Saturday, June 03, 2023

The Lazarus Project, on TNT

It is sort of like Groundhog Day all over again, but George Addo’s new colleagues are doing it deliberately, at least until they get things right. That is their job at the super-secret agency known as Lazarus. Whenever the civilized world faces an extinction level event, they rewind time back to the last July 1st, so they can fix things. That causes a lot of confusion for Addo when he starts to remember what was rewound in creator-writer Joe Barton’s The Lazarus Project, which premieres tomorrow night on TNT.

At first, Addo was just a modestly hip British app developer on the brink of big-time financial success. He married his girlfriend Sarah Leigh, but as they settled down to live happily ever after, a virulent plague started killing everyone on the planet. Then Addo woke up and it was July 1
st, as if the last six months never happened.

Of course, Addo tries to warn the world of what is coming, but everyone assumes he is crazy—except the mysterious Archie. She tells him where to meet her if he remembers the next time it happens, which indeed it does. It turns out most Lazarus agents need to be dosed with their memory drug before they can recall past time resets. However, Addo is one of the few “mutants” that have developed the talent on their own. His new moody colleague Shiv Reddy is another.

Fortunately, Lazarus developed a sufficient vaccine for Covid-20, or whatever it was. (Anyone who was suspicious about how quickly the last Covid vaccine was developed—here’s your answer.) The bad news is a particularly massive nuclear bomb nicknamed “Big Boy” has been stolen. The worse news is the apparent involvement of Dennis Rebrov, a former Lazarus agent who turned against the agency. He is now determined to see the world burn, which sounds inexplicably nihilistic, but he has his reasons.

In fact, many of the character-establishing flashbacks are among the best scenes in
Lazarus Project. Barton (whose screenwriting credits include Ritual and Encounter) has a knack for character-driven sf. He largely punts when it comes to credible scientific explanations, but so be it. He more than compensates for a lack of Doctor Who-worthy doublespeak with his one-darned-thing-after-another plot twists. Plus, he and the producers deserve credit for an additional, complicating villain they reveal in episode seven. Here’s a hint: they are committing genocide in Xinjiang.

Barton and series directors Marco Kreuzpaintner (episodes one to four), Laura Scrivano (five and six), and Akaash Meeda (seven and eight) keep viewers hooked, while radically shifting our responses to Addo. He is clearly the protagonist, but the demarcation between heroes and villains in
Lazarus Project is a subtle and shifting line.

Friday, June 02, 2023

The Roundup: No Way Out

Forget Fast & Furious and Mission Impossible. The most reliable international action franchise is Don Lee’s “Beast Cop,” Ma Seok-do. He is more rock than The Rock, more diesel than Vin Diesel, and at least ten times the size of Tom Cruise. When his fists connect, people go flying. That happens a lot in Lee Sang-yong’s The Roundup: No Way Out, which opens today in New York.

The criminals of Seoul have nightmares of Ma, but his fellow cops often tease the good-natured giant. Joo Sung-cheol does not get to do that. Ma can tell his colleague is dirty, but he cannot prove it yet. Ma’s team started investigated the negligent murder of a woman who overdosed on “Hiper,” a new designer drug, which led to a Japanese Yakuza-controlled drug ring. The operation is secretly under Joo’s control and it has been skimming pills for extracurricular sales.

Having figured out their books do not balance, the Yakuza has sent Ricky the enforcer to teach Joo and his gang a lesson. It is a really bad time for Ma to start sniffing around, especially when his supply of pills goes missing. However, he profoundly underestimates the humble Ma. Their resulting cat-and-mouse game is a bit
Columbo-like, but physically, it is much rougher.

The great joy of these films is watching Don Lee (a.k.a. Ma Dong-seok) punch, pile-drive, and power-slap his way to the truth. Lee has a big, “happy warrior” screen persona that is even more entertaining than Schwarzenegger in his 1980’s prime. The Ma-Beast Cop films are perfect vehicles for his size and chops.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio

According to reports, Padre Pio (a.k.a. St. Pio of Pietrelcina) exhibited the stigmata, healed the sick, bi-located, and faced multiple investigations from the Vatican that were intended to discredit him. However, none of those things are in this film, because why would they interest Abel Ferrara? Instead, viewers will witness many of the future saint’s long dark nights of the soul. If you thought he was tortured and tormented before, wait till you see him get the Abel Ferrara-treatment in Padre Pio, which opens tomorrow in New York.

WWI has ended and the men of San Giovanni Rotondo are making their triumphant homecoming—but not all of them. This is the first example of how capricious and unfair fate can be to the villagers. After the armistice, the land-owners expect life to return to normal, but socialist rabble-rousers are organizing to defeat the elite’s hand-picked candidate for mayor. Where is Padre Pio in all this? Back at the monastery, wrestling with the Devil and his personal demons.

Is that disconnection Ferrara’s whole point? Is this a statement on the Church’s divorce from average people’s struggle to survive. That is certainly a valid interpretation, but it feels somewhat at odds with the genuine (if somewhat eccentric) Catholic spirituality of his best religiously themed film,
Mary.

Even by Ferrara’s raggedy standards,
Padre Pio is a rather disjointed film. There are moments of brilliant cinema, such as opening scene of the soldiers’ homecoming. You can see Ferrara’s operatic fervor in all the secular passion play sequences. However, whenever Padre Pio rages against the darkness, you half expect Shia Labeouf to start baring his bottom, like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. Evidently, Ferrara was struck by the coincidence Padre Pio started experiencing the stigmata around the time of the San Giovanni Rotondo massacre, but the connection he makes in his mind is not reflected on screen.

Ferrara also picked a heck of a time to stop working with Willem Dafoe. Labeouf makes a poor substitute, even though it was Dafoe who recommended him to Ferrara. There are some nice performances in
Padre Pio, especially Cristina Chiriac, as a recent war widow who refuses to grieve, and Salvatore Ruocco as the veteran, whose advances she spurns, because he works as a foreman for the town’s noble family. However, Labeouf just cannot find the right key or pitch for Padre Pio, which is a big problem, since the film is ostensibly about him.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Chimerica, in The Epoch Times


In recognition of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I review Topic's CHIMERICA at THE EPOCH TIMES. Review up here.

Grey House, on Broadway

There was a time when Broadway was the place for horror. It was a very different Broadway, when the masses could find an afternoon’s entertainment for the change in their pocket. It was also a very different horror, with plays like John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary and Adam Hull Shirk’s The Ape supplying a Scooby-Doo-style “rational” explanation (and a lot of killers in animal costumes). Horror has returned to Broadway, but the sensibilities are more contemporary and the terrors are much more explicit than those of the 1920s. Unfortunately, ticket prices also conform to 2020’s expectations. Frankly, getting snowed-in with a creepy family in the isolated cabin is bad in any genre, but the implications are especially fearful in Levi Holloway’s Grey House, directed by Joe Mantello, which officially opened last night on Broadway.

Technically, their car hit a deer, but it seems like an unseen force is mysteriously guiding Max and Henry to cabin in the woods. It is bitter cold out and Henry’s banged-up leg needs tending, but the modest home still feels sinister. Soon, the couple learns it is the abode of four pre-teen-to-teenaged girls and a silent young boy, who all have a rather strange relationship with Raleigh, their presumptive mother.

It is the 1970s, but all the girls behave like they stepped out of an earlier era. However, Henry quickly takes to the family’s medicine of choice: mysteriously glowing moonshine, each batch of which carries a man’s name. The couple is in big trouble, which they sort of recognize, but they do not realize how bad things are until the girls invite Max to play their sinister (and possibly lethal) games.

The producers of
Grey House can hyphenate its categories all the like, but there is definitely horror in there. There is even a spot of gore, which would be modest by Evil Dead standards, but is quite impressive for a live stage drama. In fact, there are a lot of clever visual effects that might not be prohibitively expensive or complex, but look really impressive from the audience’s perspective. There are things that suddenly shine or appear and disappear that create a potent atmosphere of mystery and dread. Frankly, some of revelations is Grey House are more shocking than they would be in a movie, because as a play, you are seeing it “live.”

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Lynch/Oz

The line "I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” has become an easy shorthand quote to suggest a character’s old assumptions about how the world works have just been turned on their head. It is the sort of thing David Lynch’s protagonists might say. Maybe they did. I honestly don’t remember if that precise line was included in the super-cuts of Wizard of Oz allusions seen throughout Alexandre O. Philippe’s latest cinematically-themed documentary. However, it should be reasonably safe to conclude Lynch has seen the 1939 classic fantasy and it made some kind of impression on the auteur after watching Lynch/Oz, which opens this Friday in New York.

Evidently, film critic Amy Nicolson and genre filmmakers Rodney Ascher, John Waters, Karyn Kusama, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, and David Lowery having been thinking about
Oz as an important source of Lynch’s inspiration for some time, because they each get one section of the film to draw their connections.

Frankly, they all make a very compelling case—so much so that
Lynch/Oz will have most viewers completely convinced after the first part. However, there are five more sections, which largely repeat the same points. After a while, all the Oz-like motifs in Lynch’s oeuvre, such as the red shoes, mysterious curtains, doppelgangers, and the porous boundaries between dreams and reality, become repetitive. We get it. Lynch definitely alludes to Oz in many of his films. Case closed.

Indeed,
Lynch/Oz shares the prime fault of Philippe’s previous documentary, The Taking, in that all his participating commentators share the same opinions and make the same arguments. There are no crazy outliers (as there were in Ascher’s Room 237) or dissenting opinions (as in Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood). It is just the same talking points, repeated five times over. Waters gives it more of a personal spin and Ascher takes a more macro perspective on Oz’s overall influence on American cinema in general, but there are no conflicts in the six analyses Philippe presents.

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Rising, on CW

When it comes to amateur sleuths, Neve Kelly is unusually highly motivated, especially for a Gen Z’er. The murder she is trying to solve is her own. Obviously, she is at a bit of a disadvantage as a ghost, but there are a few people who can see her. Regardless, there is a murderer out there, who does not want to be caught in The Rising, Peter McTighe’s eight-episode British remake of the Belgian series Hotel Beau Sejour, which premieres tonight on the CW.

It is not initially shocking the Kelly did not make home the morning after her final motor-cross race of season. When she wakes up in the lake, she is still not aware of her death. Unfortunately, due to the booze at the party and the trauma of the murder, she has no memory of what was done to her, or by whom. At first, nobody seems to be able to see her, but soon she realizes her hard boozing father can. Of course, he cannot believe his eyes, but with a little effort, she convinces him of her presence. Then she also realizes Alex Wyatt, her boyfriend’s cousin can see her too. Eventually, it will get to the point where it would be easier to just list who can’t see Kelly, but frustratingly for her, her grieving mother Maria Kelly never can.

Weirdly, the issue of who can see Kelly and why gets worked out to an acceptable extent. However, there are a lot of other questions about the mechanics of “death” that are never satisfactorily explained. Kelly still needs to take her motorbike to get across town, but nobody can see her driving it, except her well-lubricated dad. When she smashes up a vase, but it appears just as it was, once the living turn their gaze towards it. Frankly, the way dead Kelly interacts with the physical world makes almost no sense. Instead, it seems deliberately fluid, simply to help advance the storyline. Yet, the persistence of those nagging issues of logic constantly distracts from the drama.

There is a lot in
The Rising that comes perilously close to genuine silliness. Still, the series has its creepy moments, especially when Kelly links her murder to the previous disappearance of woman, whose body was never recovered. Matthew McNulty and Emily Taaffe are also both excellent as Kelly’s divorced parents, who deal with their grief in very different ways. Alex Lanipekun is also a standout (in a good way) as Kelly’s distraught stepfather, Daniel Sands, whose own grief is unfairly ignored and belittled by his overwrought wife.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

FDR, on History Channel

Franklin Delano Roosevelt should be studied for one thing above all: how to serve as commander-in-chief during wartimes. Throughout WWII, Roosevelt maintained a long-term strategic perspective. Today, if over 7,000 American service personnel were killed in a single battle, the press would probably call for the President to be impeached, but that is exactly what happened at Guadalcanal, relatively early in the war. Director Malcolm Venville and producer-chief talking head Doris Kearns Goodwin again use her book Leadership in Turbulent Times as a road-map for the three-part FDR, which starts tomorrow night on History Channel.

As in the previous
Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Venville incorporates dramatic interludes to illustrate episodes from Roosevelt life under discussion. In this case, the casting of Christian McKay (who was terrific playing Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles) is the best of the History Channel hybrid docs, since Graham Sibley played Lincoln. With the help of some makeup, McKay convincingly portrays the young and dashing Roosevelt up through his tragic Yalta decline.

Kearns and her colleagues’ commentary on FDR’s early years is somewhat revealing. It probably is not well known how deliberately FDR patterned his political career on that of his fifth-cousin, Teddy Roosevelt (jumping from the state legislature, to assistant secretary of the Navy, and then to the governorship). In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt was more closely related to TR, since she was his niece. Kearns and company largely admire FDR’s politically astute tight-rope walking, when he served as a prominent surrogate for Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign, against TR. However, they never hold him to account for supporting Wilson, who did more than any other president to institutionalize racial segregation.

Unlike,
Teddy Roosevelt, which includes ample criticism of TR, FDR features nothing but praise for its subject (except for maybe a few minutes on the Japanese-American internment). The lack of diverse perspectives is glaringly obvious during talk of the New Deal. Frankly, many of FDR’s policies prolonged rather than fixed the Great Depression. The timeliness of FDR’s court-packing debacle is also lost on the collected historians.

Yet, in terms of political biases, the worst over all three episodes is the selective editing that makes Wendell Wilkie, the 1940 GOP presidential candidate, look like an isolationist, when he was probably even more of an internationalist than FDR, at that time. Seriously, Goodwin should be embarrassed.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Barons, on CW

They went from being stoner draft-dodgers to running sweatshops in Southeast Asia, allegedly. Presumably, this Australian import series does not get that far. As a highly fictionalized, twentynothing soap opera riff on the early days of the Billabong and Quicksilver surf fashion rivalry, it will encourage most viewers to wear Ocean Pacific instead. Creators Michael Lawrence, John Molloy, and Liz Doran take us back to the birth of board shorts in Barons, which premieres Monday on the CW.

Snapper Webster built his surfing goods line off the proceeds of his mates’ annual surfing expedition to Bali, if you know what I mean. He is tightly controlling of the business, yet perversely averse to risk and change. That frustrates his best mate Bill “Trotter” Dwyer, who is brimming with new ideas.

Inevitably, he sets out on his own, with the help of his newlywed wife Tracy, who is awkwardly Webster’s ex. To compile the insults, they launch their company with seed money Tracy borrowed from Webster, ostensibly for her wedding. Webster takes it badly, launching a very public feud. Meanwhile, several of their mutual friends are sweating out the draft. The vociferously anti-war Dani Kirk has even offered herself for sham marriages, even while she questions her own sexual identity, especially after meeting acclaimed surfing photographer Shirley Kwong.

Barons
would have been much more watchable if it had more Endless Summer and less Hair. Honestly, its New Left anti-war politics look overly simplistic and self-serving, especially when considering the subsequent plight of the Vietnamese Boat People and the oppressive corruption of the current Communist regime.

Unfortunately, the subplots focusing on deserters and questioning draftees detract from what could have been a deliciously ironic depiction of the peace-and-lover surfers growing into cutthroat capitalists, at least judging from the first two episodes, “Paradise Lost” and “Gone Surfing.” Instead of embracing the characters’ inner Gordon Gekkos, Doran and co-writers Matt Cameron and Marieke Hardy basically give us a shallow “Dawson’s Wave.”

Friday, May 26, 2023

In the Dusk, Resisting Communism in Lithuania

Father-son relationships are often complicated. A foreign occupation will not make it any easier for Jurgis Pliauga and his adopted son Unte. The young man is drawn to the more proactive means of resistance advocated by Deacon, a leader of the Forest Brothers partisans, whom he starts to see as a competing father figure. In contrast, his father prefers to play dumb, drag his feet, and even hide, if necessary, when the new occupying authorities come calling. Of course, tragedy comes for all men of good conscience in Sharunas Bartas’s In the Dusk, which premieres today on Film Movement Plus.

The War is over, but the Lithuanians would hardly know it. From their perspective, Soviet uniforms have simply replaced those of the Germans. Supposedly, they are now part of the Soviet Union, but the reparations and protection money the Soviets extort from them clearly imply their lowly position in the Soviet hierarchy. As the owner of a sizeable farm, Pliauga is a prime target for their shake-downs and his lazy farmhand Ignas also expects to receive part of his employer’s land holdings, through the promised socialist distribution.

Both Pliauga and Unte have social and commercial dealings with the rag-tag band of partisans in the forest. Increasingly, Unte is swayed by Deacon’s greater intellectual understanding of communism, democracy, and the Cold War, as well as his willingness to fight for Lithuania’s freedom. However, Pilauga is instinctively cautious. When the local troops come looking for him, the old man hides in a secret room hidden in his barn, which obviously evokes memories of those who hid from the Germans in a similar fashion.

In the Dusk
is definitely an intentionally slow and deliberate film, but it is more accessible than Bartas’s previous film Frost. Through the former, we witness the long, slow death of innocence, experienced by Unte and anyone else who might have hooped for a better life under the Soviets. The Forest Brothers are often rude and crude, but they are not wrong about the Soviets.

Neither is Pilauga. Watching the tragedy unfold, it is clear the partisans and the farmers needed a more widespread, more coordinated, and more flexible campaign of resistance. Of course, nobody looks worse than the Soviets, who are sadistic torturers. Yet, they clearly do not believe their purported ideology either. They just cynically mouth the right platitudes, while practically rolling their eyes.

Inevitably, it all ends in heartbreak, unless you are Putin or one of his Western amen chorus, like Chomsky or MTG. This is a brutally realistic film that is rooted in the muddy muckiness of the forests and farms. Cinematographer Eitvydas Doskus makes it all look appropriately dark and ominous. Yet, Bartas still gets some terrific performances from his cast, particularly Arvydas Dapsys, as the cagey but sadly dignified Pilauga.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Cracked, Thai Horror

Maybe Ruja's famous artist father Pakorn used lead-based paint. For some reason, his most notorious paintings seem to kill their owners. Technically, they are hers now, but she cannot wait to sell them, for several reasons. Her daughter Rachel urgently needs eye surgery, but she is also just plain uncomfortable having them around. She has just cause to be uneasy in Surapong Ploensang’s Cracked, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Even after her husband’s death, Ruja wanted nothing to do with her father. Collectors might think he was a genius, but she knows he was a sadistic jerk. She can’t remember all the details, but she knows he was bad. Nevertheless, she needs the inheritance when his dealer, Wichai, informs her of Pakorn’s death.

Rather ominously, a related pair of late career masterworks were returned to the estate after the owner’s family-annihilation-suicide. Ruja won’t even let Rachel in her dad’s studio, even before she sees the sexually suggestive portraits of his late model, Prang. To maximize the re-sale value, Wichai’s son, Tim restores the cracking areas. As he fiddles with the canvas, he finds evidence of hidden portraits underneath Prang, which intrigue him considerably more than Ruja. Intuitively, she suspects the paints are related to the supernatural forces that have been harassing her and Rachel.

Cracked
(as in chipping paint) is a lot like many other Thai and Southeast Asian horror films, but Ploensang’s execution is super-effective. The film oozes atmosphere, thanks in large measure to some terrific art and scenery design. The creepy old manor is a perfect horror movie setting and the pair of paintings look like they radiate pure evil.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Clearing, on Hulu

This Australian cult has its members undergo recorded confessions, or so-called “clearings,” which provide them ample blackmail fodder, should anyone ever step out of line. Gee, can you imagine any purported cults with ties to Hollywood engaging in similar practices? Yet, for Australian audiences, the cult matriarch’s “children,” amassed through questionable adoptions and foster arrangements, would immediately recall “The Family,” led by Anne Hamilton-Byrnes. In the case of Adrienne Beaufort’s cult, things start to fall apart when an over-zealous member kidnaps a little girl, who refuses to be indoctrinated into the “family.” The mystery of young Sara’s fate will haunt every character in writer-creators Matt Cameron & Elise McCredie’s The Clearing, which premieres today on Hulu.

Sometime in the past, Freya (as she now calls herself) was traumatically associated with the cult based at Bronte-esque Blackmarsh Manor. She got out, but the scars remain, especially when news of a child abduction triggers (the word is actually appropriate in this case) bad memories.

Tamsin Latham is a true believer, unwaveringly devoted to Beaufort, but her initiative has been disastrous. No matter how hard they try to brainwash Sara, she refuses to accept her new name, “Asha,” or her new “mother.” Beaufort’s favorite “child,” possibly her own biological daughter, Amy, was supposed to win Sara/Asha over. Instead, the little girl’s deep sense of self raises questions in Amy, at the worst possible time—right before her first ritual “clearing.”

Cameron and McCredie play a lot of devious games with the timeline that might be easier to guess from this review than from watching
The Clearing from the start, despite my good faith efforts to be vague and misdirecting. However, they are not simply being clever for the sake of cleverness. By the time you get through the first four episodes provided for review (out of eight), you get a potent sense of how the sins of the past continue to exert an evil influence over everyone in the present, especially since several characters cut their own deals, rather than holding fast to their principles.

Without question, Miranda Otto is the star of
Clearing as the chillingly regal Beaufort. She makes the cult leader’s Svengali-like control over people totally believable and absolutely terrifying. Likewise, Kate Mulvany might be even scarier as the sadistic Latham, who seems to have joined the cult for the opportunity to bully children. Guy Pearce is also pretty creepy and clammy as Beaufort’s consigliere and theoretician, Dr. Bryce Latham, but it is still not clear why the role was meaty enough to attract the well-known thesp.

The Flash: A New World, Part Four

This isn't just a series finale. It is a universe finale, marking the end of the interconnected Arrowverse shows on CW. Either Superman & Lois or Gotham Knights might still eke out a renewal, but they are both set in different DC universes. Logically, a lot of familiar faces come back for the “final run,” which is fortunate, since Barry Allen will need plenty of help saving the current timeline in “A New World, Part Four,” the final episode of The Flash, airing tonight on the CW.

Obviously, a lot has happened since “It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want to,” much of it involving time and speed. It seems a lot of the Flash’s old nemeses, living and dead, have been brought together, to combine their powers and harness the speed equivalent of The Force to defeat Team Flash. It would be deemed a spoiler to name names, but if you have only watched a few cherry-picked episodes this season, they might not be immediately recognizable. Regardless, they are all speedy.

Meanwhile, Iris West-Allen is in the hospital poised to deliver Baby Nora. The long-awaited arrival of babies is a staple of series finales. Frankly, “New World, Part Four” includes pretty much each and every one you could think of, except the
Seinfeld-style clip-package trial. Honestly, The Flash’s finale is more satisfying, for exactly that reason.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Wind & the Reckoning: A Hawaiian Western

Did make sense for the post-monarchy Hawaiian government to quarantine indigenous leprosy patients at the colony on Molokai, despite the disease’s low level of transmission? Before you answer, review your positions on Covid mandates and lockdowns. In light of the last three years, it is illuminating to revisit the Leper War of 1893. Ko’olau, the Hawaiian cowboy previously immortalized by Jack London, fights for his family and his way of life in David L. Cunningham’s The Wind & the Reckoning, which opens this Friday in New York.

Both Ko’olau and his son Kaleimanu have contracted the disease, but not his wife Pi’ilani. Unfortunately, she would not be permitted to accompany her husband and son to the colony, where all marriages are declared void on arrival. It is clear Sheriff Stoltz and his lowlife deputies consider this a side-benefit to the quarantine policy when they arrive for Ko’olau and Kaleimanu, because Pi’ilani is quite pretty. However, neither Ko’olau or his Yankee “Uncle” Eben Sinclair will submit, but their violent resistance makes the father, mother, and son fugitives.

A party of soldiers follow Ko’olau into Kalalau Valley, along with Marshal Edward G. Hitchcock, a holdover from the days of the Kingdom, who has little enthusiasm or stomach for the man hunt. According to the historical record, they were also accompanied by a Board of Health rep, but that character was dropped for the film (perhaps out of fears of potential Fauci-esque echoes).

Regardless,
Wind & Reckoning is inescapably timely. Throughout the film, viewers should ask themselves is this all about health or control—and which outbreak are we talking about? Sadly, health crises are often used as an excuse to curtail civil liberties. Cunningham and screenwriter John Fusco clearly argue that was the case in Kalalau.

It is also a solidly executed revisionist western. Jason Scott Lee (from
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Rapa Nui) is a credible strong, silently steely rifleman. Likewise, Lindsay Marie Anuhea Watson is fiercely protective and keenly sensitive as Pi’ilani. Arguably, Johnathon Schaech’s portrayal of Marshal Hitchcock makes him the film’s most complex and conflicted character. The late Patrick Gilbert also contributes a lot of heart and poignancy as the profoundly decent Sinclair. Plus, action star Ron Yuan adds his big presence to the film as Lee, the soldiers’ literal howitzer bearer.

Monday, May 22, 2023

The Wrath of Becky

Becky is a little like John Wick, but her movies are smaller and more didactic. You really want to keep your dirty hands off her dog, Diego. That should be easy enough to respect, but if you ever opened a Parler account, she also thinks you deserve a violent, painful death—or at least that is how screenwriter-directors Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote see the world. Regardless, trouble keeps finding Becky Hooper in The Wrath of Becky, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Since killing the Neo-National Socialists who murdered her widower father in the first film, Becky Hopper has become a bit of a drifter, but she finally started to feel at home again while staying with Elena Connor, an elderly kindred spirit. She still is not about to be intimidated when a group of looser “Noble Men” white supremacists make trouble at the diner where she works. After Becky gets the better of them, they follow her home, killing Connor and dognapping Diego. Ill-advisedly, they leave Hopper alive and hungry for raw, bloody vengeance.

It is hard to say which is more cartoonish, the film’s over-the-top graphic violence or its crudely simplistic politics. At one point, one of the “Noble Men” literally brags: “that would blow-up on Parler.” Sure, the bad guys have it coming and there are plenty of people like that out there, but Angel and Coote freely indulge in very broad strokes to promote an “us vs. them” perspective of contemporary America. As a result, the film will likely just reinforce the polarization of the extremes.

On the plus side, Lulu Wilson is convincingly fierce reprising her original role as Becky and Seann Williams Scott is entertainingly sinister as Darryl (Jr.), the leader of the Noble Men. Weirdly,
Wrath is also a bit like Newhart, in that it has multiple characters named Darryl, who are related. Unfortunately, the rest of the Noble Men are cardboard caricatures, who fade from memory as soon as the film finishes. Frankly, there should have been more cat-and-mouse games featuring Becky facing off against Darryl and less of the other Noble Men’s crude, cement-headed thuggery.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, on HBO Max

The word "Mogwai” roughly means “evil spirit” or “demon” in Cantonese, but the CCP does not want Cantonese spoken anymore, especially not in Hong Kong. Of course, they wouldn’t accept a Chinese villain either, even though the prequel under consideration is set in 1920 Shanghai. Yet, evil criminal mastermind Riley Greene is by far the funniest character in this animated series, so do not even try to root against him when showrunners Tze Chun & Brendan Hay’s ten-episode Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai premieres Tuesday on [HBO] Max.

Before Gizmo the Mogwai ended up in Mr. Wing’s Chinatown curiosities shop, he was unceremoniously plucked out of the Valley of Jade and literally dropped into the human world by a bird of prey. Young Sam Wing’s irresponsible adventurer grandfather recognizes the dangers Mogwai represent to humanity, especially if they get wet and eat after midnight, so he prepares his grandson to return Gizmo to his fabled home. Unfortunately, Greene and his henchmen get to the Wings first.

Most of his goons show little initiative, but Elle (who is ambiguously "anime"-looking) is the exception. She will help Sam and Gizmo escape, but young Wing remains distrustful of the “Mary Sue” street urchin. However, he needs Elle’s street smarts to elude Greene and return Gizmo to his home. He is also worried about his parents, whom Greene holds hostage, for leverage. His grandfather will not be able to help either, because Greene ingested him, using “pearl magic.”

Poor Sam Wing could not inspire any less confidence as a hero, which is a problem, considering has the most screen-time of all the human, non-Mogwai characters. Anybody we have to spend this much time with should at least be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Likewise, Elle’s relentlessly abrasive attitude quickly becomes grating.

Of course, little Gizmo is still cute, but let’s be honest. He is a terrible “father.” As in Joe Dante’s original film, his offspring are never as sweet-tempered as he is, even during their furry stage, and they seem to want the evil transformation caused by a post-midnight snack. Why can’t he ever pass along his adorable genes?

The one thing Chun and Hay generally get right is the tone. Like the films, they combine a “gee-whiz” sense of wonder with some outrageously over-the-top mayhem. This show has a high body count, produced in extraordinarily violent ways. Even though Dante joined as a “consulting producer,” real fans will be disappointed that no character in
Secrets of the Mogwai resembles his late, beloved crony, Dick Miller.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Las Premieres: The Padilla Affair

Generally, it is unpleasant to have your name affixed to the word “affair,” as in the “Profumo Affair.” It was even worse for Heberto Padilla. Essentially, he was accused of unfaithfulness to the Communist revolution, having dalliances with art and truth. When he “confessed” his “sins” in an epic self-criticism session, the sick spectacle ironically turned many left-leaning European and Latin American intellectuals against the Castro regime. It is easy to see why they were so horrified by his ordeal from the rarely-seen archival footage Pavel Giroud incorporated into The Padilla Affair, which screens tomorrow at MoMI, as part of its regular Las Premieres film series.

Like so many Cuban intellectuals, Padilla was initially a supporter of Castro’s “revolution,” but the regime’s turn towards censorship soured his enthusiasm. As art became increasingly subservient to the state, Padilla started speaking out. (All those jazz fans who took “ambassador” tours of Cuba, please explain why Alberto Cabrera Infante & Orlando Jimenez Leal’s short doc
P.M., capturing Havana nightlife was censored by the dictatorship, an incident cited by Padilla in his ill-fated criticism of the revolution.) Inevitably, the secret police arrested him, releasing him 37 days later, after arranging his “self-criticism” session.

Presumably, Padilla said everything the regime told him too—and then some. Yet, it is easy to see why the footage was taken out of circulation. The profusely sweating poet is obviously physically unwell. Yet, the nervous discomfort on the faces of Padilla’s assembled fellow members of UNEAC, the Cuban artists and writers’ union, are even more telling.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Spy/Master, in The Epoch Times


HBO Max's SPY/MASTER is far more cerebral than Bond movies, but it is still bingeably grabby and it has no nostalgia for Communism, either as an ideal or in practice. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

White Building: Urban Renewal in Cambodia

This former Phenom Penh landmark was not important architecturally. Frankly, it was an ugly eye-sore. However, it was a potent symbol of how things now work in Cambodia. They were originally constructed to serve as affordable working-class housing, but became home to many low-level government officials in the years after the Khmer Rouge madness. In 2017, it was sold to developers, who evicted residents, with the current government’s blessings. Twentysomething-ish Nang watches it happen, knowing he and fellow residents have little power to resist in Kavich Neang’s White Building, which opens today in Brooklyn.

Neang knows the so-called “White Building” well. He was raised there and recorded the traumatic evictions in the documentary,
Last Night I Saw You Smiling. This follow-up film is technically a fictional narrative, but it has a loose structure and docu-realistic vibe, stylistically akin to the films of Jia Zhangke and Davy Chou, who took on producer roles for the White Building.

Nang definitely serves as surrogate for Neang, as he fatalistically watches his way of life disintegrate. Nang’s great ambition was to perform on Cambodia’s TV talent show as part of a hip hop dance trio, but the group break-ups when their frontman moves to France, to join his cousins. His father is the fictional chief of the White Building’s residence association, but Nang instinctively understands the old man’s passivity can never effectively unify the group or prompt any kind of constructive response from the development company. Likewise, he can predict only too well how his father’s similar approach to his infected toe will turn out.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Ghosts of Beirut, in the Epoch Times


The narrative flow of GHOSTS OF BEIRUT is a bit uneven, but helps humanize CIA Officers, like the late Bill Buckley, reminding us of their service and sacrifice. EPOCH TIMES exclusive review up here.

Moon Garden

This childhood fantasy could scar most kids worse than Watership Down or Return to Oz. It is a child’s story, but it definitely is not for kids. The situation is gravely serious when five-year-old Emma falls into a coma, as are the circumstances surrounding her accident. To regain consciousness, she must journey through the nightmarescape of her subconscious in screenwriter-editor-director Ryan Stevens Harris’s Moon Garden, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Before Emma tumbled down the stairs, her mother, Sara, had intended to run off with her into the night, deserting her father, Alex. Initially, he seems fiercely domineering and prone to outbursts of rage, but as we see flashbacks of their lives together through their daughter’s eyes, it becomes clear their relationship is more complicated and emotionally fraught. It should immediately be established Alex is never directly abusive towards Emma. Much of his impatience and rage stems from Sara’s own severe bouts of depression and perhaps other mental health issues.

That is bad, but the macabre world Emma’s subconscious mind creates is even scarier. In creating this fantasy world, Harris clearly took inspiration from Jan Svanmajer and the Brothers Quay. The environment is highly textured and fibrous. Wolfgang Meyer’s cinematography is dark, but his golds and crimsons glow, in a manner reminiscent of William Cameron Menzies’
Invaders from Mars.

Harris’s narrative is simple, but every episode of Emma’s journey is probably loaded with symbolism, for those who are bold enough to dive in looking for it. This is guaranteed to become a cult film, because it is a remarkably singular vision, but you really have to be in the right mood for it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Thief Collector

It is strange how we all enjoy watching films about art thieves, even though by stealing from museums, they deny the general public the ability to view great masterpieces, even though Raffles and Thomas Crown are admittedly charming. At first glance, school teachers like Jerry and Rita Alter would look like exactly the sort of people who would be disgusted by a museum heist, yet a notorious painting by Willem de Kooning was found in the possession of their estate. Allison Otto documents the mystery surrounding de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” and the strange secrets of the Alters in The Thief Collector, which opens Friday in select theaters.

The documentary opens with a breezy dramatic vignette that we later learn is based on one of the stories Jerry Alter published in his vanity press collection. At the time, friends and family assumed they were fictional, but through Otto’s lens, they start to look like confessionals. Frankly, the Alters’ nephew had no idea there was anything of notable value in their eccentric home when he started liquidating their estate. (The Alters were also survived buy two adult children, who were apparently not sufficiently competent to serve as their executor and make no appearance in the film.)

Nobody thought all the bric-a-brac the Alters collected during their world travels were worth much, so the donated some to a charity thrift shop and brought in Manzanita Ridge Antiques to liquidate the rest of the house. Most of the paintings on the wall were Jerry Alter’s own ugly work, but one of them vaguely rang a bell for the antique dealers. After an extensive internet search, they realized it looked exactly like “Woman-Ochre,” brazenly stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985, because it was. To their enormous credit, they could not wait to return it to the museum, especially when the vultures started to approach them.

The guys from Manzanita are definitely the heroes of Otto’s documentary. It is much harder to classify the Alters role in the story. They generally match the description of the couple presumed to have sliced “Woman-Ochre” out of its frame on an otherwise typically quiet Friday after thanksgiving. What about the other valuable works that turned up in their collection (not de Kooning level, but still nice) and how did they afford all that international travel, anyway? Plus, there is the matter of Jerry Alter’s “murder story.”

Both Alters are long gone and they clearly held their secrets closely while they were living, so we will probably never know the full truth. Nevertheless, Otto digs into the story as best she and her on-camera interview subjects (including the nephew and the Manzanita staff) can. She asks all the right questions and traces the Alters history back to their time in New York, where they traveled in the sort of Bohemian circles that could very well have included de Kooning.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Come Out Fighting: The 761st Tank Battalion in Germany

Gen. George S. Patton was not exactly woke, but he was generally well-remembered by the black soldiers of the 761st Tank Battalion who served under him. For most of the film, the so-called “Black Panthers” will be on their own, behind enemy lines. That wouldn’t be so bad, given the hostility of some of their fellow soldiers, were it not for the crazy German officer setting ambushes for them. However, a downed American pilot will be happy to tag a ride with them in Steven Luke’s Come Out Fighting, which releases Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Maj. Chase Anderson is the kind of commanding officer Lt. Robert Hayes can respect. Obviously, Anderson is cool, because he is played by Dolph Lundgren. Unfortunately, the captain between them is a racist trying to blame Hayes for his mistake. The captain is also an incompetent, who gets his convoy back to HQ hopelessly lost and quickly ambushed by the unhinged Captain Hans Schultz.

Hayes is the only survivor, trying to cross back over enemy lines by himself, until Lt. Frank Ross blunders into him. Ross survived a dogfight with the Luftwaffe’s newly redesigned fighter plane, so top brass would like to debrief him. That is how Maj. Anderson convinces Gen. Patton to sign off on the previously unsanctioned rescue mission Hayes’ sergeant, Sgt. A.J. “Red” McCarron was planning, with the help of Black Panthers tanker Sgt. Warren Crecy. Hayes’s platoon and the 761
st are still largely on their own, but they are highly motivated.

Weirdly,
Come Out Fighting does not feature the most famous 761st veteran, Jackie Robinson (or it’s the briefest of name-checks that you could easily miss). Regardless, the gritty, fatalistic attitude of most of the troops rings pretty true. However, there is the big credibility issue when it basically lets McCarron and Crecy get away with “taking their own initiative.” Chain of command is critically important. They do not take too kindly to it if the generals want your men one place, but you decide to move them someplace else, but hey, it’s a movie.

It also seems like the Germans never had a chance, since we have Michael Jai White and Lundgren in uniform. White definitely looks and acts like a leathery tough NCO. Lundgren is suitably commanding as Anderson, continuing to gracefully transition into less physical, but still ultra-manly action-support roles.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Assassin Club, Co-Starring Sam Neill

Hitman guilds are never very collegial. Just ask Mike Fallon from the Accident Man films. Sure, they will throw a lot of work your way, but sooner or later, they contract all their members to kill each other. Morgan Gaines is about to go through one of those phases. Technically, he really isn’t part of any “club,” title notwithstanding, but shares a common handler with at least one hired guns out to kill him in Camille Delamarre’s Assassin Club, which releases tomorrow on digital.

Gaines always insisted on killing parasitic monsters, like the Slovenian human trafficker he has a bead on, in the opening scene. Unfortunately, Alec Drakos also has a bead on him. Gaines just barely escapes with his life, but Drakos takes out his contract. When he gets home, Gaines is quite put-out by the whole business, but his self-consciously sleazy handler Caldwell only wants to talk about this new super-contract: six targets at one million dollars a pop.

Initially, Caldwell neglects to mention the contract out on Gaines as well. Contemplating retirement, Gaines declines, until he saves his innocent civilian girlfriend Sophie from an assassination attempt (mostly targeting himself). As he starts to get the ugly truth out of Caldwell, he realizes it will more-or-less be a case of kill or be killed. However, the mysterious, faceless assassin Falk proposes a temporary working truce, to her benefit, of course.

There is nothing wrong with a film about a pack of assassins trying to kill one another, but the
Accident Man duology did it so much better. Delamarre (who previously helmed The Transporter: Refueled) helms some serviceable action sequences, but Thomas Dunn’s screenplay is dumber than a duffle full of doornails. There are moments when you have to ask the screen: “seriously dude, you’re going to buy that?”

Sunday, May 14, 2023

The Enigma of Arrival, on OVID.tv

These teens have no future and they know it. The kind of Chinese films that tell their sort of stories do not have much future either, but nobody wants to admit it. It is harder to see Chinese cinema that accurately represents the extreme economic stratification and open public corruption that is rife throughout the Mainland, but a drop-out like Zhao Xiaolong can see it clearly. Out of his wild social circle, Li Dongdong is one of the few with any ambitions, but she is the one who winds up dead in Song Wen’s The Enigma of Arrival, which premieres Thursday on OVID.tv.

Fang Yuan thinks he is the alpha of his gang of running mates, so Li must be attracted to him. However, she actually carries a torch for the strong, silent Zhao, because she can tell he is the real man of the group. Yet, he just cannot handle romance or much of any kind of close relationship. Nevertheless, her presumed murder will impact him greatly. Even when he meets his old friends years later during their in medea res reunion, Li Dongdong is really the only thing on his mind.

On the surface,
Enigma of Arrival (which has nothing to do with de Chirico or Naipaul) is definitely a thriller, but there is a lot of social observation and critique baked into every frame, much like Back to the Wharf. The film wears its Wong Kar-wai influences proudly, not on its sleeve, but up on its lapel. The ne-er do well punks even attend a Days of Being Wild screening, just for the sex scene. (Nowadays, they probably can’t even do that, when out on the hunt for some risqué entertainment in Mainland China.)

The poverty and corruption Song incorporates into the narrative is not even subtext, but the central mystery still unfolds in an intriguing “half-
Rashomon”-style. Yet, the truth will be revealed and it will be painfully bitter.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the film’s best performance comes from Gu Xuan as Li. Instead of a cypher everyone projects upon, she is the most human of the lot, so her loss means something. It is a sensitive, vulnerable turn from Gu, whose credits are oddly limited, despite starring as Shirley Yang in two
Ghost Blows Out the Lamp movies.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

SIFF ’23: Max Roach, the Drum Also Waltzes


Max Roach was one of jazz’s two great “trouble-making” musical activists, along with Charles Mingus. Together, they formed Debut Records, the short-lived independent jazz label. Tragically, Mingus was undermined by his own body at the age of 56, but Roach lived into his eighties, having successfully channeled his protest anger into music. Documentarians Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro chronicle Roach’s long, challenging career about as well as anyone could with a mere ninety minutes in Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, which screens at the 2023 Seattle International Film Festival.

Roach left this world in 2007, but Pollard started filming him for a prospective documentary in 1987. At the same time, Shapiro was recording audio interviews with Roach for a book about jazz drums. Apparently, other projects and events intervened for Pollard, but he had a wealth of material to draw from when they finally joined forces and finished the film.

Roach was the classic Bebop drummer, but he was probably more responsible than any for Bebop’s evolution into Hardbop as the co-leader of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. His protest music with Abbey Lincoln was about as avant-garde as any Free Jazz and he later explored the unexpected melodic and harmonic possibilities of his instrument in the all-percussion ensemble M’Boom.

By far, the best sequences in
Drum Also Waltzes cover Roach’s relationship with Brown, who died far, far too young, through no fault of his own. The memories of Roach and legends like Sonny Rollins will move many jazz fans to tears.

On the other hand, the biggest absence in the doc is that of Mingus. Roach had a long association with the bassist, as co-founders of Debut, as members of the celebrated one-night-only “Jazz at Massey Hall” Quintet, the rhythm section of Duke Ellington’s
Money Jungle record, and the so-called “Newport Rebels.” I suspect Pollard and Shapiro are keenly aware of the oversight and it probably kills them, but maybe one Mingus reference would have necessarily led to another, until he took over the film.