Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Apache Junction

This crummy Arizona town is a safe harbor for outlaw and cavalry alike. However, the townsfolk have more to fear from those who represent the law than those who live outside it. It is all quite eye-opening for a proper aspiring journalist like Annabellle Angel, who finds herself sympathizing more with the prostitutes than the soldiers. That also means she will side with the somewhat notorious outlaw Jericho Ford in Justin Lee’s Apache Junction, which opens Friday in New York.

When a major San Francisco paper asked for volunteers to cover Apache Junction, Angel was the only one to raise her hand. She knows she is out of her depth, but it is the only way to get her foot in the door. Captain Hensley is openly dismissive of her, but his thuggish men are even worse. Fortunately for her, Ford just happened along at the right time, but leaving three of Hensley’s men dead in his wake ignites a war.

Again, it is just weird to see the bad guys wearing the Union Army uniform in a contemporary western, since they are the ones who beat the Confederates in the Civil War. In this case, Hensley’s men are really, really bad, but Oslo Pike, the scummy gambler-bounty hunter Hensley aligns with, is even worse.

Frankly, the whole idea of Apache Junction functioning as open city doesn’t make much sense and it is really tough to believe Hensley would respect it. However, the premise gives Thomas Jane a few interesting scenes as saloon-keeper Al Longfellow, who serves as the de facto mayor. He is fun to watch chewing the scenery, in a grizzled, drawling kind of way. Also, Danielle Gross is way better than the film deserves portraying Mary Primm, the you-know-what with a heart of gold.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Godspeed, Los Polacos

Pope John Paul II inspired his fellow Poles to fight for their freedom, wherever they were. He also probably saved an intrepid band of Polish kayakers, who otherwise might not have survived some of the more distrustful authoritarian regimes of Latin America, had they not been able to drape themselves under his protective mantle. They came for adventure but wound up speaking out in ways they couldn’t have under martial law. Their incredible story is chronicled in Adam Nawrot’s Godspeed, Los Polacos!, which releases today on VOD.

Initially, the kayaking club that came to call itself the “Canoandes” (for canoe and Andes) didn’t know much about white water, but club’s expeditions always gave them an excuse to be out of town during mandatory marches and the like. They were aware and sympathetic to Solidarity, but they recognized the Soviet strategy of projecting strength through athletics gave them an opportunity to exploit. By pitching an expedition to kayak unnavigated Latin American rivers—for the state’s great glory, of course—they managed to obtain highly coveted travel permissions and even some supplies.

rankly, the sleight-of-hand logistics that went into their expedition are an epic tale in themselves (that reveal the Kafkaesque nature of the socialist system). Nevertheless, the kayakers were still wildly unprepared for the waters and elements that greeted them. Yet, after a winter hiatus spent in Casper, Wyoming, they actual got pretty good at handling the wild rapids throughout Central and South America. Then they took on the waters of Peru’s Colca Canyon River, which was then considered the world’s deepest canyon (and still is, depending how you measure). However, the greatest danger they faced came afterward, when they spoke out on behalf of Solidarity and against martial law, which had been declared during their journeys. This did not endear them to violent element that would become the Shining Path terrorists.

Los Polacos
is an amazing story of adventure that is topped by a profile in courage. The hardy five who survived Colca risked even more by organizing demonstrations against the oppressive Communist regime, but they had a greater loyalty to their country and their own personal integrity. To a great extent, Los Polacos has been pitched as an outdoor sports doc, as it indeed is, to an extent. However, their experiences navigating and protesting the corrupt Soviet system are much more dramatic and inspiring—so much so that the film starts to play like a real-life thriller, briskly paced and tightly edited by Nawrot.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Magnolia at MoMA: Ong-Bak

The message of this action film is “don’t lose your head.” Unfortunately, that is what happens to Ting’s village when big city antiquity thieves steal the head of their Buddha statue. Ting learned the ancient Muay Boran discipline, a forerunner of Muay Thai, from the village priest. He has only practiced and sparred, but it turns out he really is a formidable in-real-life fighter when he sets off in search of the missing head in Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Ong-Bak #1), which screens as part of MoMA’s 20th Anniversary celebration of Magnolia Pictures.

The Ong-Bak statue is far from the most imposing in Thailand, but without, the village is sure to suffer ill-fate, so they take up a collection and send Ting on his way. Once in the big city, he looks up his cousin Humlae, the village’s prodigal son. Humlae happens to be a gambling addict, who regularly loses money in the underground fights hosted by the nefarious crime-lord Komluan, whose most profitable business is the illicit trade of traditional Buddhist artifacts.

Right, so you can probably see where this all is headed. The path to recovering the Ong-Bak will definitely run through Komluan’s bare-knuckle matches. There is also one of the most over-the-top tuk tuk chases ever filmed. Of course, the narrative itself is pretty grungy and straightforward: country boy takes on slimy city slickers. However, Panna Rittikrai’s fight choreography and Tony Jaa’s stunt work will still impress the heck out of fans.

Creepshow: Mums & Queen Bee

Tonight's episode addresses two very real-world phenomena that pose serious risks to society. One is extremist militia secessionism. The other is brainless, brain-rotting pop. The latter turns out to be much scarier than the former in the first episode of showrunner Greg Nicotero’s third season of Creepshow, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

It might be based on a Joe Hill short story, “Mums,” but the standard comeuppance opener of episode S3E1 (adapted by Nicotero & David J. Schow and directed by Rusty Cundieff) is probably the worst of the entire series. Jack’s mother Bloom once had substance abuse issues, but his father Hank is the dangerous one. Sadly, he uses her history to create a cover story after accidentally killing her, while plotting an act of domestic terrorism. Jack suspects something is wrong, but when he plants the weird seeds she left behind, what sprouts might just lead him to the truth.

Right, we have Bloom, who gets buried and Jack planting seeds. The names are really on the nose in this episode. Everything else is just as paint-by-numbers. Hank’s grisly fate is obviously assured due to his unsavory ideology and Ethan Embry’s performance does nothing to elevate him above a base caricature. That means there is no suspense, since the ending is preordained and there is no humor, presumably because the themes are thought to be so serious. Only Malone Thomas stands out with some nice work as Beth, the conflicted babysitter and co-conspirator, supplying the sole element of complexity. As a result, “Mums” plays out like didactic score-settling, which makes it a chore to watch.

Fortunately, “Queen Bee” (written by Erik Sandoval & Michael Rousselet and directed by Nicotero) is better in every single respect. Trenice and her friends Debra and Carlos each believe they are pop idol Regina’s “number one fan.” Maybe Carlos isn’t so adamant about it, since he can countenance selling pictures of her soon to be delivered baby to the tabloids. Regardless, all three would be delighted to be present when she gives birth, so when Debra’s nurse mother lets slip Regina’s entourage has taken over a floor of her hospital, they are all off like a rocket.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Copshop: Grillo vs. Butler

The drunk tank always looked like such a safe place when Otis crashed there on the Andy Griffith Show. Unfortunately, a rather unsavory character will avail himself of such hospitality at the Gun Creek police station. Nobody will be safe as long as he is there, but his competition is even worse in Joe Carnahan’s Copshop, which is now playing in New York.

Val Young is a cop who knows guns, but Teddy Murretto still manages to sucker punch her during a routine call. At least he apologized immediately after. The people who were chasing him are highly motivated, so his is happy to temporarily settle for the safety of a police cell and treatment for his minor gun-shot wound. Soon thereafter, Bob Viddick barrels into Murretto’s abandoned car, so the investigating troopers will book him into the station too. It was all part of his plan to get close to Murretto.


Viddick seems to operate according to some kind of hitman’s code, so Young might have been able to handle him. However, when Anthony Lamb, Viddick’s psychotic colleague also crashes the party, all bets are off.

Carnahan and co-screenwriter Kurt McLeod take the general situation of
Rio Bravo, add the confined Die Hard-style action set-pieces and give them a Guy Ritchie-esque treatment—and frankly it all works like a well-oiled machine. The film eventually hinges on the question whether Young should trust an admitted killer like Viddick or an exploitative wheeler-dealer like Murretto, but the film and the audience both know she can only really rely on herself.

Frank Grillo is terrific oozing slime as Murretto. He should be a name-above-the-title star by now and maybe
Copshop will bring him a step closer. Gerard Butler does usual tough guy thing as Viddick, but that is basically just what the doctor ordered. Grillo definitely brings more color and flamboyance, but they both more or less project an equal sense of danger. However, Alexis Louder out badasses everyone as Young, in what should turn out to be a star-making role.

In fact, the entire ensemble is quite distinctive, most definitely including Chad L. Coleman. He earns quite a bit of laughs as the overbearing Sgt. Duane Mitchell, but never at the expense of gritty cop cred. Toby Huss delivers a different sort outrageous gallows humor as Lamb, the off-the-rails assassin. It is quite a deep supporting cast, with memorable contributions also coming from Jose Cantillo, as Young’s buddy, Officer Pena and Ryan O’Nan, playing Huber, the mess-up on the Gun Creek PD.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Prisoner: The (Highly) Original Series

Your every need is taken care of in “the Village” and the scenery is lovely. All that is asked of residents is that they avoid “unmutual” behavior. Sadly, many people probably will not understand why the freshly arrived Number Six considers it such a miserable prison. Increasingly, his mantra “I am not a number, I am a free man” will fall on deaf ears. That makes the ground-breaking, head-tripping series created by lead actor Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein even more relevant today. The troublesome individualist of the title still refuses to conform in The Prisoner, which airs this weekend as Decade’s Weekend Binge.

A British agent who looks and acts a lot like John Drake, from McGoohan’s previous series,
Secret Agent has resigned, citing issues of principle. Shortly thereafter, he wakes up in a vaguely Mediterranean-looking village, supposedly organized along utopian communitarian lines. In practice, it is an open-air prison, where the wardens either safeguard people with too much information in their heads or extract their secrets. Just which side (of the Cold War) runs the Village is unclear. It might even be a joint venture. Regardless, Number Six is not talking. Nor is he willing to accept his captivity, but he quickly finds he can never out-run Rover, the giant surreal beachball that corrals runaways.

“The Arrival” and “The Chimes of Big Ben” (which some chronologies consider the second episode) are largely compatible with Number Six’s espionage origins, but it establishes the duplicitous tactics that will be employed by Village’s ostensive leader, Number Two. There will be many Number Twos, thanks in large part to Number Six’s stubbornness and resourcefulness, but the one played by Leo McKern in “Chimes” is probably the most iconic—he also returns for the last two episodes.

In episodes like “A, B, and C” and “The General,” Number Six does not merely play defense, foiling their schemes. He also plays offense, taking aim at the machinery of their dystopian apparatus. The computer hardware of “The General” might look dated now, but the questions it raises about artificial intelligence apply even more these days. Perhaps the most satisfying episode is “Hammer into Anvil,” wherein Number Six deliberately exploits the paranoia and distrust of a particularly brutal Number Two, to undermine him with the mysterious forces above him. This is about as much fun as subversive behavior gets.

Throughout the series, the Number Twos and their co-conspirators try to get inside Number Six’s head, in more ways than one. In many ways, the show picked up on the brainwashing motif of
The Manchurian Candidate, depicting its practice in subtler, more insidious ways. In “Schizoid Man,” Number Six is forced to confront his doppelganger, after having undergone extensive behavioral modification, making him appear to be the imposter. Ironically, it puts him in the position of asserting he is Number Six. Number Two stoops even lower in “A Change of Mind” by faking Number Six’s lobotomy and pumping him full of depressants, but he still can’t extinguish the prisoner’s inherent sense of self.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy

In 1940s Showa era Japan, wives were expected to be loyal to their husbands, but everyone was supposed to obediently serve the state. Consequently, Satoko Fukuhara finds herself feeling conflicted when she suspects her husband of conspiring against the militarist government in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, which opens today in New York.

Yusaku Fukuhara owns a prosperous trading company. That means he has always been a good provider, but it also brings him into contact with foreigners, like his American customer, Mr. Drummond, who will be expelled from the country after spending an inhospitable night with the police. Clearly, the significance of the incident registers more with Fukuhara than his wife. Shortly thereafter, Fukuhara leaves for Manchuria with his nephew Fumio Takeshita, hoping to find business opportunities. Instead, they witness wholesale atrocities.

Meanwhile, Satoko Fukuhara’s old torch-carrying school friend Yasuharu “Taiji” Tsumori starts nosing around. He returned to Kobe as an extremely rigid police intelligence officer. Tsumori was already predisposed to dislike her husband, even before his investigations turn up reasons to suspect the trader/traitor. However, he hopes she will be a different case entirely. Indeed, the question of just where her loyalties and motivations lay is what this film is all about.

Wife
is part thriller, part tragedy, and part historical indictment. In terms of genre, it represents a departure for Kurosawa, but the tone of restrained, almost suffocating foreboding is not unlike some of his finer horror films. It is not exactly a classic nail-biter, but there are several shocking developments.

Yu Aoi, who has been something like Japan’s national sweetheart after emerging as a child-star, is instrumental to this film’s success. She looks innocent, but she can certainly surprise viewers. Ultimately, she takes her character to some very dark places, especially during the third act. Similar praise goes to Issey Takashi playing her husband. These are two very intriguing performances, because they convince us both spouses are smarter and more complicated than they appear.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lady of the Manor

Lady Wadsworth is not nearly as fun as the freewheeling married couple that haunted Cosmo Topper, but she is more progressive than the sea captain haunting Mrs. Muir. That is actually something, considering she lived and died in late 1800’s Savannah. Her home is now literally a museum that she expects to be kept just so. She therefore haunts the new slacking stoner tour guide pretty hard, until they develop an unlikely friendship in director-screenwriter-brothers Justin & Christian Long’s Lady of the Manor, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

Wadsworth Manor is still a source of pride and revenue for Savannah Mayoral candidate Grayson Wadsworth, but his entitled son Tanner is not. To finally start pulling his weight, Tanner must assume management of the Manor business during the campaign. Unfortunately, that leads him to fire the current costumed tour guide when she turns down his advances. Needing a quick replacement, he hires Hannah Daniels, who just happened to be boozing on the barstool next to him.

Initially, Daniels makes it clear any advances Tanner might make will be completely welcome. However, she also starts to feel some attraction to Maxwell Plumm, the local college professor, who mercifully agrees not to call her on the liberties she takes with history. Unfortunately, the ghost of Lady Wadsworth is not so indulgent when it comes to Hannah’s messy housekeeping and hard-partying lifestyle.

Manor
is an ultra-lightweight comedy, but it is still amusing. Judy Greer is perfectly cast as the prim and proper ghost, whom the film contrives ways to make sympathetic to modern viewers. Even though her character is often annoying as heck, Melanie Lynskey still gets a lot of big laughs as Daniels. She also has decent chemistry with Justin Long as the otherwise too-bland Prof. Plumm (yes, they make that joke).

INFF ’21: The Cemetery of Lost Souls

Combining a knock-off Necronomicon-style book of evil with carny folk always means trouble. In this film, some of the nicest people happen to be part of a cannibal tribe. Sorry, that should have been “alternative cuisine connoisseurs.” (The on-set sensitivity coach wasn’t particularly diligent on this Brazilian horror movie.) Regardless, an ancient band of demonic zombies starts feeling their farofa in Rodrigo Aragão’s The Cemetery of Lost Souls, which screens (online) during the 2021 Inffinito Brazilian Film Festival.

It all starts during the early era of Portuguese colonialism, when a priest succumbs to the temptations offered by an infernal book of demonology, adopting the name of the infamous sorcerer Cipriano as his own. During a freak storm, he uses his powers to save a small platoon of conquistadors from certain death, at the mere cost of their souls. They wreak havoc on the indigenous tribes in a weirdly Transylvanian-looking district of Brazil, until a freak series of events binds them to the anachronistic Dracula’s castle.

For years, Jorge, a shy modern-day carnival laborer has seen in his dreams Ayra, an indigenous woman held in thrall by Cipriano. One fateful day, the carnival pitches their tent outside the imposing castle. Of course, Cirpriano and his horde are still lurking inside and they intend to feast on Jorge’s company.

Cemetery
throws all kinds of horror elements into the blender, but there is clearly a heavy Evil Dead influence. The modest budget is equally evident. For instance, the castle practically looks like it was painted on a bed sheet. However, Aragão is not afraid to go way over-the-top gory, mostly to gleefully comedic effect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster

So many horror icons were actually, kindly genteel men. Karloff was truly a perfect example. He was the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, the Fu Manchu (for better or worse), and the Grinch. Everyone should already be a fan and their appreciation will increase after watching Thomas Hamilton’s Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster, which opens this Friday in theaters (just the way Karloff’s films used to).

For many fans, Karloff’s life starts with
Frankenstein in 1931. Naturally, that is where the film starts, but Hamilton does a nice job rewinding to cover his early years as a contract character actor and his British-Indian family’s origins and the discrimination they faced after emigrating to the UK. A good deal of time is dedicated to his silent period, including The Bells, arguably his first horror film.

Naturally, the Universal horror movies get a great deal of attention and despite its awkwardness,
The Mask of Fu Manchu gets a long analysis and even a bit of a guilty, shrugging defense, for being so over-the-top lurid, in a pre-Code way. There is also plenty of time devoted to the Roger Corman-produced movies he appeared in, especially The Terror (which in true Corman fashion, had no screenplay, but incomprehensibly re-purposed some extra footage he filmed with Karloff) and Targets (Peter Bogdanovich’s contemplation of the horror of the UT Tower shooting, as seen through the eyes of an aging horror star, very much like Karloff).

Hamilton and company also nicely cover Karloff’s Broadway stint in
Arsenic and Old Lace, as well as his extensive TV work, including a TV remake of Arsenic and of course, The Grinch. They cover most of his career highlights, including his classic Val Lewton horror movies and Thriller, which some critics still consider the best horror anthology ever. Even The Black Room, the best of his Columbia releases, gets its just credit.

Arguably, the only real omission would be his James Lee Wong mysteries, which have been somewhat unfairly dismissed as “yellowface,” given Karloff’s own South Asian heritage. More importantly, Wong is far and away the smartest and most dignified figure in these films, while the white cops are basically moronic thugs. (Maybe there will be a fuller defense of the series here sometime in the future.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Li Yu’s Ever Since We Love

It would be much harder to produce this film in China today than it was in 2015. For one thing, it stars Fan Bingbing, who was the first target of Xi’s crackdown on movie-stars, for having movie-star values. It was directed by Li Yu, who faced state censorship issues early in her career. As a capper, it adapts Feng Tang’s sexually explicit novel (a bestseller in HK). However, fans of Fan and the novel should be pleased by the sexy, tragic melodrama of Li’s Ever Since We Love, which is finally getting an American release this Friday thanks to distributor Cheng Cheng Films’ commitment to her work.

Qiu Shui is like the Hawkeye or Trapper John of his 1990s Beijing medical school. The slacker largely cruises through classes, spending more time writing the knock-off Kung Fu novels that pay his tuition than actually studying. In contrast, his classmate girlfriend Bai Lu is a model of studiousness, but Qiu is incapable of properly committing, because he has yet to recover from being dumped by his hometown girlfriend.

One fateful day, Qiu happens to meet Liu Qing, a mysterious older but strikingly beautiful woman—and suddenly all bets are off. Despite attempts to keep his options open with Bai, it is pretty clear he is obsessed with Liu, who equally clearly already has her own share of shady lovers in the picture.

Li and cinematographer Zeng Jian (who lensed several Lou Ye films) shot
ESWL like an art film, but the narrative is a weird blend of randy student antics and weepy soap opera fare, sort of like a throwback to 1980’s films like St. Elmo’s Fire and Cocktail. That also makes it an unexpected guilty pleasure.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Skinwalker: The Howl of the Rougarou, from Small Town Monsters

It is Louisiana's native variety of wolfman, so presumably it would taste great blackened with Cajun spices. Unfortunately, according to traditional lore, if you kill one, you assume its curse. Sometimes it is a predator of souls and other times it is a guardian of the natural bayou environment, but either way, you do not want to tangle with one, according to the eye-witnesses in Seth Breedlove’s Skinwalker: The Howl of the Rougarou, which releases tomorrow on VOD and DVD (from Breedlove’s Small Town Monsters).

It has a canine head, but walks on two legs, haunting the swamps, particularly the wetlands of Terrebonne Parrish. Rougarou mythology is inherently tied to the legends of the Houma people but it also explicitly reflects the influence of the Francophone Cajuns. Its very name evolved from the French “loup-garou.” However, the Louisiana Rougarou continued to incorporate mythos of other cultures, such as those of the Micmac people (with whom the Cajuns had been closely allied with), as well as Italian and Haitian immigrants to New Orleans.

The best part of
Skinwalker is the way Breedlove and co-writer-researcher Heather Moser trace all the various cultural strands that make the Rougarou so distinctively Louisianan. They also recruited some wonderfully colorful local storytellers to give their personal Rougarou testimony. After listening to them, you’ll be apt to see the Rougarou yourself, if you ever find yourself in bayou country late at night, especially if you are up to no good.

Like Breedlove’s
Mark of the Bell Witch, Skinwalker is a cut above the average paranormal “documentary,” due to its facility for presenting the underlying folkloric material. This isn’t the kind of film you would ever watch in a theater, but it is leagues superior to most of uncanny programming you find on Discovery+. Frankly, they ought to make a deal with Breedlove’s STM to bring their regional Americana monster project to the streaming service.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Gunfight at Dry River : Co-Starring Michael Moriarty

You might be surprised how many westerns were filmed in Spain, particular a number of classics generally described as being of the “Spaghetti” variety rather than “Serrano.” In this case, the action ostensibly takes place south of the border, but it was indeed filmed in the old Spanish country. In its decrepit village, water is more precious than gold, but the villainous Ryles family is still looking for the latter anyway throughout Daniel Simpson’s Gunfight at Dry River, which is now available in theaters and on VOD.

Technically, it is more of a dry well than a dry river, but that wouldn’t sound as good in the title. Regardless, the Ryles family, gunslinging Verne, Cooper, and Reid, along with their Bible-thumping mama Etta, have taken over this nameless town and strictly limit the locals access to the well. That would be the well Alonzo Murrieta’s grandfather dug, so the Ryleses can immediately tell it will be bad for business when he rolls into town to reclaim his abandoned ancestral home.

Murrieta and the Ryles Brothers warily eye each other for what feels like forever, while he patches up his grandfather’s old roof and they continue to dig up the town in search of lost gold supposedly buried by a Spanish priest. However, conflict is sure to heat up when Murrieta starts flirting with Clarissa Hawkins, whom the crude Cooper also lusts after. At least her gringo father, John Boone Hawkins, is played by the great Michael Moriarty, giving us someone to watch, but this film is not the best vehicle for his talents.

The crumbling mission-style buildings and the parched landscape make for an effective western setting, but Etta Ryles’ hypocritically moralizing quickly becomes abrasively annoying. Even weirder, Fe Valen’s screenplay suggests the Ryleses are Northern Unionist sympathizers, who are concerned by threats of a Confederate patrol. Hey guys, you remember the Union Army were the ones against slavery, right?

Admittedly, that is a minor, but awkward issue. More fundamentally,
Gunfight is just too slow in its slow-burning for its own good. Without question, this is a more stylish and ambitious film than Simpson’s prior horror movies, Hangar 10 and Spiderhole, but its didactic point-scoring against old-time religion and its molasses-pacing undermine the viewing experience.

Friday, September 10, 2021

9/11: Four Flights


If you want to prevent something from happening again, you have to understand how it was allowed to happen the first time. That is as true for Covid-19, despite the CCP’s best cover-up and censorship efforts, as it was for the 9/11 hijackings. On a micro level, we clearly learned lessons from the terrorist hijackings. On a macro level, perhaps not so much—at least not anymore. It is important to remember what happened for many reasons, so History Channel’s special 9/11 twentieth anniversary programming is timely and useful. The fateful hijackings are chronicled and a number of brave passengers and crew are profiled in 9/11: Four Flights, which premieres Saturday (9/11) on History Channel.

It is hard to watch this special, because of the perverse cruelty of fate. There are scores of stories regarding passengers who decided at the last minute to take an earlier or later flight, with tragic consequences. It is important to keep in mind the fourth hijacked flight, United 93, took off just before the first, American Airlines 11, crashed into the World Trade Center. It was also the pre-smart-phone era, when flying necessarily implied disconnecting from media and communications.

As the on-camera experts explain, the airports security systems did not really fail. In fact, they duly flagged the terrorists for extra screening. The problem was nobody properly envisioned a kamikaze-style attack of such magnitude.

Hearing tapes of the air traffic controllers that awful day will give viewers an appreciation for their dedication and professionalism. The same is true of the Air National Guard pilots who were scrambled. It seems like a handful of passengers have received the majority of media attention. We do not begrudge them any posthumous tributes, but it is nice to hear more about some of their fellow passengers here.

INFF ’21: Chico Mario—A Melody of Freedom

Everyone has heard of the girl from Ipanema, but not as many Gringo ears are familiar with the tradition of guitarists from Ouro Preto, in the state of Minas Gerais. João Bosco is one and Chico Mario was another. Both have documentaries that screen (online) during the 2021 Inffinito Brazilian Film Festival—and they both have some lovely guitar playing.


Pedro Pontes’s
João Bosco e Aldir Blanc: That’s Partnership is a short doc that features Bosco reminiscing with Blanc, his longtime lyricist, who could be considered his Bernie Taupin. It’s pretty straight-forward filmmaking, but it is great fun for Brazilian music fans to listen to Bosco play some of their songs for his partner—one of which he had not yet heard in its current form.

Alas, Francisco “Chico” Mario is no longer with us, so he deserves a more substantial feature treatment in Silvio Tendler’s
Chico Mario: A Melody of Freedom. Perhaps during his lifetime, Mario was somewhat overshadowed by his illustrious brothers, Betinho the sociologist and Henfil the artist. The trio were not just mutually accomplished. They also all inherited the hemophilia that ran in their family.

Mario’s time was limited, but he still inhaled Brazilian music, from choro to samba to classical, synthesizing all his influences within his own songs. Fittingly, we hear several of Mario’s solo performances and several more from Minas guitarists he influenced. Yet, in a something of an irony, the absolute standout musical segments feature the Ouro Preto orchestra playing symphonic orchestrations of his songs. They sound fantastic and they prove just how rich his work is, by transposing it into a radically new setting.

Even though Tendler sometimes lets the talking heads soundbites extend a bit too long, he gives the doc a very cinematic vibe by the inventive way he incorporates striking family photos and motion-comic-style pastel art. As a result, the film is visually pleasing and truly an audio treat.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Rise and Fall: The World Trade Center, on History Channel


It took New Yorkers several years to warm up to the Twin Towers, but when they were gone, we really missed them. The World Trade Center was an engineering feat and a symbol of Western commerce and industry that made them abhorred by the fanatics of social backwardness. The construction and horrifying destruction of the Twin Towers are chronicled in History Channel’s Rise and Fall: The World Trade Center, which premieres tomorrow.

Before he was selected to design the World Trade Center, Minoru Yamasaki’s tallest constructed building was a 20-some-story office complex. The Detroit-based architect never really knew why the Port Authority invited him to bid on the project, but when he submitted his plans, he wowed everyone. Subsequently, his designs changed a great deal, especially to meet the practical demands of building over the conventional 80-story limit.

In fact, some of the most revealing segments explain aspects of the innovative construction process. The truth is there was much to admire about the building’s engineering, which arguably saved a great many lives. Frankly, nobody bothers to address the skepticism of 9/11 conspiracy mongers, like Spike Lee, who fancy themselves armchair structural engineers, after majoring in post-structural literary theory. The idea that fire can twist and deform steel is painfully obvious to them, because they are trained in the science.

However,
Rise and Fall raises one construction issue that should have been more widely aired. It turns out the substandard fire-proofing was subcontracted to a reputed John Gotti associate, who was wacked in the underground parking lot during construction.

American Rust, on Showtime

Fayette County, Pennsylvania is classic rust belt country. The historical landmarks include an early 1800’s blacksmith forge, a late Eighteenth Century iron foundry, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Buell Police Chief Del Harris doesn’t have much time to visit any of them. He must investigate the murder of a former officer he fired for incompetence in creator Dan Futterman’s American Rust (based on Philipp Meyer’s novel), which premieres Sunday on Showtime.

Harris is doing his best to maintain law and order, while trying to ween himself off the painkillers he has been hooked on, because of injuries he sustained during the Gulf War and his service on the Pittsburgh PD. He is also trying in an aw-shucks kind of way to pursue a relationship with divorced mom and aspiring labor organizer Grace Poe. Her son Billy Poe is not thrilled with the idea, even though Harris has done him some considerable solids in the past, as we will see from the flashback awkwardly plopped down smack-dab in the middle of the first episode.

Eventually, we understand why Harris did not like what he saw when he was called to a crime scene in a rusted-out factory, besides the dead body. That would be Pete Novick, whom Harris very publicly sacked for being a surly opiate-head.

In terms of themes and tone,
American Rust is a lot like Mare of Easttown with more substance addiction and less teen pregnancy (or The World Made Straight with slightly more crime-thriller elements). Based on the three episodes provided for the press, it looks pretty clear Harris will have to deal with one darned thing after another (not unlike Showtime’s Your Honor). However, the series’ primary identity comes from its Middle American miserablism.

Despite the angst, Jeff Daniels is seriously impressive as Harris, dipping into his Broadway Atticus Finch trick bag and adding a bit of House MD for extra edge. His brooding is the stuff of high tragedy. He also has some effective halting rapport with Maura Tierney’s Grace Poe. She truly looks working-class and worn-down by life, while still retaining a lot charismatic vitality.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Come from Away, Recorded Live-On Broadway


The international airport at Gander, Newfoundland used to be the great last-chance-for-gas station in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, when fuel capacity increased for transatlantic flights, it became an underutilized white elephant—until September 11, 2001. When the infamous terror attack, planned and coordinated by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, weaponized commercial airliners, 38 international flights were diverted to Gander. Since then, the hospitality of the local Newfoundlanders has become the stuff of legend, inspiring films and a hit Broadway Show. The Tony-winning director, Christopher Ashley subsequently helmed a filmed version of Come from Away (music, lyrics, and book written by Irene Sankoff & David Hein), which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

This was a special performance, recorded while Broadway was still dark during the pandemic shutdown, featuring many of the original cast-members, with many invited first-responders and 9/11 survivors in the audience, so you couldn’t ask for a more empathetic vibe in the house. As many of us remember, it all starts on an eerily beautiful morning. Like most days, Gander mayor Claude Elliott is at Tim Horton’s, measuring the town’s pulse, when he hears news of the attack. Understanding the strategic location of the Gander airport, he and the entire staff of air-traffic controllers swing into action.

Soon, the entire town is planning to host thousands of unexpected guests, except the striking bus drivers’ union (which is eventually shamed into cooperation by a vote of its membership). Initially, everyone is confused about why they are there and how long they will stay, especially the airlines. However, as the enormity of recent events sinks in, it becomes clear their extraordinary layover will last more than a day.

Some guests, like eco-energy entrepreneur Kevin Tuerff try to make the best of things, but his partner, Kevin (“the other Kevin”) Jung, never warms to Gander’s charm. Much to their surprise, American divorced-mom Diane Gray and British petroleum middle-manager Nick Marson finds themselves flirting together. However, Hannah O’Rourke too preoccupied waiting for news of her firefighter son, but she still finds friendship and comfort with Beulah Davis, a local gander volunteer.

Frankly,
Come from Away is an example of a book musical that is arguably too well-written to spawn a breakout hit song. For instance, “Me and the Sky,” the feature number for Captain Beverly Bass (American Airlines’ first female captain, who was already a notable aviation figure in her own right) is melodically catchy and takes the audience on a vivid emotional ride, but it is highly specific to the circumstances of the character and the story. Regardless, it is still a showstopper whenever Tony-nominated original cast-member Jenn Colella performs it (it still gets me every time I hear it).

Every cast-member pulled double-duty, portraying at least one guest and one host, but they all differentiate their roles nicely. Ashley earned his Tony with the lively minimalist staging. It is basically a few chairs and revolving stage. Stylistically, it is somewhat akin to what you might expect from a comedy improv troupe, but it works on Broadway and the dynamic movement of the camera gives the film version a sense of energy that translates surprisingly well to screen. Frankly,
Come from Away is much more satisfying as a work of filmed entertainment than Disney’s Emmy-nominated Hamilton.

There is also a greater sense of humanity in
Come from Away, thanks to the wonderfully down-to-earth performances of the ensemble. After watching Joel Hatch play Claude Elliott (and several other locals mayors, who look comically similar), I’d vote for him for New York Mayor (honestly, we couldn’t do much worse than de Blasio). Tony LePage is terrific as Tuerff, particularly in a touching scene, in which he revisits a beloved hymn from his youth.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Martyr’s Lane, on Shudder

Little Leah's home life is so awful, the arrival of a ghost almost brings some relief—almost, but not really. Nobody in her family listens to her, so she will be on her own when she makes a ghostly “friend” in Ruth Platt’s Martyr’s Lane, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

Leah’s father, a parish vicar (his vicarage incorporates the titular sight of a historic massacre), is a reasonably conscientious father, but he is rarely present and available. Unfortunately, her mother is so neurotic, some days she simply cannot function properly. Her older sister Bex bullies her relentlessly, or at least that is how Leah sees it. She could use a friend, so she is receptive when an angelic-looking girl mysteriously knocks on her window. The unnamed girl even has a pair of costume wings.

However, their nocturnal play-dates soon take a sinister turn. Leah desperately hopes to find her mother’s treasured memento that she accidentally lost. Yet, every time the weird little girl gives her a clue through a game of two-truths-and-a-lie, it sends Leah off on a fruitless wild goose chase.

Based on
Martyr’s Lane and her previous horror film, it is clear Ruth Platt has a knack for absolutely raking her characters over the coals. The Lesson was much more violent, often viciously so, but in that case, it was teenagers getting brutalized. Frankly, it is a lot easier to take teens enduring violence, because they kind of have it coming, than watching little Leah enduring all kinds of abuse and terror. As a result, Martyr’s Lane can be uncomfortable to watch.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz


When Ornette Coleman introduced his adventurous approach to music, it was the jazz equivalent of the controversial premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring. Yet, in retrospect, the emergence of the “Free Jazz” movement seems inevitable, in light of the concurrent rise of post-modernism. Soloists were liberated from strict allegiance to chords, rhythm, and melody, but the jazz audience did not necessarily follow. Tom Surgal chronicles the defining artists and music of the classic 1960s and 1970s Free Jazz era in Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz, which opens Friday at Film Forum.

Fire Music
starts with Ornette Coleman, which makes sense, even though Cecil Taylor’s first free recording predated his by two years. However, moderately adventurous contemporary listeners might find it hard to understand how Coleman’s now classic “Lonely Woman” could inspire such outrage. It is definitely plaintive, but there is a clear sense of composition and an inherent bluesiness to it.

From there, Surgal largely proceeds chronologically, covering Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus’s more avant-garde experiments, the founding of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Black Artists Group, Sam Rivers’ leadership of the loft scene, and John Coltrane’s conversion to the movement, before his untimely death. The film concludes with Sun Ra, who was leading his Arkestra long before many of the free artists came on the scene, but it is hard to follow a man who (convincingly) claimed to hail from the planet Saturn.

As a step-by-step history of free jazz (or whatever else you might prefer to call it),
Fire Music covers just about all the important touchstones. Outwardly-inclined artists, like Archie Shepp, Sonny Simmons, Prince Lasha, Carla Bley, Evan Parker, and Arkestra members like Marshall Allen get to have their say in talking head segments. Of course, we would have liked to hear a little bit from dearly departed Eddie Gale, who played with Taylor and Sun Ra, before recording his radical “Ghetto Music” records for Francis Wolff at Blue Note. Figures like Andrew Hill, who played with one foot outside and one foot (or sometimes just a few toes) inside go unmentioned, but you can’t cover everyone.

However, Surgal uncritically incorporates all the rhetoric that argues free jazz is the true sound of the future that was unfairly suppressed by the Young Lions of the 1980s. Yet, the truth is free jazz now sounds just as much an expression of an era past as swing or the Hot Chicago-Style. Likewise, Marsalis and his proteges perfectly represented the tenor of their 80s heyday. The real question is defining what came next. Some remarkably gifted artists like Greg Osby and Jason Moran have tried to build on the avant-garde’s legacy, in a constructive and progressive way, but their music has yet to be codified into a school of its own. For over fifty years, free jazz exponents have proclaimed it the sound of the future, but it is older today than big band swing was when Coleman released
Fee Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Tango Shalom: From the Bologna Family

Tango is a little bit sad and a whole lot romantic. Rabbi Moshe Yehuda should be able to relate to it. He is still very much in love with his wife Raquel, but they have recently found themselves strapped for cash. A lucrative dance contest might offer a solution, but his faith prohibits him from touching a woman who is not his wife. Rabbi Yehuda seeks guidance from advisors inside and outside his faith in Gabriel Bologna’s Tango Shalom, which is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

It seems like everyone in Yehuda’s family needs money from him at the same time, but his teaching just isn’t bringing any in. He even ventures out from his Crown Heights neighborhood in search of paid employment, but to no avail. However, he stumbles across Viviana Nieves’ dance studio. Even though he never tangoed before, he has no trouble picking up the steps through the plate glass window. Nieves is so impressed she invites him in for an unconventional touchless lesson.

Can you believe Yehuda has such natural rhythm Nieves would invite him to be her partner when her ex-lover dumps her at the last minute? Why not? We buy into more outlandish gimmicks all the time, but it will be more difficult for the Orthodox Yehuda to accept it. When he seeks the counsel of the Grand Rebbe, his advice is more than a bit confusing, but it does not completely shut the door on the contest. As he wrestles with the issue, the Rabbi encounters the kindly Father Anthony, the strict but respectful Imam Ahmed, and the playful traveling Hindu mystic Ravi Prajna. Each has something helpful to tell Yehuda, but Prajna might have a solution to his dilemma (which is actually kind of clever).

Tango Shalom
is definitely a family affair, for both the Bolognas and Laniados. Gabriel Bologna directs a screenplay, co-written by his instantly recognizable late father Joseph (who co-stars as Father Anthony), with brothers Jos and Claudio Laniado, who portray Moshe Yehuda and his younger brother Rahamim. Plus, Joseph Bologna’s longtime wife (and writing partner) Renee Taylor portrays Moshe’s elderly mother, Deborah Yehuda, while Jos Laniado’s daughter Justine plays his on-screen daughter Shira. In addition, Gabriel Bologna’s wife Zizi composed some of the score. Even the longtime Bologna family friend Lanie Kazan (who co-starred with Joe in My Favorite Year) gets into the act as Leah Zlotkin, Rahamim’s prospective mother-in-law.

All the family connections might make the cynical among us suspicious, but in this case, it leads a good deal of on-screen chemistry. This is definitely a family- and faith-friendly movie that has malice towards none and charity for all. Yet, its spirit of inter-faith fellowship actually makes it rather distinctive in the current marketplace. The humor can be a bit goofy, in a G-rated kind of way, but the tango is legit, thanks to Karina Smirnoff (from
Dancing with the Stars). Of course, she is appropriately elegant on the dance floor, but she’s not bad in her dramatic scenes with her Orthodox partner. This might be a family film, but the tango choreography does not water-down the sultriness of the dance.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Powder Keg: The 2015 Copenhagen Terror Attacks

During the immediate aftermath of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings, the entire world recoiled in horror, rightly believing the principles of civil society were under assault. All that outrage and resolve evaporated in a few weeks, so the similar February 14th and 15th shootings in Copenhagen went troublingly under-reported and under-analyzed. However, they still left a mark on Danish society, especially for director-screenwriter Ole Christian Madsen and co-screenwriter Lars Kristian Andersen, who had worked with one of the victims. They dramatize those hateful crimes and the days immediately preceding them in Powder Keg (a.k.a. The Day We Died), which is now available on VOD.

Rico is a Copenhagen SWAT officer, whose job-related injuries make his continued service uncertain. Dan Uzan is a Jewish-Tunisian immigrant, currently underemployed as a synagogue security guard, because his last name turns off prospective employers. Finn Nørgaard is a documentary producer, who has been motivated to embrace free speech activism by the Charlie Hebdo mass murders. Omar El-Hussein is a Danish-born street-gang thug, radicalized by Islamists in prison, who has been temporarily releases while his unlikely appeal is pending. (It should be obvious which one Madsen and Andersen knew).

It is also pretty clear how their lives will intersect, but the way Madsen and Andersen meticulously weave together the strands is surprisingly riveting. There is an inescapable inevitability to the narrative (in media res framing), but the vibe of high tragedy compensates for the lack of suspense. By far, the real-life characters of Uzan and Nørgaard, as well as the fictionalized composite Rico are much more compelling characters than El-Hussein. The terror-shooter is not portrayed as a cartoony cliché, but the film makes it clear he choses the path of violence and extremism.

We have seen burnt-out cops before, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau brings a lot of depth and flawed humanity to Rico. This really stands out as some of his best work. In contrast, Jakob Oftebro, who is also pretty recognizable from Scandinavian imports like
Kon-Tiki and 1864, is basically along for the ride as his partner Jan.

Friday, September 03, 2021

The Year of the Everlasting Storm, from Jafar Panahi and Others

Good news Jafar Panahi’s pet iguana Iggy is still living happily in his Tehran flat. We last saw Iggy in Panahi’s This is Not a Film, the banned Iranian filmmaker’s secretly produced film documenting his life under house arrest. Since then, Panahi’s digital minimalist approach to filmmaking became a model for filmmakers stuck inside during Covid lock-downs, so he was naturally recruited as an executive producer and a contributor to the quarantine-themed anthology, The Year of the Everlasting Storm, which opens today in New York.

To a large extent, Panahi’s “Life” effectively functions as a sequel to
This is Not a Film, since it shares the same setting and straight-forward documentary approach. Arguably, it is the lightest-weight of Panahi’s films, but the appealing personalities of the Panahi family make it a pleasant viewing experience. More than anything, it is about the family’s efforts to keep in touch during the CCP pandemic. He also rather remarkably ends it on an upbeat note, which radically distinguishes it from the rest of the anthology’s constituent films.

In contrast, Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s “The Break Away” dramatizes the tensions and frictions that develop when families are confined with each other. Zhou Dongyu and Zhang Yu portray parents locked-down in Tongzhou, China, who are quickly beset by financial pressures and regular couples’ issues. By now, it represents a familiar looking pandemic drama, but it is well played and executed.

Malik Vittal’s “Little Measures” is essentially an extended news report documenting a family separated during the Covid era, for non-Covid reasons, dressed up with some hip graphics. It is well-intentioned, but not very substantial.

For better or worse, Laura Poitras’s “Terror Contagion” certainly sticks out from the rest of the film, like a sore-thumb. The helmer of
Citizenfour spent a good deal of her lockdown trying to dig up dirt on the Israeli spyware firm NSO, with her colleagues in the muckraking collective, Forensic Architecture.

They claim to trace NSO’s fingerprints over all sorts of hacking and surveillance, but strictly speaking, they do not present any proof. Perhaps most notably, they claim NSO is complicit in the Saudi assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. If that is true, think about the implications: Saudi government elements working in concert with an Israeli company. Maybe there’s hope for peace in the Middle East after all.

Yet, Poitras and her colleagues make some points a lot of viewers might not want to hear. They discovered NSO has repurposed their software and pitched it to local governments for the purpose of contact tracing. The truth is the pandemic’s potential to erode civil liberties is truly terrifying. Perversely, the ACLU just endorsed vaccine mandates, as “a justifiable intrusion on autonomy and bodily integrity.” At this point, how likely are they to object if state and local government starts contracting NSO’s contact-tracing services? Hopefully, Poitras and company would, which makes “Terror Contagion” valuable just for raising such issues. They just should have made a real case, instead of assuming viewers would take their word for it.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Dead Mountain, on Topic

Kholat Syakhi literally translates to “Dead Mountain,” so it sounds like a super fun location for a winter hike. Nine Russian hikers died on the slope of the Ural Mountain in 1959, but the bizarre circumstances surrounding their deaths and the subsequent secrecy of the Soviet authorities gave rise to a host of conspiracies theories among suspicious Russians. Purportedly based on the declassified files of the latest, new-and-improved investigation of the so-called Dyatlov Pass Incident, showrunner-directors Vaeriy Fedorovich and Evgeny Nikishov address a good deal of the lore surrounding the tragedy, but they never really supply satisfying answers in the eight-episode dramatic mini-series Dead Mountain, which premieres today on Topic.

The hiking party has long been missing when fictional KGB Major Oleg Kostin is summoned from Moscow to investigate, but officially he is not really there. Why would a high-ranking KGB official be assigned to the presumed disappearance of eight provincial students and their thirtysomething guide?
Dead Mountain never really explains that fundamental plot point, but it eventually reveals Sasha Zolotaryov, the older man, was in fact a colleague of sorts. (Liam Le Guillou’s documentary Unknown Compelling Force also points out that several of the eight Ural Polytechnic Institute students were studying nuclear power, possibly making them of greater interest to state security.)

The series starts with Kostin’s dogged investigation, filmed in washed-out Soviet color, but frequently flashes back to the chaotic final days of the Dyatlov expedition, rendered in a black-and-white that often evokes the style and vibe of vintage Soviet cinema. Kostin is aided by Ekaterina Shumanova, the medical examiner, who maybe not-so-coincidentally happens to be the widow of Kostin’s old Red Army buddy. In fact, the guilt he carries from the great war might have a direct bearing on his investigation.

As they tease out the truth, we watch the Dyatlov Party encounter angry bears, the hostile indigenous Mansi people, terrible weather, mysterious lights in the sky, and a fugitive from the nearby labor camp. They are also distracted by love triangles and revelations Zolotaryov might not entirely be what he presents himself to be. Some of the Dyatlov mythology will be half-explained away, but a dark supernatural mysticism hangs over the entire incident.

Admittedly, the gulag’s fugitive-hunting KGB squad are nasty pieces of work, but the series itself largely presents the official story uncritically, sort of like if Oliver Stone’s
JFK had endorsed the Warren Commission Report. In terms of drama, the long, drawn-out demise of the Dyatlov Party reaches the point of being downright punishing. You have to start face-palming each time one of the students is talked about of turning back. Seriously, you’re hiking on Dead Mountain, it’s snowing, and there are armed goons from the gulag running around the slope. What could go wrong?

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Yakuza Princess, from Brazil

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, mostly concentrated in Sao Paulo and some of the rural provinces. That makes it a logical place for the daughter of the assassinated Kawa Yakuza clan leader to hide in plain sight. Initially, Akemi does not know of her heritage, but she will learn soon enough when killers come looking for her in Vicente Amorim’s Yakuza Princess, which opens Friday in select theaters and on-demand.

Akemi has just turned twenty-one, so she stands inherit the Kawa mantle, such as it is. However, her kendo sensei and surrogate father has kept her in the dark regarding her Yakuza legacy. As we see in the prologue, her father’s rivals viciously gunned down the entire family. Only his lieutenant Takeshi survived by conveniently (but suspiciously) switching allegiances, and as an infant, she was also somehow lost in the shuffle.

Suddenly, the Osaka underworld is highly interested in the Liberdade neighborhood in Sao Paolo. In addition to her, the rival Yakuza clan is looking for a rare Muromachi samurai sword. So is a mystery gaijin referred to as “Shiro” in the credits. He has amnesia, but questions about the sword still resonate for him. Weirdly, he has a habit of showing up just in time to help Akemi even the odds against her attackers, even we (and mostly likely he) can assume his original business with her was drastically different.

Seriously, how can you go wrong with hack-and-slash Yakuza action in Brazil? Amorim certainly doesn’t, adapting Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel (with a battery of co-screenwriters). His action sequences are slickly stylish, ranking up with the films of genre masters like Kitano. Amorim has a good affinity for the history and tradition of the Japanese Brazilian community, having previously helmed the excellent
Dirty Hearts. In Princess, he adds the violent genre sensibilities of Mottorad (fortunately, we cannot see much of his stylish but muddled English language film, Good).

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: Wonderful Paradise

For Shuji Sasaya, home is not where the heart is and he is definitely not the king of his castle—especially since he was forced to sell his inherited McMansion to cover his gambling debts. None of the other family cliches apply to the rest of the Sasayas either, but at least they all get together for one last bash at the old family home in Masashi Yamamoto’s relentlessly bizarro Wonderful Paradise, which screens as an online selection of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

Nobody is happy about moving, even though none of the family has particularly fond memories of their time in the luxurious house. Sasaya’s daughter Akane tries to make some at the last minute by inviting the entire internet for a BYOB blowout. It doesn’t take long for pretty much everyone to show up, including her estranged mother, Akiko.

What starts as a party morphs into a matsuri festival fused with a rave. Good taste and any sense of realism quickly gets tossed out the window. Buckle yourself in for a Bollywood-style musical number, a Buddhist funeral using the local dealer’s pot for incense, a blood-soaked (but not fatal) same sex wedding, the ghosts of the Sasaya grandparents, a pop-up café with a coffee bean straight out of
Little Shop of Horrors, and a boy who weirdly turns into a stick (sort of like what happens to Josie Packard in Twin Peaks, but we’re not supposed to be disturbed by it here).

The last part is a good example of the film’s tonal issues. Yamamoto and co-screenwriter present it all as good crazy fun, but a lot of what happens is really dark and twisted. It is also pretty difficult to care about any of these characters, except maybe Akane (and there is an outside chance for her nebbish brother Yuta).

Japan Cuts ’21: Mari and Mari

Norio’s rebound arrived suspiciously fast—like supernaturally so. He just found a new Mari in his flat, in place of his old Mari. Unlike Dick Sargent on Bewitched, he can tell she is not the same person, nor does she claim to be. Norio tries to figure out what-the-heck in Tatsuya Yamanishi’s Mari and Mari, which screens as an online selection of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New JapaneseFilm, at the Japan Society.


For extra irony, Norio works for a casting agency. He thinks he lives happily with Mari Tanabe, his girlfriend of three years, who works at a bookstore. However, when he comes home one night, she is not there and nowhere to be found at her regular haunts. Then one night he comes home and finds Mari—the other Mari. She does not know why she is there, but she just feels compelled to be there.

First Norio freaks out and then slides into an angsty funk. He keeps throwing Mari II out and then letting her come back. Despite some fantastical elements, it is hard to figure just what
Mari and Mari is. It is extraordinarily moody, but it lacks the mysteriousness of Richard Ayoade’s The Double. You can sometimes think of it a Vertigo without the suspense (and vertigo), but it is really more of a deadly serious spin on a Hong Sang-soo film like Yourself and Yours.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: To Sleep So as to Dream

It  was a retro silent movie about silent movie stars. How did this not get a big re-release push after Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist won Best Picture (despite some subsequent blowback, it really is a great film)? Director-screenwriter Kaizo Hayashi’s vision is playfully twisty, in an almost Borgesian way. A crime has been committed that is surrounded in a greater mystery, but the Uotsuka Detective Agency is on the case in Hayashi’s To Sleep So as to Dream, which screens in its freshly restored glory as a classic selection of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

Madame Cherryblossom, a Norma Desmond-like grand dame of Japanese silent cinema, hires Uotsuka and his apprentice Kobayashi to recover her kidnapped niece Bellfower. However, “M. Pathe and Co,” the criminal organization that abducted her is so cagey, they only leave a riddle as to where the ransom money should be delivered. Unfortunately, every time the Uotsuka Agency gets close to recovering Cherryblossom, the M. Pathe magicians snatch her away—and increase the ransom another one million yen.

Technically,
TSSATD is not a true silent. There are plenty of foley effects and incidental music. We can also hear characters voices, when they have been pre-recorded, as with the kidnappers’ initial reel-to-reel ransom tape. However, when characters speak face-to-face, we must read it in the intertitles. This is a somewhat eccentric approach, but Hayashi makes it work.

His wonderfully nostalgic noir visual style is a major reason why. Aesthetically,
TSSATD is perfect for admirers of Guy Maddin, because it has the same darkly dreamy vibe. It is a world where gumshoes and stage magicians rub shoulders, while watching samurai in the hazy film-within-a-film. Cinematographer Yuichi Nagata makes all look suitably mysterious and nocturnal, while the mise en abyme movie shimmers with mystery.