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Capsule movie reviews

'Kuroneko' ('Black Cat'), 'Queen of the Lot,' 'Today's Special' and 'Violet Tendencies.'

November 19, 2010

The new release of "Kuroneko" ("Black Cat") a simultaneously raw and gracefully spectral 1968 curio from Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindo, should be a special occasion for connoisseurs of arty black-and-white chills, especially those who treasure Shindo's 1964 masterpiece of war-torn horror, "Onibaba."

It begins with an assault on a farm mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) by a band of grimy soldiers, who then burn down their house. What follows is a ghostly vengeance fugue wherein the women — now decorously draped spirits — lure passing samurai to their otherworldly open-air dwelling, where a nightly ritual of seduction ends in something decidedly more bloody for the men.

Up till the killings, Shindo maintains a fierce visual and aural grip with his stark mix of claustrophobic close-ups, inky auras surrounding brightly lighted figures, offbeat stylistic fillips (somersaults, split screen effects) and Hikaru Hayashi's percussively moody score. With the arrival of a particular war veteran (Kichiemon Nakamura) to investigate the deaths, however, Shindo — a protégé of Japan's great women-centric filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi — shrewdly allows the story's underpinnings of tragedy, lost love and patriarchal injustice to thicken his odd and atmospheric genre brew.

The result is something cinematically haunting and — in its acknowledgement of war's lasting ravages — emotionally haunted, like a deep moan from a dark feudal past.

—Robert Abele

"Kuroneko" ("Black Cat"). No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles.

A long-time habitué and self-styled chronicler of life on the fringes of Hollywood, filmmaker Henry Jaglom makes movies in a style of studied nonchalance that borders on relentless self-indulgence. With "Queen of the Lot," he picks up from his 2006 film "Hollywood Dreams" for the further adventures of a psychotically fame-obsessed young actress (Tanna Frederick) who has this time out realized her dream of becoming a star.

Frederick comes across as an adult who never outgrew the cutesy tricks of a child performer — she even listens busily. Jaglom and Frederick nevertheless include a moment where she talks admiringly of a Golden Age actress "doing too much" (as she always is) and at one point she reads from bona-fide bad reviews for "Hollywood Dreams." Self-aware enough to realize that Frederick's onscreen persona is not a comic exaggeration but a mannered annoyance, they still press onward.

Rather than adopt the easy efficiency of most veteran filmmakers, Jaglom has become even sloppier regarding basics like photography, editing and sound recording, pushing his knowingly rough-edged amateurism toward the nearly unwatchable. As Jaglom seems to have no greater insights to convey on life, Los Angeles or filmmaking, the only thing one can now take from his films is simply that he has continued on. Even that looks like not much of an achievement viewed from outside his stultifying cocoon of cozy self-satisfaction.

Perhaps Jaglom and Frederick can next create something along the lines of "Synecdoche, New York" that looks truthfully at the lack of anything genuine or human in "Queen of the Lot," sharpening the points here left dull and fully honing the deeper ideas casually tossed aside.

—Mark Olsen

"Queen of The Lot." MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In limited release.

Directed with verve by David Kaplan from Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines' exceptional screenplay, "Today's Special" stars Mandvi as a sous-chef at a Manhattan restaurant whose plans to head to Paris for further culinary study are derailed after his father suffers a heart attack and he must take over the family restaurant in Queens.

Imaginative, warm and witty, the film, inspired by Mandvi's prize-winning play "Sakina's Restaurant," is an irresistible delight, its theatrical roots vanishing amid a gracefully cinematic evocation of life in Jackson Heights, a venerable Queens neighborhood with an inviting human scale and grand rooftop vistas of the New York skyline. It is alive with a screen full of captivating characters, all written with affection and exquisitely played by a raft of fine actors.

Mandvi's Samir is a man in his 30s in need of unleashing his creativity — and of finding romance as well. The son of Indian immigrant parents (played by Harish Patel and Madhur Jaffrey), he is constantly harangued by his bombastic tyrant of a father who never tires of comparing Samir unfavorably to his dead brother.

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