Monday, December 31, 2018

Mojin: The Worm Valley

Nothing challenges a viewer’s impulse to impose narrative continuity like the three films and three television series based on the bestselling Chinese novel franchise, Ghost Blows Out the Light. The first two films, Mojin: The Lost Legend and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe were produced by different companies and featured completely different casts. The third film has been positioned as a sequel to Lost Legend, but makes slightly more sense as a prequel (only slightly). It is hard to see how the films could possibly fit together, considering the central relationships vary from film to film. Maybe it all makes sense if you include the TV series (two of the three feature the same cast and creatives). To further confuse fans, there is yet another entirely new cast portraying the popular characters in Fei Xing’s Mojin: The Worm Valley (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Eons ago, a despotic queen cursed her unruly subjects and all their descendants with a brand on the back shoulder and an early death. Alas, the curse persists to this day, including for several of the adventurers associated with tomb “borrowers” Hu Bayi and Shirley Yang. The have an expedition planned deep into the heart of Worm Valley to recover an artifact that might lift the curse. Or something like that.

Technically, there are no worms in Worm Valley, but there are giant crabs, scorpions, snakes (close enough), and lizards. If you really want to be pedantic, there are not any ghosts either. Logic is also pretty scarce in these parts as well, but it works pretty well as an At the Earth’s Core-Skull Island-style monster movie. The assorted creature effects mostly maintain the right balance of believability and cheesiness (fans will understand what that means).

Lost Legend was a box office smash in the Chinese-language markets, so it is hard to fathom why Worm Valley brought in an entirely new cast, but the less recognizable names were surely more affordable. Gu Xuan has the difficult task of subbing in for Shu Qi, but she is still the best thing going for the film, making a much more convincing Shirley Yang than Alicia Vikander did as a Lara Croft. Cai Heng is an energy-sapping Gloomy Gus as Hu, but Cheng Taishen adds some maturity and seasoning as Sun Jiaoshou, the academic scholar on the expedition. Yet, it is Chen Yusi who lands the film’s big emotional scene as Zhou Linglong, the cursed daughter of Sun’s senior colleague.

Ironically, Worm Valley is probably less confusing if you have not seen any of the previous Ghost Blows Out the Light films (we can’t even speculate about the TV series). Yet, there is logic to Fei’s strategy. Instead of wasting time with dubious retcons, he has giant kaiju monsters chasing Hu and Yang, early and often. There is a good deal of meathead fun throughout Worm Valley, but it will make the hobgoblins of consistency in fans’ heads explode. Recommended for fans of Lost World and Land of the Lost fantasy-adventure, Mojin: The Worm Valley opens this Friday (1/4) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Airpocalypse: Hold Your Breath

It is a real thing. This sci-fi disaster term has been applied to Beijing’s persistently thick smog—Google it to see some terrifying images. It is no secret where it comes from, but it sure would be nice to have a fantastical source to explain it all away. The ancient gods will oblige in Xiao Yang’s Airpocalypse (trailer here), which is still showing in Los Angeles and other major cities.

In this superhero movie, Thor is the bad guy. In his mortal guise as Bai Xuejing, the God of Thunder has become China’s richest mogul through his brand of home air purifiers. He also happens to be responsible for the haze enveloping Beijing. The plan is to completely obscure the watchful eye of heaven, allowing his to once again heft his enchanted hammer.

The haze is also good business for Ma Le. His suicide prevention counseling business had been struggling, but now he is working around the clock. For reasons that do not make much sense, he is called in to give an emergency session for Bai, who mainly wants to gloat over his cosmic shenanigans. Ma Le initially assumes the industrialist is off his rocker, but it all starts to make sense when the God of Longevity accidentally transfers his mojo to the counselor. Soon he is teaming up with three more fallen gods, the God of Wind, the God of Rain, and Cai Ming, Mother Lightning, to bring order back to the world.

So, Beijing’s pollution is not just for documentaries and art films anymore. Although Xiao and his battery of co-writers (Huang Yuan, Ben Liu, and Zhang Shaochu) address the phenomenon in a light comedy-fantasy context, it is still quite obvious this is something that is on the minds (and in the lungs) of Beijingers. It is definitely a thing. Naturally, the film is not about to point fingers at the Party cronies and the regulatory officials looking the other way, but calling out Airpocalypse and linking it to depression and suicide is still pretty significant.

Directing himself, Xiao settles into the role of Ma Le, developing a more forceful persona as the film progresses. Du Juan nicely projects Cai Ming’s icy façade, while hinting at her compassionate warmth hidden within. Wang Xiaoli, Yi Yunhee, and Chong Yuan are not shy about mugging for yucks as the Gods of Longevity, Wind, and Rain, respectively, but we have seen shtickier. However, as the God of Thunder, Xiao Shenyang does not seem to be sufficiently enjoying his villainy.

There definitely seems to a Ghostbusters influence discernable in Airpocalypse, especially an arctic spirit, who resembles Slimer. However, it is based on an all too real reality. Xiao also finds a way to wrap it up in a way that is a little bit different and off-center from what viewers will probably expect, but still manages to be upbeat and satisfying. Yet, Airpocalypse is most interesting for the stress and anxiety it reflects. If you want to psychoanalyze a nation take a look at its genre movies. In this case, Airpocalypse is definitely a deep dive into Beijingers’ heads (guess what, they want the smog to go away, but painlessly). Watchable as a light afternoon diversion (that some of us can read stuff into, if we are so inclined), Airpocalypse is still playing in LA, at the AMC Atlantic Times Square and AMC Puente Hills.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Holiday DVD Guide: Lost Pilots

Casting is everything. These failed or drastically revamped pilots prove it. Here’s a trivia question for you. What role was played by William Bendix, Jackie Gleason, and Lon Chaney, Jr.? The answer is Chester A. Riley from the Life of Riley radio, film, and TV series. Chaney Jr. played well meaning Riley in the pilot, but Gleason took over for the initial series run. Chaney’s Life of Riley is one of four curios included in Television’s Lost Classics Vol. 2: Rare Pilots, which is now available on DVD.

The program starts with the nearly unwatchable The Case of the Sure Thing. Presumably, this was conceived as a Dragnet for the New York Bunco Squad, but it makes it look like NYPD fraud detectives sat around all day shilling for Philip Morris cigarettes. In between sales pitches, some poor sap gets fleeced by a horse racing scam. Skip to the next one.

So what role was played by Frank Sinatra (on radio), Art Carney, and racing jockey Billy Pearson? Detective Donald Lam, part of the Cool and Lam duo featured in 30 novels churned by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner under the pseudonym A.A. Fair. Wiry Pearson actually has decent screen presence and plenty of nervous energy for the pesky P.I. His boss, the somewhat matronly Bertha Cool seems like a bit of a stereotype today, but the notion that a middle-aged woman could run a detective agency was arguably rather progressive for 1958.

It also has a nice noir look, thanks to director Jacques Tourneur, who is fondly remembered for helming the classic Val Lewton-produced horror movies, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Erle Stanley himself even filmed an intro to the series, so it is odd it never really had a chance.

Chaney Jr. sounds like a highly questionable fit for Life of Riley, but in all fairness, his comedic timing was not bad. The humor itself just seems hopelessly dated, but there is something nostalgic about the show’s blue-collar family values. It is definitely a curiosity, but Chaney fans will enjoy seeing range Junior Chaney rarely had the chance to show.

Lionel Stander, Lee Horsley, Timothy Hutton, and William Shatner? They were Nero Wolfe’s leg-man, Archie Goodwin. Reportedly, the 1959 pilot was a victim of its own success, considered too good for its half-hour format by network executives. Shatner flashes some of that James T. Kirk charm and plays off Broadway actor Kurt Kasznar’s Nero Wolfe quite adroitly. Both actors look like they were enjoying their sparring sessions. The mystery is wrapped up in a rather perfunctory manner (those execs were sort of right), but it is still a shame their Nero Wolfe was not picked up for a full series run. It even featured a theme composed by Alex North, so plenty of talent went into it.

As a bonus feature, Lost Classics also includes a blooper reel cobbled together for a CBS affiliate meeting, hosted by James Arness. It is somewhat more amusing than a lot of similar compilations, largely because of the vintage shows it was culled from (Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Twilight Zone), but hardly essential viewing.

This disk is admittedly a novelty release. Still, we can see the potential of Nero Wolfe and Cool and Lam, so it is rather a shame that the never found a spot on the network schedule. Indeed, it was a different era, when there were only three episodic content buyers. A modestly interesting diversion, Television’s Lost Classics: Pilots is now available on DVD and BluRay.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Real Doctor Zhivago

Among Nobel laureates for literature, Boris Pasternak has been the one with all the asterisks. At first, there was an asterisk saying “award refused,” but then it was changed to “forced to refuse.” Eventually, the Pasternak family finally posthumously accepted his rightful prize. It was a proud day for them and the CIA. The story of Pasternak’s celebrated and censored novel is chronicled in the documentary special, The Real Doctor Zhivago, directed by George Cathro, which premieres this Monday on Acorn TV.

Boris Pasternak was more Russian than vodka, borsht, or caviar. He hailed from an elite family, but he initially supported the revolution, out of sympathy for his less fortunate countrymen. Technically, Pasternak never explicitly turned against the Soviet system, but he wrote the unvarnished truth as he saw it. His epic novel Doctor Zhivago was where he recorded it all.

One of the great ironies Real Zhivago reveals is Stalin’s high regard for Pasternak’s poetry. Unbeknownst to Pasternak, the Soviet dictator interceded with his underlings several times on his behalf. Khrushchev, not so much. However, Pasternak’s found other fans, most notably the CIA, who supported the international publication of his great novel and masterminded schemes to smuggle samizdat copies back into Russia. Yet, in another supreme irony, a publisher affiliated with the Italian Communist Party was the first house to publish Doctor Zhivago in any country.

Host Stephen Smith talks extensively with Pasternak family members and relatives of his great love and editor, Olga Ivinskaya, who is widely acknowledged as the inspiration for Zhivago’s lover, Lara. We also hear from many of his surviving champions in the west, as well as several Pasternak scholars. Smith takes a little getting used to (he has the voice of gameshow host, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but he clearly did his homework, demonstrating intimate familiarity with the novel in question.

Clearly, the notion that the CIA exploited Pasternak is floated several times during RDZ, but one could argue his increased prominence also afforded him greater protection, creating a politically climate wherein it would be risky for the Soviets to make him disappear for long. Indeed, they focused most of their thuggery on Ivinskaya instead. Regardless, it is painfully obvious the CIA (as well as the VOA) were much more attuned to the geopolitical significance of art and culture in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now.

Regardless, most viewers will learn quite a bit from The Real Doctor Zhivago. It incorporates quite a bit of literary and Cold War history in just under sixty minutes. Doctor Zhivago is a great novel, written by a great artist that became a great film and is now the subject of quite a nice special report. Highly recommended, The Real Doctor Zhivago premieres New Year’s Eve (12/31), on Acorn TV.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

20th Annual Animation Show of Shows

One young woman looks to the future of space flight and one must suddenly practice the old sailing techniques of a bygone era. Both find adventure challenging traditionally male-dominated roles in two standout animated short films included in the 20th Annual Animation Show of Shows (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York, at the Quad.

This year’s program kicks off with Pierre Perveyrie, Maxmilien Bougeois, Marine Goalard, Lrina Nguyen-Duc & Quentin Dubois’s The Green Bird, in which a flightless foul struggles to keep ahold of her egg amidst a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting. It is generally sweet, but her woes might be too intense for younger viewers.

The tears really get jerked in Bobby Pontillas & Amdrew Chesworth’s One Small Step, which is one of the best films of the year, of any length. It depicts the sacrifices made by a humble Chinese-American cobbler to help his daughter pursue her dream of becoming an astronaut. Some scenes have the charm and whimsy of Calvin & Hobbes, but the film’s idealism is especially refreshing. Frankly, this film will recharge the batteries of everyone who was underwhelmed by First Man (extended review here).

Alain Biet’s Grand Canons is the sort of non-narrative short that is usually just summarized with a dashed off line or two, but the artistry it represents deserves serious consideration. Essentially, Biet presents viewers with a parade of office supplies and consumers products, reproduced with life-life detail. It is the sort of short that might have appeared on Sesame Street the late 1970s, except it is longer. It is also distinguished by an energetic and sophisticated score composed by YeP (Pablo Pico & Yan Volsy), featuring Yohan Loustalot and Biet on trumpet, Remi Dumoulin on assorted reeds, and Pico & Volsy on percussion.

Amchi Chen’s Barry, about a goat with an MD who can only get work as a hospital janitor is cute and funny, but also makes some valid points without getting lecturey. At just under five minutes, it leaves us wanting more. On the other hand, Nancy Kangas & Josh Kun’s Super Girl and Bullets, two one-minute-long films based on the writings of preschoolers are conspicuously message-driven and ultimately make little impression during their limited time.

Veronica Solomon’s stop-motion technique in Love Me, Fear Me is absolutely stunning, but the role-playing subtext gets lost in the presentation (but this is a showcase for animation, not message-making, so that’s okay). In contrast, it is impossible to miss the point when Guy Charnaux satirically skewers corporate double-speak in Business Meeting, apparently based on a short story by Brazilian writer Rafael Sperling. Imagine Don Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton collaborating on an episode of The Office, except it is twenty or thirty times weirder.

Jorn Leeuwerink’s Flower Found! just might be the most subversive film of the year—any year. It starts out as a cute animal tale in which all the forest creatures help a mouse look for his missing flower, but it takes a dark turn that illustrates the dangers of group thinking and mob justice. Seriously, this one is not for kids. It will even leave a mark for most adults.

Nicolas Petelski’s A Table Game is a rather elegant work of surreal absurdity that credits Estonian animator Priit Pärn as an artistic advisor, which tells you everything you need to know, if you are familiar with Pärn’s work.

There is no denying the good intentions or striking style of Valentin Riedl & Frederic Schuld’s Carlotta’s Face, but the real life story of a high school student coping with facial blindness keeps viewers at arm’s length with its abstractness.

Technology is disruptive in John Kahr’s Age of Sail, but there is no substitute for an adventurous spirit. The old captain of a sailing vessel picks up a girl who fell off one of the steamships that rendered him obsolete. The problem is the salty skip set out without any food or water—just rum. There is a real Jack London favor to the film, but its sensibilities are much more modern. It is a good sea story that features the voice of Ian “Lovejoy” McShane, as an added bonus.

You will want to call your mom after watching Hikari Toriumi’s Polaris. It is sweet but never saccharine, featuring polar bears and penguins. As a mother-son film, it pairs up perfectly with One Small Step.

Arguably, Eusong Lee is working with the biggest canvass throughout My Moon, featuring personifications of the Sun and Moon in a star-crossed romance. Although it sports a much brighter color palette, but there are elements of this allegory that bring to mind Jonathan Ng’s Requiem for Romance.

Perhaps fittingly, this year’s Show of Shows ends with the short film many Oscar pundits are predicting could go all the way. Trevor Jimenez’s Weekend is a realistically messy divorce drama, told from the perspective of the kid stuck in the middle. The animation is stylized, but it clearly reflects our world. Yet, maybe the gutsiest aspect is Jimenez’s use of Dire Straights’ “Money for Nothing” as a recurring motif, considering how iconic that computer animated video has become.

This is a strong program of shorts, featuring three selections (Weekend, One Small Step, and Age of Sail) that made the academy shortlist. Step and Sail are can’t-miss films, but even the less engaging shorts are worth seeing for the quality and unique vision of their animation. Recommended for older, general audiences, the 20th Annual Animation Show of Shows opens tomorrow (12/28) in New York, at the Quad.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Take Point: Action Under the DMZ

You know things are bad in the DPRK if the Grand Poobah himself wants to defect. In this thriller set three or four years in the future, the “Supreme Leader” is aptly known as “King.” Whether he really wants to defect or not is uncertain, but “Ahab,” a South Korean mercenary, is determined to bring him back safely regardless. It will take a bold move to prevent a catastrophic war and Ahab is just the guy to make it in Kim Byung-woo’s Take Point (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles and next Friday in New York.

Ahab and his seedy team of mercs are lethally effective, but as foreign nationals, they can be easily disavowed. That is why Agent Mackenzie frequently subcontracts their services. However, this gig was always going to messy and it just got a whole lot more complicated. Ahab’s crew ensconced themselves in the secret tunnels under the DMZ, waiting to whisk away a high-ranking official who supposedly wants to defect. The game gets exponentially more serious when King shows up in his place. Maybe he wants to defect or maybe he doesn’t. Either way, Ahab and his men can collect the enormous bounty on King’s head if they bring him in alive.

The initial snatch and grab proceeds surprisingly smoothly, but everything soon goes down twisted thereafter. It seems Ahab and King were set up by elements in the North Korean government loyal to China, who want to take over the DPRK and embarrass the American government, especially Pres. McGregor, whose re-election numbers have been in freefall. He might end up hoisted on his own Wag-the-Dog petard, unless Ahab and his crew can deliver the wounded King to the rendezvous point. Things look really bad for the colorful mercs, but Ahab finds an unlikely ally in Yoon Ji-ui, King’s personal physician.

Politically speaking, Take Point (the title is a command and also maybe a place) is about as cynical as a film can get. Everyone is betraying everyone else, so you can’t accuse it of playing favorites, but it is safe to say there is some serious moral equivalency going on here. At least there is also some slam bang action as well. Kim really puts poor Ahab through the wringer and paints him into a corner. His prosthetic leg takes more of a beating than the one the Rock sports in Skyscraper.

As Ahab, Ha Jung-woo is a terrific world-weary, beat-to-heck anti-hero. It is also a good deal of fun watching him play off American thesps Jennifer Ehle and Malik Yoba, as Mackenzie and Gerald, Ahab’s field lieutenant. Of course, it is obvious Ahab’s righthand man Markus is questionable, because he is played by Kevin Durand at his shiftiest.

Scurrying through all those underground tunnels could potentially get tedious, but Kim keeps the energy cranked out and the close-quarters combat easy to follow. You have to give him and the stunt team credit, because they keep raising the stakes and topping themselves, every step of the way. Recommended for the action spectacle (rather than as any sort of coherent political statement), Take Point opens tomorrow (1/27) at the CGV Theatres in LA and Buena Park and next Friday (1/4) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Into the Dark: New Year, New You

If you thought there was something profoundly sinister about bubbly, self-help YouTubers, Danielle Williams will confirm the heck of it for you. The veggie juice lifestyle social media maven is about to make the leap to television, but first she will ring in the New Year with her old high school besties. It goes badly for almost all of them in Sophia Takal’s New Year, New You (trailer here), the New Year installment of Hulu’s Blumhouse-produced monthly holiday horror anthology, which premieres this Friday.

Something happened in Alexis’s house during her high school years that she has yet to recover from. As a result, her parents had it sealed up tight to keep intruders out. Of course, that security glass will also makes it difficult to get out. Alexis and her average friends, Kayla and Chloe have invited Williams to join them for New Year’s. Much to their surprise, she agrees, perhaps for a cheap ego boost. Naturally, she intends to document everything on social media, but Alexis plans to take things offline.

Kayla and Chloe agreed to help Alexis confront Williams and maybe get some closure if and when she cops to her role in the unfortunate events of the past. However, matters quickly escalate and intensify. Soon it is bestie against bestie.

Takal and co-screenwriter Adam Gaines penned a largely straightforward revenge-horror thriller, but her execution as director is quite stylish. There are plenty of very-now uber-connected elements, but there are also nods to the look and vibe of 1970s made-for-TV horror movies that genre fans are sure to appreciate.

Suki Waterhouse acts appropriately moody and convincingly damaged as Alexis. Nevertheless, Carly Chaikin overshadows everyone as the utterly terrifying Williams. Anyone that manipulative, ruthless, and condescending is just a flat-out monster. There is no question, you’d be better off facing Jason, Freddy, or Leatherface rather than her.

Although New You shares some thematic siilarities with Takal’s Always Shine, this is her most traditional and fully realized work in the horror genre as a director. It is not so gory compared to Blumhouse’s theatrical films, but it definitely offers up a ghoulish   of human nature.Think of it as Mean Girls, taken to its logical extreme.

It is quite nice of Blumhouse and Hulu to keep bringing us together for the holidays. Into the Dark is kind of like the Charlie Brown specials, but with higher body counts. There are not so many surprises in Takal & Gaines’ narrative, but it is really well-produced installment, featuring a knockout performance from Chaikin. Recommended for genre fans, Into the Dark: New Year, New You starts streaming this Friday (12/28) on Hulu. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Destroyer: Nicole Kidman Undercover

Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, an undercover cop, whose soul has been scarred by the time she was immersive in a violent criminal gang, headed by an unstable charismatic leader. The Scientology jokes just write themselves, right? As a bonus, it also happens to be a good movie, but it is hard to watch at times (or at least it is supposed to be). Bell gets the heck beat out of her badly and often in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer (trailer here), which opens tonight in New York.

Bell is such a haggard wreck, she has become a walking cautionary example for the entire LAPD. When she was young and idealistic, she joined “Chris” from the FBI in an undercover sting operation to take down Silas’s drug-fueled gang of hippie armed robbers. They worked so well together, their cover as lovers became true in real life, at least as far as they could tell the two apart. However, things still turned out badly—really, really badly.

Frankly, Bell never truly got over the fiasco (that viewers see unfold during a series of flashbacks), so when she receives one of the ink-stained bills from the fateful armed robbery in the mail, she is only too willing to dive back down the rabbit hole. Soon, she is shadowing or shaking down Silas’s known associates, only occasionally stopping to pay some belated attention to her resentful daughter.

No kidding, that really is Nicole Kidman on the one-sheet. Obviously, this is not Moulin Rouge. She has taken her share of flak for being “box office poison,” but you have to give Kidman credit taking such a grungy, anti-glamorous, dissolute anti-hero role. She takes worse abuse than Jack Nicholson gets as Jake Gittes in Chinatown. This is a ferocious performance that shows tremendous range and takes her to some very dark places. Honestly, nobody should begrudge her the awards talk. It is such a good performance, it can’t even be sabotaged by the film’s narrative gamesmanship.

Kidman owns the movie, plain and simple, so it is hard to fault most of her co-stars for getting blown off the screen. However, Bradley Whitford (from Cabin in the Woods and the Broadway revival of Boeing, Boeing) somehow manages to briefly outshine her as Silas’s spectacularly sleazy attorney, DiFranco. Tatiana Maslany also matches Kidman’s willingness to glam down and roughen up as Petra, Silas’s former lover, down-graded to errand-running hench-person.

At times, Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi’s screenplay is too clever for its own good, but Kusama always keeps it totally grounded in LA seediness. She makes viewers feel all the city’s heat and grime. She also stages a brutally effective bank robbery-turned shootout. This is some bravura work from Kidman and Kusama that not surprisingly comes with some rough edges. Recommended for thriller fans who take their coffee black and their hard alcohol without chasers, Destroyer opens tonight (12/24) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark 57.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

David Firth’s Umbilical World

The American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule” stipulates members should never offer an opinion on a person’s menta health if they have not examined them personally. They might be able to make an exception in the case of animator David Firth, just by watching his new feature length stitch-up of his assorted shorts. For instance, it seems pretty safe to presume Firth has an abiding fear of insects and doctors. If you thought the universe was darkly absurd, wait till you view it from Firth’s perspective throughout Umbilical World (trailer here), which is now available for purchase.

Firth has assembled and generally mooshed together thirteen years’ worth of shorts, including his signature character, Salad Fingers. Of course, they all flow pretty well together, because they all share a macabrely surreal sensibility. Fingers is in for a time of it, but he is still not exactly what you might call a sympathetic character. He lives in a desert wasteland, where he has possibly gone mad. Again, he is not the only one.

Characters in Umbilical World often find their will has been subverted, usually by sinister doctors or highly evolved insect-beings. In fact, the Orwellian double-speak of the medical profession inspires the film’s funniest segment. Piercing serpentine tentacles are a recurring motif throughout it all—hence the “Umbilical” title.

Firth actually appeared in Flying Lotus’s weird freak-out Kuso, which might not mean much to most people, but if it means anything to you, it most likely means a lot. In terms of the vibe, think Bill Plympton crossed with Eraserhead. Frankly, short films are probably a more suitable format for Firth, because eighty minutes of lopping off heads and inserting tentacles gets frightfully exhausting.

Still, there is no denying the singularity of Firth’s vision. He is a mad genius of animation, so his admirers must have mixed feelings whether they should hope he ever receives the intensive therapy he so clearly needs. You should already know by now whether Umbilical World is your cup of tea, so shop accordingly. It is now available to stream or purchase through Firth’s website, just in time for Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

MUBI: Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania

The Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center in Vilnius is named in his honor, but there was a time when the icon of avant-garde cinema was not so welcome in Lithuania. He and his brother had fled likely arrest by the Germans during WWII, but their émigré status made them suspect in their native land. However, Mekas was able to return to his home village in 1972 for a family reunion he duly documented in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, the second in a twofer of Lithuanian-related films programmed by MUBI.

In some ways, Reminiscences is a perfectly representative Mekas film, but it can also be considered an outlier. It is not, strictly speaking, one of his “diary” films, but it is acutely personal. It features his rather idiosyncratic (and sporadic) narration, which also makes more of an exception within his oeuvre.

Although he briefly touches on his time in Williamsburg (which is like a foreign country) and Vienna, the core of Reminiscences consists of “100 Glimpses of Lithuania.” Instead of a smooth narrative structure, they provide and series of telling images and episodes, much like the fragmented memory of an exile.

Viewers watching Reminiscences who know Mekas by reputation might be struck by how easily “Mr. Anthology Film Archives,” the living dean of living experimental filmmakers, re-acclimated himself to life in rural Semeniškiai village. In 1972, his mother still did the cooking outside, over an open fire. Yet, Mekas is clearly nostalgic for his old home.

Inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, Reminiscences is sort of the thin edge of the wedge for avant-garde film. Even if Mekas and “Saint” Peter Kubelka (who joins Mekas in the final ten minutes) mean nothing to you, the film serves as a time capsule of early 1970s life in rural Lithuania, including the collective farms. Mekas has an eye for both significant and mundane details that together really paint a full, immersive picture.

It is hard to imagine the Semeniškiai Mekas visits could remain frozen in time all these years. In most ways that is probably a good thing (starting with the country’s political independence from their Soviet oppressors), but the hearty peasants performing traditional dances most likely also represent a rarity today. Mekas edits it all together with a rather sly sense of humor. His aesthetic is an acquired taste, but if you only see one of his films, this is the one to choose. Recommended for viewers receptive to the intimate and the experimental, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania starts its 30-day MUBI rotation this Monday (Christmas Eve).

Friday, December 21, 2018

Swing Kids: The Korean Film (not the one with Christian Bale)

Soft power helped win the Cold War. For many behind the Iron Curtain, Voice of America’s jazz DJ Willis Conover made a conclusive case for freedom with the music of swing and bop. That toe-tapping music will do it every time. For one hard-case North Korean POW, it is the tapping toes that win him over. Much to his own surprise, he joins a camp tap dancing troupe in Kang Hyoung-chul’s Swing Kids (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Rho Ki-soo is a true believer in Communism and King Kim Il-sung. His legendary brother is even fiercer. However, Ki-soo is more adept at causing havoc, guerrilla-style. That makes him particularly dangerous in a tinder box like the Geoje prison camp. Often open conflict breaks out between the pro- and anti-communist POW factions. Frankly, the large percentage of prisoners who want to stay in the South should be cause for embarrassment to the Communist cause, but instead the North has exploited the near anarchy of Geoje for propaganda purposes.

Then Rho gets a good eyeful of Sgt. M. Jackson, a Broadway hoofer in his civilian life, practicing his tap steps. Jackson is trying to mold two unlikely POWs and Yang Pan-rae, a young civilian woman from town into some kind of ensemble, on the orders of the camp commander, Gen. Roberts. The idea is to put on a show for the media during the Red Cross’s Christmas visit. As fate would dictate, Rho has tons of natural tap talent. He also craves the freedom he feels while dancing, but the inherent Americanness of tap puts him in an awkward position with his fanatical comrades.

Simply in terms of music, Swing Kids does not make a lot of sense, starting with the “swing” part, in this case, largely equating with big band  jazz, which was definitely out of favor in the early 1950s. Honestly, the one person in the camp most likely to have a copy of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” featuring Gene Krupa (Jackson’s tune of choice), would be old man Roberts. (Most GIs would be listening to Frankie Laine and Doris Day.)  As a hip cat, Jackson would probably be digging bop—most likely Miles Davis. Frankly, even calling themselves the “Swing Kids” sounds anachronistic.

Be that as it was, it should be clearly stipulated the dance numbers in this Swing Kids (not to be confused with the 1993 film about jazz-listening teenagers in National Socialist Germany) are surprisingly snappy and Kang and cinematographer Kim Ji-young shoot them in an especially cinematic manner. On the other hand, the film attributes outright war crimes to the American military, which is highly offensive (yes, I write as the grandson of a Korean War veteran, who helped rebuild the South Korean Marine Corps after the war). Regardless, the suggestion that an American general would order MPs to indiscriminately murder Koreans is highly problematic, to the point of libelous.

So, it is hard to say what to make of this film. Jared Grimes (one of the choreographers of After Midnight on Broadway) is really terrific as Jackson and Park Hye-soo is quite endearing as the resilient Yang. However, Do Kyung-soo’s Rho comes across as a smirky kid, who couldn’t inspire rebellion in the world’s strictest Catholic School, while Ross Kettle plays Roberts as the broadest martinet stereotype imaginable.

Swing Kids is a frustrating film that builds up a reservoir of good will, but then flushes it all away. It is a shame, because the energy of the dance sequences is quite vigorous. Not recommended, Swing Kids opens today (12/21) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

It isn’t easy being an unacknowledged genius. You probably suspected as much, but Stanislav Szukalski was happy to confirm it in the hundreds of hours of interview footage his friend and executor Glenn Bray recorded. Years after his death, his small circle of admirers is stunned by the revelation of his less than progressive writings in 1930s Poland. Maybe he wasn’t so smart after all. Bray and his underground artist friends take stock of Szukalski’s legacy in Ireneusz Dobrowolski’s documentary, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (trailer here), which premieres tomorrow on Netflix.

At one time, Szukalski was maybe the most famous artist in Poland and he was also quite well known among the smart set during his early years living in America. His style was rather revolutionary at the time and still looks quite distinctive today, like a fusion of Bauhaus and H.R. Giger. However, Szukalski was not one to suffer fools gladly. By his judgment, that included just about every museum curator and all of his artist colleagues.

Nevertheless, Szukalski’s mystical style of Slavic nationalism was definitely in favor during the pre-war years, perhaps too much so. Unfortunately, nearly his entire body of work (at that point in his career) was destroyed in a German bombing raid. Alas, when he returned to the US, he had nothing to show. Years later, Bray stumbled across Szukalski’s work and subsequently learned the artist lived nearby in Burbank. Soon, Bray and his buddies, including Robert Williams and George DiCaprio (father of Leonardo, both of whom serve as producers), were paying regular visits to listen to Szukalski (mostly talking about himself).

So, then there are those years in Poland, which apparently came as a revelation to everyone involved in the film. Bray tends to be more forgiving, whereas DiCaprio senior is pretty appalled. The Mussolini monument is conspicuously awkward, even if he did carve it before the dictator became the “Il Duce” as we now think of him. Yet, this is the same Szukalski who was close friends with Ben Hecht, the screenwriter, Zionist activist, and civil right activist. It is probably safe to say Dobrowolski and his resulting film are not sure what to make of Szukalski, but he allows Bray to be the loudest, most prominent voice.

Perhaps this is counter-intuitive for a documentary filmmaker, but Struggle might have been more effective if Drobowolski had played up the unknowable inscrutability of Szukalski more. Instead, we get enough of Szukalski on Szukalski to conclude he was quite an arrogant old loon.

Still, Szukalski’s verifiable story is loaded with ironies. His work is also undeniably intriguing, even for contemporary viewers. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to see his strange and powerful work seventy or eighty years ago. One could liken him to deconstructive critical theorist Paul de Man, except Szukalski post-war years were largely passed in obscurity. Many of his admirers suggest he mellowed and became more tolerant over time, but it is shame Bray did not know to question Szukalski about his sketchy past, when he had the chance. Drobowolski’s fractured portrait is fascinating at times, but it never really cracks the façade Szukalski projects. Mostly recommended for fans of the underground Comix scene he helped inspire, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski starts streaming tomorrow (12/21) on Netflix.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

MUBI: Frost

They really should have just done an AIDS walk. Instead, Rokas Vysniauskas and his girlfriend Inga Jauskaite agree to deliver a van-load of humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian defense forces battling “separatists” (a.k.a. Russians) along the porous Donbass frontline. It will be a much more dangerous mission than they initially expect in Sharunas Bartas’s Frost (trailer here), which premieres tomorrow on MUBI.

Vysniauskas is not very political, but he agrees to make the delivery on behalf of a friend, more or less for what-the-heck reasons. He also seems to think it will be a way to strengthen his strained relationship with Jauskaite. However, his plan seems to backfire during a stopover in Poland. During a party with Ukrainian relief workers and international journalists, they both initiate flirtatious encounters with other guests.

Nevertheless, they continue on their way, but the closer they get to the front, the more rigorously they are vetted at check points. Some of the Ukrainian self-defense volunteers see them as little more than dilletantes—and neither Bartas, co-screenwriter Anna Cohen-Yanay, or their characters are much inclined to argue.

It is probably safe to say Frost cautiously sides with Ukraine. It certainly is not pro-Russia. However, its most pointed criticism is directed at the young Lithuanians’ gawking war zone tourism and their naïve do-gooder attitudes. Wars are serious business, as everyone will eventually see first-hand.

Ironically, Vanessa Paradis steals the show with her brief but significant appearance as a photo-journalist with whom Vysniauskas chastely spends the better part of a night. Their ships passing dialogue is conducted in halting English, but it definitely connects on an emotional level. It is also the only time Mantas Janciauskas comes out of his Nordic-like Baltic shell. As Vysniauskas, he is glacially reserved. In contrast, Lyja Maknaviciute is a bit more passionate and quite a bit more neurotic as Jauskaite.

When Bartas finally stages scenes of warfighting, they are frightening and confusing in the right, deliberate kind of way. Admittedly, Frost is a small, uneven film, but it has enough interesting things going for it, particularly for MUBI subscribers. Recommended accordingly, Frost starts its 30-day MUBI rotation tomorrow (12/20).

Between Worlds: Get Your Nic Cage On

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the spirit world. A tough single mom tries to use her John Edward-Crossing Over-style powers to save her daughter, but her body is left vacant far too long in Maria Pulera’s Between Worlds (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Poor Joe Majors thinks he is a good Samaritan when he saves Julie from strangulation in a truck stop bathroom, but she is rather annoyed by his intervention. However, she starts to appreciate him when he drives her to the hospital and keeps her company while she waits for her teen daughter Billie to recover consciousness. It turns out Julie can visit the spirit realm, or whatever the heck, while in the throes of a near death experience. She was trying to guide Billie back to her body, but she will need another throttling from Majors when Billie takes another turn for the worse.

Julie is grateful to the down-on-his-luck trucker and they have good chemistry, so he more or less moves in on Billie’s first day home. It is a good arrangement for Majors, but he is freaked out by Billie, who seems convinced she and Majors share some long intimate history together. In fact, she is alarmingly forward with him, but maybe it isn’t so creepy, since she is possessed by the spirit of his late wife. No, it is definitely still creepy, in an especially sleazy kind of way.

Forget about the supernatural and sexual content here. The real attraction here is a massive Nic Cage nostril-flaring freak-out. Think Mandy crossed with Wicker Man, raised to the power of ten. There is even a little sad-eyed Hubert McDunnough from Raising Arizona thrown in for good measure.

Franka Potente (from Run Lola Run) is surprisingly down-to-earth and engaging as Mother Julie, but Penelope Mitchell is uncomfortably Lolita-ish as Billie. Seriously, it is just wrong. Having Nic Cage doing his thing as Majors just adds to the awkwardness. There simply are no words to adequately describe the ickiness of Majors’ make-out sessions with Billie (or rather his wife, in Billie’s body). Honestly, it will also make you rather queasy to watch his sex scenes with her mom as well.

Let’s face it, you should just fast-forward to the Cage meltdown (which is what everyone wants to see in the first place), or forget this film entirely. He implodes with a bang, but as a work of cinema, Between Worlds is no Mandy. For Nic Cage, the adventure continues, but halfway serious horror fans can safely skip Between Worlds when it opens this Friday (12/21) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Criminal Element: Blood

So here's something the entire family can binge together during the holidays. Feel the love in Acorn TV's Blood, a dark morality tale about extreme family dysfunction and quite possibly murder. Exclusive Criminal Element review now up here.

American Renegades: Navy SEALs Pull a Caper for Bosnia

Navy SEALs are terrific at overthrowing dictators and re-establishing peace, but they are not so skilled at nation-building. However, this team is willing to do a little outside-the-box thinking. The plan (half-baked though it might be) is to recover 300 million dollars-worth of Nazi gold for Bosnian reconstruction efforts—minus their cut. Of course, the clock is ticking and the Bosnian Serbs are out for payback in Steven Quale’s American Renegades (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

It gets a little messy, but Matt Barnes’ SEAL team manages to capture and extract a Serbian general right under the noses of his men. The getting in is easy, the getting out involves a tank battle on the streets of mid-1990s Sarajevo. Levin, the joint-operational commander, pretends to rebuke them, but it is definitely a wink-wink-nudge-nudge reprimand. Yet, there are presumably limits to his indulgence. Therefore, the SEALs will do their best to keep it on the downlow when they agree to run an off-the-books mission with both altruistic and mercenary motives.

Stanton Baker, Barnes’ next-in-command has fallen in love with Lara Simic, a local woman working as a waitress, who hopes to help support her country’s reconstruction with her newly incorporated non-profit. She also has some creative fund-raising ideas. As a young boy, her grandfather saw exactly where the National Socialists locked away a shipment of plundered French gold. Shortly thereafter, the resistance blew the local damn, submerging the gold under a new, picturesque lake. Of course, Barnes and his men are at their best under water.

In contrast, this film works much better when it is on dry land. Frankly, the opening action sequence is a lot of rollicking good fun, but the underwater sequences are problematically murky. We can often see when two people are fighting, but we can only hope a good guy wins, whichever one he might be.

Still, you have to give co-screenwriters Luc Besson and Richard Wenk credit for choosing sides, unlike the Peacemaker, which featured a deliberately vague “Balkan” terrorist. In this case, the Bosnians are on the side of the angels and the villains are Serbian, so just deal with it. It is also worth noting that Besson and his French film company EuropaCorp have produced probably the most sympathetic depiction of the American military released in theaters this year.

As you might expect, the best part of the film is J.K. Simmons strutting, bellowing, and just generally hamming it up as Levin. He is always fun to watch and Strike Back’s Sullivan Stapleton makes a nicely understated foil in their scenes together. Unfortunately, there is a lot of time wasted on requisitioning gear and that sort of housekeeping business.

Thanks to Simmons, American Renegades will be a pleasant streaming distraction, but there is nothing special about it as an action movie. We appreciate its respect for the American military personnel who served during the Balkan conflict, but most viewers can wait until it hits iTunes on December 25th (making the Yuletide bright). In the meantime, it opens this Friday (12/21) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Air Strike: Bruce Willis in China

Live by the pointless cameo, die by the pointless cameo. Even Chinese audiences found Fan Bingbing’s brief appearance in Iron Man 3 completely inconsequential and meaningless, but it was sufficient to grant the film “co-pro” status. Alas, her blink-and-you-missed it portrayal of a heroic school teacher in this multinational WWII drama became grist for scandal when she allegedly under-reported her salary for tax purposes. That is something we can easily forgive here in the West, but the Chinese state media has focused its government-backed wrath on her. Perhaps this is partly payback for the incisive social criticism of I am Not Madame Bovary? Regardless, the Chinese release was duly canceled, but it still dive-bombed in and out of American theaters. Mostly just an exercise in anti-Japanese bloody-shirt-waving, Xiao Feng’s Air Strike (a.k.a. The Bombing, a.k.a. Unbreakable Spirit) releases today on DVD (trailer here).

The Chinese Air Force is outnumbered and outgunned by the better trained Japanese squadrons, but pilots like Cheng Ting and An Minxun still feel honor bound to protect Chongqing as best they can. Nevertheless, grizzled Col. Jack Johnson cautions them to take the better part of valor and not fruitlessly surrender their lives. In fact, the Allies are sending some key contributions to the Chinese war effort: a shiny new American fighter plane and a vital British decoding machine.

Former pilot Xue Gangtou (technically on medical leave) accepts a clandestine mission to escort the decoder machine, but he does not know what his cargo really is—even though it is not very secret. The Japanese definitely know what he has and they are determined to stop him. Nevertheless, he still manages to pick up an agricultural professor and his genetically-selected pigs, about a dozen sad-eyes orphans and their protector Ding Lian, as well as a driver/mechanic, who is most likely a Japanese agent.

Xiao certainly strafes the heck out of Chongqing’s civilian population, targeting schools, hospitals, and churches for destruction. The Imperial Japanese are so relentless, they sometimes even bomb military targets. There is some serious carnage here, which might reflect the influence of Mel Gibson, who has some kind of “creative” consulting producer credit on the film.

Granted, this was a total paycheck gig for Bruce Willis, but it is still fun to watch him swagger and bark orders as Col. Johnson. Unfortunately, the Chinese characters are so conspicuously and distractingly dubbed into the Queen’s English, it largely obscures the work of the big-name cast. (Arguably, the voice-overs are almost as obviously fake as the cut-rate CGI effects.) Still, Liu Ye is rather steely as Xue, while Ma Su is suitably mothering as Ding Lian.

After appearing in a small but not completely trivial role in Back to 1942, Adrien Brody returned to China to play a noble Western doctor in Air Strike, whose primary function is to bemoan Japanese brutality, like a weeping Cassandra. However, Rumer Willis has even less screen time as a British doctor who missed her boat, yet she receives prominent billing, as if there is an army of Rumer Willis fans out there. The great Simon Yam also glides through, for about five seconds, as the Chinese Ai Defense Commander.

Yes, the Imperial Japanese military was absolutely brutal during the invasion of China, but that was over seventy years ago. It is worth noting the Japanese constitution legally renounces war and the formation of a standing military for offensive purposes, whereas the Chinese Navy is currently busy bullying Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea. A lot of these anti-Japanese propaganda films really protest too much. Frankly, the best reason to watch Air Strike is to snark at its behind-the-scenes implosions. Not Recommended, Air Strike releases today on DVD and BluRay.