Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Nordic & Baltic Contenders: My Favorite War

Her parents were not exactly Romeo & Juliet, but growing up as the daughter of a Party member and an enemy of the state definitely led to a conflicted perspective on life in Iron Curtain-era Latvia. Frankly, Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen’s mother was never really guilty of anything. She just happened to be the daughter of a small land-owning farmer. Nevertheless, she was hounded and discriminated against up until the fall of Communism. For her part, Jacobsen tried to be a model Young Pioneer, taking inspiration from the Party propaganda built around the captive nation’s venerated WWII heroes. Jacobsen (currently based in Norway) revisits her Latvian youth and teen years in her animated-hybrid documentary, My Favorite War, which screens online as part of Scandinavia House’s Nordic & Baltic Contenders film series.

Despite her eventual disillusionment with the Communist Party’s corruption and hypocrisy, Jacobsen still loves and admires her father, a journalist, who was appointed the administrator for a small border village, near the infamous “Polygon” military installation. He did a lot for the town, as she remembers, but when he tragically died in a traffic accident, her mother reverted to being an enemy of the state. After the Soviets solidified control over the Baltics, her maternal grandfather had been exiled to Siberia, along with every other land-owning farmer, regardless of the size of their properties. This definitely was a source of tension between her grandfather and father, while the latter was still alive.

After his demise, Jacobsen savvily embraced the Young Pioneers as a vehicle to prove her loyalty and lay the groundwork for her future employability. Her role models were the WWII veterans who were the constant (almost Big Brother-like) stars of propaganda posters, movies, and TV shows, live-action footage from which Jacobsen cleverly incorporates into the animation. Yet, she was her grandfather’s granddaughter, so she inevitably noticed the falsehoods and double-standards of life around her. Conveniently, she was ready to start rebelling in the late 1980s.

Favorite War
is a wonderfully constructed docu-memoir that is clearly the product Jacobsen’s acutely personal perspective, but still faithfully reflects the wider political and historical forces at play. There are several deeply poignant moments that sneak-up on viewers, even though Jacobsen diligently laid the groundwork for them, earlier in the film.

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Instinct & Imposter


Horror movies and TV shows absolutely hate the gig economy. They aren’t too crazy about corporate America either. Of course, being a camp counselor is out, so just how are you supposed to make a living in the horror genre? Two Sentence Horror Stories only tells viewers what not to do in the next four sentences, “Instinct” and “Imposter,” premiering tonight on the CW.

“Instinct,” the better of the two, starts off violently, but it turns out it is all the musings of Anika, who considers herself an aspiring mystery writer, but it looks like her tastes lean more towards horror. She is waiting for her latest Task Rabbit-like app gig painting some rich dude’s apartment. He is a bit squirrely, but then again, so is she. Frankly, he is reasonably hospitable and super-patient considering how much time she is taking. Yet, she convinces herself he must be a serial killer, with the help of her imaginary victim-muse.

Directors Kailey & Sam Spear do a nice job maintaining the tension, but we can guess the big twist, simply by virtue of it appearing in a horror anthology. Sunita Prasad and Leanne Lapp are both pretty good as the would-be writer and her personified imagination, but Sehaj Sethi’s storyline is just too much like dozens of other things we’ve already seen.

“Imposter,” directed by Jennifer Liao, is pretty predictable too, but it lacks any sense of suspense. A junior financial analyst is on the verge of selling his soul. Not only is he set to receive his firm’s “Associate of the Year” award, he is also engaged to a coworker, who happens to be the boss’s daughter, but he is really the victim, because he has been forced to turn his back on his Filipino heritage. On the night of the awards banquet, a shadowy doppelganger starts stalking him. To make matters even more painful, his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother recognizes the doppelganger, adorned in traditional peasant attire, as her son, rather than him.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Invisible Witness, on OVID.tv

It isn't Korea's Miss Granny with at least seven international remakes under its belt or Italy’s Perfect Strangers with fourteen global remakes and counting, but Spain’s The Invisible Guest is not doing too badly with two to its credit. If you have seen Oriol Paulo’s Invisible Guest or Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla than you generally know what is in store for entrepreneur Adriano Doria in Stefano Mordini’s Italian remake, The Invisible Witness, which starts streaming Wednesday on OVID.tv.

As some viewers might remember, Doria found himself in deep gnocchi when he woke up in a locked hotel room, near the bludgeoned corpse of his mistress, Laura Vitale and 100K pile of Euros. He thought they were there to meet a blackmailer, but the encounter took a violent turn instead. The cops want to pin the murder on him and the media is loving the feeding frenzy, so his corporate lawyer has arranged a late-night meeting with high-powered criminal defense attorney Virginia Ferrara to plan their strategy.

Ferrara can immediately tell Doria is not fully leveling with her, so she drags the whole ugly truth out of him. As many of us know, the story really starts a few months prior, when Doria and Vitale were involved in a fatal auto accident while returning from a secret romantic getaway. They did not handle it well.

It is a little strange watching a film with the same twist ending for the third time, but with a different cast. For one thing, it inspires new appreciation for
Badla, because it makes clear how much the gender switch of the entrepreneur and the jury consultant/criminal lawyer really freshened up the film. Weirdly, for viewers of the previous takes, the suspense in Witness largely comes from knowing what is going on behind-the-scenes. That would really be impressive if it was intentional on Mordini’s part.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Dead Reckoning, Co-Starring Scott Adkins & James Remar

Nantucket holds great cultural significance. The entire island is a designated a National Landmark District and it appears in classics like Melville’s Moby-Dick and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Strategically, it is not so important, but it is the summer home to many rich people, like Tillie Gardner’s father and mother. Tragically, her parents were murdered by a terrorist angered by her dad’s work as FBI spokesman. Now his killer is coming for her in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Dead Reckoning, which releases Tuesday on DVD.

Technically, Agent Cantrell did not want to kill Marco’s father, because he wanted to interrogate the terrorist about his big plans, but the bust got violent, so he did what he had to do. Gardner’s dad spinned the incident as best he could on TV, angering the terrorist’s son Marco well past reason. He sabotaged the Gardners’ plane and intends to execute the rest of the family and then place a bomb on the beach to massacre Nantucket’s rich and idle revelers on the 4
th of July.

However, he will take a short timeout to reconnect with his younger brother Niko, who happens to be on the island working a summer job to make money for college. Rather awkwardly, Niko also happens to be Gardner’s new boyfriend. He seems a lot more substantial than her shallow party-preppy crowd and they are both orphans. At least Gardner still has her protective aunt Jennifer Crane and her partner, as well as her godfather, Agent Cantrell. Niko just has Marco, but probably not for long.

Any film co-starring both Scott Adkins and James Remar ought to beyond awesome, but sadly, Bartkowiak did not come close to fully exploiting their potential. Nevertheless, there is no question their brutal fight scene is the film’s far-and-away best scene. Seeing Adkins flexing his villainous muscles again reminds us how good he is as dark, brooding bad guys. Likewise, Remar is gritty and appealingly gristly as Agent Cantrell.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Miss Scarlet & the Duke, on PBS

There is a Remington Steele-like situation going on at the Henry Scarlet Detective Agency, but Scarlet was certainly a very real person. He taught his daughter Eliza everything she knows about detective work, but now he is dead and she must provide for herself. It is definitely not considered an appropriate job for a lady in Victorian London, but fortunately she can rely on the reluctant help of her father’s protégé, William “The Duke” Wellington in Rachael New’s six-episode Miss Scarlet & the Duke, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

Respectable women of the era are expected to earn their keep by marrying and having children, but that is not Miss Scarlet’s style. Even a marriage of convenience with her closeted friend Rupert Parker would constrain her freedom too much. She is convinced she can continue her father’s agency, but she must convince prospective clients her father will be the one performing the investigations (sometimes it was convenient living in pre-internet times). She also hopes Wellington (nicknamed “The Duke,” because of reputation for sartorial style, despite his humble origins) will throw her some work, but he is more determined to protect her from herself. The sparks will fly.

There is a lot of character-establishing in the first episode, “Inheritance,” but eventually Scarlet manages to land and solve a case. Unfortunately, the results will be more complicated than she anticipated. The tone and constant arguments are very similar in “The Woman in Red,” but it is a more fully developed mystery that also incorporates the Oscar Wilde-like dilemmas of Parker and his friends.

In “Deeds Not Words,” Wellington tosses Scarlet some undercover work she is uniquely suited for, but it causes her great moral conflict when she finds herself infiltrating a suffrage society.
 This episode really stands out most for how New explores the line between well-intentioned political commitment and violent extremism in a way that feels awkwardly timely.

Arguably, the last three episodes are significantly better than the first three. “Momento Mori” probably features the most entertaining mystery of the series, involving a death photographer, a phony medium, and threatening messages sent from beyond the grave. The final scenes also segues into a more complicated intrigue that require the final two episodes to resolve. Much to Wellington’s annoyance (and concern), Scarlet is reported missing, perhaps as a result of her investigation into her father’s real cause of death.

Scarlet is no Mrs. Bradley and Wellington is no Sergeant Cribb, but their series is serviceable enough. Still, the Tracy-and-Hepburn will-they-or-won’t-they bickering and bantering chemistry worked a lot better in moldy old
Remington Steele. Frankly, their constant arguments really do not make much sense for two reasons: Scarlet is obviously not an idiot, but as a contractor, she has a duty to protect her client’s reputation at all costs.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie, on PBS


Presumably, the West End theater shutdown forced by CCP-Covid should not interrupt the record of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for most consecutive performances. If it does, it will take a new play over sixty-nine years to catch-up with her. Thirty-five years after her death (almost to the day), Dame Agatha’s mystery novels and plays remain undiminished in their popularity. Christie scholars and admirers explore the inspirations for her work and her lasting cultural legacy in Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie, directed and produced by Matt Cottingham, which premieres this Sunday on most PBS stations.

Although her name is synonymous with “cozy” mysteries, all of Cottingham’s talking heads dispute that label for Christie. To the contrary, they argue she had a decidedly dark view of human nature. Due to her interest in forensic science, her murders were also unusually realistic. Plus,
And Then There Were None is often credited as the first “slasher” thriller, so there.

Of course,
Inside cannot trace the development of Christie’s work, without giving ample time to her notorious disappearance. It is almost of cliché, since the incident has already inspired two highly fictionalized films, Agatha and the Truth of Murder and Agatha, directed by the recently deceased Michael Apted. Fans generally know Christie was desperately miserable with her first husband, Archibald Christie, during this period. However, Inside gives equal or greater time to the wedded bliss she subsequently found with husband #2, Max Mallowan. He happened to be an archaeologist, which does indeed explain her frequent Egyptian and Mesopotamian settings.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Film Maudit 2.0: A Dark, Dark Man

Sacha Baron Cohen really ought to show some respect, but that is obviously too much to expect. The truth is Kazakhstan has produced some remarkably challenging and intriguing films in recent years (they are films, not “moviefilms”) that deserve much more international recognition. Yet, they are often more pointedly critical of contemporary Kazakhstani society and politics than Borat ever was. Indeed, the sexism and corruption of provincial police and officials are blisteringly depicted in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s A Dark, Dark Man, which screens as part of the online Film Maudit 2.0 festival.

By this time, Bezkat knows the drill. When another orphan boy is discovered, murdered and sexually violated, he immediately sets out to frame Pekuar, the village’s developmentally disabled pariah. That is not good enough for the local political boss, who bribes Bezkat’s superior to insure Pekuar “accidentally” dies within 24 hours. Bezkat is just about to proceed with the grim business, when Ariana arrives. The big city journalist has credentials allowing her access to Pekuar and Bezkat during his investigation.

Much to his annoyance, Bezkat must go through the motions of conducting a real investigation, with the journalist, the accused, and his not-quite-as-childlike “girlfriend” in tow. Obviously, it gets super-awkward for the crooked cop, when he crosses paths with the boss and his henchmen, especially as he gradually grows to respect Ariana’s honesty and idealism.

Dark Dark
is definitely a slow-burner, with the slowness being no exaggeration, but the white-hot burning part is no joke either. This is truly a remarkably tightly controlled and tautly constructed art-house thriller. You might forget to breathe regularly watching this one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Outcry and Whisper, on OVID.tv

Regardless whether your taste in initials leans more toward MAGA or BLM, you won’t find a confrontational protester in America with as much sheer fortitude as the performance artist seen during the opening scene of this film. To make a statement on Mainland China’s social and economic constraints on women, she proceeds to make a series of horizontal and vertical cuts straight across her face. It is hard to watch and impossible to forget. While that is far and away the most visceral image, several other marginalized and oppressed Chinese women dramatically speak out and fight for their rights in Wen Hai & Zeng Jinyan’s Outcry and Whisper, which premieres this Friday on OVID.tv.

Zeng is not just the co-director. She is also a subject of
Outcry. For years, she lived under house arrest with her former partner, human rights activist, Hu Jia. She even documented their home imprisonment in the short doc, Prisoners in Freedom City (an excerpt from which is seen during Outcry). After ten months of Covid-CCP-virus shutdowns, house arrest might not sound so exotic now, but we still do not have to contend with the constant police surveillance and harassment Zeng and Hu faced. The stress took a toll on their relationship and lately, she has also had to put up with an orchestrated trolling campaign, but Zeng still tries to be philosophical about their experiences in her video meditations.

At least Zeng is educated and has an international reputation. The migrant garment workers who strike for their back pay and unemployment compensation have no such advantages. They just believe in the justice of their cause. Such idealism is inspiring, but it is also alarmingly naïve. Indeed, the extent to which
Outcry captures the CCP socialist government catering to the interests of oligarchs makes the doc a genuinely incendiary expose. Thematically, these passages are much like Wen and Zeng’s previous collaboration, We the Workers, which gives a male-centric perspective on Mainland labor struggles. However, Outcry provides a fuller, more personal sense of the striking women’s lives and personalities. They are real individuals, facing real exploitation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Trickster, on the CW

In the Southwest, the mythological trickster figure is usually a coyote or the flute-playing Kokopelli. Up in the Pacific Northwest, the trickster is a raven spirit. Not coincidentally, Jared Martin will be seeing a lot of those foreboding birds (amongst other visions). In fact, he might even be related to one, as the confused hero of Eden Robinson’s teen novel, Son of a Trickster, which gets the small-screen treatment in Michelle Latimer & Tony Elliott’s six-episode Canadian series [just plain] Trickster, beginning tonight on the CW (following its premiere at last year’s TIFF and subsequent run on the CBC).

Martin is a smart Haisla teen in Kitimat, BC, but he spends more time hustling for money at a legit fast-food job and selling his home-brewed pills. Even though he is still in high school, Martin is the primary support of his divorced parents: hard-partying mom Maggie and hard-luck dad Phil. Rather inconveniently, his mom owes three grand to her sleazy dealer and Martin just got cold-cocked for his stash and his cash. He only saw his attacker out of the corner of his eye, but it could have been his doppelganger.

Whoever it was, it also looks a lot like Wade, a former friend of his father, who has just blown back into town. There is something different about Wade—really different. He also claims to be Martin’s real father, which is hard to dismiss, given their resemblance. Martin is unsure how he feels about him, but his mother is decidedly upset. Her history with Wade is not just complicated. It is also violent and supernatural.

Trickster’s
teen roots are easy to see, but the way it incorporates indigenous tradition and lore is both respectful and intriguing. There is a good deal of spell-casting and a fair amount of shape-shifting in Trickster, but the series always feels grounded in the difficult realities of high school life and the economically depressed Kitimat community.

As Martin, Joel Oulette broods hard, which makes him a convincing teenager. However, he is also terrific playing with and off Crystle Lightning, Kalani Queypo, and Craig Lauzon, as his mom, Wade, and his presumed father, respectively. All three of these relationships are smartly and compellingly developed. Lightning is a particular standout, taking absolutely no prisoners as the self-destructive and somewhat spooky Mother Maggie. The contrast between her mercurial mood swings and Queypo’s coolly calculating and ambiguously sinister Wade is quite effective.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Skyfire: A Chinese Disaster Movie from Simon West

If you are still disappointed you didn’t have a chance to invest in Jurassic Park with Sir Richard Attenborough, then maybe you can still get a piece of Jack Harris’s new resort hotel built around an active volcano. You better act fast, because this opportunity will not last long. Inevitably, hubris leads to spectacular tragedy in Simon West’s Chinese-produced Skyfire, which releases tomorrow on-demand.

When this island volcano last erupted, it was sudden and powerful. Young Li Xiao Meng barely survived, but her mother Sue Miller was consumed by the blast. Her scientist father Li Wen Tao was close enough to see it happen, but too far to save her. Twenty years later, Li has grown up to be a world class seismologist and the leader of Harris’s science advisory team. Of course, the highly leveraged developer refuses to listen to her when she warns him about the unusual readings her colleagues have detected.

Not one for alarmism, Harris sends his wife and business partner Wang Qian Wei to the volcano rim with a group of potential investors, because what could go wrong? Meanwhile, Li’s colleague Zhang Nan plans to propose to his girlfriend Dong Jia Hui, during a romantic getaway to her favorite underground swimming grotto. That sounds safe, right? Of course, everybody is in danger according to Li Wen Tao, who has seen enough to come drag his daughter off the island, whether she wants to leave or not. And then boom.

Considering the CCP’s concerted ongoing trade and soft-power campaign against Australia, it rather figures the Liverpool-born Jason Isaacs sports an over-the-top Aussie accent playing the Australian Harris. However, West deserves a lot of credit for largely curtailing the propaganda in
Skyfire. In fact, you could argue Harris isn’t even a villain, but a tragically flawed hero, given his spectacular redemption scene.

West’s experience helming big Hollywood action movies (including
Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and The Expendables 2) is further reflected in the brisk tempo and some totally professional looking special effects sequences. Skyfire is not the first big budget Chinese disaster movie (that would probably the massively flawed Aftershock), but it is the most watchable so far. Still, every time the ground shakes, we expect the characters to look up from their cable cars to see brontosauruses striding by. Similarly, during the opening and closing credits, our mind’s ear keeps hearing Adele warbling “Skyfire!”

Despite Harris being the requisite Western caricature, Isaacs manages to humanize him to a surprising extent, in some key scenes. Likewise, Leslie Ma has some nice moments of grief and regret as the flawed Wang. Li Wen Tao is also a total stock character, but it is still entertaining to watch Wang Xueqi’s curt and crusty portrayal of the salty old scientist.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Lupin III: The First

Ahnenerbe was a National Socialist think tank that dissolved ignominiously in 1945, but it has had a weirdly lasting influence on pseudoscientific paranormal archaeology. Many of those prehistoric alien “reality” TV shows would have been right up their alley. However, the secret underground surviving members of Ahnenerbe finally meet their match in a roguish master thief, the grandson of the notorious Arsene Lupin. After building an international fanbase in a long-running manga series, five editions of an anime TV series, numerous specials, and six previous anime theatrical features (including Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s feature directorial debut), the endearing cat burglar gets the full 3DCG animated treatment in Takashi Yamazaki’s Lupin III: The First, which releases Tuesday on DVD.

Everyone is after the “Bresson Diary,” when it is displayed as part of an exhibition of the late French archaeologist’s work, but it is the sticky-fingered Lupin who snags it. However, he agrees to team up with Laetitia, an earnest young archaeology student, who had been manipulated by Dr. Lambert, her evil adopted grandfather, into nearly stealing the diary herself, in order to learn its secrets.

She and Lupin quickly figure out the diary reveals the hidden location of the “Eclipse,” an ancient invention of vast power. Of course, Lambert’s employers at Ahnenerbe would use it to re-establish the Reich. To foil their scheme, Lupin enlists the help of his regular cronies, Daisuke Jigen and Goemon Ishikawa XIII (the direct descendant of the celebrated “Robin Hood” samurai), as well as his friendly rival Fujiko Mine and his incorruptible nemesis, Inspector Zenigata (having transferred from the Tokyo Police to Interpol).

III: The First
(which it isn’t, but whatever), has a lot of rollicking period action that is a lot of fun. You can see the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark all over the film. Yet, beyond the impressive 3DCG animation, stuff like story, character development, and English voice performances are basically on the level of a really good Naruto feature film. It is entertaining, but it does not feel as “special” as most of the anime films GKIDS distributes (like Miss Hokusai, Napping Princess, Nightis Short Walk on Girl, Ride Your Wave, etc.).

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Climate of the Hunter

Imagine My Dinner with Andre, if Andre Gregory were a vampire—maybe. The truth is you really can’t appreciate the singularly distinctive tone and atmosphere of this Edward Albee-esque horror (presumably) film, unless you just dive right in. As a bonus, you can pick up the dinner-party menu ideas along the way in Mickey Reece’s wonderfully strange Climate of the Hunter, which releases this coming Tuesday on VOD.

Middle-aged sisters Alma (the self-medicating Earth Mother) and Elizabeth (the unmarried and uptight corporate professional) are delighted Wesley, their friend from childhood has returned to the country and is summering at his nearby lake cottage. He might be a bit older than they, but he still cuts quite the dashing figure in their eyes. During dinner, it is clear they are both super-interested and he subtly stokes their rivalry.

Initially, most of our suspicions regarding Wesley’s potentially undead nature come from his subsequent testy reunion with his son Percy, who bitterly resents his father’s decision to entrust his dementia-suffering mother to a nursing home. Nobody says it outright, but it is clearly implied Wesley is not like other men. Reece and co-screenwriter John Selvidge never have them fully declare one way or another, but their dialog never sounds evasive in this respect. Excessive of coyness can easily get annoying in less exactingly executed films, but the uncertainty in
Climate becomes a source of entertainment.

Nevertheless, there is no denying a lot of the things coming out of the characters’ mouths are absolutely bonkers. Honest to gosh,
Climate must have some of the most verbose and grandiose speeches you will ever hear in a horror movie (presumably), but that is only the half of it. The carefully crafted grindhouse look (rendered in a deliberately boxy and confined aspect ratio) and the meticulous, ultra-1970s period details set this apart from just about every other vampire (presumably) film you have ever seen.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Bag Man & Elliot

High school is the ultimate horror mainstay. From Carrie to Scream, there have probably been more horror movies and TV series set within the halls of secondary education than drafty Euro castles. The tradition continues with the two-for season premiere of Vera Miao’s Two Sentence Horror Stories, airing this coming Tuesday on the CW.

“Bag Man,” directed by Kimani Ray Smith and written by Leon Hendrix and Miao is definitely the better of the two stories, in part because it obviously starts as a genre homage to the
Breakfast Club. Five students of varying social status must spend Saturday morning in detention, but there is a very contemporary wrinkle. All are suspects in a cherry bomb incident that triggered the school’s new automated lock-down system. When they arrive, there is already a mysterious bag in the room that just radiates bad vibes.

Admittedly, the narrative follows a familiar horror arc, but the execution is brisk and energetic. Hendrix and Miao come up with enough new, ironic wrinkles to keep it interesting for experienced genre viewers and the cast hits the right notes, especially Doralynn Mui as Zee, the catty “good girl.” Having recurred on
Riverdale and guested on Sabrina, this must be pretty comfortable terrain for her.) Regardless, even though we know where it is all headed, it is still a macabrely amusing ride.

The titular bullied transmasculine teen of “Elliot,” written by Stephanie Adams-Santos and directed by Chase Joynt (who also helmed the upcoming Billy Tipton doc) could relate to movies like
Carrie, Sleepaway Camp, and more recently Some Kind of Hate, but at times this episode risks becoming an afterschool special. The lesson is laid on rather heavily, but there are still some creepy moments, especially down the stretch.

A Discovery of Witches, Season 2


You remember from Ghostbusters how bad it is when cats and dogs are living together? It is even worse for vampires and witches. Nevertheless, vampire Matthew de Clairmont and Diana Bishop, an American witch, have fallen in love, but it is a romance forbidden by the terms of the uneasy truce governing vampires, witches, and demons, the weird kind. Yet, fate and a missing book of alchemy seemed to have conspired to bring them together. However, to stay together and escape their enemies, the two lovers had to jaunt back in time at the conclusion of season one. Getting back will take some doing in season two of A Discovery of Witches, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder and Sundance Now.

It is a bit awkward to hide out in during an era of literal witch hunts for a witch like Bishop. It just so happens, her beloved de Clairmont was one of the most ruthless witch-hunters. He was also a faithful French Catholic, but he loyally served Queen Elizabeth, doggedly persecuting his co-religionists. Such is vampire politics.

At least she is impressed to learn he is also known as the poet Matthew Roydon during this era. One of his great friends is Christopher Marlowe, a demon with a serious case of bro-jealousy. Understandably, it is a bit tricky for de Clairmont to remember what he exactly was doing four hundred years ago, but he will fake it as best he can, while Bishop seeks out the training to spellcast their way back to their proper time. After years of being “spellbound,” her powers have only just resurfaced, so she does not yet understand their full extent or how to properly control them.

This review is only based on the first four episodes of season two (out of seven), because time is limited for us mortals. Still, we feel safe in saying the general quality is consistent with the first season. Particularly notable are the depictions of historical figures, which are much more fully developed than mere gimmicks. Barbara Marten is a kick chewing the scenery as the Machiavellian Queen Elizabeth and Tom Hughes does some of the best work we have ever seen from him as the temperamental Marlowe. However, it seems rather a shame to have the great Lindsay Duncan sidelined for so long, as de Clairmont’s regal mother, Ysabeau.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

The New All Creatures Great and Small

James Alfred Wight sold millions of books and was recognized with a CBE on the queen’s honors list, but his prospects seemed rather modest in 1937. You might recognize him by his pen-name: James Herriot. In the midst of the depression, it was difficult for a newly qualified veterinarian like Herriot (as he is known in his somewhat fictionalized memoirs and the previous dramatizations), but fortunately, his prospective new boss is dashed difficult to work for, so he still has an opening. Fans already know Herriot’s bedside and stable-side manner wins over the mercurial Siegfried Farnon and the Yorkshire community they serve in the newest seven-episode All Creatures Great and Small, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

Herriot’s parents made great sacrifices so he could graduate from the University of Glasgow’s veterinary program, but jobs are scarce in the 1930s. If he doesn’t land the position in rural Darrowby, he will have to join his father working on the docks. Frankly, Farnon does not want to hire an assistant, but his motherly housekeeper, Mrs. Hall insists he needs help. Poor Herriot does not exactly get a warm welcome, but he slowly wins over the widowed older vet with his diligence. Fortunately, he compares rather favorably with Farnon’s slacker younger brother Tristan, who has just failed his veterinary finals, yet again.

Nevertheless, the well-meaning Herriot has plenty of awkward moments during his early days. Frankly, we didn’t remember from the previous serious the life of a country vet entailed so many moral crises (and somehow, we missed the 1975 movie starring Anthony Hopkins altogether). Comparisons between the series are inevitable especially since Nicholas Ralph and Samuel West look so much like their previous counterparts, as Herriot and the elder Farnon, but that sort of stands to reason. However, Anna Madeley is definitely a younger and softer Mrs. Hall. She also becomes a much greater emotional center for the series.

This
All Creatures also co-stars the late, great Diana Rigg, as the fabulously wealthy Mrs. Pumphrey, whose beloved pug Tricki-Woo must board at the practice for a week to protect him from her pampering. It is always good to see her. Probably the next most notable guest star would be Nigel Havers (of Chariot’s of Fire), appearing as the chairman of the local racetrack.

Of course, the real stars of the series are the beloved characters and the endearing animals they treat. Ralph sometimes portrays Herriot as such a naïf, he can be uncomfortable to watch, but he still wins viewers over with his warmth and earnestness. West clearly relishes Siegfried Farnon’s sharp tongue and high-handed demeanor. He definitely supplies most of
All Creature’s humor, in a House MD kind of way, but Callum Wodehouse gets the biggest laughs of the series as Tristan, saying the things we’d like to in the finale. In fact, he does a terrific job portraying the prodigal Farnon brother’s maturation. Yet, it is Anna Madeley who pulls the heartstrings—in the right way—as good God-fearing Mrs. Hall.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Submitted by Latvia: Blizzard of Souls

Only war can make a twenty-year-old this emotionally deadened and world-weary. That is what happens to Arturs Vanags. During a four year-period, he technically switches sides several times, first fighting against the Germans for the Russians, then against the Soviets, and finally against both. Yet, he always fights for Latvia. Viewers will see WWI turn into the Latvian War for Independence through the eyes of a young recruit in Dzintars Dreibergs’ Blizzard of Souls, Latvia’s official International Oscar submission and its all-time domestically-produced box office champ, which opens virtually this Friday.

After Germans casually kill his mother, Vanags and his father reluctantly flee their farm to Riga, where they enlist in the Latvian army. Technically, Vanags is too young, but his father gives his permission. Technically, the stern veteran is too old, but his sterling war record makes him valuable as a sergeant major (or the rough equivalent). Much to Vanags’s surprise, his father is probably harder on him than the other recruits, but veterans will well understand why.

During the first act,
Blizzard follows the traditional arc of WWI movies, with the green enlisted men dealing with the horrible routine of trench warfare. However, the war will take a series of unusual turns for Vanags and his colleagues, because of the fateful position of the Baltics. Although they initially march to war wearing Latvian uniforms, they are clearly considered subservient to the Russian army (they aren’t even allowed to sing their national anthem). After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks first talk peace, but then start waging war again. Most of the Latvian Riflemen Corps are absorbed into the Latvian SSR, which again functions as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Soviets. Inevitably, the call for genuine independence and the Soviets’ brutal purges drove experienced soldiers like Vanags into the Independence Brigades.

Screenwriter Boris Frumin makes all this complex military history quite clear, while maintaining the focus on Vanags’ grunt-level survival story. Oto Brantevics could not possibly look more milquetoast is his early scenes as young Vanags, but he undergoes a harrowing transformation, even more dramatic than George MacKay’s in
1917. MacKay provides far and away the most memorable performance in Mendes’ Oscar nominee, but Martins Vilsons is just as strong, or even stronger as crusty Old Man Vanags. It is a quiet but colorful and ultimately deeply humanistic portrayal.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Love and Monsters, on DVD

It turns out classic Toho monster movies did not go far enough. It wasn’t just some stray turtle getting radiated into a mutant monster. It happens to every cold-blooded creature. The worst of it for luckless loser Joel Dawson is that it happens just as he was getting somewhere with his pretty girlfriend. Giant mutants now rule the surface of the Earth, but he is still determined to find her in Michael Matthews’ Love and Monsters, which releases today on DVD.

Much to Dawson’s regret, he was separated from his girlfriend Aimee in the confusion of the apocalypse and both lost their parents during the ensuing carnage. After seven long years underground, Dawson (like the Creek) has finally made radio contact with her in a shelter 85 miles away. He cares about all his shelter-mates, but since he is the only one not paired romantically, he figures it is worth risking the perilous journey to reunite with her. However, he is considered the Don Knotts of his shelter, so nobody gives him much chance.

Fortunately, he soon encounters Clyde Dutton, a crusty old survivalist played by
Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker, so you know he must have a knack for staying alive. Dutton has been caring for a young girl named Minnow (not unlike Newt in Aliens), who does not think much of Dawson’s chances, but she is rather taken with Boy, the stray dog that started following him.

If you are guessing Boy (played by Hero and Dodge) steals the show than you would be correct. Together they give quite an endearing canine performance. The monster design also hits the right tone. There is plenty of gross slithering and secreting business, but they never look too realistic or too fake.

Frankly, Dylan O’Brien’s constant neurotic narration eventually gets exhausting (seriously, sometimes he needs to just shut-up and concentrate on his surroundings). Still, he plays well opposite crusty Rooker, snarky little Ariana Greenblatt (as Minnow), and Jessica Henwick, who shows some impressive action cred as Aimee. Of course, Hero and Dodge (the stunt dog) totally upstage him, but what could he expect.

Monday, January 04, 2021

My Rembrandt

It is sort of like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, with Really, Really Good Taste. There are not a lot of Rembrandt paintings in private hands, because they are rarely brought to market. It is harder still to “discover” a previously unattributed Rembrandt, but maybe not impossible. Viewers meet several private owners and prospective buyers in Oeke Hoogendijk’s My Rembrandt, which releases this Wednesday via Film Forum’s virtual cinema.

In Scotland, the 10
th Duke of Buccleuch owns a Rembrandt that is truly magnificent. He would never want to sell Old Woman Reading, and given his family’s extensive land holdings, they probably will never need to. On the other hand, thanks to France’s high rate of taxation, Baron Eric de Rothschild agrees to sell his twin portraits, Marten and Oopjen, igniting a politically fraught contest between the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre.

Meanwhile, Jan Six XI, whose father Jan Six X still proudly owns Rembrandt’s portrait of the original Jan Six, believes he has discovered a previously unattributed Rembrandt, which he purchased in Christie’s auction for a mere 100K Euros and change. Eijk and Rose-Marie de Mol Van Otterloo are seriously considering purchasing it, but questions about Six’s business dealings will cloud the sale. So far, philanthropist Thomas S. Kaplan has not had such problems acquiring his fifteen Rembrandt, each of which he maintains in public exhibition.

My Rembrandt
starts out as a meditative film about what his paintings mean to the blessed few fortunate to own one, but it suddenly takes on unexpected intrigue when Six’s ex-partner starts making allegations in the media. There is also a great deal of bureaucratic infighting, when the French Minister of Culture bullies the Louvre into contesting the Rijksmuseum’s plan to acquire both Marten and Oopjen, free and clear. Hoogendijk’s last documentary was The New Rijksmuseum, an epic four-chronicle of the museum’s restoration, so it is not surprising her sympathies lie in Amsterdam. Frankly, it is hard to root for the French, when they seem more interested in political CYA-ing than the great art they suddenly decide must stay in France.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Contenders ‘20/’21: The Midnight Sky

Please Don't Come Back from the Moon” was a typically complex composition Charles Mingus recorded during his notorious 1962 Town Hall Concert. It also basically sums up the message Dr. Augustine Lofthouse has for the crew of the Æther. Technically, they are returning from one of Jupiter’s moons, but the upshot is the same. A mysterious cataclysm has destroyed the Earth, so they are better off where they were. Getting that message out will take some doing in George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, which screens for MoMA members as part of the current edition of Contenders, or the “Big Netflix Catch-Up,” as it could be called in January.

Nobody really describes what happened, but it was clearly bad. Lofthouse’s arctic research station is evacuating, but he decides to stay, because he has nobody to get back to. He once had someone, as we see in flashbacks, but he pushed her away with his single-minded dedication to his work. He never even bothered to meet the daughter his ex-lover raised on her own. However, he suddenly finds himself exercising his unused parental muscles, when he finds a mute little girl named Iris has been left behind. Perhaps that was a blessing for her, because the arctic region will be the last to be consumed by the Wrath of God, or whatever it is (seriously, why would scientists be interested in such details?).

Lofthouse quickly determines the only space exploration mission still operational is the Æther, which was scouting the moons of Jupiter for habitable environments. He hopes to warn it away from Earth, once it enters the range of communications, but he will need an antenna with more range.

In many ways,
Midnight Sky is a decent example of the earnest, character-driven side of science fiction, but Clooney way over-cooks the emotional symbolism of his scenes portraying Lofthouse, the anti-social greybeard (literally). Iris’s function in the narrative is so blatantly manipulative, we are instantly suspicious of her secret. Not to be spoilery, but she is just so obvious.

Frankly, the film is much better when it focuses on the crew of the Æther. Of course, it makes no sense that Dr. “Sully” Sullivan would proceed with the mission while she was pregnant, but Clooney wanted his first casting choice, Felicity Jones, so he had pregnancy written into to the story. It doesn’t make real-world sense, but it heightens “Noah’s Ark” significance of the Æther crew.

As Sullivan and Commander Adewole, Jones and David Oyelowo have good Kirk-and-Spock or Picard-and-Riker rapport. Demian Bichir and Kyle Chandler also add tremendous human dimension to the crew as Sanchez, the temperamental engineering officer, and Mitchell, the family-oriented American astronaut.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Churchill and the Movie Mogul

In the 1930s, the motion picture industry was reluctant to criticize Hitler, fearing their films would suffer in the German market. So how did that investment payoff for them in the 1940s? Today, Hollywood cravenly self-censors to curry favor with the Chinese Communist Party. Does anyone think it will work out better this time? Back in 1934, there was one filmmaker who fully recognized the threat of National Socialism. He found a friend and ally in an eloquent but marginalized Conservative back-bencher. Together, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Alexander Korda helped steel the British fighting spirit at a crucial time. Their efforts are chronicled in John Fleet’s BBC-produced Churchill and the Movie Mogul, which airs Monday night on TCM.

The mid 1930s were known as Churchill’s wilderness years. The Chamberlain government actively encouraged the press to censor Churchill, to stifle his “war-mongering” criticism. (Again, does any of this sound familiar, Twitter?) However, Alexander Korda, the Jewish-born Hungarian immigrant, was equally alarmed by the threat of Hitler’s national socialism. Finding a kindred spirit, Korda hired Churchill as a sort of idea-man at-large.

Churchill did not write any full screenplays for Korda and his conceptual treatments were considered too grandiose to produce. However, biographers and historians see Churchill’s fingerprints on a number of the patriotic films Korda produced during this time, particularly
The Four Feathers, The Lion has Wings and his classic Hollywood production, That Hamilton Woman.

Fleet and his ensemble of experts do a nice job explaining the similarities shared by the seeming odd couple. They even smoked the same brand of cigar. Although considered “propaganda” by many critics, most of the films addressed in the documentary still hold up today. Likewise, both men’s hawkishness has been vindicated by history, which is what makes Fleet’s film so uncomfortably timely.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Insomnia: Russian Fun & Games


This is Moscow, where everything goes. No matter how wild the game might be, there is always a big enough palm to grease. Logically, this is where an annual real-life gladiatorial betting extravaganza takes place. Some of the players sort of suspected what they were in for, whereas others did not. Either way, they must kill all their rivals to be the final winner in Slava N. Jakovleff & Ilya Kulikov’s eight-episode Insomnia, which starts streaming today on Crackle.

Contestants in the Insomnia game get a car, a gun, one bullet, and shot of a drug that will make their hearts stop if they fall asleep. That last part was a nasty surprise to everyone, but some were expecting the kill-or-be-killed rules. The frontrunners are the Russian hitman, the American Special Ops vet with the heavy Russian accent, the ex-cop tarnished by controversial shooting, and a massively creepy sexual predator. The dark horses include a sixteen-year-old girl who is so dull and expressionless, she must harbor some kind of strange secret. The wild card has to be Ken, a former Insomnia employee thrust into the game. Weirdly, he is not so shocked to be there (but none too thrilled either).

It all unfolds as the fat-cat VIPs watch from a luxury hospitality suite. This year, Marina Croft will also be there. She is taking the place of her late mogul husband, who just died in a suspicious plane crash. As she watches Insomnia unfold with a mixture of horror and fascination, she starts to suspect her husband’s death might be related to the blind bet he placed on Lea, the boring girl.

Basically,
Insomnia is like a cross between Crank and any one of the dozens of involuntary online bloodsport thrillers, like Guns Akimbo or the dreadful 31. In this case, Jakovleff and Kulikov mix in a bit of Lost, by revealing hidden player connections through flashbacks, which helps a lot. It is a bit embarrassing to confess, but Insomnia is addictive, much like the reprehensibly voyeuristic game it depicts.

Pasha D. Lychnikoff is a major reason why the series is s watchable as it is. Playing Russian thugs is his specialty, so the kind of smirking, snarling, and scenery chewing
Insomnia needed is right in his wheelhouse. Basically, he is the pro-wrestler of the series, yelling into the camera, “I’m coming for you,” while keeping his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Elizabeth is Missing, on PBS

As murder mysteries go, this one is relatively small in scale, but you still wouldn’t call it a cozy. There are really two mysteries in need of solving that occurred decades apart, but they will get entwined in the increasingly confused mind of the aging protagonist in Elizabeth is Missing, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

Maud Horsham greatly relies on post-it notes to keep to her daily schedule, but she still functions relatively well on her own at the start of this adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel. However, the discovery of an old lady’s compact buried in her friend Elizabeth Markham’s garden appears to strike a chord with Horsham. When she returns to visit the next day, she finds her friend mysteriously absent, but her eye glasses are plainly visible on the kitchen table. Horsham comes back several days in a row, but there is never any sign of Markham.

The experience brings back painful (and possibly suppressed) memories from Horsham’s childhood, when her glamorous older sister Susan “Sukey” Jefford also disappeared under mysterious circumstances. At the time, suspicion fell on their nebbish boarder, but the ravings of a mad homeless women keep echoing in Horsham’s head. Although she is start to drift more frequently into the past, Horsham is still determined to find Markham, to help redeem herself for failing her sister.

Missing
is a quiet but profoundly sad film, thematically much like Anthony Hopkins’ upcoming Oscar contender, The Father, but it leans into the potential criminal aspects of both disappearances much more, while suggesting ironic parallels with the cruel psychological mysteries of Alzheimer’s. Unlike most amateur sleuths, Horsham has the further challenge of assembling clues from her disordered brain, before she can follow leads in the real world.

Director Aisling Walsh handles the two levels of the TV film’s mystery quite dexterously and sensitively. It is often frustrating watching the story unfold from Horsham’s perspective, because we are so acutely conscious of the blind-spots that plague her. As one of those “unreliable narrator” novels, adapting
Elizabeth is Missing is a tricky proposition, but screenwriter Andrea Gibb pulls it off quite notably.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Lanthimos’s Nimic, on MUBI

If you have to be stalked by a doppelganger, they should at least make an effort to look like you, right? Not necessarily in Yorgos Lanthimos’s world. As a result, he might just be the perfect filmmaker to represent late election-year 2020, when someone might be conspicuously out of place, but people perversely refuse to recognize the obvious. A symphony cellist finds himself the victim of such a phenomenon in Lanthimos’s short film Nimic, which is now streaming on MUBI.

The “Father” thought he had a healthy relationship with his wife and three children. Yet, when the strange woman he encounters on the subway tries to take his place, nobody seems to be able to tell them apart. Yet, they look radically different and her cello player sounds like fingernails on a blackboard.

It turns out Matt Dillon is highly compatible with the idiosyncratic Lanthimos aesthetic. As the Father, he projects an appropriate morose dejection, while still maintaining the extreme deadpan we have come to expect from films like
The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Likewise, the crazy eyes of Daphne Patakia’s mimic are truly unsettling, yet she maintains a similarly stoic demeanor.

Twilight Zone: The Fear

It is an early red state-blue state culture-clash that takes an uncanny turn. State Trooper Robert Franklin is a military veteran state trooper. Charlotte Scott is a neurotic New York fashion editor recovering from a nervous breakdown. If they put aside their differences, they might survive an encounter with the unknown in “The Fear,” the penultimate episode of the original The Twilight Zone series, which airs as part of Syfy’s annual New Year’s Twilight Zone marathon.

Trooper Franklin thinks he is on a fool’s errand and Scott is the fool. The passive-aggressive big-city snob reported seeing lights in sky, so he duly drives out to her cabin to investigate. She is not very welcoming, until some mysterious force starts wreaking havoc on electrical things. Then he finds a gigantic set of fingerprints on his cruiser.

They are about as archetypal as it gets (thanks to Jack and all), but you don’t see a lot of giants in genre film or television. Of course, it sounds crazy, but Serling’s script uses the idea of them in clever ways. Yet, what really makes the episode stand out is the way Franklin and Scott come to an understanding and put aside their kneejerk presumptions about each other.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Shadow in the Cloud, from Roseanne Liang

Maybe you don't remember the part about the monster on the plane’s wing in Randall Jarrell classic poem, “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner,” but surely its implied in there someplace. Regardless, Maude Garrett will have to contend with exactly that, as well as a number of Japanese Zeroes, when she hitches a ride in the deadliest seat in a WWII B-17 Bomber for nearly the duration of Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud, which releases in theaters and on VOD this Friday.

For some reason, Women’s Auxiliary Flight Officer Garrett is determined to hitch on ride with the crew of the “Fool’s Errand” making a supply run to New Zealand. Even more important than her is the top-secret cargo in her dispatch box. The sexist crew stash her in the ball turret and make demeaning sexual jokes over the open comms, but they stop laughing a little when she bullseyes a Zero that supposedly never would have flown out that far. However, they start dismissing her again when she claims to see a gremlin-like monster sabotaging the engine.

Max Landis and Liang (whose previous short film
Do No Harm was the highlight of the 2017 Sundance) cleverly riff on the jokey WWII lore blaming gremlins for engine failure (they were sort of like the invisible “Not Me” in the old Family Circus comic strip). You could think of it as Richard Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet adapted to a WWII setting, but Liang and Landis fully develop the premise and consistently raise the stakes.

Liang also deftly capitalizes on the confined space of the ball turret to create tension. In many respects,
Shadow is like Steven Knight’s Locke, in which the car-bound Tom Hardy plays off numerous unseen voices over the phone. In this case, the voices and personas of the B-17 crew-members are not as clearly and distinctly established, but that sort of reinforces Garrett’s perspective of alienation from the men above her.

This is very inventive genre filmmaking, so we can forgive the over-the-top, unbelievable excesses of the centerpiece action scene. Of course, it also helps that the gremlin looks cool—and appropriately sinister. Unlike the various
Twilight Zone adaptations of Matheson’s story, Liang doesn’t tease us with the gremlin. She gives us plenty of good looks at the nasty creature, who holds up to scrutiny, thanks to some nifty design and effects work.

Submitted by Brazil: Babenco Tell Me When I Die

Hector Bebenco was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Argentina, but he pursued a career in filmmaking after moving to Brazil. Occasionally, he still lapsed into Sportuguese, but Brazil often embraced him as a representative of their national cinema, with good reason. Nevertheless, Babecno often never really felt like he wholly belonged in either Brazil or Argentina (even though the latter is really just a Spanish-speaking colony of the former, at least as it has been explained to me). Regardless, Brazil has made an unconventional but defensible choice submitting his wife Barbara Paz’s documentary profile of her late husband, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, as their official international feature Oscar contender (they used to call it the “foreign language” category).

Babenco is still best known for his English-language productions,
Ironweed, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and Kiss of the Spider Woman (for which he was nominated for best director), but his final film could well be his most personal. My Hindu Friend thinly fictionalized his own final days before succumbing to cancer and clearly serves as a companion film to Paz’s doc. Its star, Willem Dafoe also served as a producer of her documentary. Although she clearly had sharp editorial differences with her subject, his aesthetic still informs each frame.

In part, Paz’s film serves as an impressionistic survey of Babenco’s filmography, but it also becomes a meditation on the act of dying. Somewhat, ironically, Babenco had a great deal of time to organize his thoughts on mortality, because he was first diagnosed with cancer during the shooting of
At Play, nearly thirty years ago (allowing him to fast-forward past at least three Kubler-Ross stages).