Monday, September 30, 2019

The Climbers: Wu Jing Takes on Everest

China generally has had friendly relations with Nepal, yet it still has found a way to have a territorial dispute with the smaller nation. The area of contention is majestic Mt. Everest. The truth is, the famous mountain peak really ought to be under the jurisdiction of a free and independent Tibetan government. Regardless, producer Tsui Hark and Wu Jing, the star of the Wolf Warrior franchise will do their best to bolster China’s case with Daniel Lee’s The Climbers, which opens today in IMAX and this Friday on conventional screens.

In 1960, Fang Wuzhou led the first Chinese expedition to successfully summit Everest. Unfortunately, they lost their camera and a good portion of their party along the way, so the international mountaineering establishment (including the Soviets who trained them) did not recognize their claims. For a while, the country went utterly insane with Maoist ideology, but by 1975 they were finally ready to mount another Everest campaign.

Fang will be the assault captain. Xu Ying, his college girlfriend and the love of his life, will serve as director of the meteorological team. Qu Songlin will be the deputy chief of the campaign, but he will have effective operational control (since the top boss is basically a political figure head). Qu was a veteran of the campaign, who has never forgiven Fang for saving his angry, bitter hide, instead of the camera. Jiebu will be the third returning veteran from 1960, who will lead the advance team.

As you would expect from anything Tsui produces, The Climbers has plenty of spectacle. Frankly, he and Lee throw so many avalanches and gale force winds at the mountaineers, it is hard to believe they could possibly have the strength to make it to the summit—and safely come back down again. As most fans of mountaineering and alpinist movies can tell you, the descent is the most dangerous part, but that challenge gets skipped over in the film’s coverage of both campaigns.

The stunt work and visual effects are impressive, but The Climbers is not nearly as engaging as other mountain climbing dramas, such as The Himalayas from South Korea and Climber’s High from Japan, because it lacks a human touch. Granted, it is hard to compete with Hwang Jung-min, who is always an electric screen presence, but the characters in Lee’s film always seem distractingly conscious of their roles striving for greater Chinese glory.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Joe Begos’s Bliss

Undie young and party forever—that is the hedonistic school of vampirism we know from Anne Rice, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tony Scott’s The Hunger, among others. Of course, you’d better look good, because people will be judging you for centuries. Dezzy Donahue is already indulging in sex and substances like she is undead, but she will soon undergo the full vampire experience in director-screenwriter Joe Begos’s Bliss, which is now available on VOD and screens tonight in Brooklyn.

Donahue is a borderline collectible artist, but she is blocked on an important commission and can’t pay her rent. Obviously, the solution is a massive drug bender. However, this time Bliss, her designer drug of choice, just doesn’t get her inspiration flowing like it used to. Fortunately, her pseudo-friends Courtenay and Ronnie are there to lead her further astray.

When she wakes up from an evening of excessive indulgence, she really can’t remember what happened, including the burst of work she did on her canvas. She feels sick and hungry, but is strangely unable to keep down conventional people food. Of course, we know what is going on, even before Courtenay explains it all to her.

In a way, Bliss is a bit like Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw, but it is exponentially bloodier and grungier. It definitely suggests there is a vampiric, exploitative dimension to artistic creation, but does not delve too deeply into any of the philosophical or psychological issues this might raise. Instead, Begos immerses us in the lurid, neon CBGB-bathroom-like world Donahue and her cohorts inhabit. Seriously, you might want a tetanus shot booster before watching this one.

Dora Madison definitely goes all in and then some as Donahue, the hot mess, Ab-Fab vampy vampire. Her commitment is impressive, but she still leaves us cold. Yet, most of the rest of the characters are essentially flimsy stock figures. That even includes George Wendt (from Cheers) appearing briefly as crusty old “Pops.”

Friday, September 27, 2019

Fritz Lang’s Tiger of Eschnapur

It was Fritz Lang’s triumphant return to German cinema, but much of the filming happened in India. In a way, that was fitting, since German expat filmmaker helped jump-start the India film industry with silent films such as A Throw of Dice and Shiraz. In this case, Lang was also returning to the source novel written by his infamous/celebrated wife, Thea von Harbou that he developed for the screen in 1921, before the studio handed the project over to another director. He would need two films to complete his unfinished business, neither of which has been released theatrically in America in their original uncut form, until now. Separate admissions will be required when Lang’s restored The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb open today in New York.

Fortunately, everyone in India speaks perfect German, so Harald Berger has no trouble getting around. The architect has come to Eschnapur at the behest of Maharaja Chandra to build schools and hospitals. On his way to the palace, Berger saves Seetha, a bi-racial temple dancer from a hungry tiger. The Maharaja had also summoned Seetha to perform ritual dances that are just slightly risqué than what you might find in Showgirls. (These bits were largely carved out when both films were cobbled together for its prior problematic American release as Journey to the Lost City).

Of course, Berger and Seetha fall in love with each other and just as naturally, the Maharaja falls hard for her and seethes with jealousy when he discovers their secret romance. The resulting intrigue does not bode well for the construction of Eschnapur’s surely needed schools and hospitals.

The entire cast is German, except for American Debra Paget, so there is no getting around the problematic “brown-face” makeup. However, the scenery looks authentic, because much of the film was shot in India, including the stunningly cinematic City Palace, Udaipur, where select scenes for Octopussy were also later filmed. Paget’s wardrobe and choreography for Seetha is also what you might describe as “eye-catching.”

Fritz Lang’s The Indian Tomb

The previous film in Fritz Lang’s so-called “Indian Epic” ends with both a cliffhanger and a spoiler. We are told flat out that the two star-crossed lovers will indeed be saved, even though their chances of survival were looking pretty paltry. Yet, it will turn out to be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for Seetha the temple dancer and Harald Berger, the German architect, in Lang’s The Indian Tomb, the second part of his Indian Epic, which opens today at Film Forum, in conjunction with, but separately from part 1, The Tiger of Eschnapur.

Previously on Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic, Seetha and Berger tried to escape the Maharaja’s clutches, but didn’t flee far enough. Soon Seetha will be forced back into the Maharaja’s gilded cage, while Berger will be secretly held captive by the lovelorn despot’s envious brother, Prince Ramigani, for his own scheming purposes. Unbeknownst to Chandra, there is a pitched power struggle going on behind the scenes and nearly all the players have lined up behind Ramigani, with only the influential General Dagh remaining loyal to the Maharaja.

There was a lot of scene-setting and expositional set-up in Tiger, so it is quite impressive how Lang, the old master, manages to keep it felling snappy. In contrast, Indian Tomb revels in all the resulting intrigue. We are talking about secret passages and shadowy cabals here. Yet, the lush scenery and Debra Paget’s sexually charged dance numbers remain the greatest attractions. In fact, Indian Tomb boasts the infamous/celebrated “snake dance.”

The Curse of Buckout Road—Welcome to the Empire State

New York State is home to some pretty eerie locations, such as Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the Amityville Horror house on Oceanside Avenue, and the Dakota Building. Granted, nothing is as terrifying as our congressional representatives, but Buckout Road takes the honors for the state’s creepiest place. The infamous albino cannibals are a major reason why (that’s a true urban legend). Yet, the infernal stretch of asphalt has several more sinister myths attached to it. All the major ones will work their way into Matthew Currie Holmes’ The Curse of Buckout Road, which opens today in Brooklyn.

Troubled Aaron Powell has just returned from military academy, but his grandfather leaves him hanging at the bus station. That is par for the course for their rocky relationship, but in this case, Dr. Lawrence Powell has a good excuse. The former minister turned head-shrinker has been consulting with the police on a hideous suicide. The location: a clearing off Buckout Road.

Sadly, Det. Roy Harris will soon be returning to that area, on related police business. Being a grown-up in a horror movie, he doesn’t want to hear about his daughter Cleo’s fear that she might be next. It turns out she and the sub-literate stoner Ganzer Brothers produced a class project video, supposedly debunking the myths of Buckout Road. So much for that. Clearly, there is a malevolent power out to get her—and she can only count on Aaron Powell to stand with her.

About halfway through Curse, the film turns on a dime, going from banally blah to off-its-rocker bonkers in a matter of seconds. Essentially, that is the moment when Holmes and co-screenwriter Shahin Chandrasoma go all in on Buckout urban legends. They also add some old-time religious elements (or rather the perils of the lack thereof) as well as some old school demonic paranoia. In the process, they develop some decent Buckout lore of their own.

Danny Glover is faultlessly professional as Dr. Powell. However, it is prolific character actors Henry Czerny and Colm Feore who really shine as Det. Harris and Rev. Mike Reagan, the new pastor at Powell’s old church, who never really had faith per se, in the first place.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Death of Dick Long: Things Go South and Get Weird

Hollywood and indie filmmakers alike just aren’t sure what to make of the South. Culturally, it is a whole different world, but the relatively high poverty rate ought to make Southerners politically exploitable. It is not hard to pick up on the conflicted feelings in Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Zeke Olsen digs playing in his southern garage rock band Pink Freud with his pals Earl Wyeth and Dick Long, even though (or because) they are more of a drunken rehearsal group than a gigging professional outfit. After pounding plenty of beers during the course of this fateful night, Long asks his buds: “want to get weird?” That they do, but the audience is mercifully spared the spectacle. Whatever happened, it went terribly awry this time, resulting in Long’s titular death.

Due to the unspeakable circumstances, Long is desperate to cover up their misadventures. Unfortunately, he is even less suited to masterminding a cover-up than the Watergate burglars. He is mostly on his own too, because Wyeth makes it clear he intends to boogie out of town. However, Olsen is more tied to the community through his wife Lydia and their young daughter, whose teacher just happens to be Long’s increasingly concerned wife Jane (actually, she is his widow, but she doesn’t know it yet).

Long tries to dispose of evidence and fabricate an alternate narrative, but his efforts are laughably inept. Fortunately, Sheriff Spenser and Officer Dudley are so polite and southern about things, they do not immediately throw him under the third-degree light. Frankly, Olsen’s wife is probably more suspicious than they are.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Takashi Miike’s First Love

These are Takashi Miike’s kind of people. They live extreme, nocturnal lives on the margins of respectable society. They are Yakuza, Triads, pimps, prostitutes, and crooked cops. Many of them will not live through the night. It will be gangster vs. gangster vs. outcast in Miike’s First Love, which opens this Friday in New York.

Leo is a talented but passionless boxer, who was quite surprised to get TKO-ed by a flukey punch. Sadly, it turns out his knock-out was the result of an inoperable brain tumor. While mulling over this depressing news, he stumbles across young woman in need of saving, so he does.

Yuri, now known as “Monica” was sold into prostitution by her abusive father. Her pimp deliberately hooked her on smack to keep her docile. That would be her late pimp, a victim of the gang war the ambitious but dumb as a post Kase has instigated between his Yakuza clan and the invading Triads, so he can redirect a considerable shipment of heroin during the ensuing mayhem. It certainly does ensue. Unfortunately for him, he is too successful, igniting an underworld battle royale. Soon, vengeful prostitutes and corrupt coppers join the fray. Yet, somehow, Leo does whatever it takes to keep Monica alive, because he has nothing to lose.

AFMX ’19: Dave Grusin—Not Enough Time

Dave Grusin is one of the few crossover jazz musicians who truly crosses over. He can play any style, whether it be fusion, Brazilian, big band swing, and even Third Streamy kind of collaborations. He can also compose a film theme to fit any mood. The Oscar and multi-Grammy award winner takes stock of his career in Barbara Bentree’s documentary Dave Grusin: Not Enough Time, which screens during the Albuquerque Film & Music Experience, with a live concert from the maestro to follow.

Bentree & Grusin do a nice job of covering his professional life in music, going back to his early days as Andy Williams’ musical director (quite a high-profile gig at the time). Grusin was fortunate enough to fall in with colleagues like Quincy Jones (heard throughout the doc) and Michel Legrand, but his most important association was surely with drummer-producer Larry Rosen, with whom he co-founded GRP Records.

Operated as an audiophile label, GRP sold a heck of a lot of CDs at the beginning of the digital music era (as anyone who has ever dug through used CD shelves can tell). Many session cats were able to develop careers as leaders thanks to them. Yet, Grusin’s most recognizable recordings are almost certainly his soundtracks, including those for The Firm, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Tootsie, and On Golden Pond, arguably the four best soundtracks since Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder.

Bentree fully surveys Grusin’s work, making it impossible to pigeonhole him as a “smooth” artist. Honestly, even the most judgmental jazz snob will probably have to admit “Mountain Dance” is a terrific tune. It is also a perfect example of the vitality and bright tonal colors you can hear in Grusin’s compositions.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Creepshow—The Series: Gray Matter & House of the Head

When it comes to horror pedigrees, this one is pretty intimidating. The original Creepshow movie was inspired by EC Comics, based on Stephen King stories, directed by George Romero, and co-starred Adrienne Barbeau and an uncredited Tom Akins. There was also a sequel that was okay. Still, the original film leaves some large shoes to fill, but at least King and Barbeau will both lend a hand. Comic books get sinister again when producer-showrunner Greg Nicotero’s series reboot of Creepshow premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

It seems like old times in a good way when the series kicks off with an adaptation of King’s “Gray Matter,” directed by Nicotero co-starring Barbeau as Rose, the kindly elementary school teacher and general store proprietor of a small coastal Maine town. Of course, it is Maine. Indeed, look closely at the notice board for a few Stephen King Easter eggs. A “Storm of the Century” is bearing down on the tiny burg, so most of the townspeople have evacuated, leaving only Rose, Doc, and [Police] Chief. They figure they will just kvetch their way through the storm, until teenaged Richie Grenadine bursts through the door, clearly in an agitated state.

Reviewers have sworn a blood oath not to reveal any details regarding the horrifying whatsit, so you will have to see for yourself. However, the real strengths of the opening story are the classic King setting and the first-rate cast. In addition to Barbeau, Gray Matter co-stars Tobin Bell from the Saw franchise as Chief and Giancarlo Esposito (who isn’t necessarily a genre specialist, but is always interesting on-screen) as Doc. Watching these three do their thing will always be great fun.

In contrast, there are no recognizable faces in The House of the Head, but it is sit-up-and-take-notice creepy. Young Evie’s imagination drew positive stimulus from her deluxe custom doll house, until a body-less head turned inside it. Suddenly, her family of dolls looks absolutely terrified and starts moving on their own. That head seems to exert an evil influence within the doll house and it scares the heck out of her too.

Screenwriter Josh Malerman’s premise is so ingeniously simple and altogether insidious, it seems amazing nobody did it before. Yet, he deserves credit for a fresh kind of doll horror. John Harrison’s direction is also tight, tense, and completely unsettling, while young Cailey Fleming is completely earnest and unaffected as Evie.

Gray Matter
is an entertaining nostalgia trip for Creepshow fans, whereas House of the Head is one of the better TV horror anthology stories of the year, so far (along with “Legacy,” “Only Child,” and “Little Monsters” from Two Sentence Horror Stories and “A Traveler” from the latest Twilight Zone reboot). Based on the first episode, we’re optimistic the Creepshow series will prove worthy of its name and lineage. Regardless, Gray Matter and House of the Head are enthusiastically recommended for fans of King, the franchise, and horror anthologies when they start streaming tomorrow (9/26) on Shudder.

Dolph Lundgren is the Tracker

There is a long tradition of established action stars of a certain age scoring a quick pay check in Italy making violent cop thrillers known as “poliziotteschi.” The heyday of these films was lovingly documented in Eurocrime! and Tarantino satirized them in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but they are still produced now and then. It therefore rather makes sense for the great Dolph Lundgren to star as a “Northern European” who returns to an isolated Southern Italian city for some al Dante payback in Giorgio Serafini’s The Tracker, which releases today on DVD.

Fifteen years ago, Aiden Hakansson’s wife and daughter were murdered, when their abductors botched the ransom exchange. During the intervening years, Lupo the kingpin built a drug-smuggling empire on the foundation of more successful kidnappings. When an honest private detective contacts the still grieving father out of the blue with the promise of information, Hakansson returns to the fateful village. However, by the time he arrives, the investigator is already dead—supposedly as a result of suicide, but the crime scene paints a different picture.

As is usual in these kind of movies, the corrupt cops immediately pressure Hakansson to leave. They are not too welcoming either to Antonio Graziani, a national copper assigned to the region. It only takes him a few hours of perusing cold case files to realize the entire station is in Lupo’s pocket. Meanwhile, Hakansson starts utilizing his finely-honed hunting and tracking skills.

Granted, Hakansson’s opening narration explaining the difference between a hunter and a tracker is a bit pretentious for a grubby revenge thriller, but the ambition is still appreciated. Serafini and cinematographer Angelo Stramaglia also execute with a fair degree of flair, mining the picturesque Taranto locales for all they are worth.

Refreshingly, Hakansson is a far cry from an invincible superman. In fact, Lundgren plays him with a good deal of world-weary soul. Of course, he is still the biggest guy on the screen. The truth is Lundgren has kept in far better shape than many of his action-80’s colleagues, especially those who pal around with Russian despots (clearly, vodka and caviar are nefariously fattening). Regardless, we can definitely still buy into his action chops, especially alongside his soft-looking co-stars.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Fantastic Fest ’19: VHYes

The 1980s were not just a great decade for pop music, horror movies, and U.S. Presidents. It was also an era when our relationship to media substantially changed. We no longer had to wait for movies to be broadcast on television. We could rent them ourselves on VHS or better yet tape them for our collections. Twelve-year-old Ralph does a lot of taping, both off television and with the family camcorder. Awkwardly, he has been using the tape that recorded his parents’ wedding for posterity (remember popping those safety tabs—well, they didn’t). As a result, reality for Ralph and his family is about to get mashed-up and blended with all sorts of cheesy ephemeral programming from the Morning-in-America decade in Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes, which premiered at this year’s Fantastic Festival.

There is an old cowboy hosting a kid’s show, home shopping hosts pitching ad nauseum, a corny cop show, TV listings, and of course porn. Plus, there is a collectibles appraisal show, even though PBS’s Antiques Roadshow first debuted in 1997. Maybe that sound like nit-picking, but it is pretty clear this ode to the Eighties was written by folks who do not really know the era or have much affection for it. As a result, we get lectures on global warming and immigration in the satirical X-rated movies, duly edited for cable TV (by the way, Reagan was very much in favor of increased immigration).

Essentially, VHYes is like the dusty VHS tape equivalent of Amazon Women on the Moon and Kentucky Fried Movie, but with far less naughty bits. Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who appear in hard-to-spot cameos) incorporates two of his Sundance selected shorts, Hot Winter, a vintage skin flick that was supposedly was of the earliest global warming propaganda films, and Painting with Joan, an amusing (for a while) send-up of the heavily memed The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Anima Syros ’19: Le Mans 1955 (short)

John Fitch saw plenty of checkered flags in his career, but his real legacy is the development of “Fitch barriers,” a low-cost, easy to implement method of minimizing the impact of roadside accidents. The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans is the reason why. Terrible wrecks were a constant peril of the famous French endurance race, but the crash that killed his racing partner and eighty-four spectators remains the worst in motorsport history. Fitch and the Mercedes team director respond to the shock and horror in Quentin Baillieux’s animated short film, Le Mans 1955, which screens this weekend as part of Anima Syros 2019.

Fitch and his partner Pierre Levegh are explicitly instructed to serve as the wingmen of Mercedes’ A-team, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, to help them win. That does not sit well with the competitive Fitch, but the plan appeared to go up in smoke when Fangio stalled at the starting line, while Levegh got off quickly. Fitch’s partner was running strong until his fatal accident. As a result, the team director Alfred Neubauer faces some hard decisions, but the right thing to do seems obvious to Fitch.

The sleek animation of Le Mans 1955 might be familiar to anyone who has seen Baillieux’s groovy video for Charles X’s Can You Do It?, which was included in last year’s Animation Show of Shows. Clearly, he has an affinity for racing sports, because that early work features a fanciful horse race through the streets of Los Angeles. Tragically, viewers and the drivers will not be able to enjoy the full-throttle power of the 1955 Le Mans. Instead, his film focuses on the dynamics of a team, during its darkest hour.

Yet, Le Mans 1955 is still wildly stylish. You can imagine something like film noir and Speed Racer pureed in a blender, but with distinctly French seasonings mixed in. It is definitely a cool look, which makes Baillieux an animator to watch. Highly recommended for fans of animation and motor sports, Le Mans 1955 screens today (9/21) and tomorrow (9/22), during this year’s Anima Syros.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Send Me to the Clouds, with Yao Chen

Sheng Nan does not have an easy road to travel. She is a free-thinking, muckraking journalist and one of the so-called “leftover women,” unmarried women over the age of twenty-six. Both together account for about two thousand strikes against her in Mainland China. Sheng Nan is not inclined to change, despite the social pressures exerted on her. However, her independence comes at a high price when she is diagnosed with Ovarian cancer in Teng Congcong’s Send Me to the Clouds, which opens today in Los Angeles and next Friday in New York.

Sheng Nan was only diagnosed because a crazy arsonist attacked her while she was investigating a suspicious factory fire along the banks of the Yangtze. Naturally, her insurance will not cover the entire operation necessary to prolong her life, so she is forced to accept a rather problematic assignment ghost-writing the autobiography of father of the nouveau riche oligarch she just exposed in her photo-essay. Yet, even if the operation is successful, there is a high likelihood the procedure will permanently impair her capacity for sexual relations. Regardless, she sets off for Jiangxi to fulfill the unpleasant gig and hopefully to enjoy a last hurrah on the side.

The good news is old Mr. Li is much wiser and more compassionate than his sleazebag son. The bad news is Sheng Nan’s self-absorbed mother Meizhi invites herself along on the trip. At least she meets a man during their journey, who appears to be quite cerebral and generous, but Liu Gangming might not be as “sponge-worthy” as she assumes.

During the One Child era, “Sheng Nan” became a popular name for girls that means “Surpass Men.” It is also close in pronunciation to “Sheng Nv,” the insensitive term meaning “leftover women” the government coined for supposed old maids over twenty-six years of age. It is indeed a moniker rich in significance.

Viewers should keep that all in mind as they watch Clouds, but even if they forget it, they will perfectly understand Sheng Nan’s predicament thanks to Yao Chen’s acutely powerful performance. It is a little off-putting at first to hear everyone describe her as a Plain Jane (in real life, Yao has been dubbed the “Chinese Angelina Jolie”), but she plays it like it is a totally real fact of life that she has long resigned herself to.

Similarly, Yang Xingming is quietly but forcefully engaging as the humanistic Li. He also forges some resonantly human chemistry with both Yao and Wu Yufang, portraying her mother. There is a lot of emotional messiness in Clouds, but it looks quite elegant and feels rather reserved.

Jong Lin’s cinematography is visually striking, but some of Teng’s symbolism is a tad bit heavy-handed. Yet, even though it probably sounds ridiculously over the top on paper, the scenes of an errant coffin lost in transit slowly drifting down the river are surprisingly effective. Occasionally the drama veers into over-the-top melodrama, but it is mostly quite poignant and grounded in the all-too-real realities of contemporary China. Recommended for fans of Yao and anyone fascinated by the contradictions and hypocrisies of modern Mainland society and culture, Send Me to the Clouds opens today (9/20) in LA, at the Downtown Independent and next Friday (9/27) here in New York, at the AMC Empire.

Tazza: One Eyed Jack

Gamblers who rely on luck are just plain gamblers. Gamblers who employ “skill” consider themselves “swindlers.” Somewhere in between, you will find “Tazzas,” the legendary gamblers of Korea’s underworld. A poker-playing college student gets burned by a notorious Tazza, but a less frightening Tazza will recruit him for a potentially lucrative caper—and perhaps a chance for pay back in Kwon Oh-kwang’s Tazza: One Eyed Jack, which opens today in New York.

Do Il-chool is more comfortable at a card table reading people and calculating odds than taking notes in a lecture hall. Unfortunately, his luck runs out when he meets a femme fatale known as Madonna. It turns out she is the deceitful accomplice of the infamous Tazza known as “Demon,” or “Ma-gwi.” She throws Do so far off his game, he winds up deeply indebted to loan sharks.

Fortuitously, the Zen-like Tazza, “One Eyed Jack,” comes along at an opportune moment, to pay off his debts and enlist his services for a big-time swindle. The mark will be Mool Young-gam, an arrogant real estate mogul involved in some seriously shady dealings. Mool also can’t resist a not so friendly game of cards. Do and “Director Kwon” will worm their way into his confidence posing as his poker mercenaries, while Kkachi the swindler and Young-mi, the “actress,” will bait him masquerading as an obnoxious nouveau riche couple in the market for a weekend home, with One Eyed Jack pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Based on the third volume of the Tazza graphic novel series, One Eyed Jacks is considerably darker and more violent than the previous Tazza film, The Hidden Card. However, it is still fully stocked with twisty-turvy Runyonesque deceptions and betrayals. The con is most definitely on and on and on.

Park Jung-min is certainly adequate enough taking over for T.O.P. as the latest young new cardsharp in town. In fact, he is considerably steelier, which is a good thing. However, films like this never belong to the leading man. Instead, it is the colorful supporting casts that make or break them.

In this case, Ryoo Seung-bum radiates coolness and rock-solidly anchors the film as One Eyed Jack. Lim Ji-yeon and Lee Kwang-soo definitely lay it on pretty thickly, but they are still amusing as the bickering scammer tandem, Young-mi and Kkachi. Yoon Je-moon chews the scenery quite devilishly as Demon, but Woo Hyeon out-chews him as the slimy, rat-like Mool. However, Choi Yu-hwa is problematically passive and weirdly distant as Madonna. There is not much narrative connection to the previous Tazza films, but Joo Jin-mo technically returns in the tough luck prologue, briefly reprising the role of Jjakgwi.

Tazza: One Eyed runs well over two hours, but it never feels that long. Kwon keeps the fat out and maintain a high-octane speed. It is tougher than the previous film, but it is still fun. The tone is not unlike Rounders, but it deals out far more criminal-thriller business. Recommended for fans of gambling and caper movies, Tazza: One Eyed Jack opens today (9/20) in New York, at the AMC 34th Street.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Tony Leung’s Midnight Diner

This chef has had almost as many media lives as the heroine of the often-remade Miss Granny. He debuted in Yaro Abe’s manga and has subsequently come to life in multiple Japanese TV series and movies, as well as Korean and Chinese television series. His work is tasty, his wisdom is sage, and his late-night hours are convenient for his restless clientele. This time, “Big Tony” Leung Ka Fai takes his turn behind the grill as “The Master” (or “The Chef,” translations vary) and behind the camera as the director of Midnight Diner, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Originally, the Master’s cozy eatery was nestled away in a Shinjuku back alley, but Leung moves it to Shanghai. The hours are still the same: midnight to 7:00 AM, or whenever the Master feels like opening up for customers who look like they are in need of comfort food. He has several regulars, including his Alon, his adopted brother with anger management issues, and his old crony, Uncle Zhong. Plus, three scatterbrained millennials nearly always stop by.

However, most of the drama focuses customers, who are irregular regulars, like the dopey boxer, who only comes to the diner to retrieve his mischievous mother (and partake of the stir-fry clams). With the help of the Master and his mother (which he never requested), the big lug might have a puncher’s chance romancing the pretty single-mother nurse living in the neighborhood with her wheelchair-bound daughter.

We also meet a lovelorn brand marketing specialist, and a poor, scuffling singer-songwriter, whose stories have varying degrees of bittersweet tragedy. Yet, the tale of two country naïfs, whose bumpy romance cracks under the pressure of mega-urban life is probably the centerpiece of the film.

It is all very nice, but the concept probably works better as a series, allowing characters to more easily enter, exit, and intermingle without the pressure of reaching a quick resolution. Nevertheless, the good-looking cast is certainly pleasant to spend time with. The diner itself is also quite a warm and inviting setting (it still looks very Japanese, but whatever).

Unfortunately, the film has been clouded by controversy completely outside its scope. Reportedly, Leung’s Diner has been on the shelf for two years awaiting the go-ahead for release on the Mainland, which was suspiciously granted shortly after the actor appeared at a rally for the Hong Kong police—even though they have been recorded on video violently attacking pro-democracy protestors, with absolutely no provocation or justification. Sure, Midnight Diner is an agreeable film, but it is not worth selling one’s soul over. (Coincidentally, the film depicts Alon as a cop, whose rage drives him to physically abuse innocent citizens.)

Big Tony, you’re breaking our hearts, especially since you seem so warm and down-to-earth as the Master. It is a side of Leung we rarely see on-screen, while Zhang Li lends the film surprising grit and human frailty as the disturbed Alon. Jiao Junyan is also quite poignant as Snow, the ill-fated singer. Zhang Yishang and Vision Wei are both quite charismatic as the young provincial couple, but their tale of underdog love rent asunder by life is pretty familiar stuff.

As a work of cinema considered with strict critical formalism, Leung’s Midnight Diner constitutes a number of engaging performances (particularly Leung’s own) and some lushly shot cooking scenes. That can be enough for an enjoyable night at the movies, but Eric Khoo’s similarly themed Ramen Shop is a deeper, richer film. However, those who are closely following the Hong Kong protests will probably prefer to get their Midnight Diner fixes from the Japanese series (one of which is available on Netflix and another is on Prime). Recommended for loyal Leung fans, Midnight Diner opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the AMC 34th Street.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Bloodline—A Family Film

Eventually, Evan’s son will need the sort of counseling he provides for troubled high school students. That is because the devoted father is both a social worker and a serial killer. He is not exactly the second coming of Dexter Morgan, but he tries to direct his homicidal impulses towards abusive adults who have it coming. Of course, his activities are bound to get messy in Henry Jacobson’s Bloodline, a Blumhouse production, which opens this Friday in New York.

Evan is very definitely the product of an abusive father. Yet, he is still quite the family man. His son was born several months premature, so he and his wife Lauren are under a great deal of stress. His mother is there for them, but she is often more of an annoyance than a help. As a result, Lauren understands why he sometimes needs to take a break to unwind, but she doesn’t know he is killing the problematic parents of his high school clients during his alone time.

Of course, the ER doctor who is murdered during the prologue will take some explaining, but there is definitely a reason for it. In the meantime, horror fans will enjoy the scene as an homage to vintage 1980s slasher movies—yes, it happens to transpire in the shower room.

Forget about his initial big break as Stifler in the American Pie movies. Based on his work as the likable lunkhead Doug Glatt in the Goon movies and his portrayal of Evan here, it is probably safe to say Seann William Scott is one of the most versatile and underappreciated actors working today. His slow burns ferociously as Evan, yet he also humanizes the homicidal social worker.

Dale Dickey is similarly great fun to watch chewing the scenery and stirring up chaos as dear old grandma. Kevin Carroll also stands out, for his smart, understated portrayal of Overstreet, the suspicious cop. Even though her screen time is limited, Christie Herring makes quite a memorable victim as the ill-fated doctor. On the other hand, poor Mariela Garriga has to do a lot of on-screen hand-wringing as Lauren, so she is largely overshadowed by Scott and Dickey for most of the film.

On paper, Bloodline does not sound like anything particularly new and Earth-shaking, but Jacobson’s execution is first-rate. He steadily builds the tension and manages to spring several surprises on viewers. Yet, what most distinguishes the film is the mordantly dry humor Jacobson and his colorful cast mine from the domestic horror story. Highly recommended for genre fans, Bloodline opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the IFC Center.