Tuesday, November 30, 2021

FLEE (from the Taliban)

Thanks to Biden's cowardly and callous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the history in this film has already repeated itself. Twenty years ago, the rise of the Taliban forced Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) and his family to seek asylum in the West. Despite promises our country made, thousands of reformist Afghans desperately clung to the randomly scheduled flights leaving the Kabul airport, due to their abject fear of the advancing Taliban. Nawabi’s experiences were nearly as chaotic, but he never discussed them with anyone, until he agreed to participate in Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary FLEE, which opens this Friday in New York.

Technically, the misfortunes of Nawabi’s family started under the Soviet occupation, when his father “disappeared,” never to be seen again. Things were even worse when the Taliban came to power. It was an especially dangerous time for Nawabi, who had yet to come to terms with his sexuality. (Even so, several of his family members always knew.) Ironically, the only flights out Kabul went to Russia. It was not exactly a hospitable place for refugees, but at least the corrupt cops were usually cheap enough to bribe with a few rubles.

Indeed, the difference of being stateless in Denmark versus Russia was like day and night. The Scandinavian nation is also a model of tolerance and acceptance compared to either Russia or the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Perhaps that appreciation for the West is why some of the reviews have not been as ecstatic as you would expect for a documentary on the refugee experience.

The Cat (short)

Iran is shaped like a cat (vaguely, see here) and Persian cats are enormously popular pets there, yet they must be hidden away from the religious police who would confiscate them. It is therefore safe to say Iranians have a complex relationship with felines, but the makes the title of Los Angeles-based Persian thesp Mary Apick’s first animated short so apt. In thirteen minutes, Iran’s entire post-revolutionary history unfolds in a very symbolic and allegorical fashion in Apick’s The Cat, which releases tomorrow on YouTube.

Despite the Revolutionary government’s emphasis on morals, young street children in Tehran still face great hardships, like the little flower girl of Apick’s film. There is also prostitution and the exploitation that often comes with it, which is represented by the naked women boxed up in the
Metropolis-like factory, or so we would assume.

Indeed, there is a lot of interpretive room in
The Cat, but the dark corrupting wave that leaves only sludge and rubble in its wake pretty clearly seems to represent the oppressiveness of the current theocratic regime. Also, the graveyard of battered musical instruments certainly reflects their extreme Islamist attitudes towards music in particular and culture in general.

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Advent Calendar, on Shudder

In 2021, Germany perversely specialized in inflicting misery on Europe. Much to the free world’s chagrin, they forced through Nord Stream 2, Russia’s energy extorting pipeline, for purely mercenary reasons. There is also a rather sinister German Christmas relic that brings fear and woe to those who receive it. The obvious religious significance of Advent is completely ignored in this Belgian film. Instead, December 24th is just a fateful day to count down towards. For Eva, a wheelchair-bound former dancer, each successive day requires more sacrifices in screenwriter-director Patrick Ridremont’s The Advent Calendar, which premieres this Thursday on Shudder.

Only Eva’s hot mess pal Sophie remembered her birthday. To celebrate, she swiped her a hand-crafted wooden Advent calendar from a holiday market in Munich. Fortunately, she can also translate the instructions, which are surprisingly stern, even if they are in German. Each door contains a candy, but if you eat one, you must eat them all. Also, no skipping ahead. The device is safeguarded against that, until the stroke of midnight releases the next door.

When Eva chomps down on the favorite candy of her Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, he is suddenly calling her on the disconnected land-line. Subsequently, some of the folks that do her wrong find themselves in a mess of trouble. Eva herself also starts losing time and coming-to in alarming positions. Yet, the calendar holds out the promise that she may yet walk again.

Ridremont takes the traditional careful-what-you-wish-for
Twilight Zone-ish premise and adds a whole lot of Final Destination­-style carnage. In this case, there is definitely a supernatural entity connected to the calendar, but frankly Ridremont shows way too much of it. Also, Ridremont plays it somewhat fast-and-loose with the Calendar’s rules. Yet, those same rules still supply a huge “hidden in plain sight” twist that definitely surprises.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Beebo Saves Christmas, Sort of a DC Christmas Special

Beebo makes Bat-mite look serious and realistic, but he is still a highly unlikely member of the DC Multiverse. He started his fictional life as a much sought-after Cabbage-Patch-ish toy, before a time-warp turned him into a Norse god, or something like that. Viewers get to explore Beebo’s Whoville-like world within the Multiverse world when he makes like Ernest in Beebo Saves Christmas (directed by Jojo Ramos Patrick), another brand-spanking new animated holiday special that premieres Wednesday on the CW.

In Beebo’s “fuzzy town of Bo,” he seems to be the only furry critter who truly has the Christmas spirit. However, he is shocked and aghast to receive an impersonal corporate form-letter response from Santa’s workshop. Worried something has happened to Santa, Beebo sets off to the North Pole to find him, with the help of Turbo, a crazed consumer looking for a sold-out video game system; Tweebo, a preening social media influencer; and curmudgeonly Fleabo, who wants to give Santa a piece of his caustic mind. Unfortunately, they discover Sprinkles the elf has taken over the North Pole, completely mechanizing the workshop, for the sake of efficiency.

Beebo Saves Christmas is even more rewarding for viewers familiar with his mythos, especially since Victor Garber (who played Martin Stein, the character involved in Beebo’s origin story) provides some ironic narration. Yet, even if you come in cold, co-writers Matthew Maala and Kevin Shinick serve up an appealing blend of manic cuteness and a sly satire of the “saving Christmas” sub-sub-genre. Amped-up on sugar cookies and hot chocolate, it is all very goofy, but never dumb.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Marnow Murders, on MHz

These bad guys represent an unholy alliance everyone can root against. Two German cops will stumble across a GDR conspiracy involving the Stasi from the East and a Big Pharma company from the West. Unfortunately, their dealings followed according to the Stasi’s code of ethics—and inevitably it was average East German citizens who paid the price. Someone wants to keep their dirty business safely buried in writer Holger Karsten Schmidt’s eight-episode The Marnow Murders, which is now streaming on MHz.

Initially, Frank Elling and Lona Mendt assumed their first victim was killed as revenge for his crimes as a pedophile, based on evidence found at the scene. Then they are called to another crime-scene with a body murdered in an identical manner. Shortly thereafter, forensics informs them all incriminating material found on the first victim’s computer was planted post-mortem. Clearly, something fishy is afoot, but a strange woman claiming to represent a group of sexual-abuse survivors offers the financially-strapped Elling a sizable bribe to bury the case.

Elling suspects there is something wrong with her, but he takes the down-payment anyway. Rather inconveniently, the shadowy cabal uses video and audio recordings of the transaction to blackmail him. Even though he was an idiot, Mendt loyally agrees to help him deal with the extortioners. However, they will have to keep everything secret from Soren Jasper, their third subordinate team member, even though Mendt has been sleeping with the younger (and very much engaged) junior cop. Meanwhile, the killer continues to pile up more bodies.

Things get extremely messy incredibly quickly in
Marnow, named for a former GDR lake resort town, which all of the victims were somehow connected to. There is also a hospital there that has long been the subject of rumors. In terms of ideology, this series is scornful of anything big, including the big business of the West, the big oppressive government of the former East, and even the big dumb bureaucracy of the cops’ provincial police district.

Elling and Mendt probably have more narrow escapes than Dexter Morgan and end up with nearly as much blood on their hands, accidentally, metaphorical, and sometimes through very direct blundering. This case is just physically and emotionally exhausting just to watch, but Schmidt masterfully manages to cook up one-gosh-darned-thing-after-another to throw at them.

As Elling, Sascha Alexander Gersak often looks like a homeless derelict on the verge of cardiac arrest, but viewers sure can believe he is the cynical screw-up of the force. Petra Schmidt-Schaller also makes Mendt quite a self-destructive hot mess. Honestly, their department needs much better psych screening, but it is highly compelling to see them work a case with such grave stakes.

Friday, November 26, 2021

The First Nightmare Alley

Joy Davidman was married to two notable writers. Her second husband was the love of her life, C.S. Lewis (their relationship was the subject of Shadowlands).Her first husband was the abusive William Lindsey Gresham who achieved some notoriety for his hardboiled depictions of carny life. His best-known novel is due for a boost in sales thanks to the imminent release of Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation, but it was first filmed as an against-type vehicle for Tyrone Power. That was Edmund Goulding’s 1947 Nightmare Alley, which beats del Toro’s remake into New York theaters by re-releasing today at the Metrograph.

Stan Carlisle is a carnival grifter and drifter who is morbidly fascinated by the show’s geek attraction (a.k.a. side-show freak). He is also interested in “Madame Zeena” Krumbein for the techniques she developed for her mentalist act and Helen, a woman-in-jeopardy performer, because she is young and pretty. Krumbein’s alcoholic husband Pete jealously guards their secrets, but he has an obvious weakness to exploit.

Due to a strange chain of events, Carlisle becomes an elite night club mentalist using the Krumbein techniques. Yet, he naturally wants more. He might find an accomplice who can help him in Lilith Ritter, a psychoanalyst of dubious character and a genuine femme fatale.

Nightmare Alley initially flopped hard, it was rediscovered and rehabilitated relatively quickly. Goulding’s version remains within the realm of film noir, but it is easy to see del Toro could capitalize on elements like Madame Zeena’s fateful Tarot readings, Carlisle’s phony spiritualism, and the macabre geek act to blend it into horror and dark fantasy territory. Regardless, Goulding’s noir is especially dark (even by today’s standards) and pretty lurid for its time.

It also features a great performance from Power, who always did great work when 20
th Century Fox allowed him to stretch a little (like in the under-appreciated The Sun Also Rises). He fully brings out the hard-bitten ruthlessness of Carlisle, but he also humanizes him and even forces viewers to sympathize with his classically tragic rise and fall.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Waltons: Homecoming—Rebooted on the CW

Would the CW's core demographic even understand “Goodnight, John Boy” references? The experiences of the hardscrabble, God-fearing family struggling to get through the Great Depression is certainly quite far removed from contemporary frames of reference. Seriously, they could not even afford a decent wifi connection. However, they had each other and their faith to help them endure. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether they will all be together for Christmas in the rebooted The Waltons: Homecoming, directed by Lev L. Spiro, which premieres Sunday on the CW.

This happens to be the CW’s first made-for-TV movie, but it is familiar territory for
The Waltons franchise. The first adaptation of Earl Hamner Jr’s autobiographical novel was the feature film Spencer’s Mountain, but the rural Virginia family became the Waltons in the TV movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story that spawned the long-running series. Even after its cancelation, the Waltons returned in six subsequent TV movie reunions. It is an entirely new cast, but Richard Thomas (the original John Boy) returns to narrate, from a contemporary perspective.

It is hard for us to understand just how difficult the Great Depression was. It makes our current supply chain issues and the unemployment of the late 2000s and early 2010s look trivial and mild. Arguably, John Walton Sr. was lucky to find work in a big city 90 miles away, but he can only come home for special occasions, like Christmas—and only if he gets sufficient time off from his boss. Initially, that approval was not forthcoming. When he suddenly agrees, John Sr. must make his way home on buses navigating treacherous roads, a lot like Steve Martin in
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Clearly, the folks behind the
Waltons re-upping (screenwriter Jim Strain, executive producer Sam Haskell, etc.) understand what made the original series work and they hold onto those elements. Faith and family are always front-and-center. Their only “updates” are a greater emphasis on tolerance, but in ways work in concert with the bedrock themes, as when Mother Olivia Walton and her children spend their trying hours with a family friend in the town’s traditionally black church (in 1930s Virginia mountain country). Wisely, they also kept the instantly recognizable musical theme.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Great Performances: Coppelia

Anyone who remembers Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd belting out Wagner in What’s Opera Doc? knows classical music and animation are a match made in heaven. Chuck Jones may have brought some opera into cartoons, but directors Jeff Tudor, Steven De Beul, and Ben Tesseur managed to fully integrate live ballet with animation in their hybrid production of Coppéllia (based on a previous Dutch National Ballet staging), which premieres Friday on PBS, as part of the current season of Great Performances.

Obviously, this is not a traditional production of
Coppéllia, starting with the new music composed by Maurizio Malagnini. You can still see the Tales of Hoffman source material easily enough, but this Coppéllia is much less dark. In fact, it is downright sunny and vibrantly colorful.

Swanilda now goes by Swan, but you have to read the credits to know. It turns out she and Franz are both quite smitten with each other, but so far, they have been too shy to act on their attraction. He works in the bike shop and she is a barrista, which means she keeps busy, because the whole town’s social life and economy seem to revolve around afternoon coffee. However, things start to change when the mysterious Dr. Coppelius opens his factory. Ostensibly, he is selling haute couture, but he is really manufacturing female automatons. To bring his favorite to android life, he needs to steal the life force of the villagers—and Franz’s mojo is particularly potent.

Although the tone is generally bright and upbeat, many of the production’s retro science fiction visuals look like they were inspired by
Metropolis, which makes sense, since the dialogue-free ballet largely functions like a silent film. Malagnini’s score maybe isn’t especially memorable after the fact, but it mostly quite peppy and buoyant. There is even a hint of Raymond Scott-ish whimsy here and there (but just a hint).

The animation (both 2D and 3D) is also quite impressive. Frankly, there are times when it is hard to distinguish the background animation from the cartoon-styled set and prop design, which is actually a great compliment to both.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Strings, on Shudder

Catherine's moody ambient-techno music is the stuff teen girls listen to during suicide attempts. It doesn’t have the warming passion of soul or gospel and it lacks jazz’s improvisational spark to rouse you from your rut. However, it has an anesthetizing effect that works well for “elevated” horror. The musician wanted to get away from distractions, but she maybe isolates herself a little too much in Ryan Glover’s The Strings, which premieres today on Shudder.

Catherine just broke up with her band, which had been a successful relationship, and with her boyfriend, which was not. She drove from Toronto out to her late aunt’s remote Prince Edward Island cottage to write her debut solo EP, but her mind isn’t in the game. She had agreed to a photo shoot at a notorious farmhouse to humor Grace, a local photographer, whom she feels a budding attraction to. However, when she returns to the cottage, she notices weird shadows in the pictures—and the audience sees a malevolent shape lurking in the margins of the frame. Sometimes she thinks she sees it too.

When she does see it, you would think she would be more freaked out by it. Regardless, it takes about half-an-hour for anything really happens. We’re all in favor of “sophisticated” horror, but it still needs to consistently supply tension and suspense. There are some eerily effective sequences in this film, especially when Glover plays games with our perspective. Yet, there are also long, slow sequences of Catherine staring into the void. Plus, it all really should build to a bigger, more terrifying crescendo.

As part of Catherine’s search for inspiration, she has been exploring physics, particularly String Theory. That may or may not provide a partial explanation for what it going on, but at least it accounts for the title. In some ways,
The Strings shares aesthetic and thematic kinships with Sean Hogan’s We Always Find Ourselves at the Sea, but the latter is better served by the concentration that comes with the short film format.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Black Friday, Co-Starring Michael Jai White & Bruce Campbell

A lot of people who once thought they loved Kevin Smith’s Clerks have long since forgotten how much it sucks to work retail. Here’s a film to remind everyone. On this fateful night, the employees of I Love Toys are not just working for a big box retailer. They are working on the most intense shopping day of the year. To make matters worse, some sort of zombie outbreak starts infecting the bargain-hunting shoppers in Casey Tebo’s Black Friday, which releases tomorrow in VOD.

Everyone is super-happy to be working on Black Friday, especially Ken, the single dad, who had to skip Thanksgiving dinner with his young daughters. Chris, the twentysomething living at home, isn’t missing out on any nice family time, but he still hates being there. People are queueing up outside like metaphorical zombies, as they all soon will be in fact. The first to turn will be a rather foul-tempered granny, but soon they are all snarling and biting.

So, there is no real plan, but the general objectives are to stay alive and get out of the building. Sure, we have seen this kind of thing before, but
Black Friday has two genre favorites, Michael Jai White and Bruce Campbell to elevate everything. Frankly, White is by far the most entertaining thing about the movie, combining his action cred with some terrific deadpan delivery for Archie, the store maintenance guy. Of course, Campbell still chews the scenery like a pro as Jonathan, the slimy store manager.

Devon Sawa gets way more laughs than you would expect as the Ken, the aging bro. He also has some sharply written give-and-take with Ivana Baquero as Marnie, his pseudo-work-GF. Ryan Lee is a bit too shticky and a tad too shrieky as Chris, the sad sack. However, Stephen Peck creates a character worthy of vintage
Seinfeld as Brian, the store suck-up.

The Musician (short), on Paramount+

The Kamancheh has a delicately mournful and expressively sensitive sound that aptly reflects the emotional tone of Persian (and Kurdish and Armenian) history, both ancient and contemporary. It is what the titular character plays in the 13th Century tragedy and it perfectly suits his own life experiences. The music speaks for him in every sense during writer-director-animator Reza Riahi’s animated short film, The Musician (a.k.a. Navozande), which premieres today on Paramount+.

In 1279, a blind musician (the “Navozande”) has been summoned to play at the stronghold of the Mongol conqueror. For the revelers, he merely provides background music, but his playing clearly touches an elderly servant deeply. It turns out her fate was at one time profoundly entwined with that of the old musician, as well as the senior warlord.

We see their heartbreaking decades-old encounter unfold in black-and-white flashbacks that are somewhat more abstract and expressionistic than the later, richly detailed (almost byzantine) time-frame, featuring the characters in their advanced years. Yet, in either period, the stop-motion paper animation is arrestingly beautiful, even when depicting the ugliness of humanity.

Riahi does it all without any dialogue, but his imagery and the body language of his haunted characters convey the narrative with sufficient eloquence. He also has the benefit of Saba Alizadeh’s wonderfully elegiac Kamancheh score, which says everything his characters need to express.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Pyun at HIFF ’21: Captain America (1990)

The Spiderman movie notorious wheeler-dealers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus tried to produce at Cannon is easily one of the most famous unmade movies ever, up there with Jodorowsky’s Dune. However, Golan eventually realized his Marvel superhero ambitions when he took the rights to Captain America to his 21st Century Film Corporation. Who did he turn to bring Cap to the big-screen? It was Hawaii’s own Albert Pyun, who directed Van Damme’s second film, Cyborg. Quite fittingly, Pyun’s Captain America screens online as part of the Hawaii International Film Festival’s Pyun filmmaker-in-focus sidebar.

To atone for her unwilling role in the creation of the super-fascist villain, the Red Skull, defector Dr. Maria Vaselli oversees the U.S. Super Soldier program that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America. Unfortunately, her double-secret process dies with her when she is assassinated by an Axis mole. Therefore, Rogers will be the only Super Soldier deployed to stop the Red Skull’s missile attack on the White House. He succeeds, but cruel fate consequently freezes him in suspended animation for decades.

Once Rogers revives, old school journalist Sam Kolawetz eagerly seeks him out, hoping to gain insight into the Red Skull’s identity. Of course, agents of the super-villain are also on his trail. Meanwhile, the fascist mastermind is hatching an evil scheme to brainwash and enslave Pres. Tom Kimball (from Springfield, Ohio).

Admittedly, the special effects are totally cheesy in the 1990
Captain America, but that also makes it feel human. In all honesty, it represents the sort of grungy Marvel adaptations Gen X grew up with and still love nostalgically. Despite the superior effects of the films, Nicholas Hammond’s TV Spiderman is the one we love in our heart of hearts. When it comes to guilty favorites, Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher is tough to beat. Pyun’s Captain America shares a kinship with both.

Matt Salinger certainly looked the clean-cut part of Captain America and his unflagging earnestness is sort of refreshing (you really don’t see that in Marvel movies anymore). Ronny Cox (
Robo Cop, Total Recall) and Ned Beatty (Network, etc.) are totally great as Kimball and Kolawetz, who happen to be old childhood friends, with a contrived (but in a likably old fashioned and outlandish way) connection to Captain America.

Scott Paulin is respectably villainous as the Red Skull, but his Euro super-model hench-women have no personality and are obviously linguistically challenged. Frustratingly, the great Darren McGavin is wastefully under-employed as traitorous Gen. Fleming and the character is an annoying defamation of the American military.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: The Caviar Connection

What could a dictator with unchallenged power and vast ill-gotten wealth possibly desire? Respectability, of course. Hollywood celebrities and Western politicians are just the ones who can give it. Maybe Lady Gaga is not the worst offender, but she still gets what she deserves when she becomes the face of Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev’s serenading celebrity chorus. Conversely, Khadiya Ismayilova represents the struggles of independent Azerbaijani journalists (there aren’t a lot of them left) in Benoit Bringer’s The Caviar Connection, which is still available as part of the online portion of the 2021 DOC NYC.

Caviar Connection addresses corruption in all the nations in the Caspian Sea region, including Turkmenistan, which is bad news for Sting’s image, because he hypocritically and unrepentantly accepted a lucrative gig from the dictator’s spoiled daughter. However, the focus falls squarely on Azerbaijan. Aliyev’s father was a former KGB official, who came to power in a post-independence coup, with Putin’s blessing. He soon turned over the family dynasty to his son, whose administration was repeatedly likened to the Corleone Mafia family in leaked diplomatic cables.

Despite the many political prisoners held by the Aliyev regime, it still sought the legitimacy of full membership in the Council of Europe (the EU’s leading human rights body), so they bribed their way in. Bringer does indeed establish that pretty conclusively, with the help of Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the Council, whistle-blower Arif Mammadov, who was basically the regime’s bag man.

Ismayilova was one of those political prisoners the Council ignored. While she was always independent, she wasn’t very political, until she saw her colleague brutally beaten by Aliyev’s thugs. However, the crude and invasive blackmail tactics the regime unleashed against her are probably even more reprehensible.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Abel Ferrara’s Zeroes and Ones

During the height of the global Covid-19 lockdowns, not everybody stayed inside. Crime skyrocketed in New York and other American big urban centers. However, in Rome, it is a shadowy terrorist network that is capitalizing on the empty city streets. At least, that is the cover story an American military commando has been told. For reasons that are never fully revealed, he believes his radical revolutionary twin brother has information that can avert their imminent attack in Abel Ferrara’s Zeroes and Ones, which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

That might sound like an explosive international thriller, but just so there are no misunderstandings, it should be understood from the outset that this is Abel Ferrara at his most Abel Ferrarish. In fact, he went back to his gritty street cinema roots, shooting
Z&O on the fly, defying civic curfews, in Covid-era Rome’s ghost town-looking back alleys. It is not exactly clear whether his story unfolds during the current CCP viral outbreak or the next one, but the vibe is certainly similar.

The hardnosed J.J. is convinced Justin holds key intel. It also seems like he wants to find his radical brother to make an eleventh-hour effort to mend their estranged relationship. Unfortunately, agents of the terrorist cabal (which clearly includes a lot of Russians) already know he is in Rome.

Honestly, the only straightforward segments of
Z&O are the wrap-arounds, wherein lead actor Ethan Hawke talks directly to the audience, discussing the process of collaborating with Ferrara. It doesn’t sound like he really knows what the film is about either, but he is still more or less okay with it.

He is also very good playing JJ—technically it is a dual role, but the respectable military twin gets the overwhelming lion-share of the screen-time. Right from the start, he looks sufficiently haggard and haunted to imply more than enough backstory. It is up to Hawke to carry this film and he does, if you can buy into Ferrara’s fractured perspective and hallucinatory aesthetics.

There is plenty of pretentious theological symbolism and frequent expressionistic representations of Ferrara’s tortured psyche, but at least we never see Harvey Keitel’s naked butt in this one. Nevertheless,
Z&O could fill a bingo card full of Ferrara hallmarks, including a weird sex scene featuring his wife, Christina Chiriac, holding a gun and a video camera on J.J. as he acquiesces to the Russians’ incredibly unsubtle honey trap. Apparently, sometimes a spy has to do what a spy has to do.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Harriet the Spy, Animated on Apple TV+

Harriet M. Welsch was the original meddling kid, but there is only so much gritty danger an eleven-year-old could get into on the Upper Eastside in 1964. She still manages to generate plenty of trouble, while testing the patience of her friends. Louise Fitzhugh’s beloved children’s book character finally gets animated in an appealingly nostalgic style for the five-episode Harriet the Spy, from Jim Henson Productions and the Titmouse animation house, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

Welsch is probably too clever for her own good. She knows she is destined to be a great writer, so she hones her observational skills by “spying” on her unsuspecting neighbors and classmates. Her parents are more engaged and present than they were in Fitzhugh’s original novel, but her nanny, “Ole Golly,” is still the only person who can really talk to her. Yet, she largely encourages Welsch’s stealthy pursuits.

As in Fitzhugh’s books, Welsch’s long-suffering best friends are aspiring scientist Janie Gibbs and the Fraser Crane-ish “Sport” Rocque. Her nemesis is still Marion Hawthorne, but the Silk Stocking District scion has her occasional humanizing moments this time around. Regardless, Welsch is often a sub-standard friend and an annoying neighbor, but she will learn plenty of lessons during the course of the first season.

The first episode, “I am a Terrible Spy,” largely establishes the shows premise and characters. “Cross My Heart and Hope Not to Dance” (E3) probably most closely relates to elements of the original book. Arguably, the best episodes are “The Coat Vote” (E2), in which Welsch learns to stand up to Hawthorne’s bossiness and “The Origin of M” (E5), wherein we learn what her middle initial stands for—and Welsch learns what it means to her. However, Welsch’s enthusiasm for a Soviet woman cosmonaut in “Hermit the Spy” is drastically at odds with 1964 Cold War attitudes, even in Manhattan (and especially the UES, which was Republican back then).

In fact, one of the best things about the animated series is its return to the original setting. The look of the animation is likably retro, in a sophisticated and colorful way, not unlike vintage
New Yorker covers. It really evokes the vibe of the era and a wistful sense of the community’s spirit. This really seems like it was a good place to raise a family.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Hide and Seek, the American Remake

For a property development heir like Noah Blackwell, squatters are about the scariest thing he could imagine, except for maybe his estranged and disturbed brother Jacob, who happens to be both. Blackwell also starts to suspect his brother might also be a murderer. Regardless, the violent and dirty squatters he encounters are sufficiently sinister to alarm any parent in Joel David Moore’s Hide and Seek, a new remake of Huh Jung’s infinitely superior Korean film of the same title, which releases Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Blackwell still carries a lot of guilt over what went down between him and his brother. The family legal advisor Collin Carmichael encourages him to move on, while inadvertently guilt-tripping him worse. Looking for some kind of closure, Blackwell seeks Jacob at his last known address, a lawless slum building slated to be converted into a property that wouldn’t require a tetanus shot after visiting. Moore’s adapted screenplay suggests this is a bad thing, because it is “gentrification.” It also happens to be the same building where the woman of the prologue was killed by a faceless assailant in a motorcycle helmet.

Soon, Blackwell is chasing after the mystery cyclist, believing the unknown figure is his brother. However, the killer is much more effective following Blackwell. So much so, the well-heeled Noah starts noticing the same crude markings notating the occupants of the apartments in his tony building that were also scrawled around the doors of Jacob’s squat tenement.

The Korean
Hide and Seek is not exactly Miss Grandpa, but Moore’s film represents its second international remake, following a Chinese version in 2016. In this case, it completely fails to match the suspense and intensity of the original, despite remaining surprisingly faithful to Huh’s narrative.

Alpha Rift, Co-Starring Lance Henriksen

It's like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons, except its real. You would think someone whose life revolves around role-playing games would jump at the chance to fulfill his fantasy “destiny,” but Nolan Parthmore is a whiny millennial, so he’d rather walk away from responsibility, despite the potentially dire consequences. Fortunately, Lance Henriksen is there to explain things in Dan Lantz’s Alpha Rift, which releases Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Parthmore’s dad wasn’t around long, but he still managed to pass down a love of the Alpha Rift franchise to his son. That is because he was a descendant of one of the original four noblemen, who battled the Devil’s Apostles into temporary containment. That means Parthmore is also an heir to the bloodline, but he has no idea, until the modern-day Knights deliver his ancestor’s magic helmet.

They are hoping to draw out Lord Dragsmere, his bloodline’s old nemesis. Unfortunately, he has recently freed himself from their mystical prison and has been wreaking havoc in the body of a hardened criminal. Unfortunately, it works a little too well, freaking out the self-centered Parthmore. Corbin, the stern-talking leader of the knights tries to train him to fight evil, but he is a poor student.

The good news is Henriksen has a great deal of screentime as Corbin (whereas in a lot of his recent films, he’s basically been a “special guest star”) and his voice makes even the silliest dialogue sound cool. Unfortunately, Aaron Dalla Villa is even more prominent as the gratingly annoying Parthmore. Rachel Nielsen has more charisma as his torch-carrying platonic pal Gabby, but they never really click.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Kurt Vonnegut famously took years to finish his final novel and fittingly his documentary profiler couldn’t seem to finish his film either. Yet, fourteen years after his death, it is finally here, like the doc equivalent of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote. Vonnegut’s life and career certainly get chronicled, but we see almost as much of Robert Weide in Weide & Don Argott’s Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, which opens Friday in New York.

Before we go any further, we should acknowledge Weide & Argott duly cover Vonnegut appearance in
Back to School—truly some peak 1980s movie comedy. They also talk about his books. Weide was a fan since his teen years, so he was thrilled when Vonnegut was receptive to his initial pitch, back in 1982. They got on famously during Weide’s first session of shooting and even better during the next, and so on and so on.

Soon, Weide and Vonnegut became legit friends and the documentarian lost control of his doc. He kept tinkering with it over the years, like Orson Welles and his
Don Quixote. Still, he managed to capture big events and record Vonnegut’s thoughts on everything. After Vonnegut’s death, he brought Argott on board to document his documenting, but we can assume he also helped Weide shape his literal archives of Vonnegut material.

A lot of it works relatively well, but not all of it. Frankly, the two-hour-six-minute running time really starts to drag, especially when it celebrates Vonnegut’s Bush derangement period. Honestly, off-color name-calling like “I never thought we see our country led by a Bush, a Dick, and a Colin [colon]” are beneath a writer of Vonnegut’s stature.

DOC NYC ’21: The Rossellinis

The Rossellinis are like the Kennedys of European art cinema and fashion. They all inherit high expectations and a legacy of scandal. For Alessandro, the bi-racial son of Renzo and grandson of the illustrious Roberto, the pressure drove him to drugs and general neurosis. However, he more or less came to terms with his famous family by helming his first film, the documentary The Rossellinis, which screens as part of the 2021 DOC NYC.

About the first fifteen minutes or so is devoted to explaining how everyone is related to each other—and viewers will appreciate the crib notes. As every true cineaste knows, the romance between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini scandalized Hollywood. However, Rossellini basically did it all over again in India, when he married screenwriter Sonali Das Gupta. Alessandro’s father was supposed to be the family’s next great filmmaker, but he was never allowed to escape his father’s shadow. The only film Renzo helmed in his own right has rarely been screened, but that is how he met Alessandro’s mother, a dancer from America.

Clearly, Alessandro Rossellini always felt insecure because he lacked the supermodel looks of his aunt Isabella and his uncle Robin (who was once romantically linked to women like Princess Caroline of Monaco, but now lives in isolation on his mother’s Swedish island summer home). In fact, his relationship with his celebrated actress-model aunt is rather strained, for many reasons, several of which are really his own fault. Indeed, his sit-down sequences with her are excruciatingly uncomfortable.

Monday, November 15, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: Dean Martin, King of Cool

Like Miles Davis or Picasso, Dean Martin had distinct periods to his career. There was the Martin & Lewis era, the early-Rat Pack Oceans 11 years, and the late-Rat Pack Cannonball Run period. Throughout it all, he maintained megawatt star-power. Tom Donahue chronicles his life and career in Dean Martin: King of Cool, which screens as part of the 2021 DOC NYC, until its TCM premiere.

Martin grew up speaking Italian in his working-class Italian family. He mostly scuffled as a boxer and a big band vocalist, until he met a comic on the vaudeville circuit named Jerry Lewis. As Martin & Lewis, they became the biggest duo-act in Hollywood, but everyone assumed Lewis was the one primarily responsible for their success. However, a fairly influential show business figure by the name of Frank Sinatra recognized Martin’s talents.

Donahue does solid work documenting the ups and downs of Martin’s career. He makes it clear the crooner was no mere sidekick or a boozy novelty act in the style of Foster Brooks. In fact, viewers of Generation X-age and younger might be surprised how popular his top-10 TV variety show was in its day. Donahue’s talking heads also give him a lot of credit for standing up to Sinatra, particularly when he refused to perform for JFK’s inauguration, when they axed Sammy Dais Jr., so as not to offend the solidly-Democratic, segregationist South.

Behind the Monsters: Jason, Freddy & Pinhead

If you want a deep dive into the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Hellraiser franchises, you can watch the six-and-a-half-hour Camp Crystal Lake Memories, the four-hour Never Sleep Again, and the nearly eight-hour Leviathan. On the other hand, you could just watch the next three forty-some-minute episodes of Behind the Monsters, which start airing this Wednesday on Shudder.

Who doesn’t love Freddy Krueger, even though he was a child-molesting serial killer that became a demonic dream-monster? It is because of the great Robert Englund, who fortunately is heard from extensively during Freddy’s episode. He just had the right sinister charisma for Krueger’s James Bond-like “get the point” “stick around” quips. Sadly, his creator Wes Craven is no longer with us, but his son discusses his father’s visions at length.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare gets the credit it deserves for launching meta-horror—and it still holds up. However, it overlooks his significant appearances on his own hosted-anthology TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares. Still, Englund and popular franchise veterans like Heather Langenkamp and Lin Shaye keep this episode lively.

Weirdly, we’re more fans of Kane Hodder for his other work than for playing Jason Voorhees, but it is definitely good to see him in the Jason episode. It is also a nice reminder how much the series evolved over the first three films. Director Tom McLoughlin offers plenty of commentary on the installment he directed, but
Part IV: Jason Lives, but he never mentions the episodes of the unrelated (but highly underrated) Friday the 13th: the Series, probably because it would have been confusing. Strangely, it is also nostalgic to see clips from Alice Cooper’s “Man Behind the Mask” video.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: The Mole

If any film could never conceivably have a sequel, Mads Brügger’s The Red Chapel would be it. For starters, Brügger is now banned from entering North Korea after he engineered an embarrassing punking of the regime. However, it inspired Ulrich Larsen, an average Danish fellow, who hatched a scheme to infiltrate the DPRK regime. Naturally, he reached out to Brügger, who documented his real-life espionage in The Mole, which screens as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

In retrospect, Larsen’s plan was simple but sound. He just started attending meetings of Denmark’s North Korean friendship association, making himself helpful. Like the US Communist Party during the Cold War, the higher-ups closely collaborate with the DPRK government. Like a cult, the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) looks for insecure underachievers who can find a sense of purpose serving the royal Kim dynasty.

Enter Alejandro Cao de Benos, the President of the KFA, who takes Larsen under his wing. Eventually, the Spanish government bars him from leaving the country, but he maintains his position of influence within the DPRK regime. He challenges Larsen to reel in a big investor, so Brügger recruits “Mr. James,” a former foreign legionnaire and coke dealer, who became a legit but highly adventurous businessman. Over the course of several years, they travel to North Korea, Cambodia, Uganda, and tellingly Beijing, for a blockbuster deal to produce high-grade missiles and meth in Africa that would also deliver arms to the Syrian regime and import oil into the DPRK, circumventing international sanctions.

Brügger’s expose is absolutely mind-blowing and chilling as heck. While there was “no smoking gun” in
Red Chapel, Larsen and Mr. James uncover absolutely damning evidence of official DPRK state criminality, including a literal price list for armaments like SCUD missiles. It is also a genuine white-knuckle thriller, because the tension grows exponentially as the two Moles penetrate deeper into North Korea’s web of intrigue.

The Invisible Man: The Prize & Man in Power

Hammer Films actually took the trouble of clearing the rights to a number of classic Universal monsters, but the one they never got around to adapting was the Invisible Man. The 1958 Invisible Man TV series is sort of the closest thing to a Hammer Invisible Man, even though it isn’t gothic, or even horror. Instead, it placed an invisible scientist (the good guy for a change) in a Cold War espionage context, but it regularly co-starred familiar Hammer players, like Michael Ripper and Thorley Walters. Even the voice of the Invisible Man, Tim Turner, had a Hammer connection as the future narrator of The Mummy’s Shroud. The half-hour format was way too short for the genre, but it is still fun to watch an Invisible Man battle Communists, especially villainous Anton Diffring and Andre Morell in two of the better episodes (which release in yet another DVD-set this Tuesday).

“The Prize” (S2 E4, directed by Quentin Lawrence and written by Ian Stuart Black) was freshly ripped from the headlines, taking transparent inspiration from the Nobel Prize that was awarded to Boris Pasternak, before the Soviets browbeat him into declining it, just less than a year before the episode originally aired. In this case, it is dissident author Tania Roskov (played by Swedish thesp Mai Zetterling) who intended to accept a Nobel-like prize in Europe, but was intercepted by the sadistic secret police officer Gunzi at the border.

You know who else is picking up an award for science at the Nobel-like gala? That’s right, invisible Dr. Peter Brady. Sure, he is still working on reversing the invisibility process, but he achieved something pretty amazing. Distressed by Roskov’s plight, Brady decides to sneak into the unnamed but presumably Baltic nation to rescue her.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: Be My Voice

The downside of social media is all too obvious (polarization, trolling, cat memes), but there are positives worth noting. You can get news directly from human rights activists around the world, uncensored and unfiltered, at least until they are arrested, like Joshua Wong was in Hong Kong. You can still join Masih Alinejad’s hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers (in fact, I recommend it). Alinejad’s social media savvy has made her a particularly annoying thorn in the side of the Iranian regime, but her prominence has cost her dearly. Nahid Persson captures Alinejad’s highs and lows as she continues her campaign against the fundamentalist regime in Be My Voice, which screens as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

It is immediately clear why the regime is so threatened by Alinejad. She has boundless energy and superstar charisma. She regularly delivers news from the Iranian streets to her army of followers on various social media networks and her VOA Persian broadcasts. As a result, most of her family back in Iran was forced to renounce her. The brave exception was her brother Ali, who served as her link to their parents and other siblings. Of course, identifying pressure points is one of the things oppressive governments do best. Consequently, they target him during the course of Persson’s scheduled filming with Alinejad.

Clearly, Alinejad’s overflowing sincerity is both her greatest strength and weakness. We can see only too well how deeply she feels everything. Sometimes her temper might be her second biggest enemy, but her passionate commitment is real and her enthusiasm is admirable. It is those qualities that built her extensive following in Iran, including a number of women (of all ages), who have publicly challenged mandatory chador laws, sending her videos of their defiance. If you are less than thrilled with face-masks, just imagine how much fun headscarves (or burqas in particularly restrictive Islamist nations) must be.

Yellowjackets, Lord of the Flies, Gender-Swapped with Horror Elements

Soccer teams and charter flights have a notorious history together—and so it continues. Recently, most charter flights for teen women have flown straight into disaster, at least in streaming series, like The Wilds. Twenty-five years later, none of the survivors of this crash want to talk about their harrowing ordeal, at all. That is fine by their mysterious blackmailer, who starts sending them cryptic postcards in creator-writers Ashley Lyle & Bart Nickerson’s Yellowjackets, which premieres tomorrow on Showtime.

The New Jersey girls’ high school state champions were on their way to nationals when their plane crashed somewhere in the remote Pacific Northwest mountains. It is a shame to miss the national championship, but it still might be better than Jersey, at least until their food starts to run out. There is also some distinctly bad mojo surrounding the cabin they discover. One of them is starting to freak out, maybe because she has a touch of the “shine.” Regardless, we know they will end up in some kind of bloody conflict from the fleeting fragments we are shown.

So, what happened exactly? Obviously, it deeply scarred Shauna Sheridan, who carries a heavy burden of remorse in the contemporary scenes. She also feels guilty for marrying her late bestie’s boyfriend, with whom she was secretly hooking up. Taissa Turner is maybe even more determined to keep the past buried, since she is running for the New Jersey State Senate (supposedly to bring in great changes as a crusading liberal, but since Dems have controlled the Jersey legislature since 2002, she’s really just offering more of the same).

Natalie is the wildcard, fresh out of rehab, but she does not want anyone shining a light on their time in the woods either and she is willing to wave around a shotgun to make her point. Initially, she suspects Misty Quigley, who back in the day was the geeky team trainer nobody liked. However, she reluctantly agrees to work with Quigley, a self-proclaimed amateur detective, to investigate their postcards, despite her suspicious eagerness.

If you dig flashbacks (or flashforwards) than this is the show for you. It is not that they are confusing. It is a question of pacing, based on the six episodes provided for reviewers (out of ten). The first episode is by far the worst offender, which is surprising, since it is the one helmed by Karyn Kusama (
Destroyer, The Invitation), but it often has the tone of a deliberately over the top WB teen melodrama spoof. The next five get smarter and tighter in dealing with all the dark secrets, but it really should be further along by the end of its sixth installment. As Scotty the reporter in The Thing from Another World would say, Yellowjackets nurses its secrets like a June bride.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Radu Jude’s Uppercase Print

In western democracies, nobody would notice a few political statements scrawled on public walls. In Ceausescu’s Romania, they noticed—and there is a ridiculously hefty archive of Securitate files to prove it. Theater director Gianina Carbunariu adapted the Kafkaesque transcripts into a documentary play, which in turn Radu Jude transformed into an even more experimental hybrid documentary. It is aesthetically challenging, but Jude records the name of Mugur Calinescu and the Securitate harassment campaign against him for posterity in Uppercase Print, which is now playing in New York, at the Metrograph.

In retrospect, Calinescu’s political graffiti seems comparatively mild. He protested the food shortages everyone could plainly see for themselves and advocated for a trade unionist movement in the style of Polish Solidarity. He made some general statements about freedom, but that was way too much for Ceausescu’s secret police, who called him in for interrogations repeatedly. So were his divorced parents, school friends, and teachers, with the deliberate intention of socially isolating him.

Not surprisingly, young thesp Serban Lazarovici portrays Calinescu as rather stiff and emotionally withdrawn. It is partly a function of the film’s avant-garde nature and partly reflective of the extreme psychological stress that was applied to the sixteen-year-old boy. Tragically, Lazarovici must literally speak on his behalf, because the Calinescu succumbed to a mysteriously convenient case of Leukemia, five years after the incident.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: Come Back Anytime

In 1985, Tampopo put ramen on the cinematic map. Since then, it has become a favorite culinary subject for art-house cinema, appearing in films like Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop, Koki Shigeno’s documentary Ramen Heads, and the film Big Tony Leung sold his soul for, Midnight Diner. Viewers hungry for more get to visit the kind of legit neighborhood ramen joint travelers always want to go to (but usually wind-up in over-priced Shinjuku tourist-traps instead) in John Daschbach’s Come Back Anytime, which screens as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

Masamoto Ueda always worked long hours and he never got rich, but he earned enough money with his small unassuming ramen shop to support his family. More importantly, many of his customers became lifelong friends. Now reaching retirement age, Ueda is mulling how much longer he wants to do this. His general idea is to close the store when he is ready to hang it up, rather than sell it off, but he still hasn’t reached that point yet.

Daschbach’s film is largely set in the ramen shop, but he follows Ueda on a couple of related excursions, as when he helps a regular harvest his tasty looking pears. We also get a bit of time alone with his wife, who has her own identity and hobbies. She is also charming, like just about everyone is this totally endearing, but somehow never cloying film.

DOC NYC ’21: Omara

Brave Cubans are planning a mass protest next Monday (#15N), planned by a leftwing playwright whose work was formerly produced by the state. It will follow the example of other mass protests organized by the San Isidro Movement, a dissident artists’ collective. However, you wouldn’t know there was any unrest or oppression in Cuban from this glowing documentary portrait of Omara Portuondo, the beloved Buena Vista Social Club vocalist—and that’s just not good enough anymore. Portuondo’s artistry is lovely, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, which is largely how it is presented in Hugo Perez’s Omara, which screens as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

Portuondo originally came to prominence as part of the Cuarteto d’Aida, along with her sister Haydee. They even opened for Nat King Cole at the Tropicana. Then the revolution came and Haydee left for America, while Omara stayed and went solo. Over the years, she frequently toured internationally, but Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club recordings took her to an even higher level.

Even now in her early 90s, she still performs with verve, as we see from her command performance at the same Tropicana, in the opening scene. What isn’t acknowledged is such venues are typically off-limits to average Cubans, and are reserved for the music (and sex) tourists the Cuban government caters to.

Yes, it is great to hear Portuondo. She can caress the lyrics to “Besame Mucho” like nobody else. However, Perez simply cannot ignore what in going on in Cuba’s streets and in its plentiful prisons. You just can’t not ask her about these developments, especially since she has obviously enjoyed privileges (she wouldn’t have traveled so extensively, or at all, otherwise).

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: F@ck This Job

State media really isn’t media. It is PR for their regime masters. They do not reporter the news, they slant it and spike it if necessary. Putin thought he had rid himself of the last vestiges of an independent media until Natalya Sindeyeva founded Dozhd. Originally, she had something more pop culture-ish in mind, but she discovered her calling when Dozhd started reporting stories no other Russian outlet would touch. Vera Krichevskaya documents the struggle to keep Dozhd on the air in F@ck This Job, which screens as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

In the 2000s, the hard-partying Sindeyeva married Aleksandr Vinokurov, a blue-blooded financial tycoon, who could buy her anything. She decided she wanted a TV station. Initially, Dozhd was probably intended to be something like post-music video MTV, but when they covered a mysterious explosion all the other networks ignored, a lightbulb clicked on.

A flirtation with “President” Medvedev led to a temporary break with Krichevskaya (yet ironically, the figurehead comes out of the doc looking relatively moderate compared to Putin). However, coverage of the subsequent election protests and disavowed Russian military incursions into Ukraine soon re-established Dozhd as Russia’s independent media voice. In the process, they earned millions of viewers and a concerted harassment campaign orchestrated by the Kremlin.

At times, Sindeyeva can be her own worst enemy. There is no question her privileged background sometimes renders her a bit tone deaf. However, that is also what makes her a compelling figure. She could have partied the years away in comfort, but instead she and Vinokurov have dedicated their fortune and risked their liberty to expose the truth.