J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 21, 2018

In Darkness: Murder She Heard

There are a fair number of pianists to be found in classic giallos. Most likely, it is because of the genre’s obsession with hands—often donning patent leather gloves and wrapped around a woman’s throat. For a while, it seems like this film will paying homage to the J&B whiskey-guzzling Italian tradition. It even opens with the blind pianist scoring a neo-retro-giallo. Alas, the screenplay then gets “topical,” throttling the good vibes of Anthony Byrne’s In Darkness (trailer here), co-written and co-produced with his fiancé and star, Natalie Dormer, which opens this Friday in New York.

Sofia is light-sensitive, but legally blind. Nevertheless, she gets around London just fine on her own. She knows her upstairs neighbor Veronique by the smell of her perfume. At least, she did until the disturbed young woman took a header out the window. However, the scuffle she overheard suggests homicide rather than suicide. It turns out, the hot mess neighbor had a notorious father—alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal Zoran Radic.

The bad news is the killer got a good look at her. Fortunately, he also knows she is blind. In fact, Marc, the brooding murderer will keep an eye out for Sofia as she gets swept up in the aftermath. It turns out Veronique had an incriminating flash-drive, loaded with dirt on Daddy Dearest. However, before the film settles into a one-set, three-act thriller in the tradition of Wait Until Dark, we start to learn Sofia also has her own Balkan connections.

The first half-hour or so of In Darkness is not bad, because it largely employs old school stage-thriller techniques, including the home invading murderer slowly skulking around the oblivious Sofia. Frustratingly, the more it reveals of its exploitative back story, the less effective it becomes. To make matters worse, Byrne and Dormer frequently lay some pretty patchy groundwork to establish their future revelations.

Still, Dormer has some nifty noir thriller chemistry with her Game of Thrones co-star Ed Skrein, as the conflicted killer. Ben Wheatley-regular Neil Maskell nicely plays against type as the shlubby but doggedly honest DI Oscar Mills. However, the highlight of the film is Joely Richardson’s flamboyant scenery chewing as Alex, Marc’s sharp-tongued and sharp-clawed sister and security consultant boss. Plus, with the appearance of James Cosmos, dependably weathered, as Sofia old comrade, In Darkness scores the GoT hattrick.

In the case of In Darkness, less probably would have been much more. Frankly, its political intrigue does not make much sense and bears little relation to reality. The notion the British government is sheltering Radic from the Russians is particularly dubious, considering how war-time Serbia and Srpska have tilted towards Putin. Frankly, the West fiddled while Sarajevo burned, but we have pretty diligent about apprehending and extraditing Bosnian Serb war criminals, because closing the barn door after the fact is what we do best.

There are some sparks between Dormer and Skrein, but ultimately, they are undermined by a messy narrative and questionable character reveals. Cinematographer Si Bell gives it all a stylish, tantalizingly-close-to-giallo look, but that just makes us pine for the delicious lunacy of Peter Strickland’s retro giallo freak-out, Berberian Sound Studio. We wish we could send it back to the editing bay, but as it stands, In Darkness is too inconsistent to recommend when it opens this Friday (5/25) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Chang Cheh at the Quad: House of Traps

In 1982, the Shaw Brothers released two films based on the classic Chinese novel, The Seven Heroes and the Five Gallants. Cat vs. Rat starred Kara Hui, whereas Chang Cheh’s version had no women roles whatsoever. It’s still fun anyway. Chang’s House of Traps, fondly remembered as the last time he assembled his so-called Venom Mob (from The Five Deadly Venoms), screens as part of the Quad’s upcoming retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore.

It is Kung Fu versus booby-traps and a rather nasty thief. Yan Chunmin is the honest scholar crime-busting judge Bao Zheng has appointed Inspector General of Xiangyang, the seat of rebellious Prince Zhao Jue’s power. The line between hero and thief (or grifter) is rather porous throughout the film, as a con man becomes the scholar’s protector and two thieves ostensibly aligned with the Prince will eventually face-off against each in the climatic battle.

Along the way, hidden allies will reveal themselves and the four surviving Gallant “Rats” will rally to the loyalist cause after one of their brothers is killed in the Prince’s titular “House of Traps.” It is there that the Prince stores several significant stolen works of art as well as the dishonor roll of all who have sworn allegiance to his uprising—sort of an early version of the NOC List.

Basically, House of T is Kung Fu with a touch of Rube Goldberg and some costumes worthy of Evel Knievel or Liberace (but seriously, what’s with those knit bonnets?). It seems like a simple story, but Chang and co-screenwriter Ni Kuang manage to complicate the heck out of it. There is an unwieldly large cast of name characters, who are constantly coming and going, like characters in a screwball farce. However, Philip Kwok and Lu Feng certainly show off the martial arts chops the Venom Gang were famous for.

There are plenty of fan-pleasing fight sequences, plus a few rather striking visuals. However, what really sets the film apart is the goriness of the deaths inside the Prince’s house of pain. Stuff happens there that is worthy of the Saw and Final Departure franchises, but Chang manages to keep the overall tone brisk and upbeat. Sure, it is goofy and bloody, but it is still good clean fun. Recommended for fans of the Shaws and the Venoms, House of Traps screens this Thursday (5/24), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

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Nature: The World’s Most Wanted Animal

They are considered the only truly scaly mammal, but if you are not already familiar with the pangolin, you may not have much time to get to know them. Currently, they are considered the most endangered and most illegally trafficked animals on the globe. However, pangolins have a few friends out there, including dedicated preservationist Maria Diekmann and possibly the most famous woman in the world, Angelababy (trust me, nobody in Hollywood can touch her social media numbers). From Namibia and Vietnam to Hong Kong, activist race to save the pangolin in Victoria Bromley’s The World’s Most Wanted Animal (promo here), which airs this Wednesday on PBS as part of the current season of Nature.

Diekmann is pretty the boots on the ground when it comes to saving the African pangolin in Namibia. She gets the call when authorities recover live pangolins. Even with their scales, they are a surprisingly cute little creature, sort of like armadillos that walk upright on their hindlegs, but with more personality. Tragically, pangolin scales have been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine and there is also demand in Chinese restaurants for their meat. As a result, the Chinese market has largely decimated the Asian species of pangolins, despite the best efforts of Thai Van Nguyen and his pangolin rescue colleagues at the nonprofit Save Vietnam’s Wildlife—and they are fast depleting the African population, as well.

Essentially, Most Wanted is divided into two parts. The first focuses on Diekmann’s work in Namibia, giving special attention to Honey Bun, a pangolin she saved as a baby. The second chronicles Diekmann’s travels in Asia, learning from her Vietnamese colleagues’ experiences and strategizing PR outreach with Angelababy. Clearly, the only way to save the pangolins for the long term is to make the consumption of their products socially unacceptable in the Chinese market. One of the results of their meeting was this stark PSA, posted on her social networks. (For the record, Maggie Q is also a pangolin ambassador, so pay attention.)

Throughout Most Wanted, Bromley and Diekmann definitely drive home the urgency of the situation (which is indeed dire), but the pangolins are still quite entertaining to watch, especially Honey Bun. They are their own best advocates, but it does not hurt to have Angelababy cranking up her star-power. Cinematographers Sue Gibson and Graham MacFarlane also capture some stunning shots of the natural landscapes of Africa and Vietnam. There is actually quite a bit in this film to see—and protect. Highly recommended for the message and the visuals, The World’s Most Wanted Animal premieres this Wednesday (5/23), on PBS’s Nature.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: The Five Deadly Venoms

How would you like to be rescued by a toad or a lizard (possibly a gecko, depending on the translation of the subtitles)? Fortunately, there are no distressed damsels in this Shaw Brothers classic. Instead, the Venom martial arts clan will take care of some internal business. The Master has died, but he has sent his last student out to find out whether his brothers have been naughty or nice in Chang Cheh’s legendary The Five Deadly Venoms, which screens during the Quad’s upcoming retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore.

The old master trained five disciples, each in a different venom style. The Centipede attacks so quickly, it is like getting pummeled by hundreds of fists. Snakes strikes accurately and lethally at his victim’s weakest point. Toad is nearly invincible to fist or blade, but if his secret Achilles heel is pierced, he loses all his mojo. Lizard is so speedy, he walks up walls like Spiderman. Scorpion is known for his deadly kicks, which sounds conventional, but he is the sneakiest snake in the grass of them all.

The master sent them back out into the world, at which point they adopted new names and mostly started to reflect discredit on the clan through their crimes. With his dying breath, he instructs Yang Tieh to track down his five brothers, ascertain who has strayed from the righteous path and punish the wicked. Yang was trained in all five venoms, but his master died before his training was completed. He will not be able to defeat any of his seniors alone, but if he teams up with one of them, they will be able to perfectly compliment each other.

That will most likely be either Toad or Lizard (who is masquerading as a mildly corrupt constable). They are more rogues than villains. Like the other mystery venoms, they are searching for the treasure purloined by Yun, the Master’s elderly former clan brother. In fact, Toad is so public-spirited, he assists his brother Lizard apprehending a murder, whom they (rightly) suspect to be Centipede, but that calls unfortunate attention to Toad and his conspicuous toad-like invulnerability. Most of the venoms are pretty easy to guess, but Yang hides in plain sight, posing as a goofball drifter, which he mostly is.

Five Venoms is beloved as much for its eccentricity as it is for its martial arts spectacle. Frankly, some of the moves are downright loopy, but it is tough to beat the energy. Even by late 1970s Shaw Brothers standards, this is not exactly a lush production, but it is arguably the original archetype for a host of imitating-homage-paying followers, including Tarantino’s white-washed, anglicized Lady Snowblood rip-off, Kill Bill.

Kuo Chui and Lo Mang are both terrific as Lizard and Toad, respectively. Frankly, the film is at its rollicking best when it functions as their buddy movie. Alas, they are not together for long, but they make a dynamite team during that time. Chiang Sheng is also weirdly effective as Yang, who seems like a total sad sack throughout the first two acts, yet steps up nicely for the big climatic showdowns. Plus, Wei Pei looks appropriately slimy, but nicely handles the evolution of Snake.

So, pick your poison. There have been many more artistically refined martial arts films since 5DV, but this is the original article. In retrospect, we can even view it as a forerunner to scores of films, even including The Usual Suspects. It still delivers the goods, with all kinds of cynical good humor. Very highly recommended for martial arts fans, The Five Deadly Venoms screens this Wednesday (5/23) and Friday (5/25), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

SIFF ’18: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful

Nothing drives corruption like government land use policy. Of course, if you throw in some illicit sex and jealousy, things can really get explosive. The Tang family will find themselves in the eye of a brewing storm when their loves and lusts exacerbate a political scandal in Yang Ya-che’s shamelessly entertaining The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

Madame Tang is ostensibly just an antiquities dealer, but she has leveraged her position as the widow of a revered general to become a behind-the-scenes political power broker. She has essentially given up grooming her oldest daughter Tang Ning, whose disgust at her mother’s amoral machinations manifests in various forms of self-medication (sex, booze, pills, awkward scenes in public). Instead, her youngest daughter, fourteen-ish Tang Chen most often assumes co-hostess duties.

In anticipation of a major developed project, Madame Tang has guided her political associates to buy up parcels in an otherwise sleepy rural district, using shell companies. Her circle of influence includes the regal wife of the speaker and up-and-coming legislator Lin, whose family is the Tangs’ nearest neighbors. However, the deal starts to fall apart when the Lin family is mysteriously massacred in their home. Only their teenage daughter Lin Pien-pien survives, but only just barely, in a comatose state. Tang Chen will be assigned her bedside vigil, even though her relationship with the somewhat older teen is complicated—just like everything else having to do with the Tangs.

Like Yang’s Girlfriend Boyfriend, Bold is set in Taiwan during the 1980s, but they feel like they are worlds apart. While his previous film is unabashedly earnest, Bold is dark, twisted, and maybe even a little lurid, but it sure is fun to watch the Tang family and their associates behave spectacularly badly. There is always another shoe left to drop, but Yang primary and over-riding concern is always Madame Tang’s dysfunctional relationships with her daughters. Gosh, this would be such a nice film for Mother’s Day viewing.

Speaking of mothers, the great Kara Wai [Hui] (amid her latest career renaissance) knocks it out of the park as the sly, string-pulling Madame Tang. One knowing look from her is worth more than a mountain of CGI effects. Of course, we always knew she was awesome. Probably the biggest surprise is Wu Ke-xi, who is best known for her remarkably bold but naturalistic work in Midi Z’s docu-like films. As the hot mess sister Tang Ning, she proves she can preen, seduce, and Dynasty-slap fiercer than anyone. Holy cats, can she ever burn up the screen. Yet, Vicky Chen (a.k.a. Qi Chen, who was such a revelation in Angels Wear White) hangs with them both as the deceptively innocent-looking, utterly destabilizing Tang Chen.

Bold is a deliciously cynical film that is also kind of trashy, but in the best way possible. Frankly, it would be fitting if Madame Tang warned viewers to buckle-up their seat belts, a la late Bette Davis, because this is definitely a roller coaster ride. It is just your basic sarcastic political melodrama, with a considerable body-count, so what’s not to like? Very highly recommended, The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful screens tonight (5/19), next Saturday (5/26), and the following Monday (5/28), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Carter & June: They’re No Bonnie & Clyde

Most tourists believe they should spend a lot of time on Bourbon Street, because it is famous. Leave it to them. When you are in New Orleans, check out the clubs on Frenchmen and Decatur Streets instead. Frankly, Spencer Rabbit’s strip club is even sleazy than the worst of Bourbon Street, but he intends to expand. However, to do so, he will need to cash to pay-off the grossly corrupt police chief. He intends to raise his liquidity through a bank heist he is fronting, but two former lovers plan to complicate the scheme. Unfortunately, their complications get complicated in Nicholas Kalikow’s Carter & June (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

June O’Malley needs money for lawyers to contest an unfair custody decision. Carter Jennings needs money to prevent Rabbit’s goons from breaking his kneecaps. Together, the former romantic and scam artists partners agree to reunite to intercept Rabbit’s big score. Their inside person will be Rabbit’s inside person: a former stripper he managed to place in an assistant manager position. Her job is to distract the gunman in the safety-deposit vault, her latest conquest, while O’Malley and Jennings switch bags.

It was all supposed to be a sleight of hand job, but when the hold-up turns into a shoot-out, all bets are off. They still manage to make the switch, but now their fates are intertwined with that of Officer Jason Twitty, the beat copper who shot up the joint. The naïf should be easy to manipulate, but his unfaithful, grasping wife Darla Mae Twitty has been doing it longer than they have.

C&J starts out promisingly, with colorful characters and rude, decidedly un-PC humor, but it eventually dissolves into a conventional Tarantino knock-off. Yet, the real problem is the sheer dullness of the co-leads, especially when compared to the infinitely more interesting supporting cast.

There is no denying Timothy Omundson cranks the snide b1tchiness up to eleven as Rabbit. James Landry Hébert certainly tries his hardest as poor Twitty, while James Moses Black (who was really terrific in Dark Meridian) does what he can as the moderately crooked Internal Affairs detective, Duke Johnson (the have quite a sliding scale for corruption in Nola). Alas, the film just can’t get much momentum going, because Michael Raymond-James and Samaire Armstrong are so lethally boring as the title characters.

There is a dab of Crescent City color in C&J, but there is plenty of room for more New Orleans music, culture, and style. That is actually a shame, because the genuine sights and sounds of New Orleans (and Cajun country up north) make anything more fun. Frankly, no Nola film should ever be this bland. Just kind of whatever, Carter & June opens today (5/18) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


SIFF ’18: Suleiman Mountain

History and religion have not been kind to Kyrgyzstan. They are still stuck with the trappings and infrastructure of the mid-1980s Communist era, while chauvinistic attitudes keep them from evolving into a modern society. The nation is overwhelmingly Muslim, but there is also a shamanistic tradition. Unfortunately, many now equate shamanism with fakery. Karabas and his first wife Zhipara are partly to blame for that. When they reunite, they start pulling some of their old scams together, much to the consternation of his new second life. There isn’t a sitcom on network TV that reflects this not-so modern family unit, perhaps because its long-term viability is not such a sure thing in Elizaveta Stishova’s Suleiman Mountain (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

When Zhipara finds her long-lost son Uluk in an orphanage, Karabas welcomes them both back into his unstable life. In the meantime, he also married the now-pregnant Turaganbubu, but polygamy remains an acceptable practice in “modern” Kyrgyzstan. She wants nothing to do with Uluk and Zhipara, but Karabas is fiercely loyal to his son. Yet, he is so gruff and generally irresponsible, he ends up crushing all the boy’s expectations. Frankly, Karabas is not much, but Kyrgyzstani society is such that both Zhipara and Turaganbubu believe they need him as a protector.

Named for the spiritually and geologically significant landmark, Suleiman Mountain takes viewers to an exotic locale, rarely seen in film, but gives them a distinctly gritty, hardscrabble view of life there. Everyone in Kyrgyzstan has it hard, but Karbas’s invariably bad decisions always make things worse. Despite his somewhat picaresque nature, it is often painful to watch his corrosive influence on the people around him. Yet, there is no denying the film’s raw energy and unvarnished honesty.

Asset Imangaliev is so believably self-centered and self-sabotaging as Karabas, viewers will want to pummel him, after only twenty minutes. Turgunay Erkinbekova similarly comes across utterly naturally as the confused and resentful Turganbubu. Yet, Perizat Ermanbetova towers above everyone as the weary but resourceful Zhipara.

S Mountain is the sort of film that feels very docu-like, even though it tells a fictional narrative. It is also a rather remarkable depiction of motherhood and parenthood, for reasons that are too complicated to explain. It has virtually zero commercial prospects, because it is not a film that files down rough edges or sugar-coats anything, but it very definitely invites viewers to walk in the shoes of people very different from us. Recommended for anyone intrigued by the Central Asian Republics, Suleiman Mountain screens today (5/18) and Sunday (5/20), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

SIFF ’18: The Eternal Road

Scandinavians have a calm, quiet image, but Finnish history in the early 20th Century was anything but. The Whites fought the Soviet back Reds in their 1918 Civil War, but Finns fought for their very existence against the invading Soviets during the Winter War of 1939 and the subsequent Continuation War. In between, an estimated 6,000 Finnish Americans immigrated to the USSR out of socialist solidarity. Jussi Ketola did not join them voluntarily, but as a “guest” of the workers’ paradise, he is not allowed to leave. Unfortunately, he is not exactly comfortable there, nor is he warmly welcomed either in Antti- Jussi Annila’s The Eternal Road (trailer here), which screens during the Seattle International Film Festival.

Rugged, taciturn Ketola is assumed to hold vaguely socialist sympathies, but he is also a farmer, so he was drafted by the Whites, before immigrating to America, only to return during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, that gives him little credit with the White score-settlers, who threaten to lynch him near the Soviet border. The good news is he escapes alive. The bad news is he wakes up Petrozavodsk, where a NKVD officer rather playfully informs Ketola he is suspected of being a spy. It is not that they really believe he arrived with a bullet in his side to commit espionage, but it is a way of exerting control over him.

The cheerfully sinister Kallonen wants Ketola to inform on his new hosts at Hopea, a collective farm operated by Finnish-American Christian socialists. They believe in Stalin’s Russia, even though they are believers, but as the Purges start escalating in the mid-1930s, it will only be a matter of time before they wind up on the chopping block. However, Ketola makes a new life for himself there, marrying the widowed Sara and adopting her eight-year daughter Mary. For six years, he manages to keep Kallonen at bay, but 1936 will be an ugly and tragic time for everyone on the collective farm.

Based on fact, Eternal Road shines a spotlight on some little-known history. You do not hear very much about the American immigrants to the Soviet Union, because that is exactly how Stalin wanted it. The very idea of a Christian collective farm in Stalinist Russia also boggles the mind, but such institution was obviously surgically removed from all Soviet media and memory as well. Even more fundamentally, the film reminds us just how predatory and belligerent the USSR behaved towards Finland during the inter-war era.

Ketola is definitely a strong silent time, but as the epic everyman, Tommi Korpela broods and slow-burns like nobody’s business. However, it is Hannu-Pekka Björkman who really lands the knock-out punch as the jovially evil Kallonen. He is truly one of the year’s great villains, but it is important to note, everything he does is grounded in historical truth. Somewhere between the two poles of Korpela and Björkman, Danish Sidse Babett Knudsen (probably the most recognizable cast-member, from Borgen, Westworld, and 1864) anchors the film as the passionate but down-to-earth Sara.

Annila helms with a sure-hand, capturing the complexities of the era, while depicting Soviet brutality in powerful, unambiguous terms. This is a sweeping epic, but the practical matter-of-factness with which the characters face their crises and carry on is rather touching. Very highly recommended, The Eternal Road screens tomorrow (5/18), Tuesday (5/22), and Wednesday (5/23), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Champion: Don Lee Arm-Wrestles

It takes a brave man to star in an arm-wrestling movie after the face-plant that was Over the Top. Ladies and gentlemen, that man is Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok). He is the one who brawled his way through a train car of zombies in Train to Busan. Believe it or not, his character even references the notorious Sylvester Stallone bomb as his inspiration. Yet, Lee manages to surpass his role model in Kim Yong-wan’s unabashedly earnest family sports drama Champion (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

“Mark” Baek Seung-min is big, but shy. He had a hard time of things during his formative years, so it is understandable. His desperately poor Korean mother gave him up for adoption, but his American foster parents died shortly after his arrival in the States, leaving him essentially on his own. Inspired by Over the Top, arm-wrestling became his only passion, but his professional career was cut short in America by a dubious scandal. His only friend, the sleazy (but possibly decent way deep down) Jin-ki has lured him back to Korea with the promise of managing his professional comeback.

To sweeten the deal, Jin-ki also offers up the address of Baek’s birth-mother, but the arm-wrestler soon learns she has recently passed away from cancer. However, he discovers he has a sister (Su-jin), a niece, and a nephew he never knew of. Suddenly, they have someone to chase away the mobbed-up bill collectors and fix things around the apartment, while Baek finally starts to feel a sense of belonging. Of course, his refusal to throw matches at the behest of a crooked sponsor will probably lead to trouble down the line, especially when the scummy sports bettors recruit Punch, a steroid-juicing, psychotic former contender to be their standard bearer, straight out of prison.

Lee, who was born in Korea, but grew up in America, graduating from Columbia State University, clearly understands where his character is coming from. He is acutely earnest as Baek, but he also looks like he could rip Stallone’s arm off. It is easy to see why he has already reached a significant level of stardom in Korea and is poised to do the same internationally when you see him interacting with Ok Ye-rin and Choi Seung-hoon, the young, ridiculously cute thesps playing his niece and nephew. The fact that he is not dramatically up-staged by them, pretty much says it all.

Lee also shares some nice chemistry with Han Ye-ri’s Su-jin and turns some rewarding third act scenes with Kwon Yool’s heretofore annoying Jin-ki. Unfortunately, Yang Hyun-min and Lee Kyoo-ho make rather generic villains, who really are not very enterprising. Plus, Kim’s screenplay manufactures a lot of bogus drama that starts to try our patience. Yet, we can’t help rooting for Baek and his potential new family, because they all look so good together.

So, to recap, if you need a sensitive hulk, Don Lee is your man. As good old Lincoln Hawk says: “The world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.” To that end, Lee carries this film and thereby grabs leading man status. Nobody should have any illusions—Champion is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, but it is an indomitable crowd pleaser—with distinctly Korean sensibilities. Recommended for fans of Don Lee and family-friendly triumph-over-adversity sports movies, Champion opens this Friday (5/18) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Incoming: Scott Adkins Kicks Butt on a Space Station

The world’s superpowers have finally come together in space, but not in a Star Trek kind of way. They have joined forces to rendition the Hell out of six utterly savage terrorists. Of course, no good ever comes from bad guys in space. Scott Adkins wanted to use his inspection to close down the project, but he will have to act more proactively when the terrorists take over the station in Eric Zaragoza’s Incoming (trailer here), which has a special one-night only screening at the Sunset Arena CineLounge this Friday.

The former International Space Station has been retrofitted into a prison, with the British Kingsley serving as the interrogator, warden, and one-man crew. He has nothing to show for the last five years, so the hard-nosed American Reiser is determined to shut him down. To further his cause, he has brought along Dr. Stone, a gullible liberal do-gooder. Unfortunately, she is so appalled by Kingsley’s operation, she allows Argun, the leader of the notorious “Wolf Pack” to escape through a misguided show of pity.

Soon, the terrorists have control of the station and the shuttle, which they intend to use to crash their former prison into Mother Russia, thereby igniting global nuclear war. The only people who can stop them are Reiser, Stone, and their shuttle pilot Bridges, who are all still loose in the station, like John McClane in Nakatomi Plaza.

To an extent, Incoming seems to indict practices of extra-territorial rendition as anti-terrorist practices that violate the core principles of constitutional democracy. On the other hand, it also suggests terrorists will always be terrorists, so any attempt to reason with them will end in tears. Of course, it is probably just a fool’s errand trying to fashion a coherent political statement out of Jorge Saralegui’s threadbare screenplay.

Alas, this is definitely a minor film in the Scott Adkins canon. He chops are as razor sharp as ever, but the film can’t seem to make up its mind whether he should be the sinister villain of Wolf Warrior and Expendables 2 or the brooding hero of Savage Dog and Close Range. Michelle Lehane turns out to be a pleasant surprise, displaying a forceful presence, even though she is working with a lame script and standing next to Adkins most of the time. As Argun, Vahidin Prelic certainly looks the part, but his facility for scenery chewing is so-so at best.

There are a number of entertaining fight sequences, because Adkins is Adkins. Yet, when Dr. Stone explains early on the malnutrition endured by the prisoners lowered their bone density, the inconsistent screenplay primes us for a feast of bone-snapping that never happens. You can find plenty of better Adkins movies available on VOD and DVD, like the free-wheeling Accident Man, but this is the latest. Only for hardcore fans viewing in the comfort of their own homes, Incoming is now available on VOD platforms (including iTunes) and screens this Friday (5/18) in LA, at the Arena CineLounge.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

If for no other reason, HBO’s remake of Fahrenheit 451 stakes a claim on history, because it gives Keir Dullea bragging rights as perhaps the only actor to appear in films based on the work of both Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Unfortunately, this adaptation is far too concerned with being “timely” and “relevant,” thereby limiting its long-term significance. Bradbury’s anti-censorship message is perhaps more needed now than in 1953 when he wrote his classic novel, but it doesn’t come through in an urgent, principled way in Ramin Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451 (trailer here), co-adapted with the great expat Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi, which premieres this Saturday on HBO.

Guy Montag is a fireman, just like mentor, Captain Beatty. As you should know, that means they set fire to banned books (pretty much all of them), rather than extinguishing accidental fires (come to think of it, wouldn’t they still need old-fashioned firemen in a dystopian world?). Montag has never really thought about the implications of his work, except maybe when a repressed incident from his childhood resurfaces in his memory. However, an encounter with Clarisse McClellan, one of Beatty’s reluctant sources, starts churning up vague doubts. Not long after, he secretly takes home a contraband book, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. With McClellan’s help, the book spurs Montag to start thinking for himself, perhaps for the first time.

Montag is further haunted by the horrifying sight of an old fashioned “Eel,” who opts to self-immolate rather than abandon her books. In a significant departure from Bradbury (and Truffaut), she also happens to utter a word she really shouldn’t have, because it gives the Firemen a clue as to a game-changing book-preservation initiative the dissident underground has concocted. (As an aside, Montag’s media-anaesthetized wife Millie was cast, but later cut from the final film, which seems like a rather Orwellian act to make such a major character disappear without a trace.)

Without question, the greatest misstep of this Fahrenheit is the attempt to update the near dystopia with elements of internet culture and reality TV that will be familiar to contemporary viewers. However, this just distracts more than it enhances the films credibility. It’s a constant source of business undercutting the starkness of Bradbury’s original vision. Bahrani and Naderi also ash-can the background drumbeat of impending war, which explained why all these thought police regulations were implemented in the first place.

Still, the ever-reliable Michael Shannon is quite intriguing and compulsively watchable, playing the hard-nosed Beatty, who has his own secret print vices. In contrast, Michael B. Jordan is rather inert and inexpressive as Montag, the Fireman supposedly wrestling with his conscience and doubts. Nor is there much chemistry between him and Sofia Boutella’s McClellan. However, Dullea adds a note of integrity as the learned “Historian,” who is also involved in the book-preserving underground. That really was perfect casting.

Fahrenheit just doesn’t hold together as a persuasive cautionary vision, which is a shame, because we could use a good version about now. Quite problematically, it plays ideological favorites with the books we see burning. You will not find any conservative classics like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the Firemen’s bonfires, but it is hard to think of a book that would be less acceptable to the dystopian powers-that-be. In fact, it rather mixes the message when one of the underground “Book People” is introduced as “Chairman Mao” because she memorized the Little Red Book—yet you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in history who did more to censor and eradicate books than Mao Zedong. Sadly, the film never really drives home the point that we should apply the 1st Amendment most to books and articles that we do not agree with, or else we risk adulterating our own constitutional protections. A major disappointment, Fahrenheit 451 premieres this Saturday (5/19), on HBO.

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Wim Wenders’ Submergence

James More is a lot like James Bond, but he can also devise a sustainable village water supply system. He has to know the engineering, because it is all part of his cover. (By the way, that is “More” with one “o,” as in For All Seasons.) Regardless, it is easy to believe women would be interested in him, but he is not a Bond-like player. That is why the intoxicating and possibly tragic vacation romance that blossoms between him and Danielle Flinders, an avowedly single workaholic marine bio-statistician, hits them both so hard in Wim Wenders’ Submergence (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Before leaving on a dangerous assignment, More takes a rare vacation in Normandy. We can safely say it will be perilous, based on the in media res opening, focusing on More starving in a Somali Jihadist prison cell. Flinders is also biding time before leaving on an undersea expedition that is not without risks. When they meet, the mutual attraction is immediate—and it progressively deepens over their short holiday.

When it is time to leave, they resolve to try to make a go of it long-distance, but, presumably for her protection, More has yet to fully level with Flinders regarding his true line of work. That is why she is so confused when he goes dark after getting captured by the Islamists. She is so distracted by his presumed ghosting, it even affects her work. He too is rather heartsick over her, but he has more pressing concerns, like catching bugs to eat.

Submergence is considerably better than critics made it out to be, but the speed at which Flinders’ separation anxiety turns into self-pity is hard to buy into. Granted, she thinks he is in Kenya rather than Somalia, but that is still not a super-stable country with an ultra-modern communications infrastructure. She really ought to chill out and stop calling every five minutes.

Still, the first half romance is quite appealing, in a Brief Encounter kind of way. Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy are attractive leads, but they also have a real facility for making screenwriter Erin Dignam’s adapted dialogue sound natural—and erotically charged. Their chemistry feels real.

More’s captivity sequences also have a visceral charge. Some have focused on a bit of dialogue in which More professes to admire the terrorists’ faith, but that is taken somewhat out of context. Frankly, the film is pretty forthright in its depiction the ruinous influence of Islamist extremism on Somalia. There is not much for viewers or More to admire there. In fact, it gets rather bold when the subject of a forced conversion video comes up.

Apparently, J.M. Ledgard’s source novel makes much of how the two lovers’ lives supposedly parallel each other’s after their separation, but Wenders wisely de-emphasizes that synchronicity, aside from a few moments of dog whistle intuition, wherein Flinders suddenly cocks her head in sudden alarm. In fact, the deep-sea exploration branch of the film is definitely its weakest link. Nonetheless, Celyn Jones is terrific as Thumbs, her less talented colleague, who is better suited to winning over the ship’s crew.

Of course, Vikander and McAvoy are the marquee attractions and they play their wind-swept romantic roles to the hilt. Wenders and cinematographer Benoît Debie fully capitalize on the strikingly cinematic landscapes of Normandy for the courtship segments and the Greenland Sea (Iceland, Faroe Islands) for the submersible episodes. It looks great, but despite all its lyricism, Submergence is still shrewder and more connected to the real world, as it really is, than most Hollywood films. Recommended for fans of star-crossed art-house romance, Submergence is now available for home viewing.

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Island Zero: These Aren’t Boating Accidents

If you live on a Maine island, follow the Mormons’ advice and always have at least six months of food on-hand. As everyone should know by now from Stephen King, it sure is easy for those little islets to get cut off from the mainland. This time it is bestselling author Tess Gerritsen who is picking off islanders one-by-one in her screenplay for her son Josh Gerritsen’s Island Zero (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

These used to be rich waters for fish and crustaceans, but nobody has caught anything for weeks. That is because Sam the high-strung marine biologist poisoned the waters to prove his wild-eyed theory. Okay, actually there is some kind of previously undiscovered primordial super-predator species swarming out there. Really, that sounds more believable?

In any event, the aqua-things have severed all contact with the island, so they can do to the inhabitants what they did to the fishery waters. It is particularly personal for Sam. His late wife was killed by these creatures while tracking their movements for her research. Sam’s young daughter and sort of ex-girlfriend are also trapped on the island, so there’s that too. They have no authority figure to speak of, accept Dr. Maggie (island folk are informal), a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who is covering at the local clinic until they can recruit a full-time Joel Fleischman.

Zero looks like it was produced on a budget of fifty dollars and a couple of Dunkin Donuts gift cards, but the first half is oddly entertaining in a throwback kind of way. Unfortunately, it squanders that good will in a stupid second half. Naturally, the military starts to cast an evil shadow over the proceedings, because their motives are always suspect. Honestly, the armed forces can never win in a movie like this. Either they are callously sacrificing human life for the sake of some sort of technology with dubious military applications or they are recklessly trying to destroy a sentient species we could learn so much from. It is more the former in this case.

For the sake of its anti-military bias, Zero completely throws logic out the window. Seriously, if they wanted to conduct business with the sea monkeys from Hell, why didn’t they evacuate the island first? They could have easily generated a cover story—they’re the military. Instead, they leave a few dozen islanders around to gum up the works.

Still, it is cool to see a character actor like Laila Robbins take the de facto lead. She is credibly cool, collected, and battle-hardened as Dr, Maggie. The rest of the ensemble is rather hit-or-miss, but she can carry them for about forty-five minutes or so.

Josh Gerritsen actually does a nice job at times conveying the mounting fear and claustrophobia of the islanders in their state of siege, but this is nothing like The Thing (either of them, the real ones). Unfortunately, the film always slavishly does what we expect it to do, even when it doesn’t make much sense. Frustratingly, we just can’t recommend Zero Island when it launches today on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Panorama Europe ’18: The Maltese Fighter (short)

During WWII, the residents of Malta were collectively awarded the George Cross for their brave defiance of the Axis onslaught. Sadly, they were not so united in the 1970s, when Labour Prime Minister Dom Mintoff and his allies employed political violence and strong-arm techniques to consolidate their grip on power. For an unemployed boxer, political thuggery is the only position open to him, but it comes at the cost of his soul in Arev Manoukian’s The Maltese Fighter (trailer here), which screens as part of a program of Maltese short films during this year’s Panorama Europe at MoMI.

Carmelo is a warrior in the ring, but it provides little compensation for the single father. His shipyard job did not bring in much more, while he had it. It is 1971 and a new administration has taken over. Known supporters of Mintoff’s critics are in for it. Carmelo is imminently qualified to bash them black-and-blue, but he is awkwardly recognizable. He has a crisis of conscience after only one night, but his new masters will inevitably come around again with another list of names to visit.

Fighter is a visually a striking film that fully capitalizes on Valetta’s stunning harborscape and its gritty back alleys. Cinematographer Matthew Emvin Taylor, gives it a golden hue, with an ominous tint. If ever there were a film with a keen sense of place, this would be it.

Perhaps just as importantly, Malcom Ellul, who has mainly played gladiators and centurions up to this point, gives a remarkable performance as the guilt-wracked Carmelo. He is no mere side of beef. This is sensitive, subtly turned work. Yet, he is also clearly physically cut, so he looks mucho convincing in the boxing ring.

This is a powerful cinematic statement that directly addresses a violent era many would prefer to whitewash and water-down. Indeed, it serves as an uncomfortable reminder, like a punch-drunk fighter who refuses to go down. It is also quite a bold showcase for the talents of Manoukian, Ellul, Taylor, and the rest of the ensemble. Very highly recommended, The Maltese Fighter screens this Saturday (5/19), as part of the 2018 Panorama Europe.

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Dark Crimes: The Amok Murder Case Not Really Adapted on Film

For some reason, the real life Polish police detective named Jacek Wrobelowski, or “Jack Sparrow” as his colleagues waggishly point out, has been renamed a more pedestrian Tadek. Perhaps more understandably, they water-down the post-modernist criticism and theorizing his investigation inspired. Instead, director Alexandros Avranas and screenwriter Jeremy Brock make lurid sex tediously dull in Dark Crimes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

According to the credits, Dark Crimes is based on “True Crime: A Postmodern Murder Mystery,” written by David Grann, author of nonfiction book adapted as The Lost City of Z. However, basically only the fundamental premise remains recognizable. The middle-aged Tadek starts investigating literary bad boy Kozlow, because there are details of a real-life murder in his American Psycho-like novel that only the police and the killer would know (just like Krystian Bala’s Amok).

In the film, the author and the victim were often patrons of a rather notorious sex club ominously named The Cage. It was there Kozlow met Kasia, a drug-addicted and much-abused employee, who became the mother of his daughter. Turning her could be the key to Tadek’s case, but he has more to worry about than the media-savvy Kozlow. Gregor, the original investigating officer, has since been appointed chief of police. Not surprisingly, he wants to keep the cold case ice cold.

Grann’s original article is fascinating, but none of the interesting parts made the transition into this film, which is just stupid and boring. Admittedly, it does not help that Jim Carrey is wildly miscast as Tadek. At least Marton Csokas chews the scenery as like the Devil Incarnate as Kozlow, but Avranas has so thoroughly stacked the deck against him with all the sexual creepiness, it makes it impossible to follow the film when it invites us to transfer our rooting interest from cop to accused. However, it is really frustrating to see the great Charlotte Gainsbourg playing the degrading role Kasia (it is so humiliating, she has to have rough sex with Jim Carrey).

Basically, Brock’s adaptation tries to rewrite the recent history so well-established in Grann’s article, but for what conceivable purpose? Frankly, his mytho-adaptation is riddled with sins, including questionable motivations, weak causal relationships, and excessive slack. However, at least we can say Carrey is funny again, for the first time in years. He is trying to be intense and brooding, but he looks hilariously uncomfortable every second of the film. That is not much, but its all Dark Crimes has. Not recommended under any circumstance, Dark Crimes opens this Friday (5/18) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Nashville ’18: Found Footage 3D

How do you make found footage even more annoying? Adding 3D ought to do the trick (and vice versa). Granted, it would be hard to explain why anyone would shoot the footage to found in 3D, but that will not stop an aspiring sleazy filmmaker from staking his claim to the first 3D found footage movie. However, things get meta when the evil entity thingy at their remote cabin location starts responding to the 3D cameras in Steven DeGennaro’s Found Footage 3D (trailer here), which screens (in 3D) as part of the 2018 Nashville Film Festival.

Derek is the producer of Spectre of Death, which he “co-wrote” and will co-star in with his ex-wife Amy. Yep, already super awkward, even before you take into account his socially inept brother Mark (who serves as editor, camera man and director of the crowd-funder behind-the-scenes footage) has long carried a torch for Amy. Derek has hired Andrew, a reasonably legit director, but he constantly makes it clear he is the one calling the shots. Their sound guy Carl is also a pro, who happens to owe Derek money. Their PA Lily has never worked on a film before, but her job is obviously making Amy jealous, but she is really not that kind of person.

Of course, the cabin where they will be shooting and bunking looks all kinds of sketchy. There even seems be dried blood stains on the floor. Yet, the hardy crew persists. Admittedly, they should have left the first night, but all their bickering and in-fighting convincingly distracts them from the ominous dark something lurking in slightly out-of-focus in the corners of Mark’s frames—until it is too late.

FF3D is not quite as meta as it initially sounds, but that is not exactly a tragedy. The underlying concept still manages to breathe some life into found footage sub-genre. It also boasts more character development than nearly all of its found footage predecessors combined. There are some strong personalities in this film, starting with the spectacularly obnoxious Derek, but also including the sarcastic Carl, recovering-co-dependent Amy, and the increasingly exasperated Andrew.

As Derek, Carter Roy truly chews the scenery like madman. He really goes all out, but by doing so, he really sets up all the uncanny business that eventually goes down. Likewise, Alena von Stroheim (yes, the great granddaughter of the Greed director) makes Amy a remarkable bundle of hot mess neuroses. Scott Allen Perry counter-balances them quite drolly, as the acerbic but more down-to-earth Carl. Tom Saporito also serves as a partial audience surrogate as he becomes at first impatient and then thoroughly disgusted with Derek and Amy’s melodrama, as well as Carl’s attitude. Yet, perhaps the funniest turn comes from genre critic Scott Weinberg, playing himself, making an ill-advised set-visit to Spectre of Death (you just have to see it for yourself).

This is probably the most original true Blair Witch-style found footage film since the Dark Tapes anthology and the funniest since maybe the underrated V/H/S Viral. However, the considerable time admirably devoted establishing characters and setting the scene could have been pruned a little, because the legit horror movie business does not really get going until after the halfway point. Regardless, it is cool to see a genre filmmaker give a tired convention a fresh new spin and largely pull it off. Recommended with a fair degree of enthusiasm for horror fans, Found Footage 3D screens this Friday (5/18) and Saturday (5/19), during the Nashville Film Festival (and it also streams exclusively on Shudder).

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Czech That Film ’18: Milada

The day of her execution is now the Czech Republic’s Commemoration Day for Victims of the Communist Regime.” That might sound like starting with a spoiler, but any film about a Czechoslovakian democracy advocate set during the late 1940s is sure to end in tears. Of course. Milada Horáková’s story is still worth telling, perhaps now more than ever—and it is told relatively well in David Mrnka’s English language Milada (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Czech That Film traveling showcase of Czech cinema.

Horáková was always a trouble-maker, who bravely fought and was imprisoned by the National Socialists as part of the Czechoslovakian resistance. Her poor husband Bohuslav Horák loyally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her, earning his own stint in a Nazi prison. Their family will later ironically note the Germans allowed them to visit Horáková in prison, unlike the Communists.

Inevitably, the film becomes something like a secular passion play, after Klement Gottwald (played like a truly odious viper by Jirí Vyorálek) and the Communists seize control in the 1948 Coup (that they call a democratic election). There is a short interlude of paranoia, as Horáková and her husband help other asylum seekers, knowing full well they too should be leaving. Alas, she is soon arrested and forced to endure sleep-deprivation and countless interrogation-torture sessions. Eventually, she will face the nation in a textbook show trial, but she remains inconveniently uncooperative throughout its duration.

It is important to remember Horáková and those like her at a time when a shockingly large number of people are willing—even eager—to voluntarily relinquish their freedoms, whether it be the right to free speech and a free press or the rights of gun ownership. The events of post-coup Czechoslovakia make it very clear once people surrender their freedoms to the state, it takes a full-fledged revolution to get them back.

Yet, Mrnka and co-screenwriters Robert J. Conant and Robert Gant clearly make an effort to focus on Horáková the wife, mother, sister, and daughter. They were blessed to have the active cooperation of Horáková’s daughter Jana Kánská, who provided personal family papers as well as her memories of key scenes, including her final meeting with her mother, right before her execution.

With that context, Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer creates a full-fledged, flesh-and-blood portrait of Horáková. She is not just a symbol. We believe all her pre-1848 frustrations and post-1948 pain and sorrow. Gant’s Horák is likeably earnest, but as a character, he is not given a lot dimension. However, the are some rich and complex supporting turns from Vica Kerekes, Vladimír Jarorsky, and Ivana Chylková, as Horáková’s sister, colleague, and cellmate, respectively. Tatjana Medvecká also lands a haymaker in her brief but pivotal appearance as Kánská in 1990, post-Velvet Revolution wrap-around segments.

One of the ironies of Horáková’s story is that she would probably be considered leftwing, even by today’s more extremist standards. She was a champion of feminism and labor causes, but she was also a free-thinker, which made her incompatible with the Communist regime. She upheld her principles when others cautioned expediency. There are not a lot of people like that on the political scene today, in any political party. Zurer’s passionate yet scrupulously restrained performance is also well-worth your time. Recommended for general audiences, especially Millennials who did not live through the Cold War era, Milada screens this afternoon (5/13) in Portland and this Friday (5/18) in Toronto, as part of the 2018 edition of Czech that Film.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

DOXA ’18: Kusama Infinity

The art world has a marked preference for the enfant terrible and the angry young man. Yayoi Kusama is the unusual exception. After a lifetime of swimming upstream, she has found her greatest commercial and critical success in her late eighties. Heather Lenz takes stock of the artist and her prodigious output in Kusama: Infinity, which screens during the closing gala of this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival.

There has already been at least one prior Kusama doc, Takako Matsumoto’s Near Equal Kusama Yayoi: I Love Myself, but with Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors installation breaking attendance records, the time is right for a new take on the artist. While Near Equal spent a considerable amount of time watching Kusama draw her trademark polka dots, Lenz takes a more conventional but engaging narrative approach.

Lenz understandably emphasizes all the adversity Kusama was forced to overcome, starting with the abusive mother who made her formative years so difficult. However, she received some early encouragement from Georgia O’Keefe, who invited Kusama to share her studio based on one painting the teenager rather naively sent her. Unfortunately, the budding artist opted for New York instead. Quite provocatively, but convincingly, Lenz and her battery of experts suggest storied contemporary artist such as Anndy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg basically ripped off her work. Yet, she never explicitly explores the irony of the faultlessly liberal and anti-war New York art scene also proving to be so sexist and exploitative.

After returning to Japan, Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a sanitarium, where she still lives as a permanent guest, sort of like the Major in Fawlty Towers. Of course, most viewers inevitably wonder just how this arrangement works, but the film never offers those explanations. In fact, it mostly just skims the surface of Kusama’s life and career, rather than plumbing her deeper psyche. Arguably, this is a function of the ultra-guarded Kusama herself, who either established innumerable boundaries or is simply incapable of opening up to any meaningful extent.

Nevertheless, Kusama has had a fascinating career. Lenz keeps the film moving along nicely and manages to wrap thing up on a somewhat ironic, but mostly triumphant note. It is quite an informative profile, even though it keeps viewers on the outside looking in.  Recommended over prior Kusama films for her admirers and collectors, Kusama: Infinity screens twice today (5/12) as the closing gala of this year’s DOXA.

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