Thursday, February 25, 2021

Lazarus, on Tubi

You can't keep a good cop down, not even in death. Ray Lazarus is about to find out how aptly he was named when he is brought back for a little life-after-death law enforcement. He is sort of like Treat Williams in Dead Heat, but less zombie-ish and more super-heroic (and with less humor and no support from the legendary Vincent Price). The tone is distinctly dark and post-industrial urban throughout R.L. Scott’s Lazarus, which premieres tomorrow on Tubi.

Lazarus was an honest cop, who was just crazy enough to think he could clean up crime-ravaged “Paradise City” (there, Guns N’ Roses should now be stuck in your head). He got killed for his efforts, but fortunately that wasn’t the end of the world. Much to Lazarus’s surprise, he is brought back to life and granted Wolverine-like healing powers by an untrustworthy demigod. He says he resurrected Lazarus to restore “balance,” but he clearly has a secret nefarious scheme in the works.

Regardless, Lazarus is perfectly willing to take advantage of his second chance to take down Paradise City’s evil drug cartel. He is also determined to protect Nina Jacobs, a former low-level gun dealer on the outs with the syndicate. Lazarus might be dead, but he is still attracted to her.

The film’s supernatural element is sort of like that seen in Timothy Woodward Jr’s schlocky
Checkmate, but the execution is vastly more competent (admittedly, that is a super-low bar to clear). It is still the weakest part of Lazarus. However, there are a number of impressively tough and gritty fight scenes, which is really what you want from a film like this.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Vigil

Yakov Ronen must spend the night in the most frightening place on earth: Brooklyn. Frankly, he would be better off on the streets than in the Litvaks’ Borough Park home. It is not the Litvaks he has to worry about, especially since Mr. Litvak is dead. Rather ominously, that means the mazzik demon that consumed his life force will be looking for a new victim and he would fit the bill perfectly in director-screenwriter Keith Thomas’s The Vigil, which releases this Friday in theaters and on VOD.

Ronen left the Orthodox community after a harrowing personal tragedy that still haunts him. He found a constructive support group for personal stuff, but he remains completely unprepared for the civilian job market. As a result, he reluctantly accepts a shomer gig from his old rabbi, sitting vigil for the late Mr. Litvak. Rather suspiciously, the previous shomer backed out as soon as he set foot in the Litvak home.

After the tragedy, Ronen essentially turned against religion and spirituality, but he still hears the weird noises throughout the Litvak house. He is also spooked by the apparently disturbed Mrs. Litvak, who seems to think her husband was plagued by an ancient mazzik that latched onto the profound anguish he carried with him from the Holocaust. It gets harder for Ronen to dismiss their fanciful notions when he starts to see a sinister figure in the shadows.

Incorporating the Holocaust as a plot point in a horror movie is a potentially perilous practice, but
The Vigil never feels exploitative. It is also scary as heck, while maintaining a humanistic element at its core, which is quite a nifty trick. This is easily one of the most distinctive feature debuts of the year, in any genre.

The Resonator: Miskatonic U (Episode 1)

There is no better fictional school to study mad science than H.P. Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University. It also boasts an amazing occult archive, including a copy of the Necronomicon. It is the perfect place for the son of From Beyond anti-hero Crawford Tillinghast to study. Naturally, the son wants to complete his late father’s extra-dimensional work in William Butler’s The Resonator: Miskatonic U, a loose but still fairly faithful sequel to Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond, which debuts its first installment this Friday on Full Moon Features.

When Tillinghast fils discovered Pere’s notes, he just couldn’t resist constructing his own resonator. Of course, it worked only too well, leaving him with a friend’s body to dispose of. As a result, he had been keeping his bizarrely patient girlfriend Mara Esteban at arm’s length. However, he eventually relents and gives a demonstration of the Resonator to her and their friends, perhaps because of the aphrodisiac effects. Regardless, the entities it reveals from other dimensions remain just as evil and dangerous as they were in Gordon’s film.

Meanwhile, the Dean Wormer-like Prof. Wallace is snooping around Tillinghast’s internet activity, which is pretty damning. The first episode definitely leans into the mad science aspect of Miskatonic, enduringly represented by Dr. Herbert West, whose presence in promised in the later episode. However, the dark spirituality professed by Prof. McMichaels suggests there could very well be some metaphysical elder god business waiting in the wings too.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Wrong Turn Rebooted

Horror movie fans know its bad when you hear: “you’re not from around here, are you?” Yet, to be honest, you probably aren’t being a particularly respectful visitor if you stand out so badly. Scott Shaw’s daughter Jennifer and her obnoxious millennial friends certainly stood out in Appalachia, so consequently Shaw must go off looking for them in Mike P. Nelson’s reboot of Wrong Turn, which releases today on VOD and DVD.

Jen Shaw was hoping to find herself on this trip, so good luck with that. Her boyfriend Darius Clemons is a history buff, so we can appreciate him. Unfortunately, he will also drag the group off the beaten trail in search of a Civil War fort. They have been hiking the Appalachian Trail with their gay couple friends Luis and Gary, so the group automatically assumes all the sidelong glances they get are homophobia (and have nothing to do with their hipster attitude). That is especially true of their pal Adam Lucas, who is openly disrespectful of the locals.


Of course, when they have an off-trail mishap, they find themselves contending with “The Foundation,” a deep-woods communal cult originally founded in 1859, in rejection of both the Northern and Southern factions. If you thought folks in town were standoffish, they really don’t take to outsiders.

The
Wrong Turn movies (with their cannibal hillbillies) constitute a not particularly well-loved yet strangely prolific franchise with six films to its credit. It probably didn’t cry out to most horror fans for a re-upping, but on the other hand, Nelson and screenwriter Alan B. McElroy pretty much had a free hand to fiddle with the “mythology” without fear of alienating the faithful. As a result, they actually develop some interesting backstory and add some intriguing ambiguity. Strictly speaking, the hipsters were sort of asking for it—and maybe even get what they deserve.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Superman & Lois (Pilot), on the CW

After years of being super, in just about every way, the DC stalwart is suddenly getting the classic Marvel treatment. In addition to saving the world, Superman (and/or Clark Kent) now must contend with family issues as well as trouble in the office and on the Kent family farm. It might be reassuring to some that not even Superman has super parenting-powers in the special extended pilot of co-creators Greg Berlanti & Todd Helbing’s Superman & Lois, which premieres tomorrow on the CW.

Evidently, the pilot takes place after the big crossover event on CW’s other DC shows, but you can walk into
S&L without watching any prior episodes. You know the basics—Superman’s escape capsule landed in Smallville, where he was adopted by the Kents. Eventually, he moved to Metropolis to work for the Daily Planet, where he met and fell in love with Lois Lane.

Unlike the Christopher Reeve movies and George Reeves TV series casual fans might be more familiar with, in this DC universe, Kent revealed his powers and true identity to Lane, who subsequently married him. However, they have kept the Superman business secret from their teenage sons, Jonathan, who happens to be a suspiciously talented athlete and his younger brother Jordan, who has always been a little “troubled.” Lane still has mixed feelings about this decision, but Kent believes it is the best way to protect them.

Lately, he has had a right to feel uneasy. An armored supervillain known only as “The Stranger” has been targeting nuclear reactors, leaving behind messages in the Kryptonite language. Superman has only narrowly avoided disasters several times already. Naturally, The Stranger will strike again right when the Kent family is in crisis.

It is surprisingly compelling to see Clark Kent finally have to live like Peter Parker. We can sympathize we him a lot, as he tries to relate to his two polar-opposite sons. Obviously, Lane does her best to cover, but he is constantly pulled in multiple directions simultaneously. His father-in-law, Gen. Sam Lane does a lot of the pulling, serving as a sort of Commissioner Gordon figure, who often summons Superman whenever national emergencies arise.

Still, there is one thing missing for old school fans. It is probably too much to ask for when there are Chinese rights sales to be made, but wouldn’t you love to hear “truth, justice, and the American way” again?

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Slamdance ’21: Black Kung Fu Chick (Episode)

Mastering martial arts involves more than simply learning the moves. The discipline it entails is even more important, especially on a mental level. Tasha will learn that from her new sifu, but going to high school in LA means she can still use plenty of hand-to-hand fighting technique in the mini-episodes of creator-director Rae Shaw’s Black Kung Fu Chick, which screens as part of the 2021 (online) Slamdance Film Festival.

Tasha is a serious student, who also happens to be into comic book culture. Unfortunately, that means she often gets bullied on the streets of her Watts neighborhood. It has gotten so bad, she has even started cutting class, despite her college aspirations. Recognizing her predicament, Tasha’s math teacher, Mr. Jian, offers to serve as her Mr. Miyagi. However, his approach initially confuses Tasha—as do the crane videos he has her watch.

haw deserves a lot of credit for portraying the kind of martial arts discipline that you usually don’t see in kung fu movies. Real masters always prefer to avoid a fight. Likewise, Tasha will extract herself from the big centerpiece fight scene as soon as possible, because she has more important things to do. That is a good message for kids, but the fight scenes (overseen by stunt coordinator Alfred Hsing) are still pretty cool.

The vibe of
BKFC is also quite appealing in a nostalgic kind of way, because of Raven Stevenson’s Super8 cinematography, which approximates the retro-look of 1970s “Afterschool Specials.” There is a nice geek element as well, thanks to the use of still comic panels during scene transitions. Ironically, it is easier to imagine it getting picked up by a network during the 1990s than finding a match with today’s compulsively cutting-edge streaming services, but Shaw’s’ characters deserve to find a longer life somewhere.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Slamdance ’21: Code Name: Nagasaki

This happens to be a documentary, but it also proves genre filmmaking can be therapeutic. Fredrik S. Hana and his good pal Marius Lunde made several short films together, with Hana directing and Lunde in front of the camera, but for their first feature, they documented Lunde’s efforts to find his birth mother in Japan. It is an emotional process for Lunde, whose doubts and angst are distinctively represented by mini-genre-vignettes in Hana & Lunde’s Code Name: Nagasaki, which screens during the (online) 2021 Slamdance Film Festival.

Lunde’s memories of his birth mother are hazy at best, because he was only five years-old when she returned to her native Japan without warning, leaving her Norwegian family behind. He still had a reasonably happy childhood, but her absence still left a void. Years later, he hires a Japanese private investigator to track down his mother. With Hana along for moral support and his cameras to record the moment, Lunde prepares for a trip to Japan, even though he is not sure whether he will be welcome when he arrives.

Periodically, Hana and Lunde also go back to their roots, staging film noir, J-horror, and Chanbara samurai interludes that express Lunde’s states of mind. They all look so cool,
Code Name: Nagasaki is sure to inspire a surge of interest in their previous shorts among festival patrons.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Tell Me Your Secrets, on Amazon Prime

There is probably some kind of pop psychology truism that says everybody has the capacity to be both a victim and an aggressor. Maybe there is even a kernel of truth to it, but this series is built on taking that notion to its fullest, most ridiculous extremes. Unfortunately, a lot of legitimate victims of violent crimes get overlooked in writer-creator Harriet Warner’s Tell Me Your Secrets, which premieres today on Amazon Prime.

Meet “Emma Hall,” as she is now known. She is the former lover of a convicted serial killer, who still loves her old flame. Now, she is trying to start a new life, under a new identity, in Witness Protection. She hasn’t really done anything yet to warrant her fresh start, but whatever. By the way, she is also clearly positioned as the series’ sympathetic rooting interest.

In contrast, also meet Mary Barlow, who is super intense and you know, “privileged.” Barlow still suspects her daughter was abducted and murdered by Hall’s lover, but her body has yet to be found—and neither Hall or her man ever agreed to talk to her. You would expect a grieving mother to get sympathetic treatment, but not here. Instead, the show constantly passes judgement on her reckless single-mindedness, especially when she hires John Tyler to track down Hall. What kind of background would qualify Tyler for such an assignment? He happens to be a convicted serial rapist. Yes, getting involved with a psycho like that is asking for trouble.

There are plenty of other creeps in
Secrets, particularly Peter Guillory, the slightly disgraced shrink overseeing Hall’s reintegration and de facto parole. He also has a connection to the local orphanage, which Hall suspects of covering up the murder of a young resident she befriended.

Watching
Tell Me Your Secrets makes you feel uncomfortable and gross. Hall’s boyfriend had something like nine confirmed kills and he is suspected of killing several other girls mentioned, but they are just used as mere plot points. Only Barlow’s daughter Theresa gets any kind of character development, at least through the first six and a half episodes (okay, I’ll admit it, I couldn’t see this one through).

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Steve Canyon: Operation Zero Launch & Project Heartbeat


Aerospace technology moved so fast in the late 1950s and 1960s, sometimes even Lt. Col. Steve Canyon had trouble keeping up. Early in the Cold War, Zero-length launch experiments were a high priority, but the concept was rendered largely obsolete by the advance of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, Canyon will happily risk his life test-flying a plane literally strapped to a booster rocket in “Operation Zero Launch,” which airs with “Project Heartbeat” as the two episodes of Steve Canyon airing this Saturday morning on Decades.

Once again, Canyon has been dispatched by top brass to be the bearer of bad news. Instead of calling off “Operation Zero Launch,” a project to launch planes directly into the air without prior runway taxiing, he has come to speed it up (or, yes, cancel it outright). Brad Bradshaw, the civilian contractor (and ex-USAF officer) in charge of the development had decent results from the last dummy he hurled into the air, but a manned test will be a big leap. Of course, he is willing to take the risk himself. His sister Rita is not too thrilled about her brother going back into harm’s way. Yet, there is still romantic tension brewing between her and Canyon. Regardless, Canyon will inevitably end up in the cockpit when it really matters.

“Zero Launch” is one of the better early episodes, because the chemistry between star Dean Fredrickson and guest-star Marion Ross (who would eventually become the
Happy Days mom) goes a long way humanizing square-jawed Steve Canyon. There is also plenty of cool aviation stuff, involving booster rockets and ejector seats.

“Project Heartbeat” is less successful from both a dramatic and plane-geek standpoint. For his latest mission, Canyon will be flying around the world hooked up to a heart monitor, so the Air Force medical department can analyze the physical effects of long-distance flight. As we would expect, Canyon maintains a heart-rate lower than Brad Pitt’s in
Ad Astra, but Major “Pitch” Hammer? Not so much.

Konchalovsky’s Sin

It isn't easy being “divine.” Pope Julius II’s praise certainly hasn’t made Michelangelo Buonarroti rich. Even more troubling, Michelangelo’s soul is even more tormented than ever, despite his loyal service to his patron and the Church. The legendary Renaissance artist will also have to navigate worldly politics in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Italian-language Russian-Italian co-production Sin, which opens virtually tomorrow.

Michelangelo just finished the Sistine Chapel, to Papal acclaim. Technically, he had to be pulled away kicking and screaming. Frankly, Julius II cut Michelangelo a lot of slack, which he appreciates, so naturally, he accepts the commission to sculpt the Pope’s grand projected tomb. However, those plans come into question when the Della Rovere Pope is succeeded by Leo X, of the rival de Medici clan.

Long associated with the Della Rovere family, Michelangelo now finds himself caught in the middle of a bitter power struggle. Unfortunately, both sides know how to push his buttons, by appealing to his artistic vanity. In fact, Konchalovsky’s Michelangelo is a bit of an Orson Welles figure. He is keenly aware of his own genius, yet the artist is hard pressed to actually finish his commissions.

Sin
is an immersive film that vividly recreates the grandeur and the grubbiness of Renaissance Rome and Florence. It definitely feels like an attempt to revisit the glory of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, which Konchalovsky co-wrote. However, it lacks the surreal bite of the 1966 masterpiece.

Unlike the brawny Charlton Heston in
The Agony and the Ecstasy, Alberto Testone’s Michelangelo really looks like he spent several years flat on his back, inhaling paint fumes. He is not quite frail, but he is definitely weathered and a bit unsteady. Arguably, his performance does more to humanize Michelangelo in a physical way rather than in psychological or emotional terms.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Shook, on Shudder

It turns out Instagrammers are about as vain and shallow as you thought. They might even be as shallow as Boomers think. Mia and her friends will prove it, to a fatal extent in director-screenwriter Jennifer Harrington’s Shook, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

There is a dog-killer on loose, who just escalated to human-owners. The first two-legged victim was one of Mia’s fellow makeup influencers. In fact, her death means Mia probably ascends to numero uno. However, she wants to look properly mournful, to stay “on-brand,” so instead of live-streaming another party with her selfish pals, she finally agrees to housesit for her sister, Nicole. The two siblings have a rather tense relationship. Nicole feels that Mia bailed on her during their mother’s long illness and demise. Now, Nicole is facing a similar diagnosis, whereas Mia is a picture of health.

Apparently, someone else knows about their family’s dirty laundry and he is out to extract retribution on Mia, Punisher-style, through her self-centered friends. To make things even more interesting, he will call Mia using the old
Scream-style voice modulator, cruelly toying with her and forcing her to make a series of “Sophie’s Choices.”

In many respects, the first two acts of
Shook are a lot like When a Stranger Calls, updated with social media and live streams. Yet, Harrington springs a really twisted twist on viewers down the stretch. It gets pretty stone-cold and brutally personal, in an impressive way. Harrington also executes the retro-slasher chills and kills really well.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Slamdance ’21: A Black Rift Begins to Yawn

Analog media continues to intrigue for many reasons, including its intentional purposefulness. Somewhat went to the effort of recording those mysterious old cassette and reel-to-reel tapes and then dedicated the considerable space to store them. Whatever might be on them must mean something, right? That is what two women assume when they start cataloging their former professor’s weird archive in director-screenwriter-editor-composer-prop-designer Matthew Wade’s A Black Rift Begins to Yawn, which screens during this year’s (online) Slamdance Film Festival.

People often confuse Laura and Lara (honestly, if you remember which one is which an hour after finishing the film, then hats off to you). Despite the misgivings of his widow, they have taken possession of a mysterious cache of tapes their former professor, Dr. Meyer was studying. They seem to have been transferred from reel-to-reel tapes to the cassettes, but there are strange, disorienting noises on them which neither Lara and Laura or Dr. Meyer before them can identify. As they continue to listen and examining the tapes, they start to lose track of time and their surroundings. The strange noises could very well be driving them mad.

A cheap review could easily fall back on an easy line like “you can see why the black rift is beginning to yawn.” It is true
Black Rift is a deliberately and sometimes maddeningly slow film. However, it is also clear to see Wade is a very talented cinematic stylist. The problem is he is not a great storyteller.

There are some remarkable visuals in
Black Rift, but the two main characters are basically interchangeable ciphers. It looks great, but it never really connects on an emotional or intellectual level. If Wade ever teams up with an old school screenwriter, they could probably produce something as distinctive as The Vast of Night (which is also stylistically arresting, but also features memorable characters). However, as the work of a one-man auteur, Black Rift is problematically diffuse and opaque. It is good to be challenging, but we need characters and narrative signposts to carry along the heady concepts.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Dark Shadows: Ep 211-261


The notion of adding a vampire to a struggling TV series sounds almost cliched today, but it was a real Hail Mary pass when Dan Curtis tried it in 1967. His daily soap opera Dark Shadows has been conceived as a contemporary riff on the gothic novels of the Brontës and the like, but when it embraced the supernatural, it became a smash teen sensation. As a result, Dark Shadows probably became the only daytime soap opera to inspire comic books, tie-in novels, a daily newspaper comic strip, and a disappointing Tim Burton movie. It has also remained in syndicated reruns. Currently, Dark Shadows can be seen late-late weeknights on Decades, where they will reset their reruns with episode 211, the introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins, this Friday.

Collinsport, Maine is still dominated by the founding Collins family, but unbeknownst to the outside world, their matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard is being blackmailed by the slimy Jason McGuire, her unwelcome houseguest. However, McGuire’s con artist crony, Willie Loomis is even more despised by the Collins family and Collinsport at large. It has gotten so bad Stoddard’s business rival Burke Devlin took it upon himself to run Loomis out of town. Before leaving, Loomis believed he could plunder the jewels he suspected were hidden in the Collins family vault. Instead, he roused vampire Barnabas Collins.

Throughout the story arcs introducing Barnabas Collins and his subsequent abduction of Maggie Evans (not exactly “resolved” in episode 261) Loomis’s evolution from scummy cad to tragic victim and occasional reluctant hero is surprisingly compelling stuff. Day-in-day-out, John Karlen (who later played Harvey Lacey on
Cagney & Lacey) vividly portrayed the guilt, fear, and compassion of Loomis, the grifter turned into Collins’ slave via several blood sucking sessions.

It is also notable how Curtis and his writers carefully doled out Barnabas Collins appearances in his early episodes, to build up the intrigue. Frankly, during his initial episodes, we see more of the portrait hanging in the Collins’ ancestral home that bears a remarkable resemblance to Barnabas (who introduces himself as a cousin from England), right down to the head of his cane. Indeed, it probably takes a dozen episodes before we even see his fangs.

Jonathan Frid really is terrific as Barnabas. He can be hard and ruthless, but he also projects Byronic angst of the undead you find in vintage Universal monster movies. Veteran thesp Joan Bennett personified grand dame-ness as Stoddard, the head of the Collins clan. Likewise, Dennis Patrick just personifies sleaze as the oily McGuire. You almost need a shower after he slides in and out of a scene. Alexandra Moltke (later Alexandra Isles, who would have a second career as a documentarian, notably directing
Porraimos) grows on viewers as Victoria Winters, the former orphan schoolteacher, hired to tutor Stoddard’s nephew David.

Eventually, Barnabas kidnaps Evans, a popular local waitress, with the intention of brainwashing and vampirically “turning” her into his long-dead bride, Josette Collins. Frankly, Kathryn Leigh Scott’s overwrought performance is definitely soap opera stuff, in an unfortunate sense. However, Joel Crothers, David Ford, and the immediately recognizable Mitchell Ryan wear well on the audience, as her boyfriend Joe Haskell, her father Sam, and Devlin, their friend, who form the core of the search party. Episode 261 represents another end of an era for the show, because it marks the end of Ryan’s run on the show (Anthony George would take over the role in 262).

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Slamdance ’21: Isaac

Isaac Kaplan was killed by a mob enthralled by an anti-Semitic ideology during the 1941 Lietukis Garage Massacre in Lithuanian, but he was also a victim of the Soviet Socialist ideology, before and after the fact. The truth, as revealed to viewers in fractured fragments, will be duly covered up in Jurgis Matulevicius’s extraordinary Isaac, which screens during this year’s (online) Slamdance Film Festival.

Viewers will see the murder of Kaplan unfold amidst the horrors of the massacre in the riveting and horrifying long opening tracking shot. Supposedly, Kaplan denounced his score-settling murderer to the retreating Soviet occupiers for his anti-Soviet activities. Obviously, the atrocities committed by the Soviets, the Germans, and their respective Lithuanian collaborators continue to fester and corrode the national psyche, but in the mid-1960s, you could only safely address the crimes of the Germans and their fascist allies—and then only cautiously so. Expat film director Gediminus Gutauskas does not understand how carefully he should tread when he returns home from America to shoot a film based on the Lietukis Massacre.

Initially, Soviet propaganda hails his voluntary return, receiving him like a superstar. His former lover, Elena Gluosnis is also happy to see him, because she hopes he will jumpstart her stalled film career. Her semi-estranged husband Andrius is less than thrilled at the prospect of his homecoming, but he too rekindles their friendship. As Gutauskas and his wife start production on the film, Gluosnis finds himself working more closely with KGB Major Kazimeiras, both as a crime scene photographer and as a photographic expert, analyzing archival photographs of the massacre. Struck by the similarities between the script and classified details of mass killings, Kazimeiras starts to suspect Gutauskas was present in a culpable capacity.

Except, nothing in
Isaac is that simple. The screenplay, co-written by Matulevicius with Saule Bliuvaite and Nerijus Milerius takes a story by Lithuanian émigré writer Antanas Skema folds into itself and even incorporates Skema into the narrative. It has been billed as a “film noir,” which it is to an extent, but there is also heavy absurdist and postmodern elements. Yet, we can maybe also discern the influence Andrzej Wajda, particularly in they way it portrays censorship and cover-ups as an act of violence upon the national Lithuanian conscience.

Visually,
Isaac is also a flat-out knockout. Matulevicius starts in brutally stark black-and-white then shifts to crimson-tinged color, before eventually reverting back to black-and-white. He and cinematographer Narvydas Naujalis pull off some stunning tracking shots. They truly immerse viewers in the characters’ world and surroundings. At times, Matulevicius’s visuals are almost too eye-popping, because they can distract from drama, which is also considerable.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Slamdance ’21: Taipei Suicide Story

Service at this hotel is excellent, but it is hard to say Michelin or Zagat would rate them. Guests never stay a second night—there or anywhere else, for that matter. It is a suicide hotel and the night receptionist is about to break a cardinal rule when he starts to form ambiguous feelings for a guest in director-screenwriter-co-editor Keff’s Taipei Suicide Story, which screens during this year’s (online) Slamdance Film Festival.

Usually, Zhi-hao ends his day after the cleaning crew has finished bagging the bodies and conducting Buddhist last rites ceremonies. However, this day one of the cleaners has some annoying news. Jun-ting has not vacated her room after five days. Zhi-hao goes to roust her, one way or another, but is surprised to himself attracted to the shy, sensitive young woman.

When he is back on duty, he makes a point of apologizing for his rudeness when he sees her again. As the conversation stretches out, Zhi-hao clearly starts to feel conflicted. Even his boss can tell—and he knows it can’t end well for the employee.

Indeed, a film called
Taipei Suicide Story (presumably a nod to Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, which was all about intimacy issues) simply can’t be a laugh-a-minute. However, it is an exquisitely humanistic film. At times, the tone feels akin to the films of Kore-eda, especially thanks to the delicate but still distinctive acoustic guitar themes performed by Yang Tzu-ting.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Steve Canyon: Operation Towline (Pilot)

It was like Dragnet for the U.S. Air Force, but there were no guilty parties whose names needed to be changed in its episodes supposed based on “declassified” files. The stories really came from the funny pages. Milton Caniff created, wrote, and drew his beloved action comic-strip for over forty years and received story credits on the short-lived 1958 TV series adaption. Produced with unprecedented support from the USAF, Steve Canyon still impresses for its aviation scenes when it reruns again on Decades, either for early birds or serious night-owls tomorrow morning on Decades, starting with the pilot episode, “Operation Towline.”

Lt. Col. Steve Canyon’s leadership and presence is respected by the men up and down his chain of command. That is why Gen. “Shanty” Towne requested him for a special mission and also why Washington dispatched him to put the kibosh on it. Yet, Canyon will do his due diligence before issuing the shut-down report DC is hoping for.

Concerned about the response time to launch interceptors to respond to a missile attack, Towne hatched a scheme to keep fighters permanently in the air, hitched to a tanker plane, ready to separate and engage at a moment’s notice. Of course, the Soviet or their proxies could shoot down the tanker, but the same is true of aircraft carriers. In this case, towed planes could potentially fare better than fighters stranded on a sinking carrier. However, there are still a lot of bugs to be worked out and not a lot of patience among the top brass.

It is interesting to watch “Towline” in retrospect, years after the controversy of Reagan’s SDI initiative and the celebrated use of Patriot missiles against Saddam’s Scuds. You would think even doves would see merit in missile defense technology, but instead they have usually preferred greater vulnerability, at least for the West. Towne would not get that. Neither would Canyon.

Into the Dark: Tentacles

According to Bob Dorough and vocalists like Irene Kral and Carmen McRae, love is supposed to come on stealthy fingers. This isn’t exactly the same thing, but there is stealthiness involved. It is also a case of a spoiler right there in the title. Sam is going to fall for Tara hard, but there is something different about her in Clara Aranovich’s Tentacles, the latest, Valentine’s Day-themed feature-length installment of Blumhouse’s Into the Dark, which premieres today on Hulu.

Thanks to the death of his parents and career frustrations, Sam had already been going through a boozy rough patch when he meets Tara. When viewers first spy her, she is burying a bag of cash in the desert, so she could very possibly be trouble. She wastes no time picking up Sam at the open house, where he was working for his real estate photography day gig (now really full-time work). Soon thereafter, she moves in with him, ostensibly to help remodel his mother’s home. Things are moving way too fast for Esther, Sam’s business partner and torch-carrying best platonic pal.

However, it is not all pure love and red-hot lust. There is also the stress of Tara’s stalker, who apparently knew her when she went by a different name. He has some strange stories to tell about the debilitating effect she supposedly has on people, which awkwardly seems to match Sam’s recent health problems.

Basically,
Tentacles follows the basic seduction-horror template established by dozens of vampire and succubus films and then cribs the slithery romantic elements of Moorhead & Benson’s Spring, but Aranovich’s slow-burning execution is still highly effective. Watching Sam fall under Tara’s influence and deliberately ignore her suspicious history that he uncovers is compelling and all-too believable, in the manner of a traffic accident unfolding in slow motion.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Lapsis: The Alternate Gig Economy

New York City taxi medallions used to be worth a fortune. In the past, they effectively acted like a guild, prohibiting low-skilled workers from engaging in the relatively straightforward and plentiful work of shuttling people from one point to another. Then the disruptive technology of ride-share apps came along and devastated the value of taxi medallions. In an alternate present day, something similar happened to the independent “cablers” literally laying the wires for the quantum computing explosion. However, the disruption they face comes from within their own industry in screenwriter-director Noah Hutton’s odd Lapsis, which releases on VOD and digital platforms tomorrow.

Ray Tincelli is a tough-looking Queens guy, but he is also a nice dude, who has been dealt a tough hand by circumstances. His half-brother Jamie requires treatments for a near-futuristic variant of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but Tincelli is already in debt and he will soon loose his dodgy part-time gig. Out of desperation, Tincelli agrees to participate in a crooked cabling scheme, kicking back a portion of his take to small-time crime boss Felix, in return for the use of senior level cabling medallion.

Theoretically, Tincelli should skip past a lot of dues-paying by using the medallion, but everyone gives him the stink-eye when they see his medallion handle: “Lapsis Beeftech.” Apparently, it means something to the more experienced cablers, but Tincelli has no idea why. He is also surprised to learn he must compete with automated crawler-robots to keep his “route” dragging cable across a nature preserve. He really isn’t in proper condition for this kind of gig, but at least Anna, a more experienced (and more rebellious) cabler explains a few things for him.

Obviously,
Lapsis is intended as a withering critique of capitalism and the gig economy, but the economic ecosystem Hutton creates just doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it would be more cost-efficient to replace cablers with robots, but having them both scramble to lay cable over the same route is just going to lead to a lot of wasted cable and also the expense of fruitless robot power and maintenance whenever the human cabler wins. The entire premise is impractical, but it is highly symbolic—like beat us over the head symbolic.

Yet, the weird thing is Dean Imperial and Madeline Wise are so engaging as Tincelli and Anna, we sort of buy into it anyway. Instead of playing the former like a Joe Pesci-wannabe, Imperial taps into his vulnerability, insecurity, and decency as a kind of lunkheaded guy who has just been outpaced by the world. Likewise, Wise’s Anna is convincingly smart and tough, but not mean. As a result, it is surprisingly entertaining to watch them debate and sort of-kind of flirt.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Oscar Contender: Minari

For many striving immigrants nothing says “promised land” like land itself. The ambition to own his own farm motivates a Korean immigrant to uproot his wife and American-born children from California to Arkansas. Unfortunately, he might just know enough about farming to fall too deeply in debt in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a widely acknowledged Oscar contender, which releases this Friday in actual theaters.

Even by California’s high standards, Jacob is great at chick sexing. That is the process of quickly determining the gender of newborn chicks, so the males can be “disposed of.” His wife Monica is only adequate by Arkansas standards, but her husband does not intend for them to work in the poultry plant for long. In addition to their new mobile home on blocks, he bought a modest stretch of farmland to raise crops. Although he was initially considering traditional Midwest staples, he soon shifts his plan to cultivate Korean vegetables for the Korean groceries springing up in the Southern Midwest in the early 1980s.

Jacob has a profound desire to build something of his own. Monica would prefer to simply work hard, avoid taking risks, and save their money for their children (and the Church). The resulting disagreement grows increasingly pronounced when Jacob’s efforts are repeatedly plagued by bad luck. It gets so bad, Paul, their Evangelical farm hand and new family friend, convinces them to allow him to perform an exorcism. Seven-year-old David is mostly oblivious to the tension between his parents, but his sister Anne is just old enough to pick up on it. However, day-to-day, they are more concerned with negotiating the prickly foibles of Soonja, the grandmother they never met, until she arrived to help take care of them in Arkansas. It is she who has the foresight to plant a small patch of minari, the spicy Korean herb that grows best under wild conditions.

Minari
is a deeply touching film that is truly inclusive. While obviously an immigrant’s film, it is also sympathetic to the poor, white Ozark community in which Jacob’s family finds itself. Paul, played with deep humanity and humility by Will Paton (who really ought to be in the Oscar talk as well) is never caricatured or demonized for his extreme expressions of his faith (he literally carries a wooden cross on his back every Sunday). Instead, he is presented as a devout believer, who does his best to live up to the principles of Christianity.

On the other hand, the Oscar buzz for Youn Yuh-jung is well-placed, totally deserved, and arguably overdue. Anyone who follows Korean film will recognize her from her surprisingly edgy work in films like
Bacchus Lady and The Housemaid. Once again, she steals scene after scene as the no-nonsense but loving grandmother.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Sator, Some Serious Folk Horror

Technically, this film is set in Northern California, but the backwoods are still the backwoods—and they are seriously spooky. It is not the locals we should be scared of, at least not the mortal ones. It is the spirits and hants, who exert an unhealthy influence on the living. Director-screenwriter-editor-cinematographer Jordan Graham would know. This creepy tale of a family in thrall to a (most likely) malevolent spirit is based on his own family history. Either the “shine” or madness runs in the family in Graham’s Sator, which releases today on VOD.

For years, Adam’s grandmother claimed to receive messages from an entity called Sator, through automatic writing. The same was true for Graham’s grandmother, who appears as her analog, so viewers will logically conflate the director with his protagonist. Adam lives alone, only receiving occasional visits from his brother Pete. They are both suspect their family’s recent tragedies might be linked to its weird “relationship” with Sator, but for Adam it is approaching an obsession.

From time to time, Adam tries to draw information out of his grandmother (or “Nani”), but she is steadily slipping into dementia. Again, her deteriorating state could be linked to her contact with Sator. In this respect, the fil revisits some of the themes of
The Taking of Deborah Logan, but it is more disturbing, because it feels more real.

Sator
boasts some of creepiest imagery and heaviest atmosphere or any horror movie, perhaps ever. You could seriously unnerve people out by showing subliminal stills from the film. However, Graham’s aesthetic approach is surprisingly akin to European art cinema (for lack of a better description). His story unfolds slowly and super-deliberately.  You need to be able to fully commit to Sator and give it your full attention, or you are not doing it or yourself justice.

Billie, on DVD

Billie Holiday didn't just sing her songs. She lived them. She never wanted to be a “blues” singer, but she had plenty of blues too. Her voice was never “prefect,” but its sad beauty made her just about every jazz fan’s favorite vocalist. Journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl was on of them. She conducted hundreds of interviews with Holiday’s colleagues and friends for a book she never lived to finish. Later biographers made use of her tapes, but they have gone unheard by the general public until now. Director James Erskine uses their voices and her music to tell her story in Billie, which releases today on DVD.

Everyone sort of knows a bit of Holiday’s story thanks to the questionable Diana Ross movie,
Lady Sings the Blues and the scandalous details of her ghost-written (but better than you might have heard) tell-all memoir on which it was sort of based. She had terrible taste in men, bordering on outright masochism. She also struggled with drug addiction throughout her life, self-medicating for the stress of her abusive relationships and a hostile press.

Of course, she was also a terrific performer, as viewers can plainly hear throughout the film. We also hear the voices of numerous musicians—some famous in their own right, like Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, and Artie Shaw, who tried to employ her as his band vocalist at a time when integrated bands were not widely accepted. Yet, some of the more interesting and candid reflections come from lesser-known sidemen, like Al Avola, a clarinetist in Shaw’s band and her former accompanists Jimmy Rowles and Bobby Tucker. However, nobody is as blunt-spoken as veteran Basie band drummer Jo Jones.

Holiday only speaks through her music, but that is more than adequate to convey the truth of her life.
Billie is nicely constructed, marrying up telling archival video of Holiday and her era with the disembodied testimonials on Kuehl’s tapes. Erskine choses some apt footage (but strangely not her haunting appearance with the legendary tenor-player, Lester Young on The Sound of Jazz.)

Jazz on a Summer’s Day, on BluRay

Louis Armstrong believed he was born on July 4, 1900. Subsequent historical research might suggest otherwise, but why get hung up on mere details? As a true Horatio Alger figure, who revolutionized both instrumental and vocal music, and represented America abroad as the unofficial “Ambassador Satch,” it is a symbolically fitting birthday for Armstrong. He was also a true road warrior, so he did not mind playing on his birthday weekend. Decades later, Armstrong and the other great jazz artists recorded in performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival still sound as refreshing as a cool summer breeze in the BluRay release of Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which releases today.


1958 was a busy Fourth of July weekend for Rhode Island. In addition to George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival, the America’s Cup qualifying heats were running off the coast. Part of Summer’s charm is the way director Bert Stern incorporates not just the races, but all the life and slightly inebriated carousing going on around the festival.

Jimmy Giuffre might not be widely known outside of jazz circles, but his performance of “The Train and the River” was an inspired choice for the opening credits. Breezy and bluesy with a hint of abstractness, it perfectly matches Stern’s images of the ocean and his wavy titles. This was Giuffre’s most accessible combo, a trio of himself on reeds, Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Jim Hall on guitar (visible only when taking a bow at the end of the number). As many times as I have seen this film, this sequence always draws me in again.

In retrospect, it seems weird Thelonious Monk was scheduled so early in the festival. We see him playing to an apparently sparse audience that included an appreciative Gerry Mulligan, who would take the stage later that night. Monk’s unphazed performance of “Blue Monk” and VOA D.J. Willis Conover’s introduction might actually sound familiar, having been sampled years ago in a sneaker commercial.

Festival attendees were indeed fortunate getting a chance to hear future legends in sideman roles, the most unexpected being a young Roswell Rudd, later to become the most important trombonist in the avant-garde, seen in Newport careening around the roads with the Dixieland band Eli’s Chosen Six. We also get a rare opportunity to enjoy working bands that sadly never recorded outside of Stern’s film, like the group co-led by Sonny Stitt and former Kenton guitarist Sal Salvador (stuck with the dreaded “under-appreciated” appellation throughout his career), who blaze through “Loose Walk.”

A young Eric Dolphy also appears in a sideman role with Chico Hamilton’s band. Stern uses the Hamilton group as a touchstone throughout the film, juxtaposing their serious rehearsals with the revelry of the festival. The combination of the exotic sounds of Dolphy’s flute, Nate Gershman’s cello, the arresting dynamics of Hamilton’s drumming, and Stern’s gorgeous color photography is always a knockout punch, for newcomers and longtime fans alike.

Anita O’Day got a lot of attention for her sassy “Tea for Two” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Big Maybelle rouses the crowd with “I Ain’t Mad at You.” Of course, Chuck Berry wasn’t a jazz musician, but you would hardly know it from his jamming on “Sweet Little Sixteen,” with old school cats like Jack Teagarden, who would also appear with Armstrong.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Two Sentence Horror Stories: El Muerto


If Willie Sutton were making horror movies, he’d set them in morgues, because that’s where the bodies are. There have been films that take advantage of the possibilities provided by fresh corpses, like The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Nightshifter, but pathologists get a relatively easy time of it in horror programming. However, this night will be hard for everyone, especially the coroner’s daughter in “El Muerto,” the latest episode of Two Sentence Horror Stories, premiering tomorrow on the CW.

There are a lot of bodies coming in, so Grace has no time for her daughter, Laura. Instead, the young girl huddles in a makeshift bed set up in the morgue’s back room, yearning for some human contact. From time to time, Antonio takes a break from the autopsies to check on her, but despite his assurances, she knows her mother is profoundly angry with her. She is not the only one. Apparently, Laura can see the spirit of a recently deceased boy, who is quite put out by his current state and he might just take it out on her.

As it often happens with anthology horror, we can more or less estimate the climactic twist of “El Muerto,” but the execution of co-directors Rania Attieh & Daniel Garcia (who have done some of the best “sentences” of the series) is super-effective. They build an over-powering sense of foreboding, heightened by the grim, oppressive institutional set design work. The grey-on-grey striped walls and checkered floors evoke the vibe of the Black Lodge in
Tein Peaks, but with a Kafkaesque twist.

Murderous Trance: Denmark’s Hypnosis Murders

Who knew yoga could be so sinister? That was the start of Bjorn Schouw Nielsen’s domination of his former cellmate, Palle Hardrup, but it was through brainwashing and hypnosis that he really lodged his hooks into his patsy. The case is particularly personal for Danish police detective Anders Olsen, who was also a veteran of the resistance, whereas Nielsen and Hardrup were convicted collaborators. Nielsen also develops a predatory interest in Olsen’s wife, further raising the stakes in Arto Halonen’s based-on-historical-facts English language thriller, Murderous Trance (a.k.a. The Guardian Angel), which releases tomorrow on DVD and VOD.

Technically, there is no denying Hardrup held-up at least one bank and fatally shot two employees. However, he almost certainly was not in his right mind. After consulting with Dr. Dabrowski, a psychiatrist and hypnosis expert, Olsen starts to suspect Hardrup was acting under the influence of post-hypnotic suggestion. According to Dabrowski, while it is true subjects will not commit an act that violates their moral-ethical code, they can be manipulated into doing just about anything, if the controlling party understands how to use their ideological convictions against them.

Predictably, Olsen’s former-collaborator-commander is less than thrilled with him consulting with a Jewish specialist, especially one with Dabrowski’s checkered history. Meanwhile, Nielsen starts cultivating a friendship with Olsen’s bookseller wife Marie, sensing her vulnerability after an unfortunate miscarriage.

A cursory online skimming suggests Halonen and co-screenwriters William Aldridge and Mitchell Bard hewed surprisingly close to the truth. There really was a case built around hypnosis. Yet, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the way Nielsen exploits Hardrup’s mutual interest in Eastern philosophy, yoga, and a weird brand of nationalism rooted in folk-volk Norse mysticism.

Far less compelling are Nielsen’s attempts to coopt Marie Olsen’s loyalties. As Nielsen, Josh Lucas projects such a weird, squirrely vibe, it is impossible to believe he could charm or seduce any reasonable person. Seriously, after their first meeting, she should have been running the other way, to take a disinfecting shower.

Frankly, the casting of
Trance is only so-so at best, starting with Sara Soulie, who taxes viewer patience and credibility as Marie Olsen. Pilou Asbaek is mostly just serviceable as Olsen, but he has one great scene when he finally opens up to Dabrowski (not exactly on his couch, but close enough).

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Happy Times, from Israel

You're invited to a dinner party. They are serving hot death and cold bile on the menu. It starts as a social gathering and turns into a frenzy of murder. That might sound unlikely, but it all goes down in Brentwood, O.J.’s old neighborhood, so maybe it sort of makes sense. Regardless, you better steel yourself for a little bloodshed in Michael Mayer’s Happy Times, which releases this Tuesday on VOD and DVD.

Dodgy Yossi is much richer than the rest of his guests and he is not about to let them forget it. It is why his trophy wife Sigal puts up with him. The Israeli ex-pats are hosting Michael, a resentful actor not making it in LA and his awkwardly not Jewish girlfriend, Aliyah, as well as snobby tech executive Avner, who still suffers from service-related PTSD and his neurotic wife, Hila. They will also be joined by divorced contractor Ilan, whose business depends on Yossi’s meager patronage and his New Agey girlfriend Noya, as well as Maor, Yossi’s young employee, who rather unsubtly carries a torch for Sigal. Plus, their Rabbi will eventually roll in to collect the couple’s latest reluctant donation.

Alcohol and [un]controlled substances will exacerbate pre-existing tensions and instant dislikes. Initially, the violence is accidental, but it quickly and deliberately escalates. Unfortunately, Sigal and Yossi’s house could serve as the set for a revival of Ira Levin’s
Deathtrap, because there are all kinds of antique firearms, crossbows, and gold old fashion carving knives lying around, just waiting to be put to ill-use.

Happy Times
is not for the faint of heart, but if you do not mind a little gore, it is wickedly amusing. The film will inevitably be categorized as horror, due to the volume of blood and the mounting body count, but it is really just a dark comedy—real dark. Yet, Mayer is a master at pulling off each successively over-the-top one-darned-thing-after-another.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Animation First ’21: A Doonesbury Special


In its pre-Reagan, pre-W, pre-Trump heyday, the comic strip Doonesbury was sort of the nearest equivalent to Colbert and the Daily Show, except people on both sides of the aisle frequently found it funny. Gary Trudeau’s leftwing viewpoint was always readily apparent, but he could still see the humor of his characters’ hippy-dippiness. That was still true in 1977 when he got a call-up for a Peanuts-style animated special. The resulting film made history as the final project of legendary animator John Hubley. On its way to TV sets, it won an award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, but it has been rarely screened since then. Today, it is rather strange and nostalgic to watch A Doonesbury Special, credited to directors John & Faith Hubley, with Trudeau himself, when it screens through the 15th, as part of this year’s Animation First’s “Wes Anderson Selects” sidebar.

Okay, bad news first—fan favorite Uncle Duke never appears in the special. On the plus side, the residents of Walden Commune finally start to wrestle with the failures of their hippy lifestyle—maybe, sort of. Responsibility-averse stoner Zonker Harris announces that it is time for them to split up and move into condominiums, but everyone knows he is the least prepared to participate in real life.

However, everyone has to admit the whole turn-on-tune-in-drop-out New Left thing just didn’t work out the way they hoped it would. Most of the rest of the special consists of flashbacks to their hardcore activism and hardcore partying days at Walden College, including performances from folk rocker Jimmy Thudpucker, who was fictional, but still released a real-life greatest hits album. There is also a football huddle gag involving hawkish quarterback B.D. and a very high Zonker, which compares favorably with Abbott & Costello routines. Plus, John Sebastian plays a suitably melancholy harmonica solo over the closing credits.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The Snoopy Show, on Apple TV+

When Charles M. Schulz first brought his beloved Peanuts characters to TV, the resulting Christmas special did two nearly miraculous things. It managed to shoehorn some King James scripture and original jazz music into primetime television. Eventually, there was even a Saturday morning cartoon, but just about every form of animated Peanuts gets compared to three perennial favorites (Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown). You might notice Charlie Brown is in each title. Recently, Apple has started producing new Peanuts programming and fans are glad to have it, but their focus has been on a certain beagle. Fortunately, he and his feathered best friend are still endearing, even if there isn’t quite the same level of magic in The Snoopy Show, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

This will indeed be Snoopy’s show, so don’t you forget it. It even starts with his dueling origin stories in the opening vignette, “A Snoopy Story,” wherein Snoopy writes memoirs, but Charlie Brown sets the record straight (we also briefly get to see Snoopy’s brothers, Spike and Olaf). Each of the six 24-minute-ish episodes contain three mini-stories, sometimes sharing a common theme, like Halloween and outdoor winter frolics.

The best is probably “Happiness is a Snow Day,” in which Snoopy teaches the uptight Marcy how to enjoy a winter’s day off from school and “Dress-Up Snoopy,” which follows Snoopy’s efforts to devise a costume for Charlie Brown that will catch the Little Red-Headed Girl’s eye. There is always a risk revisiting Halloween, because “Great Pumpkin” remains so popular, but it really pays off in this segment. Unlike many episodes, poor Charlie Brown’s neuroses return to center stage here. Frankly, he is sometimes missed, because his modesty and indomitable humanity are what made the best specials so special. (Snoopy also probably works better when he rolls in and out for his mic-drop moments.)

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Cahill’s Bliss

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the world we think we know might just be a computer simulation. That is what Greg Wittle is about to learn, when he meets the woman who claims to have created it—and he is inclined to listen, because she is played by Salma Hayek. The Wachowskis’ The Matrix did not open on tomorrow’s date in 1999, so it is just a coincidence two “simulation world” films are releasing this Friday (the other being Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix). Of course, there are no coincidences in the Matrix, so maybe these two films really do prove something. Either way, director-screenwriter Mike Cahill’s Bliss does its best to question our conception of reality when it starts streaming tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

One thing is for sure: the world that we start in definitely does not cater to Wittle. He is bitterly divorced from his ex-wife and estranged from his son. Only his daughter Emily still maintains ties. To make matters worse, Wittle will soon be fired from his job at a customer support firm (amusingly named “Technical Difficulties”) and he will then kill his boss through an unlikely chain of accidental events. Fortunately, the woman in the bar tells him she can fix things.

That would be Isabel Clemens and she claims she invented the simulated world they are in. She gloms onto him, because she claims he is “real” and not some kind programmed NPC. The weird thing is, she seems to be right. It does indeed appear she can make things happen and mess with “unreal” people. Eventually, she gives Wittle a glimpse of the “true” world, which matches the idealized drawings he compulsively sketched. The drawback is his beloved daughter Emily isn’t “real” too.

Cahill riffs on some of the ideas introduced in films like
The Matrix and Empathy Inc in interesting ways, but his vision of competing realities is rather muddled. Instead of mind-bending paradoxes, he just gives us a headache. There are often logic gaps in science fiction, but they are outright at war with each in Bliss. On the other hand, Bliss offers an unusually thoughtful and mature meditation on the question of love. Can you really love someone who does not truly “exist?” If so, then what?

Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix

If Elon Musk and Plato agree something might be a possibility, you have to take it seriously, but lemming Robin Hood users can’t invest in the “Matrix.” The idea that our world is a pre-programmed illusion goes back to Plato’s Cave, but it gained major new currency with the releasee of the Wachowskis’ The Matrix. Rodney Ascher explores the philosophical underpinnings of “simulation theory” through the lens of The Matrix and other science fiction films in A Glitch in the Matrix, which releases tomorrow on VOD and in select theaters, following its Sundance premiere.

There are a lot of people out there who suspect we might be living in a simulated construct, several of whom discuss their theories at length with Ascher, or rather their avatars do. Yet, the most important voice in the film is Philip K. Dick, seen in archival footage giving a speech to a bewildered French science fiction convention about his experiences perceiving alternate realities. It really was a keynote for the ages.

Ascher covers heady concepts, like Plato’s Cave (illustrated by Sam Weiss’s animated short, narrated by Orson Welles), Descartes’ “Solipsism,” Nick Bostrum’s “Simulation Hypothesis,” and the old “Brain in a jar” thought experiment. Ascher uses ample clips from science fiction films to exemplify their points, obviously including the
Matrix trilogy and just about every PKD adaptation, but there is one conspicuous omission. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (streaming on Kanopy) anticipated the themes of The Matrix and Tron way back in 1973, when it was produced for Western German television.

There is a lot of egg-headery in
Glitch and some cool visuals. However, Ascher maintains an agnostic tone, fully exploring the dark side and shortcomings of the theory as well. On the plus side, media critic Emily Pothast compellingly reminds us of the tangible emotional benefits of human connections, very definitely including the physical kind. Conversely, Joshua Cooke provides a harrowing account of the murders he committed while in throes of extreme Matrix-fandom, allegedly believing his adopted parents were constructs of the Matrix.