Tuesday, September 22, 2020

OVID.tv: Silent Shakespeare

There was a time when playing the piano and reading Shakespeare were a typical evening’s entertainment for average families. A special night out might involve watching a traveling Shakespeare performer. It really wouldn’t have mattered if the earliest Shakespearean films were silent, because most of the audience would be familiar with the stories and a good deal of them would know the dialogue. These days, a lot of viewers don’t just need a soundtrack—they could also use Cliff Notes. At least most film lovers can appreciate the spectacle and inventiveness of the early Shakespeare films the BFI has assembled into an hour-long That’s Entertainment-style program, Silent Shakespeare (a.k.a. Play On!: Shakespeare in Silent Film), which premieres today on OVID.tv.

It seems weird the very first Shakespeare film was
King John from 1899. Yet, even though it is not a contemporary favorite, it was one of the Bard’s biggest hits in his lifetime. “Gilding the Lily” sort of comes from it, via a lumped together paraphrase. Originally, it ran four minutes and consisted of four scenes, which was certainly economical filmmaking, but only the King’s death scene survives. Of course, it is grainy, but also rather spooky looking.

In addition, curator Bryony Davis scoured the BFI vaults for probably a dozen or so distinctive-looking Shakespeare silent films that editor Becci Jones stitched together for dramatic effect. Several are still quite striking looking. In fact, the
Othello from 1922 looks stylistically and aesthetically similar to Orson Welles’ 1951 Othello. The visual trickery 1908’s The Tempest and 1909’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are still amusingly mischievous. There is even the star-power of Sir John Gielgud appearing as the young Montague in the surreal one-minute Living Paintings (Romeo and Juliet).

Yet, the most intriguing clips hands-down come from Svend Gade & Heinz Schall’s
Hamlet of 1920 (a.k.a. Hamlet: The Drama of Vengeance). Following in the tradition of Sarah Bernhardt, this Hamlet is played by Danish thesp Asta Nielsen as a woman secretly passing for a man, which really was a very Shakespearean twist.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Jay Sebring … Cutting to the Truth

Jay Sebring didn’t just cut men’s hair—he styled it. He should sit next to his friend and admirer Vidal Sassoon in the public consciousness, but instead, he is best known today as one of the people who was murdered with Sharon Tate at the Cielo Drive house. First, he was killed by the Manson cult and then the media assassinated his character. After years of resenting the way pop culture marginalized his uncle, Anthony DiMaria tells his story and sets the record straight in Jay Sebring . . . Cutting to the Truth, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Whatever preconceptions you might have regarding hairdressers, Sebring was probably something quite different. His imdb credits include
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bullitt, and The Great Escape, the latter two starring his close friend Steve McQueen, who gave the eulogy at Sebring’s funeral. When he was murdered, Sebring had made his name with a saloon and product line that were poised to take off like Sassoon’s. Yet, he was probably even more established with Hollywood studios and record labels as an image maker.

The divorced Sebring had also been romantically involved with Sharon Tate before her marriage to Polanski. In fact, they had remained close friends and were evidently on the verge of something more, as DiMaria reveals late in the doc, making
Cutting to the Truth a newsworthy event.

DiMaria re-establishes his uncle’s identity apart from the Cielo Drive atrocity, chronicling his rebellious youth and Navy service, as well as his rise to prominence in Hollywood. Yes, maybe Sebring enjoyed the party scene, but he still worked hard. He was truly a trailblazer, establishing himself as a name-brand men’s stylist. That is why the specious trash supposedly reputably media outlets like
Time and Life Magazine spewed over Sebring after his murder were so painful to DiMaria and his family. Telling, nobody put their names to the hit pieces describing Sebring as a violent, racist pervert—and nobody at Time Warner responded to DiMaria’s inquiries. Everyone who knew Sebring calls such descriptions ridiculous (including Quincy Jones, on-camera), but the mud lingered on his name.

Beyond the sadistic Manson family, two cowardly villains emerge in
Cutting to the Truth. One is Vincent Bugliosi, the former Manson prosecutor, who recycled the lurid rumors regarding Sebring in his bestseller, Helter Skelter. Today, Bugliosi loves lecture public figures on ethics, but he declined DiMaria’s interview requests, clearly lacking the courage and character to defend his characterization of Sebring. The other is Polanski, who also declined DiMaria’s interview requests, but is heard happily trashing Sebring under police questioning. Shame on them both.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Back to School: The Loyalist (short)

As more countries belatedly adopt Magnitsky-style sanctions, the question will start to arise regarding how the families of serial human rights abusers should be treated. They might technically be innocent of their parents’ crimes, but they still stood to benefit from their corruption. In most cases, they knew well enough. However, it is not clear just how well a North Korean music student studying in Switzerland understands her father and the regime he serves. He has come to test her loyalty and perhaps vice versa in Minji Kang’s short film, The Loyalist, which is available on Omeleto, as a potential supplement to that curriculum on North Korea you’re whipping up for your kids (like the NY Board of Ed would do it for you).

For years, Gen. Roh’s daughter Shilla has studied at a Swiss boarding school, where her angelic voice has garnered praise and encouragement. Frankly, it might be too angelic, since she has often been featured as a soloist in chorale performances of “Ave Maria.” Being nestled away in Freiburg has protected her from the insanity of her homeland, but it has also raised suspicions. The doctrinaire officer has come to verify she hasn’t shaken off her brainwashing and started to question the Kim dynastic regime and its Communist ideology. Rather awkwardly, she plans to ask permission to follow her musical dreams, no matter where that might take her. Obviously, something or someone will have to give here.

You might want to watch
Loyalist before you program it for your teens and pre-teens, because there is a brief but shocking incident of violence. If you are not trying to shelter them from such imagery (rather excessively in our view), the film raises a host of important themes for discussion, first and foremost being the nature of totalitarian regimes. It helps personalize the dehumanizing demands made by collective ideologies for individual sacrifice, through the eyes of a teenaged character most kids should identify with.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Back to School: I Was There—Kate Adie on Tiananmen Square

BBC reporter Kate Adie filed eye-witness reports of the Tiananmen Square Massacre directly from the scene, but she won’t be returning anytime soon, because the CCP has banned her from re-entering the country. You would be correct to take that as a testimonial to the accuracy and integrity of her reports. Decades later Adie remains justifiably proud of her reporting. Now retired from the Beeb, Adie returned to the network to look back at the fateful events of 1989, adding personal and historical context in I Was There: Kate Adie on Tiananmen Square, directed and edited by Andy Webb, which would be a suitable video supplement to your pandemic-home-schooling lesson plans.

Hope was in the air during the year of 1989, unless you were a hardline Communist apparatchik. Gorbachev’s Glasnost reforms had spun out of his control. Ordinary citizens of Eastern Europe were demanding (and taking) greater freedoms. The same seemed poised to happen in China, but Deng and the CCP were more determined to maintain their hold on power and much less concerned with world opinion. Tragically, this became much more obvious in retrospect.

For a step-by-step chronicle of the demonstrations and subsequent brutal crackdown on Tiananmen Square, the definitive
Tiananmen: The People vs. the Party is probably your best option. However, I Was There provides a good hour-long overview (the perfect length if you need to play a video for while you take a meeting). Adie also adds the perspective of a journalist who had to work around CCP censorship. Frankly, the mass killings at Tiananmen Square might be considered the stuff of rumor had Adie’s colleague not been able to successfully smuggle her footage out of China (they made five copies, four of which were intercepted at customs).

In fact,
I Was There is better than most Tiananmen Square documentaries at covering the wider scope of the pro-democracy protests outside Beijing. Shortly after the massacre, Adie traveled to Xian in Shaanxi Province, where she found lingering physical signs similar protests had met a similarly violent fate, but people were only willing to talk about it in whispers, off camera.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Mambo Man: Scuffling in Cuba

Most films you should want to watch closely, because that is the whole point of the medium. However, sometimes there are films you can enjoy listening to, but you might prefer to give only cursory attention to the events on the screen. This is definitely a “listening movie,” thanks to the wonderful Afro-Cuban soundtrack. The story that goes with it is pretty thin, but you can’t have everything, especially in Cuba. An impresario-farmer-get-rich-quick-schemer probably should just stick to music in Mo Fini & Edesio Alejandro’s Mambo Man, which releases virtually today.

JC (not a very Communist name, is it?) is the beloved godfather of the East Cuban music scene, even though we never see him pick up an instrument. Regardless, he is just wrapping up an album with music producer Mo Fini, playing himself. Thanks to unseasonable weather, he is sweating out his crops, but he still finds time to host shows for European music tourists on his farm. Then one fateful day, his childhood friend Roberto returns from Ecuador, offering JC a golden opportunity. The matriarch of a family he knows needs to sell a fabulous collection of jewelry to pay for her transit to Miami, the promised land—at the low, low price of $50K.

Sadly, because Cuba is a closed, oppressive pariah state, JC has never seen George C. Scott in
The Flim-Flam Man or any other scam artist movie that would have warned him any deal too good to be true is precisely that. We can see it coming from way down the Malecon, but screenwriters Fini and Paul Morris stretch out their simplistic cautionary morality tale until the seams practically snap.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

No Escape (from Russia’s Sickos)

Modern Russia has only two significant economic sectors: fossil fuels (currently in the dumper) and gangterism. Still, that is two more than they had under Communism. Regardless, an extreme adventure Vlogger should have been a little more suspicious when he was invited to try his luck in a hardcore escape room being produced in a former KGB dungeon. Anything for clicks and likes will not be such a wise policy in director-screenwriter Will Wernick’s No Escape, which releases tomorrow on VOD (like pretty much everything does these days).

Cole Turner is celebrating ten years of shallow internet fame, so his friends arrange for a special trip to romantic and luxurious Moscow. It is all being coordinated by Alexei, who is presumably the privileged scion of a fabulously wealthy oligarch. His obnoxious sidekick Dash vouches for the Russian fuerdai, even though he hardly knows him. After some sight-seeing and a little alone time with his ever-patient girlfriend Erin, Turner’s adventure will culminate in an unusually intense escape room experience, set in an abandoned secret Communist prison. What could go wrong? Oh right, probably everything.

No Escape starts out as an Escape Room-style thriller and evolves into a Hostel movie. A good deal of this film involves Turner being chased by large, shirtless Russian men wearing S&M masks and leather aprons. Well, when in Moscow.

No Escape
is essentially what you expect it to be, but Wernick’s execution is slicker, tenser, and generally better than it needed to be. Just about everyone who knows their way around horror and genre thrillers will be able to guess the big twist, but Wernick puts a little extra English on it that is rather effective.

Departure: Archie Panjabi Wants the Truth

Even before Malaysian Airlines 370, we’ve been fascinated by disappearing airliners. The original Twilight Zone went to this well several times in episodes like “The Arrival,” featuring the mysterious landing of a completely empty plane and “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” involving the mother of all jet-streams. Widowed British Travel Safety investigator Kendra Malley has a Malaysian Air situation on her hands, as well as a hacktivist step-son to corral in the six-part limited series Departure, which premieres today on Peacock.

Flight 716 left New York on-route to London, but disappeared after passing Gander. Initially, all signs point to pilot sabotage-suicide, very definitely including what series writer-creator Vince Shiao initially chooses to show us from that fateful flight. However, Malley suspects there is more to the story. This will be her first investigation since her husband’s suicide by auto-wreck, but her boss Howard Lawson needs the best. He would also prefer to wrap things up quickly and neatly, especially for the major British aviation company sweating out the investigation. Fortunately, Dominic Hayes, the team’s law enforcement liaison (formerly of Scotland Yard) is on her side when it comes to dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s.”

The UK government would definitely prefer a finding of pilot error. Malley’s obnoxious stepson AJ and his netizen echo chamber immediately suspect Russian aeronautical oligarch Pavel Bartok, who happens to have some contentious history with Malley. Yet, she refuses to eliminate technical causes until she can explain everything that happened, step by step. Of course, the discovery of a sole survivor would greatly help getting at the truth, while also raising a battery of new suspicions.

feels slick but conventionally network, so Peacock is probably the right place for it. Nevertheless, Schiao and series director T.J. Scott maintain a brisk pace a drop enough twists to keep most viewers hooked. Yet, what really works is the chemistry that develops between Archie Panjabi and Kris Holden-Ried as Malley and Hayes, respectively. They keep it strictly business through the initial six episodes of Departure, but there are hints their relationship could develop in subsequent seasons. Regardless, they are certainly a photogenic duo of on-screen investigators.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Devil All the Time, on Netflix

You can still find Southern Gothic in Southern Ohio. Remember, it borders Kentucky and West Virginia. Indeed, the proximity of Knockemstiff, OH to Coal Creek, WV is clearly established in the early minutes of this decade-spanning thriller. Culture follows geography, but human nature is rotten wherever you find it in Antonio Campos’s adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel, The Devil All the Time, which premieres today on Netflix.

Willard Russell returned from his WWII service in the Pacific with his faith profoundly shaken. Yet, when he marries kind-hearted Charlotte, he starts to pray again, until tragedy befalls the family. It will be a lot for their young son Arvin to bear on his shoulders, but he trudges on, doing his best to look out for his grandmother and his “half-sister” Lenora Laferty. In this case, “half-sister” is more of an honorary title. Technically, she is the daughter of a family friend and her faith-healer husband, who has lived with the Russells since her parents came to a bad end.

Bringing people to bad ends is the specialty Carl and Sandy Henderson, husband-and-wife serial killers, who specifically target young, male hitchhikers. Sandy also happened to briefly work with Charlotte Russell in the diner, where they both met their future husbands. In the small world of Knockemstiff and Coal Creek, Sandy Henderson also happens to be the sister of Lee Bodecker, the corrupt local sheriff. Whenever someone crosses paths with people like them, bad things surely happen.

If you get past the initial wartime crucifixion and a faith-healing train wreck, the character of Rev. Preston Teagardin, a sexually predatory Elmer Gantry-figure, might lead you to conclude the film is reflexively hostile to Christianity, but that really would not be fair. If you see the film through, it ultimately feels like a dark but profoundly moral thriller, very much in the tradition of
Night of the Hunter. One thing is certain—both God and the Devil will try men’s souls dearly as the narrative unfolds.

Unfold it does, with the help of both Pollocks’ words (faithfully adapted by Antonio & Paulo Campos) and his voice, providing the ironic narration. It is actually one of the rare instances when voiceovers really bring something to a picture.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Alone (But Not Alone Enough)

Suddenly, we are witnessing a barrage of single-women-abducted-by-serial-killer-payback movies. Kneejerk critics celebrate them for striking against the “patriarchy,” as if such a thing existed. Instead, they really prove women traveling late at night in sketchy areas really ought to have concealed-carry permits. Psycho-stalkers are definitely not fans of the 2nd Amendment. Unfortunately, Jessica is completely unprepared for her abductor, but she is more resourceful than he (or even she) expects in John Hyams’ Alone, which releases in drive-ins and on VOD this Friday.

Still reeling from her husband’s unexpected suicide, Jessica has decided to relocate away from her painful memories and intrusive mother. It is just her and a U-Haul being tailed by a black SUV. At one point, the man introduces himself, but she still gets Spider-sense bad vibes of him. Her instincts are vindicated when he runs her off the road and knocks her unconscious. However, unlike his previous victims, Jessica manages to escape from his cabin cellar, out into the Pacific Northwest woods. Once again, it is hunter versus prey, with the unnamed man holding most of the advantages, but the odds are still better for Jessica than they were in his dungeon.

For some reason, numerous genre filmmakers have suddenly had the urge to put their own spin on
I Spit on Your Grave. Weirdly, Alone is a remake of Mattias Olsson & Henrik JP Akesson’s Swedish thriller Gone, adapted and Americanized by Olsson, so the film really has little claim to originality. Regardless, even though Gone had very little U.S. festival play, the word on the street is Olsson fixed a lot of credibility issues in his original.

Shudder: Spiral

Aaron has no intuition. Malik has no common sense. That would make them the perfect victims for an insidious small-town cult. However, the film suggests they are really being targeted because of their “otherness” as a gay couple. Maybe so, but they certainly make it easy for the shadowy evil doers in Kurtis David Harder’s Spiral, which premieres exclusively on Shudder this Thursday.

Malik still gets flashbacks of his high school lover getting bashed to death before his eyes—and so do we as the audience. The traumatic event has profoundly shaped his persona and worldview. He even still takes medication for the lingering PTSD. Aaron was once married to a woman, with whom he had his snarky daughter Kayla. The three have just moved into a large house that looks comfortable, but gives off bad vibes. Yet, for some reason, only Malik picks up on them.

He also keeps quiet when someone breaks into the house to spray a slur across their living room wall, quickly painting over it before Aaron or Kayla can see it (to “protect” them, or something). However, when the unwelcoming old man across the street has a late-night freak-out in their lawn, Malik starts to suspect the neighborhood really is out to get them. Nevertheless, Aaron insists everything is fine, except maybe Malik’s paranoia. Of course, Kayla is no help in any of this, because she is a teenager.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman really is terrific. He holds viewers’ attention in a vice-like grip with his intense performance as Malik. Unfortunately, the character is so klutzy and self-defeating (dropping things at inopportune times and the like), it undercuts Bowyer-Chapman’s good work. On the other hand, it is hard to buy into the blinkered, slow-on-the-up-take Aaron. Thesp Ari Cohen gamely tries to bluff his way through, but the character’s reactions only make sense from a screenwriters’ perspective, helping to advance the narrative.

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Secrets We Keep

They were the Holocaust victims who have always been overlooked. It is easy to understand why a Roma survivor would keep silent regarding her tragic past, after building a new life in post-war America. However, the horror of it all comes back when she suddenly hears the voice of the German officer who killed her sister. She sets out to take justice into her own hands, much to her husband’s shock in an unfolding morality play that could be described as an Americanized Death and the Maiden. Above all else, she wants to hear the truth from his lips in Yuval Adler’s The Secrets We Keep, which releases today in some actual theaters.

Maja met her physician husband Lewis Reed in an Allied medical hospital in Greece, but before that, she had escaped from a Romanian concentration camp. Rather cruelly, the horrific incident that still haunts her happened in between. While seeking refuge with the Allies, they were intercepted by a rogue German unit, who did what you might imagine, before killing her sister. Fifteen years later, Reed recognizes the voice of their commanding officer in their sleepy Americana factory town.

He now calls himself Thomas Steinmann and claims to be Swiss, but the creepy tune he still whistles convinces Maja he is the man from her nightmarish past. Rather resourcefully, she kidnaps him and secures him in her basement, with the intention of extracting a confession. Naturally, it is a lot for Dr. Reed to process, especially since this is the first he has heard of his wife’s internment (or her Roma heritage in general). Yet, he is also deeply suspicious of Steinmann (or whoever he might be), so at least he is more sympathetic than Sigourney Weaver’s husband in

In point of fact,
Secrets is maybe not perfect, but it is still considerably superior to Maiden (which was helmed Roman Polansky, a convicted sex offender and written by a member of the “Duke 88” lynch mob). One of the major reasons is the Reeds’ compelling marriage dynamic. The ways Dr. Reed struggles with the unimaginable situation are highly credible and acutely human. Noomi Rapace does some of her best work since Stockholm as Maja Reed and Chris Messina does the best work we’ve ever seen from him as Dr. Reed. They have several extended scenes together during the third act that really make the film worth seeing.

One Lane Bridge, on Sundance Now

It is sort of like Queenstown’s answer to Nanjing’s Yangtze River Bridge, an infamous spot for suicides, but it is far less urban. It is also a frequent site for accidents and at least one murder. That case will be a trial-by-fire for a go-getting young Maori detective recently transferred from the big city. The case will uncover small town secrets and his own latent second-site abilities in creators Pip Hall & Philip Smith’s One Lane Bridge, which premieres this Thursday on Sundance Now.

Ariki “Ricky” Davis took the transfer to advance his career and to train amid the wide-open natural splendor of Middle Earth, New Zealand. At first, he thinks he will get along just fine with his superior, senior DS Stephen Tremaine, until he starts questioning the local veteran’s handling of their investigation into a prominent farmer’s death. Everyone remembers Grub Ryder as the young teen with enormous potential, but his grown-up years had not been kind. With the 100-year-old Ryder family farm on the brink of bankruptcy, Tremaine is eager to chalk up his death to suicide. However, Davis has good reasons for his doubts.

The Maori detective had not experienced “Matakite” visions since his childhood, but he is suddenly flooded with them after stepping foot on One Lane Bridge, where Ryder presumably plunged to his death. From time to time, he sees Ryder and other apparitions of those who died on the rocks below. For some reason, he is also seeing Tremaine’s wheelchair-bound wife Lois in his waking dreams. As gossip starts to spread, motives surface that force Tremaine to re-open the investigation. Unfortunately, Davis’s increasingly twitchy and erratic behavior might just undermine his career, before he closes his first real case in Queenstown.

looks terrific thanks to the sweeping natural backdrops and stylishly mounted supernatural Matakite sequences. It also boasts a considerable number of highly complex characters. However, the pace is a bit slow at times. Frankly, the six-episode narrative probably could have been boiled down to four installments and been stronger for it.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Back to School: Sweden—Lessons for America

Which is more famous, Ingmar Bergman or Ikea? Whichever the case, they are both Swedish and their history undermines the faulty image many Americans have of Sweden as a socialist paradise. It isn’t socialist. It has a free and open capitalist economy that it balances with a welfare state. If you really want to make America more like Sweden, we can start by abolishing the minimum wage, because Sweden has none, nada, zippo. Swedish economist John Norberg gives Americans a cogent survey of Swedish economic history in Sweden: Lessons for America?, directed by James & Maureen Castle Tusty (who helmed the wonderful Singing Revolution), which is available on Prime and YouTube for your lesson planning consideration.

How could U.S. politicians who garnered disturbingly high vote totals have such an inaccurate impression of Sweden (and Scandinavia in general)? Basically, their information is at least twenty-five years out of date. Norberg gives more exact dates and figures, but essentially Sweden grew at an explosive rate from 1850 to 1960, due to free trade and low regulation, but its economy stagnated from 1960 to 1995, while it experimented with overt socialism. However, aggressive emergency deregulation measures were passed in the mid-1990s that led to a robust economic rebound.

At this point, somebody out there probably wants to make an objection based on Sweden’s renowned “socialized medicine.” Yes, the government pays for universal healthcare, but it mostly provided by the private sector, while a growing segment of the Swedish population is opting for private insurance instead, to avoid long waiting lists. Indeed, most of Sweden’s social service are provided by the private sector, including education. Unlike America, where your school is determined by your zip code, Sweden has a full voucher system. As a result, fifty percent of Swedish high schools are now private.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Back to School: Tell the World

How do you explain to your kids a family decision to boycott Disney’s Mulan? You could show them Frontline: China Undercover or this horrifying report from Australian ABC’s Four Corners. According to both sources, Beijing’s network of work camps and detention centers throughout Xinjiang (or East Turkestan) represents the largest systemic incarceration of a religious group since the Holocaust. Shockingly, it has now been revealed Mulan director Nikki Caro filmed extensively throughout the oppressed region. If you want to understand the extent and severity of Beijing’s campaign against Muslim Turkic minorities, watch Tell the World, directed and hosted by Sophie McNeill, which is available on Prime.

ell the World is logically somewhat more Australian-centric than the Frontline report, because the country is home to a relatively large exiled Uyghur community and several Australian universities have collaborated on facial recognition software that racially profiles and tracks Turkic minorities (viewers are advised to watch Red Flags for more on that story). Sadly, nearly every ethnic Uyghur family is a broken home, because nearly every one of them has a family member who has disappeared or is being held incommunicado in a prison camp.

For all practical purposes, every Uyghur is a prisoner, in one way or another. According to MacNeill: “A UN panel says ‘the region resembles a massive internment camp.’” Beyond those who are confined in outright concentration camps (euphemistically called “re-education camps”), there are those working as involuntary laborers in factories and work camps. The children of these prisoners are consigned to orphanages, where they are brainwashed to reject their cultural and religious heritage. That is cultural genocide, plain and simple.

McNeill talks to several Uyghur Australians, whose stories are utterly devastating. However, the program is not simply anecdotal in nature. She also talks to researchers like Adrian Zenz, who has uncovered the vast scale of the oppression in Xinjiang by sleuthing through publicly available CCP government documents. He has found construction bids incorporating watchtowers, surveillance cameras, barbed wire, and containment walls. He also discovered purchases orders for bulk shipments of cattle prods. In addition, McNeill’s experts use satellite photography to document the systematic destruction of mosques.

This is some excellent reporting. Based on
Tell the World and Red Flags, it seems safe to say Four Corners puts American network news magazines to shame. It is hard to image Caro and her cast and crew didn’t observe all the barbed wire around their shooting locations. The absence of mosques in a traditionally Muslim region should have also aroused their suspicions. However, there is no way they could have missed the apartheid-like system that forces Turkic minorities to endure regular sidewalk checkpoints, while Han Chinese are allowed freedom of movement.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

History’s 9/11: The Final Minutes of Flight 93

It is a sad by-product of Xi’s virus coverup (and our own governments’ blundering responses) that 9/11 memorials have been curtailed or cancelled this year because of social distancing concerns. As a result, the annual ceremony at Ground Zero will be shorter, with fewer in attendance. While it has become an important way for families to reconnect and support each other, it also helped remind us of what happened. People are forgetting, in some cases willfully. Fortunately, History will premiere two in-depth chronicles of those fateful events tomorrow night, including 9/11
: The Final Minutes of Flight 93 (which was the one available for press viewing).

The events of Flight 93 are relatively well established in the public consciousness, thanks to the Paul Greengrass Hollywood movie and excellent documentaries, like
The Rugby Player, profiling Mark Bingham, one of the leaders of the passenger revolt. With the passage of time and further development of forensic audio technology, this History production can pinpoint who did what when with even greater accuracy.

Of course, the ultimate implications remain the same. It is still chilling to hear the audio recordings of air traffic control struggling with a horrific situation. Wisely though, it is family members who provide the primary voices, particularly those of Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland and Thomas Burnett’s wife, Deanna. They bring tremendous grace and dignity to the television report.

Frankly, a lot of the program’s emphasis on new material really isn’t that compelling, like when a voice expert analyzes voice-graphs of the terrorists in the cockpit. It is good that the evidence is still being closely examined, but most viewers will probably agree their time is better spent when the program lets family members tell us about the passengers and crew.

Van der Valk: The Reboot

It can’t be that hard to catch petty street criminals in Amsterdam, since they usually try to escape pedaling away on bikes. It is the murderers hiding in plain sight who are trickier. Police Commissaris Piet van der Valk tangles with three sneaky killers entwined in the worlds of politics, religion, and fashion. His blunt personality is not inclined to be diplomatic, but he has a knack for getting at the truth in the freshly rebooted Van der Valk (still based on Nicholas Freeling’s mystery novels), which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

This time around, there is no Barry Foster or the iconic “Eye Level” opening theme. However, English is conveniently spoken throughout all quarters of Amsterdam, because they apparently collectively realized Dutch is a silly language. Van der Valk is already brooding hard, but he is trying to start dating again, thanks to the prodding of the loyal Inspector Lucienne Hassell. They would be perfect for each other, if their orientations were compatible.

At one point in “Love in Amsterdam,” van der Valk describes his political stance as the belief all politicians should be shot. Events of the first feature-length episode will largely bear him out. Two mysterious thugs, presumed to be connected to the ruling Trumpish party set out to abduct a leftwing minority activist, but they are forced to scoop up two witnesses in the process, whose bodies quickly turn up at dumping sites.

Initially, the “Love” mystery feels like a not-so thinly veiled attack on Geert Wilders and his supporters. However, the vanished activist’s supposedly principled candidate does not exactly conduct himself in a manner van der Valk would describe as forthcoming. Indeed, quite the contrary. Arguably, it is hard to say which extreme looks worse when the Crime Brigade finishes turning over rocks. Whether it was deliberate or not, series writer Chris Murray neatly turns viewers’ expectations in on them. Stephanie Leonidas is also terrific as Eva Meisner, the witness van der Valk rather unprofessionally starts to get involved with.

Similarly surprises pleasantly lie in store for viewers during “Only in Amsterdam,” in which a sexually repressed nun becomes a person-of-interest in the murder of her lesbian lover. The investigation takes van der Valk and his team through a New Agey humanist drug clinic and exposes the intolerance of the victim’s strict Muslim father. Along the way, a fair number of potential suspects call attention to themselves, so the conclusion is not immediately obvious, rather refreshingly. In this case, guest stars Juliet Aubrey and Taj Atwal do a lot to keep viewers off balance as Sister Joan and the victim’s sister.

Van der Valk’s third case, “Death in Amsterdam,” comes at an awkward time for the detective, right when he and his superior officer, Chief Commissaris Julia Dahlman are working under-the radar to keep a corrupt senior copper behind bars. He is also a it out of his depth when it comes to haute couture. However, his naïve junior team member Job Cloovers, a favorite of Dahlman’s, is deeply steeped in fashion news and gossip. Basically, everyone in the industry is petulant and self-centered, so there are a fair number of potential suspects. They also make millennial vloggers and fashionistas look like shallow, slimy jerks.

As van der Valk, Marc Warren’s piercing eyes are really close to the wrong side of creepy. However, he has a talent for delivering caustic dead-pan one-liners. In fact, his ironic attempt at a motivational speech in “Love” constitutes some classic TV. He has some decent buddy chemistry with Maimie McCoy’s Hassell, (but her character is not nearly as fully developed). If nothing else, Warren certainly looks Dutch.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Killed My Wife

As titles go, this one sounds like a pretty damning confession. For Chae Jung-ho, it is more of a question than a declarative statement. In matters of uxoricide, if you have to ask, you are in a world of trouble. Waking up from a post-blackout stupor, Chae’s discovers his estranged wife has been murdered and he is covered in blood. Naturally, like all protagonists of Wrong Man-style thrillers, he will evade the police to prove his innocence, if his is indeed innocent in Kim Ha-ra’s Killed My Wife, which releases on VOD this Friday.

Chae is a mess. He is an angry drunk, who is prone to blackouts. It is easy to understand why his wife, Jung Mi-young kicked him out, especially after his gambling debts forced him into the arms of an especially predatory loan shark. However, Chae is rather surprised to find his wallet stuffed with cash, but it seems to match the blood on his shirt and the stiletto in his pocket. Bits and pieces of the previous night start coming back to him, as he retraces his steps.

The dogged police detective Choi Dae-yeon is right on his heels and he has a strong motivation to hang the fugitive out to dry. That would be the frying pan Chae took to his head. Choi has plenty of his own issues, but when he follows Chae into the underworld, he turns up plenty of lowlifes he would also like to take down.

Killed My Wife shares the economic determinism and dour world view of Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, but it actually might be grimmer, if that’s even remotely possible. Fortunately, it also has the benefit of grizzled Det. Choi. He’s no Sam Gerard from The Fugitive. Frankly, the slightly corrupt Korean copper is much more interesting. He will look out for himself during the course of the film, but he still has a sense of justice. Ahn Nae-sang is terrific expressing all Choi’s moral nuance and middle-aged frustration. In fact, his portrayal of the character is worthy of a sequel.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Immortal: Tales Where They Don’t Die at the End

For Larry Talbott (a.k.a. The Wolfman), immortality was a source of unending horror rather than a gift. Some of these characters might very well agree. It turns out there are people out there who just will not die. In most cases, they have the Wolverinish healing powers to go with an unending life-span. They also tend to learn of their rare status at the darnedest times in the shared world/concept anthology Immortal, written by Jon Dabach, which releases today on VOD.

People are hunting people yet again—the cinematic epidemic continues (following
The Hunt, Bacurau, The Prey, etc., etc.)—in the first storyline, “Chelsea,” directed by Rob Margolies. However, the stakes are higher this time around, because the prey is a high school track star and the hunter is consciously immortal. In truth, it is rather clever, but viewers would probably appreciate it more if it came at the end of the film rather than the start.

“Garry & Vanessa” directed by Danny Isaacs also builds towards a “hey there, immortality” twist ending, but this time we’re already expecting it from the start. The titular Garry plans to do something extreme to provide for his pregnant titular wife. Presumably, it will not work out exactly as planned. As a modest bonus, we get to see an incredibly tired looking Mario Van Peebles playing a cable guy.

Things unexpectedly get a little preachy in “Ted & Mary,” directed by Tom Colley, wherein our focal couple give a final interview before he administers her assisted suicide. The good part is Tony Todd pays Ted (quite poignantly). The bad part is the third revelation of immortality is extraordinarily depressing.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Harbor from the Holocaust, on PBS

Criticizing the CCP’s handling (cover-up) of the Covid virus or its appalling genocidal policies in East Turkestan and Tibet does not make someone anti-Chinese. In fact, the same concern for human rights that is alarmed by the current wave of arrests in Hong Kong leads us to celebrate the citizens of Shanghai for accepting and befriending Jewish refugees during WWII. 18,000-20,000 German-speaking Jews (primarily from Berlin and Vienna) found hardship, but also relative safety in the cosmopolitan Chinese port city. The “Shanghailanders” tell their stories in Violet Du Feng’s Harbor from the Holocaust, which airs tomorrow on PBS.

It wasn’t exactly an orchestrated national policy. Instead, the sanctuary for Jewish refugees came about through a strange set of circumstances, capitalized on by Ho Feng-shan, the Chinese consul in Vienna. The diplomat recognized his Jewish friends and neighbors were in dire jeopardy, so he issued visas to all comers, knowing there were no functioning authorities in Shanghai to check them. Although the city was under effective Japanese control, they allowed the ports to operate unregulated, so they would not antagonize the foreign concessions.

Of course, that also meant nobody was prepared to welcome the refugees and help them integrate into Shanghai society. However, the prosperous indigenous Jewish community (largely of Iraqi heritage) eventually stepped up, providing basic assistance, housing, and even founding a Jewish school. Unfortunately, the refugees’ living conditions and freedom of movement further plummeted after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese imposed systematic restrictions on Westerners. Yet, they still refused Germany’s request to apply their “Final Solution” in Shanghai.

In just an hour’s time, Feng (who co-produced
Maineland and Our Time Machine) and her interview subjects fully convey the complexity of the Shanghailanders’ situation. It was always difficult and often quite perilous, but they were still better off than they would have been in Europe. Yet, they also found friendship and comradery with average Shanghai residents, who were also suffering under an occupation.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Back to School: The Silent Revolution

Kids are not any safer living under oppressive regimes and ideologies than their parents are. That is a lesson all students should learn sooner rather than later, for all our sakes. In 1956 East Germany, the Stalinstadt senior class always basically knew the Communist government was vicious and unjust, but dramatic events will prove it beyond all doubt in Lars Kraume’s historically-based The Silent Revolution, which is a perfect supplement for your schooling-at-home lesson plans.

It all started when two high school seniors wanted to see German bombshell Marion Michael in the risqué (for the time) Liane, Jungle Goddess, naturally only screening in the morally decadent West (this is pre-Wall, when travel between East and West was not strictly forbidden). However, before the feature, Theo Lemke and Kurt Wachter are amazed by a newsreel accurately reporting the Soviet crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Lemke is the class clown and Wachter is the son of a local Party official. Neither fits the revolutionary profile (or rather “counter-revolutionary,” according to Party propagandists), but they are both electrified. On returning, they listen to West German radio with their classmates to confirm their reports.

At school, they decide to observe two minutes of silence to honor the fallen Hungarian freedom fighters. Essentially, it was Wachter’s idea, but a majority agreed to it. The only vehement no vote comes from Erik Babinsky, who believes he is the son of a martyred Communist partisan. However, the entire class is in huge trouble when the ministry gets wind of their silent protest. Following Franklin’s advice, the two “ringleaders” try to keep the class hanging together, so they do not hang separately, but the Communists will ruthlessly exploit any and all of the young students’ weaknesses.

Silent Revolution
is an absolutely terrific film everyone ought to see, just because its great cinema. It is especially recommended for students, who can surely identify with the teen characters. It can help explain the nature of Communism, particularly with respects to the Hungarian Revolution and the divided Germany. The tragically ill-fated 1953 Uprising also casts a shadow over the events it dramatizes. Yet, Kraume’s adaptation of Dietrich Garstka’s book also addresses worthy themes like personal loyalty, family love and sacrifice, the demands of integrity, and the corrosive impact of lies and propaganda on society.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Back to School: America’s Musical Journey

Hey parents, it’s September. Have you finished your Fall lesson plans? After years of sneering at home-schooling, the media now thinks you ought to be doing it. Even with Board-of-Ed materials, you’re going to need supplements to keep your kids focused and learning, so we’ll offer a few video suggestions, from time to time. For a very general lesson in American music history, you can safely turn to MacGillivray Freeman, a leading producer of IMAX films for museum patrons. Currently available on Prime, Greg MacGillivray’s America’s Musical Journey ought to keep kids busy for 39-minutes while you take a meeting.

Your host will be Aloe Blacc, but our narrator is the ultimate voice of authority, Morgan Freeman. Blacc is in fact a good choice to be the film’s tour guide, because even though he is a hip hop-R&B-club-crossover, he is deeply steeped in jazz and Latin styles. He says all the right things about Louis Armstrong, who is clearly the central musical figure in
Journey. However, it is a bit annoying he keeps choosing to perform “What a Wonderful World,” which was a posthumous hit for Armstrong, instead of a song that would have had more personal significance for the jazz icon, like “Black and Blue.”

It is fun to see Blacc get a walking tour of New Orleans courtesy of Jonathan Batiste, but it would have been nice to hear more from the pianist (who some viewers might recognize from appearances in
Treme, Red Hook Summer, and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus). Dr. John gets even less screen-time, but at least we hear one of his licensed tracks.

Blacc follows the jazz story up to Chicago, meeting up with Ramsey Lewis, but seriously, how could MacGillivray cut away from his performance of “The In-Crowd,” which is still one of the coolest jazz tunes ever? In Chicago, Blacc also checks out a flash-mob dance set to his hit song “Wake Me Up,” one of several IMAX-friendly performance numbers. Later, there will be dancers rappelling across a skyscraper and sky-diving Elvis impersonators to keep kids interested.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Boycott Disney’s Mulan, Watch the Shaw Brothers’ Lady General Hua Mulan Instead

Please do not spend money to watch Disney’s Mulan. It is not me whose asking. It is the brave young Hong Kong democracy activists, whose very lives are now threatened by Beijing’s draconian “National Security” Law. First star Crystal Liu publicly sided with the abusive HK police and against the activists defending the principles of “One Country Two Systems.” Then co-star Donnie Yen celebrated the imposition of the harsh law now being widely used to crack-down on Hong Kongers who advocate the ideals of a liberal civil society. That is unacceptable and so is Disney’s deafening silence regarding their comments, so their Mulan is unacceptable. However, if you want to revisit the story of Mulan in a film you (most likely) haven’t seen, try Yueh Feng’s Shaw Brothers-produced Lady General Hua Mulan (which like many Shaw Bros. films is easily findable online, if you look).

The Shaw Brothers’
Mulan is not just another retelling of Mulan’s story. It combines the folktale with traditional Mandarin-language Huangmei opera, which was growing in HK popularity at the time, due to a mid-1960s surge of immigration from the Mainland region. It is all singing, all the time, because when the principles and secondary leads are not communicating through song, the unseen chorus handles exposition and chronicles the march of time.

Hua Mulan is indeed Hua Mulan, so she takes her ailing, aged father’s place when her family receives their draft notice. In fact, she is keen to serve, because she has trained for years with the spear. Her skills are so sharp, she wins the new recruits’ tournament, bringing her to the attention of General Li. They will serve together for years, fighting to beat back the Mongol invasion, but only her cousin Hua Ming knows her true gender and helps cover for her. Apparently, the pre-Tang Imperial Army admirably respected the personal space of enlisted grunts and junior officers. Of course, Hua could fight, so presumably allowances could be made.

Hua Mulan is a perfect subject for the Shaw Bros. studio, because her heroic story was compatible for the audiences of both their budding operatic films and their established martial arts historicals. Wisely, they cast Huangmei star Ivy Ling Po, who dubbed her own arias. She has the pipes and the action chops. Yet, she also manages to be both boyish and weirdly saucy and coquettish at times. As a result, we can suspend disbelief, even though she never remotely looks like a man, while buying into her chemistry with Chin Han’s handsome Gen. Li.

Surprisingly, the action sequences are less consistent. The tournament sparring and Hua’s proving-herself bout with her father are nicely choreographed, but the grand battle scene is a bit muddled. Nevertheless, the long marching armies and colorful, fur-trimmed costumes give the film a suitably epic vibe.

Right now, Hong Kongers are afraid to exercise the rights of free speech, free press, and free assembly that we take for granted. Beijing’s puppet government has rounded up known critics, forcing young leaders like Nathan Law to seek sanctuary abroad. After her arrest, his colleague Agnes Chow has been hailed as “Hong Kong’s real Mulan.” Even identifying with Hong Kong’s local culture (demonized “localism”) is dangerous under the current repressive climate.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Fantasia ’20: The Paper Tigers

It is the one rock-solid law of kung fu movies: no matter where you are in life, you must avenge your sifu. The trio of boyhood friends who became Master Cheung’s three true disciples really ought to know that, but they have been estranged from each other and kung fu for a number of years. Nevertheless, they will come together and do what honor requires in director-screenwriter Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers, which premiered at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

In the gloriously analog 1980’s prologue, Danny (a.k.a. “Eight Hands”) was the toughest teen martial artist on the scene. His sworn brothers Hing and Jim were not too far behind him. Unfortunately, these days, they are slightly less youthful than they once were. For various reasons, each drifted away from Master Cheung and kung fu. Only Jim remained somewhat involved in the martial arts world, becoming a Brazilian jiu-jitsu-MMA trainer. Hing has certainly lost a step due to a workman’s comp accident, but Danny has probably slipped the most mentally. He was once a master at psyching out his opponents, but the divorced, workaholic father no longer has confidence in his kung fu.

Granted, that is a pretty familiar set-up, but some smart buddy chemistry and co-star Ken Quitugua’s action-direction makes it feel fresh. As the three disciples, Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins bicker, banter, and bust chops like old friends with long memories. There is definitely humor throughout
Paper Tigers, but the action is played scrupulously straight and it compares favorably with any of its mirthless martial arts movie cousins.

Yet, what really makes the film special is Danny’s relationship with his son Ed (nicely developed by Uy and young Joziah Lagonoy). You can tell Tran seriously studied martial arts at one time, from the way he has the father character discussing with his son how and when to fight and when to walk away. After all, those with real training always try their best to avoid fighting in real life, even though they strive to be ready for it at all times.

The Owners, Starring Sylvester McCoy

Kids need to learn to better respect property rights. The actions depicted in this film probably aren’t the best way to go about it. Still, if teen viewers take an object lesson from the woes inflicted on four ill-informed home invaders than maybe some good will come of it. Regardless, it is safe to say crime does not pay, at least not the larcenous kind, in Julius Berg’s The Owners (Anglicized and adapted from Hermann “Jericho” Huppen’s graphic novel, Une Nuit de Pleine Lune), which opens tomorrow on demand and at select theaters.

Mary’s boyfriend Nathan was always a big-talking loser, but he has become progressively worse since falling under the sway of Gaz, a predatory drifter. When Nathan’s childhood pal Terry off-handedly mentions the cash kindly Dr. Huggins supposedly has stashed in a safe at his country home, Gaz hatches a half-baked plan to break-in and grab it. Mary is appalled when she catches them in the act, but Nathan manipulates her into going along. Unfortunately, there are two problems with Terry’s assumptions. There probably isn’t cash in that safe, but rather something a bit more sinister, and Huggins and his wife (and longtime nurse) Ellen are not so kindly (that really shouldn’t be giving away much, since the film is titled
The Owners, rather than The Intruders).

Buckle up, this will get brutal, but don’t worry, you won’t worry about any of these awful people. Okay, maybe we feel a small degree of sympathy for Mary, because she usually tries to do the right thing, but she still has massively bad judgment. Regardless, you would think a man of advanced years like Dr. Huggins would be somewhat more challenged by four able-bodied twenty-nothings, even though he has all the brains on his side.

What generation you identify with will determine who you think is the proper star of this film. Maisie Williams (from
Game of Thrones) plays Mary. While she handles the frightened prey business well enough, The Owners is not a great showcase or star vehicle for her. Sylvester McCoy (the seventh Doctor Who) really is terrific as the cunning psychopath masquerading in country doctor-sheep’s clothing. Then there is Rita Tushingham portraying his wife Ellen. Seriously, everyone who remembers her when she was a sensation in British New Wave films like A Taste of Honey and The Trap was really thinking: someday she will reach her full potential playing a half-senile psychopathic killer.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Fantasia ’20: Undergods

Apparently, it is fun to obsess over post-apocalyptic dystopias, but you wouldn’t want to visit one. Yet, that just might happen to the unfortunates who somehow blunder through a random portal, or maybe not. Maybe, it is all part of the tales of a better past that two wasteland scavengers tell each other to pass the time in Chino Moya’s Undergods, which screens during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

L and K sound very Kafkaesque, don’t they? Indeed, they are a bit like Vladimir and Estragon, but more predatory. When they come across a body (living or dead), they either sell it as slave labor or meat to be butchered. Essentially, they tell three stories that sort of but don’t quite tie into each other. The first is the least, involving an interloper who worms his way into a not so happy marriage.

The second part is by far the best, by every standard. Presumably, it is being told twice, by either L or K and an incidental bystander to the first tale. There is a darkly baroque quality to this yarn that is not unlike vintage Gilliam. We meet Hans Hals, in this case a former tycoon rather than the Dutch master. This Hals has come down significantly in the world, but when a mysterious “Foreigner” comes to him with the invention of lifetime, the would-be investor decides to steal it for himself. However, like most mad geniuses, the Foreigner is not to be trifled with. He also leads Hals towards a shocking conclusion to his storyline and the film’s only brilliant transition.

The third arc chronicles the drama that results from the sudden return of a husband and father who disappeared without a trace fifteen years ago. Yet, it is really very much like the first full storyline, suggesting how easily people who have lived together for years can abruptly turn against each other. Frankly, much of
Undergods plays like the bitter old bachelor trying to justify his misanthropic lifestyle.

Fantasia ’20: The Grave of St. Oran (short)

St. Columba is considered one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who was indeed canonized by the Church. Yet, even though Colmcille, a Celtic form of his name is found all over Ireland, Scotland, and Canada (especially Quebec, where many Scots settled), Neil Gaiman isn’t afraid to talk smack about him. The cult favorite fantasist narrates his poem “In Relig Odhrain” throughout Jim Batt’s animated short film adaptation, The Grave of St. Oran, which screened at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

According to legend, St. Columba and St. Oran were attempting to build a chapel on wind-swept Iona Island, but the walls kept collapsing. The future saints had a vision telling St. Oran to sacrifice himself under the foundation, to keep the walls straight and strong, at no cost to his immortal soul. In Gaiman’s telling, Columba also gives him a little extra encouragement.

The practice of foundation sacrifice was actually Celtic Pagan, rather than Christian, so the St. Oran myth is one of the few instances of the early Church coopting it, at least through stories passed down through the oral tradition. It is already pretty macabre, so it seems like overkill to tweak it, making St. Columba look creepier. Perhaps Gaiman would like to try “punching-up” the teachings of another great Abrahamic religion next—or maybe not.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Fantasia ’20: The Block Island Sound

Block Island is part of the state of Rhode Island, so you know it is probably economically depressed, but the recent waves mass fish deaths will make things even worse. That is the only reason Harry Lynch’s sister Audry, a state environmental field investigator has returned home, but when she does, she finds her father and brother acting all kinds of weird in Kevin & Matthew McManus’s The Block Island Sound, which had its world premiere at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Old man Tom Lynch has not been himself for a while, but his son has covered for him, mostly due to fears he might be losing just about his only companion. Sadly, during Audry’s visit, crusty Tom sleepwalks onto his boat and keels over the side somewhere in Block Island Sound. The thing is old Lynch maybe wasn’t sleepwalking. Angry Harry suspects something more sinister might have been controlling his father and now it is tormenting him too.

Of course, Harry was always irritable and anti-social, so it takes a while for Audry to realize the severity of her brother’s condition. However, as Harry suffers from increasingly conspicuous headaches, blackouts, and apparent sleepwalking bouts, she becomes alarmed. She assumes it is neurological or conventionally environmental, but Harry and his conspiracy-mongering former classmate suspect paranormal causes. So will viewers, since this film screened at Fantasia.

Block Island
has a strong sense of place, with a vibe that suggests a cross-between Sea Fever and a 1990s Ed Burns movie. The Lynches truly bicker like family and drink like sailors. Everything looks grungy, lived-in, and totally believable.

Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea

Contrary to what you might have heard in animal rights propaganda docs, Japan has a special kinship with whales. In fact, a gigantic humpback whale appears in Tokyo Bay to offer some kind of mystical warning or portent. Something big (but vague) is going down and only three young teenagers have any clue as to what it might be in Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea, which releases today on DVD.

Ruka Azumi’s semi-estranged parents met at the aquarium where he still works, so she grew up around marine life. However, Umi and Sora are even more comfortable in the water, because they were literally raised by dugongs (instead of wolves). The aquarium’s brilliant but mysterious research biologist Anglade is studying the boys, in hopes of facilitating their integration into land-based human society and extending their apparently accelerated lives. However, he is also working with the government to prepare for the big impending cosmic whatever.

Feeling alienated from her cliquey peers, Azumi meets Umi and Sora exactly when she needs some new friends. Frankly, she has better rapport with the cheerful Umi than the angsty Sora, but they will still work together as a trio to investigate the mystery of the big thing looming.

Honestly, it is not exactly clear what the big Shyamalanian event is, even after it happens. Let’s just say,
Children of the Sea suffers from an acute case of anime-ending-itis, with all kinds of roiling maelstroms of waves that are nearly impossible to follow on-screen. Hanasaki Kino’s screenplay adaptation of Daisuke Igarashi’s manga is much more interesting when it keeps thing micro, exploring the world of the aquarium. It is sort of like the Natural History Museum in Night at the Museum or Relic.