Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sundance ’21: Knocking

In horror movies and psychological thrillers, shrinks are always discharging their institutionalized patients a little too soon. Will poor Molly be another? She suffered a nervous breakdown after a vaguely implied personal tragedy, but now her doctor thinks she is ready to rejoin the outside world. As luck would have it, they secured a flat for her in the Gaslight Arms. However, the persistent rapping noise she hears in her new apartment might just drive her mad (for good) in Frida Kemff’s Knocking, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Molly had her apprehensions, but she was still mostly happy to get away from the dreary institution. Unfortunately, she has no support network of family of friends waiting for her. Molly is basically alone in her apartment, with nobody to confirm the strange knocking noises she starts to hear. Her neighbors are all suspicious-acting characters, who claim they can’t hear any such noises and don’t want to be bothered in any event.

As they persist, Molly latches onto the notion they could be a call for help in Morse Code, from a captive being held somewhere in the building. Of course, when she reaches out to the cops, it goes rather badly. It gets even worse during her subsequent attempts. Everyone thinks she is just crazy, including maybe even us, the viewers.

Cecilia Milocco really is terrific as Molly. This is a harrowing portrayal of a vulnerable woman wrestling with guilt, isolation, paranoia, and fear. There is no one she can trust in this film, not even herself. Milocco and Kemff vividly convey a sense of her extreme alienation, in every sense.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Haymaker

This could be The Bodyguard for a new generation. Instead of former Secret Service, he is a retired MMA fighter and she is a transgender entertainer. However, most of the time, she isn’t in much jeopardy, but she socializes with Udo Kier, so maybe that ought to qualify as dangerous. Despite their differences, they just might fall for each other in screenwriter-director-star Nick Sasso’s Haymaker, which is now playing in theaters and on VOD.

As luck would have it, Nicky “Mitts” Malloy was bouncing at the club that booked one-named Nomi when she was attacked by a thuggish customer. He was fired for his gallantry, so she hires him as her personal bodyguard. Soon, he is jet-setting around the world with her (Nomi’s agent books a bizarre range of gigs, from Bronx dive bars to Latin American stadium tours.). Much to the surprise of both, they actually seem to enjoy each other’s company, but he is still a bit too tightly wound and she still parties a bit too hard. When they inevitably part ways, he hops a flight to Thailand, to jump-start his training in the cradle of Muay Thai.

There is a lot of oddly pleasant stuff in
Haymaker, like its depiction of the expat MMA scene in Thailand. It also boasts two significant genre cameos from Kier and Zoe Bell, who plays Malloy’s former American trainer. Most importantly, the chemistry between Sasso’s Malloy and Nomi Ruiz as her namesake is quite appealing, in an unforced, easy-going kind of way. They really are an attractive couple, but as mean as it sounds, they probably needed more adversity to overcome.

Aside from the early assault, there really isn’t much peril for Nomi. Likewise, Malloy’s opponent for his comeback bout is his friend, Brett “The Threat,” who conducts himself in a worthy and honorable fashion. Arguably, this is a refreshing subversion of fight movie cliches and a truer-to-life portrayal of Muay Thai discipline, but it doesn’t help build the film towards a grand emotional climax.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Sundance ’21: Censor


The truth is film censors make totally logical horror movie characters, because they obviously love to cut. Some enterprising shlock-meister ought to turn that play on words into a full-on slasher movie. Writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond goes in the opposite direction, suggesting there really is something dangerous about the images her protagonist seeks to suppress. However, she has to watch the gore before demanding cuts, which forces her to see some pretty disturbing scenes that maybe not so coincidentally hit uncomfortably close to home in Bailey-Bond’s Censor, which screens again today as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Enid Baines really believes in her job as a British film censor. In the mid-1980’s, her work largely involves trimming the notorious “video nasties.” These were low-budget VHS releases that were vilified and even prosecuted for excessive violence. It is worth noting Sam Raimi’s original
Evil Dead and several Fulci films were on the nasty list, so clearly one man’s nastiness is another man’s art, but we digress.

Baines considers them all nasty, but she tries to be reasonable in the cuts she demands. She thought she was fairly well desensitized to on-screen violence, but she is thrown for a loop when a new nasty appears to re-enact the childhood disappearance of her long-lost sister. The leering producer, Doug Smart, also seemed to know it would strike a chord with her. Her review screening launches her down a rabbit hole, where nasty fiction and grim reality blend together.

The basic Macguffin of
Censor has a lot of potential, but Bailey-Bond does not fully exploit the creepy meta-ness of nasty “art” imitating real life and the inevitable inverse, whereby real life killings are possibly committed to create on-screen murders. This is a little counter-intuitive to say, but Bailey-Bond might be a little too concerned with Baines’ inner angsts and traumas, concentrating too much on her head-space, at the expense head-tripping game-playing.

The truth is the boundary between lurid horror-movies-within-horror-movies and their revolted viewers was much more compellingly violated in Peter Strickland’s
Berberian Sound Studio. Astron-6’s The Editor also addresses these themes in a more entertaining way. In contrast, Bailey-Bond and co-screenwriter Anthony Fletcher never fully assemble a hall of mirrors for the viewer to get lost in, so we are always pretty sure where we are, even if Baines isn’t.

Sundance ’21: In the Same Breath


Censorship kills—and not just those in the censored country. If you ever doubted it, Xi and the CCP have proved it for over a year. Intrepid documentarian Nanfu Wang exposes how early reports of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan were covered-up, as well as the Communist Party’s propaganda spin efforts once the pandemic became too large to conceal in In the Same Breath. Her timely documentary premiered last night during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which was forced to pivot to online this year precisely because of the events and decisions she documents.


When Wang visited China in early January, 2020, she did not think very much at the time about cursory state media reports claiming eight doctors who were arrested in Wuhan for spreading false rumors of a SARS-like virus, but she returns to that moment over and over in
Breath. However, when she started seeing an alarming volume of social media reports of a highly contagious and debilitating flu, she realized there was more to the story than the government was letting on.

Wang’s team archived as much of the social media posts as they could before the government deleted them and reached out to the posters. Eventually, she hired a local crew in Wuhan to record conditions in the hospitals and help her conduct remote interviews. She draws out grieving family members and shines a light on the harassment of whistleblowers, like journalist-lawyer Chen Qiushi, who has been conveniently missing since early February 2020.

What emerges is a far more complete and disturbing picture than what viewers saw in Hao Wu’s
76 Days. We have respect for his past work, but Wu’s film rather awkwardly shares a lot of similarities with the characteristics of the state media’s heroic Covid first-responders TV documentaries, as described by Wang.

The way
Breath explains the relationship between censorship and propaganda is especially valuable. Merely suppressing embarrassing information is not enough for a regime like the CCP. They also need to create a favorable alternate narrative. In memorably telling sequences, Wang and co-editor Michael Shade shows dozens of Mainland “news” broadcasts repeating the same script, word-for-word verbatim. The effect is both absurd and chilling.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Savage State: A French Western

Technically, England stayed neutral during the American Civil War, but they were super interested, as we know from The Education of Henry Adams. France also remained on the sidelines, but the government was even more divided over it. Nevertheless, French subjects living in the U.S. were instructed to stay scrupulously neutral as well. Right, good luck with that. Not surprisingly, an expatriate French family decides to return their homeland after getting a taste of reconstruction in David Perrault’s Savage State, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Hired gun Victor Ludd was supposed to protect de Lisle, but rather awkwardly, his client died due to his trickery. Yet, de Lisle’s business partner still hires him to escort his family from Missouri to the east coast, where they can book passage back to France. They claimed to be neutral and even paid wages to their housemaid Layla. However, their first experience with General Order 28 convinces the parents to make the arduous journey back to France.

It will be a rough journey, especially because of the three sisters thinly disguised sexual attraction to Ludd. Their shrewish mother’s long simmering resentment of their father distinctly Antebellum closeness with Layla also threatens to boil over. However, the biggest threat they face comes from the gang of outlaws stalking them. It is personal for Bettie, their sociopathic leader, who also happens to be a former lover spurned by Ludd. It is safe to say she has yet to move on emotionally.

Kate Moran’s delirious scenery-chewing “fatal attraction” is far and away the best thing about
Savage State, by a wide country mile.  She makes Bettie one of the best western movie heavies in years. Frankly, her gang is also pretty creepy, thanks to their authentic-style burlap bag masks, which make them look a lot like the slashers from The Town that Dreaded Sundown. The problem is the French family and their psycho-sexual tensions are drearily tiresome.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Queen of Black Magic, on Shudder

Orphans are always in for a rough time in horror movies. By definition, they are vulnerable and without a family support network. Even if they survive the orphanage, something always comes for them eventually, especially if they return to their spooky old institutional home later in life. Three friends make that very mistake and their families will pay the price in Kimo (one half of the Mo Bothers) Stamboel’s Queen of Black Magic, a somewhat free remake of a 1981 Indonesian horror movie written by Joko Anwar, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

On his way to visit sick, old Bandi, the orphanage headmaster on his death bed, Hanif accidentally runs over a deer—except maybe it wasn’t a deer. Bad start, regardless. Everyone briefly feels reassured when they meet his two orphanage-mates Anton and Jeferi and their families, but nobody is exactly sure who called them there. Of course, strange things soon start happening and a strange, uncanny power will not let them leave.

Soon, they realize their tormentor must be the sinister witch they thought they had dealt in their teen years, under Bandi’s direction. Clearly, they had not completely finished her off. The circumstances surrounding the incident may not have been what they were led to believe either. However, she might be even angrier and more dangerous than advertised.

Anwar’s narrative really isn’t anything spectacularly new, but when he hits the classic horror tropes, he connects with haymaker roundhouses. Stamboel and cinematographer Patrick Tashadian drench everything in atmosphere and foreboding. They serve up some scary stuff, upholding the honor of Indonesian horror cinema.

In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl: The Jazz Installment


The Hollywood Bowl is an open-air venue, but not open enough to save the 2020 season. (Thanks again Xi, and have fun partying in Davos.) Fortunately, a number of significant musicians were recorded live-in-performance at the iconic concert hall, so the L.A. Phil had plenty of footage to chose from when their new “in concert” series. Jazz gets its own episode, rather fittingly considering Norman Granz set a Bowl attendance record at the time in 1956 with one of his “Jazz at the Philharmonic” all-star revues. They have also programmed some good stuff in recent years, some of which is collected in In Concert at the Hollywood Bowl: Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, which premieres Friday on PBS. (By the way, you get the idea that this was recorded at the Hollywood Bowl, right?)

The way Chucho Valdes plays, they really should have saved him to close the program, but hey, we’ll take him whenever. The Afro-Cuban jazz pianist’s rendition of “Bebo,” dedicated to his father Bebo Valdes, is nearly as awesome as his performances in
Calle 54 (that means it’s very awesome). It could also be an infectious introduction to Afro-Cuban percussion for some tragically sheltered viewers.

Fans should then be delighted to see and hear Dianne Reeves (the L.A. Phil’s first creative jazz chair) performing “She Walks the Earth” with Brazilian keyboard player Ivan Lins. It is a characteristically elegant and sophisticated, but still very swinging performance. (Frankly, she really should have recorded more since moving from Blue Note to Concord—and given how closely we associate her with the former label’s relaunch, it is hard to fathom how they let her go.)

Kamasi Washington’s “Truth” is another highlight that could surprise a lot of PBS-watching jazz novices with its wonderful colors and textures. Washington shares aesthetic kinships with vintage Coltrane and even Eddie Gale, but a tune like this is also more melodic and therefore more accessible.

The Phil’s maestro Gustavo Dudamel gives vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant an unfairly intimidating intro, comparing her to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, but then she exhibits a unique delivery style on “Something’s Coming” from
West Side Story. It is also nice to see Aaron Diehl’s trio backing her.

Bassist Christian McBride (the Phil’s 2
nd jazz chair) leads his big band and vocalist Jose James through a brisk, brassy, bluesy, and scatty take on Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin,’” best remembered from the Lee Morgan-era Messengers’ classic recording. It has a solid, toe-tapping vibe, even if you can’t help comparing it to the Blakey original.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Quota & Fix


Only the USPS would try to build public support by doing their job really slowly. Admittedly, nobody expected the pandemic-related shipping crunch, but for a private business, a huge surprise increase in demand would be considered a “good problem.” Regardless, shipping related issues are definitely top-of-mind these days, so it is very zeitgeisty the first story of the latest edition of Two Sentence Horror Stories is set within a shipping facility. That would be “Quota,” followed by “Fix,” tonight on the CW.

Christmas is coming in “Quota,” directed by Lynne Stopkewich and written by Melody Cooper, but Tina’s online order fulfillment center is running behind their target numbers. Her district supervisor has a super idea. He will lock them in for the night and only give her the exit code. Right, like that is remotely credible in our litigious society. The truth is he would have a heart attack if he ever saw a newspaper lying near a fire door.

Nevertheless, that is the premise and it keeps everyone trapped inside when all heck breaks lose. How so? That would be telling according to this week’s “Do Not Reveals,” but it offers the series an opportunity dabble in a hugely popular horror subgenre. The warehouse setting is definitely effective (and also realistic looking), but none of the third act twists are really very surprising.

Happily,
Two Sentence’s second season measurably rebounds with “Fix,” directed by Rania Attieh & Daniel Garica and written by Kristine Huntley. It starts out as a tale of family dysfunction when a psych grad student Jackson finally resolves to check on his (maybe not-so former) junky sister, Sophia. However, when he reaches their spooky, isolated family cabin, where she is naturally staying, things take a rather dark, satanic turn.

Russian Film Week ’21: In Deep Sleep

Is Russia finally waking up to Putin? Maybe, judging from the huge Navalny protests. Regardless, the Russian economy has been asleep for years and the nation’s institutions of civil society have been corrupted by the former KGB agent in charge. Can we therefore interpret this art-house fantasia of a Russia mysteriously stuck in a state of unnatural slumber as a commentary on Putin’s authoritarian regime? Viewers certainly have the time and space to develop their own interpretations while watching Maria Ignatenko’s In Deep Sleep, which screens as part of the online Russian Film Week USA.

Viktor was always prone to anti-social behavior, but the death of his wife made him even worse. He is not expressive, but he is definitely hurting inside. We know he comes to a bad end from the prologue, but we will see from flashbacks how he reached this point—sort of.

The centerpiece of the film is the long, eerie passage of the commercial fishing vessel crew-member returning to his hardscrabble industrial port, only to find the entire town asleep in their cars, places of business, or out in the open, exposed to the elements. Viktor even tries to save one elderly sleeper from the harsh Russian winter.

The weird nocturnal sleeping scenes are indeed quite striking, but Ignatenko’s use of flashbacks is often confusing.
In Deep Sleep looks haunting yet gritty, but the intended takeaways remain obscure. Obviously, Viktor’s isolation and loneliness are a symbolic product of grief-related depression, but the hard-bitten protagonist is a difficult figure to embrace or even fully understand.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Russian Film Week ’21: Sententia

During the Soviet era, the underground Samizdat literary tradition required true courage and painstaking devotion. Those who spread the work of banned writers risked banishment to the gulags themselves, yet they spent hours hand-copying censored works. Anatoly had that kind of dedication to Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov, who spent 17 years in Stalinist work camps. He was eventually released and partially rehabilitated, but the last three years of his life were spent in a Soviet nursing home with a comparable reputation. It is there that Anatoly records the finishing lines of Shalamov’s last, posthumous publication in Dmitry Rudakov’s Sententia, which screens as part of the online Russian Film Week USA.

Back in the days of the USSR, a visitor in the night was always bad news. In this case it is Vsevold (some sort of ambiguous KGB figure), dropping off Shalamov, whom he treats like a pack animal. It is a long scene that almost plays like an absurdist Beckett drama, except it carries very specific and significant meaning. Eventually, Anatoly and his young protégé arrive to record Shalamov’s final, dying verses, after collecting the fragments of his last manuscript hidden with friends and family.

Aesthetically (but not ideologically),
Sententia (which takes its title from the mantra Shalamov created while at risk of succumbing to fatal sleep during sub-zero Siberian temperatures) shares a kinship with classic avant-garde Soviet cinema. The pace is slow, but the tension is high. Alexey Filippov’s harsh black-and-white cinematography and the unsettling white-noise-ish soundscape further evoke a Lynchian vibe. However, the sense of dread is very concrete and unmistakably rooted in power dynamics of the Soviet system.

Aleksandr Ryanzantsev does not say much as Shalamov, but it is an incredibly brave and physical performance. His emaciated, battered body is exposed for viewers to see—and it is indeed a disturbing sight to behold. Yet, he also projects astonishing dignity in the midst of his degradation.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Russian Film Week ’21: Tsoy

Rock & roll just works better with an outsider attitude. Take two very different films about the short-lived Soviet rocker, Viktor Tsoi (or Tsoy depending on the film). Kirill Serebrennikov, who was arrested on trumped on charges and confined to house arrest for several months after criticizing the “annexation” of the Crimea, helmed the gritty and powerful Leto, which definitely reflects the uncompromising spirit of Tsoi’s music. On the other hand, Tsoi hardly appears in the new film directed by Alexei Ushitel, officially proclaimed a “People’s Artist of Russia” in 2002. Instead, it focuses (with little sympathy) on those he left behind, as they accompany his coffin on a final round trip from Latvia to St. Petersburg in Uchitel’s Tsoy, the opening film of this year’s online Russian Film Week USA.

Tragically, bus driver Pavel Shelest collided with “Tsoy,” but Uchitel makes it clear it was the distracted singer’s fault. Nevertheless, Shelest has a record, so the media and the Russian authorities are determined to scapegoat him. However, his lover happens to be the Latvian cop investigating the incident (which seems like a minor conflict of interest). Ironically, Shelest is stuck driving the bus chartered to convey Tsoi and his entourage back to St. Petersburg. Awkwardly, the passengers include his widow, her current boyfriend, the lover Tsoi had been living with, and his mercenary producer. There is also a mysterious photographer, who might know more about events leading up to the accident than she lets on.

Tsoi only appears briefly in archival concert and documentary footage, which is problematic, considering the film is titled
Tsoy. Arguably, it makes him look rather reckless and it portrays his widow as an emotionally distant ice queen. Only Tsoi’s young son, who inevitably befriends Shelest, shows any signs of human warmth.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Animated Contender: No. 7 Cherry Lane

How could Hong Kong be the site of “anti-colonial” demonstrations in the 1960’s, yet the United Nations refuses to designate it a former colony? Because to do so would entail certain international legal statuses that would be inconvenient for the CCP, so the UN obediently obliges them. This animated feature takes us back to that old pre-Asian Tiger Economies, pre-handover, pre-“National Security” Law Hong Kong. Viewers can revisit SAR when it was very much an assemblage of “local” communities and customs, in Yonfan’s Oscar-contending animated feature No. 7 Cherry Lane, which is currently screening in MoMA’s virtual cinema.

It is an interesting time to live in HK, but as a refugee from Taiwan’s “White Terror,” forty-year-old Mrs. Yu has already seen it all and worse. She and her 18-year-old daughter Meiling, a student and part-time fashion model, settled into a modest but comfortable new life in the North Point “Little Shanghai” neighborhood. However, Meiling was lagging behind in her English studies, so Mrs. Yu hired Ziming, a collegiate English lit scholar, to tutor her.

When he arrives, both mother and daughter find themselves attracted to him, but Ziming asks out Mrs. Yu, the divorcee. Of course, their relationship would be scandalous in 1960s Hong Kong, which is one reason why most of their rendezvouses take place in darkened movie theaters. Ziming also happens to be a fan of Simone Signoret, whose films (like
Room at the Top with Laurence Harvey) seem to parallel their own relationship.

The Signoret seen on the movie palace screen becomes a character in her own right, in a very cool way. Shifting from the pastel color palate to an arresting black-and-white, Yonfan portrays her as a literally larger than life diva. Indeed, his use of films like
Room and Ship of Fools, as well as novels like Remembrance of Time Past and Dream of the Red Chamber (depicted in a long, surreal, sexually-charged dream sequence) add a lot of depth and texture to the film.

Visually,
Cherry Lane is richly distinctive and occasionally very trippy, but it is always grounded in the middle- and working-class neighborhoods of HK. This is the Hong Kong of mom-and-pop shops and corner noodle restaurants. It inspires nostalgia for a bygone era. It is also surprisingly erotic at times and even includes some brief but explicit gay subject matter, so it is hard to see the current Beijing-dominated government embracing this film.

In fact, it shows HK cops racking down hard on protestors. In this case, they were misguided activists inspired by the Cultural Revolution (which the CCP is trying to pretend never happened). Regardless, the Mainland film industry would never produce such an openly sexual film, so enjoy it while you can from Hong Kong.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Losing Alice, on Apple TV+

The Israeli film industry has come a long way since Menahem Golan’s “Bourekas movies.” This is the TV series that proves it. The film within-the-TV-show is so edgy, it might just drive its director over the edge. It will also strain her marriage, because its sex scenes are decidedly explicit and her husband is the male lead. Life and art keep echoing and paralleling each other in creator-writer-director Sigal Avin’s eight-episode Losing Alice, which premieres today on Apple TV.

Alice Ginor was a cutting-edge indie director, but now she mainly teaches at film school and directs commercials. In contrast, her actor-husband, David Bareket crossed over to mainstream superstardom. They are sort of happily married, with two young daughters, despite their divergent career trajectories. Then one day, Ginor has a “chance” encounter with Sophie Marciano, who professes to be a fan. She also has a screenplay Bareket’s people want him to do, as a concession to critics, after his latest drubbing.

Ginor thought Marciano was strange, because she was, but she is blown away by her script. The frustrated filmmaker would love to helm it and the opportunity arises when the director attached disappears under mysterious circumstances. Marciano is all for it, but Bareket is reluctant. However, Marciano seems to always get what she wants, which is usually attention. At first, Ginor is charmed by her quirkiness, but as she comes to understand how autobiographical the script is, she starts to suspect Marciano is more malevolent than she looks.

Press materials describe
Losing Alice as David Lynchian, but that somewhat overstates matters. Reality and fiction occasionally blend and overlap, but never to a head-tripping Mulholland Drive extent. In terms of look and tone, it is safe to call it “noir,” but Avin often resists leaning into the mystery/thriller business. Frankly, there are enough lurid elements to fill several installments of vintage “Skinemax” sexy psychological potboilers.

Arguably, one of the best things about
Losing Alice is its resistance to categorization. It is also hugely cinematic-looking, thanks to some striking visuals, dramatically lensed by series cinematographer Rotem Yaron. It looks great and Avin also makes shrewd use of licensed background music, especially Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love,” which plays a minor part in the series (Donald Byrd’s classic “Christo Redentor is also heard briefly).” Technically, it impresses, but the middle episodes get a little bogged down. The conclusion also underwhelms. We assume it must be building to something shocking, but instead, it is just one of those “okay everyone, go home” kind of moments.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Submitted by Ukraine: Atlantis

The war with Russia is over, but eastern Ukraine is still a no man’s land—now more so than ever. The scorched earth is riddled with mummified corpses, land mines, and toxic pollution, parting gifts left by the Russian invaders. Sergiy is a Ukrainian war veteran, who is as dead inside as the scarred landscape around him, but he could possibly come back to life in director-screenwriter-cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis, Ukraine’s official international Oscar submission, which opens virtually this Friday.

The year is 2025. It is not exactly clear Ukraine won the war in the strictest terms, but at least the Russians have left. Frankly, Sergiy is still stuck in the war, constantly training to take up arms again. When his factory closes, Sergiy takes a part-time gig delivering potable water into the former war-zone (which represents life).

It is solitary work, but he unexpectedly starts finding meaning when volunteering for an NGO that exhumes and identifies corpses unearthed in the killing fields (very literally revisiting death). It was Katya who recruited him. Ironically, she studied archaeology before the war. Their work is often gruesome, but it some ways it is cathartic. In fact, it might rouse them out of their shells.

Visually,
Atlantis brings to mind Slaboshpytkiy’s The Tribe, which makes sense, since Vasyanovych served as its cinematographer. Throughout Atlantis, he favors long-held long shots that are strikingly composed. He uses every inch and corner of the screen, like a canvas. Yet, it all resonates much more deeply than the typical “slow cinema” endurance challenge. There are also a series of significant narrative events that reveal much about the nature of the conflict.

Walker (Pilot), on the CW

The original Walker, Texas Ranger largely took place around Dallas, but the reboot relocates to Austin, where the Texas Rangers are indeed headquartered. The shift appears to be cultural as well as geographic, at least judging from the pilot episode of creator Anna Fricke’s [just plain] Walker, which premieres tonight on the CW.

Ranger Cordell Walker has had a rough patch of tragedy and bad timing. Shortly after his wife Emily’s murder, he left on a prolonged undercover assignment, targeting the Mexican drug cartels. Walker finally returns home in the pilot, but he is so tortured with guilt that he could not protect Emily and disturbed by the yet-to-be revealed horrors he witnessed, it is hard for him to be present for his rebellious teen daughter Stella and idol-worshipping son Liam.

His salt-of-the-earth rancher parents and gay prosecutor brother did their best to cover for him, but Stella makes no attempt to hide her resentment. Naturally, Walker functions better when he is back in the Ranger saddle, but his new partner, Mexican-American Micki Ramirez insists they operate “by the book.”

The new
Walker goes out of its way to check-off representation boxes, which probably makes sense for its CW demo, but it neglects the fundamental cop show business in the process. The pilot, directed by documentary and TV veteran Jessica Yu (Misconception), is long on angst, but short on action. There is only really one fight scene, plus a little roughing up a suspect (goaded into swinging first). Meanwhile, we see plenty of Walker brooding and ruminating.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

PG: Psycho Goreman

Consider this your basic heartwarming family pet adoption movie, but instead of a cocker spaniel, young Mimi Hallenbeck brings home a deranged space alien with vast destructive power. However, she is the real monster in screenwriter-director Steven Kostanski’s PG: Psycho Goreman, which releases in theaters and on-demand this Friday.

As luck would have it, the Galactic Templars of planet Gigax (surely a nerd hat-tip to Gary Gygax) consigned the evil “Archduke of Nightmares” to an eternity buried in a hole in the Hallenbeck’s backyard. Being bored, Mimi and her long-suffering slightly older brother Luke accidentally unearth him. Fortunately, Mimi quickly learns she can control him with the cosmic “Gem of Praxidite,” which she is not about to let go of, because she is definitely the sort of girl who knows what’s hers.

Initially, Hallenbeck treats “Psycho Goreman” or “PG” as they rename him, as her exotic pet or her private enforcer. However, she eventually learns the Templars are coming and starts to suspect the angelic overlords might just be even more tyrannical than the gleefully destructive PG.

In a way,
PG tries to recapture the innocence of the alien-child bond many fondly remember from vintage Ultraman and the like, but with loads more gore. Both Kostanski and Adam Brooks, who plays the slacker Hallenbeck father are associated with the Astron-6 film collective, so it rather follows that PG shares their genre aesthetic.

Kostanski and company definitely take no prisoners, but that is what makes the film so entertaining. It is often tasteless and at times it flirts with outright blasphemy, but if you get offended by a film like this you really are an idiot. The whole point of watching is to see how much further over-the-top they can go.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Nordic & Baltic Contenders: My Favorite War

Her parents were not exactly Romeo & Juliet, but growing up as the daughter of a Party member and an enemy of the state definitely led to a conflicted perspective on life in Iron Curtain-era Latvia. Frankly, Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen’s mother was never really guilty of anything. She just happened to be the daughter of a small land-owning farmer. Nevertheless, she was hounded and discriminated against up until the fall of Communism. For her part, Jacobsen tried to be a model Young Pioneer, taking inspiration from the Party propaganda built around the captive nation’s venerated WWII heroes. Jacobsen (currently based in Norway) revisits her Latvian youth and teen years in her animated-hybrid documentary, My Favorite War, which screens online as part of Scandinavia House’s Nordic & Baltic Contenders film series.

Despite her eventual disillusionment with the Communist Party’s corruption and hypocrisy, Jacobsen still loves and admires her father, a journalist, who was appointed the administrator for a small border village, near the infamous “Polygon” military installation. He did a lot for the town, as she remembers, but when he tragically died in a traffic accident, her mother reverted to being an enemy of the state. After the Soviets solidified control over the Baltics, her maternal grandfather had been exiled to Siberia, along with every other land-owning farmer, regardless of the size of their properties. This definitely was a source of tension between her grandfather and father, while the latter was still alive.

After his demise, Jacobsen savvily embraced the Young Pioneers as a vehicle to prove her loyalty and lay the groundwork for her future employability. Her role models were the WWII veterans who were the constant (almost Big Brother-like) stars of propaganda posters, movies, and TV shows, live-action footage from which Jacobsen cleverly incorporates into the animation. Yet, she was her grandfather’s granddaughter, so she inevitably noticed the falsehoods and double-standards of life around her. Conveniently, she was ready to start rebelling in the late 1980s.

Favorite War
is a wonderfully constructed docu-memoir that is clearly the product Jacobsen’s acutely personal perspective, but still faithfully reflects the wider political and historical forces at play. There are several deeply poignant moments that sneak-up on viewers, even though Jacobsen diligently laid the groundwork for them, earlier in the film.

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Instinct & Imposter


Horror movies and TV shows absolutely hate the gig economy. They aren’t too crazy about corporate America either. Of course, being a camp counselor is out, so just how are you supposed to make a living in the horror genre? Two Sentence Horror Stories only tells viewers what not to do in the next four sentences, “Instinct” and “Imposter,” premiering tonight on the CW.

“Instinct,” the better of the two, starts off violently, but it turns out it is all the musings of Anika, who considers herself an aspiring mystery writer, but it looks like her tastes lean more towards horror. She is waiting for her latest Task Rabbit-like app gig painting some rich dude’s apartment. He is a bit squirrely, but then again, so is she. Frankly, he is reasonably hospitable and super-patient considering how much time she is taking. Yet, she convinces herself he must be a serial killer, with the help of her imaginary victim-muse.

Directors Kailey & Sam Spear do a nice job maintaining the tension, but we can guess the big twist, simply by virtue of it appearing in a horror anthology. Sunita Prasad and Leanne Lapp are both pretty good as the would-be writer and her personified imagination, but Sehaj Sethi’s storyline is just too much like dozens of other things we’ve already seen.

“Imposter,” directed by Jennifer Liao, is pretty predictable too, but it lacks any sense of suspense. A junior financial analyst is on the verge of selling his soul. Not only is he set to receive his firm’s “Associate of the Year” award, he is also engaged to a coworker, who happens to be the boss’s daughter, but he is really the victim, because he has been forced to turn his back on his Filipino heritage. On the night of the awards banquet, a shadowy doppelganger starts stalking him. To make matters even more painful, his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother recognizes the doppelganger, adorned in traditional peasant attire, as her son, rather than him.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Invisible Witness, on OVID.tv

It isn't Korea's Miss Granny with at least seven international remakes under its belt or Italy’s Perfect Strangers with fourteen global remakes and counting, but Spain’s The Invisible Guest is not doing too badly with two to its credit. If you have seen Oriol Paulo’s Invisible Guest or Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla than you generally know what is in store for entrepreneur Adriano Doria in Stefano Mordini’s Italian remake, The Invisible Witness, which starts streaming Wednesday on OVID.tv.

As some viewers might remember, Doria found himself in deep gnocchi when he woke up in a locked hotel room, near the bludgeoned corpse of his mistress, Laura Vitale and 100K pile of Euros. He thought they were there to meet a blackmailer, but the encounter took a violent turn instead. The cops want to pin the murder on him and the media is loving the feeding frenzy, so his corporate lawyer has arranged a late-night meeting with high-powered criminal defense attorney Virginia Ferrara to plan their strategy.

Ferrara can immediately tell Doria is not fully leveling with her, so she drags the whole ugly truth out of him. As many of us know, the story really starts a few months prior, when Doria and Vitale were involved in a fatal auto accident while returning from a secret romantic getaway. They did not handle it well.

It is a little strange watching a film with the same twist ending for the third time, but with a different cast. For one thing, it inspires new appreciation for
Badla, because it makes clear how much the gender switch of the entrepreneur and the jury consultant/criminal lawyer really freshened up the film. Weirdly, for viewers of the previous takes, the suspense in Witness largely comes from knowing what is going on behind-the-scenes. That would really be impressive if it was intentional on Mordini’s part.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Dead Reckoning, Co-Starring Scott Adkins & James Remar

Nantucket holds great cultural significance. The entire island is a designated a National Landmark District and it appears in classics like Melville’s Moby-Dick and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Strategically, it is not so important, but it is the summer home to many rich people, like Tillie Gardner’s father and mother. Tragically, her parents were murdered by a terrorist angered by her dad’s work as FBI spokesman. Now his killer is coming for her in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Dead Reckoning, which releases Tuesday on DVD.

Technically, Agent Cantrell did not want to kill Marco’s father, because he wanted to interrogate the terrorist about his big plans, but the bust got violent, so he did what he had to do. Gardner’s dad spinned the incident as best he could on TV, angering the terrorist’s son Marco well past reason. He sabotaged the Gardners’ plane and intends to execute the rest of the family and then place a bomb on the beach to massacre Nantucket’s rich and idle revelers on the 4
th of July.

However, he will take a short timeout to reconnect with his younger brother Niko, who happens to be on the island working a summer job to make money for college. Rather awkwardly, Niko also happens to be Gardner’s new boyfriend. He seems a lot more substantial than her shallow party-preppy crowd and they are both orphans. At least Gardner still has her protective aunt Jennifer Crane and her partner, as well as her godfather, Agent Cantrell. Niko just has Marco, but probably not for long.

Any film co-starring both Scott Adkins and James Remar ought to beyond awesome, but sadly, Bartkowiak did not come close to fully exploiting their potential. Nevertheless, there is no question their brutal fight scene is the film’s far-and-away best scene. Seeing Adkins flexing his villainous muscles again reminds us how good he is as dark, brooding bad guys. Likewise, Remar is gritty and appealingly gristly as Agent Cantrell.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Miss Scarlet & the Duke, on PBS

There is a Remington Steele-like situation going on at the Henry Scarlet Detective Agency, but Scarlet was certainly a very real person. He taught his daughter Eliza everything she knows about detective work, but now he is dead and she must provide for herself. It is definitely not considered an appropriate job for a lady in Victorian London, but fortunately she can rely on the reluctant help of her father’s protégé, William “The Duke” Wellington in Rachael New’s six-episode Miss Scarlet & the Duke, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

Respectable women of the era are expected to earn their keep by marrying and having children, but that is not Miss Scarlet’s style. Even a marriage of convenience with her closeted friend Rupert Parker would constrain her freedom too much. She is convinced she can continue her father’s agency, but she must convince prospective clients her father will be the one performing the investigations (sometimes it was convenient living in pre-internet times). She also hopes Wellington (nicknamed “The Duke,” because of reputation for sartorial style, despite his humble origins) will throw her some work, but he is more determined to protect her from herself. The sparks will fly.

There is a lot of character-establishing in the first episode, “Inheritance,” but eventually Scarlet manages to land and solve a case. Unfortunately, the results will be more complicated than she anticipated. The tone and constant arguments are very similar in “The Woman in Red,” but it is a more fully developed mystery that also incorporates the Oscar Wilde-like dilemmas of Parker and his friends.

In “Deeds Not Words,” Wellington tosses Scarlet some undercover work she is uniquely suited for, but it causes her great moral conflict when she finds herself infiltrating a suffrage society.
 This episode really stands out most for how New explores the line between well-intentioned political commitment and violent extremism in a way that feels awkwardly timely.

Arguably, the last three episodes are significantly better than the first three. “Momento Mori” probably features the most entertaining mystery of the series, involving a death photographer, a phony medium, and threatening messages sent from beyond the grave. The final scenes also segues into a more complicated intrigue that require the final two episodes to resolve. Much to Wellington’s annoyance (and concern), Scarlet is reported missing, perhaps as a result of her investigation into her father’s real cause of death.

Scarlet is no Mrs. Bradley and Wellington is no Sergeant Cribb, but their series is serviceable enough. Still, the Tracy-and-Hepburn will-they-or-won’t-they bickering and bantering chemistry worked a lot better in moldy old
Remington Steele. Frankly, their constant arguments really do not make much sense for two reasons: Scarlet is obviously not an idiot, but as a contractor, she has a duty to protect her client’s reputation at all costs.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie, on PBS


Presumably, the West End theater shutdown forced by CCP-Covid should not interrupt the record of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for most consecutive performances. If it does, it will take a new play over sixty-nine years to catch-up with her. Thirty-five years after her death (almost to the day), Dame Agatha’s mystery novels and plays remain undiminished in their popularity. Christie scholars and admirers explore the inspirations for her work and her lasting cultural legacy in Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie, directed and produced by Matt Cottingham, which premieres this Sunday on most PBS stations.

Although her name is synonymous with “cozy” mysteries, all of Cottingham’s talking heads dispute that label for Christie. To the contrary, they argue she had a decidedly dark view of human nature. Due to her interest in forensic science, her murders were also unusually realistic. Plus,
And Then There Were None is often credited as the first “slasher” thriller, so there.

Of course,
Inside cannot trace the development of Christie’s work, without giving ample time to her notorious disappearance. It is almost of cliché, since the incident has already inspired two highly fictionalized films, Agatha and the Truth of Murder and Agatha, directed by the recently deceased Michael Apted. Fans generally know Christie was desperately miserable with her first husband, Archibald Christie, during this period. However, Inside gives equal or greater time to the wedded bliss she subsequently found with husband #2, Max Mallowan. He happened to be an archaeologist, which does indeed explain her frequent Egyptian and Mesopotamian settings.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Film Maudit 2.0: A Dark, Dark Man

Sacha Baron Cohen really ought to show some respect, but that is obviously too much to expect. The truth is Kazakhstan has produced some remarkably challenging and intriguing films in recent years (they are films, not “moviefilms”) that deserve much more international recognition. Yet, they are often more pointedly critical of contemporary Kazakhstani society and politics than Borat ever was. Indeed, the sexism and corruption of provincial police and officials are blisteringly depicted in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s A Dark, Dark Man, which screens as part of the online Film Maudit 2.0 festival.

By this time, Bezkat knows the drill. When another orphan boy is discovered, murdered and sexually violated, he immediately sets out to frame Pekuar, the village’s developmentally disabled pariah. That is not good enough for the local political boss, who bribes Bezkat’s superior to insure Pekuar “accidentally” dies within 24 hours. Bezkat is just about to proceed with the grim business, when Ariana arrives. The big city journalist has credentials allowing her access to Pekuar and Bezkat during his investigation.

Much to his annoyance, Bezkat must go through the motions of conducting a real investigation, with the journalist, the accused, and his not-quite-as-childlike “girlfriend” in tow. Obviously, it gets super-awkward for the crooked cop, when he crosses paths with the boss and his henchmen, especially as he gradually grows to respect Ariana’s honesty and idealism.

Dark Dark
is definitely a slow-burner, with the slowness being no exaggeration, but the white-hot burning part is no joke either. This is truly a remarkably tightly controlled and tautly constructed art-house thriller. You might forget to breathe regularly watching this one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Outcry and Whisper, on OVID.tv

Regardless whether your taste in initials leans more toward MAGA or BLM, you won’t find a confrontational protester in America with as much sheer fortitude as the performance artist seen during the opening scene of this film. To make a statement on Mainland China’s social and economic constraints on women, she proceeds to make a series of horizontal and vertical cuts straight across her face. It is hard to watch and impossible to forget. While that is far and away the most visceral image, several other marginalized and oppressed Chinese women dramatically speak out and fight for their rights in Wen Hai & Zeng Jinyan’s Outcry and Whisper, which premieres this Friday on OVID.tv.

Zeng is not just the co-director. She is also a subject of
Outcry. For years, she lived under house arrest with her former partner, human rights activist, Hu Jia. She even documented their home imprisonment in the short doc, Prisoners in Freedom City (an excerpt from which is seen during Outcry). After ten months of Covid-CCP-virus shutdowns, house arrest might not sound so exotic now, but we still do not have to contend with the constant police surveillance and harassment Zeng and Hu faced. The stress took a toll on their relationship and lately, she has also had to put up with an orchestrated trolling campaign, but Zeng still tries to be philosophical about their experiences in her video meditations.

At least Zeng is educated and has an international reputation. The migrant garment workers who strike for their back pay and unemployment compensation have no such advantages. They just believe in the justice of their cause. Such idealism is inspiring, but it is also alarmingly naïve. Indeed, the extent to which
Outcry captures the CCP socialist government catering to the interests of oligarchs makes the doc a genuinely incendiary expose. Thematically, these passages are much like Wen and Zeng’s previous collaboration, We the Workers, which gives a male-centric perspective on Mainland labor struggles. However, Outcry provides a fuller, more personal sense of the striking women’s lives and personalities. They are real individuals, facing real exploitation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Trickster, on the CW

In the Southwest, the mythological trickster figure is usually a coyote or the flute-playing Kokopelli. Up in the Pacific Northwest, the trickster is a raven spirit. Not coincidentally, Jared Martin will be seeing a lot of those foreboding birds (amongst other visions). In fact, he might even be related to one, as the confused hero of Eden Robinson’s teen novel, Son of a Trickster, which gets the small-screen treatment in Michelle Latimer & Tony Elliott’s six-episode Canadian series [just plain] Trickster, beginning tonight on the CW (following its premiere at last year’s TIFF and subsequent run on the CBC).

Martin is a smart Haisla teen in Kitimat, BC, but he spends more time hustling for money at a legit fast-food job and selling his home-brewed pills. Even though he is still in high school, Martin is the primary support of his divorced parents: hard-partying mom Maggie and hard-luck dad Phil. Rather inconveniently, his mom owes three grand to her sleazy dealer and Martin just got cold-cocked for his stash and his cash. He only saw his attacker out of the corner of his eye, but it could have been his doppelganger.

Whoever it was, it also looks a lot like Wade, a former friend of his father, who has just blown back into town. There is something different about Wade—really different. He also claims to be Martin’s real father, which is hard to dismiss, given their resemblance. Martin is unsure how he feels about him, but his mother is decidedly upset. Her history with Wade is not just complicated. It is also violent and supernatural.

Trickster’s
teen roots are easy to see, but the way it incorporates indigenous tradition and lore is both respectful and intriguing. There is a good deal of spell-casting and a fair amount of shape-shifting in Trickster, but the series always feels grounded in the difficult realities of high school life and the economically depressed Kitimat community.

As Martin, Joel Oulette broods hard, which makes him a convincing teenager. However, he is also terrific playing with and off Crystle Lightning, Kalani Queypo, and Craig Lauzon, as his mom, Wade, and his presumed father, respectively. All three of these relationships are smartly and compellingly developed. Lightning is a particular standout, taking absolutely no prisoners as the self-destructive and somewhat spooky Mother Maggie. The contrast between her mercurial mood swings and Queypo’s coolly calculating and ambiguously sinister Wade is quite effective.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Skyfire: A Chinese Disaster Movie from Simon West

If you are still disappointed you didn’t have a chance to invest in Jurassic Park with Sir Richard Attenborough, then maybe you can still get a piece of Jack Harris’s new resort hotel built around an active volcano. You better act fast, because this opportunity will not last long. Inevitably, hubris leads to spectacular tragedy in Simon West’s Chinese-produced Skyfire, which releases tomorrow on-demand.

When this island volcano last erupted, it was sudden and powerful. Young Li Xiao Meng barely survived, but her mother Sue Miller was consumed by the blast. Her scientist father Li Wen Tao was close enough to see it happen, but too far to save her. Twenty years later, Li has grown up to be a world class seismologist and the leader of Harris’s science advisory team. Of course, the highly leveraged developer refuses to listen to her when she warns him about the unusual readings her colleagues have detected.

Not one for alarmism, Harris sends his wife and business partner Wang Qian Wei to the volcano rim with a group of potential investors, because what could go wrong? Meanwhile, Li’s colleague Zhang Nan plans to propose to his girlfriend Dong Jia Hui, during a romantic getaway to her favorite underground swimming grotto. That sounds safe, right? Of course, everybody is in danger according to Li Wen Tao, who has seen enough to come drag his daughter off the island, whether she wants to leave or not. And then boom.

Considering the CCP’s concerted ongoing trade and soft-power campaign against Australia, it rather figures the Liverpool-born Jason Isaacs sports an over-the-top Aussie accent playing the Australian Harris. However, West deserves a lot of credit for largely curtailing the propaganda in
Skyfire. In fact, you could argue Harris isn’t even a villain, but a tragically flawed hero, given his spectacular redemption scene.

West’s experience helming big Hollywood action movies (including
Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and The Expendables 2) is further reflected in the brisk tempo and some totally professional looking special effects sequences. Skyfire is not the first big budget Chinese disaster movie (that would probably the massively flawed Aftershock), but it is the most watchable so far. Still, every time the ground shakes, we expect the characters to look up from their cable cars to see brontosauruses striding by. Similarly, during the opening and closing credits, our mind’s ear keeps hearing Adele warbling “Skyfire!”

Despite Harris being the requisite Western caricature, Isaacs manages to humanize him to a surprising extent, in some key scenes. Likewise, Leslie Ma has some nice moments of grief and regret as the flawed Wang. Li Wen Tao is also a total stock character, but it is still entertaining to watch Wang Xueqi’s curt and crusty portrayal of the salty old scientist.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Lupin III: The First

Ahnenerbe was a National Socialist think tank that dissolved ignominiously in 1945, but it has had a weirdly lasting influence on pseudoscientific paranormal archaeology. Many of those prehistoric alien “reality” TV shows would have been right up their alley. However, the secret underground surviving members of Ahnenerbe finally meet their match in a roguish master thief, the grandson of the notorious Arsene Lupin. After building an international fanbase in a long-running manga series, five editions of an anime TV series, numerous specials, and six previous anime theatrical features (including Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s feature directorial debut), the endearing cat burglar gets the full 3DCG animated treatment in Takashi Yamazaki’s Lupin III: The First, which releases Tuesday on DVD.

Everyone is after the “Bresson Diary,” when it is displayed as part of an exhibition of the late French archaeologist’s work, but it is the sticky-fingered Lupin who snags it. However, he agrees to team up with Laetitia, an earnest young archaeology student, who had been manipulated by Dr. Lambert, her evil adopted grandfather, into nearly stealing the diary herself, in order to learn its secrets.

She and Lupin quickly figure out the diary reveals the hidden location of the “Eclipse,” an ancient invention of vast power. Of course, Lambert’s employers at Ahnenerbe would use it to re-establish the Reich. To foil their scheme, Lupin enlists the help of his regular cronies, Daisuke Jigen and Goemon Ishikawa XIII (the direct descendant of the celebrated “Robin Hood” samurai), as well as his friendly rival Fujiko Mine and his incorruptible nemesis, Inspector Zenigata (having transferred from the Tokyo Police to Interpol).

III: The First
(which it isn’t, but whatever), has a lot of rollicking period action that is a lot of fun. You can see the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark all over the film. Yet, beyond the impressive 3DCG animation, stuff like story, character development, and English voice performances are basically on the level of a really good Naruto feature film. It is entertaining, but it does not feel as “special” as most of the anime films GKIDS distributes (like Miss Hokusai, Napping Princess, Nightis Short Walk on Girl, Ride Your Wave, etc.).

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Climate of the Hunter

Imagine My Dinner with Andre, if Andre Gregory were a vampire—maybe. The truth is you really can’t appreciate the singularly distinctive tone and atmosphere of this Edward Albee-esque horror (presumably) film, unless you just dive right in. As a bonus, you can pick up the dinner-party menu ideas along the way in Mickey Reece’s wonderfully strange Climate of the Hunter, which releases this coming Tuesday on VOD.

Middle-aged sisters Alma (the self-medicating Earth Mother) and Elizabeth (the unmarried and uptight corporate professional) are delighted Wesley, their friend from childhood has returned to the country and is summering at his nearby lake cottage. He might be a bit older than they, but he still cuts quite the dashing figure in their eyes. During dinner, it is clear they are both super-interested and he subtly stokes their rivalry.

Initially, most of our suspicions regarding Wesley’s potentially undead nature come from his subsequent testy reunion with his son Percy, who bitterly resents his father’s decision to entrust his dementia-suffering mother to a nursing home. Nobody says it outright, but it is clearly implied Wesley is not like other men. Reece and co-screenwriter John Selvidge never have them fully declare one way or another, but their dialog never sounds evasive in this respect. Excessive of coyness can easily get annoying in less exactingly executed films, but the uncertainty in
Climate becomes a source of entertainment.

Nevertheless, there is no denying a lot of the things coming out of the characters’ mouths are absolutely bonkers. Honest to gosh,
Climate must have some of the most verbose and grandiose speeches you will ever hear in a horror movie (presumably), but that is only the half of it. The carefully crafted grindhouse look (rendered in a deliberately boxy and confined aspect ratio) and the meticulous, ultra-1970s period details set this apart from just about every other vampire (presumably) film you have ever seen.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Two Sentence Horror Stories: Bag Man & Elliot

High school is the ultimate horror mainstay. From Carrie to Scream, there have probably been more horror movies and TV series set within the halls of secondary education than drafty Euro castles. The tradition continues with the two-for season premiere of Vera Miao’s Two Sentence Horror Stories, airing this coming Tuesday on the CW.

“Bag Man,” directed by Kimani Ray Smith and written by Leon Hendrix and Miao is definitely the better of the two stories, in part because it obviously starts as a genre homage to the
Breakfast Club. Five students of varying social status must spend Saturday morning in detention, but there is a very contemporary wrinkle. All are suspects in a cherry bomb incident that triggered the school’s new automated lock-down system. When they arrive, there is already a mysterious bag in the room that just radiates bad vibes.

Admittedly, the narrative follows a familiar horror arc, but the execution is brisk and energetic. Hendrix and Miao come up with enough new, ironic wrinkles to keep it interesting for experienced genre viewers and the cast hits the right notes, especially Doralynn Mui as Zee, the catty “good girl.” Having recurred on
Riverdale and guested on Sabrina, this must be pretty comfortable terrain for her.) Regardless, even though we know where it is all headed, it is still a macabrely amusing ride.

The titular bullied transmasculine teen of “Elliot,” written by Stephanie Adams-Santos and directed by Chase Joynt (who also helmed the upcoming Billy Tipton doc) could relate to movies like
Carrie, Sleepaway Camp, and more recently Some Kind of Hate, but at times this episode risks becoming an afterschool special. The lesson is laid on rather heavily, but there are still some creepy moments, especially down the stretch.