Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: DUTCHMAN (1967).

The racial allegory runs deep when a seductive white woman targets a black man in this edgy adaptation of the groundbreaking Obie-winning play by Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones] -- a two-character confrontation which provides an acting tour de force for Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr., and was also the first film by director Anthony Harvey (THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, THE LION IN WINTER). Only 55-minutes long, this often eschews reality in favor of two-ton metaphor, but that doesn't blunt its provocative (and often downright fucking angry) agenda.

It's a steamy evening in the New York City subway, and a suit-'n'-tie-attired black man named Clay locks eyes with a tempting young woman -- blonde, white, wearing a striped mini-skirt -- on the platform. She enters the same empty car, introduces herself as Lula, sits beside him, and begins to flirt so aggressively that it's a little creepy. No surprise, Clay is turned on by this unpredictable beauty, who keeps chowing down on apples that she pulls from her purse, but he's also confounded by her abrupt mood shifts. One moment she's sensually draping her bare legs over his lap, the next this Manic Pixie Nightmare is shouting, crying and eventually even calling him an "escaped nigger" and "Uncle Tom." For the film's first 25 minutes, it's just the two in the car alone -- though it eventually fills up with background commuters who pay little attention to them -- and despite all of her eccentric behavior antics, Lula keeps Clay's from simply bolting from this nutjob with promises of them doing "the nasty."

Steeped in Baraka's almost poetic dialogue, Knight has a field day with this batshit-crazy role -- flinging fruit about, climbing all over Clay, dancing around the car, berating the other passengers, until (like the legendary Flying Dutchman that its title evokes) Lula shifts her attention to fresh prey on this perpetually-moving subway car -- and it's like nothing the two-time Oscar nominee had done before. But while Knight has the showier role, it's only when Freeman's initially passive character finally unleashes his own personal rage that this long-simmering film comes to a full boil. Freeman is so incredible during his blistering diatribe that you wonder how he never became a bigger name in the biz. Meanwhile, its black-and-white cinematography by Gerry Turpin (THE WRONG BOX, OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR) blends authentic, eerily empty shots of NYC subway platforms with its train car set. 

Sure, DUTCHMAN seems a bit heavyhanded nowadays -- what with Lula as a metaphor for America's treatment of the black man -- but when the play premiered in 1964, it was controversial stuff, with its shocking conclusion gaining additional potency following the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and its interracial tensions still resonating 50 years after it was written.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: FOUR ASSASSINS (2012; available on Netflix Streaming)

The first person I ever met who extolled the joys of Asian filmmaking -- wayyyy back in the late-1970's -- was my college friend Stanley J. Orzel. He was a senior member of the University Union Cinema Board, worked as a projectionist (often running foreign films for various campus groups), and adored Hong Kong cinema, long before anyone in the US paid attention to anything more than imported chopsocky. Well, after years of racking up creative consulting gigs on films such as HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and FEARLESS, Stanley J. Orzel makes his writing-directing feature debut with FOUR ASSASSINS, a deceptively simple Hong Kong chamber piece, primarily set in one spacious hotel room and centered around a quartet of professional assassins.

It's late evening in Hong Kong, with top hitman Marcus (Will Yun Lee) in an hotel suite -- alone, but not for long -- with three more killers soon making it a foursome. Ex-girlfriend Cordelia (Mercedes Renard) unexpectedly shows up, accompanied by jittery British prettyboy Chase (Oliver Williams), as well as their superior Eli (Miguel Ferrer), a mentor to both Marcus and Cordelia since they were teens. Eli is pissed at Marcus is in seriously hot water over a Singapore job snafu where one of his targets went missing, and the top bosses want this problem "resolved" (i.e. Marcus' death); but first, they all share a sumptuous room service meal, recall old times (complete with flashbacks to past assignments -- an attack on Eli and his ultimate revenge, an absurd attempt to run over a target with a compact car), as well as Cordelia and Marcus thrashing out old issues. As Marcus' time runs out. the characters' still-raw personal losses are exposed, games are played, and the truth behind Marcus' potentially-deadly plight is divulged. Meanwhile, Chase simply acts like a dick. 

Originally entitled FAR AWAY EYES, that was probably a better fit for this type of introspective piece, instead of saddling it with a generic moniker (not to mention, a poster with handguns pointing in every direction) that promises balls-out B-movie action. Orzel instead delivers a stylishly-shot, slow-burn character study, punctuated with bursts of gunplay and bloodshed. Lee (currently co-starring in THE WOLVERINE) gives the story a beautifully melancholy foundation, while Ferrer plays a more nuanced version of the authoritative shitheads that's become his specialty -- but also has an opportunity to do some of his best acting in years. The rest of the cast is regrettably hit-and-miss though. Renard is pretty yet generic, and supposedly-ruthless Williams ends up unrelentingly hammy (quick, someone get him a Steven Seagal movie, stat!). By focusing on these damaged, destructive characters and their past ties, Orzel manages to build suspense and intrigue even when his leads merely sit around this palatial suite, gabbing to each other, with moments of unexpected humor also weaved throughout, as well as savvy use of the 1940's tune "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)." It's a gorgeously lensed, uniquely structured debut. Meanwhile, Orzel has already completed his second feature -- the romantic drama LOST FOR WORDS, starring Grace Huang, Sean Faris and Will Yun Lee -- which is now playing the film festival circuit.

Friday, July 26, 2013

In which I return, with reviews:

THE RABBI'S CAT [Le Chat du Rabbin] (2011; Gkids)

I admit that I've followed this film ever since it went into production, so I was quite excited to land a nice Blu-ray, double-disc copy recently. As I've stated before (see GAINSBOURG, VIE HEROIC), I'm a huge fan of Joann Sfar going back to his Burton-esque early works (
Vampire LovesDonjon), through his more recent historical comics (Rabbi's Cat,Klezmer) and now his films.

It would be easy to dismiss THE RABBI'S CAT as a religious themed parable with funny, talking animals -- and sure, there is a fair amount of Jewish culture as the base of the story. But it is exactly this set up which Sfar uses as a springboard to tell an entertaining tale about Algeria in the 1920's.

The protagonist, a cat with no name, lives with a Rabbi who “...says prayers in Hebrew for people who speak Arabic.” He has an almost-adult daughter, Zlabya, who is strong minded and independent, personality traits that give him concern as well as pride. 

The Cat eats a talking parrot and suddenly finds it is able to speak. While at first this is a novelty, it quickly becomes part of the film's larger debate about faith, culture, life, and what makes people different (or not) from each other. In an early scene, the Rabbi attempts to explain the Jewish Faith to The Cat who has expressed an interest in being Bar Mitzvah-ed (despite being told that he can't actually be Jewish because he is a cat). As the Rabbi makes his way through the early chapters of the bible -- Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark -- The Cat happily points out that because of carbon dating it's clear that it is all nonsense. This sort of irreverent humor pervades even the most serious passages and sets up a rather amusing finale as the themes come back around full circle. It is also rife with in-jokes, some aimed firmly at the French-Belgian comics scene (for example the characters make a journey across Africa and meet an obnoxious young “reporter” and his “stupid dog”).

The animation is elegant, 2D, hand-drawn style with some CGI. While it never completely captures the organic art of Joann Sfar's books (not an easy task for a music video, much less a feature film) it is beautiful and maintains his aesthetics. Excellent voice acting is provided by the French-language cast: Daniel Cohen as the Rabbi, Karina Testa as Zlabya, Eric Elmosnino (GAINSBOURG) as Professor Sulliman, Francois Morel as The Cat, and even Joann Sfar himself as the Man in the Box. THE RABBI'S CAT is by far one of the best animated films I've seen in some time and well worth the wait. 

There are two extras on the double-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set. The 'Making Of' short film is interesting -- starting with models for the various characters, right through the voice actors and their take on the roles to the score -- all micro-managed by Sfar, who becomes charmingly excited whenever anyone gets something right. The hour-long JOANN SFAR DRAWS FROM MEMORY, screened at film festivals, is also included as a featurette. It works as a primer of sorts for people who may be unfamiliar with Sfar's work (he's been a household name in France for years and has changed the face of French comics indelibly). We watch him at work in cafes, discuss his process and the changes his career has been through. Also he reflects on his obsession with the past and the stories of his ancestors, even as he admits a desire to see his own children unburdened of that same history. It's an enjoyable mini-history for those who have followed his art for years (myself) and for those who have just stumbled onto this Bande Dessinée mega-star.