Monday, April 15, 2024

Fantaspoa ’24: Mastergame

“B” is the sort of film character Garry Kasparov would probably approve of, and possibly relate to, as both a chess master and a human rights activist. Arrested during the Soviet crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Catholic priest is being held in conditions of extreme mental and physical isolation. His only distraction is a slim book about chess. If that sounds familiar, it is because this film is also based on Stefan Zweig’s novella, “The Royal Game,” just like Philipp Stolzl’s recent Chess Story. However, Barnabas Toth takes Zweig’s themes in a very David Lynchian direction, while revisiting Hungary’s traumatic Communist history in Mastergame, which screens during this year’s Fantaspoa in Porto Alegre.

Istvan and Marta are two young anti-Communist lovers desperately trying to leave Hungary, before the Soviets seal the borders. Normally, you want to be on the “last train out,” no matter the cost, but there is something ominous about this train, beyond its
Casablanca like collection of former revolutionaries, Communist spies, and petty criminals. A mild-mannered priest is also aboard (who maybe not so coincidentally bears some resemblance to Cardinal Mindszenty).

The priest is only referred to as “B” during the interrogations that make up
Mastergame’s other timeline. According to his file, B withstood extraordinary physical torture while he was a prisoner of the Nazis, so they opt for different methods. They forbid the deeply humanistic cleric any human contact, even hiding the faces of his captors. His interrogator wants to break his spirit by severing his connection to humanity. However, the chance discovery of the chess book gives him something to occupy his mind.

If you know
Chess Story or “The Royal Game,” you have a good idea of what is really going on, but the addition of the Marta-Istvan subplot adds an intriguing new dimension. In terms of tone, Mastergame feels very much like vintage Lynch ostensibly working in the mystery genre, as in Mulholland Drive. In fact, the skullduggery on the train is so well executed, Mastergame will be keenly suspenseful, even for the world’s greatest authority on Zweig. On top of that, setting the story amid the Hungarian Revolution adds a greater sense of grand historical tragedy.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Irena’s Vow: Dan Gordon’s Broadway Hit on the Big Screen

More Polish citizens have been recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations than any other nationality. Ninety-nine of them were named Irene. Gal Gadot is working on the story of one: Irene Sendler, who saved over 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto. Irene Gut [Opdyke] “only” saved twelve Jews during the occupation, but she did it literally under the nose of a senior National Socialist officer. Screenwriter-playwright-novelist-reserve duty IDF officer Dan Gordon adapted his own hit Broadway play for the big-screen, in time for it to release amid escalating antisemitic attacks, here and abroad. The rescuer’s story comes at a particularly urgent time, when Louise Archambault’s Irene’s Vow screens nationwide tomorrow and Tuesday, via Fathom Events.

Having been brutalized by Russian soldiers, Irene Gut had no love for the Soviets. She had little reason to like the National Socialists either. After occupying Poland, they confiscated her home and forced the student-nurse to labor in a factory overseen by Wehrmacht Major Edward Rugemer. However, her “Germanic” features led to transfers, first to a luxury hotel catering to officers and then to Rugemer’s newly commandeered villa. Witnessing the SS sadistically murder a mother and her infant on the streets horrifies Gut, but it later motivates her to devise an unlikely plan to save the hotel’s Jewish slave labor, ahead of their liquidation.

Under the dark of night, uot smuggled her former co-workers into Rugemer’s villa, first hiding them in the cellar, before they eventually discover the hiding chamber specially constructed by the dispossessed Jewish owners. To avoid exposure, Gut promises Rugemer she can handle the household single-handedly, using her traumatic history with the Red Army as an excuse to keep soldiers out of the villa. Of course, that means she must cater his receptions on her own, but she will actually have quite a bit of help from the basement.

Archambault definitely brings out the thriller aspects of Gut’s story more than the Broadway production, which was presented as memory play, showcasing Tovah Feldshuh. Sophie Nelisse is also considerably younger than Feldshuh during the Broadway run. Feldshuh could probably draw the tourist buses, but Nelisse’s younger, more naïve look and slight frame leads to a greater sense of vulnerability.

In fact, Nelisse portrays Gut with tremendous sensitivity. Thanks to her, the audience really understands why she did what she did. (Frankly, her work in a key scene truly makes
Irena’s Vow a “pro-life” film in both past and present contexts.) Yet, Dougray Scott really elevates Irena’s Vow, proving he can do more than sniff and sneer his way through a film, portraying sinister blue bloods. His performance as Rugemer (an intriguing historical figure) is as complex as Gordon’s treatment. Plus, Andrzej Seweryn adds a lot of color and energy as the sly and sophisticated old Shultz, the only other serving staff Gut allows inside the villa.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

ND/NF ’24: Meezan (Scale)

The Iranian port city of Abadan is perched near the Iraqi border, along the Persian Gulf. It was a precarious place to live during the 1980 War, but the locals are really at the mercy of the sea. The entire area largely revolves around the fishing (and shrimping) industry, so when catches are good, business is good. When catches are bad, times are tough. Filmmaker Shahab Mihandoust closely observes their work off and on-shore in Meezan (Scale), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

It has been over forty years since the Iran-Iraq War, but it is still a common point of reference for the hardscrabble fishermen and longshoremen. The work is hard and probably smelly, but what really comes through in
Meezan is the ambient sounds. Mihandoust takes great efforts to immerse viewers (who are almost more listeners) in Abadan’s aural landscape. The intention is almost to create an ASMR ethnographic documentary.

Cineastes who are intellectually fascinated with process and craft will be enraptured by Mihandoust’s sound design. However, those hoping to delve into the sociology of Iran’s marginalized working class, they must mostly glean what they can from the Wiseman-esque presentation. Mihandoust incorporates some interview snippets, but they are more conversational rather than probing.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Arcadian: Nic Cage’s Parenting Skills

If you think your dad is overprotective now, just imagine what he would be like after the monster-apocalypse. Paul’s two teenaged sons do not have to imagine. Thomas and Joseph have basically been grounded their entire lives. To be fair, there really are insectoid mutant creatures roaming around their farmhouse after dark. The tightly wound dad understands they grow up eventually, but when they show a little defiance, it leads to desperate peril in Benjamin Brewer’s Arcadian, which opens today in New York.

Judging from the prologue, there was some kind of war and now everyone fears the bug-monsters. The details are sketchy, but it can’t be helped, regardless. Paul has protected his sons with Papa-bear intensity, but they are teens now, which always means trouble. He does not have to worry so much about studious Joseph, the low-stress brother. On the other hand, brother Thomas acts like a character on
Dawson’s Creek. He would rather be flirtatiously hanging with Charlotte, the only teen girl within miles. Her parents seem to like him, but the other residents of the compound are not as friendly.

One day, Thomas bails on his salvaging expedition with Joseph, jaunting off to visit Charlotte instead. When he fails to return that night, Paul goes out looking for him, leaving Joseph to defend the house against freaky big monsters.

Arcadian
is the sort of film that is greater in the sum of its parts than its whole. There are a handful of brilliant scenes, including one showpiece that starts out as a War of the Worlds homage and turns into Home Alone. However, the story and characters are pretty thin. Weirdly, Arcadian shares some similarity with Sting, because the horrors of both films are largely made possible by conspicuously bad decisions made by minors.

Fessenden’s Blackout

Charley Barrett wants to be the righteous amateur investigator fighting the evil real estate developer, like in China Town, or thousands of other movies. Instead, he is a werewolf, like Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man. Heck, he even lives in Talbot Falls. Since cleaning up, he no longer gets blackout drunk, but he still has no memory of full moon nights. A serial killer has been stalking Talbot Falls and Barrett knows he is the beast in Larry Fessenden’s Blackout, which releases today on VOD.

Even though his old man was Hammond’s lawyer, Barrett has long crusaded against the local real estate tycoon. To make things even more awkward, he was dating Hammond’s daughter, Sharon. He cleaned himself for her, only to break things off for her protection when he became a lycanthrope. Compounding Barrett’s guilt, Hammond has been accusing an innocent immigrant of his werewolf murders, to demonize the local Mexican community. Yes,
Blackout is really that in-your-face didactic.

Blackout
starts slow and craters towards the end, but it has some decent werewolf stuff in its bloody mid-sectiont. Much to Barrett’s horror, he learns it is not just the full moon that transforms him. The moon is also sufficiently luminous to do the trick on the nights before and after. Of course, he seeks a tragic but necessarily final solution like Lon Chaney Jr. in the Universal Monster movies, but his plan crumbles into a comedy of horrors.

Horror genre diva Barbara Crampton looks half her age in her all too brief scene as Kate, an attorney advising Barrett. However, horror dabbler Joe Swanberg is largely wasted as Sharon’s bland new boyfriend. Yet, arguably the most memorable “cameo” comes from the late William Hurt, lead actor Alex Hurt’s real-life father, who is pictured in photos of Barrett’s deceased dad.

ND/NF ’24: Intercepted

This is a film built around real people, who, like reality TV stars, constantly embarrass and disgrace themselves. In the case of these Russian soldiers, they repeatedly confess to war crimes, wanton cruelty, jingoistic prejudice, and just generally getting their butts kicked on the legitimate battlefield by Ukrainian soldiers. They were calling home, but Ukrainian intelligence was listening. The resulting recordings reveal the depravity and demoralization of the invading Russian military in Oksana Karpovych’s documentary, Intercepted, which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

It is easy to understand why Russian soldiers are not supposed to phone home. They reveal a lot, but the intercepts the Ukrainian government chose to release to the world expose the Russian militarist attitude rather than sensitive intelligence. For instance, nearly every caller uses the terms “Khokhols” and “Banderites,” which are Russian slurs for the Ukrainian people.

Several calls frankly describe the intentional mass murder of Ukrainian civilians. They are literally talking shooting people in the head and then dumping them in a ditch. Much like the harrowing
20 Days in Mariupol, Intercepted should be entered into evidence during a future war crimes tribunal.

The confessions are truly damning, but the attitude of the Russians back home might be even more disturbing. Their girlfriends, wives and mothers express outrage that the Ukrainians are not welcoming the Russian invaders into their home, even while literally cheering on the torture and killing of non-combatant Ukrainians.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Franklin, in The Epoch Times


The execution and performances of Apple TV+'s FRANKLIN are inconsistent, but it is shocking how well Michael Douglas captures the look (and the charm) of old Ben Franklin. EPOCH TIMES review up here.

Enter the Clones of Bruce [Lee, Obviously]

Bruce Lee was so powerful, he created a new subgenre after his death. It was also proof of how many tickets he could sell, even posthumously. Bruceploitation was definitely exploitation, often at its sleaziest, but fans just couldn’t help hoping the next one might include some legitimate lost Bruce Lee footage. David Gregory looks back on the Bruceploitation films and the sometimes reluctant imposters who made them in Enter the Clones of Bruce Lee, which starts a nationwide screening tour this Friday.

Fans knew Lee had shot some scenes for
Game of Death before he died, because they had seen the publicity photos that made his yellow track suit iconic. Initially, the Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest assumed their incomplete film was unreleasable, which left the field open to enterprising (and ethically flexible) exploitation producers to deceptively fill the void.

Soon, they released a slew of supposed Bruce Lee stories, which often rather ghoulishly incorporated footage of his funeral. Many of these films had a conspiratorial tone, promising to expose the real “truth” of his death. Another frequent trick was the inclusion flashbacks, using scenes Lee shot as a child actor in Hong Kong. For their own footage, they often hired vague lookalikes, whom they gave screen names that might deceive patrons if they were not paying close attention.

Ironically, many of the Bruce Lee clones were skilled martial artists, who might have otherwise had a distinctive screen identity of their own. Bruce Li was one of the first and he is still widely considered one of the most talented Bruces. Dragon Lee was Korean, but that hardly mattered. Burmese Bruce Le could have been the toughest, since knocked several actors silly during his first fight scene. He is also the only Bruce clone to appear opposite
Enter the Dragon bad guy Shih Kien in his “Bruce Lee Story.” Not so shockingly, Yasuaki Kurata did not know he was a Bruce Lee clone until he saw the foreign distributor for one of his Japanese movies had dubbed him Bruce Lo on their English-language poster.

After watching
Enter the Clones it is easy to understand why the Lee family is so protective of his image. Some of the things these sketchy outfits did were beyond tacky. However, the film also suggests some of the films designed to appeal to Bruce Lee fandom were not so exploitative. Gregory’s talking heads convincingly argue the popularity of both Jim Kelly and Angela Mao films were largely built on their appearances in Enter the Dragon. Gregory even scored an interview with Mao herself, which was a real coup.

Disappear Completely, Coming to Netflix

Like most people working in [tabloid] journalism, Santiago takes a flexible approach to ethics. He often bends the rules and bribes cops, but at least his news is not fake. The dead bodies he photographs really are dead, except for the most recent one. Nobody understands how the senator could still be alive in his condition, but Santiago will learn from hard experience in Luis Javier Henaine’s Disappear Completely, which starts streaming tomorrow on Netflix.

Even though Santiago takes lurid crime-scene photos, he sees himself as an artistic chronicler of urban decay, sort of in the tradition of Arthur “Weegee” Felig. He aspires to hold a proper gallery show, but his livelihood depends on his crass editor, who does not appreciate his talent. As a result, Santiago’s relationship with his girlfriend Macrela has suffered, even before his rather unenthused response to the news of her pregnancy.

He really should have stayed with her, rather than rushing to his next front-page crime scene. The responding cops assumed the prominent senator was already dead, since the rats had been eating him. Then he suddenly groans. At that moment, the startled Santiago snaps a partial, shadowy shot of something
else in the room.

In the next few days, Santiago experiences seizures and strange dreams or visions. Slowly, he starts to lose his sense of taste and smell. His medical tests come back negative, but the discovery of some kind of cursed fetish leads him to seek more occultic help. According to the spiritualist, Santiago has been cursed to lose all five of his senses, at which point he will essentially succumb to nothingness, or, you know.

It turns out Mexican politics are really scary—and so is this film. It is an eerie, unsettling kind of fear rather than rip-and-slash terror. Frankly,
Disappear Completely is one of the more accessible horror movies for non-fans. It is smart and moody, but the tension builds steadily, from decidedly occult circumstances.

ND/NF ’24: Lost Country

People conveniently forget the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic was formerly a Communist Party official in the unified Yugoslavia and he was the leader of Serbia’s Socialist Party. Stefan’s single-mother Marklena Nikolic was certainly aware of that fact, because she serves as a high-profile Socialist Party spokesman in Vladimir Perisic’s Lost Country, which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Even in Serbia, the name “Marklena” is unusual, so she must often explain it is a contraction of Marx and Lenin. Not surprisingly, she is a Socialist—and she sternly informs her teenage son Stefan that he must always be one too. However, as the 1996 protests against Milosevic and his Socialists intensify, Stefan finds it is not such a fun time to be a Socialist at school, especially when his friends’ relatives start disappearing.

Stefan pretends his mother is another “Marklena Nikolic” and not the hated woman on the government broadcasts, but with a name like that, nobody believes him. With his peers freezing him out, Stefan increasingly lashes out their slights and insults. He must believe they are lying about her and her role in the Socialist Party, but the more he sees and overhears, the harder that gets.

Lost Country
illustrates how the crimes of socialist regimes compound in tragic and unexpected ways. This is ultimately a bracing and profoundly sad film, but Perisic’s severe aesthetic might put off some viewers. His pacing is slow, but the intimate focus has a hypnotic effect on those who are open to it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Resistance : They Fought Back, in The Epoch Times


RESISTANCE: THEY FOUGHT BACK is an inspiring documentary about the proactive (and often armed) Jewish resistance to the National Socialists. It should not feel as timely as it does. Regardless, the stories are highly compelling and the history needs to be preserved. EPOCH TIMES review up here.

Kiah Roache-Turner’s Sting

Maybe the original name of this lethal space-spider was Gordon Sumner, before the little girl who adopts it dubs the creature “Sting.” Why would you pick up a spider of this size, like stray dog? Needless to say, young Charlotte is feeling a little alienated and she will soon be feeling pretty guilty, because it really is sort of all her fault when the spider starts biting in director-screenwriter Kiah Roache-Turner’s Sting, which opens this Friday in theaters.

The spider landed with such velocity, it only bored a small hole through Charlotte’s window pane, but it somehow landed softly enough. It is big and ugly, even by tarantula standards, but she decides to keep it anyway. (The name “Sting” is actually a
Hobbit reference.) Charlotte has been sulky since her infant brother was born, because it seems like her mother Heather and stepfather Ethan no longer have time for her. Indeed, neither has much time for anything. He works days as their building super and nights struggling to complete a high-profile freelance comic book commission, while she has restarted her architectural career.

Charlotte’s relationship with Ethan is especially complicated because she assumes her deadbeat birth-father is still abroad, rather than avoiding her. Having more extended family nearby is not helping much. Charlotte still adores her dementia-stricken grandmother, Helga, but Gunter, the mean old aunt who owns the building, is a real pill. The other neighbors are a mixed bag, but she assumes Erik, the self-styled science geek, might be able to help, when Sting starts to be a bit of a handful.

There is considerably more character development in
Sting than you get from typical creepy-crawly flicks. There is also some tension-breaking comedic relief provided by Jermaine Fowler as Frank, the exterminator, whose uniform probably intentionally somewhat vaguely resembles that of a Ghostbuster.

However, Charlotte’s 12-year-old angst is maybe too realistic. Honestly, which would you rather deal with, a large alien spider or a moody preteen girl? If you said the arachnid, you’re probably not alone. Still, the attempt to balance credible characters, mostly (but not entirely) practical gross-out effects, and jaded New Yorker humor is appreciated. This is definitely an improvement over Roache-Turner’s disappointing sequel
Wyrmwood: Apocalypse, but not as entertaining as the original Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. The mix needed more tweaking, but Roache-Turner is going in the right direction with his first feature not co-written with his brother, Tristan.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Elkhorn: The Greenhorn, on INSP

Before he could be a Rough Rider, he had to be a greenhorn. Teddy Roosevelt led such a storied life, his years as a cattleman in the Dakota Territory are often overlooked, but it was still a significant period for him. TR’s later service as New York City’s police chief made him an intriguing supporting character in The Alienist, but Roosevelt the rancher is the central protagonist of creator Craig Miller’s Elkhorn, which premieres Thursday on INSP.

The future president is not quite the garrulous “Bully! Bully!” Rough Rider yet. As the titular “Greenhorn” of the pilot episode, he has toughened himself up, but he still looks like a Northeastern intellectual, which he also was. Roosevelt’s fame as a wealthy progressive reformer proceeds him to the Dakota Territory, but many of the locals assume he will be easy to push around. However, they quickly learn he is made of stern stuff and has wisely chosen his associates.

Roosevelt partnered up with his former hunting guide, William Merrifield, who knows the terrain better than anyone. For his chief lieutenants, TR imported his friend, Bill Sewall, a brawny lumberjack from Maine and his nephew Wilmot Dow. They will form the nucleus of the Elkhorn ranch, protecting the herd from the Marquis de Mores, an unscrupulous French cattle baron.

At least that last part seems like a fair assumption from what we see in the pilot episode. So far, the Marquis is ostensibly polite, but he clearly rubs TR the wrong way. At this early stage, TR is more bedeviled by his own demons, including his grief over the death of his wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and guilt from essentially abandoning their daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt.

ND/NF ’24: Grace

The sleazy truck stops and lonely highways of the remote Karachay-Cherkessia region are not fit places to raise a teen girl, but is there anyplace in Russia where it is safe for families? At least the father and his daughter keep moving, screening DVDs in their makeshift projected cinema. Inevitably, she starts to realize it is not much of a life in Ilya Povolotsky’s Grace, which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Evidently, this area of Russia is so economically depressed, people cannot even afford names. The end credits simply refer to her as “Daughter,” him as “Father,” and the rest as “Characters.” Clearly, there is no mother, leaving all parental duties to the father.

Unfortunately, her father is stuck on auto-pilot, unable to envision anything else but their hardscrabble nomadic life. She is starting to question him, just as boys are beginning to notice her.

The central father-daughter relationship would ordinarily be relatable across cultures, but Povolotsky depicts it in such an emotionally reserved manner, it will freeze out the vast majority of viewers. Instead, the audience mostly takes a slow cinema tour of the Balkar-speaking Russian boondocks. The film thoroughly establishes the economic stagnation, environmental degradation, infrastructure decay, and police corruption of provincial Russia. Of course, most people over the age of twelve years-old not named Tucker Carlson were already reasonably cognizant of this reality.

It is really hard to understand who this film was programmed for, beyond a small circle of Slow Cinema devotees. Povolotsky is admirably committed to immersing the audience in the circumstances of the Daughter’s life, but his esthetic approach is distancing, to put it diplomatically. However, it can safely be screened without violating any institutional sanctions against Russia, post-Putin’s invasion, because it was clearly produced far outside the state cinema establishment.

Monday, April 08, 2024

All You Need is Death: Very Irish Folk Horror

There were a lot of Devil-themed Delta Blues songs, but Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress song-hunters never encountered anything as sinister as this Pagan Irish wail. It is not merely a relic of the “old ways.” It predates all forms of Irish language as we know it. Those who learned to sing it have sworn to preserve its secrecy, especially from mercenary song-hunters like Anna and Aleks, who desperately want to record it in director-screenwriter Paul Duane’s All You Need is Death, which releases Thursday in theaters and on VOD.

Anna and Aleks are not from around these parts. She is a Dubliner (as well as an Irish folk singer) and he is an unspecified Eastern European, who has come to Ireland to escape some vague, undefined trouble. Whatever it was, he probably should have stayed. In hopes of jump-starting their song-hunting venture, they attend a seminar given by Agnes, who lectures on ethnomusicology in the way some house-flippers can pontificate on real estate in airport hotel conference rooms.

They were hoping Agnes would help them follow-up a lead on the big one: a song so ancient it might even predate Paganism. Of course, Agnes tries to extract it from boozy Rita Concannon for herself, as the couple soon discovers when they walk in on the two together. However, the weird old crone is more receptive to Anna, but not Aleks. He must wait in the car, because of his chromosomes. Anna double-dog promises not to record Concannon’s eerie keening, but the elderly woman neglects to get similar assurances from Agnes.

For a while, the three agree to work together, but soon Agnes and Aleks take up together and cut out Anna. Instead, the spurned singer joins forces with Breezeblock Concannon, Rita’s son, a dodgy itinerant puppeteer, who assumes Agnes is responsible for his mother’s gruesome murder. Of course, viewers know it was really the primordial entity, who punished her for unwittingly breaking her pact. Through the power of the song, it is also changing Agnes and Aleks, in really nasty, body-horror ways.

As is often true for horror movies, Duane’s set-up is wonderfully atmospheric and powerfully unsettling, but the pay-off is disappointingly silly. In this case, the premise and first two acts are particularly intriguing and darkly suggestive, but the crash comes a little earlier than usual, with probably twenty minutes or so left to stagger through. Nevertheless, the good stuff up-front still more than compensates for the weak back-end.

In many ways,
AYNID represents another entry in the music-that-kills sub-sub-genre, following Dead Wax, Black Circle, and The Piper. However, Duane use of the Irish folk tradition makes it feel fresh and very much its own thing. This is a profoundly Irish horror film, even more so than movies like The Hallow, Unwelcome, The Hole in the Ground, or Cherry Tree.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

ND/NF ’24: Break No. 1 & Break No. 2 (short)

There is only good thing about censors. Since they are crude creatures of their ruling regime, they are mostly dim bulbs and largely out of their depth when it comes to experimental film. Maybe that is why this short film exists. Technically, it is two films that are possibly related, but part two directly references censorship. If you want to gingerly stick your toe into the avant-garde, a good place to start would be Lei Lei’s Break No. 1 & Break No. 2, which screens during New Directors/New Films 2024.

This first “Break,” tells a rather tragic but highly relatable human story, albeit in a somewhat elliptical manner. The narrator’s tale of his lover, who inexplicably committed suicide in hotel room also has extra resonance the filmmaker perhaps never intended. Nevertheless, it is a fact a wave of convenient suicides has swept over Hong Kong, suspiciously targeting supporters of the Umbrella protests.

In this case, the photos the narrator’s lover always carried were also mysteriously missing, which again echoes experiences of Hong Kongers. It all unfolds over a montage of static shots of the lover’s hotel room and close-ups of the retro light fixtures, which was maybe a blessing, because the unsophisticated will quickly tune out.

During the second “Break,” the narrator discusses a visit he made with his lover (not expressively identified as the suicide victim in the first break, but that seems to be a logical assumption) to public video booth that screened serious cinema instead of skin flicks. Unfortunately, the proprietor could never find the John Woo gangster film that wanted to watch.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

CIFF ’24: White Plastic Sky

The residennts of 2123 Budapest survive thanks to what you might consider vegan Soylent Green. It is grown from trees, but it is still made of people. At least they get twenty more years than the 30-year-olds in Logan’s Run before they must surrender to Dr. Janos Paulik’s revolutionary hybrid-agricultural process. As a psychologist, Stefan Kovacs regularly attends to grieving patients, who resent losing loved ones during the prime of their lives. However, he cannot console himself when his wife Nora Kallay voluntarily sacrifices herself at the premature age of thirty-two. Despite the risks to his career and the social order, Kovacs intends to reverse the process and save his wife in Tibor Banoczki & Sarolta Szabo’s White Plastic Sky, which screens during the 2024 Cleveland International Film Festival.

Fertility is low in the future, so when Kallay and Kovacs lost their young son, it was a devastating blow that she never recovered from. He knew she was hurting, but he never thought she would volunteer. Since he is four years her junior, he should have plenty of time to start over, but instead, he hatches a rescue plan (even though she probably does not want to be rescued).

With information provided by his brother Mark, who was once a security officer in the human “plantation” outside the domed city of Budapest, Kovacs acquires forged work orders to perform psych evaluations of the staff. He suspects the somewhat rebellious Dr. Madu (who happens to be pushing fifty) will be willing to help and he assumes she can perform the reversal operation. Unfortunately, he is only half right. The plantation lacks adequate facilities for an operation, but her old mentor, Paulik, could perform the reversal in his secret research facility in the Slovakian mountainside.

White Plastic Sky
is the best looking post-apocalyptic film in decades. It might not have much competition, but it is, nonetheless. The domed urban centers, ruined cities, and Paulik’s Bond-villain-worthy eagle’s nest installation represent some of the best science fiction art-for-film since Chesley Bonestell’s heyday. The rotoscoped figure-animation is also quite effective. Banoczki & Szabo’s narrative is not exactly unprecedented, but they instill it with a fable-like vibe that is quite arresting.

Friday, April 05, 2024

Dupieux’s Yannick

Everyone is a critic, right? And that is our right, since we buy our tickets. That is certainly how a extremely socially-awkward parking lot night watchman sees it. However, he will take things a step further, by holding the cast and audience hostage, so he can re-write their play in Quentin Dupieux’s Yannick, which releases today on Mubi.

The truth is Yannick is not wrong about the mediocre sex farce he refuses to quietly sit through. Watching it in English subtitles probably does not help, but the jokes are still corny sitcom-level material. Not surprisingly, the sparse audience is only half-heartedly laughing. That is why so many do not object when he interrupts.

At first, the three players treat Yannick like a heckler. They almost convince him to leave, but when the diva-ish Sophie Denis starts mocking his complaints regarding his fifteen-minute walk and forty-five-minute bus commute to arrive at the theater, he pulls out a gun. After commandeering a laptop from a likely perverted patron, Yannick starts writing his own pages for them to play.

Compared to his previous weird and wacky output,
Yannick is by far Dupieux’s most realistic and grounded film to-date. In our current world, where people regularly get accosted on-stage (even during the Oscars), something like this could very well happen. However, Yannick is definitely way out there—in a manner that is very unique to himself (or at least we can only hope).

In fact, it is rather overstating matters to describe the film as meta. There are maybe ironic parallels when the themes of jealousy that drive the corny play-within-the-film resurface during the hostage crisis. Perhaps understandably, Denis’s leading man, Paul Riviere, starts to resent Yannick apparently winning over many in the audience. Stockholm Syndrome will be a factor, probably because the original play was so bad.

Yannick
has been Dupieux’s biggest box office hit in France, but Mubi is a good distribution fit for it in America, given its limited running time. It barely exceeds one hour, or comes up just shy of sixty minutes, if you exclude the closing credits. Frankly, the shorter, concentrated format suits Dupieux’s eccentric sensibilities. The audience can enjoy Yannick’s absurdity, before the full implications of his actions kill the vibe. You can only sustain Stockholm Syndrome for so long.

The Penultimate, on Film Movement Plus

Get ready for liberal use of the term “Kafkaesque.” This unnamed Water Inspector’s latest building visit follows in the tradition of The Castle, but getting in is not the problem. Getting out is the tricky part. It might even be impossible, considering how many years pass in frustration during the course of Jonas Kaerup Hjort’s The Penultimate, which releases today on Film Movement Plus.

As professions go, a water-meter-reader definitely has serious Kafkaesque potential, because it combines aspects of both bureaucracy and manual labor. Unfortunately, our Inspector cannot find a single blessed meter in the concrete monstrosity. Nor can he locate any exits. The big front door seems to be entrance-only.

As weeks turn into months, he agrees to marry the aspiring “Bride,” because she promises to arrange a meeting with the elusive “Caretaker,” who must be the super from Hell, if he even exists. Perversely, this inspires violent assaults from “The Tormented” woman, whose jealous rage baffles him. Slowly, his desperation takes a suicidal turn.

The imposing cement Brutalist edifice is a truly stunning setting. Hjort creates a world that fuses the most inhospitable aspects of Kafka and Orwell. Most viewers will marvel at the film’s cold, evil look for about twenty minutes, before the realization sets in that this is all they are going to get for the remaining hour and forty minutes. The narrative is simply a punishing piling-on of futility, alienation, and humiliation. The characterization is sketchy and any sense of relief is strictly forbidden.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Bonello’s The Beast

In the year 2044, “cleaning your DNA” is a lot like what taking the Covid vaccine was in 2021. You just cannot get a decent job without doing it. To us, it looks and sounds more like clearing your karma. Regardless, the totally-not-dystopian government makes life difficult for those who decline, so people will not be as prone to the extreme emotions that led to the 2025 civil war. Reluctantly, Gabrielle Monnier undergoes the process in Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast, which opens tomorrow in New York.

While immersed in the treatment, Monnier will revisit her past lives in 1910 Paris and 2014 Hollywood, so she can work through her trauma-karma. In all three time-periods, her life is apparently quantum-entangled with the of Louis (Lewanski in the 2014 storyline). Back in the early 20
th Century, they were blue-blooded French socialites, who were incapable of commencing an illicit affair due to circumstances and their own timidity. During the 2014 sequences, she is an aspiring actress house-sitting in the Hollywood Hills, while he is an angry, entitled lout, on the verge of committing a horrible violent crime. Yet, back in the future, they are both outsiders, struggling to fit in.

Somehow, all these lifetimes and timelines are inter-connected, at least according to science. Bonello identifies Henry James’ novella
The Beast in the Jungle as the inspiration for the film, but it reads more like a rejoinder than a riff. In Monnier’s past lifetimes, there very definitely was a beast, or something, out there, which was undeniably dangerous.

The Beast
is undeniably uneven and erratic, but somehow those flaws help make it such a weirdly powerful film. Eventually, the 1910 sequences become incredibly surreal, in ways Lanthimos, Gondry, and Aronofsky should appreciate. Yet, the 2014 time-frame ultimately overpowers and overshadows everything else in the film. Without exaggeration, these scenes constitute the most breathlessly intense home invasion horror film of the year. This is a white-knuckle viewing experience.

Dev Patel’s Monkey Man

He is an underground fighter, whose masked persona is inspired by Hanuman. He encounters a woman named Sita in his quest for vengeance, but this is not the Ramayana. This is old school retribution at its most brutal. Some of the most powerful men in India are responsible for his mother’s death, so now they are going to pay in Dev Patel’s Monkey Man, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

We never really catch the “Kid’s” name, but he takes the alias of “Bobby” while working in the kitchen of the elite private club affiliated with his enemies. As a boy, he watched helplessly as the future police chief killed his mother, as part of an operation to clear their community off land coveted by a politically connected cult. Their (maybe not so vaguely) Modi-sounding nationalist party is on the verge of winning the election, but “Bobby” might not even be aware of politics. He is hatching a plan to make Chief Rana pay. Still, he cannot help noticed Sita, one of the club’s hostesses, whose soul has not been fully corrupted yet.

Bobby’s plan is not great, but he intends to compensate with the red-hot intensity of his rage. He might need a little more than that, but he might find it during a training montage. Sure, we have seen them before, but not with Zakiir Hussain keeping rhythm as the character appropriately known simply as the “Tabla Maestro,” which indeed he is.

Hussain, a member of John McLaughlin’s Shakti, has appeared in films before, but they have mostly been classy Merchant-Ivory productions, like
Heat and Dust. In contrast, Monkey Man is about as bloody and seamy as a movie can possibly get. It is not for the squeamish. This is a straight-up payback thriller, but it is getting marketed for horror audiences, partly because it is produced by Jordan Peele and partly because it is so unapologetically violent.

Directing himself, Patel has sort of made a Mr. Hyde companion to his Dr. Jekyll-ish breakout film,
Slumdog Millionaire. Bobby, or whoever he is, is another slum kid, but he has very different goals in life.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Sugar, in Cinema Daily US


Apple TV+'s SUGAR is a noir detective series and a lot more that critics are not supposed to reveal. Even if you can guess what the "a lot more" might be, it is all executed with a great deal of style. CINEMA DAILY US exclusive review up here.

The Incomparable Mr. Buckley, on PBS


When I was a kid, all the real intellectuals were conservatives. They were scholars like Allan Bloom, economists like Milton Friedman, theologians like Richard John Neuhaus, jazz critics like Ralph de Toledano, and first and foremost, William F. Buckley Jr., who in addition to being a commentator, was also a concert harpsichordist and spy novelist. In contrast, the left was a you-grease-my-palm-I-grease-yours alliance of unions and special interests seeking handouts and payoffs. They have not changed much, but the right has—and not for the better. Arguably, Buckley was the movement’s indispensable man. Director-producer Barak Goodman chronicles Buckley’s life and career as the chief strategist and spokesman of American conservatism in The Incomparable Mr. Buckley, which airs Friday as part of the current season on American Masters.

Even as an undergraduate, Buckley a troublemaking intellectual. He entered Yale as part of the first class to overwhelmingly consist of fellow returning WWII veterans and he left with the material for his first bestseller,
God and Man at Yale. Non-left-wingers were a fractured lot, divided into religious traditionalist, libertarian capitalists, and hawkish Cold Warriors, but Buckley united them into a reasonably cohesive coalition through their opposition to Soviet expansionism and oppression.

Buckley played a critical role as Conservatism’s gatekeeper and arbiter of legitimacy. He famously excommunicated the conspiracy theory-mongering John Birch Society, while trying not to alienate their more casual followers. Goodman skips over Buckley (and his
National Review colleague Whittaker Chambers) similarly dismissing Ayn Rand and her Objectivists, probably because they were never as consequential on the national political stage. Over the last ten years, we desperately needed another William F. Buckley, but there was only one.

Goodman and the disembodied voices of his commentators give the
National Review editor his due credit for building the movement and guiding it to a spectacular victory when Buckley’s friend ally, Gov. Ronald Reagan, won the presidency and ultimately the Cold War. Yet, it is not hagiography. Incomparable takes a tough look at some of the positions Buckley staked out during the Civil Rights Era, but it provides a much fuller perspective than did Best of Enemies, Morgan Neville’s Buckley vs. Vidal doc.

Model House

When was the last time anything good came from social media in the movies? Pretty much never and this one is not about to be the first. A group of hyper-online models want to enjoy a brainless night off between shoots, but they are interrupted by two cyber-stalking IRL-home invaders in director-screenwriter Dave Pike’s Model House, which releases this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Not only did Zoe just land her first really high-profile shoot, she also gets to stay in the luxurious “model house” the night after—and she did it all without being a slave to her Instagram. Frankly, it seems like there must be some secret in her backstory that makes her so averse to social media, but Pike never bothers to explain what that might be. Zoe definitely seems to have bad luck, having sprained her ankle during the shoot, but her relative modesty makes her prime “final girl” material.

The rest of her housemates could never survive an 80’s slasher movie. The outlook for them here is not great either. After generating bad karma for an evening, they find themselves the victims of a violent home invasion. The masked Thomas and his influencer-obsessed girlfriend Annie intend to hold them hostage over the night, so they can monetize the models’ social media accounts, for their own benefit. Collecting the models’ phones, they post links to a phony memorial fund supposedly honoring another model who died during the prologue. Of course, the money will be funneled to their off-shore account.

Unfortunately, things get messy when Annie forces the models to get more revealing, to boost donations. Soon, the masks start falling, which has ominous implications for the models.

There are several recognizable horror movies regulars in
Model House, but they cannot elevate Pike’s unremarkably blah story. Frankly, Model House is so tepid and forgettable, it is not worth getting worked up over. It cannot even be described as a bad movie. Rather, it is underwhelming and disposable, which is arguably worse.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Kim’s Video: The Documentary Caper

You know you have lived in New York for a long time when you start to see a lot of documentaries about places you used to frequent. Fortunately, Veselka is still in business (but Other Music is gone for good). Kim’s Video came and went and now they are sort of back again. Their sad demise and dramatic Phoenix-like rebirth are documented in David Redmon & Ashley Sabin’s Kim’s Video, which opens this Friday in theaters.

At its height, Kim’s Video had six East Village locations, but Mondo Kim’s on St. Mark’s was the flagship. Redmon and Sabin almost exclusively focus on Kim’s as a purveyor of rare and underground film, but it was there that I finally found an original vinyl pressing of Eddie Gale’s
Ghetto Music. Originally, Yong-man Kim started a dry-cleaners, but when he added a shelf of video rentals, it transformed the business.

Quickly, Kim’s gained a reputation for the depth and breadth of their collection, including imports of questionable provenance and outright bootlegs. Evidently, Kim had the gumption to call up cultural attaches at various embassies, to request screeners that he copied. Eventually, the FBI raided Mondo Kim’s but the confiscated bootlegs were soon replaced.

Unfortunately, digital eventually killed the video store, even including Kim’s. Mr. Kim wanted to find an appropriate home for his VHS and DVD collection, because it represented one of the largest physical media holdings in the world. Rather ill-advisedly, he accepted an offer from an aspiring cultural center in Salemi, Sicily to host the Kim’s Video collection. That is when things got weird.

When Redmon seeks to visit the Kim’s collection in Salemi, finds it is not currently available to the public, as was promised. In fact, the dank, damp storage conditions posed a great risk to the collection’s integrity. It seemed like the collection’s supposed custodians had ulterior motives for hosting it. You know what Sicily has a reputation for? Redmon was convinced that was true for some of the figures orbiting the so-called cultural center, so he hatched a crazy plan to “liberate” the Kim’s Video collection.

Bizarrely, the
Kim’s Video doc suddenly morphs into an enormously eccentric caper movie. Obviously, they were somewhat successful, since Redmon and Sabin are both still alive to talk about it—and does Redmon ever talk. He inserts his personality into nearly every frame, sometimes to the film’s detriment. That is fair to some extent, since he and Sabin took such an active role in the Kim’s Video “homecoming,” but a little of his constant ruminations go a long way. In contrast, Sabin remains scrupulously invisible and quiet as a dormouse.

Baghead, on Shudder

Even Jon Taffer from Bar Rescue could not breathe life into the Queen’s Head, a British pub in Berlin. The industrial neighborhood is not great, but the witch in the basement is a tough nut to crack. When Iris Lark inherited the bar from her estranged father Owen, she became the evil entity’s keeper, whether she likes it or not, in Alberto Corredor’s Baghead, which premieres Friday on Shudder.

It has been decades since the Queen’s Head served a draft, but it is not going anywhere. Owen Lark tried to burn it down, but the ancient woman’s infernal power protected it. Unwisely, Lark put her name on the deed, making herself the eternal witch’s new keeper.

At first, she tries to exploit the bag-hooded woman’s power for financial benefit, just as her father once did, until he got too freaked out by her power. After ingesting a personal item, she/it can bring anyone back from the dead. You just pull off the bag and there is your favorite uncle, or whoever. However, after two minutes, she takes control over the beloved loved one’s features, to spew a hateful torrent of tormenting taunts.

Of course, the more a keeper pokes the witch, the more she gets in their heads. She is already digging her hooks into Lark, much to the alarm of her bossy friend, Katie. Yet, they keep letting the wealthy but sketchy Neil dial-up his late wife, even though it never ends well.

Baghead
is a terrible title for a cool gothic/demonic horror film. First and foremost, Peter Mullan is spectacularly crusty and vinegary as old man Lark. Sure, he dies at the beginning, but Mullan is always so interesting on-screen, you know they will have to bring him back.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Baby Assassins 2, on BluRay

Like typical Millennials, Chisato Sugimoto and Mahiro Fukagawa are rather surprised to learn their guild expects them to act like adults and pay their bills. Even after two years of steady work they still are not ready for responsibility, but they understand Assassins’ Guild does not take no for answer. They are clueless, but they still do their best to abide by the rules in director-screenwriter Yugo Sakamoto’s Baby Assassins 2, which releases tomorrow on BluRay and digital.

Sugimoto is still the bubbly and Fukagawa is still the withdrawn, anti-social one, but they work well together, because they both enjoy bingeing sugary desserts after a successful job. After two years of ignoring the guild’s bills for health insurance and its gym membership, the partners are informed they most pay-up at a certain bank, by a certain time, or else. The insurance is particularly costly, for obvious reasons. After a week of procrastination, they rush to the bank, with a few minutes to spare, at which time two armed robbers storm in.

Of course, there are strict rules governing the use of force by assassins, outside contract jobs, but Sugimoto and Fukagawa are facing a crisis. During their resulting suspension, two lunkheads erroneously figure they can take the two assassins’ places in the guild if they knock them off. It does not work that way, but the partners must be wary in how they respond.

Given its concern for the governance of an assassins’ guild,
Baby Assassins 2 is a lot like the John Wick franchise hopped-up on bubble tea and ice cream sundaes. It is also a reminder of a fact that was overlooked during the Writer’s Guild strike. Guilds are essentially cartels designed to keep competition out of a specific line of work. Makoto and Yuri might be perfectly competent assassins (as indeed they appear to be), but the Guild limits their ability to ply their chosen trade.

Even Sugimoto and Fukagawa might agree the lads deserved a better break, but business is business. Sakamoto’s business is goofball action—and business is booming throughout this sequel. Kensuke Sonomura’s fight choreography was maybe a bit stronger in the first film, but the follow-up features the funniest sequence of the duology, in which the feuding partners pummel each other while wearing furry animal costumes, in front of several shocked children.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Omen (1995 Pilot)

The Omen franchise had a lot of success on the big screen, but its TV history is spottier. The made-for-TV Omen IV: The Awakening does not have many champions, whereas the A&E-produced Damien was not bad, but short-lived. A lot of fans missed the first attempt at an Omen series, because the pilot was not picked up for a full series. (It is also dismissed as non-canonical and related in name only.) Yet, because it was produced in the 1990s, NBC aired it anyway, because the networks took their viewers for granted back then. Nevertheless, it was indeed broadcasted, so it technically counts as a “vintage episode.” With The First Omen releasing this week, it is a fine time to look back at the 1995 pilot for The Omen, if you don’t mind searching for a grainy internet version.

Dr. Linus is about to find his missing colleague, strung-up dead, in a ritualistic manner. Tragically, it was most likely of his friend’s own doing, to prevent an evil parasite from devouring another victim. Of course, Linus inadvertently releases it back into the world.

Being a man of science, he is not sure what to make of what he saw, even when he is visited by Aaron Rainier, a self-described “hunter,” who dedicated his life to fighting the all-consuming entity. However, photojournalist Jack Mann has become a believer, after watching the viral-like demon possess and destroy his pregnant wife. He will follow its trail to a Boston hospital, where Dr. Linus has been called in to consult on an inexplicable contamination afflicting Annalisse Summer, a nurse who contracted it from late sister.

In a way, the viral hot-zone-like aspect of the 1995 pilot is a lot like the
Star War prequels demystifying the Force with scientistic Midi-chlorians, except it is much more interesting. Although there is more science to explain the ancient entity’s powers, it still directly addresses issues of good and evil.

According to Rainier, most people burn themselves out trying to fight the evil virus, or whatever, which rather implies most people are inherently good. However, when it lands in an evil host, they develop a symbiotic relationship, in which the human accepts its presence, in return for power. At the end of the pilot, we learn the unseen force is heading west, as if it is searching for something. Could that have been a nasty little boy named Damien Thorn?

Unfortunately, we will never know, but the pilot holds up okay as a stand-alone. The pacing is quite snappy, which makes sense, since it was directed by Jack Sholder, who also helmed
Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and The Hidden (which also features an unearthly entity hopping from person to person). There are a lot of big genre names involved, starting with Richard Donner, the director of the original film, who was on-board as an executive producer according to IMDb (but his name was not included in the broadcast credits).