Saturday, June 29, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Dare to Stop Us

Generally speaking, if you want to understand a nation’s collective angst, you check out its monster movies. In Japan, that arguably extended to their naughty Pinku Eiga films. Several prominent directors initially cut their teeth in Japan’s blue movie trade, but none was as notorious as Koji Wakamatsu. The auteur and his circle of collaborators and barely paid employees get a relatively evenhanded treatment in Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dare to Stop Us, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Wakamatsu was a former real deal yakuza, who became a close ally of the United Red Amy terrorist group, whose exploits he later chronicled in the surprisingly unflattering United Red Army. He was also an arrogant blowhard and a terrible boss. Yet, he could inspire loyalty in his crew and admirers, especially long-suffering assistant director, Megumi Yoshizumi.

Yoshizumi will become the tragic heroine of Wakamatsu’s world and Shiraishi’s film, learning to tune out the sex scenes and sexism with the help of booze. Rather than Wakamatsu, the most sympathetic male figure is Masao Adachi, his frequent screenwriter collaborator and an auteurist filmmaker in his own right. Adachi is the only character in Wakamatsu’s orbit who can stand up to him. Yoshizumi also carries a torch for him, despite his being at least a generation older.

One thing is pretty clear throughout Dare. Militant leftists are absolutely miserable people. Seriously folks, start buying into bourgeoisie consumerist values. You’ll be so much happier for it. The film certainly is not a puff piece for Wakamatsu either. Frankly, many viewers coming in without baggage will start to suspect his dirty movies are really just dirty movies. However, Shiraishi and screenwriter Jun’ichi Inoue ultimately humanize him and argue for forgiveness of his excesses.

Regardless, Mugi Kadowaki is rigorously reserved yet strikingly vulnerable as Yoshizumi. It might just be one of the great feminist performances of our postmodern era, but it is unlikely to be recognized as such, since the chauvinism she endures comes from the left (hmm, would the Wakamatsu studio be considered a hostile work environment by today’s standards?). In contrast, as Wakamatsu, Arata Iura is tempestuous and larger than life in big-screen-friendly ways, while Hiroshi Yamamoto anchors the film as the self-effacing Adachi.

Dare is a colorful period production, to put it mildly. However, the Pinku Eiga production scenes are played more for their value as eccentric spectacle rather than for prurient interest. Plus, the soundtrack is pretty groovy. Recommended for both Wakamatsu’s fans and detractors, Dare to Stop Us screens this Thursday (the Fourth of July, an irony that would amuse Wakamatsu) as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Friday, June 28, 2019

NYAFF ’19: The Gun

The more you work with firearms, the more you come to regard them as a simple tool. Alas, Toru Nishikawa’s society does not afford him that opportunity, so when he chances across a Magnum at a riverside crime scene, he is compelled to pocket it—and quickly becomes obsessed with its dangerous power. Plenty of blame will be placed on the inanimate object in Masaharu Take’s The Gun, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

There was a dead body and a gun lying next to it, but Nishikawa is compelled to swipe the latter before the cops arrive. As soon as he gets home, he starts fantasizing about how he might use it. The abusive mother living in the next-door apartment immediately presents herself as an appropriate prospective victim. However, Nishikawa intends to take his time, so he can savor the idea and the anticipation. He will even start a semi-serious relationship with an attractive fellow undergrad, Yuki Yoshikawa, who has recently resumed her studies.

The Gun somewhat follows in the vein of the “Blue Scorpion” episode of the new Twilight Zone reboot series, in that both literally demonize hand guns. At least Take and co-screenwriter Hideki Shishido are more subtle in how they go about it. They also take things in a very existential, Dostoevskian direction. You would almost expect to find Nishikawa huddled in a Moscow garret.

Unfortunately, the film basically runs out of steam during the third act, allowing a lot of good film noir business to go to waste. It is especially frustrating to see the great Lily Frankly only really have one extended scene as the cop giving Nishikawa the Columbo treatment. More of their cat-and-mouse and less of Nishikawa’s self-destructive angst would have made Gun a stronger film.

Nevertheless, Nijiro Murakami is viscerally intense and unsettlingly sociopathic as Nishikawa. He is all kinds of creepy and clammy. Franky is perfectly cast as the world-weary, smarter-than-he-looks flatfoot, while Alice Hirose is terrific as the warm but insecure Yoshikawa.

As in previous films, such as 100 Yen Love, Take dives into the grubby, marginalized milieu. Hiromitsu Nishimura’s stark black-and-white cinematography quite effectively reflects Nishikawa’s darkly agitated state of mind, in a way reminiscent of Aronofsky’s Pi. Yet, somehow, he dispenses with too many subplots in a perfunctory, on-the-nose manner, like the scene involving the biological father Nishikawa has not met up until the second act.

Altogether, The Gun is a hugely frustrating film for hardboiled thriller fans, but it is safe to say Franky will leave them wanting more. Recommended for those who value noir visual stylings over substance, The Gun screens this Sunday (6/30) as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Three Peaks: Frosty Family Time

There are long-held historical antagonisms between the French and Germans, but Lea and Aaron believe they are past all that. They are new Europeans. The only thing standing in the way of their prospective union is her son, Tristan. He speaks English, the language of his father and Euro-skepticism. The vacation intended to forge a new family unit will take a tense turn in Jan Zabeil’s Three Peaks, which opens today in New York.

Aaron is a lumberjack-looking architect, who would ordinarily be considered prime husband and fatherhood material. That is how Lea sees him, but Tristan will need more convincing. That was the whole purpose of this trip, but Tristan is proving difficult. Lea tries to walk on tight-rope, respecting the place of her son’s very-present (but not in this movie) biological father, while still promoting Aaron’s merits. Yet, that often leads to frustration for both of her male companions.

In fact, Tristan’s needy, attention-seeking behavior and sometimes alarmingly dangerous practical jokes start to put a strain on their romantic relationship. Frankly, little “Tris” seems to be making progress in his cold war to undermine Aaron. The question is whether he is a bad seed acting intentionally or just a naïve innocent with a talent for stirring up trouble. Naturally, things will come to a head on the titular Dolomite Mountains.

Three Peaks is a carefully calibrated work, featuring three very impressive performances, but sometimes it is too airless and posed, like we are looking at a series of Ingmar Bergmanesque dioramas. Zabeil’s disciplined approach shuns melodrama and histrionics, but its austerity will make some viewers want to scream.

Still, Alexander Fehling gives probably the best performance of his career as Aaron. It is slow burning work that builds and compounds. Young Arian Montgomery constantly causes viewers to rethink and reconsider just how evil Tristan, the little monster, really is. Arguably, Berenice Bejo has the least developed role, but she easily convinces us in the power of a mother’s love to ignore or excuse some unsettling actions.

It is a bit of a stretch to call Three Peaks a thriller, but it is far darker and murkier than any healthy conventional family drama. Cinematographer Axel Schneppat feasts on the harsh but striking landscape, doubling down on the film’s chilly vibe. This is a film you will respect, but it is hard to love, just like sulky Tristan. Recommended for moody Euro cineastes, Three Peaks opens today (6/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Hard-Core

Somehow, Ukon Gondo managed to fall in with a small group of Japanese leftist nationalists. They combine the fervor of Imperialist WWII denial with leftwing contempt for commerce and capitalism. Wisely, society shuns them, especially women. However, Gondo will find camaraderie with the unlikeliest brothers in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Hard-Core, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Gondo has anger management issues that often require his contemptuous junior executive brother Sakon to bail him out of scrapes. His only work is a weekly gig digging for the presumably mythical lost gold of an ancient shogun in an abandoned mine, under the supervision of Kaneshiro, the doddering nutter “Chairman” of his small but extreme political party. Gondo’s closest companion is the hulking but slow-witted Ushiyama, whom he takes a protective interest in.

Then one day they stumble across an Iron Giant-like robot that they dub “Robo-o.” He looks retro on the outside, but he has a blazing fast processor on the inside. They essentially treat him like a friend and fellow party-member, until Sakon activates his communication interfaces. He also has the notion to exploit Robo-o’s gold detection capabilities. There might actually be gold in that darn hill, but Gondo is more interested in Taeko Mizunuma, the nympho-divorcee daughter of Kaneshiro’s lieutenant and dig foreman.

Hard-Core is an awkward shaggy dog of a film, but it is compellingly earnest and refreshingly averse to cliché and sentimentality. Like Gondo, Yamashita clearly scorns cutesiness, but he connects with his characters on a very humanistic level. The science fiction elements are definitely on the light side, but they are still there, albeit rendered with defiantly low-fi grubbiness. Regardless, the film is probably best classified as an urban fable.

Takayuki Yamada does not say much, but he expresses quite a bit through glares and the black smoke that nearly wafts out of his ears. Takeru Satoh hits the right ambiguous notes as the hard-to-pin-down, but undeniably disdainful Sakon, while Yoshiyoshi Arakwa projects Ushiyama’s sensitive soul, without resorting to distasteful shtick or caricatures.

Based on Carib Marley well-regarded manga series, Hard-Core is sort of like Joel Shumacher’s Falling Down, crossed with The Iron Giant. There is plenty of commentary regarding the economic and social squeeze faced by working-class men without advanced degrees. Yet, what really makes the film work is the friendships that develop between the three outcasts. Recommended surprisingly highly, Hard-Core screens this Saturday (6/29), as part of NYAFF ’19.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Samurai Marathon

Annaka is the Japanese analog for Marathon, Greece. It was there that modern Japanese marathon running originated. It was also the end of an era. Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships” ushered out the Edo Period and helped launch the Meiji Restoration, but the samurai and retainers of the Annaka Clan give the Bushido code a last hurrah in Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon, which screens as the opening night film of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Of course, Perry is a bit flamboyant and cocksure—he is played by Rose’s frequent collaborator, Danny Huston. Frankly, he probably could have been worse, considering the ace in the hole he carried with him: firearms. The Shogun’s representative certainly sat up and took notice. Suddenly, Edo is more receptive to Western ways, but not a traditionalist like Katsuakira Itakura, the Annaka clan leader. To re-instill discipline within the ranks, he decrees all clan samurai and foot soldiers must participate in a cross-country foot-race throughout the surrounding lands.

As a samurai in the accounting division, Jinnai Karasawa must also participate, but he is in better shape than his Clark Kent persona suggests. He is actually a ninja secretly spying on the Annaka Clan for the shogunate, just as his forerunners had done before him. Unfortunately, he misinterprets the marathon as a cover for rebellion, but he is unable to retract his coded message to Edo once he realizes his error. When the Shogun’s forces arrive to wipe out the exhausted Annaka samurai at the finish line, Karasawa will have to make some hard choices.

So, basically, a Jidaigeki hack-and-slash battle (it’s a good one) breaks out during a track meet. Arguably, Marathon is maybe only 10% a sports film, if that. Instead, it specializes in intrigue and warfare. There is also a Shakespearean subplot involving Itakura’s independent minded daughter, Princess Yuki, who disguises herself as a man to sneak past the check point, so she can study Western art in Edo. However, her masquerade is easily seen through by characters who are evidently much more observant than anyone in Twelfth Night.

As a filmmaker, Rose has been all over the map from prestige projects like Immortal Beloved and Anna Karenina (1997) to trashy genre films like sxtape and the immortally beloved Candyman. You never really know what you might get from him, but happily, this is a return to form that definitely ranks with his prestige picture peaks. The is a big canvas historical, with a large cast of characters and a sweeping Philip Glass score, for extra high-brow status. More importantly, it is also a lot of fun, thanks to the brisk action and sly skullduggery.

Takeru Satoh (Kenshin Himura in the Rurouni Kenshin franchise) is perfectly cast as the aloof and conflicted Karasawa. Nana Komatsu finds a credible middle ground as the Princess, portraying her as neither a push-over distressed damsel or an invincible Michelle Yeoh-style swordswoman, but a gutsy forward-thinker. At times, Naoto Takenaka plays not-so retired retainer Mataemon Kurita a bit overly broad, but several supporting players really throw down with authority as various surprise turncoats within the Annaka ranks.

If you can’t a enjoy a film like Samurai Marathon, you’re probably a real killjoy. Yet, it is also classy, respectable cinema. You can tell, because it was produced by Jeremy Thomas (whose producer credits include The Last Emperor, Little Buddha, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence). Enthusiastically recommended, Samurai Marathon screens Friday (6/28), as the opening night film of this year’s NYAFF.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Jinpa

Many contemporary mysteries cover forensic matters in graphic detail, but hardly any address the spiritual repercussions of murder. However, in Tibetan, karma trumps more mundane worldly concerns. One murder definitely begets bad karma and perhaps another murder to come in Pema Tseden’s Jinpa, which screens during the 219 New York Asian Film Festival.

Meet Jinpa the Tibetan truck driver, who is played by Jinpa, the uni-named Tibetan actor and poet, who gives a lift to a hitchhiker also named Jinpa. Before stopping to pick up the standoffish younger man, Jinpa somehow ran over a sheep, which was odd, considering the desolate openness of that stretch of highway. As a devout Buddhist, the incident clearly shakes Jinpa (the driver). Ye, he initially takes it in stride when the younger Jinpa matter-of-factly tells him he has tracked down his father’s killer to a village on the hardscrabble Kekexili Plateau, so he now intends to murder him in turn.

After seeking prayers and religious guidance for the sheep at the nearest monastery, the older Jinpa retraces his steps, hoping to find the younger Jinpa, but his purposes are not clear. Does he want to prevent the other Jinpa from irreparably damaging his karma, or does he have darker motives? All will not be illuminated through a series of visually striking flashbacks (Tseden’s technique of sharply focusing on the Jinpa in the foreground, while blurring the characters in the background could become widely imitated). Who knows, maybe the Jinpas are the same person?

Tseden is a major world-caliber auteur, well-and-beyond his importance as an independent Tibetan voice and chronicler of everyday Tibetan life. Jinpa the film is a heavy statement, but at times, it is either too obvious or too murky. There is no question Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam’s The Sweet Requiem functions more successfully as a Tibetan revenge thriller, but the visuals crafted by Tseden and cinematographer Lu Songye still demand your attention.

Jinpa (the thesp) is terrific as Jinpa (the elder), creating a persona that is both compellingly devout and world-weary. As Jinpa the Younger, Genden Phuntsok has a screen presence worthy of spaghetti westerns. Yet, Sonam Wangmo steals all her scenes, like you’ve never seen before, as the snarky, but weirdly hospitable innkeeper. Honestly, she could be a star in any country.

Jinpa is an intriguing film, but its meditative merits could also be uncharitably described as “slow cinema.” Frankly, this is the sort of film NYAFF programmers used to mock back in the day, but it is an important work of cinema, so the festival deserves credit for being the first to bring it to New York. Recommended for those who want to be temporarily immersed in the Tibetan landscape and head-space, Jinpa screens this Saturday (6/29), as part of NYFF ’19.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party

Ironically, the 1980s are largely remembered as a progressive era of openness in China, but it came to a sudden, violent end in 1989, on the bloody grounds of Tiananmen Square. The death toll remains unknown, but no serious historian doubts it numbers in the thousands. The Chinese Communist Party has scrubbed it from the public consciousness as best they can, but the images of the peaceful protests and violent crack down remain indelibly etched in the memories of everyone who watched the live Western television broadcasts. Yet, there is considerably more to the story. A comprehensive picture of the epochal events emerges through eye-witness testimony and leaked documents now known as the “Tiananmen Papers” in Tiananmen: The People Versus The Party¸ directed by Ian MacMillan and co-written by MacMillan and Audrey Maurion, which premieres this Tuesday on most PBS outlets.

In early 1989, people could reasonably assume democracy would eventually come to Mainland China. It was starting to break out nearly everywhere else. After all, Deng Xiaping was a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, whose son was paralyzed as a result of Mao’s madness. Yet, several of the on-screen commentators explain how Deng’s experience led him to be wary of mass movements, such as the students’ Tiananmen demonstrations. Buzz words like “turmoil” held great significance for him.

Hopefully, most viewers already understand how the demonstrations were ignited by the death and subsequent state funeral for Hu Yaobang, a reformer unceremoniously purged by the Party. However, the extent to which every day Beijingers adopted the students will be a revelation to some Westerners. Essentially, the assault was not just an action on the Square, but an invasion of the entire city, conducted by troops dispatched from the provinces, who had to first fight their way through the barricades erected by the common citizenry to protect the beloved students. It truly was the People versus the Party.

There is also a popular conception that the protestors over-played their hand, which is true to an extent, which became tragically obvious. However, many of the original protest organizers had a better read on the local situation and advocated greater caution and eventually evacuation. In fact, those massacred on the Square disproportionately hailed from the provinces (just like the troops firing on them).

What happened was truly a “war crime” as one of the editors of The Tiananmen Papers points out (with great emotion), but it was even costlier over the long term. The students who were murdered or imprisoned were the best and brightest of their generation. Those who took their places are the ones who toady to power. Deng wanted to crush every last remnant of democratic reformist dissent and he effectively succeeded. Younger generations have no idea what happened in Tiananmen Square and their parents are too frightened or too ashamed to tell them. Yet, the truth is out there.

MacMillan and Maurion give a gripping, step-by-step account of what happened, conveying a dramatic sense of the pre-Tiananmen optimism, the euphoric promise of the protests’ early days, and the shock and terror of the PLA’s assault on the Square. People Versus Party is an important historical document in its own right, because it incorporates a great deal of on-camera testimony from surviving student leaders, including Wuer Kaixi, Shen Tong, Wang Dan, Rose Tang (who is especially moving and damning in her commentary).

People Versus Party would be a significant television event at any time, but it is eerily timely in light of the recent democracy protests in Hong Kong. Thirty years later, the Party is arguably even more oppressive and corrupt. Nobody participating in the Tiananmen Square protests or the Umbrella Protests wanted a revolution, but that might be the only way to bring democratic reform and transparent governance to the Chinas.

Regardless, People Versus Party is an authoritative and sobering work of television history and journalism. It will bring clarity to most viewers’ understanding of events thirty years ago, chilling their souls in the process. Very highly recommended, Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party airs this Tuesday (6/25) on most PBS stations nationwide.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Command: The Kursk Russian Submarine Disaster

Although it only had a fracture of the death toll, Russia’s Kursk submarine disaster was sort of a mini-Chernobyl. It exposed the incompetence of the Russian Navy and the utter indifference of its leadership for all the world to see. NATO could have helped, but Putin waited five days to ask for help, while still enjoying his seaside vacation. It is a cold, claustrophobic tragedy that unfolds in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Command (a.k.a. Kursk), which opens today in New York.

Hopefully, we all know this will end badly, but if you didn’t, Putin likes the way you consume news and media. The Kursk, an Oscar class Soviet-designed submarine loaded with nuclear cruise missiles was participating in a large-scale naval operation intended to intimidate the West. Well, so much for that. The sub captain was warned their Big Bertha missile was running a little too hot, but he chose to continue anyway—and then boom.

Mikhail Averin will try to keep the rag tag remnant of survivors alive in the aft chambers, in the vain hope a rescue party will reach them in time. Admiral Vyacheslav Grudzinsky is willing to do whatever it takes to save the Kursk crewmembers, including accepting the help of British and Norwegian recovery specialists. Unfortunately, the top brass above him drags their feet, hoping a barely sea-worthy Russian submersible can get the job done instead, for reasons of propaganda ad paranoia. Of course, Grudzinsky understands better than anyone how badly the Russian rescue teams have been equipped and maintained in recent years.

What happened to the men of the Kursk (and the 71 children they left behind) was a disgrace, but it inspires some of the films most intense scenes, like when Averin’s wife Tanya publicly shames Grudzinsky’s commanding officer at a media op. Frankly, it is hard to believe Putin was subsequently re-elected, but then again, its always been hard to believe, hasn’t it?

The Flemish Matthias Schoenaerts makes a credible Russian, but he is way too big to believe as a submariner. Regardless, his character is definitely a strong, silent stereotype. In fact, none of the Kursk crewmembers really stand out. In contrast. Peter Simonischek (Mr. Toni Erdmann) is terrific as Grudzinsky, conveying all his prickly contradictions as an old school loyalist, who also always happened to be a reformer by inclination. Likewise, Colin Firth adds some heft and authority as Commodore David Russell, Grudzinsky’s old friendly rival. Of course, Max Von Sydow effortlessly projects sophisticated menace as the sinister, obfuscating Russian Navy chief.

The scenes aboard the Kursk look appropriately dark, dank, and confined, but the film is still a long way removed from the dogme95 movement of which Vinterberg was once considered a leader. Some of his old admirers might find it satisfying to see him doing some interesting things here with aspect ratio shifts. Yet, this is one of the rare submarine films that has its best moments above water (sort of making it the polar opposite of Das Boot, the series). Recommended for fans of military drama, The Command opens today (6/21) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

DWF ’19: The Great Record Hunt (Pilot)

LP collectors know way more about music than downloaders. That is because in most record stores, “new arrivals” is its own section, but it usually isn’t broken down by category. When you flip through, you inevitably pick up on things outside your original field of interest. Record stores are still around and many of them are busier than ever. Host and co-director Ethan H. Minsker takes viewers to many of them in his musical-collectible travel show, The Great Record Hunt, which screens as part of the pilot section during this year’s Dances With Films.

Rather conveniently, the pilot starts in New York City, where Minsker gives viewers the impression LP sales and merchandising is almost entirely about rock and its cousins. Granted, Footlights, the venerable sound track and cast album specialist, closed years ago, but New York is still blessed with many specialty records stores that would add very different flavors to the show’s mix.

Fred Cohen’s Jazz Record Center is a glaring omission, especially considering its idiosyncratic location in a Flower District office building that looks like it could also host Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as tenants. For jazz collectors, the full-service Academy LPs is also a prime go-to, but they are only mentioned in passing by an indie label-owner, who used to work out of their basement.

Of course, nobody begrudges the time devoted to Generations and the Brooklyn Flea, but there is considerably more to New York record-collecting eco-system. As a host, Minsker is enthusiastic, but his fannishness starts to wear a little thin. The pilot also features a performance by Baby Shakes, who are telegenic, but it would be nice if artists from other genres get features spots in subsequent episodes.

To some extent, the pilot serves as a primer on record-collecting for the poor turntable-less out there. If you need to be convinced this is thing than you’re not as hip as you think. However, New Yorkers will get a much-needed lesson in supply-and-demand that could help their economic literacy. When supply is high, it drives down the price. That is why you won’t get much trade-in for your grandparents’ Sinatra records, which still have tons of copies floating around out there. The concept for Great Record Hunt is terrific, but it needs more character and rootsier, bluesier seasoning. Maybe they should have started in New Orleans instead. There is still potential, but real record collectors will be a little bored by The Great Record Hunt pilot, when it screens tomorrow (6/22) as part of TV Block 3, at Dances With Films.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

DWF ’19: Celebrity Crush

Jonathan Blakely is no Linda Blair. After appearing as a child actor in the cult 1980’s slasher Chain Face Clown, he managed to land a few acting jobs, but his adulthood career never amounted to much. Nevertheless, his biggest fan, Emily Lynessa still developed a creepy fixation on him. She will act on her psychotic obsession when Blakely makes a convention appearance in Oliver Robins’ Celebrity Crush, which screens during this year’s Dances With Films, in Hollywood, USA.

By casting himself as Blakely, Robins automatically adds a layer of meta-notoriety to the film, since he appeared as young Robbie Freeling in Poltergeist I and II (but he didn’t get to make the trip to Chicago in Poltergeist III). Frankly, most fans probably better remember the late Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne, but Robins was there too. In Crush, Blakely’s feelings about Chain Face are rather complex. There is bad blood between him and the producers (or maybe they are the rights holders, since they all look like they are about the same age), but he has just started cashing in on the lucrative convention circuit.

Blakely’s old co-star Peter Norvis was supposed to guide him through the gig, but he will become Lynessa’s first victim instead. Technically, she has no desire to hurt Blakely (whereas Norvis, not so much). The deranged fan just wants to live happily ever after with Blakely, so she is willing to drug him and hold him in captivity. Wisely, she does this in Florida, the home state of Scientology, where such things happen all the time.

It is impossible to escape the long shadow Misery casts over Crush, especially since the Stephen King adaptation is a superior film in every possible way. Frankly, Crush just looks cheap and many of its performances are rather awkward, to put it diplomatically. Admittedly, Robins and company are intentionally going for a grubby, lo-fi look and texture, but this film hardly passes for professional grade.

Arguably, the best part about Crush is the way Robins intercuts footage of Chain Face Clown throughout the film, at particularly fateful or intense moments. Ironically, these scenes are visually more intriguing and scarier than the actual narrative involving Blakely and Lynessa.

Robins is not bad as his analog and Melissa McNerney is pretty good as Blakely’s long-suffering fiancée. Admittedly, Jake T. Getman is also well-cast as the young Blakely in the film-within-the-film, but that is about as far as it goes. Yet, perhaps the greatest problem with the film is its tonal indecisiveness, frozen in a no man’s land between nostalgic shtick and Annie Bates’ hobbling scene. Not recommended, Celebrity Crush screens tomorrow (6/21), as part of Dances With Films.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Nightmare Cinema, from Mick Garris & Co.

This faded movie palace looks ominous, yet it will still bring on waves of nostalgia for many viewers. It is a place of nightmares, but at least it is aesthetically appealing. On the other hand, hospitals and medical offices turn out to be nearly as deadly, but they are totally lacking in style points when they factor in three of the five macabre tales that make up Nightmare Cinema, a new horror anthology film overseen by Mick Garris, who helmed the wrap around segments and the final constituent story.

When people wander into the Rialto, the creepy projectionist shows them a film of their ultimate personal nightmare—and then kills them, or maybe leaves them in some sort of nether-limbo. The first tale, “The Thing in the Woods,” is a wild ride involving a slasher dubbed “The Welder,” due to his mask and torch, who soon gives way to a swarm of rampaging alien spiders. Director Alejandro Brugues plays it all for bloody, gory, over-the-top laughs and succeeds on his own meathead terms.

Surprisingly, Joe Dante’s “Mirari” is the weakest of the bunch, even though it stars Richard Chamberlain as the titular plastic surgeon. Dante’s foray feels like a derivative riff on the original Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder,” especially since it was written by Richard Christian Matheson (even though the classic teleplay was penned by Serling rather than his father). Still, Chamberlain chews the scenery with admirable glee.

Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Mashit” is similar in spirit to “The Thing in the Woods,” with restraint and good taste getting thrown to the wind in favor of nutty visuals and escalating chaos. It starts as a rather dark and moody yarn regarding demonic possession in a Catholic school but it builds to the spectacle of the morally compromised headmaster priest hacking and slashing throngs of possessed kids. That really is the whole point of it all, so there is no point in protesting its typical anti-Catholic biases.

David Slade’s “This Way to Egress” is easily the best, most stylish, original, and unsettling entry of the bunch, by far. A disturbed mother is stuck in a Kafkaesque doctor’s waiting room, growing increasingly concerned by her young sons’ erratic behavior, the rather inhuman look of the receptionist, and the apparent dirtiness of the environment. Something is definitely off, so she has started to fear for her sanity. She probably is going crazy, but the truth of her situation is considerably more desperate.

Slade engages in some remarkably economical world-building during the course of “Egress,” taking the audience someplace very strange and basically twisting our minds. It would make sense to end with it as the grand crescendo, but there are reasons why Garris’s “Dead” still fits best at the end. Riley is a piano prodigy who sees his parents murdered before him—and then he starts seeing dead people, like the kid in The Sixth Sense. Naturally, there are plenty of dead people to see in the hospital, where he is recuperating, but the dangers he faces are very human. Faly Rakotohanana is believable and engaging as Riley, but Lexy Panterra really steals all her scenes as Casey, a slightly older girl in his ward, who also has the “shine.”

Arguably, Garris gets the film’s best performances in “Dead,” whereas “Egress” features the best writing, cinematography, and direction. Frankly, Nightmare Cinema is definitely one the stronger horror anthologies in recent years and most likely one of the more consistent. Mickey Rourke (Oscar-nominated for The Wrestler a mere ten years ago) just shambles disinterestedly through the connective scenes as the Projectionist, but Garris and Slade deliver first-class work—and Brugues and Kitamura are never boring. Recommended for horror fans with a good deal of enthusiasm, Nightmare Cinema opens this Friday (6/21) in LA, at the Arena Cinelounge.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Ghost Light: Good Luck Staging Macbeth

Shakespeare never gets the credit he deserves for being a writer of the macabre. Hamlet has ghosts and graveyards, while Richard III is all about a psychotic hunchback. The best example is probably Macbeth, with its witches and curses. Of course, we are supposed to call it “The Scottish Play” because of actors’ superstitions. Remember how they refuse to say the “M word” the next time an actor lectures you on “science.” Nevertheless, when somebody tempts fate by uttering the unutterable, it leads to a lot of supernatural trouble. On the plus side, the amateurish summer stock troupe’s performances improve tremendously in John Stimpson’s Ghost Light, which releases today on DVD.

Henry Asquith’s company has come to mount the Big Mac play in a picturesque country playhouse. During the intense week of rehearsals, they will stay in the comfy farm house adjoining the converted-barn theater. Hammy Alex Pankhurst will be playing Macbeth thanks to his deep pockets. Brooding Thomas Ingram will be playing Banquo, even though he believes he should have the title role, by virtue of his superior talent. Liz Beth Stevens does not disagree with Ingram, whom she is seeing on the sly, behind the pompous Pankhurst’s oblivious back.

Disgusted by it all, Ingram and Stevens invoke the dreaded name and the cursed play responds. Soon, they find themselves in positions very much like those in the play. However, their rapport is threatened by the arrival of a mysterious backpacking yoga tourist, who agrees to take on the part of “Second Witch.” Then accidents start happening.

Ghost Light is a low-key supernatural comedy that is small in scope, but still rather pleasant to watch. It features a game cast, all of whom seem to enjoy the larkiness of it all, especially Cary Elwes, who absolutely gorges on the scenery as Pankhurst. Arguably, Elwes doesn’t get the horror cred he deserves either, even though he was in several dozen Saw movies and had recurring roles on Stranger Things and The X-Files.

Be that as it may, Roger Bart scores most of the film’s laughs as Asquith, who manages to be both indulgent of his actors, but still bitingly sarcastic. Tom Riley (Leonardo in Da Vinci’s Demons) and Shannyn Sossamon go all in as the Macbeth-tormented lover-thesps, while Carol Kane acts like Carol Kane, as Madeline Styne, as “The First Witch.”

There are some clever bits in Ghost Light, but Stimpson and co-screenwriter Geoffrey Taylor are more interested in Noises Off-style back-stage gags than really delving into the Bard’s creepy side. One wonders what Liam Gavin and the team behind A Dark Song might have done with this premise. Still, Stimpson & Taylor deserve credit for originality. Recommended as an appealing palate-cleanser for horror fans, Ghost Light releases today on DVD and VOD.

Jordan Peele’s Us

It always comes back to the 1980s, especially when the subject is horror movies. In this case, we start our yarn in 1986, but the influence of the Eighties will still be clearly evident when the tale picks up sometime roughly now. It starts by name-checking C.H.U.D., the original there-are-bad-things-below-our-streets-and-it’s-the-government’s-fault B-movie and ultimately shows up Hands Across America as the cultish, attention-seeking behavior it so obviously was. The doppelgangers will stock their entitled analogs in Jordan Peele’s Us, which releases today on DVD.

When she was a child, Adelaide Wilson gave her parents a bit of a scare when she wandered off along the Santa Cruz boardwalk, getting lost in a hall of mirrors. She returned ostensibly safe and sound, but to this day, she remains haunted by an encounter with her doppelganger. In the present day, Adelaide and Gabe Wilson are like the horror movie Huxtables. He proudly wears his Howard University sweatshirt, but his primary concern is keeping up with their well-heeled frienemies, the Tyler family. Then one fateful night, the Wilsons see four shadowy figures who look a lot like them standing ominously in their driveway, as you probably know from the trailer.

It is not a casual social call. The game is on, but it would be spoilery to reveal the revelations that will come out as the stressful night continues. Us lends itself to a fair number of class-conscious interpretations, but it represents a vast improvement over Peele’s wildly over-hyped Get Out, starting with the happy fact that it truly is a horror movie rather than a gimmicky thriller with an assortment of genre trappings.

In fact, the film is pretty intense. To Peele’s credit, he proves he can throw down the fear old school 80’s style. He also hints at the chaotic global picture in intriguing ways, without detracting from the micro-tension of the Wilsons’ ordeal (not unlike later installments of Romero’s Living Dead franchise). One cool thing about Us is the proliferation of internet debates regarding what really happened and the symbolic meaning of it all, whereas even for admirers of Get Out, it was all cut-and-dried up there on the screen.

When not working on Marvel/Star Wars/Disney properties, Lupita Nyong’o could become a new Jamie Lee Curtis based on her work in Us and the sweet zombie comedy Little Monsters.  As Adelaide Wilson, she has to imply some strange and complicated emotional responses we shouldn’t really get into, but she pulls it off quite assuredly. It is the sort of performance many viewers will want to re-watch with the benefit of hindsight.

Winston Duke nicely counterbalances Nyong’o as the more passive, easy-going Gabe. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are both terrific as pre-teen daughter Zora Wilson and her younger brother Jason, as well as their doppelgangers. However, Elisabeth Moss shamelessly steals her scenes as catty Kitty Tyler.

Us has no post-credit stinger, so it saves us that annoyance. Peele packs in a lot of weirdness, but it all has a role to play, so do not forget about the opening images. Most importantly, Us represents a major departure from Get Out, because it is actually scary. Recommended for horror fans, Us releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Quiet One: Bill Wyman, Formerly of the Rolling Stones

Bill Wyman is a rock star—and he has the top 40 hit to prove it. I was called “(Si Si) Je Suis un Rock Star.” It charted in the UK, Australia, and NZ, but it never really caught on here. However, you might have heard of the band Wyman was in. They are called the Rolling Stones. They had a raft of hits and they are even credited with ending “The Sixties,” with their disastrous Altamont concert. Wyman retired from the Stones just as the band started slipping into self-parody, but he remains the foremost archivist of the band’s history. Wyman and his assembled scrapbooks, ephemerals, and memorabilia provide a treasure trove for filmmaker Oliver Murray to mine in The Quiet One, which releases this Friday in New York.

Arguably, Charlie Watts could just as easily be called “the Quiet One,” but he was always a jazz drummer at heart, so he made plenty of noise behind his kit. Wyman was not a blues fanboy like the rest of the band, but he was knocked out by the sound of the electric bass in early rock & roll. He heard the Stones were looking for a bassist and one thing led to another. Eventually, he was part of one of the biggest, most enduringly popular bands in rock & roll history, yet he still carried the insecurities and resentments instilled in him by his casually contemptuous parents.

Wyman’s parents will sound borderline abusive to most viewers, because they probably were, but they perfectly reflected the value system of the British Labour Party and its adherents, which insists on loyalty to the “working class” and scorn aspirations of upward mobility. Fortunately, Wyman spent considerable time with his more supportive grandmother, whom he even lived with for several years. In a tellingly moment, Wyman readily admits on camera his decision to change his surname from Perks to Wyman was indeed a partial rebuke of his parents.

For the most part, Murray chronicles the history of the Stones (especially the Brian Jones era) from Wyman’s perspective, because it is the most significant association of his professional/artistic career and it is what audiences will be most interested in. He also devotes some time to Wyman’s assorted marriages, his solo career, and his more relaxed work leading Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, whose ranks include Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker, and British jazz musician Martin Taylor and Georgie Fame. However, Giallo fans will be disappointed Murray does not delve into the soundtrack work Wyman did for Dario Argento’s Opera and Phenomena.

Murray is clearly sympathetic to Wyman, but the musician-subject readily admits to numerous mistakes in his personal life and revisits difficult memories from his childhood, so the resulting film really cannot be dismissed as a puff piece. It is good to see Wyman get his turn in the spotlight, but Watts is even more overdue (for now, he’ll just have to make do with the pots of money he earns from the Stones’ tours and catalog sales). Recommended as an entertaining and reasonably in-depth portrait of a rock & roll survivor, The Quiet One opens this Friday (6/21) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Das Boot: The Series

It was a case of what went around, came around. German U-boats were notoriously feared by the Allies during World War II, but the mortality rate for U-boat crews was also perilously high. Anyone who saw Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot (still the record-holder for German language films when it comes to Oscar nominations and American box office) has a visceral understanding of the watery deaths resulting from submarine warfare. That might seem like an impossible film to sequelize, but German TV went back to Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s original source novel and his follow-up, Die Festung as the basis for the eight-part sequel series treatment, directed by Andreas Prochaska. It is a new crew, but war is still an ugly, dehumanizing business in Das Boot, which starts streaming tomorrow on Hulu.

This is U-162. U-96 went to its submerged grave in the movie and U-113 joins it in Davy Jones locker during the prologue, just in case we forgot the dangers U-boat crews risked. Just as in the film, the crew of U-162 are far removed from the genocidal crimes of the National Socialist war machine, but they are definitely not heroes. In fact, their cruise will be marred by incidents of hazing, dereliction of duty, accidental maiming, accusations of cowardice, and outright insurrection.

The problem starts at the top of U-162’s command. Despite his inexperience, Klaus Hoffman will be captaining the U-boot, presumably because he is the son of a legendary naval officer. His veteran 1st Watch Officer Karl Tennstedt was already resentful to be passed over for promotion again, but Hoffman’s alleged timidity pushes him to undercut the captain among the crew. Their differing approaches will come to a head when the U-boat is assigned a secret mission, of questionable strategic value.

Meanwhile, Simone Strasser, an Alsace-German working as a civilian interpreter in the German navy’s La Rochelle base finds herself up to her neck in intrigue. Initially, she considers herself a loyal German, but her faith will be shaken after her brother Frank is summoned to serve aboard U-162 at the last minute. She subsequently learns he had agreed to trade sensitive U-boat schematics to the resistance, in exchange for forged papers for himself and the secret Jewish wife his sister never knew he had. However, things really get awkward when SS Kriminalrat Hagen Forster takes a personal and professional interest in her, while she develops a romantic attraction to British resistance firebrand, Carla Monroe.

Unlike the film, Das Boot the series spends a lot of time above water, but the submarine storyline remains dramatically superior. The rivalry between Hoffman and Tennstedt resonates on a primal level, with Rick Okon and August Wittgenstein generating considerable sparks as the antagonistic officers. Plus, things really get tense when a surprise guest, played with cool, clammy menace by Stefan Konarske, makes a surprise guest appearance on U-162 (it’s complicated).

In contrast, the energy level noticeably flags when the series cuts back to the lust and espionage in La Rochelle. Vicky Krieps’ deer-in-the-headlights portrayal of Strasser simply is not sufficiently engaging to carry her story arc. Lizzy Caplan is more interesting as the reckless and cynical Monroe, but they are never credible as a couple. However, James D’Arcy nearly saves the land-based storyline as the dashing British operative Philip Sinclair, but he arrives way too late in the series.

Das Boot the series has its merits and weaknesses, but it ends with a massively intriguing cliff-hanger that will have viewers coming back for the already announced second season, even if they have mixed feelings about the first eight episodes (as they could very well). It is not perfect, but the unnervingly claustrophobic battle scenes and the work of Konarske, Okon, and D’Arcy are definitely worth seeing. Recommended (when its underwater), for fans of military dramas, Das Boot the series premieres tomorrow (6/17) on Hulu.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

DWF ’19: The Teacher (short)

This teacher will totally school you. She changed professions relatively recently, but her previous skill set is as sharp as it ever was. Three of her former colleagues will learn that the hard way in Jeremy Weiss’s wildly entertaining short film, The Teacher, which screens during this year’s Dances With Films, in Hollywood, USA.

Just like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, the Teacher’s old boss, “The Contractor,” is not inclined to accept her resignation gracefully. Instead of whisking her off to an Adriatic seaside Potemkin Village, the Contractor has two of his best assassins to ambush her on the streets of Qindao. One is a German hulk and the other is refined Japanese ronin. Both men are extremely lethal, but they have still probably met their match. After all, the film is titled The Teacher, not The German or The Swordsman. Regardless, it is relentless fun watching her fend them off.

Even though there are three credited screenwriters, David Carter, Chris J. Ford, and Keith Kuramoto, the narrative is not all that complicated. Of course, the whole point of the film is the adrenaline-charged, pedal-to-the-metal fight scenes, so it is really just as well they refrain from giving us any derivative plot complications that might distract us from the real business at hand. Weiss and stunt coordinator Jaden He (the Swordsman) stage a number of really cool martial arts face-offs.

In a mere fifteen minutes, Sarah Chang (who also did stunt work on Bleeding Steel and Wolf Warrior 2) conclusively proves she has the chops and the presence to be a major international action star. She comes across as rather sweet and vulnerable, but then she counter-attacks like nobody’s business. Plus, Jaden He and Kevin Lee make worthy adversaries, who make the ebb and flow of their fight scenes look convincing.

For a short film, The Teacher is unusually cinematic, especially the use of the aerial cityscape cinematography that evokes fond memories of old school movies, like The Man from Hong Kong. There is a great deal of new talent worth watching in this short, starting with Chang and most definitely including her on-screen rivals. Highly recommended for action fans, The Teacher screens tomorrow (6/16), as part of Competition Shorts 4, at Dances With Films 22.

Friday, June 14, 2019

DWF ’19: Driven

Can you imagine anything more terrifying than getting picked up by a ride-share driver who happens to be an aspiring open-mic-night comedian? Roger the demon-hunter will also have to contend with dark supernatural forces, but his driver’s jokes will be far scarier. Yet, somehow, he and the recently-dumped-and-still-bitter-about-it Emerson Graham will work together to save mankind, sort of, in Glenn Payne’s Driven, which screens during this year’s Dances With Films, in Hollywood, USA.

Graham and her roommate have plumbing issues, so she would like to catch a lot of trips this fateful night, as a driver for the Ferry ride service. Despite his rudeness, Roger would seem like a promising fare. He will be making multiple stops, having her wait while he takes care of his mysterious business. It turns out he is out to kill demons and lift an infernal curse that has plagued his family for years. Graham briefly assumes he is a dangerous psycho, until she sees enough scary demonic shenanigans to convince her otherwise.

Even though Graham is the would-be comic, Roger scores most of the laughs. Frankly, Driven is not exactly a horror-comedy that will have you rolling in the aisles. Yet, weirdly enough, the straight demon-hunting storyline is sufficiently interesting to keep viewers invested. Arguably, the film would have been more effective if Casey Dillard had cranked down Graham’s insecurity-based humor a notch or two, both as screenwriter and co-lead. However, she falls into a nice bickering-and-bantering rhythm with Richard Speight Jr., as Roger. They each play off the other quite well.

At the helm, Payne navigates the horror-comedy line with respectable dexterity. He capitalizes on the claustrophobic setting—mostly Graham’s car—building tension organically. He and Dillard also give viewers a vivid sense of the town, which we come to understand is surprisingly violent, given its modest size. You could almost think of Driven as Locke with demons and bathroom jokes, but that would be overstating matters.

Driven is a small film that doesn’t always land its bits, but it is still a pleasantly enjoyable viewing experience. There is just a scrappy underdog spirit to the proceedings, which is appealing. Plus, it deserves credit for being a horror-comedy that takes the horror side of the equation relatively seriously. Recommended for fans of lighter midnight movies, Driven screens tomorrow night (6/15), as part of Dances With Films.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Head Count: High Fives

The number five generally has positive symbolic significance—five elements, five senses, five fingers and toes, but there is that pentagram to consider. A shape-shifting demon-spirit who derives its power from manifestations of fives follows in that tradition. It turns out Party of Five could have been a real horror show. A group of hard-partying college kids learn there isn’t always safety in numbers in Elle Callahan’s Head Count, which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Evan is not exactly thrilled to be spending his spring break with his New Agey tree-hugger brother Peyton, so he jumps at the opportunity to bail for a night of drinking and smoking with the attractive Zoe and her obnoxious friends. She actually seems nice, as well as attractive, whereas the others are basically stock characters. In fact, Evan is not really sure who they all are, which makes it easy for him to be fooled when the shape-shifting “Hisji” starts impersonating them.

Technically, it is sort of Evan’s fault. He invokes the supernatural entity when he recited an incantation from spooky story website as part of their campfire festivities. Suddenly, weirdness starts happening. Evan picks up on it first, whereas most of Zoe’s friends are too drunk, stoned, or willfully oblivious to register all the redecorating the Hisji does while they are passed.

This is a rare case where Head Count’s lo-fi look and texture really works in its favor. The film just has an eerie vibe baked into it. Callahan also pulls off several seriously freaky scenes, mostly through the use of clever editing rather than special effects. As a result, she makes a number of tried and true horror conventions feel new and fresh again.

Ashley Morghan is more seductive and vulnerable as Zoe than a horror movie character like her has any right to expect. She also drums up a fair amount of chemistry with Isaac Jay’s Evan. Bevin Bru has her moments as Camille, Zoe’s drinks-like-she-has-a-hollow-leg best pal, but the rest of the revelers largely blend together (possibly by design). Regardless, Callahan’s mastery of atmosphere is impressive. Viewers are enveloped in a sense of messed-up foreboding, right from the start.

Head Count is not as original as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, but the two films share similar sensibilities, which is saying a lot. In some ways, Callahan’s film is a textbook horror movie, especially considering what happens to those who over-indulge in booze, pot, and randy behavior. However, Callahan and screenwriter Michael Nader finds ways to put clever twists on the genre elements that distinguish the film from the horror field. Special thanks are also due to the editor, Nick Garnham Wright, for cutting it all together in such a crafty manner. Highly recommended for horror fans, Head Count opens tomorrow (6/14) in LA, at the Arena Cinemas.