Saturday, July 31, 2021

For the Olympics: Fair Play

Are you watching the Olympics? Probably not, judging from the ratings. Viewers have a right to be disenchanted, when there are over 330 Russian athletes competing in Tokyo, despite the Russian Olympic team supposedly being banned for its systemic doping program. For a definitive expose of Putin’s doping program, watch Bryan Fogel’s Icarus on Netflix. However, they did not invent steroid regimens. They just built on a long Communist-era tradition. It was a practice rife in most Warsaw Pact countries, including then Czechoslovakia. That is where Anna Moravcova trains for the 200m dash, but she rebels against her coaches when they demand she participate in their anabolic steroid program in Andrea Sedlackova’s Fair Play, which is now available on VOD.

If Moravcova were not naturally talented, there is no way she would be allowed to train on the national team. Her father immigrated during 1968. Her mother almost joined him, but she got cold feet. Irena Moravcova now deeply regrets that choice, even though her feelings towards Moravcova’s father remain ambiguous. She used to run in dissident circles, so when her old flame Marek Kriz asks for a favor copying his samizdat texts, she reluctantly agrees, despite the danger to her and her daughter.

Anna Moravcova’s track times are good, but the state athletic apparatus has selected her for its special treatment. They are vague whenever she asks about the Stromba they inject her with and the nondisclosure documents they force her to sign further stokes her suspicions. Nevertheless, she initially complies, because they leave her no choice. However, when her body has a toxic reaction to the steroids, she resolves to quit the doping program, even if the Party bans her from competition. Unfortunately, her mother’s precarious political position and her coaches’ manipulativeness complicate her decision.

This might be the all-time greatest Olympic movie, even though it includes no scenes from the actual Olympic Games. (In a bitter irony, Moravcova is training for the 1984 Games, so you should know what that means.) Nevertheless, the way Moravcova takes responsibility for her actions and her body—and comes to understand her mother on a much deeper level—is quite moving and arguably even inspiring.

Judit Bardos is convincing both physically and dramatically as Moravcova, the young athlete. It is quite compelling to see her confusion forge into resolution. Yet, it is Anna Geislerova who is truly haunting as Irena Moravcova. It is a shame she never received the Awards consideration she deserved. Together, they do an excellent job bringing to life the tension and affection of a mother-daughter relationship, which are always somewhat difficult, but theirs is under tremendous tension.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again

Zhenia might be a superhero, or maybe a super-villain. He might have gained his powers through radiation, like Spiderman, but his point of contact was Pripyat (Chernobyl). His super-abilities are in his hands, but his intentions are not always clear. With ambiguous powers come ambiguous responsibilities in Malgorzata Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again (“co-directed” by cinematographer-co-writer Michal Englert), which opens today in New York.

Sort of like Django dragging his coffin, Zhenia blew into town carrying his massage table over his shoulder. Thanks to his powers of mesmerism, the mysterious masseuse had no trouble with immigration. The next time we see him, Zhenia has built up a large client list in a gated community outside Warsaw. He seems to hold many of his clients in a seductive sway, especially the women (like a clean-cut version of Nick Nolte in
Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Yet, he never takes advantage of them whenever puts them under via hypnotic suggestion. Instead, he might practice his ballet in their spacious McMansions.

is a strange film that generally feels like an art-house genre film, but it is tricky to define in what ways. Regardless, it is far and away Szumowska’s best film, head and shoulders superior to the dreary The Other Lamb or Elles.  There are periodic expressionistic excursions into Zhenia’s subconscious that start to try viewer patience, but Szumowska actually makes them payoff with a haunting climax.

Alec Utgoff’s weird lead performance well suits the film. He is like a human Rorschach. He gives so little, yet somehow invites those around him to infer and project so much. Weronika Rosati is also quite extraordinary, in a tightly-wound, yet understated way, as Wika, the wife of Zhenia’s cancer-stricken performance.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Tailgate: Dutch Road Rage

Remember when your gruff driver’s ed. teacher told you to “drive defensively?” That was good advice. Dutch father Hans does not follow it, even though he has his whole family in the car. As a result, he inspires homicidal road rage from a serial killer in Lodewijk Crijns’ Tailgate, which releases theatrically and digitally tomorrow.

Hans is pretty frazzled by his nagging wife Diana and bratty young daughters Milou and Robine. He is also less than thrilled to be going to lunch with his scoldy mother and his mildly dementia-suffering father. Hans is spoiling or a fight, so when “Ed the Exterminator” takes exception to his tailgating at a rest stop, the frazzled father refuses to apologize or back down.

Unbeknownst to Hans, Ed is experienced at running people off the road and he is fully loaded with pesticide that is toxic to humans. The psychopath isn’t squeamish when it comes to menacing the kids along with the adults, but he rather annoyingly persists in lecturing them on their poor parenting (which admittedly seems to be somewhat valid), in between his acts of violence.

The prospect of watching an innocent family getting terrorized is not so appetizing, so Crijns tries to balance the heat with acid by making Hans abrasively obnoxious. Unfortunately, that just makes the film thoroughly unpleasant, in nearly every way.

Arguably, Jeroen Spitzenberger is quite effective as Hans, because he makes viewers want to kill him too. The same is true to a lesser degree for Anniek Pheifer as Diana. You would think the serial killer stalking them would stop the dysfunctional couple from bickering for ten seconds, but apparently not. On the other hand, Willem de Wolf is credibly hulking, but problematically nondescript as the killer.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Nemesis: Crusty Old British Gangsters

A mobster like John Morgan has so many enemies, he can’t be bothered to worry about a washed-out alcoholic copper like Frank Conway. However, he will have worry about enemies closer to home—and perhaps some previously unknown to him in James Crow’s Nemesis, which releases this Friday on VOD.

Morgan presents himself as a philanthropist, but his money is dirty. Unfortunately, neither Conway or his cop father before him could ever get any evidence to stick on him. The best Conway can do is drunkenly crash Morgan’s coming home party. All Conway gets for his efforts is a suspension, but Morgan is secretly concerned someone tipped off the cop regarding his return to the UK. He suspects his thuggish brother Richard, who resents his brother’s greater success in organized crime. Richard Morgan will be a guest at his brother’s dinner party, but it takes a potentially lethal turn when it turns into a home invasion-hostage crisis.

So, what kind of person would be rash enough to take connected kingpin like Morgan hostage? That will be the whole surprise, or surprises. They are actually memorably dark and twisty. In fact, the captive dinner party section is quite tense and memorable. It just takes half the film’s run-time to get there.

is a grubby overachiever that isn’t ashamed of its grunginess. Billy Morgan is terrific as the steely silver-haired John Morgan. He definitely has a Michael Caine-ish pugnaciousness going on. Frank Harper brings similarly grizzled bluster as his bitter brother Richard. A notable standout, Jeanine Nerissa Sothcott is entertainingly flamboyant and catty as Sadie Morgan, the gangster’s cougar-trophy wife.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Boy Behind the Door, on Shudder

When you think about it, the premise of Home Alone—an elementary school aged kid cheerfully fighting off home invaders—should have been pretty traumatic. This film is a lot more emotionally realistic. The bad guys are part of a pedophile-abduction ring rather than mere burglars, but at least the two captives can rely on each other throughout David Charbonier & Justin Powell’s The Boy Behind the Door, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

Both Kevin and Bobby were snatched out of the park, but the former was the primary intended victim. The latter is just left in the trunk to suffocate, but instead, he fights his way out. However, when Bobby hears his friend’s terrified screams for help, he knows he cannot leave the boy behind. Sneaking into the isolated house, he discovers Kevin is chained to the wall behind a locked door. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is viscerally intense, due to the disturbingly young age of the boys, but their resourcefulness is admirable.

Young protags in claustrophobic jeopardy are definitely a thing for Charbonier & Powell, the filmmaking tandem, whose
Djinn released earlier in the year. There are obvious similarities, but Behind is far more disturbing due to its thematic content. In this case, the utter conviction and total credibility of Lonnie Chavis and Ezra Dewey (who also starred in Djinn) keep viewers hooked on pins and needles. Like Djinn (but maybe even more so here), the filmmakers and their youthful cast really force the audience to care. During this film, the suspense really kills.

The boys’ ultimate antagonist is also extraordinarily creepy, but it would be a bit spoilerish to call out the thesp by name. Let’s just say this is a deeply chilling predator. Charbonier & Powell have a sinister talent for maintaining tension and suspense, while turning the limitations of their confined sets into positives. It is almost too much at times, but it is all highly effective.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away

Buddy Guy was almost the equivalent of Motown's Funk Brothers at Chess Records. He was a frequent sideman, who recorded a few 45s at the famous blues label, but the Chess Brothers never really considered him a star. A group of fanatical blues in the UK thought differently. They included Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Eventually, Guy became a headliner and now he is probably the dean of living bluesmen. The guitarist looks back on his life and career in Devin Amar, Matt Mitchener & Charles Todd’s Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away, which premieres tomorrow on PBS as part of the current season of American Masters.

Buddy Guy hailed from Lettsworth, Louisiana. It wasn’t conveniently located near anything except cotton share-farms, especially not schools. Guy started working and playing in Baton Rouge, but most of his opportunities turned out to be false starts. He also scuffled hard after moving to Chicago, until a musician by the name of Muddy Waters heard him play.

Yet, for years, the start-and-stop pattern continued for Guy (on his Strat, rather than a Les Paul). Indeed, Amar and company appropriately emphasize Guy’s persistence throughout their profile. Even when British invasion stars starting singing Guy’s praises, Chess still didn’t really understand how to best showcase him (while Marshall Chess appears in
In Their Own Words’ profile of Chuck Berry, he is absent here).

This also happens to be one of the more stylish and poetic films to appear under the
American Masters banner, because of the vintage documentary footage and folk art that illustrates Guy’s early years. It vividly evokes the tenor of Guy’s life and times, in all its hardscrabble ruggedness. The trio of filmmakers also convey a nice sense of blues history through archival interviews with legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

In Their Own Words: Chuck Berry

There has never been anyone more rock & roll than Chuck Berry. He loved to play loud, hated to rehearse, and liked to pay taxes even less. Rock & roll started with him and he inspired everyone who came after, especially cats like the Beatles and the Stones. The real king is profiled during the next installment of In Their Own Words, premiering Tuesday on PBS.

Berry’s family was well-established and respected in their St. Louis community, but he was a bit of a bad kid. He even served a brief prison stretch. It would not be his last. However, when he got out, he found success as an R&B guitarist. His style was so distinctive, Chess Records signed him up—thus was rock & roll born.

Chuck Berry instalment of In Their Own Words is just an hour, but it hits most of the important career milestones. That notably includes crediting boogie-woogie-blues pianist Johnnie Johnson for discovering and developing Berry’s sound as the guitarist in his combo. Sadly (but not surprisingly), most of Berry’s contemporaries are no longer available to participate, but Marshall Chess discusses Berry relationship with the Chess Brothers (his father Leonard and uncle Phil).

For star-power, we hear from Keith Richards, who was the musical director for the Chuck Berry tribute doc
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, as well as his all-star bandmates, Robert Cray and Steve Jordan (who played with Sonny Rollins and the original Letterman show band). The director, Taylor Hackford also discusses the making of the film, which was a bit chaotic, thanks to Berry’s strong personality (to put it diplomatically).

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran

Miles Davis used to perform with his back turned to the audience. The men in Hong Sang-soo’s latest film are not that cool. Instead, they are a rather neurotic lot, so Hong focuses on the women they are trying to talk to instead. Those would be Gam-hee's old friends, who she sets out to visit in Hong’s The Woman Who Ran, which is currently playing in New York.

When Hong’s film had its festival debut last February, Gam-hee might have sounded a bit unusual for spending every single day of the past five years with her husband. One pandemic from Xi Jinping later, a lot of people are over a fifth of the way to that milestone themselves. Regardless, when her loving spouse was suddenly summoned for a business trip, she decided to take advantage of the opportunity to visit two old friends. She will also have a supposedly chance encounter with a third former classmate. With the three-part structure, Hong renews his affinity for parallel theme-and-variations.

Young-soon is divorced and living happily with a younger roommate, but both women just show disinterested contempt for the neighbor who comes to complain about the stray cats they feed (his wife has a cat phobia). After years of caring for her mother, Su-young now lives carefree in a building catering to artists. She is cautiously exploring a relationship with an architect, but embarrassingly, it is the young poet she mistakenly hooked-up with who comes calling. Gambee was not expecting to see Woo-jin, but she works in the arts center, where the restless woman popped in to see a movie. It turns out they have something in common: Jung, whose face we briefly see, so that we know he is played by Hong’s regular alter-ego, Kwon Hae-hyo.

There is a bit of the old playfulness in
Woman Who Ran that has been largely missing from Hong’s post-scandal films, especially in the way he so deliberately keeps his male characters faceless. It is still a “small film,” but most of his films are “small.” In this case the big revelation and payoff are mostly implied, but its subtlety is definitely its strength. Arguably, this might be his best film with Kim Min-hee since Right Now, Wrong Then, which was before their tabloid notoriety.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Quentin Dupieux’s Mandibles

Manu and Jean-Gab plan to train their new pet to be an animal burglar, sort of like the old organ-grinder monkeys. However, Dominique is not a primate. She is a weirdly large mutant house fly. It is an unlikely scheme, but the randomness of the world is their greatest ally in Quentin Dupieux’s ultra-eccentric Mandibles, which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

Calling Manu a homeless beach bum would imply his life has more structure than it really does. Nevertheless, a dodgy associate recruits him for a courier job delivering a mysterious Marsellus Wallace-style valise to a client. Much to Manu’s confusion, the terms of the job require the case to be secured in the trunk of a car, so he naturally steals an old beater Mercedes. After picking up his crony Jean-Gab, they discover the mini-kaiju in the trunk.

Instead of completing their assignment, the two slackers decide Jean-Gab will train the fly to become their personal air-born thief. To do so, they need someplace where they can lay low. Initially, they invade the home of a desert hermit, but the knuckleheads destroy everything they touch. Fortunately, fate intervenes, when Cecile, an entitled party girl, mistakes Manu for an old high school flame. Her friends are not much charmed by the lads, who resort to plenty of door-slamming slap-stick and a fair amount of gaslighting to keep Dominique a secret from their hosts, especially Agnes, who shouts like a John Cleese character due to a brain injury. She really dislikes the new guests.

is a return to form for Dupieux after the dour and cringey Deerskin. Mandibles is more like Wrong and Reality, which took delight in their lunacy. Even though Manu and Jean-Gab do some pretty terrible things, the film itself it bright, energetic, and upbeat. It is almost like the most surreal Seinfeld episode ever.

Gregoire Ludig and David Marsais are perfectly moronic and amoral as Manu and Jean-Gab. India Hair is earthy and somehow not annoyingly idiotic as the inexplicably dense Cecile. However, Adele Exarchopoulos might just give the performance of her career as the tragically abrasive Agnes (seriously, forget about the over-praised
Blue is the Warmest Color).

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Holy Beasts: Ode to Jean-Louis Jorge

Jean-Louis Jorge did the nearly impossible. He made avant-garde filmmaking fun and sexy. Sadly, the Dominican filmmaker’s output was cut short when he was mysteriously murdered in 2000. Years later, his meta-muse is planning to direct his unfinished masterwork, the vampire romp, La Palace. Arguably, it would be just as a much a Jorge film as the last three or four Raul Ruiz films were that of the Chilean auteur. Unfortunately, getting it finished will be a dicey business in Israel Cardenas & Laura Amelia Guzman’s Holy Beasts, which releases tomorrow on Film Movement Plus.

Vera had a complicated relationship with Jorge. That in turn, led to complicated relationships with those in their circle. Nevertheless, she has convinced their old crony Victor to produce the long-deferred
La Palace, with her as director. Her first choice for cinematographer joined Jorge in the great wrap party in the sky, so she settles for Martin, an old classmate the late director had a falling-out with. Of course, she recruits her friend Henry to serve as choreographer. He is portrayed by Udo Kier, who played the famous vampire in the Andy Warhol-produced Blood for Dracula (an association that suits the film just fine).

Is the vampirism of Jorge’s screenplay bleeding into real life? Maybe so, but nobody seems to notice or care very much. Vera is so driven to complete the film, she only allows herself to be distracted by Yony, the dancer she assumes must be her grandson, based on highly circumstantial evidence.

Holy Beasts
is a little bit crazy, a little bit pretentious, and a whole lot messy. Jorge most likely wouldn’t have made this film exactly, but he would have probably enjoyed it, particularly the bizarre dance numbers, which often resemble a cross between a Broadway chorus line and a Calvin Klein commercial.

Anthem ’21: Days Before the Dawn (short doc)

At a time when terms like “locally-grown” sound desirable to consumers and marketers alike, how could a so-called “localist” movement be considering dangerous to the powers that be? Sadly, Hong Kongers are not supposed to think local. Increasingly, they are instructed not to think at all, but just obey. Any sense of Hong Kong identity is discouraged, in favor of strict loyalty to the Mainland regime. Yet, millions of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets to express their dissent. Trevor Klein chronicles the early pre-Extradition Bill protest movement in the short documentary, Days Before the Dawn (conceived as the first chapter of longer project), which screens tomorrow as part of the 2021 Anthem Film Festival.

Frankly, it is shameful the Western media is exploding with outrage over the events rocking Hong Kong. Seven and a half million people are in the process of losing their freedom and their way of life, but it didn’t just suddenly happen. The CCP had been trying to quietly undermine HK’s special status for years. Klein and his on-camera experts explain how democrats like Benny Tai adopted non-violent techniques to protest early versions of the CCP’s “National Security” Law and to agitate for the direct election of the Chief Executive.

also reminds us Joshua Wong founded Scholarism (which would become the dominant force directing the Umbrella protests) to combat plans to introduce CCP propaganda into school curriculums (at a time when we too are debating increasingly politicized indoctrination in our schools, particularly with respects to CRT). The background and context Klein and company give the so-called “Fishball Revolution” is particularly valuable, because the Western media was so remiss in covering it at the time.

Several future activists admit on-camera they did not fully recognize the significance at the time when C.Y Lee’s puppet government cracked down on traditional street hawkers, but the vendors’ push back helped forge the Localist Movement. Rather than an isolated incident,
Dawn positions the incident as an early attempt to undermine the distinctive culture and character of Hong Kong.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Kandisha, on Shudder

Aicha Kandisha is like a Moroccan Bloody Mary, but ironically, she has a more feminist attitude. She is invoked in a similar Candyman style, but she only kills men. The trouble is, she never stops with just one. That rather alarms the teenaged girl who summons the North African spirit to punish her violent ex in screenwriters-directors Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury’s Kandisha, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Amelie’s Parisian Banlieu community was already pretty grim and they were constantly making it more blighted with their tagging. Their favorite canvas is a condemned housing project, where they uncover Aicha Kandisha’s name on one of the graffiti and asbestos crusted walls. Morjana, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, explains the legend of Kandisha, a vengeful spirit, who in life seduced and murdered Portuguese invaders. In death, she returns to wreak vengeance on behalf of those who raise her, but she also kills five more men within the summoner’s circle.

has some familiar Bloody Mary/Candyman elements, but what really distinguishes it is the way it incorporates of North African Islamic myth and folklore (Dachra had a similar flavor, but it runs deeper here, even with the French setting). At one point, the film reminds us the pentangle was derived from the Sign of Solomon, which holds equal significance in Muslim, Judeo-Christian, and esoteric traditions. Kandisha also has some of the best exorcism sequences of the last two or three years of demonic horror films.

On the other hand, the three primary teen protags are not developed much better than the typical low-budget horror movie stock figures. Frankly, the three young thesps are not particularly memorable. On the other hand, the way Bustillo & Maury present the young women’s relationships is rather smart and acutely believable. Most of the time, they really don’t seem to like each other at all, but they keep killing time together, out of boredom and habit.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Hydra, on DVD

Forget your Marvel or Greek mythological associations. This “Hydra” is a Cheers-like Shinjuku hideaway bar-and-grill, except the chef is a reformed assassin. He is still lethally dangerous, as Tokyo’s corrupt cops and shadowy criminal outfits will learn the extremely hard way in director-co-action choreographer Kensuke Sonomura’s Hydra, which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Rina Kishida is the only one at Hydra, who is comfortable around Takaski Sato, but everyone respects his cooking. Sato was a friend of her father, who has dedicated himself to protecting her ever since Junichira Kishida mysteriously disappeared. Actually, his fate is not so hard to guess, as Sonomura will eventually confirm in a flashback.

Regardless, Sato tried to retire from Tokyo Life Group, the strange conspiratorial vigilante society he used to serve as an on-call assassin, but the group’s old enemies will not let him be. He also takes issue with a regular patron, who happens to be both a crooked senior police official and a date rapist.

With its dueling extralegal secret societies,
Hydra probably sounds like a high-concept thriller with a large, sprawling cast of characters, but Sonomura actually takes it in the opposite direction. He gives us a gritty-as-heck, ultra-personal martial arts beatdown, largely set in the back-alleys surrounding the bar.

Sonomura is a talented action and stunt guy, but he also proves to be remarkably skilled as a director, especially when it comes to establishing a street-smart noir vibe. This film broods massively hard. The first ten minutes feature minimal dialogue, but they are totally tense and intriguing.

As Sato, Masanori Mimoto (who worked with Sonomura on the equally scrappy
Bushido Man) is almost impossibly steely and his action chops are beyond reproach. He also develops some appealing Obiwan-chemistry with Miu as the somewhat naïve Rina. The villains are not very flamboyant, but co-star-co-action choreographer Naohiro Kawamoto still impresses with his moves and endurance in his exhausting climatic showdown with Sato. Plus, Yoji Tanaka (a.k.a. BoBA) adds grizzled gravity as old man Kishida.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Ailey: The Man and the Documentary

If you want to enjoy and jazz or blues show on Christmas night in Manhattan, sometimes the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (in residence at the City Center) is your best bet. Ailey’s “Night Creature,” set to the music of Ellington is considered a masterwork and “Blues Suite” from 1958 was one of his first true classics. Subsequently, the company even interpreted the music from Dizzy Gillespie’s film, Winter
 in Lisbon (if you can find that one streaming somewhere, let me know). Logically, Ailey always had a keen affinity for the jazz and blues of his southern roots and his New York adopted-home. Jamila Wignot chronicles Ailey’s life and repertoire in Ailey, which opens theatrically this Friday in New York.

Wignot incorporates plenty talking head interviews from Ailey company alumnus, but the film gets most of its vibe and personality from archival recordings of the man himself. It often gives
Ailey a dreamy quality, somewhat reminiscent of James Erskine’s Billie. To add a contemporary element, it also follows the rehearsals for a special anniversary gala, but those sequences are the least interesting part of the film.

Frankly, Ailey’s eloquence outshines that of everyone else—and his choreography is even more expressive. We see striking excerpts from “Blues Suite” and his most popular work by far, “Revelations.” At one point, Ailey discusses the burden of a “greatest hit.” Like most artists, he was always more interested in his latest piece, but he had to admit, it still held up when he watched it again years later.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Steve Canyon: The Gift

The United States military is not just a fighting force. They also often serve as an army of relief workers. Eastern Europe (and considerable stretches of Western Europe too) were in need of relief, during the immediate aftermath of WWII. Col. Steve Canyon has volunteered for a mission of mercy, but like any military operation, it will be imperiled by circumstances beyond his control in “The Gift,” the Christmas episode of Steve Canyon, co-written by Ray Bradbury (adapting his own short story), which airs next Saturday morning on Decades.

Bradbury’s original story does not feature Milton Caniff’s beloved hero or even the USAF, but if you read it, you can probably start visualizing how he and series story editor Sidney Carroll re-purposed it for the Canyonverse. As the episode opens, Canyon is flying to a displaced persons camp, to shuttle refugee children from Iron Curtain countries to West Germany, where families in the Allied Sectors have volunteered to host them for the holidays.

Initially, journalist Bert Quillan is flabbergasted by the operation. Indeed, “The Gift” nicely contrasts the cynicism of the press with the idealism of dedicated service personnel like Canyon. However, Quillan starts to melt when Canyon strong-arms him into playing Santa Claus. Much to their concern, little traumatized Lisa Serenko is not interested in any of the presents under the tree at the base. To make matters worse, her host family is delayed by a traffic accident, but Canyon is determined to save Christmas for her somehow.

“The Gift” is a simple story, but it is refreshingly heartfelt. It gave Dean Fredericks an opportunity to show his Steve Canyon could be sensitive and understated as well as tall and commanding. This is some of his best work in the series, especially opposite the jaded Quillan, nicely played by Sean McClory.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Original Sin: The Seven Sins and the Music of INXS

Jane is reeling from the anguish of a break-up and ailing due to the isolation of Xi Jinping’s pandemic. Instead of processing her pain through the four stages of grief, she works her way through the Seven Deadly Sins. Her heartbreak is so epic, it takes on a form inspired by Dante’s Inferno, set to the music of 1980’s super-group INXS. Each sin gets its own INXS hit, re-interpreted by guest artists with the approval of the surviving band members in Amy Tinkham’s short film Original Sin: The 7 Sins, which streams for a limited time on Veep.

Jane is pining for the ex that ghosted her, but it is hard to understand why. Frankly, the dweeb was out of the dancer’s league, especially when her attractive next-door neighbor so obviously carries a torch for her. Nevertheless, she descends into a self-destruction maelstrom of sin, guided astray by the Mephistophelean “Angel.” At least it is an orderly process, beginning with pride (which is still a deadly sin here, so give Tinkham credit for theological accuracy).

Each sin gets its own song, but casual INXS fans may take exception to the radically new arrangements. For those in the mood for some 1980s nostalgia (aren’t we always?) Tricky & INXS’s take on “Mediate” is probably the most recognizable and successful. More adventurous listeners (or less faithful fans) should appreciate how Global Network & Sophia Amato transform a tune like “Never Tear Us Apart.” Wyatt Stromer takes “What You Need” and “Need You Tonight” (with Eric Stromer in the former case and Trevor Jackson in the latter) and makes them sound almost unrecognizable, largely by down-laying the familiar vamps and riffs.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Schmigadoon! On Apple TV+

The last few years have been an up-and-down roller coaster for the book musical genre in Hollywood. Just when it gets some momentum from successes like Greatest Showman, Hamilton, and La La Land, something like Cats happens or a potential hit like In the Heights gets perversely savaged by the woke cancellers. Maybe this series will help. If you want to fully appreciate the jokes, you should have some familiarity with the vintage 1940s and 1950s Broadway musicals and movie adaptations it satirizes. When quarreling backpackers Melissa Gimble and Josh Skinner stumble into a magical early-20th Century Middle American town, they learn they can’t leave until they find true love. Things consequently get awkward when find themselves trapped there in writer-creators Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul’s Schmigadoon!, which starts streaming today on Apple TV.

For a few years, Skinner and Gimble were really good together. They are both doctors and generally share a similar sense of humor. However, their personality differences have recently started to become more pronounced. To save their relationship, Skinner reluctantly agreed to accompany Gimble on a couples’ getaway hike—and they sure got away.

When they take refuge from a flash storm in quaint-looking Schmigadoon, they assume it is some sort of musical-themed tourist attraction (which Skinner instantly detests), but a leprechaun (briefly played once by Martin Short, who still gets prominent billing throughout all episodes) sings them the truth. Nobody can leave Schmigadoon until they find their true love. When they can’t depart together, they start considering plan B’s.

Clearly, Dauno & Paul know their musicals. The title and magical setting are obviously inspired by
Brigadoon, but the opening flag-waver kind of brilliantly channels the title song of Oklahoma. You can also hear eventually clear echoes of The Music Man, Carousel, and a clinically frank re-write of “Do-Re-Mi” from the Sound of Music.

The writing tandem does a nice job poking good-natured fun at the traditional conventions of vintage musicals. Usually, they rather deftly note the dated nature of such stock characters, without judgmental rancor. The unfortunate exception is Mildred Layton, the town’s moral crusader, intended as a critique of intolerance, who actually represents intolerance towards Christian Evangelicals. At least
Wicked’s Kristin Chenoweth certainly can sing in the role.

More importantly, Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key have amusing hot-and-cold Tracy-and-Hepburnesque chemistry as Gimble and Skinner. They get a lot of laughs without wearing out their welcome. Alan Cumming is refreshingly understated as closeted Mayor Aloysius Menlove (for some of us, his name also brings to mind
Plan 9 co-star Dudley Manlove). Aaron Tveit probably gets the best vocal showcases as carny bad boy Danny Bailey, but Hamilton alumnus Ariana DuBose also shines in at least one number as “schoolmarm” Emma Tate.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars

I spent a lot of time at Arthur’s Tavern and the Jazz Standard, but I won’t be spending anymore, because neither will be reopening. In the case of Arthur’s, the building owner sold it out from under them, but presumably that decision was prompted by the long Covid shutdown. Of course, it isn’t just the musicians out of a job. The bartenders and wait staff we used to recognize were also rendered jobless. Johnny Sweet follows the impact of Xi Jinping’s pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders on a handful of New York City bar employees in Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars, which releases virtually tomorrow.

Sweet focuses on a small group of bar employees, primarily in Queens, who all seem to know each other, but of course, they haven’t seen each other (or hardly anyone else) since Cuomo issued the shutdown order. Naturally, they are all deeply concerned about the victims of the disease, especially in hard hit Queens, but the financial repercussions of the shutdown are severe and increasingly pressing for them.

Last Call
has been dinged by critics for concentrating on a relatively small sampling of impacted bar workers, but that is actually the film’s strength. Several interview subjects reluctantly liken the Sparrow Tavern to Cheers—and their point is taken. We get why people kept coming in. Jena Ellenwood, the Sparrow bartender turned online cocktail guru, is particularly frank and engaging in her segments.

Die in a Gunfight

The Gibbons and the Rathcarts are feuding media families, sort of like the Murdochs and the Bloombergs, but when the latter hires a hitman to dispose of a whistleblower, they do not prohibit the use of firearms. Obviously, the two families are transparently inspired by the Montagues and Capulets, especially given the star-crossed love of Ben Gibbons and Mary Rathcart. Their parents are determined to keep them apart, but love and fate keeps bringing them back together in Collin Schiffli’s Die in a Gunfight, which releases Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Ben Gibbons was immature, rebellious, and self-destructive, until he and Mary Rathcart fell head over heels for each other. Unfortunately, he reverted to his old ways when their parents separated them and severed all contact. Now, Rathcart is back from the Parisian boarding school where she was stashed. Initially, they are standoffish, assuming they ghosted each other, but soon the old magic is rekindled.

Of course, their parents aren’t having it, especially Don Rathcart. He already has Terrence Uberahl, his weaselly enforcer, contracting a hit on a former employee turned states’ evidence, so he might as well add Romeo Gibbons into the workflow. It is personal for Uberahl, since he covets Juliet Rathcart for himself. However, the assassin turns out to be a bit unpredictable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Great Performances: Roots of Latin Jazz

Clearly, things are looking up, because Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra is back at Birdland and Bobby Sanabria is touring again, including with his Multiverse big band. If you do not understand why that is such a good thing, Sheila E. (the daughter of legendary Latin Jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo), will explain it to you, with the help of Tony Succar and Dr. Pablo Gil, who launched the Raices Jazz Orchestra to celebrate Latin Jazz’s global sources. Their survey of Latin Jazz national hotspots doubles as a companion film to Raices’ debut release when Roots of Latin Jazz airs this Friday, as part of the current season of Great Performances on PBS.

Go ahead, turn up the volume and don’t worry about your neighbors, because they are sure to enjoy the percussion and brass that feature so prominently in the Raices’ arrangements. Their kick-off performance of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane,” in tribute of the Havana-New York axis of Dizzy Gillespie’s Cubop band is a perfect example.

Brazil exported some of the biggest Latin Jazz crossover hits, but instead of bossa nova, Succar and Gil explore samba rhythms and berimbau instrumentation on Jorge Ben Jor’s “Mas Que Nada” (widely popularized by Sergio Mendes), with vocalist Anaadi. Call it loungey or an ear worm, but the song still gets in your head—and Gil’s tenor solo is legit.

Next, they are off to Peru, spotlighting the cajon percussion box on “Feste Fuego” and the Andean Quena flute on “Peru Lando,” which also features some swinging trumpet and trombone solos. These are richly textured and energetic performances, but the tempos of the program mostly rage from fast to furious. That is why the more relaxed West African-flavored “Invocation” is a nice change of pace. It also boasts Richard Bona’s ultra-cool vocals and bass.

Perhaps the high point comes from Spain, where Succar, Gil, and company collaborate with flamenco musicians on “Midnight in Spain.” It is soulful and also fun to watch the stomping choreography-percussion.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Pig: Nic Cage Cooks Truffles

Seattle has coffee and Oregon has truffles, but don’t call them white truffles. Oregon truffles are their own thing. Robert Feld has a pig with a nose for finding them. She is so good at sniffing out the delicacy, she gets pignapped. Feld deliberately turned his back on human society, but he dives back into the seamy Kitchen Confidential-side of Portland’s fine dining scene to find her in Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Feld is shaggy looking, but gentle in demeanor, at least when left to his own devices. He was once culinary figure of great local renown, but he now ekes out all the living he needs selling truffles to Amir, a young fine-food dealer trying to follow his father’s footsteps. When junkies steal Feld’s pig at the behest of a mystery villain, Amir gets to be his driver and wingman. It turns out the grizzled hermit knows more of the city’s dirty restaurant secrets than he does.

has been likened to a “John Wick with a pig,” but it is far different tonally and stylistically. Like Oregon truffles, Pig is its own thing, in a refreshingly distinctive way. In place of action set pieces, Sarnoski explores the ways in which foods are tied to memory and emotional responses. It all builds to a third act climax that was definitely a bit of a gamble, but Sarnoski and his small cast pull it off nicely.

As Feld, Nic Cage looks like a wild man, but he is in nearly-silent mode this time around. He still broods harder than ever and goes all in during scenes depicting physical extremes. However, Cage forgoes the raging and snorting we have come to expect from him, in favor of quiet sheer power-emoting. This is restrained work from the master of mayhem, but Cage is genuinely magnetic on-screen.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Great White: They are a Summer Tradition

It wouldn't be summer without sharks, just like barbeque and the MLB All-Star game, but they are preferably seen from the safety of a movie screen. For a Japanese couple’s excursion, Kaz and Charlie did not set out looking for sharks, but they found two as a cool bonus. Somehow their clients don’t see it that way when they all wind up clinging to a life raft, with the sharks circling beneath them, in Martin Wilson’s Great White, which releases in theaters and on-demand this Friday.

Kaz and Charlie are really scuffling, so they needed Michelle and Joji’s tour, especially since Kaz is newly pregnant. As a trained marine-biologist working as a charter pilot, Charlie did not expect sharks to still be swimming in these waters so late in the season, but boy was he wrong. The entitled Joji took exception when Charlie made a detour in search of a missing vessel, but in retrospect, he may have had a point.

They do indeed find the derelict yacht, but they also discover what totaled it: two great white sharks hunting in tandem. The sharks make quick work of their seaplane, but the bright orange inflatable life raft is far more durable. (Seriously, the producers should tell us what brand it is, because it is amazingly shark resistant.) Regardless, it is highly unlikely help will be coming, so they must try to quietly ride the current back to shore. Of course, there are obvious flaws to this plan. If Joji and Michelle survive, Kaz and Charlie certainly can’t blame them if they leave a scathing Yelp review.

The reviews from film critics will not be much better. There have been plenty of entertaining post-
Jaws shark movies (Meg would be a standout thanks to the energy of Jason Statham and Li Bingbing), but Great White is just too simplistic and uninspired. Even the lifeboat tension between the super-jealous Joji and the charter’s Islander chef Benny feels blatantly contrived.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Richard Lyford’s As the Earth Turns

Pax is a lot like Superman in The Quest for Peace, except he is actually the super-villain. He intends to force the warring nations of the world to beat their arms into plowshares through his ability to unleash terrorizing storms and earthquakes. If he succeeds, they could call it Pax Pax, but the old European warmongers are skeptical. Intrepid reporter Julie Weston believes his powers are real and she intends to get the scoop in Richard Lyford’s long-lost silent film As the Earth Turns, which releases Thursday on DVD.

In the early 1930s, synch-sound was standard for Hollywood studio productions, but silent films were still widely produced internationally. By 1938, silent movies were pretty rare, but for twenty-year-old Lyford went soundless for his 45-minute ultra-indie-DIY adaptation of Arthur Train & Robert Williams Wood’s H.G. Wellsian novel,
The Man Who Rocked the Earth. Before winning an Oscar for re-cutting an Italian Michelangelo documentary, Lyford had a successful career as a Disney animator, but it is really a shame he didn’t work for Toho, because he had a precocious talent for destroying scale models.

Needing s big break, Weston starts haunting an American intelligence listening station, where she overhears Pax’s initial threats. Shockingly, he then makes good on them, but all the political insiders insist it must be a coincidence. As Pax continues to batter the world with super-storms, Weston and her potential love-interest crony enlist the help of Prof. Lionel Banks, who shares Pax’s scientific mind and, as a veteran of WWI, his revulsion for war.

Eventually, the daring trio follow Pax’s sleek scifi-style airship to his Fortress of Solitude-like lair. Technically, Lyford’s film has been compared to
Flash Gordon serials, which is actually quite apt. It is pretty amazing what he was able to render in his backyard and at the locations around his Seattle home. Frankly, ATET looks better than most sci-fi monster movies from the late 1950s and early 1960s. (I hate to say it, but he really makes Ed Wood look bad in comparison.)

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Wellington Paranormal, on CW

So far, Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows has been far more successful launching a shared monster universe than the mediocre remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise (supposedly the first film of Universal’s “Dark Universe”). A sequel is still in development, but Waititi & Clement have already spun-off two series. The first (predating the like-titled FX series) finally airs in the American market when Wellington Paranormal premieres tomorrow on the CW.

Wellington Officers Minogue and O’Leary appeared in the original film and they have not gotten any more intuitive or observant since then. They are almost genetically incapable of processing anything outside their narrow frame of reference. Yet, they keep responding to cases involving supernatural elements, so Sgt. Maaka recruits them for his special Paranormal squad. Maaka believes, but he only inspires modestly greater confidence than the plodding uniform officers.

In the original first NZ season, Minogue and O’Leary work cases involving demonic possession, alien abduction (and cow abduction), ghostly hauntings, werewolves, vampires, and zombies. Clement only co-wrote two episodes, the first “Demon Girl” and the last, “Zombie Cops,” but they are all quite funny, blending the outrageously goofy with the drily droll.

Arguably, the funniest material is found in “Things that Do the Bump in the Night,” wherein Minogue and O’Leary uncover a ghostly party of 1970s swingers, who died in waterbed and cheese fondue accidents. Like the original film,
Wellington Paranormal is shot mockumentary-style, but the effects look pretty good on-screen. The movements of the possessed girl in the first episode are even kind of creepy.

Mike Minogue and Karen O’Leary are amazingly deadpan as their namesakes. She is slightly more assertive and he is probably several notches dumber, but they both find ways to mine laughs from their characters’ utter cluelessness. Their bantering rhythms are very funny, but they would make you scream and pull your hair in frustration if you actually had to work with them.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Professor T (The British One), on PBS

Jasper Tempest is like the Prof. Kingsfield of criminology, but with a conspicuous case of OCD. He is the professor his Cambridge students hope they don’t get, but one of his former students masochistically recruits his services as an outside police consultant anyway. What Tempest lacks in social grace he (maybe) makes up for in intuition and deductive reasoning during the course Professor T, the British remake of the popular Belgian series, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

The initial case in “Anatomy of a Memory” is personal for DS Lisa Donckers. The rape of a student at her old college bears many similarities to the attack on a friend during their undergrad years. If it is the same assailant, Donckers might finally grant her a small measure of justice, but the latest victim has completely blocked out all memories of the attack. Methodical Prof. T could help her remember telling details, but he is difficult to work with and she is not sure she wants to revisit the trauma.

Donckers is not the only member of the team who has history with Tempest. Oddly enough, DCI Christina Brand was once romantically involved with him, but it did not work out, for obvious reasons. For extra romantic tension, Donckers’ partner Dan Winters makes it clear he would like to develop their occasional hook-ups into a serious relationship. Meanwhile, the grieving DI Paul Rabbit is barely holding it together—and Tempest’s tactlessness is not helping.

Whereas “Anatomy” is more about method than mystery, “A Fish Called Walter” starts out like a traditional British mystery, in which a party guest is accidentally poisoned with laced champagne presumably meant for someone else. Like many of the cases Tempest and company investigate, it takes a rather dark turn when suspicion falls on the father of an ailing young girl desperately in need of a transplant. Writers Matt Baker & Malin-Sarah Gozin frequently depict the sadness and desperation of the human condition. In “Fish,” they also capture the arrogance and corruption of government bureaucrats.

Perhaps the best episode is “Tiger Tiger,” a tricky hostage crisis thriller. The twists are decent (if not absolutely flabbergasting), but series director Dries Vos definitely ratchets up the tension. Of course, who better to negotiate with the captors than a charmer like Professor T?

“Mother Love” is also a kidnapping case, but the circumstances are significantly different. Themes of motherhood abound, as the team works to reunite an abducted young girl with her parents, while Tempest does his best to continue ignoring his issues with his controlling mother, Adelaide.

“Sophie Knows” probably holds the distinction of being the saddest episode of
Professor T, which is saying something. The titular Sophie has Down Syndrome and mild autism, which leads to a strange affinity with Tempest. She might have witnessed her mother’s murder, but she is not ready to talk yet.

Professor T ends with probably its second-best episode, The Dutiful Child. A Gates-Buffet-like philanthropist is rather cavalierly disregarding death threats and an attempt on his life. The team is annoyed by his attitude and they soon start to suspect his attempts to throw suspicion on critics of his stem-cell research. Things also get dark, as usual, despite Tempest’s regular flights of fantasy and surreal day dreams.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Dachra: Tunisia’s First Horror Movie

In North Africa, they take witchcraft seriously—like Salem serious. That is how Tunisia’s (believed to be) first horror movie halfway credibly carries the Amityville-style “based on a true story” tag line. Aspiring journalism grad students like Jassmine are more interested in the Jasmine Revolution, but true to journalistic group think, their reports are so similar, their crusty old French prof has banned it as a topic for their final project. Instead, Jassmine and her two bickering colleagues venture into a remote country hamlet hoping to find an original true crime story in Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s Dachra, which opens tomorrow in physical and virtual theaters.

Jassmine is probably more talented than her obnoxious cameraman Bilel and sound guy Walid, but she works with them anyway. She should be listening more to Bechir, the devout grandfather who raised her. He is concerned she still has nightmares of a malevolent “Woman in Black,” but of course, she just blows off his concerns. Instead, she agrees with their half-baked plan to score an interview with a suspected witch who has been secretly committed to an insane asylum.

The interview is rather awkward, but it leads them to a strange tucked-away village (or Dachra) where strange things seem to be afoot. The women are suspiciously quiet, but the talkative Saber is maybe a little welcoming. Whatever is going on, it just might involve Jassmine personally.

incorporates plenty of established genre tropes, including elements of supernatural, cult, and folk horror. The good news is it teases us with the (dubious) promise of found footage too, but instead it presents itself as a professional film. Bouchnak’s cafeteria-style approach actually works pretty well. The backdrop of widespread superstition and traditional Islam gives the film a sense of absolute conviction, like Catholic possession films in the tradition of The Exorcist. Witchcraft is utterly real in Dachra and it is profoundly dangerous.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Son, on Shudder

Have you heard it takes a village to raise a child? How about a satanic cult of pedophiles? When the pregnant Laura barely escaped from their clutches, the last thing she wanted was to have her sinisterly-conceived child. However, she changed her mind once her boy David arrived. Now, she will do anything to protect him from his dark legacy in Ivan Kavanagh’s Son, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Initially, it seems like Laura managed to re-start her life working as an elementary school teacher and raising David (with his Prince Valliant haircut). Unfortunately, her nightmarish past catches up with her when she finds a congregation of cultists in David’s room, acting freaky. When sympathetic cop Paul Tate and his impatient partner arrive, they find no sign of forced entry. However, Tate is still supportive when a mysterious, potentially fatal illness befalls David shortly thereafter.

Laura is convinced her old cult somehow “changed” David, with the intention of kidnapping him, to return him to the evil fold. Tate wants to help, but everyone keeps telling him Laura just suffers from severe post-traumatic stress (even though David’s unexplained malady is certainly real enough).

Like Kavanagh’s
The Canal, Son builds tension more from atmosphere and eerie visuals than violent gore or special effects. Kavanagh has a sharp eye, but relatively experienced horror viewers will anticipate every supposedly shocking twist.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Silat Warriors: Deed of Death

It's always "all in the family" in martial arts movies. All the kids have skills and nemesis of the father inevitably becomes the nemesis of them all. In this case, Pak Nayan’s gambling-addicted black sheep son gives his old rival an opening to take the family farm, but the master-turned-gangster’s thugs are totally outclassed by their righteous command of Malay Silat in Areel Abu Bakar’s Silat Warriors: Deed of Death, which release today on DVD and BluRay.

Compulsive mess-up Mat Arip stole his father’s deed to serve as collateral for his gambling debt, but he lacks standing to sign the property over to shadowy Haji Daud. Of course, the loan shark sends his thugs to strong-arm Pak Nayan, but his responsible son Ali and hot-tempered daughter Fatima are having none of it.

Periodically, they make further attempts to intimidate Ali and Fatima, but they have more luck focusing on Mat Arip. His debt just keeps mounting, as they fix the street races and back-alley matches he participates in or wagers on. Yet, it is still tough to beat his skills in a halfway fair fight.

The martial arts in
Silat Warriors are impressive, but the screenplay is far less so. Basically, the film is a series of highly physical fight scenes strung together with some connective tissue designed to appeal to average Malaysian viewers through themes of faith and family. Hard work, devotion, and self-discipline definitely seem to produce better results in the long-run than corner-cutting, recklessness, and flashy big city living.

Regardless, Fad Anuar, Faiyna Tajudin, and Khoharullah Majid all show off some terrific Silat chops as Mat Arip, Fatima, and Ali, respectively. Arguably, Ali becomes lead hero of the film, because he is the one of fights his way through all the bad guys during the extended climax (unimaginatively set in an abandoned factory), but the other two get plenty of screen time—so much so, the film almost feels like an ensemble piece.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Above the Best: Air Support for Independence Day

On Independence Day, we should give thanks for the men and women serving in the American military. With the hostile regimes in Mainland China, Russia, Iran and North Korea all acting with greater belligerence, we are going to need their training and discipline more than ever. No filmmakers have documented the courage and professionalism of American military personnel better than the tandem of David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud. The Fourth of July is a fine time to catch up with their Above the Best, which captures the efforts of Army Apache helicopter pilots to provide air support to troops on the ground.

focuses on CW4 Daniel Flores’ service, flying two extremely dangerous missions in Afghanistan, after surviving a crash stateside that led to intermittent bouts of claustrophobia. However, the film starts with a controversial incident involving a crashed Chinook, whose entire crew was lost and presumed dead. Flores makes it clear he would never leave anyone on the ground unprotected—and he had his chances to prove it.

The first extended battle
Above documents involved an Afghan convoy, with three embedded Americans, a Captain (who is not heard from, perhaps for good reason) and a lieutenant and master sergeant, who give the full blow-by-blow. Finding them was tricky, but eventually Flores and his crew escorted them safely through one ambush after another.

According to protocol, at least two Apaches should always be deployed together, but due to extreme circumstances, Flores was ordered to accompany a convoy carrying a high-ranking general directly into the Korengal Valley, the so-called “Valley of Death.” He found himself flying with the equivalent of one hand tied behind his back, because his bullets had not been properly replenished.

Flores and his American comrades, both in the air and on the ground, get their full due in
Above. However, many of the interview subjects go out of their way to also give credit to the Afghan regular army soldiers, describing them as patriots. As they point out, the Afghans do not just fight without advanced body army. Many times, they also fight without material like socks. They particularly single out for praise interpreter Naser Ahmadi, who is there for the happy first face-to-face meeting Flores has at the end of the film with some of the ground forces he supported from the air.