not problematic enough, a young girl considered either a healer or a false prophet has been remanded to the manse for her protection. Unfortunately, nobody can protect the novices from the temptation and torment that follows in Erik Matti’s Seklusyon (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Miguel is a deacon about to start the seven days of isolated contemplation that will proceed his ordination. He still feels guilty over something from his previous life, but he will not reveal it to his confessor. All four novices harbor secret sins that the evil agency in question will exploit.

Meanwhile, Padre Ricardo has been dispatched to investigate the young Anghela Sta. Ana, whom many revere as a living saint. Her healing powers sure look genuine, but something about her arouses the suspicions of the jaded war veteran. When Sta. Ana’s parents are violently murdered (odd that she couldn’t heal them, right?), the good Father will have to shift his focus to Sister Cecilia, her mysterious protector. In what seems like a spectacularly bad decision, regardless of what you might believe, the Bishop sends Sta. Ana and Sister Cecilia to the seclusion villa for safe keeping.  Needless to say, their presence is quite the distraction.

While it is initially unclear whether Sta. Ana is a savior or demon, the novices are still in for it either way, because this is a horror movie. Even though it is set in the post-war Philippines, Nathaniel Hawthorne could have sniffed out the sulfuric evil one right away. Indeed, this slow-burning tale of guilt and sin shares a distant kinship with his more sinister tales, particularly “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the infernal masquerades as the innocent.

Matti skillfully creates a mood of mounting dread and masterfully sets the ominous mise-en-scene. However, the atmospheric moodiness can be too much of a good thing, enveloping the cast like a fog. Although they are played by some highly recognizable Philippine actors, it is a bit of a challenge to keep all four novices straight. In contrast, Padre Ricardo and Sister Cecilia are highly compelling characters, thanks to their intriguing backstories and the rigorously disciplined performances of Neil Ryan Sese and Phoebe Walker. Likewise, young Rhed Bustamante is pretty incredible as Anghela Sta. Ana, or whoever she might be.

When Seklusyon really gets deep into the brimstone, its unsettling imagery recalls The Omen franchise and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels, which is high praise indeed. It is the sort of film whose ending makes everything that came before seem creepier in retrospect. (For those who see it, this Marist Brother’s insightful analysis will further your appreciation, but it is filled with spoilers.) Ultimately, it is quite refreshing to see a horror film that prioritizes symbolism over special effects. Recommended for fans of religious-themed supernatural horror, Seklusyon screens this Friday (8/18) and Thursday the 31st, as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA. Those in San Francisco might consider checking out the sunny but angsty Apocalypse Child this Friday, as well.

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Old School Kung Fu ’17: Hapkido

Genuine trained martial artists always use diplomacy first, falling back on their fighting skills only as a last resort. Discipline and humility are always essential to the warrior’s code—and it is also better not to reveal your best moves too soon. Unfortunately, the Japanese occupiers of this provincial Chinese city are spoiling for a fight, so Yu Ying and her brothers will eventually have to give it to them in Feng Huang’s Hapkido, which screens during this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest at the Metrograph.

Yu Ying, Kao Chang, and Fan Wei are Chinese, but they have been faithfully studying hapkido in occupied Korea with their master. However, they will have to make a hasty return to China, after laying a beating on a group of Japanese thugs. They hope to open a Hapkido school in a provincial town that ought to be off the Imperial authorities’ radar, but the local Black Bear karate school is not exactly welcoming.

Members of the Black Bear School use their Japanese lineage to bully the rest of the town. Their master, Toyoda, refuses to allow the Hapkido School to open, out of malicious anti-Korean prejudice. Of course, every time his followers goad the Hapkido teachers into a fight, they get publicly humiliated. Usually, Yu Ying and her older brother make a valiant effort to practice the forbearance advised by their master, but not so much the hot-headed Fan Wei. Eventually, his fighting will get him killed, but at least he also catches the eye of the pretty Miss Sau before that.

Essentially, Hapkido argues forbearance is all very good up to a point, but eventually bad guys need to be put down. In terms of narrative, it is your basic, pan-Asian (Chinese and Korean) anti-Japanese score-settling. However, the fight scenes are some of the best of the era. Hapkido was one of Master Sammo Hung’s earliest films as both the fight choreographer and a featured player, charismatically portraying the rashly heroic Fan Wei.

He also had some of the best movie martial artists to work with, starting first and foremost with the legendary Angela Mao Ying. Yu Ying is definitely the sort of role that was in her power zone and she duly knocks it out of the park. Reliable Carter Wong Ka-Tat is also totally solid as the dependable Kao Chang. Real life hapkido masters Hwang In-shik and Ji Han-jae add authenticity and spectacular chops as the siblings’ elder classmate and Hapkido master, respectively. If you look closely, you might see early appearances from Jackie Chan and Corey Yuen as Black Bear and Hapkido students. Plus, Nancy Sit adds further star power as the sweet but plucky Miss Sau.

You could uncharitable label Hapkido “formulaic,” but it is the sort of film that will totally quench your craving for martial arts action. Obviously, it would make a terrific double-feature with Feng Huang’s similarly Korean-themed When Taekwondo Strikes. Both films are great showcases for Mao that just deliver the good stuff over and over again. However, Sammo Hung fans will find Hapkido even more satisfying. Recommended with fannish affection, Hapkido kicks off Old School Kung Fu this Friday (8/18) at Metrograph. Mao fans should also check her out in King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan, which screens the next day.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hunting the KGB Killers: The Litvinenko Case on Acorn TV

He was a British subject, assassinated on British soil, by a foreign power, employing the most radioactive substance known to man. Wars have been started over lesser provocations. It is inconceivable an operation of that magnitude could be executed without the direct consent of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. The mere acquisition of Polonium 210 would require coordination at the highest levels of government. Yet, we can confidently ascribe responsibility to Putin and his henchmen, because Litvinenko himself worked with Scotland Yard to solve his own murder during his final hours. The high stakes investigation and Russian’s attempts to cover-up the truth are conclusively revealed in the documentary-special, Hunting the KGB Killers, directed by Chris Malone, which starts streaming on Acorn TV tomorrow.

Litvinenko has been closely linked with Chechen dissidents, but his real role in the FSB (the renamed KGB) is often conveniently overlooked. According to Litvinenko (whose credibility has been tragically established beyond reasonable doubt), he was promoted to a secret division of the FSB responsible for assassinating the Kremlin’s political and economic rivals. Obviously, it is still in business. Ill-advisedly, Litvinenko had called a meeting with the newly elected Putin, hoping the president would halt such abuses. Instead, he had to defect to the UK with his wife Marina and their son Anatoly, who address Litvinenko’s assassination on-camera for the first time in KGB Killers.

Lead investigator DI Brian Tarpey takes viewers through his inquiry, step-by-step, starting with a meeting with an unnamed MI5 agent, who turned out to be Litvinenko’s handler. With his identity confirmed, the dying Litvinenko willingly submitted to a “living autopsy” to determine the agent of his poisoning. When Polonium-210 was determined to be the cause of his impending death, it unleashed a hard target search through the London establishments he frequented, as well as a very real public health scare. Tarpey’s team even journeyed to Russia, where they were stonewalled and also poisoned with more benign gastrointestinal bacteria.

Although its running time clocks in just under an hour, KGB Killers is packed with stunning information. Frankly, it is an outrage that the world is not more outraged over this crime. Russian apologists and stooges have used a lot of disinformation and red herrings to distract the western media from the fundamental issues. This was a British subject, who was cooperating with western intelligence and law enforcement agencies to expose Russian crime syndicates linked to Putin and his oligarch cronies.

The respect Tarpey and his colleagues have for Litvinenko comes through loud and clear. The details on their dogged pursuit of the murderers, Anjdrey Lugovoy (now a member of Russia’s parliament and hence immune from prosecution) and Dmitri Kovtun, is also highly instructive. Although the iconic photo of the emaciated Litvinenko is often shown during KGB Killers, Malone also uses dramatic re-enactments of the whistle-blower’s final days. Documentary purists might have mixed feelings on such a strategy, but it must be conceded Andrew Byron (a bit-player in Wonder Woman) is an eerie dead-ringer for Litvinenko. Eddie Marsan’s narration is also totally professional and gives the film some name-recognition (if star-power is too strong a term).

KGB Killers is a seamless chronicle that will shock viewers with the full magnitude and viciousness of the FSB’s crimes under Putin. Yet, it also keeps the human element in perspective through the memories of the surviving Litvinenkos and the Scotland Yard investigators. It is a film all Americans should watch, starting with the president.

Let’s be honest, the West’s triumph over Communism during the Cold War was also the greatest political victory in the history of the right/left divide. Yet, Trump seems determined to retroactively sabotage that victory, by openly courting the Soviets’ successor in spirit and oppressive practice. He is not just compromising American national security. He is also jeopardizing the legacy of the American conservative movement. Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and Barry Goldwater must be weeping bitter tears in their graves.

To get a sense of who Putin really is, Hunting the KGB Killers is very highly recommended when it launches on Acorn TV tomorrow (8/14).

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Future Imperfect: The Year of the Plague

The doctor considers it a Crichton-esque super-virus. His musician-lover sees it more as the pent-up release of the masses’ accumulated physical and spiritual pestilence. Either way, it is a stretch to call this outbreak drama science fiction. Indeed, the impulse to sweep the mounting crisis under the rug is acutely human, in the worst way. The cover-up will be just as deadly as the disease in Felipe Cazals’ The Year of the Plague, which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

It is odd Year of the Plague is not more frequently screened, because the screenplay was co-written by Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez (with José Agustín and Juan Arturo Brennan). Supposedly, it is based on Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, but it bears more of a likeness to Camus’s The Plague. Dr. Genovés is a senior attending physician at a leading Mexican university hospitality, who has no trouble recognizing the early stages of a plague from the fifty-some suspicious cases he has seen so far. However, his superiors and the government easily bury the plague victims amid the thousands of other people who died during the same time period due to more pedestrian urban pathologies. As a consolation, Genovés will commence an affair with a much younger and prettier aspiring musician.

Literally mountains of corpses start to pile up, but they know how to take care of that down there. When a Norwegian cabinet minister also succumbs to the plague, the government will recklessly and unethically send his body home with a deceptive congestive heart failure diagnosis and no environmental safeguards. Of course, he is the exception. Most of the plague’s victims simply don’t count for much.

Peste is an ultra-1970s-looking film, presented in a pseudo-documentary style, but with spare room here and there for dramatic character development. As a result, it is hard to forge an emotional connection with the film, even though it features several musical interludes. Yet, its retro-ness is also one of its greatest appeals. Frankly, watching polyester-wearing bureaucrats villainously scheme amid groovy office décor is always a cool nostalgia trip.

The docudrama approach necessarily hems in the cast, but Alejandro Parodi (bearing a vague resemblance to Mike “Touch” Connors) has the sort of presence you would want from your viral outbreak doctor. However, for Cazals and García Márquez, the real stars of the film are those dump trucks and mass graves overflowing with corpses.

Clearly, García Márquez was using the Plague as a metaphor for what he thought ailed society in the 1970s. It didn’t make much sense that his solution was to invest more power in centralized governments and further disenfranchise the individual as a political and economic free agent, but Latin American Leftism was never about logic. It was about faith in a secular god that failed. Year of the Plague is a strange time capsule from that overheated era, but its visuals and paranoid vibe still retain some potency for contemporary viewers. Worth checking out as a colorful product of its time, The Year of the Plague screens again tomorrow afternoon (8/13) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Bonello’s Nocturama

Tom Wolfe’s prophetic words: “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe” applies with double irony to the violent millennials who will unleash a day of terror on the city of Paris. They have embraced the very tactics of fascism they would ascribe to those they disagree with, while inspiring a ruthless police state response to their atrocities. Yet, whether Bertrand Bonello has admiration or contempt for them remains maddeningly ambiguous throughout Nocturama (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The first half-hour of Nocturama is an absolute master class in blocking and editing, as we watch about a dozen twentynothings crisscross their way through Paris. Although they seem to know each other, they only make oblique acknowledgements. They are clearly up to something sinister, but Bonello takes his time revealing the particulars.

Eventually, we learn the homegrown terrorists plan to plant bombs in the Interior Ministry, a colossal office building still under construction, and in cars parked along a major thoroughfare. Simultaneously, they also plot to assassinate the French head of the HSBC Bank and set fire to a statue of Jean d’Arc. Seriously, only French leftists could consider a revolutionary peasant girl to be a symbol of patriarchal imperialism, or whatever.

In many ways, Nocturama is a withering indictment of immature anti-capitalist rhetorical posturing, but it is unclear whether it was intended as such. Eventually, Bonello’s crew of radicals takes shelter in a high-end Harrods-like department store, where an accomplice has executed his fellow security guards. There, they enjoy all the fruits of the capitalist system they supposedly so despise, as they wait for the heat to blow over. At this point, Nocturama loses steam, down-shifting into a riff on Dawn of the Dead, but these terrorists are bigger monsters than any of Romero’s zombies.

Fittingly, the crew often engages in lip-synching to pass the time. Arguably, their politics is another form of lip-synching that regurgitates revolutionary platitudes but lacks an understanding of their context and full implications. Being “against globalization” is just the thing to be, like wearing designer urban couture. Still, we cannot help feel the tension as they get antsy, like rats in confined spaces.

Visually, Nocturama is a dazzling work of auteurism. Cinematographer Léo Hinstin keeps the look and vibe of film perched just on the cusp of the surreal, but never lets it teeter over the edge. It is bravura filmmaking, but Bonello’s coquettish refusal to make moral judgements has not aged well in light of the very real terrorist attacks that rocked France during the film’s post-production. We are left with an aesthetically impressive work that inhabits the same moral-ethical space as Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries. Anyone who seriously studies or covers cinema will need to deal with it, but it will leave most viewers of good conscience deeply troubled by its extreme detachment from humanity. Ambiguously challenging in every aspect, Nocturama opens today (8/11) in New York, at the Metrograph.

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The Pilgrimage: Transporting The Rock

It wasn’t that long ago that the Irish saved civilization, but by 1209 they are apparently ready to go all in with the barbarians. Christianity has consolidated its hold on Europe, so woe unto those who are not down with Rome’s program. In this case, the Pope has decreed a relic held by a remote Irish monastery should be moved to the Vatican. The Brothers know this is a mistake, but they still faithfully comply.  A ragtag group of the faithful and the zealous will embark on a violent road trip in Brendan Muldowney’s The Pilgrimage (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Supposedly, The Rock of St. Matthias martyred the apostle who filled Judas’s vacancy, but it caused the hurler to immolate immediately thereafter. Since then, anyone of insufficient virtue who touches it, meets a similar fate. It might not look like much, but The Rock sure would be handy to have on a crusade.

Frankly, Brother Geraldus the Cistercian is more of an inquisition guy than a crusader, but he has embraced his assignment from the Pope with typical fervor. In exchange for safe passage, Geraldus has promised the aging Baron De Merville absolution, but his rebellious heir, Raymond De Merville has cut his own deal with the king. However, he did not bargain on the fierce fighting prowess of The Mute, a lay penitent, who has taken a vow of silence. The Mute is more concerned with protecting the young novice Brother Diarmuid than The Rock, but he is certainly no stranger to killing.

There are a few decent scenes of hack-and-slash action in Pilgrimage, but Heaven help us Brother, is it ever didactic. Geraldus is such a prissy, preening, unsubtly vile anti-Catholic caricature, he makes it difficult to get past his polemical howlers. At one point, when recalling how he killed his own father on the rack for so-called heresy, Geraldus hisses: “the problem wasn’t that he lost his faith in the Church, he’d lost his fear of it.” Ooooh, how cold.

If Muldowney had read a little Thomas Cahill and laid off the polemics, Pilgrimage could have been an agreeably muddy and gritty action historical. Cinematographer Tom Comerford makes it all look appropriately dark and dank. Most importantly, Jon Bernthal has the chops and the presence for the silently glowering Mute. On the other hand, Stanley Weber is a horror show of villainous tics and clichés as the mustache-twisting Geraldus. Tom Holland, the new Spiderman nobody asked for, is a vanilla wallflower non-entity as Diarmuid. However, John Lynch lends the film more dignity and gravitas than it deserves as the noble Brother Ciarán.

After watching Pilgrimage you will feel like you were hit over the head with a giant mace, just like De Merville’s foes. This is definitely a case where less could have been more. Not recommended, The Pilgrimage opens today (8/11) in New York, at the Village East.

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A Taxi Driver: Korea, May 1980

To this day, the Gwangju Uprising remains controversial in Korea. Partisans on either side still claim either the North Koreans or U.S. military intervened, despite a lack of evidence either party got involved. Reportedly, the ROK Army suffered its greatest casualties when they opened fire on each other, which is never an advisable tactic. However, they had no trouble shooting at unarmed civilians when German reporter Jürgen Hinzpeter started secretly filming the Uprising. His footage shocked the world, but it was even more traumatic for the cabbie who witnessed it unfold live in Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Like many Koreans, the mystery cabbie calling himself “Kim Man-seob” believed the demonstrations were just a few self-indulgent college students. Frankly, he does not pay much attention to rumor or the media, so has no idea what he is getting into when he intercepts a pre-arranged 100,000 won fare to take Hinzpeter from Seoul to Gwangju and back. Much to his surprise, the military has barricaded all roads into town. Once they slip in, Kim will also be even more taken aback by the city’s war footing. He just wants to get paid and return to Seoul, but when he delivers a secondary fare to the hospital, the death and suffering he sees there will finally rouse his political conscience and sense of outrage.

As it turns out, Gwangju cabbies were highly activist, because Hwang Tae-sul and his colleagues give their Seoul counterpart quite a dressing down. Regardless, the taxicab setting is quite convenient for facilitating plenty of car chases and stunt driving. However, it is still quite a faithfully rendered period production, most definitely including the cars and the clothes, but also probably the music too (but we will defer to the judgement of K-pop experts on that point).

You have to give Korean cinema credit for hospitality when they cast western actors in major roles. While Chinese films pretty much only employ Yank and Brit expats as cartoon villains (hello, Wolf Warrior franchise), Korean films offer some highly sympathetic portrayals of historical figures. In this case, Thomas Kretschmann’s Hinzpeter is a figure audiences will personally root for even more than Liam Neeson’s Douglas MacArthur in the rip-roaring Operation Chromite and he covers a wider emotional range.

Of course, Song Kang-ho was born to play slightly problematic everymen, like Kim. His steadfast denial and constant bickering with Hinzpeter wears a little thin after the first act, but he really lowers the boom in his scenes of disillusionment with the government and subsequent embrace of democratic idealism. The ever-reliable Yoo Hai-jin is also likably salty but down to earth as Hwang.

This is a case where articles make a world of difference. Sharing absolutely no kinship with Travis Bickle, A Taxi Driver is very much in the same inspiring inspired-by-real-life-events bag that also spawned the Song Kang-ho vehicle, The Attorney. However, ATD has more action and intrigue and just generally happens to be more movie-like. Despite his occasional score-settling, Jang Hoon’s execution is tight, tense, and ultimately downright Capra-esque.  Recommended for fans of underdog historical dramas, A Taxi Driver opens today (8/11) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Ghoul: Head-Shrinking and Mind-Bending

You can definitely call this deep cover. The morose looking Chris is either an undercover investigator feigning severe depression to investigate a pair of nefarious shrinks or he is an emotional basket case who frequently gets lost in fantasies of undercover police work. Frankly, viewers will be completely unable to parse reality from fantasy and he is just as lost himself in Gareth Tunley’s head-spinning The Ghoul (trailer here), which opens in select markets tomorrow.

As the film opens, Chris has no reason to doubt he is a former cop, who took the fall for some sort of departmental scandal, but is brought back in from time to time in an off-the-books capacity. His ex-partner Jim has such a case. A couple fell victim to a double homicide, but from the evidence they were suspiciously hard to kill, like junkies hopped up on PCP, except sturdier and cleaner. It turns out the property was managed by one Coulson, a well-heeled playboy with a history of “pushing” the impressionable to commit anti-social crimes.

Coulson makes himself scarce, but a search of his flat reveals he has been seeing an analyst by the name of Fisher, but she might have referred him to her mentor, Alexander Morland. Chris will follow in Coulson’s footsteps, pretending to suffer from long-term debilitating depression with coaching from Jim’s wife Kathleen, a psychiatric nurse for whom he has long carried a torch. Except, Chris isn’t really faking it that much. No matter who the real Chris is, he obviously has trouble enjoying the little things in life. As his treatment progresses, it becomes unclear whether the assumed persona is indeed fake or if it is part of an elaborate fantasy life he has constructed. Of course, he too will inevitably be referred to Morland.

The Ghoul is not merely another Lynchian reality-problematizer. The villainy Tunley suggests could be afoot just might be a new one on us. It is hard to explain without getting spoilery, but it most likely involves the New Agey glyphs adorning Morland’s office.

It is safe to say Tunley twists are especially twisted. The stakes are also much more considerable than the immediate is-he-or-isn’t-he question. Things get big picture cosmic, on a small, intimate scale. This is the kind of genre picture that is totally cool, because it throws you for a loop, but has just about zero special effects.

As Chris, Tom Meeten looks like the poster boy for clinical depression, regardless of the reality he is working in. It is an exhaustingly haggard and existential performance, but we never catch him acting. Likewise, Rufus Jones is terrific as the flamboyant and openly manipulative Coulson, who repeatedly up-ends our assumptions and expectations. Geoffrey McGivern goes all in chewing the scenery like a Hammer villain as Morland, but Niamh Cusack is more ambiguously insidious as Fisher.

The Ghoul probably demands too much attention from Rob Zombie horror fans, but if you just focus a little, it will really get under your skin. It is also unusually well-acted by genre standards. Cinematographer Benjamin Pritchard gives it a dark, dank, eerie look in keeping with the films of executive producer Ben Wheatley, so you know its good stuff. Very highly recommended, The Ghoul opens tomorrow (8/11) in several off-the-beaten-path venues, including the Lyric Cinema Café in Fort Collins.

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Kew Gardens ’17: Voices from Kaw Thoo Lei (short)

Burma’s Mainland China-aligned military junta loved to rename things, starting with the nation itself. Similarly, the region known as Kaw Thoo Lei by its ethnic Karen population became the Karen state. In this case, you might credit the government with some degree of honesty, since Kaw Thoo Lei means “peaceful land.” Tragically, state-sponsored terrorism and ethnic cleansing have made the region anything but peaceful. Survivors of the genocidal crimes tell their stories in Martha Gorzycki’s experimental short documentary, Voices from Kaw Thoo Lei (trailer here), which screens during the first ever Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.

Gorzycki insists we focus on their testimony, so she strips away distractions that come from talking head interviews. We will only hear audio of the speakers, superimposed over eerie animated images generated from over ten thousand black-and-white photos. They are mostly impressionistic rather than representational, but they express a deeper truth about the state of human rights in Burma.

As you would expect, the stories are chilling and heartbreaking. At regular intervals, the Burmese military would descend on Kaw Thaw Lei like locusts, burning all the huts and food stores in sight. Women were raped and orphaned children were left to fend for themselves in the rain forest.

You cannot accuse Gorzycki of using cheap tactics to gin up sympathy. There are no manipulative images of bloody corpses or crying children. Yet, we understand in no uncertain terms such suffering frequently resulted from the government-sponsored rampages.

Voices is one of several recent avant-garde-ish short documentaries that use unconventional means to chronicle crimes against humanity. Some enterprising festival ought to program it together with Alexandre Liebert’s Scars of Cambodia and Alisi Telengut’s Nutag – Homeland. They are all challenging films, not because they are hard to watch, but rather because they are hard to face. Very highly recommended, Vocies from Kaw Thoo Lei screens this afternoon (8/10) at the Queens Museum, as part of the inaugural Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Mune: Guardian of the Moon—A One-Day GKIDS Event

The astronomy of it is terrible, but the world-building of this French fantastical fable is quite a wonder. According to this world’s creation myth, the original Guardian of the Sun reeled in the celestial body with a harpoon, while the Guardian of the Moon brought back the nocturnal satellite from the land of dreams. Ever since then, their apostolic predecessors have used fantastical pack animals to drag the sun and moon through their world, maintaining the balance between night and day. Nobody would choose a confidence-challenged forest faun like Mune to be a guardian, but the decision is made for him in Alexandre Heboyan & Benoît Philippon’s Mune: Guardian of the Moon (trailer here), which screens this Saturday as a special GKIDS Fathom Events presentation.

In a special ceremony incorporating dwellers of both day and night, the apprentices of the Guardians of the Sun and Moon will succeed their masters. It is supposed to be a mere formality, but the lunar ewe (a lamb, how archetypal) selects Mune instead. That looks like a bad call when Mune crashes the giant ostrich-bound temple, losing the moon when its gossamer bonds are severed.

Matters get even worse when Sohone, the preening new Guardian of the Sun leaves his post to give Mune a good chewing out. Minions of Necross, the Miltonian former Guardian of the Sun-turned evil, take advantage of his absence to steal the sun. Obviously, Mune and Sohone will have to put aside their differences to reacquire the sun and moon. Fortunately, Glim, the dusk-living wax creature serves as a peacemaker and motivational coach for them both. However, they must take care to look after her. She stiffly coagulates in cold temperatures and would fatally melt in excessive heat.

Mune is one of the most visually arresting works of feature-length computer animation ever produced. It is a richly detailed world, filled with exotic creatures, constructed atop a compellingly original mythos-foundation. This film looks great, but the characterization is rather pat and predictable (the reluctant quest-hero who rises to the occasion, the spurned apprentice who gets played by the super villain, and the arrogant young guardian who learns a lesson in humility). Several of the shtickier characters, such as Necross’s bumbling minions and Glim’s hand-wringing father also quickly wear out their welcome.

Still, this is a lovely film that rewards virtue and inspires forgiveness. It shares some of weaknesses of big budget studio animation, but the craftsmanship is far superior. Frankly, Takeshi Yashiro’s utterly charming stop-motion-animated short Moon of a Sleepless Night tells a somewhat thematically-similar story, but it is even more captivating. Mune is nice too, but not as magical. Recommended for family viewing, Mune: Guardian of the Moon screens this Saturday afternoon (8/12) at participating theaters nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York.

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