China Box Office: Local Title ‘Continent’ Bows at $47 Million as ‘Transformers’ Exits on $317 Million High

The Continent, a nostalgic road movie by the popular young Chinese novelist, heartthrob and blogger Han Han, has taken $47 million in its opening weekend in China, knocking Tiny Times 3.0, by another youthful Chinese director and writer, Guo Jingming, off the top of the charts.

Domestic movies ran in solid numbers during a period when Hollywood movies are cleared from the schedules to make way for homegrown fare, but the success of Transformers: Age of Extinction, which has now ended its run in China as the first movie to pass the $300-million threshold there, highlighted the absence of a big Chinese production to fill seats.

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The Continent took $46.87 million in its first four days, with 171,269 screenings and 9.1 million admissions, according to data from the research group Entgroup.

The movie features Feng Shaofeng and Chen Bolin, and it took over $11 million in its opening day.

The film tells the tale of three childhood friends who go on a road trip to find themselves and meet an assortment of characters en route. The trailer was downloaded five million times when it was launched back in May.

Both Han Han and Guo Jingming are youth culture icons, and both write about, and are beloved of, teenage girls, but there are keen differences between the two. They share success as novelists and, now, as filmmakers, but Han Han, with his rally car driving and boy-band good looks, is a hero of the youth counterculture and has been critical of government policy in the past.

Guo’s work is more reflective of the rise in consumer culture in China, evidenced by the vast array of brand names in evidence in the Tiny Times franchise.

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In second place in the week to July 27 was Raymond Yip’s The House That Never Dies, a 3D ghost story about a haunted house on Chaoyangmen Inner Street in downtown Beijing that has supposedly been haunted since the Communist Revolution in 1949.

The House That Never Dies, featuring Francis Ng, Ruby Lin, Tony Yang, Monica Mok, Amanda Qin and Li Jing, took another $27 million for a cume of $52.7 million after 10 days, with 175,497 screenings and 4.8 million admissions.

The film has inspired hordes of Beijingers to make the trek to Chaoyangmen Inner Streetm where the notorious Chaonei No. 81 building stands.

Tiny Times 3.0 took $24.73 million for a cume of $75.49 million after 11 days.

Based on Guo’s best-selling novels of the same name, Tiny Times 3.0 tells of the lives, loves and burgeoning careers of four girls from differing backgrounds living in luxury dormitories and obsessing over branded products.

The latest film in the tween franchise had more screenings than The House That Never Dies at 199,126 and roughly the same number of admissions at 4.8 million, the data shows.

The movie is co-produced by Huace Film Corporation and Heli Chenguang International Cultural Media Corporation, as well as LeTV, Dragon TV, Ruyi Xinxin Culture Development Corp and others.

In fourth place stood the colossal Transformers: Age of Extinction, which ended its 31-day run in China with a staggering cume of $317 million, according to Entgroup.

The movie has changed the landscape in China and was still going strong after 31 days, with 60,585 screenings and 1.87 million admissions in the week.

Behind that was the domestic animated feature The Magical Brush, with $4.72 million, followed in sixth place by Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon.

This sentimental tale of a hapless pair of amateur Chinese musicians called the Chopsticks Brothers began life as a 43-minute micro movie online in 2010 but after 75 million hits became a big-screen feature and has now grossed $32.8 million after 18 days.

The domestic romantic comedy The Breakup Guru took another $2.61 million for a cume of $106.59 million after 31 days. The movie is directed by Yu Baimei and Deng Chao and stars Deng and Yang Mi.

After that in eighth place was Happy Heroes 2 Qiyuan Planet Wars, which took $1.56 million for a total of $4.21 million; Dhoom 3, which took $1.35 million in its opening weekend; and No Zuo No Die, which grossed $700,000.

Twitter: @cliffordcoonan

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Japan Box Office: ‘Godzilla’ Comes Home, Tops Weekend

TOKYO — Godzilla crushed the opposition at the Japanese box office this weekend with a $6.7 million (¥683 million) three-day bow, stopping Disney from claiming 20 straight weeks at the top of the charts.

Japan is the last major market for Gareth Edwards‘ take on Godzilla, following much speculation on how the land that birthed the beast would respond to its release.

Despite some early online chatter about how the Hollywood version of the monster was bulging in the wrong places, Warner Bros. can be satisfied with its solid opening. Recent Hollywood films with Japanese themes, including 47 Ronin, The Wolverine (released locally as Wolverine Samurai) and Pacific Rim, have all performed poorly here.

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Toho, the studio behind the original radiated monster, is distributing Godzilla locally, as it celebrates 60 years since the first Godzilla film was released in 1954.

Maleficent dropped to second place on the weekend charts, meaning there was a non-Disney title at number one for the first time since mid-March. The Angelina Jolie-starrer has now made $39 million (¥3.97 bilion) in Japan.


Disney’s Planes: Fire & Rescue dropped one spot to eighth, while Frozen finally fell out of the top 10 in its 20th week in Japanese theaters.

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Pokemon the Movie: Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction, the latest big-screen Pocket Monsters adventure, fell to third, while Edge of Tomorrow  (All You Need Is Kill) dropped to 10th in its fourth weekend in Japan.

Twitter: @GavinJBlair

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ALMA: Peering into the universe’s past

The following script is from “ALMA” which aired on March 9, 2014, and was rebroadcast on July 27, 2014. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Michael Gavshon and David Levine, producers.

At this very moment, astronomers are exploring parts of space that have never been seen before. They are seeing the actual birth of planets and stars, countless millions of them, from the top of a remote plateau in Northern Chile. Deep in the Atacama Desert, they’ve built a revolutionary new observatory, known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, ALMA for short. It’s a different kind of telescope, not the kind you look through.

ALMA is the world’s most powerful radio telescope, which means it deciphers wave lengths of light — colors really — that the human eye cannot see, giving scientists a window on parts of the universe that are otherwise invisible. It’s a project that’s been 30 years in the making and cost $1.3 billion. ALMA is just getting started, and as we reported last March, has already made some astonishing discoveries.

chandnantor-1.jpg

For centuries, people have come to this high plateau in Northern Chile to look far into the heart of space. It’s called Chajnantor, which means “place of departure.” As these time lapse pictures show, it is the Earth’s window to the stars. At 16,500 feet, it’s above most of the Earth’s atmosphere, there’s very little here separating man from the heavens. The result is a night’s sky that’s more brilliant than anything you can see without actually being in orbit.

The landscape is otherworldly, and the harsh terrain stretches hundreds of miles. But the same features that make the desert so inhospitable also make it an ideal place to gaze at the galaxies. It’s high and it’s dry. ALMA is comprised of 66 radio antennas. The expertise and technology assembled here make it the most ambitious astronomical project on Earth.

Bob Simon: Has there ever been an enterprise on this scale before?

Pierre Cox: On this scale, no. It’s the biggest one.

Pierre Cox is ALMA’s Director. His job is to coordinate the 19 different countries involved in the project.

Pierre Cox: When I took my job, people said, “Oh my goodness. That would be like being the Secretary General of United Nations.”

Bob Simon: That’s what I would have thought.

Pierre Cox: I thought it also. But then I thought a little bit about it. And I think no. It’s much easier, because all the members have the same goal, which is not true for the United Nations.

But it is a herculean task. Everything you see here had to be manufactured in Europe, Asia and North America, and shipped to the Atacama. It was assembled and tested here at ALMA’s base camp at the foot of the mountain, an altitude of 10,000 feet.

Then the trip to the top at eight miles-an-hour. Each one of these $7 million instruments has to make the 17-mile journey on a specially built transporter: more crab than carrier, designed to protect this ultrasensitive cargo from even the slightest bump in the road.

Bob Simon: You put one of these on a truck?

Pierre Cox: Yes.

Bob Simon: Haul it up to 5,000 meters, more than 16,000 feet, and you still expect the kind of accuracy–

Pierre Cox: Yes.

Bob Simon: –that is a tiny fraction of a human hair?

Pierre Cox: Yes, that gives you an idea about how complex this whole endeavour is.

It’s a journey into thin air. The altitude is such a strain on the body that you have to pass a medical exam to go there.

Bob Simon: Do you find that when you’re on top your thinking gets a little bit hazy?

Pierre Cox: Yes, sometimes it does. I mean, people react very differently. There are people who are starting to babble all the time. Other ones who don’t say a word.

Very little can survive at these heights. There’s a point at which even the llamas stop climbing. We came here in May – the middle of fall in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s supposed to be the driest place on Earth. We found snow.

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Bob Simon: You know what’s going on at a trillion miles from here. But you couldn’t forecast the weather.

Pierre Cox: Yeah, that’s right. So we have to live with it. There you see the antennas.

Bob Simon: My God, what a sight. That looks extraterrestrial.

Pierre Cox: It is. It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

We were fitted with oxygen tanks. Still, we found it difficult to think or breathe or walk.

Right now the antennas are spread out on the plateau over a distance of a mile. But they’re moveable, and eventually, they could spread out over 10 miles. That will mimic a single telescope dish 10 miles wide.

Then, ALMA will be able to see far off objects with greater detail than ever before. And because light takes so long to get to us from distant objects, the farther away ALMA sees the farther back in time it looks. Soon, they will be able to get close to the start of it all, to the Big Bang. ALMA will offer us a glimpse at the formation of the very first galaxies 13 billion years ago.

Bob Simon: The very first galaxies?

Pierre Cox: Yes. The ones which were born just after the Big Bang, about a billion years after the Big Bang.

Bob Simon: Just after the Big Bang is a billion years

Bob Simon: –after the Big Bang–

Pierre Cox: In terms of astronomy we have those terms.

Bob Simon: And that’s never been before?

Pierre Cox: No, or very few.

ALMA’s brain is a supercomputer housed in one of the highest buildings in the world, second only to a tiny train station in the Tibetan Himalayas. Physicist Alison Peck helped oversee ALMA’s construction.

Alison Peck: We had to oxygenate the entire room. That means we need to– needed to pump additional oxygen into the room in order for the guys to be able to make decisions correctly, to focus correctly, to compensate for the altitude.

Bob Simon: So they wouldn’t have been able to do this without oxygen?

Alison Peck: There’s absolutely no way they would have been able to assemble this without additional oxygen.

Bob Simon: Has anything like this ever been done before?

Alison Peck: Not at this altitude, no. This is definitely the highest altitude supercomputer in the entire world.

It’s as powerful as three million laptops and it synchronizes all the data coming in from those antennas.

Bob Simon: How precise does the computer have to be?

Alison Peck: This computer has to be able to synchronize the data to within just a few femtoseconds.

Bob Simon: What’s that?

Alison Peck: That is a millionth of a billionth of a second.

ALMA isn’t actually the world’s highest telescope. Hubble, for example, has been orbiting hundreds of miles above the Earth for more than two decades. But Hubble is an optical telescope, a very different creature from ALMA.

Alison Peck: ALMA is a radio telescope which means that we are observing things that are radiating at wavelengths longer than what the eye can see. Optical telescopes observe the visible light. They observe things that light up that we can see with our eyes.

Bob Simon: So, ALMA can see colors that we cannot see?

Alison Peck: Effectively, yes. ALMA can see wavelengths of light that we cannot see with our eyes.

Take a look. What you’re seeing is an image from an optical telescope. It looks like little more than a dark cloud in space. But THIS is how ALMA sees it. Suddenly that cloud is lifted.

Bob Simon: What’s there?

Alison Peck: Gas, generally, and dust. And that doesn’t sound so exciting when you say that. I mean, dust– we just vacuum it up, normally. But in the context of the evolution of galaxies and solar systems, dust is extremely important.

It’s in these dense patches of gas and dust where stars, new solar systems, are born. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in this picture: a new star.

Alison Peck: Hubble can see stars immediately after they’re born. But it can’t detect the regions before the stars are born. It can’t see the cradles, if you will, where the stars will appear.

Bob Simon: Hubble sees the baby, you’re seeing the birth?

Alison Peck: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Not just the birth of stars, ALMA can also see planets as they form. Stuart Corder is ALMA’s deputy director. Inside the control room, he showed us some of the remarkable things they’re already observing.

Bob Simon: So essentially, in language I can understand, we are looking at a young star.

Stuart Corder: Young star, yes.

Bob Simon: And we’re looking at the birth of planets around it.

Stuart Corder: Right. Yeah, I mean, the– the emit– the– the colors that we’re seeing in the image are the gas around the star. And that gas, and the dust that’s also surrounding the star, eventually comes together into small pebbles, and then large rocks, and then bigger rocks, and eventually forms planets. So I mean, this is really the– you’re seeing the natal environment of planets.

This ALMA graphic illustrates just how new planets are formed.

But will there be life on them? We all know that’s the ultimate question. And even at this early stage in its journey, ALMA has seen evidence that there might be. It has identified chemicals close to newborn stars that are similar to what we find here on Earth, which form the building blocks of life.

Alison Peck: We found a simple sugar called glycolaldehyde. Now this is a molecule that we consider pre-biotic. That means that it could lead to conditions where life could form

Bob Simon: Excuse me. I can’t resist. There’s sugar out there?

Alison Peck: Yes. There’s sugar out there, there’s alcohol.

Bob Simon: This is very good news.

Alison Peck: Yes, indeed. Indeed.

The scientists at ALMA aren’t the first people to gaze at the skies from this desert. For generations, the indigenous people of the Atacama were fascinated, not by the brilliance of the stars, but by the very same dark corners of space. Chilean physicist Eduardo Hardy, ALMA’s director of North American Operations showed us how they saw the universe.

Eduardo Hardy: They saw the equivalent of constellations. But instead of looking at stars to draw the shapes of the constellations, they used the dark patches to do that.

Bob Simon: The Greeks used the stars.

Eduardo Hardy: The Greek used the stars. The local populations used the dark patches, which is precisely what ALMA is looking at.

And in these dark patches, they saw reflections of their daily lives…llamas, for example. They spun a whole mythology around them.

Bob Simon: The Milky Way.

Eduardo Hardy: Here, the Milky Way is a river. And it actually does look like a river. But it’s a river that will take the souls of the dead people and take them to heaven.

It’s fitting, then, that scientists at ALMA are scanning the skies on Chajnantor, this “place of departure.” And even though they’ve already taken us far into darkness, they’re just getting started.

Eduardo Hardy: We don’t even know what has been discovered. People who have made observation with ALMA are working hard to get the data out and publish it. In the next few years, we will be very surprised. The only thing I can predict is that we will be very surprised.

Surprised, yes. But ALMA is destined to take science further back in space and time than had ever been imagined — closer than ever to an understanding of what it means to say: “in the beginning.”

Source Article from http://feeds.cbsnews.com/~r/CBSNews60Minutes/~3/ixfpBtiRIbE/

‘The Continent’ (‘Hou Hui Wu Qi’): Film Review


Securing one of the world’s most critically garlanded filmmaker to appear in your directorial debut could be a masterstroke for any rookie director, but a device which could easily backfire when your film turns out to be a pretentious, pointless replica of that very icon’s oeuvre. With Jia Zhangke‘s cameo, Chinese pop-lit star Han Han lays bare what inspired The Continent, but also reveals, perhaps inadvertently, how his film is just an amalgamation of Jia’s visuals and vignettes — emptied of even the slightest smidgen of artistic edge and social relevance.

Boasting a title as epic as The Continent, and a protagonist’s name translating as “rivers and streams,” Han’s road movie is all artistic posturing but no substance. By the film’s end, one is not much wiser about the two travelers’ backgrounds or personalities beyond their over-stylized encounters with clichéd archetypes (the old flame, the innocent prostitute, the zany hitchhiker). Not that one gets to learn about the roads being traveled too, as Han never really ventured specific reflections about the state of the Chinese nation unfolding around the characters — in fact, there’s even scant mention of China here. The nuggets of cod philosophy on show are universal to the point of banality: it’s all so romantic and melancholic for two men to hit the road to find some answers to their life, but the film never really reveals what their questions are.

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The Continent‘s central pairing are Jiang He (Bolin Chen, Buddha Mountain) and Haohan (Feng Shaofeng, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon), two young men living on a run-down, rustic village in the depopulated island at the eastern coast of the country; their trip arose as a result of the former’s assignment to a teaching position in a western province. En route, they would meet Zhou Mo (Joe Chen), who earns her living as a background actor in film studios every day; Su Mi (Wang Luodan), a damsel-in-distress trying to escape the clutches of her mobster uncle (Jia); Liu Yingying (Yuan Quan), a snooker-hall proprietor who punctures Haohan’s dreams for love and family; and finally Ah Lu (Wallace Chung), a free-spirited wanderer whose existence amounts to nothing but the need to find someone to relieve the pair of their car and walk the final stretch of their journey.

The formula, apparently, is have these women — all exotic in their different ways — change these dreamy young men and the way they see the world. But these gents are not for turning — because there’s simply nothing there in their psyche to be turned or altered in the first place. These are not nihilists, as Jack Kerouac‘s roadsters are; The Continent offers non-entities who — as the on-screen proxy of Han himself, probably – has nothing to say apart from indulging in, with furrowed brows, the fantasy of being a pretty face meeting other pretty faces while driving a pretty car in pretty landscapes.

And these are landscapes, though captured beautifully by Liao Hwa and pepped up pristinely by production designer Liu Weixin, well-trodden previously. A walk through fake streets filled with dressed-up people play-acting roles as work? That’s Jia Zhangke’s The World. Young men rescuing a young woman from the evil claws of a baddie? That’s from a Jia film again, Unknown Pleasures. Satellite dishes and spaceships in rural China? That’s a scene from Still Life. And a final reunion with an old flame? That’s Platform. Finally, of course, there’s the film’s episodic structure, each representing a different way of living in China — something which drives A Touch of Sin, Jia’s magnum opus. Isn’t it ironic that Han’s pale copy of that is raking eight-digit box-office returns in China while the original remains unreleased, caught in censorship limbo?

In a way, The Continent is not substantial enough to be an homage to Jia and his fiery attempt to relay China’s problems; on the other hand, it’s too earnest and po-faced to be pastiche or parody. A Shanghai-born enfant terrible born into a comfortable lifestyle with scant experience of living outside the bright lights of the big city – his hobby is in driving race cars — Han has delivered a glossy, sugar-coated adaptation of the gritty realism Jia and his fellow sixth-generation Chinese filmmakers have shaped and perfected. While his archrival Guo Jingming is more honest and explicit about his garish celebration of bling-fueled melodrama in the Tiny Times films, Han has produced a film devoid of meaning but filled to the brim with pretensions of artistic greatness — or at least glimpses of artistic greatness he has readily absorbed, drained of power and then called his own.

Venue: Public screening, Shenzhen

Production companies:  Laurel Films, Guomai Culture and Film, Bona Film Group

Cast: Wilson Chen, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Luodan, Yuan Quan, Joe Chen

Director: Han Han

Screenwriter: Han Han

Producers: Fang Li

Executive producer: Fang Li, Lu Jinbo, Yu Dong

Director of photography: Liao Hwa

Production designer: Liu Weixin

Editor: Shao Yang

Music: Takeshi Kobayashi

In Mandarin

No rating; 106 minutes

‘Get On Up’: Film Review


On the evidence of Get On Up, R&B legend James Brown was a man given to referring to himself in the third person, usually while reminding people of his fortitude and genius. If the high-energy feature demonstrates anything, it’s that the self-made superstar was a propulsive, take-no-prisoners personality — someone whose sense of heroic destiny could be exhausting as well as exhilarating for those around him. In sync with its subject, director Tate Taylor’s movie, too, can be wearying, especially in the strenuously scrambled chronology of its early sequences. But under the guidance of producer Mick Jagger, it’s that rare musician’s biography with a deep feel for the music. And in Chadwick Boseman, it has a galvanic core, a performance that transcends impersonation and reverberates long after the screen goes dark.

Despite a “James Brown 101” coda that targets young ’uns unfamiliar with the Godfather of Soul, the picture itself is anything but pedantic. Working from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, Taylor aims, admirably if not always successfully, to break or at least shake up the conventional biopic mold.

Given the draw of an iconic pop-culture figure and his music (new mixes of Brown’s original recordings), as well as the nostalgia factor for older viewers and what promises to be upbeat word of mouth, Get On Up is primed for a strong chart run. Like Taylor’s previous feature, The Help, it’s an August release with broad appeal, and it, too, will have staying power.

Refusing to sugarcoat a complex and often unlikable man, and rarely lapsing into sentimentality, the movie covers most of Brown’s life, with Boseman’s gutsy, uncanny portrayal encompassing his teen years through his 60s. Twins Jamarion Scott and Jordan Scott play Brown as a child, conveying his self-possession and powerful connection to gospel’s ecstatic rhythms. All three actors are called upon to break the fourth wall, addressing the camera in asides that usually state the obvious. 

Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42, taps straight into the doggedness, grandiosity and self-reliance that kept even those closest to Brown at a remove. A couple of crucial deaths in the story have no dramatic impact because, although a few key relationships are sharply etched as the story jumps back and forth through the decades, it’s the music that propels the action. Thomas Newman’s broody score provides an effective counterpoint to the funkadelic heat.

Re-creating a wide assortment of shows, everywhere from a Georgia roadhouse to a Paris concert hall and the war zone of Vietnam (all played by Mississippi), Taylor and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt capture the intensity, if not the storied length, of Brown’s concerts. (A few inserts of black-and-white archival footage shatter, rather than bolster, the spell.) If the “honky hoedown” corniness that Brown and the Famous Flames find on the set of the Frankie Avalon movie Ski Party feels overstated in its jokiness, Taylor offers the perfect antidote in the super-sexualized fervor of their early shows for black audiences. Whatever the venue, Boseman has the dance moves down, splits included. He’s got the swagger, onstage and off, to own the bold looks of Sharen Davis‘ costumes.

As central figures in Brown’s life, Viola DavisOctavia SpencerJill Scott and Lennie James make the most of brief screen time. A beautifully played scene pairs Davis and Boseman in a decisive confrontation between Brown and the mother who abandoned him years earlier. But the story’s emotional nucleus, beyond Brown’s drive to perform, is his musical association with singer Bobby Byrd. Imbuing the part with a grounded warmth, True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis is superb, the yin to Boseman’s yang. The bond between Brown and his longtime manager (Dan Aykroyd), on the other hand, never comes alive, veering toward the cartoonish as it traces Big Career Moments.

Broad strokes also shape many of the film’s comments on American racial politics. As in The Help, white bigotry is often reduced to caricature (witness Allison Janney’s unfortunate cameo). Yet there are potent, nuanced observations, as well: young James pulling two-tone oxfords off a lynched man; the tension at Brown’s Boston Garden show the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder; and the searing childhood memory of a horrendous form of entertainment once popular with the Southern country-club set.

Grasping the essence of a larger-than-life story with imagination and energy, Get On Up doesn’t quite succeed at shedding the biopic template, but it finds its own beat as it tries.

 

Production companies: A Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Jagged Films/Brian Grazer production in association with Wyolah Films
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Jacinte Blankenship, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Allison Janney
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Producers: Brian Grazer, Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman, Erica Huggins, Tate Taylor
Executive producers: Peter Afterman, Trish Hofmann, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, John Norris, Anna Culp
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Michael McCusker
Composer: Thomas Newman
Executive music producer: Mick Jagger
Choreographer: Aakomon Jones

Rated PG-13, 139 minutes

‘Adventure’ (‘Priklyuchenie’): Karlovy Vary Review


An Almaty security guard becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman he spies across the road from his workplace every night in Adventure (Priklyuchenie), which, unlike what the title might suggest, is a slender and hushed adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s oft-filmed short story “White Nights.” This third feature from Kazakh director Nariman Turebayev should appeal to fans of deliberately paced — read: slow-moving — foreign films, with a good festival run likely, but chances of a theatrical release beyond Russophone countries are about as minimal as the film’s use of dialogue.

Marat (Azamat Nigmanov, The Convoy) is a night watchman at a nondescript office building in the former Kazakh capital. Indeed, so little happens during his long hours in the empty building that the solitary employee often has a nap or two — and the slippery structure devised by the writer-director and his editor, Aybol Kasymzhanov, leaves it unclear whether Marat’s encounters with Mariyam (newcomer Aynur Niyazova), whom he first spots across the street from the office, are happening in reality or in his dreams.

Like the short story (whose earlier cinematic incarnations include works directed by the likes of Visconti, Bresson, James Gray and Ivan “high priest of Stalinist cinema” Pyryev), Turebayev’s film takes place over four consecutive nights. Mariyam shows up at the same place every night, waiting for her lover who has left her and who promised he’d return a year later.

However, when Marat works up the courage to finally talk to Mariyam, it turns out that she’s already been waiting for a little longer than a year. This feeds Marat’s hope that the unseen lover will never return, so he could potentially make a move on her himself, and also helps Mariyam slowly ease into a tentative acquaintance with the guard, though she does warn him early on that she’s “a dangerous woman.”

As played by Nigmanov, Marat is someone with such a dull routine, and no friends or acquaintances (presumably not helped by his ungodly working hours), that his face has frozen into a rigid mask that barely betrays any kind of emotion, positive or negative. Consequently, only his words — few, very few — and his actions offer potential clues about what he might be thinking.

When Marat lets Mariyam lead him away from his professional duties several times to accompany her, it doesn’t feel so much like he’s being lured away by this enchanting woman specifically,  but rather that he’s finally breaking the monotony of his own pitiful existence. There’s a sense that he would probably be unable to do so on his own, but that he can now comfortably blame any fallout from this choice on his new female acquaintance should something go wrong. (It will come as no surprise for viewers familiar with Dostoyevsky’s work that something invariably will.)

By replacing the novel’s explicit first-person narration with a series of well-observed but quite detached scenes that audiences will have to decrypt for themselves, Turebayev has made a daring move that makes the film both potentially more interesting but also less easily readable, since the story’s emotional undercurrents might initially seem quite opaque. This shouldn’t necessarily turn off seasoned art house viewers, though there is a sense, as the film draws to a close, that the film’s protagonist remains somewhat removed from both the viewer and his own life.

Technically, this a modest but precise production, with the classical score by Irena Scalerika neatly contrasting with local dance music played in places the unlikely duo visit during some of the film’s best scenes, when, perhaps a tad ironically, they open up not to each other but to random strangers.
 

Production companies: Kazakhfilm, Arizona

Cast: Azamat Nigmanov, Aynur Niyazova

Writer-director: Nariman Turebayev, screenplay based on the short story “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Producers: Anna Kachko, Guillaume de Seille

Executive producer: Yerzhan Akhmetzhanov

Director of photography: Kazbek Amerzhanov

Production designer: Munir Akhmetzhanov

Editor: Aybol Kasymzhanov

Composer: Irena Scalerika

Sales: Pascale Ramonda

No rating, 81 minutes

‘Angry Video Game Nerd’: Fantasia Review


Together with collaborator Kevin Finn, writer-director James Rolfe expands his prolific web series about a cranky video game reviewer to full feature length for the benefit of an international network of YouTube followers. Variable production quality, bargain-basement special effects and hammy performances won’t deter fans of the original, but expansion beyond the current, limited theatrical tour and planned VOD and DVD releases looks fairly uncertain.

Multihyphenate Rolfe plays the titular Angry Video Game Nerd, whose principal mission in life is to record and upload severely critical reviews of mostly obsolete console and computer games. One that he won’t revisit, however, is Atari’s “E.T.,” a release based on the 1982 movie. Widely considered one of the worst games ever, it memorably traumatized his childhood and became such a commercial failure that thousands of game cartridges were rumored to be disposed of in a New Mexico landfill.

The Nerd’s insistent refusal to review the game wavers, however, when he’s approached by Cockburn Gaming company representative Mandi (Sarah Glendening) to evaluate the new release “Eee Tee 2.” Fearful that the title will encourage his vast network of fans to seek out the original game, provoking widespread consternation, the Nerd agrees to review Cockburn’s product if the company will fund an expedition to the Alamogordo dump so that he can debunk the urban myth concerning Atari’s massive game disposal. Together with Mandi and his admiring sidekick Cooper (Jeremy Suarez), the Nerd sets out on a cross-country crusade to save his fans from the never-ending threat of awful video games.

Although Rolfe’s vitriolic reviews form the centerpiece of his web episodes, the feature film strategically incorporates his frequent rants (invariably delivered directly to the camera) as subsidiary components of this extravagantly conceived adventure. Beginning as a haphazardly planned road trip, their quest shifts into thriller mode when the group reaches New Mexico and encounters a former research scientist from a famously top-secret project who’s concealing incriminating information about the Atari game. In its final phase, the film morphs into an off-kilter sci-fi comedy, although the filmmakers manage to capably anchor these disparate storylines to their central plot concerning crusading gamers. Similarities to Dr. Strangelove, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of course E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial serve more as comedic reference points than artistic homages.

Proudly crowdfunded by fans worldwide, the film gleefully showcases B-movie excess and ineptitude, from the intentionally amateurish acting to the impressively DIY special effects. Rolfe, a bona fide Internet celebrity with over 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube, comes across as more of an on-camera provocateur than a polished performer, although his exaggerated style suits the material, with the rest of the cast pretty much following suit.

Even though overly long and almost obsessively self-indulgent, with its insistence on incorporating dubiously rendered alien life forms, homemade spacecraft and utterly unconvincing pyrotechnics, the production hovers above home-video quality by a few admirable notches. Cult status is therefore very likely assured, at least among self-identified video game nerds, particularly with featured cameos from the likes of Troma Films’ Lloyd Kaufman and original Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw.

Production company: CineMassacre Productions
Producer: Sean Keegan
Executive producers: April Rolfe, James Rolfe
Director of photography:Jason Brewer
Production designer: Robin Brockway
Costume designer: Layne McGovern
Editors: Paul Fontaine, Michael Licisyn
Music: Bear McCreary
No Rating, 115 minutes
 

‘The Fluffy Movie’: Film Review


Popular Mexican-American comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias brings his stand-up act to the big screen in The Fluffy Movie. Trading on the popularity of his DVDs and Comedy Central specials, the plus-sized comic delivers a solid set of often highly personal material that’s consistently amusing even if it never quite hits the level of hilarity. Although the film will surely please his devoted fans, it doesn’t seem poised to reach the breakout box-office success of Kevin Hart‘s recent efforts.

The film begins with a dispensable prologue set in Tijuana, Mexico, depicting his mother meeting his dashing mariachi singer father and his childhood, during which he was inspired to become a comedian after watching a VHS tape of Eddie Murphy Raw. (Tommy Chong and Ron White make inconsequential cameos in the segment directed by Jay Lavender.)

From there it’s a straightforward concert film, fluidly directed by Manny Rodriguez and edited by Dave Harrison and Tom Costain. Filmed during the comic’s Unity Through Laughter tour, The Fluffy Movie shows the comic performing at San Jose’s HP Pavilion on an elaborate set featuring a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.

His nickname referring to his excess poundage, Iglesias, clad in his trademark Hawaiian shirt, begins the show with a lengthy routine about having recently lost 100 pounds — he had gone up to 445 — after being informed by his doctor that he would be dead within two years. His descriptions of a consultation with a surgeon about gastric bypass surgery and his subsequent effort to lose the weight without entirely cutting out his beloved fast food is sure to resonate with more than a few viewers.

More dependent on storytelling than laugh-out-loud punch lines, of which there are few, he proceeds to deliver entertaining bits about a trip to India, getting hit on by a gay man at a bar and his refusal to buy his teenage stepson a new cell phone. The latter leads to an amusing segue comparing today’s high-tech video games to the primitive 80′s era Nintendo Entertainment System.

Iglesias is a likeable presence, and his fluid delivery, complete with spot-on accents and sound effects, is consistently engaging. Where he really shines is his ability to invest emotional depth in his material, best illustrated in the final segment in which he describes his tense reunion with his father after 30 years. “Bay Area, it’s about to get real,” he advises as he launches into his story, and he holds true to the promise, resulting in genuine empathy as well as laughs. If he’s able to generate similarly strong personal material in the future, his career prospects look bright.

Production: Gulfstream Pictures

Cast: Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias

Director: Manny Rodriguez

Producers: Mike Karz, William Bindley, Gabriel Iglesias, Joe Meloche, Ron DeBlasio

Executive producers: John Bravakis, Stu Schreiberg, Carl Beyer, Jay Lavender

Director of photography: Larry Blanford

Editors: Dave Harrison, Tom Costain

Production designer: Bruce Ryan

Rated PG-13, 101 min.

 

‘Get On Up’: Film Review


On the evidence of Get On Up, R&B legend James Brown was a man given to referring to himself in the third person, usually while reminding people of his fortitude and genius. If the high-energy feature demonstrates anything, it’s that the self-made superstar was a propulsive, take-no-prisoners personality — someone whose sense of heroic destiny could be exhausting as well as exhilarating for those around him. In sync with its subject, director Tate Taylor’s movie, too, can be wearying, especially in the strenuously scrambled chronology of its early sequences. But under the guidance of producer Mick Jagger, it’s that rare musician’s biography with a deep feel for the music. And in Chadwick Boseman, it has a galvanic core, a performance that transcends impersonation and reverberates long after the screen goes dark.

Despite a “James Brown 101” coda that targets young ’uns unfamiliar with the Godfather of Soul, the picture itself is anything but pedantic. Working from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, Taylor aims, admirably if not always successfully, to break or at least shake up the conventional biopic mold.

Given the draw of an iconic pop-culture figure and his music (new mixes of Brown’s original recordings), as well as the nostalgia factor for older viewers and what promises to be upbeat word of mouth, Get On Up is primed for a strong chart run. Like Taylor’s previous feature, The Help, it’s an August release with broad appeal, and it, too, will have staying power.

Refusing to sugarcoat a complex and often unlikable man, and rarely lapsing into sentimentality, the movie covers most of Brown’s life, with Boseman’s gutsy, uncanny portrayal encompassing his teen years through his 60s. Twins Jamarion Scott and Jordan Scott play Brown as a child, conveying his self-possession and powerful connection to gospel’s ecstatic rhythms. All three actors are called upon to break the fourth wall, addressing the camera in asides that usually state the obvious. 

Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42, taps straight into the doggedness, grandiosity and self-reliance that kept even those closest to Brown at a remove. A couple of crucial deaths in the story have no dramatic impact because, although a few key relationships are sharply etched as the story jumps back and forth through the decades, it’s the music that propels the action. Thomas Newman’s broody score provides an effective counterpoint to the funkadelic heat.

Re-creating a wide assortment of shows, everywhere from a Georgia roadhouse to a Paris concert hall and the war zone of Vietnam (all played by Mississippi), Taylor and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt capture the intensity, if not the storied length, of Brown’s concerts. (A few inserts of black-and-white archival footage shatter, rather than bolster, the spell.) If the “honky hoedown” corniness that Brown and the Famous Flames find on the set of the Frankie Avalon movie Ski Party feels overstated in its jokiness, Taylor offers the perfect antidote in the super-sexualized fervor of their early shows for black audiences. Whatever the venue, Boseman has the dance moves down, splits included. He’s got the swagger, onstage and off, to own the bold looks of Sharen Davis‘ costumes.

As central figures in Brown’s life, Viola DavisOctavia SpencerJill Scott and Lennie James make the most of brief screen time. A beautifully played scene pairs Davis and Boseman in a decisive confrontation between Brown and the mother who abandoned him years earlier. But the story’s emotional nucleus, beyond Brown’s drive to perform, is his musical association with singer Bobby Byrd. Imbuing the part with a grounded warmth, True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis is superb, the yin to Boseman’s yang. The bond between Brown and his longtime manager (Dan Aykroyd), on the other hand, never comes alive, veering toward the cartoonish as it traces Big Career Moments.

Broad strokes also shape many of the film’s comments on American racial politics. As in The Help, white bigotry is often reduced to caricature (witness Allison Janney’s unfortunate cameo). Yet there are potent, nuanced observations, as well: young James pulling two-tone oxfords off a lynched man; the tension at Brown’s Boston Garden show the night after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder; and the searing childhood memory of a horrendous form of entertainment once popular with the Southern country-club set.

Grasping the essence of a larger-than-life story with imagination and energy, Get On Up doesn’t quite succeed at shedding the biopic template, but it finds its own beat as it tries.

 

Production companies: A Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Jagged Films/Brian Grazer production in association with Wyolah Films
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Jacinte Blankenship, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Allison Janney
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Producers: Brian Grazer, Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman, Erica Huggins, Tate Taylor
Executive producers: Peter Afterman, Trish Hofmann, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, John Norris, Anna Culp
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Michael McCusker
Composer: Thomas Newman
Executive music producer: Mick Jagger
Choreographer: Aakomon Jones

Rated PG-13, 139 minutes

‘Adventure’ (‘Priklyuchenie’): Karlovy Vary Review


An Almaty security guard becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman he spies across the road from his workplace every night in Adventure (Priklyuchenie), which, unlike what the title might suggest, is a slender and hushed adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s oft-filmed short story “White Nights.” This third feature from Kazakh director Nariman Turebayev should appeal to fans of deliberately paced — read: slow-moving — foreign films, with a good festival run likely, but chances of a theatrical release beyond Russophone countries are about as minimal as the film’s use of dialogue.

Marat (Azamat Nigmanov, The Convoy) is a night watchman at a nondescript office building in the former Kazakh capital. Indeed, so little happens during his long hours in the empty building that the solitary employee often has a nap or two — and the slippery structure devised by the writer-director and his editor, Aybol Kasymzhanov, leaves it unclear whether Marat’s encounters with Mariyam (newcomer Aynur Niyazova), whom he first spots across the street from the office, are happening in reality or in his dreams.

Like the short story (whose earlier cinematic incarnations include works directed by the likes of Visconti, Bresson, James Gray and Ivan “high priest of Stalinist cinema” Pyryev), Turebayev’s film takes place over four consecutive nights. Mariyam shows up at the same place every night, waiting for her lover who has left her and who promised he’d return a year later.

However, when Marat works up the courage to finally talk to Mariyam, it turns out that she’s already been waiting for a little longer than a year. This feeds Marat’s hope that the unseen lover will never return, so he could potentially make a move on her himself, and also helps Mariyam slowly ease into a tentative acquaintance with the guard, though she does warn him early on that she’s “a dangerous woman.”

As played by Nigmanov, Marat is someone with such a dull routine, and no friends or acquaintances (presumably not helped by his ungodly working hours), that his face has frozen into a rigid mask that barely betrays any kind of emotion, positive or negative. Consequently, only his words — few, very few — and his actions offer potential clues about what he might be thinking.

When Marat lets Mariyam lead him away from his professional duties several times to accompany her, it doesn’t feel so much like he’s being lured away by this enchanting woman specifically,  but rather that he’s finally breaking the monotony of his own pitiful existence. There’s a sense that he would probably be unable to do so on his own, but that he can now comfortably blame any fallout from this choice on his new female acquaintance should something go wrong. (It will come as no surprise for viewers familiar with Dostoyevsky’s work that something invariably will.)

By replacing the novel’s explicit first-person narration with a series of well-observed but quite detached scenes that audiences will have to decrypt for themselves, Turebayev has made a daring move that makes the film both potentially more interesting but also less easily readable, since the story’s emotional undercurrents might initially seem quite opaque. This shouldn’t necessarily turn off seasoned art house viewers, though there is a sense, as the film draws to a close, that the film’s protagonist remains somewhat removed from both the viewer and his own life.

Technically, this a modest but precise production, with the classical score by Irena Scalerika neatly contrasting with local dance music played in places the unlikely duo visit during some of the film’s best scenes, when, perhaps a tad ironically, they open up not to each other but to random strangers.
 

Production companies: Kazakhfilm, Arizona

Cast: Azamat Nigmanov, Aynur Niyazova

Writer-director: Nariman Turebayev, screenplay based on the short story “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Producers: Anna Kachko, Guillaume de Seille

Executive producer: Yerzhan Akhmetzhanov

Director of photography: Kazbek Amerzhanov

Production designer: Munir Akhmetzhanov

Editor: Aybol Kasymzhanov

Composer: Irena Scalerika

Sales: Pascale Ramonda

No rating, 81 minutes

‘Angry Video Game Nerd’: Fantasia Review


Together with collaborator Kevin Finn, writer-director James Rolfe expands his prolific web series about a cranky video game reviewer to full feature length for the benefit of an international network of YouTube followers. Variable production quality, bargain-basement special effects and hammy performances won’t deter fans of the original, but expansion beyond the current, limited theatrical tour and planned VOD and DVD releases looks fairly uncertain.

Multihyphenate Rolfe plays the titular Angry Video Game Nerd, whose principal mission in life is to record and upload severely critical reviews of mostly obsolete console and computer games. One that he won’t revisit, however, is Atari’s “E.T.,” a release based on the 1982 movie. Widely considered one of the worst games ever, it memorably traumatized his childhood and became such a commercial failure that thousands of game cartridges were rumored to be disposed of in a New Mexico landfill.

The Nerd’s insistent refusal to review the game wavers, however, when he’s approached by Cockburn Gaming company representative Mandi (Sarah Glendening) to evaluate the new release “Eee Tee 2.” Fearful that the title will encourage his vast network of fans to seek out the original game, provoking widespread consternation, the Nerd agrees to review Cockburn’s product if the company will fund an expedition to the Alamogordo dump so that he can debunk the urban myth concerning Atari’s massive game disposal. Together with Mandi and his admiring sidekick Cooper (Jeremy Suarez), the Nerd sets out on a cross-country crusade to save his fans from the never-ending threat of awful video games.

Although Rolfe’s vitriolic reviews form the centerpiece of his web episodes, the feature film strategically incorporates his frequent rants (invariably delivered directly to the camera) as subsidiary components of this extravagantly conceived adventure. Beginning as a haphazardly planned road trip, their quest shifts into thriller mode when the group reaches New Mexico and encounters a former research scientist from a famously top-secret project who’s concealing incriminating information about the Atari game. In its final phase, the film morphs into an off-kilter sci-fi comedy, although the filmmakers manage to capably anchor these disparate storylines to their central plot concerning crusading gamers. Similarities to Dr. Strangelove, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of course E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial serve more as comedic reference points than artistic homages.

Proudly crowdfunded by fans worldwide, the film gleefully showcases B-movie excess and ineptitude, from the intentionally amateurish acting to the impressively DIY special effects. Rolfe, a bona fide Internet celebrity with over 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube, comes across as more of an on-camera provocateur than a polished performer, although his exaggerated style suits the material, with the rest of the cast pretty much following suit.

Even though overly long and almost obsessively self-indulgent, with its insistence on incorporating dubiously rendered alien life forms, homemade spacecraft and utterly unconvincing pyrotechnics, the production hovers above home-video quality by a few admirable notches. Cult status is therefore very likely assured, at least among self-identified video game nerds, particularly with featured cameos from the likes of Troma Films’ Lloyd Kaufman and original Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw.

Production company: CineMassacre Productions
Producer: Sean Keegan
Executive producers: April Rolfe, James Rolfe
Director of photography:Jason Brewer
Production designer: Robin Brockway
Costume designer: Layne McGovern
Editors: Paul Fontaine, Michael Licisyn
Music: Bear McCreary
No Rating, 115 minutes
 

‘The Fluffy Movie’: Film Review


Popular Mexican-American comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias brings his stand-up act to the big screen in The Fluffy Movie. Trading on the popularity of his DVDs and Comedy Central specials, the plus-sized comic delivers a solid set of often highly personal material that’s consistently amusing even if it never quite hits the level of hilarity. Although the film will surely please his devoted fans, it doesn’t seem poised to reach the breakout box-office success of Kevin Hart‘s recent efforts.

The film begins with a dispensable prologue set in Tijuana, Mexico, depicting his mother meeting his dashing mariachi singer father and his childhood, during which he was inspired to become a comedian after watching a VHS tape of Eddie Murphy Raw. (Tommy Chong and Ron White make inconsequential cameos in the segment directed by Jay Lavender.)

From there it’s a straightforward concert film, fluidly directed by Manny Rodriguez and edited by Dave Harrison and Tom Costain. Filmed during the comic’s Unity Through Laughter tour, The Fluffy Movie shows the comic performing at San Jose’s HP Pavilion on an elaborate set featuring a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.

His nickname referring to his excess poundage, Iglesias, clad in his trademark Hawaiian shirt, begins the show with a lengthy routine about having recently lost 100 pounds — he had gone up to 445 — after being informed by his doctor that he would be dead within two years. His descriptions of a consultation with a surgeon about gastric bypass surgery and his subsequent effort to lose the weight without entirely cutting out his beloved fast food is sure to resonate with more than a few viewers.

More dependent on storytelling than laugh-out-loud punch lines, of which there are few, he proceeds to deliver entertaining bits about a trip to India, getting hit on by a gay man at a bar and his refusal to buy his teenage stepson a new cell phone. The latter leads to an amusing segue comparing today’s high-tech video games to the primitive 80′s era Nintendo Entertainment System.

Iglesias is a likeable presence, and his fluid delivery, complete with spot-on accents and sound effects, is consistently engaging. Where he really shines is his ability to invest emotional depth in his material, best illustrated in the final segment in which he describes his tense reunion with his father after 30 years. “Bay Area, it’s about to get real,” he advises as he launches into his story, and he holds true to the promise, resulting in genuine empathy as well as laughs. If he’s able to generate similarly strong personal material in the future, his career prospects look bright.

Production: Gulfstream Pictures

Cast: Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias

Director: Manny Rodriguez

Producers: Mike Karz, William Bindley, Gabriel Iglesias, Joe Meloche, Ron DeBlasio

Executive producers: John Bravakis, Stu Schreiberg, Carl Beyer, Jay Lavender

Director of photography: Larry Blanford

Editors: Dave Harrison, Tom Costain

Production designer: Bruce Ryan

Rated PG-13, 101 min.

 

‘The Continent’ (‘Hou Hui Wu Qi’): Film Review


Securing one of the world’s most critically garlanded filmmaker to appear in your directorial debut could be a masterstroke for any rookie director, but a device which could easily backfire when your film turns out to be a pretentious, pointless replica of that very icon’s oeuvre. With Jia Zhangke‘s cameo, Chinese pop-lit star Han Han lays bare what inspired The Continent, but also reveals, perhaps inadvertently, how his film is just an amalgamation of Jia’s visuals and vignettes — emptied of even the slightest smidgen of artistic edge and social relevance.

Boasting a title as epic as The Continent, and a protagonist’s name translating as “rivers and streams,” Han’s road movie is all artistic posturing but no substance. By the film’s end, one is not much wiser about the two travelers’ backgrounds or personalities beyond their over-stylized encounters with clichéd archetypes (the old flame, the innocent prostitute, the zany hitchhiker). Not that one gets to learn about the roads being traveled too, as Han never really ventured specific reflections about the state of the Chinese nation unfolding around the characters — in fact, there’s even scant mention of China here. The nuggets of cod philosophy on show are universal to the point of banality: it’s all so romantic and melancholic for two men to hit the road to find some answers to their life, but the film never really reveals what their questions are.

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The Continent‘s central pairing are Jiang He (Bolin Chen, Buddha Mountain) and Haohan (Feng Shaofeng, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon), two young men living on a run-down, rustic village in the depopulated island at the eastern coast of the country; their trip arose as a result of the former’s assignment to a teaching position in a western province. En route, they would meet Zhou Mo (Joe Chen), who earns her living as a background actor in film studios every day; Su Mi (Wang Luodan), a damsel-in-distress trying to escape the clutches of her mobster uncle (Jia); Liu Yingying (Yuan Quan), a snooker-hall proprietor who punctures Haohan’s dreams for love and family; and finally Ah Lu (Wallace Chung), a free-spirited wanderer whose existence amounts to nothing but the need to find someone to relieve the pair of their car and walk the final stretch of their journey.

The formula, apparently, is have these women — all exotic in their different ways — change these dreamy young men and the way they see the world. But these gents are not for turning — because there’s simply nothing there in their psyche to be turned or altered in the first place. These are not nihilists, as Jack Kerouac‘s roadsters are; The Continent offers non-entities who — as the on-screen proxy of Han himself, probably – has nothing to say apart from indulging in, with furrowed brows, the fantasy of being a pretty face meeting other pretty faces while driving a pretty car in pretty landscapes.

And these are landscapes, though captured beautifully by Liao Hwa and pepped up pristinely by production designer Liu Weixin, well-trodden previously. A walk through fake streets filled with dressed-up people play-acting roles as work? That’s Jia Zhangke’s The World. Young men rescuing a young woman from the evil claws of a baddie? That’s from a Jia film again, Unknown Pleasures. Satellite dishes and spaceships in rural China? That’s a scene from Still Life. And a final reunion with an old flame? That’s Platform. Finally, of course, there’s the film’s episodic structure, each representing a different way of living in China — something which drives A Touch of Sin, Jia’s magnum opus. Isn’t it ironic that Han’s pale copy of that is raking eight-digit box-office returns in China while the original remains unreleased, caught in censorship limbo?

In a way, The Continent is not substantial enough to be an homage to Jia and his fiery attempt to relay China’s problems; on the other hand, it’s too earnest and po-faced to be pastiche or parody. A Shanghai-born enfant terrible born into a comfortable lifestyle with scant experience of living outside the bright lights of the big city – his hobby is in driving race cars — Han has delivered a glossy, sugar-coated adaptation of the gritty realism Jia and his fellow sixth-generation Chinese filmmakers have shaped and perfected. While his archrival Guo Jingming is more honest and explicit about his garish celebration of bling-fueled melodrama in the Tiny Times films, Han has produced a film devoid of meaning but filled to the brim with pretensions of artistic greatness — or at least glimpses of artistic greatness he has readily absorbed, drained of power and then called his own.

Venue: Public screening, Shenzhen

Production companies:  Laurel Films, Guomai Culture and Film, Bona Film Group

Cast: Wilson Chen, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Luodan, Yuan Quan, Joe Chen

Director: Han Han

Screenwriter: Han Han

Producers: Fang Li

Executive producer: Fang Li, Lu Jinbo, Yu Dong

Director of photography: Liao Hwa

Production designer: Liu Weixin

Editor: Shao Yang

Music: Takeshi Kobayashi

In Mandarin

No rating; 106 minutes

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: Theater Review


LONDON — Once a sensational fireworks display of explosive sexual chemistry, class and gender politics, A Streetcar Named Desire is now so firmly embedded in the American literary canon that it long ago lost its power to shock. But Australian-born director Benedict Andrews and former X-Files star Gillian Anderson make a commendable bid to reconnect with the primal passions at the heart of this much-staged Tennessee Williams classic in their bold new London revival. The fastest-selling production in the Young Vic’s history will also be broadcast live to over 500 cinema screens worldwide on Sept. 16.

Anderson joins an illustrious roll call of stars — including Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett — who have previously played Blanche DuBois, the fading Southern Belle whose outward decorum masks a bottomless pit of emotional and sexual trauma. Arriving in the steamy French Quarter of New Orleans, Blanche finds temporary shelter with her newly pregnant sister Stella and her hot-headed husband Stanley Kowalski. But her lies, her snobbery and her delusions of grandeur eventually lead Blanche to an explosive, erotically charged confrontation with Stanley.

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Bringing a muscular new kind of Method-style naturalism to the stage, A Streetcar Named Desire debuted on Broadway in 1947 with Elia Kazan directing Marlon Brando as the definitive Stanley, winning multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize for Williams. A London launch followed two years later with Laurence Olivier directing his wife Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Brando and Leigh then shared the screen in Kazan’s hugely successful, triple Oscar-winning 1951 film version. Since then this evergreen classic has inspired dozens of TV and stage adaptations, an opera, three ballets, a celebrated musical parody on The Simpsons, and a thinly disguised quasi-remake in Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine.

Andrews is a former resident director of Sydney Theater Company who has also worked extensively in Berlin and his adopted home of Iceland. His past credits with the Young Vic include an award-winning, radical remake of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 2012, which boasted a Beckettian stage design of earth mounds and slowly disappearing tables. This kind of heavily stylized treatment has earned Andrews a reputation among some critics for gimmicky, self-indulgent “director’s theater.” But he insists his intention is to reawaken the raw emotional power of landmark plays which have been tamed and gentrified into nostalgic museum pieces.

The design concept behind this in-the-round production involves a giant metal frame marking out the claustrophobic dimensions of a two-room apartment, furnished in sparse contemporary style, that slowly revolves throughout almost the entire performance. Occasionally it stops or reverses direction, mainly when Blanche’s fragile mental health begins to crumble. A little disorienting at first, the cumulative effect of this turntable trickery eventually becomes hypnotic. Andrews has likened designer Madga Willi‘s cage-like set to a Francis Bacon canvas, though in truth it feels more like peering into one of those compact mock-up apartments inside an IKEA furniture showroom. Or possibly at the human lab rats of some voyeuristic reality TV experiment.

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Anderson, now a London resident and regular face on British TV, has played just four West End roles over the last 12 years, most recently her critically lauded turn as Nora in A Doll’s House at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009. But the initial impetus for this production came from her, and she clearly relishes every ripe Southern twang and salacious innuendo of her bleach-blonde Blanche, whom she pitches somewhere between Dolly Parton and Samantha from Sex and the City. A performance within a performance, Blanche is all facade and fabrication, a straight female drag queen who both subverts and celebrates socially acceptable notions of genteel femininity.

Blanche’s nemesis Stanley is played by Ben Foster, who made his Broadway debut last year opposite Alec Baldwin in Orphans. Foster was never going to eclipse Brando in the brooding male beauty stakes, but he does radiate a convincingly animalistic sexuality, with his simian prowl and tattoo-covered Popeye arms. Considering Stanley is a short-fuse bully, wife-beater and rapist, Foster does an impressive job of making him into a vaguely sympathetic and plausibly flawed antihero.

The third corner in this bizarre love triangle is Stella, an eternal innocent so sexually addicted to Stanley that she forgives even his most violent excesses. The only non-American of the core trio, Vanessa Kirby handles the accent smoothly and makes the best of a largely thankless doormat role. Corey Johnson does something similar with Mitch, the childlike neighbor who falls for Blanche’s calculated charms until Stanley cruelly sabotages their budding romance.

Besides the revolving stage, Andrews challenges convention with fast-forward scene changes that take place in full view of the audience, typically accompanied by grinding rock numbers by the likes of PJ Harvey and Swans. Between these louder clips, he laces the drama with vintage New Orleans jazz, plus ominous drones and rumbles by composer Alex Baranowski. This musical scattershot approach feels a little indecisive, and risks falling back on cliche at times. Can anyone now hear Chris Isaak‘s ”Wicked Game” without thinking of David Lynch‘s Wild At Heart?

But any flaws in this production are less the fault of Andrews than the play’s vintage. Blanche’s pained confessions about the tragic fate of her secretly gay ex-lover, or the reckless promiscuity that wrecked her teaching career, now sound more like campy monologues from a John Waters movie than the taboo-breaking bombshells they must have been in 1951, when Kazan’s screen adaptation had to be censored. Yesterday’s shock revelations become today’s commonplace conversations, and no amount of high-tech stage trickery can rewind an audience’s cultural values by six decades.

A Streetcar Named Desire remains an American classic, and Andrews rightly approaches it with gravitas and grit. But in a world where feminism, gay rights and post-modern parodies on The Simpsons are now ingrained in popular culture, the feverish netherworld that Williams depicts perhaps inevitably feels more like shrill melodrama than groundbreaking drama. Fortunately, Blanche is the saving grace here, a hugely alluring car-crash heroine in any decade. Top marks to Anderson, who gives great diva and appears to enjoy every minute of it.

Venue: Young Vic, London (runs through Sept. 19)
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Vanessa Kirby, Corey Johnson
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Benedict Andrews
Set designer: Magda Willi
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Costume designer: Victoria Behr
Sound designer: Jon Arditti
Music: Alex Baranowski
Presented by The Young Vic and Joshua Andrews

‘The Gamester’: Theater Review


Bored on Broadway as she waited backstage one night in 1978, actor Freyda Thomas, best known for bit spots on TV, picked up a copy of Moliere’s The Learned Ladies and started translating and adapting it into English. Within a few months, it was produced at Temple University, and in 1991 had its New York debut starring Jean Stapleton, followed by a San Francisco production in 1993. Her follow-up, Tartuffe: Born Again, in which the 17th century scoundrel is updated to a 1980s Baton Rouge televangelist, enjoyed a 1996 premiere at Circle in the Square, with Tony-winner John Glover starring. 

Jean-Francois Regnard was no Moliere, but he played in the same scandalous sandbox. His 1696 comedy, Le Joueur, about a gambler who has to choose between lady love and lady luck, didn’t get the same kind of update by Thomas when she wrote The Gamester, but then again it didn’t need it — not with its astute observations that are every bit as relevant today as they were in Regnard’s time. Thomas’ witty couplets, crafty characterizations and screwball plotting have been putting smiles on critics’ faces since the play’s 2001 Chicago premiere, and luckily for Angelenos, the trail of laughter now leads to Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, where it is presented with an eclectic ensemble that proves worthy of Thomas’ masterful rhymes under the sure-handed direction of veteran Jules Aaron.    

The wastrel son of a nobleman, Valere (Rafael Cansino in his professional debut) is a rich kid who blows all his money gambling. Waking up with a hangover, he learns from his trusty footman (a hilarious James Schendel) that his pending nuptials have been put on hold as his betrothed, the wealthy and beautiful Angelique (McKenzie Eckels in only her second play), has chosen his foul-breathed uncle instead. Valere decides to set things right, but before he can get out the door, he’s waylaid by a randy widow with a whip, Mademoiselle Securite (Susan Damante), who will stake him at the roulette wheel in exchange for a spin between the sheets. He spurns her at first, proclaiming, “I refuse to play the game,” though soon acquiesces with a shrug, “once in the dark, it’s all the same.”

Grunts and groans and the “William Tell Overture” emanate from behind the canopy curtains, and in good time Valere is off to patch things up with Angelique. While both Eckels and Cansino are recent graduates of Hollywood’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, neither shows a hint of greenhorn, melding seamlessly with a wide and varied cast. In fact, The Gamester is slightly overpopulated with fops like Marquis de Fauxpaus (Scott Facher), Valere’s fatuous, self-important Uncle Dorante (Antony Ferguson), Angelique’s conniving sister (Maria Spassoff), her guardian (Damante) and Valere’s father (David Hunt Stafford), each supporting secondary and tertiary plotlines.

Angelique agrees to give Valere a second chance, but only if he will forswear gambling. To seal the deal, she offers him a jewel-encrusted portrait frame bearing her likeness. With his father refusing to pay his outstanding debts because “the richest of the richest don’t pay their bills, the ones who do are known as imbeciles,” Valere resorts to one last roll of the dice, only this time in disguise. Angelique, curious about the workings of the casino, ventures in dressed as a young man and in no time drains Valere’s wallet. With nothing left, he stakes the jewel-encrusted frame, unwittingly divulging his identity.

Convoluted as it is, The Gamester shines under the direction of Aaron, who astutely navigates Thomas’ considerable literary achievement with frothy good cheer. While the couplets come fast and easy, Thomas never forces her rhymes, gliding organically from one to the next. Jeff Rack’s production design ranges from a grungy flat to a gardenscape for wooing, culminating in a casino denoted by a pair of oversized face cards. Each of his sets efficiently establishes location without crowding the cast, whom costumer Michele Young shrewdly outfits with personalized sartorial specifics.

The Gamester offers impulsive appetites, mistaken identity and course comeuppance — nothing new in comedy, but it does so with classic charm and contemporary wit, and couplets that will tickle both the bookish and illiterate.

Venue: Theatre 40, Beverly Hills (through Aug. 24)

Cast: Marco Svistalski, Elain Rinehart, James Schendel, Ilona Kulinska, Susan Damante, Rafael Cansino, David Hunt Stafford, McKenzieEckels, Antony Ferguson, Maria Spassoff, Scott Facher, RichardCarner, Lilly Dennis, Jamila Jones

Writer: Freyda Thomas, inspired from Jean-Francois Regnard    

Director: Jules Aaron

Set designer: Jeff G. Rack

Lighting designer: Ric Zimmerman

Sound designer: Joseph Slawinski

Costume designer: Michele Young

Producer: David Hunt Stafford

‘Adventure’ (‘Priklyuchenie’): Karlovy Vary Review


An Almaty security guard becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman he spies across the road from his workplace every night in Adventure (Priklyuchenie), which, unlike what the title might suggest, is a slender and hushed adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s oft-filmed short story “White Nights.” This third feature from Kazakh director Nariman Turebayev should appeal to fans of deliberately paced — read: slow-moving — foreign films, with a good festival run likely, but chances of a theatrical release beyond Russophone countries are about as minimal as the film’s use of dialogue.

Marat (Azamat Nigmanov, The Convoy) is a night watchman at a nondescript office building in the former Kazakh capital. Indeed, so little happens during his long hours in the empty building that the solitary employee often has a nap or two — and the slippery structure devised by the writer-director and his editor, Aybol Kasymzhanov, leaves it unclear whether Marat’s encounters with Mariyam (newcomer Aynur Niyazova), whom he first spots across the street from the office, are happening in reality or in his dreams.

Like the short story (whose earlier cinematic incarnations include works directed by the likes of Visconti, Bresson, James Gray and Ivan “high priest of Stalinist cinema” Pyryev), Turebayev’s film takes place over four consecutive nights. Mariyam shows up at the same place every night, waiting for her lover who has left her and who promised he’d return a year later.

However, when Marat works up the courage to finally talk to Mariyam, it turns out that she’s already been waiting for a little longer than a year. This feeds Marat’s hope that the unseen lover will never return, so he could potentially make a move on her himself, and also helps Mariyam slowly ease into a tentative acquaintance with the guard, though she does warn him early on that she’s “a dangerous woman.”

As played by Nigmanov, Marat is someone with such a dull routine, and no friends or acquaintances (presumably not helped by his ungodly working hours), that his face has frozen into a rigid mask that barely betrays any kind of emotion, positive or negative. Consequently, only his words — few, very few — and his actions offer potential clues about what he might be thinking.

When Marat lets Mariyam lead him away from his professional duties several times to accompany her, it doesn’t feel so much like he’s being lured away by this enchanting woman specifically,  but rather that he’s finally breaking the monotony of his own pitiful existence. There’s a sense that he would probably be unable to do so on his own, but that he can now comfortably blame any fallout from this choice on his new female acquaintance should something go wrong. (It will come as no surprise for viewers familiar with Dostoyevsky’s work that something invariably will.)

By replacing the novel’s explicit first-person narration with a series of well-observed but quite detached scenes that audiences will have to decrypt for themselves, Turebayev has made a daring move that makes the film both potentially more interesting but also less easily readable, since the story’s emotional undercurrents might initially seem quite opaque. This shouldn’t necessarily turn off seasoned art house viewers, though there is a sense, as the film draws to a close, that the film’s protagonist remains somewhat removed from both the viewer and his own life.

Technically, this a modest but precise production, with the classical score by Irena Scalerika neatly contrasting with local dance music played in places the unlikely duo visit during some of the film’s best scenes, when, perhaps a tad ironically, they open up not to each other but to random strangers.
 

Production companies: Kazakhfilm, Arizona

Cast: Azamat Nigmanov, Aynur Niyazova

Writer-director: Nariman Turebayev, screenplay based on the short story “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Producers: Anna Kachko, Guillaume de Seille

Executive producer: Yerzhan Akhmetzhanov

Director of photography: Kazbek Amerzhanov

Production designer: Munir Akhmetzhanov

Editor: Aybol Kasymzhanov

Composer: Irena Scalerika

Sales: Pascale Ramonda

No rating, 81 minutes

‘Fool Circle’ (‘Tristesse Club’): Film Review


Two adult brothers and a young woman who might be their sister go in search of their supposedly dead father in Fool Circle (Tristesse Club), an occasionally droll and touching but overall rather sedate first feature from French director Vincent Mariette. The film pairs current go-to French Everyman Vincent Macaigne (2 Autumns, 3 Winters, The Rendez-Vous of Deja-Vu) and Comedie Francaise star Laurent Lafitte (The Love Punch, Mood Indigo) with the earthy-sprightly Ludivine Sagnier (The Devil’s Double, Peter Pan), and the trio has a low-key chemistry that’s about on par with the film’s not-exactly-impressive box office numbers in France. French film showcases and an errant festival or two will alleviate the “sadness” of the original title.

Leon (Lafitte), a cocky former tennis star whose wife is sick of him, clearly doesn’t see a lot of his brother, Bruno (Macaigne), who has founded a dating website but otherwise has absolutely no clue about women. When they both get word that their father has died, they make the trek back to the town where they grew up. But instead of finding their dead father at the funeral home, they find a petite blonde (Sagnier), who reveals she’s related to them.

The unlikely trio ends up at their late father’s dilapidated lakeside hotel, where various mini-adventures ensue while they try to locate their old man, some of them involving a mad neighbor (character actor Philippe Rebbot) and their father’s manic ex-lover (Noemie Lvovsky, like Rebbot in fine form). But the screenplay, by Mariette and Vincent Poymiro, feels too much like a series of semi-related vignettes rather than a fully constructed story populated by living and breathing people. The three characters are too obviously constructed in their differences from one another to be able to convincingly go from hating and not trusting each other to becoming friends — or possibly more, in a plot twist that can be seen coming from miles away.

That said, Mariette shows promise in the execution of quite a few stand-alone scenes, such as a wonderfully orchestrated nighttime sequence in which the brothers try to steal gasoline from a group of youngsters camping at the lake. The scene is shot through with a specific kind of melancholy — as if both brothers, in their late thirties to early forties, are encountering versions of their younger selves — that’s strangely absent for most of the scenes in which the two actually reclaim their childhood home.

Sagnier’s casting is almost offensive in that her character can best be described as a “Ludivine Sagnier-type girl,” and she’s given next to nothing to work with; even Lvovsky, who has just one scene, has more to sink her teeth into. The men are a little better off, but their chemistry remains pretty low-key, as well.

Cinematographer Julien Roux has been instructed to go into Wes Anderson mode in terms of his framing, with symmetrical compositions alternating with odd angles, which infuse the proceedings with a sense of off-kilter vigor even when narrative energy runs low. The appearance and use of odd props, such as a homemade tennis-ball launcher, further up the quirk factor.
 

Production companies: Kazak Productions, 2L Productions, Rhone-Alpes Cinema

Cast: Ludivine Sagnier, Laurent Lafitte, Vincent Macaigne, Noemie Lvovsky, Dominique Reymond, Anne Azoulay, Philippe Rebbot

Director: Vincent Mariette

Screenwriters: Vincent Mariette, Vincent Poymiro

Producers: Amaury Ovise, Jean-Christophe Reymond

Director of photography: Julien Roux

Production designer: Sidney Dubois

Costume designer: Carole Gerard

Editor: Nicolas Desmaison

Composer: Rob

Sales: Bac Films Distribution

 

No rating, 90 minutes

‘The Continent’ (‘Hou Hui Wu Qi’): Film Review


Securing one of the world’s most critically garlanded filmmaker to appear in your directorial debut could be a masterstroke for any rookie director, but a device which could easily backfire when your film turns out to be a pretentious, pointless replica of that very icon’s oeuvre. With Jia Zhangke‘s cameo, Chinese pop-lit star Han Han lays bare what inspired The Continent, but also reveals, perhaps inadvertently, how his film is just an amalgamation of Jia’s visuals and vignettes — emptied of even the slightest smidgen of artistic edge and social relevance.

Boasting a title as epic as The Continent, and a protagonist’s name translating as “rivers and streams,” Han’s road movie is all artistic posturing but no substance. By the film’s end, one is not much wiser about the two travelers’ backgrounds or personalities beyond their over-stylized encounters with clichéd archetypes (the old flame, the innocent prostitute, the zany hitchhiker). Not that one gets to learn about the roads being traveled too, as Han never really ventured specific reflections about the state of the Chinese nation unfolding around the characters — in fact, there’s even scant mention of China here. The nuggets of cod philosophy on show are universal to the point of banality: it’s all so romantic and melancholic for two men to hit the road to find some answers to their life, but the film never really reveals what their questions are.

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The Continent‘s central pairing are Jiang He (Bolin Chen, Buddha Mountain) and Haohan (Feng Shaofeng, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon), two young men living on a run-down, rustic village in the depopulated island at the eastern coast of the country; their trip arose as a result of the former’s assignment to a teaching position in a western province. En route, they would meet Zhou Mo (Joe Chen), who earns her living as a background actor in film studios every day; Su Mi (Wang Luodan), a damsel-in-distress trying to escape the clutches of her mobster uncle (Jia); Liu Yingying (Yuan Quan), a snooker-hall proprietor who punctures Haohan’s dreams for love and family; and finally Ah Lu (Wallace Chung), a free-spirited wanderer whose existence amounts to nothing but the need to find someone to relieve the pair of their car and walk the final stretch of their journey.

The formula, apparently, is have these women — all exotic in their different ways — change these dreamy young men and the way they see the world. But these gents are not for turning — because there’s simply nothing there in their psyche to be turned or altered in the first place. These are not nihilists, as Jack Kerouac‘s roadsters are; The Continent offers non-entities who — as the on-screen proxy of Han himself, probably – has nothing to say apart from indulging in, with furrowed brows, the fantasy of being a pretty face meeting other pretty faces while driving a pretty car in pretty landscapes.

And these are landscapes, though captured beautifully by Liao Hwa and pepped up pristinely by production designer Liu Weixin, well-trodden previously. A walk through fake streets filled with dressed-up people play-acting roles as work? That’s Jia Zhangke’s The World. Young men rescuing a young woman from the evil claws of a baddie? That’s from a Jia film again, Unknown Pleasures. Satellite dishes and spaceships in rural China? That’s a scene from Still Life. And a final reunion with an old flame? That’s Platform. Finally, of course, there’s the film’s episodic structure, each representing a different way of living in China — something which drives A Touch of Sin, Jia’s magnum opus. Isn’t it ironic that Han’s pale copy of that is raking eight-digit box-office returns in China while the original remains unreleased, caught in censorship limbo?

In a way, The Continent is not substantial enough to be an homage to Jia and his fiery attempt to relay China’s problems; on the other hand, it’s too earnest and po-faced to be pastiche or parody. A Shanghai-born enfant terrible born into a comfortable lifestyle with scant experience of living outside the bright lights of the big city – his hobby is in driving race cars — Han has delivered a glossy, sugar-coated adaptation of the gritty realism Jia and his fellow sixth-generation Chinese filmmakers have shaped and perfected. While his archrival Guo Jingming is more honest and explicit about his garish celebration of bling-fueled melodrama in the Tiny Times films, Han has produced a film devoid of meaning but filled to the brim with pretensions of artistic greatness — or at least glimpses of artistic greatness he has readily absorbed, drained of power and then called his own.

Venue: Public screening, Shenzhen

Production companies:  Laurel Films, Guomai Culture and Film, Bona Film Group

Cast: Wilson Chen, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Luodan, Yuan Quan, Joe Chen

Director: Han Han

Screenwriter: Han Han

Producers: Fang Li

Executive producer: Fang Li, Lu Jinbo, Yu Dong

Director of photography: Liao Hwa

Production designer: Liu Weixin

Editor: Shao Yang

Music: Takeshi Kobayashi

In Mandarin

No rating; 106 minutes

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: Theater Review


LONDON — Once a sensational fireworks display of explosive sexual chemistry, class and gender politics, A Streetcar Named Desire is now so firmly embedded in the American literary canon that it long ago lost its power to shock. But Australian-born director Benedict Andrews and former X-Files star Gillian Anderson make a commendable bid to reconnect with the primal passions at the heart of this much-staged Tennessee Williams classic in their bold new London revival. The fastest-selling production in the Young Vic’s history will also be broadcast live to over 500 cinema screens worldwide on Sept. 16.

Anderson joins an illustrious roll call of stars — including Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett — who have previously played Blanche DuBois, the fading Southern Belle whose outward decorum masks a bottomless pit of emotional and sexual trauma. Arriving in the steamy French Quarter of New Orleans, Blanche finds temporary shelter with her newly pregnant sister Stella and her hot-headed husband Stanley Kowalski. But her lies, her snobbery and her delusions of grandeur eventually lead Blanche to an explosive, erotically charged confrontation with Stanley.

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Bringing a muscular new kind of Method-style naturalism to the stage, A Streetcar Named Desire debuted on Broadway in 1947 with Elia Kazan directing Marlon Brando as the definitive Stanley, winning multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize for Williams. A London launch followed two years later with Laurence Olivier directing his wife Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Brando and Leigh then shared the screen in Kazan’s hugely successful, triple Oscar-winning 1951 film version. Since then this evergreen classic has inspired dozens of TV and stage adaptations, an opera, three ballets, a celebrated musical parody on The Simpsons, and a thinly disguised quasi-remake in Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine.

Andrews is a former resident director of Sydney Theater Company who has also worked extensively in Berlin and his adopted home of Iceland. His past credits with the Young Vic include an award-winning, radical remake of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 2012, which boasted a Beckettian stage design of earth mounds and slowly disappearing tables. This kind of heavily stylized treatment has earned Andrews a reputation among some critics for gimmicky, self-indulgent “director’s theater.” But he insists his intention is to reawaken the raw emotional power of landmark plays which have been tamed and gentrified into nostalgic museum pieces.

The design concept behind this in-the-round production involves a giant metal frame marking out the claustrophobic dimensions of a two-room apartment, furnished in sparse contemporary style, that slowly revolves throughout almost the entire performance. Occasionally it stops or reverses direction, mainly when Blanche’s fragile mental health begins to crumble. A little disorienting at first, the cumulative effect of this turntable trickery eventually becomes hypnotic. Andrews has likened designer Madga Willi‘s cage-like set to a Francis Bacon canvas, though in truth it feels more like peering into one of those compact mock-up apartments inside an IKEA furniture showroom. Or possibly at the human lab rats of some voyeuristic reality TV experiment.

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Anderson, now a London resident and regular face on British TV, has played just four West End roles over the last 12 years, most recently her critically lauded turn as Nora in A Doll’s House at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009. But the initial impetus for this production came from her, and she clearly relishes every ripe Southern twang and salacious innuendo of her bleach-blonde Blanche, whom she pitches somewhere between Dolly Parton and Samantha from Sex and the City. A performance within a performance, Blanche is all facade and fabrication, a straight female drag queen who both subverts and celebrates socially acceptable notions of genteel femininity.

Blanche’s nemesis Stanley is played by Ben Foster, who made his Broadway debut last year opposite Alec Baldwin in Orphans. Foster was never going to eclipse Brando in the brooding male beauty stakes, but he does radiate a convincingly animalistic sexuality, with his simian prowl and tattoo-covered Popeye arms. Considering Stanley is a short-fuse bully, wife-beater and rapist, Foster does an impressive job of making him into a vaguely sympathetic and plausibly flawed antihero.

The third corner in this bizarre love triangle is Stella, an eternal innocent so sexually addicted to Stanley that she forgives even his most violent excesses. The only non-American of the core trio, Vanessa Kirby handles the accent smoothly and makes the best of a largely thankless doormat role. Corey Johnson does something similar with Mitch, the childlike neighbor who falls for Blanche’s calculated charms until Stanley cruelly sabotages their budding romance.

Besides the revolving stage, Andrews challenges convention with fast-forward scene changes that take place in full view of the audience, typically accompanied by grinding rock numbers by the likes of PJ Harvey and Swans. Between these louder clips, he laces the drama with vintage New Orleans jazz, plus ominous drones and rumbles by composer Alex Baranowski. This musical scattershot approach feels a little indecisive, and risks falling back on cliche at times. Can anyone now hear Chris Isaak‘s ”Wicked Game” without thinking of David Lynch‘s Wild At Heart?

But any flaws in this production are less the fault of Andrews than the play’s vintage. Blanche’s pained confessions about the tragic fate of her secretly gay ex-lover, or the reckless promiscuity that wrecked her teaching career, now sound more like campy monologues from a John Waters movie than the taboo-breaking bombshells they must have been in 1951, when Kazan’s screen adaptation had to be censored. Yesterday’s shock revelations become today’s commonplace conversations, and no amount of high-tech stage trickery can rewind an audience’s cultural values by six decades.

A Streetcar Named Desire remains an American classic, and Andrews rightly approaches it with gravitas and grit. But in a world where feminism, gay rights and post-modern parodies on The Simpsons are now ingrained in popular culture, the feverish netherworld that Williams depicts perhaps inevitably feels more like shrill melodrama than groundbreaking drama. Fortunately, Blanche is the saving grace here, a hugely alluring car-crash heroine in any decade. Top marks to Anderson, who gives great diva and appears to enjoy every minute of it.

Venue: Young Vic, London (runs through Sept. 19)
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Vanessa Kirby, Corey Johnson
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Benedict Andrews
Set designer: Magda Willi
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Costume designer: Victoria Behr
Sound designer: Jon Arditti
Music: Alex Baranowski
Presented by The Young Vic and Joshua Andrews

‘The Gamester’: Theater Review


Bored on Broadway as she waited backstage one night in 1978, actor Freyda Thomas, best known for bit spots on TV, picked up a copy of Moliere’s The Learned Ladies and started translating and adapting it into English. Within a few months, it was produced at Temple University, and in 1991 had its New York debut starring Jean Stapleton, followed by a San Francisco production in 1993. Her follow-up, Tartuffe: Born Again, in which the 17th century scoundrel is updated to a 1980s Baton Rouge televangelist, enjoyed a 1996 premiere at Circle in the Square, with Tony-winner John Glover starring. 

Jean-Francois Regnard was no Moliere, but he played in the same scandalous sandbox. His 1696 comedy, Le Joueur, about a gambler who has to choose between lady love and lady luck, didn’t get the same kind of update by Thomas when she wrote The Gamester, but then again it didn’t need it — not with its astute observations that are every bit as relevant today as they were in Regnard’s time. Thomas’ witty couplets, crafty characterizations and screwball plotting have been putting smiles on critics’ faces since the play’s 2001 Chicago premiere, and luckily for Angelenos, the trail of laughter now leads to Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, where it is presented with an eclectic ensemble that proves worthy of Thomas’ masterful rhymes under the sure-handed direction of veteran Jules Aaron.    

The wastrel son of a nobleman, Valere (Rafael Cansino in his professional debut) is a rich kid who blows all his money gambling. Waking up with a hangover, he learns from his trusty footman (a hilarious James Schendel) that his pending nuptials have been put on hold as his betrothed, the wealthy and beautiful Angelique (McKenzie Eckels in only her second play), has chosen his foul-breathed uncle instead. Valere decides to set things right, but before he can get out the door, he’s waylaid by a randy widow with a whip, Mademoiselle Securite (Susan Damante), who will stake him at the roulette wheel in exchange for a spin between the sheets. He spurns her at first, proclaiming, “I refuse to play the game,” though soon acquiesces with a shrug, “once in the dark, it’s all the same.”

Grunts and groans and the “William Tell Overture” emanate from behind the canopy curtains, and in good time Valere is off to patch things up with Angelique. While both Eckels and Cansino are recent graduates of Hollywood’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, neither shows a hint of greenhorn, melding seamlessly with a wide and varied cast. In fact, The Gamester is slightly overpopulated with fops like Marquis de Fauxpaus (Scott Facher), Valere’s fatuous, self-important Uncle Dorante (Antony Ferguson), Angelique’s conniving sister (Maria Spassoff), her guardian (Damante) and Valere’s father (David Hunt Stafford), each supporting secondary and tertiary plotlines.

Angelique agrees to give Valere a second chance, but only if he will forswear gambling. To seal the deal, she offers him a jewel-encrusted portrait frame bearing her likeness. With his father refusing to pay his outstanding debts because “the richest of the richest don’t pay their bills, the ones who do are known as imbeciles,” Valere resorts to one last roll of the dice, only this time in disguise. Angelique, curious about the workings of the casino, ventures in dressed as a young man and in no time drains Valere’s wallet. With nothing left, he stakes the jewel-encrusted frame, unwittingly divulging his identity.

Convoluted as it is, The Gamester shines under the direction of Aaron, who astutely navigates Thomas’ considerable literary achievement with frothy good cheer. While the couplets come fast and easy, Thomas never forces her rhymes, gliding organically from one to the next. Jeff Rack’s production design ranges from a grungy flat to a gardenscape for wooing, culminating in a casino denoted by a pair of oversized face cards. Each of his sets efficiently establishes location without crowding the cast, whom costumer Michele Young shrewdly outfits with personalized sartorial specifics.

The Gamester offers impulsive appetites, mistaken identity and course comeuppance — nothing new in comedy, but it does so with classic charm and contemporary wit, and couplets that will tickle both the bookish and illiterate.

Venue: Theatre 40, Beverly Hills (through Aug. 24)

Cast: Marco Svistalski, Elain Rinehart, James Schendel, Ilona Kulinska, Susan Damante, Rafael Cansino, David Hunt Stafford, McKenzieEckels, Antony Ferguson, Maria Spassoff, Scott Facher, RichardCarner, Lilly Dennis, Jamila Jones

Writer: Freyda Thomas, inspired from Jean-Francois Regnard    

Director: Jules Aaron

Set designer: Jeff G. Rack

Lighting designer: Ric Zimmerman

Sound designer: Joseph Slawinski

Costume designer: Michele Young

Producer: David Hunt Stafford

‘Adventure’ (‘Priklyuchenie’): Karlovy Vary Review


An Almaty security guard becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman he spies across the road from his workplace every night in Adventure (Priklyuchenie), which, unlike what the title might suggest, is a slender and hushed adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s oft-filmed short story “White Nights.” This third feature from Kazakh director Nariman Turebayev should appeal to fans of deliberately paced — read: slow-moving — foreign films, with a good festival run likely, but chances of a theatrical release beyond Russophone countries are about as minimal as the film’s use of dialogue.

Marat (Azamat Nigmanov, The Convoy) is a night watchman at a nondescript office building in the former Kazakh capital. Indeed, so little happens during his long hours in the empty building that the solitary employee often has a nap or two — and the slippery structure devised by the writer-director and his editor, Aybol Kasymzhanov, leaves it unclear whether Marat’s encounters with Mariyam (newcomer Aynur Niyazova), whom he first spots across the street from the office, are happening in reality or in his dreams.

Like the short story (whose earlier cinematic incarnations include works directed by the likes of Visconti, Bresson, James Gray and Ivan “high priest of Stalinist cinema” Pyryev), Turebayev’s film takes place over four consecutive nights. Mariyam shows up at the same place every night, waiting for her lover who has left her and who promised he’d return a year later.

However, when Marat works up the courage to finally talk to Mariyam, it turns out that she’s already been waiting for a little longer than a year. This feeds Marat’s hope that the unseen lover will never return, so he could potentially make a move on her himself, and also helps Mariyam slowly ease into a tentative acquaintance with the guard, though she does warn him early on that she’s “a dangerous woman.”

As played by Nigmanov, Marat is someone with such a dull routine, and no friends or acquaintances (presumably not helped by his ungodly working hours), that his face has frozen into a rigid mask that barely betrays any kind of emotion, positive or negative. Consequently, only his words — few, very few — and his actions offer potential clues about what he might be thinking.

When Marat lets Mariyam lead him away from his professional duties several times to accompany her, it doesn’t feel so much like he’s being lured away by this enchanting woman specifically,  but rather that he’s finally breaking the monotony of his own pitiful existence. There’s a sense that he would probably be unable to do so on his own, but that he can now comfortably blame any fallout from this choice on his new female acquaintance should something go wrong. (It will come as no surprise for viewers familiar with Dostoyevsky’s work that something invariably will.)

By replacing the novel’s explicit first-person narration with a series of well-observed but quite detached scenes that audiences will have to decrypt for themselves, Turebayev has made a daring move that makes the film both potentially more interesting but also less easily readable, since the story’s emotional undercurrents might initially seem quite opaque. This shouldn’t necessarily turn off seasoned art house viewers, though there is a sense, as the film draws to a close, that the film’s protagonist remains somewhat removed from both the viewer and his own life.

Technically, this a modest but precise production, with the classical score by Irena Scalerika neatly contrasting with local dance music played in places the unlikely duo visit during some of the film’s best scenes, when, perhaps a tad ironically, they open up not to each other but to random strangers.
 

Production companies: Kazakhfilm, Arizona

Cast: Azamat Nigmanov, Aynur Niyazova

Writer-director: Nariman Turebayev, screenplay based on the short story “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Producers: Anna Kachko, Guillaume de Seille

Executive producer: Yerzhan Akhmetzhanov

Director of photography: Kazbek Amerzhanov

Production designer: Munir Akhmetzhanov

Editor: Aybol Kasymzhanov

Composer: Irena Scalerika

Sales: Pascale Ramonda

No rating, 81 minutes

‘Fool Circle’ (‘Tristesse Club’): Film Review


Two adult brothers and a young woman who might be their sister go in search of their supposedly dead father in Fool Circle (Tristesse Club), an occasionally droll and touching but overall rather sedate first feature from French director Vincent Mariette. The film pairs current go-to French Everyman Vincent Macaigne (2 Autumns, 3 Winters, The Rendez-Vous of Deja-Vu) and Comedie Francaise star Laurent Lafitte (The Love Punch, Mood Indigo) with the earthy-sprightly Ludivine Sagnier (The Devil’s Double, Peter Pan), and the trio has a low-key chemistry that’s about on par with the film’s not-exactly-impressive box office numbers in France. French film showcases and an errant festival or two will alleviate the “sadness” of the original title.

Leon (Lafitte), a cocky former tennis star whose wife is sick of him, clearly doesn’t see a lot of his brother, Bruno (Macaigne), who has founded a dating website but otherwise has absolutely no clue about women. When they both get word that their father has died, they make the trek back to the town where they grew up. But instead of finding their dead father at the funeral home, they find a petite blonde (Sagnier), who reveals she’s related to them.

The unlikely trio ends up at their late father’s dilapidated lakeside hotel, where various mini-adventures ensue while they try to locate their old man, some of them involving a mad neighbor (character actor Philippe Rebbot) and their father’s manic ex-lover (Noemie Lvovsky, like Rebbot in fine form). But the screenplay, by Mariette and Vincent Poymiro, feels too much like a series of semi-related vignettes rather than a fully constructed story populated by living and breathing people. The three characters are too obviously constructed in their differences from one another to be able to convincingly go from hating and not trusting each other to becoming friends — or possibly more, in a plot twist that can be seen coming from miles away.

That said, Mariette shows promise in the execution of quite a few stand-alone scenes, such as a wonderfully orchestrated nighttime sequence in which the brothers try to steal gasoline from a group of youngsters camping at the lake. The scene is shot through with a specific kind of melancholy — as if both brothers, in their late thirties to early forties, are encountering versions of their younger selves — that’s strangely absent for most of the scenes in which the two actually reclaim their childhood home.

Sagnier’s casting is almost offensive in that her character can best be described as a “Ludivine Sagnier-type girl,” and she’s given next to nothing to work with; even Lvovsky, who has just one scene, has more to sink her teeth into. The men are a little better off, but their chemistry remains pretty low-key, as well.

Cinematographer Julien Roux has been instructed to go into Wes Anderson mode in terms of his framing, with symmetrical compositions alternating with odd angles, which infuse the proceedings with a sense of off-kilter vigor even when narrative energy runs low. The appearance and use of odd props, such as a homemade tennis-ball launcher, further up the quirk factor.
 

Production companies: Kazak Productions, 2L Productions, Rhone-Alpes Cinema

Cast: Ludivine Sagnier, Laurent Lafitte, Vincent Macaigne, Noemie Lvovsky, Dominique Reymond, Anne Azoulay, Philippe Rebbot

Director: Vincent Mariette

Screenwriters: Vincent Mariette, Vincent Poymiro

Producers: Amaury Ovise, Jean-Christophe Reymond

Director of photography: Julien Roux

Production designer: Sidney Dubois

Costume designer: Carole Gerard

Editor: Nicolas Desmaison

Composer: Rob

Sales: Bac Films Distribution

 

No rating, 90 minutes

London Mansion Featured in ‘The King’s Speech’ to be Sold for $50 Million

LONDON — A six-story, 24-bedroom mansion — used for hedonistic parties, fashion shoots and even scenes from the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech — will go on the market here and is expected to sell for up to $50 million.

The property at 33 Portland Place became renowned as a location of ‘sex parties’ held for London’s upper classes but is now set to be off-loaded by its owner, convicted fraudster and self-styled Lord, Edward Davenport, to pay off $23 million in legal fees.

Davenport originally bought the run-down property in 1999 for just $850,000 from the Sierra Leone government, then in the midst of a civil war, and began to revamp the interior.


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Singer Amy Winehouse famously used the mansion for the video to hit 2006 song Rehab, while Kate Moss shot an advert for lingerie company Agent Provocateur in which she walked down one of its staircases wearing only stiletto heels and underwear. One event saw the mansion’s indoor swimming pool reportedly filled with Cognac allowing partygoers to row across it.

More recently, it became known as the residence of speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, with a glass-ceilinged dining room used as the consulting room where Colin Firth‘s King George VI was treated in The King’s Speech. In an interview with the Daily Mail, the organizer of several sex parties held at the property admitted that revelers had been cavorting on the same ‘therapist’s couch’ seen in the film.

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Davenport, who was released from a seven-year prison sentence in May after he was found guilty of running a major fraud, told the Sunday Telegraph that he was angry at having to sell the mansion, as it “wasn’t really related to the offenses.” However, investigators have said that the property was bought and renovated using money acquired through the fraud.

The mansion at 33 Portland Place is expected to be sold this autumn.

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German Director Fatih Akin Wins Hamburg Film Festival’s Douglas Sirk Award

The Hamburg Film Festival will present its lifetime achievement honor, the Douglas Sirk Award, to Hamburg-born and -based director Fatih Akin.

Born in Hamburg in 1973 to Turkish parents, Akin has become one of the most influential art house directors of his generation, both in Germany and in Turkey.

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His international breakthrough came in 2004 with Head-On, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. His follow up, The Edge of Heaven, premiered in Cannes in 2007 and won the prize for best screenplay.

“By presenting the Douglas Sirk Award to Fatih Akin, we would like to recognize his work both as a director and as a producer,” said Hamburg film festival director Albert Wiederspiel. “His films, which are strongly rooted in Hamburg, have put the city on the world map of cinema…His films were a starting point of a whole movement of German filmmakers of Turkish origin.”

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Both Head-On and The Edge of Heaven are part of Akin’s “love, death and the devil” trilogy, which will be completed with his latest work, The Cut. After withdrawing The Cut from Cannes ahead of the festival, Akin will premiere the film, which stars Tahar Rahim (The Prophet) in Venice next month.

Hamburg will present Akin with the Douglas Sirk Award at the German premiere of The Cut in Hamburg.

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Named after the Hamburg-born helmer Sirk, director of such 1950s classics as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959), the prize honors a personality who has made outstanding achievements within film culture and film industry. Previous winners include Tilda Swinton, Korea director Kim Ki-duk and German filmmaker Andreas Dresen.

The 2014 Hamburg Film Festival runs September 25- October 4.

Email: Scott.Roxborough@Thr.com

Twitter: @sroxborough

 

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‘Girlhood,’ ‘Ida,’ ‘Class Enemy’ Nominees for European Parliament’s LUX Prize 2014

French drama Girlhood, Polish period feature Ida and Class Enemy from Slovenian first-timer Rok Bicek are the three finalists for this year’s LUX Prize, the cinema award presented by the European Parliament.

All 751 members of the European Parliament are invited to vote for their favorite of the trio with the winner to be announced December 17 at a formal sitting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

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The EU will pay for all three nominated films to be subtitled into the 24 official EU languages. They will also be screened in more than 40 cities and 18 festivals across the continent.

Girlhood, French director Celine Sciamma‘s third feature, opened this year’s Directors’ Fortnight section in Cannes and was an instant critical and audience hit. The drama focuses on a black girl-gang living in the Paris suburbs. Strand picked up Girlhood for domestic release in 2015.

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The black and white feature Ida, from acclaimed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), follows a young novice nun in 1960s Poland. On the verge of taking her vows, she discovers a dark family secret dating back to time of Nazi occupation. Ida has won numerous awards, including the Grand Prix at the Warsaw international film festival, the Fipresci international critics award at last year’s Toronto film fest and best film, best director and best actress honors (for star Agata Kulesza) at the Polish Eagles, Poland’s equivalent to the Oscars.

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Ida earned a respectable $3.5 million on limited release in the US for Music Box Films.

Class Enemy, the debut feature from director Bicek, looks at high-school class that spins out of control after a suicide. Class Enemy debuted in Venice last year, where it won best film in the International Film Critics Week section.

Email: Scott.Roxborough@Thr.com

Twitter: @sroxborough

 

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‘Antonym’ Wins Twice at Japan’s Skip City Festival

TOKYO — Matterhorn by Dutch director Diederik Ebbinge took the grand prize at the Skip City D-Cinema festival on Sunday, while local production Antonym won best director for Natsuka Kusano and the prize for best Japanese film.

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Quirky comedy Matterhorn, Ebbinge’s feature debut won $10,000 (¥1 million), while human drama Antonym, also a debut, won $5,000 (¥500,000 million) and $10,000 worth of postproduction work for Kusano’s next project.

Takayuki Ohashi‘s Angel in the Closet won $5,000 (¥500,000 million) for best domestic short, while Aki Yamamoto‘s The Tie and the Wall and Takuya Matsumoto‘s Let’s Go Home! won $3,000 (¥300,000 million) apiece as runners-up in the same category.

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The fest closed July 27 after its nine-day run in Kawaguchi, located north of Tokyo.

Twitter: @GavinJBlair

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R. Kelly Dropped From Ohio Festival After Protests

R. Kelly has been dropped from the lineup of an Ohio music festival following complaints about his past as an alleged sexual predator.


The musician was slated to perform on the opening day of the inaugural Fashion Meets Music Festival over Labor Day weekend in Columbus. But following complaints on Twitter and Facebook and bands and vendors reportedly pulling out of the event, the festival tweeted Monday that it and the musician “have decided to part ways,” linking to a USA Today article about the decision.

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Kelly’s publicist released the following statement to USA Today: “R. Kelly is sorry to disappoint his fans but looks forward to seeing them in the near future during one of his upcoming tours.”


After Kelly was announced as a performer, numerous complaints were posted on Twitter and Facebook, mostly about his past as an alleged sexual predator, USA Today reported. Kelly was indicted in 2002 on charges of making child pornography and was acquitted in 2008.


The Chicago Sun-Times also ran an investigative series portraying the musician as a sexual predator.


One of the comments retrieved by USA Today said, “It’s actually very common for sexual predators to put on a good show. That is how they lure their victims.”

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Rape victims responded to the Kelly booking with “sheer horror,” another Facebook user wrote. “That’s why we are upset. Support victims of sexual abuse and don’t ignore them.”


Another user said, “Accepting R Kelly as an artist is to ignore the fundamental basics of human dignity. It’s not like he’s just a player and folks don’t dig it. A very real line was very clearly crossed and this is how we choose to express our disdain for the deeds and support for the victims.”


Remaining headliners on the festival include O.A.R. and Michelle Williams. Check out FMMF’s R. Kelly tweet below.

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Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett Album Set for September Release

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s long-in-the works album of duets finally has a release date.


The pair’s Cheek to Cheek, featuring jazz duets, will drop on Sept. 23, the duo announced on Tuesday’s Today.

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The album will feature selections from the Great American Songbook, Bennett explained, including Gershwin and Cole Porter. Gaga and Bennett’s version of Porter’s “Anything Goes” is the album’s first single, now available for purchase on iTunes. Other songs on the album include “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Sophisticated Lady” and “Lush Life,” according to Today.

It’s been in the works since Gaga and Bennett collaborated on “The Lady Is a Tramp” for Bennett’s 2011 album Duets II.

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Bennett and Gaga also taped a PBS Great Performances concert special, Cheek to Cheek Live, which is set to air Oct. 24.


On Today, Gaga explained that she had performed “Orange-Colored Sky” at a Robin Hood Foundation benefit, and Bennett said he loved hearing her singing jazz and asked if she wanted to do an album.

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She noted that she’s been singing jazz since she was 13. Bennett said she’s “most natural” when she’s singing jazz.

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Sirius XM Radio Quarterly Subs Rise

Sirius XM Radio on Tuesday reported improved adjusted second-quarter earnings as it continued to grow subscribers.

Sirius, the radio home of Howard Stern, added more than 475,000 net new subscribers in the latest quarter, ending it with a total of more than 26.3 million paid subscribers, a new company record. In comparison, Netflix as of the end of June had 36.2 million U.S. subscribers.‎

The company, controlled by John Malone‘s Liberty Media, posted adjusted earnings of $131 million, up 60 percent. Without the adjustments, though, earnings fell 4.4 percent on higher expenses. Revenue rose 10 percent from $940.1 million to $1.04 billion.

Sirius XM CEO Jim Meyer lauded the “extraordinary operating performance” in the latest period as the company raised its full-year 2014 financial guidance. 

On an earnings conference call, Meyer was asked about the addition of The Today Show to Sirius. He said it adds to the company’s great content and should help Sirius retain subscribers. The Today Show Radio channel launched about a month ago.

Email: Georg.Szalai@THR.com

Twitter: @georgszalai

 

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One Direction Singer Receives Twitter Death Threats After ‘#FreePalestine’ Post

LONDON – Within just minutes of going online, a tweet by Zayn Malik managed to cause a storm of Middle East controversy for the One Direction singer Monday.

Several weeks into Israel’s deadly military assault on Gaza, which has seen more than 1,000 Palestinians and 50 Israelis killed, Malik tweeted the message ‘#FreePalestine’ to his 13 million followers, seemingly showing his solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

The message sparked an immediate angry response from fans in Israel, with some suggesting One Direction would lose its fan base in the country and others going even further. Among the more incensed reactions was one suggesting Malik “kill himself” and another threatening, “let me kill you.”


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Unlike Rihanna, who tweeted #FreePalestine to her 36 million followers earlier this month only to take it down eight minutes later after a barrage of irate replies, Malik left his message online. It has racked up more than 190,000 retweets so far.

While among the more succinct, Malik isn’t the only celebrity to voice his support for Palestine. A growing number of famous faces from the entertainment world are speaking out against Israel’s ongoing offensive in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Today, a group of Spanish actors and directors wrote an open letter to the European Union urging that action be taken in Gaza. Stars including Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and director Pedro Almodovar described the Israeli campaign as “genocide” in a strongly worded statement. 

Mark Ruffalo last week tweeted a link to a news article about Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s el-Wafa hospital. After coming under attack from pro-Israeli commentators, the Hulk actor responded with the message: “Sorry, I thought blowing up hospitals was something that all human being could agree was off limits.”

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Rob Schneider, Mia Farrow and John Cusack are others who have tweeted messages condemning the deaths in Gaza, with Farrow saying: “We can passionately protest Israel’s assault upon Gaza without descending, even remotely, into the hideousness of anti-Semitism.”

Selena Gomez turned to Instagram, posting a photo that read “It’s about humanity, pray for Gaza,” later saying she was not “picking any sides” after facing online criticism, including from Joan Rivers.

In a video released by freedom4palestine.org, a group including Chuck D, Ken Loach, Mira Nair, Desmond Tutu, Roger Waters, Brian Eno and Naomi Klein hold up cards with the names and ages of Palestinian civilians recently killed in Gaza. The UN estimates that more than 70 percent of those who have lost their lives in the fighting were civilians, including more than 220 children and 110 women.

British comedian Russell Brand posted a seven-minute YouTube video on the topic, saying that the reduction of the Palestinian territories since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was “pretty harrowing,” later adding that the only way to have a positive impact is for the West “to not provide military or financial assistance to either side, to condemn violence on both sides and insist on a peaceful solution.”

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