Thursday, December 31, 2020

Elizabeth is Missing, on PBS

As murder mysteries go, this one is relatively small in scale, but you still wouldn’t call it a cozy. There are really two mysteries in need of solving that occurred decades apart, but they will get entwined in the increasingly confused mind of the aging protagonist in Elizabeth is Missing, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

Maud Horsham greatly relies on post-it notes to keep to her daily schedule, but she still functions relatively well on her own at the start of this adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel. However, the discovery of an old lady’s compact buried in her friend Elizabeth Markham’s garden appears to strike a chord with Horsham. When she returns to visit the next day, she finds her friend mysteriously absent, but her eye glasses are plainly visible on the kitchen table. Horsham comes back several days in a row, but there is never any sign of Markham.

The experience brings back painful (and possibly suppressed) memories from Horsham’s childhood, when her glamorous older sister Susan “Sukey” Jefford also disappeared under mysterious circumstances. At the time, suspicion fell on their nebbish boarder, but the ravings of a mad homeless women keep echoing in Horsham’s head. Although she is start to drift more frequently into the past, Horsham is still determined to find Markham, to help redeem herself for failing her sister.

Missing
is a quiet but profoundly sad film, thematically much like Anthony Hopkins’ upcoming Oscar contender, The Father, but it leans into the potential criminal aspects of both disappearances much more, while suggesting ironic parallels with the cruel psychological mysteries of Alzheimer’s. Unlike most amateur sleuths, Horsham has the further challenge of assembling clues from her disordered brain, before she can follow leads in the real world.

Director Aisling Walsh handles the two levels of the TV film’s mystery quite dexterously and sensitively. It is often frustrating watching the story unfold from Horsham’s perspective, because we are so acutely conscious of the blind-spots that plague her. As one of those “unreliable narrator” novels, adapting
Elizabeth is Missing is a tricky proposition, but screenwriter Andrea Gibb pulls it off quite notably.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Lanthimos’s Nimic, on MUBI

If you have to be stalked by a doppelganger, they should at least make an effort to look like you, right? Not necessarily in Yorgos Lanthimos’s world. As a result, he might just be the perfect filmmaker to represent late election-year 2020, when someone might be conspicuously out of place, but people perversely refuse to recognize the obvious. A symphony cellist finds himself the victim of such a phenomenon in Lanthimos’s short film Nimic, which is now streaming on MUBI.

The “Father” thought he had a healthy relationship with his wife and three children. Yet, when the strange woman he encounters on the subway tries to take his place, nobody seems to be able to tell them apart. Yet, they look radically different and her cello player sounds like fingernails on a blackboard.

It turns out Matt Dillon is highly compatible with the idiosyncratic Lanthimos aesthetic. As the Father, he projects an appropriate morose dejection, while still maintaining the extreme deadpan we have come to expect from films like
The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Likewise, the crazy eyes of Daphne Patakia’s mimic are truly unsettling, yet she maintains a similarly stoic demeanor.

Twilight Zone: The Fear

It is an early red state-blue state culture-clash that takes an uncanny turn. State Trooper Robert Franklin is a military veteran state trooper. Charlotte Scott is a neurotic New York fashion editor recovering from a nervous breakdown. If they put aside their differences, they might survive an encounter with the unknown in “The Fear,” the penultimate episode of the original The Twilight Zone series, which airs as part of Syfy’s annual New Year’s Twilight Zone marathon.

Trooper Franklin thinks he is on a fool’s errand and Scott is the fool. The passive-aggressive big-city snob reported seeing lights in sky, so he duly drives out to her cabin to investigate. She is not very welcoming, until some mysterious force starts wreaking havoc on electrical things. Then he finds a gigantic set of fingerprints on his cruiser.

They are about as archetypal as it gets (thanks to Jack and all), but you don’t see a lot of giants in genre film or television. Of course, it sounds crazy, but Serling’s script uses the idea of them in clever ways. Yet, what really makes the episode stand out is the way Franklin and Scott come to an understanding and put aside their kneejerk presumptions about each other.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Shadow in the Cloud, from Roseanne Liang

Maybe you don't remember the part about the monster on the plane’s wing in Randall Jarrell classic poem, “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner,” but surely its implied in there someplace. Regardless, Maude Garrett will have to contend with exactly that, as well as a number of Japanese Zeroes, when she hitches a ride in the deadliest seat in a WWII B-17 Bomber for nearly the duration of Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud, which releases in theaters and on VOD this Friday.

For some reason, Women’s Auxiliary Flight Officer Garrett is determined to hitch on ride with the crew of the “Fool’s Errand” making a supply run to New Zealand. Even more important than her is the top-secret cargo in her dispatch box. The sexist crew stash her in the ball turret and make demeaning sexual jokes over the open comms, but they stop laughing a little when she bullseyes a Zero that supposedly never would have flown out that far. However, they start dismissing her again when she claims to see a gremlin-like monster sabotaging the engine.

Max Landis and Liang (whose previous short film
Do No Harm was the highlight of the 2017 Sundance) cleverly riff on the jokey WWII lore blaming gremlins for engine failure (they were sort of like the invisible “Not Me” in the old Family Circus comic strip). You could think of it as Richard Matheson’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet adapted to a WWII setting, but Liang and Landis fully develop the premise and consistently raise the stakes.

Liang also deftly capitalizes on the confined space of the ball turret to create tension. In many respects,
Shadow is like Steven Knight’s Locke, in which the car-bound Tom Hardy plays off numerous unseen voices over the phone. In this case, the voices and personas of the B-17 crew-members are not as clearly and distinctly established, but that sort of reinforces Garrett’s perspective of alienation from the men above her.

This is very inventive genre filmmaking, so we can forgive the over-the-top, unbelievable excesses of the centerpiece action scene. Of course, it also helps that the gremlin looks cool—and appropriately sinister. Unlike the various
Twilight Zone adaptations of Matheson’s story, Liang doesn’t tease us with the gremlin. She gives us plenty of good looks at the nasty creature, who holds up to scrutiny, thanks to some nifty design and effects work.

Submitted by Brazil: Babenco Tell Me When I Die

Hector Bebenco was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Argentina, but he pursued a career in filmmaking after moving to Brazil. Occasionally, he still lapsed into Sportuguese, but Brazil often embraced him as a representative of their national cinema, with good reason. Nevertheless, Babecno often never really felt like he wholly belonged in either Brazil or Argentina (even though the latter is really just a Spanish-speaking colony of the former, at least as it has been explained to me). Regardless, Brazil has made an unconventional but defensible choice submitting his wife Barbara Paz’s documentary profile of her late husband, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, as their official international feature Oscar contender (they used to call it the “foreign language” category).

Babenco is still best known for his English-language productions,
Ironweed, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and Kiss of the Spider Woman (for which he was nominated for best director), but his final film could well be his most personal. My Hindu Friend thinly fictionalized his own final days before succumbing to cancer and clearly serves as a companion film to Paz’s doc. Its star, Willem Dafoe also served as a producer of her documentary. Although she clearly had sharp editorial differences with her subject, his aesthetic still informs each frame.

In part, Paz’s film serves as an impressionistic survey of Babenco’s filmography, but it also becomes a meditation on the act of dying. Somewhat, ironically, Babenco had a great deal of time to organize his thoughts on mortality, because he was first diagnosed with cancer during the shooting of
At Play, nearly thirty years ago (allowing him to fast-forward past at least three Kubler-Ross stages).

Monday, December 28, 2020

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page


She taught millions of young readers respect for family and the self-reliant pioneering spirit. She wrote from the perspective of a daughter of Nineteenth Century settlers, because that is who she was. Her books most definitely do not reflect the attitudes of a Berkley Feminist-Third World Studies major, so the ALA canceled her, striking her name from their life achievement award. Wilder’s life is chronicled and the petty posthumous controversies of the professionally offended are also addressed in American Master’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page, produced and directed by Mary McDonagh Murphy, which premieres tomorrow on PBS.

Frankly, Wilder should be considered a feminist icon. She endured years of subsistence farming with her beloved Almanzo, in a marriage that was considered a true non-hierarchical partnership. She sold her first book at the age of 65, with the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane, the great libertarian journalist, who wrote
The Discovery of Freedom truly deserves her own American Masters profile, but it is a pleasant surprise to see her treated relatively fairly by Murphy’s battery of talking heads.

Throughout the program, Lane is given full credit for editing her mother’s
Little House novels, giving structure the narratives. During their lifetimes, both denied Lane’s involvement, in Lane’s case because the public’s generally low regard for children’s books could have damaged her own literary career, but there is ample evidence of her editorial contribution in their surviving correspondence. However, Prairie to Page perversely concentrates on each and every minor deviation of the books from the events of Wilder’s life. Honestly, this glorified fact-checking becomes tedious, especially when the real story seems to be how closely they actually hewed to her verifiable biography.

Murphy also gives Wilder’s critics more than ample time to complain about Wilder’s depictions of Native Peoples. Yet, their grievances, including the notorious smoking gun passage: “There were no people. Only Indians lived there,” which Wilder agreed to rewrite in the 1950s, sound more like sloppy writing or the exotic fascination of a young girl than anything truly sinister. Wilder critics like Linda Sue Park come across like delicate orchids, who should keep themselves hermetically sealed in a bubble, to prevent themselves from reading anything that might potentially offend their fragile self-images. Or perhaps they could just grow-up and act like mature adults, who understand not everyone sees the world precisely as they do. Honestly, the mere fact Wilder can now be considered “controversial” is in itself a telling commentary on contemporary Cancel Culture.

Nobody can deny Native Peoples faced profound hardships during this period. So did settlers, like the Ingalls. Living on the frontier with what little the 1870s had to offer was a precarious proposition for everyone. Readers come to understand this in vivid terms from Wilder’s books. For that reason, they should be due for a popular renaissance, now that we as a nation are facing challenging times. Smart readers of any age can parse books for their insights and disregard what is dated. Honestly, it is just sad that the ALA has so little faith in young readers—and it is frustrating that Murphy gives so much time to the cancel chorus.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Breaking Surface: Underwater Action & Family Angst

Remember, this is supposed to be fun. People go to great lengths and expense to enjoy a scuba-diving vacation. Swedish sisters Ida and Tuva need only drive a few hours to the Norwegian coast, but their diving excursion will not be much of a holiday. Disaster will strike, imperiling their lives and sibling bonds in Joachim Heden’s Breaking Surface, which is now playing in virtual cinemas.

A near fatal swimming incident poisoned young Ida’s long-term relationship with her mother and indirectly caused her to resent Tuva’s blatant status as her favorite daughter. Perversely, a love of diving still sort of keeps the family together. Their post-Christmas dive is a family tradition, but Mommie Dearest must take a pass this year, due a lingering cold.

As a result, it is just the two sisters diving when Tuva is suddenly trapped beneath a freak rock slide. Unfortunately, she is the more experienced, professional diving, whereas Ida is the more emotional one, making her prone to panic. She tries to keep calm, but when she reaches the surface, she finds their gear is also buried under the rocks. Don’t worry—Knut, the family dog is still safe and loyally provides encouragement from the shore.

Breaking Surface
is sort of a shorty, not even reaching eighty minutes, including the entire end-credits, but Heden keeps it lean and down-to-business. There is a lot of compelling undersea action, mostly performed by the two primary cast-members themselves. Yet, maybe the most cinematic episode comes early on, when Tuva narrowly escapes death during a work-related dive.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Hunter Hunter: There is a Wolf in the Woods

Joseph Mersault's family does not hunt because they are cruel. It is not even a matter of sport. If they do not hunt and trap for meat and pelts, they won’t have food on their table. This hard winter, they might also have to hunt a rival predator to avoid becoming a meal for it. Nature and man vie to show who is more dangerous in Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter, which is now available on VOD.

It is a hard, hand-to-mouth life, but it is the only way of living that makes sense to Mersault. His wife Anne is not so sure anymore. She suspects their home-schooled daughter Renee would be better off if she had more structure and socialization, but the young girl idolizes her father and wants to follow in his outdoorsy footsteps. However, both parents agree to temporarily keep her close to their cabin.

Lately, they have seen signs of an unusually aggressive wolf scaring off game and feasting off their traps. It appears to have a taste for blood and little fear, making it especially dangerous. With pelt prices plummeting, Mersault resolves to track and kill the beast. Unfortunately, we start to suspect there are other, more vicious dangers lurking in the woods.

Hunter Hunter
is sort of a big-twist movie, but we are ready and waiting for the shocking revelation long before it happens. Yet, Linden’s execution is so tight and tense, we still hold our breath watching it unfold. There is some buzz growing about the nearly Biblical conclusion, which is indeed pretty powerful, yet it is also totally logical within the context of the film.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club Encore

When it was originally released, it nearly killed Francis Ford Coppola’s career—yet again, even though it was sufficiently well-received in the jazz world to win a Grammy for its soundtrack. Most frustratingly, the filmmaker knew it could have been great if the studio and producer Robert Evans hadn’t done so much to kill. Like the opposite of George Lucas, Coppola went back and fixed a lot of the problems (much like he recently did with The Godfather III), resulting in the director’s cut known as The Cotton Club Encore, which airs on Bounce TV.

In the late 1920s, Harlem’s Cotton Club featured African American talent on stage, but they are not allowed to enter the club as paying guests. This fact comes through loud and clear in the
Encore cut. Delbert “Sandman” Owens and his brother Clay (clearly inspired by the Nicholas Brothers) have just been hired there as featured tap-dancers. Recently back in town, the scuffling white cornet player Michael “Dixie” Dwyer is naturally drawn there, but he will wish he had steered clear.

Dwyer has the questionable fortune of saving Dutch Schultz’s life. Regrettably, the gangster’s subsequent patronage quickly becomes controlling and emasculating. It is especially awkward when he orders the musician to accompany Vera Cicero, his not-so-secret mistress. The sexual tension between them is obvious and therefore quite dangerous. Meanwhile, Sandman Owens’ attempts to romance vocalist Lila Rose Oliver have been nearly as rocky. As a source of tension, the Cotton Club performer has been trying to pass for white, so she can accept more profitable work in downtown clubs.

Evans should have been ashamed of himself, because Coppola’s recut
Cotton Club is a great film. It definitely provides more balance to both sides of the Club’s color line, which is clearly significant. It also fully restores entire musical numbers, which are terrific. (If you don’t see Lonette McKee’s rendition of “Stormy Weather,” as Oliver, you’re watching the wrong cut.) Their inclusion makes Encore a musical in the fullest sense. A number like Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” performed by Priscilla Baskerville, expresses so much about the club’s place in Harlem. Likewise, McKee’s “Ill Wind” and “Stormy Weather” establish Oliver’s character far more than any dialogue.

Anyone who isn’t grinning from ear to ear after watching Gregory Hines lead a one-upping tap contest at the Hoofer’s Club needs serious anti-depressants. The closing fantasia of “Daybreak Express” is also a nifty piece of throwback movie musical magic. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule is the dramatic cross-cutting between Hines’ solo tap “improvography” [as the credits refer to it] and a climatic gangland hit.

Gregory and Maurice Hines were always the show-stoppers on-stage, but now their conflicted sibling relationship comes to satisfying fruition in
Encore. In a deliberate irony, Dixie Dwyer and his wannabe gangster brother Vincent are denied that opportunity by their underworld entanglements. Yet, it is a lot of fun to see the crazy Nic Cage we know so well bubbling out of the manic Vincent (we can imagine his Uncle Francis begging him not to yell “top of the world, Mom!”). It is also good to see Richard Gere in the sort of matinee idol role he was meant to play, since his support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama has gotten him blacklisted from studio tent-poles (seriously Hollywood, he was in Chicago, Pretty Woman, and An Officer and a Gentleman). It should also be noted Larry Marshall is an absolutely spooky dead-ringer for Cab Calloway.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!

By definition, there can't be a strike in the socialist workers’ paradise, so there must have been something deeply amiss in the provincial industrial town of Novocherkassk. Of course, the Soviet authorities dealt with dissent the way Communists always have. The result was a massacre and a cover-up. Andrei Konchalovsky dramatizes this formerly redacted episode of Soviet history in the searing Dear Comrades!, which releases virtually tomorrow, in conjunction with Film Forum.

Loyal Party apparatchik Lyuda Syomina keeps assuring townspeople they have never had it so good, even though the Party just increased food prices and slashed wages at the local munitions factory. Despite the local Party’s propaganda campaign, the factory workers have had enough. Awkwardly for her, this includes her modestly rebellious daughter, Svetka. The mere notion of a strike is enormously embarrassing, but when the striking workers barricade the Novocherkassk committee headquarters, Khrushchev dispatches the military, under the command of a trigger-happy loyalist.

Even though Syomina and her colleagues manage to sneak out, the shooting inevitably starts and it continues until the strikers are utterly broken. The unofficial death toll is high, but officially, the incident never happened, leaving worried parents no recourse when they realize their children are missing. That also includes the panicked Syomina, but at least her Party status gives her some limited latitude to search for Svetka, or her body. She finds a surprising ally in Loginov, a cautiously disillusioned KGB agent.

You probably never heard of the Novocherkassk Massacre, because the Party tried to whitewash it from history. Yet, it most certainly did happen. To ensure accuracy, Konchalovsky enlisted Yuri Bagrayev, the chief military prosecutor in charge of the frustrated 1992 inquiry, as a technical advisor. Years after the regime’s fall, this film still feels radioactive. Initially, the tone is somewhat akin to the absurdism, particularly with respect to the petty bureaucratic rivalries, but it soon turns deadly serious. Frankly, Konchalevsky’s depiction of massacre maelstrom is frighteningly realistic and the subsequent crack-down and cover-up are absolutely chilling to witness. Absurdity, confusion, and brutality—that pretty much covers the Soviet Socialist experience.

Regardless, you cannot look away as this tragedy unfolds. Without question,
Dear Comrades is Konchalovsky’s late-career masterpiece. There is so much to parse and analyze in the film, but it is always gripping on an immediate, human level. Julia Vysotskaya’s portrayal of the conspicuously flawed Syomina is wonderfully complex and messily human. (In many ways, her compromises represent all the compromises the Soviet people had to make, in order to live under an immoral system.) Vladislav Komarov provides an effectively understated counterbalance to her, as the slightly out-of-step Loginov.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Invaders: Beachhead & The Experiment

The X-Files gets credit for taking paranormal paranoia mainstream, but Quinn Martin got there first. Keep in mind, his alien infiltration series was created by future low-budget genre master Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Stuff), which makes sense, doesn’t it? It is interesting the revisit the two-season series, post-X-Files and post-Men in Black. You can get in at the beginning when Me TV resets their reruns of The Invaders from the beginning, in its super-convenient Time-slot: 5:00 AM, on Sunday mornings.

In the pilot, “Beachhead,” architect David Vincent pulls over exhausted, while driving home late at night from a business conference. Instead of shut-eye, he gets an eyeful of a flying saucer landing. He tries to alert the authorities, but they do their best to discredit him. His partner Alan Landers similarly tries to assure him it was all in his pretty little head. Of course, Vincent has seen too much to forget, so he sets out in search of the witness who contradicted him. In the suspiciously empty town of Kinney, he finds a decommissioned power plant retrofitted for nefarious purposes and Kathy Adams, a widow, whose late husband may have learned too much.

Frankly, all the gaslighting of the first act gets a little boring. However, the scenes in the ghostly looking Kinney are surprisingly cinematic (and impressively helmed by Joseph Sargent). In addition to tapping into the Cold War paranoia of classics like
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars (which Cohen himself identified as influences), rooted in the loss of individuality and free will, Beachhead also appeals to the mounting anxiety over the vanishing small-town way of life. Here, the insidious aliens represent urbanization as well as Communism.

As Vincent, Roy Thinnes had already perfected the dogged earnestness that would make the lonely crusader a minor genre icon, but he sounds awkwardly overwrought when making his case to others. However, Diane Baker really stands out for her subtly turned guest appearance as Adams.

Shadow Lines, on Sundance Now


Finland has the dubious legacy of the term “Finlandization,” describing their formal neutrality, while falling ambiguously within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. This cloak-and-dagger miniseries depicts the secret (partially fictional) history of how it happened. The strategic decisions made by the Finish Security Intelligence Service are questionable, but least they try to avert a Cuban Missile Crisis-style threat to global stability in Kirsti & Katri Manninen’s ten-part Shadow Lines, which premieres tomorrow on Sundance Now.

Helena Korhonen pursues her studies in America as best she can, despite still suffering post-traumatic stress from WWII, until she is targeted by an act of not so random street crime. Calling the panic number her godfather, FIST-division spymaster Yrjo Ylitalo gave her, Korhonen is whisked backed to Finland by real-life socialite Tabe Slioor. Cleaning up the incident, Slioor discovers the attacker wore Soviet-manufactured shoes (a plot thread that is left hanging in season one.)

Maybe not so coincidentally, the women share a flight to Helsinki with Donald Walker, the replacement CIA agent for the one killed during FIST’s bungled U.S. Embassy break-in. It was an operation Julius Boije conducted with his partner and fiancée, but regrettably, he was forced to kill her shortly thereafter, when Ylitalo’s agency busybody Aune Lyytinen discovered she had been turned by the KGB. Soon, Ylitalo manipulates Korhonen into taking her place, to exploit Walker’s obvious interest.

They are concerned about CIA attempts to bolster the presidential campaign of the pro-Western candidate, whereas Ylitalo favors the candidacy of Urho Kekkonen, believing the Soviets will return their Naval base “leased” on Porkkala to reward his overtures to the USSR. However, a cabal of KGB and Red Army officers hoping to depose Khrushchev, in favor of Molotov, have developed a potential ICBM that could reach DC, if launched from Porkkala, so they are determined to keep it. Meanwhile. the deeper Ylitalo draws Korhonen into his web, the more she suspects he has lied to her about her own origins.

It is a shame John le Carré just passed, because he would have appreciated the complexity and moral ambiguity of the Manninen mother-daughter tandem’s tale of historical espionage. Ylitalo and FIST engage in all sorts of dirty deals and double-crosses, but in their case, they do it all in the name of neutrality. If anything, they cost their nation a degree of autonomy, given the censorship exercised on the USSR’s behalf during the Finlandization era (for instance, Billy Wilder’s
One, Two, Three was banned for twenty-five years). It is also worth noting all the American characters who die in Shadow Lines are killed by Finns (albeit in one case, by a KGB turncoat).

Frankly, things get exponentially more complicated than a brief thumbnail can convey, especially when Lisa Salmen (codename: Lynx) shows up. The Finnish-émigré-turned CIA agent is supposed to be one of the show’s villains, but she is too much fun to root against when she rolls her eyes at traditional rustic Finnish delicacies.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Shortcut: Taking Another Wrong Turn in a Horror Movie

Horror movies clearly teach us to be cautious drivers. Always stay on the main roads and if you break down, stay in the car and call AAA. Unfortunately, a school bus driver takes an ill-advised detour that inevitably ends badly for him and his passengers in Alessio Liguori’s Shortcut, which releases today on VOD.

With five social misfits aboard, it is like he is shuttling the Breakfast Club. It is never clear just where he is taking them and why they must go through the middle of nowhere, but at least everyone has plenty of room on the coach (as they call it in the UK). Regardless, Joseph the driver makes a very bad decision when he takes a detour to avoid a fallen tree suspiciously blocking the road. He makes an even worse decision when he gets out of the coach to clear an animal carcass. That provides the opening for the notorious “Tongue Eater” serial-killer to take them hostage.

That’s bad, but the situation gets even more dire when a vaguely bat-like creature starts preying on them. On the plus side, the film picks up a bit once the kids ditch their adult supervision (such as it was) and regroup in an abandoned network of service tunnels. Weirdly, the one-sheet and copy emphasize the coach, but those scenes really feel like they drag (and
Diablo Royo PTY did the horror-on-the-bus thing with so much more flair). In contrast, there is some creepy set and design work to be found in those lower levels.

Still, it isn’t like
Shortcut ever turns into anything particularly special. It is nice to see how screenwriter Daniele Cosci has the kids coalesce into a team during the second half, but they are never given very distinctive personalities to begin with. We have the brainy girl, the slobby dude, the punk with secret pain, the nice girl, and, um, the nice guy. The young cast are all competent in their roles—they just don’t have anything memorable to work with.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Jiu Jitsu: Nic Cage, Tony Jaa, and Juju Chan Fight an Alien

You probably thought Jiu-jitsu originated in Japan, influenced, by Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto teachings, later developing a Brazilian offshoot in the 1920s. Well, how wrong you were. Actually, an alien brought it to earth through a Stargate-like portal in Burma, where he taught it to humans, so he could fight a worthy champion when he returns every six years. If no champion presents himself, the alien just starts killing people until one presents themselves. Jake, a member of the chosen brotherhood used to know that secret history, until he was stricken with amnesia in Dmitri Logothetis’s Jiu Jitsu, which releases tomorrow on DVD.

Jake nearly died fleeing the alien, but an old fishing couple patched him up and dumped him at the American military outpost. Bet you didn’t know we had troops in Burma either. The local Army Intelligence officer is suspicious, but she can’t get anything out of him, because he truly lost his memory. Nevertheless, Kueng comes to break him out, Jake instinctively goes with him.

It is hard to enjoy the first forty minutes or so of
Jiu Jitsu, because Jake and his comrades of the Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood spend most of their time fighting and possibly killing American servicemen. The Yanks aren’t even supposed to be the bad guys. It is just sloppy writing from Logothetis and James McGrath (who originally conceived the story as a graphic novel). Heck, the only officer aware of the extraterrestrial goings-on, Captain Sand played by Rick Yune, emerges as a sort of martyr figure, which just proves how confused the script gets.

Of course, it blatantly “borrows” elements from
Predator, Mortal Kombat, and Beyond Skyline (which also co-starred Frank Grillo, but was much better in nearly every respect). However, Logothetis (who produced the Kickboxer reboots) fully stocks the film with talented marital arts performers. As a result, the final hour is pretty entertaining, because it gives just about everyone a chance to go toe-to-toe with “Brax,” the alien warrior.

Frankly, this a better showcase for Tony Jaa than he has had in a while. (Too often, he has just appeared as a guest star in a cool fight, only to get killed off or written out of the rest of the film, as in
Paradox). At least, he figures prominently in the third act here. Likewise, Juju Chan gets a chance to show off her chops. Technically, she also provides a love interest for Jake, but that is not really developed until the third act either. Unfortunately, Grillo’s big solo fight is surprisingly short, but up-and-coming martial arts thesp Marrese Crump makes the most of his duel with Brax—it is impressive work, probably making him the biggest winner of the film (if not his ill-fated character, Forbes).

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Contenders ’20: Kajillionaire

Old Dolio Dyne's parents are so poor, they take the bus in Los Angeles. Technically, they are not unemployed. Being small time grifters (with the emphasis on “small”), they are constantly running penny ante scams. If they would just work for an honest wage, they would probably have much more money and free time. Their daughter also could have grown-up in a more stable environment, but instead she only learned chaos and corruption. As a poorly socialized twenty-six-year-old, Dyne finally starts to examine her codependent, dysfunctional relationship with her parents in Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, which screens online through Tuesday for MoMA members as a selection of the year’s Contenders (and also releases on DVD the 22nd).

Old Dolio’s name is a sad joke that will be revealed midway through the second act. Regardless, it is safe to say Robert and Theresa Dyne were never big on parental stuff, like birthday presents or affection. All day they have Old Dolio running nickel-and-dime scams, but they are still in danger of eviction. To raise three months’ rent, she hatches a lost luggage scheme, using tickets she won in a sweepstakes. However, Dyne is rather annoyed when her parents give more attention to a perfect stranger on their immediate flight home than they ever showed to her.

Melanie is outgoing and attractive, but for some reason, she is intrigued by the Dyne family’s scamming ways. In contrast, Old Dolio obviously resents the way her parents try to adopt Melanie into their criminal family. Further complicating matters, there is a hint of sexual tension between the repressed Dyne and the vastly more sexually confident Melanie.

Despite some excess indie quirk,
Kajillionaire is considerably more endurable than the neuroses-fest of July’s last feature, The Future. Many of the Dynes’ cheap scams are surprisingly watchable. Yet, the complicated, evolving relationship dynamic between Dyne and Melanie, which takes over the second half of the picture, is even more compelling.

Debra Winger (as in
An Officer and a Gentleman) is completely unrecognizable as “Mother” Theresa, but it is basically as one-note caricatured performance. Richard Jenkins fleshes out the Dyne patriarch a bit more, but the film is really powered by Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez, as the rival daughter figures.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Holiday Gift Guide: The Orange Years

Among first generation cable networks, Nickelodeon was second only to MTV in establishing a distinctive identity and attitude. Kids became fans of the network just as much as the shows, in much the same way teens embraced MTV and grown-ups would later feel about Fox News. Those who were too young for MTV’s glory years will probably feel waves of nostalgia for Nick’s pre-SpongeBob SquarePants era, chronicled in Scott Barber & Adam Sweeney’s documentary, The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story, which is now available on DVD.

Nickelodeon actually grew out of a modest cable experiment launched in Columbus, Ohio, mostly involving puppets. In its earliest years, it almost entirely relied on licensed international programming, but a lot of it was pretty cool, like
Danger Mouse. Some of us will be disappointed there is no discussion of the vintage British science fiction series The Tomorrow People, which was so popular during its Nick run that the network rebooted it in the 1990s. From this period, only You Can’t Do that on Television has significant screen time, because it gets credit for developing the network’s kid-power attitude and launching their long-time association with slime.

As the title suggests,
Orange Years mostly covers the period shorty after Nick dropped its silver orb logo (weirdly reminiscent of the Loc-Nar in Heavy Metal), concentrating on Geraldine Laybourne’s tenure as president. Plenty of shows are discussed that may or may not mean anything to viewers, depending on their age.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Quest: Welcome to America Jade Snow

Maybe the Old West wasn’t so different from our current times. Unions were just as violent back then and unchecked lawlessness could destroy a community quicker than anything. That is what brothers Morgan “Two Persons” Beaudine and Dr. Quentin Beaudine learn when they blow into a striking miners’ town. They were the lead characters of The Quest, a series that was like the lite beer version of The Searchers. Instead of their abducted sister, they find plenty of violence and prejudice in “Welcome to America Jade Snow,” which airs Sunday night on getTV.

As a child, Morgan lived in captivity with the Cheyenne, until the Army reunited him with his brother Quentin. Now into adulthood, they are searching for their still missing sister. Morgan retains an affinity for Native American culture, especially when it comes to his wardrobe and he is naturally more inclusive. In fact, we learn in this episode he was formerly in a relationship with a Chinese immigrant, rather unoriginally named “China,” with whom he now crosses paths with again.

She has since remarried and given birth to little Jade Snow. Unfortunately, her husband and the rest of the town’s Chinese population have been scapegoated by the striking union. Load-mouthed Jensen stokes their resentment, inciting the strikers to attack the Chinese laborers recruited by the Machiavellian mining magnate to replace to replace them. The decent Sheriff Bradley understands how this anarchy will rot the town’s character over the long run, but the city fathers don’t seem to care.

Back in 1976,
The Quest died a quick death on network television. It was scheduled against Charlie’s Angels, so no boys between 13 and 21 were watching. Yet, given the pairing of Kurt Russell (who looks like he had Goldie Hawn’s hair back then) and Tim Matheson, it is a little surprising it hasn’t been revived in re-runs more.

Of course, this episode presents the Frontier in revisionist terms. The way it addresses tolerance and bigotry actually ages surprisingly well, whereas, its presentation of mob rioting suddenly looks uncomfortably timely. It is also bizarre to see George Lazenby, the former James Bond, listed as a guest star with absolutely no fanfare (seriously, there were even fewer Bonds back then, but he was one). He isn’t bad either, playing blokey Sydney, an Aussie immigrant, who tries to be a voice of reason among the strikers.

Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn

At least Taipei's Fu-Ho theater had a final night. That is more than dozens of movie theaters will be able to say, having shuttered during the CCP-virus pandemic. Whether the sparse patrons and two remaining employees make the most of it is debatable, but there is something special about the last screening that flickers during Tsai Ming-liang’s 4K-restored Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which opens virtually today, via the Metrograph.

The Fu-Ho’s final film will be King Hu’s classic
Dragon Inn, a film that continues to grow in significance. Tsui Hark’s produced Raymond Lee’s remake, [New] Dragon Inn, and then helmed his own pseudo-remake-reboot, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. In between, Tsai gave viewers a chance to watch a good chunk of the 1965 original, over the shoulders of his characters, as the camera tours through the theater.

He definitely takes a minimalist approach to narrative, but there is a lot implied about the characters’ backstories and circumstances that is left expressly unstated. Throughout the film, the lonely manager limps through the theater, looking for the projectionist, to give him a steamed bun. Meanwhile, a Japanese tourist wanders through the theater’s stairwells and passages, in search of a hook-up. Instead, he finds the projectionist, who tells him the theater is haunted, which is surely true figuratively and perhaps even literally, given the weird behavior of one noisy patron. However, at least three ticket buyers are there to really watch the wuxia masterpiece: two of the original stars, Shih Chun and Miao Tien, as well as the latter’s grandson.

At times,
Goodbye, Dragon Inn could almost pass for Slow Cinema, but it is more accessible than that, due to film noir-ish atmosphere and the hint of the supernatural (not to mention the martial arts action of Dragon Inn). Liao Pen-jung’s nocturnal street-light and projector-lit cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Plus, the appearances of Shih and Miao really crank up the nostalgia. They were terrific in the 1965 film and they are great again here.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Creepshow Holiday Special

The Creepshow Creep now has something in common with Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Wayne Newton. They have all hosted holiday specials. However, the Creepshow special is definitely a no-crooner zone. It is the most wonderful time of year, but Robert Weston is a bit distracted by signs he been cursed to become a werewolf, so he seeks help from Shapeshifters Anonymous (SA) in the Creepshow Holiday Special, directed by showrunner Greg Nicotero, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

As Irena Reed, the local chapter president, explains to Weston, they aren’t just werewolves. She is a were-cheetah, and they also have a were-tortoise and a were-boar. Plus, there is a “furry” cuddler, who offers moral support and Ryan, the big, silent dude, who has never revealed himself. Weston deduced he was responsible for the recent Naperville Ripper murders, but Reed soothes his guilt. The truth is therianthropes are like instinctive Dexter Morgans, who only prey on scummy people. It turns out, his victims really had it coming. Weston starts to change his mind on the whole werewolf thing, because of that and his attraction to Reed, when suddenly they are attacked by a horde of psychotic street-corner Santas.

In a way, the special is like
Assault on Precinct 13, but with Shapeshifters and homicidal Kris Kringles—and its also a lot funnier. Frankly, this is probably the most comedic the Creepshow series has yet gone, but they still never stint on the gore. This is a wild, deranged ride, but there is a Christmas spirit in there someplace, maybe sort of. Regardless, this is absolutely not for sensitive children, especially considering the “real” Santa Claus’s role in all this carnage.

Max Cloud, Starring Scott Adkins

It is 1990, three years after the debut of Star Trek: Next Gen, but Sarah’s favorite video game hero is still way more Kirk than Picard. Frankly, he is a totally meathead, but that generally serves him well in his retro console video game world. He is supposed to fight, not negotiate or get in touch with his feelings. However, Sarah will have to keep up with him when she is mysteriously transported into the game in Martin Owen’s Max Cloud (a.k.a. The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud), which opens tomorrow on VOD.

Sarah’s compulsive gaming frustrates her father, but it is a mutual interest keeping her torch-carrying pal Cowboy sort of in the picture. Unfortunately, he is not as strong a gamer, but he will have to play her character when the strange “Space Witch” whisks her into the game. Much to her regret, she was playing the nebbish cook Jake instead of the tough-as-nails Cloud. The gender-swap thing also causes some awkward moments with Cloud, but they have more pressing issues.

Sarah hopes the Space Witch will return her to her world if she successfully finishes the game, but the evil galactic overlord Revengor is definitely out to get them—and Sarah only has one life left (with Cowboy controlling her movements). Ideally, they should also finish before her dad gets home.

For fans of the video games and science fiction movies of the era (think
Tron and Last Starfighter), Max Cloud is entertaining in a very way-back way, but Owen and screenwriter Sally Collett stretch the amusing gimmick to its breaking point. Frankly, this might work better as an episode of an anthology show than a full feature. The retro game graphics are clever and the in-world visuals are pretty groovy, but the narrative starts to feel like it is repeating itself (of course, you could argue that is very video game like).

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Skylines: Now It’s a Trilogy

Even when you are operating on a galactic scale, it is easier to win the war than win the peace. That is the position Earthlings are in. In the original Skyline, the aliens came and kicked our butts. Then in Beyond Skyline, we got up and booted them off Earth. We took our planet back, but to preserve the peace, we will need much more energy. You know who has a nifty, super-powerful and portable generator? Right, the old mother ship. Reluctantly, Rose Corley and her physically altered brother agree to go take it and maybe settle a few more old scores while they’re at it in Liam O’Donnell’s Skylines (or Skylin3s), which opens this Friday in a few persistent theaters and on Apple TV.

Rose Corley was born while her mother was in alien captivity, so somehow her physiology was mutated in the process. She became the aliens’ Achilles heel, who led the Earth forces to their ultimate victory. Unfortunately, it was not a clean win. There was a lot of collateral damage, because she froze at a key moment. Nevertheless, she is Earth’s best warrior, thanks to her
X-Men-ish powers, so hard-charging General Radford recruits her back into active service.

Earth needs power to fight a mysterious virus that is driving previously re-awakened “pilots,” humans who were captured and mutated into alien drones, violently mad. Corley has a personal stake, since her big brother Trent is also a pilot, who has yet to be infected. However, Corley is not sure she can trust the rest of Radford’s team, especially Owens, the overtly hostile commander.

Beyond Skyline
is up there with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Evil Dead II as sequels that are considerably better than their original predecessors. Skylin3s is not quite as good as Beyond (because it is tough to beat the combo of Iko Uwais, Frank Grillo, and Yayan “Mad Dog” Ruhian), but it is still pretty strong from an action perspective. Only Ruhian returns, appearing (too briefly) this time as Huana, a crazy but heroic mutant fighter. (Although Grillo’s Mark Corley is missing, his absence is explained in a way that might allow for his later return.)

Nevertheless, Daniel Bernhardt (who starred in the
Bloodsport direct-to-DVD sequels) and Cha-Lee Yoon (doing double duty as the film’s stunt coordinator) maintain Skylin3s’ martial arts credibility. Bernhardt also glowers menacingly as Owens, while Yoon plays Zhi, the medic, so you know this crew must be hardnosed.

The Pale Door, on Shudder

The Dalton Gang would be better off trying to rob two banks simultaneously in Coffeyville, Kansas than spending a night in this sinister town. There are no banks in “Potemkin,” but the bordello offers more dangers than mere communicable diseases in Aaron B. Koontz’s The Pale Door, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

In this Weird West, the Dalton family is much smaller. After the bloody prologue, only Duncan, the leader of the Dalton Gang, and his younger, straight-arrow brother Jake are still alive. However, Lester, a freed slave and fellow gang-member, has been like a surrogate father to Jake. Naturally, the one heist Jake volunteers to help with turns deadly dicey. They thought they were stealing some valuable cargo from its Pinkerton escorts, but they find a woman chained up in that trunk.

She is a strange one alright, but with Duncan slowly dying from a gut-shot, they agree to follow Pearl to her home town of Potemkin. Of course, entering town is the easy part. Leaving is another matter. The one-horse burg seems to consist entirely of a suspiciously hospitable brothel-saloon and an abandoned church. Needless to say, the ladies are not what they appear—and they are quite interested in Jake’s innocent blood.

The narrative of
Pale Door (a reference to a Poe quote, the relevance of which will not be immediately obvious) is pretty standard stuff. An ancient coven of shape-shifting, blood-consuming witches preys on a pack of dumb cowboys. Eh.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Mark of the Bell Witch

West Virginia has the Mothman, New York has the Headless Horseman, and Tennessee has the Bell Witch. It was more like a “Bell Spirit” or “Bell Ghost,” but in the early 19th Century, “witch” was used as a generic term for malevolent supernatural entities and it just stuck over the years. Regardless, she is as Tennessee as Jack Daniels, making her a natural subject for Seth Breedlove’s The Mark of the Bell Witch, his latest documentary exploring regional American myths and monsters, which releases today on VOD.

The Bell family were better off than many of their neighbors along the along the Red River, but nobody in that hardscrabble area was rich in the 1810s and Breedlove’s local experts suggest that is still true today. While Breedlove combines talking head analysis with black-and-white re-enactments in the style of supernatural “reality” TV shows, the focus on folklore and archetypes sets it apart from its less reputable cousins.

Bell Witch lore does indeed include plenty of classic tropes, including shape-shifting, desecrated native burial grounds, devil dogs, and
Evil Dead-style things literally going bump in the night. Supposedly, the “Witch” was the ghost of Kate Batts, a deceased neighbor, whose family had a rather complicated relationship with the Bells. For some reason, she really had it in for John Bell, Sr. and his daughter Elizabeth, yet she treated his wife Lucy with perverse affection. Yet, Breedlove and his chief folklorist, Dr. Brandon Barker also give viewers a wider perspective, placing the legend in a historical context, following shortly in the wake of the Second Great Awakening and grounding it in the culture and traditions of rural Tennessee.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Last Sermon: Life After the Mike’s Place Bombing

This is a relatively rare documentary sequel, sort of. Back in 2003, Jack Baxter was filming a doc about the Tel Aviv blues club Mike's Place, when he was seriously injured by a suicide bombing attack. If any filmmaker is entitled to take Islamist terrorism personally, it would be him. Instead, he set off on an extended mission to understand the radicalization process. The result is a very personal investigation that is frequently complicated by his own emotions that Baxter documents with his previous production partner, Joshua Faudem, in The Last Sermon, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Mike’s Place was an oasis of good music and good cheer that was ripped apart by two British-born Hamas terrorists on April 30, 2003, while Baxter was filming in the club. He was seriously injured in the attack, so local crew-member Faudem finished the film that ultimately became
Blues by the Beach. Baxter still carries a cane and pieces of organic shrapnel as a result of the bombing. He also lost good friends, so he could not simply walk away, emotionally or intellectually.

With Faudem on-board as his producer and Sancho Panza-sounding board, Baxter visits various refugee shelters and mosques throughout Europe seeking to understand the root causes of fundamentalist radicalization. Their ultimate goal was to score interviews of the British family members of the Mike’s Place terrorists, who were criminally prosecuted for not revealing their terrorist plans.

However, Baxter is not a very probing interviewer, because he is so prone to be led by his emotions. Initially, he largely accepts the answers he gets from imams, social workers, and refugee musicians at face-value. That gives the film a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde effect when he and Faudem arrive in Manchester in the days following the 2019 Arena bombing. Suddenly, the same Baxter who broke bread and jammed with displaced musicians gets spitting mad at anyone unwilling to take the war directly to Daesh (ISIS).

Yet, as the film progresses, it maybe inadvertently illustrates how complicated and often disappointing the world is when you approach it with Baxter’s appealing humanist embrace. Some people will reach back, but others will take advantage of openness to commit atrocities. Baxter is a charismatic guy with a fascinating backstory of his own, but he could have used a foil to ask tough questions like: “do countries have a right to control their own borders?” and “why is Islam so predisposed to this kind of radicalization?” Some of Baxter’s old friends from Mike’s Place, who express skepticism regarding the project, could have filled that role effectively.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams, on PBS

What does Ella Fitzgerald have in common with Wynton Marsalis, Stan Kenton, Carla Bley, Ramsey Lewis, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, and Don Patterson? They all recorded jazz Christmas records. Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas was one of the first and it remains perennially popular (yet soul jazz B-3 player Patterson charted higher on the Billboard 200 with Holiday Soul, at #85, than her holiday record did peaking at #111 in 1960). In the subsequent years, Verve has frequently repackaged and reissued Fitzgerald’s Christmas classic, but that kind of marketing wouldn’t have worked if the music wasn’t timeless. The American Pops Orchestra (APO), under the direction of Luke Frazier, and their special guests pay tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and her holiday cheer in Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams, which airs this Tuesday night on most PBS stations.

The concert’s host and marquee guest performer will be indeed be Vanessa Williams, as you can tell from her title billing. She still has the chops for a semi-torchy “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and gets pretty bluesy on “Good Morning Blues,” the Count Basie-Eddie Dorham-Jimmy Rushing tune (which does indeed reference Christmas and Santa). We’re pretty impressed, actually.

The concert program faithfully follows the original album sequence, which was definitely intended to appeal to jazz hipsters, so we don’t have the more sacred carols (no “Silent Night”). Appropriately, things start off upbeat and traditional with Nova Payton’s fun rendition of “Jingle Bells” and Norm Lewis’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” performed with hip, knowing flair. Lewis also probably gets the toughest draw of the program with “The Christmas Song.” Obviously, Ella covered it too, but every version is always judged against Nat King Cole’s classic recording. However, Lewis’s Broadway experience serves him well. For this song, everyone wants to hear to hear Mel Torme’s lyrics, which Lewis delivers with warmth and clarity.

Arguably, the highlight of the program is Dee Dee Bridgewater (looking total fab and quite sparkly) and her take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She performs it with swing and sass worthy of Ella, but she clearly recognizes how the familiar lyrics hit home harder this year, as in: “someday soon, we will all be together, if the fates allow, until we’ll have to muddle through somehow, so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” It is a good show, but that’s the one people will probably want to revisit.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Wilds, on Amazon

"Man is born free and everywhere in chains," Rousseau proclaimed. Dr. Gretchen Klein would say that is especially true for women--you know, the whole patriarchy thing. She is the shadowy mastermind behind the secret of the latest riff on (or rip-off of) Lost. Her group of “troubled” teens have no idea why they have been deliberately shipwrecked, but slowly one of them starts to suspect something of a conspiratorial nature in creator Sarah Streicher’s The Wilds, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

They were supposed to be going to a leadership camp in Hawaii that most of the young women probably could not have afforded on their own. Unfortunately, their plane never made it, but nobody can remember anything after the initial turbulence. When they come to, they find themselves stranded on a desert island without their top five records to listen to. They only have a motley assortment of supplies from the plane crash that washed up on shore. As it happens, the tide’s convenient habit of supplying exactly what they happen to need is what first arouses Leah Rilke’s suspicions.

Rilke is definitely the most intuitive of the group. She is also exhaustingly self-destructive and admittedly prone to paranoia. Frankly, being stuck on a small island with her would be an honest-to-gosh nightmare. Of course, it does not help that she has been deliberately thrown together with a collection of extreme stereotypes. Shelby Goodkind is the sort of evangelical Texas beauty queen who could only be envisioned by a San Francisco Democratic club. (Seriously, maybe the only time anyone connected to
The Wilds ever talked to someone from a red state was when they connected a flight through DFW.)

Dot Campbell is probably the worthiest rooting interest. She endured a lot, none of which was her fault. As a fan of survival reality TV, she is also the best equipped to deal with their situation. “Privileged” party girl Fatin Jadmani (openly rebelling against her strict Muslim upbringing) hardly deigns to respond at all. Aspiring Olympian Rachel Reid has strength and stamina that will come in handy, but her quirky, socially awkward sister Nora has all the brains. As a out-and-proud lesbian and an angry product of the foster system, Toni Shalifoe is guaranteed to conflict with Goodkind. Usually, her loyal bestie Martha Blackburn tries to restrain Shalifoe, but she also has no respect or tolerance Goodkind’s religious faith.

Yet, somehow, they all must work together to survive. None of them has any idea of the bigger picture—unless one of them is in on it, as Rilke naturally suspects. Klein watches it all happen via surveillance cameras, for reasons we are not supposed to reveal, but become pretty clear sometime during the second episode.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth

Uzbekistan has an authoritarian government that effectively outlaws any organized opposition. Freedom House scored it a “2” on a scale of 100 in their democracy rankings, but sure, by all means, consider it for your next vacation. Yoko’s vapid travel show will help you plan your trip. In doing so, she endures constant indignities in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth, which opens today via the Metrograph’s virtual cinema.

Yoko is the on-camera talent, but Yoshioka, the producer, and his crew show her little respect. Sometimes Iwao the cameraman is sort of an exception, but Yoko still feels very much alone during the shoot. The centerpiece of the Uzbekistan episode is supposed to involve catching a rare bramul fish in Aydar Lake, but the darn fish just won’t cooperate. Of course, the traditional fishermen do not help much when they balk at the notion of a woman on a boat.

Ends of the Earth
runs nearly two full hours, but there is not a lot of narrative stuff going on in there. Yet, it is often extremely uncomfortable to watch, especially when Yoko is forced to ride a sketchy amusement park deigned to approximate the G-force of cosmonaut-training, over and over again. Eventually, a bit of suspense crops up in the third act, followed by a genuinely moving emotional payoff, but it takes a forced march to get there.

As a Japanese/Uzbek co-production, the film was conceived to commemorate the 25
th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations (we all celebrated in our own special ways, didn’t we?) and the 70th anniversary of the Navoi Theater in Tashkent (which truly looks majestic on-screen). Yet, it often makes the Uzbek people appear less than enlightened. Regardless, Ends of the Earth represents a huge change of pace from the horror films Kurosawa is famous for, but arguably, it has a greater sense of foreboding than Tokyo Sonata, his last non-genre ringer.

He really puts a heavy load on Atsuko Maeda’s shoulders, but she carries it admirably. She is in every scene, some of which are clearly physically demanding, but she holds our attention and our sympathies every second. She also sings marvelously in two key scenes. It is a great performance, but it makes us start resenting Kurosawa for his treatment of her character.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy

If Earth and Krypton had the same color of sun, Superman would not have had superpowers here. However, since he arrived as an infant, he still could have had a successful career in journalism. It is a harder transition for Max Fist, a former superhero from a different world. Powerless and friendless, Fist became a mean drunk, but its still sort of a superpower the way he does it. He will need all his beer muscles when he starts fighting crime again in director-screenwriter Adam Egypt Mortimer’s SpectreVision-produced Archenemy, which opens tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

As the Fist will tell anyone willing to buy him a drink, he was once the heroic guardian of the futuristic city Chromium, but when he smashed the dimension-destroying device invented by his archenemy, Cleo, he was inadvertently pulled through into our world. Inconveniently, the source of his powers does not exist here, so he is just an average, swiftly aging dude. Yet, he is still a minor skid-row celebrity, especially when Hamster, an aspiring neighborhood vlogger starts posting videos of his angry exploits.

Hamster’s sister Indigo always thought she was the responsible one, hustling for the dealer known as “The Manager” to support them. Yet, she risks both their lives when she makes a spectacularly ill-advised play. They will need a hero, but Hamster happens to know one who is willing to step-up. Of course, he must adapt to his mortal circumstances, even though he is still tormented by memories and visions of Cleo (who’s referenced right there in the title, so she must be important).

Archenemy
is the best superhero movie since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and probably the grungiest one ever (even grungier than American Hero). Mortimer takes all the classic superhero elements and gives them a brutally realistic twist. The Boys will probably be a lazy point of comparison for a lot of critics, because the two darkly rendered superhero worlds are nearly as violent, but Archenemy clearly has real love for the genre it subverts.