Thursday, April 22, 2021

Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet

We are all sick of the word “pivot” by now, but this is truly a pivoted production. Originally planned as a live stage revival, the National Theatre brought their cast together for 17 days during the pandemic for a reconceived film adaptation of Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy. Why let all that memorization and character development go to waste? It was filmed on-location on-stage and backstage at the National’s grand Lyttleton Theatre (sans audience), which well suited the austere yet surprisingly powerful vision of director Simon Godwin. The result is an ironically cinematic Romeo & Juliet, which premieres tomorrow as part of the current season of Great Performances on PBS.

It is still
Romeo & Juliet, so you really ought to know what that means. The Montagues hate the Capulets, to the point of dueling openly on the streets of Verona. Of course, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are the exceptions. They fall for each other hard at a costume ball and seal the deal when Romeo proclaims his love in the classic balcony scene. Friar Laurence secretly marries them, but his attempts to help the young lovers lead to unforeseen complications.

To some extent, Godwin’s approach is similar to that of Louis Malle’s
Vanya on 42nd Street. At first, we merely see the actors in street clothes sitting down for a table run-through, but the characters soon start striding (and fighting) across the stage. It is a dark, post-industrial backdrop, but it serves the story better than you might expect. Here classical Verona looks more like the organized crime-dominated Naples or Sicily, of recent vintage. Life is stark and street violence, such as the duels that claim kinsmen like Tybalt and Mercutio, is commonplace. Godwin’s bold angles and dramatic visuals even harken back to early expressionism, but Michael Bruce’s minimalist score feels very contemporary.

This is not Zeffirelli’s
Romeo & Juliet, but the moodiness and aesthetic severity of Godwin’s production are far more effective than the sort of experimentation-for-its-own-sake of pretentious Donmar Warehouse “re-conceptions.” In this case, many of the departures from tradition are in large measure a reflection of necessity, which in turn, further instils energy and a sense of urgency in the production.

Still, Godwin and screen-adapter Emily Burns make an intriguing choice presenting Juliet’s mother as a Machiavellian Lady Macbeth-type, which works tremendously thanks to the intensity of Tamsin Grieg’s performance. More fundamentally, Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley have convincingly potent chemistry as the title lovers and they totally nail the crucial balcony scene.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Bloodthirsty: The Vegan Werewolf

For years, one-named indie pop star “Grey” has been plagued by nightmares that she is a wolf tearing into flesh. She has probably wasted all her time in therapy with Dr. Swan. If the longtime vegan would just eat a cheeseburger, her cravings might disappear. Even if she really is a werewolf, they would probably still simmer down a bit. Instead, denial leads to danger in Amelia Moses’ Bloodthirsty, which releases in select theaters and on-demand this Friday.

Grey is facing a potential sophomore slum that could possibly render her a one hit-album wonder. Fortunately, the ultra-selective producer Vaughn Daniels agrees to produce her follow-up. He might be a little weird, but he was acquitted of murdering his girlfriend, so how bad can he be, right? Of course, Grey’s girlfriend Charlie intends to keep a close eye on her while she is recording in Daniels’ secluded country manor-studio.

Frankly, Charlie is troubled by (maybe even jealous of) their intense working relationship. He pushes her hard, which results in good music (or so everyone says), but he also exerts a dark influence over her. Does he really know what he is asking for when he tells her to turn her true self loose?

is sort of an alternative-rock Whiplash crossed with When Animal Dreams, with a thin veneer of LGBTQ-drama layered on top. None of these elements really work well, especially the relationship between Grey and Charlie, which always feels shallow and strictly by-the-numbers.

Of all the Trilby-like singer-songwriters who grew up in foster-care and might just be a werewolf, Grey absolutely must be the dullest. Somehow, Charlie makes even less of an impression. The most interesting work by far comes from Greg Bryk, as the ambiguously creepy Daniels. Unfortunately, that also means the legendary Michael Ironside is shamefully wasted in two brief and largely inconsequential scenes as Dr. Swan.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Boys from County Hell, on Shudder

He is the Irish nationalist alternative to Vlad the Impaler. According to legend, Abhartach was an under-sized Napoleon-esque warrior, who became an undead blood-sucker. It was a story the Irish Bram Stoker would very likely have heard and used as a source of inspiration for Dracula, especially as far as the tourist-fleecing townsfolk of Six Mile Hill are concerned. Unfortunately, they will learn just how hard it is to kill Abhartach when they disturb his resting place in Chris Baugh’s Boys from County Hell, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

Eugene Moffat does not have much future in Six Mile Hill, so he really can’t blame his mate William Bogue for leaving. However, a drunken night out culminates rather badly for all concerned when Bogue gets gored by a loose bull and has his blood sucked into Abhartach’s grave. Moffat’s contractor father Francis was hired to clear the stone gravesite to make way for an expressway, but that lets loose the recently-strengthened ancient proto-vampire.

It turns out all the methods of killing vampires were the invention of Stoker and Murnau. In reality, you have to bury Abhartach under enough stone to keep him pinned down. Obviously, that is a tough trick to pull off, but Moffat, his father, and his cronies will do their meatheaded best.

Chris Baugh (whose first feature was the nifty little gritty crime thriller,
Bad Day for the Cut) comes up with the first really original twist on the vampire legend in years. It is gory and gruesome, but in the right, amusing kind of way. It is also an intriguing way for Baugh to pay tribute to the macabre side of his Celtic heritage.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Creepshow: Pipe Screams/Within the Walls of Madness

Horror gets a bad rap for violent misogyny, but it has plenty of strong female characters. Sometimes they are arguably too assertive, in a villainous, even homicidal kind of way (but strong they are indeed). We get two of those kind of horror divas, played by recognizable genre stars in the latest episode of Creepshow, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

“Pipe Dreams,” directed by Joe Lynch and written by Daniel Kraus, takes us to the least prestigious property owner by Victoria, a regulation-skirting slumlord. She has summoned Linus Brothers (proprietor of the Brothers Brothers Plumbing Co.) to clear her illegal lead pipes, but the sentient clog has a will of its own. That’s right, it is man versus drain clog, with plenty of gore and body horror to ensue, but ultimately it is all Victoria’s fault.

Legendary Barbara Crampton chews the scenery with evil abandon as the exploitative, racist landlord. It is a total caricature, but an entertaining one. Conversely, Eric Edelstein provides a likable rooting interest as schlubby Brothers. We can see where this is all going, but the execution is ultra-

The Lovecraftian sounding title of “Within the Walls of Madness” is definitely no accident. Eventually, an elder god might just show up, but during the in media res opening, poor Zeller is accused of all the grisly murders that happened at a remote Arctic research institution. Dr Trollenberg was conducting research into alternate realities, coming to pretty extreme, time-warping conclusions.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

American Experience: American Oz

L. Frank Baum was the original J.K. Rowling or Leigh Bardugo. He wrote the first children’s fantasy bestseller and he pioneered ways of franchising it. Success came to him relatively late, but he made the most of it. Baum’s life and legacy are re-examined in an ever-so contemporary light in American Oz, written, directed, and produced by Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain, which airs as part of the current season of PBS’s American Experience.

Baum came from a prosperous family, but he was always sure he could make his own fame and fortune. Instead, the first half of
American Oz chronicles his failures. Nevertheless, he managed to marry his beloved wife Maud Gage and win over her mother, prominent suffragette, Matilda Joslyn Gage. In fact, she became a major influence on his social perspective and one of his biggest boosters.

The first hour or so is rather sluggish, largely because the talking heads obsessively pick apart Baum’s early journalism from a hyper-woke contemporary perspective. Frankly, this kind of outrage prospecting just gets boring. Instead of being content to give Baum credit as an early advocate of women’s suffrage and generally enlightened notions of gender relations, they mine his less-edifying writings, to highlight grist for offense (plenty is supplied by editorials written when his newspaper was of collapse due to conflict with Native peoples).

Friday, April 16, 2021

Vanquish: Morgan Freeman Plays a Villain

Police Chief Damon Hickey is sort of like Chief Ironside, except he was on the take when he was shot. In fact, he is the guy who divvies up the take, down to crooked cops on the beat and up to the corrupt governor. The heat is on this fateful night, so he needs his caregiver to revert to her old criminal ways in George Gallo’s Vanquish, which opens today in select theaters and on-demand.

Victoria and her ailing daughter Lily always thought Hickey looked out for them, so the former drug mule is rather taken aback when he insists she make five cash pickups on his behalf. She has gone straight, but he has taken her daughter hostage (while being wheelchair-bound), so she reluctantly relents. Apparently, the Feds have some highly incriminating recordings in their hands, thanks to the deep informant Hickey’s men will soon kill, so he needs to go outside his organization. Unfortunately, each job will bring her into contact with criminal lowlifes she once knew, including the thugs who murdered her brother.

This might be Morgan Freeman’s first villainous role since his breakout in
Street Smart, but he shows a complete lack of enthusiasm. Frankly, he looks like he was drugged and forced to play the part against his will. On the other hand, this is Ruby Rose’s third action film in less than 12 months, but Vanquish makes The Doorman and SAS: Red Notice look like Casablanca and Citizen Kane. (Maybe leaving Batwoman was a mistake, you think?)

Gallo is probably best-known for writing
Midnight Run and Bad Boys, but you would not know it from the paucity of humor in Vanquish. It is also unpleasantly murky looking, as if the entire production was improperly lit. Admittedly, this is a rather violent film, but there are several dull chase sequences that are a chore to sit through.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Creepshow: The Right Snuff/Sibling Rivalry

Homage and nostalgia have always been a big part of horror. In the case of Creepshow, the franchise’s whole reason for being is fan-love for old school EC Comics. You can see hat-tips and winking nods throughout the latest episode of Creepshow, but some work better than others when it premieres today on Shudder.

Two astronauts on a mission with bad vibes definitely evokes memories of classic films—and indeed you can see the initials HAL stenciled on the wall at one point in “The Right Stuff,” directed by Joe Lynch. However, it is not the computer that malfunctions. It will be high-strung flight commander Alex Toomey, who still lives in the shadow cast by his famous astronaut father, sort of like Brad Pitt in
Ad Astra or Fred Armisen in Moonbase 8, but in twitchier, crazier kind of way. His space flight is about to take on unexpected historic dimensions, but Mission Control wants genius scientist Ted Lochwood in the spotlight instead of him.

“Snuff” has an austere vibe that nicely evokes vintage 1960s/1970s science fiction and the story reveals a twist that would not be out of place in a vintage
Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode. It is a respectable anthology production, but it does not have the gross-out effects or sly attitude fans will expect from Creepshow. This could have been part of the Outer Limits 90s reboot, which wasn’t bad.

The Creep returns to his strengths with the darkly droll “Sibling Rivalry,” directed by
Tales from the Hood’s Rusty Cundieff. Right from the start, Gen X’ers will be mainlining nostalgia when they see Molly Ringwald playing a high school counselor, Ms. Porter, who is truly hilarious. Ms. Porter has her hands full with Lola, a gum-smacking air-headed teen who thinks her brother is trying to kill her.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Banishing, on Shudder

For those in the UK watching statist ideologies sweep across 1930s Europe, it was definitely a time that tried the nation’s soul. That was especially true for the family living in what has been called the most haunted piece of real estate in England. For this film, Borley Rectory has been changed to Morley Rectory, but the implications are the same for the Forsters. Their fragile family bonds will be gravely challenged in Christopher Smith’s The Banishing, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

Bishop Malachi did not tell Rev. Linus Forster about his predecessor’s grisly fate, but we see it plain as day in the prologue. His wife Marianne has a difficult backstory that included temporarily losing custody of her daughter Adelaide (from a long-absent father), but they are now all awkwardly together. Unfortunately, Rev. Forster is constantly passing judgement on his family, creating resentments for the angry spirits in Morley to explore. The politically hawkish and borderline pagan occultist Harry Reed warns them both separately, but only she pays him any mind.

The trio of credited screenwriters (David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines) punch up the traditional Borley lore, turning the original Benedictine occupants into an apocalyptic monastic death cult. It is pretty standard stuff, but it allows Smith a chance to exploit creepy hooded figures for easy scares.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Trigger Point

Nicolas Shaw is a disgraced black ops agent trying to live a quiet life in a quaint Ontario lake country village. Right, good luck with that. Inevitably, everyone he ever worked with that is still alive will come looking for him. Unfortunately, that also includes the shadowy terrorist mastermind he tried to bust in Brad Turner’s Trigger Point, which releases this Friday in theaters.

Shaw (or Lewis as the townsfolk know him) can’t quite remember what went down when the mysterious Quentin captured him, but he has been told he gave up the names of eight colleagues. Recently, the octopus-like organization unleashed a lethal assassin of their own, so his old boss, Ethan Kane, wants to reactivate Shaw. Kane also hopes Shaw will rescue his daughter Monica, a junior operative who has gotten too close to Quentin’s network.

Of course, Shaw has a major advantage, because he uses special “anti-A-Team” bullets that always hit their head-shot targets, whereas the bad guys can hardly hit the broadside of a barn. Nevertheless,
Trigger Point is a reasonably professional soon-too-DVD action movie. In fact, Turner’s execution of a big shootout in a greenhouse orchard is surprisingly stylish. It also helps having interesting character thesps like Colm Feore and Carlo Rota (Morris O’Brien in 24) as Kane and his resentful subordinate. Neither of them is ever boring on-screen—and Trigger Point is not an exception.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Killer Among Us

It is a case transparently inspired by the Grim Sleeper in LA and the Pig Farmer Killer in Canada, but with extra political score settling thrown in to dehumanize everyone director-co-writer Charlie Scharfman disagrees with. You see, the killer identifies with rightwing talk radio, except presumably the law & order advocacy and a steadfast belief in the sanctity of life. Expect no subtlety and very little suspense from Scharfman’s Killer Among Us, which releases this Friday on VOD.

Alisha Parks is a rookie cop, who finds herself marginalized within her own department, while getting the cold shoulder from her urban community. She seems bitterly resigned to this situation, until one night she witnesses a man apparently pushing a woozy sex worker back into his car. Rather suspiciously, he left a syringe behind, but the top brass at her precinct just don’t care. However, the veteran Sgt. Corbucci agrees to work the case with her. With his backing, she learns the victim is actually a minor—a fact that starts to change things. She also discovers a potential pattern of disappearances.

Supposedly, the psycho killer is a rabid super-patriot, but he is also a strip club regular. Basically, he is everything Scharfman needs him to be to best serve his spiteful worldview. Frankly, nothing the killer does in the second two acts makes an iota of sense, but his erratic decisions sure make it easier to catch him.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Redemption Road: The Music is Legit

There are no pets in this film. They would have died long ago for these characters. They get the blues, give the blues, live the blues, and sometimes even play the blues. The last part is inconveniently difficult for Jefferson Bailey. He fancies himself an aspiring blues musician, but he has a nasty case of stage fright. Unfortunately, he has even worse problems in Mario Van Peebles’ Redemption Road, which screens on the Grio TV.

During his time in Austin, Bailey has been binge-drinking and sleeping with the wife of the loan shark he is into, for far more than he can repay. The aggrieved Boyd is out to collect his interest and then some, so Bailey reluctantly agrees to return to Huntsville with the imposing Augy. Supposedly, he was hired by the estate of Bailey’s grandfather, to bring the prodigal underachiever home, so he can collect his legacy. However, the big man might have an ulterior motive for accepting the assignment.

There is real-deal blues music in
Redemption, often played in authentic looking road houses. Thanks to performances from the likes of Gary Clark Jr., James “Nick” Nixon, and Alabama Slim & Little Freddie King, real blues aficionados will forgive the film a lot, including all the cliches in Morgan Simpson and George Richards’ screenplay (which are plentiful). On the other hand, the scruffy white, goatee-wearing Simpson does not look very legit playing a blues musician, not even in hipster Austin.

Indeed, Simpson is by far the film’s weakest link. On the other hand, the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan is perfectly cast as the hulking but sensitive Augy and Tom Skerrit adds some grizzled charisma as Santa, his blues club proprietor crony. Duncan and Skerrit each have some nicely turned confessional speeches, but Bailey’s drama quickly grows tiresome. Still, Luke Perry deserves credit for wholeheartedly playing against type as the violent sleaze, Boyd.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Them: Covenant, on Amazon

It is horror made possible by William Levitt, Jim Crow, and some really horrendous neighbors. A family moving to all-white East Compton as part of the 1950s Great Migration does not receive much of aa welcoming from the other families on their street, but they are also tormented by an evil, malignant force within their own home in creator Little Marvin’s 10-episode Them (season one has become known as “Covenant,” in the seasonal anthology style of American Horror Story), which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Henry and Lucky Emory endured an unimaginably horrific and heartbreaking loss in North Carolina, which will be revealed midway through the season, but astute viewers will pick up clues to its nature early on. Hoping for a new start in California, they bought their home sight-unseen, on predatory interest terms. Of course, the residents of Wisteria Lane freak out, especially childless queen bee Betty Wendell, who incites most of the men on the street into an ugly mob. The only one not completely carried away by her rhetoric is her own husband, the closeted Clarke.

If that were not bad enough, the Emory family is also tormented by an ancient malignant force. For the mother, it takes the vague shape of a traditional horror “hat man.” For the father, it is “Da Tap Dance Man,” a sinister black-face demon goading him to commit violent acts of vengeance. The youngest daughter is terrified by the schoolmarm-ish Miss Vera, while the older daughter is tempted into self-destruction by the personification of an idealized white bobbysoxer.

There is a lot going on in these ten episodes—probably too much. The tone and visuals crafted by Little Marvin and established horror directors like Ti West (
The Innkeepers, The Sacrament), Daniel Stamm (13 Sins), and Craig William McNeill (The Boy, Lizzie) are impressive and effective. However, the first four episodes fall into a repetitive pattern, with the neighbors committing despicable acts of harassment and Lucky Emory responding in ways that are understandable, but will obviously compound their difficulties.

It is also hard to see why Henry constantly questions the state of Lucky’s sanity, when he is experiencing similar waking nightmares and violent hauntings. Eventually, Little Marvin and company give us the flashback-to-where-it-all-began-way-back-when episode (#8). The big swerve does not really make sense when it happens, but the ending is truly terrifying.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Creepshow: Dead & Breakfast/Pesticide

In horror, you can’t just sit around waiting to kill or die. Of course, if you have a job that involves death, it makes it easier for the Creepshow Creep to give your tale a morbid twist. That certainly happens to the protagonists in the second episode of the second season of Creepshow, which premieres today on Shudder.

Business is bad in “Dead & Breakfast,” directed by Axelle Carolyn, because nobody has heard of the Spinster Siblings’ serial killer grandma. They own and operate a horror themed bed & breakfast inspired by her crimes, but old lady Spinster (who presumably wasn’t one, since here they are) hasn’t gone mainstream. She confessed to dozens of murders, but the bodies were never found. Nevertheless, Pam Spinster hopes comping true crime vlogger Morgue (short for Morgan) will be good for business.

Screenwriter Michael Rousselet & Erik Sandoval get all kinds of humor out of the clash between Morgue’s obnoxious hipster entitlement and Pam Spinster’s middle-class ambitions and twisted sense of family pride. As Pam, Ali Larter definitely chews the scenery and goes nuts with
Creepshow-appropriate relish. C. Thomas Howell nicely balances her as the more lowkey Sam Spinster, whereas Iman Benson makes viewers eagerly anticipate Morgue’s death, which is a good thing when it comes to this franchise. The Spinster House is also a wonderfully weird and creepy setting, featuring all kinds of messed up secret rooms and hidden passageways. Indeed, “D&B” is jolly good fun and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the original film and the vintage horror comics that inspired it.

“Pesticide,” directed by showrunner Greg Nicotero is not quite at that level, but it is still a solid
Creepshow story. Harlan King is the self-described “king” of pest control, but many of his customers would say he is also the king of rude, boorish behavior. Mr. Murdoch does not really care about that. He wants King for a special job—one that will even trouble the exterminator’s conscious and prompt visions of all the bugs and vermin he has made a living killing.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache

Nepal is one of the few places left where the physical and spiritual worlds still intersect—but just barely. Tenzin is a secular Tibetan musician, aspiring coffeehouse owner, and general would-be wheeler-dealer, but karma could have it in for him. According to a Buddhist monk, he only has a week to live, unless he can find a mythical Dakini to intercede on his behalf. However, it is hard for a sceptic like Tenzin to find something that is everywhere and nowhere in screenwriter-director Khyentse Norbu’s Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache, which releases virtually this Friday, following a special live-stream premiere hosted by the Rubin Museum of Art tomorrow night.

Tenzin can play the traditional Tibetan songs, but his heart is not in it. He prefers to socialize with Kathmandu’s Western expats, who he hopes will patronize the coffeehouse he plans to open. Thanks to a long run of bad luck, the process has been unexpectedly rocky and his ultimate goal remains in doubt. His more devout friend Jachung refers him to the Monk Oracle, who perceives it is not mere ill fortune plaguing Tenzin. He has lost his lha (moral center, if you will) and his days are numbered: probably to seven. Only a dakini can help him now.

Dakinis are known as mortal manifestations of the Buddhist feminine ideal, who have supernatural powers. Supposedly, they also have fangs, and moustache, and maybe even a third eye, but they are also considered strikingly beautiful. Once he recognizes one, he must convince her to extend her protection over him, but the whole process makes Tenzin feel foolish.

was lensed by the master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing, so you know it looks amazing, but it isn’t just lovely images. Norbu’s story has just enough supernatural elements to make it enormously intriguing, but it remains appealingly rooted in the everyday life of Kathmandu. Frankly, it looks like this should be the next big expat destination. You get a sense of its spirit of community, but there also seem to be opportunities to be had there. Plus, the temples and surrounding landscapes are enormously cinematic.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Hollow Point, Co-Starring Juju Chan & Bill Duke

Nolan Cooray probably thinks crime in LA is out of control, but he should see the state of things here in New York. In 2020, shootings were up 97% and homicides were up 44%. Cops and prosecutors can’t even try to practice law, thanks to our revolving door “bail reform.” Ironically, a little of that could helped Cooray when he was arrested for trying to kill the murderer of his wife and daughter. Who wound up in prison? Cooray, of course. However, his new lawyer’s vigilante group might help him get a little justice in Daniel Zirilli’s Hollow Point, which releases this Friday on VOD.

Cooray’s wife and daughter took a wrong turn and just happened to witness the thuggish drug boss “Trigger” in the commission of a crime. Naturally, he just gunned them down without a second thought. There was a witness, but Trigger got to her too. Enraged and distraught, Cooray tried to take the law into his own hands. Unfortunately, he only wounded two of Trigger’s associates and earned an express ticket to prison.

Strangely, everyone seems out to get him there (the whole avenging his wife and little girl thing doesn’t seem to cut much ice). However, James, the Senior Guard takes a liking to him. So does high-powered criminal attorney and innocence activist Hank Carmac. More importantly, the former commando leaves him martial arts books. However, if Carmac gets released, he will recruit his client for his vigilante squad.

Hollow Point’s most interesting cast-members, Juju Chan and Bill Duke, get comparatively little screen time. Of course, Duke is seriously steely and hardnosed as Sr. Guard James and Chan gets to show off her impressive marital arts chops. Frankly, Dilan Jay is surprisingly good as Cooray and Michael Pare is better as Damian Wakefield, the vigilante ex-cop, than he has been in his last half-dozen straight-to-VOD movies. The same goes for Luke Gross as Carmac. However, Jay Mohr is just a weird, highly questionable choice for Trigger.

Monday, April 05, 2021

The Tunnel: The New Norwegian Disaster Movie

Readers of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will always associate Norway with its fjords, but anyone who drives there is more likely to think of its tunnels. There are over 1,100 bored through the country’s mountains and since 2011, there have been significant fires in eight of them. That is according to the opening of titles of this film. Those tunnel incidents directly inspired Pål Øie’s The Tunnel, which releases this Friday in theaters and on VOD.

It is Christmas time, so a lot of the transportation safety workers are on holiday leave. (This being Norway, snow will also limit mobility.) Widowed Stein Berge thought he would be spending Christmas with his still grieving daughter Elise and possibly his eternally patient girlfriend Ingrid, but his boss calls him back when an accident closes down a long mountain tunnel. It is just as well, because it turns out Elise was aboard the Oslo express bus trapped about a mile inside.

Initially, the tunnel is just jammed, like the Suez Canal, but eventually the truck hauling highly combustible cargo starts leaking—and then it starts smoking. Soon, it is impossible to breath in the tunnel itself. Passengers must stay inside, recycling their air as they wait for help. Unfortunately, the side with the better rescue resources is still buried under snow, so Berge will go in from the other side, by himself, cowboy-style.

We’re no experts in environmental science, but Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s screenplay feels pretty credible as it unfolds and the scarcity of breathable oxygen definitely escalates the tension. Admittedly, it gets pretty manipulative in the third act, but that is what disaster movies do.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Kung Fu (CW Reboot Pilot)

You can take the novice out of the Shaolin monastery, but you can’t take the Shaolin out of the novice. Kwai Chang Caine could have told Nicky Shen that, but they are from different shows and different historical eras. Hardly any elements remain from the original 1972 series, but Shen still finds plenty of use for her skills when she returns to America in the pilot episode of showrunner Christina M. Kim’s rebooted Kung Fu, which premieres Wednesday on the CW.

Shen was decidedly disappointed when she discovered her controlling mother sent her to Mainland China to be matched with a husband, so she hitches a ride Zhang Pei-ling, the abbess of a Shaolin monastery. The American runaway only planned to spend the night, but she stayed for three years, finding the discipline, purpose, and sense of belonging she needed. Unfortunately, her retreat from life ends violently when the mysterious Zhilan attacks the monastery and kills Zhang.

Returning home, Shen awkwardly reconnects with her family, including her naïve parents, who have fallen prey to a violent loan shark. In some ways, her homecoming came just in time, especially since her sister has engagement events pending. She will also research the ancient sword Zhilan stole from her teacher, Zhang, who still guides her, like Ben Kenobi returning through the force.

The late-episode revelation suggests a pretty good driving mythology for a martial arts series and the pilot features pretty nicely choreographed fight sequences. Yvonne Chapman is already flamboyantly fierce as Zhilan and Vanessa Kai has the right kind of mystical toughness as Zhang, the Keye Luke-like figure. So far, Olivia Liang is also reasonably solid as Shen, but it is Chapman and Kai who are more likely to hook genre fans. Frankly, the Shen family melodrama needs to be lower in the episode mix, even though it is nice to see Tzi Ma playing her father, Jin.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Ken Burns does Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway synthesized war and alcohol into great literature better than anyone else. It didn’t work so well for his relationships. Yet, the multiple marriages became part of his troubled artist mystique. Decades before the rise of social media, Hemingway became the ultimate celebrity novelist. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick examine the man through his life, literature and carefully cultivated public image in the three-part Hemingway, which premieres Monday on PBS.

Documenting Hemingway’s life and work really requires nearly six hours, because he had so many distinct periods that directly inspired novels and stories. There was his Michigan youth, WWI, Paris, Spain and bullfighting, hunting in Africa, the Spanish Civil War, WWII, Cuba, and his late career struggles with depression and writers’ block. Burns and Novick take them in order, making for a slow start in part one (“A Writer 1899-1929”), with his early years and the Nick Adams stories they inspired.

Things pick up with WWI and Hadley in Paris. However, the sequences covering the Spanish Civil War in part two (“The Avatar 1929-1944”) are by far the best of the series. Burns and company fully explore the tension between Hemingway’s own libertarian inclinations and his sympathy for the Loyalist cause. They also clearly establish the degree to which Stalin dominated and eventually purged the Republican ranks. Hemingway’s resulting break with the disillusioned John Dos Passos is duly covered, as well as the self-censorship of his journalism. Yet, he also gets deserved credit for the brutal honesty of
For Whom the Bell Tolls and the massacre of a Franco-supporting village it so vividly depicts.

None other than the late, great Sen. John McCain testifies to the greatness of
Bell, which is an unexpected treat. Weirdly, though, the late A.E. Hotchner (probably Hemingway’s closest living friend at the time of filming) is only heard from briefly, discussing the writer’s sad final days in part three (“The Blank Page 1944-1961). Only one family member participates (on-camera), but it is a significant one: Hemingway’s surviving son, Patrick. Unfortunately, notable biographers like Carlos Baker are long gone, but it is interesting to hear the often diametrically opposed judgments of novelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Edna O’Brien.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Gangs of London, now on Regular AMC

This could be the Shogun or Lonesome Dove of TV adaptations of video games. Frankly, few gamers are likely to remember the PSP game that inspired it, but that gave Gareth Evans (of The Raid franchise) and co-creator Matt Flannery a lot of latitude, which they made good use of. Most importantly, Evans’ signature flair for action comes shining through in Gangs of London, which comes out from behind the AMC+ pay-wall when it premieres Sunday on the regular AMC.

Both the London underworld and the realm of City high finance will be shaken by the murder of crime boss and construction magnate Finn Wallace. The young Traveller who pulled the trigger had no idea who he was duped into killing, but he soon goes into hiding. Tracking down any lead will help deep undercover cop Elliott Finch rise in the ranks of the Wallace gang. He certainly has the fighting skills, as we see in the
Raid-like first episode, directed by Evans.

Subsequent episodes fall into a bit of a pattern, wherein the first two acts explore the intrigue of the Wallace organization and their rivalries and alliances with other ethnic-identified gangs in London, but they usually conclude with a big, loud action set piece. The one at the end of episode two (directed by Corin Hardy) is especially brutal, but the spectacularly cinematic shoot-out climax of episode five (also helmed by Evans) could very well be the highlight of the entire series.

For what its worth, the gangster-finance-politics skullduggery is also interesting in its own right. In fact, it is a minor miracle Evans, Flannery, and their team of co-writers were allowed to portray Nasir Afridi, a leftwing Labour candidate for London mayor and the son of a Pakistani drug cartel boss in such unflattering terms.

Regardless, it is the action that hooks viewers and it should make Sope Dirisu an international star. He has serious action cred and he burns up the screen with his brooding intensity. He also generates some effective heat with Pippa Bennett-Warner, playing his potential love interest, Shannon Dumani, the daughter of Ed Dumani, Wallace’s consigliere and legit business partner.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Atlantic Crossing: FDR & the Princess, on PBS

It is too bad Poland and the Baltic Republics did not have a supply of exiled princesses to send to flirt with FDR. If they had, post-war history might have been much happier for Eastern Europe. Fortunately for Norway, their Crown Princess forged a critical personal and strategic connection with the President. That much is true, but the surrounding history gets a generous stretching in creator-director Alexander Eik’s Atlantic Crossing, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

During a pre-war goodwill tour of America, Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha made quite an impression on Pres. Roosevelt, especially the latter. As a result, the president is delighted to give her asylum after the Germans invade and occupy Norway, particularly since Prince Olav was evacuated to London, in order to liaison between the cabinet in exile and the British military. Soon, FDR even has the royal children calling him “godfather,” but he is still adamantly opposed to taking any military action in Europe.

Of course, Norway is desperate for aid, so the princess works behind the scenes to make Roosevelt more of an internationalist-interventionist. Initially, all the time she spends with Roosevelt rather irks the peacenik first lady, but eventually even she warms to Princess Martha’s charms.

has already stirred up a hornet’s nest of historical controversy for the rather liberal dramatic license it takes. Churchill certainly gets short shrift for his concerted effort to woe FDR to the Allied cause. Yet, arguably, admirers of the Roosevelts have even more to gripe about. Essentially, the show reduces the Lend-Lease act to a heartsick sugardaddy’s box of chocolates. The truth is FDR is one of the greatest presidents in American history, precisely because he was such a disciplined wartime commander-in-chief. What kind of legacy is left when you take that away? Prolonging the Great Depression and court-packing?

The eight-part series also goes from Pearl Harbor to the Yalta Conference in the blink of an eye. We guarantee it did not feel like that to Americans who lived through the war. In fact, the first three episodes are probably the most absorbing, because of the way they depict the unrealistic belief Norway’s neutrality would keep it out of war and the desperate consequences of its military unpreparedness. Yes, this is the part where I draw parallels between the denial and appeasement of the 1930s and our similar policies towards the overtly hostile CCP today.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Mahalia, “Presented” by Robin Roberts, on Lifetime

She closed the show at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and continues to bring down the house whenever Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day is screened. The performing arts center in Louis Armstrong Park is named in her honor. That was appropriate, because even though she was a gospel singer, there was still a lot of NOLA soul in her voice. The legendary performer gets the bio-film treatment with the awkwardly titled Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia (seriously, her name comes before Jackson’s), directed by Kenny Leon, which premieres this Saturday on Lifetime.

As a young child, Jackson’s strict aunt scares her off from joyously singing along with the likes of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey—and she would hew to the gospel straight-and-narrow for the rest of her life (more or less). It took fame a while to catch up with Jackson, because she did not seek it like secular performers. She also had a questionable first husband, but when Studs Terkel played her debut on Apollo, the indie specialty label, things started happening. During most of that time, Mildred Falls was right there with her, dutifully accompanying Jackson on piano.

Rather oddly,
RRP: Mahalia closes with the disclosure the Jackson estate did not cooperate with the film’s production. It is hard to see what they might object to. The screenplay, co-written by the late Bettina Gilois and Todd Kreidler is entirely respectful. Sure, Jackson is sometimes depicted making mistakes and getting a little lost, but humanity is flawed by its nature, right?

Regardless, Danielle Brooks does quite well in the iconic lead role. The Tony-nominee for
The Color Purple has a big voice and bears a strong likeness to Jackson. She also nicely projects her faith and dignity. Rob Demery is similarly credible playing (and humanizing) another iconic figure, Jackson’s friend and spiritual advisor, Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, they have two scenes together directly addressing the struggles of faith that are smarter and more honest than just about any depiction of religion in film you could think of.

Like her character, Olivia Washington is often shunted over to the corner portraying Falls, but at least her presence gives viewers an appreciation for her playing (someone like Chess Records really should have signed her as an instrumental soloist). However, Jim Thorburn adds some sly energy as Terkel.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Creepshow: Model Kid & Public Television of the Dead

Nothing will get your lousy butt killed in the EC Comics that inspired the Creepshow franchise faster than abusive behavior. That is particularly true when it happens within families, but comeuppance comes just as surely in the workplace. Viewers will see examples of both in the first episode of Creepshow’s second season, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

“Model Kid,” directed by showrunner Greg Nicotero, is about as classically
Creepshow as you can get. Joe Aurora learned to love Universal-style monsters from his loving, but ailing mother. Unfortunately, when she succumbs to cancer, he is sent to live with his Uncle Kevin, who has contempt for nerd culture. The poor kid is not given the time or space to grieve, but an advertisement in a Creepshow comic book offers a sinister way to deal with his mean-spirited guardian.

The elements of “Model Kid” are all very familiar, but the cool looking Mummy and Gillman have their nostalgic appeal. Of course, the “Gillman” is what you call a Creature from the Black Lagoon sort of character, without infringing on Universal trademarks. There is indeed quite a bit of appealingly nostalgic design work in the opening story, but John Esposito’s story itself is pretty standard stuff and Nicotero fails to lean into its potential for catharsis.

However, Nicotero kicks the season premiere into high gear with the wickedly funny “Public Television of the Dead.” It is Pittsburgh, 1972. The local PBS affiliate’s top show,
Mrs. Bookberry’s Magical Library, is poised to breakout nationally, but the awful co-host is determined to have the time-slot currently held by Norm Roberts’ Bob Ross-style painting show. Roberts is a Viet Nam vet, who has found inner peace through paint, but he has the survival skills his station manager and producer are going to need. Things are about to get Evil Dead-ish when Ted Raimi, playing himself, brings a certain book to the station’s antique appraisal show.

Rob Schrab’s mash up of pledge drives,
Mister Rodgers, and The Evil Dead is laugh out loud funny and the gory effects make a worthy homage. Plus, the pitch-perfect period details totally scream 1970s public television. Mark Ashworth channels Ross in a way that is both sympathetic and completely nutty. Todd Allen Durkin and Marisa Hampton also provide solid comedic support, while keeping things as grounded as possible, playing George the producer and Claudia Aberlan, the station manager.