Monday, May 31, 2021

Death in Texas, Co-Starring Stephen Lang & John Ashton

As a bordertown El Paso has easy access to drugs and black market organs from Mexico. Unfortunately for Billy Walker, the same cartel controls the trafficking of both. He starts robbing from them to pay for a new liver for his mother. It is not a really well-thought-out plan, but at least he’ll be cleaning up the town a little in director-screenwriter Scott Windhauser’s Death in Texas, which releases Friday in theaters and on VOD.

Walker has just been paroled thanks to his mother Grace’s failing health. He isn’t a bad guy. He just had bad luck and a bad temper. She is so far down on the donor list, her chances of a transplant are remote, unless Walker buys a liver “off the books.” That will take 160K in cash, so he starts with a former associate working for the Cartel. Stealing Cartel money quickly attracts the attention of Reynolds, the Cartel boss and Asher, the crooked cop in his pocket.

Meanwhile, Grace finds unlikely romance with John Scofield, a disgraced former doctor now working as an orderly in the hospital. His backstory will turn out to be significant to Walker’s story, in a very contrived way.

Windhauser just can’t seem to make up his mind what
Death in TX is supposed to be: indie crime drama, exploitative narco-thriller, or self-parody. It is just never sufficiently gritty, grungy, or violent to really qualify as anything. Still, Ronnie Gene Blevins deserves credit for his hardboiled but understated performance as Walker. He is pretty solid, but Bruce Dern just looks laughable as Reynolds, as if the Cartel would choose a desiccated old hippie to run its American operations.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Agatha and the Midnight Murders

Blame Inland Revenue, the UK’s equivalent of the IRS. If they had not hounded Agatha Christie for tax on the American royalties she had not received, she would not come to this late-night meeting to sell her latest manuscript. It is not just any manuscript. It is an early draft of Curtain, the final Poirot novel. Unfortunately, the ms. will be purloined and that soon leads to murder, but an air raid holds all the suspects for Ms. Christie to investigate in the fictionalized and unauthorized Agatha and the Midnight Murders, which airs throughout June on PBS stations nationwide (and the entire Agatha trilogy releases this coming Tuesday on DVD).

Presumably, Christie wants to keep the 20,000 Pound cash-sale of her “final” Poirot mystery to a Chinese super-fan secret from Inland Revenue, but she prudently brought along bodyguard Travis Pickford as protection. Frankie Lei and his translator wife Jun have their own muscle. Nevertheless, Pickford does not prevent the theft of the manuscript and Lei is killed right under Rocco Vella’s eyes shortly thereafter.

It will not be a problem to assemble the suspects, since the officious PC O’Hanauer herded them all into the cellar after the air raid siren started wailing, but they are an uncooperative lot. Snobby Sir Malcolm Campbell and his much younger date can hardly be bothered, while the mobbed-up hotel manager is obviously looking to exploit the situation. The neurotic O’Hanauer will not be much use either. At least the murder will help her out by eliminating several suspects.

Midnight Murders
is definitely the darkest of the three “Agatha And” movies, due to the disillusioned portrayal of Christie, some rather nefarious plot developments, and the general milieu of London during the Blitz. Arguably, real Christie fans will most enjoy Lyndsey Marshal’s upbeat and romantically-empowered performance in Curse of Ishtar, but they will most appreciate murder-mystery business of Midnight Murders, rather well executed by director Joe Stephenson.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar

It wasn't just Death on the Nile. Agatha Christie often took inspiration from archaeology, including her ancient Egyptian mystery novel Death Comes as the End and the story “Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,” wherein Poirot initially gives credence to the notion of a curse, before debunking it Scooby Do-style. Her continuing interest makes sense, considering she met her second husband and great love Max Mallowan on a dig. There was also murder and skullduggery afoot during their fateful meeting according to the highly fictionalized (and unauthorized) Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar, which airs throughout June on PBS stations nationwide (and the entire Agatha trilogy releases this coming Tuesday on DVD).

Christie’s career as a bestselling mystery novelist is in full-swing, but her publisher is less than thrilled with the sentimental departure novel she submitted. Even she realizes it still needs polishing, so she impulsively departs to visit casual friends at an archaeological dig in British-administered Iraq, to research exotic romance. When she first arrives at the dig, she discovers Mallowan reeling from a head-wound caused by a low-caliber gun-shot.

As soon as the somewhat younger Mallowan recovers his senses and his manners, he realizes he is quite attracted to Christie. Inevitably, he assists her investigation into his assault, the murder of their hostess’s pet monkey, and the subsequent human murders that crop up.

Obviously, fans know Christie and Mallowan are going to last, but their will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry works quite well in
Ishtar. As Christie, Lyndsey Marshal represents a major step-up from Ruth Bradley’s neurotic predecessor in Agatha and the Truth of Murder. Marshal’s Christie is over her needy codependency and now projects a good deal of confidence, personally and professionally, but not yet romantically.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Panic, on Amazon

There was an old New Yorker cartoon labeled “Economists Use the Dullest Examples,” wherein the dialogue bubble says: “I’d be happy to explain congressman, suppose you had four carp…” This series is set in Carp, Texas. Most of the year, life is indeed deadly dull there, but not after high school graduation. That is when recent grads engage in “Panic,” a game that is basically Fear Factor crossed with The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, two kids died during the previous year, but the game continues anyway in Lauren Oliver’s ten-episode adaptation of her YA novel, Panic, which premieres today on Amazon.

The last grad to survive a series of challenges, like walking through traffic blind-folded, wins fifty grand. It is not a princely sum, but it will allow you to leave town and start fresh. Heather Nill had no intention of playing, but than her disaster of a mother stole her junior college money to cover her car repair costs. Nill’s bestie Nathalie Williams is initially angry they must compete against each other, but they soon make a deal to play cooperatively. However, unbeknownst to Nill, Williams makes the same deal with Dodge Mason, the mysterious recent transfer student.

Of course, Panic is completely unsanctioned. In fact, the sheriff has a very personal reason for shutting it down. He wants to know who are this year’s student judges, because they should know those from the previous year. The contestants would also like to know, especially as the challenges get increasingly dangerous and personal.

really is just like dozens of other Hunger Games derivatives, but the execution is super-slick. Several episodes were helmed by talented feature filmmakers, like Ry Russo Young (Before I Fall), Megan Griffiths (Lucky Them), Leigh Janiak (Honeymoon), and Viet Nguyen (Crush the Skull), the latter of whom probably directed the most effective episode (featuring a haunted house challenge).

Thursday, May 27, 2021

American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally

Among the two propaganda broadcasters referred to as “Axis Sally,” Rita Zucca maybe said worse things than Mildred Gillars, but she got off far easier. Those are the breaks for people who renounce their American citizenship and openly side with our enemies. Unlike Zucca, Gillars would face the music in an American court. That complex case unfolds in Michael Polish’s American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

When the American G.I’s arrived in Berlin, Gillars tried to disappear into the woodwork, but she was way to infamous.
  For years, she had frustrated American listeners, who sat through her mocking songs and odes to German military superiority, hoping to hear reports of their captured loved ones. Her scripts were written by Goebbels himself, who insisted she deliver them word-for-word, or else.

Even though she had sworn allegiance to the National Socialist regime, the Federal government prosecuted her for treason in a civilian criminal court. Naturally, she will be represented by James Laughlin, whom Polish and co-screenwriters Vance Owens and Darryl Hicks present as the William Kunstler of the 1940s, except Laughlin seems pretty contemptuous of his own client. His new associate Billy Owen, a recently discharged GI, is more sympathetic—maybe even in ways that aren’t so professional.

Arguably, Gillars was twentysome years ahead of her time. Had she been broadcasting anti-American propaganda in the 1960s, she would have been the subject of glowing documentaries like
FTA. Maybe she didn’t deserve a fate so much worse than Zucca’s—really, it might be more accurate to say Zucca deserved far worse than she got. Regardless, Polish and company are too partisan in the way they present Gillars. The witnesses they dramatize in the film never represent the damning testimony of former POWs like Michael Evaneck and Eugene McCarthy, which clearly implied she was more personally invested in her propaganda than the film suggests.

Inner Sanctum: The Frozen Ghost

It was a franchise that started as a publishing imprint. Originally, the “Inner Sanctum” was a line of Simon & Schuster mysteries, but it became an anthology series on radio, TV, and the big screen. Produced by Universal at the height of its early horror years, the Inner Sanctum films often blurred the mysteries with slightly uncanny elements. They also all starred Lon Chaney, Jr, which is why fans still watch them. Fittingly, Harold Young’s The Frozen Ghost, gets the business on this week’s edition of Svengoolie.

There are no ghosts in this film. Most of the events take place in a wax museum that is rather cold, but the really bad stuff goes down in the furnace room, where the wax is melted. Maybe the title makes sense as a metaphor, but whatever.

Alex Gregor, a.k.a. “Gregor the Great” is a legit mentalist, who has a talent for getting answers from the audience’s thought-waves by putting his fiancée-assistant, Maura Daniel, into a trance. At least that is what he really believes. He is also genuinely convinced he killed a disruptive drunk skeptic with his negative mental energy. Of course, the cops think that is hogwash, but he is so alarmed and guilt-ridden, he breaks off with Daniel and spirals into a funk.

To restore his spirits, Gregor’s business manager ever so logically arranges for him to stay in Madame Valerie Monet’s wax museum. It is filled with cheery exhibits of notorious murders designed by Dr. Rudi Polden, a disgraced plastic surgeon and generally suspicious character.

The Frozen Ghost
is definitely creaky and corny, but the sets and trappings of the Monet Wax Museum will bring joy to any fan of vintage Universal horror. It is also cool to see Chaney together again with Evelyn Ankers (his co-star in The Wolf-Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and Son of Dracula).

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Imagine where China might be now if Mao hadn’t tortured and killed his best educated citizens during his various mass movements. Instead, the country lost decades of economic and intellectual development. However, those dark years provided artistic fodder for several novelists who lived through them. Jia Zhangke traces the course of Chinese history through the lives and work of four writers associated with his home province of Shanxi in Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, which opens this Friday in New York and LA.

The first writer under discussion happens to be the least interesting, perhaps because Ma Feng is long dead and most of those speaking of him remember him as loyal Communist village leader. Of course, the regime he helped build would eventually launch the infamous Cultural Revolution, which would sweep up Jia Pingwa’s father, a high school educator. His treatment was so unfair, the future novelist was eventually classified as “redeemable” and allowed to pursue an education, yet in subsequent years, he still found himself drawn to rural communities.

Yu Hua would also write about the Cultural Revolution in
To Live (Zhang Yimou’s film adaptation would be pulled from distribution by the Party, which subsequently banned him and his star, Gong Li, from making films for two years). However, Yu started publishing under the relative freedom of Deng Xiaoping’s early reform years. In fact, he was surprisingly shrewd in his dealings with his publisher.

Liang Hong is a Gen-Xer who has written fiction, but she is best known for her non-fiction books about her native Liang Village and the migrant workers who still maintain their ties to home. Indeed, her attention to China’s “Great Migration” phenomenon makes her work particularly zeitgeisty.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Funhouse: Reality Kills

If you think Big Brother and its lookalikes have pretty much run their course, then you aren’t Brazilian, because Big Brother Brasil just set global franchise records, most notably with the 99%-plus vote to evict the universally despised Karol Conka (Karol “With a ‘K’”). She would be a perfect contestant for this secret online series. They will recruit the most notorious tabloid-fodder and reality shows losers for a contest to the death in director-screenwriter Jason William Lee’s Funhouse, which releases on-demand and in theaters this Friday.

Kasper Nordin really isn’t such a bad guy, but he is only known as the ex-husband of a pop-star (and of course, the co-star of her reality series), so he mistakenly signs up for
Funhouse. Shortly thereafter, he and his fellow grade-Z celebrities wake up from their drug-induced slumber in a smart-house prison, equipped with plenty of hidden cameras and booze. Every three days, they will face a fatal elimination.

The FBI cannot shut down
Funhouse, because the shadowy mastermind is too tech savvy. Nordin’s horrified ex gives teary interviews, but the voyeuristic public still watches compulsively. It probably does not hurt that Insta-shallow model Ula La More deliberately turns off the privacy safeguards when she showers. Most troublingly, the psychotic panda bear avatar-host always keeps changing the rules on them.

has plenty of forerunners, like for instance Girl House, but it more diligently returns to its critiques of online voyeurism and exploitation. Rather awkwardly, Lee pretty explicitly implies the target viewers for his film are definitely part of the problem. On the other hand, there is no real expectation of a third act pendulum swing either, because the Feds are so helpless, which is frustrating. In fact, whenever the film reaches a crossroads, it also opts for the less-satisfying branch.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog

This will not be The Incredible Journey, but rather a sad and terrible one. Nor will it be Homeward Bound, because Kaleb’s young Jewish owner is no longer welcome in his own homeland. However, it very definitely explores the human-animal bound. In fact, the four-legged star often displays more humanity than the two-legged characters in Lynn Roth’s English-language production Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog, which opens this Friday in New York.

Initially, life is comfortable for Joshua Gottlieb with his prosperous family in Berlin, but he is quite upset when his parents only allow him to keep one German Shepherd puppy from the litter his father delivers. However, viewers will soon assume it was partly due to their concern over the looming Nuremberg Laws. Soon, Joshua sees “No Jews Allowed” signs side-by-side with “No Dogs Allowed” signs. Before long, the Gottliebs are forced to give up their Aryan servants and the loyal Kaleb.

Kaleb is a good dog, but his new owner’s abusive anti-Semitic wife drives him away. Living on the streets, Kaleb makes friends with a pack of strays, until he is finally captured by animal control. Fortunately for Kaleb, his German Shepherd lineage is attractive to the SS vet choosing animals to train for service at concentration camps. Again, Kaleb (now known as “Blitz”) has affection for his new owner, but he has not forgotten young Gottlieb, who eventually arrives in the camp.

The way
Shepherd depicts the inhumanity of the era through a dog’s eyes is often provocative. Roth’s comparison of the dog kennel with the concentration camp, in which both dogs and people are fatefully separated into left and right lines, is not subtle, but it leaves a deep impression. However, the film muddles the vibe by trying to counter-balance the tough stuff with family-friendly boy-and-his-dog drama. As a result, it is hard to figure just who exactly is the film’s target audience.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Independent Lens: The Donut King

Dunkin Donuts has had a surprisingly hard time cracking into the California market. Ted Ngoy is the biggest reason why. At the height of his success, he owned or leased and franchised over seventy donut stores in Southern California. He also sponsored one hundred Cambodian immigrant families, giving them an entry-point into the American economy and society. It didn’t last forever, but his legacy continues, as Alice Gu documents in The Donut King, which airs this coming Monday on PBS.

The Donut King
starts with one politician expressing support for Cambodian immigrants and another stoking fear that they take away jobs and resources from Californians during difficult economic times. The welcoming one was Pres. Gerald Ford, who recognized Cambodians as our allies in the cold war against global Communism. The anti-immigrant sentiments came from Gov. Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ngoy would eventually become an enthusiastic Republican donor.

However, when Ngoy and his family first arrived in America, they had nothing. As many of his extended family explain to Gu, they were lucky to be alive, having miraculously survived Pol Pot’s Marxist genocide. Of course, his early days in America were difficult, but when he had his first donut, the symbolic light bulb lit up in his head. That led him to Winchell’s training program—and from there his own entrepreneurial drive took over.

Despite his eventual problems with gambling addiction, Ngoy’s story is pretty inspiring. However, there is also a lot to learn from
Donut King in terms of market differentiation. Initially, Ngoy’s leased stores had an advantage over corporate chain stores, because as family businesses, their labor costs were dramatically lower. More recently, as second and third generations have taken over in recent years (often reluctantly), they have had the flexibility and savviness to be more social media-likable than their chain competitors.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Dry: Drought and Crime in Oz

In ancient times, drought was considered a sign of the gods’ displeasure. That could still be true in rural southeastern Kiewarra. A struggling farmer has just committed an especially gruesome murder-suicide, rocking a community still haunted by a suspicious death that happened twenty years prior. Now, only guilt and suspicion grow on their lands in Robert Connolly’s The Dry, which is now playing in New York.

While in high school, Aaron Falk was widely suspected of killing Ellie Deacon, with whom he had just started a romantic relationship. The harassment became so intense, Falk was forced to leave town. After years serving as an investigator for the Federal Police, he has only now returned to Kiewarra, for the funeral of his old friend, Luke Hadler, who was also suspected of complicity in Deacon’s murder. Much to his elderly parents’ shock, Hadler allegedly shot his wife and teenage son, before driving out into the desert to kill himself.

Reluctantly, Falk agrees to stay on to investigate the incident. His status as a Fed duly impresses Sgt. Greg Raco, who might be inexperienced, but he still suspected there was something off about the crime scenes. Of course, Falk’s presence in town stirs up a hornet’s nest of hostility, but he also starts airing out a lot of long-buried secrets.

If you start watching
The Dry, make sure you have a fully stocked fridge or a jumbo movie theater soda at your disposal, because Connolly and cinematographer Stefan Duscio firmly ground the film in Kiewarra’s dusty soil. Their aerial shots capture the loneliness and ruggedness of the landscape, which looks like a modern-day dustbowl. It is bleak, yet eerily beautiful.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Solos, on Amazon Prime

If you were ever upstaged by yourself, than you'd only have yourself to blame. It would be even worse to be overshadowed by a voice-over, because you couldn’t even accuse it of standing in your light. Such are the risks run by the thesps starring in a new series of one-person speculative fiction stories. The finale appears to be the exception, but its aptness will eventually come to light. Being human is a lonely business in creator David Weil’s Solos, which premieres today on Amazon Prime.

Each story is short, most less than 30 minutes, yet the ill-chosen opening episode, “Leah,” feels interminably long. Anne Hathaway tries way too hard playing the title character, who is obsessed with time travel research. Unfortunately, this means we must listen to her riff with other selves on
13 Going on 30, which she inaccurately argues is the only time-travel movie with a female protag. Surely, a nerd like her would know The Girl Who Leapt Through Time movies, anime, and manga. Plus, there’s Peggy Sue Got Married (you know, Kathleen Turner, Nic Cage, Francis Ford Coppola—ringing any bells here?). To make matters worse, Weil’s story totally violates the accepted logic of the time-travel subgenre.

Happily, things greatly improve with “Tom,” which is similar thematically and tonally to Michael Almereyda’s
Marjorie Prime. In this case, Anthony Mackie is terrific as the titular Tom, in what turns out to be a dual role, which he differentiates nicely.

Like many of the
Solos, “Peg” often feels somewhat overwritten, but obviously Dame Helen Mirren can handle the long monologues. Technically, she has a bit of support from the AI driving her spacecraft, who really is helpful, but it is up to Mirren to land the life-is-for-living message. And she does.

Initially, as a story of a woman bound to her smart-home due to a global pandemic, “Sasha” seems to hit to close to home. However, it has a timely message people perfectly suited for where we are today. It is not just applicable to the Covid era, but to years of the nanny state-mentality that has demanded ironclad safety above all else, especially in place of freedom and the enterprising spirit.

“Jenny,” starring Constance Wu, might be the hardest to watch, because the title character slowly evolves from fingers-nails-on-the-blackboard annoying to profoundly and heartrendingly tragic. It is a great performance, but this story isn’t much fun. On the other hand, it is the only installment that lays any groundwork for the concluding episode.

Essentially, “Nera” is an okay but not especially memorable riff on Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” and any number of evil baby horror movies, but it uses the language of science fiction rather than the occult. It also arguably breaks format.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Enfant Terrible: Rainer Werner Fassbinder at his Most Scandalous

West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder has yet to get the credit he deserves for predating and in some ways surpassing the Matrix films, way back in 1973 with his TV miniseries, World on a Wire. This film will not make that case either. Instead, it revels in Fassbinder’s well-documented hedonism and excesses. Does it ever. Yet, in doing so, director Oskar Roehler gives Fassbinder a rather Fassbinderesque depiction in Enfant Terrible, which expands to more cities this week.

Before he was a legend, Fassbinder was a film school drop-out with an insanely high opinion of his talents. Fortunately for him, his pining agent “Britta,” presumably a composite of male and female lovers, shared his confidence and wanted to share more. Instead, Fassbinder just used his early patron, like he uses everyone else.

Eventually, Fassbinder’s in-your-face provocation developed into international celebrity. We see him churn out dozens of low-budget, sexually-charged films, but each one is an exhausting struggle due to Fassbinder’s abusive and undisciplined working methods. Along the way, he engages in numerous sexual relationships that are way more exploitative than any conventional commercial arrangement in the West German capitalist system he often rails against.

Honestly, there are scenes in
Enfant that are difficult to watch, but they are certainly true to what cineastes have probably heard about the subject. Frankly, after watching Enfant, most viewers will be grateful they never met the man. Oliver Masucci (also seen in this week’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) commits to portray Fassbinder’s largely-than-life persona and hulking indulgence-ravaged body 200%, but it is always a drug and hormone-crazed physical performance. The man himself comes across as soulless and empty inside.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit: Caroline Link Adapts Judith Kerr

Her father was a theater critic who scathingly panned Bertolt Brecht, whom he accused of plagiarism. Eventually, she would write the beloved children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, so there should be plenty of good karma for their family. However, it did not seem that way for the secular Jewish family in 1933 Berlin. Warned by a sympathetic police source, the Kerrs opted for a life in exile while they could. Kerr told her family story in her fictionalized 1971 YA novel, the first of the Out of Hitler Time Trilogy. Shortly after her death in 2019, both the BBC animated production of Tiger and Caroline Link’s adaptation of When Hitler Stole Pink Bunny premiered in Europe. The latter, Link’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, now actually opens theatrically this Friday in major American markets.

The Kerrs are now the Kempers, but father Arthur is still a drama critic and anti-Hitler political commentator, while his wife Dorothea remains a pianist and composer. Nine-year-old Anna Kemper does not understand politics, but the continuation of the life she has always known hinges on an election. Tipped that the National Socialists intend to confiscate her father’s passport, the Kempers make haste to Switzerland. If Hitler loses, they will immediately return. Of course, that does not happen.

Suddenly, Kemper and her teen brother Max must navigate the mores and customs of Swiss youth and adapt to linguistic differences. They are resilient, but it is difficult for their family to make ends meet, because the neutral Swiss are afraid to publish the outspoken Arthur Kemper, for fear of offending their new neighbors. As a result, the Kempers start to hope Paris represents greener pastures.

Although the Kempers largely escape the worst horrors of WWII (as far as the nuclear family is concerned, which tragically does not include Uncle Julius, Anna’s godfather), they still face a great deal of anti-Semitism—especially in France. Yet, the film is surprisingly optimistic. Of course, the Kerr/Kemper family obviously had impeccable timing, always getting out while the getting was good. Yet, even after losing their wealth and privilege, they come together as a family.

Oliver Masucci is terrific portraying the wounded pride and dignity of Arthur Kemper, as well as his protective fatherly nature. Carla Juri does some of her best work as the fierce 1930s tiger-mom, Dorothea. Frankly, many viewers will grow frustrated waiting for Riva Krymalowski’s Anna Kemper to grow up, recognize the gravity of her parents’ situation, and finally start acting accordingly (after all, kids pick up on these things better than anyone). Still, that is much more a function of Link’s decisions. The young thesp clearly does everything asked of her.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Midi Z & Wu Ke-xi’s Nina Wu

The late Kim Ki-duk made some great films (like Pieta and Moebius), but if Woody Allen can be cancelled without proof, you have to wonder how much longer we will be able to find his films. For Kim, there are court cases and investigations that conclude the allegations were most likely factual. Although not expressly identified, the Kim case seems to have partly inspired Midi Z’s Nina Wu, written by and starring his long-time collaborator Wu Ke-xi, which releases today on DVD.

After eight years trying to make it as an actress in Taipei, Nina Wu only has a handful of credits in commercials and short films. She lives a solitary, hand-to-mouth existence, getting by on tips as a non-pornographic web-cammer. Suddenly, that could all change when she is called out of the blue for a major audition. The catch is the part involves nudity, explicit sex, and humiliating situations—but it is a significant role.

How she lands it will be fully revealed over time—maybe sort of. However, she continues to endure emotionally abuse throughout the shoot. The director and crew instinctively treat her like dirt and occasionally justify it on method grounds, after the fact. Yet, the festival-bound film could be transformative for her career and life. So much so, there could be someone out there who is already out to get her. Or perhaps not. Wu’s perspective is definitely not a “reliable narrator.”

However, she represents a powerhouse international star-making turn from Wu Ke-xi. It is a quiet performance, but frequently a terrifying one, both for her ferocious intensity and her painfully exposed vulnerability. There are times when this film is hard to watch. Yet, those scenes are some of most powerful (and purposeful) that you will see in a year of new releases. By the way, everything said about Wu Ke-xi also applies just as much to Hsia Yu-chiao as her rival (“#3”), if not more so.

Monday, May 17, 2021


"As soon as we held the séance, everything really started to improve,” said nobody ever, neither in horror movies or real life. Yet, kids will be kids—bored and hubristic kids. These privileged boarding school girls also brought Noh masks to the spirit-raising party, so bonus points for that. The ghost might not be exactly who they presume, but several of the classmates will still be just as dead in screenwriter-director Simon Barrett’s Séance, which releases in theaters and on-demand this Friday.

At Fairfield Academy, a clique of mean girls performs a “Bloody Mary”-style ritual to raise the school’s resident ghost. They think they are pranking their least-popular member, but when she jumps out her window—under mysterious circumstances—shortly thereafter, it doesn’t seem so funny anymore. Regardless, that opens up a space at the prestigious school for senior transfer Camille, who immediately fights back against their hazing. Stuck in detention with the mean girls (seriously, you won’t remember or care who is who), Camille agrees to participate in a séance to talk to the angry spirit. As you might expect, the experience rather freaks them out. Then, they start to get picked off, one by one.

Horror aficionados might expect something more ambitious from Barrett, who was considered a hip new screenwriter, based on
You’re Next, The Guest, and several installments in the V/H/S franchise, but Séance is rather enjoyable in an unabashed, grungy throwback kind of way. So, yes, the vintage horror formula of killing off a bunch of catty boarding school princesses in an atmospheric old school building still basically works.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Fox, on MHz

She was trained to do evil, but now she uses her skills to solve crimes. That is not exactly how Anna Marie Fuchs saw it, while she was blinded by her Socialist ideology, but her relationship to her former Stasi masters is definitely complicated. There is a new murder for each episode, but Fuchs keeps wrestling with the same historical baggage throughout the first season of The Fox, which premieres Tuesday on MHz.

Fuchs is somewhat unusual amongst former Stasi agents. She was both tried and acquitted of treason. Her earning power is still limited, but she keeps rejecting job offers from her former boss, Olaf Ruhleben, now the powerful president of a dodgy private security company. Suspecting (with good reason) Ruhleben was behind the abduction and forced adoption of her presumed-late son, Fuchs distrusts her old colleague, but she still keeps trying to pump him for information.

Almost by accident, Fuchs teams up with naturalized Youssef El Kilali, the husband of Simone Pabst, the pregnant proprietress of her favorite coffee shop. Suspiciously, Pabst’s wastrel brother has disappeared, following the murder of his squatter mate. The couple contracts Fuchs’ services with a decidedly low stakes deal, but she and El Kilali work so well together, they decide to open a detective agency.

Their first case with a proper retainer is a bit of a family affair. At first, they are hired by a provincial anti-development activist, but when she is murdered, her daughter maintains their services, even though the son-in-law is a leading suspect. Meanwhile, Fuchs uncovers clues that suggest her son Florian might not have died in a GDR orphanage, as she was told.

Things really come to a head in the fourth episode, when Fuchs intends to confront her ex-husband regarding their son, only to watch as he is gunned down by a mystery assassin. Their family history was about as complicated as it gets. She was assigned to spy on him, but Fuchs only recently learned she was also his snitch assignment as well. Fuchs continues to deal with family issues in the fourth episode, while a new case hits close to home for El Kalili’s family.
 Frankly, the fifth installment, a murder set within the fashion world, is a bit anticlimactic in comparison to the previous two episodes.

Each of the episodic mysteries are okay, but not remarkable. The chemistry between Lina Wendel and Karim Cherif is also pretty good, but not extraordinary. What really distinguishes the show is the murky but fascinated intrigue derived from Fuchs’ Stasi service. Clearly, the oppressive group remains a source of mystery and fear for average Germans. You really get a sense of how the crimes of the Socialist era continue corrupt and warp German society.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Navy SEALs vs. Zombies, Co-Starring Michael Dudikoff

Films with a "vs" right there in the title are often a little too eager to announce themselves as would-be epic slugfests, like Eks vs. Sever or Al Adamson’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein. Frankly, Godzilla vs. Kong just continued the trend. Little was expected from this grubby B-movie, but at least it cast 1980s Cannon action star Michael Dudikoff in a supporting role. In this case, the fighting force that never quits takes on undead hordes in Stanton Barrett’s Navy SEALs vs. Zombies, which airs Monday on Comet TV.

Right off the bat, it is hard to have confidence in a film that mistakes the capitalization of “SEALs” in the opening titles, but apparently there was no budget for proofreading. The story is sort of the lite beer version of
Escape from New York. The Vice President is trapped amid a zombie outbreak in Baton Rouge and a team of SEALs has been scrambled to extract him.

Unfortunately, the SEAL team has no intel to warn them about the situation on the ground. Eventually, they start listening to CIA Agent Stacy Thomas, who has good reason to believe the zombie pandemic is actually the result of a foreign power’s virus warfare program (that sure seems a logt more credible now than when the film was produced). In fact, she has a secret lab in the city that might hold applicable research. That suddenly changes the mission objective (so much for the blowhard Veep).

Friday, May 14, 2021

Death and Nightingales, on Starz

In 1885, Northern Ireland was a land divided by religion. So is Beth Winters’ house. Her stepfather Billy Winters is a wealthy English Protestant landlord, whereas she is not. Nor was her late mother Catherine, who secretly knew she was already pregnant with Beth when she married the hard-drinking Englishman. The Winters family dynamics have only gotten worse since her death and finally come to a head in creator-director Allan Cubitt’s 3-part Death and Nightingales, which premieres Sunday on Starz.

As a young girl, Winters heard her stepfather angrily disavow her and it hurt—even after he disavowed his disavowal in a more sober moment. Regardless, since her mother died, he treated Beth more like a servant than a daughter, especially when he inappropriately visited her bedroom late at night. She has always deeply resented him, yet their awkward shared history created a sort of dysfunctional bond between them. However, she finally resolves to make a break when she meets the dashing Liam Ward, Winters’ new IRA-supporting tenant.

Despite some mixed emotions, the smitten Winters agrees to slip Old Billy a bromide mickey and empty his safe, so she and Ward may elope and start a new life together. Fatefully, it will all go down on the day of her 23
rd birthday. Of course, this kind of business never goes according to plan.

Evidently, Cubitt rather faithfully adapted Eugene McCabe’s similar-titled novel, but a bit pruning and narrative concentration would not have been amiss. Frankly, the entire first episode is ponderously slow and not especially eventful. The middle hour picks up the pace a bit, while the conclusion delivers some pretty intense, slap-in-the-face drama.

Ann Skelly really delivers down the stretch as the surprisingly resourceful Beth Winters. She has moments that largely redeem the series. Unfortunately, viewers have to slog through a lot of aimless angst and melodrama to get to them. Ordinarily, it would be quite entertaining to watch Matthew Rhys rage and roar as Billy Winters, during the episode one and two, but Cubitt makes him such an unsavory, predatory figure, it is impossible to embrace him as a love-to-hate character.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Rasoulof’s There is No Evil

Iran does not merely have a death penalty. The nation has a culture of death that permeates ordinary citizens’ lives. Such is the contention of the new thematically-related anthology film from Mohammad Rasoulof, the Iranian filmmaker who has been convicted of “endangering national security” and “spreading propaganda.” The Islamist regime has banned him from filmmaking for life, just like Jafar Panahi, but, just like Jafar Panahi (a past creative collaborator), he has not let that stop him from writing and directing new films. Rasoulof is indeed critical of Iran’s executions, but his is also sympathetic to the conscripted soldiers who are often forced to carry out death sentences throughout There is No Evil, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum.

The first story, “There is No Evil,” would probably work better if viewers were not aware of the film’s overall theme while watching it. It appears to be an everyday slice-of-life story about Heshmat and his family, but it ends with a bitter kick that sets the tone for the next installment.

What follows in “She Said, ‘You Can Do It’” will be a long night of the soul for Pouya, a draftee who has recently been posted to a military prison. He has been ordered to execute a prisoner at dawn, but the very thought of it makes him sick to his stomach. Yet, he must finish his mandatory service in good standing if he is to have a life with his fiancée. Initially, “She Said” feels like a Persian take on the protest play
The Brig, but it takes a wild, almost surreal turn. What happens is almost shocking, but it is definitely bold, take-no-prisoners (so to speak) filmmaking.

Based on the fact Javad has a three-day pass, we can assume his conscience did not trouble him in the way Pouya’s did in “Birthday.” He has come to surprise his girlfriend (and hopefully fiancée) on her special day, but he finds household is in mourning. He also discovers it is a small world after all.

In a way, “Kiss Me” could be like a thematic sequel to “She Said.” Out in the countryside (strikingly lensed by cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani), Bahram’s lives way-off-the-grid with his wife Zaman, who has more of a legal footprint. They have invited Darya, the daughter of a family friend, to stay with them for a week, in order to reveal a secret that affects them all, while there is still time.

No Evil
is a masterful film that shows how corruption and guilt from Iran’s unjust justice system seeps into every corner of society. It also shows the nation’s great social and geographical diversity. Arguably, this could be considered the “Great Iranian Social Issue Film,” but the regime would surely disagree.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Profile: Based on In the Skin of a Jihadist

Her name is not Anna Erelle, but she used that pseudonym to write In the Skin of a Jihadist and her original magazine piece exposing the techniques Daesh employs to lure misguided teens into sex slavery. Her name is not Amy Whittaker either, but that is what the British character based on her is known as in Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile, which opens in theaters this Friday.

Financially, Whittaker needs this assignment researching the ISIS process for grooming and trafficking young, gullible European-born women, so she pursues it aggressively. Posing as a much younger disaffected Muslim convert, she creates a social media profile and starts liking jihadi videos. Suddenly, she is contacted by Bilel, an ISIS military commander in Syria. He is clearly out to ensnare her, but he does indeed have a seducer’s charm.

Unlike Erelle, who always considered the real-life Bilel a cruel “braggart,” Whittaker starts to identify with her online predator, enjoying his cooking lessons and weird attempts at romance. However, things start to get real when he escalates, all of which unfolds solely across the screen of Whittaker’s laptop, via skype, Facetime, Google, and social media, just like Aneesh Chaganty’s
Searching, which Bekmambetov also produced, with his patented “Screentime” techniques.

In some ways,
Profile does a disservice to Erelle, who is still under constant police protection. At times, Valene Kane’s portrayal makes her appear like a star-struck teenager, whereas media accounts of Erelle suggest she was always clear-sighted and cognizant of the risks, yet she was always determined to tell the story.

covers some timely and unsettling subject matter, but Searching (it was just called Search when we reviewed it at Sundance) was much more compelling as a work of cinema. It is impossible to overstate the importance of John Cho’s convincing everyman desperation in driving Chaganty’s film. In contrast, Kane’s Whittaker lacks a comparable seriousness and intensity.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Djinn

As folkloric entities from Arabian and Islamic legend, Djinn[s] are the monster of choice in Middle Eastern horror films (a small but growing corpus). This example is more secular in nature, invoked through occult means, but it is just as dangerous (if not more so). A young mute boy must survive its terrors to earn his “heart’s greatest desire,” but he is not prepared for its sinister and deceitful ways in screenwriter-directors David Charbonier & Justin Powell’s The Djinn, which opens this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

For Dylan Jacobs, it is just him and his soft-rock radio DJ father Michael. What happened to his mother (to be revealed in flashbacks over the course of the harrowing night to come) would be traumatic for any kid. Poor Jacobs must also deal with his muteness and a pretty serious case of asthma. Having just moved to a new apartment, young Jacobs uncovers some of the late prior tenant’s effects, including a Necronomicon-looking occult volume, in which he finds an incantation for invoking a djinn to grant one’s dearest wish. Unwisely, Jacobs conducts the ritual, to ask for a voice, before reading the subsequent pages that explain the djinn’s demonic nature.

It turns out, Jacobs will have to survive an hour of its predatory terrors before he can stuff out the candle and send the evil thing back to its plane of existence. It is a nasty supernatural monster, but while it is here, it is bound by our laws of existence. It is stronger than Jacobs, but it can be hurt.

Set in 1989, the film’s early scenes have a dreamlike vibe that is both nostalgic and disconcerting. However, the father-son dynamic is also genuinely heartfelt. Viewers will buy in quickly, which makes the cat-and-mouse game the djinn plays with young Jacobs so relentlessly intense. In terms of tone and execution,
The Djinn feels a lot like Keith Thomas’s The Vigil, which also used a claustrophobic space, eerie lighting, and a force of utterly unholiness to build an atmosphere of profound dread. Charbonier & Powell’s final twist is easy to guess, but by that time most viewers will be exhausted anyway.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Reckoning, on Shudder

For obvious reasons, the witch hunts of the 17th and early 18th Centuries have been fertile ground for horror films, but if they include any supernatural elements, they sort of inadvertently justify the barbarism they seek to condemn. Director Neil Marshall and his lead actress-co-writer Charlotte Kirk try to get around this dilemma by having their heroine tormented by both the witch-hunter and the Devil. They spare her nothing and heavily lay on their anti-Church biases throughout The Reckoning, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

The Great Plague has ravaged London and has started appearing in the provinces where Grace Haverstock (a late 1600’s peasant, who always looks like she just stepped out of the makeup chair at her local MAC store) lives with her husband Joseph and their infant daughter Abbie. Tragically, Joseph contracts the plague while selling his grain in town (thanks to a little switcheroo the Squire plays with his ale mug). Of course, the entitled landlord wants Haverstock to pay the rent through sex, so when she violently spurns him, he has her accused of witchcraft. Judge Moorcroft, the notorious witch-finder is sent for, but his brutal tactics will not leave much for the Squire’s pleasure.

When not being tortured at court, Haverstock is menaced by the Devil and haunted by visions of her husband and mother, who pled guilty to witchcraft to save her daughter from the wrath of Moorcroft. Obviously, Marshall and company are using the witch hunts to make a statement on contemporary #metoo-era gender politics, but all their powerful male characters are so stupid, it is hard to see how they manage to walk twenty feet without falling down, let alone preserve their privileged patriarchy.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

TCM Classic ’21: Princess Tam Tam

Her story is like a French version of Princess Caraboo, with her masquerading as a phony royal from Tunisia. Actually, she was played by Josephine Baker, an American, so that rather makes her a citizen of the world. There are a lot of less than pristine prints out there, but fortunately a fresh restoration of Edmond T. Greville’s Princess Tam Tam (which we haven’t seen) airs this afternoon as part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Max de Mirecourt’s wastrel wife Lucie is so openly flirting with the rich and vapid men of Paris (particularly the Maharajah of Datane), he must exile himself to Tunisia to write the next novel he owes his publisher without her distractions. Naturally, he brings along his ghostwriter Coton, to do the real work. Before you can say “exotic othering” or another woke buzzword, de Mirecourt is following the misadventures of Alwina, a high-spirited homeless shepherdess.

Much to the surprise of Coton and their Muslim manservant Dar, de Mirecourt takes quite a shine to Alwina. In fact, he decides she could be doubly useful to him, inspiring his next novel and making his galivanting wife jealous, when he brings her to Paris, posing as an African princess. The film takes a turn into
Pygmalion territory when de Mirecourt and Coton start prepping her to fool Parisian high society. Of course, she starts to fall for him and he develops real affection for her, but he still has feelings for his wife as well.

Due to its elements of interracial romance,
Princess Tam Tam was never approved by the Hays Office, so it would be rather ironic if the hyper-sensitive started objecting to its playfully innocent depiction of Alwina. Frankly, the entire farcical premise is just a pretext to get Baker into slinky evening gowns and showcase her in an extravagant Busby Berkeley-style musical number. The big song-and-dance spectacular also features the Comedian Harmonists, the German harmony singers, who were persecuted and eventually banned in their native Germany because three members were Jewish—so it would be a real shame if this film were canceled now.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Wrath of Man, You Can Actually See it in Theaters

Armored car robberies are not just the stuff of viral videos from South Africa. They happen in the lawless land of Los Angeles too, where they have a much higher mortality rate. At least that was true of the heist that led to the collateral killing of Patrick Hill’s son. Unlike his boy, Hill is a man accustomed to danger, so he has no problem risking his life to find the gang and the inside man responsible in Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man, which is now playing in real-life brick-and-mortar movie theaters, even in New York City.

We do not initially know Hill’s full backstory. Ritchie and co-screenwriters Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies (adapting a 2004 French film) will reveal that over time. Hopefully, you do not mind flashbacks, because Ritchie frequently rewinds to fill in gaps and provide new perspective. However, we can tell by the fact Jason Statham plays Hill that he is one bad cat. Sure, he just slid by with a 70% on his firearms qualifying test at Fortico Security, but we have a hunch he was holding back.

Hill’s instructor-teammate “Bullet” dubs him “H,” because he is apparently in charge of nicknames. Their driver “Boy Sweat Dave” doesn’t really take to the new recruit, but even he is impressed when Hill takes down a team of six armed robbers more-less single-handedly. It is like he was waiting for such an attack, because he was, but they weren’t the right gang. H will keep digging, with the tacit encouragement of a senior FBI agent known simply as “The King,” who is happy to let Hill do all the dirty work.

When he isn’t shifting back-and-forth along the timeline, Ritchie stages some gleefully over-the-top shootouts. It is all really slick and loud, except Jason Statham, who as Hill, mostly talks in hoarse whispers. Of course, he has total credulity strutting, punching, and shooting his way through the film. Frankly, the villains are pretty disappointing, to the point of even being offensive when their true identities are finally unmasked. Fortunately, a large cast of colorful supporting players mostly compensates, notably including Holt McCallany as Bullet, Eddie Marsan as Terry (the Fortico business manager), and the great Andy Garcia, calming swimming through the chaos like a shark, as the King.

TCM Classic ’21: From Broadway to Hollywood

There was a time when Broadway theaters supplied entertainment for the masses, (rather than thousand-dollar premium Hamilton tickets). If you could successfully compose for the former, odds are you could also pen tunes for the latter, as indeed was the case for classic popular songwriters, like Cole Porter and the Gershwins. Pianist Richard Glazier pays tribute to the Great American Songbook through tunes written for the stage and screen in From Broadway to Hollywood, which airs as part of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival.

Fittingly, Glazier performs each selection in Hollywood, at Warner Brothers’ “Clint Eastwood Pre-Recording Stage.” He does not include any of Eastwood own compositions, but, as a jazz lover, the actor-director should definitely approve of Glazier’s focus on Lalo Schifrin. It is always good to hear from the iconic composer of
Enter the Dragon and Mission Impossible, but he somewhat dates himself by choosing to play Schifrin’s “Theme from Mannix.”

One might think the same regarding Bronislaw Kaper’s “Theme from
The FBI,” but that makes sense considering Glazier landed the final interview with its star, Efren Zimbalist Jr. (who looks and sounds sharp and healthy), a friend of the composer. Glazier also performs Kaper’s “Drifting” from Auntie Mame, which plays to the pianist’s lyrical strength (but we still would have opted for “On Green Dolphin Street” from the film of nearly the same name.

Of course, Glazier gives Bernard Herrmann his due with “Scene D’Amour” from
Vertigo and performs a sensitive My Fair Lady Medley in tribute to Lerner & Lowe. Perhaps the best fit for his style is Arlen & Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” You really should know what film that one is from, if you have any interest in the TCM Fest, but regardless, it is a lovely rendition. Cole Porter’s “So in Love” from Kiss Me Kate is nice too (and it gives Glazier an opportunity to interview Patricia Morrison). However, the inclusion of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” in tribute to Oscar Levant seems like an odd choice, especially since legendary composers like Henry Mancini, John Williams, Nino Rota, and Franz Waxman go undiscussed.

Still, it rather makes sense the Gershwins get special emphasis, since they are the Gershwins. Glazier also credits their music & lyrics for
Girl Crazy as the initial inspiration for his musical career. He performs Arlen & Ira Gershwin’s “It’s a New World” from A Star is Born (one of the decent versions, from 1954), but the special also shows clips of Judy Holiday singing “The Man that Got Away.”

Friday, May 07, 2021

TCM Classic ’21: Plan 9 from Outer Space Table Read

Submitted for your approval: more evidence the Library of Congress has been tardy (perhaps even remiss) in adding Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space to the National Film Registry. Admittedly, the world hardly noticed when it released in 1959, but since then, it has inspired Tim Burton’s Oscar-winning biopic, stage musicals, an episode of Rifftrax, a much better-than-expected remake, scores of midnight screenings, and this affectionate table read (it is really more of a Zoom read, but whatever). Honestly, which was you rather re-watch, Plan 9 or the 1959 Best Picture winner, Gigi, featuring fellow-traveling Maurice Chevalier singing about how much he loves little girls? Clearly, Dana Gould would opt for Ed Wood. Originally presented as part of SF Sketchfest, Gould’s table read adaptation of Plan 9 from Outer Space airs tonight as part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Gould plays The Amazing Criswell and he never stints on the sensationalistic bluster. It might sound like he exaggerates the overblown intro, but if you compare it to Wood’s film (which airs afterward), he sticks pretty close to the original text. However, much of the narration duties will be handled by vintage
SNL cast-member Laraine Newman, who gets big laughs with her sardonic attempts to justify the film’s massive logic and credibility gaps.

In addition to Gould and Newman, Bobcat Goldthwait does some of his funniest work in years as Kelton the cop (played in the movie by fan-favorite Paul Marco). In fact, Kelton’s prominence shows how well Gould knows his Woodverse. Yet, the biggest name participating might be Bob Odenkirk, who suitably hams it up as the alien Ruler.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Fried Barry, on Shudder

He is sort of like John Carpenter’s Star Man, but with way more heroin. An alien temporarily takes over the body of a Capetown junkie and for those unfortunate enough to know the titular character, the change is a considerable improvement. The visitor is about to learn all about the sex, drugs, and violence our world has to offer in Ryan Kruger’s Fried Barry, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Barry does not care about his put-upon wife or his little boy. His only interest is his next fix. Years of self-neglect have taken an obvious toll, but for some reason, an alien explorer chooses to abduct and posses his body. An hour later, the alien-controlled Barry has sexual encounters with a prostitute and a clubbing woman, who shouldn’t have wanted to touch him with a twenty-foot pole. He seems to have alien magnetism. He also has healing powers. However, communication remains a challenge for him, which leads to all kinds of misunderstandings with Capetown’s seedier denizens.

Kruger’s aesthetic makes Joe Begos’s
Bliss look like a Merchant-Ivory production. It gets exhausting to watch him pile on the body horror and nearly Troma-level of gore. Yet, despite its one-trick nature, it is easy to see why Shudder acquired the film. You really have to be impressed by Kruger’s willingness to wade (and revel) in the muck. Likewise, Gary Green is rather remarkable playing the guileless new Barry, in varying degrees of stoned and battered. It really is a performance that compares to Jeff Bridges in Star Man.