Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Observer: A Profile of Hu Jie

You can’t say we weren’t warned. Hu Jie’s documentaries have exposed the CCP’s crimes against humanity and their subsequent censorship reveals the regime’s determination to cover-up the past. Unfortunately, we have been too interested in making money to pay attention. Hu has been like a Chinese Claude Lanzmann, but he has had to live under the regime whose past brutalities he documented. Rita Andreetti profiles the artist-filmmaker and captures a further incident of Chinese state censorship against him in The Observer, which releases today on DVD, with Hu’s Spark.

The Observer pairs up particularly well with Spark, because Andreetti’s film begins with the permanent closure of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the confiscation of their complete archives, because of the fest’s plans to screen Hu’s film. Shockingly, this has happened to other festivals that planned to screen Hu’s work—usually on the down low.

Andreeti surveys Hu’s body of work, giving special consideration to Spark (exposing the mass starvation of The Great Leap Forward), In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul (revealing abuses of the Anti-Rightist Movement), and Though I Am Gone (chronicling the personal tragedies of the Cultural Revolution). She also briefly sketches out Hu’s biography and gives his eternally patient wife a chance to have her say.

Hu Jie’s Spark on DVD

Real journalists do not echo each other. They report the stories other won’t. There were not many who fit this description during Mao’s reign of terror, but there was one journal that accurately reported the world as it truly was. Its print runs totaled somewhere around the twenty-copy range—as in two-zero—but that was still more than sufficient for the Communist Party to crack-down hard on its editorial staff. Their remarkable stories of dissent are documented in Hu Jie’s Spark, which releases today with Rita Andreetti’s documentary-profile The Observer on DVD, from Icarus Films and dGenerate Films.

The four primary writer-editors were all students, mostly from different cities, who had been labeled “Rightists” during the last bout of state-sanctioned insanity. Therefore, they were all highly vulnerable to whatever punitive measures the Party might unleash, but they were not planning to hand out Spark on street corners. They envisioned sending it to an elite, enlightened few within the Party bureaucracy, who might be in a position to foster reform. Alas, their naivety contributed to their sad fate.

Spark really did start with misplaced faith in senior Party officialdom. Shocked by the bodies literally piling up in the streets as a result of famine induced by the Great Leap Forward, the Spark core group assumed their local officials were merely applying national policy in an incompetent manner. However, as they ventured to other provinces and made contacts, they discovered the situation was just as dire everywhere else. Nevertheless, the Party and its flunkies insisted there was nothing wrong. Spark put this in print and they paid a fearful price. They were not alone though. The sympathetic local headman and suspected “Rightist” Du Yinghua, a Party member since before 1949, was also fatally purged.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Lost on Everest—The Search for Sandy Irvine, on Nat Geo

In 1963, National Geographic underwrote the first successful American expedition to summit Mt. Everest. One of their editors lost his toes in the effort, but many have lost far more on the Himalayan peak. George Mallory and Alexander “Sandy” Irvine perished one the mountain, but they possibly summited first, prior to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. If they did, the proof could be on the Kodak camera presumed lost with Irvine. Nat Geo photographer and experienced mountaineering cinematographer Renan Ozturk documents an expedition that set out to retrace the steps of Mallory and Irvine, with the ultimate goal of finding Irvine and the fateful camera in Lost on Everest, which premieres tomorrow on National Geographic.

It maybe wasn’t exactly the needle-in-a-haystack sort of undertaking that it sounds like. Thom Pollard and Conrad Anker had discovered Mallory’s body in 1999, but the Kodak was not on his person. That was disappointing, but it made sense, because Irvine was the tinkering equipment guy. In recent years, Everest historian Tom Holzel used satellite photos and eye-witness accounts to pinpoint a precise slot within the rockface that he believed held Irvine’s body. Nat Geo writer Mark Synnott found his case sufficiently compelling, he managed to convince his magazine to sponsor another Everest campaign, except this one would be focused on finding Irvine rather than on summitting.

But not so fast. As Synnott explained during an online Q&A, their Sherpas took issue with their plan, in part because an expedition without a summit detracts from their resumes. Much of this drama is left out of the final broadcast film, leaving some viewers to wonder why they are climbing to the summit rather than heading straight to the so-called “Holzel Slot.” Regardless, Synnott and expedition mates, Pollard (returning in hopes of completing what he started in 1999) and guide Jamie McGuinness experience plenty of danger and anxiety as they try to wait out the crowds on the mountain and the brutal winds in the aptly named “Death Zone.”

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Back in Drive-Ins: Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein

Through no merit of its own, this grade-Z exploitation movie keeps winning the distribution lottery. It reached its initial viewers on the drive-in circuit, which was the intended destination for most of director-distributor Al Adamson’s movies. Then it had a second life as one of the earliest VHS releases. Suddenly, drive-in distribution is a thing again, so it is headed back to outdoor screens. However, this time Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein will be serving a good cause when original star Zandor Vorkov makes rare personal appearances to support blood drives during the era of the CCP-Virus. The next stop for D vs. F (as part of a double-bill with Adamson’s Brain of Blood) and the “Vampire’s Blood Oath” will be the Family Drive-In (VA), this Wednesday and Thursday.

Wheelchair-bound Dr. Durea (if that is his real name, which of course it isn’t) runs a tacky yet shockingly realistic Venice Beach house of horrors, featuring Island of Dr. Moreau style monstrosities—and a functioning guillotine. Durea is actually the last of the Frankensteins, who is still secretly in the old family business. Somehow, Dracula knew this and also had the inside info on where Frankenstein’s enemies buried his last stitched together monster. Much to the crazy doctor’s surprise, Dracula wants to join forces, because he believes serum Frankenstein is perfecting will make him even more invincible. Remember, this doesn’t have to make sense. It is just supposed to fill time while teenagers made out in their cars and bought concessions.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas showgirl Judith Fontain has come to Venice looking for her hippy sister, who has become the latest victim of Groton, Dr. Frankenstein’s zombie hunchback (the monster named after an elite prep school). The cops are no help and the bikers don’t want anyone asking questions about their former customers. Fortunately, she falls into the pad of sensitive swinger Mike, who will help her amateur investigation. They are not the brightest people, but they still quickly identify Durea’s Creature Emporium as a prime site of suspicion.

D vs. F has a reputation for murkiness that is well deserved. There are old prints out there that look like it was filmed in Manos-Vision. Yet, it kind of fits this movie. Ed Wood films are so bad they’re good. Human Centipedes are so bad they’re repellent. D vs. F is so bad, its surreal. After watching it, you have to remind yourself you live in a world with decent natural lighting, where the laws of nature apply with logical consistency.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Oxford Virtual ’20: Army of Lovers in the Holy Land

Tel Aviv is home to one of the largest Pride celebrations outside of the West and is widely recognized as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly destination cities in the world. It also happens to be in Israel. All of these reasons make the Mediterranean city feel like home to Jean-Pierre Barda. Documentarian Asaf Galay follows the “lead vocalist” of Swedish disco-dance band Army of Lovers as he makes Aliyah and happily settles in Israel during the relatively short (just over an hour) but entertaining film Army of Lovers in the Holy Land, which screens during the Oxford Virtual Film Festival.

Barda and his Army of Lovers bandmates Alexander Bard (the founder) and Dominika Peczynski are the first to gleefully admit they do not play instruments and never really even performed their own vocals. For them, the band is really about dramatic stagecraft, elaborate (and risqué) costumes, and fab hair and makeup. The latter was also Barda’s responsibility. For a while, the band was positioned as the natural successors to ABBA and they nearly reached that level of popularity in Continental Europe (but fell considerably shorter in the US and UK).

Raised in Sweden by his naturalized French-Algerian parents, Barda initially held conflicted attitudes towards his Jewish faith and heritage. However, an Israeli tour provided a new, positive context to relate to his Jewishness. He seemed like he was “home,” so he stayed.

Friday, June 26, 2020

BEATS: Those Raving Kids

It’s like a Scottish techno Footloose, but neither of these two losers will be dancing with a girl. Instead, they just want to enjoy a little techno and exert a tiny measure of control over their lives. The latter will definitely be the trickier part for luckless Johnno and Spanner in Brian Welsh’s BEATS, which opens virtually today.

Johnno is a passive little “wee man,” who would be relentlessly bullied at school, were it not for his lunkheaded best pal, Spanner. Unfortunately, Spanner lives on the even more wrong side of the tracks with his abusive drug-dealing older brother, Fido. Johnno’s mum Alison has always been against their friendship, so she is happy their upcoming move will break the lads up for good. They will be making a bid for polite respectability moving in Robert, her boyfriend, a buttoned-down copper.

Of course, Johnno has given into to inevitability of his fate, but he has resisted telling Spanner, because of his aversion to conflict. When Alison abruptly lets the cat out of the bag, Johnno reluctantly agrees to one last hurrah. Fittingly, Spanner has purchased tickets for a much-anticipated rave, where they can finally hear their beloved techno beats in the manner they were intended to be experienced. To cover the costs, he stole from the thuggish Fido, so yes, that could be an issue later.

owever, this will not just be any rave. It is also a political statement, as pirate radio DJ “D-Man” constantly explains. The year is 1994, so raves like this are technically no longer legal. The recently passed Criminal Justice Public Order Act has provisions cracking down on such events. Most notoriously, it contains a provision prohibiting “gatherings of 20 or more people,” centered around music dominated by the “emission of a succession of beats.” Sure, that sounds absurdly schoolmarmish, but when you think about it, the Act was just 26 years ahead of its time. (Back then, ravers had a habit of descending uninvited on farmland just outside of towns and leaving it in ruins, much to the owners’ vexation, but we’re sure Spanner and D-Man cleaned up after themselves, right?)

In fact, the raving as activism motif is so relentlessly over-played, it starts to give the film a ridiculously self-important tone. The brave young demonstrators in Hong Kong protesting against the CCP’s National Security and Extradition bills are real activists, with admirable principles. Spanner and Johnno just want to drop acid and bob their heads.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad

Tang is a gangster, but he rules Shanghai like an Emperor. Xiao Jinbao acts like his queen, but she is more like his consort, who could lose her position at the snap of his fingers. Young Tang Shuisheng is just a lowly servant, but he is also part of the royal family as a distant Tang clan relative. He will learn some hard lessons regarding the price of loyalty in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad, which re-releases virtually this Friday, in conjunction with Film Forum.

huisheng’s uncle sent for him from the provinces, because Boss Tang is more inclined to trust other Tangs. He will serve as Xiao’s errand boy and general whipping post. She does not make the transition easy for him, so the unsophisticated boy quickly starts to resent his mistress. Yet, she and the Tang organization will be the only support system he has after his uncle is fatally killed in a shootout.

Soon thereafter, Shuisheng must accompany Xiao and Tang, while they hide out on a nearly uninhabited island waiting for the bruhaha to blow over. Even he can see Xiao is trying to make trouble, but he remains unaware of her extremely risky infidelity.

Shanghai Triad is an excellent gangster movie, but it is more akin to Neil Jordan’s simmering Mona Lisa than Johnnie To’s ultra-cool Hong Kong epics. It was produced at a difficult time for Zhang. His personal relationship with lead actress Gong Li was coming to an awkwardly bitter end and the CCP authorities had barred him from leaving the country (still angry over the realistic depictions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in his banned masterpiece, To Live). Yet, in some ways the resulting behind-the-scenes dynamics were perfect for Triad, such as the palpable sense of uneasy limbo during the island-bound scenes.

As for Gong, she truly takes no prisoners. She is a diva with verbal claws that draw blood. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would be impressed. So will any movie lover. If maybe some of her frustrations with Zhang seeped into her scenes with Boss Tang, it only helped the film. Forget about over-hyped, over-acting stars like Streep. Film for film, Gong was probably the best thesp of the 1990s.

Firing Line: Rising Stars & Newcomers

One way or another, 2020 will be the last year Republican candidates get to/are stuck campaigning with Donald Trump at the top of the ballot. How does the party build on and/or repair his legacy? That is an unspoken but ever-present question throughout two special episodes of Firing Line, hosted by Margaret Hoover. “Rising Stars,” featuring two of the surviving Republican Women U.S. House members premiering tomorrow on most PBS stations, with “Newcomers,” interviewing three highly touted GOP women House candidates soon following on Tuesday.

Hoover is a great interviewer, as Michael Bloomberg learned the hard way. Clips of the former mayor trying to explain “Xi Jinping is not a dictator,” who is accountable to the people and actually quite the environmentalist, because he is starting to move China’s emissions-belching coal plants to more isolated areas, were widely circulated online during the brief surge of his presidential campaign. So much for that. She is not as dogged in these interviews, but she still asks the obvious tough questions regarding, the pandemic, the George Floyd killing, and Trump in general, which everyone expects and is ready for.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Three Short Films By Sergei Parajanov

It is fitting these short films directed by Georgian-Ukrainian-Soviet filmmaker Sergei Parajanov have been restored, because they themselves were largely an act of cultural preservation. One features the art of Armenian artist, while another captures imagery created by a Georgian outsider artist, and the third really shouldn’t even be a short film in the first place. Unfortunately, it was assembled from all the surviving footage of documentary about post-war Ukrainian culture the Soviet authorities abruptly canceled and subsequently did their best to destroy. Parajanov was a radical avant-garde artist working for, but really mostly censored by, a state enterprise that demanded rigid adherence to socialist realism. Freshly restored by Fixafilm, Parajanov’s Kiev Frescoes, Hakob Hovnatanyan, and Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme open virtually as a short film program this Friday in New York.

Arguably, this is a good time to re-discover and promote Parajanov’s work, because the Soviet Socialist regime used his bisexuality as a pretext for censoring his work and sentencing him to long stretches in Siberian prison camps. These three collected shorts will challenge many, because they are definitely non-narrative documentaries. Nevertheless, Parajanov’s inspired eye for composition and the striking artwork he incorporated into these collage-like films will definitely hold the interest of any patron familiar with the modernist art tradition.

Kiev Frescoes is undeniably the most fragmentary of the three short films, but that is the fault of Parajanov’s oppressors rather than his own. We will never know what the final film could have been, but the surviving studies exhibit a pronounced sense of absurdity that surely did not help the auteur’s cause. We can also see Kiev’s once-grand buildings now starting to crack and fade.

Hakob Hovnatanyan surveys the work of 19th Century Armenian portraiturist, whose subjects were by definition class enemies. Rather ironically, Parajanov takes extreme close-ups of painting details, contrasting them with stills of still-life scenes he staged himself (with a few contemporary scenes of the surreal mixed in for good measure). Throughout the Hoynatanyan film, there is a sense of morose nostalgia for a lost era of elegant refinement.

Perhaps the most accessible of the three films, Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, largely takes the approach of Hakob Hoynatannyan, applying it to Georgian “Primitivist” artist Niko Pirosmani. In fact, Pirosmani is now recognized as a Georgian master, whose work probably compares most directly to that of Rousseau (stylistically) and Chagall (stylistically and thematically). However, Pirosmani remained almost completely unknown and unheralded in his own time—a fact surely not lost on the censored and vilified Paranjanov.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Legion: Why Rome Fell

During the less glorious years of the Roman Empire, the Emperor often promoted favored generals over their more talented colleagues. Thankfully, that sort of politicization of the military never happens here. Regardless, the embittered Gen. Corbulo is convinced Nero should have dispatched him to quell the Armenian uprising rather than his rival, Gen. Paetus. He certainly seems to have a point, since Paetus managed to get his troops precariously boxed in. All the men under Paetus’s command could be wiped out if a rugged centurion cannot reach Corbulo with a request for reinforcements in Jose Magan’s The Legion, which releases today on DVD.

Frankly, it could already be too late, but Pateus is finally willing to swallow his pride and ask Corbulo’s aid, for the sake of his men. The insurgents have blocked off all reasonable lines of communication, so the general’s senior aide-de-camp hatches a desperate plan. Noreno, a loyal half-roman mountain man will scale the ridge their backs are pinned against and then make his way to Syria with an official eating-crow letter for Corbulo, whose hands are otherwise tied, per Nero’s orders.

Of course, Noreno only sets off with two comrades to cover him and they are quickly dispatched. However, Noreno is made of sturdier stuff. He keeps plodding through snowy mountains and parched deserts. Yet, somehow his pursuers always to get ahead of him, while staying fresh as daisies.

There is an awful lot of Noreno trudging through snow in this movie. It will remind MST3K fans of the bots’ “rock-climbing” commentary for The Lost Continent. Generally speaking, that isn’t what a film should be going for. Unfortunately, long stretches of this short film really are a tough slog to get through.

Still, there is one part when the film suddenly perks up. During his unending march, Noreno finds shelter with “Saul,” a Christian convert transparently implied to be Paul the Apostle. Irish thesp Bosco Hogan is terrific as Saul, making us wonder how he was never cast in Game of Thrones. As for ostensive lead Lee Partridge, he has the right physicality for all of Noreno’s climbing and occasional fighting, but Magan never gives him much opportunity to display any real acting chops.

Monday, June 22, 2020

House of Hummingbird: Growing Up in Seoul, circa 1994

If growing up were easy, coming-of-age stories wouldn’t be an established dramatic sub-genre. It is particularly difficult for 14-year-old Eun-hee. While wresting with questions of love and sexuality, she must also deal with family tragedies, abuse, and school pressure in director-screenwriter Bora KIM’s House of Hummingbird, which releases virtually this Friday in New York.

1994 will be an eventful year for South Korea. Their national football team has great success in the World Cup, Kim Jong-il dies and goes to Hell, and the Seongsu bridge collapses. However, only the latter really has much impact on Eun-hee. Her parents favor her untalented high school senior brother, who often lashes out at her physically. Her rebellious older sister bears the brunt of her parents’ anger, leaving Eun-hee and the growing polyp under her ear largely ignored. She thinks she might have a steady boyfriend, until he flakes. Then, the aptly name Yuri seems determined to take his place, but Eun-hee is not sure what to make of her.

The one person who really resonates with Eun-hee is her cool Chinese cram school teacher, Young-ji. As an older university student, Young-ji has obviously experienced her share of disappointment. Clearly, this is why she is so understanding whenever Eun-hee confides in her. Yet, the teacher still closely guards her private life.

Although Kim starts the film slowly, she meticulously builds out Eun-hee’s world, establishing each source of angst. As the teenager grows and evolves, Kim weaves together every strand quite dexterously. The nearly two-hour and twenty-minute is a bit on the longish side, but the film truly picks up speed and intensity as it progresses.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Ultraman X the Movie: Here He Comes

Xio is an international agency dedicated to fighting cosmic kaiju. Naturally, they are headquartered in Japan, because that’s where the kaiju are. There is not much they can do as mere mortals, but fortunately they have Ultraman X to bail them out. However, X will need some of his fellow Ultramen to cover his back when he takes on a long-dormant but particularly nasty creature in Kiyotaka Taguchi’s Ultraman X the Movie: Here He Comes! Our Ultraman, which is now available on BluRay.

As fans perhaps remember from Ultraman Orb the Movie, Ultraman X bonded with Xio member Daichi Ozora, but when not “united” in combat, his intelligence resides in the handheld X-Deviser. Things take a Graham Hancockian turn when Carolos Kurosaki, a phony TV archaeologist, reawakens Zaigorg, a powerful kaiju held in limbo within an ancient tomb. Intriguingly, he also uncovers an centuries-old statue of what looks like an Ultraman.

Before long, Zaigorg has summoned two additional “Devil Clone Beasts” to help him rampage across Japan. Ultraman X cannot stop him alone, but Gourman, Xio’s alien research director, might be able to summon Ultraman Tiga using artifacts collected by the legitimate archaeologist Tsukasa Tamaki and her ten-year-old-ish son Yuto, whom she inexplicably brings along on expeditions.

Those who dig watching big men in tight costumes fighting kaiju probably already know they will enjoy Ultraman X the Movie. Once again, it picks up where the Ultraman X series left off. It is relatively easy for newcomers to figure things out as the film goes along, but Orb the Movie still probably stands alone most successfully.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Orb is also the best of the three Ultraman series capstone films, but Ultraman X is still considerably better than Ultraman Geed, which was way to angsty for its own good. Precocious Yuto can be a little annoying, but once he is taken out of the picture (through temporary, non-lethal means), the film really gets down to serious kaiju-bashing business.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Pipe Dreams on Independent Lens

It was the Phantom of the Opera’s favorite instrument and who are you to argue with him? Yet, even the instrument’s institutionalized establishment still largely thinks of organ music in terms of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and the like. However, two competitors in the Canadian International Organ Competition (CIOC) will try some riskier, less traditional repertoire. As a result, they will be the one many viewers will root for when Stacey Tenenbaum documents their preparation and performances in Pipe Dreams, which airs this Monday, as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

Evidently, there were five focal organists in Tenenbaum’s festival cut, but only four for the broadcast edit. Oh well, it just shows how brutal the CIOC eliminations get. The competition culminates in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, but the musicians spend months planning, practicing, and stressing. Alcee Chriss III from Texas has a background in jazz and gospel. Despite the risks, he intends to try a little jazz in his free program. Nick Capozolli, hailing from Pittsburgh, will probably take any even greater chance playing the work of avant-garde composers like John Cage.

In contrast, German prodigy Sebastien Heindl sticks to the arch-classical, in the tradition of his namesake. Yuan Shen, the daughter of China’s most prominent pipe organist, would like to be more daring like Capozolli, but her father-coach insists on a traditional set-list. All four are very talented, as the audience can plainly hear. Three of them also have a lot of personality, so you will probably pick them as favorites to pull for. There is no question jazz fans will line-up with Team Chriss, who does indeed swing the pipe organ, with a bebop standard, which is very cool.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Picture of His Life: Amos Nachoum’s Polar Bears

Coca-Cola probably has piles of consumer research that proves everyone loves polar bears, but for Israeli marine wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum, it is a different sort of love. They are like his great white whale. For years, he has wanted to capture photos of them swimming underwater. Yonatan Nir & Dani Menkin follow Nachoum on the expedition that might be his last, best chance to take his career capstone polar bear shots in Picture of His Life, which releases virtually today in New York (in conjunction with the JCC Manhattan).

Polar bears are dangerously fast swimmers, who are probably more comfortable in water than on land. They are not scared of humans—according to the film, they are the only animal that has people below them in their food chain. That makes Nachoum’s unprotected and completely exposed methods particularly risky. That is also why his pictures are often so vibrant and dynamic.

To take polar bear pictures, you have to go where the polar bears are: the Canadian Arctic. There is a sequence that shows Nachoum’s journey from Israel to the far arctic north in a style reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the arrow for his journey seems to keep going and going. When he finally reaches base camp, his Inuit guide Joe Kaludjak and his son lead Nachoum and company on excursions that are more like commando raids, except it will only really be the photographer facing danger, rather than their targets.

In fact, Nachoum nerves were hardened as a member of the IDF’s heroic Sayeret Shaked special forces during the Yom Kippur War. Frankly, Nachoum does not say very much throughout the film. His admirers and sisters somewhat imply he prefers the company of wildlife, due to his wartime experiences and decidedly strained relationship to his parents, but Nir & Merkin do not belabor the issue.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Shudder: Scare Package

It is getting to the point where a lot of horror viewers will not have any personal memories of video stores. Sadly, the Upper Eastside holdout, the Video Room, closed last year and Vulcan Video, the store thanked in this film’s’ credits was shuttered because of the CCP-Virus shutdown (thanks again, Xi). Yet, the archetype of the horror movie nerd-video-store clerk persists. At least it does in the horror-comedy anthology-mash-up Scare Package, which premieres today on Shudder.

Package sets the ironic-meta tone early and often in Emily Hagins’ “Cold Open,” where we meet a struggling actor, coincidentally named Mike Myers, who is desperate to stay in his next film past the prologue set-up. Of course, it does not work out as he hoped. This segment segues into Aaron B. Koontz’s “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium,” which sort of acts as a framing device for the other constituent stories that will be introduced as films-within-the-film, playing on the store’s monitors.

Weirdly, Chris McInroy’s “One Time in the Woods” and frequent genre thesp Noah Segan’s directorial debut “M.I.S.T.E.R.” would probably be funnier if they were in separate anthology films, because they both start out pretending to be about one sort of monster, before revealing the more pressing horror is something else entirely. Still, the ensembles for both (including Segan portraying a frustrated husband) are impressively energetic (even manic, in the case of “Woods”).

Perhaps the funniest segment is Anthony Cousins’ “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill,” where we see the Fourth of July Killer’s favorite victim try to turn the tables on her tormentor, yet again. Thematically, this is a lot like Shant Hamassian’s short film, Night of the Slasher, but Cousins and co-screenwriter John Karsko take it to much gorier and more absurdist extremes.

Courtney & Hillary Andujar’s “Girls’ Night Out of Body” has an appealing retro vibe, but they do not have a chance to fully develop their concept before the abrupt O.Henry-ish ending. Baron Vaughn’s “So Much to Do” also earns considerable style points, but the tale of shadowy figures and a struggle for control over an earthly body does not make a lot of sense.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones

In times of crisis, some reporters set a valiant standard of professionalism, while others cravenly betray their commitment to the truth and free expression. Do not count on the journalistic establishment to accurately identify the former or the latter. Today, Walter Duranty is widely recognized as a willing stooge, who knowingly covered up Stalin’s genocidal crimes. Yet, the Pulitzer board refuses to rescind his Pulitzer Prize and his old employer, the New York Times has declined to return it. Gareth Jones exposed the Ukrainian Holodomor, the deliberate, systemic starvation of millions of Ukrainian—the very story Duranty tried to hide from the world. Agnieszka Holland (who was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia and exiled from her native Poland) tells the Welsh journalist’s tragic-heroic story in Mr. Jones, which releases today on VOD.

Initially, Jones did not come to Moscow to dig up dirt on the Communist system. The plan was to secure an interview with Stalin, in hopes of convincing the dictator to open a second front against the newly ascendant Hitler (alas, Germany and the USSR would sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact four years after the events of this film). However, when Jones arrives in Moscow, he finds his (fictionalized) good friend Paul Kleb (a transparent reference to Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist suspiciously murdered while investigating Putin) has been killed by petty street crime (in the workers’ paradise), according to Duranty, through whom the Soviets grant or withhold western journalists’ access.

The last time Jones spoke to Kleb, he mentioned a potentially explosive scoop. In short order, Duranty’s German colleague Ada Brooks confirms the open secret of widespread Ukrainian famine, but she counsels Jones to go along, to get along. Instead, he risks his life and liberty to investigate the Ukrainian genocide first-hand.

Mr. Jones is very much a historical expose, in the tradition of Holland’s masterwork, The Burning Bush, but in many ways, it also functions as a gripping thriller. Viewers can almost literally feel the eyes of the early surveillance state on them as Jones secretly pursues the truth. At times, Holland and production designer Gregorz Piatkowski make 1930s Moscow literally resemble the dystopia of 1984. Clearly, this is deliberate, since Holland flashforwards to George Orwell writing Animal Farm (inspired by Jones’ reports) as a recurring motif.

James Norton is well-cast as Jones, convincingly conveying his initial naiveté and idealism, as well as his profound revulsion and righteous outrage. Yet, the real horror comes from Peter Sarsgaard’s chillingly calculated Duranty. You will be hard-pressed to find a more unsettling film villain—and he is scrupulously based on a real-life (Pulitzer Prize-winning) figure. Sargaard’s performance and Holland’s depiction of the Holodomor largely overshadow much of the film, but as Brooks, Vanessa Kirby still has some memorable moments, late in the third act.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

My Father, the Spy—and the Mystery of What Happened to Him

Imants Lesinskis was a Soviet translator at the United Nations, so of course he was a spy. What his KGB masters did not know was Lesinskis was also spying for the CIA. For years, he had hoped to ultimately defect, but when he finally did, it dramatically upended the life of his daughter Ieva Lesinska. Decades later, Lesinska investigates her many unresolved family mysteries in Gints Grube & Jaak Kilmi’s My Father the Spy, which releases today on VOD.

Lesinska’s attitude towards her father remains conflicted. Although he was already divorced from her mother, Lesinskis brought her to New York, hoping she would agree to defect with him and his second wife. Technically, she had a choice, but either option would result in a cutting of ties. She decided to stay with him and her stepmother in America, which understandably strained her relationship with her mother.

Although Lesinskis is a highly ambiguous figure throughout the doc, the many FBI and CIA agents who facilitated their defection come across as much more sympathetic than viewers might expect. They understood the emotional and psychological pressure Lesinka was likely to experience, so they did their best to make her feel welcome. On the other hand, controversial Soviet defector sounds rather sinister when explaining his past role carrying out assassinations of those who defected to the West, before him. This is particularly (and understandably) distasteful to Lesinska, due to her questions regarding her father’s own fate.

The film takes on a rather surreal meta-aspect in the early stage, when Lesinska herself helps cast the performer who plays her twenty-year-old self in the many flashback scenes. These sequences clearly underscore the subjectivity of memory and “official” history, as well as Lesinska’s acutely personal perspective.

Monday, June 15, 2020

7500: The Hijacking Film, Post-9-11

Arguably, the last great pre-9-11 hijacking movie was Cannon Films’ The Delta Force, starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. Yet, as evil as Robert Forster’s Islamist terrorist was in that film, he still was not nearly as blood-thirsty as the real thing. These days, the stakes are much higher than just the passengers and crew, which is why the pilot of this Berlin-to-Paris flight must not let the hijackers breach the cockpit in Patrick Vollrath’s 7500, premiering this Thursday (as per today's schedule change) on Amazon Prime.

Tobias Ellis is an American based in Berlin, where he lives with his flight attendant partner Gökce and their two-year-old son. She will be working this fateful flight as well, further raising the stakes. Shortly after the seatbelt sign goes off, two Islamist terrorists push their way past an attendant entering the cockpit, using glass shivs as weapons. Ellis and Captain Michael Lutzmann knock one of them cold and push the other out, but they are both wounded in the process. Seriously so, in Lutzmann’s case.

For the time being, Ellis is still in command of the plane, but the terrorists will do anything to take control and finish what they started. Most of them are zealots, who are eager to die for their hateful cause. However, Vedat, their 19-year-old translator is probably even more anxious than the hostages.

Although 7500 (a reference to the squawk code for hijacking and not to be confused with the horror movie Flight 7500) is set almost entirely within the cockpit, it is still a highly cinematic film. Vollrath strikingly simulates the experience of flying and landing a jetliner. Honestly, it all looks real enough to count as simulator hours for anyone going for their pilot’s license.

Vollrath (Oscar-nominated for a short film) skillfully builds tension out of the cramped and constrained setting. Viewers see what Ellis sees of the hostage-taking in the plane’s cabin, which is agonizingly little. Joseph Gordon-Levitt probably does his best work to-date as Ellis, viscerally conveying the conflict between his head (which knows everyone will die if he lets the terrorists enter the cockpit) and his heart (which breaks watching them beat and murder the hostages). That is also why the film loses a lot steam when Ellis faces off against the equally nervous Vedat during the comparatively slack third act.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

American Masters: Mae West

Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Robert Evans, and Sherry Lansing all owe Mae West a debt of gratitude, because she single-handedly saved Paramount Pictures from insolvency. In addition to starring in studio-saving hits like She Done Him Wrong, she wrote the screenplays and exerted more control over every aspect of their production than any other star of her era, regardless of gender or genre. As a result, she became an icon and a cliché in her own time. The classic sex symbol of golden age Hollywood gets the respectful TV profile treatment in Mae West: Dirty Blonde, directed by Julia Marchesi & Sally Rosenthal, which premieres Tuesday as part of the current season of American Masters.

It was vaudeville and Broadway where West first made her name. In West’s case, “making her name” also entailed serving eight days of not-very-hard prison time on an obscenity charge for her play Sex. Given her notoriety, signing West was a Hail Mary pass for the sinking Paramount studio, but she delivered. Unfortunately, her success also helped usher in the schoolmarm-ish Production Code (a.k.a. the “Hays Code”) that put a stop to much of the risqué fun.

West only has thirteen screen credits to her name, but she remains one of the most recognizable and imitated stars of her era. Frankly, many of her in/famous double-entendres still sound naughty. If anything, she is probably long overdue for an in-depth documentary for popular audiences.

Dirty Blonde mostly fits that bill. However, it is often unintentionally funny when its on-camera talking heads twist themselves into pretzels trying to position West as an early feminist paragon. In truth, West was a capitalist, God bless her. She figured out sex sells, especially when it is pitched by a confidently saucy persona.

Alas, most of West’s co-stars from the 1930s and 1940s are no longer with us and those who appeared in her two notorious 1970s films, Myra Breckenridge and Sextette, might understandably wish to forget them. However, the one exception is a legend in his own right, West’s co-star in the latter, Ringo Starr.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Darkness Falls

Seriously, any serial killer who intentionally decides to kill a cop’s wife when they have the whole lawless city of Los Angeles to choose from is just asking for trouble. This murderous father-and-son tandem does so anyway. They get away with it for a while, because their M.O. is so despicably evil—they force their victims to commit suicide. Nonetheless, Det. Jeff Anderson will eventually come for them in Julien Seri’s Darkness Falls (a.k.a. Anderson Falls), which just released on VOD.

Sadly, Anderson’s wife Elizabeth is Mark and Adam Whitver’s latest victim. Tragically, the detective returned home just a little too late. He saw two shadowy men walking away from their building and his son Frankie claimed to see a strange man sitting on his bed, but the department stubbornly insists it is a suicide. Anderson’s career takes a nosedive as he becomes obsessed with suicide scenes, but he is vindicated when one of the Whitvers’ victims miraculously survives. Captain Kelly Alderman (his former partner, who received the promotion he had been in line for) now believes him, but she can only devote limited resources to the case. Basically, he is still on his own.

The first act is pretty compelling stuff, in a pitch-black, soul-searing kind of way, but the rest of the film is hopelessly contrived. Giles Daoust’s screenplay is distractingly reliant on coincidence, while also unleashing plot twists that are impossible to buy into. Despite Anderson’s extreme emotional stress, it is impossible to believe he would do some of things he does (and we are not talking about roughing up the Whitvers).

As usual, Gary Cole is the best part of Darkness. His steely intensity as Papa Whitver is pretty darn chilling. Frankly, Shawn Ashmore broods hard, but he is still a bit outmatched as Det. Anderson. Playing Whitver fils, Richard Harmon is just a pale shadow of Cole’s fierce father, but that sort of reflects their relationship dynamic. There is solid support throughout, including Daniella Alonso, whose portrayal of Alderman is probably better than the film deserves. Plus, fan favorite Lin Shaye brings some dignity and gravitas to the film as Anderson’s long-suffering mother.

Let’s be very clear. The cast is not responsible for this film’s faults. Everything wrong with Darkness Falls is right there in the script. As a result, a lot of hard work was expended in a losing effort. Honestly, this could be the most frustratingly film of the year, so far. Not recommended (sorry, but no), Darkness Falls is now available on VOD platforms.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Into the Dark: Good Boy

Maggie is rather mousy and under-assertive, but she is still probably pushing credulity claiming her newly adopted dog is a legit “emotional support animal.” Reuben looks like a cute little guy, but there is an awful lot of fight in this dog—too much. Ally Sheedy’s character in Man’s Best Friend could definitely relate to what Maggie will go through, but the characterization and dialogue is much sharper in Tyler MacIntyre’s Good Boy, which premieres today, to commemorate National Dog Day or Pet Appreciation Week or whatever, as part of the current season of Hulu’s Blumhouse-produced Into the Dark.

Maggie’s neighborhood newspaper employer just switched over to an online-freelance model and her landlord effectively raised the rent with new fees. These developments come at an especially bad time, since she is just started preparing for an egg harvesting procedure. She adopted Reuben hoping he would alleviate her stress. It is a responsibility he takes deadly seriously.

Although we never see the entire transformation, it seems furry Reuben is a bit like the Incredible Hulk. You do not want to make him angry. Several people who have been bugging Maggie will lean that the hard way—permanently. Unfortunately, Reuben might also be getting a little jealous of her new boyfriend Nate, who also happens to be a cop.

Surprisingly for a Blumhouse joint, MacIntye keeps most of the gore off-screen. Instead, he keeps us focused on the characters and the sly humor. The Into the Dark franchise is definitely better when it does not take itself too seriously, as was the case with Pooka Lives, Crawlers, and School Spirit. Good Boy is another fine example, especially since it proves Steve “Mahoney” Guttenberg can still be funny, garnering big laughs as Maggie’s aging pot-head editor.