Friday, March 31, 2017

Beyond Godzilla: The Secret of the Telegian

Like David Hedison in The Fly, a Japanese scientist has developed a teleportation device with tragic results. In this case, the invention works perfectly, it has just been used for evil purposes by a killer with a few scores to settle. Human nature combined with Promethean science inevitably produces mayhem in Jun Fukuda’s The Secret of the Telegian (trailer here), which screens during the Japan Society’s ongoing film series, Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema.

It is a case of bad karma dating back to WWII. In the chaotic days leading up to the Emperor’s surrender, Lt. Onishi and his corrupt unit intended to hijack a shipment of gold to set themselves up with a comfortable future. However, Corporal Sudo and Dr. Nikki, the scientist they are supposed to be escorting to safety, object to such villainy (Dr. Nikki’s area of expertise? Matter transference.). Onishi and his accomplices believed they had left Tsudo and Nikki for dead, but apparently, they were not dead enough.

Fourteen years later, Sudo starts picking off Onishi and his men, one by one. No matter what precautions they take, he always manages to reach his prey and avoid capture. It baffles the cops, led by the no-nonsense Det. Kobayashi, but his old college buddy, science journalist Kirioka is much better prepared to pursue a killer like “The Telegian.” He also develops a romantic interest in Akiko Chujo, the unfortunate high tech component sales associate handling Sudo’s account (set-up under an assumed name).

In many ways, Telegian is a close cousin of The H-Man. Both were produced by the same studio, featured special effects designed by Eiji Tsuburaya, and combined elements of the hardboiled crime genre with science fiction-monster movies. However, Telegian is much less judgmental regarding the inherit nature of scientific discovery. On the other hand, it unambiguously suggests human nature is basically rotten to the core.

Happily, Telegian also has its eccentricities, including scenes in a military-themed night club that presents dancers cavorting in Goldfinger­-style body paint. Yet, what most distinguishes Telegian is the WWII backstory and its cynical portrayal of the Imperial military. Frankly, Sudo’s victims mostly have it coming. He just gets a little too cocky in his execution—and a little too public, particularly during the clever opening sequence set in a carnival fun house.

Yumi Shirakawa (another H-Man alumnus) and Kôji Tsuruta develop such likably innocent romantic chemistry together, it is almost a shame Fukuda backburners them in favor of more Telegian terror. Tsuburaya’s teleportation effects look pretty cool for 1960, while the dodgy victims are appropriately colorful, in an EC Comics kind of way.

Look, if you can’t find enjoyment in films like Telegian and H-Man than we just can’t help you. They are products of their time, but they strove to entertain, playing it straight down the middle. In fact, films like these are really indispensable for anyone trying to understand the post-war Japanese collective psyche. Highly recommended, The Secret of the Telegian screens this Saturday (4/1) at the Japan Society, as part of Beyond Godzilla.

God Knows Where I Am: A Death in New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s state motto is still “live free or die,” but the steady population influx from Massachusetts has made it a very different place. Ironically, the “live free or die” ethos apparently still persists in terms of patients’ rights and legal competency. In the case of Linda Bishop, a state judge essentially released her from all treatment constraints over the objections of her family and mental health caregivers, putting her in a position to make good on their motto. Starting with the discovery of her body, Jedd & Todd Wider work backwards, chronicling Bishop’s final days in God Knows Where I Am (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

We learn from Bishop’s friends and family she was once a loving mother and the general life of any party, but her struggles with schizophrenia took a toll on her personal relationships. As is often the case, she periodically went off her medication, based on seemingly reasonable concerns. Unfortunately, she was suffering from full-fledged paranoid delusions by the time she started squatting in an empty farmhouse.

The Wider’s base their film on the diary Bishop kept during her time living secretly in the farmhouse (living off apples and snow melt from the back yard), which the police investigators also relied on to determine a cause of death. The excerpts narrated by Lori Singer deliberately escalate in their delusional disconnect from reality, but they also paint a picture of a woman who still embraced life.

In terms of tone, GKWIA fits into the spectrum somewhere between Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life (the docudrama about Joyce Vincent, the woman discovered in her London studio apartment three years after her solitary death) and Peter Liechti’s The Sound of Insects (an experimental meditation on an unknown body found naturally mummified in the woods). Together, these three films would make a hardcore depressing triple feature.

GKWIA should definitely inspire greater empathy for those wrestling with mental illness. Frankly, it also might challenge some preconceptions about cops. Not that we should be surprised, but it is rather striking how sensitive and empathetic the responding officers are when discussing Bishop and her diary.

In general, GKWIA is a quiet contemplation of human frailty and mortality, but it also holds obvious policy implications. Fittingly, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey offers some medical perspective, but his commentary is scrupulously circumspect, even though he would be fully justified in saying “I damn well told you something like this could happen.”

At times, GKWIA is almost too pretty, resembling a series of Ozu pillow shots, but the Wider Brothers clearly convey the wrenching grief of Bishop’s survivors. They deserved better treatment from the system, just as much as Bishop did, if not more so. Recommended for thoughtful viewers who are not prone to clinical depression or spiritual malaise, God Knows Where I Am opens today (3/31) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Zookeeper’s Wife: Zoology in Wartime

The National Socialists were compulsive looters. In addition to systematically ransacking Europe’s great art collections, they also helped themselves to the rare breeds that survived in occupied zoos. Perhaps the most notorious case was the plundering of the Warsaw Zoo, led by the formerly respected zoologist Lutz Heck. However, Dr. Jan and Antonina Zabinski responded with secret defiance, sheltering hundreds of Jewish fugitives within zoo grounds. Diane Ackerman’s bestselling nonfiction account of the Zabinskis’ heroic resistance gets the big screen treatment in Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Dr. Jan Zabinski was the official director of the Warsaw Zoo (as well as Superintendent of Warsaw’s city parks), but the staff universally recognized his wife Antonina as an unofficial co-director. Even a visiting Germany zoologist with the Bond villain name of Lutz Heck acknowledged her expertise at handling animals. Indeed, she made quite an impression. Following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, Heck returns to help himself to the zoo’s prized animals. He pretends he will merely hold them for safe-keeping and they pretend to believe him. After all, at the point in the war, Germany really did look like a safer harbor for them to live, no matter how temporarily.

Heck returns yet again to pursue his bizarre project to genetically cross-breed the Auroch, a dead species of wild cattle back into existence, utilizing the zoo’s facilities. One would think an extinct bovine would not be the sort of symbolism the National Socialists would want to associate with the Third Reich, but somehow, they did indeed believe the late, lamented Auroch represented Aryan purity, or something. Regardless, Heck becomes a constant presence at the zoo, which offers a measure of protection from the occupying authorities but also represents a constant threat of danger.

By this time, the Zabinskis were sheltering dozens of Polish Jews. Some stayed only a few days, while others spent most of the war years in the cellar of the zoo villa. Under Heck’s pompous nose, Dr. Zabinski developed a system with the chairman of the Jewish council to regularly smuggle Jews out of the ghetto. Inevitably, he would also join the Home Army and fight during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but his capture will leave his wife and their young son Ryszard in a precarious position.

This really is an incredible story of courage and sacrifice, plus it has furry mammals. However, parents should keep in mind this is a PG-13 movie. It has a tremendous message, but the film does not water down just how perilous the wartime conditions were for the animals. There are no actual scenes of concentration camps, but observant viewers will recognize Dr. Janusz Korczak (memorably depicted in Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak) and his children during the Treblinka deportations (and everyone should understand the fate that awaited them).

Caro and cinematographer Andrij Parekh create some strikingly surreal imagery through the juxtaposition of the Eden-like zoo and its exotic creatures with the horrific realities of war. However, Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman give Dr. Zabinski’s extensive involvement with the Home Army rather short shrift.

Regardless, the film gets the broad strokes right, vividly capturing a sense of the constant fear the Zabinskis lived with. Jessica Chastain directly conveys the titular character’s comfort with animals and her hesitancy around people, but she is clearly trying to do something misguidedly Streepian with her slip-sliding accent. Still, she and the (Flemish) rock solid Johan Heldenbergh develop some subtle but powerful chemistry as the Zabinskis. Between this film and Vincent Pérez’s Alone in Berlin, Daniel Brühl is in very real danger of being typecast as an impotent Nazi hack, but he gives the film a bit of an edge as the creepy Heck.

This is such a remarkable story it is downright baffling nobody tried to tell it before. Caro and Workman consistently opt for mainstream decorum, but they arguably deserve credit for underplaying the obvious “people in a zoo” metaphor. Respectfully recommended for general audiences, The Zookeeper’s Wife opens tomorrow (3/31) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

David Lynch: The Art Life

There are two types of David Lynch fans who will want very different things from a Lynch documentary. Casual fans will just want Twin Peaks relaunch spoilers and Dennis Hopper anecdotes from the production of Blue Velvet. Serious fans will want something as inscrutable and ambiguous as Lynch’s most recent films (that really aren’t that recent anymore). Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm do not even try to find a middle ground, fully opting for the latter option throughout David Lynch: The Art Life (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Shot in stylized grainy sepia-tones, Art Life looks like it might exist in the world of Eraserhead, the pseudo-climatic event Lynch’s reminiscences sort of build towards. Rather than moviemaking, we see Lynch painting in his studio and telling stories from his suburban youth. Mostly, these are just hints of artistic bildungsroman, but he gives us one obviously significant and cinematic incident that clearly helped inspire Blue Velvet. If anyone ever produces The David Lynch Story as a narrative feature, it will surely start with that scene.

Beyond that, Nguyen and company go about soaking up the Lynchian atmosphere rather than push him to be more revealing or to stay on topic. It is interesting to see photos and footage of Lynch as a Kyle MacLachlan-looking youth and he has some pleasant memories of his old art school buddy and future production designer Jack Fisk, as well as his early mentor, Bushnell Keeler. However, audiences should understand going in, there is much more discussion of Lynch’s paintings (they’re dark, go figure) than say Dune, Wild at Heart, or Mulholland Drive.

As a result, Art Life is bound to be divisive. It is deliberately slow and resolutely coy, readily allowing Lynch to maintain his guarded defenses. Yet, as a double irony, the mounting anticipation for the return of Twin Peaks makes it seem relatively commercial, even though Lynch and the filmmakers do everything in their power to undermine any possible popular appeal. For mere mortals, it is a frustrating film that often has a rather lulling effect. Hence, David Lynch: The Art Life is only for the diehard initiates in the Lynchian cult when it opens tomorrow (3/31) in New York, at the IFC Center.

KINO! ’17: Paula

Paula Modersohn-Becker is considered an early pioneer of Expressionism, but the chauvinistic art world has yet to fully acknowledge her significance. In contrast, the patriarchy could be relied upon to shower acclaim and prestige upon male artists, like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, right? Maybe it is just tough for any artist with a truly original vision. Despite her early death, Modersohn-Becker seems to have lived an easier life than her aforementioned contemporaries, at least judging from Christian Schwochow’s biopic, Paula (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 KINO! festival of German cinema in New York.

If viewers had a dollar for every time a man pats Modersohn-Becker on the head and tells her pretty little ladies can’t paint, they might be able to afford one of her paintings. Yet, her unsupportive father was supportive enough to cover her expenses while she was a pupil at the Worpswede artists’ colony. Most of the faculty were predictably dismissive, but obviously not the widowed Otto Modersohn. Their union had its issues, including artistic rivalry, but he continued to support her, even when she absconded to Paris.

Frankly, screenwriters Stefan (Generation War) Kolditz & Stephan Suschke do not exactly burnish Modersohn-Becker’s reputation as a feminist icon. In point of fact, she comes across as rather selfish and short on empathy. It is a good thing she produced such distinctive work or else the two-hour-and-three-minute running time would really feel excessive.

On the other hand, Carla Juri’s Modersohn-Becker is truly a neurotic tornado. You would definitely say she has an artistic temperament. Roxane Duran provides a reality check and an accessible audience vantage point as Modersohn-Becker’s best friend and colleague Clara Westoff (Rilke). However, it is Albrecht Schuch who really engages viewers’ sympathy as the put-upon Otto.

Arguably, Paula is a perfectly presentable work of biographical narrative filmmaking, but Schwochow never develops a hook to differentiate it from thematically similar films, such as Séraphine. The period trappings are quite lovely, but the arc is as predictable as the setting sun. Still, it is the sort of safe programming choice that always gets a positive response.

In the doc !Women Art Revolution, New Yorkers were asked if they could name three women artists, but few could get past Frida Kahlo. You might think any school child could rattle off Georgia O’Keefe, Marry Cassatt, and Diane Arbus, but apparently, the state of New York public schools is such that they cannot. Maybe the increased attention for Hilma af Klint in Personal Shopper and Modersohn-Becker here will help them with their next man-in-the-street pop quiz. It is classy and informative, but not particularly involving. Recommended for fans of films like Cézanne et Moi and Renoir, Paula screens tomorrow (3/31) and Saturday (4/1) as part of this year’s KINO.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Blackcoat’s Daughter: February Chills Your Soul

What school has its semester break in February? It sounds like particularly poor planning for a boarding school in the snowy Northeast. Indeed, the staff assumes two of their students’ parents have been waylaid by the weather, but we suspect something much more sinister is afoot in Osgood Perkin’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter (a.k.a. February, trailer here), which A24 and DirecTV will release in theaters and On-Demand March 31, 2017.

Lucy the upperclassman deliberately gave her parents incorrect information to allow herself more time to deal with what she suspects is an unwanted pregnancy. In contrast, young Kat was eagerly anticipating the arrival of her parents, but she fears her nightmarish visions of an icy car crash have come true. Something very bad will happen during their long lonely night at Bramford, which will continue to reverberate nine years later.

In that later timeline, Joan Marsh is trying to reach Bramford as quickly as possible, even though she is conspicuously unprepared for the harsh winter weather. Presumably, she is quite fortunate to get picked up by Bill and Linda, but they too have a troubling backstory. Apparently, she reminds him of their late daughter, a Bramford student who was brutally murdered. Obviously, the trauma left them permanently damaged, but they might also be somewhat cracked. Eventually, all the relationships become clear as Perkins cuts between storylines.

Perkins is the son of Anthony Perkins, the original Norman Bates, and he definitely upholds the standards of the family business. Blackcoat is an extraordinarily disciplined horror film that cranks up the tension through the power of suggestion and uncertainty rather than messy special effects. In a more just world, Blackcoat would be a shoe-in for an Academy Award for its profoundly unsettling ambient sound design and that ghostly “Deedle, deedle, Blackcoat’s daughter, what was in the holy water” song would at least be one of the ceremony’s musical numbers, regardless whether it is Oscar-eligible. The spartan deserted prep school setting is also eerie as all get out.

Kiernan Shipka and Emma Roberts are creepy as heck as Kat and Marsh. However, it is James Remar and Lauren Holly who really kick the film up several notches as Bill and Linda. We’re talking about some stinging, push-you-into-the-back-of-your-seat work here. They also provide some helpful misdirection for a twist that really isn’t that hard to anticipate—however, its implications are deeply disturbing.

There is no doubt Perkins has a keen grasp of what makes the demonic so profoundly terrifying. He also has a practical understanding of horror movie mechanics. This is a scary movie, precisely because of its subtlety and exacting mise-en-scène. Highly recommended for smart horror fans, The Blackcoat’s Daughter opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the Village East.

Beyond Godzilla: School in the Crosshairs

Millions of Japanese students have suspected cram schools are evil, but it took a maverick like Nobuhiko Obayashi to conclusively prove it. In this case, the elite Eiko tutorial school is secretly coopting brainy but pliable students to become the brown-shorted advance team for the impending alien invasion. Fortunately, a teen idol with telekinetic powers will defend her high school and planet Earth in Obayashi’s School in the Crosshairs (trailer here), which screens during the Japan Society’s new film series, Beyond Godzilla: Alternative Futures & Fantasies in Japanese Cinema.

Yuka Mitamura is at the top of her class (no cram school for her), but she is still popular with the rest of the slackers. This definitely includes her ambiguously platonic guy pal, Koji Seki. Studying really isn’t his thing. He is the star of the school’s kendo team, but he still isn’t very good. However, a little help from Mitamura will make him a hero at an important meet.

Obviously, if the tightly wound new transfer student Michiru Takamizawa wants to win the hall monitor election as the first step towards global domination, she will have to go through Mitamura. In terms of psychic power, they are rather evenly matched, but Takamizawa has more back-up, including Kyogoku, the evil overlord from Venus, who has been trying to lure Mitamura to the dark side of the Force for several weeks.

It probably goes without saying when it comes to Obayashi making high school movies, but School in the Crosshairs is really and truly nuts. Like his mind-melting House, Crosshairs features Obayashi’s hand-crafted analog special effects, but this time around they are even more defiantly cheesy looking. On the other hand, the student morality patrols Takamizawa organizes and decks out fascist uniforms are maybe even creepier today than when Crosshairs was originally released in 1981, thanks to rise in campus speech codes and thought policing.

Yet, Crosshairs is really just amazingly sweet, thanks to the appealing almost but not quite ready to be boyfriend-girlfriend chemistry shared by Mitamura and Seki. Teen idol Hiroko Yakushimaru (a Japan Society favorite from Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) is unflaggingly plucky and charming, but also disarmingly self-effacing, while Ryôichi Takayanagi plays Seki as a big old likable lug of a guy. However, it is strange Masami Hasegawa did not go on to greater teen stardom, because she is terrific as the uptight, glowing-eyed Takamizawa.

There is so much random weirdness in Crosshairs Obayashi practically creates a trippy new standard for normalcy. Regardless, it is all good, virtuous fun. There is a real story in there too. In fact, it is based on a YA novel by Taku Mayumura that has also been adapted for television and anime. It is easy to see why viewers would enjoy weekly visits with characters like Mitamura and Seki, as well as even their boneheaded but free-thinking gym teacher. Honestly, this film is the reason Edison and the Lumières invented moving pictures (they just didn’t realize it at the time). Very highly recommended, School in the Crosshairs screens this Friday (3/31) at the Japan Society, as part of Beyond Godzilla.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Five Came Back: To Serve and Document

There are notable exceptions, like the tireless Gary Sinise and his Captain Dan Band, but it is almost impossible to imagine today’s Hollywood celebrities appearing at War Bond rallies and hobnobbing with average GIs at the Stage Door Canteen. It is even more unlikely any of the top-tier tent-pole directors would put their careers on hold to help the government make their case for war and document the subsequent battles. Yet that is exactly what Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston did during World War II. Their wartime experiences are chronicled in Five Came Back (trailer here), a three-part documentary directed by Laurent Bouzereau and adapted by Mark Harris from his nonfiction bestseller, which premieres this Friday on Netflix.

Arguably, Capra, Ford, Wyler, and Stevens were at the top of their games when they joined the war effort, while Huston had just scored his first surprise breakout hit (a little film called The Maltese Falcon). They would lose several productive years, but they were more than willing to serve. Aside from Capra, who was something of a moviemaking field marshal, mostly working in Washington on the Why We Fight series, all risked their lives amid real and frequently bloody warfighting.

John Ford was the earliest into battle, recording the first American victory captured on film in the Oscar winning documentary short, The Battle of Midway. Eventually, Ford and Stevens would combine forces to document D-Day, which incredibly was not the latter’s most harrowing assignment. Huston supposedly documented plenty of action in Battle for San Pietro and Tunisian Victory, but his reliance on recreated scenes raises ethical issues Harris and company do not ignore. However, his long-suppressed PTSD documentary Let There Be Light is presented as a redemptive masterwork. Wyler’s Oscar winning The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress could very well still be the most popular of the wartime documentaries under discussion, but George Stevens’ journalistic record of the liberation of Dachau clearly had the most far-reaching influence. It was even presented as evidence at the Nuremberg military tribunals.

Yet, that is just a part of the story. Harris also traces the lasting influence of the directors’ wartime experiences on their subsequent studio films. To take stock of their legacies, five contemporary directors serve as resident experts on their particular WWII-era filmmakers. Some of the pairings are not exactly obvious, but Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greenglass, Stephen Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan, and Francis Ford Coppola all have significant insights to offer on Capra, Ford, Wyler, Stevens, and Huston, respectively.

There is some pretty amazing footage in FCB (and almost all of it is totally legit, notwithstanding Huston’s occasional fudging). Having distribution through Netflix also allows Bouzereau sufficient time and flexibility to fully tell the five men’s stories. As a result, the complete series actually exceeds three hours, with the individual episodes clocking in at fifty-nine, sixty-seven, and sixty-nine minutes. The contemporary directors also engage in some respectable film criticism, which is certainly not a pursuit for the faint of heart. Yet, what is most refreshing about FCB is the unabashed patriotism of its subjects. These were men with larger-than-life personalities and a great love of country, who were not afraid some snide hipster might call them “jingoistic.” Very highly recommended, Five Came Back starts streaming this Friday (3/31) on Netflix.

Donnie Darko: The 15th Anniversary Restored Director’s Cut

It was a box office flop that inspired a non-canonical sequel. For obvious reasons, the late fall of 2001 was not a great time to release a film about a jet engine mysteriously falling out of the sky into the protagonist’s bedroom, but it would find its audience through midnight screenings and home video (including VHS). Now the apocalyptic high school angst is back in the 4K restored director’s cut and the original theatrical edit of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (trailer here), both of which open in select cities starting this Friday.

Much to his family’s consternation, Donnie Darko has gone off his meds. However, he will consider taking them again when strange things start happening around him. For one thing, he is sleepwalking again. During his latest bout of somnambulism, he encounters “Frank,” presumably a dude in a bunny suit or possibly a cosmic rabbit over six feet tall (not even counting the ears), who tells him the world will end inn twenty-six days.

When Darko finally returns home, he finds it cordoned off by the FAA. Evidently, his rendezvous with Frank saved him from the aforementioned jet engine. Much to the investigators’ bewilderment, there are no aircraft in the vicinity missing any hardware. However, Darko will figure out what it is and how it is significant thanks to Frank’s subsequent cryptic messages and The Philosophy of Time Travel, a theoretical treatise written by Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. “Grandma Death,” an addled old lady in the neighborhood obsessed with her mailbox.

Apparently, there was also a Millennial generation of genre film fans who were obsessed with Donnie Darko. To paraphrase Pacino, they knew the film so well, he was “Don Darko” to them. It seems some prefer the twenty-minute-shorter theatrical version to the director’s cut, because it is more ambiguous and open to interpretation. However, those who start with Kelly’s cut will be struck by the passages from Sparrow’s book that give context to the strange events of Darko’s life. Essentially, they make the nun turned science teacher into a prophet in her own time and dimension.

Jake Gyllenhaal is weirdly compelling as Darko, a rather strange, not especially well-socialized teen, who could indeed be the younger alter-ego of Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler character, Louis Bloom. Arguably, Darko is the film that made the Gyllenhaals the Gyllenhaals, convincingly casting his sister Maggie as Darko’s sister Elizabeth.

Yet, it is a number of the supporting performances that really make indelible impressions. Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne have terrific bantering chemistry together, but they are ultimately quite touching as Darko’s parents. Executive producer Drew Barrymore is subversively sly and witty as Karen Pomery, the only decent teacher at Darko’s progressive prep school. Patrick Swayze willingly blows up his big screen image as sleazy self-help guru Jim Cunningham, while the Katharine Ross totally sells some intense hypnosis sessions, as Darko’s shrink, Dr. Thurman.

Without a doubt, Darko’s creepy look and spot-on 1980s soundtrack contributed immeasurably to its cult success. There is still something about it that gets under your skin (in a good way), perhaps now more than ever. Highly recommended in its director’s cut, Donnie Darko opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the Metrograph (theatrical cut) and in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily (both versions).

Peelers: Zombies in a Strip Club

We know from Train to Busan a speeding bullet train is the worst possible place for a zombie apocalypse. In contrast, a divey roadhouse strip joint ought to be a relatively advantageous spot. It is relatively isolated, with plenty of parking and no spying neighbors. However, its strict “no touching” policy will go out the window when the infected hordes attack in Sevé Schelenz’s Peelers (trailer here), which releases today on VOD, from Uncork’d Entertainment.

This was always supposed to be the club’s last night, at least under the management of Blue Jean (don’t call her “BJ,” unless you want some serious bruising). She was forced to sell out to an obnoxious local developer with mysterious plans for the property. Presumably Blue Jean will survive. She still hurls a mean fastball and drives a current issue police patrol motorcycle, but her torch-carrying bouncer Remy will miss seeing her every night.

Of course, personal dramas will have to be put on hold (perhaps forever) when four miners start acting crazy violent. Apparently, they were contaminated with some sort of petroleum-based zombie pathogen. Rather inconveniently, they start acting ultra-aggressive and they won’t stay dead.

Oddly enough, Peelers is a little slow out of the blocks, but it offers a few clever twists on the zombie genre, in accordance with the properties of oil. Obviously, Peelers is tailored-made for VOD, but most of the strip club business is played for American Pie-style laughs rather than erotic titillation (which is probably true of most strip clubs in the boondocks).

Look, you know what you’re getting here, but for what it’s worth, Wren Walker shows real, potential movie star presence as Blue Jean. She also develops some rather pleasant chemistry with Caz Odin Darko’s Remy. Momona Komagata adds a further bit of empowerment to the mix as Frankie, the stripper Remy was teaching martial arts. Unfortunately, the rest of her colleagues are shallow stereotypes, at best.

This isn’t even the first undead exotic dancer movie (hello, Zombie Strippers with Robert Englund and Trump super-fan Jenna Jameson), but the basic concept is pretty bullet-proof. Peelers is often amusing and it is arguably smarter than its predecessors. Recommended for zombie fans in the mood for a meathead movie, Peelers releases today on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Prison: Hard Time in Korea

The recidivism rate for this prison is darn near 100%, especially if you are fortunate enough to be quartered in Jung Ik-ho’s block. His men start re-offending almost right away, but their incarceration gives them an airtight alibi. It is a heck of a place for a disgraced cop to serve his sentence, but he happens to have a particular set of skills that will be of use to Jung in Na Hyun’s simply-titled The Prison (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A lot of his fellow prisoners are here because of Song Yoo-gun, awkwardly including the top dog of his prison cell. He will take some harsh beatings, but he will quickly develop a survival strategy. It immediately becomes apparent the corrupt warden is not really running the show here. Jung is. He and his men live well in their cell block, where they plot outside jobs to keep the dirty money flowing. By interceding in situations where none of Jung’s other men are crazier enough to act, Song ingratiates himself with the non-aligned gangster. In fact, he quickly becomes one of Jung’s favorites, but he also has a secret you can probably guess.

Those who are familiar with the Well Go USA catalog might wonder if they are starting to repeat themselves, since Erik Matti excellent thriller On the Job starts with a similar premise, but Na Hyun takes it in a very different direction. Like just about every recent Korean thriller, Prison is preoccupied with issues of governmental corruption. Granted, Song has a dramatic backstory motivating him, but unlike Matti’s film, there is absolutely no attention given to the home front. Frankly, there is not a single woman to be seen throughout the film and only one is briefly heard over the phone (so some things about prison life are still a bummer).

On the other hand, there is plenty of cartilage-crunching action. Previously best known as the screenwriter of crowd-pleasers like Forever the Moment, Na Hyun gets his money’s worth with his directorial debut, going big with a truly explosive climax. The two lead antagonists also hold up their end, generating all kinds of hardboiled heat. Frankly, it is great fun watching the hateful-yet-respectful chemistry that develops between Kim (Gangnam Blues) Rae-won and Han (Forbidden Quest) Suk-kyu as Song and Jung, respectively. It is also great fun to watch Lee (Inside Men) Kyoung-young, a character actor who seems to specialize in crooked politicians, do his thing as correctional department head Bae (who ironically happens to be somewhat honest this time around, but is still unrepentantly arrogant).

There is no question The Prison can hang with Inside Men and the most obvious comp film, A Violent Prosecutor, but in many ways, it is grittier and less sentimental. At the risk of sounding fannish, it is exactly the kind of film that reminds us why we dig Korean action movies and thrillers. Recommended with enthusiasm, The Prison opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Cezanne et Moi: The Great French Bromance

The “moi” in this case is Emile Zola, who was also the “I” in the Dreyfuss Affair J’Accuse. Despite his tremendous literary success at the time, Zola is now best known outside of France for his personal associations: the defender of the unjustly convicted captain and the estranged friend of Impressionist-forerunner Paul Cézanne. Opting for intimate drama over grand scandals, Danièle Thompson focuses squarely on the latter relationship throughout Cézanne et Moi (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1888, Cézanne visits his old friend Zola for the final time. Initially, they are cordial and even nostalgic, but the publication of Zola’s novel The Masterpiece hangs over the meeting. Everyone in the Smart Set considers the self-destructive protagonist to be a thinly veiled portrait of Cézanne, especially Cézanne himself. As the painter and the novelist dance around the issue, Thompson flashes back to episodes from their childhood and their early years scuffling in Paris.

Essentially, we see them switch positions. Zola, the naturalized Italian, will rise up out of his family’s mean circumstances to become one of the most widely read writers of his day. Conversely, Cézanne is born to privilege, but will be spurned by the art establishment as well as polite society. Nevertheless, he stubbornly adhered to his own artistic vision, earning an only partly unfair reputation for being a misanthropic recluse as a result.

C et Moi might have made a better stage play than a motion picture. The title roles offer a great deal of meat for two somewhat more mature actors to chew on. The classy subject matter also holds an obvious appeal to costume drama fans. Thompson seems to recognize she lacks the lightness of touch that made the best Merchant-Ivory films such lovely jewel boxes. Instead, she takes the film in another direction, penning some brutally frank, cruelly caustic exchanges. Indeed, the best scenes in the film focus on the two artistic giants, as they carve into each other as only formerly close comrades can.

Guillaume Gallienne (of the Comédie-Française) and Guillaume Canet are terrific as Cézanne and Zola, respectively, at least when they get to really play off each other (whereas, the flashbacks to their student years feel like routine historical drama exposition.) However, Alice Pol adds an element of unpredictability as befits Zola’s once scandalous wife Alexndrine (as she is now known).

Jean-Marie Dreujou makes the Provence landscape sparkle—a contribution Cézanne would surely appreciate. It is a richly appointed period production, but Éric Nevaux’s dully respectable themes lack any sort of flavor or texture. Still, Thompson and the two Guillaumes always make us believe these two men are so deeply connected, they know exactly what to say to hurt each other the most. Recommended for fans of classy French cinema, Cézanne et Moi opens this Friday (3/31) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.

Is America in Retreat? Johan Norberg Asks the Question

The term “world’s policeman” is often used in a derisive, Keystone Cops sort of way, but couldn’t this world use a bit more law and order? Maybe America does not necessarily have to fulfill those duties, but who else has the sufficient wherewithal? China? We have seen how they police their own people and it is highly problematic. Johan Norberg, Cato Institute Fellow and Executive Editor of Free to Choose Media chronicles America’s recent trend towards international disengagement and assesses the long-term implications in Is America in Retreat (trailer here), directed by Kip Perry & Elan Bentov, which airs throughout the week on select PBS stations.

If there is one single pivotal event in recent history for the commentators in Retreat, it would undeniably be the Obama Administration’s dangerous decision not to enforce its own “red line” prohibiting Assad from using chemical weapons against his own people, meekly accepting a “Russia deal” instead. Retreat explicitly links the “red line” capitulation to the subsequent refugee crisis, as well as the Putin’s military aggression in Ukraine. As Bret Stephens argues:

“Bashar Assad crossed that line by killing a thousand people with Sarin gas in Damascus. There were no consequences. Vladimir Putin observing what happened in Syria took Crimea in the space of a couple of days. Even then, there were almost no consequences.”

Norberg travels (as near as he can to) to three geopolitical flash points, where the lack of American leadership can be directly felt. The first two are indeed Ukraine and Syria (represented by recently arrived migrants in Germany), which receive plenty of media attention. However, the third flash point, the South China Sea, is arguably the most critical, but under-reported.

One of the big take-aways from Retreat is the role first Britain and then the U.S. have played ensuring safe navigation during their respective Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. Throughout the last seventy years, the U.S. Navy has frequently mounted “Freedom of Navigation” operations through international waterways that overreaching nations have claims in defiance of international law, much like the British did during the prior century. In each case, the British and Americans have been the only nation powerful enough to do this kind of maritime policing, but we also stood to gain the most by maintaining the unfettered flow of international trade.

However, American foreign policy now officially takes no positions regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is obviously an open invitation to China to bully its neighbors. Norberg shows us the human cost of our deference to the PRC, traveling with a crew of Filipino fisherman who are chased out of their own waters by the Chinese Cost Guard.

Another big takeaway from Retreat is its application of James Q. Wilson’s Broken Windows Theory to foreign policy. It makes a convincing case we have reaped greater international instability and human rights catastrophes by ignoring smaller ones, like the poison gas attacks in Syria or Beijing’s island grabs. Unfortunately, it does not leave viewers feeling optimistic. Despite talking like an internationalist, Obama followed a policy of reckless retreat more often than not. Yet, rather perversely, he has been succeeded by a President who frequently falls back on “America First” rhetoric.

It is rather ironic the generally libertarian Free to Choose Network and the “Classical Liberal” Norberg would make this case for a more engaged U.S. foreign policy, but it also makes their arguments harder to ignore. Provocative but soundly reasoned, Is America in Retreat is highly recommended for all American citizens concerned about our position in the world. It airs in various cities throughout the week, including this Thursday (3/30) on Baltimore’s WMPB and Saturday afternoon (4/1) on New York’s WNET.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

BUFF ’17: Prevenge

Ruth probably takes reasonable precautions during her pregnancy, like only smoking filtered cigarettes and drinking clear booze. Granted, committing violent spree murders seems like a source of unnecessary physical stress, but you can’t blame her for it. She is convinced each killing was planned by her unborn daughter. Things will get messy in director-screenwriter-star Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (trailer here), the opening night film of the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival, which now streams exclusively on Shudder.

Her first victim will be a lewd pet shop proprietor. Her second vic will be an even crasser jerkheel. Yes, Prevenge has plenty of feminist implications, but they will be complicated by her subsequent victim, an ice cold professional woman named Ella. In fact, Ruth will become downright distressed when her collection of embryonic tissue insists a conspicuously nice dude will have to die, so she can reach her next intended prey. At this point, it should be clear to all her targets are not randomly selected. They are linked in a very personal way.

Ruth’s pregnancy certainly looks convincing, because Lowe really was expecting during the filming. That sounds absolutely exhausting, but at least she was able to channel her discomfort into on-screen mayhem. She has a knack for delivering bracingly caustic lines and has the power to summon some wickedly potent fierceness. Lowe truly makes Ruth a force to be reckoned with, but she still manages to evoke the insecurities that plague her.

As befits a semi-pseudo-feminist horror film, the strongest support comes from Jo Hartley as her chipper Health Service midwife, who is only partially aware of the awkwardness of the platitudes she tells Ruth. Tom Davis and Dan Renton Skinner also make strong impressions as her absolutely odious early victims.

Lowe previously co-wrote and co-starred in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers with Steve Oram, which should give you a sense of her genre sensibilities. Yet, Prevenge is a more restrained and ultimately more tragic film. It sees the miserable in British working class miserabalism, but adds a lot of blood and sarcasm to making rather transgressively fun. Recommended for fans of horror movies with attitude, Prevenge is now streaming on Shudder after kicking off this year’s BUFF.

BUFF ’17: The Golden Chain (short)

You could call Cyin a Gödel galaxy. All known principles of science and logic break down within its high-density mass. It is more like a different dimension than a galaxy within our universe, because we can never truly understand or perceive reality as it exists inside. Rather understandably, Cyin represents an almost existential challenge for researchers on a far future Nigerian space station in Adebukola Bodunrin & Ezra Clayton Daniels’ animated Afrofuturist short film, The Golden Chain (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

Yetunde cautions her young colleague not to impose her own personal meanings onto the great mystery of Cyin. All they can do as scientists is record data from the event horizon. She chastises with conviction, perhaps to convince herself. Indeed, she seems to be exhibiting signs of professional frustration and personal depression. Her earth-bound lover Andre tries to reach out through an interstellar avatar-based method of communication that incorporates tactile elements, but she evades and stonewalls rather than reveal her potentially cosmos altering plans.

Golden Chain is a short film, but it has some big ideas. In fact, it probably could have used more time to develop its cosmic themes and establish the Afrofuturist imagery (which seems to just pop up in the climatic sequence). In just thirteen minutes, they do an incredible amount of world building. Still, you could say Bodunrin & Clayton leave viewers wanting more (and yes, time is money when it comes to independent film production). There is no question Golden Chain could be fleshed out and expanded into a feature length film, but it is the sort of concept-driven science fiction that lazy critics and fan sites too often ignore.

Regardless, this is a wickedly smart film that feels remarkably up to date with respects to physics, astrophysics, mathematics, propositional logic, and critical theory. Highly recommended for fans of cerebral sf, The Golden Chain screens today (3/26) during the Get the Balance Right shorts program at this year’s BUFF (and be sure to stay for the terrific Dave Made a Maze).

Saturday, March 25, 2017

BUFF ’17: An Eldritch Place (short)

Which is scarier, the Lovecraftian Dreamlands or the Paris suburbs? An immigrant security guard will have a chance to compare and contrast in Julien Jauniaux’s short film An Eldritch Place (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

A reputable scientist should never look as haggard and stressed out as Francis Wayland. Even though his apartment complex is in the city outskirts, it is still considered a reasonably quiet neighborhood, so he really shouldn’t be so concerned about security. However, he has some rather specialized gear in his garage and a malfunctioning door. Frankly, it sounds like a dull but easy temp job to Abdel Alhazred, who is perfectly willing to accept.

Of course, it will be more complicated than he anticipates. First, a catty neighbor tells him malicious gossip about the disappearance of Wayland’s wife. Then he starts to hear strange noises over the walkie-talkie—real strange. When he investigates, Wayland is nowhere to be found, but the scene he left behind is decidedly ominous. Yes, there are references to Cthulhu and the Dreamlands.

Eldritch is one of at least two impressively produced Lovecraftian short films at this year’s BUFF, but its tone is radically different from Nick Spooner’s The Call of Charlie. Jauniaux’s film is thoroughly eerie and loaded with foreboding. Frankly, he makes the earthly glass and concrete housing complex just as spooky as the realm of the Elder Gods, if not more so. Yet, the eldritch dimension looks surprisingly real, but still appropriately malevolent.

As Wayland, Ludovic Philips follows in the tradition of Jeffrey Combs’ Dr. Herbert West, creating another creepy Lovecraft-associated mad doctor. Thanks to cinematographer Elodie Drion, it all looks stylishly sinister, while sound designer Jeremy Bocquet and composer Sarah Bloom further underscore the unsettling vibe, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of vintage John Carpenter. It is a terrific horror short that proves the Lovecraftian themes and motifs are still yielding rich new interpretations. Highly recommended for genre fans, An Eldritch Place screens tonight (3/25) as part of BUFF ’17.

BUFF ’17: She’s Allergic to Cats

There is a point on the cinematic spectrum where cheapo grade-Z schlock starts to approach the style and texture of low-fi “expression for expression’s sake” experimental film. This movie understands that place because it lives there. Obsession and humiliation are just part of ordinary life for a video artist working on the fringes of Hollywood in Michael Reich’s She Allergic to Cats (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

Mike Pinkney plays Mike Pinkney, an aspiring filmmaker who came to Hollywood to become a filmmaker, but found the town had not awaited his arrival with great anticipation. Currently, he works as a dog-groomer, a job he hates and is terrible at doing, as we can see from his Mekas-esque video diaries, dressed up with retro-1980s off-the-shelf computer effects. However, it is through his work at Tail-Waggers that he meets the alluring Cora.

Oddly enough, Pinkney will have more luck pursuing Cora than anything else he tries. He still dreams of making his version of Stephen King’s Carrie with talking cats, but he has no support from his bullying German agent Sebastian. He also can’t get his club rocker landlord Honey Davis, played by Honey Davis from Honey Davis and the Bees to do anything about his rat infestation problem. So, do you see where this might be going?

Reich and cinematographer Zach Driscoll deserve tremendous credit for nailing the look of either terrible exploitation films or ambitious avant-garde cinema. Someone should be embarrassed how aesthetically compatible Allergic to Cats is with Joan Jonas’s Double Lunar Dogs—and it isn’t Reich. However, that does not change the fact all Allergic’s cheesy graphics and VHS tracking effects are likely to give you a stress migraine.

It is actually sort of fun to watch Sonja Kinski (daughter of Nastassja) and Pinkney play off each as Cora and his meta-self, at least in their early scenes together. Flula Borg is also a contemptuous riot as the arrogant Sebastian. However, the cold hard truth is a little of Allergic goes a long, long way.

Still, just about everyone will agree this is the film The Truth About Cats and Dogs should have been in a more interesting world. The more you relate to Pinkney’s circumstances, the more you will likely appreciate its deliberately off-putting vibe. Basically, you should already know with absolute certainty whether She’s Allergic to Cats is for you, so plan accordingly when it screens today (3/25) at this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival.

Friday, March 24, 2017

BUFF ’17: 68 Kill

Its called exploitation for a reason. Neither the filmmaker or the characters of this gleefully sordid, southern-fried caper gives a toss if it hurts your feelings or upsets your delicate sensibilities. People are going to get humiliated, beaten-up silly, and all kinds of dead in Trent Haaga’s 68 Kill, which screens tonight during the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival.

A femme fatale vixen like Liza ought to be well out of the league of Chip, a truly luckless loser, but they probably deserve each other. She treats him like dirt and he keeps coming back for more. Unfortunately, he does not make enough money mucking out septic tanks to cover their rent, so every month she pays off the landlord in “services rendered.” Unfortunately for him, he lets it slip during their awkward pillow talk that he has 68 grand in cash, currently on hand, just begging for Liza to hatch a violent home invasion scheme to snatch it away.

Of course, that is exactly what she does, dragging the alarmed Chip along to ride shotgun. Seeing how easily Liza guns down her victims makes rethink their relationship, especially when he lays eyes on Violet (another woman reluctantly forced to service the late landlord). Chip is smitten and also horrified by Liza’s plans for their captive (they are utterly appalling), so he coldcocks his soon-to-be ex, grabs the money and the girl and starts running for all he’s worth. Obviously, Liza will be hot on their trail, with Hell following after her, but a group of sadistic white trash psychopaths might turn out to be a more pressing problem.

68 Kill is a lurid, nihilistic revel in perversity, but it is bizarrely entertaining to see how low it is willing to go. When Haaga hits rock bottom, he starts drilling into the Earth’s crust. This film just wallows in primordial sleaze, but you have to give it credit for making due on its promise.

Based on his performance as Chip, Matthew Gray Gubler would probably make a good whipping post. Seriously, it often just hurts to watch him. On the other hand, AnnaLynne McCord is beyond fierce as Liza, the villainess from Hell. However, Sheila Vand (as you’ve never seen her before) totally hangs with McCord’s Liza as Monica, the goth-trash psycho-hooker. Alisha Boe also keeps the audience off balance as Violet. She looks and acts sweet, but she archly delivers some of the dirtiest lines in the film.

To his credit, Haaga keeps it all zinging along. This is everything My Father Die aspired to be, but fell far short of reaching. Recommended for its sheer chutzpah, 68 Kill screens tonight (3/24) as part of this year’s BUFF.