Thursday, December 5, 2013

Madison Film Forum: See Claire Denis' Bastards @ Spotlight Cinema, Dec 5, 7pm

Well, this is cutting it a little close as a review for Madison audiences, but I strongly encourage folks to venture down to see Bastards, the final installment of the current series for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Spotlight Cinema, tonight (Thursday, December 5) at 7:00 p.m.  You may recall my earlier post about their screening of Museum Hours, and programmers Tom Yoshikami and Mike King continue to do a great job bringing in films that deserve longer commercial runs in Madison.

Claire Denis has had a prolific career since her directorial debut, Chocolate, in 1988.  I think my favorite of her films has been Beau Travail from 1999, which combined a deliberate pace with attention to textures and details. I also admired her art-horror film Trouble Every Day (2001) with Vincent Gallo, which for one reason or another remains difficult to access on video in the U.S. At the moment her 2009 feature, White Material, is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Bastards (or Les Salauds) starts with an elliptical sequence of a man in his office during a rain storm. In its simplicity, the shot of the man standing in the foreground as the rain falls heavily outside the window in the background is one of the most gorgeous shots I've seen in a while. The opening sequence also sets the stage for the kind of work the audience will have to do to piece together cues provided in a more cryptic style of visual storytelling. We quickly piece together that the man has committed suicide, and that his daughter Justine (Lola Créton) has been mysteriously traumatized. In another elliptical sequence we meet the main protagonist of the film, Marco (Vincent Lindon), who learns of the death of his best friend and brother-in-law and abandons his position as a cargo ship captain to return to his sister and his traumatized niece. The best parts of the opening act of Bastards work almost like a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller: spare dialogue, characters focused on quick, distinct actions, and just enough room for the audience put all the pieces together.

Marco learns from his sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille) that she suspects the wealthy Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) of using her daughter as a kind of sex slave. A month later, Marco moves into an apartment in the building where Laporte lives with his mistress Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) and their young son. It doesn't take long for Marco and Raphaëlle to notice each other. In one great sequence, Marco leans over to help the young boy fix his bicycle chain, and Raphaëlle notices the muscles thinly veiled under Marco's expensive white shirt. One of the several strengths of Bastards is the great chemistry between Lindon and Mastrioanni; their characters have the kind of intense sexual energy that only unhappy people can share.

The balance of the movie follows Marco as he investigates what happened to Justine and possibly contemplates some kind of revenge against Laporte. In the process, Marco must sacrifice almost everything he cares about to reconnect with a family that he had deliberately distanced himself from years ago. What he discovers is perhaps needlessly over-the-top. Denis seems to have a preoccupation with violently traumatized vaginas; I recall two women jumping out of their seat and immediately leaving the theater during a particularly gory scene in Trouble Every Day.  And the ending might be a bit too perfect a fusion of art film ambiguity and film noir genre conventions. But throughout the film you feel like you are being guided by a talented visual storyteller and her committed cast working in peak form.





Container ship captain Marco Silvestri is called urgently back to Paris. His sister, Sandra, is desperate; her husband has committed suicide, the family business has gone under, her daughter has been admitted into psychiatric care. Sandra accuses the powerful businessman Edouard Laporte of being responsible. Determined to find the businessman's weak spot and exact a terrible revenge for the violence done to his family, Marco moves into the building where Laporte's mistress, Raphaëlle, lives with her son.








Maria is a White farmer who runs a failing coffee plantation in an unnamed African country in the present day. Civil war has broken out and rebel soldiers, many of them child soldiers, are advancing on the area. Rebels on the radio advocate attacks on emblems of colonialism. Maria's workers leave, but she refuses to abandon the plantation, and searches for men to finish harvesting of the coffee.






Saturday, November 16, 2013

Global TV: The Magic Blade and Darna on Viki


Apologies for the delay in new posts this week. One goal I have for the re-booted IVFF is to explore alternative streaming resources, apps, and websites.  I started looking at Viki, a Singapore-based resource, when its Viki Premiere app appeared at the Samsung Smart Hub app store. One of the more interesting things about Viki is that the subtitles for its programming are crowd-sourced (its slogan is "powered by avid fans") Depending on the quality of the source video, the Samsung Smart TV app looks very good, and I have also been successful flinging the Viki website to a television using Chromecast. The Samsung Viki Premiere app is free and it does not feature advertisements. Video streams at viki.com, however, will feature ads unless you purchase a "Viki Pass."

The two series worth looking at (so far in my brief explorations) have been The Magic Blade from China and Darna from the Philippines. The Magic Blade is an old-school wuxia pian serial in the tradition of the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. (But this should not be confused with the 1976 Shaw Brothers film with the same title). While the production values do show the limitations of a television series budget, I was actually surprised by the overall quality of the production. (The location scout should have top billing, the outdoor scenes are often gorgeous.) One weak spot is the actual fight choreography (which requires a lot of time to do well) but other wuxia conventions like wirework are handled pretty well, relatively speaking. In what I've watched so far, The Magic Blade does not hesitate to swing from broad humor to somewhat messed up near-torture scenes. The main focus of the plot is, of course, revenge, but there are several interesting subplots begin to emerge even in the first episode.

The first few minutes of episode one of Darna should tell you whether you want to explore the rest of the series. The brief opening scene previews the kinds of super-villainesses we can expect later on, and some of them seem so over-the-top that I won't even pretend to understand what is going on. But one challenge to sticking with the show is that the origin story is dragged out over the entire first episode. Another challenge is the truly awful gender politics in the first episode, but that actually makes me curious about how those attitudes towards gender roles will mix with an empowered female superhero and female villainesses as the series moves forward. The production values for the show are not great, the video quality of the Viki stream is not ideal, and even the shows fans on Viki make fun of the special effects. But the show has a certain charm that makes me want to explore it for some more episodes. [Edit: Shortly after posting this I watched another Viki episode, which I now believe combines 2 30-minute episodes; Superhero Darna still hasn't appeared, and she is unlikely to appear for a few more episodes. So another challenge to sticking with the series is how tolerant you are of poorly treated child characters.]

For more information about the history of Darna, consult The Darna Wiki.



Posters and Synopses from Viki.com



The Magic Blade

The leader of the martial arts world is killed mysteriously and the crime goes unsolved. Fu Hong Xue (Wallace Chung), the leader’s son, is determined to avenge his father’s death 24 years later. But a number of people, including Yan Nan Fei (Zong Feng Yan), who wants to become the new leader of the martial arts world, plot to get rid of Hong Xue. Will Hong Xue be able to overcome Nan Fei’s gang and solve his father’s murder? What will he do when he discovers the shocking truth about his own life? The Magic Blade is a 2012 Chinese drama series directed by Gao Xian Ming and Huang Wei Jie.







Darna

Darna is a Philippine drama/fantasy series adapted from Mars Ravelo's fictional superheroine of the same name. This latest adaptation was directed by Dominic Zapata and Don Michael Perez and developed by Jun Lana, based on the Darna graphic novels by Mars Ravelo. It stars Marian Rivera in the title role and her alter-ego Narda, Iwa Moto as her main nemesis, Valentina, as well as Dennis Trillo as Pancho and Mark Anthony Fernandez as Eduardo.










Monday, November 11, 2013

Joss Whedon: Much Ado About Nothing, Streaming Films and Shows

Only time for a short post with a long list of titles today.  This evening I'm finally going to catch up with Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, which played the festival circuit and had a limited release and is now available on several on-demand streaming services. (When a title is available on several services, I'll provide a button link to the least expensive option, and a link to the other options at GoWatchIt). As a double-feature I hope to add Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Whedon, which I probably should have caught up with around Halloween, but then again I've never been much of a Halloween fan.

Whedon is interesting for many reasons. A third generation screenwriter (following in the footsteps of his grandfather John Whedon and father Tom Whedon), he seems equally comfortable in the realms of feature films and hour-long television. He's also equally comfortable working in "universes" devised by others (the Marvel universe) or himself (the Buffy universe). And when he's not working on those more elaborate projects he's able to put together more low-key projects, often working with the same group of actors, like Much Ado About Nothing and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Of the "name directors" who are currently bouncing back and forth between television and feature films, Whedon is not as interesting as Steven Soderbergh (who perhaps now will only do television projects), but I find him far more interesting than J.J. Abrams. Both Whedon and Abrams are in the tradition of "movie brats," but I enjoy Whedon's eagerness to explore different formats (comics, the internet) more than Abrams evolving devotion to Spielberg and Lucas.

The only Whedon series I've watched the whole way through has been Firefly, which is pretty easy since it only lasted one season, with an additional feature film, Serenity. In the list below I've included a documentary on the history of the show, Done the Impossible: The Fans' Tale of Firefly and Serenity.




Posters and Synopses from The Movie Database

Feature Films


Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Wheadon, USA, 2012, 109 minutes)

A modern retelling of Shakespeare's classic comedy about two pairs of lovers with different takes on romance and a way with words.






Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA, 2012, 95 minutes)

(Co-written by Joss Whedon)

Five college friends spend the weekend at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods.






Marvel's The Avengers (Joss Whedon, USA, 2012, 183 minutes)

When an unexpected enemy emerges and threatens global safety and security, Nick Fury, director of the international peacekeeping agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., finds himself in need of a team to pull the world back from the brink of disaster. Spanning the globe, a daring recruitment effort begins!






Serenity (Joss Whedon, USA, 2005, 119 minutes)

When the renegade crew of Serenity agrees to hide a fugitive on their ship, they find themselves in an action-packed battle between the relentless military might of a totalitarian regime who will destroy anything - or anyone - to get the girl back and the bloodthirsty creatures who roam the uncharted areas of space. But, the greatest danger of all may be on their ship.





Done the Impossible: The Fans' Tale of Firefly and Serenity (Brian Wiser, USA, 2006, 79 minutes)

A documentary covering Firefly's birth, death and rebirth from the perspective of both the fans and the cast and crew of both productions.





Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Joss Whedon, USA, 2008, 42 minutes)

Dr. Horrible, an aspiring supervillain with his own video blog, is attempting to join the prestigious Evil League of Evil (led by the legendary "thoroughbred of sin", Bad Horse), but his plans are usually foiled by the egotistical superhero Captain Hammer. Dr. Horrible's life is thrown for a loop when he falls in love with Penny, a beautiful and optimistic advocate for the homeless he meets at the laundromat.




Television



Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-present)

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or simply Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is an American television series created for ABC by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, based on the Marvel Comics organization S.H.I.E.L.D.. The series is produced by ABC Studios, Marvel Television, and Mutant Enemy and is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sharing continuity with the films in that franchise. It revolves around the character of Phil Coulson, with Clark Gregg reprising the role.





Firefly (2002-2003)

Firefly is an American space western drama television series created by writer and director Joss Whedon, under his Mutant Enemy Productions label. The series is set in the year 2517, after the arrival of humans in a new star system, and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a "Firefly-class" spaceship. The ensemble cast portrays the nine characters who live on Serenity. Whedon pitched the show as "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things".

The show explores the lives of a group of people who fought on the losing side of a civil war and others who now make a living on the outskirts of society, as part of the pioneer culture that exists on the fringes of their star system. In this future, the only two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form the central federal government, called the Alliance, resulting in the fusion of the two cultures. According to Whedon's vision, "nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today."






Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an American television series which aired from March 10, 1997 until May 20, 2003. The series was created in 1997 by writer-director Joss Whedon under his production tag, Mutant Enemy Productions with later co-executive producers being Jane Espenson, David Fury, David Greenwalt, Doug Petrie, Marti Noxon, and David Solomon. The series narrative follows Buffy Summers, the latest in a line of young women known as "Vampire Slayers" or simply "Slayers". In the story, Slayers are "called" to battle against vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness. Like previous Slayers, Buffy is aided by a Watcher, who guides, teaches, and trains her. Unlike her predecessors, Buffy surrounds herself with a circle of loyal friends who become known as the "Scooby Gang".







Angel (1999-2004)

Angel is an American television series, a spin-off from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series was created by Buffy's creator, Joss Whedon, in collaboration with David Greenwalt. It aired on The WB from October 5, 1999, to May 19, 2004, consisting of five seasons and 110 episodes. Like Buffy, it was produced by Whedon's production company, Mutant Enemy.

The show details the ongoing trials of Angel, a vampire whose human soul was restored to him by gypsies as a punishment for the murder of one of their own. After more than a century of murder and the torture of innocents, Angel's restored soul torments him with guilt and remorse. During the first four seasons of the show, he works as a private detective in a fictionalized version of Los Angeles, California, where he and a variety of associates work to "help the helpless", restoring the faith and saving the souls of those who have lost their way. Typically, this involves doing battle with evil demons or demonically allied humans, primarily related to Wolfram & Hart, a demonic law firm. He must also battle his own demonic nature.






Dollhouse (2009)

Dollhouse is an American science fiction television series created by writer and director Joss Whedon under Mutant Enemy Productions. It premiered on February 13, 2009, on the Fox network and was officially canceled on November 11, 2009. The final episode aired on January 29, 2010. Production wrapped in December 2009, with a total of 27 episodes produced including the original pilot.

The show revolves around a corporation running numerous underground establishments across the globe which program individuals referred to as Actives with temporary personalities and skills. Wealthy clients hire Actives from Dollhouses at great expense for various purposes. The series primarily follows the Active known as Echo, played by Eliza Dushku, on her journey towards self-awareness. Dushku also served as series producer.





Glee

(Joss Whedon directed Season 1, Episode 19, "Dream On")

Glee is an American teen musical comedy-drama television series that airs on the Fox network in the United States. It focuses on the reconstituted William McKinley High School glee club, New Directions, which competes on the show choir competition circuit while its disparate members deal with relationships, sexuality, social issues, and learning to become an effective team. The initial twelve-member main cast encompassed new club director and Spanish teacher Will Schuester, cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury, Will's wife Terri, and eight club members played by Dianna Agron, Chris Colfer, Kevin McHale, Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley, Mark Salling, and Jenna Ushkowitz. In subsequent seasons, the main cast has expanded to fourteen and fifteen members.







Thursday, November 7, 2013

Madison Film Forum: Bollywood Films at AMC Star Fitchburg 12

This week I had the opportunity to write an Isthmus article about the Bollywood films that have been playing at AMC Star Fitchburg 18, mostly without significant local media attention, for over a year now.

You can find the article, "Bollywood in Fitchburg," at The Daily Page, or Madison readers can pick up a copy of Isthmus this week.

Someday I might write a "meta-article" about how difficult it was to get information for the article because AMC Theaters have entered a "quiet period" leading up to their IPO. But given that, I was grateful that they could give me enough nuggets of information to get the word out about the films. The most interesting piece of information, however, was confirmed by simply looking at the foreign language titles that have played in Madison commercial theaters from June to November 1. I encourage you to read the article and see how Star's foreign language lineup compares to Sundance...I think you'll be surprised.

What wasn't clear at press time was whether Krrish 3 would play for another week at AMC Star Fitchburg 18.  I can now confirm that it will play for another week, and that I had as much fun at it as I have had at any recent superhero franchise film. Madison readers should check it out if they have the opportunity (and bring friends).

Meanwhile, I thought it would be useful to post some links for those interested in trying out a few Bollywood films at home before venturing to AMC Star Fitchburg 18.  First, I'll mention some previous posts that have useful links.

Back in March, 2011, I did a "Quick Picks" collection of Shah Rukh Khan titles that were then streaming on Netflix, including a title I recommend as a good starting point in the Isthmus article, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.  As with all of these older posts, the links to films no longer streaming will still take you to that title's Netflix DVD page. If you want to watch the recent Shah Rukh Khan film that played at AMC Star Fitchburg 18, Chennai Express is now streaming on Netflix.

In the article I make a brief mention of the two versions of the 2010 film, Kites.  Back in October, 2011, I posted links to both Kites (122 minutes) and Kites: The Remix (98 minutes), the later of which was re-edited by Hollywood director Brett Ratner.  The original film is still streaming on Netflix.  For streaming options for Kites: The Remix, consult GoWatchIt, where you'll find options to rent it on iTunes, Vudu and other resources (beware: the Amazon Instant Video link sends you to a completely different film).

In the near future, I hope to put together a post about classic Bollywood, films starring Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Amitabh Bachchan, and more. I've had trouble finding good streaming sources for them, however, so for now just search these names on the internet and you'll find good starting places for classic Bollywood.

Finally, getting back to films at Star, I recommend that people watch Dhoom 2 (2006) on Netflix View Instant in preparation for the release of Dhoom 3 in December.  The original Dhoom (2004) is also available to stream on Netflix, but Dhoom 2 is a much better test to find out if you will want to see Dhoom 3 on the big screen.






Posters and Synopses from The Movie Database




Chennai Express (Rohit Shetty, India, 2013, 141 minutes)

Chennai Express follows man's journey from Mumbai to Rameshwaram and what happens along the way after he falls in love with the daughter of a don.









Dhoom 2 (Sanjay Gadhvi, India, 2006, 147 minutes)

In the second installment of the Dhoom series, Jai and Ali are back as the buddy cops on their toughest job so far. "Mr.A" is an international thief who has planned to steal a priceless artifact in Mumbai and the police have got to nab him. But Mr.A manages to steal the artifact and elude the police. He finds his match in Sunehri and they form a partnership. They move on to Rio for their next job, with Jai and Ali hot on their trail. Mr.A whose actual name is Aryan, and Sunehri are drawn towards each other but little does Aryan know of Sunehri's little secret.







Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, India, 1995, 190 minutes)

Raj is a rich, carefree, happy-go-lucky second generation NRI. Simran is the daughter of Chaudhary Baldev Singh, who in spite of being an NRI is very strict about adherence to Indian values. Simran has left for India to be married to her childhood fiancé. Raj leaves for India with a mission at his hands, to claim his lady love under the noses of her whole family. Thus begins a saga.