Sunday, May 31, 2020

BFF ’20: Macabre


They are still in the state of Rio, but villagers residing on the other side of those iconic mountains live in a whole different world from the cosmopolitan city of Rio de Janeiro. Yet, many of their hardscrabble problems are maybe not so different from that of Rio’s famous (and feared) favelas. Regardless, it is always bad news when the BOPE (the cops from the Elite Squad movies) show up. In this case, villagers hope they will finally capture the notorious “Necrophil Brothers” who are terrorizing the countryside, but the assignment will get complicated and horribly personal for Sgt. Teo in Marcos Prado’s Macabre, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Teo needs to redeem himself, because he is responsible for the death of an innocent civilian during a favela operation. His captain promises to sweep the incident under the rug, if he captures Inacio and Matias, who murdered a dozen women and subsequently desecrated their bodies. Teo should have an advantage because he was raised in this mountainous community, but he left on bad terms with his family (and nearly everyone else).

As Teo launches his investigation, it becomes immediately apparent one of the brothers is just as guilty and sadistic as he has been made out to be. The culpability of the other is a little murkier, but locals do not want to waste time with such fine distinctions. Unfortunately, their next crimes will strike closer to home for Teo, re-igniting long-simmering tensions and resentments.

Macabre is a gritty serial killer thriller in the James Patterson tradition that also incorporates the social commentary of the Elite Squad films and their brethren. Both the favela incident and the hunt for the Necrophil Brothers are based on real life BOPE cases, but in real life, the former event happened much later and involved different officers. However, screenwriters Lucas Paraizo and Rita Gloria Curvo fuse them together quite seamlessly. Of course, that means they really put the screws to woeful Sgt. Teo as a result.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

BFF ’20: Snaeland

Small Icelandic towns are a good place to keep secrets, because people do not talk much there. At least, they are pretty taciturn in this coastal village, as well as the one in the recently released A White, White Day. Disgraced German reporter has come to cover a long-rumored bacchanal, but that story is fake news. However, he might have a line on an explosive tabloid story (that would ironically rehabilitate his reputation) in Lise Raven’s Snaeland, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Brooklyn Film Festival.

After indelicately asking multiple residents, Haas accepts the town really doesn’t hold an annual midnight sun festival of drunken debauchery for his readers to gawk at. He stumbles across something more potentially scandalous. A notorious French au pair, who was convicted of murdering her Wall Street employer-lover’s baby, is alive and well, living in town, after apparently faking her suicide. She is now known as Melanie Clement, a bee-keeper married to the local cab-driver.

Rather conveniently, Oskar Hrafnsson thinks his wife’s bee-keeping would make a good story, so Haas opportunistically plays along. Of course, Clement is suspicious of him, but she still tries to humor her husband. There is definitely a test of wits going on, but descriptions of Snaeland as a thriller or noir are overblown. Even “psychological drama” overstates matters. It is really a dark morality play and a scathing critique of media voyeurism.

In fact, Raven and co-screenwriter Deborah Goodwin sort of over-play that hand by equating with Haas with the village peeping tom, whom he catches red-handed, so to speak. The distastefulness of his behavior rather distracts from and undermines the analogy. Still, you certainly cannot accuse them of pulling their punches, which is also true of Clement’s infanticide crime (although she is said to have claimed it was an accident).

Friday, May 29, 2020

BFF ’20: Snatchers

If soulless alien body-snatchers invaded ultra-hip Williamsburg, how could you tell? The brain-controlled drones would probably be less conformist than they are now. Todecky is the exception. He fondly remembers the Brooklyn nabe when it was edgy and gritty, but he will still fight to save the trendy enclave from extraterrestrial parasites in John Kingman’s Snatchers, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Brooklyn Film Festival.

Todecky is a Fed, but not for the FBI. He currently serves as an investigator for the FDA, but his heart and wardrobe are old school Bureau, all the way. Obviously, he does not fit in with the scenesters, including Brie, a supposedly aspiring documentarian, who once interviewed him for an aborted GMO doc. Now she claims to be working “undercover” as janitorial staff at a start-up, as part of a project about immigrants that will never happen. She had no contact with Todecky since ghosting him, but the two will be thrown together when mutant alien corn infects the local food truck circuit.

The corn in question came from fields cultivated by Mennonite farmers like Jeb. He could tell there was something wrong about those ears, harvested after a meteorite crashed nearby, so he returned to big sinful city to track them down. Todecky doesn’t want to hear his alien talk, but they still join forces, along with Brie and the two proprietors of a food truck that exclusively caters to fellow food truck employees.

Snatchers is a very funny send-up of Brooklyn hipster pretensions and body-snatcher genre conventions. Screenwriter Guy Patton must know the scene well to land so many direct hits, but he still has enough emotional distance to show no mercy. This is about as close as a freshly produced film is likely to come to politically incorrect spirit of vintage Mel Brooks. There is also a little bit of gross-out humor, but eye-popping practical effects were clearly not a priority.

Robot Overlords: Due for a Fresh Revisit


It is surprising this recent alien invasion has not already gained a fresh, new reputation for relevancy. The world has suffered a catastrophic event and now all of humanity is forbidden to leave their homes. Are you following me so far? The alien robots have taken over, but they still find home collaborators willing to enforce their dictates, in order to exercise a bit of power for themselves. Fortunately, there are still rebellious people out there willing to fight the invaders in Jon Wright’s Robot Overlords, which is currently available on Amazon Prime.

Since the alien take-over, Sean Flynn lives with his mother Kate and three foster siblings she took in out of mercy. She is sort of protected, because Robin Smythe, the district’s head collaborator is sweet on her, but he and Flynn make no secret of their mutual dislike. The suspicious teen still holds out vain home that his father Danny Flynn will eventually come home, but the RAF pilot has not been seen since his capture.

One day, Flynn and knuckleheaded Nathan try to run an old video-game console off a car battery, when an electric shock sends the latter flying. It also shorts out the controlling mechanism implanted in his neck—temporarily. Soon, Flynn, Nathan, Alex the surrogate sister he is sort of carrying a torch for, and young, bratty Conor are running through the empty streets undetected by the robot sentries. However, it turns out the short circuit only lasts thirteen hours—a fact they learn at an inopportune time.

It is easy to see the robot occupation as an equivalent analog to the CCP pandemic. Some might also compare the implants to face masks, but that really wouldn’t be fair, because facial coverings allow us to safely go outside, whereas the implants keep Flynn and friends captive inside. However, if you want to compare the power-tripping Smythe to heavy-handed politicians like Michigan’s Whitmer, that’s your right and your business.

As a film, Overlords definitely over-achieves, realizing some impressive visual effects on a relatively modest budget. As science fiction, it is just okay. Frankly, it is a little too convenient when Flynn turns to be like Neo from the Matrix trilogy, suddenly developing an almost mystical power to hack himself into the robots’ network. However, it is enormously refreshing to see a film that argues freedom is more important than security.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Shudder: Confessional


For confession to be “good for the soul,” it must come with contrition. Viewers will not get much of that from the entitled Millennials embroiled in the untimely deaths of two classmates. However, they will be forced to cop to the roles they played in the campus scandals, as part of a muckraking performance art installation. The narrators are unreliable, but they still can’t help revealing themselves in Brad T. Gottfred’s Confessional, which premieres today on Shudder.

For the sake of full disclosure, the student behind the Confessional project takes full credit for the film itself, essentially accusing the producers of pirating her work, as part of the conceit. Of course, it would be telling to identify just who that party might be.

Credit is also due to Amelia, a recently deceased film student, who had made of practice of filming her classmates’ confessions over the years, including her own. Clearly, the person controlling the Confessional booth had access to her archive—and used clips of the more sensitive footage to convince her subjects to participate. One by one, they enter the sound-proof chamber, reluctantly answering her questions and prompts.

It turns out Zach, a star swimmer, also died under mysterious circumstances. Zach’s ex, June and his former best-friend Garrett could have illuminating information. So might Raquel the campus drug dealer, Major the misogynistic preppy, and Sai the geek. Plus, Amelia’s former girlfriends, Noelle and Carrie should also have plenty to say.

Screenwriter Jennifer Bosworth rather cleverly unfolds the mystery through each evasive confession, but most of the characters are more like college caricatures. Frankly, it is quite impressive Paris Berelc, Annalisa Cochrane, and Mia Xitlati could make June, Raquel, and Amelia as human and interesting as they did.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Debt Collectors: Scott Adkins is Back in Business


Whenever an anti-hero gets talked into doing “one last job,” it is always a mistake. In this case, it is really three last jobs, making it three times worse. Frankly, French knows it is a bad idea to get back in the collections business, but he has been really scuffling since the last film, so he lets his old partner Sue talk him into an ill-advised trifecta in Jesse V. Johnson’s The Debt Collectors, which releases this Friday on VOD.

Things were looking dicey for French at the end of The Debt Collector [singular] and even worse for Sue, but somehow, they both pulled through. Their old boss Big Tommy told them to lie low after their fatal shootout with Barbosa, the gangster, so it is ironic he now wants them to collect Barbosa’s old debts—too ironic. In fact, they are being set up by Barbosa’s vengeful brother, but it will take the knuckleheads a while to figure it out.

Of course, the three collections are particularly hard cases. One of them is played by Vernon Wells (a fan favorite from The Road Warrior and Commando), so you know he must be tough. Basically, Johnson and co-screenwriter Stu Small follow the successful formula they established in the first film: French and Sue (but mostly French) bash away at the vigs’ henchmen, taking a good pounding themselves, until the debtors finally pay up. However, there is probably a greater sense of danger this time around.

Arguably, the first outing had a lighter tone, which is why we would even compare it to a lot of Elmore Leonard films, including Get Shorty. The new (plural) installment is a bit heavier, but Scott Adkins and Louis Mandylor still have terrific bickering-bantering-brawling buddy chemistry, as French and Sue, respectively. Obviously, Adkins has all kinds of moves and muscle, while Mandylor looks like grizzled gristle personified.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

City Hunter: Shinjuku Private Eyes


Shinjuku could be considered the Times Square of Tokyo. It is now a clean, neon-lit commercial mega-district, but it was once seedier and more dangerous. Ryo Saeba used to work cases as a “street-sweeping” private investigator for hire in old school Shinjuku, but he can still get into plenty of trouble in the fancy, high-rent neighborhood of today. The old manga and anime franchise that inspired Jackie Chan’s City Hunter returns with a new, sort of updated anime feature film, Kenji Kodama’s City Hunter: Shinjuku Privates Eyes, which releases today on BluRay.

Even though the world has changed, Saeba is the same Saeba. That means his impatient partner Kaori Makimura must continue to bonk him on the noggin with her comically large hammer whenever his outrageous horniness gets the better of him. That will definitely be an issue during this case, since they have been hired by fashion model Ai Shindou to protect her from the villains who killed her estranged father, a scientist conducting cutting-edge brain research.

Currently, Shindou is working on a shoot for one of the companies owned by industrialist Shinji Mikuni. As fate would have it, he is an old childhood friend of Makimura, who used to protect him from bullies. Sadly, he learned the wrong lesson from those experiences, because he is also obviously the criminal mastermind pulling the strings behind the scenes. It turns out his real business is arms dealing and the new weapons system Shindou’s father reluctantly developed for him is quite a doozy. To take him down, Saeba might need some help from cross-over characters from the Cat’s Eye franchise, set it the same universe.

City Hunter is such an established institution, it is easy to see why the studio would look to reboot it. The franchise even spawned a recent French live-action film, Nicky Larson and Cupid’s Perfume (as the dubbed character is known in France), with apparently little hand-wringing over the “white-washed” casting. However, for those unfamiliar with the characters, Saeba’s shticky horn-dog behavior clashes with the slick Miami Vice-inspired vibe and amped-up chases and shoot-outs.

Monday, May 25, 2020

I Will Make You Mine: Lynn Chen Makes It a Trilogy

How many films can you make playing a meta-slacker version of yourself before it gets sad? Evidently, the answer two. After appearing in two pleasant indie comedies playing a likably schlubby version of himself, Goh Nakamura and his co-stars get more serious this time around. The first two largely well-received films (Surrogate Valentine and Daylight Savings) were directed and co-written by Dave Boyle, but co-star Lynn Chen assumed those duties as the driving force helming I Will Make You Mine, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

After the birth of his daughter Sachiko, Nakamura gave up on his performing career, accepting a stable but dreary customer service job instead. Yet, there is still tension between him and Sachiko’s mother, Erika. He will be joining her in Los Angeles to offer his dubious support while she arranges her father’s funeral. However, that will also offer him an opportunity to re-connect with Rachel, his one-time prom date, who has carried a torch for him ever since (even though she should be way out of his league).

Fortunately for the cash-strapped Nakamura, his old musical colleague Yea-ming invites him to crash at her pad. She also hopes to avail herself of his natural songwriting talents. Aside from his daughter, life has been disappointing for Nakamura, but all the women in Chen’s film still seem to be pre-occupied with him, which is kind of Woody Allen-ish (it’s filmed in black-and-white too).

Still, there is something refreshingly realistic about characters coming to terms with the repercussions of their decisions, as well as setbacks that were largely beyond their control. Nakamura remains a likable screen presence playing a meta-version of himself. Ayako Fujitani (who was so incredible in Boyle’s Man from Reno) portrays Erika with brutal honesty, yet surprises us in the third act with grace notes of understanding and compassion. Bay-area singer-songwriter Yea-Ming Chen is quite a charismatic performer on-screen, both musically and dramatically, but Joy Osmanski probably gets the biggest laughs in her brief appearance as Rachel’s hipster video-director friend, Amy.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

CFF ’20: Being Natural


What is the most destructive invasive species? Probably the hipster yuppie, especially when it is trying to go “back to nature” and partake of “locally grown” organic food and produce. Takashi, the luckless slacker, will discover this the hard way when an ambitious hipster family moves to his sleepy provincial village in Tadashi Nagayama’s Being Natural, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival.

Things start off slow and quirky, but sensitive genre viewers may still pick up on a vibe that is hard to place. Takashi has long served as the caretaker for his dementia-addled uncle, living in his family’s traditional wooden home. Initially, said uncle’s merciful death spells potential eviction for Takashi, but his cousin allows him to stay on and even employs him at his local fishing pond.

Unfortunately, the Kurihara family starts disrupting his peaceful existence as soon as they move to town. The mother, Satomi, intended to open an organic café, but her lease for an old fashioned minka house location fell through. Of course, Takashi’s home would be a perfect replacement.

Being Natural starts off as a quiet slice-of-life comedy, but without warning, it takes a very dark turn. As the resulting injustice mounts, it down-shifts into overt genre horror territory. It is all quite shocking, but somehow everything seems to make sense in the moment. In fact, one could even argue the film is unexpectedly timely, reminding us of current controversies regarding charges of sexual impropriety—and how Joe Biden would deny due process protections for anyone accused on college campuses, while hypocritically demanding the American people to extend those courtesies to himself.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

CFF ’20: Skull—The Mask


Forget about getting Medieval. Vengeful Pre-Columbian gods are way more hardcore than that. Tahawatinsupay is one of the hardest-cored, but it is his executioner you really have to worry about. That would be whoever happens to be wearing the skull-like Mask of Anhanga. Unfortunately, it finds its way onto someone’s head in modern-day São Paulo, resulting in a trail of fresh corpses. A disgraced police detective is out of her depth working the uncanny case in Kapel Furman & Armando Fonseca’s Skull: The Mask, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival.

The film starts way back in 1944, when a sinister military expedition tried to harvest the power of the Mask of Anhanga. It ended badly for them. The mask next resurfaces in our time, when the Brazilian branch of a sinister Chinese conglomerate unearths it in an Amazonian construction site. It turns out Tack Waelder, the CEO was hoping to find it. In fact, he already abducted three Bolivian immigrant kids to sacrifice in his planned ceremony. That is the case Det. Beatriz Obdias is currently working, but making no progress on.

Unfortunately, the young gothy lover of Waelder’s deputy cannot resist performing her own ritual with the mask. This is obviously an extraordinarily stupid decision that ends just as badly for her. It also launches the mask into the world and onto the streets of São Paulo, where it does what it does best—kill people. Obdias and her partner have no idea what they are tracking, but Manco Ramirez does. He has sworn to protect the world from the mask, but as a classic loner-type, he is not good at making friends and influencing people.

Basically, Skull is about as micro as a budget can get. However, its admirable energy level, intriguing use of Pre-Columbian lore, and gleefully gory practical effects make it a highly watchable overachiever. It is important to emphasis the latter, because Furman & Fonseca have blood splattering and body parts flying everywhere. Yet, despite the supernatural elements, Skull often functions like a slasher movie and a procedural.

CFF ’20: Fulci for Fake


He was the second “Godfather of Gore.” Herschell Gordon Lewis was the first filmmaker to be dubbed with the title, but Lucio Fulci was a genuine film-stylist many consider a true auteur. He made films in nearly every genre, including White Fang, starring Franco Nero, but his reputation firmly rests on his giallo horror films of the 1960s and 1970s. Fulci, the filmmaker and the father, is profiled in Simone Scafidi’s slightly hybrid-ish documentary, Fulci for Fake, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival.

Scafidi (a.k.a. “Saigon”) sets up the film with a fictionalized conceit. Supposedly, actor Nicola Nocella will be playing Fulci in a biopic, but to better understand the man he is to portray, he must learn from those who knew him best. Therefore, he is the one ostensibly conducting all the on-camera interviews. Frankly, it is a questionable device, since the film still largely functions as a traditional, career-surveying documentary. Of course, that also means Fulci fans will indeed learn quite a bit about the master.

As one would hope, we do indeed get a fair supply of behind-the-scenes dishing as well as critical analysis of Fulci’s major giallos. Fans will be interested to hear from Fulci’s frequent cinematographer Sergio Salvati and composer Fabio Frizzi, as well as his protégé, Michele Soavi (who directed Cemetery Man and The Sect). However, the real surprising emotional centerpiece of the film are the reminiscences of Fulci’s daughter, Camilla Fulci, whose unfortunate accident profoundly affected her father. She is also well-qualified to discuss his work, having served as a 1st assistant director or script supervisor on many of his films.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Os Mistérios de Lisboa, de Raul Ruiz: A Minissérie de Televisão na Íntegra [Portuguese Translation]


I’m thrilled again to have a Portuguese translation of my review of Raul Ruiz’s The Mysteries of Lisbon (the full miniseries version), courtesy of Angelica Sakurada. Ruiz was a Chilean expat, who worked extensively in Portugal. Many of his cast-members have also frequently appeared on Brazilian television, so it is definitely a production with international appeal. (You can find my original here.)

Na sociedade elegante portuguesa do século XVIII, todos eram ou parentes distantes, amantes ardentes, ou rivais jurados, por vezes até dois dos três. Todos que eram alguém terão os seus próprios flashbacks, pelo menos um para cada uma das suas antigas identidades. Este é um conto épico de paixão, escândalo, e retiro para ordens religiosas que deve soar familiar. Oito anos após o lançamento do filme teatral de quatro horas e meia, a minissérie de televisão com seis horas de Raul Ruiz, Os Mistérios de Lisboa, foi lançado virtualmente nesta sexta-feira em Nova Iorque.

Apesar de terem sido produzidas ao mesmo tempo, as cenas do filme e da televisão foram concebidas para serem bem diferentes e consistentes uma com o outra. Ambos possuem cenas que são exclusivas a eles. Foi anunciado que Raul Ruiz também alterou a sua proposta de narrativa. Faz já um certo tempo desde que eu cobri o filme original, mas segundo a minha memória, os personagens tinham seus retornos surpresas que são melhores estabelecidos na série televisiva (ainda que esse tenha sido o charme do filme).

De qualquer modo, ainda há bastante charme nas cenas das seis horas, que explora mais completamente a profundidade das emoções fortes sentidas pelos personagens (eu acho). Independente disso, é muito fácil ser envolvido novamente nas suas agonias e êxtases (de novo), especialmente se já fizer anos desde que você tenha assistido a outra encarnação, ou se você nunca teve o prazer de assistir.

Ostensivamente, Pedro da Silva é o herói de Mistérios de Lisboa e é o narrador da história. Quando nós o conhecemos pela primeira vez, ele é um órfão triste conhecido somente como “João”. Entretanto, ele vai ser ofuscado enormemente por dois homens misteriosos, que vão determinar diretamente o seu destino. Um é o virtuoso Padre Diniz, que seve como o protetor do João jovem e vai ser um personagem decisivo defendendo a honra de sua mãe que ele nunca conheceu, Ângela de Lima, a esposa do abusivo Conde de Santa Bárbara. O outro é o Alberto de Magalhães, um mercador brasileiro (pirata talvez seja o mais exato), ou pelo menos é como ele se autodenomina agora. Passarão anos até que Pedro da Silva o encontre cara-a-cara, mas o aventureiro picareta forjará uma aliança informal não muito usual com Padre Diniz.

Tenho que admitir que existem uma série de fatores de coincidências nas ambas versões de Mistérios de Lisboa, mas é de se esperar de qualquer coisa que seja baseada em uma novela grandiosa do século XIX. Realmente, é destes cruzamentos do destino que surge a diversão de assistir a história. Tudo é conectado e o carma faz jus a sua reputação, de modo gloriosamente trágico.

Ambos Mistérios de Lisboa também parecem pinturas à óleo que podiam ter sido produzidas por uma das academias de arte da época. A composição visual de Raul Ruiz por muitas vezes oferece perspectivas inteligentes da hierarquia social daqueles tempos e da dinâmica de poderes na sua narrativa (empregados sempre espionando). Esta é uma produção bem ricas em detalhes de época, mas Raul Ruiz produz com uma sensibilidade pós-moderna. Seu padrão de utilizar teatro de fantoches para literalmente definir os momentos de transição é provavelmente mais proeminente no filme, mas ainda está presente na minissérie.

The Trip to Greece: One Last Jaunt

Greece is the birthplace of the marathon and EU austerity budgets, but neither represents the style of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s culinary tours across Europe. It is only five-star restaurants and hotels for them, but if the formula works, why fiddle with it? The British comedic actors return for one more jaunt playing hyper-meta versions of themselves in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Greece, which actually opens today in a handful of cities and also releases on-demand.

Coogan has won seven BAFTA Awards—and don’t you forget it. However, the caricature he has created of himself is somewhat lonely and regretful, especially compared to the uber-meta Brydon, who is a happily contented husband and father. Throughout the series, he has been totally fine to receive second-billing to Coogan, especially since it gives him the liberty to deflate his friend’s self-important pretensions.

This time around, they will be reviewing the finest restaurants in Greece, but they are well aware they have done this several times before (in Spain, Italy, and the North of England), as their jokes will attest. Turkish viewers might possibly object to the title, since they retrace Odysseus’s trek, starting at the site of ancient Troy in Turkey. Mortality will also cast a shadow over this Trip, because Coogan will constantly call his fictional son for news on his ailing fictional father.

Of course, the heart and soul of the latest Trip remains their improvised banter and one-upping celebrity impersonations. They revisit greatest hits, like Michael Caine and Roger Moore, but they probably get their biggest laughs doing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

CFF ’20: The Wanting Mare


There is a long tradition of horse fantasies, but the world of Anmaere is nothing like Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. It is more of a dystopia, particularly the city of Whithren, whose closest Earthly cousin could be Valletta (sadly for Malta). The city combines elements of the Medieval and post-industrial periods, but it is the surrounding coastland and moors that are important, because that is where the wild horses are wrangled. Those beasts are worth a great deal of money, but the opportunity they represent is even more valuable in director-screenwriter Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s The Wanting Mare, executive-produced by Shane Carruth, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival.

Anmaere is our world, but not. Moira is of Anmaere, but it is not her world either. She grew up as an orphan, without anyone to explain the inherited nightmares passed on down to her from her biological mother and her grandmother before her. Since she has always felt a stranger in her own land, she is determined to somehow secure passage on the annual steamer ship transporting Whithren’s yearly horse exports to the more temperate and economically developed city of Levithen.

When Moira stumbles across Lawrence, a wounded young thug, she believes she may have found someone who can secure her passage to the West. However, instead of a ticket, he delivers into her hands a foundling, who will play a significant role in the second years-later half of the film.

Wanting Mare spans decades, but it is not exactly a plot-heavy film. Admittedly, Bateman struggles somewhat in his maiden feature outing as a story-teller, but he has a remarkable talent as a world-builder. Whithren of Anmaere is one of the few movie dystopias that actually feels like a real place you could walk around and explore. Bateman and his effects and design team pull off plenty of tricks to make locations around Baltimore, East Orange, and Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia look like an otherworldly realm of urban blight and ancient back alleys, while cinematographer David A. Ross makes it all shimmer ominously and evocatively.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Shudder: Blood Machines


Who knew the Singularity would strike such a blow against the so-called “patriarchy?” Yet, you would think humanity would be better off in the long-run if we were not beholden to artificial intelligence and the machines they control. A couple of old school scavenger dudes still think are on top of the intelligence pyramid, but they will learn differently in Seth Ickerman (a.k.a. Raphael Hernandez & Savitri Joly-Gonfard)’s Blood Machines, “a Shudder original experience in three chapters,” which premieres today on the streaming service.

Vascan and his older, more human co-pilot Lago have been chasing a rogue ship to salvage for parts, but Mima, its damaged AI unit, has been frustratingly elusive. Just when Vascan thinks he has it cornered, a shamanistic tribe of women who commune with artificial intelligences helps her escape as a naked ghost. Despite Lago’s reservations and the buggy behavior of their own AI system, Vascan refuses to back down. He even takes Corey, the mysterious tribal leader as his prisoner. He might even have more contemptible motives, which further stokes Lago’s mounting unease.

Or something like that. Blood Machines is definitely a case of style and visuals prioritized far above narrative and characterization. It makes sense that the project started off as a proof-of-concept music video for Carpenter Brut’s “Turbo Killer” and it still has that kind of razzle-dazzle look and fire-and-fury vibe. If you love the old school Heavy Metal film and magazine, Blood Machines will probably appeal to your sensibilities.

Frankly, the inverted cross motif is more than a little baffling. Obviously, it brings to mind all sorts of satanic horror tropes, but some cult film fans might also get Evangelion flashbacks. Regardless, the way Ickerman freely intermixes it with naked female bodies gets a bit creepy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Raul Ruiz’s The Mysteries of Lisbon: The Full TV Miniseries


In polite late Portuguese Eighteenth Century society, everyone was either distantly related, ardent lovers, or sworn rivals—sometimes even two out of the three. Everyone who was anyone would have their own flashback—at least one for each of their previous identities. It is an epic tale of passion, scandal, and retreat into holy orders that might sound familiar. Eight years after the release of the four-and-a-half-hour theatrical feature, the full six-hour TV miniseries version of Raul Ruiz’s The Mysteries of Lisbon opens virtually this Friday in New York.

Although produced concurrently, the film and TV cuts were conceived by Ruiz to be very different and cohesive wholes. Both have scenes that are exclusive to themselves. Reportedly, Ruiz also altered his approach to the narrative. It has been a while since I originally reviewed the feature-cut, but as memory serves, characters had a way of making surprise returns that are more logically established in the TV series (yet, that was part of the film’s charm).

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of charm to the 6-hour-cut, which more fully explores the depths of the characters’ profoundly felt emotions (I think). Regardless, it is easy to get swept up again in their agonies and ecstasies (again), especially if it has been years since you have seen the other incarnation, or if you have never had the pleasure.

Ostensibly, Pedro da Silva is the hero of Mysteries of Lisbon and its over-riding meta-narrator. When we first meet him, he is a waifish orphan known simply as “Joao.” However, he will largely be over-shadowed by two mysterious men, who will directly shape his destiny. One is the virtuous Father Dinis, who serves as young Joao’s protector and will play a decisive role defending the honor of the mother he has yet to meet, Angela de Lima, the wife of the abusive Count of Santa Barbara. The other is Alberto de Magalhaes, a Brazilian merchant (pirate would probably be more accurate)—or at least that is what he calls himself now. It will be years before da Silva meets him face-to-face, but the rakish adventurer will forge an unlikely informal alliance with Father Dinis.

Admittedly, coincidence factors heavily in either version of Lisbon, but we should expect that from anything based on a big, fat 19th Century novel. Indeed, it is those crisscrossings of fate that make it so much fun to watch. Everything is connected and karma lives up to its reputation, in gloriously tragic fashion.

Both Lisbons also look like oil paintings that could have been produced by one of the era’s elite art academies. Ruiz’s careful visual compositions often offer shrewd perspectives on the social hierarchies of the times and the power dynamics within the narrative (servants overhear much). This is a richly detailed period production, but Ruiz executes with a postmodern sensibility. His motif using a proscenium arch stage diorama to literally frame some of the transitions is probably more prominent in the film, but it is still present in the series.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Mover: Latvian Rescuer Zanis Lipke


Zanis Lipke was a gruff, anti-Communist, blue collar booze-smuggler. He is not Hollywood’s stereotypical image of a dashing hero-figure, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, he also had a Communist daughter, a Jewish best-friend, and a healthy aversion to oppressive authority. Probably the last characteristic most directly spurred him to save at least 50 Jewish Latvians during the National Socialist occupation (it also made him a suspicious outsider during the subsequent Soviet occupation too). Although more widely-reported rescuers like Schindler saved greater numbers of people, Lipke did more than most with his limited resources. The under-heralded Lipke is finally depicted on-screen, as the subject of Davis Simanis Jr.’s The Mover, which releases today on DVD, from Menemsha Films.

Lipke is a loving family man, but he is definitely not a touchy-feely type. He is alarmed by his daughter’s survival prospects after the Germans drove out the Soviets, but she is determined to try her luck behind the Russian lines (ultimately, she would be executed by her fellow Communists rather than the Nazis, but such ironies fall outside Simanis’s focus on Lipke’s rescue activities).

Initially, the realist in Lipke rebuffs his friend Arke Smolansky when he seeks shelter for his daughter, but the resulting guilt sickens him. Soon, he is reluctantly sheltering Jewish fugitives at his workplace, until an informer betrays them. It is a close shave for Lipke, but instead of scaring him into submission, it motivates him to redouble his efforts closer to home. With his wife’s grudging acquiescence, Lipke constructs a secret bunker under his work-shed, where he shelters dozens of escapees from the ghetto, with the intention of ferrying them to safety hidden in his truckloads of scavenged furniture (hence the title).

The Mover might sound like it follows a predictable arc (one established in films like Schindler’s List, In Darkness, and Saviors in the Night), but we should never allow ourselves to become blasé about the heroism Lipke displayed or the systemic horrors he witnessed. In fact, veteran Latvian thesp Arturs Skrastin is quite remarkable as Lipke, realistically portraying his curtness and abrasiveness, before viscerally conveying the shock and abject revulsion he felt while observing Rumbula Massacre, leaving him shaken to his core.

Torpedo U-235


It is the Red October of German U-boats. U-235 was commandeered by the Allies in hopes it could slip through the Axis naval blockade. Unfortunately, they know it has gone rogue in Sven Huybrechts’ Torpedo U-235, which releases today on VOD.

Belgian resistance leader Stan is not inclined to take prisoners, but it will be hard to blame him when we learn his full backstory. His daughter Nadine is part of his rag-tag team, but the rest of their family was killed by a nasty piece of SS work. As a result, he has earned a rep for ruthlessness that has made him a pariah amongst the Belgian command-in-exile. However, that makes his squad perfectly expendable for this high-risk mission.

Stan and his men will pilot a U-boat loaded with uranium from the Belgian Congo across the Atlantic to supply the Manhattan Project. According to the original plan, captured old-line Naval Captain Franz Jager was supposed to give them several weeks of intensive training and then cut them loose. However, they all find themselves diving for survival when local informers turn them in to the National Socialists.

In many ways, U-235 is like a throwback to old Euro war movies that were filmed in Yugoslavia with vintage military equipment rented from Tito. That’s actually a good thing. This is a lean, unfussy film that clearly enjoys the traditional conventions of the submarine movie. Huybrechts milks the claustrophobic setting with gusto, while not overdoing the predictable conflicts between the Belgians and Jager. In fact, the German captain’s motivations are reasonably believable. (Still, whenever we see a phonograph record in a sub film, we know with absolute certainty someone will accidentally play it at an inopportune time.)

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Dalai Lama: Scientist


For decades, Western scientists and clergy have focused on areas of fundamental disagreement between science and religion. Yet, the question of evolution vs. creationism has virtually no bearing on people’s every day lives. In contrast, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has focused on areas of compatibility between Tibetan Buddhist teachings and modern science. He has also sponsored research designed to foster greater emotional well-being for all humanity. Dawn Gifford Engle documents His Holiness’s engagement with the scientific community in The Dalai Lama: Scientist, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Even as a child, before he was recognized as the reincarnate Lama, the young Tibetan Buddhist displayed a natural curiosity about the way things work. As the titular head of the Tibetan society in exile, the Dalai Lama has fostered scientific education and opened dialogue with some of the world’s leading scientists. Many prestigious physicists, biologists, and neuro-scientists consider him a personal friend, but the Dalai Lama’s relationship with the late Francisco Varela receives special focus.

Throughout the film, Engle and the Dalai Lama’s colleagues identify key areas of quantum physics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience where Tibetan Buddhist teachings largely concur with the latest cutting-edge theories. In fact, the Venn diagram overlap is often quite striking. Engle never dumbs down any of this heady material, which is admirable. However, she heavily relies on archival video footage of the Dalai Lama’s scientific symposiums. There is just no getting around the fact this is a talking film.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Tribeca ’20: 12 Hour Shift


Nurse Mandy makes Dr. House look like a paragon of abstinence and empathy. He was just hooked on pain-killers. She needs harder stuff. Fortunately, her hospital work gives her access to dying patients and their highly-flippable organs. The arrangement had been working well until she brought in her empty-headed cousin (by marriage) as the courier. When a kidney goes missing, it leads to a dark, violent night in Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift, which would have screened at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, were it not for the CCP’s cover-up of the Wuhan outbreak and WHO’s subsequent collusion denying human-to-human transmission.

Karen, the admitting nurse, runs operation in the hospital. Technically, Nurse Mandy does the killing, but they are usually more like euthanasia than murder. Of course, they make it look like natural causes. Cousin Regina is just responsible for ferrying the cooler from the hospital loading dock to the thuggish Nicholas, who handles the customer side of the business. Yet, somehow, she manages to lose a pre-sold kidney on this fateful night. That means Nurse Mandy will have to improvise to save Regina’s neck (or at least her kidney).

It turns out this 1999 night will be the perfect storm of trouble. In addition to the cop killer who was just admitted with his rent-a-cop minder, Mandy’s estranged step-brother also came in comatose after an overdose. Plus, most of the local cops are out-of-town for a Y2K preparedness conference. Frankly, Nurse Mandy would probably keep matters from getting out of hand, were it not for Regina’s misguided attempts to take the initiative. Things really get messy (and blood-splattered) as a result.

Shift is often amusing in a one-darned-thing-after-another kind of way, but its condescending attitude towards the small-town Arkansas characters gets tiresome quickly. Not every Arkansan is an opioid-addicted Jesus Freak, just like not every Los Angelino is a welfare-cheating gang member. Nevertheless, the uber-caustic, ultra-deadpan performance of Angela Bettis as Nurse Mandy is a thing of beauty. Frankly, she mostly just hits one or two notes, but what cutting notes they are.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words


He was Borked (his opponents use that very term), but he refused to stay Borked. Instead, Clarence Thomas stood his ground, faced the lions in the U.S. Senate coliseum, and was confirmed as a Justice of the Supreme Court. Since then, the media-pop-culture complex has continued a propaganda campaign against Justice Thomas. No matter what you think of him, you should take the time to learn who he really is and what he really thinks, direct from the man himself, in director-producer Michael Pack’s Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, which premieres Monday night on most PBS outlets nationwide.

To understand Thomas, you need to know where he came from: Pinpoint, Georgia, a hardscrabble hamlet outside Savannah. Unfortunately, things would get much worse for the young Thomas after his family’s shack-like home and all their worldly possessions burned to the ground. His father was not in the picture, so Thomas left with his mother and brother for Savannah. To paraphrase the Justice, rural poverty was tolerable, urban squalor was miserable.

Eventually, Thomas was sent to live with his grandfather, who would have a formative influence on the rest of his life. He subsequently converted to his grandfather’s Roman Catholicism, which would lead to no end demagoguery during his confirmation hearings. Thomas even studied for the priesthood, until overt racism drove him out of the seminary. For a while, he adopted the militant politics of the era, but he slowly started to reject leftist dogma.

Perhaps the most valuable part of Created Equal is the discussion of what “Natural Law” means to Thomas. As the Justice explains, he was seeking a legal framework that would fundamentally prohibit the evil practice of slavery. Theories of Natural Law argue mankind is endowed with inalienable rights by our creator—and that divine investiture precludes any legal or moral justification for holding one’s fellow man in bondage. It also becomes clear just how deeply Thomas studied constitutional law, under the tutelage of Claremont scholars John Marini and Ken Masugi.

Pack also prompts Thomas to directly address one of the media’s favorite talking points: his reluctance to ask questions during open sessions. However, Thomas’s response is simple: he is a judge, not an advocate, so it is not he role to participate in oral arguments. Chief Justice Roberts talked about judges calling balls and strikes rather than taking up the bat, but Thomas actually means it. On the other hand, he has written 30% more opinions than his colleagues, which he argues is the justices’ real work.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Snowpiercer, the TV Show


It is sort of like a dystopian Jules Verne yarn, wherein the last dregs of humanity survive the apocalypse in a train perpetually circling the earth, managed by Wilford Industries. The corporation has saved humanity, but of course they are the bad guys. That was conspicuously and gratingly so in Bong Joon-ho’s criminally over-rated film. However, there is a lot more nuance and dramatically richer characterization in the first fresh-start, blank-slate season of the TV adaption of Snowpiercer, which premieres this Sunday on TNT.

Global warming panic lead scientists to develop a planetary cooling scheme that worked too well. Now the planet is an ice ball and most life is dead. Fortunately, Wilford Industries produced Snowpiercer, a train one thousand and one cars long that must remain in constant motion to beat the freeze. Melanie Cavill is the public face of the Wilford company. It is her soothing voice that makes the PA announcements, but she also serves as Mr. Wilford’s direct lieutenant when it comes to maintaining order.

Andre Layton is the leader of the opposition. As a “Tailie,” he was not even supposed to be on Snowpiercer, but he and his fellow proles forced their way into the tail-section before the train left Chicago. Now they live off scraps and resentment, which often ignites battles with the “Brakemen,” Snowpiercer’s axe-wielding cops (guns pose a risk of rupturing the train’s environmental seals). Layton is definitely a fist-raising revolutionary, but he was also a homicide detective during his previous life, so Cavill is forced to send for him when a murder is committed up train. Of course, his investigation will uncover more of the train’s dirty secrets than Cavill imagined.

The Snowpiercer series is drastically different from the movie—and each and every change is for the better. Showrunner Graeme Manson deserves a great deal of credit for ditching the crude caricatures and in-your-face class warfare didacticism that made the film so abrasive. This time around, there really are two sides to the story, order versus equality. That in turn gives rise to real drama.

At the center of it all is Cavill, who is an endlessly intriguing and ultimately acutely human character. Thanks to Jennifer Connelly’s extraordinary portrayal, we come to understand the compromises she made and how each agonizing choice inevitably leads to another. Honestly, this could be the best genre television performance of the year.

Daveed Diggs also covers a lot of emotional terrain, humanizing Layton far beyond a stick-figure proletarian rebel. He is at his best fencing with either Connelly’s Cavill or Sheila Vand as Layton’s former fiancé, Zarah Ferami, who betrayed her class by accepting a new life working in a third-class nightclub. Like Cavill, Ferami is a complicated character, who must live with the consequences of her decisions every day.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Tom Berenger in Blood and Money


Maine might be a deep blue state, but not when it comes to guns, especially up north. Just about everyone owns a hunting rifle and many of them rely on it to eat. Jim Reed is one of them. He has been living a lonely, hand-to-mouth existence, but a bag full of stolen cash will change everything, for better or for worse, in John Barr’s Blood and Money, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Reed looks tired, because he is. He hasn’t had a drink in years, but he sill carries the sorrows he tried to drown. His home is his camper-top RV and his hunting rifle is what passes for his job. Hoping to bag a buck before the season ends (not that he has a license), Reed accidentally shoots a suspicious-looking woman in the woods.

Initially, Reed just tries to cover up the incident. However, he returns to the scene when he recognizes her from news reports. It turns out she was part of a gang of violent armed robbers who just held-up a casino. There is indeed a bag of money near her lifeless body, but her accomplices turn up shortly thereafter.

There are not a lot of surprises in the slow-build thriller that unfolds—emphasis on the slow—but Barr is really more interested in his haunted protagonist and the chilly, remote environment. Frankly, Barr and his lead actor, John Berenger (Oscar-nominated, a long time ago) are so realistic portraying Reed’s creaky, aging body, it undermines the film’s credibility as a thriller, in which the hobbling hunter evades four younger and better armed fugitives.

Still, it is an impressive showcase for Berenger, who has made more than his share of Sniper direct-to-DVD sequels in recent years. However, he really is terrific playing the solitary protagonist. It is a quietly patient performance that fully explores Reed’s guilt and regret, as well as his fundamental humanism. There is a rugged decency to the character that comes out in his scenes with Debbie, a sympathetic diner waitress (nicely played by Kristen Hager) and George, a recently discharged veteran he meets at an AA meeting.

Shudder: Monstrum


The King is convinced reports of a monster rampaging outside the capitol are fake news designed to undermine his reign. The cabal is real, but unfortunately the news is not as fake as the conspirators think in director-screenwriter Huh Jong-ho’s Monstrum, which premieres today on Shudder.

According to a cryptic 1527 entry in the royal court history, King Jungjong moved the capitol for three years, because of monster attacks. Supposedly, it really says that. In reality, it could have been a number of other things, but a monster makes for a better movie than a plague. Unfortunately, the good people of Joseon have to contend with that too, because some of the so-called “Monstrum’s” victims exhibit tell-tale signs of disease. Suspiciously, others don’t.

To get to the bottom of the Monstrum rumors, King Jungjong enlists the services of retired officer Yoon Gyeom, who resigned in disgust with the King’s ruthless handling of a previous plague. In subsequent years, Yoon has lived a quiet life with comedic relief brother Sung Han and Myung, who he raised as a daughter after saving her from a plague-era massacre. Reluctantly, he agrees to lead the monster hunt, but he is walking into a trap laid by the scheming prime minister, Sim Woon. However, things get a little more complicated when a certain uninvited guest crashes the party.

Monstrum is a wildly entertaining monster movie that is rife with irony for contemporary audiences keenly attuned to themes of pandemics, fake news, and “deep state” subversion. Trump and Bolsonaro fans, this could be the Korean monster movie you have been waiting for—even though both the monster and the pestilence are very real.

The monster design is not particularly original, but the digital effects look unusually realistic on the small screen. He pretty much tears apart most of the Imperial Palace and any of the Sim Woon’s Wolf Warriors who get in the way, which is definitely cool to watch. There is also plenty of high-quality martial arts and hack-and-slash action to keep viewers’ adrenaline pumped up. There are times when Huh really pushes the limits of credibility, but seriously, who cares?

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Diablo Rojo PTY: Panama’s 1st Horror Movie


There is extensive Panamanian folklore regarding evil witches, or Bruja, but most of these characters we are about to meet would rather not hear about that right now. That is because they are running for their lives from a coven with supernatural powers. They have a vehicle, one of Panama’s few surviving festively decorated “Diablo Rojo” buses, but they lack fuel and a reliable sense of direction in Sol Moreno & J. Oskura Najera’s Diablo Rojo PTY, Panama’s first horror movie, which releases tomorrow on Amazon.

The witches are out to get Miguel Moreno, but he has no idea why. It starts with a drunken hook-up that takes a macabre turn, spooking the bus driver badly. Much to the confusion of his assistant, he floors the bus, refusing to heed the cops chasing behind him. Despite what seems like a few minutes on the road, Moreno and the patrolmen pursuing him find themselves miles away from the capitol, outside the country village Moreno grew up in.

They temporarily find refuge with the parish priest, who remembers Moreno and might have an idea about the bad karma catching up with him. Unfortunately, the destructive senior officer sabotages their sanctuary, forcing everyone back on the road.

Okay, DR PTY is not exactly up there with The Exorcist, but its unruly energy and gleeful gore are infectiously entertaining. It is a shame this film will not have more opportunities for first-run midnight screenings, because this film is probably best experienced with a theater full of whooping and hollering horror fans.

Regardless, you can’t keep a knuckleheaded underdog down. We can still appreciate the generously splattering practical effects and the half-serious attempt to draw from Panamanian folk culture and pop culture. As a bonus, the depiction of Padre Andres is mostly sympathetic. Granted, he thinks most of the sanctuary-seekers are idiots, but they mostly are.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Rithy Panh’s Graves Without a Name


The history of Communism is littered with mass graves, from the Holodomor in Ukraine to the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Coming to terms with the past is particularly difficult in the Southeast Asian country for at least two reasons. For one thing, the Khmer Rouge is still in power. They simply changed their name and rebranded themselves. Even more troubling for families, the lack of proper burials makes it nearly impossible to hold the Buddhist rituals necessary to help loved ones move on with their after-life. Acclaimed filmmaker Rithy Panh searches for his father’s earthly remains in the meditative documentary, Graves Without a Name, which releases today on DVD.

Even though they often focus on the crushing enormity of the Cambodian genocide, Panh’s documentaries tend to be acutely personal in scope. In The Missing Piece, his defining masterwork (thus far), Panh told his family’s tragic history with carved wooden figurines. Graves is possibly even more personal, but less narrative-driven. We watch as Panh undergoes purification ceremonies to prepare him for further rites that will hopefully lead to the location of his father’s body. However, it seems there is just too much mournful static around the work camp where his father was executed.

In between rituals, Panh intersperses long-take interviews with genocide survivors. One was a peasant “Old Person,” who initially fought with the Khmer Rouge before becoming sickened by their torture, rape, and mass murder. The other was a much abused and despised “New Person” from the city. Both give harrowing testimony in a matter-of-fact tone produced by their resignation they will never see justice done in their lifetimes.

There have been many documentaries produced on the Cambodian genocide (several of them by Panh), but the crimes described in Without a Name still pack a visceral punch. At times, Panh’s closeness to the subject matter leads to a slight blurriness of focus and Randal Douc’s French narration is undeniably overwritten, but the power of this film remains raw and immediate.