Sunday, April 26, 2015

LAAPFF 2015: HOW TO WIN CHECKERS (EVERY TIME)

Oat (Ingkarat Damrongsakkul) and Ek (Thira Chutikul) in How to Win Checkers (Every Time).
Oat's meal ticket

By Miranda Inganni
Oat (Ingkarat Damrongsakkul), an 11-year-old living in poverty, idolizes his older brother, Ek (Thira Chutikul), in the coming-of-age morality tale, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), from director Josh Kim.

Having lost both parents, Oat and Ek have an especially close relationship, which is threatened when Ek must participate in the Thai military conscription lottery. Ek’s boyfriend, Jai (Arthur Navarat), must also take his chances with the lottery. But as Oat will eventually discover, having a wealthy family gives Jai the unfair advantage of bribing his way out of having to serve his country. Wanting to secure his brother’s safety and keep him at the modest home they share with their Aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) where Ek is the primary breadwinner, Oat turns to crime.
After Oat finally outsmarts his big bro at a game of checkers, Ek decides it time to take Oat out. Heading to Café Lovely, where Ek works as an escort, Oat is finally exposed to Ek’s seedier side, including prostitution and a nasty drug habit. Oat learns quickly that this is not the path he wants to take and begins taking whatever measures are necessary to ensure that he will not follow in his brother’s footsteps.
Based on short stories by Rattawut Lapcharoeensap and set in the outskirts of Bangkok, the moral of How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) seems to be that one should do whatever it takes to win, even if it means someone else has to lose.
The sweet relationship between Oat and his brother -- and that between Ek and Jai -- lends the film a familiarity and sweetness in this otherwise grim and gritty feature.

NBFF 2015: BLOOD, SWEAT, AND BEER

Danny Robinson in Blood, Sweat, and Beer.
Thirsting for the American dream

By John Esther

Films, TV, Youtube, and other media focusing on beer are usually not about serious stuff. Unless it has too do with drunk driving, dometic violence or alcohol poisoning, one tends to associate beer with the fun -- and often the stupid.

That is not the case with Chip Hiden and Alexis Irvin's documentary, Blood, Sweat, and Beer.

A very entertaining documentary, Blood, Sweat, and Beer looks at the serious rising tide of American craft beer brewing. While other American jobs have been outsourced out of the country, craft beer production, brewing and distribution has doubled in growth over the past ten years. Currently there are approximately 2,700 breweries in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of them are small and craft.

Set with this rise in American entrepreneurship, the filmmakers travel to various parts of the country. They make a stop in Colorado where they talk to former brewmeister and current Governor John Hickenlooper -- who has been pivotal and influential in Colorado's brewing successes.

In Pennsylvania, three young men in their 20s are opening up a brewery in the dilapidated borough of Braddock. Once a mighty steel town, and site of America's first library, Braddock has fallen on serious times. But, with the support of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, they might just pull it off.

Over in Ocean View, Maryland, the story of Danny Robinson is quite different. Already somewhat successful in the food and beverage business, Robinson runs into a nasty expensive, litigious battle when he sells t-shirts with the name "Shorebilly" on them.

In addition to these brewing business highs and lows, wholesalers, brewers and others in the beer business weigh in on the brouhaha facing current brewers as the market becomes more inundated with additional brewers. For most brewers, profits are slim. But they love what they do.

It was also interesting to note the sobering fact that over 90 percent of brewers are male and almost all of them are white (frequently with a beard).

Having written this, it is time for some delicious craft beer.



NBFF 2015: REPARATION

 
Bob (Marc Menchaca) and Lucy (Virginia Newcomb) in Reparation.
Charlotte sometimes dreams

By Miranda Inganni

Bob (Marc Menchaca) has recently found his way out of a military mental hospital, partially thanks to a young boy, Ralph (Brody Behr), his imaginary friend and initially constant companion. As he wanders through farms and vales, he meets Lucy (Virginia Newcomb), a free-spirited gal whose favorite treatment for anything uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar is to yell at the problem and then quickly hush it away. Suppression at its best!

Speaking of suppressed, Bob and Lucy hit it off, but not without completely ignoring the fact that they never bother to share any personal information about themselves to each other. Eventually, they settle down in a quaint farming town where they raise their daughter, Charlotte (Dale Dye Thomas). Their idyllic life is irreparably interrupted when Jerome (John Huertas) shows up claiming to be Bob’s best friend from their Air Force days where they were Security Police. This unexpected and uninvited guest throws the family off-kilter. Bob’s forgotten memories begin to appear in Charlotte’s nightmares. Charlotte in turn expertly sketches the images which jolt Bob’s amnesia.

So, is it better or healthier to sometimes let sleeping dogs lie? Should one risk physical and/or mental trauma from recalling what one’s own brain has blocked one from remembering out of self-preservation? While the concept of daughter assuming father’s horrific memories utilized in Reparation is an interesting one, the movie never attempts to ask why Charlotte might be the receptacle for Bob’s repressed thoughts. What DNA trickery is this?

Although the dialogue could be stronger in certain places, Reparation does a nice job of building suspense and the script, co-written by director Kyle Ham and Steve Timm, includes a few refreshingly unexpected twists and turns, albeit not necessarily coming to a satisfying conclusion.


Reparation screens at the Newport Beach Film Festival April 30, 8 p.m., Regency South Coast Village. For more information: Reparation.



Friday, April 24, 2015

LAAPFF 2015: THE CHINESE MAYOR

A scene from The Chinese Mayor.
A different cultural revolution

By Miranda Inganni
Geng Yanbo, the newly-elected mayor of Datong, China wants to transform the city into a tourist-attracting cultural center. Datong, the most polluted city in China, thanks to its coal mining history, has a massive ancient city wall that Geng envisions containing museums and meeting spaces. The problem is that at least 30 percent of the residents of Datong, many of them poor and their housing illegal, live around that city wall. These residents must be relocated and their dwellings demolished in order for Geng’s reconstruction of the city to take place.
Despite the fact that demolition and construction are very slow and behind schedule, the government wants the residents out. But there is no place for many of them to go. People who cannot afford to move are told that they can apply for low-rent housing, but they know the reality is that there is a long waiting period. Some residents protest by simply not leaving their abodes or by blocking the heavy machinery. A few residents who refuse to move face forcible demolition and threaten suicide.
We follow Geng, in Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor, as he inspects the progress of destruction and construction throughout the city, as he attends meetings in his official capacity, and as he is scolded by his wife who thinks he is working himself to death. He appears tough when he deals with contractors who have put in sub-par paving, taken other shortcuts or are not performing their jobs to his satisfaction. But when the affected residents appeal directly to Geng, he is sympathetic and tries to right the wrongs -- helping folks find housing, ensuring the children of rural residents who gave up their farmland for development have access to the city schools, and even trying to move a woman from her 6th floor apartment to one on the ground floor as she can no longer walk up the stairs (what the hell happened to the elevator anyway?).
Geng wants to leave the reinvented and revitalized Datong as his legacy. Will he be able to oversee all of the construction through to completion before his mayoral term is up? Is he simply a megalomaniac bankrupting a city for his own status? Director Zhou does a masterful job of not getting in the way of the story. Clearly the residents are the one’s suffering in this scenario, but Geng is not without sympathetic sensibilities. He believes so strongly in “cultural industry” that even if he cannot bring his vision to fruition in Datong, the viewer gets the sense that that will not stop him. He will give this city, or any other, his masterful cultural makeover. Even if it kill him.

The Chinese Mayor screens at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival April 26, 4 p.m., CGV Cinemas. For more information: Mayor.
 

LAAPFF 2015: OPENING NIGHT WITH EVERYTHING BEFORE US

Ben (Aaron Yoo) and Sara (Brittany Ishibashi) in Everything Before Us.
When love is just a number

By John Esther

The 31st edition of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) kicked off last night with Everything Before Us.

The first feature film by Wong Fu Productions, co-directed and co-written by Wesley Chan and Philip Wang, along with co-writer Chris Dinh, Everything Before Us is set in a quasi-future California (USA?) where everyone has an Emotional Intelligence score.

In short, Emotional Intelligence scores are based one's ability to maintain a monogamous relationship. These scores not only affect who is available for romance, they can also effect one's ability to get into college, get into a nightclub, receive a loan or land a job.

It is an interesting premise -- which would make for a dystopian future where status, power, reproductive rights and liberties could be based on one's EI score -- but in Everything Before Us the EI score is used in the form of comedy and romance.

Ben (Aaron Yoo) is still suffering from the end of his relationship with Sara (Brittany Ishibashi). Thanks to his role in their breakup, Ben's score is too low to get the job he wants (and deserves). So, after years apart, he reaches out to Sara to help rectify the situation.

Thanks to Sara's cooperation, Ben lands the new job, which also results in a new girlfriend, Anna (Joanna Sotomura). However, there is tension in the air as Ben and Sara still pine for one another.

Meanwhie, Seth (Brandon Soo Hoo) and Haley (Victoria Park) are young Los Angelinos madly in love with one another.  When Haley gets accepted to college in San Francisco, their love is put to the test. Determined to beat the formidable odds of young lovers sticking together "forever," the two agree to register as a couple with the Department of Emotional Intelligence (deliciously portrayed like the DMV) and maintain a long distance relationship.

Despite the rude behavior of some of the film's filmmakers whipping out their phones during the screening to text and go online (dimming the phone light does not cut it), Everything Before Us proved to be a highly enjoyable, smart, very funny, well written story about young people in love. While the narratives of the leads takes a more serious tone, albeit not too serious, there is plenty of comic relief provided by the supporting characters like Anna, along with Ben's friend, Henry (Chris Reidell), Henry's wife, Sandy (Katie Savoy), Haley's dweeby colleague, Taylor (Edward Gelbinovich), and Randall (Randall Park), the DEI representative.

Moreover and more importantly, is here you have an entertaining film where Asian Americans take front and center in the mise-en-scène. Although Asian Americans only make up five percent of the U.S. population they are nearly invisible when it comes to film and television. And, with few exceptions -- John Cho, Lucy Liu, Fresh Off the Boat and the short-lived All American Girl immediately come to mind, when Asian Americans are seen in American film and television, they are often relegated to supporting roles.

This underscores the importance of LAAPFF and good films like Everything Before Us.


LAAPFF runs through April 30 in Downtown LA, Koreatown and West Hollywood. For more information: LAAPFF.



 

NBFF 2015: CALAMITY JANE

Martha Canary/Calamity Jane (Kay Campbell) in Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend.
Martha, thy dreary

By Miranda Inganni

Calamity Jane, nee Martha Canary, was born in 1852 (most likely) in Missouri. According to Greg Monro’s film, her unstable childhood included the 8 year-old Martha traveling the Oregon Trail with her family, her parents’ subsequent deaths and Martha and her siblings being sent to an orphanage. First adopted at age 12, Martha was soon sent away for bad behavior. Where she went and/or what she did is not fully known. What historians do know is that Martha joined the Newton-Jenney Party into the Black Hills in 1875. Dressed in men’s attire, when reporters found out that Martha was a she, the public’s interest grew, leading to many articles, dime novels and even an autobiographical pamphlet Martha dictated (as she had no formal education) for publication. We also know that in 1876 she travelled to Deadwood, South Dakota, along with Wild Bill Hickock, though the full extent of their relationship is unknown.

Martha was daring and caring (as long as we are not talking about Native Americans). Not only was she a professional scout in the Wild West, she helped nurse smallpox sufferers back to health in Deadwood in the late 1870s. She was also, by all accounts, a raging alcoholic. She had two children, who were placed in foster care, and despite her infamy, died destitute in 1903 at the age of 51.
Told with reenactments -- with Kay Campbell playing the titular character, vintage photographs and lots of moving shots of pastoral and pristine rolling hills, wind-swept plains, and mountain ranges, director Monro’s film also employs many “experts,” most of whom rely heavily on hypothetical phrases such as, “I imagine… ,” or “it was possible… .” They make many suppositions about Martha and her family.
Martha was known for her colorful stories, but many of the tales about her life are unsubstantiated. Historical facts have disproved many of the musings about Calamity Jane. Unfortunately, Monro’s Calamity Jane is just as colorful yet unreliable as Martha’s own history. Monro tries to straddle the line between fact and fiction, but just can’t seem to ride it out.
 
 
Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend screens at the Newport Beach Film Festival April 26, 2:45 p.m. For more information: Calamity Jane.

FILM REVIEW: 24 DAYS

Ruth (Zabou Breitman) in 24 Days.
Poor Jew

By Ed Rampell

Director Alexandre Arcady’s taut, suspenseful new film, 24 Days, is like the similarly monikered now-defunct Fox TV series, 24, in that it deals with torture within a set period of time.

However, 24 Days is based on a real life tragedy: The January 2006 abduction in Paris of French Jew Ilan Halimi (portrayed by Syrus Shahidi), a cell phone salesman of Morrocan ancestry. Arcady shares the screenwriting credits with Antoine Lacomblez and Emilie Freche, who co-wrote with Ruth Halimi (played by Zabou Breitman in the movie) a book called 24 Days, The Truth on Ilan Halimi’s Death.

Using a very realistic style, Arcady’s probing camera takes us inside the kidnapping, from Sub-Saharan Africa to France. In addition to being a policier, 24 Days is also an intense family drama. The Halimis seem like a very close knit family, although Ruth (Zabou Breitman) and Didier Halimi (Pascal Elbe) are actually divorced, which adds to the already considerable amount of tension. This leads towards the acting being occasionally overwrought in a few scenes: How many crying babies and screaming sisters, mother, etc., can a viewer stand?

The film is gripping with a political subtext and reminiscent of Costa-Gavras. 24 Days implies that the bungling police were extremely incompetent in carrying out their investigation and attempts to rescue Halimi. Most importantly, the movie explores the big question as to whether Ilan's kidnapping and abuse while being held prisoner was an act of anti-Semitism? The authorities try long and hard to deny this -- but others thought differently, including Ruth.

Arcady has a North-African background similar to Ilan's -- the director was born in Algeria and is also Jewish. He moved from Algiers to France when he was 15 and many of his movies have focused on Jewish issues and subjects, hence his interest in l’affaire Halimi. However, if 24 Days is indeed asserting that Ilan's hijacking was because of anti-Semitism, Arcady’s dramatization does not make a very convincing, strong case.

In terms of motive, there is only a very quick specific Islamicist reference and the inept kidnappers appear to be acting more on the basis of greed than on hatred per se for Jews. Yes, they targeted Ilan because he was Jewish, but not out of contempt for the Chosen People, but due to their foolish belief that all Jews are rich. So while Ilan's abductors did indeed act under the impression of a false stereotype of Jews, they did not seem to be motivated by a deep seated hatred per se of Jews, unlike inquisitors, Nazis, Islamicist extremists and other fanatics since Biblical days. The movie does not suggest that overzealous Zionist militaristic policies vis-à-vis the  Palestinians and the like provoked the body snatchers. They just wanted to make a fast, easy buck but stupidly chose a wrong target because they ignorantly believed an incorrect, idiotic caricature of Jews.

Of course, France has a history of persecution of the Jews, notably the notorious Dreyfus affair and the roundup of Jews and collaboration with the Nazis during the German occupation and the Holocaust.  As said, the Ilan events played out in 2006 and they indicate the ongoing precarious position of French Jews -- and, perhaps, of members of this long despised minority group everywhere. The resulting roundup of alleged abductors -- mostly or all non-white, in French ghettoes -- can also be seen in a different context in 2015.
 

 


 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

COLCOA 2015: GEMMA BOVERY

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Martin (Fabrice Lucchini) in Gemma Bovary.
Madame Se(x)e

By John Esther

Rather than another adaptation of Madame Bovary, co-writer and director Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery is a light lit-crit cinematic reinterpretation of Gustave Flaubert's great novel.

After years in the publishing business, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Lucchini) has returned to the Northern France town of Normandy (the name of which works better as a play on words in English than in French). Martin may still be a voracious reader, but he now runs his deceased father's bakery. Martin is a natural at baking and seems happiest at work. At home, he has a nice wife, Valérie (Isabelle Candelier), plus a teenage son, Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) who does not share his father's love of reading.

Life is fairly rudimentary in Normandy for Martin until the day his new neighbors from London arrive: Charles (Jason Flemyng) and Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton). For anyone educated in the French system, Charles and Emma Bovery are two of the most famous names in French literature. (Gemma is close enough.) For someone like Martin, the introduction to these people with such notable names is an existential punctum. 

Curious if life will imitate literature, Martin begins to watch Gemma. Sure enough, the bored housewife of Normandy begins to imitate the bored housewife of Normandy. Love, affairs, betrayal and tragedy ensue. But there are differences between the literary archetype and the cinematic simulacrum; only Martin ignores what does not necessarily fit into his narrative.

A film that could only be made in a country where literature is widely consumed and considered worthy of one's time, Gemma Bovery, is an entertaining, smart film with strong performances.



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

STAGE REVIEW: OCCUPATION

Florian (Brandon Bales) and Bets (Hall Chareton) in Occupation.

Buy, bye

By Ed Rampell

Playwright Ken Ferrigni’s outrageous Occupation appears to possess the hallmarks of Sacred Fools’ productions such as Bill & Joan, Jon Bastian’s Beat Generation play about scrivener William S. Burroughs; Stoneface about comedian Buster Keaton; and the company’s two Sherlock Holmes parodies. Occupation has originality.

In the not-too-distant future an indebted USA sells Florida to the Peoples Republic of China. This leads to an Everglades insurgency fought in the swamps, pitting the South Florida Christian Militia against the People’s Liberation America (PLA).

This is a pretty hilarious notion. Montages of faux news clips with a Jon Stewart panache appear on the stage’s three flat screen TVs. The Chinese consul’s name, Zedong (Robert Paterno), riffs on Chairman Mao Zedong’s moniker. Redbook aficionados are pitted against Bible-thumpers -- one of those Jimmy Swaggart Southern televangelist types, Bay Ray (Bruno Oliver), and his son, Florian (Brandon Bales). Florian and Zedong also cleverly appear in stagecraft stretching videos shot in-house that are played on the playhouse’s screens live (kudos to video designer Anthony Backman). It seems as if all’s well on the satirical frontlines and we’re off and running to the races.

Alas, while the preposterous premise is far out, Occupation’s problem is in its execution. Instead of playing the Sunshine Patriots in the Sunshine State versus socialists saga for laughs as a farce, the Reds vs. Rednecks storyline veers towards tragedy. By taking itself too seriously, as if the credulity-stretching plot was plausible, this dystopian drama loses credibility. At times the acting becomes histrionic.

Sacred Fools is a bold theater company, and in productions such as it s version of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, it hasn’t flinched from presenting onstage nudity and/or violence, but Occupation arguably becomes too bloody, while the plot’s harrowing denouement is pregnant with mass extermination of biblical proportions. Meanwhile, director Ben Rock’s staged sex is, for some reason, less graphic: It’s a case of make war, not love.

Setting the mood, scenic designer DeAnne Millais does yeoman’s (yeowoman’s?) work in conjuring up a set which convincingly evinces three or four different locales: The office where the corrupt, married Zedong makes out with mistress Mei Mei (willowy Rebecca Larsen); the Everglades where the Swamp Foxes led by Gare (K.J. Middlebrooks) are based and launch their sneak attacks on the PLA invaders from; and the campsite of the pregnant Bets’ (Halle Charleton), who comes across like a female counterpart to Deliverance’s demented hillbillies.

Unfortunately, by buying into its unbelievable hypothesis the satire retires at Florida and is a misfire. Well, they can’t all be Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara -- the much extended hit that premiered at Sacred Fools and found its way to a larger theatrical venue.


Occupation runs through April 23 at the Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A., CA 90004. For more info: 310-281-8337; www.sacredfools.org/.

 

 

 

Friday, April 17, 2015

FILM REVIEW: TRUE STORY

Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Christian Longo (James Franco) in True Story.
 
Trope-a-dope
 
By John Esther
 
Micheal Finkel (Jonah Hill) is in a bad way. He has just embellished and contrived a story for the New York Times and NYT has found out. Now a journalistic pariah (whose lack of integrity nowhere reaches the lows of Bill O'Reilly), Finkel has retreated to Montana with his girlfriend, Jill Barker (Felicity Jones), where he suffers rejection after rejection to write another piece.
 
If things were not bad enough for Finkel -- at his own fingers, mind you -- an accused killer out an Oregon has been using his name as an alias. Who needs publicity like that? Well, Finkel might.
 
So Finkel heads out to Oregon to meet Christian Longo (James Franco), who is in prison now awaiting trial. Longo is accused of killing his wife (Maria Dizzia) and their three young children (Connor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll, and Stella Rae Payne).
 
On a basic level the two connect and strike up a deal, which could be mutually beneficial. Then again, and again, and again, people are known to lie.
 
Based on the titular book by Finkel and co-written by David Kajganich and director Rupert Goold, True Story is not a comedic endeavor from two of Hollywood's leading, busiest funny men. It is actually tragic when you consider the basic lesson of this true story is "never trust anyone."
 
While most of the film is fairly interesting and entertaining, there are a few scenes in True Story which ring a bit embellished and contrived as well. For example, Baker confronts Delongo in prison, giving him her two cents on what she thinks of him. Essentially, she is playing the mouthpiece of the indignant audience member(s). Then there is the scene where Finkel slugs out a men's bathroom stall in a court house. Nobody hears that...in a courthouse? Maybe that did happen but, in the spirit of True Story, this testimony on behalf of the filmmakers -- perhaps based on Finkel's account -- requires a little corroboration.
 
Nonetheless, in an era of rampant journalistic lies (hiding behind the faux-facade of "entertainment"), True Story reminds us to take anything we view with a grain a salt and a sneer of incredulous while truly appreciating those who do not lie for their own selfishness (or propagandistic endeavors).