Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Haunted Museum, on Discovery+


Instead of based on a true story,” these anthology tales are based on a “true” object. Each episode takes its inspiration from exhibits collected in the spooky Las Vegas museum curated by Discovery Channels’ resident paranormal investigator, Zak Bagans. He doesn’t claim the stories really happened, but they are consistent with the artifacts’ purported powers. For horror fans, the museum collection has a vibe similar to Friday the 13th: the Series and the Warrens’ occult collection in The Conjuring franchise. The concept still works pretty well in Discovery+’s rare foray into scripted drama, The Haunted Museum, produced by Bagans and Eli Roth, which premieres this Saturday.

Naturally, Bagans introduces each episode and provides some colorful background on the evil item viewers are about to witness in action. The dramas that follow have the sort of low-fi look that we have come to expect from reality show re-enactments, but they are definitely self-contained stories in their own right (at least this is very definitely true of the first three episodes provided to reviewers). In some cases, the grungy look actually serves the stories well.

Frankly, the series premiere, “Doll House of the Damned,” might even be scarier if viewers have not already seen
Creepshow’s thematically similar (and even creepier) “The House of the Head.” Nevertheless, screenwriter-director Justin Harding pulls off some clever sequences and the satanic imagery the grieving father finds in the titular doll house he unwisely purchases will definitely raise the hair on the back of your neck. However, the tone of this excursion into family madness and terror is more than a bit depressing.

The back-to-back premiere night also includes “Monster in the Machine” (directed by Ethan Evans and written by Evans and Jesse Bartlett), which is probably the best of the series, so far. It follows Esther Levin, a somewhat discredited academic, who has devised a series of machines (now in Bagans’ museum, of course) that can contact spirts from other dimensions. Initially, she believes she has reached a guardian angel, but when its voice falls silent, she starts to suspect she also contacted something much more sinister.

There is a bit of a Lovecraftian dimension to “Machine,” but it is more grounded and ultimately more disturbing. Evans masterfully controls the mood, milking tension from eerie settings, weird noises, and images half-seen out the corner of viewers’ eyes. Lawrene Denkers is also terrific as the brilliant but tragically flowed Levin.

Blush (short), on Apple TV+

In 1942, science fiction author Jack Williamson coined the term “terraforming” in his short story “Collision Orbit.” He never thought the process could be so easy for a space-faring horticulturalist like this young chap. The unnamed astronaut just needed the help of a pretty alien woman in Joe Mateo’s animated short Blush, which starts streaming tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Clearly, the astronaut’s defense system did not provide enough advance warning against asteroid collisions. As a result, he is stuck on a dwarf planet just marginally larger than the Little Prince’s, but it lacks handy features like an atmosphere or vegetation—until the alien girl also makes a sudden crash landing.

She looks very human, aside from a very flat nose. She also seems to magically supply oxygen and spurs the horticulturalist’s plants to take root and blossom on the formerly desolate rock. Soon, the planetoid is an oasis and the former travelers are happily in love. Naturally, they start a family, but eventually we see signs that the usual cycle of life must continue, even in paradise.

Arguably,
Blush is a more poignant and thoughtful depiction of humanity hitting the reset button than Apple’s Foundation. Although it holds great symbolic weight, it also represents a personal labor of love for Mateo, who was inspired by the passing of his own wife. It is accessible, but not dumbed-down. In fact, the absence of dialogue quite distinguishes it from the noisy pack (yet kids shouldn’t have any trouble with it, just like they could deal with Shaun the Sheep).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters [Extended]

There are good reasons nobody has managed to recapture the magic of the original Ghostbusters. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis were riffing at the top of their games, Koch-era New York was still gritty, but not too Dinkins-gritty, and the villain was an EPA regulator. Unfortunately, the studio tried anyway, but the woeful reboot is mercifully ignored and the so-so sequel is only mentioned in passing during the new extended cut of Anthony Bueno’s Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering the Ghostbusters, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Ghostbusters
is a prime example of why the 1980s were such a great decade for movies. In some ways, it was an unassuming buddy film, yet Ghostbusters broke new ground in its use of special effects in service of comedy and became one of the greatest box-office hits of all-time. Bueno talks to just about everyone involved in the making, except Bill Murray, but that is to be expected, given his rep for media-shy eccentricity.

Aykroyd and director Ivan Reitman trace the film’s origins, starting with Aykroyd’s initial off-the-wall, futuristic treatment that sounds almost like a ghost-busting version of
Starship Troopers. Eventually, Ramis sat down with Aykroyd to script out something more contemporary and grounded. Their writing flowed nicely, not that the stars always kept to the printed page. To Reitman’s credit, he also directly addresses the scaled-down role of fourth Ghostbuster Winston Zeddmore (probably the great Ghostbusters controversy), about which actor (and fan favorite) Ernie Hudson maintains a philosophical tone.

When watching
Cleanin’ you realize it is unlikely future filmmakers could make equivalent documentaries about the big superhero tentpoles of our current day. Whereas Bueno’s film is chocked full of clever work-arounds devised by the special effects team, contemporary CGI films would just have SFX artists on laptops and actors wearing motion capture suits. In contrast, an awful lot of the effects on Ghostbusters were practical—and they had to render them relatively cheaply and with a much faster turnaround time than was previously standard practice.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Creepshow: Skeletons in the Closet & Familiar


Horror fans are a lot like serial killers. They both like to collect. However, you want to be sure you’re not the one being collected. Viewers can see the dark side of the collecting impulse in the latest episode of showrunner Greg Nicotero’s Creepshow, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

In “Skeletons in the Closet” (written by John Esposito and directed by Nicotero), Lampini’s late father was an avid horror movie prop collector, so he has turned the family collection into a museum on the Hollywood Strip. Just when he is poised to make a splash with an exhibit of actual human skeletons that appeared in classic films (this is a very real phenomenon that happens more often than you would think), his father’s old nemesis “Bateman” (sort of like “Newman!” in
Seinfeld) arrives to ask awkward questions of providence. However, that might turn out to be a mistake, given Lampini has an excuse to have a bunch of skeletons lying around.

“Skeletons” is another wonderful loving, yet drolly macabre love letter to horror fandom. Nicotero and Esposito incorporate some very funny visual homages to iconic films, such as
Psycho, The Shining, and Jason and the Argonauts. The latter is especially deranged, but somehow it makes perfect sense within the narrative. The great James Remar is terrific as the sleazy Bateman and Valerie Leblanc vamps it up entertainingly (and lives up to the pressure of a Hitchcock-inspired shower scene) as Lampini’s girlfriend, Danielle. Frankly, this is the sort ironic, fan-appreciating story Creepshow does best, along with segments like “Night of the Living Late Show” and “Public Television of the Dead.”

The vibe is more serious (at least by
Creepshow standards) throughout “Familiar” (written by Josh Malerman and directed by Joe Lynch), but it is still rather amusing to watch a yuppy lawyers and hipster artist deal with an uncanny stalker. Fortuitously, Jackson’s wife Fawn just happened to drag him in for a reading from Boone the psychic, as a lark, soon after a demonic familiar latched onto him. Boone has advice for dealing with the supernatural parasite—and conveniently, he accepts all major credit cards—but the correct execution will be a tricky matter.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Blithe Spirit, Remade Again

Everyone loves a good haunted marriage, especially when the living spouse has subsequently remarried, like in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the highest grossing Brazilian film for decades (spawning the American remake, Kiss Me Goodbye). Noel Coward got there first, scoring a West End hit that became a classic David Lean film, before morphing into the moderately successful Broadway musical, High Spirits. Nobody sings “You’d Better Love Me” or any of those forgotten Broadway tunes, but the is plenty of old-fashioned farce in Edward Hall’s remake of Blithe Spirit, which releases tomorrow on DVD.

Charles Condomine is a slightly Bertie Wooster-ish mystery novelist, who still misses his late wife Elvira, even though he remarried the well-heeled Ruth, whose producer father is impatiently awaiting Condomine’s first screenplay. We soon learn he has not written a word since Elvira died, because she came up with all the best parts of his novels, like the plots, characters, and dialogue.

Condomine hatches an idea to break his writer’s block by hiring the discredited psychic Madame Arcati to conduct a séance in his home. It works better than he ever could have hoped when she inadvertently summons the spirit of the first Ms. Condomine, who is highly jealous of the second—so much so, she might take matters into her own spectral hands.

This
Blithe Spirit does not exactly reflect Coward’s dry-martini wit, but it is a lightweight puff of door-slamming slapstick. A writer like Sir Julian Fellowes might have better channeled Coward’s urbane sophistication, but at least screenwriters Nick Moorcraft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth (there are three of them to adapt one play) capture the boozy upper-crust vibe.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Fantastic Fest ’21: The Sadness

These zombies are fast and angry. You might also call them bad touchers. It turns out the same virus over-stimulating the infecteds’ aggression centers has a similar effect on their sex drives. That means anyone they get their hands on is in for some rather nasty treatment in director-screenwriter Rob Jabbaz’s brutal zombie movie The Sadness, which screens during this year’s Fantastic Fest.

Jim a is a nice enough Taiwanese freelancer, who is trying not to screw-up his relationship with Kat—and he was probably failing. However, all bets are off this fateful day. After dropping her off the train station, a zombie apocalypse breaks out, both on the streets he must navigate and the subway car she is stuck on.

Apparently, the zombie outbreak is the result of the new Alvin virus mutating in unexpected ways. Those who are afflicted do not completely lose their consciousness. It just brings out the absolute worst in people, especially their grudges and sadistic tendencies. As a result, the pervy commuter zombie is just as eager to find Kat again as Jim is.

Jabbaz’s screenplay is a pretty standard zombie outbreak narrative—zombies suddenly attack and society reacts in confusion. What distinguishes it are the deranged extremes Jabbaz takes it to. Seriously, this film could never appear on network television, because there would be nothing left to broadcast. These are probably the most violent zombies in the history of zombie movies, but what makes them disturbing is how they reflect the former humans’ darkest impulses.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Feng Xiaogang at Asia Society: If You Are the One

It was a 2008 blockbuster that helped herald the rise of Mainland China’s homegrown tent-poles, but being at the top of the domestic box-office was already a familiar place for Feng Xiaogang. After trying his hand at jingoistic spectacle, he returned to the sentimental melodrama that had been his bread and butter (yet his boldest work was still ahead of him). Millions of Chinese movie fans have seen it, but it feels a little dated thirteen years later and not just because of the flip phones. Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why Ge You would be so interested in Shu Qi when they meet on a blind date in Feng’s If You Are the One, which screens online for free this weekend, as part of the Asia Society’s Feng retrospective.

Qin Fen is a middle-aged rogue who never amounted to much, until he sold a gimmicky invention to venture capitalist with more money than sense. Now ready to settle down, he places a personal add, because that sort of thing had not completely gone online yet. He has many blind dates that are uncomfortable in uniquely shticky ways, but his meeting with flight attendant Xiaxiao “Smiley” Liang takes the cake.

First of all, she is obviously way out of his league. She also seems to radiate a sense of sadness. Qin quickly decides they have no future and she agrees, but both reveal much of themselves over the course of their boozy “what the heck” conversation. In fact,
IYATO might have been considered a masterpiece if it had ended after his riveting confession, around the half-hour mark.

Instead, fate brings them together again and again after that. Eventually, Liang even pretends she is serious about a relationship and marriage, even though he knows she still pines for her caddish married lover. They share a connection, but if it isn’t love, can it still be enough?

With Xi currently engaged in a weird crackdown on celebrity culture and the Chinese film industry, it is suddenly amusing to watch films from not so long ago to pick out the things that might be troublesome now. We wish no ill on her, but we have to wonder how long Taiwanese thesps like Shu Qi can continue to star in Mainland at the level they did during the pre-Xi Jinping era.

Feng also satirizes China’s go-go deal-making mentality in a way that maybe isn’t so funny in the wake of the Evergrande meltdown. Unfortunately, some of the film’s best parts could now be at risk, including Qin Fen’s great early monologue, which speaks directly about lack of legal and practical equality for women in China. He also has a notable scene with Vivian Hsu, portraying a Taiwanese blind-date, with whom he discusses his gratitude for the assistance Taiwan offered during the Shenzhen earthquake.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Foundation, on Apple TV+

Individuals have free will, so they can’t be predicted. However, the course of societies and civilizations can be projected with astonishing mathematical accuracy. Such is the contention of mathematician Hari Seldon, who pioneered the study and application of Psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Seldon calculates the Galactic Empire will fall in roughly 500 years, but that is not a message the authorities want to hear. However, his followers believe they can drastically shorten the coming dark age if they implement his grand plan in showrunner David S. Goyer’s first season of Foundation, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Young genius Gaal Dornick journeys from a backwater planet to the seat of the Empire on Trantor, at the invitation of the great Hari Seldon, unaware of his status as a dissident pariah (she was a man in the book, but whatever). Much to her surprise, Dornick is soon arrested along with Seldon, but the Imperial inquisition will offer him a deal, just like he expected. The Psychohistorians will be allowed to assemble their great encyclopedia of human knowledge, but they must do so in exile, on the most remote planet of the known universe: Terminus.

This tracks pretty closely with “The Psychohistorians,” the first part of the original
Foundation novel (you can hear William Shatner’s LP reading here), but as soon as the Foundation settlers leave on their journey, Goyer and co-writer Josh Freidman drastically depart from Asimov. In fact, it often feels like they were trying to adapt Dune instead, even though they lacked the rights.

Much of Apple’s
Foundation is devoted to the courtly intrigue surrounding the genetic clones of Emperor Cleon the 1st. The Foundation books only had two Cleons (appearing in the prequels) and the first was no great shakes, but in this re-envisioning, the Empire is up to its 13th Cleon, known as “Brother Day” who shares the throne with “Brother Dusk,” an older clone who can offer the wisdom of his experience, and “Brother Dawn,” a younger clone that will be groomed to succeed him. (These characters are original to the series, but the succession of clones over centuries is sort of reminiscent of the Duncan Idaho clones in God Emperor of Dune.)

Eventually, Brother Day will be drawn into an intrigue involving a powerful religious order that somewhat resembles the Bene Gesserit (without the overt powers). As they rule over Trantor, the Genetic Emperor[s] will have the wise counsel of Demerzel, who survived an ancient war against robots (sort of like
Dune’s Butlerian Jihad). Meanwhile, Salvor Hardin (also gender-switched) oversees the security of Terminus. It is a role she is uniquely suited to, since she is largely immune to the disorienting field that surrounds the mysterious “the Vault,” a “big dumb object,” in the science fiction tradition of 2001’s obelisk that never registered on any of their planetary surveys.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Chernobyl 1986: The Abyss

Ironically, the heroes of this big Russian patriotic tearjerker are Ukrainian. That is what you call people who were born in Ukraine and subsequently lived there. Of course, at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, but not by choice. Regardless, a Ukrainian fireman saves the USSR from utter and complete catastrophe in Danila Kozlovsky’s Chernobyl 1986 (a.k.a. Chernobyl: Abyss), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Played by the director himself, Alexey Karpushin was a hot-shot Tom Cruise-ish fire-fighter, who just resigned from Pripyat fire department, so you know what that means. He hoped to finally figure out his relationship with local hairdresser Olga Savostina and the son he only recently learned he had. Instead, he rushes to extinguish the fires at Chernobyl reactor #4, in what turns out to be a doomed effort.

Unfortunately, the little Savostina ragamuffin was passing by the plant just when the initial explosions happened, so he received a dangerous dose of radiation. Karpushin tries to be there for the family that is not ready to acknowledge him, but he soon decides the best thing he can do is leverage his expertise to secure a place for his son in the special charter to Switzerland, for advanced radiation treatment. Wait a minute, the USSR sent priority patients to Switzerland instead of their close ally, the medical Mecca of Cuba? Surely, that can’t be right?

Kozlovsky’s
1986 absolutely pales in comparison to HBO’s gripping Chernobyl miniseries, in which writer-creator Craig Mazin masterfully documented every corrupt and incompetent step that led to the disaster and the iffy response, as well as the subsequent cover-up. In this case, co-screenwriters Elena Ivanova and Aleksey Kazakov call out some of the Party malfeasance (because how could they not?), but ignore the Soviets’ systemic efforts to obscure the truth.

Instead, we get plenty of the torturous (to watch) Karpushin-Savostina romance. It takes a full half-hour before disaster finally strikes, which is way too long in a disaster movie. Kozlovsky and Oksana Akinshina are both big-name Russian romantic leads, but they share less sexual chemistry than Trump and AOC (who are obviously both turned on by raw power). By the way, according to wiki, Akinshina referred to feminism as “the destiny of ugly women,” so it sounds like she got the memo from Russia’s boss of bosses.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Apache Junction

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Godspeed, Los Polacos

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 20, 2021

Magnolia at MoMA: Ong-Bak

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

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

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

Creepshow: Mums & Queen Bee

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Copshop: Grillo vs. Butler

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

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


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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Prisoner: The (Highly) Original Series

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 17, 2021

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lady of the Manor

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

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

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

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

INFF ’21: The Cemetery of Lost Souls

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Li Yu’s Ever Since We Love

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Gunfight at Dry River : Co-Starring Michael Moriarty

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 10, 2021

9/11: Four Flights


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

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

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

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

INFF ’21: Chico Mario—A Melody of Freedom

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 09, 2021

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


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

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

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

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

American Rust, on Showtime

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Come from Away, Recorded Live-On Broadway


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Martyr’s Lane, on Shudder

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

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

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

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